Millicent was a pretty and quite precocious young girl. By age 5, she had developed a startling trait of listening to adults a little too closely. While her contemporaries squabbled over dolls and crayons, she dedicated herself to watching the strange adults around her. Instinctively, she also learned to spread her questions around among a variety of adults. After a certain number of questions, most adults became defensive or, worse, annoyed. Much of the time, their answers made little sense. Though she was young, it didn’t take her long to decide that most adults were winging it in life. Because she figured out that it was true for almost everyone, it didn’t upset her or make her sad.
Grandma Tuggins, her mother’s mom, noticed Millicent’s vocabulary had exceeded her own by age 6. Millie often sat on the floor while the older women watched “As The World Turns.” In the mid-70s, it was the show that defined daytime soap operas for women in Georgia. During one of the biggest melodramatic moments of the season, Millie stood up and announced, “Well, the plot is a bit preposterous if I’m expected to swallow the fact that she’s in love with both of those gentlemen!” She stomped away to get herself a bottle of Coke from the fridge. Tugs and the other women laughed.
Tugs, as her friends called her, knew the dangers of a girl being too smart. Alabama was still behind the times in 1975. Tugs made it her mission to bend Millie’s inquisitive nature before things got out of hand. Tugs was the organist at the Methodist church in town. She played the organ on Sundays and did the books for Reverend Hawkins. Within weeks of watching her grandmother as she counted the money and paid the bills for the church, Millie could do the math in her head.
Everyone knew that Millicent had announced that she could read on her fourth birthday. For a year, she would stare at the books on the floor or in her lap as she sat in the rocking chair with her mom. Her lips didn’t move, but her eyes seemed to read the words on the pages. She started with her collection of Curious George Books. Soon enough and her mom found her with a Nancy Drew series boxed up in the cellar. Millie’s other grandmother, Ellie, bought Millie a set of Encyclopedia Brown books for her birthday. “Just like a real set of encyclopedias,” she proudly (and wrongly) proclaimed. No one told her they weren’t the same thing. After eating the cake with no frosting, Uncle Pete asked Millie to read a bit of Encyclopedia Brown to him, knowing she wouldn’t be able to. A full chapter later, as Millie recited the words perfectly, Uncle Pete kept saying, “Lord, where did she get all them brains from? Ain’t none of us got that much smarts.” Grandma Tugs knew better. Millie’s dead father Andrew was the guilty party to passing along so much brains. Andrew also liked to take shortcuts for everything.
What concerned Tugs the most was the Wednesday evening when Millie turned from her chair and said, “The Reverend makes a lot of money for selling promises, doesn’t he?” Tugs burst out laughing at the question. “Yes, but his message makes a lot of people happy, Millicent!” Millie looked a little troubled. “Mr. Harley doesn’t seem happy about the message. I think his drinking has him thinking he might not go upstairs when he dies.” Grandma Tugs laughed again, but she was surprised that Millicent knew that Mr. Harley had a drinking problem – or that she had a grasp of the difference between Heaven and the brimstone place.
As the years passed, Millicent’s grades suffered. She was more interested in learning from books on her own and doing things with her hands dirty up to her elbows. She learned the piano by watching Grandma Tugs. Her Grandma spent one afternoon showing her what all the squiggles were on the music book and how they corresponded to the keys on a piano. Grandma Tugs spent years to get decently good. Millie needed less than a few weeks before her fingers learned the keyboard and improvised on the fly. “Grandma, can we jazz it up a little next Sunday? Give Reverend Hawkins a shock?” Grandma Tugs hugged Millie close to her on the piano bench. “That would be a hoot, wouldn’t it?” Tugs decided she needed to keep an even closer eye on Millie.
In fifth grade, Reverend Hawkins visited Heritage Elementary School, where Millie attended. Despite all the arguing about it, her school still offered a Bible Study class. Millie hated all the discussion. “People say it means stuff that isn’t written in there! At least with Encyclopedia Brown, the answer is the answer.” Grandma Tugs would shake her head and tell her to focus on not blurting out what was going on inside her head. Reverend Hawkins had no idea that he was about to face his most formidable adversary.
“Boys and girls, I hope you’ve been reading your Bibles. It’s just as important as math and reading comic books,” he said, as Millie’s focus wandered. She started at the open dictionary on her desk instead.
Millie looked up, surprised. The Reverend had asked her to tell her what her favorite Bible verse was. “Proverbs 31:6,” Millie said immediately. The Reverend looked startled as he hastily searched for the verse in his Bible. Millie told him, “Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish.” Several of her classmates laughed. “Proverbs 20:1 says, ‘Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler, whoever is led astray by them is not wise.'” Ms. Atkins politely applauded Reverend Hawkins.
Reverend Hawkins began to speak again. Millie cut him off, saying, “1 Timothy 5:23: Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” Both the Reverend and Ms. Atkins stared at one another in consternation.
“Can I speak to you in the hallway, Ms. Atkins?” The Reverend didn’t wait for an answer and almost ran outside into the hallway. After a minute of whispered discussion away from the eyes of the class, they both returned.
Ms. Atkins folded her hands in front of her. “Class, let’s all give Millicent a round of applause for studying her Bible so diligently!” Her face was flushed. Her classmates nervously applauded. They knew something wasn’t right but didn’t know quite what had happened. “Let’s all make our way single file to the cafeteria where we’ll all enjoy a milk and chocolate pudding with the Reverend.” At that, everyone began to talk animatedly and to lose their interest in what had happened. When Millicent stood, Reverend Hawkins asked her to wait a moment.
“Millie, how did you know those verses? Alcohol is a subject a little advanced for you.” The Reverend had underestimated Millie. He wouldn’t be the last.
“I learned the Bible, Reverend. And everyone has alcohol in their houses. Even you.” Millie smiled at him.
“You learned it? How much?” He seemed concerned. He filed away the idea that Millicent somehow knew he liked to drink a bit of whiskey. Oddly, he suddenly wanted a sip right then, too.
“All of it. It’s already broken into indexed pieces by book, chapter, and verse.” Millie wasn’t bragging.
Revered Hawkins opened and closed his mouth several times. Finally, almost croaking, he said, “Let’s go get some pudding.” Millicent ran out of the classroom, smiling.
Pinche decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. He drank three or four cups of bitter coffee and felt restless, especially for an overcast fall day. After reading several hundred pages of one of his favorite books, even those beloved words grew stale for him. Grabbing a jacket on the way out, he put it on as he crossed the old, narrow cement walkway to the street.
As Pinche passed his next-door neighbor’s house, Sam waved to him and laughed. Though it was just 4:45 in the afternoon, Sam already had a glass of ice and another small glass for his whiskey. “Hey, Pinche neighbor!” Ever since Pinche bought the old house on Elm Street, his neighbors took delight in saying his name, mainly because “Pinche” meant “damn” in Spanish. Pinche didn’t have the heart to tell them it often meant much worse. Them not knowing as they yelled his name always resulted in him laughing back. He hoped that dozens of white people were still saying his name without realizing it could be shocking to many people. Pinche’s grandfather got the blame for naming him; he cursed at least a thousand times the first month he discovered that Pinche’s mother became accidentally pregnant when she was only seventeen. When he found out that a priest was the father, he cursed even more and didn’t stop until Pinche was five years old. Pinche’s Mom decided to memorialize the cursing by choosing a potentially mild one as a name.
Pinche also always whistled as he walked. He didn’t know he was doing it unless a neighbor or passerby commented on it. From show tunes to rap to blues and rock, Pinche’s grasp of music was incredible. He studied piano for several years and could sing like an angel. One of his favorite things to do while walking was to whistle three-octave scales. His Mom told him to whistle as much as he wanted because God sent him to teach the birds how to sing.
Pinche turned at the next block and walked down Maple street, an older street with massive oak trees in many yards. As he neared the house directly behind his a street over, he noted that The Wilkerson’s house front door was open. A panel truck sat at the curb out front. Their light blue piano sat on a mover’s platform at the base of the porch steps. Almost no one knew that the piano once belonged to Liberace. Pinche was in on the secret because of his perfect pitch and skill with a piano. He knew that the Wilkersons were in Ohio visiting their son. Usually, Pinche jumped the back fence to check in on their cat Purrincess, which it turns out was probably the ugliest cat in North America. Its meow sounded like a loose cello string being dragged across an electric fence.
Pinche slowed as a man wearing a blue uniform exited the front door. He pulled the door closed behind him as he did. The man seemed surprised to see Pinche near the oak tree by the street. The uniformed man nodded and stopped at the piano.
“I can’t believe that the Wilkersons are selling that piano. They turned down a huge offer last year. They don’t play, of course. Such a waste for such a famous piano. An unplayed piano is like an empty heart.” Pinche chatted casually with everyone who would listen. It sometimes resulted in great conversation and sometimes with hurried looks of annoyance.
The piano mover sighed. “Yes, they got an offer they couldn’t ignore. Hey, could you help me shift this over the edge of the sidewalk?”
Pinche walked over and pushed the piano to the left while the piano man pushed toward the street. Surprisingly, the piano smoothly rolled. “The right equipment makes the job easier,” the piano mover said as if reading Pinche’s mind. They continued moving to the sidewalk. While they slowed, the piano man continued to push evenly. The base fluidly lowered to street level. The piano mover then drove it onto the waiting platform that was already lowered to street level.
“Thanks, you made this a lot easier if the piano had shifted.” While he spoke, he threw a protective blanket across the piano and threw soft straps across it. As he powered the lift up, Pinche asked him, “Who is the buyer? This is a fairly famous piano.”
“A buyer in New York. He’s wanted this piano for at least 20 years.” The piano mover continued to tighten and adjust the straps as he moved the piano inside the confines of the panel truck.
Pinche remained standing by the truck, watching the piano mover.
After a couple of minutes, the piano mover came back down to street level and then raised the platform and locked it vertically against the back of the truck.
“Listen, am I in trouble here?” The piano mover asked Pinche, suddenly revealing his nervousness.
“It depends,” Pinche said. “Is the piano going to someone who will play it? And did you lock the Wilkerson’s front door to prevent anyone else from paying a visit?”
“Yes to the door, and yes, indeed, he will. And the family here can take the $30,000 cashier’s check I left on the counter. Or they can file insurance for theft. Or both, if you know what I mean.” The piano mover took a moment to look Pinche in the eyes.
Pinche extended his right hand as the piano mover reluctantly shook it.
“It’s a deal.” Pinche nodded goodbye and turned to walk away.
The piano mover shook his head in a bit of surprise and confusion as Pinche walked away.
By the time Pinche reached the other end of Maple Street, and the piano mover opened the driver’s door of the truck, he could Pinche happily whistling “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” as his pace quickened.
Pinche felt a sudden case of forgetfulness overcoming him as Liberace filled the air.
After I wrote my Rip-Shirt story, someone messaged me to tell me she knew who the person was I taught to stitch. And then she gave me the gift of sharing a few anecdotes about the time she spent with him. My memory didn’t keep any recollections of them being close. But I take pride in knowing that my little story, the one about a sliver of my life, took her back to another time. I did that. And she felt comfortable enough to share bits of herself with me – someone who is a hack but loves personal stories.
I think we all crave personal stories if we can stop worrying about language or our words being misconstrued. Who are we kidding? We don’t understand ourselves, not really, so the expectation that others conform to an idea of our self-image that we don’t even possess is a bit preposterous.
I love to think that every once in a while that I write something that triggers a memory and hopefully a fond one. While we should not get anchored in the past, there are few greater pleasures than using our nostalgic eyes to wander in time. As we age, we change around the static memories. It’s our gift. For anyone lucky enough, our memories soften and gauze our eyes to the harshness that pervades people.
As for the man I taught to stitch in my story, I have a couple of stories that are simply hard to believe. One of them is either incurably romantic – or breathtakingly odd. The overlap of both possibilities is what makes me remember it. I don’t remember all the details, but I’ll try to write the story in a future post in such a way so that no one gets in the crosshairs about it. Other than the man in question, only one other person knew it happened. I used to think I understood his motives clearly. Age taught me that I was mistaken. I wish I had known then that piece of his heart. Though you don’t know of which story I’m writing, I laugh and admit that the day I’ll write about would definitely have ended differently.
For now, I just wanted to share that I feel like my rip-shirt story pushed several people back in time to consider people they loved. People wrote to me on my blog, too. Sewing is an activity that most people predominantly feel echoes from their childhood.
Each time I share such stories, many of them seem to take on a life of their own. Others see them and realize that they too are connected to me in intangible ways. Whether it is a plane crash on a clear blue day, an untimely death, that some of our family are not who we think, the closets of secrets so many of us carry in our front pockets as we live our lives, we each are capable of surprising ourselves and others.
The coincidences and unlikely overlap of our lives should no longer surprise me.
But it does. And whatever regard for other’s people stories I have, they envelop me.*
I stood at the edge of the rural road, looking north. Because I knew another road once met the edge of the one I stood on, I could see the subtle difference in the ground and the trees’ varying thickness ahead that the forgotten dirt road left behind. Up until 1965, the road led to the Chowderwick house, once home to a prosperous family. It had likely fallen in now and was probably a pile of boards and tin cups somewhere back in the dense trees. It was likely that no one would remember that a house once proudly stood back there in a generation. Such places litter the South.
From the confines of my mind, I saw an image of Lilly Chowderwick when she was 6. In 1964, the Esper community went into shock when they heard Lilly had been abducted and likely murdered. Sheriff Brimley found blood along the floorboards near the wood stove in the front room and along the porch that comprised the entire length of the front of the house. Dogs lost the scent at the edge of the porch. To him, such things indicated that whoever did the crime had planned on not being caught.
Sheriff Brimley conducted as thorough an investigation as was possible in the South in those days. He concluded that Lilly was likely dead and that someone would slip up and say something incriminating one day. Or, more likely, someone would stumble upon a hidden set of bones somewhere within the rural boundaries of Maylean County.
Lilly’s dad Jeffrey inherited a good fortune. It included a store along Main Street as well as some mining interests across two counties. He didn’t inherit the savvy or patience that Lilly’s grandfather used to build a small fortune. By the early 1960s, the Chowderwicks had retreated to the acreage along the road on which I stood. Jeffrey was rumored to beat his once beautiful wife, Lilian. Lilian often disappeared from public view for days on end. Esper, like all small towns, whispered and gossiped each time. After Lilly’s murder, Lilian fell into a trance and seldom spoke. It seemed like she was waiting for her turn.
Sheriff Brimley brought in Jeffrey for questioning. Jeffrey insisted he had nothing to do with Lilly’s disappearance. Although the Sheriff believed his story, he arranged a trunk interrogation a week later. Two of his deputies grabbed Jeffrey as he walked on the edge of the town drunk. They deposited him in the trunk of one of their cars and drove him a few miles to a barn. After convincing Jeffrey he would likely die in that barn that night, they decided he hadn’t abducted or killed his daughter. He was capable of it, though. He confessed to beating his wife repeatedly.
In 1965, Jeffrey died when he drank too much and walked out onto the main road on a cold Wednesday night. A truck loaded with lumber crushed him as he stumbled out onto the road. The driver said he never saw Jeffrey. The accident happened where the swamp and creek encroached on the farmland adjacent to it. The trees often leaned and overhung the road.
Within months, Lilian left without saying goodbye. Everyone assumed she moved out west where distant cousins once lived. No one knew for sure.
I had promised to tell no one the secrets of Esper or Lilian and Lilly Chowderwick. Fifty-five years later, I knew that DNA would out their family secret. I knew what no one else did: that little girl had not been abducted or killed. Lilian murdered her husband. She endured countless beatings after the burial of the empty coffin that should have held her daughter. When the time was right, she killed Jeffrey and put his body on the road. I helped.
Despite my promise, I can finally say that I know all this because I’m the one who drove little Lily out of town in May of 1964. If she had stayed, her father would have continued to abuse her or worse.
My confession must include that I am an accessory to several crimes.
I’m not sorry, and I don’t apologize.
In a few minutes, Lillian would drive down this road and meet me in the place she swore she’d never see again. And with her would be Lilly, now 61 years old, a grandmother in her own right, with a full life that remained a mystery to me. At that age, we decided that she should know that we killed her father.
Though the air was filled with dust, the tears on my face came from a place of nostalgia.
There are hidden roads everywhere if you know where to look.
The day grew long legs while I was busy frittering away the hours. I was so accustomed to hurling myself from the bed at an early hour that I wasn’t sure my enthusiasm for a long walk would meet me outside so late in the day. I was wrong, though. Even though it was Nov 19, it was warm enough for a brisk walk, even at 4 p.m. The sun was slowly dropping toward the horizon. Its orange glow made me squint as I hurried along the leaf-strewn trail. I felt as if I could walk for ten miles and that the receding sun was being converted directly into propellant for my feet. The recognition of my initial reluctance to take a walk reminded me that once started, few walks fail to yield positive moments.
As I passed the house I had christened “hoarder house,” its yard still seemed like an abandoned junkyard. I’ve written about the hoarder house once before. Its existence had surprised me, so close to the modern new homes and bright recently-built park. I counted no fewer than five boats, eleven vehicles, and at least forty appliances scattered through the unkempt yard. Even the grass seemed to have given up, trading its light brown hue for a dingy, decaying gray. The pile had grown so unmanageable that I couldn’t see much of the front of the house as I approached it from the city limits. Last summer, I could smell the contents of the yard as I strolled past. I used street view maps to look back in time and found myself staring at a mostly empty yard. That the yard became so cluttered so quickly was a surprise.
Reaching the sign that indicated “NO turnaround, private property” a few hundred feet past the hoarder house, I turned and began my trek back. The road dead-ended a little further along, and despite its proximity to the city limits, something primal in the back of my mind stopped me from walking to the end of the gravel road. As I approached the hoarder house on my return, I noticed smoke slowly escaping the dilapidated chimney at the end of the house closest to me. I didn’t see smoke when I had passed the house the first time. At this point, it was just a few minutes shy of sundown, which was going to occur a little after five that afternoon. The orange tint to the air had deepened, and the air’s chill was beginning to feel like the inside of a refrigerator door when first opened. While I prefer the early morning sun’s desolate greeting, some sunsets evoke a deep, peaceful feeling in me. The evening walk felt like a slice of stolen time, and I realized that I hadn’t once thought about how far I had walked.
I approached the cluttered driveway of the house. I saw what I thought was a cat jumping up and down in a bare spot in the grass near the front steps and probably hunting mice in the debris. After a few more seconds, I realized it might be a human arm rising from a prone position. My pulse quickened. As I passed the rusted barrels obstructing a clear view of the house, I could see an elderly lady. She had fallen off the steps, her legs tangled under her, and her messy silver hair scattered around her face like shorn feathers. Her right arm moved up and down while her left arm remained immobile. I ran toward the porch, dodging debris and trash as I neared the fallen woman. I felt a sharp pain in my right forearm as a sliver of metal pierced my skin and cut me deeply. The metal shard was protruding from the edge of a small boat. I knew I was bleeding. For the time being, I ignored it and ran the few steps remaining to the porch.
Kneeling, I put my hand on the woman’s exposed left arm. Her flesh was cold. Had I not seen her moving, I would have been sure that she was dead. I pushed the hair away from her face, expecting some unseen injury. “Ma’am! Are you okay?” I shook her more harshly than I had intended.
I looked up toward the closed door above both me and then the small porch steps. When I looked back, the woman was staring at me, both eyes open. I almost screamed. Her eyes were clouded and silvery. Her lips began to move, although no words escaped her mouth.
“Hold on. I’ll call an ambulance.” I looked directly into the woman’s unsettling silvery eyes as I said it, to comfort her.
Her right arm came up, and her fingers encircled my left wrist. “No,” she croaked, her voice barely discernible. “Please. Help. In the house.”
Lifting her and getting her in the house was momentarily overshadowed by the idea of going inside this house at all. I had thought many times about how terrible it must be inside there. The place seemed to be the embodiment of decay. On previous walks, I could smell the presence of the house and yard from the road. I hesitated and considered calling an ambulance anyway. As I looked at the woman’s face, though, I knew that I wouldn’t call. It seemed like this wasn’t her first serious fall. I wondered what might have happened to her had I not wandered by on an impromptu walk.
Without her telling me, I knew her left arm was almost useless to her. I crouched and put my right arm under hers and pulled. She feebly pushed with one of her legs, and she wobbled up. Oddly, she smelled of vanilla and cinnamon.
We took the three steps up the porch one at a time, without any hurry. I grabbed the broken door handle with my left arm even though I knew my right arm, which supported her, was probably leaving a bloody trail across the fallen woman’s back as the cut on my arm continued to pulse in pain.
I couldn’t get the door to open, even as I pushed hard.
“Hard. Push!” croaked the woman. I leaned in and pushed with more force than I intended. The door popped open, and before I could stop us, we both fell inside. I felt the crunch and fold of paper as I tumbled in.
I resisted the urge to scramble upright, hoping our unintentionally gymnastic entrance didn’t further injure the woman. I rolled her over to her back. Her hair looked like a silver mop blown by a malicious wind. I leaned over and pulled her up. As I looked around the room, I was surprised by how few furnishings were in the living room. The floors were covered with newspapers. I shuddered to imagine what was beneath the multiple layers. A couch sat on the far left, and at least six armchairs were on the right. None of them matched one another. I moved toward the chair furthest from the door as I carefully pulled the woman along with me. Cups, saucers, and papers surrounded the chair. I knew from experience that almost all hoarders tend to make a nest in the spot where they spend the most personal time.
I helped the woman turn and let her go a bit too soon. As she fell into the chair, I heard a ‘whoosh,’ followed by a high-pitched squeal which turned out to be a startled tortoise-shell cat fleeing in surprise. It ran through the doorway near the fireplace. I noted no fire in the fireplace but didn’t understand why that seemed to bother me. While I couldn’t see into the next room, I could hear things moving, though, and I wasn’t certain whether the sounds were from mice, cats, or some strange thing better left unbothered.
Not wanting to leave the woman until I knew she was safe, I reached under the lampshade and attempted to turn on the lamp next to her chair. My hand ran across a mass of cobwebs. I quickly snatched my hand back. The old woman cackled as she reached across and brushed her hand on the lamp. It turned on immediately.
“Son, you can call me Dolores.” Her voice sounded like a broken drawl, one accustomed to fatigue.
“Nice to meet you, Dolores, and sorry about the circumstances.” I moved to sit on one of the other five chairs, trying to pose myself as little as possible across its front cushion. As I sat, I could smell the dust and years of neglect rise out of the fabric.
For several minutes we sat in silence. My mind was asking several questions, none of which did I dare utter. I wasn’t sure how much of her condition was chronic and how much might have been exacerbated this afternoon in her latest fall. I remembered the cut on my arm. It was now just bloody and drying across my forearm, although it still throbbed. It didn’t occur to me that I should leave, so I sat, in silence, waiting for some sign of what to do.
“Fetch me that album off the shelf there. The one with the purple tassel,” Delores said. Her voice had substantially cleared up. I stood up and carefully placed one foot in front of the other as I crossed the room. As I pulled it from the edge of the shelf, I realized it was a photo album. A purple tassel dangled from within its pages.
I handed it to her and lowered it slowly so that the weight of it wouldn’t surprise her. She placed it on her lap. Instead of opening it, she asked me to pull a worn stool over from near the door. Though it was well-used, it was dark black and had a faint carving in the top; whether it was a wolf or a dog, I couldn’t tell. Someone had undoubtedly made it with their own hands. I picked it up and placed it near her, and sat on it. It was strange that I didn’t hesitate to sit close to her.
She opened the album. Inside the first page was a large photograph of a mostly smiling family. Across the top, it read, “Fising Family 1922.” She pointed at a young girl in the front, probably five years old. “That’s me, sonny. I was a happy girl.” I did the math. The little girl in the black and white photo was smiling as she gripped the left leg of the man standing next to her. Dolores was somewhere around 100 years old now.
As if reading my thoughts, she said, “Today is my birthday! Nov 19.” I was finding it hard to believe that she would be alone at that age. Dolores turned to the next page, reciting names. “My sister Georgie. My brother George. My mom, Georgie Mae Nador. My dad, George Wilson Fising. He was born in Romania but was adopted by someone coming to America. His real family was wealthy and sent him here.” She continued to turn the pages. I found myself looking intently at all the strangers in her album, imagining the one hundred years they documented.
She paused. “My son George. My only child who survived childbirth. He had seventeen kids. Can you believe it?” The next picture was of George, probably taken in the 1970s. Kids were sitting, standing, and crouching in every direction. “He had 47 grandchildren. What a wonderful life.”
“Where does he live now?” I whispered.
“He died in a fire on Christmas night many years ago. A good life, no regrets. He was the spitting image of my husband. My husband ran off the day George was born. He couldn’t take watching another child die. We lost nine kids before George was born and survived. I know how he felt, so I never begrudged him leaving like that. It was a relief, actually.” She sighed, undoubtedly picturing her husband in her thoughts.
We sat, slowly looking at every picture. Dolores occasionally commented. As she turned to the last picture, I could see that it was a snapshot of a very old man. He had a high hat in one hand and a cane in the other. He was smiling outrageously at the camera. Underneath the picture, someone had scribbled, “Yikes!”
“That’s my dad, George. That’s the day he died. He died on his 100th birthday, as spry as someone forty years younger. All his life, he joked that the Fising family in Romania was so wealthy because they all lived to be over 100 years old. He loved saying “Yikes” every time we turned around. We would often tell each other “Yikes” instead of “I love you.” It was a way of reminding us that life was just as many sparks and dismay as having a good time. But lord, we lived extraordinary lives.” Dolores wiped at her eyes with her right arm. It struck me that Dolores had, indeed, lived a proud life.
We sat and let the light diminish around us. As Dolores shared stories, I felt as if history itself were sitting in the room with us, cleverly hiding its presence. I pulled my cellphone out and was surprised to see that it was 7:30 and that we had been looking at pictures for over 2 hours. I didn’t want to pry, so I asked her if there was anything she needed. “No, I’m going to sit here a spell, sonny, and let the dark catch my thoughts.” The way she said it told me that she learned the phrase decades ago.
“Dolores,” I said, “Would it be okay with you if I come back tomorrow afternoon and look at another photo album with you?”
“Oh yes, that would be divine.” Dolores crookedly smiled. “Can you bring snack cakes,” she asked, her voice trailing.
I reached out and touched her hand as I stood, grabbing the stool to move it back where I had found it.
“Tomorrow it is, and yes, for the treats,” I said, trying to get outside before I started crying.
As soon as I opened the door, I realized it was dark. Pulling out my phone, I used its glow to slowly step around the obstacles in the yard and make my way back to the road. Once I reached it, I looked back and could see no lights on inside. Whether Delores used the time it took me to traverse the obstacles of her yard to cover the crevices or her windows or turned off all the lights, the idea of her seated in the living room alone bothered me.
The next afternoon, I finished work, and instead of parking at the park nearby to walk over, I drove and left my car a few hundred feet from Dolores’ hoarder house. I brought out a package of snack cakes and walked up to the house. After navigating the yard, I knocked loudly on the door several times. Finally, I heard a voice say, “Come on in.” I pushed the door hard to knock it loose, and it popped open.
“Sonny!” Delores said with energy. “I didn’t think you’d make it back.” Delores was wearing the same thin floral dress she had on the day before. She was seated in the same chair. Had I not know it was impossible, I would have believed she had remained in the same position since last night.
I handed her the bag of desserts, and as she clumsily looked inside, she laughed. “For some reason, I thought you’d bring me a fruitcake.” She looked up at me.
“I love fruitcakes, Dolores,” I said.
“I had a thought you might, sonny. I haven’t had one in what seems like a long spell.” I made a mental note to bring her a fruitcake. Or five. She placed the bag of cakes on the floor next to her.
Dolores asked me to bring her over another photo album, so I fumbled with the shelf’s contents until I pulled down an album with a green tassel. “My grandkids,” Dolores commented.
I pulled up the stool and sat. Delores once again began flipping the pages carefully, adding an anecdote or story about each one. Time stood still in that hoarded living room. Unlike yesterday, Delores seemed energetic and intensely created a whispered narrative of dozens of unfamiliar faces. I envied her life, though, the one cataloged in that album.
Her voice seemed to mimic a minor-key melody played on only black keys of an old piano. When she spoke of some of her family and the memories, I could discern a lilting pattern and uplift to her voice.
After she finished and closed the album, she told me some of the stories her father shared with her, many of them from Romania. Her love of fruitcake and minciunele were born from inside jokes she and her father had shared. “Never eat minciunele or fruitcake when you’re sad!” he would tell me.” For a moment, I could smell baking pastry dough pulled from a hot oven.
We both sat, staring into the past. As was the case yesterday, I was unaware of how much time had passed. I looked at my cellphone. Four hours had passed.
I stood and took the green tassel photo album from Dolores, and I placed it back on the shelf.
“Dolores, Thanksgiving is a couple of days away, the 23rd. I can’t come by tomorrow, but I’d love to come to see you on the holiday if you don’t mind. I’ll bring you a fruitcake and some fixings, if you’d like.” I couldn’t imagine her not being with family, but I was committed to avoid the sin of prying.
“Ooh, I’d love that, sonny.” She smiled.
An overwhelming urge to hug her possessed me, so I leaned in and wrapped my arms around her. She smelled like cinnamon again. “I forgot what it feels like to be hugged,” she said as I squeezed. I managed to get outside before my eyes filled with tears. Over one hundred years of life under her belt and dozens of family members in the world, and yet I was the one connecting with her. I stopped at the market on the way home and bought two small fruitcakes for my Thanksgiving visit. One for her and one for me. Or both for her, if she insisted.
Three days later, I again parked on the roadside a distance away. As I came up to the infamously cluttered driveway, I noted a newer Escalade was parked with its bumper up against the debris littering the front of the yard.
“Family is here after all,” I thought to myself. Though I was glad to know she had company, I felt a little put off by their presence.
I walked through the yard, and as I was about to knock on the door, it opened in front of me.
An older lady stood at the door, a mask hanging at her neck. Beneath it, I noted an ornate cross with a diamond inset.
“Yes. Can I help you?” She asked.
“I’m here to see Delores. We made arrangements to have fruitcake today.” I smiled.
“When might you have made those arrangements, sir?” She looked angry.
“Two days ago. Is she here? Is she okay?” I was getting an uneasy feeling.
“No, she’s not okay – and neither are you. I don’t know what game you’re playing. I’m Dolores’ granddaughter. She died a year ago on Nov 19.” Suddenly, I felt dizzy.
The next thing I was aware of, someone was shaking me and shouting.
“Hey, are you okay? What the hell? You passed out.” The lady who had answered the door was leaning over me. I felt the cold ground under me.
I rolled to prop myself up and sit upright on the ground. There were pieces of tools scattered all around me, all rusted. I had narrowly missed hitting a pile of pipes when I fell off the porch. It occurred to me that I had fallen almost in the very spot where Dolores had dropped a few days ago.
After a minute, I shakily stood up.
Delores’ granddaughter must have felt responsible for my fainting as she motioned for me to wobble my way up the stairs and inside. Without thinking, I grabbed the wolf stool by the door and sat on it.
The woman handed me a bottle of water. I opened it and drank almost all of it in one continuous gulp.
“I’m Georgie. Who are you?” Her voice was softer now, although I could tell she was a little concerned that I might be crazy.
“My name is X. I live a couple of miles away.” Realizing that my name probably didn’t help, I added, “And I met Dolores for the first time a couple of evenings ago. She told me a lot of stories.” I didn’t know what to say, in part because I had never fainted as an adult.
“I’m sorry. Dolores died Nov 19, 2016… X. There’s no way you saw her a couple of days ago.”
Before she could continue, I interrupted. “Delores Fising, born Nov 19, 1917, to Georgie Mae Nador and George Wilson Fising, born in Romania. Dolores was married and had nine miscarriages until her only child, George, was born. He had seventeen kids and forty-seven grandchildren, of which you are one.”
Georgie’s face slowly took on a shocked and confused look. “I don’t know how you know all of that, X, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s been dead over a year. I’m here to hand the place over to someone who wants the property. Today was the only day I could drive here.” She waited for me to reply.
“Get the purple tassel photo album off the shelf, and I’ll tell you a few stories.” I was floating in a cloud of confused bewilderment.
As Georgie retrieved the album, she handed it to me and sat on one of the chairs nearby. I opened the book and pointed. “This is Dolores, a happy child. Her father, mother, and family. I turned the page and loosely shared the same anecdotes Delores told me. Before turning the last page, I looked at Georgie and said, “Yikes!” “and then turned the page. This pictured is your grandfather George on his 100th birthday, the day he passed away. He taught the entire family to say “Yikes!” as an endearment.”
Georgie’s face blanched as I finished, and she stood up and retrieved the green tassel photo album and handed it to me. I opened it and recited a dozen family stories.
“Your father George died in a fire on Christmas day. Dolores said those sad times will always be held in check because your family was afflicted with happiness. I think that’s how she put it.” I closed the second photo album and sat in silence. “Afflicted with happiness.”
“Wow. I don’t know what to say. You don’t sound crazy. But there’s no way your story is true, X.” She shook her head, trying to escape the feeling of underlying magic in that dirty living room.
“I’m going to need to think about this. Is that okay?” Before letting me answer, she stood up and found a short pencil and a scrap of paper. “This is where Dolores is buried. Go see her.” She handed me another scrap of paper and said, “Write down your phone number for me, and if I can bring myself to do it, I’ll call you.”
I noted my phone number. As I handed it to Georgie, she grabbed my hand and clasped it between hers. She was looking intently into my eyes. “They passed down stories about how superstitious the family in Romania was. Strange goings-on, probably just stories to spook us. It’s working. I’m spooked. Dolores had a knack of knowing things and always told everyone that life never ended, at least not the invisible part.”
The next morning, I called in sick at work. I had resisted using my ancestry skills to look for Dolores digitally. As I’m an early riser, by 6 a.m. I was driving, following the unknown roads east of town. Several missed and wrong turns later, I found myself going down an uncertain dirt path around 7 a.m. The sun was just peeking above the distant horizon. Next to me in the passenger’s seat sat Dolores’ fruitcake. I couldn’t drive any further as the dried grass and weeds made it impossible to see what might be found underneath. The wind had subsided, and the cold enveloped me as I exited my car, fruitcake in hand.
I crossed through the sparse trees and dead foliage, dodging stray limbs as I walked. Ahead, I saw the broken teeth of graying tombstones rising from dead grass. The cemetery wasn’t plotted like most rectangular gravesites. There was no uniformity between rows, nor interval space between the stones. Limbs and piles of blown leaves littered everything. Guessing, I’d say there were only thirty marked graves.
As I approached, I could see the name “Fising” engraved or marked in haphazard fonts along the stones. It seemed as if all the stones were marked with that surname. I walked along the first row, searching for signs of a recent grave. The newest one I found was already fifteen years old. Fearing I had missed the resting place of Dolores, I turned to look back, and that’s when her spot caught my eye.
Stepping hastily across the cemetery, I made a straight line to the most massive tree in the rear of the grave area. Someone had piled sandstones in a rough circle around a tombstone, extending seven or so feet from the headstone.
Her stone was a large native rock, carefully inscribed with the following: “Dolores. Lived 100 years and several lifetimes.”
Despite its primitive construction, it was a beautiful spot in an unspoiled area. I tentatively stepped on the sandstones to reach the tombstone. I opened the fruitcake and unwrapped it, placing it along one of the headstone’s smoother top sections.
As I stood up, the wind picked up, dragging rustling leaves from the fields and trees across the cemetery. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I turned to look behind me, instinctively. I felt foolish. The sun was just peeking over the distant trees, illuminating this magical place.
Just as suddenly, I felt as if someone were standing behind me, behind the headstone. I turned back and saw that no one had approached. The fruitcake, however, was gone. Only a couple of crumbs stuck to the stone.
“Yikes,” I whispered, knowing that I’d never see the explanation for what I’d just witnessed.
“Dear Dolores, yikes,” I whispered again as the swirl of leaves covered my feet in oak leaves. I waited for a reply I knew would never come.
Dolores’ granddaughter never called me. I like to think that she recognized that I was telling the truth about Dolores. In such a family, magic would undoubtedly survive.
From time to time, I’ll catch myself uttering the word “Yikes” to those around me, especially those times which evoke a feeling of connection with them. They look at me quizically, and I just smile. I’m cautious about using Delores’ magic too often.
I remember all of Dolores’ stories, each one of them. The faces in her family pictures talk to me sometimes, telling me the stories in soft voices. I think she infected me with her memory and of her life so that it might survive. Some nights, I wake up with the odd smell of Romanian forests in my nose.
Yikes, to each of you. .
I have not walked past the hoarder house since. While I am not superstitious, I’m uncertain what lesson was given to me three years ago. . . I wrote this story in November 2017. Though imperfections found in it are genuinely mine, this story came to me in one balloon, wrapped in a single moment, as I stared at the house that inspired it. It is strange how people who never existed can haunt my imagination. I put the story out of my mind and went to bed that night. To say that the fall night stretched into a swirl of years in my sleeping mind would be an understatement. I woke up the next morning as if I’d been unwillingly snatched from another person’s life.
The stretch of road near the dam often held a cloud of marijuana smoke as I went through, especially on those nights or pre-dawn early mornings when the air was dense from the nearby lake. There were a couple of houses that seemed to have a higher occupancy of partiers. That part of Northwest Arkansas was ideal for such families. Such areas dwindle with each subdivision. One late morning I ran too far and was run-walking the last couple of miles along E. Lake Road past the dam. A group of intoxicated people was crowded around the dubious porch and spilled into the yard. At least three grills were going. I don’t know if it was a mid-day party or just a typical day.
“Hey, you hungry?” shouted one of them. I waved and smiled, figuring the revelers were just shouting out to me from a combination of boredom and buzzed heads. (And that I could wave and keep walking.)
“Don’t be like that! We see you running by here all the time.” I had no choice except to go over and attempt to deal with what probably amounted to a drunkfest. One of the trucks had a decent pile of beer cans in the back already. It was impossible to discern whether the partial pile was permanent or recent. Of the twenty or so people in the yard, I’m sure all of them were smoking. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the few young children on the porch periphery were smoking, too.
At least 3 of them offered me a beer. There were coolers stacked on the ground and on the tailgates of several vehicles. “I have to run back home,” I said, to convince them I wouldn’t drink. It probably sounded funny to people who routinely drove with a beer between their legs. “Don’t run drunk” isn’t precisely bumper sticker material. If it were, you’d only hear in liberal California and not rural Washington County.
After considerable jostling back and forth about staying and eating something, I figured that I had to eat something, per the Grandma Rule. It’s a bit uncomfortable eating with people you don’t know. I think they were accustomed to doing it. Whatever I might say about them, I had no doubt that they exercised the ability to sit and eat or talk with anyone. That’s a gift that even someone like me can appreciate.
The grills smelled good. I wasn’t sure about what I might be eating. They had 5 or 6 kinds of chips and all the fixings to go on hamburgers or hot dogs. The steaks didn’t interest me. The tomatoes looked delicious and were sliced from thick, juicy tomatoes.
Grabbing a bun, I decided to go all-in with tomato slices. I didn’t even bother with a hamburger patty. I piled at least 10 tomatoes slices on the bun, along with mustard and ketchup. Immediately, one of the guys at the party shouted, “Look at that! That’s the most tomatoes I’ve ever seen on a burger!” Anyone sober enough to understand English turned or stood up to get a look at the weirdo with the over-piled bun of tomatoes.
I piled the side of my plate with ruffled chips and stood next to one of the pickups with its tailgate lowered. Picking up the hamburger, I mashed my mouth over it in one herculean push. When I bit down, tomato juice covered my chin. Several people laughed. While I ate the tomato burger, several people watched me, fascinated by my choice. It was delicious. I downed a coke after the burger.
No sooner than I sat on the edge of the pickup, one of the guys brought out several mason jars of clear liquid. I instinctively knew it was moonshine. Before I could devise an excuse to leave, several of them started saying, “Shine! Shine!”
“This is the best shine you’ve had in your life,” hollered someone. “And if you drink enough of it, you won’t remember you drank it.” Though it was a joke that probably echoed in that yard often, it brought laughs with it.
The man with the mason jars put them on a makeshift table made of plywood. Plastic cups appeared from nowhere, and he began to pour a decent amount into each. A younger woman standing nearby began handing them out. She didn’t ask me – she simply handed me one of the cups without asking. “Thanks, ma’am,” I told her. “Ma’am?” She said and laughed, punching me in the arm as she did.
“I’d say a toast, but y’all are too drunk,” said another one of the older men. “Let’s drink!”
Those who could understand spoken language raised their cups and took a gulp. I decided that I would be unable to avoid spitting and coughing and be a spectacle, so I did too. Shockingly, the moonshine was incredibly smooth. I did feel like my mouth and throat were coated with something highly flammable, but I didn’t cough. I drank the rest of it without making a face. “I’ll be damned!” said the man who brought out the moonshine. I laughed and said, “I come from a long line of drinkers.” My tongue was already numb. I would not dare light a cigarette after taking a drink of that concoction.
I stayed for several more minutes as more moonshine was consumed. To be clear, I didn’t drink more. That bit of shine in the cup was as much as I could ever drink.
“Hey, sir, what’s your name?” I asked the moonshine man.
“You can call me Hank,” he said and laughed.
I walked the rest of the way home that day, concerned because I had to go to work by mid-afternoon. My head had cleared in an intervening couple of hours.
In the days that followed, I did wave hello and shout, “Hey, Hank!” as I passed the house. One day, Hank’s girlfriend gave me a sack of ripe tomatoes on my way to work. Many times, they’d laugh when I shouted, “Hey Hank!” as I passed.
Weeks later, I ran by and waved and smiled at several people in the yard. “Hey, Hank!” I shouted.
A couple of the guys closer to the edge of the road looked at me.
“Who is Hank, dipsh#t,” one of them asked me.
“The guy in the yard, the one with the beard. That’s Hank,” I told him.
“That guy’s name is Pete.”
In my defense, he did tell me that I could call him Hank.
Recently, a friend posted about kayaking on Lake Elmdale. He also mentioned that many people seem to be unaware of its existence. (The lake, not kayaking – although I do wonder if such people who kayak really exist.) I tend to agree with him. Lake Elmdale is an artificial lake built in 1953. It derives its name from a mix of the names for Elm Springs and Springdale communities. I think they missed their chance by not naming it something extraordinary, like “Devil’s Tooth Lake,” or even “Drowning Hole.” Arkansas already boasts Nimrod Lake, named after Noah’s grandson. (Sorry, but the word “Nimrod” was forever redefined by Looney Tunes.)
Since I have your attention, in 1950, Springdale had a bit over 5,000 people. Ten years later, the population doubled. Elm Springs started at 217 and, by 1960, added a whopping 21 additional people.
I have dozens of stories from my youth involving this body of water. Many from my early childhood are fishing stories involving my Dad and Uncle Buck or a rotating series of misfits called friends. Other stories are from the time when I lived in Elm Springs in the mid-80s.
If you look at the picture, you can see one of the lake access roads on the right, about halfway up. Just a short drive beyond, and you can take a left on Lakeview and quickly reach Elm Springs road. Continuing on the circuitous route past the lake entrance, and you’ll emerge on Elm Springs Road further east and headed to what is now I-40. This story is really about the roadway’s right side, where the lake access ramp road intersects with E. Lake Road.
(GPS coordinates if such things interest you.)
My Dad loved a good scare while driving. Whether it involved turning off the headlights at any random moment, cutting unexpectedly through a field (fence or not), jumping out of the vehicle if it were going slowly enough, leaving the wheel to whoever might be both inside and paying attention, shooting a pistol or shotgun from inside the cab, playing chicken with unsuspecting people dumb enough to be on the road at the same time, driving on railroad tracks (sometimes suspended) over creeks, marshes, and rivers, or hitting things for no discernible reason, my Dad often had no limits.
I know that the last sentence is intolerably long. I wanted to pile it all out there to give you an idea of the level of crazy that might Dad exhibited. Sometimes, it was scary. Looming death tends to be that way. Other times, it was fun – but after the fact. Surviving such ‘fun’ colors the ability to laugh about it.
My apologies for taking so long to get to the point. Before this picture was taken, the road was less maintained. Edges weren’t graded appropriately, and erosion and run-off worsened already bumpy or uneven roads. This specific spot was no exception.
While I don’t remember the first time Dad revved his truck to 50+ mph and fly across the edge of this entrance as he passed, I remember coming off the cab’s seat and floating for the briefest instant. Whether the vehicle had a solid axle or good suspension had a say in managing the landing. If you’re thinking of the Dukes of Hazzard reading this, you’re not far off the mark. Though you might think I am exaggerating, Dad once convinced me and my brother Mike that he would do it at 80 mph. He did, after telling us he was going to for a long approach. Our butts were clenched until the point we realized that Dad wasn’t bluffing. Afterward, I felt that Dad would have regretted doing it had he not been three sheets to the wind. When I tell the story, I usually say, “I could see Kansas from up there.” It’s a joke. It was decently dark when Dad took that last quarter of a mile stretch before hitting the bump at 80 mph. After keeping the truck in the road, he hit the brakes and skidded to a full stop. He took the Camel cigarette out of his mouth with a flourish, looked at Mike and me cowering against the other door panel, and said, “Which one of you wants to drive and do it again?” Dad took the same jump, albeit slower than 80 mph, while we were in the back of the truck in the bed, too. We failed to determine whether clutching the truck’s side was safer or to lay against the tailgate.
At times, Dad doing this sort of thing would involve Mom being in the car or truck with him. Mom’s reaction to being scared like this can best be described as “murderous rage” or by one of her signature phrases, “Go# Da## It, Bobby Dean!” shouted at ear-piercing levels. If it lands me in hell for saying so, I’ll admit that hearing her squawk like that was amusing as long as we weren’t witnessing the oft-overlooked attempted murder aspect of many of our weekends.
If you are wondering if Dad ever wrecked, broke an axle, or blew out a tire doing these things, the answer is “yes.” Likewise, if you wonder if any of us ever suddenly experienced bladder control issues, you’d be right for questioning.
On one occasion, Dad drove with his boss back to his house in Elm Springs. The truck was a Cheyenne or Chevrolet truck of some sort, one of their favorites to restore. In those days, rednecks often stated with confidence, “I have to blow the cobwebs out.” Being young, I didn’t understand the cliché but did know that it roughly translated to mean, “I’m going to go incredibly fast and possibly die in this vehicle.” Dad wasn’t drinking. I was in the bed of the truck with Duke, Dad’s german shepherd. Charles sat upfront up with Dad. He had a cigar in his mouth as he often did. Charles was also married to one of Dad’s cousins. I didn’t figure that out until years later.
We drove down Highway 112 and turned on E. Lake Road leading to the lake. About halfway between Highway 112 and the lake, Dad slowed and shouted to me out the window, “White lightning!” I immediately realized that it was a “go” for Operation Scare the Boss Shi$less.” The phrase could refer to the hell-raising 1973 movie starring Burt Reynolds or to moonshine – and sometimes both.
About 100 yards from the side road to the lake, Dad pushed the gas hard and shifted gears. As we hit the bump and sailed off the ground, I laughed. I heard Charles scream in surprise and then scream at Dad, asking if he’d lost his ever-loving mind. By the time we reached Charles’ house, he was laughing and jokingly cursing at Dad.
One more note. Thanks to Dad, I learned how to drive through barbed-wire fences, closed gates, front lawns, flooding creeks, and just about anything else. Here’s the secret: you have to not give a damn about what happens when you do it. Once you master that skill, sober or inebriated, you too can be an amateur stuntman. I wish that I had experienced that version of my Dad freed from alcohol. There’s no doubt he would have still managed to convince me I might die at a given moment.
When my brother Mike came home from leave in the Army, I didn’t get to spend much time with him. Life’s demands and the constraints of his limited time conspired against us. We did drive the road leading to Lake Elmdale, though. I knew Mike was going to ask before we ever approached the jump zone. “Should we?” he asked me, laughing. We were in my car. He was driving. “How can we not?!” I shouted. We hit the bump going 50 mph. As soon as we started to lift, Mike regretted testing his courage. After the adrenaline subsided, we drove for another hour along what once were quieter roads. 33 or 34 years have passed.
In the years since, in the spirit of full disclosure, I too have excessively sped toward that same bump without warning the occupants of the car. Though the ridge is considerably flatter than it once was while I am much fatter, it never fails to fill me with nostalgia for both the times that were and those which weren’t.
Back in the 80s, a popular photographer roamed the hills and valleys of NWA. One of his spots was a spot off E. Lake Road in Elm Springs, not too far from the post office and cemetery entrance. Because I know better than to trust my memory, I can’t be sure his tradename is as I remember it, but it was close. He was popular for senior pictures. One of the spots he used wasn’t too far from the road, in part because of the dense trees, foliage, and sloping once you stepped off the side of the road. It used to have a short section of lateral fencing there. Many seniors, especially girls, found themselves at this spot posing. The people I’m going to mention had nothing to do with this photographer, at least as far as I know. I mention him only because of what happened. The photographer I crossed paths with did use one of the senior photographer’s go-to spots, though.
I lived next to the Willis Shaw lot, near what is now the Police Department on Jayroe Avenue, on the other side of Highway 112. Many days, you could find me running, sometimes biking, and often walking the miles of roads in the area. It was a beautiful place to be able to do so. Those familiar with the area need no convincing.
One summer evening, I walked several miles and was coming back home on E. Lake Road after walking to Springdale. It was about 8. I can’t be sure because we didn’t have cellphones and I certainly had no watch. The sunlight was fading, and the valley there was dense and beautiful in a backroads way. Even though I was wearing a cheap radio, the batteries went dead a few miles into the walk. I’m sure I listened to KCIZ FM-105 for most of my walk. The insects were deafening. Over them, I could hear voices shouting and laughing. Their voices carried surprisingly well. I walked at least a couple of more minutes without being able to see them. I realized that their voices had shifted and that I had probably passed them. Even though I was exhausted, I turned around and walked a few feet down a horribly-maintained side driveway. The laughter that I heard was raucous and fun. I didn’t see a vehicle. As for my curiosity, youth usually overrides caution.
I stopped in my tracks. About twenty feet from me stood a naked man holding what appeared to be a large, expensive camera. In front of him and to the right was a naked woman. To get this out of the way, the woman was beautiful. She had black hair down to her shoulders. Although no one remembers her now, I’d say she looked like Phyllis Davis. She was teasing the photographer about taking too long with the shot. She stopped talking momentarily when she saw me. And then waved and smiled, as if I were expected at any moment. The photographer turned and laughed. “Hey bud!” he said, smiling.
It seemed like I just stood stupefied for a few seconds. “Hello,” I said, much too loudly.
Then, I turned and sprinted away from the driveway and up the road, all the way to the highway. I could hear the two of them laughing with strange merriment as I bolted away from them.
I ran past that spot at least five hundred more times. While I didn’t run past to see the woman, I did look to see if she was there. She never reappeared, though I did see a lot of unexpected people and things on those backroads. Walking quietly at any hour of the night often yielded people in places where they were expecting privacy. The cemetery there in Elm Springs certainly gave me a list of stories I could share.
Thirty-five plus years later, I sometimes wonder what the story was with Phyllis Davis’ doppelganger. She had the looks to be a model, and she didn’t seem surprised by seeing me magically appear from the roadside.
P.S. She is the only reason I remember Phyllis Davis or her name.
“As sorry as I was to hear of my brother’s passing, I’ll bet the news bothered him a LOT more.” – X
There’s a considerable risk in people misunderstanding you on a good day. Many of us tend to judge others with the worst possible filter. I’ve found that good people can understand and appreciate contradictory and sublime behavior. Those who don’t just aren’t my people. Old age and experience, if we’re lucky, gives us more latitude in recognizing this.
The greater danger is people hearing what you actually said, and you having no defensible context to mitigate it. So much of life is context, and much of that isn’t immediately explainable. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” is a cliché for a reason.
The joke that started this post? I’m sure people can and will get angry if they choose to. They’ll claim I wrote it as an insult to Mike. It’s not. He would laugh his ass off reading that joke. About one hundred times over the years, I threw one of Woody Allen’s jokes at him: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Years later, I threw in another one: “My relationship with death remains the same,” he said. “I’m strongly against it.” When Mike and I were young, we both read “Death Knocks,” a story (turned play) by Woody Allen. It was a sometimes topic of hilarity, even though Mike did not like Woody Allen as he grew older. Mike and I both made many bargains with imaginary devils and deities when we were young.
Only those who can imagine hiding in the space between the bed and the wall in the dark and waiting for a parent to come for them in a drunken rage might be able to understand the connection between bargaining and gallows humor. I have a list of stories about these incidents, and some of them surprise me by being funny. If you’ve read my blog, you can see that I’ve largely refrained from identifying some of my family by name. Despite this, I still infrequently find myself at the receiving end of hateful criticism.
When we lived at City View Trailer Park in Springdale, Mike swallowed an incredible amount of tobacco juice. Several of us had played and fought down at the retched pond that once stood at the end of City View. Mike spent much of his time between punches proudly with a mouthful of tobacco. He puked violently on the floor for what seemed like a full minute. That black juice stained the purple carpet deeply. No amount of cleaning could remove it. We’ll talk later about how someone thought purple carpet in a tinderbox trailer might look attractive. When the trailer burned, the stain obstinately remained. The carpet was dark, of course, but the underlying stain plainly stood out. Years later, when Mike and I spent the night at Mom and Dad’s house on Highway 49, Mike compared that stain to dealing with being helpless all those years, or nearly so. That was the same night we discovered that a nest of yellow jackets inhabited the other bedroom’s west-facing window. That’s a story for another day. As for the tobacco, despite attempts to make Mike stop, he dipped most of his adult life. I have at least three dozen pictures of him spitting into a bottle, cup, or a family member’s potted plant to prove it.
After Dad died, my cousin jimmy recommended that I watch a particular Billy Bob Thorton movie. Most people have never heard of “Daddy And Them.” You’ll be shocked if you take a look at how many stars joined this movie. Because it was set in Arkansas, it accurately grabs the absurdity of white trash living and wraps it in comedy. (A difficult feat.) After Jimmy twisted my arm and made me watch it, I did the same to Mike. In it was one of the jokes my brother and I shared as hilarious. Here’s the joke:
“Hey! Do you know what Dad would say if he were alive today?” One of us would reply, “No, what?” Dramatic pause. “Let me out!” With the last line, we scratch the air in front of us with both hands as if we were clawing our way out of the coffin. Last year, an Irish veteran stole the joke and shocked funeral attendees by having a pre-recorded tape of his voice shouting to be let out played during his service. Mike thought it was hilarious and an excellent way to separate the humorless from the good people in a crowd. “Can you imagine how tightly wound up Aunt Elsie’s panties would get if someone did that?” was part of his reply.
I have to say, though, that despite the immense teeth-gnashing my brother and I often shared, our deplorable and macabre sense of humor was unrivaled. Marines and serial killers alike cringed if they accidentally overheard our nonsense.
No matter what you’ve read and heard on sitcoms or dramas about the impossibility of confining an involuntary laugh at a funeral, my brother and I separately were a disaster; in combination, we probably deserved the death penalty. Some of the fault lies with my Dad. Even when he wasn’t drinking, he could say some of the most outrageous things devised by a human being. He once called the preacher a “co$$su$$er” in front of about 50 people just to get a leg up on him. In a twist of fate I’ve written about before, Dad and the preacher somehow became friends.
My brother Mike once unknowingly used an open mic at a funeral home in Brinkley to improvise a bit of comedy regarding our Grandma’s teeth. The funeral director sheepishly ran into the outer area to grab the mic from my brother and tell him that it was a ‘hot mic.’ It’s essential that you know that my Grandma was one of the two closest people I ever loved. Despite that, I laughed. I cannot think about that incident without losing a little bit of my soul to laughter. I’m convinced each chuckle puts me a foot further into purgatory.
There’s no greater or sublime pleasure having someone who is both smart and willing to go the extra mile for a laugh, joke, or smile – even if it burns down a few villages on the way there. I give Mike the win, though, because he could tell jokes that I wouldn’t. That’s saying a lot.
Not too many months ago, I sent my brother a collection of hand-written postcards, each with a joke from comedians we both loved. As with index cards in my back pocket, I’m also a fan of prestamped postcards for quick notes. Even while we were uneasily bickering, I wanted him to know that humor was still a big part of my life. (Even if I’m old, boring, wear a lot of black socks as leisurewear, and get too excited by an early buffet.)
Mike would see these words as a compliment.
Because of our relationship, I tend to expect someone to emerge with poison in their hearts to attempt to silence me for joking. Those who know me also know I’ve written multiple times about the fact that they have my permission to mock me to the end of the world when I’m gone, especially if it is funny or creative. Mike was not someone to pull back from a bastardly comment. The same quick and violent tongue he sometimes used to wound me also created some world-class humor. For everyone who knew Mike and watched him in action on solemn occasions, the Bobby Dean in him could not be confined or controlled. Trying to do so was just catnip for his enthusiasm to up the ante.
It’s not reasonable to accuse me of glossing over or attempting to sugarcoat Mike’s life. Equally so, I have to tip my hat when it is merited. Both of us emerged from childhood with a scorched-earth comedic streak. It probably saved us as many times as it caused us grief.
As it turns out, Mike was indeed there when death came for him. His birthday would have been November 1st, the day after Halloween. For some, it is All Souls Day. When I sat to finish Mike’s ancestry record, I noticed that his two children are the same age I was when our Dad died. Mike was 20,062 days old, the mentioning of which would irritate him due to my occasional reminder that I still keep a tab of how many days old I am.
My job is to remember the Mike who put a fish under the driver’s seat of my 1984 Oldsmobile in the middle of summer during a visit to Aunt Barbara’s. (Without telling me.) Or the Mike who read “Lord of The Rings” in almost one sitting back in the early 80s.
Please don’t fault me for taking refuge in contradictory stories about Mike. But if you do, I’ll accept that charge. Given the arc of my origins, I find this potential sin to be minuscule.
P.S. The word “acolate” is mine, one devised to denote eulogic remembrance, perhaps a day too late.
This post is a portmanteau of lives. One was a dedicated writer, and one was a policeman; both failed to adequately recognize their afflictions.
My wife’s eyes sometimes glaze over when I hear tales of “writer’s block.” I don’t know what that is. I can’t help myself: I always say, “What’s that?” half-jokingly. It’s the same way with me regarding boredom. Reading, writing, genealogy, humor, photography, and just scrolling the window of the internet could entertain me for fifty consecutive years. I’d be ideally suited to be a vampire.
This time, we were watching “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” on HBO. Michelle McNamara had her deadline pushed forward a month and struggled to realize her ambition of finishing her book. It was her lifelong dream. She died before DNA solved the case of The Golden State Killer. Michelle and I share many attributes regarding writing. I don’t put myself on her level, though, so there’s no need to remind me snarkily. But I don’t understand the inability to plow through. She resorted to drugs to keep her up and allow sleep when necessary. The thing she relied on to help her achieve her ambition also undid her life.
I can’t walk the street, work, or sit and listen to music without wanting to research a hundred different ideas. Things breeze into my mind at a velocity that I cherish. The satisfaction of an overactive mind isn’t diminished by the value or result of the ideas. I’m able to divorce content from needing a goal. This allows me to produce dozens of things that never see the light of day or end up in the ‘delete’ file simply due to happenstance.
Had Michelle raised her hand and admitted she was overwhelmed, Patton Oswald and their mutual daughter would still have her in their lives. Instead, her book and ambition fell to uncertain others to complete, and Michelle lost a presumable thirty or forty years with family.
While I wrote the first part of this a few weeks ago, it still is on my mind. Not just because it was a great show, or a peek into a writer’s life, but also because a piece of it parallels the life of my brother. He was ridiculously smart. He could have worked to be a writer. As I do with anyone I recognize as innately great at writing, I repeatedly tried to convince him to spend a portion of his life writing his stories. I do not doubt that he easily had several books of material in him. Much of his writing might have derived from his professional career as a policeman and detective. Even his Army career was as an MP.
Michelle McNamara’s life revolved around crime and its intricate tendrils. My brother Mike spent his career investigating and collaring criminals. While Michelle’s ambition always included being a writer, Mike could have done the same, and just as expertly.
The contradiction is that his job itself was one of his biggest impediments. It put a wedge between his personal life and his ability to live it. The schedule, the demands, and the danger of having a job that perilously exaggerated his tendency toward authoritarianism. People often ask whether the job makes the man or the man gravitates toward it. I’m not sure. As much difficulty as my brother had coming out of his youth, the job exacerbated his personality defects. It’s no secret that police are more likely to be abusive and susceptible to addiction. My brother chose alcohol to appease his conflict. Michell McNamara chose prescription medications. Anyone who gets angry at me for saying so doesn’t understand me. In Michelle’s case, her husband Patton capably framed her turmoil in a very public and touching television show.
My brother’s intentions to retire as a detective after a full career collided with his inability to stop drinking. He was forced to retire. Even still, he could have turned that blow into a blossoming retirement. Had he stopped drinking, he might have lived to be seventy instead of dying before his fifty-fifth birthday. Because he was smart enough to work in the north, his pension was protected by a formidable police union. He had the option to pursue any interest he desired.
I was envious of that and his ability to work a job that allowed it. It’s a fantasy for most of us to round fifty and shift to do whatever interests us.
In the last couple of years, I sent Mike books, starting with “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee.” I knew it would ignite his interest and recognition of what writing about the South could do. It was my hope he’d begin to leave the alcohol to the side, even if it cost him herculean effort to do so. He’d be able to careen into another career writing feverishly. Whatever else Mike did or didn’t do, he also loved books and libraries. That’s something that can’t be said about many police.
Mike’s death not only closed the door on his gift of writing, but it also cost him a couple of decades with his family. They’ll each struggle with the legacy of his big personality and choices. As Mike declined, I couldn’t help but get irritated at him for the waste of his life. Instead of pivoting to change his course and take advantage of the privilege of a chosen life, he furiously wasted his and his family’s energies to dedicate himself to drink. As bad it was, we were all lucky a few of the circumstances didn’t cause greater harm to others.
Now, silence. What could have been a rejuvenated family and life is now a complicated and unenviable path to an uncertain future for all of them.
As in my mother’s case, I know that much of the harsh words I shared with my brother were a result of alcoholism. Knowing it helps more now that they are passed than it ever did while they lived. He recognized the danger, just as I always did, but relied on his devious inner voice to convince himself he could overcome it. The same personality that made him loud and larger than life also participated in his fall. Many of our family and ancestors did the same. None of our ancestors who knew they were alcoholics successfully pulled out of it. It’s a sobering thought. I’ve written about the infection of my family. While I cannot adequately describe it, the trajectory of those around me gives proof that my theory must have some validity.
Mike loved that I wrote stories. Some of them caused him grief, especially before he could come to terms with the magnitude of the shadow that our dad and others left behind us. He vested energy in secrecy while I opted to throw open the windows. I was often a terrible brother. The only safe harbor I had at my disposal was separation. Mike had trouble seeing that my life was not one punctuated by drama. He also hated that I told him more than once that were I in his shoes, I would do anything and everything to break my addiction. It wasn’t because I felt superior to him in that regard, but that I never fooled myself into believing that any of us have magical skills that preclude us from behaving stupidly. Behavior that is obviously hard-wired into our DNA is that much more insurmountable.
The shelf that could have held Mike’s books will be forever empty.
The lives he could have intersected with for the next twenty years will now bounce obliquely off someone else.
The silences and subsequent shouts of confused recrimination will echo in his vacant place.