Imaginary Road Trip- The South

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So we start in Monticello, then, you and I on this imaginary journey through the way your life traveled. Georgia, where the mud is as red as blood and the sun sinks in a great glowing ball of fire behind the tightly-ranked dark-coated trees that huddle close to the meandering roads and shoulder out the sky. It’s early summertime, perfect for a road trip. I am only a speck of your future, riding along in your cells. Maybe I’ve been there all along.

The thick layers of humidity permeate the walls, awakening the musty smell of swamp and damp wood, and even seem to extend to the slow voices of Southern people and the veiled layers of politeness, straight-faced sarcasm, and backstabbing. “Well, bless your little heart,” they say, and their eyes speak other words. Who let them in here? They say with their mouths closed tight in prim little lines. Here the black and white lines are as deep and permanent as the lines in the farmer’s faces. Here, the music does stop if you walk into the wrong bar and eyes roll at you. Didn’t you know? This place is not for you, white girl. This restaurant is not your kind of place, black boy. There are modern times with a black President, and then there is the South. Mom had a black nanny from the time she was a child, Lucy, who took care of her when her mother was at work, and who finally took care of her mother when she grew old and lived alone with no one near to help. She had a family of her own, somewhere and somehow, but my mother only knew the Lucy who was a staple of her white family.

My only memory of Lucy was being too young to walk into what must have been her church, and she carrying me in, and many black singing faces coming down close to my own, smiling; them passing me around and pinching my cheeks. Lucy told me not to tell Granny, just to keep it to ourselves. I don’t think she believed I knew where I was, being just a toddler. I never forgot, though.

The heat is so oppressive here in the Peach State that even the buzz of cicadas seems sluggish, difficult. Sweat drips down your back and soaks a round spot onto the driver’s seat at the base of your spine. The mosquitoes attack the windows, big as moths and thirsty for blood.

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Death, his last goodbye, the errant father

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I hadn’t seen him in nearly 15 years. Still trying to seem bigger than he was. Drunk, of course. Overwhelmed by the death of his father, truly the only one left in life who was forced to care for him.

I don’t think he recognized me, back in the crowd snapping pictures. His eyes were too blurred by Bud, the strain of trying to always make himself bigger than he is. His grief, too large.

I felt like I was spying, taking this picture, but also that I had a right.

Roads on Her Face #45: Momma meets daddy

Here is how I imagine this.

 

Her blonde hair is blowing in the wind, a red bandana snapping like a flag, keeping the little wisps out of her face as she’s driving. The cool mountain air, pine-scented and softened at its edges with the warmth from the sun, fills the car like the joy flowing through her veins at being out on her own, finally. There is no one looking over her shoulder, telling her what to do.

 

But she’s lonely, too. She’s discovered that traveling alone without the companionship of her Papa or her recently broken-hearted ex-husband isn’t quite the same. When she exclaims over a pretty bird, or wants to stop to see “The Thing,” after miles of road signs extolling its virtues, there’s no one to turn to over her shoulder, either. She’s decided at some point, to cheer her up, she’s going to up the adventure ante and pick up the next hitchhiker. A good-looking one, of course. And a man, obviously.

 

Having driven through Alpine many times myself, I see her yellow car slowing to the town’s 25 mph speed limit, all her windows down and some local ranchers gawking. She’d feel at home here, all the green grass and tall trees, but still feel the adventure of the wide open blue skies of the West, the absence of black people, all the brown people she’s never seen outside of her trip to Mexico and the last drive through Texas. She’s probably got a little fear-excitement sitting low in her belly, though the years of road trips with Papa have helped her feel safer in unfamiliar locations. Nothing bad has happened. Nothing bad will happen.

 

Mary passes the café with the chainsaw bear sculpture out front, the candy shop with colored flags in the window. She slows at the one stop sign in front of the gas station, where big diesel trucks are pulled up next to the two pumps, their trailers full of hay for the cattle and their drivers spitting tobacco and chatting, leaned up against their doors. Horses come close to the fence, the fields spreading back behind the station into the verdant little valley. She smiles at them, turns right and is already out of town. Just as she starts to accelerate to propel the Bug up the hill, she sees him up ahead, his pack beside him on the ground. There’s my dad. He sticks out his thumb, casually, looking back at her as if willing her to stop. Her fear-excitement jumps from her belly to her throat, and she thinks ,“This is it. “

 

She slows down, the car putt-putting as she puts it into neutral and pulls up beside him. Her upside-down smile peers out the passenger window.

 

“Need a ride?” For a moment he thinks she’s a guy, her hair pulled back and her no-makeup traveling face on. She has that strong jaw, and her prominent nose is more so without her hair framing her face. When he looks closer, he grins.

 

“What are you doing picking up a man by yourself?” I imagine his wheels turning, Ed – always on the prowl.

 

He’d throw his pack in the back, slam the door, and off they drove into my future.

Roads On Her Face #44: People

I imagine it’s like being raised in a commune. Your little network of interactions is so specific and well-known. The outcomes of disagreements are easily predicted; no matter what happens you will stay friends or family, because you have to when your network is only six people deep.

Stepping out into the world of other new and strange people is a different ball game. Relationships are begun, destroyed, fall apart as easily as speaking your mind too bluntly. My second real job was in Glenwood, washing dishes in the institute of a cafe known as the Blue Front (now, sadly closed as many businesses in Glenwood have). I think I was too young to legally work, but the owners’ kids worked there too and besides, nobody cared.  Everyone in town worked here or had worked here in the past. There aren’t a lot of options in a town of 500. Being in the back at first was good for me, since I was shy around people and would often freeze when faced with a question. I talked plenty once you got to know me, though. I had and have a lot of opinions, kinda known for that. I might tell you even if you don’t ask, now, though that’s something I’m trying to work on. I’ve discovered people often don’t want to hear what you think, even if they do ask.

The Blue Front started the granting of my freedom, by providing me with a little bit of money and a small group of mostly ladies that at least pretended to listen to me and maybe felt sorry for me. I credit them with the first lessons in relating to “normal” people who hadn’t lived in cars and buses their entire lives before this town.

I began to learn how to be in one place, what it meant to not always walk away from an issue or something I disliked. I’d never had to learn that before. Before, I’d known that it wouldn’t be long and the problem would be a distant memory.

Government Cheese Moon

The road unfurls at 80 miles per hour (don’t lie, 90) across west Texas. The stars begin to fall, one after another, and the half-eaten moon hangs low and sullen, yellow as government cheese.

After Marfa and the 100 potholes on U.S. 90 beating my tires to death I can see the vivid flashes of lightning in the belly of a massive beast of a storm ahead over Van Horn, billowing unfettered into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. In the inky velveteen blackness I fly past the Prada store and its ironic greenish light stretching toward the empty highway. Consumerism, duly mocked.

Roads On Her Face #41: Melba

Melba had a little sewing and quilting shop on the main drag of
Glenwood, across from the Crab Apple Cabins and next to the creek that
bubbled under the highway. We’d walk through town as kids and stop at
the creek in the shade, to pretend there was a troll under the bridge
or to watch the kids in the summer in town with their parents for
vacation. The strangers in town were always tourists or hunters. The
teenage girls knew when the Forest Service would bring in the Hot
Shots to fight fires in the mountains. As the season got drier and the
heat began, so would the hormones heat up in town. Tan muscled guys
who’d been spending weeks in the mountains would come rolling into
town and the smell of sweat and desire was rank.

Melba gave me another job in exchange for sewing lessons. I helped her
in the shop, and gave her massages after work. Pressing her doughy
flesh as she sighed in her room, I decided I didn’t want to be a
massage therapist.

Our first Christmas I was the charity case for the women’s quilting
group. I imagine the meeting they had as they picked their deserving
recipient.

“That little homeless girl in the trailer, Mary’s daughter? You know
she’d just love a quilt, ladies. Let’s stitch her a new life made of
goodwill and tiny stitched dolls wearing flowered dresses.”

It was a sweet gesture. I wished I hadn’t had to give her massages,
though. I made sure I was as busy as I could be so I could tell her I
didn’t have time anymore for sewing. I never made clothing that fit me
quite right, anyway.

I participated in everything. I went to the ladies’ oil painting group
and painted colorful quick paintings, two to a month, while the older
ladies had been working on the same thing for a year. I livened up
their day and made them laugh.

Lynn took me under her artist’s wing, because I loved to paint so
much. She’d come in with her brush and refine my splashes and swirls,
add color and depth when I didn’t take the time. She could tell I
needed a little refinement.

People started asking me to babysit their kids, and I still didn’t
know how to say no yet so I did. After one last overnight with a
couple of little boys who wanted to sleep in the bed with me and tried
to run roughshod, I realized I didn’t have to do this anymore. I was
making enough money at my other jobs…

Windstalker hired me to tie the hundreds of pottery chile ristras they
hung at the door, their best sellers to folks looking for a New
Mexican souvenir. My fingers were raw and bled as I knotted the cords
together and burned the ends with a lighter to prevent them
unraveling.

We spent days at the Catwalk in the cold water of the canyons,
exploring under the rocks and back away from the trail. We swam in the
deep dark swimming holes beneath giant boulders, climbed barefoot up
the cliffsides and swung from trees like monkeys. One of my best friends Adele and I parked with boys in the parking lot of the picnic grounds late at night, watching the stars, and I sighed and was bored as she made out in the backseat. I still looked
like a little girl with zits  who didn’t know how to dress, and her
curves and breasts had been womanly for years already. When would I be
desirable? I was in such a hurry and the time was so close. I felt
like I had so many years to catch up on, not realizing the length of
the years before me. I always knew I would want to slow down time,
though, and it’s been a recurring theme in my journals since I started them at 8 years old.

I have always known I’ll be looking back in 10 years, then  20 (if luck favors the bold), wondering where did the time go?

Roads On Her Face #40: All I Ever Wanted Was Room

My diary tells me all I wanted was my own room. A place that didn’t move. People who knew me, boys who looked at me and wanted me and asked for my number. Only I’d never had a number. The only telephones we used were pay phones, at a corner behind the casino in Winnemucca while the dust blew by and the clouds settled in, while Dad played cards and drank somewhere inside and we sat outside and tried to be still and patient, tempers growing thin and us fidgeting, hungry. In front of a Bashas’ grocery store in Parker, Arizona, from the safety of a grocery trip that got Mom and I away from the desert on our own for a whole day to civilization, ice cream, the library. She’d check in on Granny, call her friend back in Georgia. Let them know we were still alive – did they wonder how long? But she’d made her own choices, they’d say, shaking well-coiffed Southern heads and not even trying to understand. She always was a little wild, that Mary. I didn’t know the wild Mary existed. All I’d ever seen was a sweet cowed woman that loved us more than anything.

Kids don’t know any better. They’re programmed to want to conform, to fit in, to survive in the herd and not be noticed. If I’d continued on the road as a teenager, if we’d kept going while I decided who I was going to be I would never have been able to stop. I know it in my bones. They say “You’d still be on the road, baby. You’d be somewhere in South America by now. On your way to China.” And I ache to be that person that I might have been. The person that I am feels hollow, too light to pull myself free from the clay of the earth and the roots growing round my feet. I imagine the flutter of leaves breaking free from branches, the flight of each one flashes of tiny freedoms and bursts of joy.