Southern Legitimacy Statement: My parent’s left New England for a small town in Virginia’s New River Valley four years before I was born. I started kindergarten with the same 95 people I would graduate high school with. We all grew up in the woods, scraping our knees on rocks. Picking river stones up looking for crawdads. Listening through the oaks and maples for the dinner triangle. Except December meant tourtiere and sugar on snow at the Castonguay house, Canadian meat pie and maple syrup taffy respectively. I say wicked sometimes, I eat collards a lot.
And All of Us, Clay
September still burned in the valley cut by the New River, resonant coals smoldering after morning chills knocked down the flames of August. I’m sure my father was unconsciously thankful for this still warm clay as he dug the hole to bury my first cat, my first best friend. The old river mud moved easily aside, the sides of the hole scraped smooth with the slightest push of the Ace Hardware replacement handle, the Jurassic clay fitting snugly back into its place, and the scrap timber cross sinking into the ancient ground with ease. He was even more thankful for the gentle earth as he dug her body back up a few hours later, the only way to satiate my adolescent hysterics. And as my tears turned the moist clay that clung to her fur back to runny red mud I could not understand. What did I know of loss? Of the absolute permanence of death? From upwelling drops, to streams, built lakes that flowed into rivers. I could not understand. It was 1990-something in Virginia.
Three weeks later a four month old tabby rumbled comfortably beside me as I slept. The comfortable way a diesel engine rumbles below a bus, a harmonic absorber against waking life that brings the kind of sleep that makes you miss whole states. The kind of sleep that makes you forget what is lost and what was loved. Angela sunk further and further into that thousand year river bank, and I did not miss her at all.
Some years later, August burned blue that summer. Usually I made no conscious effort when I was getting dressed in the morning, but 110 degrees in the mountains ached for decisions of comfort. I’d like to say that was the reason I decided to put on my red Umbro shorts that morning but the truth was Amanda had told Lilli that Tori thought they made my chicken legs look good, so breathability was far from my mind. I couldn’t guarantee I’d see her on the trail that day, but the slightest possibility was enough for me.
“Mom!” I called from my room in the far back corner of the house we’d always lived in. I knew she hated when I yelled across the house, but Tori finding interest in my spindly birch-white calves was the only thought on my mind. “Mom! Have you seen those red shorts?”
“Second drawer from the top, with the rest of your shorts,” she said from my doorway. The dumbass was implied.
“Fuckin’ A’ Mom,” I spat as I spun around to face her. She had the gift of always being present when you needed her and when you didn’t need her. Like God, or a good coke dealer. “I’m gonna get you the same collar with the bell on it we got for Fred.” Both my mom and I looked at him in his place on my bed and he looked back at us with the distasteful comfort only afforded to cats. Behind him, on the shelf that held a five dollar lamp and the snaking cable of my phone charger, was a framed picture of me as a child curled around my first best friend, Angela. She was all black and fluff and we both had our eyes closed. Childhood is so empty of worry and so full of content, it amazes and strikes fear in the hearts of adults who cannot understand what that was like anymore. At sixteen now I no longer understood how she’d loved me.
I quickly got dressed in the shorts, neatly folded in the second drawer from the top, and hurried into the kitchen. There was a window in every wall of the house that sat in the cul-de-sac, the house my parents bought from the family that moved to California. The father had built this house when the cul-de-sac was the 4th hole of a former golf course. His children’s handprints were in the driveway, their driveway. They were grown and gone. Every window of the house had a fan in it, big or small and sometimes oscillating, that poor attempt to push out the August haze. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t have central air. Ian up two streets had it, Brandon on the other side of town had it, even Evan in the trailer park down by the river where we would shoot .22’s and read his dad’s Hustler magazines had window units. Yet for every August I could remember, we sweltered through hot nights and sweat after showers, even before I was forced to wear deodorant. On the counter beside the door to the side porch, the side porch beside which I parked my faded blue Corolla in the grass, was an apple and a sandwich in a plastic bag made for sandwiches. Grabbing both and lankily stumbling out of the side door I hurried to make the forty minute drive to Pandapas Pond where Tori liked to walk her dog on hot summer mornings.
“Oh come the fuck on,” I whispered as I opened the porch screen door and observed my teenage pride and joy. Mom stood over the four flour carpets of my car, the Dyson she’d gotten for Christmas whirring beside her, never losing suction. She had that look of puzzled concentration a person attempting a Sudoku has, looking for the answer to my infinite mess.
“Mom! I have to go!” I yelled over the cleaning wonder that eliminates pet hair and teenage indifference. She turned off the machine and replaced all of the carpets, smiling all the while.
“Tell Tori I said hello,” she grinned. She always knew how to make me bury my head in embarrassment . Mom waved as I drove off with thoughts of blue-eyed Tori and how many times I would have to complete the three mile loop before I would run into her. I saw Mom in the rear-view mirror as she packed up the attachments that could find the dirt of youthful indifference. I saw her stand up straight and watch me drive away.
Mrs. Roberts paper hands held my sweat-slimed arm as we watched the only house I’d ever lived in smolder. The black char pile smoked slow morning mist on an infinitely deep lake. Mrs. Roberts lived across the street by herself and she hadn’t said a word since I’d pulled up to the driveway with the children’s handprints in the concrete. Her voice always had the waiver of age in it so I understood why she didn’t speak, she didn’t have the time to tell me what I needed to know. So we stood there.
My friend Sam’s dad, Officer Gentry, came over after a time I will never be able to quantify. His sad eyes stood in stark contrast to the compressed earth material I had lodged in both of my sockets. I’d been waiting to cry ever since Mrs. Roberts slowly walked over to hold me up and hold herself up. The charred air seemed to soak up any moisture. Sam’s dad threw me slow pitch softballs like “freak accident’ and “I’m so sorry.” I made no attempt to swing at them, letting his words fall to the grass and leak into the topsoil that hid the old river bank.
Officer Gentry offered to call my father, to at least let him know for insurance purposes. I would have called him, but I was sure the last number I received from a shelter in southern California was bad. I wouldn’t recognize his voice even if he somehow answered. Mom always said he had to figure out a great puzzle and he didn’t want to make us wait for its solution. I thought he left because he had to bury the same dead cat twice. The first time was a gimme, the second was too much. “All we need is us,” she would say when she saw me missing in my mind. “I’ll be mother and father and you can be brother and sister. I’ll show you where the alternator is and you can braid my hair every once in awhile.” She had no idea what an alternator was and her hair was always too short to braid, but she meant it when she said it.
A man with a tie and a clipboard walked up at some point. Unlike Officer Gentry he threw fast pitch, and I curled my shoulder against his “pilot lights” and “gas leaks” and “insurance carriers.” Mrs. Roberts seemed to find the contact between her vocal chords as she called for time. “Let the boy be,” she grated. Her rice paper hands never leaving my still sweat slicked arm.
Some weeks later, or maybe a few days, I had my own room at Mrs. Roberts house across the street from the first house I’d ever lived in. My only family that still had a permanent residence and paid taxes was my dad’s sister out in Moab, Utah. She sent my mom and I a card every year for the Solar New Year as “Christian holidays were for corporations.” I knew her from side-mouthed smiles on glossy cards with bright red clay in the background. But that was all I knew, she hadn’t called. I wondered if I’d still get cards. Mrs. Roberts was kind to me in the ways of someone else’s grandmother. There was always food, and clean laundry, and twenty dollars for pizza when there wasn’t any food. But like someone else’s grandmother, I wasn’t hers and she wasn’t mine. August melted into September which froze into October. School was school and it continued without regard for what I couldn’t understand, friends tiptoed gingerly past my floating body, hoping to avoid the “how are you’s.” The last one had ended with Brad’s bloody nose and Dr. Craig telling me he understood. How could he?
One with a balanced brain chemistry and the maturity of being able to rent a car would know better, but the death that came to the first home I lived in seemed to strike the fear of death from my mind. At every corner of youth is the opportunity to flirt with finality and I found myself, as winter unpacked it’s belongings and set about making itself at home, searching out that wonderful edge. How could I understand consequence? Would it matter if I did?
The edge of town was all but abandoned. The further you traveled from the valley’s small center, the more time seemed to have found better places to keep humans grounded. At the very edge of town, before the wilderness lay out its welcome mat at the base of the mountains, was a quarry whose minerals had been scraped and dug out until it was empty. Whatever had been mined here, at some point before computer chips were the size of fingernails, turned the water that made the quarry full a fluorescent blue. If it ever turned to ice, it would match Tori’s eyes, but it never turned to ice, and Tori had moved to Texas to be with her dad. Both forever thawed.
I loved the quarry, a place of absolute silence in an already quiet town, so after I found myself without the first home I’d ever lived in I spent all the time I could find there. On one January or February day that lacked the bite of most mountain winter days, where the sun seemed to fight for space in the grey, I found myself staring deeply into the glassy blue through which one could see the bottom. The sun put up it’s best effort, but after some time, the sun gave up its fight and let the grey muffle the world again. I sat on the edge of the quarry while the sun went somewhere else, my feet over the edge. I swung them back and forth, imagining that if I jumped they would walk me down a staircase I wouldn’t have to climb again. It would descend and descend until it kept descending and that forever would be enough for me. The quiet of the empty space that didn’t echo filled my mind. Nothing reverberated off of the walls of my skull and the edges of that “glass half empty” quarry. In that every expanding nothing, a “meow” suddenly came to me across the quarry’s expanse. I looked up, startled, having gotten that low roar of having ear plugs in for too long as an imaginary soundtrack to the silence. I heard it again, sharp and piercing, calling and begging like bats map their woods, and across the quarry from where I sat was the blackest of specks darted around the limestone edges. I stood up and my heart ticked for the first time in what felt like an eternity, joining the sun in its fight against the muffled grey. I walked slowly, then quicker and quicker around the edge of the quarry, searching around rocks and small pines for that small bellowing speck. It took me an hour to realize I had lapped the quarry three times, that there was no speck, that the meow had come from something shook loose from the caverns of my skull by the reverberating silence. For the first time, for the very first time since my father had dug back up the body of my first best friend, I cried. My tears ran red down my face, spilling into the quarry. They came and came and I could do nothing to stop them. They spilled out of that already old river heart and down deep into the quarry, and by the time I had emptied myself, the water in the bottom was more than half full. The water now a darker hue, that blue taken over by the red clay water of my pain. I missed Angela, I missed my mother, and for the first time then I missed Fred. The ways they had all rumbled underneath me and around me, their white noise a hum of comforting existence. I had every intention of throwing myself into that deep blue quarry that day, letting the almost ice seize my muscles and hold me still. And in that moment of missing, after I was drained, I realized that no one would then be able to dig up my body and hug my skin one more time. That the greatest pain, greater than missing, is forgetting.
My mother told me I was something other than human. A cat the way I waned and waxed as she would soothingly scratch my back when big, brown eyes broke my perforated heart. A wolf that way I tore into half cooked meats of which no amount could satisfy my hunger. A bird the way I seemed to fly on my feet and in my mind. Someday, not today but someday, I would run out of lives, and I’d never be hungry again, and I would not be able to lift my wings. I would die. They would bury me in the backyard under a wooden cross. And every once in awhile someone would dig up my bones and hug me, keep me alive in their way. Then they would put me back in the same dirt, as I would be the same dead as we all will be. All the same.