The Tunnel

     During one of our riding adventures around the freeway underpass, up near the trail to the creek, we found a cement tunnel. Our neighborhood riding gang on this day was my little brother Jay Jay riding his pony Peewee, Angela on her pony, me on my sister’s pony, Wendy on her pony and my friend Nancy on her tall buckskin horse, Pride. We loved to find adrenaline charged adventures to go on, usually the summers held the most action. On this particular adrenaline rush-filled day, it was more fright than fun.

     Previously my friend Jill and I had already found this tunnel on another trail ride. She was on her horse Champ, I was on my horse Tivio. But we’d foregone the chance to go through it, just sitting atop our horses, looking at it and discussing when or how we’d take it, and who we’d bring with us. We already knew we’d be on horses, that was a given. The question in mind was, what was it. We’d ridden around it, over it and to the other end of it, seeing that it went down under the freeway and came out on the other side. But we hadn’t yet ridden inside it. We called that area the Sunset Stables. The wide dirt trail had Rosemary bushes growing literally everywhere in meadows on either side, with the heady herbal scent almost assaulting our nostrils. On some days it was so strong that it smelled like skunk.

     The first thing that we had to do when we found a new place to explore and accost was to decide whether there would be any adults around. In this case the tunnel was a long one, with a narrow walkway, where the cement walls were close together than the other tunnels we’d found. We’d already found the other end.  It was just a matter of time.

     Pride was a super tall buckskin gelding, who walked with his head high. When Nancy was on his back, her legs didn’t even reach all the way around his barrel. The rest of our posse’  were on ponies, because we’d known for a few days that we’d be traversing this tunnel. Nancy wanted in on it, but insisted on riding Pride. She said she’d just be the last one in, that was the plan. Single file we each entered the blackness of the cement, with a dirt floor and the smell of mildew and a slightly watery fragrance. I went in first. Star my sister’s pony didn’t even hesitate, walked right in stepping over large rocks, sticks. My brother followed on Pee Wee. Angela followed Jay Jay on her red pony. And then bringing up the rear was Nancy on Pride.

     As we walked along we couldn’t even see the other end, except for a tiny white dot that was “the light at the other end”. This was what we talked about as we walked, and walked and walked, the tiny light. “I can see a light, don’t get scared, I can see it!” I said a few times, I could feel the fear behind me coming from my little brother. There was some complaining going on too. I had to lead them on and on, to the end. I couldn’t show fear. No matter what, I had to be brave.

     After what seemed like a hell, we were in what was the middle. I could just tell we were at the middle of the tunnel, because it was pitch black. And then I heard a ruckus behind me, in the inky air. Nancy was yelling, and Pride was spooked. Her horse wanted out of the black tunnel. I heard what sounded like cursing and some “look out, look out’s”, and I looked back. It was so dark that I couldn’t see the horses. All I could see was sparks shooting off the roof a distance back, and Nancy’s blonde head banging against the roof of the tunnel.  I could see the silhouette of her body being pulled along while she held on to her horse’s mane. Her horse had begun rearing up and bucking wildly, making her head smack into the cement roof over and over. I saw his huge body rear up and she tumbled in a backwards somersault, over his hind end. And then I was being violently pushed as my pony was being shoved to the side. He’d literally smashed his way past the other three ponies on his exit out of the blackness.  I saw this monstrous animal jump over my pony’s withers, and flying ahead, barreling on out of the tunnel, rider less, the reins like loose straps flailing around both sides of his silhouette, without hands holding them anymore. That was the last thing I saw was the outline of the reins like tiny black strips, at each side of him, as he blasted out on his own, his hooves clattering, echoing off the cold walls of the cement.

     It all happened so fast that before I knew what had happened Pride was gone. He’d begun his long striding gallop, his black tail and mane flying behind him, hooves pounding the ground hard, heading for home, his corral, rider-less. I stopped and let Nancy up on Star. Riding double now, we continued on, our ponies now alternating between walking and trotting. They wanted out too. But they were now afraid. I could see the whites of Star’s eyes, as if he was caught, trapped.

     We could see the sunlight coming in, streaming in through the rectangle in front of us. Our pony’s little hooves were making straight for it, their little fuzzy ears standing up, seeing freedom. They shuffled over the small cement floor and like a new breath of life, we were standing in blinding white sunlight, blinking, squinting, and holding our hands up over our eyes to shield them from the onslaught of light. And then I began laughing as Nancy slid off the back of my pony, stood there. “I saw sparks coming off your head!” I choked between coughing laughs. “There were sparks, your head made sparks!” Nobody else saw the sparks but me. Nancy’s eyes flashed, and she was saying “that’s not funny, Christine, It’s not funny. I could have been killed”. My brother in the verge of tears whines “I want to go home, can we just go home?” “yeah, let’s go” was all I could say.


Living Off the Grid

Living Off the Grid

In the Deep South, the dirt is red. It’s dark clay that’s thick and slippery when it rains. And if you attempt to drive a car on a dirt road after it’s rained you’ll be sliding all over the road, just like if you were riding on black ice.

     My aunt Sally Mae live out in “the sticks” in Georgia, in a wooden house, with no electricity and an outhouse for a bathroom, and a huge wooden front porch where, on sweltering hot summer days, my cousins and I would eat watermelons. Spitting the seeds off the porch down onto the dirt below, my favorite cousin Raymond told me “don’ eat the seeds, they’ll grow a watermelon in yer’ stomach if ya’ do”. He seemed so certain of this that I believed him.

     I had thirteen cousins from this one aunt, alone. Visiting their house out in the forest was an adventure in itself. And just getting there was half the fun. For my cousins lived so far off the beaten path, that the tiny little town they resided in wasn’t even on the map. And it still isn’t. They were living “off the grid”. Their house was about an hour drive off the main rural route way, way back. You had to drive on a narrow dirt road that was flanked by gigantic trees. The trees got taller and the forest got thicker as you progressed down that red dirt road.

     They made moonshine whiskey and grew marijuana for a living. Moonshine is also called “white lightening”, named for the way it just slides down your gullet so fast. And before you know what hit you, you’re toasted. This alcoholic beverage is made from potatoes. The Scotch Irish perfected this many, many years ago, when they migrated here from Scotland to get away from the English. And they’ve been doing it this way since before Colonial times. The whiskey is produced in something called a “Still”. Stills are always hidden way, way back in the woods, so far back that the “law” can’t find it. So far out of sight that we had to walk miles back into the forest. Moonshine is kept in mayonnaise jars and preserved that way.

     Not all of my cousins made moonshine. But the ones that did were always the most fun to visit. Their lives were so rural and sort of wild, that as a small child I wanted to stay there and live there. I even began speaking with an accent while there. And I can switch back over to a southern drawl in an instant. It’s surprisingly easy to pick up for a child of six or seven like I was.

     All of Sally Mae’s kids ran around in overall, jeans and no shirts or shoes. I remember feeling envious of them because I couldn’t just take off my shirt and run around like them that way, all rough and ready.

     They had chickens and coon hounds and grew their own food. I remember eating a lot of tomatoes too. All my aunts could really cook.  They made corn bread, mashed potatoes, fried chicken and black-eyed peas. Lard was used in everything they cooked, except grits. I loved their grits. “Shit on the shingle” too was a dish they made. It’s basically chipped beef on toast with a white gravy and pepper over it. My mother learned to make that shit on the shingle too.

     I had another cousin, Michael. He isn’t alive now. But he was another character. He was a tall, loud, big boned, flamboyant guy. He had a wild laugh that sounded exactly like a hyena, a wild hyena. When we were small children I remember playing in a plastic pool with him. He and his mother Fay would come out to visit us. He’d always expose himself to me when we were outside in the pool in our bathing suits. As a young innocent girl, I had no idea what I was looking at hanging there between his legs. I remember thinking that he had several of whatever it was supposed to be. I’d usually say something like “you have two?” My reaction wasn’t what he was used to getting I suppose. I remember he got yelled at a lot by his mother, for exposing himself like that. He’d cry and then just do it again.

     When Michael came to live with us during what I think were his late teens, it was very entertaining. Instead of shaving the regular way, he used Nair hair remover on his face. He wore polyester, nylon, tight underwear, in all colors of the rainbow. He hand washed then in Woolite and then dry them on the delicate cycle in our dryer. He’d use an entire half hour for drying what my brother called his “ball-huggers”. If my brother caught him doing this, he’s have hell to pay. My brother jay opened the dryer, yanked out a pair of his ball-huggers (preferably the purple pair) and ran through the house waving and whipping the tiny piece of polyester underwear around in the air, around his head and flailing his arm wildly, screaming “Michael’s ball-huggers” over and over. Michael would literally chase my brother all over the house, screaming curse words. My favorite one was, “stankin’ gnat’s twat!” I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded good. I’d laugh hysterically.

Wildflower Road

     Two days out of every week, that was all. Just two days, I would walk several houses on the path that snaked behind his and or neighbor’s houses. I didn’t mind the walk. Except the way back was dark in the forest behind here. What I did on those days was what I remembered for many years after. I went there on a whim the first time, to see him. He had yellow, long hair way past his suntanned shoulders. And he was all blue eyes and smirks. It was all I could remember, those ice blue eyes against the clear sky on that summer day. The Achilles heel I later named him. He was my weakness that started during that desperately hot summer in nineteen eighty.

     The first time I went to visit I wasn’t invited. Well, not formally or anything like that. I’d seen him baling hay out in the field across the road from my house, where I lived with my mother. My mother’s name is Jo, short for Jolene. She and  I where tooling by in our old Chevy truck, as he and his daddy stood there without their shirts on, sweat drops turning to diamonds on his shoulders and arms. I turned my head and took a good long look at him while I listened to the truck radio and my momma’s idle chatter. “Oh uh-huh” I mumbled in absentmindedness, as I stared at the Greek God who was my neighbor. I, lost in a dream heard the sound of my mother’s voice above the dream I was creating mentally, “Judy are you even listenin’ to me?” Her own eyes looking now, out the window of the passenger side of our truck. The wind, coming in the window fast now, whipped around my face so I couldn’t see. For a few seconds I was blinded by my thick brown locks, whipping around my face so I couldn’t see. And by the time I pulled my hair back from my face, we’d driven by the place where he’d been standing. I turned my body all the way around in the seat to get another look at him. And he’d done the same. He was standing looking back at me, over his shoulder with his golden torso half way turned toward the dirt road. As our truck kicked up dust and rattled down the road to our yellow house on Wildflower Road.

     My mother blew smoke out her mouth and nose “now don’t you be getting’ in any trouble with that boy. You don’t know nothin’ ‘bout him.” She said those words to me while she was looking straight ahead over the steering wheel. But by the time her last syllable fell from her red lips, I’d already decided that it was exactly what I planned on doing, and soon.

     I don’t recall exactly how it was that I knew which of the large houses he lived in. I just knew. It was one of those hot days in the summer, the first time I did that walk out back through the forest to his house. I don’t even know how it was that I knew he’d be home, but I knew, and he was.

     I’d taken all that morning planning. Planning what I’d say, what I’d wear and painting my toenails pink. I used a pair of my jeans, and cut them off with my mother’s sewing scissors. I cut them high up on my thighs. And then I pulled them on and rolled up the edges just right. I shoved my tiny bottle of whiskey in one of the pockets and hopped off the back wooden deck, my white sneakers hitting the dirt ground with a little thud.

     I could smell the lemon shampoo still drying in my hair as I walked. I left it damp, knowing it would dry in the sun on my jaunt over to his house, through the edge of the forest. The mosquitos lit on my arms and buzzed around my nose. I swatted and smacked one of my wrists. And I pulled my whiskey out of my pocket and took a little sip, to get my nerve up. I knew it would be a trip worth the walk. I couldn’t wait to see the look of his blue eyes, when he’d see me standing at his back door. And it wouldn’t be none of anybody’s business but our own. And that’s the way it stayed for a long time.

Nancy Was Here

The rosemary scented air was humid on that summer day. Nancy my best friend and riding buddy, asked me if I wanted to go and have a smoke. Of course I said yes. I was up for anything in those years, it was nineteen seventy-one. She snuck into her older sister Sue’s stash and stole two Marlboro cigarettes and matches. We knew where Sue kept all of her personal belongings, including her paperback erotica. She had one book called “Love Thy Neighbor”. We read it voraciously when their parents weren’t home. Nancy shared a bedroom with her older sister Sue. They had fuzzy-felt psychedelic posters adorning their bedroom walls. “Keep on Truckin’” was tacked up over her bed. Cherry incense was wafting around that bedroom constantly. A green bottle of herbal essence shampoo with the goddess standing there in the label, they’d turned me on to. Our thin blonde hair held the redolence of its perfect garden scent.

The empty house across the street was for sale for what seemed like months. The front door had been left open. It was our smoking house for then. All we had to do in order to have privacy was run across the street. We went into the back bedroom and lit up. Nancy informed me that if we ate a banana that nobody would smell the cigarettes on our breath, and then like the wizard that she was, she produced a banana from her shirt. We would be sharing the banana she said. What could I say? We lit up and smoked, feeling cool and adult. She showed me how to blow smoke rings. Our lower jaws making small O’s like fish, we perfected the art of smoke rings, blowing them by two’s and three’s. Soon I was dizzy from all of the smoke and nicotine. We smashed our cigarettes onto the wall, pulling them down the white wall and making a long black sooty line.

Nancy announced that she needed to take a crap. I didn’t know what we could do, unless we were to leave and go across the street to her house. She said she couldn’t wait. She promptly pulled the closet door open, stepped in and shut the door again. I couldn’t see what she was doing, but I knew she was shitting. “Do you have to go?” she inquired upon stepping out of her temporary outhouse. I said I didn’t. We left sneaking back out the door, looking up and down the street first. Nobody saw us.

The next day Nancy and I and four of our closest friends who lived in houses up and down the street, were riding our bicycles down to Hobo Junction for fun. Hobo junction was an area around our neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley; it was a huge olive orchard that seemed as if the trees were over one hundred years old. Evenly spaced a few yards apart, there were hundreds of these trees. All of the branches were heavy and weighted down with black olives and their tiny green leaves. The trees formed a canopy of branches, so heavy that the orchard created a shelter from the rain as we galloped through it on our horses. Sometimes we played hide and seek on horseback. The olive trees were so thick you could sit atop your horse and be invisible behind any of them.

Hobo junction was next to a place we affectionately named “Cherry Flats”, that was where cherry trees were growing abundantly, stretching up a hill that was next to the Juvenile Hall that had been recently abandoned after the earthquake. In our gang of friends from the neighborhood, it was said that some of my friends had seen hobos living in the orchard. But recently some construction had begun in our riding area there. And on weekends the construction crew would leave their huge, monstrous, yellow tractors and landscape movers parked unattended. We didn’t like this idea of buildings being built in our territory.

The previous weekend we’d already been down there, and when we saw those tractors we couldn’t believe it. Outrage made us come up with a plan of action. My friend Nancy said she’d shit on their tractors, and write her name in shit on the side of the biggest one. Yeah, we liked that. We’d show them! And she proceeded to complete her creation of shit, shitting, writing her name with a stick, “Nancy was here”. I can only recall thinking that Nancy had balls. It was classic. We joyously rode our bikes back home, laughing hysterically all the way.

The next Saturday we rode back down there again, on our bikes. There were a few more of us this day, because we’d put out the word of our shit plan. Some more of our courageous crew were wanting in on the action. We troublemakers took our route down to Hobo Junction, riding with no fear. It was Nancy, Wendy and I and a few others too, and I think my brother Jay- Jay was with us.

Cruising along the trail that was usually used for horses, on our bikes and next to the rows of olive trees, we heard a rustling sound. Four men came running out of the trees, taking us, grabbing our bicycles at the handlebars. One of them said loud “are any of you kids here named Nancy?” We froze. I said “no why?” (As I was the bravest one in our group… verbally, just not brave enough to shit on property). They were still holding onto our handle bars with their thick muscular arms. We all looked at each other. I said “she’s Angela”, pointing at Nancy. And then Nancy began reciting fictitious names and pointing at each of us, to throw them off. “Why, what happened?” I said again. “Some kids vandalized our equipment”, said the head construction man. I was holding in my laughter, smirking, “what did they do”? “They just vandalized it”, he puffed in anger. “Oh” I said shyly, using my acting skills and opening my eyes wide. They let go of our bikes. And we were free.

When we got out of earshot we all burst into laughter, putting our feet down and stopping the bicycles in the middle of Bradley Street. “We shit on your tractors”! We screamed over and over hysterically, as loud as we could. We were sitting on the bikes, looking back down the street to the green leafy trees. Nobody was there any more. Just a round tumbleweed bouncing high into the air and then down, away from us. Then we were riding and pedaling fast all the way home. Our long hair flying behind us, the water in our eyes coming out the sides as the wind whipped up all around us.

Blackberry Forest

The forest where I grew up in was five miles off the rural route. My mother, brother and I lived in a place that was so far out in the backwoods that it was never even on the map. Our three-room shack was surrounded by thick, tall, green trees. There was a mossy creek out back, where I could catch frogs and watch tadpoles darting nervously as I approached the edges of the water. I spent most of my days outside like that, with the animals in the forest. And just being a girl. I went barefoot mostly in summertime

My mother made sweet tea to drink on those summer days, when the air was so heavy it felt like a blanket on my skin. She liked to bake blackberry pies. I learned to back those pies with her, and peach pies also. But my favorite was blackberry. My brother and I loved the scoops of vanilla ice cream on top of the warm pies, right out of our oven. I’d sit at that old wooden table with my brother and feel the cold ice cream on my tongue, sharp on my teeth, and the warm insides of berry filling after the cold, sliding down my gullet. We had milk too, from our cows.

Today I took my two metal buckets and laced up my walking sneakers, to go out and pick berries in the meadow a bit further away from our home. There was a trail I’d made after years of berry picking in the forest. I took our two dogs too, for company. They were hounds with gray with brown and black speckles. I always had hounds; they were what everyone had out there. I could hear them howling loud and long when they came up on a raccoon and had him treed. I always called them off.

I walked down yonder for what seemed like a good hour. Until I came to a green clearing where there were vines and a fence around what used to be an old market. It had been abandoned some time before I began my berry picking treks. I went inside the tiny wooden shack to rest and find shade from the sun on this one hot day, my dogs trotted in behind me, their tongues flopped out and they plopped over onto the cool floor inside.

It was only a little bit further to the part of the creek that winded its way further south into the Appalachia’s. There the creek widened to a small river where my brother and I would fish. And we’d catch catfish for dinner. But today wasn’t a fishing day. It was a berry-picking day. And the bushes were full from where I could see out of the window, where I stood looking out into the tall, green weeds and wildflowers. There my most beautiful flower grew, cosmos. They stood out tall and long amongst all of the weeds. They were simple and colorful, orange yellow, perfectly round petals, and with long stems.

I could feel the mosquitos lighting on my damp skin, I brushed them off. Not before they bit me though. Today I’d have to watch and be careful for poison oak. It was growing wild out there. I opened my canteen, took a sip of cool water and put the cap back on it. As I looked around inside my private shack, I was planning on bringing my fishing pole next time. I would do that.

A Night Out

I put on my tightest pair of jeans, the ones that zipped all around from front to back, the size ten’s. I looked for my belt and found it. It was the new style, a thin strip of leather that wrapped around my waist twice and kinda hung down a little bit. I knew that my jeans would fit because I’d spent the last week fasting to be able to fit into them. Tonight was the party night, I had to be ready for it tonight. I walked out into the foyer of the condo, where I lived with my brother and mother. And I stood in front of my mother’s expensive mirror, the full length one that was on the wall, and appraised myself, turning around to view my rear end several times from each angle. Then I went to the kitchen and pulled out my bottle of Jacquere’ wine, popping the cork and pouring a large glass of it. I was getting ready for the night, getting my buzz going, warming up.

     I heard my friend Robin’s car pulling up into the drive, seeing the headlights of her blue Camaro. I could feel the adrenaline in my stomach. We both had Camaros, mine white, her’s light blue. We were going to a party where there’d be a lot of foggy mirrors, so we brought our own powder. She always had what we needed to share between us, to get us through the night. She was going to drive tonight, so I could drink my wine as the passenger. I usually poured half seltzer water and half wine into a plastic cup and added ice cubes. She preferred beer.

     The party was being thrown in a neighborhood close by. The new crowd I’d begun hanging out and partying with was into drugs, more than I’d usually seen before then. I thought they were all cool, always a new guy to be with, to sleep with at the end of the night. Sometimes I’d go to their place or I’d bring them home, sneak in my back bedroom door. My ego demanded this, to sleep with a lot of guys. And I didn’t care what anyone thought. It was a huge ego trip, feeling that control. And tonight a new guy was going to be at this party, I already knew. He was good friends with Robins’ brother Eddie. She was going to plan an outing on their family’s yacht, and invite him too. It was almost too exciting for me to think about right then. And more than that, I was actually stealing him from his girlfriend. This made it all the more of an ego trip.

     I heard the knock on the front door, and rushed out to let her in as she let her car’s engine idle in the drive. “Are you ready” Robin said breathlessly. I could see that she was as excited as I was feeling. “We need to get some beer”, she whispered. “I drink wine, have some”, I encouraged. “It’s less calories than beer.” She laughed a little at that. “You’re already skinny enough. Let’s go.” I ran back to my room and grabbed my purse and in one leap we were out the door and into her car. Rod Steward was playing on her stereo, it sounded good. 

Down By the Creek

Once a long time ago, I went to live in Georgia, with my backwoods, hillbilly cousins. It was summer in the Deep South. I can tell you it’s like being in a jungle during the summer season in the forests of the south. And everyone talks with a twang. I’d taken a plane there, to get away from California and the trouble I had gotten into there. (That’s another story).

My relatives, I love them from a distance. I spent two weeks out there, living in a trailer with no air conditioning. The humidity felt like it was raining on some days. And at night the fireflies were out in force, lighting up the night, as we’d sit outside drinking sweet tea and picking string beans. I was bored.

And then my cousin Sandy and two guys came to get me. “We’re going to the creek, you wanna go?” Hell yes I wanna go! The four of us piled in an old car and went down yonder to a place off the road,where we parked the car. There was a tiny store there I remember. Then we walked through the forest, the two guys carrying the cooler. I walked behind my cousin, watching her butt sway back and forth in her white cut-offs, and listening to her talking in her twang, about nothing in particular. For about a mile
we walked, they knew where they were going, down a trail with tall trees that only got taller as we went further, through a thick forest.

They called it a creek. But it was a slow moving river. One guy laid down a thick quilt. We all sat on it, popped open Coors beers. The two guys jumped into the water, diving in, swimming under the current. And then I did the same. Sandy had to get up her nerve before she could do it. The water wasn’t warm, it was chilly. There was a huge boulder that stood up, jutting out of the water. One of the guys said to me “this was where your cousin Franklin drowned, right here, where your swimming now, right in that spot.” “The water isn’t even deep” I said in a low voice. The guy looking at my eyes and face, “he didn’t know how to swim”, he said, and I swam off. And could feel his hands running along my leg as I swam by him. He didn’t even say anything. That’s how they did things back there, by tacit consent. You just do something, and if nobody disagrees, it’s okay. He was subtle.

I can say for sure that day I remember it because of the simplicity of what we were doing. We were just enjoying the water, the sun and each other’s company. It seemed like that was exactly where I needed to be on that day. My cousins and those two guys talked with a heavy southern twang, so thick that I could barely understand them. But by the end of the day I understood them all, everything.