Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Kudzu

Kudzu
by Lindsey Walker

There’s no more sinister vegetation than kudzu. The vine gobbles whole forests at a rate of one foot per day. It winds around hearty trees, cutting off sunlight and oxygen, until those trees whither and collapse under the parasite’s weight.

Kudzu writhed up telephone poles as Dodger plowed north on Highway 5. It wriggled over power lines. Highway department better trim that soon, Dodger thought. He rubbed his eyes with his fingers and stuck one elbow out the window of his pickup. He thought about his wife, no, ex-wife, Jaylene. He wondered if she missed him, but he had to push those memories away. He concentrated his thoughts on his grandmother Irma, because the search for her house was the task at hand.
He’d never known Irma well, and now that she was dead he’d never get the chance. Dodger owned only a few childhood memories of his grandmother before her brain crumbled, and as he drove through the kudzu jungle, he tried to summon them. He conjured up Irma’s laugh: like summers and Dreamsicles and carousels. It made the opposite noise of the rusty key against the cotton inside his jeans pocket. He remembered that her home on Church Street had always smelled like zucchini bread.

He knew his grandmother had grown up in Dahlonega, descended from gold-rush panners. She had moved to Marietta after marrying his grandfather; they had raised two kids; she’d gone batshit and died. So when had she lived out here? No one knew a thing about it.

#

His grandmother had developed Alzheimer’s in her sixties. At first Irma did things that Dodger thought were funny, like running her purse through the dishwasher or microwaving the remote control. Within a few years, though, Irma lost the ability to care for herself. Holes gaped in her shrunken brain, and her frontal and temporal lobes stopped speaking to each other. When the police picked Irma up for wandering naked through the streets of Marietta, Dodger’s mother Alice and uncle Jarrett packed her off to a facility.

His mother had taken Dodger as a child to visit Irma at the Branching Sycamore Nursing Home. In the narrow hallway, an elderly woman with tobacco juice dribbling from her mouth rolled past him in her squeaky wheelchair wearing only one shoe. Another resident, a thin man with spotted, see-through skin sat in a metal folding chair singing. “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home.” The old man clapped his hands in time. “Your house is on fire, your children alone.” Dodger didn’t like Branching Sycamore. He didn’t want to leave his grandmother here in the haunted rooms with mustard-brown walls.

His grandmother stuffed her sock drawer with cutlery she’d stolen from the nursing home cafeteria. Confused by Dodger’s shaggy hair, Irma called him by his mother’s name.

“These are my treasures, Alice,” Irma said. She dug around in the drawer and came up with a butter knife.

“It’s Dodger, Gramma,” he said.

His grandmother scrunched her eyes at him. “Alice, promise me,” she said, placing the butter knife in his hands and closing his fingers around it. “Promise me you’ll find him.”

Dodger stared at the silverware. Before he could ask what she meant, if she meant anything at all, his mother Alice, the real Alice, stepped into Irma’s room.
“Place is depressing,” his mother said.

“It smells like pee,” Dodger said.

His grandmother glanced back and forth from one Alice to another. “Oh.” She recoiled from the two of them, “Forgetting again, aren’t I?”

Dodger wound his cherub-chubby fingers through his mother’s calloused ones and rested his cheek on the back of her hand. He noticed the lines gathering around her eyes, the creeping ambush of age, for the first time then. She looked small beneath the fluorescent lights. Alice sucked her lips inward.

They visited Irma again, at first on weekends, then holidays only. Later on, they came less still. It took twenty years, but finally Irma died in a metal-railed bed on a thin mattress pad with a bedsore on the small of her back the size of a fist.

#

In the time between Irma’s arrival at Branching Sycamore and the time of her death, a sizeable chunk of Dodger’s life had been spent, missed moments they would never share. He had grown into and out of acne; he had been the best football player on his high school team and the worst player for his college; he had studied accountancy once he realized that the NFL lay beyond his talents. He had married Jaylene; they had both gotten fat, then she had left him. She never said why, just that she was leaving. Jaylene took the Pontiac and her Dean Koontz collection, and she ran away. Dodger was still mourning his marriage when his grandmother passed.
Irma’s ashes hadn’t even cooled off yet, when Jarrett found the will. He’d discovered it in a box of junk from the nursing home, a fat manila envelope with the words “To Be Read upon My Death” scrawled in Irma’s jittery old-lady handwriting. He invited Alice and Dodger to his house to have a look.
In Jarrett’s kitchen, Alice cooked Irma’s favorite dishes: chicken and dumplings, collards, okra, and French-cut green beans from a can. They drank Southern Comfort and Coke. Jarrett dug out some old photos.

“Look at my face here! I hated that shirt, and she made me wear it all the time!” Alice said.

“Least she didn’t give you home haircuts,” Jarrett said.

“Cruel sense of humor.”
“You know that’s why Ruthie turned me down.”

“Sure it wasn’t your breath?”

“Might’ve been,” Jarrett said.

Their laughter quivered, thin and unsteady, as the siblings remembered their mother. They seemed separate from Dodger, wrapped in a dreamy gossamer of nostalgia, guilt and relief.

Dodger loosed the top button from his jeans and finished off the last of the okra with his hands. He wished these hands held Jaylene instead of fried food; she’d always disapproved of him eating with his fingers. The empty bean can on the counter reminded him of the cans that had clunked behind his car on their wedding day. Through the whole marriage, he felt like one of those cans, dented up and chasing a girl going too fast. Now he was a tin can again, only this time defined by his hollowness, his ability to contain the residue of his former life.

After a few more drinks, Jarrett brought the will out and laid it on the kitchen table. The years-yellowed document read as a comedic tour de force. Most everything had already been sold with the money spent covering Irma’s medical bills. Dodger listened as his mother and uncle snickered over each asset named. The horses, the stocks, the Victrola, all gone.

“The Edsel!” Alice said, her blue eyes raw, her limp hair stringy as corn silk. “Member when she brought that beast home?”

“Daddy was fixing to have a heart attack then and there,” Jarrett said, scratching his chin through his grey beard. He read the rest of the will, using his index finger to lead his eyes over the words. “Hey, Dodge,” he said, “you’re in here, too. Couldn’t have been too far gone when she wrote it. ‘To my grandson, Dodger, I leave my home in Opossum Hill.’”

Alice stopped laughing. “Momma don’t have a home in Opossum Hill,” Alice said. “Opossum Hill?”

Jarrett shrugged and leaned forward on his elbows. “Never heard of her living out that way.”

“Sure you read that right?” Dodger asked.

“Is there a deed in there?” Alice was already pawing inside the envelope as she asked. “How can no one know about it?” She dumped its contents on the table: ticket stubs, a dance card, rosary, gum wrappers and a flat brass key.

#

Dodger kept the key on his nightstand for a week before adding it to his key ring. It stood out, contrasting with his modern house and car keys. It was a time traveler’s key. On Friday, he gave in to it, his sense of adventure, his desire for something new to do. He cranked up the Chevy and headed for Opossum Hill to find Irma’s hidden house.

From Highway 5, he hung a left onto Little Refuge Road, a narrow gravel affair cutting through a forest, and started counting house numbers. He needed number 5450. The terrain grew potted and the houses became trailers became shacks. Deciduous and evergreen trees locked branches above the road, and Dodger crept through this daytime penumbra, all Appalachian amber and virulent violet. The path hugged the curves of the hilly landscape, rounding this way and that. Honeysuckle and grape scents invaded the Chevy’s interior. Kudzu snarled around the tree trunks and drooped from branches. The trail seemed to grow brighter just ahead, and he headed toward this light, swerving past an uprooted tree. The gravel gave way to dirt, to two red clay ruts with a green hump in the middle.

The forest thinned, but the kudzu thickened. Underneath the deep growth, the trail vanished. Vine-clad trees twisted at crazy angles. They kneeled and flattened. Only kudzu sprawled before his eyes in green Rapunzel tendrils. He had passed the last residence a few miles back; he hadn’t seen an address past 5370. Dodger parked his truck, halfway up his tires in invasive flora, to search on foot.
Swathed in humidity, Dodger puzzled over his grandmother Irma as he waded through the dense kudzu infestation. He didn’t think about his physical movement; he just kept slogging forward through the leaves. His uncloaked thoughts mingled, connecting in ways that wouldn’t normally be allowed if his agenda-driven life hadn’t recently rocketed into disarray. He could forget Jaylene for tomorrow. He could remember to forget her that day, too.

Here where the woods ended, the vines tangled and rolled, as vast as an ocean, but without an ocean’s sense of equilibrium. The emerald plant grew unchecked, choking out all other vegetation in its gorgeous savagery. The kudzu thrived in the July heat, baking under the Georgian sun. The muggy air unfurled like a sweaty flag saturated with the vines’ grape odor. Dodger smashed a mosquito on his arm, and the bug’s blood (his own blood) mingled with his sweat. He could feel dampness weeping from his skin, wetting his cotton shirt and slicking the insides of his elbows and the backs of knees. No shade trees spread their branches here, and if he didn’t find Irma’s house soon, he felt certain he would die from heat stroke.
Then Dodger began to worry about snakes. He imagined more than once that the kudzu slithered. He glanced back at his truck, making sure it had not been swallowed by the vegetal menace. Insects buzzed under verdant tentacles. Heat rippled the air, making his surroundings appear to undulate. He blotted his wet forehead with his shirt. Dodger tripped over buried logs, wading deeper until his truck shrank to a pinprick.

Then he saw a lump, too abrupt to be a hill. He recalled a witch’s curse and the briars choking Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Dodger scrabbled through the green strands; he pressed his fingers into the tangled mound. He felt under the kudzu, his palms discovered wood. Pressed against the house’s walls, Dodger could feel his pulse, his heart beating through his fingertips. He circled the house, cutting his hands on a broken window before locating the doorknob. He buried the key in the hidden lock; it rattled loose. He ripped the foliage with his hands and pried the door. The hinges screamed like lost souls, and Dodger never felt as real as he did when he stepped into Irma’s home.

As his eyes adjusted, Dodger heard the ceiling groan under the weight of the plants. How long has this house sat empty? he wondered. What does it take for a vine to grow this violent? The kudzu had pushed its way through the windows; in the half-dark, thin light flickered off glass shards on the floor. Leaves pressed through cracks in the walls. The floor dipped to one side, and Dodger wondered if the roots might be pushing the house up from beneath.

Irma’s things sat probably close to where she left them. The one-room house had a small kitchen table and three chairs, three chairs for a mother and a father and someone else. The shelves held canned peaches, pickled okra, tomatoes with hand-written labels: Spring 1948, Summer 1947. A broom tipped against one wall, covered in the dust it once dusted away. Browned sheets were rumpled up on the unmade bed. Rats nested in one corner behind a wicker bassinet. This was Irma’s lost life, a life she practiced forgetting.

Dodger and Jaylene had wanted children. He traced his hand over the bassinet’s edge. Its maker had designed a tight brown weave. The tiny mattress was empty, except for a yellow knit blanket. Who slept here? His mother wasn’t old enough by at least ten years, nor his uncle.

The wind picked up outside, and the beams moaned in ghostly pain. The house structure rumbled under his feet. Dodger needed to get out of here; the air felt choked with dust and spiders. He thought about taking the bassinet; he wanted to uncover its secret. He needed to know the name of the tiny body who snuggled this blanket, but taking the bassinet felt like desecrating a church. He picked the bassinet up and placed it on the shelf with the jarred food, out of the reach of the rats, out of the reach of the grave-robbers, the kudzu and all the things that crawl.

Empty-handed, Dodger emerged from his home back into the daylight. He locked his door and heaved his way back to the truck. There are some things that are lost for good. There are some things forgotten on purpose.

________________________________________

Author Lindsey Walker:
Originally from Chattanooga, I write prose and poetry with a Southern accent. I am currently a student of writing in Seattle. I have won the national prize for best essay from the League for Innovation, the Marcia Barton Award for fiction and the Loft Poetry Contest. My work has been published by the Licton Springs Review and Section 8 Media, and can be seen in upcoming editions of the Steel Toe Review and the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

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