I Remember Shirley Temple

I was riding the 75 bus north towards home on 39th avenue in the dark, damp evening, somewhere between Powell and Division, reading a book on the topic of working memory. Working memory is the stuff you try to keep in mind while doing something else. It’s similar to the “copy” function on your computer, if the thing copied always rapidly decayed and disappeared, like a lump of sugar in an ocean of coffee. Working memory is a good indicator of the fitness and health of one’s brain. Generally, better working memory equals a sounder brain. That I can recall all this confirms that my own memory was working during the bus ride and sets my mind at ease — at least until the next time I leave the burner on.

I was sitting in the frontmost forward-facing seat, behind the handicapped and senior love seats, when a little girl draped her arms over the divider and started talking to me, as if we had an appointment. She was about two, with a head of thick Shirley Temple curls. She told me, sentence by sentence, about her life.

“This is our bus.”

“It’s your bus.”

“Aaaand my momma, too.”

“Aaaand your momma, too.” This is how I talked to our daughter when she was little. The research shows – I don’t know what research, but people I trust (i.e., my wife) told me — that when you say back to a child what she just said to you, it helps her learn to talk. It’s called “mirroring” (“Does my hair look okay?” “Does my hair look okay?”). My daughter, now ten years old, talks like a 35-year old professor (of stuffed animal psychology), so I believe mirroring works.

The girl’s mother was sitting on the other side of the girl, and said, “Anna, he’s trying to read.” I said “No problem, I like talking with kids,” and the mom went back to her conversation with her boyfriend.

The little girl told me that Christmas was coming, aaaand that she was gettting new toys, aaaaand that they were going to visit grandma, aaaand that Garglegee had pushed Impkiss down the stairs.

“Who’s Garglegee?”

“Garglegee’s my guardian.”

“Garglegee’s your guardian?

“No! Garglegee’s my garden doc.”

“Garglegee’s your garden doc?”

“NO! Garglegee’s my guard dog aaaaand…”

“Garglegee’s your guard dog.”

“….and she pushed Impkiss down…the stairs….”

“Who’s Impkiss?”

“Impkiss went down the stairs… aaaaand…”

A woman sitting across from the girl and her mother and the man with them yelled out, “Don’t mess with me!,” obviously meaning them.

The mom yelled back, “No one’s messing with you.”

The woman was muttering and rummaging in a monstrous handbag, one of those soft black leather and brass designer items that perfectly complement a full leather outfit and not much else. She yelled across the aisle again, “Stop bothering me.”

The mom raised her voice higher. “Listen, lady, I don’t know what’s your problem —” The mom’s boyfriend, or husband, or brother, or whatever laid a hand on the mom’s shoulder, stopping her.

He leaned halfway across the aisle and muttered something to the woman. She listened. She took a couple deep breaths. He muttered. She relaxed.

Wow. A Psychopath Whisperer. The man was dressed like puke, a thick slab of prison muscles covered in blurry tattoos – in other words, a typical Portland high school dropout.

The little girl was still talking to me. She was saying “Impkiss is okay. He’s okay. He didn’t have to go to the hospital.”

“He didn’t have to go to the hospital.”

“Aaaaand he didn’t have to go to jail.”

The mom gently pulled her away, saying, “She hasn’t stopped talking since she said her first word,” to me, and then “This is our stop, darlin’,” to her.

“Bye,” the girl said to me.

“Bye,” I said back.

THE END

© Nick O’Connor: If you had been commuting an hour each way every weekday between Northeast Portland and the Sunset Transit Center at the border of Portland and Beaverton for two years and occasionally woke up, dislodged an earbud, or spoke to a fellow rider, you would have a few stories to tell, too. Nick blogs at Sardines Are Only Packed Once.

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