When I return to the landscape of my growing up years, making the five hour drive from my home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to the gentle farmland of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I drive by the farm where I grew up without stopping. I do not turn in the lane once shaded by a canopy of catalpa trees or pass by the rock garden where the “Slow Children at Play” sign my older sister painted so many decades ago once stood among the hostas. It could as easily have said “Slow, Children at Work.”
This is a place many say no longer exists. Headlines read, “Paradise Lost: Inside the Burned-out California Town Destroyed by Deadly Fire,” and “‘There’s Nothing Left of This Town,’ Paradise, California, May Never Come Back From the Ashes.” It was a small town; few knew it. It is not an overstatement to say the wildfire put it on the map the same day it wiped it off.
The West Texas winds blew heavy dust that clung to my eyelashes, and a bit of sand got into my eyes. It was a cool day in mid-summer, but Lubbock’s never-ending parking lots gave off residual heat that made me feel like I was baking. Lubbock has too many parking lots. Driving through town, lot after lot passing my window, made me long for the dull-green landscape of the plains only fifteen minutes away. I kept on down Broadway, past the empty lots where houses once stood, past the empty downtown (even though it was only 4:30pm), past the old segregated part of town that always brings out a bone-deep sadness in me, eventually making it past the last highway. I could see the NTS tower in my rearview mirror. Mac Davis’s song was right, I really like seeing Lubbock in my rearview mirror. I could have appreciated it more if it didn’t leave so much dust in my eye.
Now I’m thinking of the time my father worked in the horse stables for Tom Wilson. This was after the coal mines had shut down for good, and at 40 years old, after spending most of his adult life underground, he now found himself adrift. I was just 13 then, and while I was certainly old enough to understand the strain the loss of his union job put on our family, my parents did what they could to shield me from the realities that lay ahead.
When you arrive at Umuahia by 10pm to visit your cousins for the Christmas holiday, because their house is closer to your school than your parents’ house in Lagos, you will pass by the tall square-shaped tower with a sign at its peak on all four sides proclaiming “Welcome to God’s own state.” When you get to the bus park, do not attempt to leave without calling your cousin to pick you up in his black, battered catering van. If you do, you will wander in the dark night, pulling your noisy roller bag behind you, looking for your cousin’s house in Amuzukwu. You will wonder again for the umpteenth time why the capital of Abia state does not have functioning street lights, and the rationale behind the governor ordering transport companies not to move about after 9pm for security reasons. You will ask questions of two people in white cherubim and seraphim robes sitting in front of a church and you will be directed to the wrong place. Then you will give up and walk to the only landmark you know—Shoprite. You will call your cousin with your phone battery on 4%, fervently hoping you are not robbed before he gets there. You would be disillusioned by this experience if your mind hadn’t already given your past experiences the surreal quality of a fairy tale since the two times you were here as a child.
Everyone wears white here. Girls with white dogs in their arms rush towards the water. Women smear white ointments across the backs of their knees. Swimmers crouch over white caps.
Friends have gathered halfway up the beach, my father’s friends. Beside him sits a woman who was once so beautiful she was named the Rag Queen and transported on a float through the city. They crowd together under the Pohutukawa trees, the family and the extended family visiting from Europe. She waves to me. From across the sand I hear my father say “water lilies”…
Like an orgy—or a fight. Legs collide with legs; strangers struggle around each other, into each other. A collective gasp clutches them all together. One, shirtless, leads the ball down the field, stumbles, and loses control of it. Now the ball leads him and leads his opponent into him. The two collide without a sound, the crash dampened by their flesh. Everybody stops to watch them battle for the ball. When it spills free, the first man gains control and rolls it across an invisible line between two heaps of t-shirts. Half the players cry in ecstasy. Half sigh in frustration. For a few seconds before this, nobody breathed at all.