Deatsville wasn’t any bigger than a whistle on a walk in 1954, and about as far due south of my Michigan birthplace as any eight year old could imagine. The roads running east and west past Popeye’s two pump, glass globe gasoline stop and shop had the soft, dust-rusty look of a boiled bare five-and-dime enamelware pan.
I’d traveled to Deatsville to spend the summer with my cohort, Molly, and her parents who owned that screen door gathering spot frequented mostly by natives of Elmore County and daytrippers from Lomax and Verbena who’d gotten sidetracked on their way to Montgomery.
Molly and I were counterfeit cousins, joined at the heart and mind’s-eye instead of the kinsman hip. Our mommas had been best friends before us. They’d met in New York City where each had fled during the 1930’s, intent on finding a more sophisticated lifestyle than that of a small town girl grown into a small town wife. Marriage and children returned them to convention, but our births had awarded each a vicarious second chance at adventure.
In time we’d give them their dreams, but for that last unadulterated summer of our youth we were as any other children growing up in the kind of rural community that red line roads on paper pocket maps connected.
“Do as you’re told and make me proud,” was always my mother’s marching order. I did and would.
I arrived by bus, the driver making a stop at Popeye’s even though it wasn’t on his scheduled route. Had he chosen to obey orders to pass Deatsville by, visitors and residents of the area would have had to find additional transportation back to there. Stopping was the common southern courtesy that northern dispatchers were forced to either ignore or accept.
Molly and her dog, Buford, greeted me by dancing barefoot in the dirt, a piece of her momma’s pecan pie held high in her right hand while she wigwagged the left.
“Hi you all, “ she enunciated with an exaggerated drawl.
I kissed her. Then I bent down and kissed Buford before attacking the pie.
“I ate mine already but you can share yours with me if you want,” she hinted.
We slept in a tall-walled room at the end of a tongue and groove hallway in a 19th century carpetbaggers house set five hundred feet back from the store. It was a proud, old, chipped-paint clapboard structure with faded green plantation shutters hiding nine foot, nine-over-nine pane windows, most of them swollen shut. Those that worked opened like doors onto wraparound porches connecting pencil post pillars to a sloping tin roof that provided both shade and shelter from the relentless heat and sudden white rains of an Alabama afternoon.
“I’ve got a secret to show you,” Molly whispered to me one afternoon while we were pretending to nap. Together we crawled under her grandma’s iron bed and removed the floorboards to an inwardly opening trap door exposing a ladder that took us ten feet down into a somber cellar of red clay and hollowed out slots where candles once burned as lighting.
“Wow,” I awed, gleefully.
“I dug this hole for you,” she lied, believing I believed her.
It was into this pit that Molly and I dragged all the comforts of home; a chair, my teddy bear, an army cot, two blankets, yahrzeit candles, crayons, coloring and comic books, a thermos of water, crackers, peanut butter, wood stick matches, and the very latest communication system Molly found detailed on a Bazooka bubble gum wrapper calling for the connecting of two empty soup cans with string that, when pulled tightly and talked into, would send our voices through the cord. Never mind that we were inseparable, so there was never anyone at the other end of the line tied uselessly to the bedpost overhead.
We spent most of the summer in that hole while her parents thought we were elsewhere doing who-knew-what. But come the end of August, her folks decided to close up shop and take us to visit kin in Montgomery.
I don’t remember anything good about that trip because it rained daily and we were confined to the commands and prickly scrutiny of distantly related adults. But I do recall returning to Deatsville the first sunny day after the deluge, only to discover Molly’s home had been swallowed by a sinkhole the size of a city block, taking the security of our secret space with it.
The next morning I was back in Michigan meeting my third grade teacher, Miss Grimmel, on the first day of school. I found her mesmerizing. She had thick auburn hair piled high on her head, brown eyes as wide as walnuts, the reddest lipstick, the whitest teeth, and connect-the-dots freckles on every uncovered inch of her face, arms, legs, and hands.
Coincidentally, I never saw my imaginary friend, Molly, again.
But that long September-meeting-to-February memory of Miss Grimmel remains, her black horned-rim glasses straddling her arrowy nose, the low pitch of her voice, the faint fragrance of violet cologne following her up and down the aisles, and the stern looks she gave anyone daring to act up, or return late from recess.
Some sixty years and many thousands of miles have passed since then. No matter. I still have the Valentine’s Day card she sent me by first class mail, arriving one week after the morning the principal informed our class that Miss Grimmel had eloped … and moved away … and would no longer be our teacher.
It broke my heart.
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