R. S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Creative Nonfiction (page 1 of 3)

Two new pieces in Sleipnir!

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve got two new pieces, “In the Studio” (poem) and “Clearcut” (flash nonfiction), in the Spring 2017 issue of Sleipnir literary journal. Named for Norse god Odin’s fearsome eight-legged horse, Sleipnir strives to

…create a space for other crooked-smile clowns wandering away from the path of courtiers and kings, [and who are] burning the midnight oil to tell a story.

Yep. My kind of publication.

Editors Robin Andreasen and Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen teach English at South Texas College in McAllen, TX. They’re a dream to work with. Liana and Robin tell me that the next issue will feature fiction, poetry, and art about Texas. By all means, send them your Lone Star State-themed work!

Cover illustration by Leszek Kostuj and quoted text appear courtesy of Sleipnir
Other text © R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

My latest, at Columbus and the Valley Magazine

Many thanks to publishers Mike Venable and Jill Tigner for running my short piece “Reverie with Coffee and Hash Browns” in the June 2017 edition of Columbus and the Valley Magazine. (The piece is on page 72.) My fellow contributors have really outdone themselves this month—so I expect you to check out their delightful articles, as well.

Photo: “Waffle House, 12:19pm”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wherever someone’s in need

Two 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 (a lucky eBay purchase). 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 great creative risks. In a sea of disinformation, I’ve helped people find the knowledge they need to make hard decisions.

I walked out of the classroom two years ago. 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)

 

Notes from the Happy Kitten Cottage; or, I’ve Got a Newsletter Now

Yes, I’ve got a newsletter now (even if I don’t have any eyebrows in this photo).

It’s taken me six years, but at last TinyLetter’s easy-to-use format found me, and I’ve begun Notes from the Happy Kitten Cottage. It’ll come to you once a week, on average. Don’t worry, I won’t spam you. We’ve all got plenty of stuff in our email inboxes as it is.

As I note in the About section, it’ll be “weekly notes on my writing & photography, my cats, rural places, plants and wild animals, dilapidated buildings, country music, and Lord knows what else.”

Interested? Sign up here.

I’ll probably send the first newsletter in another day or so. They’ll all be archived, so no worries if you miss one.

TinyLetter will show you a confirmation page, and will send you an email with a link to click (to verify your sign-up). You can unsubscribe anytime.

Thanks again for reading. You folks are the best.

Love,
Me

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Peony Problems

Here in the Deep South, peonies are a hit-and-miss gardening affair. Sometimes, the weather and bugs and fungi and soil all manage to cooperate, and POOF! an early-blooming variety gives you two weeks of gloriously ruffled, heavily perfumed blossoms six to eight inches wide. (Unfortunately for us all, Southern weather gets too hot too soon for the late-blooming varieties.)

Seeing and smelling these flowers is the gateway drug to a serious gardening habit. You can’t help wanting moremoreMORE after an experience like that. Before you know it, you’ve got three, six, a dozen of them in the yard.

You tell yourself, “I don’t have a problem. I can quit any time I want.” This is while you’re sneaking plant catalogs into the employee restroom at work. You start showing up to important meetings with dirt still under your fingernails. You call in “sick” so you can stay home and dig several cubic yards of composted sheep manure into your garden beds.

It gets worse. You find yourself unable to sleep from your gardening high, so you order even more plants online at 3:00 in the morning. Your spouse gets suspicious. The cycle of lies begins: “No, honey, I don’t know who would order twenty rare peonies, ten Japanese maples, six Himalayan lilies, fifty ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ daffodils, twenty blackberry canes, and a Piedmont azalea all at the same time.” And the peonies started it all.

Most of the time, though, the weather and bugs and fungi and soil refuse to cooperate. You’re left with apricot-sized flower buds that turn to soggy brown mush just as they’re about to open. Then it’s all weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth while you walk around in sackcloth and ashes. Sad, but true: this has been my peony story for most of the ten years I’ve had them in my garden. It’s a rotten way to live.

The exceptionally cold winter of 2014 made this old-fashioned, finicky plant happy—which made me happy. 2015 brought a mild winter and brown ruffled mush. 2016’s joke of a winter will probably mean the same for this spring’s peonies. Guess I’ll hope for a repeat of three years ago, and then take whatever I can get.

Who am I kidding? I’ll be heartbroken without those six-inch, heaven-scented, crinoline-ruffled light pink pom-poms. But it’s no big deal. I’ll be okay, eventually. Besides, I can quit any time I want.

Photo: “Pink Peony Ruffles” (LaGrange, Georgia 8 May 2014)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: This post first appeared here in July 2014, here again in April 2016, and has since been revised.

 

Reunion in Brass and Mother-of-Pearl

Twenty-four 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 73rd 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 two-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.

 

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, which 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)

Originally published here on 8 October 2012, this post appears today with revisions. It was also one of my most popular posts in 2016.

 

A Good Plan

Yesterday, I remembered a brilliant idea I had as I entered the sixth grade: “I’ll write a bunch of papers way ahead of time. That way, I’ll be prepared.”

I told my father my idea on a July afternoon at our little house in Randolph County, Alabama. I sat at one end of the dining room table. In front of me sat the massive electronic Sears typewriter Val and I had gotten for Christmas. Daddy sat at the other end of the table, sharpening his pocketknife.

The house smelled of whetstones and oil and ink-soaked rayon ribbon. The typewriter’s nervous hum filled the air between the shhhp-shhhp-shhhps of steel against stone. Daddy stopped, looked thoughtful, then nodded: “Sounds like a good plan.”

And it was—at least until school started. Alas, “Write a bunch of essays ahead of time” is not how sixth-grade language arts class works. Somehow, though, eleven-year-old me must’ve known that it’s a pretty good plan for freelance writers. I’m glad I managed to hold onto it.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Quick Update

Lately, my creative well has been completely dry. So I spent a week in Denver, Colorado, visiting my sister and letting my artistic eye/mind rest. It was wonderful. For the first time in months, I took some good photos. I even did some scholarly work for the John Prine talk I’ll be giving this June at the International Country Music Conference in Nashville. Prine is one of America’s greatest living songwriters. I love him so much.

I’m still working on my novel, Songs My Father Barely Knew. It’ll be done whenever it’s done. In the meantime, I’m revising a guest blog post, and working on music-related pieces for a business client. I’ve got a flash CNF (creative nonfiction) piece and a poem coming up in the same literary journal. And, though they’re a few months away, I’ve got two pieces appearing in Columbus and the Valley Magazine. More details when these go to press.

I’m waiting to get word on a metric shit-ton of other submissions I’ve flung out into the Void over the last few months. Kim Liao prompted me to aim for 100 rejections this year. “That’s a worthy goal,” I thought, “an average of 8.33 rejections per month.” Every No brings us one step closer to Yes. Such is the writer’s life.

So that’s what’s been going on. Meanwhile, here’s a photo of me in the ladies’ room mirror at a regional-circuit pro wrestling match last summer (purse and phone in hand). Don’t say I never gave you anything.

Photo: “Self-Portrait, Middle School Girls’ Restroom” (Carrollton, Georgia – 16 July 2016)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

The Little Peach Tree That Could

In the mid-1930s, my great-grandfather planted this dwarf peach tree in the side yard of his house in southwestern Heard County, Georgia. By the mid-1950s, when my mother was old enough to remember the family’s yearly trips down from Michigan, the tree bore heavy yields every summer.

Pap would slice up quart after quart of fresh peaches, from which he and Grandma Edith would make ice cream in an old crank-handle freezer. It was the finest she had ever tasted, Mom would say years later. When she first moved south in 1968, Mom lived with Pap and Grandma while she saved up for her own apartment in LaGrange. Entering its fourth decade, the little peach tree was still producing as many peaches as the three of them could eat (read: a lot).

In 1988, Mom moved back to Heard County and began fixing up the old home place. By that time, the tree was just about dead. Sap ran sticky amber-brown from the peach borer holes along its trunk. Ice storms had broken off about half its branches. The other half, fiercely proud and unwilling to admit defeat, struggled to stay even halfway upright.

The kind thing to do, Mom supposed, would be to cut it down. No sense in letting it suffer. It had served its purpose for many years. Now it was time to plant something new.

But the saw stayed in the shed.  Mom couldn’t stand to cut down the beleaguered little peach tree while it was still half-alive, or even a quarter alive. “When it’s finally dead, I’ll cut it,” she kept saying. “In the meantime, we’ll just mow around it.”

Which she did—very carefully, with a rickety push-mower and a pair of yard shears. Mom mulched it. She sprayed it for insects and fungus. She watered it during droughts, and pruned away the branches split by the weight of snow and ice. For a dying tree, this one sure was getting a lot of care.

Year after year, the little tree hung on. Every spring, the familiar pink blossoms appeared. By early summer, fuzzy green baby peaches the size of jelly beans dotted the branches. By July 4th, the baby peaches would lie rotting on the ground, felled by some fungus or insect predator. At least the fire ants and yellow jackets were eating well.

For almost 20 years, we had hoped for peaches. For almost 20 years, we had none. I began to accept that peaches, as much as I wanted them, were just not going to happen.

Fast forward to 2003: a warm spring day at the old home place. My mother and stepfather had almost finished rebuilding the long-collapsed front porch. Useless with a hammer but still wanting to be part of the action, I stood nearby.

“Uh, Mom?” I said. “It’s about your little tree.”

“I know, I know.” She mopped the sweat from her brow and grabbed another fistful of 16-penny nails. “I’m giving it one more chance. If it doesn’t make fruit this year, it’s coming down.”

So the spring turned into summer, and the blossoms turned into fuzzy green baby peaches. But this time, the baby peaches stayed on the tree. And grew. And grew. And ripened.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, we had peaches.

I felt badly for having hoped we could cut down the elderly peach tree. I had doubted it, yet it had come back—perhaps to prove us wrong, but more likely because that’s just what trees do. This lonely, gnarled little tree suddenly bore two bushels of peaches just because.

That summer, we had the best homemade peach ice cream and the best homemade peach cobbler I have ever tasted. Since then, the tree has managed to produce at least a few desserts’ worth of fruit every season. It has survived nearly a century of drought, disease, ice storms, and straight-line winds—and, one time, a sweet, hungry, clumsy 2,800-pound Black Angus bull. This beloved little tree refuses to quit.

What will this year bring? We don’t yet know. The peach tree probably doesn’t yet know, either. No matter what happens, though, I will always be grateful to it for showing me what endurance really means.

Photo: “Green Peach, Black Cat” (Heard County, Georgia – 27 May 2014)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared at my former blog, Forgotten Plants & Places, on 12 April 2012.

 

Cedars at Christmas

DetailRedCedarChristmasRockMillsAlabama1976_2015-12-24_COPY_18.04.11-2

As I drive around the countryside in late December, I look forward to those fuzzy green oblong clouds along the winter-brown roadside. They float at the edge of the right-of-way, where the natural world waits to retake the built and the mechanized. Often, their knowing gray smirks pucker around twisted steel—Stupid barbed wire. We can’t grow here, huh? That’ll teach you. 

When I was a child in rural east Alabama and west Georgia, these dark green blobs of badass were our Christmas trees.

Eastern red cedar, or Juniperus virginiana, grows all the way from southeastern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. A pioneer invader, it prefers pitiful, ragged-out, freshly-cleared land. However, unlike other potentially invasive species, it can live for centuries if left alone. My grandfather’s farm included several cedars with trunks nearly three feet thick. For the most part, though, the ones I notice are between four and seven feet tall, just the right size for the average living room.

I remember only one tree-cutting walk, far behind our house outside Rock Mills, Alabama. We were likely on someone else’s land. My father had to have known this. But, seeing how eastern red cedars alkalize pasture soil and steal nitrogen from forage crops, maybe the landowners would not have cared. Daddy cut it down with a hatchet and a hacksaw, then dragged the tree behind him for the half-hour walk back to the house, my sister and me following as quickly as our little legs could manage.

In this old photo, the short, squat little cedar looks as lush now as it did then to my three-year-old eyes. It sits atop the blanket chest—also red cedar—that my great-grandfather made around the end of the First World War. That same blanket chest now guards my guest room.

Christmas tree farms make me uneasy. Their offerings, while pretty, are not of this land. Their trees’ native soils lie hundreds of miles north and west of here. While I am glad they bring joy while exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, they are just not for me.

Those plush needles stay too neatly combed. Too-tidy firs and spruces demand unreasonable cheerfulness and forced smiles. They heap manufactured happiness on top of organic, deeply rooted sorrow. And they act surprised when the needle-fine roots of that sorrow break back up through the soil.

Thanks, but I’ll skip the farmed Dick and Jane Reader perfection. I like a little asymmetry, a little imperfection, with my major holidays.

Instead, give me an eastern red cedar, thriving at pasture’s edge. Give me slowly shredding grayish-tan bark. Give me perfumed red heartwood that swallows barbed wire and NO HUNTING signs along Georgia Highway 219. Give me needles growing in all directions like an overcaffeinated moth-repellent pompom. Wherever I go, for the rest of my days, the trees I have known and loved stay with me.

Photo: “Detail, Red Cedar Christmas: Rock Mills, Alabama, 1976”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

One Small Voice against the Storm

The other night, I dreamed I was at a friend’s house during a terrible thunderstorm, the kind of storm that makes people think Armageddon really has arrived. The winds shook the spring-green, baby-leafed trees like eighty-foot-tall pompoms. Parts of people’s houses flew by: downspouts, shingles, screen doors. I could see even darker, nearly-black clouds rolling in from the west.

The green of the trees lit up neon-like against the angry dark gray clouds. Those clouds billowed slow and steady across the fields opposite my friend’s house—embryonic tornadoes, rolling close to the ground. They moved so slowly that at first I thought I could outrun them on foot. But they moved in such a stop-motion, unpredictable way that I knew I’d better not even try. In the vacant lot across the road, half a dozen newborn funnel clouds stood up and lumbered toward us.

The sensible thing to do would have been to run back indoors and hide in the bathtub, or in the crawl space. But for whatever reason, we decided to drive my car into town and take shelter on the university campus. In the basement of one of the huge concrete classroom buildings, we figured, we’d be safe.

As we drove down the narrow country road, the storm grew even stronger. Entire roofs and porches now flew over the car, like dollhouse parts at the mercy of a giant commercial vacuum. We saw people cling to telephone poles and mailbox posts, then lose their grip and disappear into the dark, hungry tornado mouth. The trees whipped in every direction. In the all-powerful wind and rain, proud hickories and towering oaks became as pliable as flimsy ornamental grasses.

When an ancient tulip poplar crashed across both lanes of the road, I stopped the car. We were about to get out and head for the ditch—another last-resort place to hide from a tornado—when we felt the car’s rear end lift, fall, and lift again.

Then the tornado was upon us.

It yawned wide, and again picked up the car by the rear axle. We were now suspended in the air, far above the ground. For a moment, I thought my hands had grown into the steering wheel. I couldn’t even scream. But then the car began to shudder. Through my terror, my words returned.

“This is it?” I shouted. “This is how it’s supposed to end?” I grabbed my friend and held her against me, shielding her face from the chaos swirling just beyond the windshield.

The tornado shrieked louder, and bobbled the car a little. It was trying to scare me, trying to shut me up. I held my friend even tighter, and kept shouting.

“I can’t believe this—after everything she’s been through.” The winds rocked the car again, dipping the front end and then the back. “Her grandmother, two uncles, an aunt, and her husband have all died over the last year.” Tears rolled down my cheeks. “And now you bring her this?”

The car began spinning counter-clockwise, with an occasional, ungainly dip back toward the earth. Now the tornado was just toying with us—just a bully, picking on two much smaller kids in the far corner of the playground.

My anger rose. One way or another, life or death, that storm would know forever that I had its stupid little game all figured out.

“So this is the best you could do, huh? A tornado?” The car’s rear end dipped again. This time, the roller-coaster feeling in my solar plexus did not unnerve me. “Talk about corny! You’ll have to come up with something better.”

The tornado’s mouth opened wide. It meant to swallow us whole. Soon, we would be scattered all over the west Georgia countryside. Images came to me of search parties finding our various unidentifiable body parts flung hither and yon, mixed with bits of vegetation and scraps of Honda.

Nope. This would not do.
I poured out my rage at the gigantic gray funnel. “No! NO! You cannot have her! NO!”

The towering column lurched away from us. Its monstrous roar turned to a sputter, and then a frightened half-cough. The car leaned suddenly to one side, and then gently floated back to the ground. I peered up into the swirling vortex, only to watch it turn a lighter gray, then white, and then disappear. I turned to my friend. “Are you okay?” She nodded yes.

I awoke in awe at the power of one small voice against the storm.

 

Photo: “Metal Roof and Storm” (LaGrange, Georgia – 23 November 2014)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

I’m a real person. Here’s what I sound like.

I’ve been blogging for almost 11 years, on this site and elsewhere. One good thing about this is that, when I’m having trouble creating new material, I’ve still got (literally) hundreds of pages of material to re-post. This saves both my sanity and my hide, in times of creative emptiness.

While my words are slowly coming back to me, I rediscovered this video from a reading I gave a couple years ago. A beloved writer friend organized a Creative Nonfiction Open Mic Night at Underground Books in Carrollton, Georgia. For such a small town, Carrollton boasts an astonishing number of amazing writers. I had a blast meeting new people and hearing them read their work. Here, I read “On Inspiration,” which I first posted in January 2014. It’s been pretty popular, and is also one of my favorites.

A few readers have asked me to post more videos in which I read my work. That might be fun. Stay tuned.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Song in the Key of Why

songinthekeyofwhy_copy02_2015-11-18

Fifteen years have passed since I jiggled open the always-half-sticky lock. Fifteen years since the old hatchback Mustang and I left clouds of black gravel dust behind us as we raced out around the driveway curve where the tulip poplars crowded together. Fifteen years since I gathered the last of my old furniture into a big boxy truck and, sobbing, walked that last Via Dolorosa out across the threshold.

Never again will I trudge up the twelve steep steps from the car to the front deck. Never again will I narrowly miss ramming the whiskey-barrel-bound banana tree that nobody could convince to bear fruit. Never again will I scuff the battleship-blank two-by-fours under my shoes. Never again will I notice how that expressionless gray is peeling off in long shoddy strips because of the late-December-freezing-rain-why-bother-with-primer paint job I gave it three Christmases before our lives broke forever into a thousand splintered shards.

Never again will I pray that nobody remembered to set the burglar alarm. Never again will I dread the questions on the other side of the door. Never again will I wonder why I bothered coming back at all.

I don’t know why I kept the key.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Ritual

“I always iron on Friday night,” my friend said—as if this were indisputable fact, a universal law. A hot soleplate in motion tends to stay in motion. A sleeve board at rest tends to stay at rest.

Grief and loss made me understand.

Fold, flip, press, turn. Collars, cuffs, creases stiff and sharp. Sprinkle bottle, starch bottle, fffffft-ffffft-ffffffffft. Tablecloth, napkin, kitchen curtain, apron—clean, tidy, there. Dress, skirt, pants, shirt—ready, neat, there.

Hiss of steam through linen, shhh shhhh shhhhh shhhhhhhhhhh. Crisp pop of cotton before the board. Sizzling incense-scent of water, starch, stainless steel. Wrinkled turns smooth. Cold turns warm. Stale turns fresh. Messy turns neat. Busy turns quiet. Soothing rhythm, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth—an old, old liturgy echoes through the house.

With every pass of hot metal against cloth, axiom inches closer to holy office. Every crisp, gleaming item now a prayer of solace, an offering to renewal.

To iron is to trust in tomorrow.

Hallelujah!
Amen.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Story for All Hallows’ Eve

gravestoneunknownunionsoldier001_10-30-2016

Most Halloweens I spend at my mother’s house. It’s the same house where her father was born in 1922. Like many old houses, it has plenty of stories to tell. And it won’t tell them to just anyone. Oh, no. The house plays favorites when it has something to say.

In non-drought years, Halloween means we build a bonfire in Mom’s yard, then make s’mores and tell family ghost stories. We listen to the deep, hollow hoo-hoo-hoooooot of the great horned owls in the pasture next door. Sometimes, well after dark, the local coyotes begin choir practice. Their not-quite-dog-like barking, their yip-yip-yip-yip-ooooooOOOOOO! far off in the woods, stirs up in the human heart something ancient and primal. That’s when Mom and I feel the hair stand up on the backs of our necks. It’s our All Hallows’ signal to grab the dogs and scurry back indoors.

Since 1834, there has been a house on this spot in Heard County, Georgia. The original cabin burned in the 1880s; people built another using the foundation and field-stone pillars from the first house. When that one burned 30 years later, they built yet another house. That’s the one my mother and stepfather live in today.

Mom and Steve have spent the last couple decades renovating the house, taking what was essentially a falling-down sharecropper’s shack and turning it into a cozy home in the woods. It now has insulation, gas heaters, a full kitchen, and two bathrooms with hot running water. They refinished the 14-inch-wide heart pine floors, original to the early 1900s version of the house and likely similar to the floors in the first two houses on this site.

The ghost story that I always heard about the house goes something like this:

Late July 1864 saw one of west central Georgia’s few Civil War battles: McCook’s Raid, in what is now Coweta County (about 45 miles east of Mom’s house). In the days after the battle, one Union soldier appeared, on horseback, on the dirt road that once passed in front of the house. The soldier, who didn’t look much older than a teenager, was all by himself.

He wasn’t in good shape, either. He was slumped over onto the horse’s neck, over the horn of his saddle, unconscious. The skin-and-bones horse seemed to follow the road of its own accord, carrying its rider per its beastly duty. The people inside the house no doubt heard the hooves clop-clop-clop on packed dirt, and walked onto the porch to stare.

Just then, the Union soldier fell off his horse into the middle of the road, a dead-weight heap in blue homespun. His eyelids did not even flutter as the people ran out into the road, hoisted him by his armpits and ankles, and brought him inside.

They lay the soldier on a straw mattress, and fetched fresh water from the well out back for some cold compresses. The Union soldier was still knocked out, and now sweating profusely.  He was very badly cut and bruised. Other than his ragged dark blue uniform, the young man offered no other clues as to his identity. The people wondered if he had been wounded in a nearby battle. Or perhaps he had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead by unknown assailants, many miles from where he was now.

There were no letters from home stashed inside the young man’s coat—no mementos, no lock of hair, no faded daguerreotypes of loved ones waiting for his return. He simply lay there in the bed, barely breathing, just a kid sent far from home by a country who probably didn’t even know where he was.

He never woke up, and died the next morning.

They buried him in the cemetery 300 feet down the road. His coffin was made from weathered old boards pried off of the barn. They marked his grave with a large rock. It was all they had.

In the spring of 1928, C.B. Adamson decided it was time that the unknown Union soldier had a fitting tribute. C.B. was a child when the solider died at the house on the ridge. So he composed a long poem for the soldier, and went down to the graveyard, where he mixed up some homemade concrete, poured the fellow a gravestone, and stamped the poem in the wet concrete. Community historians sent a request to Washington, DC for an official Union Army headstone. When it arrived, they placed it next to the concrete slabs. Despite nearly 100 years of harsh weather and occasional neglect, the unknown soldier’s grave is still intact. Caretakers patched the slabs back together a few years ago after an ice storm sent a four-foot-thick white oak crashing into their center.

When Mom moved down here from Michigan in 1969, her grandparents were still living in the old house where she lives today. She moved in with them until she could find a job and apartment. In 1989, she returned to Heard County, and has lived in the family home ever since. Of course, Mom grew up hearing stories of the Union soldier’s ghost. While she’s never seen him, she’s heard him walking around and felt his presence in the house.

“When I hear him,” she says, “it’s usually the sound of heavy boots along the floor—like the boots don’t fit very well, or maybe the person’s feet really hurt. It happens when I’m the only one at home. Other times, it’s just a funny feeling I get, like someone’s in the room with me or is watching me. But when I look up, nobody’s there.”

On Halloween 2006, Mom and I made our usual bonfire a good, safe 50 feet from the house. About 9:30 that night, I turned my back to the fire and was finishing the last of the s’mores as I watched how the blaze illuminated much of the yard. For safety’s sake, we’d left the lights on in the kitchen, dining room, and living room—the rooms on the west side of the house, and the ones I into which I could see from where I stood in the yard.

That’s when I saw him in the house.
A man.
Dressed in dark blue.

He walked from left to right: starting in the kitchen, he made his way slowly through the dining room, and into the living room. I watched the man, of average height and build, walk along and reach with his right hand as if to open a door. His dark blue sleeve reached to his knuckles, as if his shirt or coat were several sizes too large. He walked steadily through the house, opening one door and the next, passing by all the windows. When he reached the living room’s old chimney. . .he vanished.

“Mom, is someone in the house?”

“Nobody but the cats. Why?”

I blinked hard, and began shaking. “I just saw someone walk through the house. From the kitchen, to the dining room, on through to the living room.”

Mom sat straight up in her lawn chair by the fire. “What?”

“I swear to God, Mom. I just saw somebody walk through the house. A man, wearing a long-sleeved blue coat or shirt.”

Mom was quiet for a long moment, then turned to me. “You know what this means, right?”

“No. . .”

“It means you’re the first person I know who’s actually seen the unknown Union soldier.”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

After the Harvest

Ten thousand starlings cover the orchard floor—a green-purple-bronze carpet delivered six weeks too late. Pecan branches arch in rough cathedral peaks against the weeping sky. Muddy footprints fill with broken hulls, with lost feathers, with rain.

None of this brings you back.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Tail for a Halloween Caturday

HankInWireBasket_COPY_2015-10-23_14.59.34-1

NOTE: This is an updated re-post of the piece I published on 31 October 2015.

My house was built in 1915 as one of many in the Hillside “mill village.” While I’ve called this house home since 1999, many other people have lived here over the last century. Some have never left.

In 2013, my family and I began remodeling what is now my den/home office. We removed the faux Queen Anne-style “wood beams” from the ceiling, gave the smoke-stained paneling half a dozen coats of fresh paint, and pulled up the mildewed 1970s carpet and the 1950s particleboard beneath it. We were sad to discover that, probably in the 1930s, the original red oak floor had been covered with 9” linoleum squares (a common size for that time).

But at least we were making that room more pleasant to be in. I’d wanted to return the Happy Kitten Cottage to as close to its original layout and function as possible. At last, the house was getting there a little at a time.

That’s when the smell showed up.

A week or so after we’d finished, I noticed the strong smell of butter in the den—and only in there. It smelled as if someone were melting three or four sticks of butter for a day of baking, or even for a huge batch of popcorn. A very comforting scent, for sure. It would linger for several hours, then go away, and then return a day or two later. The problem: I was not cooking anything.

It occurred to me that my neighbor makes her legendary cornbread with a whole stick of butter, rather than oil or shortening. But the delicious smell happened while Ernestine (not her real name) was at work, or at church, or out fishing on Saturday morning. Add to this the fact that her kitchen, on the north side of her house, is at least 80 feet from my den, which is on the south side of my house, and—well. That’s just creepy.

I mentioned the butter smell to Mom. She and my stepfather had spent several days tearing out the den floor while I was out of town. “Haven’t smelled any butter,” she said, “but the whole time we were working in the den, I felt like somebody was watching us. Someone was there with us. Not the cats—that’s different. A person.”

She added that the presence didn’t feel hostile. “It felt happy, like it was excited to see us taking out the nasty carpet and particleboard and cleaning up the linoleum floor.” Mom also reminded me that, in the house’s original four-room layout, the room next to the den was the kitchen. “Maybe it’s happy that the house is back like it remembers. Maybe it’s glad to see us—you know, welcoming us with something good to eat. Old-school Southern hospitality.”

Since then, I’ve smelled the strong butter smell every few months for a few days in a row. It doesn’t bother me. I look forward to it, and smile when I catch a whiff of it now and then. But there are other strange happenings. Tools too heavy and bulky for the cats to pick up somehow migrate from the toolbox in the old kitchen to other parts of the house. A box of drywall screws on an end table in the living room. A 22-ounce framing hammer set next to the bathroom sink. A 100-foot metal tape measure by the front door. A plastic case full of drill bits in the middle of the cooktop.

One day last October, I had a doctor’s appointment and several errands to run. While I was away, I left Hank, then my sweet, sickly new kitten, out to roam the house. At that point, he had been here only three days. But the bigger cats already enjoyed playing with him, and were amazingly gentle with this little fellow who’s not even one-eighth their size.

When I left home, Hank was in the den, purring and snuggled up in a sunbeam by the hearth. When I returned a couple hours later, he was sitting in almost the same place—but inside this wire basket. Funny, because when I departed, that wire basket sat eight feet away. On the other side of the room.

So the ghosts in my house are happy to see these familiar, sensible changes in my (our?) home. They encourage remodeling. And they love little Hank. You can’t get much more Halloween Caturday than that.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

“At free safety, from the University of Georgia…”

Mid-September 2013. My afternoon English 1101 class prepares to write their second essay of the semester. (Students’ identifying details have been changed.)

ME:  All right—in the Week 8 folder online, you’ll see some good, A-plus sample essays from former students.
STUDENT 1:  Can we see some bad essays?
ME:  No.
STUDENT 2:  Why not?
ME:  Because I want y’all to do well on Essay 2. I want you to follow what the successful essays are doing.
CLASS:  Awwwwwww!
ME:  I’m serious. We learn by studying strong examples—by watching people who are good at what we want to do. [turning to Student 3, a football player] What position do you play?
STUDENT 3:  Defensive end.
ME:  Perfect! [turning to class] Think about it this way: I can show you how to tackle, or [Student 3] can show you how to tackle. Whose example is going to be better?
CLASS:  [Student 3]’s example.
ME:  Right! Because [Student 3] knows what he’s doing, and has for a long time. He plays college football. I don’t know anything about football. Why follow my tackle demonstration? I’d be terrible at it.
STUDENT 3:  Aww, don’t say that, Professor. I bet you’d make a good free safety.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

My latest piece, in Columbus and the Valley Magazine!

thelipstickqueen_columbusandthevalleymag_2016-10-26

Many thanks to Mike Venable and Jill Tigner at Columbus and the Valley Magazine for publishing “The Lipstick Queen” in their December 2016 issue. The piece is a tribute to my late grandmother and her love of cosmetics—lipstick, in particular.

Here’s the link. First, read Mike’s kind words about my work in “From the Editor’s Desk,” and then flip on over to page 55 for “The Lipstick Queen.” Show Columbus and the Valley Magazine some love, too, by sharing this far and wide!

Artwork credit: Columbus and the Valley Magazine
Post text: © R.S. Williams

 

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