Chapter 8

Hoochie-Coochie Dancing and the Red Wriggler Girl

It was the early fifties. My brother wore a Davy Crockett coonskin cap which I envied, and he played with marbles, many of which I later won from him in matches motivated by my love of beauty rather than a love of winning. Cat’s-eye marbles with woven swirls of iridescent blues or greens were my favorites. I would hold them up to the sky forever and fall into reveries. My bare knees grew crusty and darkened from touching the ground as I knelt to take a crack at the marbles in a circle. Grandma Blair scrubbed my knees nightly if she wasn’t having one of her spells. Mama was much too busy with the baby to bathe me anymore.

“Not the way a girl should behave,” Grandma Blair scolded. I remember the way the words felt. They did not feel like my mama’s words. She must have said it many times. I must have tired of it, for I raised both hands to my face. I put a single finger in one side of my mouth and another finger in the other side of my mouth. I opened my mouth wide and stretched it as far as I could, and I stuck out my tongue.

She slapped me on both cheeks at the same time. I howled, and she left the bathroom, saying I could wash my own nasty self with my own hateful ways.

Freed from her watchful gaze, I splashed around for a few minutes, enjoying the water and sloshing some on the floor.

I heard him before I saw him. I looked up. Big Arthur was at the door. My punishment for insolence did not end with getting my checks boxed by Grandma Blair. And Big Arthur didn’t use his hands. He made me stand in the slippery tub and hold onto the spigot while he used his belt on my wet, wet body. I heard the screaming.

That was my mama screaming now. Not me screaming. Her. I remember that. She stood in the doorway. She screamed at him. “Stop! Now! That’s enough! You’re hitting her with the buckle. Stop yourself!”

“Nobody treats my mother that way!” he growled. But he obeyed my mama that time. The belt was gone. My body knew that.

She kneeled, like I kneeled on the ground when I played marbles. She kneeled that way beside the tub. She pulled me back down into the water and she let the water drain out. My legs spouted blood, enough to color the last few streams of water red. “Stand up,” she said. I stood. She rinsed the blood off my legs with cool water. Then came the Merthiolate.  And someone was screaming again.

He was at the door. “You better shut up, or I’ll come in there again.” They were my screams, then. I shut up.

In the background I could hear my mama’s radio, and sad as I was, hurt as I was, scared as I was, I watched him leave, and then I started to bounce in time with the beat.
My mama had that radio on every day of her life. If she had to hang up clothes outside or work in the yard or wanted to lie out to tan, she’d feed the radio electricity through long cords she’d plug together and stretch out the porch door. She would place the radio next to her as she lay tanning in the backyard. From early spring to late fall, she smelled like the baby oil she mixed with iodine and lavished on her body, so she would tan faster. She moved to the music even when she was lying down.

I had been too busy chasing after Little Arthur to pay music any mind. But that next day at school after that particular whipping, when Mrs. I. Smith played a record, I was entranced. I had never seen a phonograph or a record. Mrs. Smith took the black disk from its large white envelope, and she placed it on the turntable. She placed the arm that had a needle in it on the edge of this flat black wafer, and she said for us to shush.

The music entered my body in swirls the way color entered my mind at night. Then Mrs. Smith started clapping and asked us all to join in. I clapped and clapped, and I must have danced in my chair without knowing I was moving. I was dancing sitting down. I would read those words later in life in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and know that, like Caddy and her muddy britches, I’d lost something precious too early in life.)

“Okay, Sandra, stand up and dance,” Mrs. I. Smith said. 

I did.

“Everybody stand up now, and dance the way Sandra is dancing.”

She must love me, too, the way I love her, I thought.

They all stood, but nobody could dance like me. Nobody had as much pain and beauty balled up inside them waiting to get out.

Nobody had bruises and cuts beneath their long pants that wanted to grow tongues and speak like Caesar’s wounds. Though I did not know Shakespeare then and could not have said it that way or this way, Mrs. I. Smith was my Mark Antony, and the music was the roar of the crowd, vindicating and elevating me.

“Look at her go! Climb on up on that table and keep on dancing,” she said.

I was the original go-go girl even though I was only six years old. I was a hoochie-choochie queen come to life from a deck of dirty cards hidden in a pantry. I writhed like a grown-up woman. Two years before Elvis appeared on television, I moved my hips in ways Ed Sullivan’s censors would have banned.

And Mrs. I. Smith just clapped, and laughed, and cheered me on.

There were no calls home. No social worker sent to see what was happening. And there was no judgment of me either. Just love and acceptance. Enough for me to grow on.

Every day after that day of dance, I stayed at school as long as I dared. I didn’t hang around Mrs. Smith’s classroom, but I waited most days for her to walk to her car, wave at me, and get into it before I left for home. While I waited, I would trek around the reflecting pool three or four times. Then I’d bully my way into a game of marbles and play until the scabs on my knees cracked and started to bleed. Let Grandma Blair complain all she wanted. I wasn’t giving up playing marbles.

After a while, I would trudge home, sit on the front porch and pick at one or two other scabs farther down on my legs for a while. During that dark time, Little Arthur had abandoned me for the company of the gang-gone-bicycle-and-marble mad. I would sit alone, and I would take the green cat’s eye out of my pocket and hold it up to the sun. It was springtime. School would be out in a few weeks. We would leave 1302 Portland Street soon, but I did not know that then. I would sink into the indigo blue of dusk. I never rode the mimosa tree again as far as I can recall, but I watched it move through its seasons, and I loved it.

That’s when it began, this turning to nature for nurture, in those early years. It grew until the trees would talk to me and I would learn to listen.

On a day like that in early summer when I was left to muse alone for hours, I took the big boy’s dare. I couldn’t run with the boys anymore because I hadn’t learned to ride my bike. It was a used bike that someone had painted a sickly green, the color of garden snakes and of my eyes. I had been delighted when the bike came through the doors into the dining area at the end of the hall. But the first time I took it out to ride it, I fell down again and again, and I put about as many bruises on myself as Big Arthur did when he beat me. My brother came along and offered to help me, but he wasn’t strong enough to hold the bike with me on it.

Then Big Arthur appeared. He offered no help, only threats. “You will push that bike everywhere you go until you learn to ride it, even if it takes all year long.”

Seven months had passed, and I hadn’t learned yet. That’s why I was on the porch when the big boy came by. His name was Chuck. I’d looked up once or twice when he rode past the house, shouting and egging the other boys on. Then on the third round, he skidded to a quick stop right in front of the steps, so that when he looked up, he looked me straight in the face. Unafraid, I met his eyes. The other boys, including Little Arthur and Barry, didn’t know his plan and had overshot the front gate and steps, so I had to face him alone.

“I’ll bet you’re too much of a sissy to pull a trick on the Red Wriggler Girl,” Chuck twanged at me.

“I reckon I’m not,” I said with pride that caused me to jump straight up and fly off the steps toward him.

She lived at the corner, and she was the one we called the Red Wriggler Girl, or sometimes just “Red,” because her daddy sold red wriggler worms for bait during the summer. They had a big old refrigerator they turned on its side and kept locked except when somebody was minding it. I’d seen its insides once or twice when I’d gone with my mama to buy worms, so she could go fishing. When the Red Wriggler Girl had opened the big door, inside was rich black dirt, full of worms. They were red, and they wiggled.

I didn’t like the Red Wriggler Girl much because she’d pulled my eyelids up when I was faking sleep, so I could paint more pictures for Mrs. I. Smith. I was feeling like paying her back, and I was bored.

“What you want me to do?” I asked. He whispered his plan to me and took a dime out of his pocket and gave it to me. I laughed and ran ahead of the gaggle of boys on their bikes that gathered around Chuck, clacking for answers about what was happening. It felt good to be included again, even if I couldn’t ride my bike. It stood against the garage, and I remembered it as my bare feet felt the hot tar road rise up through my calluses. I knew I would be in trouble if I got caught. I did not turn back, not with the gang of boys all creeping up, their bikes abandoned, so they could hide in the bushes and watch the action.

I went up and knocked on the back door, which led into the kitchen. The Red Wriggler’s mother came to the door and spoke to me through the screen, “What you want?”

“Worms,” I said and held out my hand to show her I had the money.

“Edna,” she called. “Edna!” That was the Red Wriggler Girl’s real name. I knew that from school.

“Yes, ma’am?” she answered and appeared in the kitchen.“Get this girl some worms.”

“Yes, ma’am.” 

Edna came out and slid past me. She was my age, but she was smaller even than I was. Her hair was dark black and long, and her skin was white, white, white, what my mama would call “fair skinned.” I followed her down the steps. It looked odd to see a refrigerator on its side like that. I watched as she unlocked the refrigerator door and opened it. I looked around and saw where some of the boys were hiding. I took the pint of worms and gave Edna the dime. I waited while she closed the big door and locked it. She didn’t speak to me. She kept her eyes down. She knew she had done me wrong. Just as she turned to leave, and her back was to me, I called out, “Wait a minute, Edna.”

She froze. She turned slightly toward me. “What?” she asked, like she was afraid to speak to me.

“You got some dirt on your back,” I said. “Here. I’ll brush it off.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said. “My mama is forever getting on me about getting dirty.”

I walked over to her. She still had her back to me. She wore a loose-fitting shirt. I reached up to the neckline, moved her hair over, pulled back her collar, and dumped the whole batch of worms down her shirt! 

She started screaming instantly, and the boys ran out of the bushes, laughing. She was truly wriggling! Out of the house, her mother came. She pulled Edna’s shirt up, brushed the dirt away, and picked the worms off at the same time. I didn’t laugh. I stood still as if I was growing from the spot on the ground that my feet touched.

I saw Edna’s back. Red welts rose and bloomed into a hundred circles and paths across her fair skin. She looked as though she had been switched with briars. As her mother helped her into the house, I watched.

Her mother stopped on the top step and screamed at me, “Just wait till I tell your daddy, and I will. You know I will!”

“He ain’t my daddy.” I said it aloud for the first time. I had said it to myself a thousand times before but never out loud.

Then I saw her. I don’t know how long she had been standing there, but on the corner where the trolley stopped stood Grandma Blair, smoking. She looked me straight in the face the way Chuck had, and her eyes, too, dared me, the way his had. I did not take up her dare. Instead, I turned and walked home, knowing I’d get a beating later. Maybe two. One I knew I wouldn’t deserve for leaving the bike at home. And while I grew up knowing in my heart that no kid ever deserves a beating, that day I felt I deserved the other beating I would get. I felt I deserved a lick for every Red Wriggler track that laced Edna’s back.

By the time, Big Arthur finished with me, I was sure he had evened the score. I don’t remember my mama even being around at the time. If she was, she must’ve known I’d brought that one on myself.