Ways to Die in Alabama
My babysitter the summer before third grade had burns all down the side of her body. I can’t remember if it was the right side or the left side, not that it would make much of a difference. I wouldn’t think it’s any better to be all burned up on one side of your body versus the other.
I’ll call her Mandy for discretion.
Mandy never talked about her burns, but my sister and I knew how she got them. We lived in a small Alabama town where everybody knew everything about pretty much everybody. Come to think of it; Mandy didn’t talk much at all. I can’t remember anything else about her other than her burns, and she was not that interested in my sister or me. I honestly can’t remember her name.
She took us to a pool once way out in the country — a concrete swimming hole surrounded by a high chain-linked fence in the middle of nowhere. That’s all I remember her ever doing over an entire summer. The only other creatures in the pool that day were a skinny boy with jet-black hair, slick and shiny like the coat of a Doberman, and a bullfrog, which I named Oscar and immediately swore to love and protect. The boy with jet-black hair killed Oscar by throwing him over the fence. I buried him and cried over his grave of gravel and twigs. I can’t remember what Mandy was doing or if she’d even stuck around to watch us swim.
The story goes that Mandy got her burns when she was about seven or eight years old — my age the summer she babysat my sister and me. There had been a caged utility trailer full of cotton nearby her house. As explained to me, a large haul of cotton can get so hot it catches fire. The heat begins in the middle of the load where the cotton is most compressed and gets hot enough to ignite a spark. Deprived of oxygen, the quiet burning expands. One breath of life and fury is set free.
Country fun often involves jumping in or off things. Mandy and her brother couldn’t resist jumping in a cage full of cotton. Who could? It’s horrifying to imagine. Two little kids jumped in a pile of cotton and got swallowed by fire. Mandy’s brother died. Mandy suffered severe burns.
Death lurked around every corner of my childhood. There was no promise of tomorrow. It was the summer Mandy babysat my sister and me that I saw a dead body for the first time. People died all of the time.
Car accidents claimed a lot of lives, including my first cousin. Young people drove at lightning speeds on the backcountry roads everyone “knew like the back of their hand.” Until a loose patch of gravel reminded them they didn’t. The paper reported all the wrecks in the same way — single car accident, lost control of the vehicle at high speed, not wearing a seatbelt.
My mother’s boyfriend at the time lost his father to a pile of pine logs. Loads of pine logs barreled down Alabama State Route 5, cutting through the Black Belt. He was set to carry one. He went to tighten the chains around the logs stacked on the flatbed truck. The chain slipped, and he was dead and buried all at once.
The first house my mom ever borrowed money to buy came for sale after the previous owner died. The house sat in the shade of giant pecan trees, and the previous owner, a single man, was struck and killed by a falling limb. The limbs of pecan trees are weak, a genetic curiosity given their purpose, and often break under the weight of the pecans with no consideration for who might be underneath.
Rural legend convinced us all that water moccasins attacked fishermen by falling from trees into your boat. I never received a first-hand account, but took it as fact and avoided fishing under tree canopy all the same. And once my mother, bored and oblivious to my gothic imagination, mindlessly told me kudzu would soon take over the world. The threat made sense. Vines engulfed anything left neglected and stretched out onto the roads. We were all on borrowed time.
Alabama seemed continually conspiring against us — a plague of casualties cast upon us as retribution for our sins. A land where cotton could hide a burning hell and trees rained snakes and spears. A pocket of space and time where a brush with death passed like a summer breeze.
I saw my first dead body when I was eight years old. I’d ridden my bike to the city pool that day. Again, a concrete swimming hole surrounded by a high chain-linked fence. There were two other pools in town. They were “members only” pools. One at least had the amenities to qualify as a club, the other an unapologetic loophole to keep little white kids from swimming with little black kids. We swam at the city pool where it cost a dollar or less each visit.
Nothing looked better than the city pool in summer. Dazzling turquoise water situated in the middle of two parking lots — an oasis on asphalt so hot it could blister a bare foot. There was a water-tank at the back-right corner of the pool that you had to walk under to enter the gate. The pool was at its deepest at the gate. There were two lifeguard towers, one at the deep end of the pool and another on the left side in the middle. This second tower overlooked a floating rope separating the shallow end from the deep end.
The old man entered through the gate. I was doing my best doggie-paddle to stay afloat in the deep end. Old people never came to the city pool, so I noticed him immediately. I assumed all old people were lonely and, therefore, desired my company. I had several old buddies around town with whom I regularly visited —plopping down in their hot living rooms, eating all of their hard candy, and asking them a bunch of questions about being old. To this day, I typically enjoy the company of senior citizens over the company of people my age; except, now I am getting old. Another decade and I’ll either be desperately lonely or wildly popular.
The man was black, late sixties/early seventies, held a reasonably fit frame, wore black shorts with a blue swimming cap, and carried only a towel and a pair of goggles. He came alone. He entered through the gate and walked around the deep-end of the pool and then along the side towards the middle. He left his towel at the lifeguard stand mid-way. I moved along the opposite side of the pool towards the middle where I could keep a better watch on the old man and wait for my opening.
We would be friends in no time.
The lifeguard overlooking the rope that day was the eldest of three brown-eyed brothers. He was handsome, well-liked, indiscriminately kind, and a winning football player — the kind of home-town boy even the most ambitious girls fantasized about marrying someday. The image of him riding a tractor in Carhartts and a white t-shirt was enough to extinguish my own wanderlust. I can see him through the kitchen window, our babies tugging at my apron now covered in flour from the blueberry pie I just put in the oven. I’ll set two beers in the freezer because I know he’ll be done soon. We’ll have them together on the front porch after he’s showered. Sigh.
I’ll call him Duane for discretion.
The old man at the pool stayed close to where he’d set his towel, swimming just under the lifeguard stand. As such, he only occasionally appeared inside the scope of Duane’s survey. Every so often, Duane looked down, but he was likely less worried about the old man than the wild tribes of children ignoring all of the rules. I stayed close to the ledge and tried not to get injured by a leg or elbow or ball or frisbee or stick or anything else flying through the air. From time to time, I looked across the pool for the old man. I could see his blue swimming cap bouncing on top of the water.
What happened next sends all of the details of the day spinning. I am in complete control of the memory until I see the old man lying on the bottom of the pool. That moment triggers something in my recollection, and everything from him walking through the gate to being pulled out of the water starts moving in rapid succession, looping the circumference of my mind.
I glanced toward the man. I didn’t see him. Duane was standing on his post. I looked down and saw the old man lying on the bottom of the pool. I looked back up at Duane. He saw him too and moved his neck forward in the way you do to bring something into focus. He blew his whistle and dove towards the old man. Duane lifted the body from the bottom of the pool, which was deep at that point, so only his head and that of the old man surfaced from the water.
Another whistle ordered everyone out of the pool. We sat on the ledge, our feet dangling in the water, and watched.
A small crowd of adults gathered around Duane, who was still in the water with the old man. Arms, black and white, lifted the limp body and stretched it on the concrete. Someone performed CPR, but it was clear the man was dead. An ambulance came and took the body away.
Even more than seeing a dead man or having a babysitter covered in burns or burying a bullfrog, the memory of what happened next sends me back to being eight years old, back to feeling small and helpless.
After the ambulance took the man’s body away, everyone started swimming again.
It’s possible we all left the pool that day, but my emotional memory recalls a day and a summer in which everything immediately snapped back into place. Kids are splashing and yelling and Whitney Houston wanting to dance with somebody is on the boom box.
To move on like nothing happened felt malicious — to dismiss his life was to be complicit in his death. It made me angry. He had been a baby and a child once, like me. He had a mom once. He had a first crush. He might have fought in a war. We were going to be buddies. And just like that, he vanished into space. It was as if the old man hadn’t died at all. Even more chilling, it was as if he never lived. How terrifying to be forgotten, gone without a trace.
I hope a family mourned his passing, and that there is a framed picture of him on a side-table somewhere — him as a strapping young man posing in uniform, smiling at the only girl he’s ever loved. He’ll propose when he gets home. I hope people tell funny stories about him, and a great-nephew carries his name.
I remember his life as it took place for about an hour on a summer day in Alabama. The old man with the blue swimming cap enters through the gate and walks along the edges of my mind. I watch him and wait for my opening to ask his name.
Jessica Langlois has work published in The Tallahassee Democrat, Bitter Southerner, Ink & Voices, and Encore Magazine for the Arts. She lives in Atlanta. Find her on Instagram, @jesslanglois777.