My first way of thinking about my brother Powell was that it was just natural that a little girl would be picked on by her big brother. Like if you fall on your knee, it bleeds. Or if you say the wrong word around some of your aunties you get smacked, or maybe even a willow switch across your little bottom. One of those things you try to learn to deal with so you don’t have to catch the trouble.
Later I revised my thoughts to conclude that it wasn’t me, it was him, and that getting persecuted by big brothers was natural and universal because they were mean little boogers.
Then it came to my attention that not all brothers were like that. That I just happened to draw a rotten one. I asked around about it, and how to cope with it, and didn’t get anything very useful. The closest my mother ever came to criticizing one of us was when she told me that God gives us each a different cross to bear and Pow might be one of mine. I started fighting back, and generally lost.
But some of my guerilla tactics–like smashing a bowl of guppies over his head in his sleep, and putting Ben Gay in the cold cream jar when he got sunburned falling asleep on the float up at the lake, and telling Deputy Claxton who stole Jimmy Joe’s bicycle–got up to where the reprisals were dreadful, but he couldn’t keep escalating them without killing me or at least scarring me, so he kind of tapered off. At least got sneakier. He still had my tummy and waist always black and blue from pinching my baby fat, but that was standard. We fell into a sort of armed truce. This was when I was a pudgy little thing. By the time I was in junior high, he wouldn’t have laid a hand on me because he knew he’d wake up with a muscular, pissed-off jockette breaking his bones with a hockey stick.
But he was still powerful mean, set your mind to rest on that. It took the U.S. Marines to cool his jets.
So here’s another one of those thematic foreshadow things.
This was before I got dragged into pageants and contests, just a little talent skit. I got past even trying to study out why we did some of the things we did. If they told us to dress up like the Confederate Dead and parade down to the courthouse and moon the Constitution, we’d have just done it. They always had some freaky agenda we had to go along with.
This one was at a church picnic. Not our own church, thank God. I was in about third grade when we got invited to the anniversary of the founding of this big old Baptist church in Montgomery. The sort of place with choir robes and a pipe organ and radio sermons broadcast to thousands of worshippers who were sick or shut-in or apparently out of their minds. We were the shirt-tail cousins of this big church, who sent us a little money and cast-off clothes, and all sorts of tracts and battered hymnals. So there we were at this humongous outdoor buffet. The whole yard of this beautiful brick church with a white steeple reaching halfway to heaven was covered with tables covered with food.
And of course any amount of stuffing and guzzling and chawing and jawing the grown-ups did was nothing compared to us kids. We had a one-day license to run amok and we took ’em up on it. We glutted like shoats and ran under tables like goats and smeared our faces and made ourselves sick to our tummies.
It was a circus for kids, and most specially for a chubby little country mouse girl from the po-boy parish.
I think it was one of the happiest days of my life. I ate and ate and swigged down sweet ice tea and lemonade and Hawaiian Punch and RC cola. I just tore around laughing and shaking my hair. Right then I knew what heaven would be like and I was all for getting my ticket punched right on the spot. I’d be standing there with a big old prawn in one hand and a lovely greasy drumstick in the other and stare up at that gleaming white steeple with the real bronze bells hanging in it and get an almost sexual bliss. Christianity finally made sense to me. I’d have gone up to the invitational and signed over my life to the personal care of Jesus right then and there.
They had some speeches and sermons where the grownups had to sit and listen, but we just kept on devastating the food display. But then they came and grabbed us for their little show. They had singing and some guy playing steel guitar and some high school girls twirling batons wearing sweaters with the church name on them, but they had a spot on the bill for the kids. They like to get you young and break you in. That’s why they have Vacation Bible School and Youth Ministry and Youth Choir. I was all for it at the moment. And I found out why I’d had to wear these frilly white underpants and the little white skirt. They gave us these little tunics with “Lottie Moon Missions” spelled out, one letter to each little girl. And ran us through the little routine we’d do. I realized the other girls had rehearsed it. And that I was getting tapped because one of them had actually eaten herself sick and was currently sobbing on the potty somewhere. I didn’t realize they picked me from the visitors because I looked so angelic.
I figured out what they wanted and lined up with them waiting to troop on stage and Shirley Temple it out, but just then Pow popped up and told me to turn around because I had something on my face. He held up a napkin, but when I closed my eyes for him to wipe off whatever glob I had on little kisser, he pushed me over backward and ran off laughing. There was a chair behind me, so I didn’t fall down, just splatted into the chair, but I was furious. I figured next time I caught him asleep I was going to pour Flora Lee’s Nair all over his head. But the show must go on.
We scampered out there mugging like little Sunbeams, and pranced around while the pianist played and sang “Jesus Loves The Little Children Of The World.” Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Not that there were any non-white faces out in the crowd or in our little troupe. At the finale we romped up to the edge of the stage, with the Missions message spelled out in right order, and did a kind of daring move for the venue. We all turned our backs and flipped up our skirts to show off our ruffled little rumps. An endearing turn that would have drawn chuckles (and probably no puns on the foreign missions offering for the late, saintly, Ms. Moon) under normal circumstances. But the circumstances weren’t normal at all and what we drew was a sort of collective shocked gasp, some stifled horrified cries, then outbreaks of chuckles and snorts that turned into a wave of nervous laughter. The letter girls broke formation and milled around apprehensively, then one spotted the situation and started laughing as she clued me in.
Pow had fiendishly pushed me over onto a chair where somebody had left a paper plate with the remains of a rich, double-frosted chocolate cake. My cute ruffles had ridges… of brown goo. A crusty wedge of tasty, but very fecal-looking material that I had just bumped into the face of All Christendom. The more it dawned on me what I had looked like, the more my image of paradise faded. To be replaced by shame, of course. I ran off the stage to more laughs and squeals and other hated applause. I ducked under the tables and ran along, hidden from sight. But I wasn’t fleeing. I had a destination.
I busted out from the table right where I had last seen Pow and his little gang of thugs. And there he was, laughing his punk butt off. I snatched a deep dish of spicy Louisiana crawdad gumbo off the table and ran at him. He saw me coming and held up his hands to block me from socking him with it, but I just stopped and slung it in his face like a fire brigade bucket. I hadn’t planned it out, but I chose well. All those hot peppers and Pickapeppa sauce hit him right in the eyes, so he was blind and screaming. He fell down and his little goons melted away so I bashed the casserole right down on his stomach while he writhed around on the ground. I could feel the waves of grown-ups descending on me, and figured I’d just forfeited my victim status, so I turned around and pulled off the soiled panties and flung them at Pow’s head, probably giving the descending Righteous a nice bald crotch shot or two. One thing, though: they stopped laughing.