Chapter Three – Runaway
Wrapped in the bowels of summer heat and humidity, that day in 1984 started like any other in the armpit of the West Virginia mountains. Jay remembered it vividly like it was just this morning—because it was.
“This looks like shit-covered maggots,” she told Cody. Adding a gob of butter, she took a big bite of the chocolate rice he made for breakfast.
“I heard that,” Aunt yelled from the next room then told Jay to stop using so much butter.
“Sorry,” Jay said smiling with her mouth full while looking around wondering how Aunt could’ve known. In what she imagined was a grisly looking sight, cocoa colored rice covered her teeth, she smiled wider.
“Gross,” Natalie said then laughed along with Ben.
Cody, always so stern, ignored them. The crater between his brows baited Jay and she stuck her tongue out at him. He tried to ignore her, but she saw a twitch of lip.
They ate quickly in order to do their mundane whatnot chores. The boys were stuck doing what Uncle considered the stuff men do—mowing and weed-eating and chopping wood for the upcoming winter and digging a new hole for the outhouse—while the girls were trapped inside doing the girly stuff—cleaning house and doing dishes and laundry. Still, more times than not, the girls got stuck doing the stuff men do too.
Cody—thirteen, less than a year younger than Jay and the middle-child of the three cousins—liked making them chocolate rice, so, there was that painstakingly gradual decrease in the patriarchy the girls latched onto for hope.
Neither Jay nor Natalie cooked as well as Aunt who was a regular Betty Crocker. Told they would learn eventually cause that’s what wives do, they exchanged glances. Jay, skeptical, said the first thing that came to mind: “When I grow up, I wanna wife.”
Immediately admonished for her vile ungodly remark, Aunt lectured her on the rules of the Christian heteronormative patriarchal society, of which Jay frowned, yawned, and rolled her eyes through. Aunt was considerably more compassionate towards Jay’s anarchy—more so than other members of her family.
She hugged aunt at the end of the lecture reminding herself that awareness, like facts, come slower for many—and sometimes never at all.
After chores, they went to the two-acre garden to do the day’s weeding and hoeing.
“City girl hoes better than my own kids,” Uncle said to them once after Jay’s first attempt while they worked on the carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli.
No one said anything. They continued working. Jay didn’t wanna hoe good after that, but she did, regardless of him.
After hours of gardening, dripping in sweat, hands, knees, and fingernails clotted with dirt, they met up with the cousins’ cousin Trevor and another pal, Reese. Trevor lived down the road and Reese lived up the holler. They headed to their own private swimming hole where they spent a couple hours swimming while listening to tunes on the black boom box before sitting on the railroad trestle in the shade to eat packed brown bag lunches.
“What you got,” Jay asked Nat.
Her mouth full, Nat pulled the bread layered in Miracle Whip apart and shoved it in Jay’s face: “Vienna Sausages and mayo.”
Jay grimaced and turned away: “Yuk. I hate those things. It’s like chomping on small dicks.”
The boys groaned and automatically grabbed their crotch.
“You,” Nat asked.
“Fried Spam, mustard, and onions,” Jay yummed while taking a large bite.
Hills and woods enclosed the small valley where the large swimming hole collected from the creek that fed it. They wore a path through the weeds to get to it long ago. Down the railroad tracks from Aunt and Uncle’s house, the hole was private and peaceful and as big as Coonskin pool in Charleston—without all the noisy swimmers. The only sounds around, besides the critters and the distant thunder of vehicles from the four-lane highway a half-mile away, was the occasional coal trains that hammered their way through the area, more infrequent as of late.
They swam until they got hungry and bored, ate their lunch to recharge, waited the acceptable thirty minutes—give or take—then jumped off the trestle into the water below and started anew. The drop was a good fifty yards plus. The water was deep, so deep, they could jump and not find bottom. Jay’s lungs burned and ears blocked. She tried to stay under as long as she could. When she surfaced in the bright sunshine minutes later, she longed for the depths and pressure of the darkness and solitude underneath.
Jay and Cody spared no time in jumping—always the first to leap without looking. Ben, Natalie, Trevor, and Reese took a little longer in their jumps. Most of the time, they used a swinging rope tied to a high tree limb on a hill right next to the creek. Otherwise, they swam and floated on tubes, talking, and listening to tunes.
One day, they drifted along lazily when a big black snake slipped into the water on the opposite bank. It shot towards them like a torpedo. They panicked and swam to the shore screaming, running, falling, and sliding over each other trying to get away from what had to be a six-footer and black as coal. Its head lifted up slithering towards them like a cobra. They collapsed in laughter at the top of the hill waiting until it exited the water and slid away eventually hiding under creek rocks downstream.
Every day, they swam till they pruned several times a day. Sometime later, in the afternoon mountain heat, they were expected to ride their bikes about a mile and a half down the road to the small country store to pick up some sundries and various goodies for Aunt. Uncle was out of town on a welding job with the only vehicle—a white 1970’s shaggin’ wagon with a faded red and yellow sunset on the sides; the interiors covered in a deep crimson red velvet and shag carpet from the dash to the big bed in back.
Since there was no vehicle, it was up to them to make the trek on their bikes and resupply when needed. The items were put on credit tabulated to a crumpled index card in a beat up tin box behind the old register that looked more like an early twentieth-century printing press. They raced home to deliver the groceries and cool off by hitting the water once again.
The girls spent the rest of the day reading Zebra historical romance novels in the shade near the wide swinging bridge at a homemade picnic area—makeshift picnic tables with stumps as seats and stones embedded in the earth for the BBQ pit.
Across the railroad tracks that sat at the foot of the small sloped yard that led to the old patched-together house, the swinging bridge—the boards and ropes practically primeval—swayed in the mountain air like a hammock and was the perfect spot to just be. That is if they didn’t fall through the rotting boards to the creek below. Ben did on his way to the school bus one morning. Luckily he came away unscathed besides the ribbings from the bus load of kids that saw his descent and splat into the creek below. He never managed to outlive that incident.
That was just one of the memories that flashed rapidly through Jay’s mind as she stared at the older versions of them.
Merged with the more recent ones and the many iterations of the similar, she felt a fresh wave of nostalgia—and weariness.
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins