Context: Age 16 (almost 17). I’d been on the streets for almost a year. It was a year of absolute hell, but I was making it. Then my wisdom teeth came in, this led to abscesses in my gums which I cut out with a razor blade. Bad idea, an infection raged from my gums to my lungs, I had white spots all over my tonsils, I could barely breathe, and had a fever that wouldn’t break. I landed in the ER and for the first time not faking like I was sick to get a bed for the night. I couldn’t handle being a “grown up” anymore. So I made my way to the job of a kind old lady who had previously taken me in for a month. Having had her fill of watching me struggle, she decided to call in the big dogs…someone who knew how to fight government bureaucracy.
After a few days on the antibiotics, Nona drove me up to her daughter Caroline’s cottage in the North Georgia Mountains. Nona had 4 daughters. Caroline was the only one whose name didn’t start with the letter P. She was Nona’s “country girl” living a simple life on a small farm far away from the evils of the city. Nona described her as having the personality of a bulldog. Caroline was the kind of person who never backs down from a challenge, especially if it means fighting bureaucratic government fat cats. Getting me back into DFACS custody was just the kind of fight she was made for.
I slept for most of the drive up there. By the time we arrived in the afternoon it was already dusk. I awoke as we pulled up to the backroad that lead up to their house. Pleasant Avenue. Their driveway was a long gravel road up a steep curvy hill. The road was just wide enough to fit a single car. On either side of the road there were these incredibly tall trees and brush that completely blocked the moonlight from granting any visibility, which Nona hated, because, on the right side of the driveway was a steep drop off. Nona joked about how once they veered off into it while visiting and Chuck, Caroline’s husband, had to come out with a few other guys and push the car back onto the driveway.
The top of the paved road gave way to a newly cemented driveway in front of a little cottage house. There was an old red barn right in front of the driveway and a chicken coop a few yards away from the house. In a 3 hours’ drive I somehow managed to go back in time, to a simpler time, a time when people actually willingly lived in farms in the middle of nowhere. The air smelled good though. Real good. Clean.
Caroline came out of the house and gave her mom a big hug. She was older than Peggy, but young. Very young…probably in her early 30s yet still somehow the epitome of a “mom” right down to her 80s style genes that went just about all the way to her boobs and the way her auburn hair was butchered into a short, reverse mullet mom haircut. In her face, she looked a lot like Nona but not as much as Peggy or her other siblings from the pictures in Nona’s house. After she hugged Nona, she hugged me. One of those hugs where they pat you on the back. When she pulled away she smiled at me. Her smile was welcoming, not fake, not the way Peggy would smile at me. I liked her instantly, it was like, in another life, she would have probably been one of my teachers from middle school. She could certainly have passed for any of them.
Her husband came out behind her. “Zeda, this is my husband Chuck” she said gesturing towards him. He was a tall lankly guy with broad shoulders. His jeans were also incredibly 80s. And god… his flannel shirt was tucked into them! He smiled at me too as he shook my hand. He had a kind of overbite. Not the kind where your teeth stick out, but where your top teeth were just way too big for your mouth. It reminded me of the old Jimmy Carter looking preacher guy from the movie Poltergeist. He hugged Nona and then patted me on the shoulder, grabbed my book bag, and told me to come on in. “We’re just about to get ready for supper,” He said. “You hungry?” It took everything in me not to say “Yeeeesssss I am Carol-Annnn”
The front door of their house lead into a small foyer where everyone took off their shoes. Right behind that was the kitchen on the right and the dining room on the left. Above the dining room, Caroline told me, was the loft that they converted to their son’s room. You had to walk through the kitchen to get to the rest of the house. There was an old wood burning stove sitting at the back of the wall of the kitchen. Caroline pointed to it and told me that when they’d bought the house, this was essentially all there was to it. The rest of it they built themselves. They decided to keep the stove because it gave the house character, plus it saved them a lot of cash using it to heat the house in the winter.
The way the house was set up, you could tell that they’d built it bit by bit. The first addition was their bedroom and the little area in front of it where they had the computer set up and a chess table across from it on the other wall. Then after their room was the living room. It was the newest looking in the house. It was the only room in that part of the house with carpet and walls that weren’t bare wood. I’d later learn, it was also the only room with a Television. Caroline and Chuck’s kids were in there, sprawled out on the couch in front of a giant big screen tv…reading.
When we walked into the living room the kids jumped up to great their Nana (Nona) giving her big hugs. Caroline introduced me to them. There was Jake, the tall lanky redhead. He was about my age…maybe a little younger. The girl was Lucy, a tiny ball of adorable with long brown hair. She must have been about 8 or 9, somewhere in the ballpark of Drew. Her reaction to meeting me was as if it was the most exciting thing to happen all year. She had her dad’s smile, but she looked so much like my sister with her oversized teeth and bright eyes. If she’d had Drew’s permanent tan, she’d have been a dead ringer for Aiesha. I caught myself just staring at her for a couple of seconds before Chuck ended the pleasantries of everyone getting (re)acquainted and called for supper.
I turned around to head back to the kitchen and just about had a coronary. Staring at me was a giant deer head mounted above the entry to the kitchen with its tongue sticking out. It was pretty much the creepiest thing I had ever seen in my life. I unintentionally yelped out “holy shit!” as I turned around to break away from its devil gaze only to notice that on the floor in the living room was another of Chuck’s hunting trophies…. a bear skinned rug or a bear hide. I don’t know what it was called but it was the dried out flattened remains of a black bear. Chuck came up behind me and patted me on the shoulder. It caught me off guard and I instinctively I jerked away from his touch.
“That’s just Bob” he said laughing. “He’s not going to eat you.” I let out an uneasy chuckle and turned back to walk with him to the dinner table.
At dinner, Chuck and Caroline were careful not to ask me too much about my life, I guess my knee-jerk reaction to Chuck’s unexpected touch gave them enough insight that it wasn’t something they wanted to discuss in front of their kids. So, they mostly talked about themselves, telling me everything about their lives and what was expected of me while I was there (which to be honest wasn’t much).
Chuck and Caroline were farmers, but they also had a business selling oxygen tanks and respiratory systems to the elderly. I think one of them was also a respiratory therapist, or they worked with one. I am not sure. Their family were also missionaries with the Lakota tribe in South Dakota. That was the weirdest part for me, I’d always thought missionaries just went to Africa to spread “the word.” I didn’t get why they needed to be doing it on “Indian” reservations. Pretty sure every Native knew who Jesus was. Then again, I used to knock on doors in my own neighborhood with my grandma as a Witness so who was I to question?
Anyway, Chuck and Caroline explained to me their kids were home schooled and offered for me to study with them, emphasizing that I didn’t have to participate since I was 16 but I could if I wanted to… I wanted to. In the morning before school Lucy and Jake fed the chickens and gathered the eggs from the coup. Caroline told me I was welcomed to join them in that too if I wanted… I wanted to.
Caroline then went on explaining their simple farm life to me. They used to have horses there, but didn’t anymore, for whatever reason there was more money in Cows. So they have cows now instead. I asked if I could help milk the cows too, to which Chuck replied laughing, “you don’t want to milk those cows.” Caroline followed up with an explanation on the difference between breeding/beef cows and milk cows. Whatever kind of cows they were, I fully planned on getting out one night and seeing if it was true what I’d heard from the backwoods country kids at Crossroads about psychedelic mushrooms growing in their poop…eventually.
After dinner, we headed to the living room to watch some tv. Chuck turned on an old John Wayne western. Chuck loved westerns and those old timey John Wayne movies were among the few things the kids got to watch in their limited TV time. The family rarely watched tv. According to Caroline, she didn’t want to fill her kid’s brain with trash. The kids didn’t seem to mind, but what a waste of a beautiful big screen TV. I swear it was taller than I was.
After the movie, everyone began getting ready for bed. It must have been like 9 or 10 o’clock and even the adults were turning in. Nona gave me a hug and a kiss before she went to turn down in Caroline and Chuck’s room. Caroline walked me down the staircase in the back of the living room to Lucy’s room where I would be sleeping while I was there. Lucy’s room was the newest addition of their house. There was nothing to indicate a little girl was living there. No Backstreet Boy or Nsync posters. No pink. Just a queen sized bed with a boring blue paisley comforter and some dressers with a couple of stuffed animals on them.
“I had Lucy make up the bed for you, fresh sheets and everything. You can feel free to use the drawers to put your stuff in. I had Lucy clear a few out for you earlier”
“Thanks, Ma’am” I replied.
“There’s fresh towels in the closet. Shampoo and Conditioner in the bathroom. I am not sure what kind you use, we use the el-cheepo Suave but if you need something different we can get it.”
“No, I’m good with anything”
“Okay…well, if you need anything just let us know. My mom told me some of what you’ve been going through. I just can’t believe DFACS is putting you through all this.” She paused, either thinking of what next to say or waiting for me to give some kind of feedback in the conversation. I didn’t. “Tomorrow,” she continued. “We’ll try to figure out what we can do to help you. But while you’re here, please make yourself at home. I know this has got to be an adjustment being out here in the boonies and everything. But, we’ll do our best to show you a good time.”
I again replied, “Thanks, Ma’am.”
“Do you mind if I pray with you before you go to bed?”
Caroline held my hands and bowed her head in prayer. I bowed my head too, so she wouldn’t see me rolling my eyes in case she looked up while praying. Me and “God” any god but especially the god of Abraham…whatever his name was…were not on good terms. We hadn’t been since my days at the shelter. Still, I knew what I was getting into coming up there, after all no one could be more of a zealot than Nona (sept maybe my Grandma Angie). I just hoped Caroline wouldn’t start waving her hands around with “the holy spirit” like Nona sometimes did.
“Father God, we thank you for this opportunity to welcome Zeda into our home, and for the chance to show her your love. Lord, we ask your guidance as we assist Zeda on her journey. That you open the right doors and close the wrong ones so that she may find peace and happiness. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen”
“Amen” I mumbled
She hugged me. Told me goodnight and went back upstairs. I showered and then laid down on top of the comforter on Lucy’s bed then wrapped the other side around me. I guess I’d gotten so used to sleeping in dirty motels and on strangers couches, the sleep burrito was my new default. I laid there for about an hour trying to get to sleep to no avail. I thought about going upstairs to find something to read, but figuring since Nana was in their room, Caroline and Chuck were on the couch so I didn’t want to disturb them. I grabbed my journal out of my book bag and read through some of the songs I wrote, grading them on their quality, then I tried to complete some of the unfinished ones, then tried writing another one but each time I tried, I just couldn’t find the words so I just laid there drawing connect the number puzzles in my journal till I eventually passed out some time around 3am.
Next: Hillbilly Haven (Part 2)