Maybe she was a kid. Maybe she wasn't quite housebroken. Maybe she was playing outside one summer afternoon with a couple of older cousins who were. Maybe they got deeply involved in a game where she was the baby and they were taking care of her. Maybe this involved cooing and being pushed in a wagon and having bows tied into her slippery, nonexistent hair. Maybe when the moment came that the baby should have gotten up out of the wagon and excused herself to go indoors and use the facilities, the baby decided instead to really get into her role. Maybe she wet her pants.
It's possible the oldest of the older cousins was 9, and possible that the youngest of the older cousins was 7. It's possible that the 9-year-old wore a fashion-conscious sherbet-orange skirt and a ruffled midriff top, making her seem even more sophisticated than her actual years, and possible that the other one wore a sleeveless white blouse, gray pleated shorts, and glasses with light blue frames, making her seem like a 7-year-old teacher. It's possible that they were bored, stuck at somebody else's house for the afternoon with nothing to play with except a little kid who had just sat there and peed while they were petting her, like a puppy. It's possible that they abandoned playing mothers then, to go sit on the stoop and squint into the summer sunlight, waiting to have their pictures taken so they could be seen many years later as they looked that day, hugging their knees, silently sharing their pop-bead wardrobe, one wearing the bracelet, the other wearing the necklace.
Perhaps the baby who wasn't a baby climbed up on a metal milk crate like they used to have back then and peered through the back window at her mother and her aunt. Perhaps her mother was sitting at the kitchen table with her head stuck through a plastic tablecloth, drinking coffee from one of the pink Melmac cups that would outlast all the people in this story, and all the people reading this story. Perhaps the mother was smoking a cigarette and was holding it out every so often so that the aunt, who was wearing plastic gloves and mixing up a vat of hair dye, could take drags off it. Perhaps the flat bottle of liquor that the mother and this particular aunt favored was sitting on the table. Perhaps they had dosed their coffee with it, in order not to "kill the children." Perhaps just beyond them was the small, neat living room, with its chunky green furniture and its cabbage-rose draperies closed against the sun. Perhaps all the way through, nearly to the front door, was their telephone table, on which sat the heavy black telephone with a dial that the kid in soggy shorts standing on the metal milk box could barely even move. Perhaps the mother herself resorted to using a stubby pencil to dial this phone, which suddenly rang out in the tiny house, a loud, old-fashioned sound, startling everyone and causing the milk box to wobble and the mother, who was getting her head painted dark brown, to say "Shit" in a loud voice.
It's likely then that the tipped milk box pitched its rider onto the dirt by the back door, embedding a piece of gravel in her right knee, leaving a pale blue O-shaped spot that, along with two accommodating moles, would form what she would ever after think of as that knee's stricken face. It's likely as well that the mother, wearing her plastic tablecloth poncho, walked through the living room with its one dramatic dark green wall to the telephone. Just as likely is that the aunt stayed where she was, setting down the bowl of dye and whatever she was applying it with, which is why while the mother was picking up the phone and saying hello and then listening to what the caller had to say, the aunt was peeling off the gloves and stepping out onto the back stoop to pick up the kid who had fallen onto a sharp rock and was wailing. It's likely the aunt was confused for a long moment that afternoon, about why when she got the soggy child with the bloody knee calmed down, she still heard crying.
Or did she? Maybe on those hot summer afternoons, when coffee made women languid, when the scent of trellis roses mixed with the scent of ammonia, when girls pretended they were mothers while mother pretended something else entirely, perhaps anything could happen.
But then again, it's maybe possible, perhaps likely, that it never did.
Jo Ann Beard is the author of The Boys of My Youth, a collection of autobiographical essays, and other works of fiction and nonfiction. She has received fellowships in nonfiction writing from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, December 8, 2013