Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Mating Games (I first met Pearlie Mae...

I first met Pearlie Mae Timberlake in high school right before the Summer of Love. She moved in across from the Schivos right next door to the Scotts who had a real swimming pool with a diving board at the deep end. Not like the Inkwell on Papermill Creek—they said it was bottomless. Every time I tried to swim across it, I was so scared, I nearly drowned for lack of breath.

I was a regular waterdog, I spent summers submerged in the Scott’s pool. My hair turned blonde, then green. I don’t think I ever had a bath the whole summer which was useful as our spring went dry in August so we were on a water rationing vigil most the summer. Besides I hated being last in line for the bath. It was as gray as the ringer washer water after the last load.

Mrs. Scott taught all us kids to swim after Old Man Barbano shot himself at the summer camp—Mrs. Barbano had the market share corner on swim classes because she salted her pool instead of using chlorine which meant us lead-bottom swimmers could float and maybe even learn to swim. I learned to swim late—I was ten—so I needed all the help I could get.

I’ll never forget seeing them wheel away Mr. Barbano all in white on the gurney—the bullet wound left a red chrysanthemum blossom at his temple. I could see it when they brought him out on the gurney. We were walking down Arroyo Road one summer afternoon. We came around the bend and witnessed that. We weren't supposed to see it. We were like startled sheep. Time stretched on forever. Stood still. He must've still been alive because I looked into his face. They didn't cover him up. If he was dead, they would've.

Imagine shooting yourself in the head and then having to face the agony of living. Time stretching on forever in those last moments. Was he conscious? It seemed as if he recognized me. I thought I saw his hand rase as if to wave at us. You see, he went crazy with grief after his daughter was murdered. We didn't know much about it though t made the headlines. It was even in Time magazine. Mrs. Barbano, she gave up on life and rented out the place to rock musicians who made it into a commune of sorts.

Mrs. Scott later went off the deep end too after they moved to Vashon Island— on account of the fact that it was a regular Peyton place for a while around here in the Valley with everybody wife-swapping, and they thought us kids didn’t know a thing, but Christian had this telescope in his treehouse, see… and people started putting up curtains after that. Christian was a bit strange too, a regular peeping Tom, but that's another story. I went up to Washington to visit her but they said they found Mrs. Scott draped naked and blue as a jaybird on a small rock in the middle of Puget Sound. Loneliness made her crazy, they said. She must’ve been swimming in the frigid water for hours. What was she escaping from or where was she going to, I wonder?

Pearlie Mae’s mother, she was cross-eyed as their Siamese cat, and talked funny ’cause she was from the bayous of Louisiana. She was remarried to this Inca guy from Peru who wore a lot of gold and he even had a gold tooth. He was a waiter along with Pearlie Mae’s mother who worked nights in San Francisco—I believe that’s how they met— and they raised chinchillas on the side. They had big plans to harvest the skins and strike it rich, Pearlie Mae’s stepdad was always scheming on how to get rich, but the rodents—they looked like fluffy lemmings—but they were so timid, some always died of fright whenever Pearlie Mae cleaned their cages, no matter how quietly she moved. Usually it was the mothers who croaked—Pearlie Mae would flush ‘em down the toilet and hope her parents wouldn’t notice, as if they’d come down and count them—then we had to feed the orphan babies with toy baby bottles, which was kinda cute. Them nursin’ away like real babies.

From what I could gather, Pearlie Mae’s mother thought Pearlie Mae was heaven-sent in order to be a personal slave to cook and clean house. She worked that girl so hard, her fingers were always raw or peeling. I never saw a house so clean. If there was one speck of dirt anywhere, Pearlie Mae would get it—with a strap from her stepdad. I think her mother had a past—though they were religious now, Jehovah’s Witnesses—but she wanted to make sure Pearlie Mae grew up right—even if she was from outside her own kind, which was a bit of a mystery. So Pearlie Mae was forever cleaning up and bleaching for germs. But she never got any lighter.

Sometimes we’d get into the liquor cabinet and she’d crank up “Exodus” real loud on the stereo and mix ammonia, cleanser and Clorox together like a mad scientist and this greenish vapor would creep out of the toilet and, if luck would have it—gas the poor cat who liked to perch on the toilet seat (on account of those chinchillas) and while he was there, to do-do his thing. He was a sensitive type, didn’t like the sound of cat litter crunching between his toes. I secretly suspected that Pearlie Mae trained him not to use the litter box on account of the dust. Poor cat, he’d circle the seat and get a good whiff of that concoction of hers, and go tearin’ out of the house like his tail or his asshole was on fire and we were laughing and crying and coughing until our lungs turned inside out, and we’d have to run out of the house too in order to breathe.

There was always some mystery around Pearlie Mae’s real parentage as she was adopted. Like I said, I could never get any farther than the fact that she was from Louisiana—I knew she had a younger brother John Estes, who lived with his dad in LA during the school year; he was the spitting image of his mother—blond-haired and blue-eyed. Pearlie Mae looked somewhat like her mother too, but she had this big wild hair and huge brown eyes and skin the color of old honey— not at all fair at all like her mother. I’m sure people speculated, but Pearlie Mae’s mother was always saying that she was just doing her Christian duty by taking the baby off the hands of that poor, unfortunate unwed mother—barely more than a girl herself. About the only thing she left out of the story was the barefoot part.

Poor Pearlie Mae would roll her hair up every single night in orange juice cans because they were bigger and did a lot better job at straightening her hair than the store-bought pink, jumbo-sized rollers that were supposed to give her hair the straightest possible look—only she didn’t need to rat her hair out into a big flip afterwards. It was that way naturally. I don’t know how she ever slept with her head suspended three inches above the pillow with those cans like that. It made her neck look so skinny, like a bird’s. Most of us never even had orange juice from cans, let alone collect enough cans to set our hair. If there was rain or fog when we had to walk a mile down Arroyo Road to the bus into school, the rain would undo all the hard work those cans had accomplished during the night, and she’s spend every recess hiding out in the girl’s bathroom with a kerchief over her head.

As I said earlier, Pearlie Mae liked ’Tino—that’s short for Valentino—a lot. You know the hard guy in the tight jeans and white shirts I was telling you about who looked like a Latino James Dean? Yes, that really was his real name. And if Pearlie Mae’s hair was looking especially good, she’d abandon me for the hard guys in the parking lot at school. I don’t know how she managed to go out with him, but one fall she did. See, we were bussed into town and most kids didn’t have cars, so it was hard to get home after school and we weren’t supposed to hitchhike, but if you had to stay after school, there was no other way home as it was way too far to walk and too dangerous to go over White’s Hill on foot.

Anyway, she did stay in town after school, and I was left pretty much out of the detail loop, walking that long mile up Arroyo Road all by myself during the fall of ’69, but during one of the rare times when she did come home with me, she let slip about having some little white pills that made her feel so fine. She offered me one. It looked like saccharine and probably was, but Pearlie Mae was wild and getting wilder by the minute, so we sorta drifted apart, as I was a virgin and planned to stay that way in high school—a promise I actually managed to keep, even if I was the last virgin in the county. I mean, it was the Summer of Love and all that. I didn’t want to be up at the altar rail expecting, like everyone else. I bet it was her little baby half-sister who finked on her.

Pearlie Mae was getting so wild, I didn’t know whether to look for razors in her hair, or what. Must’ve been ’cause she was sorta back with her own kind, whatever that was. I think it liberated her from herself. But she must’ve gotten caught sneaking home late ’cause suddenly her freedom was curtailed—I suspect home was more like boot camp, and we drifted back into each other’s lives. This time she’d found religion too. Or her parents found it for her, so she pretended to be devout. After that, about the only freedom we ever had was at prayer meetings. But she had this wicked sense of humor and she would roll her eyes as everyone was singing about salvation and we’d be snorting and shaking, and sobbing into our prayer books. I guess folks mighta thought we were being saved except for the fact that I was lobster-red and practically peeing my pants, trying hard not to laugh. But you know how it is when you’re not supposed to do something, you just gravitate naturally toward it.

By that time, she’d set her eye on Abe Rezonski, who was tall dark and, well, sorta geeky on account of religion. Abe wanted to be a preacher, he was the eldest son of a new family that moved onto Arroyo Road. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses too, so this time her parents didn’t exactly mind the connection. You know, like-kind sticking to like-kind, and all that. But I got stuck with his younger brother, Dork Rezonski who was a grade younger than me and spoiled rotten. A real booger flicker type. The families, they all kept working me over, trying to get me saved, but I wasn’t easily caught on that hook. Pearlie Mae and I kept up the pretense for almost three years before they got wise to the fact that I wasn’t about to be saved under any circumstances.

See, when I was in catechism for First Communion, I gave the nuns apoplexy ’cause I insisted that God wasn’t crying like they said, ‘cause we were talking in church and it was raining, but that he was really peeing on us. I mean, THEY were talking in church too. So they flunked me. I’m sure I was the only kid who ever flunked First Communion. Aside from the humiliation, it made me suspicious of everyone. I’m sure Pearlie Mae’s parents thought I was responsible for her getting into so much trouble because of my worldly ways—when it was really the other way around. But who was going to believe me? They made her shun me after that.

What made it so difficult being shunned was that I was still madly in love with her brother John—who I only got to see during summer and holidays as it was. We were pretty deep into physics during that fall. He was my first kiss and my first big bang too. That’s why I get so melancholy during the fall, all those rites of passage. Thank God it cured me of him for good. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Pearlie Mae, she had set it up down at the chinchilla shed as they all had died off by this time, not wanting to be saved. Or maybe it was all that racket we made. I guess getting rich off of chinchilla skins no longer mattered if the world was going to end, and besides, people were beginning to boycott fur after they saw those cute baby seals being slaughtered on TV. And John, well, he made the chinchilla shed into a clubhouse when he moved up here full time, having gotten himself into some kind of trouble down in LA…but I‘m getting off track… Not much time left.

And after the Jehovah’s Witnesses had “outed” me, everyone had to pretend I was invisible. They all had to turn their backs on me. It was especially hard to act like nothing was wrong at the bus station. And when the other kids saw them shunning me, they figured something was up, and so they all did the same thing. You know, monkey see, monkey do? It was like the time with my first best friend Stephie—in order to keep her friendship with Rebecca Wilson, Stephie, who was a grade younger than me, had to pretend not to like me. I don’t know why I ever went along with it, what was I thinking of? But it backfired at school and there I was all lonely again. And when she was all friendly again after school, it just didn’t matter any more. My heart was broken. It never dawned on me to say anything either, but then, I had a hard time sticking up for myself.

What is it that makes us go through life accepting small injustices and never questioning or challenging them? They pick away at us until we believe we’re no good at all. That’s what happened to most of the dads in the Valley, when they turned to drink. Or the older girls—all knocked up, dutifully following in their mothers’ footsteps. I guess sometimes you just have to get mad enough in order to change things—you know, like Rosa Parks at the back of the bus? But first, you have to see there’s an injustice being done. I just knew I had to escape the Valley, I didn’t know how or why.

Anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were really getting ready to face the end of the world, which was supposed to happen sometime in July, 1974 which was practically another lifetime away—five whole years— but they wanted to be ready well in advance. They were all being especially holy so as they could all be saved together, like lemmings, in the Promised Land. It was a time of potlucks and feverish prayer meetings. I figured we had plenty of time to still be friends, but Pearlie Mae—she cried, she begged me to join, saying she wanted me to be saved too, as I was her best friend. Who would she hang out with in the Promised Land? And I wanted to be saved too so that I could see John as well. But it didn’t happen like that.

We were moving light years apart: Pearlie Mae towards her goodie-two-shoes Abe, and me towards John who was a real bad boy, the first of a long line of many. I loved her, but for the life of me, I couldn’t have saved myself if I wanted to. I guess she’d long since given up on ’Tino. And of course 1974 just came and went. No end in sight. After that, I heard Pearlie Mae finally got married to Abe and started having babies, and when the world didn’t end as was promised, I hear rumor that they went off preaching to heathens in the jungle like Katrina Nielsen. What were they trying to do, were they embracing their fate or were they just running away from the world? No matter how I put it to myself, it just wouldn’t add up. All that savin’ of the heathens who just didn’t want savin’. Shoulda just stuck to their own kind. Know what I mean?

© 2002 Maureen Hurley
Disclaimer: this is fiction. I drew on stories I had heard as a child. This version of these pieces were written in the voice of our childhood dialect for a MFA monologue class with Roy Conboy. In order to take full artistic license, and to give ourselves more freedom, we were asked to change the names of the people but not the actual events. An interesting assignment. I was surprised at how visceral the characters became when the names were changed. I liked the names I invented. But I changed them all back again because it just felt right. But this is memoir as well. besides, how can you improve upon such a perfect name like Pearlie Mae Timberlake? Pearl, wherever you are, I still love you, girl.

I wrote another version in Brighde Mullins's class 4/3/2002, so I'm posting all variants there.

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