When I was a little kid I was always running away from home. I knew there was more to life than my breakfast of champions and my green plaid Catholic school uniform. I'd stand defiantly in front of the blackboard, cursing my teachers under my breath, staring at the long division problems they had scrawled in their old maid's handwriting. How could I care about stuff like that. I was going to be an explorer. An adventurer. My photo on the front pages of every newspaper. Me, covered in animal pelts leading my first expedition to the North Pole at eight years old.

You see I lived in a small seaport town. I would go down and play by the harbor, and I loved how on a windy day, you could taste the sea salt on your lips. The harbor was mostly filled with fishermen's boats. But sometimes, we'd have one of the smaller ships come in and their crews were made up of men from all over the world. The whole town would rush to the docks and barter with the sailors for their exotic treasures. My aunt, herself boasted a Persian rug, a Chinese bow, And a wooden Mexican puppet from these exchanges.

I was fascinated by these sailors who could make the tattooed girls on their arms dance. The sea had etched deep lines into their dark tanned faces. They conducted their floating black market in a language of grunts, groans, and facial twitches. After business they'd hang around and tell stories of about their travels. They made me fall in love with the water, not just because of what it was, but because of where it could take me.

It was after one of their visits that I started stealing the maps from the school Library. I'd tear them out of National Geographic and atlases and smuggle them out in my lunch box. Plotting my course by flashlight after dark under the covers. I'd unfold the maps with the utmost care, being sure not to make too much noise that my aunt might suspect what I was planning. And I set about learning the strange names of distant countries.

The first place I tried to run away to was Marrakech. Then it was Hong Kong, later it was Australia. Australia, I figured, would be easy to find since it was big and surrounded by water. Plus, I'd seen this picture of a platypus, this half duck half fish otter or something. I figured an animal like that deserved a look.

Once I'd decided on a place, the next step was making the necessary preparations. I had a little red suitcase that said "Going to Grandma's" on the side. I'd pack my favorite teddy bear, warm socks and some food. The food part was tricky, because my aunt always knew when something had gone missing in the house. One cookie gone from the cookie jar and her radar nose could tell the chemical balance of the house was all shot to hell.

I was allotted two slices of bread for dinner and I had gotten to where I could slip in under the table into my lap, push it up underneath the napkin that was tucked into my collar and down the front of my shirt. When I got back to my room I'd hide the bread in my suitcase. I'd do this everynight until I had no more room, then I'd wait for my opportunity.

It would always come on a Saturday because my aunt went to the next town over to see her lover, and I was left alone. I wore a gray coat which I cinched in at the waist with a brown leather belt so the wind didn't get through, took my suitcase from under my bed and I was off.

Each time I'd run away, I'd make my rounds and say good-bye to all my friends in town, one last look at what I was going to leave behind.

My first stop was the Doughnut Palace. And what a palace it was. The outside was painted red with gold lettering, and inside there were Chinese lanterns, lush plants and the most heavenly scent of grease I've ever smelled. Thai Timmy had bought the place after his wife died. It didn't do much business but he always gave a bag of doughnut holes to any explorers. Thai Timmy had a big heart. I know because he was the only one in town who was nice to Mamie.

Mamie was an ex-stripper, now almost seventy. She had worked the red light district in one of the neighboring towns for many years. Every morning she'd put a coat over her nightgown, her wrinkled legs bare, and she walk into the shop sort of hunched to one side as if her arthritis had frozen her in this sexy walk. She'd lean against the side of the front counter, smoking a long cigarillo and drinking her coffee. She always had a running conversation going with herself. Mostly talking about the old day, I guess, and rehearsing for her comeback. Every so often she would burst out into song, flinging her cigarillo hand around for emotion, singing, "I love Paris in the Springtime."

Thai Timmy and I would applaud and Mamie would bow. Then they'd ask me where I was going this time. I'd unfold my map on one of the little red tables, and show them the route I as planning to take. Thai Timmy would wish me luck as he slipped the bag of doughnut holes into my hand, and Mamie would kiss me good-bye on the cheek.

My next stop was Big Bertha's Bargain Basement. Big Bertha was the goddess of junk. She was constantly restocking her store with the latest decorative knickknacks, and Whitman's chocolate sample boxes. She had long red hair which she would wrap around empty frozen orange juice cans to get those extra bouncy curls. I don't know if it ever worked because I never saw her hair done any other way but wrapped around those cans. She'd lift me onto a tall chair by the register, and pop bonbons into my mouth as she fidgeted around the store. Saturdays, the new underwear shipment came in and the place was full of women fighting over the last good bra.

I'd tell Bertha about my imminent travel, and it never failed. Her eyes would get all pink and she' almost squish me saying good-bye. Bertha didn't have any kids of her own, so she was always afraid, this time I wouldn't come back. She'd shove some comic books into my arms to keep me company along the way, and send me on.

The last stop on my rounds was the sailor's church, to see Tante VeVe and Tante LuLu.

Tante VeVe and Tante Lulu were sisters. They'd come from their island to my town as stowaways on a ship when they were young. And ended up on the front stairs of the church were Father John took them in. Ever since they had been incharge of cleaning its stain glass windows and marble statues of Jesus.

On Saturday father John would visit his parishioners, and I was sure to find Veve and Lulu in the back garden. They'd convinced father John to let the garden grow freely and it was this lush green forest. They'd be out there sitting on two stools at their card table, playing poker under the statue of the Touch down Jesus. His arms pointing straight up to heaven. I'd sit down on the grass, with my "going to Grandma's" suitcase beside me. I'd asked them once if they weren't afraid, gambling right under Jesus's nose like that. "Don't worry," she'd say, "you're Tante Veve has her own communication going with God." And it was true. They'd both be playing and then tante Veve would look up at the touch down Jesus, shake her head, and look at tante Lulu. "Deal him in" she'd say. And they'd deal a third hand, and that third hand always won. Veve and Lulu would throw their cards on the table, and then their attention turned to me.

They'd ask me where I was planning on going. I'd tell them where ever it was. Veve would close her eyes, them open them, staring straight at me. She'd say "There's a boat coming in to the harbor, but it's not yours. It won't take you where you're needing to go. Best to wait a little longer. Until the right boat comes."

Those were the last words I heard everytime I tried to run away. Being a little kid, I'd get tired out saying my goodbyes, and inevitably fell asleep in the grass. I'd wake up back in my bed at home. My coat would be hanging in my closet, my "going to grandma's" suitcase, empty under my bed, the moldy bread in the back dumpster. And my aunt acting as if nothing had happened.

So I waited for the boat that could take me away from my small seaport town. Somedays, I wait for the boat that will take me back.

Copyright M. Nichols 1999

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