R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Creative Nonfiction (page 2 of 3)

A Late Grocery List

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

Candy corn:
It is the worst of the worst Halloween candy, plentiful as fleas and twice as hard to get rid of. In all its corn syrupy FD&C No. 6 glory, it refuses to masquerade as blood sugar-friendly. He never craved sweets like we did, but it was his favorite—in small quantities. At Halloween, when we brought home sack after sack of the stuff, he never complained. Had we asked him to, he would have eaten it until Kingdom Come.
Overall: Cloying, slightly giddy, with a letdown at the end.
Base: Unabashed enthusiasm.
Top Note: A bad case of the Sunday evening can’t-help-its.

Michelob:
Maybe he switched from PBR and Bud tallboys to feel more sophisticated after the divorce. Maybe it was too many late nights spent thumbing through Cosmopolitan, trying to figure out “the modern woman” and what she wanted. She wanted back then the same thing she does now: To be treated like a human being, with respect, dignity, and compassion. Besides, would a modern man in a modern relationship with a modern woman drink a redneck beer? Of course not.
Overall: Hoppy, skunky, with a bitter finish.
Base: Rancid barley.
Top Note: Mule piss.

Sardines:
In oil, in mustard, in cream, but never in hot sauce. His ulcer couldn’t handle it. How he could work fourteen hours in 110-degree heat on just a tin of these and a box of saltine crackers is still beyond me. Meanwhile, the rest of us on the crew tried not to honk up our turkey-Swiss-teriyaki-meatball-chitlins-on-wheat lunchtime transgressions. He tossed the empty cans behind the stock pile, where they proceeded to attract every stray cat within a half-mile radius.
Overall: Stridently fishy, yet earnest, with a hint of struggle.
Base: Sweat-soaked long-sleeved Dickies.
Top Note: Waccamaw River silt.

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Snapshot from a Truck Driver’s Life

OTR (over-the-road, also called “long haul” or “nationwide”) truck drivers are expert travel planners. They can figure out the fastest, most direct way to get from Point A to Point B—and sometimes Point C to Point D and back again to Point A. They also know how long each leg of the trip will take, and whether they have enough hours left in their daily driving allowance to make the delivery on time, safely, and legally.

OTR truck drivers also know what kind of construction delays, confusing detours, rest stations, burger joints, and truck stops lie along their routes. This is thanks to the humble CB radio. In spite of its practical origins and relatively low-tech equipment, the CB remains important for truck drivers. In some ways, it is the trucker’s internet.

After all, you can’t simultaneously check Facebook and downshift through 15 gears coming into the I-10/I-610 interchange in Houston. (Not if you want to live, anyway.) The CB radio was social networking long before Mark Zuckerberg arrived. And where else can you find a real-time, almost-in-person restaurant recommendation? “Y’all, there’s this country buffet on US 431, south of Roanoke, Alabama. If you come through there, pull over. I like to have split my damn pants, I ate so much.”

Generally, truck drivers also know how long they’ll be away from home. As a result, they tend to be masters of strategic suitcase packing. They know just how many pairs of clean underwear and socks to bring along, and how many changes of clothes they’ll need. Just like many tourist guides suggest for civilians, OTR truckers will “recycle” an outfit or a pair of jeans if the items aren’t yet so dirty they can stand up and walk all by themselves. And they make great use of those month-at-a-glance medication containers, too. When you know you’ll be away from home for at least three weeks, you make sure to take a full supply of pills with you.

Sometimes, though, drivers’ schedules get screwed up, and they end up staying out longer than either their stash of clean clothes or their medications will last. In the case of the former, many truck stops and company depots have laundry facilities, with detergent packets in wall-mounted vending machines just like you see at the laundromat. In the case of the latter, drivers have several options:

1) Stay out a couple more days and do their best to cope without it until they can get home;
2) Find a CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, or other pharmacy and stop in for an emergency refill; or
3) Ask the company dispatcher to route them close to home so a family member can meet them somewhere with the medication.

My stepfather, Steve, generally chooses the third option when he has more days than pills left in his Pill Minder. He had the good fortune to get a West Coast run, loaded both ways; truckers are generally paid only for “loaded miles,” or miles driven with something loaded into the trailer at Point A that will be delivered at Point B. That’s a juicy paycheck, once you add regular short runs to 5,600 loaded miles. Although it would mean his being out for several more days, Steve said “hell yes” and pointed the truck westward. Never look a gift dispatcher in the mouth, the old saying goes. Or something like that.

So he delivered car parts near San Diego, and then hauled a load of electronics to Minneapolis, making his way back Southeast once he realized he was nearly out of meds with four more days to go on this trip. Mom and I met him at a Waffle House north of Atlanta. We had breakfast, and brought Steve enough medication for the Florida-Louisiana-Texas-Tennessee jaunt he had to make before returning home for a week off.

While we ate breakfast, Steve asked me to give readers some advice: Buy a quality headlamp. Even if you don’t drive for a living, it’s still great in case of nighttime car trouble. Steve bought his super-bright LED setup at a truck stop years ago: “Ain’t like I got three hands, you know.” He says it paid for itself several days later, when he was looking for a map he had misplaced somewhere under the bunk. It paid for itself again when he had to crawl under the truck at 3:30am to investigate a clicking noise.

Seriously: AAA should employ retired OTR truckers as travel advisors.

Photo: “Mom and Steve at the Marietta Waffle House” (Marietta, Georgia – 15 July 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Rubber Soul

In the summer of 1988, in a gas station restroom in Aynor, South Carolina, my sister and I encountered our first-ever condom machine. Sure, we had heard about such contraception contraptions, thanks to Health & Human Development class. Mom had even confirmed for us that there really was such a thing as a vending machine for condoms.

Somehow, though, Val and I had never actually seen one of these mysterious metal boxes for ourselves. All we’d ever seen for sale in a bathroom vending machine were pads and tampons. But on that nasty-humid July day in Aynor, there the condom machine was—bolted to the wall in all its mute, naughty glory.

And since this was South Carolina, where of course in the late 1980s they didn’t have a teenage pregnancy epidemic or people with STDs or anything like that thankyouverymuch, the condom machine’s offerings were concealed by a large metal flap that bore a sign in inch-high letters:

THESE PRODUCTS OFFERED ONLY FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE.
ANY PATRONS WHO MAY BE OFFENDED BY SEXUALLY ORIENTED MATTER ARE ADVISED NOT TO LIFT THIS FLAP.

Which meant, naturally, that Val and I were straightaway going to lift the flap.

As we did so, the flap made a loud crrrreeeeEEEEAAAAK.  There was no way that anyone outside this one-seater women’s restroom couldn’t hear it. It was a cheesy haunted-house-quality noise, too, no doubt alerting everybody in the Aynor Amoco  that the occupants were most certainly perusing the rubber selection. I’m pretty sure the creaky flap had been designed that way, state public health initiatives be damned. “Better barefoot ‘n pregnant than have everybody in the store know you’re gonna get laid,” or something like that.

The four different types of condoms in the machine scandalized our sheltered teenage eyes. There were plain, nothing-special condoms, of course. There were condoms bearing the dubious claim of being “ribbed for her pleasure.” Next were the Stallion’s Pride condoms, “For the Larger Man,” secreted away and SORRY, SOLD OUT. The last offering was a random and wonky selection of “fruit-flavored” condoms. Creativity must have died a slow and painful death when the latex process engineers met up with the marketing team in Rubber Flavorings 101. Time after time, it’s the same old boring fruits, banana jokes notwithstanding. Think about it: Why don’t we ever see any new, original condom flavors? Why not, say, licorice? Why not root beer, or cornbread, or BBQ?

We tried not to laugh. But the harder we tried, the funnier it was. The sign’s if-we-can’t-see-it-then-it-doesn’t-exist mentality was just so silly. Val was 12 and I was 14, but even at those young ages we could see through the high-and-mighty moral smokescreening. (It works, too, even today. Note the plentiful public outrage whenever the topic of condoms for high school students appears in the news.)

Again, remember that this was the late 1980s—long before the advent of smartphone cameras that people could take everywhere with them. Hilarious as the whole scene was, we couldn’t snap a photo of the prophylactic tomfoolery before us. We also needed to get back to the car before Daddy started to worry that we’d tumbled off to Wonderland down a public toilet rabbit hole.

I was washing my hands, still giggling, when Val said, “Don’t look!”

“Don’t look at what?”

She broke up laughing. “Don’t turn around until I say so.”

“Okay.” I dried my hands, and stood there staring at the floor, my back to her. “What are you doing?”

“Shhhh!”

I heard Val rummage through her handbag. Then I heard the crrrreeeeeEEEEEAAAAK! of the condom machine flap, the quick light ffffrrrppp of a thick notepad, and the small skrrrtsksksksk of what was either a very busy pencil or a lone mouse scurrying across acoustic ceiling tile on a Tuesday afternoon.

Then, finally, I heard the crrreeeEEEEAAAK-THUNK-THUNK! of the metal flap settling to rest. “What the—what are you—”

“All right! Let’s go.” My sister stood bright-eyed and smiling with her hand on the restroom door, her purse tucked under her arm.

I took one look at her face, then at the condom machine. Lifting the big metal warning flap, I spied a purple Hello Kitty sticky-note pressed directly over the condom logos. Scrawled upon it, in Val’s distinctive handwriting:

DON’T BUY THIS GUM!
IT TASTES LIKE RUBBER!

Photo: “Condom Cathedral Window No. 4” (LaGrange, Georgia – 28 September 2016)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

On My Sister’s 42nd Birthday 


Today is my sister’s 42nd birthday. For almost all of those 42 years, she has been my absolute best friend—my true “other half.” So, to celebrate her special day and our lifelong bond, I tell you the following story.

For one of her electives at Georgia Tech, Val took an upper-division English course called “The Grotesque in Literature.” It was a fascinating class, and covered a wide range of works, such as The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais and Geek Love  by Katherine Dunn. The roster was full of intelligent, well-read students. The professor’s lectures and discussions always got everyone thinking and talking in depth about the function of Carnival/the carnivalesque and “the grotesque body” in literature. (That’s all from Mikhail Bahktin. Go look it up on your own; I don’t have time to explain.)

What a dream course. It wounded me not to be able to audit that class, or even sit in on a session. Imagine my joy, then, when Val told me her professor would be giving a Friday afternoon guest lecture at the University of Georgia, where I was completing my senior year.

When the day arrived, Dr. H_____’s lecture was excellent. After it was over, I shook Dr. H_____’s hand and thanked him for his talk. I explained that my sister was in his 4000-level “Grotesque in Lit” course, and that I’d been enjoying the class vicariously through her. He seemed surprised yet happy that at least one student at another college had been following the course through someone enrolled in it.

The next week, Val’s class met again. As the period began, Dr. H_____ told everyone about his Athens trip. “Over the weekend, I gave a guest lecture at UGA. Afterwards, I met Val’s sister, who’s an English major there. And as we talked, all I could think was, ‘My God, Val has possessed this woman’s body, and is speaking to me through her.’ It was like there was one soul in two bodies.”

“One soul in two bodies.” That’s a good way to explain it.

Happy birthday, Bla.
I love you so much—and I always will.

Photo: “Valerie and Rachael with Bo the Dog” (Rock Mills, Alabama – August 1978)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Somewhere in Harris County, Georgia

Driving down Georgia Highway 219 to Columbus, I saw the broken, furry heap slumped at the edge of the asphalt, just beyond the white line. It was a long-haired miniature Dachshund. Someone had loved it enough to dress it in a little Christmas sweater.

You could’ve heard my heart shatter from ten miles away.

As the car and I zoomed past, I made plans for the trip home. On my way back to LaGrange, I’d pull over and see if the dog had a collar and tag. That way, I could call its people with the sad news. If not, I’d move the poor little thing off the road, so it wouldn’t get mashed and scattered about by the tires of passing cars and log trucks. That was the least I could do: give a helpless creature the bit of dignity in death that had escaped it in life.

It was almost dark when I returned. I stopped the car on the side of the road, about 75 feet from the pitiful carcass. That was the safest place to park on the curvy, hilly two-lane road. I walked back to where I’d seen the little dog early that morning. The knot in my stomach grew. It always does, when I stop to move dead animals out of the highway.

And there it—wait. What?

Nope, no dead weenie dog in a fancy sweater. Instead, there lay two beautiful ceramic dolls. Both were a little scraped up from the fall onto the pavement, but still in good shape.

I peered down the bank into the ditch. Strewn for maybe 50 yards were all kinds of items: a few household gadgets, some discarded clothing, pieces of children’s toys, a little garbage. All of it, dolls included, must’ve flown unsecured out of the bed of someone’s pickup truck.

Funny what we think we see when we’re moving by at 70 miles per hour.

All I could think of was some little girl—or maybe a not-so-little girl—sick with panic over her missing dolls. I gently picked them up and carried them back to the car. They looked so sad lying there in the passenger seat. But I thought it a shame to leave them lonely and abandoned by the side of the highway.

That was seven years ago.
I never found the dolls’ little girl.

Photo: Roadside Dolls (17 September 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

New piece in Columbus and the Valley Magazine!


My latest piece, “Attic Fan Days,” is now online and in print (page 71) in Columbus and the Valley Magazine. Thanks once again to Jill Tigner and Mike Venable for this wonderful opportunity! And if you haven’t yet subscribed, please do. I love seeing the glossy, full-color pages in my mailbox every other month.

NOTE: Artwork courtesy of Columbus and the Valley Magazine. 


When Dreams Speak

Lately, I’ve felt uncomfortable in my own skin. All I want to do is hide from the world. Everything feels weird, ungainly, and awkward—like a return to my teen years, times 100. And, of course, this feeling hits exactly when I most need to be visible, both in person and online. Of course.

Then I sigh and remember that this is how it always goes. This always happens when I’m dealing with a lot of emotion. Everything has to find a place to go. Eventually, it all finds its way out, in some form. Sharing it here with you makes the process a little more bearable.

This overwhelming urge to hide reminds me of a dream I had several months ago. It means even more to me now than it did then.

In the dream, I had to go onstage at my friend Maggie’s small music venue, as part of Singer-Songwriter Open Mic Night. This was NOT something I wanted to do. I do not play guitar well at all. I have written exactly five-and-a-half corny, semi-original songs.

But I had to do it. Maggie needed my help. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint her. So I picked up my guitar, trudged to the stage, and steeled myself for utter humiliation.

There I was, singing and playing each of my little songs: timid, ready to cry, dying of embarrassment. My performance wasn’t bad; rather, it was just so painful to be in front of a crowd when I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a musician or songwriter. My fingers kept missing frets when I’d go for a C major, a B7 major, or an F# minor barre (“easy” for most players, but difficult for me due to peripheral nerve issues). The muted strings and missed notes made me want to disappear. “Why did I ever agree to this? I’ll never be able to show my face in town ever again…”

But when I’d finish a song and start to walk offstage, the people in the audience clapped and clapped. They kept asking me to stay and play another. And another. And another. Each time I sat back down behind the mic, I thought, “Oh God, what if I run out of songs? I don’t think I have any left…not that I had that many to begin with…”

It didn’t matter. Again and again, every time I tried to leave, they waved me back up onstage. I guess I didn’t run out of songs after all. There I was, red-faced and wanting to crawl into a hole…but the people were so kind and supportive.

And they weren’t just being polite. They kept asking for more—more songs about trains rumbling in the distance. More songs about orphaned baby chimney swifts, and day lilies in roadside ditches, and the ghosts of beloved cats, and the smell of kudzu blossoms in the rain, and sweet, lonely, messed-up fellas from Opelika, Alabama.

Don’t get too excited. You won’t be seeing me at any real-life Open Mic Nights, at least not anytime soon. Instead, I take all this to mean I’m supposed to be “onstage.” I take all this to mean that there are people out there just waiting for my little “songs”—people who need to know that someone else knows what it’s like to be weird and uncomfortable and awkward, yet still fully in and of this world.

Photo: “Self Portrait: Restoration No. 1” (Newnan, Georgia, 3 August 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Moonlight

I walked outdoors in the cool air to watch the near-full moon, and wondered how many other people were watching it, too. “No matter what divides us,” I thought as I climbed into the back of the little truck, “this silver light falls on us all, falls on everybody the same way.” Even that which decays by day transmogrifies come night into grotesque, strange beauty.

As I reclined against the corrugated bed, I gazed into the night sky and thought of all the people I know. I thought of the people I know who are traveling, who are coming home, who are working, who are hurting, who are lonely, who are frightened, who don’t know what to do next.

Some live nearby, while many others live far away. Many know I care about them. Others don’t. A few would rather not even think about it. Many I haven’t seen in years; some I’ve never met. Some I won’t see again until I’m on the other side.

How I love them all.

Under the silver light of the moon, I held every one of them close to my heart, and sobbed. I climbed out of the truck bed, and stumbled back indoors.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Notes from the Happy Kitten Cottage: Next Issue Out Aug. 20

A quick reminder that the latest issue of Notes from the Happy Kitten Cottage, my twice/thrice-monthly newsletter, will go out Sunday 20 August. The newsletter is mostly “notes on my writing & photography, my cats, rural places, plants and wild animals, dilapidated buildings, country music, and Lord knows what else.”

You can sign up here, and unsubscribe anytime.

Photo: “Self-Portrait #3, 2 August 2017”

 

On Inspiration

When I write, the worst part is when I can’t figure out my emotions, when I feel numb and disaffected. Of course, I know from experience that it’ll pass. It always does—otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. But the fear that whispers close behind the numbness can be mighty persuasive: “Give up. You can’t do it. You can’t make it happen again.”

Eventually, I do make it happen again. Always. However, this is not and has never been a matter of low self-esteem, poor self-image, or any other pop psychology cliché.

It is a matter of writing for a living.

Every professional writer experiences this unreasonable doubt and fear. Every professional writer works around and through it. The key here is acknowledging the whispers while continuing to write, instead of waiting for them to go away first, or for a brilliant idea to pop up before writing again. Taking action—that is, writing while we feel deeply uninspired—leads us out of the darkness and toward something worthwhile.

Do not wait for inspiration.
Write, write, write.
The ideas will thaw, melt, and flow your way.

I doubt this process every time.
It saves me every time.

There is no such thing as “waiting for inspiration to strike.” It’s just waiting, and it produces little of consequence. Most people who are not professional writers fail to realize this. As such, they become dilettantes along the sad, sorry way. My students teetered at the edge of dilettantism. It was my job to pull them back.

Where young writers are is not their fault. After all, their ideas about how excellent prose happens have been shaped by romantic, highly unrealistic beliefs about writing. They are completely enamored with the idea of Being A Writer. They are passionately in love with the Idea Of Writing. And inspiration, they are sure, is what fuels this searing, delicious tinderbox of an affair.

For all his promises, Inspiration is a lousy lover, more wet kindling than lighter fluid. Inspiration is full of tease but never delivers: “all hat and no cowboy,” as a Texan friend says. Inspiration is sexy, charming, mysterious, compelling—on the outside. Get inspiration home and in the sack, though, and all we’ve got is a whiskey-dicked frat boy who, for all his looks and talk, gives our crotch half a clumsy rub before rolling over, puking in his own shoes, and passing out.

Well.

Wake him up. Don’t let him put on his clothes. Don’t give him a chance to rinse out his penny loafers. (Because you know Inspiration still wears penny loafers with his Members Only jacket.) Slam the door. Bolt it shut. Do NOT open it again, no matter how he begs. Don’t call him a cab. Call him what he is: a dud. No, no, he’s worse than a dud. He’s a charlatan.

So kick his drunk ass back out in the street with the amateurs, where he belongs. It’s for your own safety. As Carl Sagan once explained, “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

When we depend on Inspiration, he stops us cold. Hard as it may seem, we must guide ourselves. We must trust in the process, even when we’re angry and heartbroken and numb and completely blank. When we rely on Inspiration, he’s a no-show. And suddenly, we’re all dressed up and dateless at the Winter Formal, stuffing those racking sobs back inside our rib cage and pretending to enjoy ourselves. We’re scared, humiliated, devastated that The One We Love has crapped out on us at such an important moment.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Inspiration is out back of the Teke house, blasted on Thunderbird with our potential and our creativity. He’d much rather get schnockered on the cheapest poison around—and steal our dearest friends—than deliver what he promised. He lives for this. He controls us when we depend on the illusion that we cannot create without him.

How, then, to work around the seductive, greasy charms of Inspiration?

By listening—listening to everything and everyone, listening to tiny flashes of things and people and creatures and plants and moments. The way we get big ideas is by paying attention to the small ones.

Now, ideas are wonderful, but they need a while to grow on us, to get to know us better. By noticing the things nobody else does, we give the small ideas the time and space and care they need to become stronger ideas—to become sentences, images, story lines, characters.

A tuft of fur caught on a hydrangea stem, flapping helplessly in the wind. The daddy-long-legs crawling inexplicably up the truck tailgate in front of us as the traffic light turns green. The way Wednesday morning lights up the plastic rain bonnets of old ladies at the grocery store—all small, and all vast, all at once.

Write it all down.
Yes, even if it “sounds stupid.”

When I was still teaching, I’d hand back a set of papers and ask students to reflect on where they might have gone wrong. They’d often say, “Well, I was going to write about ______, but it seemed stupid.” And I’d clap my hands in wonder: “That’s not stupid at all! It’s what would make this essay work.”

And they learned, little by little, that Inspiration will not swoop in, all grandiose and deus ex machina, to save our writing asses. Good work happens in small pieces, and often almost imperceptibly.

In my first-year college writing classes, I’d often show students a portfolio of my work, from eighth grade to the present. Professional, academic, creative—it was all in there, the entire process. Some of it was under construction, some of it was pretty good, and some of it was capital-T Trash. “Look, dammit,” I always wanted to shout. “Look here and look hard. This is how we spin garbage into gold.”

Look, look, LOOK.
Soak it into your skin.
Soak it into your bloodstream.

This is noticing on the deepest, most profound level. This is where we build creative eye and ear and soul. This is where we begin: in noticing, instead of in waiting for someone or something to save us. In noticing the small, the insignificant, and writing down every last bit of it, we rescue ourselves from Inspiration.

And that is all I have to say today.

Photo: “Sky on Fire, Centralhatchee” (Heard County, Georgia – 30 September 2014)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first published this post on 31 January 2014. It appears today with revisions.

 

An Awkward Blessing

Although it sometimes causes me heartache, I’m grateful to be shy, reserved, awkward, and worried. I’m grateful to be enthusiastic, creative, and a little strange. I’m grateful to be supportive, loyal, and encouraging in spite of the tremendous cynicism that surrounds us.

Plenty of people, of course, would find all this wrapped up in one person to be a tragedy—a cause for deep, enduring shame. For years, I did, too. But now, in my forties, I’m beginning to understand the blessings of my natural quirkiness.

Being me means being highly sensitive. As a writer, I recognize and value this gift: the ability and willingness to experience strong emotions, to be unafraid of my feelings, to identify deeply with others’ fears and hopes, joys and pains, wishes and failures. Even though my emotions sometimes overwhelm me, my closeness to them reminds me what it means to be human. . .what it means to be fully, completely alive.

I know many sophisticated, urbane people. I admire them. But I never have been—and never will be—one of them.

Not that I haven’t tried. For a long time, I hated myself for never fitting into that crowd. I hated myself for being essentially openhearted and goofy, for my comfort in showing and saying how I feel. Much later, I discovered that so many of those jaded, worldly people tremble with fear at the thought of genuine human connection.

Once, I envied these folks. Now, I feel awful for them. As I once did, they too hold themselves to a false standard of behavior that doesn’t match who they really are. They wear the mask of their inauthentic selves because they believe that’s what they have to do for others to accept them. On some level, most unconsciously recognize that this lie leaves them strangely empty and unsatisfied.

Everywhere I go, I meet them. I extend to them kindness and patience. And I say a little prayer that one day, they’ll shuck off those masks, allow themselves to feel, and finally start living.

But sometimes, despite all this, I’m still afraid to show others my true self. What if they don’t like me? What if they reject me? What if my contributions aren’t welcome? What if I’m weird, unacceptable, unworthy, unlovable?

No matter. I’ve learned (and relearn all the time) that everyone feels this way. We’re all terrified that others won’t love us as we are. In that spirit, holding back who I am helps no one. If others don’t care to include me in their circle, that’s all right.

I can’t control what other people think. I can control only myself. It hurts when I discover that others find me too unconventional for their tastes. But I’m willing to risk the hurt, to risk looking like a fool, because the rewards are priceless for every one of us.

I’m grateful not to have lost my emotional edge over the years. I’m grateful to be me—awkwardness, eagerness, and all.

Photo: Self-Portrait No. 2, 13 September 2016

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: First published on 11 April 2014, this post appears here with revisions.

 

New piece up at Madcap Review!

My latest piece, “First-Year Seminar,” is now out in Volume 6 of Madcap Review! Go read it!

Photo: Self-portrait at Cochran Gallery, LaGrange, Georgia – 20 January 2017

 

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

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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

 

Marginalia

JamesThompson_Fall1963_COPY_Cropped

The poor thing looked so lonely, squeezed on both sides by the spy thrillers and bodice rippers whose gaudy covers hogged the floor like a twelfth-runner-up beauty queen on a Vegas bender. But Lord knows how I love a wallflower. A shy, handsome volume of Robert Frost never needed to do the Watusi, the Monkey, or even the Mashed Potato to impress me.

Off we went.
And oh, how we danced.

While there is always something that doesn’t love a wall, there is also always something that does love impeccable penmanship. The notes flowed with grace and control, looping perfect lowercase o’s and curlicuing flawless uppercase T’s completely en pointe inside the narrow margins. Precise inky pirouettes bound Mary and Warren anew to their dying hired man: “Transcending the mundane—earthy, practical—enjoying labor for the sake of labor—LOVE.” The annotations whirled between Frost and me, spinning that road not taken into a pas de deux of why-the-hell-didn’t-I-take-this-road-sooner.

Inside the front cover, though, a few more faded letters sent my heart straight into a grand jeté: “James Thompson, Rm. 407 Morris Hall.” Below, in blue ballpoint: “Fall Quarter 1963, Prof. Jack Kitson.” The gorgeous cursive melted into small caps, still strong and legible. Why, of course, young man. You may have this dance, too.

I wondered about James Thompson and his corner of Room 407. I wondered how many dozens of colleges boasted a Morris Hall men’s dormitory in September 1963. Maybe James, still sporting the summer’s flat-top haircut, arrived right after Labor Day with his clothes, his books, his horn-rimmed glasses, and the expectations of an entire county stuffed into his one graduation-gift suitcase.

I saw James listening, scribbling, an eager young man grasping for every insight from professor, from classmates, from roommates. I saw him reviewing his notes, rereading, explaining, analyzing, revising his term paper and himself so he could make good, do good, come home a success. And here, fifty-three years later in the dusty basement of a dusty used bookstore, his painstaking marginalia still danced to the tune of Robert Frost’s selected poems. Sorry, boys, but my dance card is full—for James Thompson.

At the register, I nearly did an arabesque in disbelief. “A dollar-fifty? That’s all?”

“Yep.” The cashier pressed the change into my palm. “We get a lot of estate sales, you know.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Year of Hank

One year ago today, in the small hours of the morning, I stepped onto my front porch to call my cat Clark indoors. He didn’t come right to me, so I called for him again: “Kitty-kitty-kitty! Come on, it’s time to go to bed. Kitty-kitty!”

That’s when I heard a loud, scratchy, frantic meow from the dark front yard. Again and again, MEEEEOOOOOWWWWW! My first thought was that it was Clark. Maybe he was hurt, stuck under the car, and yowling to get my attention. But just then, Clark came running up the steps. He gave me his usual tiny meow, sat down, and turned his head toward the yard.

I got a flashlight just in time to see a bony gray kitten struggling up my front steps with what was probably the last of his strength. MEEOOOOWWW! MEEOOOWWW! MEEOOOOWWW! He stumbled across the porch, turning one way and then another. The poor thing was so weak that he could hardly walk or tell where he was going.

So I picked him up with one hand, put him inside my housecoat, and brought him indoors. You know, the usual operating procedure when I find a stray kitten on my porch.

hank_guitar_copy_oct2015

That night was pretty miserable for both of us. Oh, the big cats hissed a little, but that was all. Once I got a pet carrier set up for him—with some dry food, a dish of water, and an old towel to sleep on—the other cats mostly just sniffed at this unexpected guest, then walked away. Whew. I closed the carrier door, climbed into my own bed, and turned out the light.

Then the raspy meowing started again.  MEEOOOOWWW! MEEOOOWWW! MEEOOOOWWW!

“What’s the matter, kitty?” I climbed back out of bed to check on him. As soon as I opened his cage, I saw he was shaking so hard that he was nearly vibrating. He hadn’t eaten much, but he’d already drank almost three-quarters of a cup of water. The poor little thing was incredibly dehydrated, and had no body fat to speak of to keep him warm.

“Little cat,” I said, “we have both got to get some sleep. I’ll call the vet in the morning.”

I put him inside my robe. Between my flannel pajama top and the polyester fleece robe, he was finally warm. How he managed such a loud diesel purr while being so small, I never will know. For the rest of the night, every 90 minutes or so, I awoke to the sound of lonely, frantic meows. After a bite or two of food and another long drink of water, the kitten calmed down, and snuggled up next to me once again.

The next afternoon, my veterinarian examined the kitten. “Good thing he found your house when he did,” Doc told me. “Without your help, he might’ve had a couple, three days left to live.”

“Do you think someone just tossed him out at my house?” I asked Doc.

My vet shook his head. “To get in this bad a shape, he’s been on his own a while.”

Doc gave him one pill for the worms in his gut, and another to take care of the ear mites and fleas trying to eat him alive. I’d have to wait to find out whether he had FIV, FeLP, or any other deadly feline virus—at eight weeks old and just 1.1 pounds, the kitten was so skinny that the vet techs couldn’t draw a blood sample.

“Got a name for him?” Doc asked.

“Hank,” I said. “For Hank Williams, Sr.”

Doc laughed. “The name fits. Just keep this little guy away from your liquor cabinet.”

The next few months saw Hank endure one medical crisis after another. Gastrointestinal issues, upper respiratory infections, abscesses, salivary gland problems—he’s been through a lot in his first year. Add not feeling good most of the time to his feral, no-humans early months, and you see why he’s extremely shy, even with me. Oh, he’ll come out for Grandmommy and Paw-Paw if they bring Waffle House bacon. The rest of the time, though, he runs from people.

Well, no. He does have one friendliness window. Every day, somewhere between 2:00pm and 6:30pm, I hear MEEEEERT!—raspy and worn out and impatient—from the floor under my chair. I stop writing and look down. There’s Hank, making figure-eights around the chair legs and my ankles, purring and arching his back in “Time to pet me” mode. I put him in my lap, and for about 15 minutes, he purrs at top volume, drooling happily all over my shirt sleeve as I scratch his ears and chin. Then he jumps down and is touch-me-not for the next 24 hours. Every day, without fail.

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He’s grown into a beautiful cat. (Yes, he really does have eyes; he just squints a lot.) His frame is on the small side; he should weigh about eight pounds, but currently weighs 12 pounds. I guess he still hasn’t quite absorbed the words I sang when he was small, when I sat him on top of my guitar and made up my own version of his namesake’s “Move It On Over'”:

I heard him meow at my front door
This little kitty won’t starve no more
Move it on over
Move it on over
Move over, big kitties, the little cat’s movin’ in

So what if Hank still “doesn’t know how to cat?” He’s not starving any more. He’s off the street, never again to face the dangers of being a feral cat. He’s got a warm place to sleep, and treatment for his various ailments. And, despite his rough kittenhood, he’s doing pretty well. As I type this, he’s passed out asleep next to the food bowl, belly in the air and one paw covering his eyes. Hey, progress is progress. At least he’s not hiding in the wall of the spare bedroom, like he used to.

He’s my goofy, sweet rescue boy. I’m forever grateful that Hank found his way to my house one year ago today, before it was too late. And I’m forever grateful to be his forever person.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

On Disappointment

Not getting what I want isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The human experience is about trying and failing. It means success and disappointment, sorrow and joy. When I don’t get what I’d hoped and planned for, when I’m deep in the pain of rejection, I reconnect with life. It keeps me solid and humble. It keeps me present, in awe of the power of human emotion.

When I don’t get my way, I experience life fully. The ebb and flow of my feelings, of events and things and the world, turn solid and real. When I don’t get what I want, my sadness (or anger, embarrassment, hurt, disappointment) rushes over me, engulfs me completely.

No, I won’t drown. I’ve been here too many times to fear what happens next.

When a letdown comes along, it presents me with a precious opportunity to understand a tiny part of life’s incredible richness. Without cushion, without excuse, without escape, I welcome it all.

Though I stumble often, it’s okay. I’m learning to appreciate the missteps. I’m learning not to be so terrified. The agony of freefall—when what I think I know shimmers, then vanishes, like a heat mirage over asphalt—turns bearable when I remember that I will be all right.

Ten thousand times before, this has been so. Heartbreak, anguish, fury, grief: each binds me to what it means to be human, to what it means to be truly alive.

Last night, as I mopped the kitchen floor, these insights nearly knocked me over. And for them, I am tremendously grateful.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Sisterly Help

VAL:  What’s the matter?
ME:  I’m stuck. Help me come up with something for Throwback Thursday on the blog.
VAL:  Hmm. Lemme think…
ME:  An entertaining story from way back, from when we were kids—something like that.
VAL:  How about the time we went to Cub Foods, and you bought a gummi rat as big as your hand? When we got home, you stomped into my room and bit the head off it like a 7th grade Ozzy Osbourne.
ME:  God, I can’t tell that one. Grossed myself out after the first bite.
VAL:  Okay, umm—how about when we were in high school and I’d make that noise kinda like WNNNNNNNNG!!! and push your butt up the stairs with the top of my head to make you move faster?
ME:  Nah. Too hard to explain the context.
VAL:  You’re right. How about the Halloween where you went to school as Mr. T? Mom ripped the sleeves out of an old t-shirt, and you borrowed every single Estée Lauder free gift bonus necklace Maw-Maw had. Mom made you a Mohawk skullcap from old pantyhose and black acrylic yarn.
ME:  I pity the fool who suggests that story.
VAL:  Wait! How about the time when you fell out of the car at the South Carolina welcome center? You skinned the hell out of your knee because your entire left leg had gone to sleep and you didn’t know it.
ME:  You are supremely unhelpful.
VAL:  I’ve got it—how about the time in the front yard at the house in Alabama, when that guy hauling a mule in the back of a furniture truck ran over our mailbox? You must’ve been about 12—you started screaming that you couldn’t send anyone any letters anymore, and that your life was totally ruined. And then you flipped the guy off, and Daddy just about fell over from laughing so hard.
ME:  Forget it. No Throwback Thursday this week.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Late Grocery List

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

Candy corn:
It is the worst of the worst Halloween candy, plentiful as fleas and twice as hard to get rid of. In all its corn syrupy FD&C No. 6 glory, it refuses to masquerade as blood sugar-friendly. He never craved sweets like we did, but it was his favorite—in small quantities. At Halloween, when we brought home sack after sack of the stuff, he never complained. Had we asked him to, he would have eaten it until Kingdom Come.
Overall: Cloying, slightly giddy, with a letdown at the end.
Base: Unabashed enthusiasm.
Top Note: A bad case of the Sunday evening can’t-help-its.

Michelob:
Maybe he switched from PBR and Bud tallboys to feel more sophisticated after the divorce. Maybe it was too many late nights spent thumbing through Cosmopolitan, trying to figure out “the modern woman” and what she wanted. She wanted back then the same thing she does now: To be treated like a human being, with respect, dignity, and compassion. Besides, would a modern man in a modern relationship with a modern woman drink a redneck beer? Of course not.
Overall: Hoppy, skunky, with a bitter finish.
Base: Rancid barley.
Top Note: Mule piss.

Sardines:
In oil, in mustard, in cream, but never in hot sauce. His ulcer couldn’t handle it. How he could work fourteen hours in 110-degree heat on just a tin of these and a box of saltine crackers is still beyond me. Meanwhile, the rest of us on the crew tried not to honk up our turkey-Swiss-teriyaki-meatball-chitlins-on-wheat lunchtime transgressions. He tossed the empty cans behind the stock pile, where they proceeded to attract every stray cat within a half-mile radius.
Overall: Stridently fishy, yet earnest, with a hint of struggle.
Base: Sweat-soaked long-sleeved Dickies.
Top Note: Waccamaw River silt.

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

An Epiphany, Post-Workshop

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Several months ago, I attended a marketing workshop on how to get more mailing list subscribers. The hosts covered some interesting and useful strategies. However, over the last year, I’ve been to at least a dozen similar workshops. They all miss the same thing.

In their quest to blast a message to as many people as possible for as little money as possible, these marketing folks forget the number-one reason readers sign up for email lists in the first place: because they like what they saw or read on a website. In other words, they sign up for the quality content.

Around Facebook, I keep seeing a meme worded along the lines of, “Don’t be impressed by degrees, titles, status, or followers.” Although memes often annoy me, this one contains an important truth: long-term engagement is what makes the whole social media thing work.

Likes and clicks are meaningless without an ongoing, sustained conversation between readers and website owners. If a website or social media account posts poorly written, poorly thought out content, people won’t be back. The Internet is far too large and far too interesting for readers to wait out the junk in hopes that something good will eventually show up.

After the seminar ended, I felt sad and restless. Too bad the hosts had missed the concept of great content. That, I thought, might be a big reason why many products, services, and authors never get anywhere in their online efforts.

But then I realized, as clearly as the day is long, that I already had a plan. I didn’t need to worry. Because if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s how to make the kinds of photos and tell the kinds of stories that people want—the kinds they aren’t getting anywhere else.

Marketing seminars be damned. I’ll make my own path, tell my own stories, and create my own art. It’s what I want. It’s what my readers want. And it’s why I’m here to begin with.

Photo: “Self-Portrait B, 13 September 2016”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Rubber Soul

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In the summer of 1988, in a gas station restroom in Aynor, South Carolina, my sister and I encountered our first-ever condom machine. Sure, we had heard about such contraception contraptions, thanks to Health & Human Development class. Mom had even confirmed for us that there really was such a thing as a vending machine for condoms.

Somehow, though, Val and I had never actually seen one of these mysterious metal boxes for ourselves. All we’d ever seen for sale in a bathroom vending machine were pads and tampons. But on that nasty-humid July day in Aynor, there the condom machine was—bolted to the wall in all its mute, naughty glory.

And since this was South Carolina, where of course in the late 1980s they didn’t have a teenage pregnancy epidemic or people with STDs or anything like that thankyouverymuch, the condom machine’s offerings were concealed by a large metal flap that bore a sign in inch-high letters:

THESE PRODUCTS OFFERED ONLY FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE.
ANY PATRONS WHO MAY BE OFFENDED BY SEXUALLY ORIENTED MATTER ARE ADVISED NOT TO LIFT THIS FLAP.

Which meant, naturally, that Val and I were straightaway going to lift the flap.

As we did so, the flap made a loud crrrreeeeEEEEAAAAK.  There was no way that anyone outside this one-seater women’s restroom couldn’t hear it. It was a cheesy haunted-house-quality noise, too, no doubt alerting everybody in the Aynor Amoco  that the occupants were most certainly perusing the rubber selection. I’m pretty sure the creaky flap had been designed that way, state public health initiatives be damned. “Better barefoot ‘n pregnant than have everybody in the store know you’re gonna get laid,” or something like that.

The four different types of condoms in the machine scandalized our sheltered teenage eyes. There were plain, nothing-special condoms, of course. There were condoms bearing the dubious claim of being “ribbed for her pleasure.” Next were the Stallion’s Pride condoms, “For the Larger Man,” secreted away and SORRY, SOLD OUT. The last offering was a random and wonky selection of “fruit-flavored” condoms. Creativity must have died a slow and painful death when the latex process engineers met up with the marketing team in Rubber Flavorings 101. Time after time, it’s the same old boring fruits, banana jokes notwithstanding. Think about it: Why don’t we ever see any new, original condom flavors? Why not, say, licorice? Why not root beer, or cornbread, or BBQ?

We tried not to laugh. But the harder we tried, the funnier it was. The sign’s if-we-can’t-see-it-then-it-doesn’t-exist mentality was just so silly. Val was 12 and I was 14, but even at those young ages we could see through the high-and-mighty moral smokescreening. (It works, too, even today. Note the plentiful public outrage whenever the topic of condoms for high school students appears in the news.)

Again, remember that this was the late 1980s—long before the advent of smartphone cameras that people could take everywhere with them. Hilarious as the whole scene was, we couldn’t snap a photo of the prophylactic tomfoolery before us. We also needed to get back to the car before Daddy started to worry that we’d tumbled off to Wonderland down a public toilet rabbit hole.

I was washing my hands, still giggling, when Val said, “Don’t look!”

“Don’t look at what?”

She broke up laughing. “Don’t turn around until I say so.”

“Okay.” I dried my hands, and stood there staring at the floor, my back to her. “What are you doing?”

“Shhhh!”

I heard Val rummage through her handbag. Then I heard the crrrreeeeeEEEEEAAAAK! of the condom machine flap, the quick light ffffrrrppp of a thick notepad, and the small skrrrtsksksksk of what was either a very busy pencil or a lone mouse scurrying across acoustic ceiling tile on a Tuesday afternoon.

Then, finally, I heard the crrreeeEEEEAAAK-THUNK-THUNK! of the metal flap settling to rest. “What the—what are you—”

“All right! Let’s go.” My sister stood bright-eyed and smiling with her hand on the restroom door, her purse tucked under her arm.

I took one look at her face, then at the condom machine. Lifting the big metal warning flap, I spied a purple Hello Kitty sticky-note pressed directly over the condom logos. Scrawled upon it, in Val’s distinctive handwriting:

DON’T BUY THIS GUM!
IT TASTES LIKE RUBBER!

Photo: “Condom Cathedral Window No. 4” (LaGrange, Georgia – 28 September 2016)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

You Lucky Dog

All my life, I’ve loved cats. Since 1996, I’ve lived with them full-time. And while I liked dogs just fine, I never thought I’d become a “dog person.” Don’t get me wrong: I had nothing against dogs. They just weren’t what I thought of as “my kind of pet.”

Thank goodness all that changed one day in May 2009.

Enjoying the long break between the end of spring semester and the start of summer classes, I was relaxing at home. My date was supposed to pick me up at 11:45 to go to lunch. When he didn’t arrive and hadn’t called, I began to worry. Finally, he drove up just after noon. “Sorry I’m late—but I’ve got a good reason. Come look!”

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And there, in the floorboard of the truck, sat the saddest, sickest puppy I had ever seen.

The puppy was maybe eight weeks old, at most. We could see his ribs, spine, and hips through his skin. A strange mass protruded from the side of his abdomen. Fleas swarmed all over him. And the stomach-twisting smell came off him in huge waves—a horrible combination of grease, dirt, sweat, and feces. Mange had robbed him of almost all his fur, leaving in its place a semi-oily yellow crust an eighth of an inch thick in places.

“Where did you find him?” I asked.

“He was sitting on the double-yellow line in the curve on Swift Street,” my sweetheart said. “Somebody must’ve left him there. I almost didn’t see him. Had to swerve, and just about ran over him. But I looked up in the rear-view mirror, and my heart just broke. I couldn’t leave him. When I put him in the truck, I told him, ‘You’re not gonna die today, buddy, and you’re not gonna die like this.'”

When we arrived at the vet clinic, even Dr. S was surprised. “I’ve been in practice for thirty years, and this is one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen.” Doc diagnosed him with mange and started the weeks-long series of ivermectin shots that would bring the little dog back to health. He gave the puppy a worm tablet, and advised me to wear rubber kitchen gloves: “Don’t bathe or pet him with your bare hands until he’s completely over the mange. Too easy for you to accidentally rub your eye and wind up with a bad infection.”

Doc prescribed a liquid antibiotic for what he thought might be an internal abscess poking out of the puppy’s side.  He also gave us some unusual advice on dealing with the puppy’s mange: “Bathe him every other day in warm water and Dawn dish liquid. Flea shampoo will just burn his skin, it’s so raw right now. But Dawn will help dissolve the crust a little faster.”

We paid our bill and left. As we sat in the truck and stared at the adorable little dog curled up on the floor mat, my fella asked, “Do you think we should take him to the pound?”

“No,” I said. “They’ll euthanize him. He’s in really bad shape.”

“But I can’t take him home. Not with my own dog so sick, and maybe about to have surgery again.”

I nodded. “I’ll keep him, for now. I’ve got an old plastic storage tub he can sleep in, to keep him safe.”

“With all your cats? Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I had to do something, anything, to help this puppy. “Just give me a little while. I’ll figure something out.”

A couple weeks later, we’d named the little dog Lucky. That’s what he was, after all. And he was still at my house, slowly healing, though hating baths with every ounce of strength he had. He was even getting along with the cats. That last was a huge surprise, at least to me.

But by the time Memorial Day Weekend arrived, I had a problem. I had a mange-covered puppy who still wasn’t healthy enough for routine puppy shots—and I was going to Nashville on a faculty research trip. No kennel in town would touch Lucky. He couldn’t be around other dogs until he was fully healed.

Which left me with only one choice.

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Plastic tub, rubber kitchen gloves, and all, I took him with me. Lucky and I spent four days and three nights enjoying the bright lights of Music City.

It was on the way to Nashville, though, that I knew something in me had changed.

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We stopped for a play break in Columbia, Tennessee. Not too far from the local Waffle House, there’s an old church cemetery alongside Interstate 65—the ideal place for a small, sickly dog to pee. As I watched Lucky sniff and roll and bark his frail little bark and try his best to wrench the chew toy from my yellow-rubber-gloved hand, I wept, and said out loud, “You’re my dog. I love you. And I’m keeping you.”

Seven years on, he is still my dog.
A handsome, well-upholstered one at that.

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Lucky’s starting to get a little gray on his muzzle. Since he’s part basset hound, he’s had to contend with arthritis much earlier than most dogs (or humans) ever do. Check out the thick brown fur and purple-spotted tongue. That’s the Chow in him. When he’s thinking of getting into mischief—say, sniffing a cat’s butt, or running after another dog, or spying a week-old dead armadillo just ripe for rolling in—he gets the wrinkly Chow forehead, too. He’s my favorite furry 62-pound coffee table, my rusty-brown Low Rider.

He is also one of the best things that has ever happened to me. And while his name is Lucky, I believe I’m the lucky one here. He has shown me flat-out, unashamed, unconditional love. He has shown me how to trust in the unknown, just as he somehow trusted me in those difficult first weeks after he came to the Happy Kitten Cottage. Every day, he makes me laugh. He shows me how to live in the Now, how to enjoy every moment as it comes.

I’m not just a “dog person.”
I’m Lucky’s forever person.
And he is my forever dog.
Amen.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Today’s Epiphany

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Today’s epiphany:

My life is not perfect—and I would not ever want it that way.

To have a perfect life would mean I wouldn’t face challenges, wouldn’t solve problems, wouldn’t create art. In other words: I’d be dead.

Thanks anyway. I’ll keep going in the flawed here and now, muddling through it all.

I have mostly stopped dreaming of a time somewhere in the future when I will know exactly what I’m doing, a point at which I will have it all together. It’s incredibly freeing.

These days, I don’t quite as often say things like, “This doesn’t fit the pattern. This isn’t what my life should be. This jukebox is playing the wrong tune.” Ever so slowly, I’m learning that however my life is going is…well, exactly how it’s going. The only actions I can control are my own. Everything else is beyond my influence. The fact that I don’t recognize this particular song doesn’t mean the band made a mistake.

I do not have everything figured out. I never will. My job is to write all this down—the flailing, the confusion, the despair, the hope. This is my truth. It is why I am here in the first place.

Photo: “Self Portrait in Back Yard, No. 1” (LaGrange, Georgia – 9 September 2016)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Dr. Parker’s Gardenias

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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 also shared with 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)

 

Joy, to the World

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NOTE: This is a slightly edited re-post from 12 May 2015.

On a hard-freezing December night nearly seventeen years ago, Paw-Paw, Grandmommy, and I rescued you from a drug dealer’s porch. Barely eight weeks old, flea-bitten, and bony, you still had a meow we could hear a hundred yards away. That’s how we figured out where you were, and how badly those people had been treating you. I stuffed you into my winter coat as we ran to the car—whew. A clean getaway. The entire drive home, we enjoyed the 20-pound purr coming from your two-pound body.

You never did get much bigger than that. At your tubbiest, you weighed eight pounds. What you lacked in size, though, you made up for in attitude. For years, I thought the older cats were beating you up. Then, one summer afternoon, I walked into the den just in time to see you wa-babababababababa-BOWWWW!!! light up poor elderly Graya’s head, then fall over with a finesse that not even the 1989 Detroit Pistons—those masters of floppy Game 7 double-overtime fouls—could ever have imagined.

I know, I know: she was bogarting your ‘nip. Whatever, cat. I couldn’t help laughing as Graya finished what you had started. After that, though, you settled down and became everyone’s sweetheart.

When people came to visit us, you ended up their favorite cat. If someone made a lap, you were in it, purring and head-butting their hands, your huge green eyes convincing them to pet you non-stop for the next three hours. As Aunt Val says, “Joy sets the bar pretty high for lap kitties.” She’s right.

For most of your life, you slept right next to my head. The only time you’d leave your spot was around 3:42 a.m. That’s when you paced from kitchen to bedroom and back, again and again, all meow-meow-meow-Mama-look-what-I-hunted-and-killed-for-you. In your mouth, you’d have a toy mouse. Or a jingle ball. Or a Beanie Baby. Or a dirty sock. I was so sleepy, but you were so proud.

Today, I lay your rumpled, frail body on the exam table and thought of all this. Somehow, even as sick as you were, you turned your wobbly head in the direction of my sobs—though your eyes no longer worked, you could hear my sorrow. I wept anew thinking of all the times when, crying and out of options, I looked over and saw you next to me, one paw tapping my arm as if to ask, “What’s wrong? Can I help?” And, climbing into my lap and purring yourself into a tight gray-striped ball, you did help. Always, and without fail.

Thank you, sweet Joy, for being my companion for the last 15½ years. I miss you already. But, Bastet willing, one day I will see you again—on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge.

Love,
Mama

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Aren’t we all.

As usual, I’d let the Johnson grass in the back yard grow too high to mow. Instead, Mom and I chopped it into submission with machetes. It was hard, piss-you-off-quick work, what with the sweat running in our eyes and the sweat bees stinging us faster than we could shoo them away. Plus I hated the late September slant of sun. It made four-thirty in the afternoon feel like the end of the world.

The sudden whonnk-whonnk-whonnk startled me. In the washed-out blue distance, there they were—their neat, strict V flawless as always. Canada geese, of course, here taking jobs from American geese and wrecking the avian economy. They swagger around the backwater as if they own the red clay banks, hissing to rival the biggest cottonmouths, crapping glossy greenish-black all over the picnic area.

Arrogant, rude, noisy, messy—and stunningly beautiful, with those graceful black velvet necks and elegant white chinstraps. No charcoal, no gouache could duplicate their shading. No couturier could duplicate the white contrast seam binding along their smoky flight feathers. Subtle gray-brown scallops on their ivory bellies provide relief between the stark palettes above and below.

At the slightest threat to nest or wounded mate, WHHHHFFFFF! Beauty takes near-noiseless flight. A dozen sixteen-pound waterproof feathered mortars bear down shrieking and scare the bejesus out of combat-hardened Army Rangers jogging by the lake.

They were flying north.
In September.

“Dumbasses,” I muttered. “They’re going the wrong way.”

Mom pitched another clump of grass over the fence. “Aren’t we all.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

“You can’t know if it’s any good while you’re writing it.”

Like most professional writers, I get a lot of people asking me for advice. The other day, someone asked how I know if a piece is worthwhile. “Do you know it’s good stuff before you start? Do you know while you’re writing it?”

Those are fair questions, and ones I hear pretty often. And the answer is: DEAR GOD, NO.

Most of the time, I start with very little—the barest sketch of a scene, a snippet of conversation, a fragment of an idea written half-assedly on the back of my hand. I don’t dare judge my idea at this point. No, no, no. I have to get everything out before I know if it’s still worth pursuing.

Often, it is. Sometimes, it’s not. But having written about it is never a waste of time. The ideas need to percolate through my brain and out my fingers and onto the page. Then they need to sit a while. That’s how writers figure out if what they’re working on is worth a damn.

Easy enough, right? But, no.
I forget this truth all the time. And I have to remind myself of it all the time—as in, daily. Other writers remind me of it, too.

A couple years ago, I was having trouble hammering out the first draft of my novel. Nothing I did seemed to work. So I asked a writer friend for help. She had just published a stunning book of exquisite new poems—the kind of stuff that, as Emily Dickinson put it so well, “takes the top of my head off.” My friend invited me to her house on a thick July evening, where we sat on her back porch, sipped bourbon, and talked writing.

“I’m struggling,” I told her, “struggling like I never have before.”

“Mmhmm.” She nodded. The melting ice in her glass clinked as it collapsed on itself.

“The words are so slow to come. Paint dries faster than I can write. All I can think while I’m typing is, Oh my God, this is awful. This is the worst stuff I’ve ever written. And I can’t make it stop.”

“Yep,” she said. “Sounds about right.”

I took another sip of whiskey. “So what do I do? I’ve got a book to write, but all I can come up with is garbage.”

My friend was quiet for a moment. Fireflies blinked their evening hello-hello-goodbye above the giant hostas by her porch. Finally, she sighed. “You can’t know if it’s any good while you’re writing it.”

She got up and poured herself another drink. “If you stop mid-process and try to determine how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is, you lose your momentum. You lose your flow. Stopping to look at the details before they’re on the page blocks the process.”

“Right,” I said.

“There is no way you can know. There just isn’t. The knowing comes later. You have to get it all out there first, and then let it sit. Only then can you make value judgments.” She smiled. “To get to that point, maybe you’re just going to have to write a bunch of absolutely horrible first drafts.”

“Yeah. Maybe so.”

My friend sat back in her chair. “Remember last summer, when I went to New York? I spent three days there poring over Arthur Miller’s personal papers—Death of a Salesman, in particular. Today, we know it as a classic. It’s perfect. But looking at all those drafts, especially the earliest ones, helped me understand how much steady, persistent work he put into the play.”

I nodded. “How so?”

“Those first drafts aren’t very good. They’re immature, even didactic. I couldn’t see much of Miller at all in there. There were characters that didn’t make any sense, didn’t seem to have a purpose in the play. But I kept reading, draft after draft after draft. I saw all the lines and characters he cut out, or revised, or added. It gets stronger with each version, all the way to the one we know as the official Death of a Salesman. The one we cover in English 1102.”

She drank deeply from her glass, then spoke again. “Reading through all those drafts made me understand that it’s not just a great play. It’s a great play that began as a not-very-good play, and that got better and better in stages, over time. Miller took his bad drafts and kept on reshaping and revising them. Same with my book. Some of those poems I wrote while I was still in grad school. If you look at what I wrote in 1994, it sucks. But the version I put in the collection? With 20 years of distance, and at least 18 months of reshaping and revising? It’s great.”

I laughed, and finished the last of my bourbon. “Well, damn. If a bunch of horrible drafts are good enough for you and Arthur Miller, then they’re good enough for me.”

Sure enough, my friend reminded me of this great truth of writing: It never happens perfectly the first time we get it down. Often, it doesn’t happen the second, third, fourth, or maybe even 17th time. The strange magic here lies in our having faith in the process. We keep going, even when we think we’re just producing trash. When we keep showing up to meet our ideas and ourselves on the page, version after version, our writing becomes strong and clean and new—almost without our realizing it.

And that is all I have to say today—after 24 drafts.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Lusee, Our Fluffy Girl

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Lusee had the sweetest little face to match her fluffy five-pound body. Her personality, however, was not so sweet. Mom was the only person she liked. Everyone else could take a flying leap.

“Lusee’s a one-person kitty, that’s all,” Mom would say. “And she’s my kitty.”
No disagreement there.

This shot turned out unexpectedly well. Lusee had been snoozing away Easter Sunday afternoon in the top compartment of the outdoor kitty condo when the click of the shutter awakened her. She stared at me for a little while, acted as if she wanted me to pet her, and then lay back down in her cabana after calling for the pool boy to fetch her another daiquiri.

Lusee showed up at Mom’s house around Thanksgiving  12 years ago, half-starved and dirty. Mom brought her indoors and cleaned her up. Steve, my stepdad, fell in love with the sassy, tiny, full-grown cat. Strangely, none of the other cats took exception to the interloper. Lusee blended perfectly into the family. Well, just as long as nobody gave her any trouble. She was small, yet also the enforcer among all my mother’s pets.

We think coyotes killed her late one night in 2013. All my stepfather found was a pile of white and calico fur in the middle of the front yard. He still can’t talk about it.

We miss Lusee every day.

Photo: “Lusee, Our Fluffy Girl” (Heard County, Georgia – 8 April 2012)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

At the fabric store with my dressmaker mother

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A warm summer morning at the fabric store…

ME: Ooooh, look! 60″ wide rayon challis!
MOM: No, no, NO.
ME: It’s feathers! Brightly colored feathers of different shapes and sizes!
MOM: And tacky.
ME: Awww! Come on, Mom.
MOM: What the hell would you do with that?
ME: It’d be a Diane Von Furstenburg-style wrap dress. What else?
MOM: Ugh. Just—ugh! [shudders]
ME: You don’t like it?
MOM: Not only no, but hell no.
ME: Look, you should be happy that at least one of your children is making a bold fashion choice.
MOM: Bold, yes. Fashion, no.

A few minutes later, at the cutting table…

ME: [sliding the bolt across the table] There’s not much left on here…
MOM: Thank you, Jesus.
EMPLOYEE: This print’s really been popular.
MOM: You mean to tell me there are people around here with taste as bad as my daughter’s?

Fifteen minutes later, at the thread display…

ME: Just think, Mom—if I were wearing a dress made out of that feather print, you’d never lose me in the fabric store ever again.
MOM: But I would try!

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

‘Til His Wheels Fall Off

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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 Song in May

Silver sequins pour from a charcoal velvet sky through lacy gold afternoon light. As I sprint back from the mailbox, ten thousand tiny quicksilvery splatters sprinkle across the dusty, clean-swept yard. Six miles away, across the Alabama line, thunder laughs low, clears its throat, laughs again. The air smells like wet asphalt, like kudzu, like lightning, like dreams—like home.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

The Other Vine That Ate the South

Wisteria #471, LaGrange, Georgia (21 March 2012)

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, of course, which 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, because you’ll 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.

 

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