Context: Hillbilly Haven (Part 1)
Driving back home from the doctor, Caroline took a detour to show me through town. She pointed out the places the teenagers hung out on weekends and the stretch of road they called “the strip” where the kids with card would ride up.
“Like drag racing?” I asked.
“Nah, just cruising. That’s what they call it, cruising the strip.”
“So, they just come to the middle of the town and drive back and forth on this one street? Every weekend?
“Yea. Well there’s not as much to do here as there is in the city. So it’s just like a big tailgate party”
I had no idea what a tailgate party was, but I nodded my head like I understood, cause I felt like it was probably something I should have known.
“Do you know how to drive, Zeda?”
I shook my head. I thought she was going to follow up with a lecture on not judging people for things I can’t do and blah blah blah, but instead she asked me if I was ready to learn.
“What?” I asked in disbelief.
“Are. You. Ready to learn to drive?” I nodded grinning ear to ear. The best words any 16 year old could hope to hear. Especially a 16-year-old in foster care in an idiotic state that didn’t even allow for foster kids to take Driver’s Ed in schools that still offered it.
We pulled into the parking lot at a middle school a few blocks away. Caroline parked the car, we both got out, I ran over to the driver’s side and she handed me the key. I got into the driver’s seat buckled in and waited as she hopped into the passenger seat.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked.
“Yea,” she chuckled. “What are you scared?” I was terrified.
“No. It’s. This is a brand-new jeep, Caroline. What if”
“You’ll be fine,” she interjected. “Just start the car.” And I did. I put the keys into the ignition of a brand new cherry-red Jeep Wrangler and turned the ignition. I pulled off, following her instructions. Check the mirror. Turn right here. Turn left there. Back up here, park between these lines, turn around those lines. Don’t forget to check your blind spot. Round and around and around we drove. I was pretty kickass maneuvering through that empty parking lot. After about half an hour Caroline said it was time to wrap things up. Then… well then she told me to park in front of a brick wall.
“Are you sure?” I asked again. Again she chuckled and said yes. So I turned, drove towards the wall slowly, wondering why the hell she would tell me to do this.
“Okay… slowly…slow…slow… just tap the brakes,” she instructed. “alright now, we’re gonna come to a smooth stop…”
I was tapping the break just like she said. Inching closer and closer to the wall every time I let up off it. Caroline kept telling me I could get a little closer a little closer…. Tap the brake. Then all of a sudden she’s yelling “Brake Brake Brake” and I don’t know why but my foot hit the gas and I floored it.
“Brake Zeda, BRAKE!” I slammed on the brake pedal and stopped maybe an inch shy of crashing the car into the wall. The color was all out of Caroline’s face. If I weren’t black, I am sure I would have been ghost white too. After a couple of seconds of intense silence, Caroline laughed and said “Next time, we’ll take Chuck’s truck. We both started laughing. When we got home, we told everyone what happened. Everyone had a good laugh. It was one of those cheesy family moments that I’d only previously experienced vicariously on sitcoms.
I can’t pinpoint an exact moment it happened, probably around the time of Caroline letting me drive that Jeep, but I fell in love with the Pines. Hard. I guess the biggest testimony of that was me willingly getting up on Sunday mornings and going to church with them. I didn’t have to. Other than Caroline trying to convince me to read the stupid Left Behind novels (I told her I had my fill of reading about the rapture as a Jehovah’s Witness) and Chuck’s lessons on the glorious diversity of contemporary Christian music… they didn’t try to force their religion on me. I didn’t have to go to church with them.
At first, I loved the time I got alone on Sundays when they’d go to church. It was my extra time on the computer, my time to turn the music up and the TV on, even though they didn’t have cable (local TV was better than no TV, after all). But soon, I was choosing to give up my heathen time to go with them to church. The sermons were still meaningless drivel falling on my deaf ears, but it was meaningless boring drivel that I was sharing with them. For the first time in my life I wasn’t just watching a family interacting on TV, I was there, interacting with them. When Jake and Lucy went to Vacation Bible School, I was left incredibly bored with nothing to do but talk to my old friends from school on AOL instant messenger. But they only really came on at night so… I for a few days, I played a lot of solitaire.
This is around the time when this guy Manny started coming by with his younger kids a to play basketball after VBS. It was literally the first time I got to interact with a few people outside of Chuck and Caroline’s family. Manny and his family was the most “diversity” that I’d seen in the entire time I’d been in that town. I didn’t really interact with his boys, but I just loved everything about Manny. He was this towering jovial dude with a big belly and giant biceps and he had the biggest most welcoming smile that was usually accompanied by an infectious, hearty laugh. It was like if Santa Claus got a tan and was super stacked.
His younger kids Hesse, Kitch, and Manny Jr. didn’t look like they were related, much less like brothers. Hesse and Kitch were tweens with dark bronze skin and tightly curled fro-ish hair while Manny junior was maybe 8 (close in age to Lucy and Drew). He had super fair skin with big whispy curls. They all were crazy muscular for kids their age. I thought they were Native American, which intrigued me—mostly because the only Native Americans I met in the south east were white people claiming to be part Cherokee princess. I’d legit thought that all the real “Indians” were forced out of the south in the Trail of Tears, so I was dying to learn more about them.
Given Catherine and Chuck’s mission work on the reservations and their general attitude about Natives being lazy, it was kind of weird seeing them being so close to a native family. Especially since Manny was either Chuck’s ex-employee or business partner (I can’t remember). I got up the courage to ask Manny what tribe they were, he laughed at me and said “I aint Indian darling. We’re Samoan” and then I felt like an idiot. I had even more questions, like what the hell is a Samoan doing in backwoods Georgia, but figuring that was racist, I just laughed along with him as he joked about people always thinking he was “Indian or Mexican” which was cool cause most people around these parts ‘aint never seen a Samoan before.”
One day Chuck and Caroline needed Manny to sign something or to work something out about their old business that he had been frustratingly been putting off for a while. No clue what it was, but Chuck invited me to hop along with him to ride out to Manny’s house in Hiawassee, a little town on the other side of the mountain. Manny’s oldest son, Cass had just finished high school and gave the okay for me to sift through his old books to see if I could use any. Hell Yea I could!
The drive there was awesome, I got to take in some of the most beautiful scenery in the country outside of the Michiana Sand Dunes. Rolling mountains covered in trees, it felt like we were driving close enough that I could reach out and touch the skyline. Chuck was trying to talk to me about something or other. I half-heartedly tried to listen, but was too captivated by the serene experience that I was having with the nature scape.
When we got to Hiawassee Chuck said something about Hiawassee being the poor side of the mountain. I don’t know what quantified poor. The scenery wasn’t much different and from all I could tell at Manny’s house the only big difference was they had less land and no animals. I think Chuck said the people in Hiawassee came over to work for the people in Blairsville who had all the land and farms, but I could be mistaken.
If they were poorer, they weren’t any less happy, at least not by the way Manny acted. When he came out to greet us, he gave Chuck a big ole bear hug greeting and gave me a pat on the back that was so (unintentionally) hard it shook me a bit. Then we went into his house. It wasn’t a 3-story made from scratch like Chuck and Caroline’s, but it was okay. It was normal. They even had a nice big porch and a basketball hoop off the driveway.