Chapter Ten – Sunflowers
I dance, I twirl, I look up; the cloud-grey sunless sky passes overhead in a blur as I get dizzier and dizzier. I stop, I wobble, I watch the world tip and spin. My arms twist and turn and bend in odd ways. My head tilts back. The colors morph into a haze of nothingness around me like distant hums. It’s morning. The overcast light tints the day grey with a blush of pink. Stale and taciturn, the late summer air sits stewing, waiting for change. The occasional breeze makes the leaves prance. An earthy nature smell lingers intoxicating, like pure oxygen injecting me with adrenaline.
The old grey and green eight by thirty trailer—its cinder block steps stacked crookedly caked in dried mud—sits in front of me like an ominous undertone. The unlatched rusted storm door creaks and groans in the rare wind. Little to no underpinning hides the vaguely lit wheels and the creepy blackness underneath. The only two windows—dark like black sightless eyes—droop saddened by its miserable existence: a beat-up tin can in a sea of mud and timber.
I’m five-ish. A pigtailed towheaded girl in an ill fitted, handmade, knee-length, apple green dress. My knees and hands dirty. My cheap canvas Kmart shoes scuffed and one dingy white lacy turned-down sock is higher on one side than the other; the lace frayed around the edges like daddy long legs. On my face, an inquisitive stoic expression shines till it doesn’t.
I feel my heart beating: thump, thump, thump; strong. I’m alive. I feel another deep breath: a faint smoky smell floats in the air like a callous cough. Behind me across from the trailer is a large tall flat beige rock behind a black smoking barrel. Trash burns and smoke swirls. I see the fire through the holes in the sides like blood red blisters detonating and snapping like popcorn. I turn back towards the trailer. A brown paper lunch bag sits on the cinder block stoop. The top perfectly folded neat and unwrinkled. I walk towards it knowing what it holds. The air stills. The birds mute. All sounds disappear except the whirl of wind as it passes my ears and the crunch of paper as I unwrap it slowly. I open the bag and there it sits looking up at me from the shadows: soulless green dilated eyes trimmed in gold, laced with flecks of black, yellow and white tabby fur that looks soft and pettable; short perky ears and a small mouth, open slightly, its small pink tongue stuck partly between white eye teeth, and a bubble gum colored nose that appears slightly wet. The scent sneaks up on me. It’s musty, faintly sweet with a tinge of rot, like stale hamburger.
It’s the smells that ultimately expose the truth. Or is it? This is real? This isn’t a memory? The tainted scent of decay, both sweet and sour, of a life terminated.
The head, without a body, the one from my memory, my childhood. The newly adopted kitten that bit mom and died. Dad cut off its head. He’ll take it to Charleston so they can test for rabies. It doesn’t and mom survives. No long needles in the stomach.
I blink feeling a force push me forward in a micro blur of fast moving colors, like a tilt-o-whirl. The scene changes; another memory, another nonlinear place in time? The details are finer here than my memories. My senses more alert to smell, sound, touch. I feel her. I distinguish between my adult thoughts and emotions and that of the younger me. I say hello then yell and scream, but she doesn’t hear me. I cannot control her. I’m only a visitor—an interloper within my own younger body.
How is this possible? How can I be here? I panic. I’m reluctant to stay. I wanna run, hide, cause I know what’s coming; what’s in front of me like a sinkhole of panic. I reach for rational thought and sober …and continue onward. Why? Because I have no choice. There’s rarely choices in situations like this. I learned this early in life.
Standing at the foot of the mountain, I look up. It’s taller; I’m smaller. The fissures—slimmer in areas, larger in others—dark and shadowy, dirt caked in the cracks holding it together like glue. The mountain is deep and dark with patches of light; mostly it’s the shadows of a complex and concealed unlikeness; a divergence of unknowns whispering and wading into and between the undisguised and ambiguous; what is there is not really and what isn’t is. An entirely different world with aliens and beings and ideas unlike those I conjure up on a daily pretend basis. My rabbit hole filled with escape and freedoms to explore and expose. My playground. This place, I get all to myself and I feel the eagerness and playfulness in her, me.
I stand staring up at the rocks. To my right, a dusty dirt road winds through the property curving around the large chunks of boulders that jut into the open areas. Large rocks cascaded along the side, some attached, some not, rooted and torn in a ridge—a boundary. Cracks and crevices carved into the larger portion like puzzle pieces. Behind shadows and corners hide smaller caves where I’ve played many times. No fear. The caves are comfort. This mountain is my sanctuary, my friend. Till it isn’t.
In the beginning, it was all woods, all mountain, no roads. Everything covered, dense with trees and weeds. The timber, stood tall like soldiers, razed like falling dominoes. The man-made road curls crookedly, ascending up mountains then leveling off before descending into the valley where we live. Heavy forest, large rocks, and mountains enclose all sides. When it rains, the umber colored mud smells dank, pleasant, like the damp crust of discarded bark from a tree mixed with the fresh tang of soil. Big four-wheel drive trucks dig deep trenches; their engines bounce off surrounding stones like the guttural roars of dinosaurs. Khaki colored stones blast into many pieces like confetti. Some stones too large to move creating those dark and shadowy caves. Roads coil around the boulders as remnants of smaller stones crumble into them foretelling a rocky future.
My pun and play is lost to time here. Or is it? Are they here? Are they watching? I feel them hovering. I don’t know where.
Across the way, another valley sits. A steep drop a quarter of a mile to the other side and a small stream flows below and between the two. An unsightly house perches on the edge of the mountain midway up the sea of forest green. The multi-colored obnoxious siding stands out like an ugly infected wart. The owner—neighbor Bob, a hillbilly trope, an antisocial plump man with greasy hair, yellow teeth, and bad grammar—visits one sunny afternoon to introduce himself and casually mentions that the dynamited shower of rocks from this side keep landing on his roof a quarter mile away.
Dad, not the least bit perturbed, explains to neighbor Bob: “What? No holes? I’ll have to use more goddamn dynamite.” He and his sweaty and sturdy looking hillbilly cohorts—laborers, friends he’s hired from all over—promptly surround neighbor Bob, laughing loudly, closing the space around him. Dad lights his cigarette, jutting from thin lips, with the sizzle and flare of a lit dynamite fuse of which he throws casually and expertly over his shoulder in a climatic arc landing in one of those many large cracks. Dad laughs as the rest flinch and dive when the rocks explode behind him in a dramatic bang, like some kind of special effects in a Bruce Willis action movie. Through the haze, after the dust departs, dad and his posse stand all salient and studly like a scene from the Magnificent 8. Neighbor Bob, scrambling up from his cowering position—intimidated by my dad and his rough looking posse, and his ballsy deeds—realizes his situation. Crossing his arms in defense, he switches from foot to foot, unsmiling and jittery, laughing weakly and awkwardly with them. Dad eyes him comically, one brow arched, then throws back his head in laughter. He slaps neighbor Bob on the back making him stumble from the impact, and apologizes offering the man a drink.
I’m left staring at my dad in awe and interest.
The grittiness of hopelessness settles in and around me like heavy pollen. I choke on it.
Time accelerates in a twist of haze. Afternoon shifts to twilight. Neighbor Bob staggers home and dad has, once again, gained another loyal lifelong pal who is magnetized by my father’s fiercely large and wicked shadow side and dazzled by his sociable good ole boy charm. Dad has that effect on everyone—wary of him at first, they quickly become his closest ally and are loyal to him to the end; be it from fear or, in due time, friendship, the gravitation is there. As I watch him, he can be best summed up as a mixture of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, J.R. Ewing, and Tony Soprano in looks and attitude. Several male members of my family would add Tony Montano to that list, but I can’t possibly say that since I’ve never seen Scarface. And my dad is white, as white as white can be in this hillbilly bunk. He’s a poor uneducated white man on the bottom rung of the class ladder.
And, he’s a thief.
Dad and the others fade into a blank background like the passing of a sound. I look around searching for him as twilight becomes dawn. I’m alone except for the hawk that screeches overhead across the dull grey sky like a slow-moving jet.
Another blink and push and I’m sitting on a cold black faux leather couch with big buttons perched across one end of the small trailer. Clutter on crooked shelves line the walls. Frazzled shabby black curtains cover both front windows; stained white drapes shade the back larger one; all the curtain rods bowed. The distorted blackened back wall near the kitchen evidence of a past fire. The tiny kitchen sink filled with dirty dishes and a fly buzzing around my face brings me back to my small body. An all day southern sunshine filters through the back windows across my lap and all the grunge.
Restless and chewing already gnawed nails, I hear my father on the opposite end of the trailer sobbing. Sliding off the couch, my small legs walk towards the trailer’s only bedroom. On the bed, in the small room, his eyes red, face wet with tears, crying and mumbling incoherently to himself, he sits against the thin trailer wall, shirtless, inarticulate, and rambling, gripping a yellow and black leopard, silver plated forty-five pistol. He presses it to the side of his face, not in a self-harming way, but in a confused mournful way. In his other hand is an almost empty bottle of whiskey—his preferred libations, either Canadian Mist or Black Velvet. I look at him and feel the stirring of fear and apprehension of the child I reside as well as the compassion and empathy of the adult I am now.
He doesn’t see me. He looks, he doesn’t see.
I walk into the bathroom. Standing in one place, I can reach the sink, step into the shower, and sit on the toilet. The rotted wooden floor of the shower stall renders it unusable. Instead, it’s filled with old clothes that reek of mothballs and mold. A black slimy substance around the faucet in the sink smells like rotten fish. The water, a muddy almond color, drips a foul sulfur funk making my nose twitch and lip curl. The bathroom corners collect balls of hair and dirt. The toilet lid, up and open, tissue sits dissolving in urine fermenting like a deep amber ale adding more bouquets of fragrance to the overall ambiance of the place.
I walk back into the living room and sit on the cold plastic couch waiting. My dad’s best friend, Jeff, arrives and glances at me flashing a small brief smile, a wink, and a hullo, kid before moving to the back of the trailer. The five-year-old in me feels the tension thick in the air, like the cold leftover soup I ate for breakfast. I hear nothing from the bedroom except faded voices. Mom comes in a long fifteen minutes later barely glancing at me—a pinched sour expression on her face. The little girl in me loses her smile bereft and disappointed. The more mature side of me accepts this. I’m probably going to see this again and again over the course of these little trips.
This doesn’t upset older me. This is my life. This is how I lived.
Another blink, another scene. I’m disoriented at first, but quickly recover. This isn’t me or my younger body. An older man; his dark pants creased with starch; his shirt, the same over his slightly bulging midsection. A middle-aged white man with dark coarse hair and age spots on the backs of his crepey hands. There’s disdain here and disgust and rage—a deep seething rage. A smugness surrounds him but is tempered by a resounding frustration of being pulled away from something important. I hear his machinations on evasions and the plan is plotted and pronounced when I gain awareness of what this is.
I hear it before I see it. The creak and curl of the stained white sheet makes a soft swaying sound that echoes down the dark dank cavernous halls and cells with patchy grey iron bars corroded with age. Empty cages with thin dirty mattresses and the drip drip of leaky toilets line the walls past exposed hastily covered holes and incomplete construction. The sound vibrates through me and I feel it throughout every neuron. A group of white faceless men in uniforms huddle and whisper outside looking in, not meeting my eyes. The sound continues: swish, sway, creak, swish, sway, creak, drip, drip. I slowly and confidently walk unafraid down the long grey hall toward the last cell and the faceless men not because I want to, because I must—this choice isn’t mine, but his. I look at the holes and the cracks along the way trying to capture the details memorizing every inch of the setting.
Is this an illusion? No, it’s not. I know what this is and what I’ll find. Each of my steps, forceful and dogmatic before continuing to the next. Peripherally, I glance into each cage as I pass. The inky void like a black hole deep in the heart of each cell, the dark echo. Once you enter, there’s no escaping, except through whence you came. The taint of this place scars those that enter and marks their families for generations.
The smell smothers me in hostility and unease. The moist sticky stale air, like sweat, delivers a heavier feeling. I taste it on my tongue, feel it on my skin; defeat and death, fetid and impure. I prepare myself for what I’m about to see. It doesn’t matter that he’d only squeezed out the last of his breath minutes earlier. He swings back and forth, back and forth from a sheet creatively tied around this and that, the job complete, dead in the last cell on the left.
Hands on hips in exasperation, the man I inhabit stands straight and tall in front of the cell and turn towards the hanged man. In the center swinging slowly—creak, swish, sway. His dark hair mussed, lips blue, his mouth open slightly, his glassy green eyes leveled on some distant object over my shoulder, looking but not seeing.
I stare at him unaffected.
I know who they are and what they did. I feel their eyes boring into my back, like woodpeckers. Known truths laid bare, unconcealed and acknowledged by many; camouflaged by cowards that use the law to justify their brutalities. What you see isn’t always what is, and what is, isn’t always what you want to see. There are some facts that never see the light of acceptance. Some certainties that, try as you might, are only ever recognized with hard evidence, but then if there is evidence, what truly happened would not likely be exposed, but manipulated and distorted. These mysteries are rarely mysteries by the knowing. This one was never a mystery to me.
This confirms it.
But, is this a dream, my illusion or is this the truth?
I turn to them, loathing and impatience evident; not at the faceless men, but the dead swinging body behind me in the last cell on the left. The diametrically opposed feelings between me and the person I’m inhabiting challenges my core. By this point, I’ve lost focus and their words become a blur of babble to me. I don’t need to hear what they say; I see the mixture of rage and satisfaction on their faces; and, the hate; the hate is visceral and toxic. I feel it in the air. It sits alongside death and all the destruction it will cause.
Another change, another place.
A field of lemon yellow sunflowers, chest high, float like heads moving and bending with the breeze, sailing the sky in empathy, perched in hushed whispers on slender stalwart stalks as I push my way towards the epoch of blood red sunflowers, of two then… three. The parade of petals brush against my skin. The Bulgarian rose brown sunflower centers glare and gloat, dare and deter, me as I continue forward to the two; their heads aloft peculiar and benevolent stand higher and more assertive than the rest. I look around and down; so much unruly hair flutters and wraps around my face, swirling behind me, like wind-blown wheat darkened gold from the late afternoon sun. The indigo blue of my snug smartsuit moves eloquently and smoothly with the same grace of flower flow as I inch my way forward. I stand in front of the blood red sunflowers, eye level, and wait. Wynne emerges to the left of me.
“Why red sunflowers?” She asks.
I see the others beyond us, Lalita too, amongst the lemon-yellow sunflowers, standing and staring, waiting while I suppress and direct thought. I turn my back and return through the field as each yellow sunflower transforms red mirroring the three. “Why am I here? This is not my memory? How are you here? How are they here?”
She says nothing.
“Time, memory dream recalls, and brain merge signaling matter and circumstance accompanying presence?”
“And the difference between dream and reality?” I ask.
“Is there one?”
“I’m no longer sure.”
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins