They are called leaves
because they do.
Shading through green
then changing hue.
Urged by light
or a chill in the bone,
they let go,
For brief moments
sail in the air
Driven by the wind
they seem dead,
They seem dead
The soil reclaims them
to live next May.
The sun crossed the equator.
The Earth tilted.
The bubble in the level slid south.
Did you feel it?
The sun feels warm,
but hot days are just a threat,
brittle and rattling
like the dry leaves underfoot.
The night air smells of petunias
I look up at a million tiny snowflakes
waiting to come down.
This is the best time,
the cool evening of the year.
Stepping on snakes scares the bejesus out of me. I hate the way the once solid ground becomes a writhing mass under foot. Not usually a screamer, I react loudly as I fly as far as I can to get away from the sensation and its cause.
I’m not a snake hater. In fact, I’m fine with most snakes when I am over here, and they are over there where I can keep an eye on them. Sometimes that arrangement doesn’t happen. Sometimes, a snake and I try to share the same ground space. When that happens, well, I am getting too old for the sudden adrenaline rush that sends my heart rate into the danger zone.
My attitude changes a bit when the snake in question is a poisonous one. I don’t want to be in any kind of proximity to poisonous snakes. I don’t like to look at them in a relatively safe environment such as in the snake house at the zoo (Glass breaks, you know). I don’t like to see them in dioramas at the Natural History Museum (Are you sure they are dead)? I don’t want to watch shows about them on National Geographic or Animal Planet, or see pictures of them in magazines or field guides (That’s the stuff bad dreams are made of). Larry McMurtry planted a permanent bad image in my head with a description in Lonesome Dove of someone falling off their horse in a rain swollen river and landing in a ball of rattlesnakes which was being swept downstream. Yikes!
Most days, I don’t have to worry about poisonous snakes in general. I just have to worry about rattlesnakes. Rattlers live in the desert. It’s their home turf. They have every right to be there. I am the intruder and I intrude on a regular basis. I walk in the desert near my house almost every day. Almost every day in warm weather, I run the risk of bumping into a rattler. I don’t wish the rattlers harm. I just wish them elsewhere, far elsewhere from where I am at the moment
One reason I walk is that it is good exercise. Another is that it is usually quiet where I walk, so I can get into my head to think. However, once the weather warms enough for the snakes to come out, I do not think anymore, I am devoted to watching the trail carefully for an anomalous shape, the shape of a rattlesnake. A shape I really wish never to see.
Every time I venture into the desert, I figure my chances of bumping into one get better. New Mexico is home to nine species of rattlesnakes, according to the New Mexican Herpetological Society. Four of the nine can be found in the desert near where I live. That’s two more than I thought, thanks research.
I haven’t figured out what disturbs me more about the fact that I could see a rattler at any moment while out for my walk. Whether it’s the startle response, the pain and suffering which could follow being bitten, or is it that I am being pretty silly about the whole thing. I’ve been walking in the same area for four years now and have yet to see a rattler. Maybe I should just relax a bit about the whole rattler thing or are the odds of seeing one increasing every time I take a walk and don’t see one? But isn’t that tempting fate just a little too much?
Thanks to Gail Leedy for the pictures. She has seen rattlers on her runs . These are some of them.
I followed a set of fingernails down the hall one day at school. Not just ordinary fingernails, but amazingly long fingernails. Each one, and yes, there were ten of them growing from each of one of my colleague’s fingertips, was at least two inches long. It makes my skin crawl just to think of them.
The long fingernails reminded of a book my Aunt Millie used to have called Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It was a compilation of the best and weirdest from the newspaper column by that name which ran in newspapers across the country. Each time I visited Aunt Millie’s house in Florida, when I was a kid, I read it from cover to cover with horrified fascination. One item which particularly repulsed me was the rather sinister drawing of an ancient Mandarin official with fingernails like croton leaves which corkscrewed and bent back on themselves. They were three feet long. Believe it or not.
It seems that during a period in Chinese history, men of a certain class let their nails grow extremely long as a symbol of their exalted position. The longer the nails grew, the less able were the officials were to perform any sort of labor, and finally, any sort of task at all. Others had to do everything for them. This was a sign of great power and wealth. Paradoxically, the more helpless the men were, the more powerful they were. This is the same kind of thinking that produced the custom of binding feet. Women of the upper classes in that same country became utterly dependent on others to move them from place to place because their tiny, mutilated bound feet were thought to be a sign of beauty. Ripley’s drawing of the nails was meant to be grotesque, to shock, and it did. So did hearing about bending little girls’ feet back and tying them. And, like so many things which shock at an early age, they formed an indelible impression.
In China, it was certain men who grew their nails so long. In our culture, it is certain women. Being a lifelong short-nailed person, I don’t pretend to know what motivates someone to grow really long nails or to have acrylic ones glued on. I have trouble imagining what makes a woman spend 75 dollars plus to have inch long slivers of plastic, called backscratchers by some, glued over her own nails. This is only the beginning of a ritual meeting with a manicurist. A ritual which involves shaping, polishing, buffing and who knows what else. These pseudo-nails must be periodically reapplied by the manicurist to hide the nail’s natural growth, like coloring your roots. But, this is the fashion among certain women. Women who stop short of the kind of nails I followed down the hall.
The nails I followed down the hall were different. They were natural. Our school secretary wore long acrylic nails. I asked her how she was able to type with such nails. She demonstrated for me. She used the pads of her fingers rather than the tips. Typing that way didn’t seem to slow her down. I mentioned the fingernails I had seen. The secretary told me that they were much shorter they used to be. I was amused that her reaction to the natural nails was much the same as mine: They turned her stomach.
I wonder what kind of life a person with fingernails that long must lead. Certainly, no life that resembles mine. How does she dial her phone, zip a zipper or pick up anything tiny? I wonder why she grows them so. Perhaps it is just because she can. Is it a display of power and status like the Mandarins, or simply vanity?
I think of all the things she can no longer touch with her fingertips, of cheeks she can no longer caress, babies she can no longer cuddle, of hands that must go unheld, of how her lover’s lips must go untraced. I wonder why someone would pay such a price for status, for power, or for vanity.
Judging from the national weather map, most of us are really feeling the heat of summer. Here are some pictures I took last week at the Snowy Range in Wyoming. I hope they cool you off.
Back in Laramie
Pasque flowers at Happy Jack,
High wind on the plains.
Met old friends for lunch
At the new Asian restaurant.
Noodle bowl tastes good.
Freight trains rumble through
hauling loads. No whistles blow.
I sleep on and on.
Lupines and larkspur
Purple jewels of the High
Plain’s wet springtime.
Joy, joy, happy, joy
Happy, happy, joy, joy, joy
Happy, joy, happy.
Tomorrow we are off to Wyoming for a few days. We will visit dear friends, enjoy cooler air, harvest any rhubarb that may be left and make a pie, laugh a lot, hike favorite trails, eat great food and generally have a wonderful time.
The friends we are staying with are resourceful people who like to recycle, refurbish, reuse old buildings. Another friend, who was relieved to get it out of her yard, gave them a playhouse her children had long since outgrown. The following is what they did with it.
The Hen House
The shell, a cast off playhouse
Too soon outgrown.
Come get it and it’s yours.
Remade, repainted, reroofed,
Capped with a rooster vane
Spinning in the Wyoming wind.
Retrofitted with a single light bulb
To repulse the bitter cold.
Even Tyson rejects pre-frozen chickens.
“Patty, Tommy’s here,” I yelled from the doorway.
Patty flew out the front door. I was right behind her.
“Mary, come back here,” Mother called.
“Why? I want to say goodbye too.”
“You just give them a few minutes alone. Then we can all go out and tell Tommy goodbye.”
This didn’t seem at all fair to me. I was supposed to be watching for the movers. How could I do that from the kitchen? And besides, I loved Tommy, too. I waited until Mother stuck her head back in the refrigerator, and then slipped out the back way. I carefully closed the screen door on the back porch. Walking close to the house, I ran my hand along the white stucco. When I got to the front, I peeked my head around the corner. No Patty and Tommy in sight. His car was gone so they must have gone for a little ride. I walked back up to the front steps, sat down and hugged my knees.
I didn’t last long like that. I got up and ran to the end of the sidewalk. Perched on the curb I could look far down Wilson Dam Boulevard. From there I could see almost into the town of Sheffield. That’s where the movers had gone when they left last night. There was an orange truck coming. I was sure it was the one, so I ran across the yard toward the house yelling, “The movers are coming. The movers are here.”
They pulled up and parked as Daddy came out of the house.
“You can finish up in the bedrooms. The beds are ready to go in and there are a few boxes with bedding to go. My wife is almost through in the kitchen.” Daddy issued them their orders too.
“Yes sir, Mr. Stout,” said the man who drove the pickup truck. “We’ll be finished up in no time. These boys know how to load a truck. I’ll say that about them.”
Just then my brother came out of the house with a couple of suitcases.“Will you unlock the trunk so I can put these in?” He asked Daddy. “I can’t find Patty’s suitcase.”
Daddy unlocked the trunk of our car then went back in the house yelling for Patty to bring her suitcase out to put in the car.
I sat down on the sidewalk in the shade of the moving van. I was not in the way, but I could watch the men bring things out of the house and put them in the van
All of a sudden Daddy came running out the front door looking very angry. I had seen that look before and knew better than to ask him any questions. He ran across the street to the Crosby’s and banged on their front door. Mother came along behind him. I could see she was crying, but I had gotten used to that. Mother and Patty had been crying a lot lately. They were both sad to be moving.
Daddy came back out of the neighbor’s house. I heard him tell my mother that he had called the police and that they were going to try to catch “them”. With that, my mother really started crying. I ran over and hugged her.
“Don’t cry, Momma,” I piped. I was scared now. “Why did Daddy call the police? Did someone steal something?”
Daddy glared at me.
“Hush now. Patty and Tommy have run off to get married. The police are going to bring them back.”
A deathly silence settled over our house. The movers kept on bringing furniture and boxes out of the house and placing them carefully in the van.
A long time passed. It was almost lunch time when I saw Tommy’s car turn onto our street. It was closely followed by a police car. They both pulled up behind the moving van. The policeman got out of his car first. His light blue uniform was already showing dark areas under his armpits and on this back where the sweat had soaked through. Tommy and Patty just sat in his car snuggled up next to each other. Daddy was standing in the shade of the sweet gum tree smoking his Chesterfield’s one after another.
“Well, Mr. Stout. I caught up with them, but there’s not much I can do. Your daughter is 18 and she can get married if she wants.”
“Let me talk to them,” Daddy said. His jaws were clinched and his face was dark red.
Just then my mother came out of the house, grabbed my hand and took me inside. I struggled for a moment.
“You get in the house this minute and stay there.” I knew from her tone I was out of options. I went in the house and found an open window to watch from.
Daddy was talking to Tommy and Patty through the car window. I couldn’t hear a word, but after a while Patty kissed Tommy and got out of the car and headed into the house with her suitcase in her hand. Tommy and Daddy shook hands and then Tommy drove away.
The movers finished up and closed the big double doors on the van. Two of the men got in the cab and drove away. I waved to them and shouted,
“See you in Idaho.”
My family made one last trip through the house, then all got into our blue Buick Roadmaster. Mother, Daddy and Nancy were in the front seat. Patty, Junior and I were in back with me perched on the fold down armrest in the middle.
My father started the car, shifted the gears and we pulled away. No one said a thing about what happened as we waved to the neighbors who had come to see us off.
Note to all my relatives: This is a work of fiction very loosely based on events which may or may not have happened.
The morning of September 4, 1951 broke, as late summer mornings often do in Northern Alabama, with the sun rising through the ground fog. Fog filtered sunlight made the transition from night to day a lazy occurrence much in keeping with the pace of life in the Tennessee River Valley, and the South as a whole. The fog burned off as the sun rose above the trees along Spring Creek near our house.. It promised to be another sultry day. There was little rushing about. Hookworms and heat set the tempo in the pre air conditioned South at a languid largo.
I was up at first light. I threw my leg over the top rail of the crib, where I still slept despite having turned four that summer, and lowered myself to the floor. I shucked off my pajamas and threw them back in the crib, then pulled on blue shorts and a white tee shirt with blue and red stripes. I reached back through the crib bars and pulled out my brown teddy bear, George, tucked him under my arm and headed toward the kitchen. In my bare feet I padded down the long dark hall that connected the bedrooms to the kitchen, where I heard my parents talking. Daddy never lowered his voice in consideration of those who might still be sleeping. Every word he said was distinct; Mother’s voice only a murmur. Daddy was issuing his orders for the day.
“The movers should be back at 8:00. You need to have the children up and fed and the breakfast dishes washed and packed by then. Have Patty and Nancy the strip the beds and pack the bedding. It won’t be clean, but there’s no time to wash it. I want to get a couple hundred miles down the road today, maybe even to Cairo, even though we can’t leave until the movers do.”
Without comment Mother got up from the table. She took their plates and put them in the sink filled with steaming dishwater. When she turned, she saw me standing in the doorway.
“Good morning, Mary Sunshine. Get in your chair and have your breakfast while I go wake the others. Put your dish in the sink when you finish.” She headed down the hall to get my sisters and brother up.
“Can I ride in the moving van, Daddy? When are the men going to get here?”
While awaiting an answer, I clambered onto one of the gray vinyl dinette chairs at the table and poured some cereal into a bowl. Daddy poured the milk in for me. I put two spoons of sugar on when he wasn’t looking.
My father was a tall, slender man who wore his hair in a crew cut. His hair was all black except for a patch right in front about the size of a quarter that was completely white. When he looked up from the road map he was studying, his blue eyes met mine.
“They’ll be here soon. You’ll ride with us in the car. They have to pick up some other loads and won’t get to Idaho until days after we do. Now eat your breakfast like your mother said.”
My brother, Junior, was still buttoning his shirt as he joined us. He was skinny and had his dark hair in a crew cut like Daddy’s.
“Dad, why don’t you just put her in one of those big boxes and let them put her in the moving van?”
While I really wanted to ride to Idaho in the moving van, I had been teased enough by my brother to know that if he suggested that I do something, there was a problem with it. I didn’t understand how far it was to Idaho. I still periodically insisted that I was going to walk to my grandparent’s house in Florida.
“Leave her alone and eat your breakfast, Son. I want you to help me take the beds apart.”
“Yes sir, I’ll hurry.”
Daddy folded up his map and put it on top of the refrigerator with the other important papers he wanted to take in the car with us.
“I’m going to start with Mary’s crib. We’ll do your bed next,” Daddy said.
“Can I help? I can hold the screws when you take them out.” I jumped down from my chair and ran to the sink with the half eaten bowl of Cheerios. I wanted make sure nothing bad happened to my crib. Hearing that it was to be taken it apart was somehow scary. So far, all the talk of moving out West where the cowboys and Indians lived and everyone rode around on horses was exciting, but kind of like make believe.
“You can help me until your mother needs you for something.”
My father knew better than to send me outside to play. I had a habit of wandering off. There were many incidents involving me being found far from home by neighbors. When I was younger, mother often tied me to the clothesline in an effort to keep me at home. Sometimes the neighbor’s dog, Troubles, would come over and chew the rope through and off we would go. Everyone in the small government village, where only TVA workers lived, knew each other and knew where I belonged. My oldest sister, Patty, fretted about what would happen to me when we moved to a place peopled only by strangers. She said when Mother and Daddy bought our new house she would teach me the new address and my phone number. She told me it would be as easy as learning how to wink.
Patty and Nancy were now up. Patty had a dark blond pageboy and wore glasses. As we passed in the dim hallway, she winked at me. I squinted up one eye in what I thought was an excellent wink. She laughed and said, “Keep practicing. You’re getting better.”
“Happy, happy birthday,” I sang out. “Is Tommy coming over to say goodbye?”
“Yes, he’ll be over on his way to work.”
Patty’s eyes and nose started turning red again as tears formed. Today was Patty’s eighteenth birthday. She was getting what she said was the worst birthday present ever, our move to Pocatello, Idaho. Tommy was her fiancé. Like many couples, they got engaged during their senior year at Sheffield High. This fall, Tommy was headed for Naval Reserve training. Patty had been all set to enter the University Of Alabama School Of Nursing when Daddy told her she was going to Idaho with the family. I overhear Mother tell Mrs Cosby that it was a wonder she and Tommy hadn’t skipped over the nearby state line to Mississippi where the legal marriage age was 15.
Nancy came out of the bathroom, wrinkled her nose and mimicked me by mouthing “Happy Birthday” to Patty’s receding back. Our family had lots of birthdays close together. Nancy had just turned 12 in August. She still wore her reddish, blond hair in ringlets, or more accurately this morning, in rats’ nests. She was dressed in green shorts and a cropped top with little flowers on it.
“I’ve got a lot to do today. You’d better stay out of my way,” she hissed at me as we passed in the hall.
I stuck out my tongue at her and scooted into my parent’s bedroom where Daddy was already disassembling my crib using a screwdriver and crescent wrench.
“Good, here’s my helper. You hold these when I give them to you,” He dropped several pieces of cool, dark metal into my hand. “Screw the nuts onto the bolts so they don’t get lost.”
I was proud to have such an important job. Daddy said if I lost one, my crib wouldn’t stay together when we got to Idaho. I held them tightly until he was finished. He took them from me then counted them.
“Are they all here?”
“Yes sir. I was very careful.”
He put them in a little bag that he tied to the crib frame with strong jute string.
“When will the men be back to get the rest of our things?”
“In a little bit. If you promise to stay on the porch and not wander off, you can go sit on the front steps and watch for them. You come tell me as soon as they get here.”
While waiting for the moving van from my perch on the front steps, I saw Tommy’s car turn the corner and pull up in front of our house.
To be continued…