Mrs. Thompson is a tall brunette in a Pixie cut with paper pale skin. Her nose reminds me of the witch in the Wizard of Oz. Spidery blue veins creep out the bottom of her big-hipped Bermuda shorts. If she didn’t smile at me the way she does, I might even be afraid of her. But there is a mahogany music box on the bookcase in the corner of her living room. Mrs. Thompson lets me wind it up. It’s the size and shape of my dad’s fishing tackle case with a silver crank on the side. If you open the top, you can see the silver cylinder with teeny tiny teeth that plink out a melody like fairies singing.
It’s a really hot day, and I know her daughter, Helen, won’t mind if I come over to swing on her swing even if I don’t play with her. The Thompson’s swing won’t pull out of the ground or threaten to tip over if you go high. It’s not a baby swing set. Helen’s swing is big and wooden and hung between two massive oaks. Swinging one way, I can see over the fence into the Diffendorf’s garden full of squash vines and tomato stakes. Facing the other way, its long hemp ropes, suspend me high above the overgrown lilacs in the woodsy part of the yard. I can see the narrow stone path that winds through pachysandra and moss, through leggy forsythias, bee-covered honeysuckles, and red maple saplings. I can see all the way to the narrow swath of lawn lined with evergreens that hides our fort from the road.
Today, while I swing, Helen is finishing up a project in her garage. It’s a go-cart made from a piece of splintery plywood on two axles mounted with old lawn mower tires. The slanting seat back is made out of a smaller piece of splintery plywood braced by a chunk of two by four. High on the swing, I spy Linda and Laura peddling over. I jump off at the height of the arc and float down to join them. Linda and Laura park their bikes in the other side of the garage, and Helen demonstrates how to steer her masterpiece by pulling the rope secured on either side of the front axles. Laura hops on and Helen pushes the cart along the level driveway. Laura weaves a serpentine trail until we all cross the road. Laura gets out so Helen can pull the empty cart up the Morrison’s steep drive directly opposite. It’s only fair that Helen gets the maiden voyage, but I’m not surprised when Laura plops back into the driver’s seat. Before anyone can argue, she begins to roll faster and faster down the hill. Westholm is not a busy street, but it is a through street, part of the school bus route through the neighborhood. A car appears. A beige Wagonaire. Brakes screech. Laura’s legs fly off the splintery plywood, and her dirty white Keds skid across bumpy blacktop. She pulls the rope violently to the right. The cart steers perfectly into the soft grass of the drainage ditch and lurches to a stop. Behind the wheel is Mrs. White, the orthodontist’s wife and mother of seven little Whites littered throughout the Wagonaire. Before she speeds away, she shakes her finger out the window, telling us someone could have been killed. We are irresponsible. She’s going to call our mothers. With a child’s immortality all we hear is blah, blah, blah. With the thrill of survival still in our blood, we laugh our heads off and park the go-cart in the garage until another day. Helen points out that there is a brake on the cart, another chunk of two by four bolted to the left side of the chassis. If you pull it backwards, like you’re supposed to, she says, it will skid against the pavement instead of your sneakers. But no one is really listening.
We head into the kitchen for a snack. Mrs. Thompson is standing at the sink. Before we can utter there’s nothing to do, she begins to teach us a secret language—Egg Latin. Over Pecan Sandies and milk, she explains how you put the sound of egg in front of every vowel sound in a word. She writes examples on the back of a Better Homes and Gardens. My name becomes Egg-Ann. Linda becomes Legg-in-degg-a. Laura is Legg-aur-egg-a. Helen is Hegg-e-llegg-en. We all begin to jabber in Egg-egg Legg-a-tegg-in.
In our new secret language Mrs. Thompson says when Linda grows up she will be gorgeous. We listen in rapt attention as if she’s not only a teacher testing our understanding, but a fortune teller. Laura will be pregg-e-ttegg-y. I will be cegg-ute. Silent e is always silent. Helen will be stegg-u-nnegg-ing. Helen has a tangled, dirt blonde ponytail that hangs to her waist. Her knees and fingernails are black with grease. Her hands are covered with cuts. A slim scar runs down a nose like her mother’s. Her eyes are the color of a bull frog. Is stunning another word for beautiful or different? Or both? Even as a nine year old I know there’s nobody quite like Helen, who mostly built our tree fort in the woods by Balltown Rd. She’s the one who patched the plastic swimming pool we found in Lupe’s swamp, so we could use it as a boat to catch tadpoles. She’s the one who taught me to ski at the municipal golf course. At ten I want to be gorgeous and powerful like Linda and Laura. It never occurs to me that I am created to be a unique individual.
Looking back, Helen and her mother were stunning weirdos. Leonarda Da Vinci growing up in suburbia and the Mona Lisa with her arresting smile. As a youngster, different was bad. But if being different means swinging high on life’s pendulum, able to discern the narrow path, and able always to hear the music of the fairies, then I want always to be degg-i-ffegg-er-egg-ent!