When I was 6, my family went through a rough patch. I am not exactly certain what happened. Even now, when I ask my parents about it, it's all sort of vague. I will just assume it was some sort of witness protection program. As a matter of fact, I am pretty sure that my original name was Talking Wind, but they will neither confirm nor deny this.
During this rough patch, they pulled my sister and I from our quiet little private school in Indianapolis, loaded us into a truck, and headed down to Clearwater, Florida. We stayed with my dad's buddy, Steve, for a few days while they found a home for us. Steve had half of a dead fish in his freezer. Its head was sticking out, and it's backside was missing but covered in foil. It was like a magician's trick gone awry. It looked at me whenever I reached in to get ice. My 9-year-old sister quickly informed me not to worry about it since fish don't have souls.
Quickly enough, we moved on from the fish freezer house and found ourselves in a rental home on a little lake full of alligators. We were new to Florida, so my parents laid down some rules to keep us safe. They also had a way of making us believe that if we didn't follow the rules, the likely consequence would be death.
The rules of Florida for a 6 year old as I remember them.
1. Don't let let the dog out near the lake because the alligators will try to eat her. Mom reinforced that they found poodles extra tasty and we had a poodle, so we really needed to be vigilant.
2. If the alligators try to chase you, you should run in a zig-zag motion so as to confuse them.
3. Don't throw rocks at the alligators' eyes.
4. Check your shoes in the morning because the scorpions like to climb into them and they will sting you. If they sting you, you will die.
5. Check the bed sheets before you get in because the scorpions will hide in them. If they sting you, you will die.
6. Don't touch the jellyfish or you will die.
7. Don't play near the windows during a lightning storm or you will die.
8. If you get a loose tooth and you swallow it in your sleep, you will die. My sister Shelly, the perfect one, stayed up all night in fear over this one. (This rule was courtesy of the neighbor girl, Debbie. She walked with her hands horizontal so as not to drop her bangle bracelets. Also, I don't believe the swallowing the tooth problem ever existed in Indiana, so I am assuming this was one of those Florida rules.)
9. Don't ride in the back of the truck because you might fall through the hole in the floor and you will die.
10. Don't forget to wear your seat belt in the front of the truck because you might fall through the hole in the floor and you will die.
11. Don't throw your clothes into the ceiling fan to watch them fly away. (I don't actually think this is a rule of Florida. I may have done something to help them create this rule).
12. Don't poke a pygmy rattlesnake with a rake or you could die. (My dad learned this rule from a local neighborhood patrol officer).
13. If the landlord stops by, we don't have a dog.
14. Don't pee in the pool or the water will turn purple.
15. If the neighbor boy asks you to play doctor, the answer is always "no".
My parents did not have a lot of money to work with, but we always had food on the table. Every day after school, my sister would make grilled cheese sandwiches for the two of us. OK, it wasn't really grilled cheese, it was butter-flavor Crisco sandwiches with food-grade plastic, and they were delightful. I haven't had one in years but if the memory of my 6-year-old self serves me right, my sister could be a chef at the White House with a recipe like this.
My parents never liked working for the man. I don't know who this man was, but he was always trying to tell us what to do in exchange for regular paychecks, and they were not having it. No sir, nobody told us what to do. Dad and Mom both had entrepreneurial spirits that would not be crushed. During these years, I learned about the flea market.
We had our own flea market booth. It was exquisite. The smell of stale popcorn, body odor, and motorcycle exhaust hung heavily in the air. You could buy fresh grapefruit or a hubcap. If you looked hard enough, you could find exactly what you were looking for. It was just like Walmart.
I learned how to haggle early. After I saw it happen the first time, I realized that I would never ever pay full price for a gigantic brass eagle that you hang on your living room wall again. Why pay full price when you could offer an insultingly low amount. Get this, you can insult people, and they will still sell you their stuff at a reduced price. This is America people.
Sometimes, if we were good and didn't talk to the strange people that tried to befriend us and give us candy, Mom would let Shelly and I go a few booths down and get a soda from the vendor. It was an adventure. We would peruse the other booths as we walked back from the soda booth and pretend to be interested in coins, knives, custom belt buckles, cattle horns for the front of our car, and whatever other specialty items that we would find. Then, when we felt that we had sufficiently lived on the edge, we would scurry back to our booth before Mom busted us and threatened to make us sit in the car all by ourselves. (This was her "go to" threat. She never did, but somewhere, deep in the back of our minds, we knew that if she really lost it, she would.)
During these years, the Cabbage Patch Kid became all of the rage. My mother was incredibly resourceful, so she borrowed a friend's Cabbage Patch, knocked off the design and created her own faux-Cabbage Patch dolls to sell. She would spend days assembling the dolls and lining them up like little naked zombies all around the house. I was intrigued that she took the time to sew a little butt crack and belly button, but more so that I survived childhood and they did not eat me in my sleep.
The nightmare began during the first face painting of the first group of dolls a few months before Christmas. I woke up and stumbled out of bed, down the hall to get my morning Franken Berry fix, when what should I see but a bunch of little naked, bald baby dolls lined up in rows with only whites for eyes. It was horrific. (Not as horrific as the time I saved all of my allowance for Baby Skates because the commercial showed her skating down the street hand in hand with a little girl but in reality she just took two steps and fell over. Not horrific like that, but horrific like zombie babies.)
I stood in terror as my sister stumbled in behind me. She was quietly singing a dirty song by Madonna that she wasn't allowed to sing. Then she stopped too.
Had our mother gone mad? Was dad going to allow this? We both ran into their bedroom to see if the dolls had already murdered them. It was obvious that we had been protected through the night because we had a very sturdy layer of blankets to save us from anything that may try to come after us while we slept. Blankets are like a steel force field. Shelly taught me this.
Alas, they were just fine. Mom explained that it was all part of the process of creating the doll faces. They reminded me of the fish in Steve's freezer. The zombie babies would then be taken to the flea market and sold at reduced Cabbage Patch Kid prices to grandmothers everywhere who were convinced that the grandkids wouldn't know the difference.
Our move to Florida also offered other interesting challenges. Shelly and I entered the public school system. It was similar to "Lord of the Flies," only with jelly shoes and a little girl named Crayola who threatened to beat your ass everyday if you didn't play tether ball with her on the playground. I went from the normal quiet little girl with the Dorothy Hamill haircut, to a wild animal on the tether ball court scrapping for Jolly Ranchers and Laffy Taffy. It was madness.
The school bus would pick us up out at the highway near our street every morning. Mrs. Hall, the bus driver, had rotten teeth and wild hair and would yell in a very deep southern accent "If you kids don't shut up, I'm a gonna scream!" The kids would then scream really loud back at her. Shelly and I would sit together and hold on in hopes that Mrs. Hall would maintain control of the bus and not plunge us into a local alligator bog or force us all out for a play date at Vinnie and Lenny's house. (They were East Coast boys who ate their own scabs). Once Shelly even "took care of" a fourth-grade boy that kicked me on the bus because things were so out of control. I could have handled it myself, but I was grateful to have her.
We were lucky since our old curriculum was a little bit ahead of the one at the new school and the schoolwork came easily allowing us time to build our playground empire. My seventh birthday had come and gone, and I was a bit older and wiser. By the end of first grade, I had beaten Crayola on the tether ball court and learned what a honky was. I was cruising the gifted program and had a pocket full of Jolly Ranchers. I owned that playground, and nobody was going to take it away from me.
As we got more comfortable, my father was able to pick up a vehicle that didn't have holes in the floor. This allowed us to do more things and enjoy our days a bit more. The car was an old MG convertible, and my mother loved it. I assume her love of this vehicle came from its carefree single-girl feel since it was a two seater. In case you ever saw us going down the road, I was the kid shoved into the space between the seats and the trunk. Yes, car seat laws have changed a bit since those days.
Dad would work most days, and mom would try to keep our lives interesting. She would take us to the beach, go for drives, and once, she took us to the Weeki Wachee mermaid show. If you have never heard of the Weeki Wachee mermaid show, let me explain it to you as I recall.
First, you walk up to the neatest mermaid and merman statue you have ever seen. Instead of a face, they have face holes cut out for patrons to become the mer people. It is a photo opportunity like few others. Your sister will meet you behind the statue and insist that you be the merman while she is the beautiful mermaid. Don't try to resist because she will punch you in the arm. Congratulations, this moment has been preserved for future generations.
Next, you will go to an underwater glass room. Here, the beautiful 20-something-year-old mermaids in tiny bikini tops will swim around and breathe air from hoses. The moms enjoy the kids' reactions, the kids interact and play with the mermaids, and even that dads seem to enjoy just sitting back and watching. It's pure unadulterated family fun.
This is the exact moment that I realized that I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. It would be a win win situation. I could swim with my friends all day and wear a fish tail for a living. It was the perfect job. The only reason that I don't do this now is because sometime in the months following our visit to the mermaids, our adventure in Florida came to an end and we returned to Indiana where mermaids can't live. I still think about it sometimes when the kids are screaming and I am hiding in the closet but I guess some dreams are just never meant to be.
Whether it was hiding from the zombie dolls, or walking arm in arm with Crayola on the playground, our brief time in Florida was a strange realization of independent thinking and responsibility that would shape my viewpoint for the future. My parents never hid that they were struggling. I think they knew that Shelly and I were struggling too, but we learned how to be tough. We are all scrappers at heart. It was a lesson in beautiful resilience that I will always take with me.