Each moment fell like dominoes from one to the next with vague and distant in-betweens. By the end, I could press little finger pads against my leg and cause the sun burned skin to flash starkly pale and then rosy up again. My full lips had puckered, chapped. Once home again, I was in a state of disorientation where my body showed signs of a Southern touch but I was trapped back in my California cage. But I was able to remember.
Mantachie, Mississippi: thick backwoods trampled down to get to the lake. Kids hollering with twang, Mama! this no ma’am that. The crunch of gravel under truck tires just like the crunch of BBQ potato chips washed down with a can of Coke. My cousins, toes caked in bottom-of-the-lake sludge, drawled their words at the picnic table but pierced the sky with shrieks splashing in the murky water. My grandmother’s pugs came snorting and waddling down the side of the hill, chasing after the baby blue heeler who had gotten hit by a truck a couple months back and still dragged her crooked leg along with her. The gravel was unsteady beneath my flip-flops as I ran out to meet my cousins. The baby blue heeler wagged her stumpy tail as she hobbled alongside me. I wiggled out of jean shorts and a tank top and waded out into the water. Close up it was cool and brown, but far off where the lake got deeper the sun lit up and fragmented the water into millions of little suns that danced along the surface.
Right before sunset, when the heaviness of the air had lifted for deeper breathing and the sky had ripened in its blueness, the pedal boat took my grandmother and me out to the heart of the T-shaped lake. My little legs pedaled hard to follow her rhythm. For a while it was just the chirrups of the crickets and gulp-gulp of frogs on the shoreline. The sun had dipped far off behind the trees with a tail of pink that enveloped the clouds in a rose hue like scattered fluffs of cotton candy. Then, my grandmother, her voice sweet and soft, talked about the controversies of my aunts and asked about my current feelings towards my mama. Her talk excited me like the feeling of the tips of my fingers running along the spines of brand-new books on a shelf. As I listened, I gazed out at the lily pads and tall grass growing at the lakeside, a whole little world for an abundance of creatures to thrive in.
Fried okra, crispy green tomatoes, ham, and stuffing my grandmother made at my mama’s request, all heaped up on plates stacked on the little wooden table right by the kitchen. My grandmother’s two pugs put fat paws on the sides of chairs, scratching little sunburnt legs with thick claws, snorting and licking their noses. I got up for more Coke. The fridge opened up at me with a flash of cool air. It licked my skin and already-dried sweat and sent shivers up my body. My Coke crackled full against the ice in my glass and I sipped gingerly and flitted my eyes over family pictures of the cousins and pets and the three different mamas that all sat around the same table just now – all pictures I had seen a thousand times each.
Exhaustion rose up in my body, twisting and curling like a fever until it settled in my drooping eyes. My body was awkwardly contorted on the sofa – each time I moved, my clammy skin would peel off of the leather like Velcro. I felt the air conditioning soothing my body that throbbed from the energy it took to walk from the car to my grandmother’s cabin. It drove out the humidity that hung in the air heavy enough to make each suppressed footstep feel like a ton of bricks. I had a book propped up on my knees – some sort of crazy theory that I could read Faulkner by thirteen. By now my eyes had lazily drifted off and I watched my grandmother sitting in her reclined sofa chair with a ball of yarn at her hip and a pug snuggled up at her manicured feet. The television was turned down so low I could barely make out the words of Criminal Minds. Not that I needed to; I was reading Faulkner.
Quite a few years back my grandmother got a one-roomed cabin built up by the dock for the boys to sleep in. Thoroughly abused by my young cousins, she decided against letting them stay there by themselves and turned it into a reading room. I slept down there by myself, now that I was feeling confident enough. The hum of the air conditioning put me right to sleep. I found myself in the early hours of morning cocooned in heavy quilts and sheets. When I opened the blinds, I saw the dawn sprawled out on the surface of the lake. It softened the edges of the trees that dipped downwards to touch the water, illuminating the slow ripples coming from a light wind.
Mississippi: a breath of fresh air, thinned and air-conditioned to fill young lungs. Cool, soft, obsolete. I felt slow and timeless there. Hot heads discovered new paths to serenity. Playfulness over the serious, but when the time for the serious came I was prepared and I was ready.
I found home in Mantachie.