The alley smelled of day old urine and burned popcorn. I picked my steps among light and dark spots on the ground, skirting the semi-rotten wooden planks covering godknowswhat just before reaching the lion's head gate of #13. The white haired ladies standing there wore faded blue jackets and lumpy gray pants (all cotton) like everyone else, yet their high voices stood out.
I got into the habit of slowing down as I approached their shadowy figures. Despite of my reluctance at hearing their words, I couldn't help learning about
how "Jun whose brother is dumb. He scratches himself there when girls walk by so no one walks by his door after a while. He sits on the street howling into nothing or something but nobody knows."
"Ann's old maid sister got caught with a man. They were just lying there side by side in the middle of the day. Oh the nerve of that woman!"
I did not understand half of what they were saying. But eventually I learned to fear the "dumb" guy sitting on the edge of the street with his long hair and beard fanned out. His name was long forgotten but everyone called him something like "dumbo" or "retard". He peeked at the world through the curtains of his hair and punctuated any length of silence around him with an outburst of curses and fist pumps.
We called the gossipers "big moms", more for their voices and words than their statures.
The gangly one squeezed her eyebrows together and the shorter one pursed her lips like they didn't belong on her face. I avoided eye contacts with them but we exchanged quick glances. They looked like a couple of stand up comics practicing a not so pleasant routine yet they chuckled at themselves here and there. As I walked away, their voices meshed with cicadas singing on top of tall trees and made the summer air thick and cutting at the same time.
Outside the gate the asphalt shone like mirrors. I shaded my eyes as I searched for the ice cream lady wheeling two wooden boxes behind her bicycle. She always covered her ice cream bars like babies -- with layers of thick cotton quilts. So imagine my surprise when I first saw those frozen bars intact in her quilted cocoons but "sweated" into the palms of my hands. Ying stood behind me waiting for our bars - 5 cents each. She was good at waiting, letting me take actions and make decisions without making a peep. Her ten year old big sister took over as soon as she got back from summer camp but for now she and I are best buddies trolling the street looking for trouble, for stories and for ice cream bars.