Monday, July 2, 2012

Those Stars Are Out to Get You

When I was young, I read every folk tale I could get my hands on. The lesson you learn from those stories - from China to Turkey to Ghana to Norway - is that wishes only exist to fuck you up and over and seven ways to Sunday. So I know that if I dared to wish I had more time to read or write, I'd lose my job. If I dared wish for a ocean view from my bedroom, I'd end up in a prison cell in Pelican Bay. If I wished I knew what life was really like two hundred years ago, I'd either drop dead from cholera or get burned as a witch or starve to death within a month of traveling back in time. Oh yes, I know all about the evil edge of wishes.

I also know better to complain. It's not guilt so much as a little slice of reality. When I was about ten years old, I visited my cousins who lived in a very wealthy enclave near Atlanta, Georgia. We decided to hike down to the local market for popsicles one hot afternoon. We walked through their neighborhood of large houses on big, wooded tracts of land, the kind of place with big sweeping lawns and carefully manicured hedges. Half a mile later, we passed even grander houses on bigger lots. They had white columns and verandas that wrapped around the house on every floor, hydrangea bushes in full bloom and tall spikes of hollyhocks in their shade gardens. One of them was an actual plantation house. The rest were imitations built in the early 1900s.

Thick oak branches bent over the road to shade it. Cicadas buzzed in the sweltering afternoon heat. My cousins, sisters, and I traipsed along the road that ran parallel to the railway tracks and talked about how much cooler it would be when we went to my aunt and uncle's lake house for the rest of the summer. There, we'd have a speed boat for water skiing, canoes, and a private dock to swim around. The adults would be gone during the week, but we'd be left with a refrigerator full of food and drinks, several TV sets (we only had one in our house!), a car big enough for my eldest cousin to drive us around in, and plenty of spending money. For my cousins, it was just a typical summer. For my sisters and I, it was like winning the kid lottery. Such luxury! But we tried not to show how impressed we were because we were very aware that we were the poor relations.

The road turned and crossed the railroad tracks. On the opposite side, there was a small house. It couldn't have sat more than ten feet from those tracks. I didn't see any power lines running to the shanty. I did see the outhouse at the far back corner of the lot, near the train tracks. The yard was hard red Georgia clay without so much as a weed sprouting through it. It was surrounded by a chicken wire fence that sagged from lopsided posts. The house had two window openings cut into the weathered boards on the front side, but no glass, and a faded sheet hung in the doorway. Two sagging steps lead from the yard to the house. Silent kids, from babies to teens, watched us as we went past talking loud about power boats and dipped cones from Foster's Freeze. 

I guess I was pretty self-aware even that young, because even I knew that there was a huge gulf of difference between our status as the poor relations and those kids we passed. We had clean water and indoor plumbing. We had food. None of us wore hand-me-down clothes. Thanks to the military, we had regular medical care, dental, and eye exams. We had glass windows and real doors that locked. Most of the time, we lived in houses that had air conditioning. Maybe we only had one, but we had a TV.

So I'm real careful when I complain. And even more careful about wistful wishes. Don't blow out all your birthday candles with one breath. That first star you see tonight? It's just waiting to pull a cruel trick on you.

7 comments:

  1. Yeah.

    Exactly.

    (You really brought the summer scene to life, by the way.)

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  2. Lisabet - that remains one of the most enduring memories of my childhood. A real jolt of reality. I was amazed that people in the United States still lived like that in 1976. My cousins thought it was completely normal.

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  3. I've often found that random thoughts can have real power, as improbable as that seems.

    When I was a child I once saw a couple shopping in the grocery store, and the guy had really bad acne. I wondered as a random thought, how the woman with him could find him attractive with skin that bad. Fast-forward a few years and I got my menarche at 9 and the acne started...it lasted for the next 40 years! I went to many skin doctors, took antibiotics for years, but even birth control pills didn't clear it up. So did I jinx myself? Maybe.

    Let's just say I try to be more careful about random thoughts these days...

    And your thinking of yourselves as poor relations was kind of spooky when you wrote about the actual poor you saw. I hope life has not chosen to make you actually live the dire poverty you saw. Kharma can be a bitch!

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  4. Fiona - as long as I have clean water to drink, food to eat, and a roof over my head, I'll still be far better off than many people on this planet, so even though I'm not the rich relation (still) I have no reason to complain.

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  5. I like this post very much. I think its because I live in Georgia - though things have improved a great deal - during my road years I saw places exactly like you describe. What I mean is, your descriptions here are wonderfully vivid.

    Garce

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  6. Garce - thank you.

    My mother is from Stephens County, so I spent a bit of time in northern Georgia when I was younger. I haven't been back since I was in high school though.

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