I’m posting, in two parts, a short story written as a classroom assignment. This is based on true events that occurred in the ancestral line of my paternal grandmother, my great-great grandparents, John and Eliza Yoakam, who settled in Coos Bay, Oregon in the mid 1850s.
Echoes, Part One
“Turn left here,” Jack yelled.
“No, the map says to turn right,” Holly retorted as she grasped the dead man’s knob on the wheel and turned the large, black Dodge truck with a 5thwheel in tow onto Cape Arago Highway.
“Maybe you’d rather drive,” Holly teased, smiling at her tow-headed husband.
Holly guided the rig toward the RV park near the beach in silence. She thought of the purpose of the trip and hoped she would find answers to nagging questions. Her great-great-grandmother, Eliza Davis Yoakam, and her husband, John, had an experienced a tragedy March 27, 1855, near Coos Bay, Oregon.
The Yoakams had followed the Oregon Trail from Ohio and chose to settle in Empire City in 1852. Eliza, one of the first white female settlers to come to Coos Bay, crossed the nation while pregnant with their eighth child. The Trail had claimed the life of the oldest boy. She gave birth to a girl three days after arriving. Holly tried to imagine how difficult that must have been for her–– alone without her mother’s support. What amazed Holly more was how Eliza had managed to carry on after that fateful night in March, three years later. How does one go on after that?That dogged pioneerdetermination.
Eliza and John lost all five of their daughters during the night, one a babe in her arms. A freak windstorm gusted a large tree upon their makeshift cabin; a branch hit Eliza and the girl she held. Two toddler boys, George and Jasper, survived because they had been tucked in a trundle bed–– and had slept through the ordeal. George was Holly’s great-grandfather.
She noticed Jack’s fingers tapping near the passenger window. She thought about how much coaxing it had taken for Jack to agree to the trip. He failed to understand her need to see ancestral grounds and thought it morbid to explore the site of tragedy. She bribed him with dinner at the “best Italian restaurant in two states.” Holly couldn’t remember the name, and Jack had teased her how great could the food be if she couldn’t recall its name. She reminded him of the power of Google and said not to worry.
That evening they dined on their traditional beach fare of salami, Swiss cheese, sourdough bread and red wine resting on Holly’s handmade quiltlaid upon the brown-gray sands of Arago Beach, sitting cross-legged and facing each other, against the backdrop of an August sapphire sunset. Milky swirls, aquamarine clouds on hovered close to the setting sun on the Pacific horizon. The sun morphed to a reddish golden globe, a utopian aura casting an array of colors, like rainbow Sherbet, into the clouds as it began its final descent into the ocean waves.
Jack prepared a pit in the sand, piling wood, kindling, wads of paper, and lit the heap with a cigarette lighter. As flares of red flames leapt high, he relaxed and reached for the boxed wine.
“May I?” he asked as he offered to fill Holly’s ‘wine glass,’ their beach term for a red SoHo plastic cup, “You look ravaging in the fire light.”
Holly teased that it was the wine talking, secretly pleased at his compliment, and set out their camp chairs.
“Good idea, Holly, my bones were starting to ache,” he said as he plopped into it.
They discussed the following day’s itinerary and decided to visit all the places on Holly’s list and the next day check off Jack’s list. The special dinner would take place on the eve of the trip home.
They smiled at the antics of the young children and their parents who had walked onto the beach, making S’mores over their small fire. Moments later, a large group of young men, drunken and loutish, caused the family to pack and leave. Holly and Jack looked at each other and without speaking, gathered up their belongings, doused the fire with sand and trudged under the blue-tinged, muted yellow glow of the half-moon to their sanctuary on wheels.
Today’s post is a continuation of an essay written as a university assignment. Every detail is true, except for the name change of my then fiancé, known here as Frank.
The Woman in the Wallpaper––Part Two
Months later, while roaming the aisles of Target Stores, I note a young boy of about 14 years stalking me. I am decked out in all my protective, full-body compression garments, that includes a clear facial mask. (This is medically required that I wear these twenty-three hours a day. The purpose is to help compress the scars from raising, and to reduce bumps and ridges.)
It isn’t a sophisticated style of stalking but spawned by curiosity. I am bone-weary of these encounters. I turn the corner and hide behind the end-cap of bottles of Arrowhead water. I hear the smush-smush of tennis shoes approaching. I jump out and yell BOO. The gloriousness of his terror pervaded, faded, then a squawk, the voice of shame in my ear like a parrot belting out mimicry. Yet I laugh as the boy runs his 100-yard dash. I wonder at my maturity.
Burns scars are external––I can’t hide them– yet they leave a different kind of scar. I see it in the eyes of others. I detect it in the eyes of misogynists especially, who think a woman’s only purpose in life is to provide beauty and slave to their every need. I see it in the soul’s window of other women: a thankful gleam for their retained beauty and a twinkle of superiority. Other times, it is pity that reflects back to me.
They proffer a shiny-gold, gift-wrapped box tied with a pretty pink bow: take this gift and accept the shame enclosed. They say things like “People can tell you used to be a beautiful woman” and “If I were you, I wouldn’t go out in public, I’d be a recluse.”
I accept the gift of shame at my appearance. It is a mill-stone weighted necklace causing my head to hang. I think this talisman will protect me, but I deceive myself. I attempt to return it and rid myself of the weight. We play the you take it––no, you take it–– game.
* * * *
I sit across from Jim at his gray, metal desk, a desk piled with paper; coffee-stained and tinged with pale yellow. Jim, my trainer, is teaching me to box like a butterfly and sting like a bee. He drones on about something––I am multitasking, listening with one ear (my good one) while composing a text message on my gold, iPhone 5. Then he gains my full attention.
“You know, my father-in-law is a burn survivor. I remind him when he is down that this is only something that happened to him. It is not who he is: it doesn’t define him as a person.”
I stare back into the dark, brown eyes, a brown so dark they are nearly black. Images come of an encounter the day before when a fellow burn survivor reproved me for hiding my left hand behind my back. I look down at the now-still fingers of my right hand and think about the mismatched set I now own. The sight of my “lucky fin” fills me with shame.
Yet I sit silent. I don’t tell Jim my mother said God had done this to me because I wasn’t going to church and was living in sin with Frank. I don’t mention how our blue eyes locked––I had my mother’s eyes–– how my own blues eyes were filled with venomous fury at her accusation, nor of my fiery retort.
The internal dialogue runs through my mind like a Dow Jones’ ticker tape: “No, Mom, he didn’t. I’m his child. Would you do this to your child –– would you do this to me?”
But I sit silent remembering the slammed doors, gravel spewing, how I varoomed my black Dodge Ram away.
I am posting this autobiographical essay in parts because the original essay was written as such. I wrote this in response to a course requirement in the Advanced Composition course at Simpson University.
Every detail, even the seemingly miniscule, is true to the best of my recollection. The exception is the name change of my fiancé––now and forevermore known as Frank.
The Woman in the Wallpaper ––Part One
The vexing sound of the 3:30 a.m. alarm trumpets through the dark morning air. I groan and pull the duck-down comforter around my chin. My fiancé, Frank, jumps up like a jack-in–the–box and heads into the kitchen. I rouse from a groggy fog and aim for the bathroom. My head throbs and I search through the muddled mist as to why when I remember the festivities of the evening involved beer––a lot of beer. I cherish the sweet, therapeutic bouquet of brewing coffee wafting into the room, ‘go-juice’ that promises to counteract the cobwebby fog.
I stand before the mirror in the dimly-lit room of the porcelain god and begin slathering flesh-colored goo over the source of my identity. I stare at the face in the mirror. Everyone says I am gorgeous, but I don’t believe them. I wonder what I would do if anything happened to my face.
“That’s a weird thought,” I mutter to the reflection as I click off the light and head to the promised land of java.
* * * *
The fuel-tanker’s roaring motor is silenced as Frank brings the truck to a stop at the Whiskeytown Visitor Center. He hops from cab to ground, not bothering to use the two stairsteps, and begins to check the tires––tires carrying nearly 8,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel.
We had met as employees of SST Oil, Inc., a wholesale gasoline and diesel company. We discovered we had attended the same high school, but he was two grades behind me. I knew of him, we knew many of the same people, but we ran in different crowds. I was a band-geek and an aspiring journalist, and he was of the cowboy-party crowd. I remembered seeing his picture in the year book because the class that put the book together thought it would be funny to list his name as a brand of beer, a name similar to his.
At SST Oil, Inc., I work as a bookkeeper, billing fuel stations for gallons of diesel, gasoline, and kerosene delivered by our drivers. Frank is one of our drivers.
I hear the thwack of the tire thumper pounding the tires. Frank whacks each tire––all eighteen of them, a legally required and routine safety check. I have a sudden, all-consuming urge to get out––and stay out. But this urge remains mute and mum.
Frank directs the rig back onto the pavement, West onto Highway 299, a highway buzzing with holiday traffic as we head to the Weaverville BP fuel station. Frank’s conversation takes a weird turn: he talks of recent nightmares of crashing the tanker.
“Well, I hope it’s not today.”
* * * *
I fight through a fog of another kind as I am rousing from a medically-induced coma. I am told I have been under for two months. I fade in and out. Morphine-laden dreams.
Awareness slowly ebbs in to stay. Was it real? Was I the headline: WOMAN HAS EMERGENCY TRACHEOTOMY IN TACO BELL? Pain and tears are the bane of my existence, an existence nearly extinguished.
Nurses bossing, machines beeping, and laughter from the night-shift are the sounds that fill my day. The face on the wall glares at me––we face off––one without blemish, mocking. A red luminescent hand swings around 360 degrees, 1, 440 times a day. I wonder if this ‘hand’ gets as tired as I do from the constant vigil.
I can’t speak or move. I lay in bed with the video playing––what happened; when it happened; and why it happened.
A year later the official report reads that a tire blew out. The blown tire caused the truck and trailer to veer into the ditch. Frank fought to guide it back onto the road, but the weight of the fuel shifted, throwing the truck and trailer into chaos. In the process, the trailer split in two, sparking against pavement. We flipped and rolled across the road into a small ravine. Flames engulfed and surrounded us before the truck stopped twisting, turning.
I lay with pain, tears and memories: hearing Frank say that we’ve got to get out; Frank breaking the windshield with the tire thumper; how he scampered up over the dashboard and out the tiny opening of shattered windshield. A far greater pain pierces and splinters like the windshield at the memory that he bolted and left me to fend for myself.
I replay scene after scene: I think of how I stayed in the midst of bone-penetrating heat, staring at the golden-red flames around me––a moment so surreal––I am starring in a Hollywood film. I replay the panic of knowing I would be burned trying to get to the road; I remember thinking of my grandchildren; thinking that if I was going to die, I would die trying; I recall reciting the mantra– stop, drop and roll– and I remember the rocky ground as I begin crawling army-style up the steep- sided ravine.
The sound of a harsh, double tap at the doorway jolts me back into real time. It’s Nurse Kate. She scolds me for crying. Coming down from morphine accentuates emotions, and I am on the downswing. I say that if you were a burn victim, you’d be crying too.
“You are not a victim. You are a survivor,” she chides.
I’m back after a hiatus full of funk, junk and many deliveries to the local transfer station, formerly referred to as THE DUMP in childhood days.
We mark our days by events. Having surpassed the 19th anniversary of the worst day of my life, I’ve been in a funk, a funk dark and deep enough that writing didn’t seem to bring joy.
In an attempt to prod my way out, I’ve been clawing and pawing through useless junk in my home.
Sorting through things I once valued, I find the hardest part is making decisions: stay or go? Sometimes it’s really tough.
Asking myself two questions helps speed the process and eliminates much hedging: “Has this thing served me?” and if the answer is in the affirmative I ask: “Will this continue to be beneficial to me on a regular basis?”
Murphy’s Law says that the thing I stored for 15 years and never used, will be the exact item I need in two weeks’ time. Such is life.
The new rule is that if I bring something new into my home, something old has to go.
Paralleling this physical activity, I’ve encountered meaningless emotions, thoughts, attitudes, perspectives and memories tied to these things. I am actively exposing the crap to daylight, dusting them off and asking the same two questions above. These things haven’t always served me well. Thus, the rule applies: bringing a new (positive and edifying) thought, emotion, etc., into my soul requires the old must go.
This requires active, purposeful and constant care. I suspect it’s going to take a lifetime. A healthy soul is a happy soul.
Burn injuries are not like a broken bone that once healed, can be concealed by flesh. There is no place to hide, no protective shell to retreat beneath. Four days from this writing, July 4th, will be my 19th burn-a-versary. There are many deaths from burn injuries: 1000 surely seems exaggerated, unless you are the burn survivor. Below is another excerpt from my story:
A machine emits a tone, flat and hopeless. The never-ending pain engulfs me as an ocean-wave swallows a tug boat. I flutter like a blue-bird and I gain a bird’s-eye view while I watch my body convulse beneath nurses and doctors, frantic, scurrying like a horde of bees, blue and white.
A tiny beam, the width of a pen-light, shafts through the ceiling and I move toward the light. Someone yells clear! I back away, drifting through the stars until I shudder back to the room, shrouded in black, cold air, and am resting on the pillowy mattress of the bed. I think I hear the crowd release the breath they have held in, or is it my own?
The night sky surrounds me, and a glow brightens as stars begin to rise. Suddenly, one rises beneath me and lifts me high on its beam. I am fringed in majesty. The warmth of light surges, begins to melt and meld me as I fold inside out like an elephant-shaped origami. The elephant sinks into nothingness.
A star glides, slow and sure, behind me until it circles around my left and is facing me. Two beings, transfigured, and perched atop the star engage in sober conversation. I see the Maker of the moon and I hear the voice of Job.
“Quash the day I was born. Delete it from the books. Rescind the day of my birth, bury it in deep darkness, shroud it with the fog, and swallow it by the night,” Job laments.
“Can you stop the thunder with a shout like I can? Or can you pull in the great sea beast, Leviathan, with a fly rod? Can you lead Behemoth, most powerful and magnificent of all beasts, by a tether like a lamb such as I?” the Moon Maker asks and adds, “Show me your stuff. Let’s see what you are made of.”
I awaken to a darkened room, empty. I hear the rhythmic whoosh of the ventilator at my side––my lifeline. I close my swollen eyelids and return to the stars.
I am posting an excerpt from writings I began several months ago. It is a true story, written in the present tense, of life after burns, yet the story in its entirety does tells of the accident, subsequent hospitalization and such. The title 1000 Deaths is a temporary, working title at this point.
I stand proudly before the oven in our newly constructed house. We’ve moved into it three days ago and this is our first home-cooked meal––roast beef with roasted carrots and red potatoes. I secretly gloat at the memory that as a licensed Real Estate agent, I earned a commission for buying my own home.
I open the door for a peek at the goods and I wheeze from the heat-blast, and I’m shaken and tossed. Like a soldier with PTSD, I am standing in the blaze screaming for Frank.* He tells me my hair is smoldering, but it is my hand I notice, melted and deformed.
Someone yells, and I about-face to find off-duty firefighters suiting-up––but they stop, frozen. The fuel tanker explodes, and they shed their gear. They tell me to lie down on the sizzling asphalt.
Once there, they douse me with saline. I am howling, animal-like for more. They say they are out and I plead for water. But they say they can’t because water might cause the burns to become infected. I yell that I don’t care.
I see the treetops burning as I lie on the asphalt, waiting for my seven-winged bird. I’m reassured the Medi-Vac helicopter is on its way and I hope. Black smoke floats higher and higher above the flames.
I see Frank on the ground to my right. He has arms in the air and my stomach churns at the sight of the skin falling from his forearms. Rows of vehicles line the road, watching, waiting for the danger to clear, gawking at the unlucky ones. I turn my face to the left and a camera is inches away. Behind the camera, a woman is crouching and flashes light the air. I yell for her to stop. How dare she?
And I begin to yowl.
The sound of Frank’s footsteps on the hardwood floor and his worried cry catapults me into my world of roast beef, carrots and potatoes.
“What happened?” he demands, “Are you alright?’
It’s nothing dear, wash up, and please, set the table. Dinner is almost ready.” I turn to smile at him then turn away and wipe the tears away with a dish towel.
My father, 81, still lives on the property he acquired from his father in the mid 1950s. I visit him on a weekly basis, typically Sunday afternoons.
On my most recent Sunday visit, I decided to listen to some oldies, via Pandora, on the Simon & Garfunkel station. My current town is about 20 miles from my childhood home, so I was enjoying quite a few oldies and the pleasant memories associated with each song. As I turned into the long drive way, “My Little Town” (Simon & Garfunkel) began to play. That song has earwormed its way into my head for the past week.
A midweek visit was necessitated–– Dad needed my help with some banking back in my little town. Coincidentally, “My Little Town” repeated in splendid reverie, as I turned onto his little lane. As I wailed the lyrics of the chorus, “nothing but the dead of night back in my little town,” my curiosity compelled me to Google the lyrics to the full song. (I’m a lyrics kind of girl.)
I was stupefied to learn that for the past 43 years, I’ve been belting out incorrect words. According to lyrics.com, the correct lyrics read “nothing but the dead and dyingback in my little town.”
Dead and dying seems to be more appropriate of late, as in the past two years my little town has lost my mother and three aunties, two of whom I was especially close to.
The lyrics of the song seems to imply nothing productive comes from their little town: whereas, my little town has lost four bastions of strength, grace, faith and character.
I prefer to keep my version. Maybe its born from habit of 43 years. Maybe it’s plain stubbornness. So, I’ll keep on keening “nothing but the dead of night” safely within the confines of my little black car on my way to my little town.