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. I remembered it vividly like it was just this morning, because it was.
This looks like shit-covered maggots, I told Cody adding a gob of butter and taking a big bite of the chocolate rice he made us for breakfast. I heard that, Aunt yelled from the next room then told me stop using so much butter. Sorry, I said smiling with my mouth full while looking around wondering how she could’ve known. In what I imagine was a grisly looking sight, cocoa colored rice covered my teeth. I smiled wider.
Gross, Natalie said then laughed along with Ben. Cody ignored us. Always so stern. The crater between his brows baited me and I stuck out my tongue. He tried to ignore me, but I saw a twitch of lip.
We ate quickly in order to do our 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 us girls were trapped inside doing the ‘girly stuff’—cleaning house and doing dishes and laundry. Still, more times than not, we girls got stuck doing the ‘stuff men do’ too. Cody—thirteen, less than a year younger than me and the middle-child of the three cousins—liked making us chocolate rice, so, there was that painstakingly gradual decrease in the patriarchy us girls latched onto for hope. Neither I nor Natalie cooked as well as Aunt who was a regular Betty Crocker. Told we would learn eventually cause ‘that’s what wives do,’ I was skeptical. Upon hearing this, Natalie and I exchanged glances. I said the first thing that came to mind: When I grow up, I wanna wife.
Immediately admonished for my vile ungodly remark, Aunt lectured us on the rules of the Christian heteronormative patriarchal society of which I frowned, yawned, and rolled my eyes through. She was considerably compassionate towards my anarchy; more so than other members of our family. I hugged her at the end of her lecture reminding myself that awareness, like facts, come slower for many—and sometimes never at all.
After chores, we 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 us once after my first attempt while we were working the carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli. No one said anything. We continued working. I didn’t wanna hoe good after that, but I did, regardless of him.
After hours of gardening, dripping in sweat, hands, knees, and fingernails clotted with dirt, we met up with the cousins’ cousin Trevor—who lived down the road—and neighbor Reese—who lived up the holler—and headed to our own private swimming hole. We spent a couple hours swimming while listening to tunes on the boom box before sitting on the railroad trestle in the shade to eat packed brown bag lunches.
What you got, I asked Nat. Her mouth full, she pulled the bread layered in Miracle Whip apart and shoved it in my face: Vienna Sausages and mayo. I grimaced and turned away: Yuk. I hate those things. It’s like chomping on small dicks. The boys groaned and automatically reached for their crotch. You, she asked. Fried Spam, mustard and onions, I 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. We 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. We swam until we got hungry and bored, ate our lunch to recharge, waited the accepted thirty minutes 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, we could jump and not find bottom. My lungs burned and ears blocked. I tried to stay under as long as I could. When I surfaced in the bright sunshine minutes later, I longed for the depths and pressure of the darkness and solitude underneath.
Me 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, we used a swinging rope tied to a high tree limb on a hill right next to the creek. Otherwise, we swam and floated on tubes, talking, and listening to tunes.
One day, we drifted along lazily when a big black snake slipped into the water on the opposite bank. It shot towards us like a torpedo. We 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 us like a cobra. We 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, we swam till we pruned several times a day. Sometime later, in the afternoon mountain heat, we were expected to ride our 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 picturesque 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 us to make the trek on our 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. We raced home to deliver the groceries and cool off by hitting the water once again.
Us girls spent the rest of the day reading Zebra historical romance novels in the shade at a homemade picnic area—makeshift picnic tables with stumps as seats and stones embedded in the earth for the BBQ pit—near the wide swinging bridge. 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 we 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 busload of kids that saw his descent and splat. He never managed to outlive that incident.
That was just one of the memories that flashed rapidly through my mind as I stared at each of them. Merged with the more recent ones and the many iterations of the similar…and I felt a fresh wave of nostalgia…and weariness.
© 2018-2019 Pamela Gay Mullins