"Just Passing Through"
Mary Elizabeth Gillilan
At the crest of Scenic Drive, a brick and clapboard house sat on a knoll. Dandelions and crab grass overpowered the rows of strawberries that made up the front yard. Morning glories strangled anything in their path. The house overlooked the Yakima Valley; it was Mama’s dream house, but Mama’s dream clearly was not the garden. It looked as if the only gardener had been God, who after throwing the seeds out had gone onto shape the valley and dry, mud foothills of this eastern Washington town. That is if you believed in God. I had a problem believing in God. I was fourteen. The year was 1964, and I was just beginning the eighth grade.
Each school day I walked to the bus stop in front of Diana Crane’s house. We were in the same grade at Wide Hollow School. In back of the stop was an apple orchard, and on early mornings the golden delicious apples provided breakfast from September until harvest.
I yawned at myself in the mirror. My braces shone but my face bore even brighter red pimples. When I put on my glasses my hair looked worse than I thought. I tried combing it again, but ugly is ugly. God, I was going to be late; I just knew it, and what difference did it make if I looked like a piece of crap or not? The mirror sat on a stained birch desk that had been Granddad’s. My little room’s window looked into the garage. My bed came from the Salvation Army; no one liked the lumpy bed but me. The springs sprang in just the right places and fit me as if it were made to order.
The thought of school made my stomach cramp. September 15th, school only in its second week, and already it filled me with an all too familiar dread. Co-ed P.E. Right now we played co-ed baseball with that stupid snot, Gary Neubaurer.
“Catch the ball Mary, you moron. Hey Retard …” and the ball sailed on overhead from my place in center field. As I looked at myself in the mirror, it seemed that today would be a whole lot like the day before.
“Didn’t Gary know any word other than retard?”
I had one strong arm and one weak arm – one weak leg and one strong leg. I couldn’t protect myself because the right hand couldn’t make the cup necessary for catching the ball, and I couldn’t run fast enough to get out of the way. I hated being laughed at because of my clumsiness. I hated my body. I hated being The Retard ; especially since I tried to keep my cerebral palsy a secret. I hated the words “cerebral palsy.”
I looked back at my bed and wanted to crawl back inside, but the clock left no more time for hesitation – I had five more minutes until the bus pulled up down the road. I left the house quietly so as not to wake up my sleeping parents and hoped there would be enough time to grab an apple at the stop.
“Late again, Mary?”
“Yeah, my alarm didn’t go off.”
Diana started eating her stolen apple.
“You want a bite?”
I knew Diana only meant one bite, and the apple was so good.
“They must have smudged last night – did you see all the black haze in the valley?”
I handed the apple back.
“I’m glad they don’t have to do it up here, wouldn’t that be gross? Bad enough at school,” Diana said.
“They use smudge pots to keep the trees warm when it freezes. They burn old tires, too. We’re up higher; you’d think it would be colder yet they don’t use pots up here.”
The bus came and we got on and I tattled on, “They’ll pick the apples pretty soon then they’ll be all done…”
Diana yawned and looked out the window.
“God, Mary everybody knows that. Why do you have to be such a know-it-all?”
I hated it when I said the obvious, and I was always doing it. I did wonder what the growers burned in the black pots that lined evenly with the trees in the immaculately tended apple orchards. I doubted Diana knew, and if I asked her a question that she did not know, it would just piss her off. For awhile I just stared down the aisle of the bus, as it jolted to stops and let more kids on. The bus driver had the radio on, and Bobby Vinton sang about Blue Velvet something.
“Hope I get to be pitcher,” Diana said.
“I’m really good, and Miss Heid said she’d let me.”
“Yeah, guess so,” I muttered.
School was still four miles away and I did not have to live it until I got there. I looked at the orchards and wanted to walk among the round red apples and get lost in the black fog and pass through to the other side.
“What do you want to play?” Diana asked.
“What position do you want to play?”
“Anything but center,” I said in a controlled effort to make my voice light.
“Oh, don’t be a baby … if you didn’t run away from the ball every time it came to you…”
The bus pulled into the parking lot of Wide Hollow School. I wished I was the bus driver: Mr. McCorkindale knew what he was doing. After he got everyone to school he could just walk away – away from the cold morning, the noise and that god-awful brick building.
The school’s playground was immense. The baseball diamond was in the north portion clear out by the fence separating the school from the pig farm next door. Up closer to the building were the swings and slides; parallel bars and other equipment. The most threatening to me was the Ocean Wave. A series of ropes and pulleys atop the circus tent shaped ride controlled its motion. The children climbed onto the flat board seats and pushed off with their feet. A lot of the children stood on the seats and leaned into the ropes as the ocean wave undulated as high and fast as the children wanted. One time in second grade I stood on the seat like the other kids, but I lost my balance and my right foot slipped. I fell at the high point of the wave and hung onto the seat. When we swooped down I rolled off in the dirt beneath the Ocean Wave, but I was caught directly under it, and stared at it; too scared to move as it went high again, and then down it came. I rolled to safety and walked away brushing the dirt from my skinned knees.
Inside the school were two long hallways connected by stairs. Every ten days the janitor oiled the floors which made them glisten and kept them slick. No one but me, I thought, noticed how hard it was to walk on such a slippery surface. They all had sure feet and good balance. As I figured it, the floors were like the Ocean Wave and my braces and my pimples – things I had to get through to go to somewhere else.
Like every September morning this year, we went into the locker rooms. While we changed into P.E. clothes, I envisioned Miss Heid in the teacher’s lounge smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. As the buses arrived more girls came into the locker room. Becky, Kay, and Linda were neighbors and always went along together. I sat in front of their lockers and started tying my shoes. My fingers were cold and uncooperative; each loop meant I was that much closer to the playing field. Fear froze my fingertips. I tried to start a conversation with Kay, but the image of the ball chasing me choked off any attempt to speak.
Miss Heid came into the locker room, whistle jammed between her teeth. The piercing sound startled everyone to silence. She read the roll and dismissed us to the field.
“Run, don’t walk.”
I ran behind the other and I could see the boys were already out there. They looked hazy in the black muck created by the smudge.
Catching up to the rest on the diamond, Miss Heid stood by Mr. White, the boys P.E. teacher.
“Will the team captains for today choose their teams? Brad and Gary – come on guys – let’s get started,” Mr. White said after Miss Heid blew the whistle.
I watched the others get chosen, as I had every day. Finally, I stood alone feeling bent and raw inside.
“I don’ wanta take ‘er,” Brad said.
“We had ‘er last time.”
“She can’t do nothin’ right – I’m not takin’ ‘er,” Gary said.
Everyone waited restlessly.
Mr. White finally said, “Mary, you’re on Gary’s team – c’mon, play ball.”
I took my position in center field. Diana had gotten her wish and was pitcher. Gary at first base yelled back at me,
“Ya better catch one today, fumble fingers.”
Brad was the first one up and I knew he was good. I ignored the cramp in my foot as I watched him at the plate. Diana threw the ball and I heard it crack against the bat.
“Right to me,” I whispered, right at me,” and I ran toward the ball but fell as my foot stiffened into a full spasm which ended my split second attempt at courage.
I fell on a rock and bloodied my knee. It was hard for me to stand. Brad laughed his way around second in a slow gallop. Gary ran out to get the ball and made a wild toss to the catcher.
Shaking his head in exaggerated disbelief, Gary yelled, “It’s just not fair – not fair at all.”
As Brad slid into home plate, Miss Heid blew her whistle and jogged out to me.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said doing my best to smile.
“Why don’t you go in and take care of that knee?” Miss Heid said.
A pure burst of relief sprung from my lungs.
“OK if I go to the library after I shower?” I asked.
As I turned my back to the field, I heard the whistle blow and the call for the game to resume. I thought about them playing out there, laughing and cat-calling, and the relief I felt turned into longing to pass through barriers my body would not allow. I was ashamed of my weakness. In the quiet locker room I stared at myself in the mirror.
“It’ll never change, never change,” I said aloud.
I turned on the shower and took off my grass stained clothes. The water felt good. I could cry here – no one would see – no one would hear – no one would ask why – or tease me.
At dinner that night my mother and dad talked about their work that day. Mama worked for a surgeon and Daddy owned a typewriter store. The conversation finally came around to me.
“School was OK,” I said when asked what happened that day, “same ‘ol stuff.”
I tried to change the subject.
“You know in ten years we’ll all be so different, it’d be kinda nice to just press a button and just be there, ya know?”
Daddy leaned back in his chair and looked at me.
“Honey,” he said, “these are the best years of your life, don’t wish them away…”
I wanted to laugh.
“Could I have something to drink?” I asked.
My nostrils flared like they do when I get mad. My dad was more of a moron than I had thought.
“You can have more milk when you finish what you have,” my mother said.
“Well look at that,” I said.
“A full glass and I hadn’t noticed. Jeese, will I ever change?”
My parents laughed. I knew my dad was wrong, he just had to be, but he would never believe me if I told him that. I knew tomorrow there would be baseball. I knew I was not really living:
living was grace and laughter and fun. My head hurt from all I knew.
That night as I pulled the covers tight around my shoulders I let the bed that fit no one else hold my grief. I hoped that if there were truly a God somewhere, he might remember my face. I really didn’t think he would.
I did pass through. With the help of Mrs. Johnson, the librarian, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I discovered the wonderful world of imagination, story-telling, and poetry. I am a teacher and edit a small literary magazine. I lead writers’ groups and although my marriage ended in divorce, I have beautiful adult daughters who remain the blessing in my life. Humor helps in this world of ours, and words heal. As we pass through, we discover that living is all of it, and that courage was something we had all along