By Nancy VanDusen
The wind cannot move a mountain. Neither praise nor blame moves a wise man.
In the modest Southern California neighborhood where I grew up, driveways ran parallel to each other and most everyone’s kitchen door opened to the side; our garages were detached and sat behind single-story homes; moms still wore house dresses; Pat Brown was our governor and we all knew each other’s occupations, church affiliation, hobbies, and pastimes.
It was a typically hot summer afternoon when Mrs. Toner flung open her kitchen door and bolted outside. Hands clutching short, dark hair she shrieked, “My god! Oh, my god! This house is gonna burn! Burn to the ground!” Her rantings immediately caught my attention, as well as the attention of the many other residents on our block. And—as word spread—moms, dads, kids, dogs and passersby appeared from out of nowhere. We could see, feel, smell and taste fire.
Its source: a heated cloud of billowing-black smoke rapidly rising from the Paul family’s garage.
As it turned out, Mrs. Toner had little reason to panic. Within minutes a team from the Riverside County Fire Department, clad in heavy black boots and fire-protective apparel, piled out of an elongated, bright red truck; its sides sporting hatchets, ladders, and boa constrictor-thick hoses. And, in front of the wide-and-watchful eyes of our typically quiet neighborhood, they hastily and skillfully extinguished the fire engulfing the Paul family’s garage.
The End. Wait, not so fast. It is here that my story begins.
There’d been a rabbit in the burnt-to-the-ground garage, an ill-fated pet rabbit. Post-fire rumor hummed that Fluffy lay at the bottom of a garbage can next to the Pauls’ now-infamous charred-and-cluttered garage foundation. After dinner, under sketchy clouds and a pink-painted sky, I set out on roller skates: metal skates, snuggly hugging a pair of sturdy saddle shoes. With a skate key weighting a string around my neck, I slowly maneuvered the semi-bumpy sidewalk that ran the length of our block, my baby-blues nonchalantly eying the Pauls’ metal corrugated can. Lingering excitement mingled with remaining fire aroma as my toothpick legs wobbled (collapsing only to rise again) and as I overheard bits and pieces of a conversation dominated by two older boys on bikes. They were boasting to my older brother – describing in detail the gory, gross and distasteful condition of Fluffy’s discarded remains.
With darkness approaching, finding myself alone, I cautiously ventured up the Pauls’ driveway, boldly removing the trash-can-in-question’s round, dented lid. Peeking inside, I was deservedly confronted with that which I’ll never forget: one glossed-over starring pink eyeball. Perfectly silhouetted ears, nose and head. A dirty-white lifeless body, matted and flat, stretched and streaked with ashes and soot.
Fluffy, deposited and awaiting disposal.
While I wasn’t behaving like a timid child, I was one and what happened next has also remained with me all these years. The Pauls were a large Catholic family with kids ranging from toddler to teen. Unfortunately, as I stood gawking at Fluffy’s corpse, the tip of my blonde ponytail pointed in his/her direction, Marla Paul, the oldest daughter spotted me. “Nancy!” she yelled through the screen of an open kitchen window. “Get away from there! Get away from that garbage can! Now!”
I barely knew Marla and her firm jolting reprimand brought on a multitude of emotions. All painful. Panic… guilt… embarrassment… shame… fright.
Finding myself in a seven-year-old world of hurt, I hastily replaced the garbage can’s lid, kicked off my skates, clutched them to my chest, and sprinted through the Pauls’ and Toners’ grassy front yards to the quiet haven of my own room. Hiding. Hugging my feather pillow and Raggedy Ann doll. Never to reveal to a soul this out-of-character, risk-taking, unsettling mishap…
So why is this 1950’s flashback significant? Vivid in my decades-past-grown-up mind? For starters, how could a self-defined writer not remember? Not feel driven to document hysterical Mrs. Toner, the Pauls’ exploding garage, hat-and-hose-clad heroes, barbecued rabbit and Nancy’s ultimate indiscretion? A long-ago, out-of-the norm, excitement-filled afternoon that had awakened a sleepy neighborhood’s five senses…
And my own lurking sensitivity.
At age seven I was insightful enough to know, to rationalize, that my crime was no big deal. I was a curious child and Marla’s family had had a bad day. For all I knew she’d been assigned the job of watchperson – instructed to yell at, chase away and chastise any-and-all neighborhood youngsters itching to sneak a peek at a dead rabbit and a garage that was no more. Nevertheless, herein lies my first societal memory of pain-filled sensitivity. This skin. That all- to-common age-old condition wherein intellectual truth proves but a superficial salve. Today, sixty-something years later, candidly disclosing Fluffy’s and my previously untold story, I can’t describe myself as “a mountain” – Buddha-like, unmoved by praise or criticism – but I can boast strides.
In terms of both my creative endeavors… and my life in general.
Today I give calm, conscious heed to critical whispers, taps on the shoulder. Particularly where my writing is concerned. I strive to clearly and responsibility see another’s point of view. Maintain thick skin, if you will.
Deal maturely with rejection.
But, undeniably human, am also on the lookout for distant cheers.
Nancy VanDusen, a retired elementary school teacher, has been an enthusiastic writer of creative nonfiction and fiction for nearly twenty years. She particularly enjoys writing spiritual fantasy for middle-grade children. Her work has been published in 45 Magazine, and she has work forthcoming in Writing in a Woman's Voice. Nancy lives alone in Palm Desert, California but visits her family in the nearby Riverside area regularly.
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