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Peggy Lee’s Secret of Levitation

 

 

 

 

     Before Mother and Daddy started fighting so bad, before Bobby Johnson told everybody he was going to marry me, and before I got to see Sputnik, I discovered I could levitate. I didn’t know a thing about levitating back then -- never heard the word. This all happened a long time ago during the hottest summer ever in Savannah. Mother and Daddy and I were still living in the green bungalow on 55th Street. I’m almost twelve almost now, and I can still do it.

     I remember clear as a bell I was sitting on our back stoop sipping cold breakfast coffee wishing my Daddy had taken me fishing with him. It was early, maybe eight o’clock, but it was already hot. I usually got to go with Daddy on Saturdays when he went out on the river, but that morning he’d left in a hurry. He’d walked right past me and didn’t even say “bye” or nothing, just slammed the backscreen door and got in his truck. Right after that Mother came to the back door and told me she had another one of her sick headaches and was going back to bed. That was fine with me because it meant I could sneak more leftover coffee, which I love but am not supposed to have.

     Since I didn’t get to go fishing, I was thinking maybe I’d call Raelene (my soon-to-be-ex-best-friend) to see if she’d come over after her baton twirling lesson that morning. I thought maybe we could take the bus over to Forsythe Park and catch the spray on the downwind side of the fountain. Just to cool off.

     As soon as school let out that summer Raelene had started taking twirling lessons on Saturday mornings. And she never missed a twirling lesson. We’d been best friends since kindergarten, but when Raelene started wearing a bra (a bra in fifth grade, can you imagine?) she hardly ever came over. I was trying not to let on like I cared, but the truth was I missed Raelene a lot. We used to do everything together.

     So, I was sitting there on the stoop by myself thinking about Daddy out fishing without me and Raelene’s stupid twirling lessons when I saw that Buddy, our next-door neighbor's little rat-tailed dog, had busted loose again. Now normally I like dogs. I'd pestered my parents for years to let me have one but Mother always said that dogs were dirty and how goldfish are so much easier to take care of and wouldn’t I rather have a goldfish? No, I told her, I’d rather have a dog. But she wouldn't budge.

     Anyway, even though I liked dogs, I hated Buddy. And Buddy hated me, always barking his head off if I got within ten feet of his stupid fence. That morning, as soon as he saw me, minding my own business in my own yard, he took off running, kicking up red dust making a beeline to my bare ankles. I braced for the bite, clenched my teeth, but oh, what a surprise I got! The dirt under my bare feet started falling away, down, down below my toes. Zip! Just like that I was floating up in the air. I dropped my coffee cup and watched it fall on the ground and bust apart, right next to Buddy who was snapping and snarling, trying to snag a piece of my foot. The red clay dust was still hanging in the air behind him.

     I don't remember how I got down that first time. I wasn't scared, just surprised, like maybe this was one more thing that happened when you grew up that nobody’d told you about.

     Late that afternoon, after it cooled off inside the house, I went upstairs to my room, stood in front of my full-length mirror on the back of my bedroom door and tried to do it again. I stiffened up my arms and legs real hard and clenched my eyes shut, but my feet stayed flat on the floor. I tried again and stood up on my tip toes, but it wasn't the real thing. Until now I've never told anybody about that day with Buddy. I never told Mother or Daddy, and especially not Raelene, who, by the way, never did come over.

     My name is Peggy Lee Porter. Mother and Daddy named me after the famous Peggy Lee because she's so pretty and she sings so good. I can't sing a note and I think this came as a big disappointment to my parents, especially Mother, who is herself so pretty and sings real good, too. I tried and tried singing when I was little. I even joined the Little Angels choir at the First Baptist Church, but I didn't last long. Baptists are really serious about their music and it wasn’t long before I was asked to switch to the Little Angels Hand Bell Ringers. As for being pretty like the real Peggy Lee, we don't know yet how I'm going to turn out. So far I'm average, but Mother says that may change when I start to “develop.” So there's still hope in that department. I just wish I’d hurry up. Like I said, I’m almost twelve.

     Anyway, as you can imagine, it was hard keeping what happened that afternoon with Buddy a secret, especially for me, because, as everyone knows, I'm a real blabber-mouth. But considering the way things were going around home back then I figured I’d better keep a lid on it.

     About five o’clock, Daddy came in off the river, dumped a mess of fish and ice in the kitchen sink and looked at me sitting at the kitchen table. He smiled his best big smile and said “You’re looking a little sly, Miss Peggy. Something up?” Then he grinned. “Bobby Johnson, been doing crazy bicycle tricks in front of the house again? I’m telling you, that boyfriend of yours is gonna kill himself getting you to notice him.” Daddy winked.

     “He’s not my boyfriend.”

     Bobby Johnson may not have been my boyfriend, but last spring, Mother found a bunch of dead dandelions tied with a string in our mailbox. There was no note, but I knew who put them there. Raelene was the one who liked Bobby Johnson. Back when she used to come over to the house, before the twirling lessons, she was always talking about him like he was a movie star or something. “Bobby Johnson is so dreamy!” “Bobby Johnson looked at me today!” Big deal, I used to think.

     I did not want to talk about Bobby Johnson. I wanted to spill the beans about Buddy and me levitating into the trees that afternoon, but I was afraid even Daddy wouldn’t believe me.

“Sugar, go fetch me a beer,” he said, and I did.

     Daddy popped the cap off the longneck with the opener and looked up the stairs toward their bedroom. “Where’s your momma?”

     “Church,” I said.

     “Again?”

     “Yes, sir. Choir practice. Reverend Wilke picked her up this afternoon. She’s rehearsing for her Sunday duet with him.”

     “Yes, indeed,” he said, and he tipped the bottle back.

     It stayed hot all that summer, even hotter than usual for Savannah. Hardly anybody had air conditioning, just the movie theater and the grocery stores. And it's still pretty much the same way even now. I remember the A&P on Broughton Street was the first to get it and they put a big sign up in the front window, “Come on in, it's KOOL inside!” There was a picture of a penguin smoking a cigarette waving to people to come in and shop.

     Mother always had her hair done downtown (she said “coifed”) on Thursdays and then had lunch at Clary’s. In summertime, when I was out of school, she'd have to take me along. I used to go across the street to the A&P and walk around, acting like I was looking for something I needed to buy. I had a regular routine. First I'd get a drink at the water fountain with the little stepstool that was just my size, and then I'd go by the coffee grinder looking for loose beans left in the shoot. (I like to suck on coffee beans. They taste exotic!) Sometimes I'd straighten up the soup cans, making sure all the Cream of Mushrooms were stacked before the Vegetarian Vegetables. The manager caught on that I was just pretending to shop because after a while he'd catch up to me and say things like “Can I help you find something, Miss?” or “Is your mother in the store, young lady?” He knew exactly where my mother was: across the street at Glenda's Cut ‘n’ Curl getting her hair done. He thought I was stealing stuff, but I wasn't. I never stole anything, except for the coffee beans, and I don't think they count.

     What that dumb manager didn't know was that in a couple of weeks I was going to be the “Junior Assistant” at First Baptist's Vacation Bible School (called “VBS” by those in the know). A VBS Junior Assistant would never steal anything. I had been going to VBS ever since I could remember, two weeks every summer in that nice, cool church basement playing games and learning Bible stories with the other kids. The year before was supposed to be my last, ten-year-olds don't usually get to go. But because I loved it so much Mother asked Reverend Wilke if First Baptist could please make an exception and take me again. Reverend Wilke liked Mother a lot so he agreed right away. He even gave me the special title: Junior Assistant!

     Anyway, it's a good thing, because when VBS started in July the very first lesson was about the Transfiguration. That's the time when Jesus started glowing and rose up to heaven in a cloud while the apostles watched and everyone got so amazed. That made me think about my episode with Buddy, and so for a while I thought what I'd done was called “transfiguration.” My VBS teacher corrected me when, at some point later, I referred to the magician's helper who was raised up above the platform on the Ed Sullivan show as having been “transfigured.” She explained that what I saw on TV was called “levitation,” and that it was just a trick… levitation that is, not what Jesus did. That's why I love VBS, I always learn so much.

     That summer I kept the window fan in my bedroom on high all the time, but it was still hot in there. In May, when the weather had started to warm up, Daddy moved my bed so it was right under the window. The fan made a lot of noise, so I couldn't listen to much of what was going on in the house, which I liked to do, but at least I had a breeze.

     One night, I guess it was June, I heard Mother and Daddy talking real loud in the kitchen, which was right below my bedroom. They were talking louder than I'd ever heard them before and Mother's voice started sounding high and squeaky, like a cartoon character on TV. I turned the fan off to listen. It wasn't clear, but I know I heard Daddy say “Don't tell me… I saw …” then a bunch of words I couldn't understand.

     And Mother said “well that's just crazy… you're crazy.

     I sneaked down the hall to the banister and peeked over just in time to see Daddy leaning over Mother in the kitchen with his arm drawn back in a fist.

     “You wouldn’t dare,” Mother said staring straight at Daddy. Then she pushed him away and walked toward the stairs up to the bedrooms. Daddy slammed his fist on our little kitchen table so hard I jumped.

     I did not cry or make any noise when I ran back to my bedroom and closed the door. But I knew for certain, given what I’d seen, we were done.

     Mother came up the stairs and ran past my room. Daddy hollered up the stairs for her to come back. He called her “sweetheart” and “honey” and he said he was so sorry and he loved her no matter what, but he didn't come upstairs, not that whole night. I switched the window fan back on and sat up in bed for a long time.

     I could not sleep thinking about Mother and Daddy, and all they were doing. Looking back, I didn’t know the half of it. I was still a little kid and I loved them both, but I loved my Daddy the most. (It’s a secret, but I still do.)

     Once the house got quiet I stood at the end of the bed and tried levitating again. I tightened up all my muscles and squeezed my eyes shut real hard, and this time it was easy. My eyes were closed and my arms tight to my sides when I felt a bump on the top of my head and it was the ceiling! I opened my eyes but when I got excited I started to sink. That’s how I figured out that I just had to keep my fists and arms clenched kind of hard and concentrate to stay afloat, to stay above everything. I aimed myself over toward the window fan and held my face in the breeze, my legs and feet floating out behind me like the American flag on a windy day. I rolled over and over, just like an ol’ otter out in the Ogeechee. Ha! I burst out laughing and right away I fell flat on top of my bed. I laid there laughing and laughing, thinking oh, if they only knew what I can do!

     I wanted to tell someone about my levitation secret, especially Raelene, but I didn’t see her that whole summer, except for one time. I was meeting Mother at Glenda’s Cut ‘n’ Curl after her appointment one day. I walked into the shop and who was sitting up in Glenda’s number one chair, but Raelene, getting herself a perm! Brenda Sue Ledbetter, who is a whole grade ahead of me and Raelene, was in chair number two also getting a perm. I hadn’t heard from Raelene all summer. They pretended not to see me, but Mother, who was getting her hairspray finish saw me in the mirror and sang right out, “Peggy, darling, look who’s here! It’s your little friends Raelene and – what’s your name, dear? – yes, yes, Brenda Sue. They’re getting their very first perms. Isn’t that precious?”

     Raelene and Brenda Sue rolled their eyes at Mother and Raelene said to me “Hey, Peggy Lee, you gettin’ a perm, too?” Then they burst into snorting giggles.

     I thought about how Raelene and I used to hold our noses when we passed by Glenda’s and somebody was getting a perm. We swore we’d never do anything so nasty. So I said, “No, I think they stink too bad.” And then I walked right past them.

     When Mother was ready to leave she stood up and straightened her skirt out, handed Glenda her tip and waved to the other ladies in the shop, but nobody waved back. Glenda tucked the dollar in her pocket and said “See you in church on Sunday?” The ladies smirked and looked down at the magazines I could tell they were pretending to read. Then they watched Mother and me walk out the door and past Glenda’s front window. At the time I figured this was because Mother looked so pretty and sang all the solos at First Baptist, and they were jealous. People are like that, you know.

     The rest of the summer was boring, but we all got a big surprise in October, when America's arch enemy, the Russians, launched Sputnik, the first-ever satellite. You'd have thought it was the end of the world the way some people carried on. Reverend Wilke even preached a sermon on it. He said that Sputnik was proof that the Devil was over in Russia looking for ways to beat the United States. That Sunday we sang Onward, Christian Soldiers, Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, all five verses. I saw lots of folks pulling out hankies dabbing their eyes.

     The Savannah Evening News told all about Sputnik right on the front page and what it said was much more interesting than Reverend Wilke’s sermon. It said that you could see Sputnik with the naked eye (that means just by looking at it) if you looked in the right place up in the sky at the right time, which it told you on the front page. Late the next night, the first night you could see Sputnik, Daddy woke me up and took me out to the front yard so we could see it. He brought the binoculars he used when he went deer hunting and I had our big flashlight so I could signal to Sputnik. I was so excited.

     We went out to the front yard where there weren’t any trees to block the view. I was expecting to find Mother waiting for us but she wasn’t there. Then I noticed a car, a big black Buick Roadmaster, slowing to a stop on the other side of the street. I thought I was dreaming when I saw Mother get out of the passenger side and start walking toward the house. She was wearing her pink polka-dot dress with the ruffles down the front that I liked so much. The French twist she’d had done at Glenda’s was down and pulled back into a ponytail, kind of messed up. Mother turned and blew a kiss to the driver, but he was already headed around the corner. Just before the Buick was out of sight I saw the little sticker on the back bumper that said “Clergy.” It was then I wished I had been dreaming.

     When Mother saw Daddy and me standing there she stopped short. Her pocketbook dropped to the sidewalk and busted open. Two lipsticks fell out rolled across the sidewalk. She never took her eyes off Daddy. The pocketbook and two lipsticks were still laying on the sidewalk the next morning when I went to school. Mother pointed down at me and said “It’s too late for her to be up.” Then she reached down for my hand to take me inside, but Daddy stopped her.

     “It’s too late for choir practice, too, but here you are. Surprised to see us up?” Daddy got quiet and was staring real hard at Mother and I thought maybe I wasn’t going to get to see Sputnik after all. Then he said “Just because he’s a preacher don’t mean you ain’t going to hell when you die.”

     “You go to hell. You go straight to hell.” And just like that Mother reached up and slapped him, slapped him so hard Daddy rocked back and almost lost his balance. Then she slapped him again.

     Daddy was still holding my hand when Mother slammed the door. My face was burning hot and for a second or two I couldn’t see anything. It was like all the blood drained right out of my eyeballs. I heard glass break inside the house, but Daddy didn’t let go of my hand. He leaned down and pointed up at the sky to where the Savannah Evening News told us to look… and we saw Sputnik! It looked like the biggest star you ever saw, floating across the sky toward the horizon.

     “Get your flashlight, Sugar,” Daddy leaned down and whispered to me. So I stopped staring at the screen door that Mother had just slammed and took a deep breath and looked back at my Daddy. I hurried up and pointed my flashlight at Sputnik was and clicking it on and off to signal my message: “Hello, Sputnik. Hello, Sputnik. This is Peggy Lee.” Then I saw it blink “hello” back.

     Daddy picked me up and said “Look up there, Peggy, honey. This is history, this is real history. You'll remember this all your life.” And so far I have.

     After I got back in bed I couldn’t sleep. The house was way too quiet and I couldn’t stop thinking about Mother and Daddy both going to hell. So I got up and walked downstairs, through the kitchen and out the back door. When I got to the stoop I leaned forward, pushed off with my toes and began to float up and up. It felt just like when you’re at the beach walking into the ocean and it gets so deep you just lean forward and begin to swim. I floated up into the sky, above our house and across the rooftops of all the houses in our neighborhood. I looked into backyards and down people's chimneys. I went as high and as I wanted to go and wasn’t a bit scared. I flew over the A&P and Raelene’s house and followed the Savannah River all the way out to Tybee Island to watch the dolphin feed. And then I aimed for home. When I got back I fell deep asleep in my bed, smiling the whole time.

 

     The next day at school I felt good, not sleepy at all, and I was doing OK pretending I didn’t remember the bad things that happened the night before. I volunteered for Show & Tell and told everyone about seeing the Sputnik satellite the night before. I told them that Sputnik was real history and that this meant that America needed to get to work if we expected to beat the Russians. Everybody clapped and said they wanted to see Sputnik, too.

     At lunch I was pushing my tray along in the cafeteria, trying to decide between the Sloppy Joes and the grilled cheese when guess who bumped his tray into mine, on purpose. Bobby Johnson! Bobby was in our same grade, but was a year older because he’d been held back when he moved to Savannah so he was like a foot taller than me.

     He leans down and says, out loud, “Peggy Lee Porter, I love you and I’m gonna marry you some day.” No ‘howdy-do,’ no ‘how was your summer?’ – nothing. I looked across the cafeteria and saw kids laughing and pointing at Bobby Johnson, but Raelene was staring straight at me. It wasn’t my fault Bobby Johnson loved me, but I figured there’d be hell to pay.

     Everything was fine until recess.

     I was waiting for a turn on the swings when Raelene walked up to me. I was hoping she wanted to be friends again, like the old days, but that wasn’t it. She came up real close and started talking too loud for how close she was to me. I saw Brenda Sue and some other sixth-grade girls standing a ways away, watching, like a show was about to start. Raelene told me that her parents would never wake her up for some stupid satellite and why would anyone care about a little speck in the sky anyway? Then she said it was much more important for a young lady to get her beauty sleep and I’d better start thinking about things like that. She made me so mad. I wanted to tell her about levitating and that I’d flown right over her house the night before because I knew she'd be jealous. But I kept my secret – at least for a while.

     Then things got worse. I was just about to get my turn on one of the swings when Raelene started prancing around grinning and tossing her little permed curls around like she was something special.

     “You are so dumb Peggy Lee. You don't know anything. When are you ever going to grow up?” Then she marched right out to the middle of the playground and called out to the other kids, “Hey everybody, listen!” She was yelling with both hands cupped around her mouth. “Peggy Lee is so dumb she doesn't even know her mama is Reverend Wilke's girlfriend!”

     She stood there in her black patent leather shoes with the princess heels and her Peter Pan blouse that showed off her bra and her little titties. I hated her. Everyone on the playground stopped what they were doing and looked at Raelene and then looked at me.

     “She is not! You’re a big, fat liar, Raelene Walters,” I yelled back. But it was too late. Raelene wasn’t the least bit fat and everybody on the playground knew she wasn’t lying. Kids started to laugh. Right then I was marked for life, like Jezebel’s daughter. I don’t know if Jezebel had a daughter, but that’s what I felt like.

     That was when the ground start to move. I wasn’t even trying to levitate this time but the concrete sidewalk was moving away from me and I was starting to float, slowly at first, but then I picked up speed. I didn’t try to stop. I’ll show them, I thought. I’ll show them good. I leaned forward like I’d learned to do and let myself go higher and higher. “Look at me everybody! Look what I can do,” I called down to the everyone on the playground. By then I was high up over the swing set and heading toward the tips of the Live Oak trees circling the school. I’m not usually one to show off, but I decided to try a loop-the-loop. When I leveled off I could hear all the kids gasp. Then, just for good measure, I swooped down right over Raelene’s head before circling around again. “See what I can do,” I called down to the playground. “It’s my secret!” They all just stood there with their mouths hanging open. Boy, look who’s dumb now, I thought.

     By the time I glided back down to earth, right in front of the school flagpole, Miss Brown, our teacher, Mr. Wanklemeyer, the principal, and the school nurse, were waiting for me. It was turning out even better than I could have imagined. I was so proud! I thought for sure Mr. Wanklemeyer would lift me up onto his shoulders so all the other children could give me a hip, hip, hooray cheer. But instead they took me into the school office and called my mother to come get me. When there wasn’t any answer at my house, someone in the office suggested they try the parsonage. Everyone knew.

     Mr. Wanklemeyer talked into the phone, “Peggy Lee is very… well, upset, Mrs. Porter…  Yes, it was quite an episode. We think it’s best if she had a little time by herself. Perhaps some rest.” Upset? I wasn’t the least bit upset. Why would they say that when I was having such a wonderful day, surely my best day ever?

     Mother came and got me from school and let me tell you she wasn’t a bit happy about it. I think she had plans for the afternoon. I told her it wasn’t my idea for her to come get me and that I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t just let me float on home. I felt fine.

     My amazing playground performance complete with an aerial loop-the-loop was a long time ago now and I’m sad to report that nothing’s been the same since.

     Mother and I live in an apartment on Abercorn Street and she works full time at Luck’s Shoe Store. I told her she could make more money singing on a TV show, but she said it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. I asked what trouble? but she ignored me. I go to a different school now and haven’t seen Raelene or Bobby Johnson for a long time. Bobby called me once while we still lived in the green bungalow, but Mother wouldn’t let me talk to him.

     Daddy moved back to Statesboro where he lives with my aunt and uncle and I miss him a lot. He comes by on Saturdays sometimes and takes me fishing, but it’s not the same. Oh, and I’ve stopped going to church.

     As often as I can I sneak out at night and float above the treetops around Savannah. It’s harder now that we live downtown because so many people are out at night walking around. I have to be extra, extra careful, but so far nobody’s seen me. Sometimes I go see the green bungalow where we used to live. There’s another family there now and they’ve put up a big fence between their yard and where Buddy lives. That was smart.

     But my most favorite thing to do is to go out levitating when we have a full moon. I love to float across the marsh grasses, down the river to the tidal creeks, skimming along the top of the water. The moon lights everything up with a blue light and the water sparkles like it’s got diamonds sprinkled on it. And when there’s a high tide I almost always see dolphins. I’m so good at levitating now that I can speed up and fly right alongside those dolphins, dragging my fingers and toes in the water so they jump and play beside me.

     On the way home, if my timing’s right I can see the Sputnik satellite. It’s still up there, you know. It’s just that nobody’s looking anymore. But I see it all the time.

 

 

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On this date in history, October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik One, the first artificial Earth satellite. It orbited for three weeks before its batteries died, then silently for two more months before falling back into the atmosphere.

 

– The Savannah Morning News

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