The Leinart kids spent summer holidays away from all our parents, who took time off to either work on the farm or travel around the state. At Grandma’s house, the only rule was to stay away from the river. Of course, we never followed that rule, but if Grandma found out, heads would fly. She still thought about that one kid who had fallen in twenty years ago and always warned us to walk on the other side of the street. But in one-hundred degree weather, it’s too hard to stay away from water. So, we fished, stuck our toes in, and dared each other to jump off the levee into the muddy water.
On the morning of my thirteenth birthday, we all helped to drag a mattress off one of the twin beds and placed it between the two couches on the loft. There we blindfolded one another and played “Trust.” One cousin held you by the wrists, and dropped you straight onto the mattress. If you yelped, or used your hands to catch yourself, you lost. As the third-youngest member of our large family, I never yelped, for fear of losing respect and ending up eating at the “kids table” in the back room off the kitchen. My sister, an elder member of the cousins, yelped every time but had already earned the coveted respect by being born first.
We landed, got up, tried again, laughing and shrieking all the while. The many shelves of family relics swayed and creaked all around us. The old bugle on the wall, the Civil War cannon ball, and the steamship music box jiggled and rolled with each collapse. Downstairs, the chandelier bounced while Grandpa smoked one cigarette after another, eating his usual ham and Miracle Whip sandwich with plain iced tea. He didn’t notice much, he never did. Smoking and eating, he went on with his puzzle. Grandma, on the other hand, roared up the bright green staircase and shooed us all out into the front yard. In swimming suits and towels—standard summer-wear—we “ow-ow-ow-ed” across the boiling pavement and into the park. Only at sundown or in violent thunderstorms would we return home, and survived on a steady diet of chlorine and sunshine.
Every kid in town stopped by that evening for cake and ice cream, pizza, and more Kool-Aid. Grandma had gotten me the usual five-years-out-of-style school clothes, including spandex overalls with a bright pink stripe that appeared to be from the “plus size” section of the local pharmacy. I tried to explain that they were meant to be stretchy but she said “you’ll grow into them.” Grandpa smoked, ate his dinner, and handed over a twenty dollar bill in an unsigned card to spend down at the Coast-to-Coast. Burning cash in hand, we all got on our bikes and headed straight to the Tasty-Freeze for pizza burgers and cherry-dip-cones. Peddling barefoot all the way to the video store at the end of town, we found the most R-rated movie available—something with plenty of sex and violence. At home, PG-13 movies were rarely allowed, so we soaked up enough immorality to last the whole school year.
That night, before the pool opened back up for night swim, we were back to playing “Trust.” Feeling the confidence of a thirteen year-old adult, I jumped up and flopped onto the bed. But instead of a soft welcome, violent stars swam around the room. Before the pain hit, the metal flavor of blood flowed rapidly out of my mouth and down my chin. My sister screamed and little cousin BJ ran and hid in the bathroom. Forgetting that we might play again, he had put the cannon ball into my pillowcase as a joke, thinking how funny a slight knock to the head might be when I lay down to sleep that night. Instead, the relic split a hole through my lip, and loosened a few teeth. BJ spent the rest of that birthday, punished with no dirty movies. Grandma, who was good and kind, punished worse than anyone else. I think it was because it always came so unexpectedly from her loving demeanor. She never spanked, but her growl kept BJ hiding in the bedroom until the next day. And until school began that year, the cousins coined me “Cannon Ball Lip.”