Some days are just the rise and fall of the sun. Others form you. You remember those, sometimes start to finish. I don’t remember what I had for breakfast that morning—probably Lucky Charms, the ultimate favorite of my eight-year-old self—but I remember the lizard. Black with yellow speckles and a rich blue tail, turned over on his side in death, cooking under the August heat on the school playground. He was beautiful. I cradled him in my palm and stroked his back.
“Eeewww!” Rhonda Fenster cried, startling me. “Is that thing dead?”
“Yeah, but ain’t he pretty?” I said, a giant grin tugging at my cheeks as I held him out.
“Eugh!” said Rhonda, her button nose wrinkled. The two friends flanking her shrank back with similar noises. Rhonda swished her long hair over her shoulder and called to the playground, “Penny the Pirate likes to play with dead things!”
The nickname, a testament to the dark teardrop birthmark that encompasses my left eye, made me shrink. Every girl in my class—all Rhonda’s friends—snapped to attention, even the two dangling from the monkey bars, and created a symphony of ‘eeewwwwws’.
“There’s something wrong with you, Penny Baker,” said Rhonda with all the authority of a ticked off soccer mom, complete with the pursed lips, raised eyebrow, and miniscule movement of the head that seemed to say, “That’s right, and I’m not sorry I said it.”
The words replayed for the rest of the school day. I pondered them on the bus ride home. They still echoed in my skull as I rode bikes with Lydia to Conner’s house in Renner’s Farms, one neighborhood over.
I remember an epic splash fight in the Renner’s Farms community pool. I remember Conner showing off his dive and thinking, “He looks like one-a them pelicans.” When I told him that he laughed, shaking water from his poofy red hair like a lion tossing its mane.
“You look like a duck,” he said. He drawled ‘like’ so it became ‘lack.’ He could barely contain himself when he added, “Penny Quacker.”
I found this play on my last name ludicrously funny. The poolside cement was warm beneath my back as I collapsed and kicked my feet up in the air, rolling at the image of myself with a giant orange bill and white feathers.
“That’s stupid,” said Lydia, leaning back on her towel in a chair in a tankini the color of strawberry ice cream.
Conner and I stopped laughing and looked at each other. He tolerated Lydia because I tolerated her. I tolerated her because she was the only kid in my neighborhood, meaning the only kid I was allowed to play with after 5pm, when Momma wanted me within sight of the kitchen window. She tolerated me because I was friends with Conner, and Conner lived in the nice neighborhood with a playground and a pool where you needed a key card. Lydia and I’s neighborhood was full of old folks who’d been there since the ceremonial ribbon was cut. My Mamaw included.
“You’re stupid,” said Conner.
Lydia stuck out her tongue.
I remember proposing we play Blind Tag on the playground jungle gym—a precarious game that would likely lead to death and/or serious fractures if played by adults. The person who was “it” closed their eyes (or was blindfolded, if you had a serial cheater on your hands) and wandered around the mix of plastic and metal stairs, bars, and slides, groping for a victim. I wanted to mix things up that day by pretending the person who was it was actually a zombie with its eyes poked out, looking for brains. My momma would’ve about died had she heard the glee in my voice.
We decided to race, tennis shoes pulled over wet, sockless feet, damp hair whipping our faces like willow switches, bathing suits chafing. We’d barely made it out of the pool gate before Conner, in the lead, stopped dead and about clotheslined us.
“Gee whiz!” he said before I could yell at him.
I followed his pointed finger to the hundred dollar bill trapped beneath his shoe.
“We’re rich!” squealed Lydia, hopping like she had on moon shoes.
“What’s on it?” said Conner, squinting down at the bill, too awed to actually reach down and grab it.
I bent down for a better look. “Aw man. I gotta go!”
I was already across the street and headed for the hedge that served as a shortcut between my neighborhood and Conner’s before I realized I probably should have retrieved the bill. I was about to turn back when I saw another one caught in the monkey grass lining a driveway further up the street. I raced for it as Conner called, “Where in the heck are you goin’?”
I snatched up the bill and examined the front. Ben Franklin had a moustache drawn in pink pen. Mamaw. The Ben under Conner’s foot had had googly eyes. I changed course and headed up the street through Renner’s Farms instead of shoving through the hedge to my neighborhood. Conner called after me again.
I spared him a look over my shoulder and yelled, “I gotta catch Mamaw!”
I didn’t hear what Lydia yelled back. I was on a mission. I was an explorer, following a mysterious trail in search of a beautiful genie who could grant me three wishes. I pretended I had one of those big khaki hats that look like turtle shells or upside down serving bowls.
A few houses up, I saw another bill about to be blown into a drain. I grabbed it and examined it closely, pretending I had a magnifying glass. Another hundred. This Ben had a top hat.
I wasn’t sure why Mamaw was dropping her money like Hansel leaving bread crumbs, and I had only the vaguest idea why that fact made me scared. It seemed to classify as “kooky,” and my momma had threatened that the next time Mamaw went kooky, she’d put her in a home.
“This is her home,” I’d said. “She doesn’t need another.”
“No, honey, I mean a nursing home. It’s where old people go when they stop being able to take care of themselves. They have nice nurses to look after them, and lots of new friends their age to spend time with.”
“But where will we live? Will we go to the nurses’ house, too?”
“No, honey, we’ll live here.”
I didn’t see the sense in putting Mamaw in a new home while we stayed in hers. We’d moved in after Daddy died. My memories of him were mirages, shimmering at a distance. Blurry but exhilarating. He was a soldier. When Conner and I played war, I pretended I was Daddy.
Mamaw was Daddy’s momma, and she was my favorite person in the whole wide world. I didn’t want her to live in a new home. So I ran. A fifty hitched up against the stump of a magnolia tree led me down a new street. A few houses down, a twenty caught on the breeze fluttered past my face. Jefferson was blowing on a bubble pipe. I chased after the bill and added it to the wadded collection clenched in my fist.
One more twenty later, I caught sight of her, her walk impeded by the clunky medical boot on her right foot. She’d fractured a small bone in a skiing tumble in Colorado last month, where she’d gone with her church group.
“Mamaw! Wait up!”
She turned with her painted lips lifted in the special smile she saved for me.
“What are you doin’ out here, darlin’?” she said, opening her arms for me.
I smashed into her, her large “tatas” (as she called them), brushing the top of my wet head. If she was upset that I soaked her leopard print leggings and designer blouse, she didn’t show it.
“Why’re you throwin’ out money?” I said, shaking the bills at her.
“Why not?” said Mamaw throwing up her hands with a laugh.
“Don’t you want to keep it?”
“Nope. Can’t take it with you, honey.”
“Huh? Take it where? Where are you going?” I had a horrible thought that perhaps Momma had already caught Mamaw and was making her move to the nursing home.
“Nowhere today, sweetie.”
“So why are you leaving it everywhere?”
“Well, Mayci Donovan across the street just had a hip replacement, and it was real expensive,” said Mamaw, bending down to my eyelevel with a small grunt. “So, I decided to give her a little surprise present in her mailbox, since the Lord blessed me with that money your Grandpa worked for and saved all his life. You have to give as you have been given, Penny. Remember that.”
I nodded, not really sure what it meant but thinking I’d have to give Conner a popsicle since he’d given me one yesterday.
“And when I was stuffing those bills in her mailbox,” said Mamaw, her blue eyes sparkling like a lagoon under the noontime sun, “I thought, I’m sure there’s plenty of people in this neighborhood who could do with a nice surprise.”
It was true. Our neighborhood was as old as the people in it, and houses were small (some only two rooms) and in disrepair. My mom often complained that she didn’t understand why Mamaw hung around when she didn’t have to, but Mamaw always said she’d leave the house that Pappi had built for her in a coffin, and that was it.
“When I was done in our neighborhood, I thought, ‘There’s probably some kiddies over in Renner’s Farms who’d like a little surprise, too.’ So, here I am.” She laughed that infectious laugh, and a smile played at my mouth.
I looked at the bills in my fist and wanted to ask if I could help her stash them back around town, but instead I said, “Momma’s gonna think it’s kooky if she finds out.”
“Oh, that don’t bother me, darlin’,” said Mamaw with a flippant wave. “People been callin’ me batty and Cuckoo Kate my whole life.”
I hung my head. “The kids at school call me Pirate Penny.” I felt tears I couldn’t explain. “Because of my…” I pointed to the birthmark. “And today, they laughed at me and called me gross ‘cause I picked up a dead lizard.” My voice grew harder and I stamped my foot. “But he was pretty, not gross.”
“Come here, girl,” said Mamaw, pulling me down to sit on the edge of the sidewalk with her. She hugged me tight to her bosom. “People say ugly things when they’re intimidated.”
“What’s that mean?”
“When they feel scared or threatened.”
“Oh. But I ain’t scary.”
Mamaw laughed again. “To some people you are, because you’re not afraid to just be you. Don’t you let ‘em change that, honey. Besides, what’s so bad about being Pirate Penny? That sounds pretty darn cool to me.”
I thought about it a moment and grinned. “Yeah! I could be the captain and hunt treasure!”
“Exactly!” She ran a bedazzled finger down my cheek.
“Are people scared of you, Mamaw?”
She threw her head back in a shriek of joy. “Oh, you bet, honey. Used to bother me a little, when I was a kid. Then I realized it was silly to want everybody to like me, especially when I didn’t even like them.” She laughed again and gently pulled my chin up so I looked her right in the eye. “Being liked is overrated, Penny. The people that matter will like you the way you are. And you know what else is overrated?”
“What?” I said, trying to memorize what she said. Her words had awoken a pleasant sensation in my gut, like warm soup running down your throat. I wanted to replay them later, think on them, put them together like a puzzle.
“Being a lady,” she said, wrinkling her nose in a silly look of distaste that made me giggle. “Be loud, Penny. Be wild. Don’t smile at everybody just because you think you should. If the rules don’t make sense to you, break ‘em.” She paused and pointed a finger at my nose. “Don’t tell your Momma I said that, though.”
I giggled again and crossed my heart.
“Most important of all,” she said, taking my face in both her hands, “you dream up the best you that you can imagine in that bright little noggin of yours, and be her.”
I nodded wisely, and sat there next to her, thinking. The best me I could think of was a super soldier spy who played guitar and rescued puppies and knew karate and went on adventures in the jungle and then wrote books about it all.
I’ve been everything except the spy … as far as anybody knows.