Pauline was still in bed at 9am, which was late for her. She had been up for awhile, just lying still. She bent her arm back and propped her pillow up to support her head. She took a deep breath in and out as she moved her legs, like she was making a snow angel, to feel the softness of the sheets on her skin once more before getting up. The heat hadn’t kicked on yet, so she got up quickly and pulled on thick wool socks and then her slippers and robe. With her arms crossed tightly, she peaked out her bedroom window onto people scurrying about bundled up in their winter coats and hats. It was going to be a cold day in San Francisco, only getting up to 35 degrees. Brisk, she would call it. It was to be an unremarkable day. She had no major plans, a good dinner would be the extent of her celebration. She would fight off thinking about what she hadn’t accomplished or become. She would push guilt ridden ideas away of what she should be doing. She sighed deeply looking out at the bleak day. I burst into this world ass backwards with the cord caught ’round my neck, on a day just like today. Kind of fitting it would be cold and gray, she said to herself out loud. Almost killed my dear mother, she repeated, after being told the breach story so many times growing up, she started to find it funny. That made her smile and appreciate her dark sense of humor.
Pauline was turning 60 on this day. Can you believe it? she asked herself, as she shook her head and smiled. Sixty fucking years old! How the hell did that happen? She’d been through a good amount in her life, nothing she would change too much. Sure, she admits to squandering much of her 20’s and 30’s, then sleeping through much of her 50’s but all in all, she would give herself a passing grade. Perhaps a C minus, she considers. Thinking further, she could have focused more. How about focusing on that pile of people you need to apologize to, she thought out loud. Don’t trip on that stack of boxes of mistakes you’ve made lady! Oh Hell, come to think of it, she lived her life with her head up her ass, she realized. Good Lord! she screamed.
And then like your mind tends to do, she drifted off into a daydream. And of all that could have come to mind, she spent the next half an hour recalling a small moment in her life, a mere morsel of the whole shebang, really. As if fitting into an old pair of shoes, her mind slipped into the memory, way back, 5 years old, and the back yard of her first house. And the flood that happened that year. It wasn’t traumatic, nor was there anything particularly incredible about the time. This made her wonder, why do we keep these memories of seemingly uneventful times all wrapped up in a protective coating? Like useless photos on our computers, surely they just take up space on our mental hard drives, she thought. Of what significance is this? And why think of this today, of all things? she asked herself. But she couldn’t help it.
She loved everything about being a little kid. Well, let her tell it now anyway, when she’s standing in the shadowy doorway of old age. Children don’t know how not to live in the present, Pauline now understood. We’re born knowing all that we realize we don’t know later, she thought. Maybe because we’re taught completely separate and unrelated ideas that make us forget or deny this beautiful contentment we’re born with. Pauline lived long enough to know at least that much, that she had at one time already knew all of what she needed to learn. What she longed to know now.
She recalled further, moving into the living room now to lay on her couch, curling her legs up, letting her slippers fall away. In the summertime, back in Indiana, she used to sit in the sun eating the mulberries she handpicked from the bushes in the yard of her childhood home. Careful to pluck only the juiciest, ripest, blackest berries that the birds hadn’t pooped on yet. The ones she could reach from the low hanging branches at least. The really nice berries were much higher, facing the sun on the steepest part of the hill. The birds got first dibs on those, which she figured was fair enough. First, she’d gather the tiny fruit in her palms, then settling on the sufficient amount, she’d stretch her tee shirt to make a cradle for her loot. She was supposed to rinse them under the hose that hung on the side of the house near her mom’s pepper plants. It would always fascinate her how the cool water ran so crystal clear and would keep the shape of the hose as it ran out. She hardly ever waited before stuffing a bunch in her mouth and then deciding it wasn’t necessary to wash them, despite her mother’s concerns. Besides, being outside was like the Western movies she’d watch with her dad. This was the wild, the untapped prairie where she could make her own rules, live off the land and be free. Either way, she’d usually still grab a drink from the hose if only to watch the tube shaped water. Plus, she liked the way the water smelled different from the one inside, like metal and dirt combined. This added to her rustic fantasy.
Pauline loved everything about the memory of those moments. How she used to come out and plop down on the steps that looked down on the yard and out onto the apple trees that lined the creek’s edge. How on one side of the hill, her mother’s slanted garden featured all kinds of blooming flowers and right in the center grew one of Pauline’s favorite treats, a large rhubarb plant. She loved that she knew to cut the giant leaf, that was poisonous, dontcha know, she would tell anyone who’d listen. She knew to peel the red stem like celery unless you wanted to chew on it all day, she’d go on to inform them. She also loved that she was big enough to know to bring out the salt shaker from the kitchen, so she could dip the rhubarb in a little pile she made in the palm of her hand. Most people liked sugar, she was told, but she preferred salt on her fruit, always, and especially with rhubarb. She found some of her odd ways seem to entertain the adults around the neighborhood, so she figured them to be valuable traits and became quite proud of herself, sometimes going out of her way to show off. But most days she stayed quiet and just paid attention. She loved watching things, people and dogs, the birds and flies even. She could watch a yellow jacket do it’s whole rounds until it finally flew away or too high to see. She couldn’t imagine why everyone wasn’t out there catching all this excitement but was fine to keep it all to herself.
Yep, little Pauline’s backyard was well explored terrain and she was satisfied knowing she had somewhat mastered it, as well as the surrounding areas, including her neighbor’s yards that weren’t fenced in. The woods beyond the creek to her right would come in time. She wasn’t ready for that yet. There were bums that lived on mattresses in there that her mother said would like nothing more than a little girl to feast on. Other than that impending nightmare, she conceded, if this was life, watching and listening, learning as you go, she was equipped to handle it.
A mean ‘ol badger lived in a hole just below the Rhubarb plant, so when she went to pick a stem, she had to do it from up top or he might run out and bite her ankles. But because she was as curious as she was afraid, she just had to sneak a peak inside his hole, that was really just an old drain pipe that he made his home, her mom told her. But that didn’t stop her from imagining complete rooms inside with little furniture and rugs. She had to see if he was looking back at her, and he usually was with his beady black eyes, guarding his front door. She was told by her dad that badgers were likely to go completely apeshit on ya, if you messed with them, like the Tasmanian Devil on the cartoon. This, like a lot of facts her father would drop on her, she found both hysterical and confusing. She never knew if he was trying to trick her, as he tended to do when he was drinking beer, which he almost always was, so she took it with a grain of salt. But because she mostly believed him, she tried her hardest not to poke the badger with a stick, even though she found several just the right length and size, should she not be able to resist. She also found it almost impossible not to talk to him. He clearly saw her, so she figured maybe if he knew she only wanted to be friends, he wouldn’t be so tense. After all, she found it was getting to be a little awkward, not talking and living in such close proximity, even if that someone was a dangerous animal. Still, she wanted nothing going apeshit on her, so in time she learned to leave him alone.
There were crawdads in holes by the creek that she would try to fish out by using worms or bugs tied to a string on a stick but she didn’t know what they ate or if they even had a mind to grab at bait like a fish. Matter of fact, she never even seen one up close but knew they were there based on the newly dug holes of wet mud all over the yard. There was a lot to learn and she often wondered how much the red-haired, freckled faced boys that lived across the creek knew of any of it. It seemed like there were 8 of them, all boys, all different heights, but she never spoke to them, nor they to her. Her mom said to stay away, so Pauline figured they were up to no good. Her mom had a good sense about people.
One morning Pauline bolted out of the back door like lightning, throwing it so wide it hit the side of the house, then slammed back shut seconds later. She was in a hurry to see her back yard. There was a major storm the night before, that brought tons of rain and flooded the entire area behind the house. The creek had become a giant lake that rose all night. She tried to stay awake, crawling frequently to the edge of the bed where she could catch a glimpse through her screened bedroom window but all she could see was shades of black, and a faint light bouncing off of something wavy. This is going to be a major flood her mom said, sounding concerned before going to bed, and urged Pauline to do the same.
In the early morning light, she could see the water came up to the last step at the top of the hill. A sight so unbelievably shocking that all she could do was crouch down and stare out onto the water for what seemed like hours. She had so many questions, she couldn’t process them fast enough. Her mother assured her she was in no mood to answer any of them that morning, and warned her not to get close to the edge, as it was very deep. In fact, she didn’t even want Pauline to go back there until it receded but her eager young self begged and promised she would not even touch the water, which she quickly found harder than not poking that badger. After what felt like a lifetime, Pauline quietly slipped off her shoes and dipped both feet in, then sat with her legs fully immersed.
When the water did recede, much of that familiar world she had learned so much about would not return. The apple trees would die and would need to be cut down. One tree collapsed suddenly shortly afterwards on it’s own, causing her mom to consider how it could have crushed little Pauline. Pauline got to spend an entire afternoon examining the entire tree with all it’s branches spread out on the lawn like a fallen giant. The curious Howdy Doody-looking family across the creek would never be seen again as their house was so badly damaged it needed to be torn down and hauled away. She would eventually use it’s leftover concrete foundation as a pretend stage to practice her pretend tap dancing skills. The garden on the hill washed away and her mom would not replant flowers after that, only succulents that she called rumors because of the way they spread, her mom told her. The lush vibrant green grass was replaced with dark brown, soggy mush that stayed that way for a long time. The creek now had stuff in it, like a tricycle and gasoline cans, odd things that eventually turned the same color as it’s muddy basin. Her mom said the badger most likely moved away before the water hit but her dad said oh no, he drowwwwwned. Dead and gooooone! he said laughing.
But as a kid she never even knew to worry about the repercussions of the flood, or what might come after. She only enjoyed the water and each day as it receded, she marveled at the changes that brought. She didn’t miss her neighbors. Her mom called their shack an eyesore. Even though she also made a point to say she was sad for their loss, her mom was glad to be rid of that house full of lanky boys. All they did was stare with those big dumb grins, she said. With the house and trees gone, Pauline was able to notice the homes on the other side of the street, that were also built on a hill with steps leading up to their front porches. She had a bigger vantage point now is how she viewed it, if she even thought of it back then at all.