My name is Magnolia Shakes, and I was born on July 28, 1970. Exactly eight years later my daddy died in an act of self-killing out on the interstate near where we lived. I don’t know why he picked my birthday to do what he did. People tried to tell me he wasn’t feeling right and didn’t pick that day on purpose. I knew better because he left me a present that I found after. It was a doll inside a box that you could see through. She had blonde hair and wore a pink dress with yellow dots on it. I never did open it and just sat her on a shelf in my room and I would look at her once in a while. I wanted to play with her, but I just couldn’t. He had a little note with it too that just said: Happy Birthday always, my Magnolia. Love, Daddy. On all my birthdays after that, I made myself believe he picked it so I would never forget and always remember him, but not in a bad way. Thinking otherwise would have crushed me to dust.
The accident was awful, and they had to shut down the highway and reroute people through town. There was a story about it in the newspaper the next day, but momma wouldn’t let me look at it. She folded it up and hid it away somewhere. I found it later and my brother clipped it to keep. They had to take the driver of the truck to the hospital and sedate him because he was so traumatized. There were about half a dozen cars that wrecked, too. No one else was killed but I think some people had some bad gashes and broken bones. The highway patrolmen that came to the house warned us not to go down there. Later, if we had to go on the highway, I would close my eyes at that particular stretch and try not to think about it, to push it away. It wore me out, in almost anything I did, having to do all that pushing of bad memories away. They just kept coming back, like I was constantly building a dam and it just kept breaking.
My mother’s name was Helen Shakes and I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She had long, bouncy blonde hair that she loved tossing around with her hands. Her eyes were a smooth green with a dot of sparkle that looked like the Emerald City from that Wizard of Oz movie. I thought she looked like a real-life princess, but other people said she was a little rough around the edges in both looks and actions. I don’t think she was, not until what happened to daddy. She kind of just let herself go after that. She started to drink more than usual, too. She was never mean to me, just a bit neglectful at times, especially when that Eddie Dallas started coming around more and more. My older brother Dylan and I didn’t like him at all. I thought he was arrogant and rude and disrespectful to our mother. I don’t know what she saw in him. He was a small, red-headed man with a smooth and youthful face dotted with freckles. If you didn’t know the real Eddie Dallas you would have thought he was a sweet, nice guy just by looking at him. But he wasn’t. He had a mean streak running through him all the way. I don’t know how my momma could feel any comfort looking into those demon eyes or being held in those scrawny arms. She acted like she did. But I knew better. It was sort of like I could see her insides, past her skin and into her soul, and what was on the inside was different than what was on the outside. I’ve always been able to do that, with most anybody. The only one I really couldn’t do it with was Dylan, and I think that was because he could do it too.
One day Eddie and my mom sat me and my sister down in the living room after supper to tell us something important. Eddie said he had gotten a promotion and that he was being sent to work in Chicago. I didn’t know why the hell anyone would want to promote Eddie, but they did. At first, I was fine with it because I thought it meant he wouldn’t be around much anymore. But then my mom said she was going to go with him and help him settle in and things like that, but that it was just going to be a small apartment so my sister and I would have to go live with our grandparents, “them damn Beasleys” as my daddy called them, up in the Badger Sate, that’s Wisconsin, for a while.
Eddie went on and on about how it would be best for everyone while he makes his way at the new job and makes a good impression. He didn’t need too many distractions. Then he talked about how the big city was no place for us kids and that we would come later when they were officially married and had a house set up in the suburbs and then my mom stuck out her hand and wiggled her fingers in the air and there was a new ring on it. It wasn’t the ring my daddy gave her. She probably threw that one away. They said we were going to be a new, happy family. They acted like they were excited, and they wanted my sister and I to be excited, but I wasn’t very excited, but then why would I be?
In the summer of 1979, Eddie helped momma sell the house and he got it packed up. He sent most off to a storage place in Illinois. A lot of it was stuff that belonged to my sister and me. A lot of it belonged to my daddy, too, and that made me mad as hell. Magnolia and I were only allowed to take a few things with promises that everything would be back to normal once we were all reunited in Chicago. I didn’t believe Eddie and part of me was hoping he was making it all up anyway.
My Grandma Mavis and my Grandpa Roman were my mom’s parents. I think she kept them disappointed much of her life. They never really liked my daddy too much either. They thought he wasn’t motivated enough and wasn’t giving us a good enough life. I don’t think it affected them too much when he died even though they acted like it did.
They lived in a nice house near Lake Michigan in a small town called Blue Shore and it was full of blue people and cold people but there were streaks of sunlight, too. And it was the sort of light that made your guts jump a bit with lonely happiness if that makes any sense. It was the sort of light that made its way through the trees and filtered through the autumn leaves set to fall and it cast color like loaded dice. It was September light, October light, and it would come in on an angle through the trees like I said, and it would hit against a neighborhood of neat little houses of white and yellow and pink and sweet ocean blue all lined up in Americana serenity and the echoes of life there called down to the fallen bodies of yesteryear in triplicate. I had been to Blue Shore a few times or so, Nola some too, and I liked it. I would have liked it more if the adults around me had just left me alone.
Them damn Beasleys would come and visit us in Arkansas once in a while, but they didn’t like the heat or the food or our living conditions. Not that they were terrible, just not up to their standards. Grandma Mavis would spend most of the time trying to clean and organize our house and Grandpa Roman would get to lecturing my daddy at the kitchen table on how to be a better man. My daddy would just nod his head up and down and say real seriously “I know, sir. I know.” I say daddy did the best he could. He worked odd jobs. Mostly construction and electrical and fixing things and we always had something to eat and had the lights on. I never understood what was so bad about that. There were a lot of other men in the world who did a whole lot worse.
My Grandpa Roman was an overly stern man, and he was pushy, too. He worked at the newspaper in Blue Shore for more than half his life. Worked himself up all the way to editor. He was opinionated and he was always pressing people to be better than what he thought they were, but not in a good way. He was arrogant and critical. He didn’t like laziness or mistakes. He didn’t like unruly kids either, and so he’d get on my momma for that if Magnolia and I made too much noise or ran around too much. He’d tell her that we weren’t disciplined enough because we were acting like animals and that we’d end up just like my daddy if she didn’t lay down the law. I thought he was a mean and heartless man, and I don’t see why he seemed to be so proud of that fact.
Grandma Mavis kind of followed in his ways. She was a fussy lady. Their house was clean and neat, and it looked like no one even lived there, like it was always up for sale or something. Grandma Mavis always kept herself polished, too. Seemed like she even dressed up to clean the house. The only time I ever saw her in something else was when she was riding the mower around in the yard cutting the lawn. She steered that thing with authority and in straight lines. I wanted to ride on it one time, but she wouldn’t let me.
She had worked for Lake County for a long time. She oversaw the running of the museum and historical places like that. She had something to do with the art center, too. I guess she was kind of important because she had to go to town meetings sometimes and talk. She could be a very pointed and serious woman at times, and I always thought she would have made a good guard at a jail.
I don’t think either one of them were ever very fun. Maybe at Christmas. That’s one time we would usually visit if the weather wasn’t too bad. There’d be other people there too, like uncles and aunts and cousins from different places. Some we hardly knew. We got a lot of presents, though. Nola and I would play outside with the cousins while the grownups stayed in the house drinking cocktails and gossiping loudly about family members that weren’t even there. Believe me, my daddy wasn’t much for cocktails and talking and so he’d usually end up coming outside to watch us run around. Grandpa Roman took it as an insult and thought daddy couldn’t stand on his own with the adults.
Grandma and Grandpa Beasley had about seven acres of land and where the yard ended in the back there was a wooded area with some walking paths worn into the earth and a trickle of a creek. The trees were thick in places. Magnolia liked to call it the “100-acre wood” like in Winnie-The-Pooh, but I don’t think it was a hundred acres, but maybe to her it felt like it. I guess it could have been.
One time after a Christmas lunch I was out there with my cousin Angela from Oshkosh, and we were just walking around hitting sticks against trees and not really talking much. Maybe some stuff about school. It was winter but the sun was shining, and it was even kind of warm and I had to unzip my coat.
She was a year older than me and just out of the blue she asked me if I had ever kissed anyone. I said no, which was true. She said she hadn’t either and wanted to know if we should try it with each other. She was pretty decent for a cousin, so I said yes. Then she kind of backed me up to a tree. She was a bit bigger than me, and I remember her face was really close to mine and she smelled like the bubblegum she just spit out. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure what to do. I just closed my eyes, held my breath, and waited. Then I felt what must have been her lips on me and it lasted for about 10 seconds and then she was done. Her mouth was soft and felt warm and cold at the same time. I think she lied about never doing it before because she seemed pretty well versed in it. I was suddenly worried I had to deal with a cousin for a girlfriend, and that I’d have to write letters or call her up on the phone every day. But it was stupid for me to worry because I never had to do any of that because she just shrugged her shoulders and looked at me like it was nothing special. We went back to walking around and she never said anything more about it or wanted to try kissing ever again. I was relieved and grateful.
Nobody really knows why my daddy did what he did. Some say it was a sickness of the heart. Others say it was a sickness of the mind. I think it was probably both. I was just a kid when it happened, so it probably didn’t matter what I thought, but it should have. Now he’s just a ghost.
I remember my momma screaming and crying like crazy when those men from the highway patrol came to the house and told us what happened. I thought her head was going to just up and explode the way she was carrying on. The patrolmen had to almost restrain her as they walked her to the couch to sit her down. Seemed my daddy had drove his truck a few miles down the road from where we lived to a wooded spot close to where the interstate runs through. As far as anyone of authority could tell, he just got out of the pickup, walked through the trees to the edge of the roadway, and just stepped out in front of a tractor-trailer going about 70 miles per hour. I think they said it was a chicken truck.
They said he probably didn’t suffer much because he most likely passed very quickly. Hell, I guess he would have, and I guess you could say he just disappeared from this world in the quickest blink of an eye there could ever be. The patrolmen tried to be decent and respectful about my daddy being killed. But how can you be decent and respectful about a man being run down by a chicken truck? The whole sad part for me was thinking about him all alone and in pieces out there on the road so I don’t believe them none when they said he didn’t suffer. I think that poor man suffered most of his life, and no one really stepped up to help him out or just listen to him, maybe not even once.
Just so you know, his name was John Shakes, but they called him Johnathon Shakes in his obituary in the local newspaper. I have it cut out and I stuck it in one of my reading books. They had a picture of him too, one where he was smiling and looking happy like he was saying to the world lastly this: “I had a good life.” I’m not too sure about that and I was around him all of mine, and even though I thought I knew him, he was still a mystery to me. I am his only son. My name is Dylan Shakes.
My momma liked the name so much she said I was going to be named Dylan no matter what, even if I came out a girl. Four years later they did have a girl, my little sister, Nola. Her birth name is Magnolia, but everyone calls her Nola. She was a good kid. She had that kind of messy blonde hair that always looked like she just got out of bed and her eyes were like big blue planets spinning in her head. She wasn’t a dirty or ugly kid or anything like that. People thought she was adorable, and some said she looked like a little Cinderella. Not the slaving away Cinderella, but the one all cleaned up and pretty looking. Most of the time she was quiet and acted sad, but she never did anyone wrong. She hardly ever made any trouble. After our daddy died, she curled up inside herself and kind of hid away there. I would have to go by her bedroom to get to mine and often the door would be open, and I would look inside without her knowing. Nola had a small round table in the middle with two little chairs and she would just be sitting there looking off into the sunlight streaming through the window like Heaven calling on her. I figured she was just thinking or praying or wishing for something. It weighed on my heart, but I just let her be. I think she had a lot of things going on in that little head that most people had no idea of. She wasn’t stupid, not one bit.
We lived in a small town west of the big river, about 50 miles from Memphis, but we weren’t in Tennessee, we were in a place called Arkansas. We had a decent old house that was green and white, two stories, trees in the yard, a covered front porch. My mom and daddy didn’t always get along too well and that’s why I was a bit confused when she carried on like she did when they brought the news of my daddy’s demise. I guess maybe people think they’ll never run out of time together and so they don’t talk much or appreciate each other like they maybe should. People spend too much time being angry and upset. Too much time spent on the fight and then people begin to drift apart. I think she loved him, maybe. But then, hell, sometimes it’s too late for love.
There was a funeral at a small white church on a hill overlooking a winding stream, and we had to dress up in fancy clothes my momma had to buy at the sad discount store that smelled like the past. They had to keep the casket closed because there was really nothing to look at. Everyone believed he was in there all sewed back together, but I knew better. I knew that they couldn’t do that, but a lot of people believe anything they’re told. They only have two eyes and they’re blind. I believe I may have three, and I know this because I’ve read about it, and I can feel it inside my head, opening and closing.
My momma put on a show with all her crying. It wasn’t crying like when she first got the news. It was more like crying to make people think she cared, but as time wore on, I got the feeling she really didn’t care that much, about a lot of things. Nola cried too, but it was real, and it hurt me inside. For some reason I didn’t cry. For some reason I held it in, I swallowed it. I nearly choked to death, but I kept it down. I figured my daddy wouldn’t have wanted me to cry because I was the man now.
A lot of folks came around the house after the gloomy funeral and brought us food and blessings and they hugged us. Some cried. Some didn’t. I think some folks might have been talking business or even quietly laughing about something completely different. It wasn’t their lives that had just been horribly shattered, so what the hell did they care.
At first momma seemed kind of broken, but it wasn’t but six months later that there was a new man sitting at our supper table eating our food and acting like he owned the place. His name was Eddie and he worked at one of the banks in town loaning people money and coming after them when they didn’t pay it back. I guess that’s how he met my momma. I guess he figured out a way to get her to pay something back.
I didn’t like him. He tried to talk to me like he was my daddy, but he wasn’t. No one else ever would be even if my old man checked out of life in a “coward’s way.” That’s what that god damn Eddie would say, even in front of me and my sister, and momma would just pretend like he didn’t. I couldn’t believe it. She changed, too. She didn’t spend as much time with me or Nola anymore. Momma and Eddie would be all up tight on each other on the couch watching movies in the dark and holding hands and kissing. She used to kiss my daddy, but not as much. Maybe having Eddie to cling to was just her way of not having to deal with reality.
He was meaner to Magnolia than he was me. She was just a little girl, but I was big for my age. My daddy used to say I was “country strong” and I guess I was. I was one of the toughest-looking kids in my class, but I wasn’t mean to people very much unless they made me mad. Anyways, I think Eddie was a little intimidated and didn’t push me around too much. He talked a lot, but I don’t think he’d do much in a fight if it came down to it. Maybe that’s why he liked to pick on my sister.
Nola liked to play with her dolls on the round rug in the living room while she watched the TV. When Eddie came over after work, he’d grab a can of beer from the refrigerator and sit in my daddy’s old chair and he’d just watch her. He’d ask her why she was wasting time playing with dolls instead of helping around the house. He didn’t like her dolls being scattered around in the living room and one evening he was in a bad mood and picked them all up and just threw them all over the place. Magnolia didn’t say anything. She just went and picked them up and went up to her bedroom. My momma poked her head in from the kitchen and told him to stop fussing with her. He told her he could do and say what he wanted to because he worked all day and paid for things and that she should just shut her mouth. I didn’t how my momma could have been okay with that.
It got to be Nola would get scared in the middle of the night and come into my room clutching a pillow and quietly crying because she missed our daddy, and now, she missed our momma too and didn’t want to be around Eddie. I’d let her stay in my room with me because believe it or not, I was scared and missed the way things used to be too and kind of needed her there. I wonder what my daddy would have thought of that. About being scared. I think he’d be okay with it. I’d let her fall asleep in the bed first and then I would. I never made her go back to her own room if she didn’t want to. I tried to be her protector as best I could because nobody else was really doing it.
I didn’t want Nola to be a messed-up kid so I tried to do my best to take care of her like my daddy would have. I was only 12, she was 8. Momma was too busy looking off into nothing and drinking her beer most mornings. She was always in a bad mood and yelling if we made too much noise.
I made sure Nola got up and had some sort of breakfast and I’d help her get ready for school. Most days we would ride the bus together because our schools were right next to each other. She was in the elementary and I was at the junior high. Some days Eddie would drive us on his way to work. We didn’t like those days. His car was dirty, and he smoked cigarettes. He would always try to be friends with us and try to be cool and funny, but I could see right through him. He was a phony for sure. I figured he was a stone-cold liar and cheat, too. I have a way with reading people and having a strong intuition about things. It’s something that has always come easy to me. It has something to do with that third eye I was talking about.
I didn’t have time for friends at school because I was always worried about things in real life and trying to take care of Magnolia. The other kids didn’t like me anyway because I had the “Crazy daddy who jumped in front of a chicken truck.” Kids could be cruel, and you have to wonder what the hell is wrong with their damn parents letting them voice such hateful things. I really didn’t care too much for school. I was the kid who sat by the windows and stared outside at the sky and the horizon below while the teacher was talking about some bullshit or another. That’s not the stuff I wanted to learn. I wanted to know about how to not get so damn hurt in this crazy world. They never teach you about reality, but they should.
Sitting in the dry dirt above the desert floor, with legs crossed, the founder of the Church of Everlasting Super Freshness and self-proclaimed living patron saint of Albuquerque, was looking down upon Giza, New Mexico sprawled out there like a neon hothouse whore. It was a Buddha belly bowl of steaming and colorful madness, a space wizard-centric place in the broken heart of the arid Southwest unlike any ordinary civilization had ever known. And here high up and over it was like he was home in Hip Heaven, and he was some beat-up angel spreading his tattered wings and seeding the place with wishes and delicious desires for The Duke City, a ministry in fact.
For now, he was the holy man on a mission to spread the gospel of Albuquerque and all the sacred intricacies woven throughout. He had devolved himself to the man and byline simply known as Chuck Placitas and took employment at the Giza Revealer as a government reporter. For it was as he desired — to work among ordinary men in order to create an extraordinary place in paradise, to spread the word of New Albuquerque, to attain the pinnacle of hipness. For as Reverend Chuck says: “To be without hipness, is to be without a soul.”
Reverend Chuck Placitas lived in a baby blue Astro love van down by the Pinto River that ran through the salty desert flats on the edges of Giza. He bathed in the silty, brown waters there. When not wandering about town, he kept the van parked on a flat plot of hard soil as near to the shore of the gentle waters as he could without it sinking. His camp was deep out of sight, mostly shrouded by salt cedar brush and low bluffs of red earth. The area was desolate and solitary except for the occasional hiker or two wandering through on a trail several hundred yards away. The camp was comfortable enough for him and he did not want for much. He had a place to sleep, utensils to cook with and eat with. He had things to read and paper to write on. It was overall a peaceful place for him, a place to meditate in front of a night fire as coyotes prowled nearby. The sky there was expansive and bustling with bright stars smeared across the pitch of space at night as the aliens rode on their ships. During the day, the sun was a hot eye from hell weighing down on him. But mostly he was at work during these times, or inside the van with a portable fan blowing on him as he read colorful brochures, travel guides, and historical anecdotes about Albuquerque and its surrounding environs. He was beginning to take a great liking to places like Rio Rancho and Bosque Farms.
He enjoyed bathing in the river. He enjoyed being naked in the wild. He would wash his thinning and wispy hair and his large, unfit, pear-shaped body with cheap shampoo and soap from the Buddha-Mart in town, some 10 miles away by highway. He would also wash the few clothes he had in the river. There he would stand in the middle of the Pinto, at a shallow part, nude, pale and bulbous, scrubbing at his laundry with environmentally considerate detergent, then dunking it down in the waters to rinse. The clothes dried quickly in the desert heat on a wash line he suspended between the van and a thick branch amongst the brush.
On his weekends, he would often use the time to drive the baby blue Astro love van north to Albuquerque, a three-hour trip, to recharge and “refresh” at the small apartment above a garage he rented in the Nob Hill neighborhood.
He was a part-time musician as well as a hip prophet and played bass guitar in a poppy rock band called Albuquerque Motion. The band was mostly unpopular, and the gigs were becoming fewer and far between. Other members were often flighty and unreliable, and Reverend Chuck questioned their allegiances to Albuquerque. He often thought about striking out on his own and being a solo artist.
He enjoyed going down to his favorite pub around the corner, The Regal Raven, and having a few brews with his bros and sometimes performing a song or two for the crowd before returning to the apartment to strum on his bass some more and to write lyrics to songs that he was eager to try out the next time he was at the pub — songs like “Smells Like South Valley” or “Bernalillo Babes.”
His weekends faded fast and before dawn on Mondays, he would get back into his van and once again drive 200 miles back to Giza for his job at the paper and the work of his ministry.
People often questioned Chuck Placitas on why he didn’t just reside in Albuquerque all the time. “If you love it so much, why don’t you just live there?” they would ask.
Reverend Chuck would gently smile, his eyes sort of hypnotically spinning in his weird head, and he had a way of speaking where he would often begin a sentence with “Well, uh,” before he got into the true matter of what he wanted to say. So, his answer to those questioning his choice of where he lived was always “Well, uh, does one preach of the glory of Heaven solely from within the confines of Heaven?”
Aaron Echoes August
An online journal of fiction, essays, and social commentary.