Now I know it’s a sin to speak ill of the dead. Even as I consider telling you this tale, I can see my grandmother spitting on the ground and wringing her hands just at the thought of it. Yet I’ve considered this nine ways to Sunday and there’s just no way to tell this story with integrity if I am not as honest as I can be about what I know. So I will proceed with what I find to be the lesser of the 2 evils with the genuine hope that you will excuse the indiscretion or at least allow my repentance for it when I am finished.

Claudelle Kendrick, bless her heart, was the very living, breathing definition of what some used to call white trash; though she never once gave any indication that she might know anything of how people considered her. In fact, she completely managed to convince herself that the stares and whispers were people talking about her inevitable breakthrough to supermodel status.

Now, this would probably be an excellent opportunity for me to stretch the truth a bit and give you the impression that Claudelle had at least something about her that would have justified her belief system. I could tell you things like Claudelle’s total presence was such that it was a veritable impossibility to specify which detail you first noticed about her, you just simply noticed her when she walked into a room. I could tell you that once you noticed her, she was the kind of girl that made it impossible not to stare.

I could tell you that and just leave it there, but it would be a lie of omission and my mama always told me lying by not telling things is just as bad as lying by telling them. So in truth I have to tell you that although Claudelle was the kind of girl you noticed walking into a room, the cause was not her outward beauty, but the loud “Hey y’all!” you inevitably encountered just seconds before her entry; and the compulsion to stare, was not the same impulse one has when we notice the setting sun in late October, but more closely related to the one we experience when we happen upon a car wreck. It is our minds desperately trying to make sense of what we are seeing.

The real details of Claudelle’s outward expression of her inward self, I will provide bluntly. There is no reason to extend your suffering or saunter through one of the more tragic aspects of her personality.

Claudelle Kendrick was 5’5” and weighed 197 pounds. She had blond hair…

Pardon my interruption, but it occurs to me that this will not suffice as explanation, so I must digress into a more descriptive moment. If this offends, simply skip to the next detail:

Her hair was, in fact, platinum, not blond and she proudly sported 1” black roots at all times. I never once saw her when her hair was smooth and silky. I always assumed this to be because she colored it more often than necessary and consistently teased it to achieve a height that tragically never managed to withstand the brutal Georgia humidity. To get the clearest picture of her hair, imagine taking 3’ long pine needles, bleaching them white (except for the tip which would be black), breaking randomly various “strands”, and finally meticulously misplacing them onto a human head. If you can imagine this, first I am sorry, and second, you can imagine the general state of Claudelle’s hair.

Claudelle had no particular clothing style that I could discern, but she did have preferences. Most often the combination of neon and spandex would be her daywear and jeans or skorts lacking at least 2 sizes to fit properly were her night wear. She also had an affinity for children’s t-shirts as well as anything airbrushed and ripped.

I know how it sounds, but believe me when I tell you that once you got to know her, you only noticed it at first glance. Eventually, it became background noise for the rest of her animated self. Being around her was like going to a carnival. She never met a stranger and was NEVER afraid to try anything – at least twice. It was a fact that she proudly declared to anyone within earshot when she prepared to do something we all knew to be stupid.

I can still hear her say, “You should always give something a second chance, no matter how painful or pleasurable the first experience was. How else can you know if the first experience was real or just a combination of events to which you finally attribute your emotional response?” Her abnormally wide eyes would flutter while she said it, almost hypnotizing you with the flashes of metallic blue eye shadow.

Needless to say, she was one of those kinds of girls that bad things just happened to. Most of the people in town attributed it to a lack of intelligence, but really that was just because no one in town ever bothered to get to know her. The handful that did, knew it could all be attributed to an overabundance of intelligence combined with what psychologists today like to call “poor impulse control.”

In all fairness though, I have to say that, outwardly, I can understand why people felt the way they did about Claudelle. More often than not all you heard from her was “Hey ya’ll watch this!” followed very shortly with an action that would defy our definition of what qualifies us as “cognitive” beings; both because of the action itself and because of the reaction of those within visual range.

Claudelle understandably believed her actions were well received, as, more often than not, they were received by a very attentive audience that always reacted with a groan and applause.

So it should be no surprise that Claudelle was always the subject of much discussion in East Suthernton. You could rarely go into the Wal-Mart Superstore without hearing at least one conversation starting with “You’ll never believe what that Claudelle did this weekend.” The stories usually ended up far more exaggerated than the real event, but this never seemed to bother Claudelle in public or private. She just kept living her life exactly as she wanted, thus fulfilling a vital role in the community, a role that had tragically been her birthright.

Claudelle had become a bit of a legend in East Suthernton from her first audible cries. She had lived in East Suthernton since her mother brought her into the world and promptly placed her in a dumpster outside the Circle K just outside of town. No one ever found the mother (or the father for that matter). Rumor had it that she was some whore out of New Orleans, but I don’t put much stock in that. East Sutherntonians were notorious for blaming New Orleans’ whores for anything bad that ever happened in or near East Suthernton.

I personally do not even know how a New Orleans whore would find herself traveling through East Suthernton, let alone concocting all that animosity; but there must have been something in the deep past to put the notion in the town’s conscience. If you learn nothing else from living in the South, it’s that though we may outlive the reason for the tradition, even the memory of it’s origins, the tradition does still remain rooted in something real and deserves a sort of respect, if not always an observance, for having survived the generational changes.

In a strange twist of fate, Kenny Kendrick, the official town drunk, found little Claudelle when he was dumpster diving for chicken fingers.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term dumpster diving, let me explain. The Circle K was a convenience store that also had a “restaurant” in it. On a good day, at the end of each shift the clerks would throw out whatever food had been sitting under the heat lamps all day and the new clerk would replace it with fresh food. It was almost always placed in a fresh trash bag before being thrown out – ALMOST ALWAYS.

Kenny had long ago realized he could eat quite well without having to pay a dime, which was a good thing for him as he had difficulty holding a regular job and often found himself short of drinking money. He was also fortunate enough not to suffer from the moral dilemmas so often associated with eating “trash”. In the context of his life, it was good that it didn’t bother his digestive system or his palate to eat food that had been sitting out all day and finally placed into a rather crusty old dumpster. And, in some ways it was also good for Claudelle, as she most likely lived because of this habit combined with an uncharacteristic moment of compassion on his part.

I have often tried to imagine the moment of her discovery. How long did it take him to realize it was a baby and not a ham? Did Kenny have a look of surprise or had his life prepared him to greet this moment with a clarity the rest of his life had lacked? Did it ever occur to him that she was not meant for him? I imagine he was simultaneously surprised and not, as only a long distance drinker can be. I also believe that she was his even before he found her, but, as it goes with most good tales, there is no way to be certain. His story changed a lot over the years. The only consistent elements to it were that he found her in the dumpster, it was cold, and he loved her the moment those abnormally large eyes looked up into his and she grabbed his finger. On more than one occasion he let us know he believed Claudelle to be a gift from God to him personally. In his estimation, if she had been meant for anyone else, she wouldn’t have been in his dumpster.

The events after the discovery are quite well documented as a matter of official and unofficial public record. Upon finding little Claudelle with umbilical cord still intact, Kenny returned to his house, where he cleaned her, wrapped her in his favorite shirt, and asked his neighbor for a ride to the hospital. This was apparently a request, which had happened so often in the past, his neighbor was a bit reluctant to offer assistance at first; that is, until Kenny produced the young child as a proof of concept.

Upon examination by the newest addition to the late shift at the North Suthernton emergency room, it was discovered that, to everyone’s surprise, there was absolutely nothing wrong with young Claudelle. As is protocol in such cases, she was kept overnight for observation. The following afternoon, a more sober than usual Kenny arrived to pick her up, which he did without incident. It seems that the town agreed that God had intended her for him; or as is more likely the case, the town agreed that the whole affair was scandalous and were happy to have it resolve quickly without any burden to the tax system. So, they ignored all the facts that would normally have prevented Kenny from being able to adopt, or even foster a child for that matter, and within a few months, Claudelle was officially given her unusual name and Kenny officially became a father.

Kenny decided to name her Claudelle after his great uncle Claude Kendrick, of the Alabama Kendricks. Claude had been the one relative that had been willing to take poor Kenny in when he was a kid. You see, his father left when he was 3 days old and his mother was in and out of government rehab down in Birmingham. But, to let the truth be known, even Claude didn’t like Kenny. He used little Kenny to scam unsuspecting travelers out of money. He’d take him into town and hide while Kenny acted as though his loving family living just a few towns over had left him behind. On a good day, Kenny would find a good Samaritan willing to give him bus fair to reunite him. On a bad day, he was offered a ride, forcing Claude to jump from his hiding place and scold Kenny for his deception. Claude would have Kenny do this and many other scams for most of the day until he had earned enough money to get a bottle of whisky and a couple of
biscuits.

It never failed to amaze me that Kenny continued to feel a strong connection to his dead great uncle Claude. But he did, and thus Claudelle received a name that would help define her to the town in which she grew up as well as receiving a lineage East Suthernton could throw in her face at every turn of fate.

Despite what the community wanted me to believe about Claudelle, I couldn’t bring myself to hold her beginnings against her. So, 15 years later, she was my best friend and a constant source of unconditional love, unlimited entertainment and humbling embarrassment. Which brings us to the reason we are here. That day was nothing special. There were no messages from God or forces of nature. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

Claudelle and I were hanging out at the local strip mall. She had scammed a pack of smokes from the now senile Kenny and we were fake-smoking; believing whole-heartedly that no one could discern that we weren’t inhaling. Claudelle commented that if we were anywhere else but here, people would surely think we were in our 20’s. I didn’t believe her, but said she was right anyway.

The silence of the moment crept back in. We both desperately tried to come up with something to do away, once and for all, with the current boredom we were experiencing. That’s when Claudelle came up with her last notorious idea for an activity.

She suggested we hitch our way up the mountain to the train trestle and see who could cross the fastest. The person who got across last would have to buy dinner. Now, I knew that this wasn’t the best of ideas, but I also knew that it was Claudelle’s way of trying to “earn” her dinner. She knew that she was much faster than me and she knew that we understood one another. It wasn’t that uncommon for her to do things like that when times were tight for her and my family was usually good about helping her out without her feeling like she was being a burden.

At any rate, we decided to head up the mountain. It didn’t take long for us to find a ride going that way. East Suthernton was a small town and we were both pretty well known in the community, me mostly because of my association with her.

Damn near as soon as we hit the side of the road Tim Fulbright pulled up in his overpriced Wrangler to see what we were up to. Tim knew that Claudelle had a thing for him and I was pretty sure that he’d been using that to his advantage for quite some time, though Claudelle would never discuss it with me and Tim would never brag about it to anyone because of Claudelle’s status in the community. I hated having to play dumb.

Claudelle explained to Tim what our game plan was and asked if he’d like to help us out. He let his beady little eyes lazily fall over the both of us then looked back out the windshield as if he were contemplating all the important things that lie ahead of him. The silence lasted for what felt like forever and we’d already missed 2 more people who would have been loads more fun, but Claudelle didn’t notice them. She just stood there, uncharacteristically quiet, waiting on his answer.

Finally, I suppose Tim felt he’d made her suffer enough and said, “I guess so. I’ve got somewhere I have to be in a few hours, but I can at least get ya’ll up there”; a comment which Claudelle took as positive and I saw as the lord of the manner reminding the peasants of his generosity and their place.

“Great!” Claudelle said and jumped into the front seat. “You don’t mind sitting in the back do you? I get car sick.”

I knew it was a lie. She’d never had a problem riding in anything – front seat, back seat, the bed of her ol’ man’s banger truck. Hell…she’d even ridden on top of a van once (another long story for another time). I didn’t say anything. I just hopped into the back seat and quietly watched the two pretending as though they didn’t know each other very well.

I couldn’t have been happier that the ride to the trestle wasn’t that long. The silence in the car was beginning to make me uncomfortable and I could see that Tim kept checking me out in his rear view mirror. Even if I didn’t suspect that he was “enjoying” Claudelle’s company, Tim was just one of those creepy rich kids that felt he could use anyone that fell beneath his station. Although he was traditionally beautiful on the outside, his soul turned my stomach.

We reached the parking area created from years and years of teenagers going there and got out of the car. Apparently Tim had decided that he could do more than just give us a ride up the mountain after all. Claudelle was visibly pleased, but was trying desperately not to show it. I couldn’t understand why she made the effort. I doubt Tim even noticed much more about her than the fact that her shorts were very short. You could see the lust on his face. Part of me was getting ready to tell them both that I was going to walk back into town and that I’d see them later. The only thing that held me back was that I knew Tim would get what he wanted and leave her somewhere on the side of the road without even having the decency to at least feed her.

“Are we going to do this or what?”

They both looked up at me. “Sure thing toots. Tim, you up for it, or you just going to satisfy those voyeuristic qualities of yours?” She didn’t think I’d catch the joke.

Of course Tim declined to participate. I wish Claudelle and I had followed suit and just sat with him in his Jeep listening to cheesy music on the radio and pretending like we all liked one another. Unfortunately, we were two 15-year-old girls and unable to hold a rational thought for very long, so off we went to see who could cross the fastest. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to push it. Claudelle needed to win and I knew it, so why make it more difficult than necessary? I’d leave that to Tim.

Tim took a seat on the hood of his car as we started slowly walking over to the trestle. Claudelle was excited. That was never good. She tended to stop thinking clearly when she got excited. She acted solely on impulse. I could tell that there was another town story about to happen here. God only knew what it was going to be, but something told me I’d be hearing about it the next day at the Wal-Marts.

We talked bullshit on the short walk to our starting point, ignoring the elephant in the room. As we got closer and I started realizing how high we really were (I had a wicked fear of heights back then) I started to regret having agreed to this. “Claudelle, I think that I may have to forfeit this one. That’d be the same as me losing though, so we can just turn around and go back. No harm. No foul.” She just made a face at me. It was then that it occurred to me then that she wanted to impress Tim with her physical abilities and total lack of fear.

“But we’re already here. Why don’t we just go ahead and do it? We can take it easy if you’re uncomfortable.”

She was pleading with her eyes. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why this was so important to her, but what could I do? Up to that point in life, I was never able to let a friend have a moment of need that I wasn’t there for.

“OK. But we really have to take it easy. I am terrified of this crap and you know it.”

“Great! You want me to give you a head start?”

I just rolled my eyes. The joy was apparent on her face. She was beyond that happy place as only teenagers can be; and before I knew it, she took off. I followed, very slowly behind her, praying that a train wouldn’t come along and force me to get much faster. I wish that I’d been saying a different prayer.

My eyes stayed glued closely to the thick planks of wood that held the trestle together. I was making quite sure that I didn’t miss one. The view was making me sick to my stomach. I could see the bottom of the huge gully beneath us as it was passing by. I only made it a few steps out before I heard Tim yell out.

Without thinking, I stopped in my tracks and turned to looked at Tim. I remember thinking to myself, “What the hell does this ass want. First he doesn’t want to come, then he doesn’t want to participate, and now what…has his ego been deflated because there is no one around him to adore him?”

When I saw the look on Tim’s face as he ran towards me, my heart stopped. It was pure terror and disbelief. These are two qualities one never saw on his face. They required an attention to your surroundings that he normally lacked. Something must have gone terribly wrong.

“Claudelle! Claudelle!” continued to fill the air.

I turned back towards the other side of the trestle, fully expecting to see Claudelle standing mockingly on the other side. Instead, I saw nothing but open space and trestle. My mind went to that eerie, calm place it goes in emergency situations. Everything around me slowed down. Tim’s voice just became muffled background noise. “How far out had she gone?” I yelled back at Tim. I don’t know what difference it would have made, but it seemed to be an important detail. In my heart I was hoping that she was just fooling around. I’d get to the place she’d gotten to and find her sitting on the concrete slabs holding the tracks up. “Claudelle! Answer me Claudelle! This isn’t funny at all.” The closer I got, the more I realized that this wasn’t a joke at all. When I got the spot where she should have been, I was terrified to look down for her. I didn’t know what I was going to find. I finally forced myself.

“Claudelle!!!!” I knew she wasn’t going to answer. She was too far down inside the column and though I barely paid attention in Biology class, I was sure her neck shouldn’t have looked that way. I sat down on the track and tried to catch my breath. My mind was racing, but there was nothing to be done. Tim was standing at the edge of the trestle screaming something at me, but I couldn’t process it. I looked up at him with tears swelling in my eyes. The whole world went silent.

I started my walk back to the edge. I told Tim we needed to call the police. He just stared blankly at me as if I were talking Greek or something. “Tim! We need to call the police.” He blinked out of it and we headed back down the mountain to find a telephone. The rest of the day was one big blur. I know we called the cops and met them back up at the trestle. I’m pretty sure there was media present and my parents showed up from somewhere. I stayed until they finally retrieved her body and carried her away in an ambulance. I remember thinking that was odd to use an ambulance. There obviously was no life left to retrieve for her. Then there was Kenny. He held himself together very well I thought; more so than Tim who broke down before I’d even known what was happening. I had driven us into town to call for help while he sobbed and screamed. He was just lucky I could hold it together long enough to get through the mechanics of the situation.

Kenny kept me in check during the waiting. He just sat there staring at his daughter with absolutely no sign of real emotion. Occasionally you would see him wipe away a stray tear, but mostly, nothing. I felt so bad for him, but I knew there was nothing I could do. There was nothing anyone could do for him. Claudelle was the last real human contact he had left. Shortly after it all he started wondering the streets talking to himself. He quit eating and bathing all together. He was finally committed to the county hospital in December. I tried to go see him a few times, but a combination of the grief and the medications they had placed him on had him so looped out that he didn’t recognize anyone. He just walked around the day room clutching an empty frame (glass gone of course) trying to show everyone his lovely daughter. He would tell them that she was now away at college and would soon be a doctor.

As for Tim, well…he went through a period of heavy drinking and drug experimentation, but in reality, he would’ve done that anyway. I heard that he had moved somewhere in the Midwest and was involved in some real estate scam that landed him in jail for a few years, but that could just be East Suthernton rumors. I actually never really talked to him again. I didn’t like him before and after, just seeing him brought out too many memories that I didn’t want to deal with. The pain dissipated over time, but occasionally, I catch myself wondering over the events of the day looking for reasons or ways I could have changed it. I try not to let these moments linger. They serve no purpose and give her no respect. Instead I direct my mind to remember her in all her gregarious glory and remind myself that she lived and died the only way she could have.