A Segment of an EssayPosted: March 15, 2010
… My youth group follows Route 66 toward a Baptist conference center in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. For a week, we sing fun songs like “I love the mountains, I love the rolling hills, I love the flowers . . . .” We go to classes and get preached to, we stroll through the prayer gardens, and we have free time for organized games and sight-seeing in Santa Fe. At every meal in the giant dining hall kids from every state represented stand and sing their state song. When it is our turn, we stand up and sing: Go Mississippi, keep rolling along; go Mississippi, you cannot go wrong; go Mississippi, we’re singing your song. M-I-S—S-I-S—S-I-P-P-I. There aren’t many people from Mississippi there, and we sound weak. Some people just mouth the words. Like me. I sit at a big round table with all Texas people because I have met a boy there from Waco and I stay with his youth group the entire week and there’s nobody near me singing about Mississippi. When it is my table’s turn to sing, over half the hall stands and shouts in thundering unison, The eyes of Texas are upon you till Gabriel blows his horn. I want to be a part of this and own this much pride in where I’m from. These kids are different from the kids in my hometown. They had liked President Kennedy and like the now-President Johnson. But we have some things in common. We snicker in Bible study at a girl sitting down the pew who has never shaved her legs and has long curly hair on the bare calves sticking out from her pastel dress. We hike to the top of Old Baldy where my new friend Sandi’s boyfriend had gone the day before and spelled out her name in big rocks. We all stay in Thunderbird Lodge, like a motel, and we sneak out of our rooms late at night and visit with kids from Waco and Big D, dodging “Marshall Dillon” who drives an old car and shines a spotlight along the walkways and doorways of the three lodge buildings, making sure we are safe in our own rooms and not out up to no good.
On our return trip home, the kids in my group do what we do best—play foolish tricks on some poor unsuspecting victim among our own kind. The first night out, I take a muscle relaxer because my back hurts from an old swimming accident and it makes me fall asleep. The girls I room with fill the motel’s ice bucket with cold water and stick my hand down in it because they think it will make me pee in the bed. I wake up and they are laughing and hustling to get more ice to keep the water cold, and I realize it isn’t fun to be singled out on a prank. I am usually the one thinking up the dirty deeds.
The last day out it is Billy who is the butt of the joke.
It is hot August, and the old green rattletrap bus bounces over the east-west two-lane highway somewhere in rural Arkansas. All the windows are down and hot air is rushing in, blowing our hair, cooling the sweat on our faces. Billy is lulled to a deep sleep with his head nudged in the corner between the vinyl bus seat and the window frame, his mouth wide open. The rest of us have yelled a chorus of a hundred bottles of beer on the wall down to forty-five bottles of beer, and we are tired of singing. Billy is too much to resist.
A few girls pull out train cases and makeup bags and get to work. I am on the periphery of this action, but stick my head in to coach. We apply round red circles of rouge to his cheeks, using a light touch so as not to waken him. We apply the brown of a stubby Maybelline pencil to his brows, and the line zigs and zags because of the bumpy bus. Next we lavish on creamy sky-blue eye shadow from lashes to brows. Then comes lots of red lipstick. We cover him with color. Then we let on nothing, as the bus rocks and rolls into a city parking lot and comes to a stop. Billy awakens, and we all disembark for lunch at a nice restaurant. We walk across hot concrete, biting our lips to keep from laughing, pointing our faces the other way so he won’t see us when we can’t help but burst out. We try not to look at Billy so we won’t give it way. We don’t want him to suspect that he is any different.
The restaurant is packed with people on their lunch hour, and Billy’s clown face draws some stares. Right off, he goes to the bathroom upstairs. We are all downstairs waiting to be seated, huddled in a tight group because we know it’s bound to happen, and he will explode, and sure enough, we soon realize that somewhere in the bathroom he has discovered a mirror. We hear loud stomping and slamming and shouting coming from up there, and then Billy appears at the top of the stairs, grabs the railing and looks down at us, and yells over the hubbub in the busy crowded place: WHO DONE IT? WHO DONE IT?
And here comes Billy charging down the stairs with faded color smeared all over him, color he has tried to wipe and wash away.
We all have the color on our hands.
Billy, a good sport, 2/12/1948 — 3/13/2010