In Summerville, South Carolina, way back in the early 1950’s, when my consciousness slowly awakened and started taking note, you couldn’t drive up to a gas station in your spanking brand new Ford station wagon and fill her up yourself. No, when you pulled up to the pumps, you were met by a worker in overalls who would not only provide you with fuel, but also check your oil, fan belt, and tire pressure. He would clean your windshield, take your cash, and bring you your change.
Where Highway 78 splits into West 5th North Street and Richardson Avenue, my mother’s parents owned such an establishment called the Nation Station and actually lived within its confines. When you entered the front door, you encountered a white-washed wooden counter and a cash register where my grandmother Hazel Hunt Blanton sat perched on a stool. Behind the counter a sheet-like curtain separated a space where tires were stacked, and beyond that was a door leading to three rooms, a hallway with steps, a “living room,” and a kitchen.
Those steps led steeply up to the bedroom — I only remember one – a cavernous barn-like space with a sink that stood out in the open. There my Scots-Irish grandfather Kistler, a bantam rooster of a man, ruddy as a crake, would apply frothy cream with a brush and shave himself with a straight razor that he would snap shut with authority when the ritual was over.
The sleeping arrangements were peculiar — a less decorous narrator might use a stronger word. I don’t remember where my grandfather slept. My grandmother slept with my aunt Virginia, who was only six years older than me.* A ratlike (redundant?) Chihuahua named Perfidia also shared the mother-and-daughter’s bed. Why they would name a dog the Spanish word for “faithlessness” is beyond me. “Here, faithlessness! Come faithlessness!”
I do know why “Fiddy” slept in the bed with them, however. It was for medical purposes: Chihuahuas were supposed to be good for asthma, which periodically plagued my grandmother, sometimes resulting in stays at brown-bricked Dorchester County Hospital. I can see her now, encased in an “oxygen curtain,” wheezing, gasping for breath.
In addition to Perfidia, my aunt kept two parakeets whose whistling provided a sonic counterpoint to Fiddy’s high-pitched yelping. They resided in a cage near one of the windows and spent the long, long, days of my fifth year pecking at bells and suet (and, of course, defecating).
One day, when Virginia got home from school, she discovered to her horror that both of the birds were drenched and behaving oddly. She went into a frenzy — and for good reason. My toddler brother David had given them a “bath” with a Black Flag insecticide sprayer. Of course, Virginia directed her inchoate rage at David rather than my grandmother who had left the poison within a toddler’s reach.
We have no idea what David’s motives were. They could have been altruistic (the birdies looked like they needed a bath, though in that case mangy Fiddy seems a more rational target.) At any rate, I’m fairly certain David didn’t make the connection between spraying the insecticide and killing its recipients.
So I stood around and watched the birds have spasms amid the Euripidean howls from Hecuba Virginia. There was nothing anyone could do. How much does a parakeet weigh? What antidote was there? Eventually, the spasms ceased. The soon-to-be uncolorful birds lay still on the newspaper lining the bottom of their cage.
No doubt the Station sold cigars because Virginia had used a cigar box for the birds’ coffin. Behind the Station (whose “front yard” was a slab of triangular concrete narrowing to the intersection of the two highways) was a small area with one fairly substantial tree. Beneath it Virginia dug a hole and buried the gauze-wrapped birds side-by-side like Abelard and Heloise. Dirt thumped upon the lid of the cigar box, Virginia said a few words, and a marker was erected.
She told me that in a few months we could dig them up to see their skeletons, but thankfully, we never did.
* Though grammatically incorrect, “me” sounds so much better then “I.”