Full Moons and Dead Donkeys

Word Count: 3,724

 

Full Moons and Dead Donkeys

When I was a kid, I thought you had to be rich to live in a big city. I grew up in Dublin, Texas, population 2,312. Everyone was poor. I don’t think my parents ever made more than $10,000 a year. Everyone I met who lived in a big city like Dallas or Houston had new cars and nice houses in clean subdivisions. I lived in a world where you didn’t have to be rich or smart to be content. Everyone spoke the same language with their “reckons” and “fixin’ to.” We dressed the same with our outdated blue jeans and t-shirts. We drove old trucks and dirty cars and shopped at the same IGA grocery store and Bill’s Dollar Store. But we were separated by our churches. My family went to the Catholic church—it was on the low end of the social scale. It was for Yankees, misfits, and Mexicans. The First Baptist church was the good church. If you wanted to be respected in town, you went to First Baptist and you didn’t let anyone catch you at the beer store at the county line. My parents were ex-hippies. My dad the artist spent his days painting in his studio in our backyard, and my mom the dance teacher helped make ends meet with her dance school that she operated out of our home. I couldn’t have been any different from the other kids in Dublin, but I fit in. We were bound by our isolation from normal society. I was comfortable in my skin. I was not ashamed of where I came from. I didn’t know I spoke with an accent. I didn’t know we were poor. But that all changed when I left Dublin after college.

I went to college at Tarleton State University which was exactly 10.2 miles from my front yard. I made the drive to school every morning and returned in the evening to my parent’s home where I still lived. College was the first time I ever went to a new school and had new classmates, but the scenery wasn’t much of a change. We were an agricultural school located in the “Rodeo Capital of the World.” I taught dance lessons for Mama, worked at the school newspaper, and majored in English. I began to loathe Dublin and everything about it. Even though college was only 10 miles away, I began to open my eyes to the fact that Dublin was a dusty little town that would snuff out my creativity and individuality if I stayed there any longer. I was old enough to know that poor people could live in a big city. I wanted to live in Dallas in an apartment and sit in traffic in my new car and pretend that Dublin never existed. I felt that I was destined to be somebody important and do something really great with my life. My senior year, I took a television broadcasting class. I wanted to be a news anchor in Dallas—I wanted to cut my hair short with bangs and work in a “top market” even though I didn’t know what a “top market” was. I just wanted out of Dublin.

Exactly one week after I graduated from college, I put my big city plans on hold and I married by high school sweetheart. I became an Army wife, and we moved to Columbus, Georgia. It was the first time I lived in a town where I didn’t know anyone. It was the first time in my life where I didn’t fit in with the crowd. My new friends went to college in places like Boston, Chicago, and New York while their boyfriends went to West Point or the Citadel. They had summer homes in New England and the Hamptons. I didn’t know what the Hamptons were. “Is that like the Hampton Inn?” I once asked. “No, it’s not,” my Boston friend chuckled. I became known as the quintessential Southern moron who talked funny and ate weird foods. I didn’t know the difference between Yves Saint Laurent and Kathy Lee Gifford, and I thought everyone ate biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Back home in Dublin, I was the daughter of a dance teacher and an artist. I was the refined person in the group. I was trendy and worldly. But in the real world, I was just another dumb girl from the country. I wasn’t comfortable in my skin anymore, and I was ashamed of where I came from. When I went out for dinner and my friends said, “oooh, that guy ordered a fried steak covered in gravy with fried okra,” I would wrinkle my nose and act disgusted. “What an idiot,” I said. When I ordered my dinner, I made sure to pronounce “salmon” as “sammon” and not “saulmon” like my Mama did. I left off the fried vegetables and opted for a pilaf even though I wasn’t sure what that was. I shunned the Budweiser for a vodka martini and began to wear my hair combed flat on my head—no poofy southern bangs allowed. I quit saying “ya’ll” and adopted the proper “you guys.”

I quit calling home on the weekends to talk to my parents. I was angry at them for not raising me with things like an Ivy League education and a Northern accent. I felt like everyone was laughing at me for the way I talked or the way I dressed or the way I ordered food. It was hard growing up poor and hungry, but it was even harder to pretend that my former life never existed. No matter how hard I tried to reject my past, it always seemed to sneak up on me. Like the time I referred to a “salon” as a “beauty shop.” I didn’t think I would ever hear the end of that slip-up. “Oh my God, you’re so country!” laughed my friend from Ohio. Little things would creep into my memory and remind me of where I came from. Like the full moon—it always reminded me of Mama.

Mama is a big believer in the power of full moons. Normally I don’t take much stock in that stuff. I may notice the full moon on my calendar when I write down a doctor visit for my daughter or a dentist appointment for my son. I might blame my children’s unruly behavior on the full moon. But nothing notable tends to happen, and I am usually in bed by the time the glowing orb hits the horizon.

Mama lives by the moon phases. She does her gardening and planting by the moon. She cuts her hair and throws away old furniture and clothes according to which hemisphere of the moon is glowing. Mama knows I don’t pay any attention to the moon phases, nor do I have a garden or the need to plant vegetables in my backyard, but she continues to remind me of the moon cycles when we talk on the phone. Despite my Mama’s sage advice, I never can keep up with the things I’m supposed to do on the full moon and I never can distinguish the difference between the new moon and the full moon. I do remember Mama telling me to cut a potato in half and plant it in my backyard during a new moon. I don’t remember why. Perhaps it had something to do with cutting my heartbreak in half and new beginnings or something about my poor health at the time. I didn’t learn what a harvest moon was until last year, and I am 37 years old. I knew about the song Harvest Moon, but I didn’t know it was a real thing. You would think that living close to the coast in Savannah would make me more aware of the moon phases and tide levels but it hasn’t. I just know that we have a moon, that we have walked on it, and that it is definitely not made out of cheese.

About three years ago, my life as a stay-at-home mother and Army wife ended in a divorce that left me penniless and jobless. My husband of 12 years left us, and I was left alone to restart my career and care for my two children on my own. Our last duty station with the Army was near Savannah. I fell in love with the city, the marsh, and the palm trees. I decided to raise the children there by myself instead of running back to Mama and Daddy in Texas. I got a job as a pre-school teacher at a daycare center. I made 10 dollars an hour and I had no benefits. It was the best job I could find at the time. After six months of potty training and feeding other people’s children, I quit and went back to college to finish my master’s degree. My class schedule was always changing, and sometimes I had to go to class in the evening. One winter night I had a class that ended around 7:30 p.m., and the sun was setting when I began the drive back home.

To get from downtown Savannah to my house, I have to take I-16 to I-95. The on-ramp that connects the two interstates is a long sloping curve that loops my vehicle almost in the opposite direction, so I have to slow down quite a bit to make the turn safely. As I crawled along in my minivan, I noticed a large dark lump on the side of the road. There was no one behind me, so I slowed down even more so I can see what this animal-like figure was. It looked like a dead dog with a bloated stomach, but as I got closer, I noticed that the head of the dead animal was disproportionately larger than its seemingly swollen body.

As my van rolled past the scene, I peered down and the identity of the dead thing began to register in my brain. What took about two seconds seemed to last several minutes as all the pieces clicked together to form one solid image. It was a dead baby donkey. It wore a small sombrero that fit snuggly over his once erect ears.  He wore a homemade flower-print dress. His legs seemed too short and slender to hold up the weight of his body. A splash of blood encircled his body and had begun to run down the onramp. Flies flittered around his nostrils, and I saw a cloud of gnats dance above his closed eyelids. His light grey fur looked clean, almost manicured. He looked like a stuffed animal, not road kill. If it had not been for the blood and the insects swarming, I would have guessed the poor little guy was napping.

“What in the hell?” I mumbled to myself. I realized it was time to merge into the fast-paced traffic on I-95. I pressed the accelerator in an effort to flee the scene. I didn’t want anyone to know I looked at the dead baby and fled.

“Did that poor animal just fall off of the circus truck or what?” I turned down the radio and drove in total silence for the next three minutes. I racked my brain and tried to think of all the possible scenarios that would have left a dead baby donkey on the side of the highway.

I tried to make myself feel better by thinking, “Maybe it was just a dwarf donkey and not a baby.” I had no idea how that was any better, but it made me feel better for some reason. Perhaps it eased some of the guilt of leaving a helpless foal on the side of the road.

The image looped in my brain. The snapshot needed explanation; it needed a backstory. Who leaves an animal in a homemade dress on the side of the road? How do you not make sure something so miniature is not safely stowed for travel?

I had an image of a sweet old Mexican man wearing dirty overalls and a worn straw hat. Perhaps he runs some sort of low-rent circus or petting zoo for children’s birthday parties. The man has an antique red truck that blows thick black smoke from the rusted tailpipe and the worn engine rattles like a broken sewing machine. Behind his truck is his small trailer that is fabricated out of old plywood and wooden two-by-fours. He arrives at his trailer home in a rural neighborhood and parks his truck in his driveway. He goes to the back of his truck to unload all of his little animals and realizes that his baby donkey with the small hat is missing. He covers his mouth with his dirty craggy hand and begins to sob like a little boy who has lost his puppy. He jumps back into his truck and retraces his steps back to the onramp to retrieve his popular performer who lies lifeless on his side. The man spots his tiny friend and parks his truck on the side of the road. He then frantically digs in the back of his truck to find a soft blanket to wrap up his pint-sized performer and take him home for a proper burial.

As my daydream waned, I reach for my cell phone and called my sister to relay the gruesome tale. “Hey, guess what?” I said. “I just saw a dead baby donkey on the side of the road.”

“Hmm, that’s strange,” she replied, anticipating a bigger story.

“That’s not the worst part,” I said. I felt a spastic flutter in my stomach as I said, “It was wearing a little sundress and tiny hat.”

After a brief silence, she started laughing which made me start laughing so hard I had tears coming down my face. This explosion of giggling at an inappropriate moment was a typical exchange for us, but not a safe reaction for a person moving a 4,000 pound vehicle down the interstate at 70 miles per hour.  My therapist would attribute this laughter at the dead baby donkey to some sort of coping mechanism.

When we finally took a breath, she said, “That reminds me of Daddy’s old white van that he sold in the late 80s.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked as my laughter stalled.

“Remember how he sold that old van to those people who said that were gonna use it to go around and pick up dead animals?” she replied.

I had forgotten about that. Dublin became a dairy hub in the mid-1980s. The town is located in Erath County, which is the top milk producer for the state. Corporate dairies are the standard, and most dairies pack at least 2,000 cows into their milk factories. Dead cows are a common problem, and dairy workers just pile them up in the hot Texas sun until someone can come and haul them away. Dairy owners pay someone to come out to their farm to pick up and dispose of the dead animals. I have no idea what this service costs, but I would imagine they get paid pretty well since they have to have certain licenses and dairies are not allowed to dispose of dead cows on their own.

That someone was a guy we called the “used cow dealer.” He drove around in a truck that resembled a garbage truck but with a better paint job and a stenciled picture of a dead cow on the side panels. It had a hydraulic hook that picked up the carcass and put it into the bed of his truck. He was a busy man and he might come to the dairy only once per week. Dairies are known to place sick cows on the pile of the dead to get them off the property so that they don’t have to pay for the used cow dealer to come back in a few days. It gives a whole new interpretation to the scene from the Monty Python sketch where medieval folks are asked to “bring out their dead.”

After I said goodbye to my sister and hung up the phone, I thought about our conversation as I drove the remainder of my trip home in silence. I realized that part of the reason I had forgotten about the fact that our old family vehicle was used to pick up dead farm animals was because I had grown accustomed to that way of life. I had been removed from the oddities of Dublin for almost 15 years. I wondered if the dead baby donkey would have freaked me out if I still lived that life—the life where it was no big deal to be stuck on the highway behind the used cow dealer. The putrid smell of cows stacked up like a slab a flapjacks in the 100 degree summer weather should have made me a vegetarian. But the idea that a used cow dealer was an odd job never occurred to me. That night, I dreamed of that dead donkey. He danced around in his homemade dress and sunhat with flies crawling on his face.

Mama called me the next morning. “Good morning, darling,” she said. “Yesterday was a full moon. You didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary did you?”

I sighed and said, “Nope, I just saw a dead baby donkey wearing a sundress on the side of the interstate.”

Mama was distracted and said, “Well that’s too bad.” That phrase summed up most of our phone conversations. Mama is the first to admit that she is unable to do more than one thing at a time, but yet she insists on trying to pay bills, organize her closets, or clean out her car while I’m on the phone with her. I once told her that my 10-year-old daughter may have to have a psyche evaluation for her depression. “Well that’s too bad,” was the response. I said, “The doctor says I have stomach ulcers.”  She said, “Well that’s too bad.”

“Are you listening to me?” I asked. “Yes, I heard everything you said,” she answered. “You said nothing happened and something about a donkey.” I wandered where the conversation was going and I began to feel that she did not call to tell me about the moon. Then she asked, “Have you heard anything else about your house?”

I realized that I had not thought about the looming foreclosure and money woes associated with my house in a few days. According to the judge in my divorce a few years earlier, I was lucky to get the house so the children and I would not have to move. I didn’t understand how being awarded a house that was worth less than its outstanding debt was a good thing, but I took what I could get. It would have been nice if the judge had made sure I was able to get enough financial help from my ex-husband to provide the children with a home, but apparently I asked too much of the court. After almost two years, the mortgage payments fell behind and I was faced with foreclosure.

“Nope, I haven’t heard anything but I’ll call the bank again today and see what’s going on with the paperwork,” I said in hopes that she would drop the subject. She said something about how the universe will give me my house back if it is meant to be, but that “you can’t force the universe to do things.”

“Well, I don’t want to force the universe to do anything,” I said sarcastically. We ended our call and I sat down on my sofa in my living room and looked around at the home that I knew I would eventually lose. I knew I couldn’t change the universe. I couldn’t even change myself after over 15 years of trying to be someone I was not. “Who was I kidding?” I thought to myself. It wasn’t Mama’s fault that I grew up country instead of worldly. It wasn’t my fault that I said, “ya’ll” instead of “you guys.” I realized I needed to quit being so mad at the world, myself, and Mama. I came from a place where people got paid to pick up dead animals. I came from a place where Catholicism is thought of as kin to Satanism. “It’s nobody’s fault that I talk this way,” I thought. “It’s just the hand I was dealt.” And then I felt the feeling I had been longing for since I walked out of the courthouse after my divorce—it was indifference. I could honestly say that I was not worried about losing the house anymore. I could not remember when I had last thought about my ex-husband and how much I hated him. I was focused on finishing school and taking care of the children. I hadn’t tried to cover up my “reckons” and “fixin to” in a very long time.

Perhaps there was something to that whole full moon stuff after all. I mean if I could laugh about the insanity of seeing a dead baby donkey on the side of the road, then maybe the tides were changing for me. I didn’t even have to cut a potato in half and bury it in my backyard like Mama told me to do.

Whether it was a full moon, a new moon, a harvest moon, or a blue moon, it didn’t seem to matter to me. What did matter to me was the fact that each coming moon phase was a sign that time had passed and that life would go on no matter what was happening around me. And just like the dead baby donkey, sometimes there were no happy endings. Sometimes you can do all the right things and follow your mother’s advice and still be faced with a horrific scene that begs to be understood. Perhaps it was the impact of the full moon or the shock of the tiny fury body wrapped in homespun garments. It did not matter, because on that day I was content to know that some things in life are better left a mystery, and a cynical girl like me should never force the universe to do anything it doesn’t want to do.

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