by A.M. Stickel
don’t lie, but I no longer
wanted their version of the truth. I emptied my paltry accounts, converting to
cash everything I hadn’t already squandered on self-pity and pills, packed
munchies and bottled water in a brown paper bag, and forced several changes of
undies, my favorite well-worn dresses, and a few toiletries into a padded
knapsack. No room remained for the ball-and-chain laptop: too bad. I called a
cab and left the door to my cluttered, unvacuumed house unlocked in case a
homeless person needed a refuge.
five feral cats came for their final
feeding, my “So long, guys,” and to watch me tape a note to the front door. It
read: Enjoy your stay. Pet the cats.
knew dying could be such an
adventure? I took a plane, then a boat, then a train, and finally a cab to this
old, rundown bus depot overwhelmed by ivy and wisteria. The header on the
ancient Gillig about to depart in a stinky cloud of diesel displayed its
destination: “Napper’s Holler.” The bus had a dragon paint job, complete with bronze
scales, green-and-purple-rimmed headlight eyes, and sharp white grill teeth.
never heard of Napper’s Holler. The
name did not appear in any atlas I’d come across, online or off. And no one had
ever mentioned it. Since I wasn’t on a sightseeing vacation, I decided to buy a
ticket and go there. Once there, I could figure out the actual next step of my
exit (beyond tossing out the “life saving” medications prescribed by doctors
convinced of their effect by buy-or-die drug companies).
bus had a bathroom, maybe to make up
for the seats being so uncomfortable, maybe signaling that the trip was going
to be a long one. No one else boarded, and the gum-chewing driver was not the
talkative type. Good. What was it about southern speak, whether exiting the
mouths of drawling goofballs on TV sitcoms or four-letter-wording white
trashers at my hometown bus stops? I’d never taken it seriously, and was afraid
to stumble into an imperfect imitation and insult someone, or worse—be laughed
at the way I was always laughing at them (on the inside, mostly).
came not in pill form that night,
but in being able to sprawl across the last row of seats way in back and sleep
despite the bathroom deodorizer. The rosary around my neck reminded me to pray
my way to dreams among familiar mysteries—joyful, sorrowful, glorious, and the
newish luminous. Square with the original intent or not, the repetition always
forgotten how good it felt just to
sleep without owing anyone a waking duty. When I did wake up, alone in the
parked bus, it was Sunday. Because I wanted to give God as many chances as
possible to work things out with me, I needed to meet Him halfway, which meant
going to a church. Besides, I knew better than to dismiss what I’d been writing
about all my life—Lucifer, his gang, temptation, sin, and hell—and was trying
to figure out how to avoid meeting him up close and personal by gracefully
exiting life. Even crazy people knew that his gang, temptation, and sin didn’t
have to win. At work in my lowly on-call lab job, one had once cleaned the
demons off me: “Shoo, get away from her!” (leaving me unsure whether to be
embarrassed or relieved).
the diesel to keep them off me, the mosquitoes did their
best demonic impressions. Was I already in hell? No, the carved-wood sign in
front of the church on the only street said “Saint Elmo’s.” Too bad Mass times
weren’t part of the carving. Picking up my gear, I exited the bus. Was the
driver a church-goer? I didn’t smell the cigarette smoke of a driver hanging
around trying to dispel hunger or boredom with tobacco, as I’d seen drivers do
the world over.
Saint Elmo’s, I automatically
dipped fingertips into the holy water font by the door, and got the surprise of
my life when a gray-orange kitten nipped me! She’d been curled in the dry font,
and I’d disturbed her nap. I knew by her hiss and aura of queenly affront that
she was owed the “Sorry, girl” I whispered. Her small mew and closed eyes said
I was forgiven and forgotten.
church, dim except for candles lined
up in front of the crucifix and statues of the Virgin Mary and her (“most
chased…er, chaste spouse”) Joseph,
smelled like every Catholic church I’d ever been in—of cool water, warm wax,
and holy books. Holy books have a distinct perfume, one I’d almost achieved
in my living room
library (failure being due to the adulteration of sacred by secular tomes, way
too many of them paperbacks).
sat in the last pew and waited.
Twangy-tongued folk wearing old-timey clothes drifted in—in singles, pairs, and
whole families. Wise to the kitten, they used the font by the other door. Was
the town a theme park? We were waiting for the priest, but not long enough for
me to nod off, just blink a few times. He appeared between blinks—tall and
chocolate-colored, smiling us to our feet, his deep bass intoning our first
song. The hymns were printed by hand in hand-bound books. I was the only one
who had to use a book because everyone else already knew the songs.
didn’t really need that book either,
since I couldn’t see, let alone sing, through my tears. How can I describe the
sound of heaven? Everyone sang off-key, yet in harmony, and, oh, Sweet Lord,
there were fiddles just like the ones in the tiny church I’d once hiked to on
youthful legs in the Swiss Alps. The sermon made us all laugh. A Jesus
look-alike held my hand for the “Our Father.” During Communion, a blond girl in
blue gingham played a dulcimer. At the dismissal I didn’t want to leave.
likes to throw cream pie at plans
written on a doleful countenance and laugh along while it’s licked off. I was
high on the divinely ironic delicacy that was Napper’s Holler. I’d learned
where I was when Father William asked visitors to the Holler to please rise,
and I was it.
make me nervous. Even though these
folks looked even more surprised to see me than I was to be among them, I
didn’t know what to say because a group stare absolutely immobilizes me. The
only calm ones were the priest and the cat, who was asleep. My clothes felt
right, though. I always wear granny dresses, unacceptable in ‘normal society’
for about forty years, but which kind of fit in with what the other ladies
except for the hymns being in
English instead of Latin, was what I remembered from early childhood. However,
the kneeling my child knees used to tolerate without complaint, my adult knees
protested mightily. Afterwards made up for it. I was invited to homemade
breakfast at the rectory, and an earful of the history of the most unusual
bus-stop I’d ever made.
the course of my stay, I’ve done my
best to get down the (mostly irreverent) tales passed along through generations
of locals. The handwritten versions I send out with Dragon Driver George are my
translations of what I’ve been able to decipher and piece together. I do not
plan to leave anytime soon, God-willing and the creek don’t rise. The cabin
where I live is small but cozy, with neighbors there when I need them and not
there when I don’t, which works fine for me. I try to do the same for them.
look for me. You won’t find me.
I’m writing under an assumed name and passing this through several layers of
helpers. They are my new angels now that Lucifer has relinquished his greedy
grasp. I don’t want to be famous or have to w