By Desirée O’Clair
Woodstock, New York
“Faster! Faster! Faster!” we chanted, as the old man driving the school bus picked up speed. We lifted our feet, flying off our seats as he rounded the curve and hit the bridge over the culvert. Two boys careened into each other, hitting heads. Blood splattered onto the seat in front of them, bright red gushing from one boy’s nose, and everyone squealed with joy. Two of the littlest children had been pitched into the aisle.
“Thank you, Mr. Snotslinger!” someone yelled, and we all began to chant, “Snot-slinger! Snot-slinger! He’s our man! If he can’t drive it, no one can!” Snot-slinger’s real name was Noffsinger, but children changed his name, as children do.
I rode Snotslinger’s bus for over an hour every afternoon for three years. The horse farm I lived on was next to last on the route, and Snotslinger would drive all the way up the farm road and turn the bus around in front of the yearling barn. The Bruckner sisters, Brenda and Kathy Jo, lived on the tobacco farm across the way. Theirs was the last stop. After we passed the Crossroads Market, Mr. Noffsinger would have the sisters take turns sitting in his lap, steering the bus for those last few miles. With his ugly hands, he rubbed their newly formed breasts, as dirty old men do. I never sat in Snotslinger’s lap, always using the excuse, “I can’t drive today. I’m not wearing my glasses.”
The day my father was home from work early, he saw Brenda sitting on Snotslinger’s lap. I couldn’t look my father in the eye when I answered his questions. I felt embarrassed. The next morning my father met with the principal and superintendent of schools, protecting the girls and me, as fathers do.
That afternoon, Snotslinger was replaced by a tiny lady with a shrill voice and curly grey hair. Even though it was cold, the new bus driver made us open all the windows.
“Shew-wee!” she exclaimed, as we struggled to press the stubborn metal latches in and slide the glass down. “Some of y’all stink to high heaven! I’d rather be downwind of Toadvine’s pig farm than on this stinking bus! Go home and get your mama to find you a bar of soap!”
Most families were too poor to smell pretty in Centerville, Kentucky. More water was hauled to the tobacco fields than the shacks of the farm hands who worked them. Poverty stinks. Granny Hawkins, the cafeteria lady at Centerville School, was the Bruckner sisters’ grandmother. A few times a week, she would pack up lunchroom leftovers and deliver them to the farm families who lived by the Crossroads Market. In the back of an old pickup truck, she toted Salisbury steak, green beans from a No. 10 can that she simmered with ham hocks, and macaroni and government cheese. Granny Hawkins always overestimated when ordering, feeding the hungry, as angels in hairnets do.
I haven’t been back to Centerville since our house burned to the ground 30 years ago. I have come home to Kentucky for the funeral of Mrs. Bell, my best friend’s mother, because my father taught me that we always go home to bury our dead. Mrs. Bell took our family in for a few weeks after the house burned, helped get us back on our feet. Like many of our neighbors, Granny Hawkins is in the graveyard, too, and the Centerville School has been abandoned. The roof over the cafeteria has caved in. The Crossroads Market, where farmers played euchre and we bought cold drinks and pimento cheese sandwiches on hot summer days, has also collapsed. Now, it is just a pile of cinder blocks and rubble.
I pull to the side of the road and get out, confused and a little dazed by the changes. I spy the red pegasus on the rusted Mobil gas sign by the old gas pumps, and I am tempted to take it, but I feel like a grave robber and can’t bring myself to do it. I notice the ragged Confederate flag fluttering on the shack by the side of the road. It makes me sad.
I drive up the farm road and park my car in front of the slave quarters, a two-room white clapboard cabin that served as the farm office when I was a child. How strange to see it still standing after all these years. I wonder if it felt lonely after the fire.
It’s chilly. The sky is gray, and the drizzling rain wets my hair as I make my way past the old herb garden to the patch of yard where my pets are buried. The iris and daffodil bulbs my father planted on the fence line have multiplied, their green shoots breaking through the cold ground. Although my father has been gone many years, I felt him there. I heard his voice singing in the wind, “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.”
The brick front porch where Dad used to sit in the evenings is all that’s left of my childhood home. The bricks were red and rough when I was a kid, but now they are smooth and marbled with blue and grey where the heat from the fire glazed them. From that porch, as the sun set, Dad and I would watch flocks of starlings rolling in waves across the ocean of sky, fluttering as one, sweeping down and sailing up, pausing, dipping, diving black clouds of beauty morphing from one shape into another in the changing light.
“Murmuration,” Dad taught me. “A flock of starlings is a murmuration. A flock of crows is a murder. A flock of partridges is a covey, and guess what a flock of peacocks is.” He waits for my answer, then tells me. “An ostentation. A flock of peacocks is an ostentation. Now, how ’bout that, Sis?”
Later in the evening, Dad would work murmuration into our Scrabble game, first adding an "i" to my "on," then building the word ration onto that, adding murmur as the game progressed. I dreamed of building an aviary behind the smokehouse, hatching peacock eggs, and raising them to preen and strut across the lawn. Peacock, a seven-letter word. I tried to work it into my Scrabble game, but was never able to make that play.
The smokehouse where our hams were cured is gone now, but the giant, rock fire pit where Dad would barbecue legs of lamb on Derby Day remains. My brothers and I gathered the flat limestone rocks one spring, and Dad stacked them to form the pit. We had a big Derby party that year. President Carter was in office, and Affirmed beat Alydar by just over a length and went on to win the Triple Crown.
There are still horses on the farm, mares and foals in the pasture where the creek runs. Standing where my house once stood, I look across that pasture and see the house the Bruckner sisters grew up in. Brenda moved to Gatlinburg with her second husband, and I hear Kathy Jo has done a couple of stints in rehab. I left for New York in 1987 and lost touch with both of them.
The tree I once climbed is still there, my perch impossibly high, but the huge mulberry that grew outside my bedroom window is gone. Many of the walnut trees remain. I walked around the yard, twisting my ankle as my foot rolled over the oily walnuts that covered the ground. I had forgotten about the walnuts, but as I slid around trying to get my footing, I recalled running barefoot in the yard, the smell of green walnut skins giving way beneath me, purple and black staining the bottoms of my feet. Remembering, as prodigal daughters do.
Leaving the farm, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the horses in their open green pastures. My years in New York have left me unaccustomed to such views. I grew up surrounded by vast expanses of open land, rolling green hills neatly trimmed with wood plank fences, yet I always felt so closed in. I wanted to be like the pegasus on the Mobil sign. I flew away as soon as I was old enough to sprout wings.
Faster! Faster! Faster, I drove, picking up speed as I approached the bridge over the culvert. Lifting up my feet one last time, I looked in the rearview mirror. Centerville is behind me now.