Stella Ridley 13-18
The year and a half between Molly and me in age had already started to matter when she started school ahead of me, but when she started her period, which I considered an affront to good sense, that age difference became an outright gap. Molly and I had never felt it necessary to know everything about each other, and our difference in age would matter less and less the older we got. But I didn’t know that then—then it seemed as if Molly not only had secrets but was some kind of secret herself. When she talked with me, I felt as if I were receiving hastily written and merely dutiful postcards from a very, very far-off land, and not one that I cared to visit myself either. I felt this as a great loss, and I suffered because of it, although its importance receded like a sharp shift in camera focus a few months before school ended for summer.
One day, Wolf wasn’t waiting for me when I got home from school. Matu told me not to worry, that he was probably just having one of his adventure’s somewhere, but I patrolled the neighborhood whistling and calling for him nonetheless. When he still had not shown up a few hours later when it was time for his dinner (and his nightly one-to-one communion with Matu, who told him all sorts of things), Matu herself became alarmed, although she calmly assured us that all would be well. We barely ate at suppertime. When Bobby and Adela, and the then-baby, Sara, began to wail, Matu let me and Molly go out with flashlights to search door-to-door. Nothing. No sign or even sighting of Wolf, who was known to just about everyone. I felt that a great injustice had been done by someone somewhere, and, engaged in compulsive prayers to a God who wasn’t exactly my buddy, I barely slept—actually, no one in the house except the baby really slept.
The next morning, I was so overcome with worry and anxiety that Matu pitied me greatly and said that I could stay home from school so she and I could canvass the neighborhoods all around and call and call for him on every street. But just as we were preparing to leave the house, the phone rang. A neighbor on his morning walk had found Wolf in an icy ditch, dead, apparently hit by a car.
I told Matu that it couldn’t be Wolf. Matu told me that the man had found our phone number on Wolf’s tag. I couldn’t think of how another dog could have been wearing Wolf’s tag, but I was sure the dead dog was not Wolf. As we drove to retrieve Wolf’s body, Matu got so tangled up in trying to explain what death meant and to prepare me for the way Wolf might look, that she finally just fell silent. I was outraged.
Wolf had either been thrown or dragged into the ditch or had dragged himself there. He still actually looked a lot like himself except that blood had run from his nose and mouth and he was a bit twisted and stiff. We put in him the back of the station wagon and I sat next to him with my hand on his stiff body while we drove home. Matu and I buried him in a foresty place back in the property where violets grew and dogwoods bloomed.
As we dug the grave, we talked about Wolf and and sometimes talked to him as well. And we wept. We laughed some too—the crazy laugh of grief—as we remembered the way he sometimes looked at us as if we had lost our minds or the way he tried to herd us where he wanted us to go or all the other thousand things about him that made him dear to our hearts. Of course, all those things were merely trinket signs of the thing that can never be put in words about loving and devoted relationships with animals and the big hole in the world that never quite closes up when they are gone. He had been my savior and best friend since I was a baby, of course, but I think that he had a special place in Matu’s heart as well.
I insisted on putting my old baby blanket—the one that was with me when Wolf found me, in fact—into the grave with him, along with his favorite toy, a big dingy, chewed-up rubber bone. And when he was in the ground, we prayed for Wolf’s soul in heaven, although my heart was not really into it since my many prayers for Wolf’s safety the night before had not only not been answered but had been, I felt, mocked.
For many weeks, Matu or one of my siblings or even Papaw or Mamaw Ridley would think of Wolf or realize suddenly—again—that he wasn’t there and then we would all begin to sniff and weep and blubber. And although Molly tried to conceal it from me, she cried herself to sleep at night for a solid week. We both did. And that our sorrow was solitary made me feel entirely bereft, as if I’d lost not only Wolf but Molly and every one and everything else, and my main response to the relentless needlings of grief was to lose all interest in my life. So much of life requires imaginative engagement. So much about death makes it impossible.
Summer came. Molly was going to cheerleader camp, of all things, and then spending the rest of the summer with a friend on a working ranch. Matu wanted to take me to the coast where she, Adela, Bobby, and Sara would spend a month and a half before Uncle Robber joined them for a few more weeks and a trip to some extravagant and hyperhappy theme park. If I didn’t want to do that, why, she told me more than once, I could go to a wonderful camp in the mountains where I would meet bright, charming children from all over the world now wouldn’t that be nice?
One day, Deena was visiting and overheard one of the conversations about all this that Matu was having with herself in my presence and said, “Darling, why don’t you just let Tella come spend the summer with me at Mama’s place? She won’t have to do anything except what she wants to do there. She won’t even have to see anyone, except Miss Monkey, and well, me.” Deena turned to ask me how I would like that, but Matu cut her off. Later, when they thought they were out of earshot of me, they had a heated discussion, almost an argument.
Like all—well, many– people who are incapable of imagining a null emotional state, Matu thought that depression was an imaginary affliction usually born of idleness, which she strongly disapproved of. Matu, God bless her, was one of those “you’d-feel- so-much-better-if you’d-just” people and was always ready to tell you what would make her feel better if she were you. She would not let go of her opinion that what she thought of as cheerful distractions would “get me out of myself,” and Deena, who was just as stubborn, would not let go of her opinion that what Matu considered cheerful distractions were in themselves depressing and that my “problem” wasn’t boredom or self-involvement but “naked grief” (those words conjured up quite a sight in my beleaguered brain) that I had every reason to feel.
I couldn’t understand much of what they said, and, in fact, I was eavesdropping only out of habit, for I didn’t really care what they said or did. Well, that’s not exactly true. I did have some whiffy kind of feelings that helping Matu take care of Adela, Bobby, and Sara for a few months might be impossibly burdensome, even if it was in the most beautiful place on earth. Moreover, I have always found theme parks perverse and grotesque and even frightening—particularly the people who dress up as animated characters and just won’t leave you alone.
Anyhow, Matu finally gave in, and I went to spend the summer with Deena out at Mamaw and Papaw Rennie’s farm, a place where I had not spent much time that I remembered and which hadn’t really been a working farm since long before I was even born. However, although the cows, horses, mules, pigs, and chickens were long gone, the place had many of the requisites of farm-ness and out-there-ness that I needed: a pond, a garden, fields and woods, at two-story tin-roofed farmhouse with verandahs and a sleeping porch upstairs on the back. The nearest neighbors were three miles away, and though a main road ran past its long, graveled driveway, you couldn’t really hear the sounds of any world except the country world—birds, wind in the huge old oaks and hickories and sweetgums, the lowing of cattle or cocks crowing on the neighboring farm, cicadas, the faint rustle of graveyard grasshoppers, walking sticks, my very first praying mantis, fireflies, snakes. Occasionally, we could hear a train from far away, and sometimes crop dusters flew over, though the poison they spread in great hanging clouds did not smell nearly as wonderful as that of the mosquito truck.
Summer was and is still my favorite season. I love wilting heat and violent thunderstorms, and we had plenty of both that year. Deena’s cantankerous cat, Miss Monkey, became my close friend and often slept at the foot of my bed. The only drawback to this sleeping arrangement was that Monkey became a fierce, pouncing tiger whenever anything in the bed—one’s feet, for example—moved.
Deena had told me that there wasn’t anything much to do, but there was plenty to do, and all of it by its very nature was particularly attractive to me at that moment of my life. I helped Deena mount new specimens for her personal collection of insects and moths, and helped her go through whatever was caught in the insect trap she had set in the garden (“just to see what’s passing through,” she said). I learned how to tap a hard-boiled egg all over with the back of a spoon and then roll it twice between my palms till the shell loosened and could be pulled off in one large mosaiced piece that we later crushed and scattered around the flower beds to kill snails in a rather gruesome way. I read whatever I wanted to read in Deena’s library—Dickens, Sterne, Austen, Poe, poetry anthologies, fascinating and incomprehensible entomological tracts with enticing drawings that sometimes gave me nightmares.
And the garden required daily attention—sometimes I just walked through it to smell its dirty greenness, but I also helped Deena tend the corn and tomatoes and peppers there. I learned how to hoe, how to let the hoe do its work and to work in a steady rhythm instead of hacking away with it in that bulldog way that I had. I learned to focus that summer, and what it meant, to wait, to watch, to be still, to do even small things right. And for the first time, I felt something better than happiness, something that we don’t even recognize until we are pained by its absence: peace. And for a while, it was a lasting peace, and my soul was a smooth, shining lake.
The Strange Man
One night after a particularly spectacular thunderstorm had subsided into a steady rain tapping its million fingers on the tin roof of the house, we heard an odd noise as we were on our way to bed. We both paused at the bottom of the stairs. It sounded briefly as if some very large creature was thrashing and lashing about in the mud, then we heard a tiny thud, and then the front door flew open and he was suddenly there five feet in front of us, the deranged tufts of his hair oddly backlit by the lights of the car he had driven through the flowerbeds right up to the front of the house. (Stealth was not, apparently, part of his plan.)
He wasn’t a tall man, probably only slightly taller than Aunt Deena, and he was dripping wet, standing at the terminus of the muddy, wet tracks he had made into the house. I looked at him as if I had all the time in the world, noted the dark, glistening eyes that seemed to sit askew in his face, the damp skin, the stiff, too-new jeans and worn sneakers, the wet maroon sweatshirt. Even at a distance he gave off a powerful sick animal smell that was topped with a piercing metallic note similar to but not exactly like the high metal smell of fear or anger (the olfactory equivalent of that infernal, relentless fluorescent buzz that drives one insane in large department stores). He was shaking violently, and the small knife (not an axe—I had to stress this repeatedly to Molly later) he was clutching seemed to dance around like a drunk firefly whenever it reflected the night light in the entryway.
Everything about him said “I am The Strange Man.” Lord how I wished at that moment that Molly could see what I was seeing.
“Don’t say a word!” he said—unnecessarily, I must say, for we were both speechless. Miss Monkey trotted up to the Strange Man as if he had called her, and then she proceeded to sniff his legs in a leisurely way before hissing in his general direction and then sauntering back to us. The Strange Man’s eyes followed Monkey as if she were some loathsome, threatening creature and he even hissed through his teeth. It was as if he had forgotten himself and we were witnessing something private that we shouldn’t see. Then he looked at us and shouted, “Give me all your money!” in a way that was so like some childish imitation of a movie bad guy that I had to suppress the barking laughter that welled up in me. At this point, Monkey yowled and bolted up the stairs. The Strange Man pointed his shaking knife at me and said, “Don’t laugh at me!”
“I’m not laughing,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “You were thinking about it.”
“Was not,” I said.
“Do you see this knife?!” he shouted. “Do you see this knife?!”
Deena coolly said, “Please calm down. There’s no reason to shout.”
He said, “Don’t tell me what to do! I’m a dangerous man! Now where the hell is your money?”
Deena said, “All the money I have in the house is in the kitchen, the drawer next to the refrigerator. Go. Take what you need. I won’t try to stop you.”
He kind of snorted at this and said, “Listen, I take whatever I want! There’s nothing you can do to stop me even if you wanted!” Then, as if it was an afterthought, he said, “Bitch.”
We stood stock still then, listening to him tramp into the kitchen and flip the light switch on and shout out “Don’t move! I’m serious! I am dangerous!” before he jerked the drawer open so violently that he pulled it all the way out and it crashed onto the floor sending God knows what all clattering and spinning—that drawer was Deena’s junk drawer. The money was in the drawer, of course, but the Strange Man apparently didn’t believe that was all there was—we heard him pulling other drawers all the way out, flinging their contents about, and loudly muttering something that sounded like “muh, muh, chuh, nah, muh” over and over.
At one point, he opened the refrigerator and there was a long silence, as if he were perusing the contents, trying to decide what he wanted for a snack. Then he opened the freezer door and every cabinet door in the kitchen and threw everything out on the floor. For a long time, he just kicked things around on the floor and cursed. I say “for a long time,” but I really cannot tell how long any of this lasted or what bits of it lasted longer than others. At times, time seemed to stretch out into a vastness without boundaries, and at other times, it seemed to contract to a sharp little point that could not include anything but itself.
There were no sharp knives in the house I grew up in—Matu seemed to think that sharp knives were threatening in and of themselves. But Deena—God knows how—had become a spectacularly good cook and had a regular thing about keeping knives sharp and ready to use. The thought that Deena’s knives might catch the Strange Man’s eye in the kitchen made me giddy because if he saw the knives it might occur to him to exchange his little paring knife, or whatever it was, for a more threatening kind of knife with more potential to do harm. Sure enough, after an eternity of curses, the Strange Man tramped back in, awkwardly stuffing bills into his pants pocket, and carrying the boning knife I had watched Deena use rather intimately on a chicken just the week before when some of her university friends were coming to visit.
“This cain’t be all the money you got,” he said, squinting his eyes at Deena.
In the tone of someone relieved to be confessing, Deena lied. She said, “OK. It’s not all. There’s more money upstairs in the big bedroom. It’s in a coat pocket in the zip-up case at the back of the closet.”
“Don’t follow me!” he shouted. “Don’t try to call the police or you’ll regret it! Don’t move!” He clambered up the stairs to Deena’s room where he paused and shouted down at us: “I’m serious! I’m dangerous!” And then we could hear him slamming things around and muttering again.
Suddenly Deena pulled me around in front of her facing the door and whispered one word loudly in my ear: “Move.”
And I moved toward the open front door and moved even faster once I hit the first step of the porch—it felt as if my knees were jerking up to my chin with every step. I don’t know what Deena had planned to do once we got out of the house—we were both in pajamas and barefoot—but once we hit the porch, it was clear what we would do, for there was the Strange Man’s car, still loudly running in its sputtering last-gasp way, but fortunately not being watched over by some accomplice. Suddenly we were out on the main road and Deena was driving very fast even though she was having trouble managing the steering because it had so much play in it. Everything about our escape seemed to involve exaggerated movements—I felt as if I had suddenly found myself in a cartoon.
We were driving inside a great roar, the car shaking and shimmying and clanking, and in the midst of all that racket, we heard a muffled cry and exchanged a glance of horror. I looked in the backseat and saw a bound and gagged figure lying sideways on the seat. “It’s Miz Minnie’s boy!” I said.
“Holy Jesus!” Deena said and then shouted “Well help him, Tella! Don’t just sit there!” I clambered over the seat. Now those were the days before criminals had discovered the infinite uses of duct tape: the Strange Man had stuffed a sock in Miz Minnie’s boy’s mouth and tied what was apparently one of Miz Minnie’s silk scarves around his head. As I was untying this, I looked deep into Rupert’s eyes and saw despair and relief, but he couldn’t talk and began coughing a dry convulsive, racking sort of cough that made it hard to undo the rough boat rope he had been hog-tied with.
Deena started looking back into the backseat and the car was swerving all over the road. “Don’t you worry, honey! Don’t you worry!” she shouted. “I’ll take care of you!” At first I thought that she was talking to me. Deena slowed down but we were still flying and there was a sound coming from behind us that sounded like screaming, and then the sirens were just right on top of us. I guess the police could be forgiven for being sure that the criminal would emerge from the care when they—and they really did this—hollered “Get out of the car with your hands up!” Of course we obeyed. It was actually a bit thrilling to feel like a criminal for just a minute.
The sheriff came to Deena’s house, along with highway patrolman Rodney Altere, who asked Deena if she was really all right so many times she told him to stop it or she’d scream. The final outrage of the night for me was that I was not allowed to participate in their discussion but was sent to bed with a measly glass of cold chocolate milk. I lost no time in feeling dissatisfied with the fact that no one solicited my observations or opinions, though I was much more irritated that I could find no truly suitable place from which to eavesdrop. But when I got to my room, I just fell into my bed, overwhelmed with a kind of weariness unfamiliar to me then.
When I woke up later, the whole house was dark. I kept trying to go back to sleep but I kept thinking that I could hear someone down in the kitchen throwing things around, or strange cars stealthily pulling up to the house, or the whole house gathering itself up as if preparing to shout or shudder. When I held my breath and listened, though, all I could hear was my own heart beating in my ears. Still, I thought perhaps that Deena couldn’t sleep and had gone downstairs, so I got out of bed and went down. Deena wasn’t there, but there was a strange car parked in the driveway—a highway patrol car. In the vague light, I could see that Rodney was sitting in it, just sitting there. I went upstairs to Deena’s room and moved Monkey over and got in bed with her. Deena opened her eyes, I could see that she hadn’t been able to sleep either. I snuggled up to her and she put her arm around me from behind, and we talked quietly in that way that people who are about to go to sleep do—with long intervals of silence between sentences and words.
“We’re safe now, honey,” she said: “He won’t come back.”
“If Wolf had been here,” I said. And then I started sobbing uncontrollably. Deena just held me and let me cry. She didn’t say any of the things that others had said that made me angry—didn’t tell me not to cry (“there-there, now: it’s not the end of the world”), didn’t tell me that Wolf was in heaven, didn’t tell me that Wolf was old in human years and that it was his time to go, didn’t tell me—and this was the most insulting, outrageous thing that anyone had said to me—that I should cheer up because I could get another dog. I wept for a long time, so long that Deena just fell asleep, and I wept not just for Wolf but for a whole world that seemed to have gone with him, wept for myself and for Miz Minnie’s boy, wept because of things large and small, wept until the grief seemed gone out of me and in its place was a tight knot of anger and despair.
Oh Really Now
Still in my adrenaline lag, and having no real experience of the world, I wanted to play out the role of victim and witness, preferably in a breathtaking way in a courtroom—I knew just which dress I’d wear. But the drama was already over. The Strange man was captured quickly—he was not a very experienced or skillful criminal. From the weekly publication of crimes, we learned that his name was Barrett Billy. I overheard Deena having heated telephone conversations with Rodney, who apparently viewed the crime against Deena as another opportunity to bother her with requests for dates, and then Matu was on the phone, and then Rodney again.
I yearned for Molly’s company then so that the two of us could sort out or invent what was going on as we had so often in the past, but Molly was away at that idiotic cheerleading camp. I cursed the invention of cheerleading. I knew that our relationship had changed in some essential way, maybe a small way in the long view, but at that moment something that caused me genuine grief.
You would think that after the Strange Man comes into one’s life the rest of life would be different because of it in immediately noticeable ways, but things went on just as usual. Later in the summer, Matu came out to pick corn. I loved the smell of it and its green, the swollen ears like flower buds, the fine silks, the rows of cornstalks like corridors of giant green grasshoppers standing at attention. In a cornfield, you could have the illusion of being alone even though other people were just a few feet away. I loved, too, the work of it. Our pace was leisurely, of course, and the younger children insisted on helping so there was always some occupational difficulty or dispute to resolve. Deena and Matu chatted, but there were long moments of quiet when everyone was focused on the task.
It was while we were pulling corn that I caught the tail-end of a conversation between Matu and Deena, a conversation that I would fruitlessly ponder and forget until many years later when I knew personally what it meant. Speaking in a voice I had never heard before, Matu was saying, “What life is is making one big mistake that you cannot forgive yourself for and then trying repeatedly to rectify it. Or pretend it didn’t happen. Or forget it. Or escape it.”
Deena said, “Oh surely you don’t really believe that.”
“Oh, but I do,” Matu said.
Deena laughed and after a pause said, “I can’t think of anything in my life that I feel that way about.”
“Well,” Matu said, “maybe you haven’t made your particular mistake yet. Or maybe you’ve made it and just don’t know it yet.”
Deena said, “Oh really now.”
After that summer, I often dreamed of the Strange Man incident—in fact, I still dream about it from time to time—but the focus of my dreams is not the shock of first seeing the Strange Man or the nauseous dismay I felt when he reappeared from the kitchen with a larger knife that I knew to be sharp as a razor or the fear that lifted me from the ground on the way from the house to his jalopy. Rather, most of these dreams were, are, of seeing Miz Minnie’s boy Rupert bound and gagged in the back seat of the car.
But these dreams quickly transform, in that kaleidoscopic way that dreams have, into dreams that are more terrifying even than that, dreams in which I was—I am—Miz Minnie’s boy—terrified, unable to move or cry out, unable to do anything to save myself.
of part one
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