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.

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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.

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.

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.