“You don’t know how you met me, you don’t know why, you can’t turn around and say goodbye…” The words of the Uncle Kracker song float through my car from the radio much like the breeze coming in through my open windows. The song came out when I was in about fifth grade, so it usually isn’t on the radio, but every time I do hear it, especially on a spring day like this, it immediately takes me back to Michelle, and riding the bus home from grade school.
My little sisters, Kelsey and Jill, and I and Michelle were each sitting in our own ugly green, vinyl seat of the bus, two of us on each side of the aisle, making a little square with our seats. It was a sunny, spring day and the windows were down. The wind filled the bus as we bumped along the back country roads. Jo, the bus driver, had the radio on and that song was playing. It was Michelle’s favorite. Jill liked it too. Kelsey and I freaked out.
Our mom only let us listen to Christian music and country music growing up. She called everything else, “devil’s music.” She never really said why, but us being that young took it as truth, no questions asked. You didn’t back talk when mom said something. When we heard that Michelle liked this song, clearly “devil’s music,” we were offended and laid the blame upon her for causing Jill to like it as well. She might as well have been asking Jill to renounce her Christian faith right then and there. Kelsey and I were appalled. Michelle’s parents obviously hadn’t informed her about “devil’s music.” We took it upon ourselves to tell her of her wrongdoing. I don’t think that our speech had any effect on her. We wondered if she had any morals at all.
The song itself takes me back to that moment, but mostly it just makes me think of Michelle and remember the strange presence that she had in my life. We had just met her not that long before that bus scene, during winter break that year.
Actually, she was in our yard when we met her. This is strange because we’ve always lived way out in the country on over 200 acres of land that has been in my family since my great-great-great grandpa got out of the Civil War. We’ve never really had any neighbors.
It was a snowy, winter day and I was trying to find the perfect sledding spot in my yard. I hiked up the hill on our side yard to try out its sledding potential. All went well until I got to the bottom of the hill and my sled landed very abruptly up the side of the trunk of an evergreen tree and I landed smack on the wet, snowy ground. Not the most graceful ending. I got up to look around and make sure Kelsey and Jill hadn’t come back out and seen my landing.
I saw no sign of the girls, but I did see something. I started to freak out. There was a girl standing at top of the hill, behind where I had started sledding. I was pretty sure from where I was standing that she couldn’t see me. She was outside a little house that sits on the top of the hill that my dad calls the Mr. Potts’ house. My family owns it, and when my dad was a kid, my grandpa rented it out to a man named Mr. Potts. However, there had never been anyone living there as far as I could remember. I had never actually considered it “living material” judging from the outside look of the house.
I wasn’t sure why the girl would have been there unless she was living there now, although I didn’t see anyone else up there but her. I immediately ran inside to tell the girls. My dad overheard me talking and confirmed that he was renting out the house. He said that the man living there had a girlfriend and maybe she had a daughter. The girls and I were excited. A neighbor! Someone that could come over and play without having to call or have our parents pick them up! We just had to meet her.
She happened to be in the same grade as me. After that day in the snow, she came down the hill to our house and we all played together and we became pretty good friends with her. She slid down the frozen creek in our backyard and swung over the creek on the tarzan vine with us. In the mornings, she would walk from her driveway down to ours and we would all huddle together to keep warm while we waited for the school bus. We were always climbing trees together, playing in the yard, and making forts in the woods.
Most of the time, we got along just fine. We enjoyed having someone else to play with, but sometimes it got to be too much. She would come over almost every single day and we got tired of having to entertain her and share our stuff with her, especially in the summertime. It was just too hot to be outside. On these hot days, the girls and I just wanted to sit inside in the air-conditioning and watch TV. However, we had a pool and Michelle didn’t really have anything at all to do at her house, so it seemed like she was always knocking on our door ready to swim. Mom didn’t want her inside, so when she came over, we were forced to go outside and play with her. This was especially unfortunate because at the time I was going through a phase where I wouldn’t swim because I was convinced the chlorine would ruin my hair. Luckily, there were three of us, so if I didn’t want to swim that day, I could usually talk Kelsey or Jill into swimming with her.
I remember one day, none of us wanted to play with her because she said she had ringworm. My mom got mad at us for not being nice and so she took Michelle into the backyard and taught her how to make these little things to hang in your house and make it smell good out of lavender she clipped out of the garden and threaded ribbon through. Michelle sat in the backyard making them and we felt bad and so we went outside and made them too.
I hadn’t ever been in the Mr. Potts’ house before she lived there, and we definitely weren’t allowed to go there while she was living there. I’m not sure what her mom or her mom’s boyfriend did for a living, but he had long, black hair and they both smoked and I’m sure they drank and the house looked like it was about to fall apart.
Kelsey and I snuck up there with her one day. The outside of the house was covered with ugly brown shingles that were falling off. They were made of some strange thin material that looked like it wouldn’t keep the house very warm. The inside of the house wasn’t much better than the outside. It was messy and mainly just really small. I don’t know when it was built, but it made me feel like I was stepping back in time, except for their stuff everywhere. The ceiling was really short and looked like it might cave in. They didn’t seem to have any nice things. I remember feeling very out of place. We didn’t stay very long. Mom never found out that we went up there.
Even though my family has land, we aren’t rich and we don’t have some old source of family money or anything. Our house isn’t some super nice mansion. It is the same farmhouse that my great-grandparents built themselves and my grandpa was raised in. It started out relatively small and was built before indoor plumbing existed. It has been added onto over the years, mostly by my parents to accommodate them and my three sisters, my brother and me. It is relatively large now, but it needs renovation. I have nothing to complain about though compared to where Michelle lived. She didn’t seem to mind though and never said anything about her family being different from mine.
She lived there for over a year, maybe even closer to two years. Eventually her mom and the boyfriend broke up and so Michelle and her mom moved somewhere else. She never came back over to play. I saw her at school sometimes, but we weren’t ever in the same classes. I remember she got in a fight with some girl in middle school and so her mom kicked her out of the house that they were living in then. She moved in with her dad. I didn’t really see her much after that.
The last time I saw her was a couple years ago, at the end of the summer before I started college. Kelsey, Jill and I were at the county fair. It was in the evening and we were riding rides and walking around. We had just gotten lemon shake-ups and we were passing one of the game booths they had. I think it was one of those ones where you try to test your strength by hitting the platform at the bottom with a big hammer and seeing how far up the meter the little marker moved. I looked up and there she was. She wasn’t riding rides, she was working them.
I was scared to walk up to her because I wasn’t quite sure what to say. It had been so long since our days of being childhood friends. That part of our childhood seemed to be the only thing we had in common. We had grown up and become very different people, I could already tell. Her wild and curly ash blonde hair was ratty and had blue streaks in it. She had on baggy pants and looked pretty rough. I couldn’t just walk by and act like I hadn’t seen her though.
I smiled and walked up and asked her excitedly what all she had been up to. Her voice was different, not at all like it used to be. She sounded very manly; rough to match her appearance. Like her voice had been hardened. I don’t think life had been very easy for her. She said she had been good. She had been working with the carnival company for over a year then and had been loving it so far. She said she was getting to travel and see the world. She told me that I knew her; she just couldn’t stay in one place. She said she was getting ready to head to Miami with some guy to get a job selling novelties.
I told her that sounded exciting. The way she said it, she really did make it sound a whole lot better than I’m sure it was. She said it almost as if she was trying to impress me by it or maybe she was just trying to convince herself of how great it was. I remember thinking about how scary I thought it would be.
I wasn’t really sure what else to say. I wanted to ask her how she had gotten involved in the carnival business or if she ever thought back on those days playing in our yard with us. Before I had the chance to say anything else, she asked me how I had been. I just said “good.” I didn’t really know what to tell her about my life. I didn’t want to sound rude. The biggest things that had happened in the last year, the things that you would usually tell someone when they ask, like the fact that I had graduated from high school, as senior class president and in the top ten percent of my class and had gotten a full-ride scholarship to a southern ivy-league equivalent university and was getting ready to move to New Orleans and have all my expenses paid for me while I went to school and figured out what I wanted to do, didn’t really fit in the scheme of this conversation.
It made me sad to think of how close we really were for that little while and then how she had just slowly faded from my life and I hadn’t even realized when she’d dropped out of school and out of my life completely. I knew she hadn’t graduated with our class, because as class president, it was my job to read off the names for people to come up to the front to receive their diplomas and I knew I hadn’t read hers. Judging by the time frame of her carnie excursions, she couldn’t have graduated from high school at all.
The song ends and for a moment I’m brought back to my car and back to the present. However, I can’t get that image from the fair and our conversation out of my mind. I was raised in a family with the belief in the American dream. That all people can succeed and do what they want and be happy and everything will be perfect as long as they work hard. Why is it that Michelle and I are two girls, the same age, from the same place, with lives that crossed paths for one quick moment in our childhood and yet I have so many opportunities that she will never have? What makes us so different? The family we were born into, the amount of hard work we put into things, education? Is it hard work or is it social standing that really gets you somewhere?
I guess there really isn’t one easy answer. There definitely isn’t an answer that I will ever truly understand. However, I am happy that we were part of each other’s lives, even if just for a moment. I do wonder if she thinks back and remembers me in the same way that I remember her. I wonder if I had as big of an impact on her life as she had on mine.