We had a big field behind my house. Somebody twenty years before then grew soy beans out there. But now it was just a big field covered in tall grass.
It was a great place to fly kites. The remnants of the old rows made the ground a little uneven as we ran to get the kites up in the air. I’d fall flat on my face once or twice.
When it got hot, we’d encounter these black snakes that’d rise up like cobras to about knee level. I realize now the real name for the snake is “The Southern Black Racer Snake.” But I remember we called them “black chasers” because supposedly they’d chase you. That was the stuff of nightmares for a little boy. Of course, in the racist South, “black” could also be taken as a noun instead of an adjective. So the name of the snake was more about who it chased than what it looked like when it did the chasing, and we generally used a less polite variation of that name.
My brothers told me if you ever see a black chaser you should just freeze like a statue and it won’t bite. Don’t run. You couldn’t really trust that the snakes, in spite of their name, would make nuanced racial distinctions about who to chase and who not to.
The one time I remember running into a black chaser head-on and reared-up I froze like I was supposed to. It seems like we stood there staring at each other for an hour in the scorching Mississippi sun. But I have no memory of what happened next. Did the snake just go on his merry way? Did my brother knock it aside? They weren’t poisonous, but who wants to get bitten by a snake?
One early autumn, this kid named Russ came over. We were both about five or six. The tall grass was dry straw. Yellow-white and like a thick woven rug all over that whole field.
Russ goes: “You know where your momma and deddy keep the matches?”
“Well, go get some!”
Russ lit the grass on fire. My job was to stomp it out after we watched the flames for a second. I did the best I could, but two boys playing with matches in a big field of dry straw wasn’t going to end well.
Next memory I have is a picture of a line of firemen battling flames that looked 20 feet tall and orange as a pumpkin. The whole next day, we all stomped around out there on the crunchy charred-black remains of those weeds.
Beyond the field was a stream in some woods where we played hide and seek.
Then … in what seemed like one day … they replaced our field with a cheap apartment complex. They built a little wall out front with pressed-on rocks to look like an old stacked-slate fence and called it “Cedarstone Apartments.”
They’d been back there for a while before I actually went in one. A kid from my class lived in there with his divorced mom. In a southern Baptist world in early 1970s Mississippi where we all lived with both parents, where divorce still meant that something really, really bad had happened to somebody, it gave me a sick feeling walking into this cramped box under another cramped box next to fifty other cramped boxes covering our kite-flying field.
We were still pretty little. Fifth or sixth grade. And his mom wasn’t home. So the whole situation felt weird. Foreign. Wrong. And lonely. That’s what it was. I felt lonely in that kid’s house. My mother was always home. At that same moment when I was watching Gilligan’s Island with that kid, my mother was cooking a stew or a pot of black-eyed peas. If I’d been home, she’d have asked me to taste a spoon full.
And I guess I was also traumatized by being in an actual house … or an apartment … where the dad was never gonna come home. Not because he was dead but because he didn’t want to come home.