Before I ever crossed the border into Louisiana, I scribbled words and drawings on the bedroom walls of a rent house in South Texas. But I stopped my wall art three months after my fifth birthday, on a cold Saturday in December after a frightening experience when the landlady paid us a visit.
I allow the memory to awaken in my senses. I first hear quickened footsteps, a door slam, and my mother instruct my two older sisters to empty ashtrays and dust end tables. I then feel the recollection in my body, in a shift of emotion from calm to fear of eviction if my graffiti is discovered.
To view the action, I close my eyes and see Mama’s slender, pink fingers wring a steam-breathing mop; my sisters rush about with white dust rags in their small hands. I sit with the vision a long time, and the clean smell of lemon oil bubbles to the surface of memory.
Before the front door is opened, the mop and dust cloths vanish. I’m hustled into my room and told to stay in bed and not come out until Mama says so. My final instructions: “Be quiet!” and “Don’t open the door!” I then hear my mother greet the rent collector and begin a tour of the tiny bungalow.
It seems I have a deadly virus and high fever, I learn, as the women stop in front of my closed bedroom door to chat. My mother is so convincing I feel chilled and my face flushes hot. I wrap up in a blanket and stare at walls covered in crayoned drawings of rotary telephones and words my sisters have taught me to spell, such as cat and dog and my proudest: Mississippi.
Sweating, thirsty, and confused, I wonder if I am doomed. Until today, my artwork has been a source of pleasure in our household. My mother never scolds me about it and seems to approve of my doodles, and my sisters cheer me on like the teachers they imitate when they slam in from school. Now, I may be dying.
Moments before my impending death, my mother and sisters swoop in to retrieve me from exile. It seems we have foiled the homeowner. As everyone cheers and giggles, I have one last glimmer of recall: I push my lips outward over a lack of concern for my “deadly virus” and touch my forehead in search of heat.
As I begin to handwrite the story’s details into a notebook, it occurs to me that as a grownup, not much has changed. I’ve simply replaced bedroom walls with lined sheets of paper to draw memories and write stories about cats and dogs, telephones and Texas. And a family that crossed the Louisiana border to settle beside her neighbor, Mississippi.