Pennies, Bullets and Bookmarks

Have you ever noticed that as you grow older you life is full of little “bookmarks” which remind you of events that have danced across the years of your life? Smells that bring back childhood moments and emotions as if you had just experienced them? Songs that bring and ache to your chest, or a smile to your face, a subtle souvenir from a day long gone?

These little bookmarks have sometimes been wonderful for me, like a scrapbook I carry in my head and heart to ensure that memories are not just some distant dusting waiting to be swept away. But there are moments, sad and often scary-gray-wish-I-could-let -this-one-go moments, which often creep up when they are least welcome or expected.

I was seven years old the summer that my cousin died. We hadn’t been that close, my parents were divorced for three years by then, and I saw her only during my summer visits to Texas. We were the same age, less two months, but she somehow seemed to be years ahead of me. I mean, sure, we played together during the rare weekend my father took me to his brother’s home. But the main reason she played with me was because the small town she lived in afforded her so little entertainment that she was willing to spare a day or two dealing with me, despite my immaturity. My uncle lived in one of those towns that could slip by unnoticed if you glanced at the map at the same moment you came upon it. Grain silos graced one side of the two lane road, with the railroad tracks snug against the backs of them, and the town with it’s three whole streets stretched out like cracker crumbs strewn carelessly on the other side of the street.

The smell of cattle and chickens was pervasive, wafting across the miles of bean, corn, and tomato crops to conceal any other scent that might be so ridiculous as to perfume the air. The summers unyielding heat only compounded the effect, magnifying the manure odor as the day progressed until by nightfall it seemed to cling to my clothes.

My cousin was adventurous, which was probably why she found me so annoying and immature. I was acutely skittish and flinched at everything from bugs to loud noises, and often pleaded with her to play something “safe” with me, like making mud pies under the one oak tree in her mama’s back yard. I can remember her look of distain as she turned away and marched off to the newest exploit she’d decided on, ignoring me until I gave in and ran to catch up.

That last Sunday the game of choice was “squash the penny” on the railroad tracks. Laying our old tarnished pennies on the rail in neat little rows we would run and hide behind the old wooden pallets stacked near the silos and watch as the train flashed by, slinging our converted prizes out for us to find and gloat over. I had quickly warmed to this game, dispensing my fears when I discovered how the pennies, still hot in my hand, were flattened or severed in half. By the time she pulled out the bullet she’d stolen from her daddy from her pocket and waved it in the air with an excited grin I was so caught up in the enthusiasm that I didn’t even stop to wonder if I should be afraid.

The train, when it came, seemed to fly toward us as if it knew there was a new prize awaiting it’s arrival. It’s chug-chug-rattle shaking the ground beneath our feet with a fervor that seemed personal and imminent. As it swept past our hiding spot the roar of the engine and wheels almost drown out the sharp *snap* of the train as it found the long bullet we had lain on the track. I grinned and laughed aloud, the thrill of the moment sweeping me upwards so that it felt like my spirit was flying after the massive monster. Turning I looked to my cousin to share the joy of the moment, and saw to my surprise she was laying on the ground.

My only real remaining memory of that moment is her upturned hands, dirty and smudged with Texas earth, curled lightly as if in sleep.

The funeral must have been within the following few days, though time seems to have disappeared between the Sunday of the accident and the afternoon where I stood in my stiff print dress beneath the canopy near her graveside. It was quiet. Horribly silent. Most of the tears had been shed and there was no real expression of grief. My dad stood with my aunt, clasping her hand. My uncle hadn’t come, was unable to muster himself out of the painful daze that was a mix of grief and whiskey. It was be years before he ventured out of the broken man that the death of his only daughter had made of him.

I stood alone. As much out of need as because no one was sure how to treat me. They didn’t want to blame me, but I think that somehow they couldn’t help it. But perhaps that is just the guilt in me, thinking they should have blamed me. The minister began his eulogy in a soft monotone that carried like dust motes in the still of the hot day. I felt like crying, but didn’t dare. It was dreadful.

But the worst of it was the flowers. Countless bouquets of flora; wreaths, potted vegetationâÂ?¦ everywhere. Thick and fragrant âÂ?¦ their perfume lay thick in the arid afternoon, mixing with the never-ending smell of cows and manure. I tried holding my breath, and breathing low and panting out of my mouth alone, but I couldn’t escape it. My cousin lay there, dead, (oh myâÂ?¦ and it could have beenâÂ?¦ should have been âÂ?¦ me) and all I could smell was cow dung and flowers on a day that made everything smell as if it were simmering on a stove. I don’t remember much after that. I threw up when we got home, as hot and feverish as the miserable day now passing behind us. I was suddenly not alone anymore, but surrounded by sympathetic murmurings and hugs, cools rags and ice cream. I slept through the rest of the day between cool white sheets, and we left the next morning for home.

I never spent another summer in Texas.

But as years passed I discovered that the smell of flowers was strangely repugnant. Somehow manure didn’t seem so bad, though it brought to me a slow melancholy that reminded me a summer in Texas I didn’t want to think about too closely. But the smell of flowers on a hot day has since caused me to feel as if I might strangle. Panicky flutterings sweep through my chest and I can almost swear that somewhere in the distance I can hear a train, wailing, shaking, âÂ?¦ coming for me in the swelter of the summer sun.

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