Diary of an Illiterate

Write this down, ’cause I always wanted a diary. Always wanted to pin down my corners, so people could take a good look at what kind of butterfly they’re seeing. Can’t print worth dog spit, though, so I never did.

I swim alone, most times don’t treat with strangers. Only now they put me indoors, in this this nasty hospital where I got no choice. Figure I must be a goner, or why else would they of brung me indoors? The sunshine of it is now I get my diary. Story of my life–things happen at once. I’ll sing for you so you know how rich I am.

I was born in the first year of the Great Depression, and that’s where I grew up. Time of bones, that was. You can’t tell me living out of a shopping carriage is poor, Melba. Not here, not now. Folks give me coin enough to make my pockets jingle.

What say? Sure, I know who you are. I know Melba is me. We’re doing my diary, so I’m talking to myself, get it? You just take down whatever wind blows out my mouth. How about I call you Birdie, cause you’re gonna sing it for me. Okay?

Anyway, what I’m trying to tell you is living out of a shopping carriage in a lucky city like this is the best and easiest way to swim. I’m not for pitying. This street’s better than a Depression house of four kids living off of nothing. We’d of been happy with rats on toast. Those years were my education.

In them days nobody was hiring, so we worked for ourselves. Grew peanuts on the patio, watermelons in the windows, beans in the bathtub. Anything could be et, we’d eat it. Couldn’t afford clothes. Why, my mama used to sew together the leaves off the trees to wear. We girls stuck wild roses and thistles behind our ears.

What you mean? Course we did! You saying I don’t know my own life? Maybe a few cotton patches in the old brainpan, but that’s the morphine’s fault, not mine. I told you this indoor life ain’t for me.

Anyhow, not a job in the world till the big war came, when the factories grew up in the margins of town. We had feasting time then. I was just a little ladybug of a thing, but I got me an after-school job running papers between the bosses down at the flag factory. The men and boys were off playing killer ball, so us girls picked the cherry jobs.

Since I was already making money I quit school. Four walls can’t teach me nothing. I was nightshift at the bakery, on top of full time at the flag factory. That’s a lot of working. Too much. Me and my sisters saved up enough to start a coffee house out near the margins where those factories sat. We served coffee, crocodile eggs, heaven cakes, pig balls, muskellunge, ice cream missiles.

Oh yeah? Okay, don’t believe me if you don’t want to. I was there, you wasn’t. A lot of people don’t eat as good as we did in the old days. Your loss, Birdie. You just keep writing.

Factory workers was my main dish, but I liked best when the boys out of school walked through on their way to the fighting. Tipped big, because every one of them wanted me to ride his horse. It’s the truth! I’d twinkle my eyes at ‘em and they’d be puffing their chests like cock robin.

When the war dropped off, I had my pick of the boys. Got married to Charles. He was my King, that’s how I called him. He made decent money in some government job–teaching fish to swim or some damned thing. Good man, good father. Been a good ghost a lot of years now.

Had to sell the diner when the little trolls started coming. Charles got me knocked up once a year for twenty, thirty years. Something like that. Now I’m old, some of the details are rough around the edges now, that’s why I wished I’d of had this diary sooner. Once I was spawned, I spent the days cooking, cleaning, sewing. Teaching ‘em what I thought I knew, that paltry can of worms about how hard work pays off.

Not a bit of that for me, not no more. I told you, I’m a rich lady now. I don’t got too many wants, so I can live off other people’s don’t-wants. I’m telling you, Birdie, that’s the way to go.

Hmm? No, I don’t mind sleeping out in the cold. I got blankets. People keep giving me blankets and coats till I don’t know where to put ‘em all. And of course I got all the treasure in my cart here. I name her Betsy, after the flag lady. Used to have a picture of Betsy Ross sewing flags up in the office of that old wartime factory. The flag lady and the bag lady, that’s us. You like that? I keep her by me even here in this inhospitable place. Don’t you let them nurses touch her! They can fight over my treasure after I’m gone.

Lots of traffic would go by my park bench place on King Street. I stuck myself there at first because that name reminded me of my King, bless him, but then I saw how good the pickings was around them government buildings down there. It’s a rich place. Safer to stay in the way of people’s eyes, too. Nobody mess around with me. The nice working ladies give me their leftovers coming back from their lunch breaks. Poor little pussy cats say to me all the time they don’t know how I do it. See, that’s why I’m counting on you to tell ‘em. Tell ‘em my secret, Birdie. They was nice to me.

Anyway my King got ate by a bear, and I was all alone with a house full of trolls and cooking and cleaning and sewing. Had to waitress all night long and leave my babies to look after each other. We move from house to house when the bears try to come and eat us up too. They never did, but it was a powerful lot of work keeping them away.

No, I don’t know what the bears were. I’m a simple woman.

After King was buried I had to get me a job, and that was walking aisles at the American Five and Dime. I stayed there sixty-five years before they fired me. Can you believe it? They said I was getting too old and crazy for ‘em. Wanted to give me some kind of pension. Maybe that ain’t right. I’m only seventy-five now, so there must of been some kind of knots in that figuring. I don’t want no pension anyhow. I work for a paycheck, see?

Stupid bastards. Never should of let me go. I was the only one ever kept the fish tanks clean. And fed the Venus flytraps, and unstuck the soaps from each other, and picked up wads of gum on the floors. After they let me go I’d come in and give the fishes and flytraps treats out of what people give me on the streets–money and candy and cigarettes and whatnot. But them folks at the five and dime weren’t for having old Melba around no more. Tossed me back out. Guess to them I’m all used up.

What you say? You got to speak up, dear, sounds like you’re heading backward down some tunnel. Oh sure, the trolls grew up. They all went off somewhere, and now they’re just like I was, slaves at whatever flag factories or five and dimes you people got nowadays. Time to time one of them will try and take me home, but I won’t budge. They want granny indoors, most likely to be their free babysitter. Only time I ever worked without getting paid was when I was married. That was enough of that.

These past years out on the streets, I never been richer. Even lying here indoors, I close my eyes and I still got my place out on King Street. These benches here, see em? And this crabapple tree. All mine, see? I could sit here all day and night, and nobody da’st lay a hand on me. Got my sun and moon to watch, my office gals to hand me food, and everything else I need in Betsy.

I used to like watching ants. I’d latch onto one ant with my eyes, and follow it to see where it would go. Most ants walk kind of loopy, you know. And every time a cloud goes over, why, I latch onto that too. Good for a free ride to anywhere.

S’pose that’s it. My life story. If I’d had a real diary there’d be more details, but you got the meat of it. I don’t want my whole life getting lost. Don’t know whether anybody out there want to listen to an old lady talk.

Really? You like listening to me, Birdie? Well then I’m glad, because now you know some things you never knowed before.

Told you I was rich.

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