Photograph via Pixabay.
by K.C. Collins
When I was ten years old, my family moved from Manassas, in northern Virginia, to a tiny town called Alkadel. Manassas is not exactly the center of the universe or anything all that wonderful, mind you, but it’s a stone’s throw away from D.C. Even when I was a small child it was not uncommon for Dad to drop me off under the supposedly watchful eye of an older sibling to spend the day at the library or the Smithsonian. (This was the 1960’s and the crime rate then was not the concern it is now; parents might worry about the White House being burned down or picketed, but the thought that their baby might be picked up and carried away or fed illegal substances by strangers had not yet entered their heads.) Alkadel, by contrast, was a flyspeck on the map, and that only if it happened to be a really detailed map. The nearest art museum (if it could be called that) was perhaps a two-hour drive away. There was a local library. It was a one-room affair which shared space with the tax assessor; sometimes it was even open, when they could find an old lady willing to sit there all day and wait for the droves of readers who never came. Usually this was a retired school teacher who frankly couldn’t care less if anyone came in or not; no patrons meant she could spend the afternoon reading or napping in peace.
Now, Manassas is a town of some history; there are markers around to commemorate various civil war events, and the occasional costumed contingent of confederates in a holiday parade or something. But the members of the town council of Alkadel had somewhere along the line become possessed of the idea that their hamlet was of singular historical significance, as there had been a salt works there during the American Civil War, as well as allegedly having been home to various little-known historical personages–or, rather, relatives of said individuals. In back of the Methodist Church there was a cabin, widely believed among Alkadelians to have been the birthplace of the sister of the mother-in-law of General J.E.B. Stuart’s aide-de-camp. They had “restored” it (meaning they had plastered new cement into the cracks between the rotting boards) and they had erected a sign in front of it not only to attest to the veracity of this tale but also in order that the tourists might find it easily when they arrived. Never mind that there were no tourists, other than those lost souls who ventured into the mountains every year, or the few college students who still returned to visit families now and then. The tourists would come; Alkadel was “gonna be a boomtown” – or so said honorary mayor-for-life Vern Griggs, a pudgy gentleman with the facial expression of an overexcited bulldog.
By 1974, when we moved there, this prediction had not proven true, needless to say, nor did it appear likely to happen during my lifetime. Still, my father was optimistic (though not quite as delusionally so as Mr. Griggs), and there he planted us. The move was occasioned by my father’s forced resignation from the school where he taught; the community college near Alkadel seemed one of the few places in the state which had not heard of the allegations of my father’s involvement with the communist party. Or perhaps they had heard but simply could not believe that anyone not born in the Soviet Union would choose communism over good old American capitalism, and thus disregarded the rumors as so much nonsense.
My sister Claire, fifteen years my senior and a piano teacher, was welcomed with open arms by the music-lovers in the area; it was to her that they sent their darling children in the hope that one day little Susie might grow up to be on the Grand Ole Opry (locally considered the epitome of musical success), or, at least, become the regular church organist. I think my sister took a truly demented sort of satisfaction in drilling these children on nothing but scales until she grew bored herself, and then propping a book of Bach in front of them, assigning the same piece over and over and over until Mom snarled that she was going to have a seizure if she heard that Burnette kid mangle that concerto one more time.
Mom did not adjust well to the move. Always high-strung, never what one might consider a socialite anyway, she held out as long as she felt reasonable. Then she went to the youngest of the three local doctors (the only one who did not have the reputation for giving penicillin shots for everything from appendicitis to yellow jaundice), and demanded the Valium which, under the circumstances, she considered her inalienable right. He agreed, and my memory of Mom during the next few years consists of a silhouetted figure blowing smoke at the television in the den, the curtain drawn aside just enough to make sure nothing horrible was happening in the backyard.
It was my brother Rob who became my ally and partner in crime at this time. Rob was ten years older than me, and had spent a year at college before deciding that he didn’t know why he was there and agreeing with Dad that it would be better if he figured this out before he tried it again. Since leaving school he had worked at a variety of jobs (which is a tactful way of saying he was fond of calling in sick to go to concerts). My favorite of the ones he’d had in Manassas had been his job as an Eastman Kodak film sales rep; it had been his job to go to stores and collect outdated film, which he was supposed to deposit at a recycling facility. Often he brought rolls of this black and white film home for me to try out in my Brownie Hawkeye camera which I’d been given by an uncle, and which I often used to distance myself from the events around me in which I did not care to become involved–holidays, family outings, moving to small backwoods towns–things of that nature. Thanks to Rob, I had enough film stashed away from the six months he’d worked there to keep things at a safe distance from me for several more years. (I had also learned from him that you could store it in the refrigerator indefinitely, a tidbit of information my mother certainly wished I’d never received, as she had to dig past stacks of little yellow boxes of salvaged film whenever she needed the mustard or mayonnaise.)
Currently, Rob was working at the funeral home down the street from our new house. He didn’t have to do much; he washed and waxed the hearse once a week, swept the garage, and drove the van to pick up the dead bodies. Most of the time he spent sitting in the back room, reading and waiting for calls. I often went with him to work, and when I was there we usually listened to the radio and played poker (which he’d taught me when I was seven). He was the one generally charged with “baby-sitting” since my sister had piano students at the house for whom she was responsible and therefore could not be expected to keep an eye on me as effectively as she otherwise would have. This was fine with me, since when my sister had been issued baby-sitting duty, her idea of a good time had been for me to watch her at her dresser experimenting with new lipstick. Rob, however, found interesting things to do, even if it was doing nothing; at least it was done somewhere other than our own house.
Since arriving in town Rob had made two new friends named Lucas and Shakespeare. Lucas was a soft-spoken, anemic-looking fellow who wore an army jacket year ’round with a confederate flag patch on one sleeve, a Led Zeppelin patch on the other sleeve, and pockets that bulged from the little plastic packets he carried; he was the local drug connection, I learned. “Shakespeare” was thus nicknamed, I discovered, because he carried with him a small pocket notebook in which he could often be seen scribbling. I asked him once what he was writing and he retreated nervously into his wall of lank, dark hair. Rob told me later that he had peeked into the notebook once when Shakespeare had passed out from drinking too much Boone’s Farm; it had been full of poetry, quotes from Nietzsche, Pink Floyd lyrics, and cubistic caricatures of the locals.
I was with these three when Rob decided to take acid for the first time. I was twelve years old. The idea of “dropping acid” was somewhat alarming to me at first until it was shown to me and I saw that it was not like the hydrochloric acid we had in science class at school (which would, I figured, eat your insides out). We had gone out to a rock quarry where there was a deep though not very wide lake. This was where the locals often deposited new cars that couldn’t be paid for, or so I had heard; I imagined a veritable mountain of cars rusting deep beneath the surface of that placid green water. This, too, was where some of the more eccentric locals would gather early in the morning on certain holidays and re-enact civil war battles, complete with costumes, horses and period firearms. Occasionally, after a night of drinking, one or two of them would wander over to the quarry at two in the morning and take target practice with those same period firearms and their empty beer bottles, until the sheriff would come out in his pajamas and confiscate their weapons and argue with them over their constitutional right to bear arms, usually winning out in the end by pointing out that while the constitution may give them the right to bear arms, it does not necessarily give them the right to shoot them.
I considered it my responsibility, then, whenever we came out to the quarry, to be the lookout against these characters. Instinctively, I knew that they would probably just as soon shoot at my brother and his friends as beer bottles–and I knew, as well, that I was probably the only one there who wasn’t too stoned to notice if we had company. Already I had once been given the wheel of Shakespeare’s car when they had felt the need to go and find food but felt themselves incapable of driving. I had carefully parked unseen in back of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store where Rob proceeded to spend the next twenty minutes gazing up at the revolving yellow smiling pig atop the front entrance while Lucas intoned “Piggly… Wiggly…” over and over to himself as though extracting some heavy-duty enlightenment out of the words. I’d finally given up on them and taken money out of Lucas’s pocket, leading Shakespeare into the store with me to collect munchies.
The first time Rob did acid, however, they had managed to have their wits about them a little more than usual. It was a warm spring day, and the water in the quarry was a deep blue-green, shimmering in the late afternoon sun. I watched with interest for the first thirty minutes or so, as my brother and his friends were usually pretty entertaining when they smoked pot, but this time he did little more than sit there with an absent look in his eyes. Actually, he looked a little depressed. Lucas was talking to him periodically, mostly, “Hey, you ok?” and getting little or no response. I was bored, so I got my camera from the back seat and began to wander around the quarry, taking shots of this and that, figuring if things got interesting I’d hear them easily. I’d just begun to use color film recently, and I wanted to get some shots of the water, deep aquamarine, glittering in the remaining light. After awhile I got hot and tired, and I walked into the woods to sit and cool off. Shakespeare wasn’t far away; I could see him sitting on a rock overhanging the water, hunched over his notebook. I couldn’t see Rob or Lucas but I could hear Rob’s voice rising periodically in annoyance as though he wanted to be left in peace to mull over whatever was happening in his head. Mostly, though, it was quiet. In fact, the air seemed so still around me, it was almost eerie. I was getting jumpy; the sun was going down and I was getting startled over the slightest sound. Something just felt weird. I lit up a cigarette I’d gotten from Lucas earlier and paced around the little clearing to shake off the strange feeling, then marched back out to see what was going on with Rob. I saw him sitting on the ground in front of the car, holding his head and rocking back and forth.
“Rob!” I said sharply. “What’s going on?”
He slowed down and peered up at me. “Mom…” his voice trailed off.
“No, dumbass, it’s not Mom, it’s me. What are you doing?”
He took my hand solemnly. “Mom’s going to see the dead confederates.”
“Uh-huh. You’re not making any sense,” I muttered, starting to walk away.
“No!” he shouted. “Listen! We need to get a ouija board, so we can talk to her. She’s going with the general.”
Lucas was chuckling, pouring some peach wine into a plastic cup over by the car. “You’re out there, man. You’re talking some shit.”
Rob gazed into my eyes, his own as glassy as the surface of the water below. It felt weird, like it had out in the clearing a few minutes ago. I looked at my camera, saw that I had a couple of shots left, and put a bulb into the flash socket. I squatted low in front of Rob, waited until he looked up, and snapped the shutter. The flash bulb exploded in a brilliant blue-white flare. Rob’s eyes widened in horror, then amazement, and he reached out, touching air. “Look,” he pointed, “she’s disintegrating… it’s like millions of little specks of glitter… why aren’t the dead confederates all sparkly like that?”
“I dunno, Rob, maybe because Mom’s not dead?” I suggested, getting a little irritated with him. This was getting old fast, I thought. Rob stared at me wonderingly, as though he had to individually process each word I’d said for a whole minute. I popped out the burnt flash bulb and flung it far away, watching it smash on the rocks. Shakespeare actually lifted his head to see what it was, and even chuckled. But most of the evening was a total bust, from my point of view. Rob sat around staring and occasionally muttering something unintelligible about the soldiers, and Lucas babysat him, talking him through whatever catharsis he seemed to be having. Shakespeare wrote in his notebook. I crawled into the back seat of the car and fell asleep after awhile.
I woke when I heard the car crunching onto the gravel of our driveway. It was just after eleven, I saw, looking at my watch in the dim glow of Lucas’s lighter I’d pocketed. Rob was half-asleep; I had to keep grabbing at his arm to get him into the house. Once inside the house, I noticed that the television was still glowing in the den; Mom was probably watching the news, I figured, so I tried to slip quietly past the door and into my room, thinking Rob would follow suit. Rob, however, was drawn to the doorway like a moth to a porch light. I heard low voices as he and Mom talked; I left him to fend for himself, and collapsed into my bed.
A little later I was awakened by someone shaking my shoulder insistently. “Wake up,” Rob was whispering loudly. “I gotta talk to you. Wake up.”
“I’m awake,” I yawned, sitting up, wondering what time it was. “What is it?”
“Mom was watching TV while we were out,” he said.
“So?” Mom watched TV day in and day out now; it was a rarity to see her do anything else.
“No, listen… guess what she was watching,” he persisted.
“Dead confederates,” he hissed. “There was some movie on about the civil war and that’s what she was watching tonight. Just like I saw. Isn’t that weird?” he marveled.
“Weird… yeah,” I agreed, intrigued despite how sleepy I sounded.
That night I had the most amazing dreams; it was as though I had taken on my brother’s trip, he having tired out and fallen asleep. I dreamed in translucent double-exposures, dreams of railcars full of coffins, bursting with flowers… soldiers who marched off into nothingness, leaving behind only their spooky shouts and the smell of gunpowder… and I dreamed I watched as Shakespeare duly recorded everything into his notebook, the ink flowing out of his pen in iridescent silver lines like something out of a sci-fi flick. I heard the world fall dark and silent, as quiet as I imagined outer space would be. And then the train reappeared, an ancient, sepia thing of insubstantial iron. It braked just ahead of me; the conductor, looking vaguely like Lucas, stepped off and looked for me. I hesitated only for an instant before I swung into the car and settled into my seat for a ride that shot straight into the technicolor sunrise.
© Copyright 1999 by K.C. Collins. Republished 2013, 2015.
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