R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Creative Nonfiction (page 1 of 5)

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)


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.


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)



Tonight, I dream of Nashville, where a low pressure system wraps the city in a thick wintry blanket. How beautiful it would be to see the oxbows of the Little Harpeth, the girders of the Shelby Street Bridge, and the ear-tufts of the Bat Building swept by wind—swaddled in snow, glazed in sleet and freezing rain.

Tonight, I long to wake to the great roaring silence of snow. Through the perforated Bakelite cube at my bedside, a half-human, half-computer voice consoles me with a NOAA lullaby. “Currently in Nashville: snow, 28 degrees. A Winter Weather Advisory is in effect. Elsewhere in Tennessee…”

Tonight, indeed, my mind is elsewhere—in Tennessee. I imagine the crisis-comfort of winter weather: the deafening hush of heavy, wet snowflakes, the flik-flik-flik of ice on plant and ground, the muffled grrrrddddtttt of tires against slush in the parking lot of a tiny apartment on White Bridge Road. Just beyond my window, the splash of cold black-white-clear lacquer soothes me to sleep, to work, to live.

Tonight, in west central Georgia, I stock up on bread, milk, and bottled water. I surrender my hopes. I play along at home.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Every Place Is a Sacred Place

Oak, hickory, dogwood, mountain laurel, sassafras, tulip poplar, elm, sweet gum, locust—I wished I’d brought along my tree book. Frothy green ferns carpeted the ground, but not so thickly that I couldn’t see the dark, glossy poison ivy leaning into the trail. Leaves of three, stay away from me.

Hundreds of young saplings reach skyward for light. Sheltered by the mature trees, they will stay relatively small and grow slowly until those larger trees die and fall. As the saplings become larger trees, new saplings will sprout from the nuts, seeds, and cones nestled in the leaf litter. The new trees will mature, die, and fall back. More new saplings will take their places—and on, and on.

How long has this scene existed? It was here long before the trail; it will be here long after the trail. What did this hollow look like when the only people here were Native Americans? How about before the Native Americans? What plants were here then that aren’t here now—and vice versa?

Thousands of years before we were born, this hillside was home to plants, insects, animals, and people. Hunter and hunted lived and died close to one another. Over thousands of years, something or someone has breathed a final breath and lay down forever on every patch of ground we see here. Every spot is important, hallowed, sacred.

What if we were to bring this presence of mind, to everything we do, everything we say, everywhere we travel? How different would the world be? How different would we be?

Every place is sacred—even if we choose not to think about it.

Photo: “North Georgia Woods” (Blue Ridge, Georgia –19 May 2010)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: This piece has been revised from its previous version, which I first posted here on  23 July 2012.

In the Turn Lane

For a week, the oily-matte black carcass lay undisturbed in the middle of the turn lane. On either side, three more lanes of car and critter hurried past the spiky scramble of feathers. Hard freeze, hard thaw, hard rain—nothing would touch it.

In rural west Georgia, where I grew up, dead animals in the road are a fact of life. With these dead animals comes nature’s clean-up crew. They make quick work of most everything: flattened and ruptured squirrels, opossums, armadillos. Dogs, cats, coyotes, cattle. Unfortunate copperheads, errant guinea hens, eerily headless eight-point bucks, and even the occasional feral hog.

Every creature eats. Every creature is eaten. In the circle of life, flesh never goes to waste.

But all that happens outside of town, in the country. Here, a hundred yards inside the city limits, was not where I expected to see broken, crumpled wings. Here, in the turn lane, was not where I expected to see frozen talons devastated against asphalt.

Like many of us, it sought the company of others, working best in groups. Like many of us, it flew into fate unaccompanied, at a time and in a place it neither expected nor desired.

Only death will eat a vulture.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)


Hazel and the Well

One warm afternoon in the spring of 1998, walking near the old hand-dug well in her back yard, my mother heard desperate, raspy meowing. A longtime cat lover, Mom pried away the well cover and pointed a flashlight 40 feet down. There, between the red clay wall and the well cistern, glowed two tiny green eyes. At the end of what must’ve been a terrifying fall, the kitten had somehow managed not to land in the murky, stagnant water. (A nearby mouse had not been so lucky.)

Mom, Steve, Val, and I were all too large to fit into the well. We also didn’t have the equipment to get us into and out of there safely, with kitten in hand. But none of us could bear to leave the poor little thing where it was.

So Mom came up with a solution. She opened a can of tuna, dumped it into a two-gallon bucket, and tied a long rope to the handle. Then, with Steve holding the flashlight, she carefully lowered the bucket into the well, as close to the kitten as she could. She tied her end of the rope to an old concrete block.

“I’ll check in the morning,” Mom said. “Maybe the kitty’ll figure it out.”

Morning came, and Mom hauled up the bucket. In it was the bony brown-tabby-and-white kitten—barely eight weeks old, and, of course, covered in tuna juice. And NOISY.

“Eeeeert. Eeeeeert. EEEEEEEERRRRT!”

The kitty had been crying for help so loudly, and for so long, that her meow was broken. Worse, blow flies had found her in the days before we did. A live “wolf” larva writhed and turned in the pencil-sized hole in her neck.

We took her to the vet, where she stayed for several days after surgery. When the little cat was feeling better, Mom took her home for foster care and general spoiling. A few months later, when Val departed for graduate school in Florida, she brought the kitten with her. Val named her Hazel, after a favorite character in the novel Watership Down. When Val moved to Colorado after graduation, Hazel and sister Madeleine (RIP) went along, too.

For most of her life, Hazel was semi-feral. She hid from almost all people, especially visitors. Only in her old age did she finally mellow and “learn how to cat.” She needed IV medication nearly every day, and toward the end of her life, she had mostly reconciled herself to accepting help from people. (There was still plenty of cranky, irritated meowing, the Cat equivalent of “Get off my lawn, you damn noisy kids.”)

After a short bout with liver cancer, Hazel died on 15 September 2017, at age 19½. We miss her so much. But we’re also grateful to have had her in our lives for so long, and that she chose Val as her forever person.

Hazel remains one of our all-time favorite cats—the best Caturday, and everyday, companion ever.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I published this piece in February 2017. It appears here today in edited form.

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Photo: “Self-Portrait in Chocolate and Red” (Nashville, Tennessee – 19 September 2015)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

New Year, Same Me

So the end of the year is almost upon us. Everyone’s out having fun tonight, spending time with friends and family. They’re most likely not sitting around reading stuff on the internet. But I’m a writer, and hahahahahahahaaaaaaaaa!!! Tonight finds me sitting in front of a screen because 1) it’s what I do, 2) I enjoy what I do, and 3) something’s been bothering me and it needs putting into words on a page.

Everywhere I go this time of year, I hear the same old saying: “New Year, new me!” It’s a popular sentiment. For the most part, people who say it really do mean it. I can’t blame them, either. The beginning of a new calendar year feels fresh, full of possibilities. It’s a good time to try something new.

But here I am—that one weirdo at the party, the one who’s not buying into all this merriment and isn’t even pretending she’s having “fun.” Yep, that’s me, sitting over here by myself in the corner, not even drunk because up yours, acid reflux, the one muttering under my breath juuuust loud enough for the host’s pets to hear:

“’New year, new me?’ Bullshit. Everybody knows that on January 1, I’m gonna be the same asshole I was on December 31. And everybody knows the only thing that will help 2018 is my trying NOT to be as much of an asshole as I was in 2017.”

Really, y’all: The best thing I can do for 2018 is not to be as much of an asshole as I was in 2017.

Part of me knows all I can do is keep making good work. Well, okay—so that “part of me” is more like 95%. The other 5% sidles up all innocent-looking and asks, “But can’t you do something different?  Maybe push yourself harder? Be more business-like? Be more professional? Be more goals-hardcore-grind-objective-brand-network-leverage-bullshit?” (This is when the weird-but-also-kinda-wise 95% of me gives the sad, secretly-self-hating 5% a cautious side-eye and a pat on the head.)

Some readers may be thinking that by all this, I mean to be some kind of doormat, to let others run right over me however they please. Nope, not at all. Being less assholish means that while I’m actively working to be more kind, I’ve also still got to stand up for others, and for myself. In 2017, I drew some boundaries that some people did not like at all. Protecting myself in this way made these people think I was being mean to them. Too bad, so sad. Predators are not welcome here, no matter what form they take.

What’s more: I know I’m not powerful enough to change everything. I cannot know what’s in store for me next year. All I can really do is good work on my end: my own creative work, and my work for justice and transformation in my community. And then hope for the best from that work. That’s all I can control.

However, one thing I do know is that none of my accomplishments in 2017 happened just because of me. Sure, I was the one who wrote the article or made the photo that got published—but the reason I created these things in the first place? Other people.

People who asked what I was working on. People who read my words, gazed at my pictures, asked to see more. People who urged me to keep going, even when I wanted to give up. People who asked for my help with their own projects. People who reassured me that what I’m doing is worthwhile. People who hugged me. People who prayed for me. People who cared.

Whether it was financial help, encouragement, care packages, letters/emails/texts short and long, spreading the word about my work, or [fill in the blank], whatever I accomplished this year is because other people cared. Because you cared. Yes, YOU.

I’m old enough to know that New Year’s resolutions tend not to last very long. Most often, I do better when I’ve had enough of my own bullshit and decide to do something different. So 2018 will find me the same person, in a lot of ways. But I care enough about you to spend the coming year doing two things: making the best work I can, and being less of an asshole than I was last year.

Thank you, as always, for reading. I love you all.


Photo: “Self-Portrait with Western Shirt and Dark Roots” (LaGrange, Georgia – 10 August 2015)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Can I See a Doctor’s Note?

Here’s another story from my many years of teaching college English. I wrote it down a decade ago, and somehow forgot about it until just the other day.


My morning class was finishing an in-class practice essay. One by one, the students completed their essays and walked to the front of the room to turn in their papers. After they’d handed me their practice essays, they were free to leave.

One fellow, smelling of cigarette smoke and some kind of antiseptic, made his way up to where I was sitting. He folded his paper in half lengthwise, handed it to me, and gave me a sheepish little smile. “Just wanted to warn you: that’s probably not very good,” he said, motioning toward his paper on the top of the stack.

Writing students say things like this all the time. “No worries. That’s what this class is for,” I said. “We have individual conferences next week. That way, we can sit down and talk about any essay problems you’re having.”

“Well, no, that’s not it,” he said. He reached under his FREE MARY JANE trucker hat to scratch his head. “I, uhh—well, I spent all weekend in the hospital.”

“Oh no! I’m sorry to hear that! Are you all right now?”

He paused, and grinned again. “Well enough, I guess.” A long pause. “It was, umm, ya know—” He made the motion of turning up a bottle to his mouth. “A little too much, ya know.”

I didn’t get it. “Umm—”

“Alcohol poisoning,” he said. “Went in early Saturday morning, and they just released me at 7:00 this morning to come to class.”

It was Tuesday.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

From the Back Corner Booth

“You gotta watch Wanda: she’ll slip onions in there when you ain’t looking.”
“Rats gotta have cheese. He’s a cheese rat. Bet he could tear up a bag of peanuts.”
“Drop two bacon and a hashbrown, scattered!”

An immaculate red-and-white ’69 Camaro rumbles into the parking lot. Johnny Cash walks the line from the jukebox speakers to my ears as the cooks sing along. I sip my coffee and watch the broken, beautiful world pass by.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

In the Craft Supply Store with Mom

On a shopping trip with my mother, we find ourselves browsing kitschy wall decor in a “big box” arts-and-crafts supply store. Mom spies a piece of mass-produced wall art, all text, with the words nearly 12″ high in mirror-polished steel.

MOM:  [reading] “Faith. Hope. Love.”
ME:  I think it’s from 1 Corinthians. Goes something like, “And these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
MOM:  Oh, that makes sense. It’s a Bible reference. But… [gestures down the aisle]
ME:  But what?
MOM:  The rest of this stuff. It’s just so cheesy. How come nothing else gets any airtime?
ME:  Airtime?
MOM:  Why don’t any other ideas get a mention? You know, realistic ones.
ME:  Such as?
MOM:  “Despair. Oblivion. Hatred.”
ME:  Dammit, Mom.
MOM:  I mean, it’s always the same sappy bullshit. [points to other side of aisle] See? Like this.
ME:  [reading] “Live, Love, Laugh.” Ugh, yeah. And here’s another one: “Dream.”
MOM:  “Dream?” How about, “Give Up?”
ME:  [reading] “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
MOM:  No! “Freak Out and Fuck Off!”

© 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)


Cedars at Christmas

As I drive around the countryside in late December, I look along the winter-brown roadside for the familiar fuzzy evergreen clouds. They’re far easier to spot this time of year.

They float along old fence lines, these tubby juniper ghosts, at the very edge of the right-of-way. They bide their time where state DOT and Army Corps of Engineers property ends, where the natural world waits to wreck the built and overrun the mechanized. Often, their shredded gray trunks smirk and pucker around twisted steel—We can’t grow here, huh? HA! Stupid barbed wire. 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)


Bullet Holes, Either Way

At this shot-up sign, County Road 20 dead-ends into State Highway 22, near Rock Mills, Alabama. Years ago, just behind this sign, a rickety shack once balanced on stilt-like pillars. How no car ever missed the road’s end and crashed into that house, I will never know.

I was born in Randolph County. My childhood home is about three miles from this intersection. My paternal grandmother’s childhood home, demolished in the 1980s, was just half a mile from here. My sister and I grew up with our grandparents about seven miles away, in Glenn, Georgia.

All these places say “Home” to me.

“Bullet Holes, Either Way”
Rock Mills, Alabama – 16 June 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Snake Bones

By the front steps, I discovered the remains of a small snake, decomposed beyond the point of species identification. One of the outdoor cats probably killed and brought it to the front of the house, an offering to the human who feeds them. Or perhaps it was instruction in how to hunt: “See? This is what you do. Start small, and work up.”

Tiny ribs protrude from the delicate spine, barely larger than hairs; the jaw still opens in a last threatening hiss. An omen? Impossible to say. The surprise of horrible beauty stays with me just the same.

Photo: “Snake Skeleton, Sept. 2013”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)


More Things I Have Overheard at Funerals

A:  Look!
B:  At what?
A:  Over by the casket.
B:  Oh, for the love of God. Who wears hot pants to their grandmother’s funeral?


B:  Well. That was interesting.
C:  You got that right. I mean, karaoke? At a funeral?
B:  [sings] Byyyyye-byyyyyye, Miss American Pie!
C:  I’ve never been to a funeral where the preacher sings along with a boom box. Well, not until today.


A:  I know why Mrs. H______ finally died.
B:  Why?
A:  She ran out of people to stay with.


D:  That sure was a nice eulogy M_______’s daughter gave.
E:  Mmm-hmm. So nice that it took every bit of strength I had not to stand up and say, “Who are you even talking about?!? It sure as hell ain’t your mama!”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)


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Photo: “Self-Portrait in Gray and Navy Stripes” (Rabun County, Georgia – 5 October 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)


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