MANJA ARGUE

 

The Slide

I remember the day, when I first learned to lie. It was on a warm day in April, the first sunny day after an icy winter in 1946. After attending Mass at dawn I ate breakfast which consisted of powdered eggs and toast topped with butter. It wasn't real butter but the kind of butter that came in a block of white greasy looking stuff accompanied by a small packet of yellow coloring. My assignment each day was to mix in the coloring and then, after spreading out the mixture on a tray, cut it into small squares.

Elizabeth and I, after finishing our kitchen chores, headed for the girls' playground located at the south end of the main building of Saint Patrick's, a boarding school in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Originally, it was an Indian Mission built in the late 1800's, but now there were also non-Indian children living there. I had been placed there by the state after I was taken from my parents and so had Elizabeth.

On the day that Elizabeth arrived at Saint Pat's, I was hiding in the bushes near the entrance to the grounds, pretending I was invisible. Sitting and watching the long, gravel road that lead to the highway, I prayed that my mom would somehow miraculously appear and take me home.

As I sat patiently waiting, a Trailways bus pulled to a stop and a young girl got off. She walked toward me lugging her battered cardboard suitcase that was cinched closed with a worn leather strap, the bright Oklahoma sunlight forming a halo above her golden hair. This vision of saintly beauty not only left me breathless, but also compelled me to run forward and reach out to help carry her heavy burden.

"Hi." I said shyly as I reached out and grabbed the handle of her suitcase.

"Hi yourself, my name's Elizabeth but don't call me Liz. I hate it! What's your name?"

"Mary Margaret, but just 'Mary' is fine. That's what everyone calls me, except the nuns. They call me Mary Margaret."

After Elizabeth checked in at the main building, I quickly volunteered to take her to the girls' dormitory where I helped her unpack. Conveniently, the bed next to mine was unused so I suggested she take it. We stashed her few belongings in the chipped, wooden dresser between our beds. At her suggestion, I moved my things to the bottom drawer so she could use the top one.

Sitting on the bed, whose springs cradled the thin mattress in a sagging embrace, we compared notes about ourselves. I learned that she was in the fifth grade and I decided to make sure that she sat at a desk near me. Perhaps, she would talk back to the nuns or do something else even more wonderful.

As the months rolled by, I stuck to her side, ran errands for her and carried her books. For her part, she quickly dispatched with the playground bullies who had previously made me their favorite target. She was funny and quick and not afraid of anyone and I thrived in the circle of her popularity.

On that particular Sunday we sat on the playground swings lazily gliding back and forth in the warm afternoon sun. I was deep into a fantasy about Robin Hood, with myself as Maid Marion, when I felt Elizabeth nudge me with her foot.

"Hey, look at that!" My eyes followed her pointing finger to the fire escape at the side of the brick building in which we lived and attended school. It wasn't a regular fire escape with stairs, but a circular slide type used on some buildings in the Midwest. Fully encased in a round silver structure, it resembled a castle tower four stories high. At each floor an iron platform led to a door on the side of the red, brick building and firmly anchored the tower in place. I knew immediately that she wanted to play in there and I began to tremble with fear and excitement.

"We can't play there Elizabeth, it's forbidden." I looked at her hoping that she would change her mind, yet knowing full well that she would not.

"Oh Mary, you're such a chicken. Come on, let's go look inside."

"Better a live chicken than a dead duck, is what I always say," I muttered.

With reluctant excitement I followed her over to the two huge metal doors that served as the exit of the fire escape. The heavy doors screeched as Elizabeth pulled them open. Jumping onto the edge of the circular slide, she lay back and peered upward.

"Helloooo." She called.

"Helloooo." A spooky echo rebounded from the dark recess above. I peeked in at the innards of the tower. In the center, a metal pole disappeared upward into the darkened heights. Layered sheets of metal, riveted to the central pole on one side and the walls on the other side of the structure, formed a smooth, shiny surface that curved up and around the central mast. Along the outer edges of the slide, the walls were dark and rough. Elizabeth kicked off her shoes and socks, braced her hands on the pole and the rough wall, and, with her feet wide to the width of the slide, began climbing upward into the darkness. I glanced around nervously. Seeing no one, I kicked off my shoes and socks and jumped up onto the slide and pulled my bare feet in after me. Positioning myself as I had seen Elizabeth do, I began to climb. When I had gone a few feet and around the pole, the darkness engulfed me. My heart pounded but, not wanting Elizabeth to laugh at me, I kept going. Suddenly, I was flooded in light.

"What happened?" I yelled, halting my upward advance and waiting.

"Hey Mary, I'm at the second floor and...I opened...the doors." I could hear her taking deep breaths as she called out. "You okay down there? Not scared are you?"

"Naw, not scared," I panted, "Be right there."

By the time I rounded a bend and climbed onto the platform to rest, Elizabeth was already continuing upward and I soon followed. She opened the doors at each level to light my way, and finally I emerged at the top floor and crawled onto the platform beside her. Breathing hard we grinned at each other. Without a word we giggled, then pulling our skirts tight around our bottoms, we launched ourselves onto the slide. Swirling down the dark eddy, round and round in exhilaration, our shouts of glee echoed to the accompaniment of the thumping sound we made as we passed over the seams of the layered metal. Light from the doorways of the landings at each floor flashed by as we picked up speed and, with a final whoosh, we shot out the exit at the bottom, landing in the sand piled there to break our fall. Jumping to our feet, we raced back to the doors and began again the ascent of out tower of delight.

We climbed and slid for hours, our gleeful cries echoing for all to hear. Our joy evaporated when our flying bodies landed in the sand one last time and we were faced with the angry eyes of Sister Mary Kyran towering over us. She was clad in a black shroud, her face glowed red from within the frame of her white collar and wimple, wrapped so tightly that it dug into her flesh. She fingered her crucifix with one hand while, with the other, she methodically tapped a switch against her habit. The switch was the newly cut and striped green branch of a nearby bush.

"Girls! Girls! You know you are forbidden to play here." Her voice clothed us in a cloud of doom. My eyes could not leave that awful face that by now was deepening from red to purple.

"Mary Margaret," she bellowed, "how long have you been playing here?"

In a barely audible voice I managed, "All afternoon, Sister." I lowered my eyes and shivered as I watched her cut the air with the switch in her hand. Back and forth it swished, paralyzing me.

"And you Elizabeth, have you been playing here all afternoon too?"

"Oh no sister," Elizabeth replied in her most saintly voice, "I only slid down two times." My mouth fell open in amazement as Sister Kyran's switch flashed out and caught Elizabeth across her bare legs with two quick slashes. Elizabeth drew in her breath sharply but she made no other sound.

My tormentor said in a low brittle voice, "Turn around Mary Margaret."

With dread, I turned and braced my hands against the edge of the tower. As the blows cut into my calves I clenched my jaw. Following Elizabeth's lead I made no sound. However, nothing could stop the tears from raining down upon the slick surface of the slide before me. At last, I felt Elizabeth's arm around my shoulders.

"She's gone now, Mary. You done good but you gotta learn not to tell them the truth. They'll only get you for it." Her blue eyes were wet with concern.

I sniffled and wiped away my tears with the hem of my dress. In my heart I knew she was right. Next time I vowed I would lie. An uneasy vision of me, whooping with delight, as I flew down a giant silver slide to the hell fire below, did not soften my resolve.

As we walked back to the playground swings, I hugged myself against the cool of the late afternoon shadows.