I still remember the afternoon she showed up at our door with a grocery bag stuffed with colourful tinsel. It wasn’t Christmastime, though. It was August, the lazy, hazy middle of summer holidays.
Cary had moved into a house at the other end of our street, and she’d do that – come by every once in a while with a grubby plastic bag in hand, a surprise inside to share. Sometimes a bunch of chocolate bars. Where did she get them all? (Mom worried about that.) Sometimes playing cards. Or a game, like Clue.
The tinsel was the best. Or maybe the chocolate bars.
I don’t remember how I met her. She kind of found me. Sometimes I’d say I was busy because I wanted to play with John or Tim. I couldn’t spend too much time with girls. But if I had nothing better to do, we’d hang out – in the yard, in the back alley, or climbing on the roof of Krista’s shed, a few doors down. (Mom worried about that too.)
We never played in Cary’s yard.
She was my age – eight – and had long stringy brown hair, like she never brushed it, and her clothes were kind of dirty. She liked to do fun stuff, but she never said much. At first that seemed weird, but I got used to it. She didn’t smile much either, even when I knew she was having fun.
Once she got me to go with her to a bank machine a few streets way. She’d taken the bank card from her grandmother’s purse and knew the PIN. That was scary but exciting too. Did the police arrest kids? Could Mom and Dad get me out?
When I finally confessed to Mom – I couldn’t keep it in, and it hadn’t been my idea, after all – she frowned and said I was not to encourage “that behaviour.” I was never to go with Cary to the bank machine again.
“You understand that’s stealing, right?” she said. “Even if it is her grandmother.”
She was thinking of telling, but I begged her not to. Things never go well when moms tell.
My mom and dad exchanged looks when I talked about Cary. Mom thought there might be something wrong – a “delay,” whatever that meant. She’d heard from a friend on the street that Cary was living with her grandparents, who kept to themselves, though neighbours on either side sometimes heard angry yelling from that house.
“Maybe I should –” Mom said more than once.
“Don’t get involved,” Dad would say.
Once Cary gave me a sticky-note with a message in green marker – If you need me, I’m here for you – and she’d drawn a silly little heart. I felt my face turn red, stuffed the note in my pocket but didn’t say anything. She never expected replies. Or anything, really.
Later I crumpled and dropped the note outside somewhere – you know, accidentally-on-purpose.
That August afternoon of the tinsel, Cary and I ran around our humid backyard like maniacs, hurling handfuls of sparkly strands – silver, red, green and gold – at tree branches and bushes, on the bleeding-heart plant and the fence, wherever it would stick. That was fun. Mom smiled and said it was beautiful, Christmas in August, though later, when she gave us chocolate chip cookies and milk on the deck, she looked sad. I think she wanted to comb Cary’s hair.
We wiped our sweaty faces with our arms and munched and drank while admiring the glitter fluttering and catching the sunlight, so sharp it made our eyes water. I remember that – her eyes watering. We didn’t talk. I don’t think we talked. And then we went to Krista’s to climb on the shed.
In the weeks and months that followed, most of that tinsel blew away in the wind or got washed off by rain, and some of it Dad yanked off, grumbling that he didn’t know what had possessed us, and he’d be cleaning it up till the cows came home.
Bits hung on stubbornly and were still there, worse for wear, when all the leaves had fallen and Christmas finally came. Tired tinsel dangled limply from bare branches or peeked through the snow in the shrivelled flowerbeds. And some of it was there even after the snow melted again and long after the mean grandmother died (so we heard) and Cary disappeared from the neighbourhood. She never said goodbye.
These many years later, I still think about tinsel glinting in summer sun, about the little note with the heart and whether she ever found someone who needed her, and about all the questions that I didn’t ask. That no one asked.
A writer, literary editor, and instructor, Allyson Latta has edited acclaimed fiction and creative nonfiction by Canadian and Caribbean writers, including winners of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Scotiabank Giller Prize, and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Trained in journalism, she held positions with newspapers and magazines before turning to book editing. She’s a creative writing instructor and online mentor at University of Toronto SCS (Memories into Story I and II) and for more than ten years has led workshops for libraries and writers’ organizations in Canada and abroad. Since 2010 she has also run a dozen week-long instructional writers’ retreats, in Canada, the U.S., Central America, and the Caribbean. Many of her students and editing clients have gone on to be published in various forms. Allyson’s website, Memories into Story, features essays, interviews, and resources to inspire writers.
*if you need me…* photo, by Allyson Latta