Ah, the multifaceted, unique ocean. She defies all expectations as surely as she exists. At 6am, July 21st, 2019 in Tiverton, Rhode Island, the beach is as barren of human life as a shipwreck. The dew points are in the 70% range, meaning, the air is like a sweaty tee-shirt cast off by a roadside flag man at the end of an August workday. Yet the ocean breeze carries the salty breath of the advancing tide to blow valiantly on one’s perspiring face, bringing temporary relief. The water itself rushes in vain to encircle humidity swelled ankles, and as it recedes, it tickles the toes with a promise to be right back and try again to provide respite. Alas, the ocean is as warm as bathwater. But if her temperature does not refresh the body, the playful antics, and displays she puts on possess the power to sooth the human soul. A rock in the sand makes a perfect seat for the brave soul who awoke so early to attend the show. Behind the single rock bench, an imposing, black-walled cliff momentarily shades the seething July sun. The slightly cooler air beneath the cliff smells of decayed seaweed and salt. Along the greenish horizon, a single fishing boat putts along, noisily trawling the shifting waters. The fickle acoustics of the water amplifies the annoying hum of the motor. The ocean competes and triumphs. Her deep green waters roll and pitch, hurling themselves into a fit of waves that crash with a familiar drawling roar against shiny black rocks. Droplets of surf leap above the rocks, and a cascade of diamonds shower down, glinting in the sunlight like so many cast away jewels. They disintegrate into creamy white sea foam. The lone audience member dips her feet into the water and a sea foam frosting glazes her painted toenails.
Where is everybody? The beach is so empty, one can imagine they are the sole survivor of some catastrophic event. If you overlook the obvious inconveniences and sorrows and loneliness such an event would incur, one could imagine a life of days floating on a tranquility that comes from within. A cleanness of mind derived from the absence of other human voices. Voices that all too often criss-cross over one another in conflict, hatred, and fear. The show is over. The lone survivor grabs her sandals and walks onward to the north end of the beach. The tide has delivered a bounty of ocean detritus. Piles of minuscule pink and orange shells glisten in the sun. There is less rock and more sand on this end of the beach. Barefoot walking is pleasant. Heels strike hard, damp sand, and the impact vibrates up through the spine and against the eardrum. The sound is hollow and scarcely perceptible. The sun cuts through the humidity and lays a its burning talons on the back of the neck. The survivor’s path swerves into the shallow water, seeking even the slightest hint of coolness to make the blazing heat more tolerable. Sweat beads form on her hairline and drip steadily down her face, her neck, into her ears. Up ahead, a set of giant rocks form a line into the water. A yellow sign stands in the sand, beckoning. Is it the end of the walk? Is it a warning? No, it states one is entering a nature preserve area. Foot traffic only. She walks on. The sand becomes powdery and deeper, dotted with single spikes of sea grass poking up here and there. There are tidal pools full of rocks, shells and seaweed. One could wade and find treasure. Maybe later. The beach comes to a point and turns a corner to the left. On the right, several sea birds lounge on a rock jetty. The ocean drowns out any sound they may make. For now, they are still life birds. They are a postcard-like backdrop to a random tuft of tall green grass.
The survivor rounds the corner to discover the ocean here turns itself into a river. A little spit of sand at that point reveals footprints, both human, and dog. But a wary glance in all directions for at least a mile reveals no hint of human life. Only hazy blue sky, sand, water, and tall grasses. A sudden movement startles; a pterodactyl with a huge wingspan rises from the far bank of the river. It is so big that it casts a momentary dark shadow over the sun. The creature lands about 30 feet further away. It is not a pterodactyl. It is a heron. The survivor has disturbed its fishing expedition. The heron shakes its jagged feathers and settles itself back to the task at hand. The sun is rising higher in the sky and sears through the torpid haze of the morning. The walk back daunts her. The survivor turns back. As she passes the footprints on the spit of sand, she wonders, where did the owners of the footprints go? The tracks seem to appear from nowhere, nothing leading up to or away from them. Did two ghosts materialize from the ether to haunt the last place they inhabited? Did she disturb them, causing them to vanish in haste back to the heavens? When one is a lone survivor on an empty beach on a hauntingly beautiful July morning, anything is possible.
The walk becomes less leisurely. Thoughts of civilization distract the survivor; a mug of coffee, a soft seat in a high-back chair, her feet up, the drone of an air conditioner. As she passes one cottage, she sees a man standing in a kitchen, coffee in hand. Their eyes meet through the picture window. She averts her eyes, not wishing to intrude, but before she does, the man gives a nod and a small smile. Relief washes over like a sparkling wave that breaks into tiny diamonds within her heart. It is simply the beach that is absent of people. One can smile to oneself and feel good about that.
It happened while the three of us were relaxing on the deck, watching the sunset together. My husband and I, and our dog, Smokey. The sky had gone from pink and blue to a brilliant yellow-orange. Jon and I sipped a cocktail, and Smokey lounged at our feet, while Jon absently scratched his head. All three of us stared in reverent silence as the colors began to fade into the darkness of the trees. Suddenly, Smokey abruptly stood up and looked down at the deck in confusion.
“What’s the matter Smokes?” Jon asked. And then, “Oh no, what is that?” A significant puddle of liquid lay where Smokey had been. Jon and I exchanged a look. Smoke seemed confused, sniffing uncertainly at the spot. Giving us a worried look, he started to sneak away, as if he did something wrong.
“It’s ok, buddy, you’re all right.” We patted him and encouraged him to lie back down on a dry part of the deck.
“He just lost control of his bladder, “ I said. My heart sank. This was the latest in a string of events signaling our beloved companion’s decline into old age. Why is it these things seem to happen too soon?
As best as we know, old Smokey is at least 12 years old. He was a rescue who adopted us in January of 2008, on Martin Luther King Day. This is the day we chose to call his birthday, since all the shelter was able to tell us was he came from Alabama and had been living on the streets. He is a “cattle dog cross hound”. We wanted a dog with enough energy to accompany me on jogs, hikes and snowshoeing. A herding type who would fit right in on our growing, 5 acre mini farm. I am almost ashamed to admit he was not my first choice, as I was distracted by the energetic, cavorting puppies in the shelter. Jon stopped and knelt down at a small enclosure where a medium sized black-ish colored dog with funny ears lay quietly, his chin on his paws, which were sticking out into the aisle as if reaching for us as we walked by. His wet, cold nose sniffed Jon’s hand through the chain link. He was silent amidst the yapping of the other dogs. His eyes followed our every move.
The attendant asked if we would like to take him for a little walk outside. He walked shyly on the leash held by Jon, and was neither animated nor frightened, just kind of quiet and a little on the dull side. Looking back, I think he was probably a little shell-shocked. Jon was impressed with his calmness amongst the cacophony of barking in the shelter. If I were being totally honest, I had my doubts at what seemed to me to be a total lack of enthusiasm on the dog’s part. But, Jon was pretty insistent and pointed out that his age, approximately 9 months according to the shelter people, meant he was already house trained, something we didn’t want to mess with. And, I really wanted a dog, a rescue, and convincing Jon to visit the shelter in January when he had wanted a purebred Husky and to wait for summer had not been an easy sell. So, pretty soon we were signing adoption papers and preparing to take this dog home. He jumped willingly into the back of Jon’s SUV, and quietly laid down on the mat. Jon walked me to my car, and we made plans to meet back at home. (We had driven to the shelter separately). He immediately returned in a panic; he had locked the dog in the Jeep while it was running. We circled the Jeep, talking in fierce whispers, like crazed parents who locked an infant in a car.
“We need to go back inside and ask for help,” I said.
“No! They’ll think we are bad adopters! They might take him back!”
“Well, we can’t just leave him in there! What if he’s scared? How can we comfort him?”
We both peered in the windows. The dog was fast asleep. He had no idea he was trapped and in danger. He was in La La Land. We looked at each other and laughed hysterically. Jon called Triple A and within 20 minutes help arrived and unlocked the car. The only creatures in any danger were the two dimwitted human beings standing outside in the freezing January cold. But, at least nobody at the shelter seemed to be the wiser.
Once at home, “Mickey” (his shelter name) curled up in a corner on the kitchen floor and pretty much refused to budge. We coaxed him to go outside to relieve himself, and fed him right where he stayed. Otherwise, he was silent, head on his paws, in his corner, watching every move we made.
“This dog is kind of a dud, “ Jon said. “What do you think is wrong? Maybe he doesn’t like us.”
“Maybe he just needs to learn to trust us. Maybe he thinks this is only temporary. Maybe he is frightened and confused. He did come all the way from Alabama, and it’s freezing cold January here.”
I brought out a thick cotton towel, and laid it on the floor. Then I sat down next to the dog, and put my arm around his neck. He let me rub behind his ears. He was mostly black with some spotty gray and brown markings here and there on his back and chest. His chest was wide and his back tapered down to a pair of skinny hips. His legs were slender and delicate and seemed to belong to a different dog entirely. He kind of resembled a hyena. HIs eyes were a bright, warm caramel color. His ears didn’t stand up straight, and they felt bumpy, as if scarred. As if something had happened to them. He laid his head on my lap, sighed, and closed his eyes. A minute later he shifted the whole front of his body so he was half sitting in my lap, his bony dog elbows digging into my thighs, and his front paws wrapped over the top of my legs, as if hugging me. He sighed again and fell asleep. My heart melted. I sat there for an hour. It reminded me of the days when I held my sleeping babies, sitting as still as possible so as not to wake them. For the next couple of days, when he wasn’t sleeping half in my lap, he continued to watch our every move from his safe little corner with his back to the cabinets. On the third day, he stood up and followed Jon to the door as he went outside to work on a project.
“You want to come outside with me?” Jon asked. The dog’s tail wagged in response. He followed Jon out onto the deck. I looked out the window an hour later. The dog sat, shivering on the deck, watching Jon saw wood. I opened the door. “He’s freezing! He isn’t used to the cold. He needs to come in.” But, Mickey refused to budge until Jon came inside.
I believe that was the day he decided to keep us. He opened up his huge heart and personality to us, and we have never been the same. Our worlds, his and ours, opened up like a beautiful oyster.
This southern hound became a quintessential winter dog. Snow is joy to him. The first time he saw snow, he leaped off the back steps into it, up to his chest. He leaped like a deer hopping up and over the abundant white stuff, over and over. He put his head completely under it, sniffing the ground and the popping up out of it, sneezing and shaking his head, only to do it again and again. His favorite sport was leaping for snowballs. He was very athletic, and could leap completely off the ground and catch them. He loved to go with me on my snowshoe forays into the back fields. I would climb clumsily over snow covered stone walls. The dog would race ahead of me. Every once in a while he would come back to check on me. He’d appear from behind a tree or at the top of a hill, panting, and smiling in that way dogs do, as if to say “Are you ok? Are you coming?” I’d laugh and say “Hey show-off! No fair! You’ve got four legs! I’ve only got two!” Off he would go again, leaving me in the dust. But, he always came back to check on me. My loyal companion.
Somewhere along the line, Mickey became Smokey. Smokey for the hazy gray markings that fade into black. It just fit.
As winter melted into Spring, Smokey not only learned how to be a dog, living amongst humans, but also how to be a farm dog. Some lessons came easier than others. If Smokey were a first grade child here is a list of what he may have needed to write 100 times in detention:
-I will not eat my mom’s new chickens
-I will not poop under the end table, way back in a corner so mom can smell it but not find it for days
-I will not sneak over the stone wall to visit the next door neighbor dog and then hide from mom under their deck while she panics for 25 minutes trying to find me
-I will not chase deer across the road, no matter how tempting they are to race
-I will not steal my mom’s Starbucks cappuchino from the cup holder in the front seat while she is in Home Depot with Dad
-I will not eat an entire loaf of fresh Italian bread after stealing it out of a grocery bag while mom and dad run into Home Depot
-I will not try to make friends with skunks or porcupines
-I will not nip Mom’ s horse on the nose as an introduction
I learned a couple things as well. Like not to trust the idiot who advises a skunked dog be doused with Downy fabric softener. There really ARE stenches worse than skunk. I learned never to move too quickly lest I trip over my shadow, Smokey, who trailed me everywhere I went in the house.
The best thing about Smokey besides everything, really, is that once he learned something he did upset us, he never did it again.(with one, forgivable exception – more on that later) He killed one of our first chickens, but seeing our horrified reaction, that was it. He quickly figured out his job was to protect them. And protect them he did. Once, he darted like a bullet to nip the butt of a hawk that had swooped down from the sky to nab a chicken. It was quite the scene, like watching an airplane abort a landing at the last minute. Feathers flew, but they were the hawk’s not the chickens. To this day, Smokey scans the skies for hawks, barking at them from below. His circle of guardianship over the past ten years has grown to include chickens, ducks, a mini donkey, a horse, and visiting children. He also has tolerated our Quaker parrot climbing on and nipping his paws as he lies on the floor. He ran circles for hours to the delight of my nieces, until, exhausted, he hid from them in the tall grass until they gave up looking. I saw him hiding from the corner of my eye. I winked at him. His secret was safe with me.
One of my funniest memories of Smokey was the Italian Bread Incident. After devouring a fresh loaf of Italian bread he stole from a grocery bag in the car, Jon and I bought another. It was for a family dinner we planned that evening, which was a great success. Everyone loved the food, especially the bread. As we walked into the house after seeing the last guests out, Smokey greeted us a little too enthusiastically, considering we had only been gone a few minutes. His tail wagged in the helicopter motion he reserved for the most exciting encounters, but his head hung low and he couldn’t meet our eyes. “He looks guilty,” I said.
“What did you do?” Jon asked Smokey, who turned his head and looked away. That’s when I saw the empty cutting board. In the brief amount of time we were outside, he scarfed down a half a loaf of the Italian bread. He looked at us as if to say, “I know, I know, but it was so good I just couldn’t help myself!” We could hardly blame him. It was the one and only time he ever counter surfed. Well, except one other time he ate an entire bunch of bananas, removing them so expertly from their peels it looked as if someone had peeled them and left the peels neatly stacked. The dog has talent.
Up until January of this year, his favorite activities were playing tag with Jon as he chased him around the cars in the driveway, dodging any attempts to grab him, riding to the feed store and the dump every Saturday morning, and hopping up next to me on the couch, to rest his head in my lap while I tried to read, or knit, or watch tv. And most of all, curling up with Jon on the floor in front of the fireplace for hours on winter nights. You could learn a lot hanging out with a dog like Smokes. He lived in the moment and the joy he felt during these moments was contagious.
One day shortly after Christmas last year, Smokey began limping. The vet said he had a small tear in his meniscus. We decided to try rest and medication to help him heal, rather than put him through surgery so late in life. He got better, and we let him resume his rides to the dump. Then, he tore the meniscus in his other hind leg while hopping into the truck. We felt awful. The vet said we could continue treating him medically, with pain meds, rest, and limited activity, and although it would take a while, he would develop scar tissue and be able to walk again. We carried him down the steps so he could go outside and hobble to do his business. He spent hours sleeping, groggy from pain meds. Gradually, he healed enough to walk comfortably again, and as spring approached, he resumed his patrol of the property, and accompanying me on my morning barn chores. It took him twice as long to get there, but he was happy, which made us happy too. He could no longer come on long hikes in the woods with me, and my walks were made in solitude. I felt a little less secure, without my loyal companion there to explore the trail ahead to make sure it was safe. I missed his doggy grin looking back at me to make sure I was still there. We tried making a ramp to the truck but he was too freaked out by it, so, the rides to the dump were out too. And, lastly, no more games of tag around the cars in the driveway. We felt his absence, but if it bothered Smokey, he hid it well. His world became a little smaller, but he still inhabited it in abundance. He was as joyful as ever, just a little less animated about it. Instead of sitting on my lap, he was happy to lie down ON my feet, as I sat in my chair. He adapted. Another lesson we humans, the ones who are supposedly the superior beings, can benefit from applying to our own lives.
And, so we lived happily within his new boundaries. Some mornings, I let him sleep in a little before waking him to join me outside. Then, the loss of bladder function happened and another trip to the vet has revealed there is a mass in his abdomen, and some changes in certain blood levels that could indicate cancer. Jon and I agreed there will be no invasive measures taken, and Smokey has had a great life with us. He deserves his dignity, and as little pain as possible. There is no reason to think he won’t have a decent amount of quality life left with us. So, for now, we all continue to enjoy our sunsets, our moments of joy, made all the more precious knowing that forever is not guaranteed, not for any of us. We will continue to live the Smokey way, in the moment, and with much joy, as he has taught us.
Today I had a rare day spent in the company of myself. After getting my cholesterol screening (12 hour fast) out of the way, the day was my oyster. I started the migration of my summer writing space from the back porch overlooking the field and barn, to my spare bedroom office with Aunt Mary’s desk and window overlooking the side yard. I brought in half of the plants, and promised the others they would soon follow. It’s cozier, and less of a daydreaming kind of space. Maybe that will be good for my writing.
Then I cleaned the stalls and lingered in the barn, to give the equine kids a good scratch, warm hug and fresh hay. I have not once turned on the television, or a radio. Even the birds are silent, except for the gorgeous hawk I disturbed this morning on my damp walk through the woods and fields next door. The silence of the woods was such a stark contrast to even just a little while ago, when a chorus of birds, crickets and distant lawnmowers serenaded in a buzz of the late summer’s mix tape. Today the silence was only pierced once by the cry of the hawk, and the gentle tap of raindrops as they dripped off the red and gold leaves of the maples and oaks bordering my property line.
Later, I broke my fast with a hearty tomato soup in which I mixed red lentils. What is it about tomato soup that brings me back to the comfort of childhood when my mother served steaming bowls of Campbell’s tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches on toasted white bread? The richness of the butter melted into the golden crisp surface of the bread, the tangy taste of the soup and melted cheese, that first bite when your teeth crunched through to the soft belly of the Wonder Bread. I still remember the cheerful blue and red balloons printed on the Wonder Bread wrapper peeking over the tops of my winter boots. Did all of our mothers use the bread bags to line our winter boots and keep out the dampness? Remember the smell of the plastic , wool and wet boots that emanated from the coat room in school as our winter coats, boots scarves, hats and gloves dried in front of the radiators? We were a community of children who walked to school, in any weather, and who (most of us) came home for lunch to our Mothers, who had a hot lunch waiting on a TV tray in the living room, our favorite tv show tuned (Kimba the White Lion was mine) I know the world was far from perfect, even then, but parts of it sure felt that way. Today was a beautiful escape from the real world where, fortunately, parts of it are still perfect enough for me.
And now I need a tissue, the rain seems to have gotten in my eyes.
It is finally spring here in Southern New Hampshire, only a month late, and for all we know the snow may not yet be done with us. But, today dawned glorious, not a cloud in the sky, and no pesky wind to slip its icy fingers down our collars. Nothing but sunshine and (for us) warm temperatures in the high fifties, possibly sixty!
I started my latest chapter of the book based on my childhood experiences living in the country in Upstate New York. It’s rough and unfinished but I feel like sharing it. Let me know, do you think this interesting enough to keep going? I will anyway, because it brings me great joy to pull out memories, dust them off and relive them in my imagination. How fun it is to elaborate and fictionalize them a bit and to use them to entertain myself and hopefully others.
It is the eve before I go for my hysterectomy surgery. The process of opening myself up, with my writing and my thinking and my intentions, somehow seems to have coincided with the advent of the surgery, which is a quite literal way of opening up. Somehow, these two are connected in a profound way I haven’t quite sorted out yet. But, I welcome it all. I have learned that opening up and sharing your deepest thoughts is a requirement if you wish to write truthfully and authentically. I am grateful for the people and the beauty that have come through the doors and windows I have thrown open with complete abandon. Or at least what is for me, complete abandon! With that, I share the unfinished work of Chapter 3. I have six weeks of physical recovery ahead of me, and I think this will generate a lot of writing.
Please send my your healing and positive thoughts as I journey through my surgery in the early morning hours tomorrow, April 23rd. Thank you!
Chapter Three – The “Crick” (unfinished draft)
“Maaaa, I’m BORED!”I hung over the back of a kitchen chair, vulture-like, as my mother sipped coffee and worked a crossword puzzle. The vinyl stuck to my sweaty arms as I dangled them over the back. It was a triple H day in Upstate New York: Hazy, Hot and HUMID. The mild and breezy spring had run smack into a wall of thick, cloistering air that heralded a New York Mohawk Valley summer. It hung in a yellowish haze over the rolling farmland. Cows lolled under shade trees in clusters at the very edge of the pasture, and refused to go home at milking time, prompting the farmer down the road to phone a request that we kids chase them down to the cow paths at dusk. My brother and I were thrilled to oblige, bringing our collie Shepard mix, Poochie to assist. We’d return home panting, our shiny, red faces dripping with grimy sweat mixed with the dust kicked up by the panicked bovines. “I’m surprised those cows could still give milk by the time you kids are done scaring the bejesus out of them,” my mother would remark before she ordered us into the bath tub. We’d had a close call one evening, and it toned down our exuberance just a hair. The second-to-last heifer took acceptance at the unfortunate last in line bovine, who had scrambled up her backside in a panic in an attempt to get away from the deranged,whooping gang of child and pup. The angered cow stopped dead in her tracks and head butted the offending little bossy, resulting in a domino effect of tumbling cow, dog and kids. My brother and I hit the deck and rolled out of the way in the nick of time to avoid a “cow crash” as we came to call it later on. Of course we never told our mother.
“Go watch cartoons with your brother,” she now suggested. From the living room, strains of “Captain Kangaroo” floated into the kitchen and sparking a surge of irritation through my body. My brother and I had just had a fight over which station to watch, and who sat where. Fists had flown, and he had won, and then had triumphantly stretched out with his favorite blanket to watch the babyish show. For a few minutes I sat at the edge of the couch and halfheartedly exchanged kicks with him, but it was too hot to continue the fight.
“Bore-Ring!” I said, in a sing-song voice.
Mom sipped from her mug and without looking up said,”If you’re bored I can give you something to do.”
Ugh, she always said this. Plenty of dishes to wash, tables to dust, rooms to clean. I did my inward eye roll and flounced out of the kitchen before she could assign me any equally boring tasks.
“I’m going outside,” I pushed at the screen door.
“Don’t go any further than you can hear me call you!”
I grunted and let the door slam behind me.
Outside in the blinding morning sunshine, the beauty of the summer day eclipsed any discomfort resulting from the heat. The corn stalks wore their early July dark, green color, and their usual whispering was laid low by the humidity. Whisps of ghostly mist rose in fingers of steamy vapor from the tall grass of the fields. Snowy white Queen Anne’s lace dotted an expanse of mustard yellow goldenrod. I grabbed one of the delicate blooms and examined a lone ladybug clinging to one of the tiny blossoms.My body surged with the realization I was free as the red winged blackbirds sitting on the stalks of milkweed in the field. Their lyrical call “Chereeeeee! Cheereeeeee!”beckoned.I was completely unencumbered by pesky little brothers, blaring television sets, crying baby sisters and irritable adults looking to hand out responsibilities for my own good. My dog, Pooch, looked up briefly from her shady spot where she lay next to the cornfield, then dropped her head in disinterest and closed her eyes. So I was on my own today. The world was my oyster, and I did not have to share it with anyone else. I decided to slip under the barbed wire of the pasture fence and explore the shaded dark cow paths that bordered the edge of the hay field adjacent to our back yard. I always wondered what lay at the end of the paths, which we never really got to see once we chased the cows into the murky depths. That was the point where we usually turned back for home, since it was getting dark and we knew the cows would keep going. Cows were like that; once they started moving, they usually kept going to their next destination, as long as nothing too daunting crossed their path.
The great race on Johnnycake Road was not my first or last encounter with my nemesis The Snake. In fact, we had a rather complicated history, the snake and I. Back at my old house, my next door neighbor, Billy Branson, once kept a pet “Garden” snake in a cardboard box filled with grass and twigs. Billy was a few years older than me, and teased me mercilessly. One eventful summer day, I got all suited up for the great outdoors dressed in my play clothes – jean shorts, a tee shirt and keds with no socks. Fortified with my Kellogg’s breakfast cereal and orange juice, I pushed the screen door open and stepped out onto the concrete patio overlooking our backyard and the Branson’s backyard. Our driveway separated the two properties. Almost immediately, I heard Billy’s reedy voice float over from next door.
“Hey, Kimmy, c’mere” said Billy.
Immediately suspicious, I asked, “Why?”
“I wanna show you something.”
Hmm. Why was he being nice to me? Somehow, I knew that didn’t bode well.
“It’s something really neat.”
“I have to ask my Mom,” I stalled.
“Oh come on, it’s just right over here! What are you some baby that can’t walk across your driveway without asking Mommy?”
At seven years old, I was most definitely not a baby, and so that is how I found myself in the neighbors yard without my mother’s permission, following Billy into his garage. He led me to a corner and it took a minute for my eyes to get used to the dark after the blinding sunshine outside. The garage smells were overwhelming; aromas of musty motor oil mixed with dirt, old unwashed garbage can and rotting wood assailed my nostrils. I wrinkled my nose and longed for the fresh air of summer. This better be worth it, I thought.
Billy was bent over a cardboard soda carton box on a work table that might have once been his father’s. Broken tools littered the space, covered with thick dust and cobwebs. Nobody talked about Billy’s father, and when I asked my Mom where he was (because in my little bubble of the world everyone had a father)she just said he didn’t live there. When I pushed it she told me to stop being nosy and never talk about it to Billy, and she meant it. So, I didn’t. Billy motioned me over to the bench, which was about chest high to me. I looked into the box and recoiled. A skinny, greenish snake lay stretched out on clumps of grass. It’s eyes were sharp and shiny.
“He won’t hurt you,” said Billy gently. I raised my eyebrows at his conciliatory tone.
“Why are you being nice to me?”
“Maybe cuz you aren’t being a brat today.”
“I am NOT a brat!”
Somehow it felt better when he was being a little mean. I could trust that. I recovered my initial suspicion and repugnance and took a closer look. I had never seen a snake up close before. He looked so vulnerable in the box. But not afraid. He just looked back at us with similar curiosity, and perhaps, shared a little of my suspicion. A tiny forked tongue flicked in and out so quickly, you almost didn’t even see it. Billy stroked the snake’s head with the tip of his index finger.
“See, he likes to be petted.”
“Is he slimy?” I asked. “Because he looks so shiny, like his skin is wet.” I shuddered a little bit.
“No, he isn’t. Go ahead, pet him!”
I glanced up at Billy’s freckled face, looking for any hint of mischief glinting in his maple syrup colored eyes. To my surprise, they looked kind, in a good big brother kind of way. I always wanted to have a big brother, someone older and stronger who could teach me cool things and protect me from the world. Someone else to be the “responsible one” and “set a good example”. As the eldest child in my family, that mantle fell on my skinny shoulders, and I always felt like that got in the way of all my fun. It sure could put a damper on a kid’s daily decisions. I mean, who could have fun stomping in mud, or jumping out of trees if you had to worry about whether your little brother would get dirty or break his neck following you?
Billy’s mouth curved up in a friendly smile. “Go ahead, he said. I won’t let him hurt you.” That clinched it. I reached out to the snake’s head with my finger. He didn’t move a muscle, except for his flickering tongue. Very slowly, I held my breath, and touched his shiny, scaled head. It felt dry and very smooth.
“Wow,” I breathed.
“That’s great, Kimmy! I think he likes you.”
“Do ya think so?” Wow, I just touched a snake, I thought. Wow.
Billy’s eyes lit up. “Hey, do you wanna hold him?”
Whoa! Hold a snake? “I don’t know…”
Billy’s golden hair caught a ray of sunshine filtering through the dirty garage window. His face had a cherubic quality as he smiled down on me. “Don’t worry, I will show you how. It’s easy.”
Well, that did it. Just like a big brother, he was going to teach me something really cool. I could not believe how great this day was going, right off the bat. I watched closely as Billy gently lifted the snake out of the box. He showed me how to hold he snake behind it’s head in one hand, and drape the rest of the snake’s long body around the other hand. The snake’s green tail curled around his outspread fingers and he gently closed his hand around it. I was mesmerized. The snake seemed so calm, almost sweet. I was eager to try. Billy held the snake toward me, and I did everything exactly the way he showed me. Before long, the snake was in my hands.
“Wow! He’s really neat! I thought snakes were mean.” I whispered.
“Snakes are good! They eat mice, for example,”Billy explained all the virtues of the lowly snake to me.
“You are really good at holding snakes,” he said. A happy warmth spread through my chest at this praise. Billy never said anything nice to me before. I smiled up at him.
He smiled back with big brotherly pride.
“You know,” he said, and his smile got bigger. “You should go show your mother how you can hold a snake! She will be really surprised. Most girls could never even touch a snake, much less hold one!”
What a great idea! “Yeah!” I said.
“Go ahead,” said Billy. He followed me across the driveway and up the cement steps. He held the screen door for me and gave an encouraging wave as I went inside to the kitchen, where my Mom was washing dishes, her back to the door.
“Mom!” I shouted. “Mom!”
Mom turned around, wiping a dirty glass with glistening suds. “What? What is….” She stopped in mid sentence.
“Look what I can do!” I thrust the snake at my mother, waiting for her wonder and amazement at how talented I was.
She stared with a funny half smile on her face. Clearly she was speechless. She did not make a move away from the sink.
“See? I can hold a SNAKE! Billy showed me how!”
“That’s… that’s nice dear. “
“Do you want me to show you how?” I was brimming with a generous desire to share my newfound expertise with my mother. As far as I knew we would be the only two girls on Prospect Avenue who could hold a snake. I imagined her having coffee with her friend JoAnn. “Well you know what my daughter showed me how to do today?” The coffee spoons would stop tapping as my mother bragged to JoAnn. “Really?” JoAnn would drawl and her penciled on eyebrows would arch wide and high above her surprised eyes. “Wow.”
My mother’s voice broke into my daydream. “Now, why don’t you take the snake back outside and give it back to Billy.”
“Okay!” I happily skipped out of the kitchen and through the back door to the patio where Billy was waiting eagerly.
“Here’s your snake,” I handed him back.
“Well? What did your mother say?” He seemed a little less big brotherly. His golden smile was replaced with the typical smirk he wore when he was about to pick on me. He took the snake back.
“She said it was nice. She said she was PROUD of me.” A bit of a white lie, but I knew she thought it.
Billy frowned and stalked back to his garage. I started to follow. “Hey! What can we do now? Can we feed him? What’s his name, huh? You never said his name.”
Billy kept his back turned and bent down next to his mother’s garden and let the snake go. I watched the snake slither into the bushes and disappear.
“Hey!Why’d you do that?”
“You don’t name snakes, stupid,” he said. “That’s a dumb girl thing! Go home and play with your dollies.” He went inside his house and slammed the door on me, and all of my hopes and dreams for a new big brother.
I stood there for a little while, puzzling over the strange turn of events. I looked at the empty snake box in the empty garage. In our garage, my father’s lawnmower and tools were clean and neat, and waiting for him to come home and build us a fort, or mow the lawn. My father would smile and show us how to plant a tree, or pull us around the neighborhood in a red wagon he fixed up. Inside my house, my mother would always be there to witness my latest adventures, to bandage my scraped knees and console me when Billy’s teasing got too mean. She would tell me to ignore him and present me with bologna and cheese sandwiches at lunchtime, and insist I take a nap while she watched her soap operas. Billy’s mother worked and was not home during the day. I often thought he was lucky to be able to spend all day doing whatever he wanted with no adults around to tell him what to do. But I thought now, maybe that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
As if summoned by my thoughts, my own mother appeared at the screen door, wiping her hands. “Did you give that snake back to Billy?”
“Good, now come inside and wash your hands. Those creatures are dirty!”
I stood on the steps a minute longer.I thought I saw a curtain move behind a window next door.
“I’m coming!” I ran up the steps and let the screen door slam behind me.
I go back here so often in my memory, I have written many pages in my journals, and dreamed of going back. I suppose everyone has at least one idyllic moment in their life they remember fondly. For me, this time period became an obsession that stayed with me for over forty years. How could a two year time period have had such a lasting influence, which, ultimately shaped who I am today? Maybe there is a window in every childhood that opens up in our soul and allows us to take in our environment, all of it, the good and bad, in its purest form. In my case these memories set up camp in my writer’s soul, lit a fire in the darkness, and fed that fire while it waited for me to be ready to pour it onto the page.
And so the time has come. If you want to know who I am, if you wonder why I love nature and and animals so, or if you ever felt rebuffed by my desire for long periods of solitude, or puzzled over my lack of interest in wearing shoes or nail polish or makeup, this may give some insight.
But most of all if you like a good story, and you ever played outside in the “country” then I hope you will read on and enjoy the tales of Johnnycake Road.
Disclaimer: what you are about to read is based on true stories as recalled by me with a little fictionalization thrown in to make it more interesting when necessary .
I would love to hear your feedback whether it is good or bad!
The Move to Johnnycake Road
By Kimberly Nash
Chapter 1: The Adventure
When I was nine years old my family left my one and only childhood home in a small Upstate New York village and moved to the country, to a place that has forever lived in my memory as “Johnnycake.” Johnnycake Road became as true an oasis in my childhood as any fictionalized middle of the desert dream escape.
The day was a warm and sunny one in mid summer when my father took us to see our new house. The sky was such a bright blue, and a light breeze was whispering over the tops of tall grasses, and gently shaking the thick green leaves on the Maple trees lining the driveway.Our new house was a tiny, ranch style box of a home, seated up high on one acre of weedy grass. It was surrounded on all sides by a green and yellow checkerboard of pastures and corn fields, as far as the eye could see. It seemed a wild place to me, a place with an eerie absence of civilized sounds. There were none of the small town noises of life I was accustomed to. No droning lawnmower, no shouts of neighborhood kids playing, no complaining neighbor voices filtered through window screens between houses so close you could lean out and touch the one next door to you. There were no squeaky tricycles wheels or bicycle bells, the usual summer music of my childhood. Just the shushing sound of the wind blowing through the corn stalks in the field that rose behind the house.
“The quiet is deafening,” stated my mother. She clutched her pocketbook in one hand, and my baby sister’s hand in the other, and cast an inscrutable gaze around her. A cloud buoyed by the wind far away blocked the sun and the brief darkness made me shiver, and I wondered at how something so far away could cast such a long shadow. My sister pulled her hand away and flounced out of reach of my mother.
“How about an adventure?” My father’s dark eyes smiled and the sun came out again. “Let’s explore the cornfield!” He turned toward the back of the house where the green expanse beckoned with it’s leafy, swaying arms.
The cornfield towered over the heads of me and my two younger siblings. My sister was just 4 years old, a sunny towhead whose thumb was permanently plugged into her rosy bow lips. Her index finger rested on her button nose. Like a cat’s tail, you could tell her mood by the twitch of her finger over the bridge of her nose; lazy sweeping finger meant all was well, but stay away if her finger clamped tightly over the end of her little schnoz. Today it scratched the area between her white eyebrows in a contemplative way and after careful consideration she turned away and rejoined our mother who stood staring at the house. My brother who was six at the time opted to stick close to me. We often were together, he and I, and we had one of those tight sibling bonds; the kind where we could beat each other up, but woe to the outsider who even made a hint of a threat. We followed my father’s disappearing back into the undulating green wall of cornstalks.
Part of the cornfield had been harvested in a seemingly random pattern. The result was a twisting path that made a trail and disappeared into the dark green stalks. The stalks were tightly planted together in rows as dense as a jungle. It seemed to me like without our father, we could get lost forever in this place. I clung to my father’s hard knuckled hand, and wondered what would happen to us if he faltered and became lost. I had to swallow my fear in front of my brother, who was always the braver of the two of us, much to my shame as the oldest child. It was so easy for him; if my parents told him not to be afraid, then he simply wasn’t. For example, He always stood quietly in the long clinic lines where we had to get our shots, and closed his eyes and held his breath while they poked both arms. Me, I started crying in the parking lot, and never stopped until we were back home.Ever the bad example. It was embarrassing but I couldn’t help myself. I never could completely believe in the infallibility of the adults surrounding me. It’s just how I was wired. I was often very privately and quietly afraid. In the cornfield, I worried about getting lost. I worried that the farmer would be angry if he knew we were trespassing. I worried that at any moment a tractor could come chugging around the corner and mow us down along with the cornstalks.I spoke of none of this to my father. He was the one person I tried very hard not to question.
My father began pointing out landmarks as we passed them. He explained that paying attention to your surroundings would help you find your way back home if you became lost. Here were twisty tangly grape vines on the edge of the field, there was the “bob”wire fence to keep the cows in the pasture. A wood chuck hole over there, partially covered by a tuft of grass next to a rock was probably the home of an entire family beneath the ground. With each discovery, my fear of the unknown melted away, and I felt reassured by the rare and pleasing sound of delight in my father’s voice. Happiness began to course through my body like liquid sunshine poured straight into my veins.
I began to relax enough to notice the clods of dry dirt underfoot, making my patent leather black shoes dull with dust. I longed to kick them off and peel the sweaty ruffled ankle socks from my captive feet, and sink my toes into the soft dust. I noticed the way the roots of each cornstalk heaved up out of the ground, as if an invisible giant’s hand had tried to yank it out, then gave up halfway from sheer exhaustion. The bottom of the corn stalks were yellow, thick and resilient, gripping the earth for dear life, while, at the same time the deep green middle and top of the stalks strained upward toward the bright sunshine. I could relate to the struggle.
”Corn plants are like giant stalks of grass,” my father explained. “They need three things: nitrogen, water and sunshine. Farmers spread cow manure before they plant to help the soil become more nourishing. In the old days, Indians would plant fish heads with each hill of seeds.”
”Sometimes,” he added, “The farmer must plant a different crop because the corn uses up all of the nitrogen and won’t grow as well.” I blinked. I was lost in a daydream, imagining the Indians living here so many years ago, planting their corn by hand with fish heads, from fish pulled straight from the Mohawk River nearby. I wondered if tepees had dotted this very hill. I pictured many beautiful Indian warrior horses standing under the apple trees out in the pasture. Maybe, one day, Mom would buy me some beaded moccasins instead of Buster Browns. Maybe I could even have my own pony. I could pretend to be one of the Mohawk Indians who had once inhabited the valley we were moving to very soon.The uncertain future suddenly began taking shape in a hundred happy ways. My reverie was interrupted by my brother’s singsong voice.
”Daddeee, I hafta got to the bafroom!”
We hightailed it out of the cornfield back to the house. My mind was spinning with new plans. I felt slivers of hope pierce through my fearful soul’s heavy armor.
Chapter 2 The Race
Before we could move in, the house needed some work. I have since learned it was a foreclosure, and being so, it had been abandoned and neglected for some time. As a result, my parents could buy it for a “song”. All of this went over my 9 year old head, of course. I just knew it would be a wonderful day to play outside in the country!
“You kids go and play! Stay away from the work area! All kinds of stuff you could get hurt on, nails, glass or who knows!You keep your shoes on!” My mother looked so pretty standing there shielding her eyes from the sun. Her dark hair was tied back with a blue kerchief and the pale skin on her face had developed a sprinkling of ginger colored freckles across the bridge of her nose and under her hazel eyes. She wore pedal pusher shorts and an old button down shirt of my father’s. She and Kat, my sister, would stay inside the house cleaning, leaving my brother and I free to explore.
A neighbor named Harris Harvey had volunteered to help my father out with some of the junk piles of old construction debris left outside in the overgrown yard. Mr. Harvey wore horn rimmed glasses and sported a black handlebar mustache. He brought a six pack of beer for he and my dad, and his three sons to meet and play with my brother and I. Much to my disappointment, there seemed to be a shortage girls my age in the immediate vicinity. The Harvey family lived about a mile down the road from us, on a dirt road that dead ended at the Johnson farm. I had overheard my mother refer to it as “Tobacco Road” on the phone to one of her friends. I didn’t know what that meant, but her tone suggested something not so good. I asked her and she told me to “never mind” and go play. The Johnson farm was one of four dairy farms in the area. The three Harvey boys were close to mine and my brother’s ages. Curiously, their names all started with the letter D. Danny was 6 years old, Damien was 8, and David was ten, a little older than me. Danny and Damien seemed a little shy, and let David do most of the talking.
“So, I guess you guys are a coupla city slickers!” David sneered at my brother and I.
What the heck is a city slicker? Not something good, apparently. “Are NOT!” I bristled, and folded my arms.
“Oh yeah? Well prove it.”
I would be happy to, but wasn’t at all sure how, since I didn’t even know what it was I was accused of being. Rather than admit ignorance, I began to think. Obviously a contest of some sort was being suggested. What was the one thing I could possibly do better than this boy? Lots of things probably, like read, spell, and sing, for example. I smirked to myself. But, what BOY thing could I do to prove myself right here and now? An idea struck like a flash.
“OK, then let’s have a race,” I said. I pointed to the cornfield. “From the corner of the cornfield up the hill to the grape vines, and back. Loser’s a city slicker.”(Whatever that was!)
Little Danny spoke up. “You’re a girl!” His little boy voice squeaked in outrage. “You can’t beat a boy!”
“She can beat ALL of you!” My little brother Robbie had came to life. Nobody was going to best his big sister. And he knew I could run.
Oh brother, I thought. Now I had to race all of them to prove I was not something that, for all I knew, I very well may in fact, be! But, from beneath the withering glare of four sets of beady male eyeballs, I knew there was no turning back now. I pulled a tall piece of grass, put it between my teeth and chewed, while I sized up my three opponents. Danny was a non-contender, being barely out of Kindergarten. Damien was tall and lank, with gangly legs. He had a chance. David was the wildcard. He was my height, but more solidly built, with wiry looking legs. His chest looked less concave than an average adolescent boy, and he likely had pretty good wind. Plus, he had the swagger of someone twice his age. Swagger gave him the mental edge, I knew. But, I had my own mental edge. Of course, it would be necessary to pretend I was a horse. I was big into The Black Stallion books at that time. There was the Black Stallions’ sulky colt, a fiery trotter, or Flame, the crazy speedster. No, neither of them would do. Today, I would be The Black himself. I tossed my imaginary mane and that was when I noticed the footwear of my opponents. All three boys were wearing leather workboots, like their father’s. They were unwieldy for running gear. I knew I found their Achilles heel, so to speak. I smiled.
“I’ll make it easier for you guys,” I said. “I’ll run BAREFOOT. And I’ll race all three of you at the same time!” I had some swagger of my own. Huh. I was even willing to risk contracting lockjaw. My mother forever warned me about going barefoot lest I step on a rusty nail and God forbid, get lockjaw. I looked up the symptoms in her medical book once, and wished I hadn’t. I felt lockjaw-ish for weeks afterward, randomly clenching and unclenching my jaw just to make sure it wasn’t stuck, which of course, had made it hurt after a while which surely had to be a symptom of – LOCKJAW. I awaited in fear of death, until I confided in my mother who sighed, rolled her eyes and told me to “stop the melodrama” because I did NOT have lockjaw. At least not yet!
I kicked off my keds before they could disagree about the shoes. Danny and Damien snickered and held their noses. “PEEE YEWWW! You’re gonna lose!”
David’s eyes narrowed a bit, and I held my breath hoping he wasn’t smart enough to catch on. But I needn’t have worried. His expression changed, and he clapped his hands together in glee. “Robbie can be the starter guy.” He put a stick on the ground. “Everybody lines up behind the stick. When you get to the vines, you hafta touch the fence post, then run back down to the stick, which is the finish line. Robbie calls the winner. And no cheating cuz it’s your sister!” He warned with a raised finger.
“I don’t cheat!” Robbie snarled. This was a touchy subject for him, as he had been known to produce very suspicious windfalls at critical times during our heated Monopoly games which often ended in fistfights.
I looked up the hill at the grape vines, which were located in a woodsy corner of the pasture, and dangled haphazardly over the barbed wire fence. Behind them lay a tantalizing thicket of maple trees and blackberry bushes I had been meaning to explore. I would pretend to be an Indian scout and spy on my house from high up the hill. I had beautiful plans that were right now being spoiled by a bunch of freckle-faced bratty hillbilly boys. Maybe if I beat them, they’d run home in embarrassment!
We lined up behind the stick. Robbie made sure everyone was evenly lined up. I leaned forward on my right foot, ready to springboard off my left foot which I stretched out behind me in a starting position like the track stars I saw on TV. The grapevines suddenly looked far away. All was quiet except for the men’s voices drifting from the back of the house. Time almost stood still. Then Robbie’s shrill voice rose excitedly.
“On your mark! Get set! GO!”
We were off! I became The Black. I knew from the many books I read that it’s necessary to pace yourself and be strategic about running. But The Black could not be controlled; he was all heart and ran like his soul was on fire. I quickly left Danny in the dust. I came up behind Damien, who shuffled to the right to block my way but I skipped sideways and he missed, and immediately fell down hard. I tried not to laugh in order to save my breath. I could see David was way ahead of me, as I had feared. He was touching the fence post and already heading back my way! He was on the downhill and there was no way I could catch up! I pushed myself hard, like The Black, who would run himself right to death if he had to in order to win. In two strides I was at the fence post. I stretched my hand out toward the post and had one more step to go before I could wheel around to face downhill and and my impending loss. As I grabbed the post and began to put my right foot down, a horrible sight met me: a green head with glittering gold eyes and a forked tongue raised itself from the grass directly beneath my lowering foot. “SNAKE!” I shrieked. Without breaking my stride, or putting my right foot down, I whirled around on my left foot in an unplanned pirouette. Screaming like a banshee and propelled by terror, I flew down the hill. I don’t think my feet even touched the ground. Down the hill past the whispering cornstalks, past an open-mouthed David, over the finish line I went, and kept going. Right through the back door and into the house and straight into the kitchen where my mother was cleaning the sink.
“What happened?” She cried, as I threw myself into her arms.”Did you step on a nail?” She looked sharply at my dirty bare feet. “I told you a hundred times to wear your shoes outside!”
“I almost s-s-s-stepped on a snake!” I sobbed at the thought of how perilously close I had come to touching a snake, perhaps even squishing it between my toes! After a few minutes I heard a sound. I looked up and over my mother’s shoulder I saw the four boys staring through the screen door. “Yup, she’s a city slicker alright, afraid of a little garden snake,” said David. But instead of derision I distinctly heard a hint of admiration. “But she sure is fast!” All four heads nodded in unison. “She sure is,” my brother crowed. “She won fair and square!