Your comments and feedback on this work in progress are welcome. This excerpt is from a historical fiction about my seven generation Chinese-American family.
This Flexie was varnished pine, with metal wheels like the kind on roller skates. Roller skates in the 50’s were strap-on, fitting over shoes like a brace, making Mona walk like she had polio before she got the knack of sliding on the clanking steel wheels. Flexies had roller skate wheels and handles at the head for steering. To stop or slow down, the passengers had to lower their legs and drag their feet on the sidewalk. It was stupendously unsafe. That element of serious danger should things go wrong made it especially attractive.
The Flexie belonged to one of the neighbors and the boys on the street used to hog it every weekend. Girls were allowed to ride but not to drive it if a boy was present. So one afternoon when there were no boys around, four neighbor girls piled onto the Flexie and took turns being in front.
The best part about a Flexie ride on Haddon Road was the curve at the bottom of the hill. Haddon Road meandered away from Park Avenue, and like a lazy stream it gently bent this way and that until the straight ascent up the hill. So the bottom of the hill wasn’t a corner that angled off 90 degrees. It swerved slightly to the right and if the Flexie had enough steam, you could travel down the curving sidewalk almost to Park Avenue until the wooden sled lost momentum. It was almost as good as a roller coaster.
There were two big girls and Sandy McGregor riding the Flexie on that afternoon. Sandy was small and even skinnier than Mona, but being Scotch-Irish Catholic with a little Polish on her mother’s side made her and her siblings tough enough to spit nails. She got to be in front after the two big girls had their turns, and then it was Mona’s turn to drive.
The biggest big kid sat behind Mona. She could feel the girl’s meaty weight behind her, beefy knees pressed against Mona’s small back. If gravity was going to propel the sled, Mona could sense the Flexie was going to hurtle like a cannonball from all that weight behind her. The other big kid sat behind the biggest big kid, and then Sandy at the end, and even though Sandy didn’t weigh anymore than a dandelion puffball, Mona could feel the density of bodies behind her. They were gonna go fast.
“You ready?” one of the big girls shouted. “Yeah, yeah,” the girls on the Flexie all agreed. Mona did not think she was ever going to be ready for imminent death, but she swallowed, took a breath, and yelled “Now!” The girls behind her shoved their shoes against the pavement to get going and then lifted their feet onto the wooden slats.
A snowball rolling down a snowy bank might start out pebble sized but can grow to a boulder before it stops. As Mona raced down Haddon Road, the snowball in her imagination that indicated the speed they were going grew to gigantic dimensions, and all she could see was the telephone pole at the bottom of the street that this monstrous snowball would collide with, exploding into a billion bits. She did not even consider tugging on the rope clenched in her fists to turn it away from the oncoming pole. That immovable wooden structure was the final destination of this ride. She closed her eyes.
The impact sent Sandy McGregor flying onto Mrs. Rosen’s carefully manicured lawn. The two big girls rammed into one another, screaming and wailing in terror. “My widget! My widget!” the biggest girl moaned as she held her groin and ran up the steps to her house. The other two girls were crying and running back to their houses. Mona rolled off the Flexie and hobbled to her feet. Her right knee had slammed into the telephone pole and it was ablaze with pain. By the time she got to her house the other girls had disappeared into theirs. The Flexie stayed jammed against the pole overnight until a father came out to retrieve it the next day.
“What have you been doing?” Mona’s grandmother, Peacock, demanded as the five-year-old limped into the house.
“Playing,” Mona managed to rasp out. She made it to the bedroom she shared with her brother and two cousins and fell onto the bed. She peeled her pants off her throbbing knee and fell asleep immediately. Her mother calling her to dinner woke her up.
“Why are you in your underpants?” her cousin Harry asked. “What happened to your knee?”
Mona groaned when she saw the crusted brown scab that covered the left side of her knee. She pulled on a pair of capri pants that were loose enough not to make the knee start bleeding again and groggily took her place at the kitchen table, jammed in between the five other kids and six adults.
“Stop shaking the table,” Mona’s father grumbled at her. Mona’s knee had begun quivering uncontrollably, and as she was sitting next to a table leg, her shaking leg made the whole table vibrate. The dishes of ginjee yook and scallion beef rattled on the tabletop.
“Stop shaking!” Mona’s father demanded.
“I can’t,” Mona said. The food in her rice bowl was untouched, but nobody paid attention to that, as she was the pickiest eater in the family. But she hadn’t even picked up her chopsticks, which her one-eyed grandfather saw.
“She was just wearing her underpants before she came to dinner,” Harry tattled.
“Why were you doing that?” Mona’s father growled.
“Because I ran into the telephone pole with the Flexie,” Mona confessed. “I hurt my knee.”
Mona’s grandfather was sitting at the end of the table as head of the household. The three generational family of eleven encircled the red aluminum table, crammed together in the breakfast nook, so nobody could leave the table without someone else having to scoot out. “Let’s see,” he told Mona. He got up and motioned her to come with him.
Robby, Harry, Ikey, and Auntie Ruthie had to scoot off the bench of the nook so Mona could get out. She followed Den to the bathroom, where he lowered the toilet seat and had her sit down. She pulled up the cuff of her capri pants so he could see the caulked brown scab, angry red around the edges, boiling like lava with pus under the surface of the dried blood. Mona’s leg was shaking as if she had fallen through the ice of a frozen lake and couldn’t stop shivering.
Den breathed in. “Ooo!” he exclaimed. “That one bad.” He turned and opened the mirror door of the medicine cabinet over the small porcelain sink. He found gauze and hydrogen peroxide. “This gone hurt,” he told his granddaughter. He poured and swabbed to clear the scab away. The girl caught her breath and held it, but she did not cry out. If it had been one of the boys, especially Harry, the tears and wailing would have started long before Den even touched him.
The wound went into the muscle. The telephone pole had exacted a fee for crashing into it, and a chunk of the girl’s flesh had been scraped away. “Should have gone hospital,” Den said. “Too late now.” He spread ointment over the hole in Mona’s knee and put the biggest Bandaid they had in the house over it. “You hungry?” he asked the girl. She shook her head, no. “Go sleep,” her grandfather told her. “Don’t hurt that way.”
All the adults, as always, were tired from working too hard, with too much to do. There was a corner grocery store to run, there were clerk and factory jobs to toil at for long hours and little pay. They were busy, as they always were, doing something. They wrapped up the end of the day as best they could, washing and drying and putting away children. It was their only interaction with their children all day. “We might as well be orphans,” the kids always complained, for the lack of parenting they got.
“When we get those new government jobs that are opening up to Chinese, we’ll all have our own houses to live in,” Uncle Royce promised. He had been in the Army, so he was sure to get one, maybe with the Post Office, or the State government, or, what he was hoping, with the police department. Until then, there was nothing much they could afford, except living with their parents, which Den welcomed, and Pea grudgingly accepted, although not gracefully.
That didn’t make it any easier for the kids. In their own single family houses, they would still be on their own, playing in the street unattended, fighting bullies, and learning from the school of hard knocks, which Ellyn always said was where she got her education. American mothers stayed home and took care of the kids while the father worked. Chinese parents worked all day and night.
Mona was left to herself in her narrow bed. She had already fallen asleep. She would later remember this day as her first proof that Asians can’t drive.