Part 70: Sugar Swings

We arrived at a sweet cottage. It was our new place, with two enormous trees in the back yard, one avocado, one fig tree. I didn't fully appreciate what that meant for us back then. Fresh avocados and figs didn't tempt me, I wanted to eat all of the pecan pie Riley made, I desired the sweet chewable vitamins (weren't they Flintstone themed?) that were kept in a high cabinet.


"Only one a day," Jan said, doling out Betty Rubble.


"Why?" I asked, chomping on Betty, already wishing I had more.


"Because if you eat more than that, your teeth will turn brown," she said.


That did the trick. Filled with dread, I spent time obsessing over my teeth turning the color of soil, and wondering if the three I'd swiped when Jan wasn't looking the day before sealed my fate.


The cottage was an upgrade for sure, hardwood floors, arched doorways, the street less busy. The bad news; it was so close to our old place, I didn’t change schools after all, it was still Selma Street School, with the same fucking teacher, Mrs. Colton. I'd have to wait for second grade to be done with the whole package she came in, her teased up blonde hair and wrinkled, pursed lips.


At this new space, Riley plunked down a solid wood desk right in the middle of the main room, set up his typewriter, his big ashtray holding down piles of paper. The encyclopedia was out of hiding. Home most of the time, Riley didn’t have money for drinks at the Brown Derby, or an office to go to. I hung out near him while he worked.


Look at this,” Riley said He took out his wallet, pulling out an old black and white photograph of a blonde woman in a tight sweater, waving at someone in the distance. “This was my third wife, Alex. She’s an actress in New York.”


I stared at the picture, wondering where she was. Riley brought up his other kids again, and although I'd asked him before, I said, "why can't they come visit?" He gave what seemed to be a thoughtful answer, about the mothers not wanting him around, plus they lived too far away. Back then it seemed as though they lived on another planet, and there was little hope of ever finding them. He talked about all the actresses he knew, and what it took to make it, how hard it was to get cast.


My mind drifted to my siblings and how impossible it seemed that we weren’t all together. Riley went back to typing, the talk was over. Jan was painting in the back yard. Suddenly, the small cottage seemed cavernous. I could hear voices coming from somewhere, so I wandered outside. Across the street, several kids were playing in their yard, the grass had been freshly cut, it stuck to their knees and elbows as they tumbled together.


I watched them play for a while from our porch, fiddling with the hem of my dress.


I watched them the next day and the next after that, when finally, the girl, crossed the street. I noticed that she was pale and gangly, her gait confident. Her brothers stopped and watched as she approached me.


“I'm Jeanette. You live here now?” She said.


“Yeah,” I said. I wondered what school she went to. "I'm Stacy."


“My cousin is coming with his motorcycle, he’s gonna give us rides up and down the street. You can ride, too,” she said.


“Ok.”

Ten minutes later, the cousin arrived with his loud motorcycle, and each kid lined up to hop on the back while he drove them up and down the street, every now and again the thing would backfire, making the kids squeal. Jeanette gestured to me to go over to their side of the street, but before I took a step, Jan came out and stood on the small porch with me. “It’s time to eat.” I didn’t want to ride on the back of that thing, anyway. I would be scared. I wanted to be invisible, watching from our porch, imagining what it would be like if I had all my siblings around.

Over the next few weeks, I peered at them from our window, as Jeanette’s extended family arrived for birthday parties and barbecues. Not just her cousins, but grandparents, uncles and aunts lived nearby. Jeanette and I hung out for short periods of time, sometimes in my front yard, a few times in her yard.

Looking back on all the moves, friendships were made with kids that lived around us, not because my parents knew their parents necessarily, or had any interest in meeting them. Proximity mattered. Jeanette lived right across the street, and was allowed to free range in the neighborhood like I was. She was skinny and pale like me, but where I was bird like and fragile and prone to turning slightly purple, she was wiry and strong, her hands rough--- if not for that and the scabs on her knees, her skin was alabaster.


Jeanette usually hung out with her brothers, but took an interest in hanging out with me, which was thrilling, because she was a whole year older. By the end of first grade, I knew I sucked at sports and climbing trees, didn't know how to roller skate or swim, even somersaults eluded me. Jeanette was good at everything, she even wrestled with her older brothers without fear. I only saw her cry once, when they all piled on top of her and hurt her wrist.

Jeanette’s blue eyes had a blank innocence, just like my Madam Alexander doll. She even had thick, dark lashes like a doll, but from the neck down, she was made for running fast, monkey bars, and rough housing. I was like an old lady in a kid’s body, just like Halo said I was. Anxious as hell, I was constantly trying to protect myself from falling. I’d never skip over steps, I took each one carefully like I was going to fall any second. I didn’t scramble over fences, or jump down from heights. But Jeanette and I had something in common, we were both fairly unsupervised, and we could run around the streets for hours. We usually chose a strip mall connected to an Alpha Beta grocery store a few blocks away.


We also both loved candy.


“Watch this,” Jeanette said on one of our free ranging days. She sped into the dry cleaner, took a hand full of butter mints from a glass bowl by the cash register, and took off, yelling out to me, “Run!”


I ran, not really grasping what happened, it was so swift, I’d never seen anyone so brazen. A slim Chinese man ran out after us, yelling “You can’t do that! Stay out of my shop!”


I felt bad seeing the man in distress, his arms flopping to his sides when he gave up the chase. I knew I might see him again. What if he recognizes me? I wondered if Jeanette did that all the time with those butter mints, she was so confident. Flooded with anxiety and adrenaline, winded from running, I was shaking all over like a little dog left out in the cold.

We hid around the corner. Jeanette opened her fists, palms up, exposing the chalk-like mints. We each plucked one and stuck it in our mouths.

“What if he’s coming?” I said with my mouth full.

“He’s not,” Jeanette said. “He never does.” We each savored our last mints, letting the candy slowly melt on our tongues. Jeanette's gaze scanned my face. “Your eyes are bugging out. You look scared."

I took in a breath, trying to relax. “Are you sure he’s not coming?” I said.

“Who cares? I’ll teach you how to steal candy. But you can’t be nervous.” She shook her finger at me like a scold, adding, “you have to make your face calm, like this, see?”

Jeanette’s face was like a sphinx, her lids at half-mast, her mouth pouty and defiant.

“Ok,” I said. I tried to copy her expression, but wondered if I just looked sleepy.

“Act like it’s no big deal. What candy do you like?”

“Chunky bars,” I said, my eyes bugging out again.

“No. Calm down. Those are too thick. Hershey bars, those are thinner, you’ll see.” She pulled her sleeve down on her right arm, and made it cover part of her hand. “Pick something think you can hide up your sleeve. You need to wear long sleeves, like mine, got it?”


I nodded.


“Tomorrow after school. We’ll go to Alpha Beta,” (or was it Ralph's?) she said, pointing to the store with her chin. “But if you’re gonna be nervous, you’ll ruin it.”

“Ok. I won't be,” I said, looking over at the storefront.

“Do you swear you won’t be scared?”

“I swear,” I said, scared.

“Wear long sleeves tomorrow or it won’t work.”

The next day, we met up after school. I wore long sleeves like she said. I wanted her to like me. I viewed her as my only hope for friendship. I heard two girls at school talking about how they each poked their fingers with sewing needles, squeezed until blood came out, and smashed their wounds together, now blood sisters--- better than friends. I wanted to be Jeanette’s blood sister. But first, I wanted to make sure I didn’t screw up.

“Ok. We gotta practice,” she said. She held a pencil in one hand, and went through the motions. “Pretend this is candy,” she waived the pencil in my face. “You take it off the shelf, act normal, then palm it, and slide it up your sleeve like this.” Jeanette did this with grace and control. “Now you try it,” she said.

I took the pencil, palmed it, and slid it up my sleeve, tapping it lightly, holding it in my sleeve with my middle and ring finger just as Jeanette had done.

“Don’t look so….put your buggy eyes back in your head.” Jeanette was a tough coach. “Let's go. Come on,” she said, walking casually towards the Alpha Beta.

I imaged all the candy in that store, and thought about what I wanted. I loved these chocolate drops in a round tube with colorful foil.

“What about Flicks?” I said.

Jeanette spun around to face me, glaring. “No, too round! Get a flat one or you’ll ruin it. And, after, don’t run, just walk out of the store, like natural.”

We walked inside the store, I stayed behind, watching. Jeanette gripped the fabric of her sleeve with her finger tips, and I copied her. We glided over to the candy aisle. “Don’t look at me, don’t watch,” she said in a whisper without looking my way.

I scanned my choices, trying to choose one that would work. Abba Zabba. Perfectly flat. White taffy with peanut butter filling.I felt dizzy with anticipation. Jeanette was acting like she didn’t know me at all, keeping her distance.

Swiftly, without looking around, I took an Abba Zabba and guided it up my sleeve, keeping it there with my fingers, and I slowly followed Jeanette out of the store, trying to keep my cool. I felt as though I might explode, my whole body shaking like a Mexican jumping bean. I stayed behind her in the parking lot, trying not to screw up. We slid through parked cars, then ran all the way to Jeanette’s house, where we tore the wrappers off our treats, mine oozing a sugary peanut butter filling. A flood of joy and happiness washed through every cell in my body, mixed with an intense relief.


We got away with it. We were safe.


I looked over at our little house across the street. It feels weird now to say it was ours, "our house" or even "home." Looking back, we were perching in the cottage, like squatters. Back in that moment, though, I thought it was home. I knew Jan and Riley were there, probably fixing dinner, while I gobbled down my stolen candy, and I thought we'd stay there.


*


Not quite two years before my stolen Abba Zabba, when I was almost five, I'd grabbed a butterscotch from a large bin in the grocery store. I didn't even try to be sneaky, I just took it. I didn't see why not--- there were so many. I didn't count on the crinkly, clear paper being so loud as I unwrapped it, my sugar craving so intense I couldn't wait. The damn wrapper was my undoing.


"Where did that come from?" Jan asked, a frown forming on her face.


Riley gave me a talk about why I should never do that, and that if I wanted the candy, I should've just told him so. I remember he seemed appropriately concerned about my behavior, fatherly, like on a TV show.


*

A man with a huge belly came by the cottage one day with a bucket, saying he’d made a deal with the landlord that he could pick the figs. My mother was perturbed, but waited until he left to unravel her hostility. She wondered if he was lying. “That guy is strange.” I remember we compared him to W.C. Fields, because he had a bulbous, red nose which was covered with broken capillaries.


"That's what happens when you drink too much and become alcoholic, your nose ends up looking like that," Jan said, as she plucked one of the avocados and went back inside.


The next time the man came with a ladder. Jan confronted him, her voice tense. “How often are you going to come by our back yard?” She eyed him suspiciously.


“It’s not your back yard. You people are renters.”


“So you’re just going to come by here with no notice?” her eyes squinted at him, hands on her hips, her voice shaking and at a higher pitch. I knew she was going to uncork all the rage that had been brewing inside her. She’d been complaining about him for days.


“These will rot on the ground if I don’t pick them,” he said. Jan said we wanted some figs, too. He shook his head and snapped up his ladder and bucket, saying how there were plenty left over, and that he was friends with the landlord, and how he was going to let him know what kind of people we were.


Jan was trying to stand up for herself, but had trouble with diplomacy. She would often complain about other people, resentment brewing, and then burst into flames like tinder box when words or deeds set her off.


*


A few months ago, my mother told me that Riley never paid rent at that little cottage with the avocado tree. We moved out after only two months without time to say goodbye to anyone.

I never saw Jeanette again.



Special thanks to my older sister, Lisa, for confirming memories, and my mother, Jan, for submitting to these relentless interviews over the past dozen years or so.

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