Chapter Four, Curtis Avenue, “In a Manner of Speaking”

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When I found this picture, I just knew it was my old home on Curtis Avenue in old Alhambra, California. The curb and driving strip is where I used to sit and play a lot, along with the other kids in the neighborhood.. The post in the driving strip is where Billy ran his bicycle into me, instead of the post.

I read somewhere that when a child begins to talk, he or she has made a choice. It is a very hard choice to either connect with the world, (the world outside of the mind) or stay inside the wild mind, where the imagination is pure, limitless, and ideas are boundless. There is no end to the possibilities for Inside the wild mind, there is no language to hear “no”. There is no language to edit or correct. The internal world is full of adventure and ideas, of colors, tastes, smells and textures all mixed together, where anything can be everything, and nothingness can be the universe and more.

When a child chooses to connect to others with the main tool, speech, he is essentially relinquishing this amazing adventure. He “leaves the nursery” so to speak. The nursery disappears for the duration of his life. The payoff is connection with humanity: safety, intimacy. The drawback: imagination and creativity are altered with the word “no”, with the idea of limits, and with a life-long search for that which was lost before memory began – unbounded creativity. It is the creativity that once existed in easy flow, but which is now elusive. The friendly beast in the nursery finally disappears, because as the child will come to sadly understand, there are no beasts really. For the way I see it, when a child speaks, he is choosing to join the community of man, and leave behind pure wonder.

I am sure this existential conflict was haunting me as I sat on the curb once again. The escapades of the morning at Bess and Henry’s house had left me tired, hungry and grumpy. When I awoke from a nap that afternoon, I felt lethargic, dark and angry.

I wound up that late afternoon sitting on the curb in front of my house, elbows on my knees, chin in my hands, pondering Freddy’s house. July was in full blaze and the late afternoon heat radiated off of the street onto my legs and knees. I felt my face getting hotter and hotter, and I began looking up and down the street for any sign of activity. The air was still and silent – not a bird chirped, not a car sputtered. Freddy was nowhere to be seen. The afternoon was quiet and slumbered in the heat of the sun.

I picked up a stick and began poking at an ant hill pushing through a crack in between the street and the curb. Even the ants moved slowly and lazily. As I looked up from the ants, I saw Billy, my playmate, up the street driving down the sidewalk on his new red tricycle. He had started away up the street where his house was, but I could see him moving past one house, then another. He’d pedal a few steps, then the tricycle would turn over. He’d get up, brush himself off, get back on the trike, then drive right smack into a neighbor’s retaining wall with the same results.

Billy tried again. This time that tricycle took on a mind of its own. It hit the wall, rolled backwards, and crashed into the prickly juniper bushes on the driving strip. The trike toppled over, dumping Billy sideways right into the dry brown bushes there, leaving Billy a heap in the hot prickly junipers. So, Billy, fully determined, stood up, dusted the dirt and dry juniper stickers off of himself, got right back on that tricycle, and made his way down the sidewalk in his zig-zag, trial and error method, towards me.

When Billy got near me, a triumphant smile clearly written across his sweet little sweaty face, he lost complete control of the tricycle again, which, careening out of control, lurching this way and that, finally came to halt when it crashed into me. I looked up at my friend with the wispy blonde hair wafting across his sky blue eyes, sweat rolling down his face creating light rivulets in the dirt. He sat on his trike just looking at me.

At that moment, the pressures of the morning, growing up, and feeling grumpy, all hit at once and I leapt to my feet and yelled at the top of my voice: “Billy! You go to hell Billy! You go to hell!”

Oh my goodness, I couldn’t believe the words came out of me. It was as if the sky opened up and gave me everything Mimi and Bess had ever wanted to hear, with a great big wonderful “Here it is!” The words were big, and powerful, and fierce. I could see by the look on Billy’s face that the words had had a very big effect. He began to cry. But having felt the full power and glory of words, crashing and shouting out of my mouth, I began to draw in another big breath, with the intent of blowing out some of those great sounds again, when suddenly, my grandmother Mimi took me by the arm.

“Don’t you ever say those words again! Mercies Cynthia!” She shook me a little. I had never heard her speak so sternly. I listened really close when she said it again, this time her face close to mine while she spoke very very slowly and very clearly: “Don’t you ever, ever say those words ever, ever again! Do you hear me?”
“Uh huh Mimi but -“
“Do – you – hear – me?”

Boy was Mimi mad. Here, I had said something really powerful and probably really smart, just like everyone wanted me to do, and like everyone else was doing, and Mimi was telling me never, ever to say the words again. I began to fight back.

“Billy – Billy – he – -” I fought for the words to describe the picture in my mind. “But he -“ I waved my free arm in his direction.
“I want you to say ‘I’m sorry’ right now. Right now!”
“No!” I said assertively. After all, why should I apologize to Billy when he had crashed his tricycle into me.
Mimi looked at me as if she was going to make me say I was sorry. But my lips were sealed up tight. Nobody was going to get another sound out of me.

My grandmother kept hold of my arm and led me over to Billy who looked a lot sorrier than I did. He said “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” But I saw it differently.

“Billy is trying to learn how to ride his tricycle.” Mimi began. “He didn’t run into you on purpose. It was an accident. Now, please tell Billy you are sorry.”

“No.” was my answer.

“Well then.” Mimi took me by the arm and began marching me towards the front door.

“Where are we going?”

“We are going inside.”

“Why?”

“To wash your mouth out with soap, of course.”

“What’s that?” All the words the grown ups ever wanted to hear were flowing out of my mouth all of a sudden, and nobody cared.

“It’s when I put soap in your mouth because of the bad words you just said to Billy.”

“What bad words?”

“Never mind.”

“What bad words? What are bad words Mimi?”

“I just said never mind. I don’t want to hear another word from you. You have talked quite enough for today.”

Mimi marched me across the lawn, up onto the front porch, through the front door, down the hall, and into the yellow bathroom.

I sat down on the toilet seat while Mimi picked up the bar of lemon yellow soap. She began, ceremoniously, with a little knife, to carve shavings off the delicate soap, and put the shavings where I could see them, right by where I sat. They didn’t look so awful to me. I smelled the shreds of soap, and they smelled delicious.“Mimi began talking to me about the soap, but by that time, I was wishing she’d just get on with it. I opened up my mouth wide and sat there waiting for my first taste of the luscious smelling lemony soap. Mimi put a shred on a spoon, and zoomed it into my mouth, which I closed in anticipation of the delight. I quickly swallowed its contents.

The roaring fire hit my throat first, then flamed up into my eyes, and out my nose. Large groups of bubbles floated up and out of my nostrils and mouth. Then, my stomach began cringing and gagging. In one second everything exploded with the same force I had said those words with. But now with pain – intense, brutal pain. Acrid flames licked my eyes, my nose, my throat, and then, my stomach, with the day’s contents, now all over the bathroom. Doubled over in agony, I coughed and snorted and choked and cried and threw up over and over again.

My words and everything else suddenly swirled into a new and painful world that I knew I was not going to want to visit again. I had spoken, and had wound up in pain.
I made a choice.
I re-entered my vast, limitless, internal world where all was quiet, safe, and comforting.

Curtis Avenue, July, 1950

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