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.