This is a nice "slice-of-life" story. I especially enjoyed your use of the vernacular. All in all, it gives a good sense of place. Thanks for sharing!
|Growing up in Singapore, my three older siblings and I did not lead the common American childhood. Our missionary parents tried to provide us with a balanced part-Singaporean, part-American culture.
Our taste in games was much like everything else in our life. When I was too young to care, my brothers and sister played football (American football, that is, not soccer) all the time. By the time I was old enough to join in, we’d moved on to such local games as “stepping leg,” “zeropoint,” and “blow, wind, blow.” But when I was seven, our tastes swung back towards the American side with our discovery of America’s favorite pastime.
My nine-year-old brother Stephen, or Jody as we called him, and I began by playing with a stick and a little bouncy ball. We played in our small front yard—it provided us with about a 12’ by 8’ playing field. We enlisted fourteen-year-old Stephanie to play with us whenever she was willing, and our friends, Nirmala and Santhi whenever they were visiting. Before long a home run sent our only ball into the neighbor’s yard. We managed with a rock for awhile, until Mom caught us and exclaimed that someone would get hurt.
For Jody’s birthday soon after he got a softball, a glove, and a real bat. Mom insisted that our yard was too small for real equipment and we reluctantly agreed. The solution was actually readily available and Stephanie, Jody, and I tromped across the street to a vacant lot.
When we’d first moved to the neighborhood, there were three atap houses across the street from us. Atap houses had been the typical house of the natives of Singapore and Malaysia. They were built slightly above the ground with a concrete foundation or on stilts. The rest of the house was wood. There was no glass in the windows, just wooden shutters. The houses got their name from their roofs—the roof was made of thatched grass, or atap.
The first atap house on our street was kept up relatively well and was inhabited by an old man and woman and their twenty-something-year-old son named Ah Hwee.
The second one was in perfect repair (except for a small hole in the wall from bomb shrapnel during World War II) and was owned by two old maid sisters—Nancy and Nellie. Their single niece, Coreen, also lived with them. Auntie Nellie, as our entire family called her, adored Jody and me. We both spent as much time at their house as we did at ours. Auntie Nancy couldn’t speak much English, however, and was rather gruff. We stayed away from her as much as possible. On the weekends, their brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and great-nieces and –nephews would all come to visit. The house would be overflowing. Jody and I spent nearly the entire weekend over there. They accepted us as part of the family.
The third atap house on our street did not last for too long after we moved there. At some point in time it had suffered a fire. Its charred, tumbling down remains looked dead and forbidding, glaring at us from directly across the street for the first few weeks we lived there. Then it finally got torn down leaving us with a vacant lot for all sorts of games. I’m not sure who actually owned it, but Auntie Nellie and Auntie Nancy took care of it. A few times a month we would see 50-year-old Auntie Nellie pushing a decrepit old lawnmower around the lot. I offered to do it for her once, but she said, “No! You will cut your leg off.”
The lot worked really well for our softball games, and pretty soon, our neighbor, Cedric wanted to join in. Cedric was thirteen and never really interested in playing with either my sister (who was a girl) or my brother (who was just a kid), but for some reason, he let me tag around with him. Stephanie begrudgingly let Cedric play. And then, surprise of all surprises, our oldest brother, 18-year-old James wanted to play. With Cedric’s best friend Edgar included, we had a pretty good game going.
Although James had never been amazingly interested in sports (he spent his days building computers, his nights reading, and all the time singing), he displayed a particular talent for baseball.
One day, when Cedric was pitching, James hit the ball straight at him, beaning Cedric right in the thigh. Cedric fell to the ground howling and refused to play anymore that day.
“Cry baby,” Stephanie said disdainfully. “He’s such a sissy.”
Cedric sent her an angry glance as he hobbled home.
But pretty soon Cedric was back as pitcher. Although his skill was slightly impaired when he pitched to James—he would throw the ball and drop flat on the ground.
“Stop that!” James yelled. “You’re throwing the ball all over the place.”
“You hit me again, then how?” Cedric cried. “Balaku, I die. Then my father kill you. Then you know.” One of the first Malay words we’d learned had been “balaku.” It basically meant to hit someone in the head.
“Jus’ play, lah!” Edgar said.
Cedric pitched again, and again dropped to the ground. The ball followed suit and dropped to the ground a few feet in front of James.
I giggled. Edgar glanced my way and he began to laugh too. Pretty soon all of us were laughing loudly. Cedric lay on his back, his slightly round stomach shaking with laughter.
“Edgar, you pitch,” James commanded when we had all recovered.
Edgar was slightly older than Cedric, and as different from him as could be. Edgar was half-Chinese, half-Indian so his skin was a beautiful shade of brown and his features were a balance between the Chinese roundness and the Indian angles. While Cedric was short and slightly on the chubby side, Edgar was tall and thin. Edgar had a friendly disposition and was usually quick to apologize when Cedric was rude or mean.
Though not as fearful as Cedric, Edgar was rather wary of pitching to James.
“Don’t hit me, ah?” He grinned as he ambled to the “pitcher’s mound.” Cedric gladly jogged over to take his place at first base, tossing the ball to Edgar as he passed him. Jody, the only one with a glove, stood around where second base should have been, staring at the sky.
“We need a pitcher, not a crazy Critcher,” I chanted.
Steph rolled her eyes. “That doesn’t make sense here, Lizy.”
“’Cause Critcher was somebody’s name.”
“Oh. We need a pitcher, not a crazy Cedric!” I yelled.
Steph laughed, but Cedric menacingly told me to, “Shut up.”
“Ey!” Grouchy Cedric cried. “Jody! Can pay attention or not?”
Jody slowly drew his attention away from the sky and glanced at Cedric.
“I’m paying attention, what,” he said. “Nothing is happening.”
“Ey, Cedric, can shut up or not?” Steph taunted.
“Just play!” James said. “Pitch, Edgar, I won’t hit you.”
Edgar tossed the ball in the general direction of James, but somehow it managed to land at my feet where I stood behind and to the right of “home plate.” James sighed. I picked up the ball and lobbed it back to Edgar. He had to lean down to catch it, but it did make it all the way to him.
“Maybe we should let Elizabeth pitch,” Steph said.
“I’m not on their team!” I protested.
James impatiently swung the bat around in a circle before getting back into position. I tried to swing the bat around like that sometimes, but it always hit the ground.
Edgar stood on the pitcher’s mound, breathing deeply. He pulled his arm back and threw the ball as hard as he could. To everyone’s surprise it seemed to be headed straight towards where it was supposed to be. James stepped back a split second before he swung, putting all of his strength into the swing. The ball and bat connected with a loud crack, but even I knew something was wrong.
Wasn’t the ball supposed to go towards the other end of the field? Well, this one wasn’t doing that. James started to run, but stopped, looking over his shoulder. This ball was angling to the left and behind us—
“Foul!” Jody yelled.
—straight for Auntie Nellie’s house. It landed on the roof over the kitchen and disappeared. At that very moment we heard a surprised yell.
We all exchanged looks of horror. Cedric took off running towards his house, but the rest of us waited to face our doom. Our only hope was that Auntie Nellie had been the only one in the kitchen at the time. This was an unlikely thing though—the kitchen was the family’s gathering place.
Auntie Nancy appeared in the kitchen door holding the softball. Auntie Nancy was tall and thick—not overweight, just thick—with stern features that I don’t ever remember smiling. She kept her curly gray hair cut short giving her a manly appearance. Her voice was low and rough and hardly ever uttered a kind word. It would be years before I found out that she really loved my family.
Now she walked towards us, holding the softball tightly, and letting out a stream of Hokkien words. She pointed at the roof and at the kitchen and then at the ball, and, finally, at us. I stepped behind Steph.
“I’m sorry,” James said. He then said a few words in Chinese that I didn’t understand, but I guessed they meant the same thing. Auntie Nancy just shook her head and kept right on rattling.
Then our greatest fears were realized. Auntie Nancy’s nephew, Mr. Ee, stepped out the kitchen door. James straightened his shoulders, Steph grabbed my hand and held it tightly, Jody edged closer to us, and now, Edgar, too, managed to slip away.
“You ruin my auntie’s house!” He roared. “Who tell you you can play these games here? It’s dangerous, you know? You could have kill someone!”
“I’m sorry,” James said again.
“How can say like that? You are stupid to play like this.”
I felt Steph’s grip tightening on my hand and I knew she was getting angry. Uh-oh.
Auntie Nancy was still going on in Hokkien, apparently agreeing with her nephew.
“I tell your father,” Mr. Ee threatened.
“Go ahead,” Steph bit out.
“Stephanie,” James warned.
I wished I’d gone home. I wondered if we were going to get in lots of trouble.
“We didn’t do anything,” I whispered to Jody. “Right?”
“Mr. Ee’s just dumb,” he whispered back. “Auntie Nellie wouldn’t care.”
Auntie Nancy finally remembered some words she could say in English.
“Go home,” she said. “Go home. No more play.”
They finally stopped talking and just stood there glaring at us. James picked up the bat and walked towards our house. Stephanie gave both of them an angry look before following him, dragging me along with her. Jody ambled along behind us, scuffing his bare feet in the grass.
Auntie Nellie sat on the front porch of their house. She waved us over as we walked past. I pulled away from Steph, and Jody and I ran to the porch with James and Steph right behind us. Jody and I climbed up on the outside of the railing and leaned over it.
“Why?” She asked.
Jody and I told her what had happened, our sentences jumping on top of each other.
One of the few times in his life, James looked repentant.
“I’ll pay for it,” he offered.
Auntie Nellie just smiled and shook her head. “Nevermind. Nevermind.”
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