When I was growing up in Baltimore, there was a little deaf girl in my neighborhood. She was struck by a car and killed. She wasn’t one of the kids my friends and I played with, but we all knew her. We saw her every day. That happened a lot when I was young, someone would be hit by a car. Seems it happened so often, it was as if people didn’t realize that a car could hit you, let alone kill you.
Anyway, this girl couldn’t have been any more than eleven or twelve years old. None of us kids had ever even been to a funeral or experienced the death of a family member, as yet. It stunned us; the death of someone so close to our own age; someone who was there one day and gone the next.
A wake was held in the little girl’s home. Her folks had her casket laid out in their living room. People came from all over the surrounding neighborhoods to pay their respects, or to be nosey. A lined formed outside of her parent’s house and half way up the 2100th block of Wedgewood St.
My friends and I cajoled and debated each other, until we finally got up the courage to go in and see the little deaf girl’s body.
“You going in?”
“I’m not going in.”
“Are you going?”
“Heck naw, I ain’t going in there.”
“I ain’t scared.”
“Yes you are.”
“Come on, let’s all go.”
We took our place in the line that formed outside the girl’s house. The line moved slowly, but the closer we got to her front door, the more the adrenaline raced in our young bodies. Not one of us ten to twelve-year-olds had a clue what to expect once we entered the girl’s house. Our mothers, had they known what we were up to, would probably have forbidden us to go; or would have, at least, offered us some explanation as to what, exactly, a wake was and how we should conduct ourselves. Knowing we were probably up to more of our usual mischief, the former is more likely –they would have forbidden us to go.
We moved down the block two or three small steps closer at a time. Me, Valeria and Moak, her little brother; Eric and Sissy and Debbie and Karen. The line kept inching forward like some sort of direful march. We were at the steps, then we were on the steps, then we were at the door. We got quieter. The pupils of our bright young eyes were open to full blast with anticipation. We had no idea what to expect once inside.
Now we were in the foyer, then we were in the hallway, and then, we were right there at the door of the parlor where the little deaf girl’s body lay. The wiggling and the playfully nudging each other forward had stopped. We were all trying to muster up our courage and compose ourselves as we realized, like it suddenly hit us from the bowels of reality…we were about to see a dead body.
The little deaf girl’s family and friends were seated around the room. There was the sound of crying and sobbing over the soft sound of organ music. My mouth went dry. The air seemed thick and dusty. I felt the urge to run. What was I doing in there? I took one more little scooting step forward and there was the casket. I was six paces away from being directly in front of it… right beside it. Six paces from staring straight into the face of a dead girl.
I stood there in the line with my eyes fixed straight ahead on the casket. I could see her now, laying there still, her light reddish-brown hair all in curls around her face. Someone had put old lady makeup on her, I thought. It looked like the makeup my mother’s Aunt Sylvia wore when she came to visit, all powdery and thick.
Aunt Sylvia smelled very good. I liked to let her hug me and get up close to her and smell her perfume and powdery makeup. Aunt Sylvia, with her ruby red lipstick, those thick, black drawn-on eyebrows and eyelashes curling up, and her thin mustache that, somehow, did not take one thing away from her “ladyishness”.
There was no perfume smell here. There was only the flat smell of disinfectant and vanilla permeating the room, a soft, dusty scent.
The little dead girl was wearing a beautiful, pink, chiffon dress. I stood there. I could not move. I just knew she was about to turn her head toward me and say to me… “You never played with me. What are you doing in here?” I was petrified. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t turn around. My eyes darted around the room. Someone pushed me along just a little and, just as sure as it was the very last thing I wanted to do, a giggle shot up out of my stomach and escaped through my lips. I couldn’t believe it.
I looked around quickly to see how many people would be looking at me with utter disgust on their faces. No one was looking at me. I put my hand up to my mouth just as a smile broke onto on my face. “Stop it! Stop it!” I thought wildly to myself. “There’s nothing funny here. Why are you laughing? You evil, evil girl.” The urge was overwhelming. I stole a glance back at my friends. None of them were laughing. None of them were looking at me. They all had their eyes fixed on the casket with the little dead deaf girl inside. Sissy was even crying. “Why is she crying?” I thought. “We didn’t even play with her.” And then I remembered that that was exactly what the little dead deaf girl had turned and asked me. Another chuckle escaped my lips.
This time a few people turned to look at me and I quickly converted my chuckle into what I thought was a convincing sounding cough. On the inside I was having a hysterical fit. On the outside I probably looked like someone having a hysterical fit on the inside. When finally I was standing directly in front of the casket, I was so completely employed with trying not to laugh out loud that I hardly saw a thing.
Couldn’t this line move any faster? I wanted so badly out of that house. I turned to go and caught the eyes of the little girl’s mother. Her eyes were tired, red and puffy; filled with sadness and tears. I pushed past the people in front of me, through the parlor and burst outside into the sunlight and fresh air. I scurried down the front steps of that house like a little rat and ran up the street to the steps at the corner of Smallwood and Clifton –“Big Finger’s Steps”, so named by us kids, because the man who lived there had huge hands, and I waited for my friends who weren’t far behind.
One by one, we re-gathered at our usual spot for conferencing. We all reported on our experience and then harangued each other for whatever each of our experiences had been. Then we all sat there in silence for a record five minutes, which was a miracle in itself.
Adrenaline is a funny thing.
– 30 –