At the top of the upward sloping street a wooden utility pole lay blocking access, the street changing from asphalt to dirt. Trees and brush lined the dirt road to my right, a barren field to the left. The landscape dropped fifty yards from my vantage point, the tops of small, crowded houses marching off to the horizon. My father called it Match Town once, him drinking beer with his brother in the backyard. They laughed, I imagine, more of beer than joke.
Often, as if she didn’t recall the many times before, my mother in a manic rage warned me of that place beyond the utility pole. “You must never, that is never cross that barrier!” From her lofty perch, waving a wooden spoon, she told me bad things would happen, not offering any details.
As a child before I could read, I’d lose myself in books, many picture books coming to me with dirty covers and torn pages. I understood fairy tales. My mother’s edict came down like the awful troll telling the beautiful princess she could open any door in the castle she like, but for the ninth door.
Not only books with dirty covers and torn pages took me away. I bathed pathologically in magazines. Life, Time and my favorite, National Geographic arriving once a month by mail. I did not know how the publications came to the house. Like a fairy tale, I had a secret benefactor.
On a summer morning I’m guessing around 1961, the sun on my back, my toes six inches from the barrier, I watched across the distance. A lawnmow sprang to life unseen behind me, breaking the silence. Eyes closed, I straddled the utility poll like mounting a pony, material snagged as I dismounted on the other side, pulling me back. My heart pounding, thinking my mother grabbed me.
Releasing the hem of my gray dress from the snag, my heart still pounding, I thought to return to safety. I’d put the key in the door and swung it open. The shadows from the trees and brush granted sanctuary from the sun and any prying eyes. The trees to my right marched off beyond my sight. I resisted the pull to explore like I explore the woods behind my house.
The matchbox houses didn’t seem so different up close.
Suddenly, a girl blocked my way. Taller, likely older, her dark eyes sunk in a mahogany face owned me. Her black hair ran tight rows over her head. I wondered whether I could do the same with my hair. “Hi,” she said.
I was surprised she spoke English. In a terrible twist of applied knowledge and observations, I thought somehow, I had walked to the continent of Africa, which made my mother’s warning make sense with all the huge snakes, crocodiles, and lions. “October,” I answered, offering a hand.
I expected to hear a name I could not pronounce. “Judy. I like your hair.” She took my hand.
My hair hung like late spring lilac in a failed attempt at French braiding, which I taught myself. “I like yours, too.”
A door slammed nearby. “Jude! Jude! Come away from that child this instant!”
“Gotta go,” Judy said, our handshake stretching to fingers touching, then, gone.
Her mother, I assume the woman her mother, watched me impatiently across the distance. “You go, child.” She called, not with anger, but as she would shoo a stray cat. “Go back to where you belong.”
I returned to the United States of America.
A couple of years later, the township announced my school and the Match Town school would be combined. I was excited about seeing Judy again without our mothers yelling at us. I thought it would be nice to have a friend in school that on a summer day would not hesitate to take my hand. Halfway through the school year, we moved to a new neighborhood whiter than sun-bleached bone.