Ninnekah is a Choctaw word. It means night or darkness.
On a dark night in Ninnekah, under the Choctaw sky, Tonya Rodgers called her boyfriend from a payphone. It was the last phone call she ever made. That evening in the spring of 1990, she was raped and murdered by an Army soldier home on leave. At the first light of morning, searchers found her body along a creek bank in Grady County.
I was less than six weeks away from graduating college when the story of 17-year-old Rodgers made the news. Although murder is a daily occurrence in American society, I’m hard-pressed to remember the name of even one person murdered in Oklahoma in the last five, maybe 10 years. I can’t even remember the name of that little boy in Nichols Hills whose doctor-father stabbed him to death.
Maybe I don’t want to remember it, kind of like when my friend and I were talking about it and I told her under no circumstances was she to tell me if that little boy was his mother’s only child. Don’t tell me, I said, as I put my fingers in my ears and chanted la-la-la-la-la. Some things I can’t handle knowing.
And, yet, Tonya’s name, for whatever reason, has remained with me all these years. Her story beckons me, 20 years and counting. So, I wonder sometimes, is my memory a summons to the dead? And, what does it mean to be dead anyway? She isn’t really dead or I don’t think I’d be thinking of her. Her body is absent, but for whatever reason, Tonya’s spirit remains present, particularly for those good at remembering, even if we’d rather forget.
I want to regard this bizarre and repeat occurrence as a curse, because what if someone dismissed it as my own fixation on death? But, I know in my heart that nothing could be further from the truth, and this bizarre occurrence is actually a gift. Maybe even, my best gift of all. For 20 years I’ve neglected to write an elegy for a girl I never knew who died on the banks of a creek in the darkness of night 54 miles from my college dorm; 54 miles away from the evil that found her and not me.
I am not haunted by Tonya, but privileged by her memory. That image of her school picture flashed on the TV, preserved by the chemistry in my brain, it’s fading now. Time is taking from me Tonya’s blonde bangs, and so tonight, I surrender to the lesson her death wants to teach me.
This is my fractured elegy for Tonya.
In the darkness of a Choctaw night
In the melodic town of Ninnekah
There on an ancient bank
Under a canopy of lacebark elms
A whale of tragedy swept you away
I wish it were not so.
And I have lamented in perfect procession
The loss of 10,000 things my survival did not require
These disappointments you were denied:
The luxury of failure
The mercy of mistake.
And, I am sorry
That my living has descended
Into the hell of pity at times
When your final moments were a hell like no other
They came sooner and more suddenly
Than anyone could have ever imagined
In a nearly all-white town
Of 300 families
At the hands
One brutal soldier
(May God save you from him now.)
And, it was on the banks of a Ninnekah night
You crossed over into a lonely purgatory
I do not want the dead to be sad
But sometimes they are
And I can hardly bear the burden
Of a 17-year-old’s regrets
Or the wisdom your own dying brought you
Whisper to me now as you have for 20 years
I am still alive
And hell has escaped me
And hell I have escaped
And you are here with me now
We are insignificant and invisible
Only if we choose to be
And these conditions are not governed
By life or death.
I love you, Tonya,
And I thank you for being with me all these years
For this lesson you bring me
Your tears of regret falling into my palms
They push away the drops of fear
That coalesce on my windshield
This blanket that distorts
All the good things in front of me
I’ll write your name in the morning dew
Every time I think of you
And I won’t forget
Our days are unpredictable
And the end comes sooner and more suddenly
Than we would like sometimes
And it will serve me well
To remember this
On the days
On the days
On the days…
You are not insignificant or invisible
I see you in the bokeh
You are the fiery, sometimes majestic orb
Dancing through the Osage Orange
And the Silver Maple
The Sand Plum and the Scotch Pine
Beyond the Night
Who do you miss the most?
Please visit my post another Oklahoma teenager, Monique Daniels, who went missing in 1992 and has still not been found.