Do you know where the wild things go?
They go along to take your honey – Breezeblocks, Alt-J
The sun was warm, but there was a breeze, so it wasn’t too hot. The grass was soft and green and the trees were still full of summer, though it was early September. I was 8 years old and I was running through the prison grounds. I remember it was a Sunday, because the next day was a school day and though I was only 8 or 9, school was already a dreaded part of my life, so every Sunday found me feeling just a little stomach-sick because I knew the next morning would mean waking up much too early and choking down pop tarts quickly so my mom would have 20 minutes or so to tame my Wild Thing jungle-girl hair. During the summer, I could easily outrun her whenever I saw her coming toward me with her red, bristly brush of doom and the spray bottle of no more tangles. I remember the front of the no more tangles bottle had a smiling girl about my age with silky-looking, tamed hair, but I knew she was a liar, because the detangler never helped ease the pain in the least bit whenever my mother was raking the brush through my mess of hair while I sat in the chair trying to doze and escape the pain until she was finally able to tame it enough to fit it into two pigtails with thick rubber-bands adorned with bright pink beads on them. I often used to twirl those rubber-bands around my fingers and wonder if those beads would taste as much like pink bubblegum balls as they looked. But by the time I was 5 or so, I had developed a fear of choking, so though I was tempted, I never actually dared to bite the rubber-band beads, settling for licking them instead. They tasted nothing like bubblegum. They tasted like hair and plastic.
Prison trips were my rare vacations away from home. Even though it was usually only a day’s drive away, depending on the prison, it meant being in the car instead of stuck at home and it also meant fried chicken. I was a chunky kid who loved fried chicken, and though I was usually cheated out of the delicious white meat pieces and tossed the dreaded legs, it was still better than something home-cooked in my opinion, so I treasured our little visits to see my uncle, who was doing a 5-year stint for being caught up in some armed robbery liquor store fiasco. Those 5 years gave me the opportunity to see a lot of different places and have a lot of chicken. I was oblivious at the time to the fact that he was actually ‘imprisoned’, thinking he was only living in tall grey buildings that looked like castles, along with other hulk-looking muscular guys. Other kids may have gone to amusement parks or beaches…I went to prison for my treasured fun-time.
I was a shy kid, painfully shy. As a matter of fact, my first impression of school in the first grade was the teacher scolding me to come out of the plastic playhouse that I was hiding in. “The other kids will never like you if you don’t learn to play nice with them and act like they do” What a torturous cow that teacher was! A mountainous woman that could always put an immense fear in me with the sound of her stockings rubbing loudly against her mighty thighs as she came barrelling toward my desk with her wooden paddle. I remember getting a lot of ‘paddlings’ during that year-for random things, like sneezing or asking to go for tinkle-breaks while she was trying to talk.(And for the record, I never learned how to play with others and I definitely never learned to act like anyone else.)
But my shyness slipped away whenever I was in an open space with lots of grass to roll around in and this place was ideal. I had never been to an actual park, but I assumed that this must be what the other kids felt like whenever they were at the park playing freely with their happy family and their loveable dog. Fortunately, I didn’t require either of those things to enjoy myself. I have never been one that desired or required a lot of company, so I was completely content alone in the outdoors, with my imagination.
My family was sitting with my uncle at one of several scattered park benches, and I had just made my way through my greasy Kentucky Fried Chicken leg, so I was free to run wild, at last! First, I ran out of earshot of my loud family, and then I ran farther, until the table and my family seemed small to me. Up ahead I saw a man standing in front of what seemed like a glass case on wheels. I walked slowly toward him, because I was curious about what was in the glass case, and as I walked, I could soon smell it: popcorn!
Despite the painful shyness I felt (and still feel), there are random occasions when that shyness slips away and I’m able to become quite talkative with someone. There’s no pattern to the sudden disappearance of my chronic shyness either…Its usually quite random. For example, the maintenance man for our apartment complex…I hate him, or hated him, I should say. He’s graceless and smelly, a real horse’s ass that says inappropriate things like “I thought you were an ass before I really got to know you”. His name is the name of an ex of mine…so really from the beginning, he hardly stood a chance with me- having the same name and coming from the same town as this particular ex…and he shares the same wise-assed know-it-all attitude that made me want to sprinkle rat poison in my ex’s soup, but that’s enough ex talk for now. Like I said, this maintenance man had a hope’s chance in hell of earning my kindness. But oddly enough, the past few times he’s been in my apartment, I find myself easily talking to him…I mean, seriously talking to him politely-even offering him a cold bottle of water when he was covered in bleach and air conditioner ick. I always manage to surprise myself with my strange talkative moods when he’s here…I mean, I’m practically inviting him to hang out and watch a movie or something. [OK, that’s an extreme exaggeration-he’s way too smelly to be invited to sit on the furniture.] Anyway, like I was saying, sometimes, my shyness disappears and suddenly, I’m as extroverted as Annie, (meaning the good natured orphan with the unfortunate orange afro, but the good fortune to score the fabulous Daddy Warbucks). Pair the disappearing shyness with my curiosity and you’ve got an unstoppable firecracker on your hands.
On this particular day, I was definitely in firecracker mode. Not only did the man standing all alone with this glass cart on wheels intrigue me, but the smell of popcorn was irresistible, so I made my way toward him.
You know that thing everyone is taught in school- about not speaking or taking anything from strangers? Well, apparently, I wasn’t really paying attention to that warning, and a still-hungry little fat kid entranced with the smell of warm popcorn is a mighty force to be reckoned with, so I walked right up to the man who had seen me coming and was smiling at me through the squinting face he was making because the sun was shining in his eyes.
I walked straight up to him with a serious ‘what’cha got this popcorn here for, mister?’ sort of way and before I even reached him, he was dipping a cone-shaped paper into the warm popcorn and before I even said anything, he said “Hey there little lady, do you like popcorn?'” I think I said a small “Uh-huh” as I took the cone of popcorn and began to walk off. Then my manners kicked in and I turned and said “Thank You”.
“No problem, there’s plenty here if you want some more”, and with that, I made my way back toward my loud, chicken-eating family. But then I noticed a nice tall tree with a lot of shade, so I decided to take a break and sit for a while and have my popcorn. Besides, I knew that if I returned with my popcorn, I would have to share it with my little brother, who used to throw up a lot and therefore generally grossed me out all of the time, and even worse, my smelly cigarette smoking step-dad may try to put his hands on my popcorn. So I decided to stay in the shade of the tree and eat my popcorn all on my own. But soon, the popcorn was all gone, and I thought about the poor guy standing all on his own in the bright sun making him squint his eyes and all of the popcorn he was tending to, and besides, he did say to come back if I wanted some more. So I went back for more.
He must have seen me coming, because he had already filled another paper cone full of delicious goodness by the time I walked up to him. This time, I didn’t rush off, but thought I would talk to him for a few minutes. After all, he was giving me free popcorn, so it only seemed right. I tried to begin a conversation the way I had seen grown-ups do, since my own conversational skills were severely underdeveloped at that point, so I began with a “Boy, its a nice day, ain’t it?” He laughed and agreed, and I wondered what a nice man was doing here all on his own with the popcorn, but I couldn’t find the nerve to ask just yet. He began asking me about who I was there to visit and if I lived near. I mainly replied with short answers because I was busy stuffing my face with the popcorn, when he noticed the beaded necklace I was wearing. “Nice Necklace”, he said as he reached down and touched it. I didn’t feel uncomfortable with this, because he seemed as nice as most other grown-ups I had known and he reminded me of an uncle or older cousin, so I told him all about how I had won it at a carnival, but had really wanted a goldfish, even though I didn’t have a home for the goldfish, so it was probably best that I won the necklace instead.
At that point our conversation was abruptly interrupted by the sound of my mother’s voice screeching “Alicia, come here!” I knew that meant trouble, because my mother reserved calling me by one of my middle names for when I had done something really, really bad like beating up my 5-year old pukehead brother or cutting my barbie doll’s hair or giving my baby dolls blue tattoos with a pen, but I didn’t understand what I could have possibly done to cause her to call me Alicia this time.
Being the Wild Thing that I was (am), I took my time walking toward her, eating my popcorn as I strolled toward my grumpy mother, who was tapping her foot and glaring at me with her arms crossed. When I reached her, I asked my usual question whenever I was being scolded, a simple, obnoxious “what?” But instead of explaining why I was suddenly Alicia, she simply said “Get over there and sit down!”
By then, I had stuffed the rest of my popcorn into my front jean-pocket, so I wouldn’t have to share it and could finish it by myself later. For the rest of the day, I was forced to sit at the bench and listen to useless, boring grown-up talk until it was time to go. I wanted to ask if I could go back to say goodbye to the man with the popcorn, and so I could get more for the road, since it was going to be a very long drive, but everyone seemed strange and grumpy whenever I tried speaking, so I decided against it. That meant no thanking the popcorn man or asking him about his popcorn business or why he was there in the middle of the prison yard with his tasty popcorn or how he made it so much popcorn or anything at all I might have thought to talk or ask him about.
Once we were in the car, my mom began to scold me about walking too far away and warning me that I better never do that again, because all kinds of really bad men were there and I could have been hurt or even worse, killed. That idea was so alien to me…”why would I eve be hurt or killed?” I asked. No one said anything for a minute and then as my mom let out one of her exhausted, fed-up long sighs, my stepdad says in his usual angry, impatient voice. “Because there’s a cannibal there that the they let out to walk around and offer popcorn to visitors.” *
This conversation had no effect on me at all because I had no idea what a cannibal was. So after a few minutes of trying to rack my brain to see if I could figure out what a cannibal was without asking, because I hated (and still hate) having to ask someone what something means, I had to give up and ask “what does that mean? What’s a cannibal?”
Again, my mom sighed and then through clinched teeth said “That means he eats people, Alicia Ann.”
All I could visualize was the huge pieces of smoked pork my mom and stepdad always had hanging in our shed and imagined those greasy, wrapped pieces as people’s legs instead of pig legs. I looked over at my hurl-brother, who was asleep, so I figured it was safe to pull the rest of my popcorn from my pocket and try to eat it without anyone noticing from the front seat, but as I tried getting into my front pocket, my shirt came up a little exposing my little popcorn-stuffed belly, and it was all covered in red dots.
“Hey, what is this?” I asked, worried that the people-eating guy’s poison popcorn had given me the red dots. My mother sighed yet again as she turned around to look at my stomach. “Oh great, You have measles” she said. “That means you won’t be going to school for a while.”
I smiled as I began sneaking my popcorn from my pocket and nibbling it quietly as I looked out of my window, thinking about what a perfect day it had been and how there would be no hair-taming early mornings for a while.
*Even now, I’m not sure if this was only a rumor and perhaps popcorn man wasn’t a cannibal after all, because it seems insane that a cannibal would be permitted to freely roam around offering popcorn to people. My mother has told me several times about the cannibal and his brother- who had apparently kept people in their freezer. I’ve never told this popcorn story to her or anyone else in full detail until now. The mention of my friend’s brush with cannibals in my last post made me remember my own possible encounter with a supposed cannibal, which makes me wonder just how many people-eating prisoners there really are? Perhaps Mr popcorn-making, people-eating man was released for good behavior and for not attempting to eat any of the visitors, but then years later got the crazy craving for people once again and found himself on a chain gang in Alabama in ’95. Sometimes I think, what are the odds? Then again, in my world, pretty good odds, actually. By the way, I still really enjoy a good batch of popcorn, and I won’t go anywhere near pigs, alive or any dead thing hanging in greasy, smelly sheds.
Me, soon after the measles and my new-found fondness for popcorn
~Lucia (Wild Thing)#13
P.S. And what better way to finish this post than with this song.