Mind the Blanks 2

. . . a story to play with–the story emerges from what the reader’s mind does with the blanks when the reader is reading. No rules–it’s playtime.

Preface to the First Edition

Some ________ are more _______ than others. Take, for instance, the ________. Seldom ________ in more ________climes, various species of ________—the ________, the ________, the ________ among them—thrive from ________to ________.

One day ________ brought ________up in a most unusual context. We were discussing ________ when ________ suddenly began wondering aloud if ________ still _______ on the ________ river. I said, “Well, of course,” but ________ drolly said, “Don’t be too sure.” and then explained that ________ often ________ when ________.

________ told me that in the past ten years, ________, several ________ had ________ in ________. The situation had become so ________ that the government of ________ had mandated that ________. Notwithstanding a few ________, the local populace responded with ________, going so far as to ________ lesser-known ________ in both summer and winter. The effect this had on the ________ population was ________, and ________ were hastily called in to ________.

While ________ was telling me this, I had been ________. I started to ________ but thought better of it. “Surely you don’t mean that ________ ________,” I said. “Oh yes,” ________ said; “They even ________ ________ .”

When ________ left ________that day, I felt ________, but I shrugged it off as my usual ________. But that night I dreamed I was in ________, surrounded by ________ and pleading with ________ to ________ while ________ ________. I awoke so ________ and ________ that I couldn’t ________, and I spent the rest of the night ________.

The next morning I began to ________, and by the following week I had gone to ________ where I was greeted with ________ and began the ________ journey, a record of which now ________ before you.

Chapter 12: My First Friend

12

My First Friend

When I entered the public life of public school, I noticeably became a loner—that kid at the edge of the playground studying her shoes or walking back and forth on the periphery as if in some invisible cage. The first friend I ever made on my own was Ouida St. John.  We were in the same mathematics class and shared the distinction of being the only students in the class who had only a rudimentary clue about the subject matter no matter how hard we worked on our homework.  Somehow we migrated—perhaps the teacher migrated us—to the back of the room, and as long as we were quiet there, the teacher, who had openly given up on us, let us do as we pleased.  So we passed notes—Ouida’s were almost impossible to decipher—or, when other students were engaged in noisy math games, we chatted without fear of getting black marks for conduct.

Ouida was the most fascinating person I had ever seen.  She had red hair that was so thick that it was often matted—now that I think about it, she looked like an uncoifed and otherwise unkempt Little Orphan Annie.  She had large eyes that were the color green that you sometimes see in opals.  She lived on the Gold Coast, an isolated and impoverished area of town near the river—when we had to drive through the Gold Coast, Matu always made us check to see if our doors were locked.  And if that wasn’t enough to make her an impressive character, for I thought of her as living a kind of frontier life, I learned also that her mother did not make her bathe every day and brushed her hair for exactly two minutes and then stopped whether it was tangled or lopsided or not.  But what made her most impressive was that her father had once seen the devil in the family bathroom.

Ouida was rather blasé about the devil, but she was afraid of all domestic animals, especially dogs, and thus extremely impressed that I had a dog named Wolf.  I could have told her that Wolf was so extremely gentle and good-natured and smart that he had practically been my nanny, and since he was very old in dog years by then, he didn’t even get around very well anymore.  However, I was desirous of impressing Ouida, and in my first foray into outright lying, I told her that Wolf had killed my parents when I was a baby and had raised me in the woods until I was five years old and a band of gypsies found me and took me to Matu to raise.

I didn’t want to let on that her father’s sighting of the devil was extremely thrillingly scary to me, so I stretched out my questions about the event, nonchalantly asking how tall the devil was (about three feet), what color he was (the color of cooked crab), and how he behaved (he just stood there and shimmied).  I suppose that she was doing the same thing, for her questions about my life with Wolf always cropped up a bit too casually. At any rate, I wanted to keep close to Ouida in case the devil showed up again and had something to say this time.  After pestering Matu about it for weeks, I was allowed—probably because Matu was distracted–to invite Ouida home with me after school.

As we gangled up the walkway to the house, Matu stepped out to greet us and looked as if she had been slapped.  But Matu could regain her composure more quickly than most and smiled at Ouida and welcomed her. Quida was careless and managed to knock several things over within a few minutes of entering the house.  She took one look at Wolf and screamed bloody murder, which sent Wolf up to my room where I later found him under the bed.  When Matu gave us a snack at the kitchen table, Ouida chewed with her mouth open, smacked her food, and wiped her mouth with her forearm.  Later she reared back and let out a long, multifaceted belch followed by a sigh of satisfaction.  These things—which only added to her mystique and my admiration—must have driven Matu wild.  I noticed that when Matu was leaving us to our “tea” she raised her hands head high, palms inward and slightly shook them.  I had no idea what that might signify, though I was to learn what it signified thoroughly and at length later that evening.

When we drove Ouida home, I could probably have heard Matu grinding her teeth if I had not been sitting in the backseat so thoroughly engaged in a discussion with Ouida about the offspring of humans who had mated with bears and foxes and the recent abduction by aliens of one of her neighbors.  (Ouida was a regular font of things such as these).  As we drove up a narrow muddy potholed road to her house, her mother stepped out onto the sagging porch, and while I saw a glamorous exotic woman, Matu, I’m sure, saw a disheveled painted whore.  Ouida got out of the car with her heavy book bag and her mother shouted, “Where the fuck have you been you little bitch?!”  I was so unaccustomed to hearing such language that I leaned up toward Matu and asked, “Is she talking in French?”  But even as the question left my lips, I didn’t need to know the words to understand their attitude and intent, and I was gripped with fear that Ouida’s mother might hit her or knock her down.  She didn’t (although, Ouida reported to me, she did both several times later).  Instead she walked up to the car, grinning with a big fuchsia-pink mouth and gray teeth and said to Matu, “Why, Miz Ridley, I didn’t know my girl’s with you.  I worry so when she’s not home to do her chores.”  Matu muttered something—I thought perhaps she was speaking in French—and the woman nodded and headed back to where Ouida was waving from the porch, and we slowly pulled away.  When we got onto the main road, Matu began to drive much faster than I had ever seen her drive before.  She was also in a rare state for her: speechlessness.  I wondered how, if Ouida in fact had not told her mother where she would be, her mother knew Matu’s name.

Matu and I had several rounds about whether I could go to Ouida’s house or Ouida could return to mine.  Nothing she could say about Ouida’s parents or where Ouida lived could impeach the character of my friend in my eyes.  And Matu didn’t have the high moral ground on this one either.  She was caught between her notions of social hierarchy and propriety and “breeding”– after all, the laudatory phrase “well bred” carries with it the notion that the only excuse for bad manners and bad thoughts is congenital defect–and her ostensible belief in the things we were taught about social equality in church, where we were told that Jesus loves the little children of the world red and yellow black and white, and in school, where we learned that all men are created equal.  Matu couldn’t quite find a way to reconcile these things to my satisfaction, and I was as stubborn as she was, thought not as practiced at it.

What could Matu do?  If she thwarted our friendship, she would have to defend her actions in ways that directly conflicted with the moral standards she proclaimed to adhere to.  If she allowed our friendship to develop in its own way, Ouida and I might tire of each other as we grew and changed, but Matu would have thought that improbable.  She knew that my affections were true and strong and all the stronger for being seldom bestowed.  No, she would have thought it most probable that Ouida would be more and more in our lives—birthdays, holidays, perhaps even vacations—and that it would then become her duty to teach Ouida proper manners and so forth and thus, in effect, by letting me be friends with Ouida, she would have yet another child to raise.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter in this case, although conflicts of this nature would repeatedly rise up as the years passed.  Matu was freed from whatever quandary she was caught in when Ouida’s mother was found stabbed in a motel and Ouida was whisked off by a distant relative to live in another state.  We corresponded a few times, and I treasured every belabored and smudged letter.  But my fascination with Quida could not withstand distance—particularly distance from the site of the sighting of Satan—and I never knew what became of her, nor she me.

ooo

 

 

© 2021

 

Tend

flagstaff protected night sky nasa fin tend 2 cmpr

Nothing much has changed since you’ve been gone.

We’ve still been unable to locate the source of that relentless banging and drilling noise. Current theories in the Moonlight Bar, the place from whence all theories emanate, are that it’s a collective hallucination or a broadcast from some ubiquitous and invisible truck or car from out of town or outer space.

As usual the move from one speculation to another causes some kind of spooky resonance that makes all prior speculation seem true so by the time speculation begins to look like explanation what prompted the speculation in the first place is so far removed as to be unrecognizable.

Tourists still come ashore and shuffle glumly to the mounds where they think the temples were. They complain about the heat as if we created it and they want to chastise us for poor climate design, or, more like, for living in a place where they think it’s too hot for better sorts of persons such as themselves to live.

Still, sometimes some one of them will flourish in our climate and will stay behind, belonging here as we do because they don’t belong anywhere else–like you did when you loved us, if you ever really loved us. If you did.

Shortly after you left, the factory shut down, the company’s buildings and our fields were still smoldering as they sailed away. Perhaps they feared we’d somehow fashion ourselves into rivals with the sticks and broken rakes they left behind. Now we tend weeds and water stones, so even though the baas is gone, the baas is still here.

Last week the bishop manifested in our little town to tell us that we bring our troubles on ourselves, that our current sad state is some kind of delayed aftermath of original sin and a multitude of subsequent transgressions and maybe even more recent transgressions yet to be brought to light.

Late at night when everyone’s asleep so deep you cannot even see them in their beds, I wander the beach. Out there alone, I am my own continent, I lie down on the sand and look up, and imagine I am some amorphous massless creature wandering forever through cold space, yearning for another lonely creature, maybe a mate.

We looked for you everywhere, how could you leave us everyone said, surely you’d never leave us, you must have drowned in the sea, you must have been snatched up and carried away by some fearsome beast from the forest, you must have been abducted by the aliens. I’m the only one who knows you took your clothes and my cash.

Don’t think even for a minute that I can’t sleep without you or that I still wonder where you are or that I wonder if wherever you are you look up at night and see the same stars I see.

I don’t.

_________________________
image: small detail from Astronomy Photo of the Day 06 April 2008: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap080416.html.

The Secret Animal

bamboo rad crop - mod 3 cmcRichard Devroe became fascinated with little things when he was four years old and his parents died.  His Aunt Rebecca told him to sit quietly in the entryway of the house before the memorial service, and all he knew was that his mother and father had gone up into the air in an airplane and disappeared.  Sitting in a hard, dark chair, he vaguely construed the scene as one of waiting for his parents’ return despite what his aunt had told him.  She had said that they were “never coming back,” but waiting here alone like this, Richard began to take that as meaning that they were somehow invisible now, that they would come back but he might not know it.

He tried to recall his parents’ faces and hands.  He could almost conjure up the feeling of being spoken to and touched in a comforting way, not like now with Aunt Becca, whose perfunctory affection only momentarily reeled him in from wherever he was drifting.  His parents’ presence had always put him solidly in place in the world.  Now there was nothing but this chair drifting in a narrow room, and the experience of his own yearning to be elsewhere, where they were.  While the clock on the wall behind him clicked off an eternity of seconds, he stared at a shaft of sunlight that came in through the window in the door and made a small golden pool of light on the floor near him.  If his parents were invisible, they must be even smaller than the dancing motes of dust in that shaft of light.  Then Richard Devroe tried to wish himself as small as things would be if they were never coming back but nonetheless returned.

Though Aunt Rebecca was not cruel, she was extremely high-strung and self-involved and could thus be brutally dismissive, and she considered child-rearing a process of enforcing quiet, polite behavior.  Thus, in the months that followed Richard’s moment of enlightenment, he had plenty of time to meditate solemnly on modes of existence unavailable to the untrained eye.  Continue reading

Breathless

6 Sep 2013 dwnld 2 010 mod scp bw

I cannot recall exactly when it was or where, whether in some public place or private, that I looked at you, perhaps across a table, perhaps across a room, perhaps up close, even in some intimate skin-to-skin moment that in retrospect would not really be intimate at all, or perhaps in one of those sightings I had of you in various places around town where I’d not expect you to be–I wasn’t noticing that anomalies reiterated cease to be anomalies–but wherever it was, I looked at your face and it was like looking at a face with a closed door behind it, and I knew you were already gone, gone not just into your thoughts and silences, or the silences I took for thought, but into some other place, knew that you were living your life elsewhere, knew, without exactly thinking of it this way, that you had constructed another life and moved into it, that there was no more being with you when I was with you, and when I thought of our life together, where I still was but you weren’t, I could almost hear the hammer and drill of demolition, and see the workmen smoking and joking around on their break. After that, there was always sawdust in your touch, and I was someone who was not me with someone who was not you, though I always thought of you as substantial somehow, while I was a ghost haunting the place that had once been my life.

I felt all the time as if the breath had been knocked out of me, and in that way in which the mind pulls up the only memories that somehow correspond with a present that makes no sense, in one of my desolate reveries, I suddenly remembered, as if waking up in it, a time when I was probably ten or eleven years old and Mother and I went to visit the preacher’s family, the daughter was about my age–Mother was probably hoping I’d find a friend, so little did she understand the real conditions of my life, the ones that had started, of course, with her–and she was inside having coffee and chatting or whatever it was that adults who didn’t know each other did, and I was outside with the girl and her brother, and out of nowhere, he knocked me down and began to jump on my chest—and he was a big chubby guy, there was no way I could get up, and there was no air in me, I think I may even have blacked out for a bit. I guess his sister got him to stop, or like all bullies he had an instinct for when he’d done enough damage and could put the innocent face back on, and it was one of those don’t tell or I’ll kill you kind of things.

But he didn’t even need to tell me not to tell—there on the ground with the wind knocked out of me, whatever I was pulled back into that little space inside where I had my life, like the closet one tries to hide in in dreams of being stalked or chased: I already knew that there was nothing that could be done to stop it, that nobody was going to help me. It was a moment of absolute clarity and absolute solitude, and although it was really only part of a history of encounters with malicious children that started when I was three or so and went to what was called kindergarten then—it was really a kind of corral in which children did as they pleased under vague supervision—it was one of the events that I had put furthest from my mind until the memory of it suddenly cropped up. When he knocked the breath from me and in a very determined way made it impossible for me to breathe, I was shocked—physically—and I was taken by surprise, but in the long view of things, I wasn’t surprised that someone was hurting me, that it felt like some kind of annihilation, that it made no sense. That was what being in my world was as a child, no one was looking out for me, so harm and helplessness was always a nearby possibility. I wasn’t a cringer or a hider, but I had a habit of kind of spacing out, which I now realize was a kind of defense that probably only made things worse by making it easier for mean kids to catch me off guard, to inflict a kind of chaos on me, and then move on to the next thing as if, for them, nothing had happened.

Of course, it wasn’t as if you were beating me or as if you had some kind of malicious plan, just that you had casually hurt me and now you were done with it, and done with me. Like all betrayers, you acted as if you really had nothing to do with what had happened, and like all betrayals, an essential element was that you made me party to my own undoing by letting me think things were what they weren’t, for quite a long time as it turned out, though I would never know precisely how long. All the years of my life that I had spent with you, over half of my life then, were suddenly obliterated—when I thought of the past, I knew it wasn’t what I thought it was at the time, it had just been emptied out, like my present had been emptied out when I wasn’t looking. It was just suddenly as if there was nothing left, nothing left of me, nothing left of you, not even in my dreams, which were now populated with people I did not know in places where I’d never been.

Stand

This is the part where someone doesn’t stand up for someone. Or doesn’t stand up to someone. But that’s not the kind of standing up this part needs.

Maybe someone simply stands up, to go to another room, to go into the bar, to walk to a corner store, turns back as if compelled to say something that gets forgotten right there on the spot.

After he’s been gone for months, maybe for years, she’s still driving herself crazy with it: what was he going to say? She’s got this feeling there’s something she should’ve known even if he didn’t say it, or just that there was something she didn’t know, that he was going to tell her something she needed to know. Life becomes impossible, there’s something she doesn’t know that she needs to know, for what, to avoid danger, to pursue delight.

Sometimes it’s like something she’s circling, sometimes it’s like something circling her, getting tighter in, making it hard to breathe. Sometimes it’s as if she’s living there where it is whatever it is, that that is where she has her life, or where her life has gone, but she has no access to it. This life she’s in now, the one she does have access to, this life feels like an approximation of something. She’s not looking for something in this life. She’s looking for it in whatever life she might have had if he had said whatever it was he was going to say.

Mind You Don’t

zinnia htmp 1

“Mind you don’t trip on Mina,” she said but I would never not see Mina the cat, if she was a cat as big as me she would hold me on her furry lap and hug me and I would hug her back not like all those people I can’t touch who won’t touch me. Ever won’t touch, or hug. No, I would not mind Mina. Mina is in my mind whenever I see her or sometimes just feel her on her way to me, and we have the same stomach, always wanting more but our paws swatted down until we try to be in the mind of those others: please give us more, more, more. “Now, Lucy, don’t get agitated,” she will say or he will say or someone and I wrap my skin up tight like a bandage around me and my head is big and round and hot and burns inside like my hand on the stove. “I told you not! I told you not!” everyone all my life has been saying: not, not, not. Not, not, not. Not, not, not, not, not. No. But I love the work that makes us sit together like stringing and snapping beans they just keep coming into the bowl as soon as they leave until they are all gone. “Don’t eat too many of those, Lucy,” she says and I want to tell her that I am not eating them they are just suddenly in my mouth. But like always my words won’t come out except the first ones that huff with spit all around them: “I . . . I . . . I . . .” is all even though the others are lined up behind my mouth pushing and shoving to get to the front to say what I forgot. Sometimes one perfect one comes out yesterday or forever ago the zinnias in the garden so stiff and stemmed like okra hard to cut but then in the evening in the dark vase like the picture so happy, so “pretty,” I say and “yes they are” she says but I don’t know if she is my mother or my brother’s wife but she smiles and I would hug but not, not, not, you hug too hard. Now that she is sick there is always water rushing through my chest like a spring flood and when I see my brother’s face or hers or my mirror face my head is full of thunder so much can’t they hear? I want to roar at night tears knife my face I step back inside my body to get away from my eyes but they won’t stop I put the pillow over my head. Not, not, not, not, not. I try to help I burn things on the stove and cut my fingers. “It’s all right,” she says and her cool hand rises and falls on the quilt. “Just sit still here with me,” she says, “and everything will be fine. I just need to rest.” Maybe she is my sister, all her words are soft and she sleeps and I watch and that is what I do best to watch and make it safe to sleep so there won’t be any more not knowing what to do but I can’t watch all the time. Mina comes with me come here Mina and we sit on the side porch where shade is at noon and afternoon and there are old books there I saw her reading one time what are those she told me “food for thought” and when I see them I feel the sharp bellyache of the raw beans that got in my mouth so I had to eat them but it’s worse than that now there’s something like death in those books I am glad I can’t read I don’t know what they might do. Others have died and smelled like lilies or like ice milk and people bring flowers that already smell like the dead and close them up forever but these books smell like ashes. She will not die I will not let her and not to let her while she sleeps I sit here penning blue ink in every O in all these books so the words behind them can’t get out and they will make a fence around us so we stay inside until we can sit together with big bowls on our laps full of things to do and listen for him coming back from the fields or the mill. “Oh, oh, oh,” I heard her say once and bent to see the cutworms in the ear of corn and it is bad and they are endless but as long as I am doing death is not happening. As I fill them in they are black and I am blue and sometimes I wash up onto the lip of them like hot water in a pan I carry from the sink to the stove or carried or will carry the water swinging from one side to the other it just has to stop. But it is cool now and almost so dark I cannot see. I can feel Mina’s sleep in her head and now it’s in mine I can’t stop it drifting in from the sick room the fever of sleep she will not I will not let her. And dark washes up to the lip of the world and pours over everything I have done all the mouths I have closed and their ears through which they would suck our breath out if we spoke to them but we won’t say anything now we’ll just wait and see.

This story was published in The Altar Collective Volume V: Lullaby, Aug. 2014: 12-14.

Stella Ridley Twelve

12

My First Friend

When I entered public school, I became a public loner—that kid at the edge of the playground studying her shoes or walking back and forth on the periphery as if in some invisible cage. The first friend I ever made on my own was Ouida St. John. We were in the same mathematics class and shared the distinction of being the only students in the class who had barely a rudimentary clue about the subject matter no matter how hard we worked on our homework. Somehow we migrated—perhaps the teacher migrated us—to the back of the room, and as long as we were quiet there, the teacher, who had openly given up on us, let us do as we pleased. So we passed notes—Ouida’s were almost impossible to decipher—or, when other students were engaged in noisy math games, we chatted without fear of getting black marks for conduct. Continue reading

Next

His first mistake, one that couldn’t be considered anything but a major mistake no matter how far away from it your mind was, ended up being precisely what he thought he was doing right at the outset when he enlisted the aid of a couple of sociopaths. They were eager to do, and relished doing, the thing he asked, though they were a bit sloppy about it—like cats, they liked to play with their prey. He winced when he thought of how often she must have thought she could get away, and how often they let her think that.

He just hadn’t thought much past getting them to do it. Didn’t think ahead, like, to the part where they would still be around and he might have to try to reason with them about various things, like would they leave and go back to wherever they had come from. They were in the kitchen now, fucking things up, which was what they generally did when they weren’t aimed in the direction of the miscellaneous criminal activity they enjoyed. There was just not going to be any clean transaction here.

They were wearing Melanie’s clothes, well, not exactly wearing, more like decorating themselves with Melanie’s clothes and jewelry. It bothered him a lot that they seemed to think of Melanie’s accoutrements–and his house–as part of their take for what they did to her, as if the money hadn’t been enough. The fact of it was that they didn’t really care about money, they didn’t understand money, and to his way of thinking people who didn’t understand money were people to be afraid of.

John-John—the other one was Jerry-Jo, Jesus, did they all have names like that—sauntered through with a pair of Melanie’s panties on his head, sauntered past him as if he wasn’t there, but he didn’t think about that right then. Oddly—since he didn’t think he noticed such things—he remembered Melanie wearing those panties when she undressed in a hotel room in Chania just last summer. How cool and dark and still it was in the room, the sun outside so bright and relentless it was like some kind of shout whenever you stepped out into it. But inside, her cool skin, the way she always smelled like warm rain, how he had loved her then.

When John-John and Jerry-Jo had moved in, he’d started going to church—any service, any day, any time, even the AA meetings Wednesday nights and the NA meetings Saturday mornings and those coffeecake meetings or doughnut meetings or whatever the hell they were. It wasn’t that he expected to come to Jesus and call down some kind of divine intervention to take care of his John-John-Jerry-Jo problem. He just thought that church was probably the only place he could be where they wouldn’t expect him to be.

But more than that, he figured church would be a good place to find a certain kind of psycho—an upright uptight finicky sort of psycho who wouldn’t move into your house and wear your wife’s panties on his head—a psycho who might be happy to take care of the other two and take a handsome sum of money and be done with it. Otherwise—and he couldn’t shake this feeling—he was next.

Stella Ridley: The Chapter That Can Never Have a Number or a Name

In retrospect, I realize that something Mamaw Rennie said to me once–apropos of nothing, of course–was never far from my mind for all the long months I sat with Matu when she was sick and then when she was dying: “woe to the mother who dies before her children have reached the age of appreciation.”  Having obsessive and superstitious tendencies of thought, I often wished that Mamaw had not said it and I had not heard it, for it would often just plop onto the racetrack of my mind and zip round and round.  How can woe come to a dead person, I would wonder–were we not supposed by our religious teachers to enter into a state free of the sufferings of life?  Then I would wonder with the kind of delicious horror with which one wonders such things whether instead we entered a bad-joke afterlife when we died, an afterlife in which all the things we try so hard to evade or recover from in life would settle in permanently, an eternity of woe or loss or psychic injury, the kind of injury, say, that betrayal inflicts when it not only destroys whatever present happiness you have but also eats backwards eradicating a past which has become a lie anyway, but I digress. Continue reading

Stella Ridley–Looked After (A Chapter with No Number)

Looked After

Apparently Papaw Ridley’s dementia was the slowly evolving type that seems to sever permanently–but only one at a time–all the little threads that connect us to what we like to think of as a shared reality. Even near the end, he looked like a perfectly sane man in photographs, grizzled in a noble-looking way, though in person he often had the look on his face of someone on the verge of recalling something alarming, that peculiar look of otherworldly concentration that you also see on the face of half-trained children who need to visit the bathroom but have no intention of doing so.

Well, now that I think about it, during my lifetime, one never had to converse with him for very long to know that he had entered the land of make-believe in a rather permanent way. But no other adult (except our neighbor Mr. Wanly) ever conversed with him that long or paid much attention to what he said, and we children had a shifting, sometimes disappearing line between what was real and what was not. We were also addicted to thrilling information of the sort that comes from people who thrill themselves with their own thoughts.

Matu was a loving, vigilant, and efficient mother, but she had her own life, and when she was away from home, we were often “looked after” by Papaw Ridley. He had a beautiful voice, had, in fact, The Voice that seemed to have jumped over to my other grandparents’ house because Deena had it too. When I am alone and conjure up the voices of other people, I hear an amalgam of their speaking voices, but when I listen through the past to hear Papaw, I hear many different voices, and my mind is like a thick forest in which the various birds of his voice are singing or crying out. He could sing—low and almost whispery as if merely a part of the sounds of the day or as if possessed by bawdy exuberance. His lullabies held us or soothed us to sleep when we were infants as often as Matu’s did, and later his singing a song of his choosing was the price he paid for us to lie down for naps so he could watch his soap operas on TV.

He was addicted to soap operas and watched them with the kind of barely blinking awestruck gaze one imagines on the faces of people who are witnessing a visitation by the holy mother or aliens emerging from a spaceship that has just landed in the backyard. When he bought soap opera time by singing to us, I suppose that he was singing us the ballads of his youth or show tunes. The lyrics made no sense to us, seemed to come from another world, though we loved sometimes to repeat phrases from his songs over and over, such charms did they hold for us. We did so a bit more discreetly after Molly and I entertained the minister with “Get Out Your Garters, Gertie.”

But what we loved most about Papaw was not his singing but his repertoire of fantasies about how the political world of adults was going to intersect with our young lives when no adults were looking. “The Communists will come and take away your dancing shoes,” he would say very seriously, leaning a bit forward as if imparting information for our ears only. “But Mama won’t let them,” Molly would say. Papaw would then say, “But the Communists will kill your mother and eat her hands.” At that point, ever eager for details of any sort, I would ask how exactly they would cook Matu’s hands, and Molly would poke me. “But someone will help us,” Molly would say. “No,” he would say, shaking his head sadly, “No, there will be no one left to help.” “OK, then,” one of us would say, “What kind of clothes will they wear?”

And then the call and response on the subject of the Communist invasion would begin. Papaw would pretend not to want to tell us because it was all just too awful, but we would press, and he would give in and tell us that they would kill all the adults and burn our piano, that they would give us only bones to eat, that they would throw all the Sunday clothes in town into a pile and burn them and make us rub the ashes all over our faces. Yes, the arrival of machete-wielding Communist mobs dressed in crisp uniforms (while they would make us wear rags) would put an end once and for all to lollipop eating, bike riding, and playing dress-up. Among other things. “Where are they?” we would ask. “Oh,” Papaw would say, “Closer and closer.”

Matu must have had no idea; in fact, I am sure that she didn’t. And we didn’t want her to have any idea about this imminent change in our lives. We never spoke of it even with each other because it riveted us so with fear and shameful delight. We thought what he told us was true because it had engaged our imaginations, and there’s nothing quite like imagination to construct a truth. But for Matu’s sake, we still hoped that this particular future would not come to pass, and we protected her in that way that children protect those who protect, or should protect, them: by not breathing a word, by pretending that nothing had happened or would ever happen.

Later on, Adela and Bobby would fly to Molly or me to report Papaw’s latest installment of the Communist Invasion, and we would assure them that it was just a story but not to tell Matu. And so we protected Papaw too. Of course, by the time Papaw became babysitter for Adela and Bobby, his capacity to hold forth in a frightening way was rather diminished by the lengthy pauses occasioned by his search for words that seemed to escape him and by his attempts to rearrange his false teeth. In fact, for Adela and Bobby, Papaw was just an amusing cartoon character whose performances engaged their developing sense of word play. When Papaw regaled them with tales of impending doom, “Communists” became “severe fishes,” “piano” was “plates,” “shoes” became “supper,” and “kill” became “con.” Evidence of the nightmare dictionary that Papaw had in his head even became a topic for Molly and me at bedtime, and we would laugh till we choked up when one of us, imitating Papaw’s hieratic voice, would say “They will con your mother and cut off her pots” or “They won’t let you play refrescos when they doom” or “There’ll be no more farty tresses for you, little Missy.” From time to time, Papaw appeared in my dreams as a disheveled Moses figure pacing a barren mountaintop and pausing periodically to simply sputter.

We adored Papaw and loved every minute we spent with him. We felt sorry for him when he had to leave our house to go home for dinner because as he left he often said, “Well, I have to go home now and eat crow.” Molly and I agreed that if someone tried to force us upon pain of death to eat meat we might waver in our vegetarian resolve over a little chicken or ham, but we would never eat crow, we would rather die. That was where we drew the line. But Papaw’s eating crow was another matter. We asked him once if he ate crow just to please Mamaw and because he loved her so, and we thought he just would not stop laughing until he started to cry, and then we thought he would not stop doing that either. This was, in fact, one of the most frightening moments of my life at the time. I’m not sure why, but at that time, I was not yet accustomed to the fact that they were usually out of control whether or not they looked it.

When we went to Mamaw Ridley’s house (and we always thought of it as her house), we were always on the lookout for some tell-tale blue-black feather that might have escaped Mamaw’s fanatical cleaning by disguising itself as part of a pattern in the carpet, or even just some bit of black fluff stirred up into the air by the swinging door that seemed always to be on the move between the kitchen and the dining room. But it would have been hard to espy such a thing, for Mamaw Ridley’s house was always dark, or rather, it seemed always to be dark in the way that a dominant impression will often override reality. I never liked to spend time in Mamaw Ridley’s house—dark, symmetrical, and smooth like a lady’s tightly laced-up boot. I have already commented, more than once, I believe, on my acute abhorrence of confinement.

From time to time, Mamaw Ridley would pack herself and Papaw up and go off on a cruise or some such for whole months at a time. And while she and Papaw, we imagined, ate crow for dinner every night with a flaming perfectly flat sunset sea in the background, we were at home being “looked after” (how appropriate that phrase is) by Romana, a giantess who wore colorful turbans and always carried a little bag of salt with her so she could cast it about her person if she felt a haunting spell coming on. Many many years later, I had occasion to see Romana’s birth certificate, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that her given name was “Grande Romane.” Romana’s storytelling, unlike Papaw Ridley’s storytelling, usually involved sex, though we were a bit uncertain about what that was at the time, and she rivaled the Brothers Grimm in all manner of gory detail.

She swore that she had personally known the most beautiful girl in the world who had made the mistake of rebuffing advances from a grotesque hermit who then sneaked up on her in her sleep and cut her legs off and cut her tongue out and carried her off to his hovel where he did as he would with her day and night. Of course, Molly and I imagined that what he would do with her was make her scoot out on her stumps to fetch water from a well and so forth—we had never actually seen a man doing any work, so we assumed that women did everything. Romana also told us about two young sisters about our age whose punishment for not taking naps was to be awake forever no matter how tired they were.

Romana had a special relationship with Wolf, my savior and protector. He never barked at her or behaved aggressively in any way, but he would sometimes make a low humming sound when he saw her, and his presence always prompted a great deal of salt-tossing on her part. One day when Molly was confined to our room with the mumps and I was smugly stretching myself out all over the place, Romana snatched my arm up and hissed in my face, said, “I know who you are with your witchy eyes and that devil dog. Don’t you think you can cast on me, girl. I got my mojo and you still just a little switch of thang. Tamp it down when I’m around or I’ll make your backbone sprout those horns you got inside.”

People have mistaken me for someone else all my life. When Romana said those things to me, I felt that I just happened to be in the way of the person for whom she really intended them. I gave her a wide berth from then on. But I also discovered that if I hesitated just the slightest bit when she told me to do something, fear would flash across her face like heat lightning, and I could then choose whether to do as she said or not and she would not say a thing to me. If I could find the person that people have always mistaken me for, I would study at her feet, for she is surely someone with power, more specifically with the power to harm and break hearts and turn water into blood and make an old conjure woman throw salt around at the sight of a harmless dog..

Of course, Romana had both direct and sidelong ways of getting to us.  I don’t think she liked children very much.. Over the course of a few years until we were too old to be looked after and the other children fell into the clutches of Papaw and Romana, Romana would pull out stories of transgression and punishment from a seemingly endless supply. Without exception, these were stories about girls who had “gone with” men or refused to go with men—it seemed to be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing—and were then punished out of all proportion, often by giving birth to monsters that required constant feeding and special clothes.

Molly and I would sit transfixed as Romana told us these things, though I quickly learned that Molly’s rapt gaze was merely the result of her trying not to laugh at Romana. I never would have laughed at Romana. However, I did not tell a whole truth when I said that I gave her a wide berth. After all, just by looking at her a second too long, I could make her cross herself and rub salt into her forehead. On several occasions, I incited Molly to hide with me around a corner or in a closet and then to jump out at Romana when she was looking for us, and this incited Romana to actually chase us around the house, which we rather enjoyed. And once, Molly and I put flour all over our faces and arms and sat down zombie-like on either side of Romana on the couch just as she had settled in and turned the TV on. When she looked at us, she jumped up so hard and high that she hit her head on the ceiling and then just fell out trembling on the floor. We had to put cool rags on her forehead and dose her liberally with something from the liquor cabinet to get her upright by the time Matu got home.

Stella Ridley Eighteen

18

Dreams

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.

The End
of part one