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.


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.


“Gimme’ some sugah’” he drawled, as he jumped on top of me. This isn’t happening I thought, but it was. His breath smelled like a still. I could feel his scratchy beard all over my face, he was kissing me. He was heavy and hard, his body. My little brother was sleeping on the bed on the other side of the room. This man was laying on top of me like a whale. But what did I know? What would I tell my cousin, his wife? How could I tell my mother? Why did my dad let this man into our lives?

“Have you eva’ felt a dead man’s body”? he said, as he put his arm around my shoulders. “No” I said shyly. “I have” he brags. “He was a nigga I killed”. “What”? I was no longer surprised at the comments Rock made. That was his name, Rock. In the south they gave everyone nicknames. He was from the south. He was my cousin’s husband. He’d escaped from a chain gang in Georgia, lived in the mountain forest for months, before finding his way to California and moving there, into our home. My father allowed this. “I buried his body in the sticks” said he. “Oh” was all I could reply.

“I’m gonna call you Brandy – for the drink you lak’”. She was lying in the top bed in the motor home while it moved. Her cousin Robbie was there too, as he grabbed her and sucked on her neck. There would be red welts she knew, she’d have to walk around with them at school. It was another one of those weeks she’d have to feel guilty. But she didn’t know it wasn’t her fault.

“So why are you always hiding in my closet” she said, as Rock jumped out and grabbed her upon walking into her bedroom. “Cuz yur’ sexy” he growled. Her bedroom was no longer her own, not her’s any more, as long as he could stand hiding in her closet waiting for her.

“Wing-wang, wing-wang”! He laughed “you wanna see how ta’ smoke? I’ll show ya’” He scraped a match and drew up a flame, then put it to the end of a cigarette, then puffed it once, twice, handed it to her. He lit another one, putting it between his lips and taking a few puffs. “You inhale it, you breathe it, lak’ this.” Then he lets the two streams of white smoke sail out of his two nostrils. Then she tries it too. She doesn’t cough, but feels adult for the effort, for him being there. She looks into his black piercing eyes, looking back at her.

Rock smokes Marlboro red box, she doesn’t know it now, but she will remember him by that red box of cigarettes outlined in his shirt pocket, forever imprinted in her fourteen year- old mind. “The other girls at school laugh at me when I smoke, I don’t know how to inhale”. He looks at her and says, “they won’ laugh at you no mo’”.

When Rock first came to their home to stay in it with her family, he spends time drinking in the wetbar in their home. On a weekend evening he’s there with her father, and asks her “Christine ya wanna’ go snipe huntin’”? He’s smiling at her. “okay I guess”, she says. He tells her to go and get a paper bag and she does it. They both go outside. They begin walking out into the field behind the corrals, where she learned out to smoke. It’s late, it’s dusk. The sun is going down. It’ll be dark soon.

They arrive at the top of a small hill, within a field of avocado orchards. He stops in front of her and tells her to sit down with the bag, open it, point it to the little trail where the rabbits hop. “The snipe’ll run right into the bag see!” “What do they look like?” she says in wonder, she’s curious. “like little brown birds”, he stutters a little, like he’s lyin’.  “Now jus’ hold that bag there an’ I’ll go chase ’em outa’ the bushes.” He leaves. She sits there until dark, after dark.

She trusts that the snipe will come.  It never comes. She walks back down the hill with the empty bag.