I am eleven turning twelve and I’m convinced Patti Smith is my mother and secretly lives in my neighborhood. I live in a town called Smithtown. This is only part of the reason I think Patti lives here.
Smithtown is in the middle of a county in the center of an island. Within our borders, everything is so average. No one is too rich, no one too poor. No one is too smart and no one is a diagnosable idiot. We are all medians down the center of the road. Everyone’s just kind of the same, like we all share a blanket on one big bed. I know about means and averages and medians because I listen in math.
A short boy with the unfortunate name of Tony DeNome tells me what a period is. We are both in line at the school shop, him for a clarinet reed and me a notepad. The store sits where the two main hallways of the school meet, where the lower classes can catch a glimpse of us fourth and fifth graders. DeNome is in third grade so I think he’s just making up a tale about girls bleeding once a month. Who would believe a story like that? I let him talk. I know I’m the wiser one from the elder hallway. I know better than to believe a third grade boy.
I live with my grandparents. They are so old they remember The Depression. My mom died when I was a baby. My grandparents tell me she is with Jesus in Heaven. I ask where my dad is and they ask me, “Why does such a young girl want to bother with all that?” I’m thinking of an answer while my grandfather flips the channels. Most things we talk about come through that screen. There’s a team he always stops on. He calls out, “Let’s see what them bums is up to.” We sit together and watch bums. I don’t ask any more about my dad. I crawl off the couch and stretch on the carpet. I sometimes test out a split. I straddle in front of the screen spreading apart my legs trying to get myself low to the ground. My grandmother shakes her head. “You’re going to pull a muscle.” My grandfather tells me to move so he can see the team screw it all up.
My grandparents seem unaware of my body, how it has changed and how it needs to move to see how far it can go. They’re too consumed by the upkeep of their own aging ones. They talk to me of soothing balms and orthopedic shoes. They won’t buy me flip-flops because there’s no arch support.
I’ve outgrown this French braid. It pulls on the roots of my hair and I’m afraid each one will fall out when Nana brushes it too tight. I grow hair on my legs and I think it must be related. That the seeds of each strand float inside my body, angry at the tugging and the twisting they face daily. They can’t grow enough on my head, stuck in elastics, so they look for other places to escape. I make up these myths of my body.
Fourth grade is done with and I’m on summer vacation in a muddy resort just outside of Pittsburgh. They cater to old people. There are only a few kids and we don’t have much to do but swim and go to the bare arcade with only Ms. Pac-Man and a Gilligan’s Island pinball machine inside. I meet one boy my age. He’s the middle prong in a forkful of brothers. This kid plays with me when lobster-skinned boys swarm the tire swing and he doesn’t feel like waiting his turn.
I’m outside because my grandparents say I need air. They sit inside eating free cookies and counting out pills for the next day. I sit right by the door to the arcade where every once in a while a creeping wave of air conditioning slaps the humid off of me. The boy and me aren’t much for talking to each other, so we exchange jokes on gum wrappers and photos of glamorous-looking adults in Nana’s tabloids.
This boy asks where I was from and I say New York and he says New York isn’t the kind of place someone is from, so I tell him I live in a town outside of the city. Smithtown.
He laughs so hard he just about chokes on his strawberry Now Or Later. What? Smithtown? What a stupid name for a town! Is everyone there named Smith?
He calls me Smith and I stop showing him my jokes and pictures after that. I wish I could because in one of those magazines there is a picture of Patti Smith. I have never seen such a person like her before. Her picture is black and white and the others are in color. She isn’t smiling like everyone else; she looks hard, staring right at the camera and shearing off a chunk of her hair with an art room scissor. The caption under the picture jokes, “PATTI CAN’T FIND A COMB! SHE’S GONNA CUT THE MOP INSTEAD!” I can see how she could frighten the pants off of anyone. I imagine if I show this picture to the boy, he’d call her ugly and tell me she must live in my town. I keep the picture to myself because she seems fearless and it’s strange to me how someone could cause fear and not have any of it themselves.
I run out of quarters for the arcade but manage to scrounge up two singles from Gramp’s to-be-laundered pants. With one dollar I get change at the machine. Since I like making things, I fold the other into an origami fish that looks more like a dog. I write Smith around its neck like a collar tag and leave it for the boy and his pack of brothers.
I keep thinking about Patti Smith and look for photos of her but can never find another one in my grandmother’s magazines. There are only pictures of television actresses and newscasters.
My friend Geena has an older brother who has a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. I sneak into his room when he’s out washing his car and in a red plastic milk-crate I find an issue with Patti on the cover. She stands in front of a line of fire in a sheer white blouse that almost looks pink because you see so much of her skin. I sneak it in my bag and keep it under my pillow.
I wake up with fevers. Nana says it is growing pains and I’ll be a woman soon. I keep my mouth full of meatloaf and so does Gramps. My sweating, the 100-degree temperature, the aches? Everything I feel, I know it’s Patti’s doing.
I pour over the article after bedtime. Patti Smith had a baby at 19 and gave it up for adoption. It also says she is 31. I do the subtraction and I get my age. She could be my mother. It all adds up.
I beg my Gramps for a few bucks to buy her tape at the record store. They also have her poster but I can’t afford both. In the poster, she looks down, her elbow points to the sky and a little patch of hair sprouts from her armpit. She grows hair over her body like me. We are the same breed of animal.
I play the cassette in the car while they shop inside DrugMart to pick up their prescriptions. I listen for secret messages. There is a song about a baby with starry eyes and in the rearview mirror I search my irises for spots.
In school, I sit still at my desk—my braids heavy on my head—as I put all the pieces together. Patti Smith must live in Smithtown. She’s trying to send me messages. She is watching out for me. Now that she is successful, her song on the radio and even opening up for the Rolling Stones, she wants to come find me. In the article, she was in a limousine on her way to a concert in Long Island. That’s where Smithtown is. She might not have wanted to bother me but wanted to look out for me and make sure that I’m okay with the elderly couple that took me in.
I’m not entirely convinced until I meet the new girl. Her name is Wendy Western and she lives on West Court and the name of our school is West Smithtown Elementary. It is proof. There is a precedent for coincidental name weirdness here. Patti Smith definitely lives in Smithtown and she is definitely my mother.
I trick-or-treat with Geena and Wendy. I start looking for all the Smiths I can find as we walk down the streets in twilight. I make a grid on the back of a sour apple Blow Pop wrapper and mark all the houses with the name Smith on the mailbox with an asterisk. Smyths get a question mark. The ones marked Smith, where no one answers the door, I label with a star.
Our bathroom closet is full of medical supplies. I am good at making things with them. With ace bandages and tongue depressors I make a shoehorn. Band-Aids, I sculpt into little footballs—the texture and shine looks just like leather—especially if I color it in with a chocolate-scented brown marker. I cut holes in the plastic tubs that patients keep by their hospital bedsides and make tissue-box covers with them.
I start bleeding while I watch MTV, using Gramps’ cane as a broomstick to fly around the basement. It hurts between my legs and I think I banged it against the cane too hard. There’s blood and it doesn’t stop. I remember what that short kid said. I had heard some other girls talk about it too but I thought they were just as gullible as that little twerp.
In the bathroom closet, I find a wrinkled issue of Oui magazine under the hamper. I cut up a rubber glove, fold toilet paper around my mitt and tear out a feather-haired girl named Robin’s magazine page. I pleat a roll of gauze. I shape it all into a rounded-edged rectangle, wrap it with medical tape and fasten it into the crotch of my underwear. I know I can’t sustain the amount of work it takes to make these. They only last an hour and I know my grandmother will notice things missing.
I wait for my grandparents to fall asleep before washing out my underwear in the garage slop sink. Then I tiptoe out the side door and whip them around in a circle over my head until they dry. It rains lemon dish soap-scented water on my braids.
It’s Saturday and I get on my bike and ride in flames of pain over every crack in the sidewalk. We rarely went to the Pathmark near the mall. Nana complains it’s dirty and there are ants living in the produce displays. Gramps smirks and says, “You don’t like it there because they wouldn’t take your check that one time.”
The generic aisle is in the center of the store, where the fluorescents hang doubled and the space is wide enough for three carts to pass at once. For the entire length of the lane, all the packages are white. Simple bold black words label what’s inside.
A can marked “CORN”
A sack marked “SUGAR”
A box marked “RICE”
The lights pick up the white and everything looks like lit-up gravestones. It’s dizzying—everything being the same color and design—my eyes don’t know where to look in all that sameness.
The health section is a shelf of ivory jars of talc, cartons of Q-tips, and rolls of bath tissue. Down on the bottom shelf, a white sign blends in with all the other white, “Feminine Hygiene.” I don’t know the difference between what’s labeled sanitary napkins, undergarment liners, and tampons. There’s no explanation on the boxes, just the black letters of what was inside. I only have two bucks and some dimes and nickels. Enough money for one box.
I sit and I won’t say I’m praying but there is something churchy about the aisle that reminds me of all those candles you can light up near the altar at Christ the King. You put in a donation and press a button and a candle lights up bright. I pray for Patti and her fire to burn it all down, everything but the box I need so I can have a clue what to do.
Prayers in a grocery store are not often answered, as I know from traveling down the ice cream aisle with Nana. But I see a skinny thing with a mop of black hair and fingers heavy with silver rings. A hand hovers above a bundle of corn chip bags trying to decide which to pick. I run to her—my squeaking sneakers float on the linoleum. Patti’s song about horses rings in my head…surrounded by horses, horses…coming in all directions. The colorless boxes of food watch us, like the heads of ponies, ready to stampede. I found her and her songs and they all burned white in front of me.
I yell out, “Patti Smith!” and I stop before I can find the right form of the word “mother” I want to call out to her. I’ve never called anyone that before. Could I be the only one? I think and think but I don’t say anything. I stand pale and still with an empty mouth. Label me “GIRL” but never “DAUGHTER.” Patti turns around to face me and it’s not her but a teenaged boy in a Judas Priest t-shirt.
The boy freezes and flares his nostrils at me. His mother comes around the corner and belts out, “No junk food,” while she manages a tight turn around a pyramid of cans. She sees what’s in my hands and gives me the biggest look of pity I have ever seen. I don’t even know what the look means other than I guess she can tell I don’t know what to do. She pulls him past me, but she nods at me one time like maybe I have the right box.
I’m in bed and my stomach feels like it’s eating me from the inside out. I pull out the Rolling Stone with Patti from under the buffer of my pillow so I can see her again. I need her now. I notice the issue’s date. July 1978. I hadn’t realized it was that old. The 70’s? It isn’t disco and it isn’t hippie and it looks like it could be the future. I do the math again and realize I’d been wrong at first. The kid she had given up would’ve been in college by now.
I chose the pads and now I am beginning to understand the gift of absorbency. Geena tells me how to insert a tampon but I think it’s another joke because people here aren’t that funny.
I take more sheets of paper from the girlie magazine. I fold them up into pouches and stuff them with cotton. I cut triangles out of bandages and glue them into horseheads. I sew it all together with dental floss that leaves my hands stinging with mint. I stick toothpicks in for legs. I make dozens of little ponies; horses like my favorite Patti Smith album.
I bike the streets of Smithtown and place a horse in all the mailboxes marked Smith. I look in the White Pages and find a few more Smiths listed and mark them on my Blow Pop map. I leave a horse in each of those too just in case my instincts are right.
Melissa Ragsly is an Associate Editor for A Public Space and work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2017, Epiphany, Green Mountains Review, Joyland, Cosmonauts Avenue and The Rag. More can be found at melissaragsly.com.