“I live in the Oleander district,” he said.
“Oleander?” He had no idea what a significant place that plant had in my memory.
“Yeah, it’s a pretty nice part of Bakersfield—have you ever been?”
“No, I, I…”
“Look, it’s a pretty neighborhood, even if the plant is poisonous.”
“Yeah, oleander grows like crazy in this heat—wait! Poisonous?” I had a different take.
“I’m sure you heard the story about the Boy Scouts who died using oleander branches to roast hot dogs…” he was shaking his head in disgust.
“Just an urban legend,” he waved his hand dismissively as if he were erasing a chalkboard. “Gosh, don’t get upset. Check it out on Snopes.com—it’s all a bunch of hooey.”
Hooey? My new acquaintance was a forty-something who sometimes talked like a seventy-something Okie.
“Yeah, but oleander can still be deadly—take it from me.”
My experience related to a bad car accident when I was seven. Returning from a long trip from San Francisco to Mexico, our station wagon flipped into the median of US 99 just north of Merced. Intermittent strips of oleander bushes line many of California’s highway medians, including that one. Perhaps our car would have had a softer landing if that’s all there was separating the north and southbound lanes of that freeway. But it wasn’t.
Our car was impaled upon a hidden danger lurking beneath the lavender-colored greenery: a 40” high concrete post. It was one of a series of obscured pylons topped with steel rings (their original purpose was to be chained to its neighbors as a deterrent to illegal u-turns). It staked our spinning, sliding vehicle, perhaps preventing us from careening into the on-coming traffic.
When the spinning stopped, I was pinned under my parent’s bodies in a cloud of dust and shattered glass. The only movement was the slow settling of oleander leaves and disturbed soil settling over a mass of rendered luggage, clothing and bodies inside our crushed vehicle.
“They’re dead, they’re all dead!” came a scream from the rear of the car. I could see my sister Sher through the tumult, standing like a bloodied flamingo on her uninjured leg, quaking, crying. The horrible scene was all tinted red, as if I looked through rose-colored glasses.
So this is what it’s like to be dead? I thought. Just looking at the world moving on without me, in slow-motion?
Luckily, there were no fatalities, all seven of my family survived. First my mother, then a sister, and finally the others began to cough. Slowly they moved. A woman appeared behind the car and hugged my flamingo sister. A man’s face appeared above me and called down into the overturned vehicle, “Are you alright in there?”
We were very lucky, but we weren’t quite all right: my sister’s leg, my mother’s ribs, and my eye were the main casualties. Strangers hurriedly pulled the remaining six of us from the broken grey Chevy wagon. The stench of spilled oil and gasoline was everywhere. After I emerged from the wreck, every person, family or not, looked at me and covered their mouths, horrified by the bloody mess where my left eye should be.
A white cloth appeared and an anonymous lady placed it over my eye. “Don’t move this until the ambulance gets here,’ she commanded. My sister retrieved the sombrero we’d picked up in Tijuana, hoping to raise my spirits. It was very hot that August afternoon, so my mother settled me down in the shade of a nearby bush to await the ambulance.
Everything was quiet once again, even the rushing traffic seemed silenced. My sight was obscured by blood caked over my one good eye. My mouth was soiled with loamy dust.
“Don’t worry, honey, it’s just the oil from the car.” The Samaritans had righted the station wagon somewhat, believing it would suppress any fire hazard.
“No, Mommy—I mean the sweet, flowery smell.”
It was oleander. The oleander that masked the dangerous pylon that ripped open our wildly careening vehicle, nearly killing my family. Yet it was that fist of concrete punching through the metal of the station wagon which held us—along with those cushioning floral bushes—and that may have saved us from an even more hellish fate.
So I rested in the shade of the oleander and inhaled its faint, sweet smell, sheltered from the heat of the sun and the stares of well-meaning strangers in my blood-stained orange-striped shirt, straining to hear the distant wail of an ambulance siren rushing ever closer.
|I'm in the orange-striped shirt, under the oleander, held by|
one sister who is wearing my sombrero.
My mother in the green dress tends to my
sister Sher while we await the ambulance