R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Creative Nonfiction (page 1 of 5)

Three years ago today…

Grayson Hugh‘s newly-released album Back to the Soul arrived in my mailbox.

It’s still surreal to see my words on the inside of a CD booklet. Writing those liner notes remains my proudest achievement to date. I am also proud to call Grayson and his wife/co-producer/art director Polly Messer my dear friends.

On Returning from Maryland

As of 5:42 this morning, I was physically home from Maryland. Never have I cried so hard at a memorial service as I did on Tuesday, at my friend John “Mac” McNamara’s funeral. A thousand thanks to all of you who’ve helped me make this pilgrimage of sorrow, of loss, of gratitude, of goodbyes.

Despite having come there because of tremendous heartbreak, I did not want to leave Maryland. Emotionally, I’m still in College Park, Silver Spring, Annapolis. I can’t explain why. My intuition told me to stay: “Don’t go just yet. You’re not done here.” We shall see.

For the rest of my days, forever, I will be grateful to John. His kindness and encouragement literally saved my life on that March afternoon 16 years ago. When death felt like the only thing that would stop my suffering, John appeared almost out of nowhere to challenge that notion.

John was the first professional writer I ever met. He was the first person to take me seriously as a writer.  He was the first person to suggest I write about my father’s 1997 murder. Not only did I have a story, he said as he smacked his hand on the table for emphasis, but a story that I told as no one else could. He was the first person who meant it when he said I had talent. He was the first person who wanted me to understand, more than anything, that my stories were worth sharing with the world.

John’s words have buoyed me for almost two decades.

In the weeks since his murder, I’ve made almost no new photos. I’ve written hardly any new words. Words fail me, as does my sense of what makes a powerful image. At least I know this is normal. It’s how grief and trauma work.

But on the way to Maryland, at the Virginia state line rest stop, I did finally snap an image that fits the entire trip. Next to the sidewalk, this dead butterfly lay beautiful and broken—for no apparent reason. I saw it and sobbed like a little kid.

Dearest Johnny Mac:
Thank you, sweet friend.
You are the reason I am still here.
You are the reason I am still telling my stories.
I will miss you forever.
I will see you on the other side.
And when I see you, I expect you to roast me (again) for being a Celtics fan.

Always your friend,
Rachael

 

For John

My friend, sportswriter and editor John “Mac” McNamara, was one of the five newspaper employees killed on June 28 in Annapolis, Maryland. He was 56.

When we met, I was living with friends in Atlanta. Depressed and broke, I had a dead-end cocktail waitress job at a Midtown bar. The long hours and the daily parade of new faces took the edge off the misery of almost, but not quite, making ends meet.

John was in Atlanta covering the University of Maryland Terrapins’ appearance in the 2002 NCAA Men’s Final Four. He stopped in for a burger before heading out to that evening’s game. It was a strangely slow afternoon, despite the Division I college sports tournament happening a few blocks away. In that cavernous bar, John was my only customer.

Which turned out just fine, since he was one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Not many of us can carry on a lively, intelligent conversation about literature, college and pro hoops, music, and journalism with someone they’ve just met—oh, and while they’re at it, also be funny as hell. But that was John.

He wound up spending maybe four or five hours at my bar. We talked the entire time, with me getting up now and then to check on my three other customers, or to pour him a fresh beer from the tap. When he left, he gave me his card and some parting wisdom.

I had a storyteller’s gift, John said. He hoped I’d write about my dad one day—that I’d tell the story of Daddy’s 1997 murder and the bizarre aftermath. “What happened to your father is horrible. It’s worse than heartbreaking. But you make it compelling. That’s a gift. Not everybody has it, but you do. If you ever decide to write about it, Rachael, I’d love to read it.”

Please forgive me, Johnny Mac.
Your words have kept me afloat like no others.

I had meant to finish the book before now.
So you could read it.
So you could see your name in the acknowledgements.
I’m so, so sorry.

For those of you looking to help or pay tribute to John, Rob, Wendi, Gerald, and Rebecca, the owner of the Annapolis Capital has set up a fund. The proceeds will help with funerals and other expenses, hospital bills, scholarships for victims’ kids, help for surviving coworkers as they recover, and so on. Another fundraiser for victims’ families, set up by a D.C.-area journalist, has raised double its original goal in just three days.

Although I met him just once, John McNamara’s kindness and sincere encouragement have stuck with me for almost two decades. For the rest of my days, I will remember him with gratitude—and with love.

Photo of John “Mac” McNamara via The Annapolis Capital
Post text: © R.S. Williams

Indictment

He was an itinerant millwright, the story goes, a handsome fellow who never stayed long in one place. Women loved him. He loved them back. His mistake was in messing with one whose husband hid in a roadside thicket and shot him off his horse on a fine summer evening.

The doctor tried to save him—removed all the lead he could find, tied and pressed and tourniqueted against further bleeding. Too late. They buried the good-looking millwright at the back edge of the cemetery, sheltered by oak, hickory, poplar, scuppernong.

The chest wound told what the dead man could not. A muzzle-loader, yes. Homemade shot. Wadded tight with paper. The doctor unfurled the biggest blood-soaked piece: a long front page strip from the Franklin newspaper, dated a few days before.

Only one local man still used a muzzle-loader. Years later, the sheriff shook his head when he recalled how the fellow still had that newspaper with the piece torn out. It lay right there on the table when he and the doctor arrived.

They hanged the murderer at the jail in Franklin. Where they buried him—or what became of his wife—nobody knows. But Charles M. Bailey remains here, a mile and a half from where he fell.

Gravestone of Charles M. Bailey
Glenn, Georgia (Heard County) – 3 June 2014

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Notes from the Past

Twenty-three years ago today, I sat in a University of Georgia classroom taking brief end-of-term notes on final portfolio requirements. The seminar instructor, Dr. Christy Desmet, remains one of my all-time favorite professors.

No, I don’t know how I managed to save this notebook for over two decades.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Last Day of School, 1981

On this day in 1981, I finished 1st grade.

Last summer, my mother found in her attic this worn, yellowed sheet of Blue Horse tablet paper. I’m not sure how it survived 37 years of moves, heat, and humidity. Check out the black Sharpie smiley-face at upper right. Somehow, Mrs. Reba Taylor even managed to check everyone’s work before first-grade cookout pandemonium descended upon her classroom.

Friday, May 29, 1981
Today is the very last day of this school year. We are going to have a cookout to celebrate. I hope all of you have a nice summer!

At first, I thought the oversized-pencil handwriting was my sister’s. It looks like the pre-3rd-grade-cursive, little-kid version of her grown-up print penmanship. But Val reminded me that in 1981 she hadn’t yet learned to write, and wouldn’t until the fall of that year.

This is unexpected. It’s also the cutest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Menthol Prayer

I asked the lady at the tobacco counter for Virginia Slims, like my grandmother used to smoke—”the ones with green on the box.” Turns out Maw-Maw’s favorite cigs were also menthol. Not sure how I missed that and thought my grandfather was the only menthol fan in the family.

I don’t smoke. My grandparents made me promise that I’d never start. But the smell of cigarette smoke comforts me. I can’t help it. It’s a major note in the perfume of my first 23 years on this planet.

Whenever I find myself unable to write my way out of a sticky place, I light a Virginia Slims. I wave the lit end around the room a bit, then set it in the thrift-store ashtray on my desk to invoke my grandmother. I watch the strange secondhand smoke incense curl around my chair, then up, up, up and around the room along with my prayer.

And somehow, before long, I’m writing again. Palms together, I bow in gratitude: “Thank you, Maw-Maw.”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

‘Til His Wheels Fall Off

Let me tell you something: I like a man with a hundred thousand miles on him. I like a man who’s been cross-country again and again on the long haul, on the short haul, down interstates and dirt roads. I like a man with a few scrapes along his fenders. I like a man whose windows have deflected a quarry’s worth of rocks, whose slightly busted windshield bears a long, wandering, starry thread running east to west.

I like a man with some wear and tear on him. I like a man who’s been in an accident or three, who doesn’t mind trading a little paint—a man who sees no reason to fear a bucket of Bondo. I like a man who isn’t so concerned for his delicate paint job and fancy chrome details that he’s too scared to roll down the driveway. I like a man who, when he really is too scared to roll down the driveway, puts on a new air filter, intakes a deep breath, and rumbles out anyway. I like a man who knows how to fix himself, who values what he’s learned by hammering out his own dents.

I like a man who’s run hot, spewed smoke, blown a gasket. I like a man who knows the metallic growl of his own stripped gears. I like a man who’s found himself coming down a 6% incline outside Monteagle with his clutch completely gone and his trailer brakes on fire and no emergency pull-off in sight. I like a man who’s been stuck in the mud up to his wheel wells, who’s had to sit there with the shame of knowing that he did it to himself. I like a man who recognizes, sitting there in the mud, that there is no shame in letting someone with a little more horsepower—and a 12,000-pound bumper winch—drag him back to solid road.

I like a man whose axle bearings sometimes sing high and ghostly of too-heavy loads, of too-light grease. I like a man who’s somehow wound up at the edge of the yard, as far from the house as possible, with FOR SALE, OR TRADE FOR TRACTOR scrawled across him in white shoe polish. I like a man whose odometer tells me that he has been driven, that he has been broken, that he has been repaired—that he has been loved.

He’d rather be scrap than admit it, but he wishes he were shiny and new. I don’t. Give me crumpled rusty panels, a short in the eight-track player, a hiccup under the distributor cap. Let me tell you something: I’ll drive him ’til his wheels fall off.

Photo: “Yes, It Still Runs” (Heard County, Georgia – 15 May 2014)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first posted this piece on 16 May 2014.

A Tale for Mother’s Day

Note: This Mother’s Day piece, a reader favorite, first appeared here in May 2014. I’ve edited it since then. Names and identifying details have been altered.

*******

Look at this photo. Study it closely, so you can truly see it.

Staring back at you through sunglasses and sweat and thirty-plus years is my mother—a woman who has long followed her calling, long refused to heed society’s dictates. Here, working as a highway bridge form carpenter in the mid-1980s, she was the only woman on a crew of fifty.

Mom fought the often casual, always hateful sexism that permeates places where people fear difference of any kind, especially when that difference exposes the comfortable ignorance and shoddy workmanship that they have long swallowed as The Way Things Are Supposed to Be.

The old schoolyard insult of “Your mother wears combat boots” might have devastated many children. Not us. It made my sister and me proud. Our mother did wear combat boots: at first, military surplus, men’s size 5. Later, they came from Red Wing: steel toe, steel shank, anti-shock sole, men’s size 5. Yes, our mama wore combat boots every day. And, when the occasion arose, she kicked ass with them, too.

Sorry. This is going to be a long story.
It has to be.

My sister and I were always outsiders. Although our father had been born and raised in our tiny corner of Heard County, Georgia, and although three of our four grandparents had been born and raised there, we had not. We arrived from Randolph County, Alabama, when I was in first grade and Val in kindergarten.

By age seven, country kids know who “belongs” from birth and who does not. There is no hope for assimilation, no hope for blending in. Evil in the way that only children can be, our school mates reminded us all the time that we did not belong.

I still don’t know why those kids didn’t like us. Perhaps it was because we were bright for our age, placed in accelerated classes at the start of first grade. Perhaps it was because, thanks to family crises of many kinds, we were shy, sensitive, and didn’t make friends easily. Perhaps it was because we were each other’s best friend: we sat together on the bus, played together, stayed together at every family and social event, no matter the fun around us. We had learned early on that we had to stick together at all times. Others could not be trusted. Perhaps—well, perhaps there’s no reason at all. But the entire thing is sad, especially in light of children’s vast capacity for empathy and kindness.

The rumors and taunts did nothing to make us less different. The worst and longest enduring of them: “Rachael and Val are devil-worshipers. Rachael and Val are Satanists.”

I have to admit that this was awfully sharp for a bunch of country-bumpkin third graders. This was the kind of gossip grown-ups like to hear and love to tell, but will never admit to having created. Could it have come from adults? It’s impossible to know.

But remember: This was the early 1980s. With millions of parents terrified that random heavy metal lyrics and a few rounds of Dungeons & Dragons would hypnotize their teens into shooting themselves, and with traveling evangelical preachers making loads of money from west central Georgia record-and-tape bonfires, these rumors made perfect pop cultural sense.

The prescient little ringleaders were Morgan and Laura: two sisters, very close in age, whose parents had been high school friends with our father. Haughty, hypocritical, self-important, and entitled, they recycled the rumors every year or so. Heard County schools welcomed just enough new kids each fall to give the gossip fresh legs. There would always be another sucker to believe it. Although we were not in the same classes with Morgan and Laura, and although our grandmother had long removed us from the Girl Scout troop where the trouble began, the gossip still shadowed us no matter how many spelling bees we won, how often we made the Honor Roll, or how well we did at All-State Band auditions.

Once I reached eighth grade, though, the rumors went away. Maybe Laura and Morgan were too focused on trying to be popular to keep them up. Rehabbing their abysmal personalities must have been a full-time job. Had they been better than average looking, they might have sustained the Lucifer talk. The beautiful, of course, get away with so much more.

From our seats in the bleachers with the marching band, Val and I chuckled to see the two of them trying to jump their sorry posteriors into the air. Back then, the cheerleading squad was desperate—so much so that girls with nearly no physical coordination could give a half-assed tryout, fail miserably, and still make the varsity team. Suddenly, with the addition of a maroon-and-gray uniform, anyone could become Popular. Morgan and Laura did. For several years, they were content with their place in the sad, pointless high school social order.

And then, in the fall of my senior year, the rumors returned.

During the bus trip to an away game, third-chair tuba player Harvey Tidewater turned around in his seat to face our mom. By that time, Mom had retired from heavy construction and spent every weekend from August until mid-November as a band chaperone. Bless his heart, Harvey never was one for tact. That was his greatest flaw. In this case, it was also his saving grace. He opened his mouth, and a proverbial can of worms.

“Miss Gina, I have a question: Are Val and Rachael devil-worshipers?”

Mom stared down at him. “Excuse me?”

“Rachael and Val—are they Satanists? Do they worship the devil? I just wanted to know. That’s what I heard.”

Somehow, Mom contained her rage. “Harvey, that’s stupid. The answer is NO, of course not. Where’d you hear this crap, anyway?”

“In homeroom. Last week.”

“From?”

He cleared his throat. “Morgan. And then Laura said it Wednesday in world history. They both said it’s always been true.”

“Thanks for being honest, Harvey. I’ll take care of this.”

At 8:30 Saturday morning, Mom walked down the road to the patched-up sharecropper’s shack-and-a-half that Laura and Morgan’s parents tried desperately to pass off as a custom-built log cabin. She knocked loudly, and waited, and waited. Gladys, the girls’ mother, finally padded to the door. “Why, hello! Sorry it took me so long. We weren’t expecting company.”

“I know.” Mom paused, and locked eyes with Gladys. “I need to talk to you about something very, very important.”

“Uh—certainly. Please come in.” Mom stepped into the living room. On the sofa, Laura and Morgan sat lumpy and forlorn, cereal bowls in hand, eyes glazing over to a movie on the VHS player. She hadn’t expected the sisters to be at home. This would be interesting.

“Gladys, on the band bus last night to Crawford County, I heard something very ugly. Harvey Tidewater, the tuba player, asked me flat-out if Valerie and Rachael are Satanists.”

“You’re kidding.”

Mom shook her head. “I wish I were. Of course, my girls are not Satanists. They never, ever have been. I don’t even know how such a low-down rumor like that gets started. Do you?”

“No, I don’t. That’s terrible, Gina. Just terrible!”

“It is. But what’s worse is, when I asked Harvey who’d told him, he said he heard it from Laura and Morgan.”

The color drained out of Gladys’s face and rose into the pair of broad, cantaloupe-blank faces in front of the TV. “Girls, is this true?” They reddened more, then looked away and down at the now-soggy puffs in their bowls. Just as quickly, the blood returned to Gladys’s face. She frowned. “Gina, I am so sorry. Trust me, you won’t have any more trouble from my daughters. I am just so, so sorry.”

“Thanks, Gladys. I’m glad we straightened this out.”

Indeed, that was the last we heard of the devil-worshipper rumor. Now and then, Mom sees Gladys around town. They wave hello, ask how the family’s doing, and move along. More often, though, Mom catches a glimpse of Laura or Morgan in the grocery store, the tag office, the BBQ joint. Neither will meet her gaze. Each of them—now a woman rapidly approaching middle age—looks away, then down, and sidles out the nearest door.

Perhaps, over a quarter-century later, they can still feel that combat boot on their behinds.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

New piece in Columbus and the Valley Magazine

A huge THANK YOU! to publishers Jill Tigner and Mike Venable for running my nonfiction essay “Red Clay Ghosts” in the June 2018 issue of Columbus and the Valley Magazine. Back in June 2016, they published my first nonfiction piece, “The Lipstick Queen.” This marks the fourth time they’ve printed my words.

“Red Clay Ghosts” is an excerpt from my forthcoming creative nonfiction novel, Songs My Father Barely Knewand the first excerpt to appear in print. Part of Columbus and the Valley‘s Father’s Day issue, it’s in memory of my dad, Newt Williams. And check out the photo they chose to go with this piece. It is absolutely perfect.

The electronic magazine is now live: click here and look for “Red Clay Ghosts” starting on page 24. The print issue should arrive in mailboxes in the next few days. Oh, and subscribe to CATV, while you’re at it. For a year of gorgeous, glossy photos and quality articles, $20 is a steal.

Thanks again, Mike and Jill. Y’all are the best.

Text in this post © R.S. Williams
Magazine page image + photograph courtesy of Columbus and the Valley Magazine

Dr. Parker’s Gardenias

When I was a baby, my parents rented a tiny house trailer in Randolph County, Alabama. Their elderly landlord was a retired country doctor. Dr. James Parker* and his wife, Opal*, passed their days tending to their legendary vegetable and flower gardens. Born in the late 1890s, they told my mother many stories from their childhoods.

One thick summer evening, sitting on the Parkers’ front porch, Mom complimented Miss Opal on the waxy, heaven-scented white flowers blooming at the very edge of her yard. “Your gardenias are amazing. Would it be all right if I cut a few to put in a vase?”

“Help yourself,” Miss Opal said. “I can’t stand gardenias. James loves them. I told him if he just had to have them, he needed to plant them as far away from the house as he could.”

This was a new one for Mom. “How come you don’t like gardenias?”

“They remind me of my Uncle Bert*.” Miss Opal looked across the lawn at the hundred-foot row of waist-high, glossy-green-leaved shrubs that separated her yard from the overgrown pasture next door. She sighed, and turned back to Mom.

“Uncle Bert was Mama’s youngest brother. He left for Oklahoma when I was a child—thought he’d try farming out there, where it’s flat and you can see for miles and miles. One day, he was fixing a barbwire fence when a bad storm came up. He didn’t worry, though. The storm was still a good way off. He’d figured he’d patch that fence, get on his mule, and beat the rain back to the house.” She paused. “He didn’t count on the lightning.”

“The lightning?”

Miss Opal nodded sadly. “Lightning struck about a mile away. The charge traveled all the way up the fence to where Uncle Bert had his hands on it. Killed both him and the mule.”

“My God!”

“Even worse,” Miss Opal continued, “was that he had told his wife he wanted to be buried back home, in Alabama. And he died in late June.”

She closed her eyes. “The funeral was open-casket, even though we could barely recognize him. There was this big old burned streak down his face, down into his shirt collar and, I reckon, the whole length of his body.” Miss Opal shuddered. “Took the train eight days to get here from Oklahoma City. His wife didn’t have the money to have him embalmed.  With all that time passing and the summer heat, by the day of the funeral—Lord, have mercy. They had that church full of gardenias to cover up the smell. It didn’t work.”

“To this day, every time I catch even a little whiff of the blasted things, all I can smell is sickly sweetness—just overpowering summer and perfume and death. I see Uncle Bert again, all burned and purplish-black there in the casket. And I just about faint.” Miss Opal pointed toward the edge of the yard. “And that’s why I made James plant his gardenias way out there.”

*Note: All names have been changed. 

Photo: “Gardenia Ghost No. 2” (LaGrange, Georgia – 6 June 2016)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wherever Someone’s in Need

Three years ago today, I submitted final grades for the last time—and, to celebrate, posted on Facebook this photo of my 1960s neon Pabst Blue Ribbon bar sign. While I miss my former students, my friends, and the steady (if small) paychecks, I don’t miss teaching. At all. Ever.

In some ways, though, I’m still teaching. For example: Most of this week has seen me helping people figure out how to do the things that confuse or frighten them—and figure it out through writing. I’ve helped people’s ideas take shape on the printed page, whether in plain text or as part of a graphic layout. I’ve talked people through the stories they’re afraid to write, when their dreams literally point them toward taking greater creative risks. In a sea of disinformation, I’ve helped people find the knowledge they need to make hard decisions.

In 2015, I walked out of the classroom, and I haven’t looked back. But when I think about my own writing, and how I’ve used what I know to help others, I know that the classroom isn’t always in a school building. The classroom is wherever someone’s in need.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Metro Living

Fifteen years passed before I saw him again. This time, it was by accident: at the edge of a photo in the Atlanta paper.

At first, I thought he was dancing with the curvy redhead, her sparkly sequined back to the camera. His leg and foot stepped toward her at a jaunty angle. The band blazed away behind them—good. He’d finally found someone.

But her feet were flat on the ground, and her weight shoved firmly into one hip. She’d turned her head to better see the guitarist giving it hell onstage.

He wasn’t dancing.
He was dodging bodies, escaping glances, leaving the festival while it was still daylight.

Years before, he maneuvered a hot iron with incredible grace and skill. He liked sharp creases in practical fabrics: twill, denim, broadcloth. Whatever he had on was fresh, clean, neatly pressed. But now, that rumpled shirt, those wrinkled pants—how many days in a row had he worn them?

Inside the yoke of the forlorn plaid he still buttoned too high, his proud shoulders sagged. His belly clambered over his belt. Strong and sure when I knew him, his hands now simply dangled from his arms. Gaze locked on the ground, he seemed to study where he would next place his right foot. His face had fallen the way faces do when their owners sleep flat on them. He hadn’t aged so much as retreated into “Don’t look at me.”

At the edge of the photo, I saw a man trying to disappear. I saw a man telling the universe “NO” before it had a chance to say the same to him.

I folded the Metro Living section, and wished I didn’t still love him.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Reunion in Brass and Mother-of-Pearl

Twenty-five years have passed since we last met. Strange, because it seems like just yesterday when we waved goodbye. She looked a little sad, but assured me that she’d be around whenever I needed her. No worries. She’d be right where I left her. And she meant it.

Even as she approaches her 74th birthday, she’s still radiant. Her voice remains strong and smoky. She hasn’t grown gaunt with age, as some of us do, but still weighs in at a hefty, healthy 20 pounds. She’s never been ashamed of her worn lacquer, her scratches,  her oft-repaired and dangerously thin brass. Don’t make the mistake of suggesting to her that those are flaws to be camouflaged and hidden away. Oh, no. She won’t hear of it. Those “wrinkles” mean she’s been places. She’s seen things. She has loved and been loved—and she will continue to love. She has lived fully and deeply, as most of us never will.

Does she ever think of France? Does she long for that little factory south of Paris where she came into the world, where one of Monsieur Noblet’s craftsmen  stamped “9346” in the small of her bell seam? Whenever I ask, she changes the subject.

She’d rather talk about the Rubank exercises that we both hated at first but quickly grew to love, or that grueling Dvoràk piece we aced in the winter of 1993. She gets excited when I suggest we try “Night Train” again, and pushes for a dirty, raunchy, uptempo “gut-bucket” version. She wonders why I still haven’t bought the Dukoff 10* metal mouthpiece that I wouldn’t shut up about all those years ago.

Is she protecting me? Or herself?

It doesn’t matter. She kept her decades-old promise: I needed her, and there she was. Or, rather, here she is, as patient and solid and accepting as ever. As I slowly rebuild my wind and dexterity,  she stays with me. She picks up where we left off, telling her story and mine in that steady, husky tenor—singing every note with longing, and with love.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first posted this piece on 16 March 2015. It appears here today with revisions.

 

Driving Home from Jonesboro, Arkansas

There are few experiences more peaceful, or more satisfying, than driving 500 miles home past rail yards and ports and farmland.

Northeastern Arkansas feels a lot like southern Georgia. It’s flat and swampy, yet fertile. In the fields on both sides of most every highway, massive sprinkler systems on wheels sleep, biding their time before the summer drought. Unlike southern Georgia, though, I saw no Arkansas cattle egrets carpeting either moos or soybean fields. Nor did I swat at gnats every other breath, like I never got used to doing when I was a kid visiting my aunt in Sylvester or Ashburn or Tifton.

There’s a spare, half-wild, desperate natural beauty there. It’s same kind of beauty that an artist friend once said makes southern Georgia “the most beautiful, desolate, forsaken place on earth—praise God.”

Watching the storm as I drove was frightening and sublime. The sky turned an unnerving shade of pinkish-green. Outside Memphis, I saw five bolts of lightning hit the ground at once. A little further up the road, I drove across both Hell Creek and the Tallahatchie Bridge. No Billy Joe McAllister, though.

Between Tyronza (pop. 762) and Jonesboro, the shoulder of the access road along Interstate 555 was on fire: three triangular-shaped patches of grass ablaze at dusk. Maybe it was the lightning from the storm. Maybe it was an alien spacecraft landing mishap. In this wide, semi-sandy, rural dream world, anything seems possible.

West of Marked Tree, Arkansas, railroad tracks parallel US Highway 63. I raced a long, long BNSF, the kind that requires four big orange locomotive engines, into town. Outrunning a train in a Honda Civic feels wrong.

The soil in Arkansas is unlike any I’ve seen. Sandy tan on top, with newly plowed furrows of deep coffee brown. Near Lepanto, a huge John Deere cut S-shaped disc rows into a fallow field every 100 feet. In other fields, brilliant yellow-flowering cover crops stretched for hundreds of acres on either side of the highway.

Outside Maumelle, a large squirrel darted across a rain-beaten furrowed sandy field. “What are you doing? Trying to get picked up by a hawk?” I said to the silence in the car. Three hundred feet across the same field, a Rottweiler mix trotted along with a limp brown broken creature in its mouth. The little brown tail flopped to the beat of the dog’s proud steps.

From Jonesboro to the Mississippi River, red-winged blackbirds swooped from fence post to fence post. Little red-and-yellow epaulets on little daredevil black birds—flash-flash-flash, swoop-swoop-swoop, waving me home-home-home.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

 

The Other Vine That Ate the South

In the Deep South, spring smells like grape soda. Not name-brand grape soda, but the cheapest-of-all-cheapo-store-brands grape soda. Or perhaps it smells more like wonky year-old bubble gum, the kind that’s so powdery and bland nobody will even shoplift it off the dollar store clearance rack.

Whatever it smells like, that scent means wisteria, or, as I like to call it, the Other Vine That Ate the South. (The original Vine That Ate the South is kudzu. It blooms much later in the growing season, and is a topic for a different post or twelve.) In March and April, wisteria treats us to two or three weeks of glorious purple clouds in the trees. After that, it finishes leafing out to spend the rest of the season devouring everything in its path—fences, trees, houses, cars, pets.

It’s certainly breathtaking in the garden, but you have to tame it by pruning it hard every year.  Don’t slack off and skip a year. You will regret it. And don’t let its beauty fool you: wisteria sinensis is invasive. Unless someone keeps it in check, it takes over—a simple gardening fact.

But for whatever reason, the majority of people don’t control their wisteria. Or maybe it’s more like can’t control it. I’m not sure. When early spring passes, so do those amazing foot-long purple drupes. By the time summer gets here, its dark green leaves are so plentiful and thick that we can’t even see what it’s smothering 80 feet above the ground.

Other than adding stunning Pointillist color to the landscape and providing food for bees, wisteria doesn’t have much going for it. Oh, wait—it will also hide any place that you mean for people to forget. Don’t believe me? Just follow these two simple steps:

  1.   Plant wisteria.
  2.   Move.

Give it a few years, and voilà! Nobody will know the place ever existed.

People can say what they want about wisteria. I still look forward to its luxurious hues draped over roadside trees every spring. This is probably because I’m lucky enough not to have any on my property. As much as I love the Other Vine That Ate the South, it’s probably best that I leave it where I found it—far away from my own yard.

Photo: “Wisteria No. 471” (LaGrange, Georgia – 21 March 2012)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Advice from Raptors

As I washed this evening’s dishes, I heard them call from the water oaks behind the house: Who-who? Who-who? Who-cooks-for-YOU? Barred owls—the first time I’ve heard them this season.

Some folklore traditions regard owls as harbingers of doom. Others maintain that they signal change of many kinds, not necessarily bad news. Still others hold that owls mean your house and property will soon become rodent-free. For a long time, I discounted the first two. But that was before the hard-partying bunch of barred owls moved into the trees around my house several years ago.

Since then, every new phase of my life—whether painful or pleasant—has arrived in the company of owls. They go quiet for days or weeks, then return, and HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT?!? something new and previously unimaginable shows up along with them. Tonight, when the first hoots reached my ears, I almost dropped a soapy dinner plate into the floor: “Please, universe. I can’t handle any more. Please, please—have mercy on me.”

Fortunately, neither the owls nor the universe heard my plea.

When I stop and listen to the stillness of my soul, I’m sure of several changes heading my way. While I don’t yet know what they’ll look like, what form they’ll take, I know to expect them, to get ready and do what they need for me to do when they finally get here. Others, though, I cannot and will not know until they are upon me. The owls are just the early warning system.

Good or bad, sweetness or sorrow, I’m grateful and humbled to hear those feathered harbingers call once again from the walnut tree. Whatever they bring, I brace myself and welcome it with open arms. Which, honestly, is about all any of us can do.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sit in the cool of the back yard for a while. I’m gonna soak up the dark and the quiet and the peace. I’m gonna listen for advice from raptors, whatever they may decide to pass along.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Happy birthday, Steve!

Today is my stepfather’s birthday. Steve has been a part of our family for nearly a quarter-century, and I don’t know what we’d do without his witty humor, his genius handyman skills, and his kind heart. He also has a knack for rescuing baby animals in need.

In this 2014 photo, Steve’s holding my cat Miller, whom I’d adopted a couple days before from the Walmart parking lot. Steve is the reason there are so many pets at his and Mom’s house: “Awwwww, look! That poor little abused kitty [puppy/piglet/calf/foal/donkey] needs a home!” Ten cats and five dogs later—yep, you know the drill.

I also don’t know what we’d do without Steve’s obscure Southern vocabulary words. This considerable vocabulary includes exceptional profanity skills for emergency situations. While my favorite Steve phrase is “shining like a diamond in a goat’s ass,” he’s at his verbal peak when danger is near.

One summer afternoon in 2007, Mom, Steve, and I were grilling out at their house when a large hornet flew up out of nowhere. Close to three inches long from antennae to stinger and wearing angry-looking yellow and maroon stripes, it made the kind of noise that lets you know an insect means business. Sure enough, the hornet made a few dive-bombs at Steve and me. We panicked.

“Goddamighty, Gina!” Steve shouted at Mom, who’d gone back indoors for a minute. “There’s a big-ass wawst out here!” [Wawst = Southern pronunciation of “wasp”]

The hornet kept circling the porch, probably looking for its nest entrance. Each orbit brought it closer and closer to us. When it disappeared into a small crack between the eaves of the house, we could still hear its hostile buzzing. This did not bode well.

“This thing is huge, Mom,” I called. “You better bring the big guns.”

“Just a minute,” we heard Mom yell back from inside the house. She’d been through this before and was in no big hurry to get back outside. The hornet had probably been there for weeks. It would no doubt still be there when she got onto the porch.

Despite my stepfather’s being a formidable-sized guy at 6’2” and 240 pounds, there are two things that rattle him: any kind of thorn-bearing plant, and any kind of stinging insect. I have seen him jump off of more ladders than I care to count when one of these bugs comes buzzing by, just minding its own business.

As such, Steve’s plan of action upon seeing a wawst takes one of three directions:

  1. Drown the wawst (hornet, wasp, yellow jacket, carpenter bee, horsefly, etc.—whatever insect it really is, he still calls it wawst) in half a can of Raid,
  2. Whack at it with a 22-ounce hammer until it’s dead, muttering the whole time that “this thang don’t know who it’s fuckin’ with,” or
  3. Take off across the yard like a shot, yelling his fool head off.

So there was no doubt in my mind Steve was going to put into effect one of his usual three modus operandi this time, too.

“Brang the wawst spray!” he shouted back into the house. “I can’t grill with this damn thang flyin’ around my head! I’ll burn the steaks!”

“I’ll be out there in a minute,” Mom shouted back from inside the house. “Let me find the ‘wawst’ spray.” Originally from Michigan but having lived in the South for almost 50 years, Mom still pokes fun at a few Southern-accented words—including wawst.

“Hurry!” Steve shouted. “You don’t know how big this thang is!”

“I’m sure it’s the biggest wawst ever,” Mom replied, without affect.

“HURRY! This thang’s as big as my left nut!”

At which point I collapsed on the ground, laughing too hard to move, speak, or breathe.

Mom finally emerged from the house, the can of Extra-Strength Wasp and Hornet Killer in her hand. “Mom! MOM!” I gasped between belly-laughs. “It’s as big as Seeben’s left nut!”

“Yes,” Mom said. “And you’ll also notice that it’s always ‘as big as his left nut,’ never the right nut.”

Happy birthday, Seeben! I love you!

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

The Daffodils That Always Mean “Home”

Living in a small town often means commuting a long distance to work somewhere else. Before I began working from home, I drove about 90 miles round-trip to my university teaching job. While the commute itself sometimes bored me, the scenery on U.S. Highway 27 between LaGrange and Carrollton never, ever did.

So it’s Spring now—the season that, in the Deep South, gives us an ice storm one day and tornadoes the next. This year has brought out the daffodils a little early. I delight in watching them pop up along U.S. 27’s shoulders.

When you see daffodils, you can safely assume that someone put them there. Unlike seed plants, daffodils and other bulbs have to be dug up and replanted. In order to get them from where they are to where they’re going to be, someone has to move them at the right time of year (late spring, after blooms and foliage have died back), transport them to a suitable location, and plant them.

Most of the daffodils we see along the roadside make their homes in someone’s yard. Sometimes they’re in neat flower beds. Sometimes, as is the case with my own yard, they’re randomly planted in a sunny patch of lawn to surprise everyone, year after year, with unexpected yellows and creams in a sea of brittle brown grass.

But what about those planted in or near a roadside ditch—without a house nearby?

Just because you don’t see a house doesn’t mean one hasn’t ever been there. Daffodils stay underground most of the year. Once they’ve finished blooming, their leaves die back and don’t reappear for another year. So old houses get demolished, their sites fading into and gradually out of memory—yet the bulbs embedded around them come back. They come back every spring thereafter, house or no house.

Plant ghosts, I call them. They don’t know the house and the people are gone. They come back because this is their home. In every sense of the word, they are rooted here.

The daffodils pictured above are very simple, single-cup daffodils, an old variety we often see around old houses. They’re about 12” tall at most, and amazingly hardy. Judging from what’s left of the house, and from the size of the flower clumps, these daffs have been here for about 50 years.

Behind the thick, overgrown privet hedge, nearly 20 feet down the bank from the southbound lanes of U.S. 27 in Carroll County, appears the faint outline of a house—or what used to be a house, anyway. Out in front: these happy yellow bells.

I wonder why the last residents left. I wonder if they left in a hurry. I wonder who decided to let a once-sturdy farmhouse simply fold itself back into the earth.

I wonder if, on leaving, they took one long, last look toward the flower bed. I wonder if they wept for the flowers waiting beneath its surface, for the daffodils that always mean “home.”

Photo: “Daff Nipped by Frost” (Carroll County, Georgia – February 2012)

NOTE: Earlier versions of this post appeared here on 2 March 2015, and at Forgotten Plants & Places on 25 February 2012.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Biohazard

Before they were his, they were hide.

Before the goatskin was stripped of flesh, bone, sinew, it cinched fur in follicle, held together bone, gut, muscle, bile. Three square feet of full-grain hide would one day protect my father’s hands from the hot corrosive black-and-clear liquid inside electrician’s splice packets; from the powder-blue edges of just-sawn three-inch Schedule 40 PVC pipe; from the slow and subtle and inevitable hardening of hands that work in dirt.

No matter how I open the drawer, I’m never fast enough. I still see them. Behind the artfully arranged failure of a dozen jumbled mementos, they wait in the bottom of the dresser, curled as always. Dusty green mildew wraps them in frosty fuzz and a sharp, tangy-bitter smell. They remain in the battered plastic biohazard bag where the homicide investigators carefully placed them.

The evidence from a death.

The detritus from a life.

My father’s final work gloves lie in the drawer corner, bent and shriveled as if immolated. Dark, stiff, foreboding, they put on an obscene mime show of his hands as they clamped the backhoe steering wheel—the backhoe steering wheel behind which he sat for hours missing the back half of his skull while the crime scene crew processed the evidence, surveyed the damage wrought far beyond the sprinkler heads and backfill going in at the 12th tee. Once light tan, the leather slowly turned dark with each successive layer of Lowcountry dirt, of peat and brackish bog, of cattail and swamp water, of sweat, of blood.

Blood.

That’s the other smell—twenty-one years on, still spattered along the cuffs.

In memory of Newt Williams
5 October 1946 – 16 January 1997

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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