Once or twice a week I drove out to visit Juanita. Lacking a well or piped-in water, her bathroom was the cow pasture. Her water source was rainwater, which she collected in a big bucket placed on the ground below her roof. For heat, she had a fireplace and a metal drum that she burned uncovered right in her living room. Two quilt-covered beds filled her small bedroom. One bare light bulb hung from a fixture in the center of the ceiling. A small back room in her house had a little bed and a metal drum in it for making a fire.
Then there was another back room she referred to as the kitchen. It looked as if no one used this kitchen for anything, although there were some old pots scattered on the floor. There was an old bent lamp, with a bare light bulb in it. A rusted old refrigerator stood in the center of the room. Juanita had decorated it by painting a large, scary face on the front of it. The monstrous face with its large eyes and a huge snaggle-toothed mouth looked like a creature out of a Stephen King thriller. As expected, Juanita's monster refrigerator didn't work but was only some kind of weird icon to decorate her kitchen. There was no sink, or counter top in her kitchen. There was a large freezer that took up almost the space of the room. Juanita didn't turn it on except when she wanted to impress me or Mrs. Boone.
Juanita lived a solitary life with her dog Wolf, her tomcat Brenda, and a couple of pigs she raised in a small pen near her house. Her neighbors Levi and Queenie Huffman and their only son, Johnny, would occasionally come over and sit on the porch and pass the time of day.
Several children from nearby also came to visit her on occasion. They made clay things with her sometimes, seemed curious about Juanita, and enjoyed hanging around her. The only other person I saw at her house was a man with a big scar on the front of his head. Juanita explained that he had been axed in the head. The scar and an indentation in his forehead gave him a scary look. He always wore overalls a hat with a picture of two pigs screwing under the embroidered motto "Makin' Bacon." He never said a word and I got the impression that he might have been mentally disabled by his mishap with the axe. I guess he wasn't of a mind to be suspicious of Juanita's scary mud sculptures or eccentric ways. I got the feeling they were lovers, and that he occasionally stayed in the back room. Most of the times that I came to visit, the Axe Man (as I called him) weren't anywhere around that I could see. Maybe he'd leave when he knew I was coming.
I had only been visiting Juanita for a couple of weeks when this one day I arrived, she proudly announced, "Miss Anton, look at this!" She then went over to her freezer. She plugged in the unplugged freezer until it reached an electrical hum and opened the freezer door to reveal a pig cadaver, frozen solid, feet and all. Juanita boosted, "Miss Anton, I butchered him myself!"
I took one look into the freezer and felt like I was viewing some distorted freak specimen at a side show event. There encased in ice was this pink, shrivelled glob of a swine. His skin was bluish-white with rose colored folds. His eyes were frozen shut with ice on his eyelashes. There his body was jammed in a corner of the sides of the freezer, frozen stiff in a fetal position.
I didn't know quite what to say. "Hmm Juanita, you've got quite a meal for yourself."
She smiled proudly, "I fattened him up first, 'til that piggly wig was good and plump."
She had wedged him in the freezer. I don't think she even bled him first. She was very proud of butchering him and put him in their hooves and all. He was the only thing in the freezer. I don't think she even bled him first. She kept him in their for weeks, but would unplug the freezer at intervals (and thaw him and then refreeze him). When Juanita knew she would be having company, she'd plug in the freezer and freeze the pig solid again.
At that time I still didn't know Juanita very well and Mrs. Boone and I were worried that Juanita might try to eat the pig. That's when Mrs. Boone decided to call the health department and have them take the pig away because it was a health hazard. Mrs. Boone told me that the Health Department finally came out and ordered Juanita to dispose of the pig. Juanita didn't like that, because she was so proud of her pig. But they took her pig anyway.
After that, Juanita killed her other pig and put him instead in salt brine. His dried and smashed flat head had a long string wrapped around his neck His head and his ears were intact, and the hair was still on his eyelashes. She had cured him in the salt brine then dried him out. I don't know if she intended to eat him or not, but she was proud of him. She had him hanging up from the rafters of her front porch. In one of the photographs I had taken of her, she beams as if she were holding a bouquet of lilies. Instead she holds this smashed pig with his long lashed delicately closed eyes. His entire body pressed flat, as if a car had run over him numerous times. I don't know how she dried him like that. Maybe she was saving him for winter when she might cut off a piece and cook it up in a pot and revitalize him for soup or something.
One visit while I was out at Juanita's and we were sitting inside her little house, it had started to rain and the raindrops were making melodic plangs on her tin roof. In that dimly lighted room, amidst disarray and ubiquitous clay sculptures, I decided to ask Juanita to describe what she did in an average day.
She looked off into the room as if she were remembering and then she began, "Well, first when I wake up at about five in the morning. I thank God for another day. Then I go over and put the coffee on the fire, right there on the pot-head. Then I get the duster and I begin to dust a little." She continued in a confusing tone describing to me a version of an average day that bore no resemblance to what I had witnessed of her life. There was no duster. Dirt was everywhere. It was as if she were relating to me a day of a housewife on one of those 1950's situation comedies. Maybe that was the life Juanita imagined she lived or the one that she wanted me to think that she lived. Or maybe she was just entertaining herself with a story. She told her version to me, even though it was far from true. In fact as she was telling me all this, she was standing in a room that had so much dirt in it that you would need a shovel to clean it off- not just Lucy Ricardoís feather-duster.
Juanita explained more, "Then I prepare my list of chores for the day and what I'm going to serve for my meals." She had no dining room table and only few plates, forks or spoons that I know of. There was no stove. Once, she fixed me some turnip greens and cornbread, cooked in a cast-iron pot over the fire.
I asked her what she liked to eat. She described more, "Maybe today I'll have fried chicken."(Of course there was no means of refrigeration even if she had chicken, since the refrigerator never worked and the freezer was only used to show off for the occasional visitor.) Then she said, "First I cut up my chicken. I put me some coffee on at the fire and sit down and drink it. Then I might do some more housework or something. I sometime watch TV or listen to the radio. Then I start to working on the mud a while."
She asked me on several occasions would it be possible to have a washing machine. The problem of course was at that time she had no running water. I tried to explain that the water came first and without it, a washing machine wouldn't function. She didn't seem to want to think about that. She just wanted a washing machine, period.
Juanita made a unique clay electric coffee pot. She explained, "This is used for the businessmen when they have a convention. When the businessmen don't have time to stand in one line, this way they can have two lines and move on through quicker to get their coffee." She had made a convenient electric coffee pot with two spouts to expedite rapid service. The coffee supposedly would pour out of each spout. The businessmen could move on with their coffee with maximum ease. Juanita insisted, "It is totally electric." The "coffee pot" was actually a big mud sculpture with a cow pelvis in the center and teeth embedded in it. Its form but was surreal, crumbly with moss and mule hair sticking out of it. The inside of the cow pelvis created a vessel that could have held something, but not liquid.
Then I asked her did she have any children. She said, "Seven children. Two sets of twins born over at Maxwell field and another that died and two other that's living somewhere else.
She showed me some of the handmade clothes she had made for them. Sets of hats, jackets and gloves resewn from old discarded sweaters, reworked into these padded creations.
"Juanita, these are great! You do wonderful sewing work. What a surprise," I said.
"No ma'am, this ain't nothing, is it?"
"To me it's really great! Look at the way you reworked the big arm sleeves to make for a child and then added on the gold trim."
"I just took those old sweaters the rats were eating on. I didn't know much how to sew. But I thought it was nice to keep the chillins warm in the cool weather."
"Sure is! I bet it kept them real warm."
About three or four sets of rewoven clothes lay neatly folded in a bundle in the corner of her room. They were stacked up against numerous other stacks and stacks of dusty things. The clothes were for weather in the South and yet she had made them as if it were for Siberian ice people. Each item was matted thick with layers and layers sewn together.
The proportions were also off. She had made a pair of gloves for a size of a baby. The opening for the gloves was the right size for a baby but the fingers of the gloves were adult size. The shoes were the right size for a baby but the soles were padded with so much cotton, a baby would have tumbled over the first step he tried to take. She had the ideas to make the gloves and shoes but the engineering was off and using them for any conventional sense would have been impossible.
To further complicate matters, I later learned she really had never had any children. At the time I was disturbed by these contradictions. I was trying to make some sense of what she told me, but it wasn't easy. It seemed she had a world in which she lived and another world that she pretended she lived in. This distinction between reality and fantasy meant nothing to her. She created and recreated her "day in the life" as she saw fit. Logic didnít matter. I wanted answers, the truth about her. And she had plenty of answers. I just did know which ones were real.
Slowly Juanita started warming up to me. I would bring her things, food and cigarettes and stuff, and we would sit and talk. I remember one time I had planned to pick up some things for Juanita before I left to drive to her house. That day I had forgotten until I neared her dirt road. I pulled over on the side of the road and went flower-picking. I found some pretty purple wild flowers and then some little blue and yellow ones. I was pretty satisfied that I had come up with a gift. I made a bouquet and I gave them to her. When I handed them to her I said "Here Juanita, I brought you some flowers today."
She surprised me by not thinking much of the flowers at all. She cast a look at the flowers as if they were some red-haired step children, and then glanced at me with a scrunched up twist to her face. She said, "Miss Anton, them ain't flowers. Them ain't nothin' but weeds!" I felt kind of disappointed at her reply. I guess I didn't realize that to her there was nothing charming about a bunch of wild weeds. I felt I still had a lot to learn about her, but mainly I knew I needed to respect our differences. I needed to realize how different we were and incorporate that in communicating with her, and at the same time I needed to embrace our similarities.
In 1981, almost thirty years after the Bus Boycott, racist violence was still commonplace in and around Montgomery. During the time I visited Juanita most regularly there had been an incident involving racial unrest near her community of Snowdown. Not far from where she lived, a white youth had befriended a black girl by giving her a ride to school. Another white twenty year-old had harassed him for his actions. The perpetrator had slashed the boy's tires and poured sugar in his gas tank as punishment for the boy's non-racist behavior.
Only blocks from my home on Hull Street was the Klanwatch and Southern Poverty Law Center, both active organizations of the Civil Rights Movement. The organization's founder Morris Dees is a reknowned lawyer for his work in eradicating racism and monitoring the KKK. Because of the nature of his work, his life was constantly threatened. I had known Morris for years and had taught his daughter Ellie private art lessons when I was living in Montgomery.
In the same year, while I was visiting Juanita's frequently, Morris' Law offices was burned to the ground by Klan members. The burning of Morris's offices was attributed to Joe Garner, from Snowdown, Alabama, the small community near which Juanita spent the last ten years of her life. After his offices were bombed, I remembered Garner's store and its proximity to Juanita's house. Morris described Garner as a "secretive Klan member, deeply involved in a major Klan group, and serving as a member of its Imperial Board." I had heard rumors that there had been Klan members living near her, but I didn't realize the members were so close to Juanita's neighborhood.
Juanita's proximity to these clandestine activities was dangerously close. The road to Juanita's is out old Highway 31 south, the highway which for years was the main route from Montgomery to the Gulf Coast beaches 160 miles south near Panama City, Florida. About ten miles south of Montgomery was a crossroads. Right in front of the crossroad sign was a train track traveled by the old Southern Crescent passenger train. This is the location of Garners General Store, where soda, gas, beer, and sundries were sold. The small old-fashioned clapboard store with two gas pumps in front is owned and operated by Joe Garner. According to Morris, in back of his store had been the workshop where some of the wood crosses used in the Klan's cross burnings were actually constructed. There was a pool table in the back where supposedly some Klan allegedly brainstormed their maneuvers. I had dropped by this store on different occasions on my way to Juanita's, to pick up juice, cheese, cigarettes, or use the rest-room. Garner's store, in front of the crossroad sign, is no more than two miles from Juanita's rural shack.
Juanita did not do her shopping at Garner's store, but instead shopped at another small store in the other direction. Probably Mr. Garner didn't get much business from the black people, and they probably had to watch out how they acted when they did enter his store. Just a white person going to a black person's house could be a reason for suspicion. I recalled the story told to me by a good friend of mine who was a white art instructor at a local predominantly black university. Her boyfriend was an African-American, and their relationship was not welcomed in the community. She once told me that the KKK burned a cross on her front yard during the same year just because she went out with a black man.
I don't know what Juanita thought of befriending a white girl such as myself and it consequences as to what other people thought. She had told me that her neighbor Levi had called her a "white man's nigger" because I came out and helped her. She of course accused him of being a worse "white man's nigger" for accepting welfare. Other than that, out there in Juanita's cow pasture, the color of our skin seemed to be the last thing on our minds. We both seemed to be oblivious of the restraints of any racial tension, and carried on not paying much attention to the shade of our skin.
Some days I would visit and we would do nothing at all, but sit on the porch or play with her dog "Wolf." Once she realized I wasnít trying to prove she was crazy, Juanita grew more enthusiastic about my visits. I even felt as if we were becoming friends. Whenever I drove up to her house and she would call out, "Hey Miss Anton! Come on into the graveyard. I'm just covering bones with dirt!"
Copyright © 1998, 1999 ANTON HAARDT
All Rights Reserved.
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