“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.” — Annie Dillard
My eyes follow a groove in a knotty pine panel down to the space heater below the bulletin board. It is quiet for summer, no fire, no flames sighing and sending warmth out into the room, now kept cool by the air conditioner in the Piano Room. The last letter the Texas boy wrote said he’d take the coolness and beauty of Glorieta any day over the heat and humidity of Texas. Me, too. There is nothing worse than the scorching yellow Delta sun in the waning days of August. I want to go back to the green mountains and keep the feeling alive. I have already told my friends that I will never get married until I see this boy again and find out if the feeling is still there.
On the trip home, I sat on the back seat of the bus, looked out the back window at the big fiery Texas sky meeting flat plains at the bottom of day, and sang the lonely cowboy song about how “I’m going to leave ole Texas now…” It made my chest ache to think that mile by mile I was fast moving away from where I wanted to be. The center of my world had shifted.
On winter mornings, Mama comes back here in my room at five and lights the heater. When she pushes the “on” valve, it wakes me up. She won’t leave the heater on at night so I have to burrow under quilts and an electric blanket. I fold myself up in the covers like a mummy. Wires in the electric blanket broke and scratched my leg, deep, and I think it will leave a scar.
I used to stick crayons in the holes of the brown and white chalky columns in the face of the heater and into the flames behind. I’d let them melt and the colored wax would drip and now there are stains of yellow, blue, green, and orange at the bottom of each crevice. My mother has never noticed.
I like fire. I always have. I like the yellows that stretch high and curl, the blues that stay low like fingers curved over piano keys keeping a steady rhythm. I like the oranges that glow and pulse. I like how the flames breathe hard, then slow, fade, die out.
I had a summer romance. It’s supposed to be in the dying down phase now, the orange glow. I don’t want to go to embers. I’m not ready to give this feeling up. I’m not ready to be with my boyfriend here. But school is starting, my birthday is coming up, and my mother is wanting to invite my friends over for hamburgers. My birthday is on the day of the first football game, and my boyfriend will be with the team. I don’t say this out loud, but I am glad he cannot come.
I think about the trip out to Glorieta before all this happened and my life got complicated, when the world was easy and my life was smooth. I should have seen the sign that change was coming. I should have known on our first stop, in McAlester, Oklahoma, I think it was, when I went for breakfast at the motel restaurant and saw the national headlines on the newsstand that the ground under me was going to crumble like the red-clay-dirt sides of the gully on my granddaddy’s farm in Kemper County.
BODIES OF THREE SLAIN CIVIL RIGHTS WORKERS
DISCOVERED IN AN EARTHEN DAM
OUTSIDE PHILADELPHIA, MISSISSIPPI
My grandpa’s farm is just outside Philadelphia.
I’m looking at all the junk on my bulletin board. It’s got all manner of things tacked to it and is organized and messy—yes, both. It’s nailed to the knotty pine wall of my bedroom, between the doors to the walk-in closet and the bathroom, it’s above an open-flame gas wall heater, and it is a wonder that all the paper tacked to the board does not catch on fire.
My friends have bulletin boards two feet by two feet, but my mama always does things in a big way, so when I mentioned needing a corkboard to put my mementos on, she went to the lumber company downtown and had a piece cut that was about five feet long and three feet tall. I figured I’d have trouble filling that thing up, but there it is—a testament to a girl’s social life. Corsages from dances, now stiff and dried out. Ticket stubs. A strip of pictures from Lakeland with two friends. A Phillies pennant—my cousin plays ball for them, and scorecards from a baseball game we went to in Cincinnati. Napkins from places I went with a boy. A CHS Wildcats pennant. Yellow construction paper footballs with Go Wildcats and the name CHARLES on them—a bunch of them lined up in a row. The cheerleaders made them before every football game and girls could ask the boys to wear their football and then they got to walk the boy off the field after the game.
It’s 1964, I just finished ninth grade, I have a steady boyfriend, and I just two-timed him when I went on a church trip to a camp in New Mexico and met a boy from Texas. I have an excuse, though, because our chaperone got all the girls in a huddle and said, “I want you girls to take off those boys’ class rings and ID bracelets and meet boys and have a good time here.” We were glad to comply, and I took off my ID bracelet, and when this cute boy came up to me and said, “May I accompany you to church tonight?” I said yes, even though I had never had anyone use the word “accompany” before and wondered if he might be one of those smart types that didn’t know how to have fun.
Now tacked to my bulletin board I have postcards from Glorieta Baptist Assembly in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of New Mexico and Santa Fe where I bought a turquoise ring and Six Flags over Texas where I rode the roller coaster with my eyes closed. The big card with the scene of mountains and the campground covers up part of Richard Chamberlain as Dr. Kildare. I think he is the handsomest man in the world and have such a crush on him I didn’t think anything could nudge him out. I lie on my bed and think back to those cold mountain nights and that boy, who was sixteen and two years older, and the last morning when our group left at dawn and he came down to my room to say good bye and we walked to the side of the building out of sight. It was cold that August morning and I had a blanket wrapped around me and leaned into the brick wall and he stood in front of me, close. He took my chin in his hand and kissed me. It was a short kiss and I wanted it to be longer and harder, and I kissed him back like I would never see him again.
This afternoon I will go to the VFW pool out on Highway 61 with Gerri who already has her drivers license because she is six months older than I am and we will take sunbaths and listen to Chad and Jeremy on the jukebox sing about trees swayin in the summer breeze … soft kisses on a summer’s day … sweet sleepy walks on summer nights. I will close my eyes and be back there at Glorieta in the cool mountains, and he and I are holding hands as we walk over the grounds, climb Old Baldy, eat ice cream at the Chuck Wagon, go to meals in the Dining Hall, walk through the prayer gardens, sing “I Love the Mountains,” sit close, touching, him always holding my hand tightly, and I am so helplessly and desperately in love. But “all good things must end some day, autumn leaves must fall” and I am now at home in my own familiar room and school will start a few weeks after Labor Day and I will go to the real high school. And I do have a boyfriend here that I talk to on the phone every night at seven and go to the movies with on the weekends.
And I know that at the bottom left of my bulletin board, under the Varsity cup tacked to it, there are tiny X’s marked with a pencil on the white cork. Nobody knows what these mean, not even my little sister who shares the room with me and has to look at the junk on the board all day. The first time my boyfriend kissed me, I put an X there to mark it—my first real kiss. Then I put a second and a third and so on until it got routine. I didn’t think he’d ever kiss me. We’d gone out to the movies, walked home from school together, him carrying my books, for two months and he never even tried. Then one night we were sitting in the Piano Room in my house—it had a sitting area, a record player, and a piano in it—and we were playing songs like “Sugar Shack” and “Surfer Girl” and “And Then He Kissed Me,” he asked if he could kiss me. Asked. I didn’t think that was romantic and it was a short kiss. Why do I only get short kisses?
My mother comes to the door and says, “Pick up your clothes.” I don’t jump up instantly. “I’m not going to tell you again,” she says. I look at dresses covering my desk and shorts tossed on top of my cedar chest that has an 8 x 10 football picture of my boyfriend that I have hidden behind my Pep Squad megaphone. I’m in a mood right now.
I don’t know what to do about my boyfriend here and the boy there. I do know that “when the rain beats against my window pane I’ll think of summer days again and dream” of the boy there, in Texas, far away, that I’ll never see again. There was a rain shower every afternoon in the mountains at Glorieta. Thunder crackled down, echoed through the valleys, filled every nook and cranny in the campground, and we always watched the clouds come, then held hands and dashed for cover. I was only with him five days. Why do I miss him so?
My mother sticks her head in door and her eyes are big and her forehead has long thick rows in it and she says in her mean voice, “I don’t see you moving.”
Early, day before Labor Day, high forties out, I sit in the Adirondack in black silk pajamas by a stack of red flaming wood in the fire pit, gray-white-smoked on the bottom, brown grain on top. The fire is warm against my cheeks, and the wood-smoke smell reminds me of my grandfather’s fireplace.
The pond fountain gurgles and splashes urgently and behind it is one pink rose at the top of a trellis—squirrels have eaten the leaves off the rose bush again this summer—but a wild morning glory vine has found its way to the frame and is working up it, already with one lone blue bloom.
Smoke pushes up hard and fast into the fading summer leaves of the birch, moving them like a breeze, as it rises toward an all-blue sky above the treetops.
Hummingbirds are getting desperate—zooming around the yard, bickering over the feeder. Yesterday I sat on the patio and polished my fingernails a bright pink. One speckled green bird buzzed close and hovered and I expected him to come to my fingertip to try and sip.
A vase of pink roses on the table just inside the back door conjures up memories of a surprise Saturday birthday dinner at Amerigo’s, when I thought I was going out with one person, and others were already there, sitting at our reserved table. I’ve never had a surprise party until now, and it gave one more reason to feel all warm inside, ready and expectant of crisp autumn days full of color and hope, as Labor Day arrives and September presses on.