Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Go To The Sage

I did not think I would see her again. But there she was, Y., standing in front of her old house. A fine tremor stirred the hand she raised to pat her hair, an old habit among women. Nerves. And why not. She spent decades burying her old childhood. And then one day it surfaced, all grown up, driving a little car with out-of-state plates.

But she had initiated this reunion. I knew the second I laid eyes on Y. that she wanted to take it all back, climb into that big van and drive back to Georgia where she'd made a good life, taking care of disabled people in her home. Good care too, I imagined. The kind of care no one bothered to take for her.

Because she had been the caregiver in that home, the one we were standing in front of on that cold Alabama day. She was 8 when she moved in across the street, her electrician father to work in spinoff efforts for the space race too, like mine. Our families were friendly, at first. But too soon that changed.

Her parents were drinkers. Bad drinkers. Mine were old-fashioned religious teetotalers. This set up a war of titans. So Y. and I, and our sisters, were instant underground allies. It was match made in heaven and hell. Y. And I were the resistance. On both fronts.

Soon, Y. and I were enjoying our first cigarettes -- Kents filched from her mother. We coughed our heads off behind my house and fibbed to my mother about choking on Dr. Pepper. I was already a pint-sized rebel, rule breaker, born firebug kept from burning down the house one day by my perfect older brother and his buddy. Y. saved me from the solitary pursuit of these pasttimes and introduced me to others.

I kept her company, too,.

Like the awful nights of violence that broke out before her mother, a bride at 16, just took off, sometimes for months. They would build, these cataclysms, as predictable as the spring tornado season. You never knew exactly when the big nasty would hit. You just knew it would and it would be bad.

But we tried to intervene, Y. and I. Like somber Presbyterians, we stole through her house after school, pouring out the liquor. Down the sinks, loads of it. We had to act quickly, I wasn't supposed to step foot on the infidels' property.

But it never worked. There was always more alcohol. And late at night, dragged up from deep slumber, I could hear it -- the screaming, the crashes, the slamming doors and bodies. It had begun. Again.

And I knew what to do.

I would slip from bed with a quilt and feel my way into the kitchen. Quickly fill a pillowcase with any food and drinks I could find. If my parents were up, trying to decide whether this particular upheaval was worthy of a police call (which always came with months of retribution from Y.'s furious parents), I had to be careful. I needed them to think I was still asleep.

Unlocking the back door, I would quickly run to sanctuary next to my house, or across the street, by Y's place. And they would be there, shivering in the tall golden sagebrush even on the hottest of nights, the three of them, Y. and her two young sisters.

I don't remember being afraid on those nights. We were safe in the sage. We built huts there, erecting bamboo foundations and filling in with sage fronds. I needed water features even then, so I landscaped by digging little ponds that I stocked with minnows pinched from daddy's bait bucket.

On the Bad Nights, the little girls were always crying. And Y. was exhausted, lips quivering, eyes red and swollen, arms around the little two. Rage beatings sometimes had been administered, always on Y. Psychiatrists call this transferral, I think, mad at somebody but lash out at another, someone smaller, weaker. We didn't have any idea about that, then.

I got my share of the belt, too. This wasn't unusual in the early '60s in the deep South where it was respected as a righteous form of discipline, even if the belting was inflicted for no other reason than the inflictor was just pissed off at somebody. But we had the idea the belt was our fault. That we caused these senseless outbursts. We didn't want to believe it, though, we raged against it in our own way. It was just too much to bear.

So Y. and I took the unbearables to the woods behind our houses and to the sage, in the good times and bad. Y.'s were out there for the world to see. Mine were secret, carefully arranged under the heavy smothering cloak of southern civility. Forgotten, it was assumed I'm sure, disregarded, not to be mentioned or even thought about.

In real life, though, that just doesn't happen.

But that's another story. For next time...


  1. Well, that was damn compelling.

    Are you going to write about the reunion, too, he urged.