We always sang a song to the fields on the bus on the way to our middle school and at the time, I wasn’t really sure how any of us came to know it, given that we were a bunch of white kids. For some reason, I thought it was a spiritual, or something from a spiritual. Even as a young girl then, I always thought there was something sad about the song, like I knew it wasn’t mine to sing or I worried there was something wrong about a white girl who wore Izod shirts and Ralph Lauren barrettes who would sing: “Now it was down in Louisiana, just about a mile from Texarkana! In them old cotton fields back home.” I only knew about slaves and cotton back then. But I finally learned when I was older and moved away from Arkansas that it was a rock song sung by some white guys and also various white guys before them.
I assumed we were treading on forbidden territory with such songs, territory I was made aware of almost daily when I was the new girl at my school, one of the few white girls in my grade. Daddy had moved us from Columbia, South Carolina where me and my brother and sister lived in a white neighborhood and went down the street to go to school with white children. At this new place, things were quite different. Like, at recess a big group of the black girls in my grade got in our faces and chanted “White cracker, white cracker, you don’t shine, betcha five dollars I can beat your behind!” I was scared, and fascinated too. I never knew you could be hated and taunted like that just because you were a white girl. They still let me play hopscotch though and jump rope. I was really good at Lemon Twist and practiced incessantly at home so there could be at least one thing I could be better at than the girls whose skin was darker, whose homelife I never knew, who taught me the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, and who loved it when I stole the basketball from them at practice.
Mama and Daddy had a maid named Maimie, a black lady who cooked for us and though the housekeeping was marginal, which Mama never seemed to mind, her cooking was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. I never told Mama that she could never cook like Maimie, but I think she knew it and would tell Maimie how she wasn’t sure what she would do if she wasn’t around to save us. She looked after us too, us kids, me, my brother, and my sister, and whatever kids we dragged in with us, and sometimes a stray dog or cat or two. I don’t know how Maimie did it, but I respected her that she wasn’t into housework. It’s like she said: I cook, I wipe up the counters, and sometimes I go fetch a kid or animal, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be wonder woman. The one thing though I know was a bummer for Maimie was that Mama expected her to polish the silver, constantly. I never understood that, but first thing, as soon as the box fans in the kitchen and front rooms were on and breakfast was under way, Maimie would be there by the sink, one of our old cloth baby diapers in hand, rubbing away with the polish until the silver gleamed.
“Child, child!” She said to me, one night, late, after everyone was in bed, and I was asleep in my room. “Maimie done need your help now! I don’t want you to say nothing to your Mama about it neither.” I put on my clothes and went with her into the night under the moon and stars. We lived in the country and our neighbors had farms. My Daddy was a preacher so we didn’t have much land but there wasn’t a building or a stop light for miles.
“I need you to drive me to take this food to the dance on the other side of Cherry Hill. You be a good girl, now and set on up there behind the wheel like I seen you do with Ms. Millie.”
Ms. Millie was the sweet old soused spinster who taught me to drive even though of course I wasn’t the legal age being I was only eleven. Maimie sometimes cooked for her too. And Maimie knew about my driving my friend Chad’s old Chevy. We drove off the road on his property. We did that and he taught me to play cat scratch fever on his guitar. I had hopes he liked me but he liked my sister.
Maimie had too much dirt on me so that I couldn’t refuse helping her and so she just sat back like a queen while I inched along the dark road. She always had the men in her life drive her, whether it be Gustus or Daddy or the Reverend at her church.
“Gustus is gonna have the bus there where all the children can hang out,” she said. I didn’t question Maimie when she told me what to do. There was something in her voice. And being that I wasn’t sure what was happening, I felt reliant on her, like she was my parent in this other world.
Gustus was Maimie’s son. He was the only dark skinned person on the bus in the mornings and he drove all us white children, never a word spoken, a hello or good bye, or a sit down and shut it. I sometimes wonder what went through Gustus’ mind while we sang spirituals and rhymes that mostly the black girls sang at school while they huddled in a circle and danced, making the white kids look stupid and clumsy and way less cool.
“You be a good girl, you hear?” Maimie said. “You’re going to black town now, little sister, it’ll put some Africa in your bones.” And she laughed.
“Why you laughing, Maimie?” I said. “I’m not scared. I go to school with lots of black kids.”
“You ain’t heard of no ghosts then, the ones we brought with us over on the slave ships long ago, that’s right and voodoo spirits and spirits of people who died in slavery or hanging from ropes in trees. But children ghosts are the scariest of all.”
“Then why ain’t you scared, Maimie?”
“You know not to say ‘ain’t,’ June bug.”
We were downtown at Main Street where lights only blinked because it was too late for traffic.
“Go on child, down on past the track.” She was pointing with her long bony finger, the one she used to crimp pies and test temperatures of hot milk.
“I’m used to it, chile, all the time, I carry some ghosts around with me and talk to them. You think I’m just talking to myself. No way, sweet Michelle, I keep in contact. Mmm hmmm.” Maimie liked to call me sweet Michele. She said my named reminded her of the Beatles song Michele, my belle. I wasn’t named for the song, but I always thought it was cool Maimie was in touch with the Beatles. I asked her once if she knew Rapper’s Delight and she started singing: “I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip hip-hop, and you don’t stop the rock it to the bang-bang, boogie say ‘up jump’ the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.”
We arrived at a field with bonfires and a big stage up front. There were sounds I’d never heard before, so many drums, and people wearing colorful clothes, bouncing and twirling and shimmying as if they were mainstage of a massive parade.
“Now see what the black folk do, you see what we do,” said Maimie, pointing out a place to park. “And you thought Maimie was just a boring ole house slave runnin’ a rag ’round your Mama’s silver.”
“I never said stuff like that,” I said, feeling defensive, wounded.
“I know that chile, I’m just messin’ with ya.” It was like the girls who messed with me at school, calling me a white cracker and threatening to beat my behind, although they never did.
Maimie took me to the bus where some kids were hanging out, most of them younger and in the pajamas, lying down for bed. I found a longer bench near the back. Maimie gave me some food, a little package she had worked up, with snacks. She brought me a blanket and a pillow.
“You’re not to leave, you hear?” she said.
I was worried. I didn’t know anyone. And I was worried about how all these black people would feel about me being here. And I was worried about the ghosts Maimie told me about, a big secret she kept when she was with me, in the white world with me and my family.
“Are there really ghosts, Maimie? Ones that hang around all the time?” I asked, settling down on the bench while Maimie fluffed and arranged my pillow.
“There are,” she said. “But they’re not going to worry you, honey, no way. Maimie was just giving you a hard time now, come on up in here and lie down.”
She left me there, saying she was going to dance with some of her friends under the harvest moon, but said she’d be back, and wake me up, and we’d go home, and my parents would be none the wiser.
I could hear the drums outside, but it was quiet with all the windows closed and the door closed. I could hear the other children on their benches, breathing and sighing in their sleep. It was strange to think in a couple of hours Gustus would be driving me to school in this same bus. He would pretend nothing else happened with it in his off hours and he would be same old boring Gustus though I was sure he was out there dancing with Maimie or maybe even playing the drums. I sat up watching the swirling figures in the distance until my eyes grew heavy and I lay my head on the pillow. I dreamt of dark ghosts ascending over the swirling colorful mass of bodies and I dreamt also of smaller dark bodies, ghost children, indistinct and diaphanous, racing over plowed fields where Maimie’s kin, hunched over with sacks dipped low to the ground, had once bloodied their fingers on cotton bolls.
If I start thinking, “I have to restore my historical consciousness!” or “My life depends on reknitting the past and future into my experience of the present!” I will feel overwhelmed and probably implode into depression. But maybe changing my experience of time can start with more simple decisions.
My inability is a lost container I cannot find in my house.
My love is a plant in a basket I abandoned in the flower bed. Though the basket rots and I do not water it anymore, the plant lives on, fading in the sun, spreading, blooming.
My uncertainty is a walking stick. I do not know for certain if I will live, or, if living, for how long. A stick is more reliable than a person. People fly away when they want to, even when you might die. A stick can defend while people are shutting their windows, going to bed for the night.
My eyes are what are left after I have seen everything. I see lies coming at me now, aiming for the kill. I avert my gaze, in hopes they miss.
A pen is better than a stick or a sword and frees the weave of my heart. At some point, every friend is an enemy, but even if my life is counted for nothing, a pen is more loyal.
I haven’t dreamt in a long time, I haven’t slept well in months. This afternoon, an inspiration came over me to slip into my purple grey room and tuck myself under the soft white comforter borrowed from my son’s room while he hikes the Blue Ridge. It has been so long since I’ve dreamed, I’ve been in mourning for it. Grief, anxiety, the chemical pall of chemo and medications, the despair for things I have lost seems to have shrouded my mind, at least temporarily, taking my concentration and the release needed to let go of conscious thought.
I dreamt of a street I have driven down many times which runs through the heart of my Florida town. I am driving my SUV and a car driving slightly behind me to my right swerves into the lane of a motorcyclist. The man on the motorcycle is not hit and he doesn’t fall but when I look out of my rearview mirror, I see both the driver of the car and the cyclist have stopped and pulled over to the side of the road into the entry of a parking garage. The cyclist, his sunglasses flying off, is beating the driver through the open window of the car. My heart racing, I do a U-turn, speeding the wrong way on a one-way but otherwise deserted street, back to the scene of the violence, unsure of what I will do when I arrive. I awoke abruptly, my heart racing, relieved it was only a dream.
I haven’t dreamt for three years. I’m not sure what it means to be reintroduced to dreaming through terrifying visions, but dreams are as unpredictable as people and all must be accepted eventually.
This past spring after my son played baseball at a field close to the beach, I said good bye to him for the night. He was going with his father and stepmom to join the team for a post game dinner. They turned inland and I turned toward the coast down A1A. If I had to spend the night alone, I may as well be spending it on the beach at sunset, and in particular at a beach where my high school friend’s family owned a condo. We are no longer friends. After I married and moved to various cities with my ex, coming back into town only briefly for holidays, my friend told me if I didn’t see her more often when I was home, I could forget about our friendship. I chose to spend time with my family rather than more time with her. Now, ironically, I have lost both. Except my child still calls me his mother. And I have a sister, a mother, a father.
My friend and I used to spend the night on the balcony of her condo, listening to the waves crash on the sand.
As I am driving to the beach, an old VW van swerves into my lane, right in front of me, forcing me to slam on my brakes. The motorcycles behind me – two – slam on their brakes. Through my rearview mirror, I see, to my horror, a bike skidding along the pavement and a body flipping up through the air and landing on the shoulder of the road. I pull over to the median and put on my hazards, grabbing my jacket, running with my middle aged body, my weight jiggling from my frame, to the place where this cycling couple cry out to each other, the man in tact physically but falling apart with disbelief and panic, hovering over his wife, the woman lying face down and moaning, crying out in a way I had not heard before, blood matting her blond hair. The man turns her onto her back. I give him my white coat to protect the back of her head from the asphalt.
I never found out what happened to her. I stayed to answer questions, stayed until the ambulance took the couple away. Oddly, I took my coat back. An emergency technician put it in a bag. I would throw it away the next day. It would never come clean. I never made it to the beach, wouldn’t try again for months. My sister answered when I called her as I drove back to our town. She talked me through the ordeal of getting back to our city after I had experienced an unanticipated calamity.
A few months before this incident, my son and I went to California and I wore my white coat then. A few hours before the dream this afternoon, I posted a picture of my child and I on social media. We are smiling on the beach at Sausalito, me in my white coat I was wearing before we headed into the deep heart of Muir Woods to reach sunset on the other side.
She talked him into this, everything so new between them. She wanted to go to the beach, an easy trip for a Saturday evening, a drive to the east coast, a place of her growing up years, a place familiar. He had warned her, in their planning, of rain as predicted on the weather channel, warned her of the heat. But here is what she knew: There was a difference between the middle section of the state and the beach. She knew the rhythms, when rain was likely in summer and how long it would last, what temperatures were like by water, how beautiful sunsets were and of course she hoped they might walk and she hoped, if they did so, he might hold her hand. She saw it in her mind, but she coached herself: Let him do it. In a previous broken relationship that crushed her heart, that other man could not be counted on. This was a chance to test this new one’s feeling.
She felt a little deflated, upon their arrival at the public beach pavilion, to see a young woman with hair like a mop, each strand a worn color of a flag. She felt irritated. Why did so many people insist on calling so much attention to themselves? She went to Venice Beach to see the freaks, but now not even her childhood beach was sacred. She felt guilty because she knew this new man would not share her attitude. He was a much more generous spirit than her previous one and would not indulge the ugliness she felt inside at this moment. And it might turn him turn him away. Of course she would not show her true self, at least not at this moment.
The woman wore huge pants that ballooned outward though she was skinny, had a nice figure evident from the flat tummy between the midriff. What was going to happen? A woman like that does not show up at the beach just to hang out in the sand and watch the waves. She was there to compete with all of that. A young man was with her. But he was hardly noticeable by comparison.
As she and this new man put their shoes in a pile and blanket on the sand, the woman with the hair and the pants starting working a huge hula hoop, wrapped with strips of tattered cloth, her hips undulating in a slow, seductive gyration.
What the — ?
She couldn’t take it any more.
“Some people like to be seen,” she said.
“Oh, haven’t you been to the drum circle in town?” said this new man.
She knew of drum circles, what a lot of people did, what they looked like. She had stumbled across a huge drum circle when she was with her child and husband in Asheville, her husband now her ex and who would not have hung out among drum circles.
She felt a little pressure. Would she be expected to go to drum circles?
She had to confess, beneath all the layers of her identities that had come with each relationship, she didn’t know who she was any more. She was a pleaser. The only time she seemed to feel her true chosen identity coming through was when she was a senior in college and finally free of all relationships that would bind her to a course. Her dream was to work for a nonprofit and help people with AIDS. The horizon had been ever before her in that moment, a span that lasted several months but then disappeared again under the weight of expectation.
(Perhaps this is why she sought so vehemently the horizon of the shore at the break of this new relationship, perhaps, she thinks, as she writes this. She sought it to the point of arguing her way to it even as she was concerned about making a good impression. The horizon over the ocean: an ever visible inspiration when you are standing before it. Walls are false pretenses. Water is stronger. The sky is forever.)
This new man brought with him a set of new beliefs. She felt pressure. But not too much pressure. She only felt anxious she would disappoint him as she had the men before. Maybe in a different way perhaps, but wasn’t it all the same when you could boil it down to one word? Disappointment.
They walked on. He held her hand.
What if she can’t believe what he believes? What if she can’t be as nice as he expects, as open and free? What if she can’t be open to his teaching? He seems to want to teach her things. (In fact, as she is now recalling as she writes this, all of them had.) She didn’t want to be lonely again. Her heart ached with the possibility of it but she knew, deep down, she would have to be true to herself. Was it the woman’s burden always to bend? Sometimes she had bent to the point of almost being broken: don’t write; don’t write this; you’re not political enough; you’re not intellectual enough; you’re not organized; you’re too fat; your face is round; your butt is big; you talk too much; you talk too little; I like women in dresses; I like women in heels; women should not wear pants suits; a real woman doesn’t wear her hair short; I like a woman who keeps up with her nails, sometimes the glitter art helps her express her creativity; I think your hair should be blond like it used to be when I knew you years ago; if you bought a platinum blond wig and wore a white dress you would look a lot like Marilyn Monroe; I would like to read your stories at some point (An ever receding point, she thinks as she writes this, fading off into the distance like the sun setting over the Gulf.)
No one knows you really, no. No one wants to know. They want to imagine, something. And when you show them who you are, their dream is gone and so are you.
When they return from their walk, the woman with the ragamuffin hair has taken the hair off for as it turns out it is a wig and she is sitting in the sand, in her hoop, looking slightly deflated.
She and her new man spread the blanket out. He says he has something for her he wants her to smell. He pulled something from the bag but told her to close her eyes. She did so. She hoped she would be up for it. There was fear she would not be. It was an oil he said while her eyes were closed. She knew the meaning some people attributed to oils. It smelled like a rose perfume she used to wear until she reacted to a comment that it was something for old ladies. She had thought, up until that point, it was wonderful to always don the scent of her favorite flower. She said it was rose bergamot. He said it was not. He said he didn’t know for sure but he knew that much. He said “This is intention.” Here it comes, she thought. “You breathe it in.”
She thought of something she intended. She wanted a good, long relationship with him though she never would have said that. She intended to lose weight and so she turned to him to say that but he was facing the water, eyes closed, as if in meditation. She hadn’t done the right thing. Was this what you were supposed to do when you smelled oils?
For that moment, she felt no harm in the man sitting on the blanket with her.
When he opened his eyes she spoke clumsily of her intention. She looked at the sand. She knew she was dependent. There was even a term for it, not co-dependent, but something else, a term her therapist used to describe her and her clingy woman self, though she could be other things too, she was mainly this way in relationship, dependent upon the opinion of men, particularly the man she was with.
She looked at the sand. thinking of the oil and the many things he had said already, and she thought of his look in profile as they sat there on the blanket and what she decided for that moment was this: He was good. She knew this. And that was all for now. And for now she would keep her secret belief to herself, except, dear reader, what you are reading here now. She would play along with these notions for a while because they seemed important to him and frankly, she liked him. And he seemed ready to care about her and so what he showed her was something meaningful and that in and of itself would be the gift and she would allow herself to receive it though she had no idea of what it was, only that it had been given. In and of itself, she realized, that was enough for the moment in which she found herself and it seemed to be something different from what had happened to her before and so what if she had secret unbelief? A nice man sat on a blanket with her.
Five Flashes from DEAR PETROV by Susan Tepper (Some serious genius by my friend Susan Tepper)
I want to meet you this Christmas under a new sky, not Florida’s, not like the night we watched the Christmas parade and the snow made of soap bubbles and the trombone your son never played because the one that worked was somewhere else.
I want to meet you on a snowy city street: I, dressed in white, a long white coat, and you in dark wool.
I want you to smile at me as if I’m the only woman you will ever want. I want to know you love me and are concerned about me. I want to hear you say the words. I want to hear you say my name Margaret. I want you to kiss my lashes.
You don’t know how much I have been yearning for an arm that fits neatly over my shoulder, a laugh that embraces me, care that could be lavished on a queen. So many lonely nights, terrified of my dreams, longing.
I have wanted to make you into this, this dream fulfillment and it has been unfair. A person isn’t what they’re not meant to be. How I have craved gentleness and attention. You are so handsome, yet it has been unfair – my dreams – an imposition.
You were meant for another, one who wants for nothing, at least not too many words or undue attention, one who understands a certain approach. Or maybe she will be the one to receive your attention because she is the one for you.
After I acknowledge you have only been a dream, I will walk away into the snow and leave the ghost of your body. There will be bells from another man’s sleigh and when he thinks – this woman should not be allowed to walk like this nor should she feel hunger or any kind – he will lift me up and ask me if I am ok and I will begin a journey.
Happy Holidays. I hope you do not mind me speaking directly. Maybe you can indulge me, please, though I usually “tell it slant,” minding this principle of Emily Dickinson.
I thank you for reading my blog this year. Last year, I published a flash fiction “Christmas in Florida” journal and hope to return to it next year. I received some great submissions. This year, however, I want to complete my tale of unease, among shopping for Christmas, planning a trip, wrapping up year end things. I have the perfect cocoa ready and waiting for a good writing session, which usually takes place sitting on my bed though I have set up “writing stations” throughout the house. All for naught. I write where I dream.
I don’t have much to say, unslant. I have been watching American Horror Story and have been quite unsettled, but the unsettling has good effect: It causes me to re-evaluate, take stock. Maybe that is why those Victorians loved a ghost tale at Christmas. Being unsettled is a precursor to finding beauty in one’s life, finding rest, and if the story comes with a bit of a morality tale which many great tales of unease do, there is the added benefit of having the chance to see, and maybe, as a response, “do.”
Drink your eggnog, now, my good friends – writers, readers, editors, artists extraordinaire – and may visions dance in your heads.
I do not mind living for you. You are my note to the world. Foolishly, I have believed, at times, I should write other notes. As it turns out you are the biggest, most important note there is.
If life contained a million lifetimes, I would: hold your hand in each one, run my finger through your hair in every day of each, kiss your forehead whether you are sick or well, take you to a million lifetimes of soccer practices, watch a million lifetimes of your games, drop you off for a million lifetimes of first dates, drive you to a million lifetimes of first days of school, take you to a million lifetimes of movies and buy you buckets and buckets of popcorn.
My role is dwindling now my young one, just in time for me to fully appreciate what I am about, the raison d’etre of my magnum opus to the world. You said you would drive your friends when you got a license, you speak openly of missing the friends who have moved away, you speak appreciatively of the friends you have now. How my tears run silently down my face when I think of what you are.
The majority of my life has passed before me. You are now your own best work. I speak into the air and if you wish to catch a falling leaf of a word of mine, you put your hand out, but you do not need leaves. What usage, leaves, but for the fire?
May God forgive me, but I am proud. May your song never end.
Bless my mother on this, the day of her late son’s birthday.