Uncle Barry and my dad, Barry constructed a roofless tree house in an apple tree next to our brown shingled farm house. Living on an orchard was sweet. The tree platform was large enough to hold my brother Bill and me and our cousin, Brian at the same time. Dad put an old mattress on the ground under the tree just in case we fell. I was the first to jump, just to see if it was safe.
The apple tree on which our little playhouse was built was never pruned by the keeper of the orchard, our grandmother, Meme. The apples were a little sour, and nothing like the red delicious fruits that grew elsewhere on the farm. Meme explained that our daddies, the Barrys, ruined her favorite tree by hammering nails into the trunk and branches, so she decided to no longer harvest the apples that grew on the ceiling and walls of our tree house. Meme said we should never trust two drunken men with nothing to do but climb trees.
I was sitting in that tree house, counting all of Meme’s trees lined up in rows in the distance, when I was first introduced to my imaginary childhood friend, Cassie. She was hidden behind a big branch covered with lots of little white flowers when I first heard her voice. I remember my exact age at the time– four. Bill was in kindergarten that Spring morning in 1972. I was all alone on that big farm with its seemingly endless orchard. A plane was flying over. Planes always flew over that ridge we lived on. The sound of aircraft was a lonely sound. The planes always made me cry. Cassie said I shouldn’t cry because it was just a plane and some day, I would fly in one.
Unlike most people who had imaginary friends as kids only to abandon them after growing up, I never forgot Cassie who came out of an apple tree. It was only after my mother ordered that I stop talking to her that I grew out of her. Like an old pair of shoes that feet no longer squeeze into, she was always in my closet. She was too good to throw away and just sat in the recesses of my mind collecting dust, perhaps to serve as a hand-me-down to a little brother who had yet to come along.
Cassie’s form of communication was not via vocal chord vibrations that ring the drums in our ears. Her’s were whispers of flowers, bees and sunshine. I asked Cassie things when the planes flew over, when I got sad. At first, I whispered my questions to her, but by five, I understood that there was no need to whisper to her. She could hear my thoughts and she answered me right inside my head, as if she were a little gnat – those little bugs that sometimes flew my ears and mouth while sitting in that sweet apple tree.
I went to bed with bubble gum in my mouth one evening. It was too delicious and still had flavor to simply put on my night stand. By morning, long, thick strands of brownish-red hair were tangled in a rat’s nest that not even Cassie could get out for me. I didn’t want Mom and Dad to know. They always warned me not to go to bed with gum in my mouth. Bill tried to help when Cassie couldn’t. We hid next to the refrigerator. Bill was using a spoon to try and scoop out the glob of spider egg infested Bubble Yum, but he was hurting my head.
“Ouch, stop it, Bill!”
“What are you doing back there?” Dad asked.
“Nofin’”, I smirked, quickly hiding a Josie and the Pussy Cats spoon behind my back.
“He got gum in his hair,” Bill told.”
“Oh my gawd,” Mom shrieked.
Dad and Bill laughed after Mom made me turn around.
Cassie was nowhere around, even when I used my mind to try and contact her. I whispered behind the refrigerator as they laughed at the back of my head.
“Who are you talking to?” Mom asked.
“You’re getting too old to keep talking to her. I told you to ignore her,” Mom explained while wondering if she should use a pair of scissors.
“Go see your Meme,” Dad ordered while having his coffee at the kitchen table.
As Meme’s hair clippers buzzed I whispered to Cassie and told her to stay away from me because I knew it was her that pulled the gum out of my mouth as I slept. Strands of hair, longer than ears of corn fell to the floor in Meme’s trailer. I decided never to talk to Cassie again.
My head felt funny. All the hair was gone. “Now, go show your mom,” Meme ordered while sweeping up the huge pile of hair. “I’ve always wanted to cut your hair like this anyway. You are so cute!”
I thought for sure Mom would be mad when I returned to the house. She always loved my hair and rolled it in her fingers, like yarn, when she held me before I went to bed at night.
“You are so damned cute,” Mom remarked. “Now get out of my hair and go outside and play in your tree house and stop talking to Cassie.”
Another plane flew over. I looked up and again felt sad.
“You’re still my best friend,” I whispered.
Cassie smiled through an apple blossom before whispering– “You’re so damned cute!”