I was maybe eight, which would have made Fred six. We sat on the high bar stools that tucked under the counter on the pass-through dividing the kitchen and the dining room. We were in the middle of autumn, one that was apparently tired because it had broken suddenly the week prior and dipped us into temperatures that hinted sharply at winter. In the deep shadows of dawn we had pulled our winter corduroys out of the back of the closets, excitedly exchanged cowboy boots (Fred’s) and Chucks (mine) for the tall zipper boots that were standards in our winter wardrobes. It had taken a week of begging, but Mother let us have them, finally.
Do you remember what Finally felt like when you were a kid? Like this:
Oh my God, finally.
It was inevitable, but finally!
Finally, finally it happened!
Finally, woo-wooooo, finallyfinally!
Finally was always linked to anticipation when you were small. Now that you and I are big, finally is nearly always linked to something more cynical altogether.
Grits. We ate grits and toast and link sausages that morning (I have always liked mine buttered and salted and just this side of thin; Fred prefers hers like wet cement, a dainty teaspoon of sugar sprinkled across them after the butter is stirred in). Fred had this sweet face, this round cherubic thing slathered with goodwill and innocence and wind-bitten apple cheeks. Always smiling, always teasing a laugh from you, always never sad, always the earnest and good one. That face had amazing green eyes that I coveted; in our family blues are a dime a dozen.
As she ate, dipping her little head forward, her heavy-long hair curtained. Its silky whiteness was held at bay by her shoulders; the barrettes that were wrestled into that hair’s thickness daily were never quite a match for it.
We ate mostly in silence, because neither of us have been especially inclined toward being morning people and we both require introspection and a slow emergence to consciousness to begin the day. As the bowls were cleared of grits and our heads were cleared of fog, we began to come alive. Eventually, when plates were rinsed and we had spun around atop the barstools infinity times, we faced one another, talking and laughing. The sun was coming up over the pond that was framed in the bay window behind my sister, setting the silhouette of her small body on fire, making her white-blond tresses this neon thing.
And then, because we were kids and we were tomboyish and we were bored as fuck waiting for our mother’s hot rollers to bring her hairset to fruition, we began whacking one another with the heels of our yet-to-be-donned new boots. No shoe-wearing in the house, see? Boots in hands. Boots swung like hammers at another one’s person. Torso, off limits. No face! That one was a given. Legs it is! We come from sturdy stock, strong legs that can bear a goodly blow! Empty boots, psh, cakewalk.
Thwaaaack. good one!
…and so on.
When I dealt the blow that elicited the peace-rending shriek, I was jerked abruptly from deep and unselfconscious mirth. I’d never heard a scream like that in my life, and Oh My God, I am responsible for that noise she made, for the rolling across the dining room rug, for the tomato-red face rendered goblinesque with pain, for the racking screamsobbing that Fred –epitome of all that is tough and emotion-stuffing in girldom– exhibited as she clutched her knee in agony.
My mother came flying from across the house, head part-rollered, wearing only her stockings and a blue brassiere. Whenever I saw her half-exposed like this, she looked miles taller than six feet to me, Boadicea come to fuck up the day of any fool with designs on breaching the peace and sanctity of her realm. When she was able to cut through the flailing and the scary hysterics (one of those moments that took –tops– twelve seconds but felt like twelve hours), she raised up my sister’s pant leg to get a look at the damage.
I was fixed to my stool, feeling swimmy-headed, overlarge sockets about to release my eyes to roll out and about on their merry way. Had I broken her kneecap? I had hardly tapped her on that swing, but how could that possibly be believable in light of what was transpiring, this great agony being expressed?
The hem of her cords’ leg cleared her knee and a fat scorpion promptly fell to the rug. Fred began shrieking at a higher pitch then. Mother grabbed up one of my stray boots, gave it one pop, then squinted at it closely before she launched herself toward the telephone.
The scorpion had sought the refuge of the house for warmth, nestling happily down into a never-disturbed dark fold of pant just around the knee area. When I hit my sister next to its resting spot, it startled and struck, the first of an agonizing series of strikes. The rest occurred when the scorpion found itself both panicked and trapped by my sister’s fluttering, grasping hands.
Harmless fun had turned into horror when I’d startled the unseen, predatory thing that my sister carried blithely next to her skin.
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Normally I have a pretty thick skin, but I have my share of scorpions that get startled and dig in, striking over and over. It’s because of this that I try to be mindful of the fact that others do, as well. I value being forthright and I value being kind and I’m of the pretty staunch belief that the two don’t have to be exclusive of one another.
Lately my scorpions have been activated sort of en masse, both haphazardly and maliciously. I am inadvertently clutching them to me and, agitated, they are dealing me strike after strike. I’m writhing as quietly as I possibly can and I don’t have a whole lot to give right now in the way of an empathetic gesture to those who need it. The very healthy ‘I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks’ attitude I usually carry has recently morphed itself into just plain ole ‘I don’t give a DAMN’, which everybody knows is code for ‘Fuck you, World’.
And that’s so very frustrating, because I’ve worked crazy-hard these last several years to drop my dukes and just be, to spread my arms in the easy stance of someone who is ready to welcome, to embrace.
And yeah, to be embraced in return.