R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Creative Nonfiction (page 2 of 5)

Hazel and the Well

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

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

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

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

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

“Eeeeert. Eeeeeert. EEEEEEEERRRRT!”

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

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

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

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

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

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

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

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New Year, Same Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RSW

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Can I See a Doctor’s Note?

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t get it. “Umm—”

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

It was Tuesday.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

From the Back Corner Booth

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

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

In the Craft Supply Store with Mom

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

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

One Small Voice Against the Storm

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

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

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

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

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

Then the tornado was upon us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope. This would not do.

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

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

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

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Cedars at Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Bullet Holes, Either Way

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

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

All these places say “Home” to me.

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Snake Bones

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

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

Photo: “Snake Skeleton, Sept. 2013”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

More Things I Have Overheard at Funerals

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

*****

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

*****

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

*****

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

My Sister Helps Me Write a Throwback Thursday Post

ME:  Look, I need help with this “Throwback Thursday” post.
VAL:  Help?
ME:  I can’t think of anything to write.
VAL:  Hmmmmm. Oh! Remember that public TV show, 3-2-1 Contact? And when we were really little, how I’d call it “Rumma-Tumma-Summa,” just to piss you off?
ME:  It still pisses me off, 40 years later.
VAL:  Or how we were our own Dukes of Hazzard sibling pair, driving around in our “car” which was just our two matching kid-sized rocking chairs side-by-side? And how we named our car “The Doobie”—like the Duke boys named theirs “The General Lee”—but nobody bothered to tell us what a doobie actually was?
ME:  What? I don’t even remember that.
VAL:  Okay, uhhh—how about that time you crawled into an old 55-gallon drum with the ends cut out so you could roll down the backyard hill? You got up some speed by the clothesline and BLAM! crashed sideways into the well-house wall.
ME:  Nobody wants to read about my first concussion.
VAL: Nah, probably not. But here’s a good one—when we were in high school, and you sat straight up in bed one night, in the middle of a dream and shouted, “Needs more sauce!”
ME: Oh, for God’s sake.
VAL: Oooh! Oooh! I’ve got it! The time when you were a baby, just learning to walk, and somehow you got behind the sofa and ate a dead spider.
ME:  No.
VAL:  Why not?
ME:  Because Mom swears it was poop, not a spider, and she’ll post something on Facebook to that effect.
VAL:  So was it?
ME:  Was it what?
VAL:  Was it poop?
ME:  Forget it. No Throwback Thursday this week.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Be Kind to Yourself This Holiday Season

It’s the night before Thanksgiving, and my social media newsfeeds are filled with holiday stories. I read along as scores of people tell of the frantic cooking, cleaning, packing, traveling, and visiting they’ve done (or are still doing). Most seem to enjoy the beginning of the winter holiday marathon.

I admire these people. They’re better at entertaining and conversation than I’ll ever be. But I also know far more people who secretly dread those crushing five or six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. People dealing with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other chronic conditions often struggle to make it through the winter holiday season without falling apart.

Yep, I see y’all out there. I’m one of you. And I write to you today to say: It’s okay. You’re not alone.

Twenty-plus years ago, long before any of my diagnoses, I forced myself to attend every family holiday party. I thought I had no choice. I knew my relatives would say bad things about me if I weren’t there. Even though my mental health suffered from the lack of quiet and processing time between events, I still went. And, long after the holidays were over, I hated myself for being this way.

It took me many years to understand what was really going on. Decades later, I came to see that those relatives would talk about me—and anybody else who was different from them—no matter what. I could go to the party, or stay home, but they’d still somehow find fault with me. Hell, I could’ve walked in with my very own Nobel Prize for literature, and they still would’ve found something to frown and sneer and whisper about.

Today, well into middle age, I understand now what I didn’t back then. I feel empathy for that lost, confused, sad person who loathed herself for not being like everyone else. I try to make it up to “younger me” by treating myself with kindness during the holiday season.

What helps me most? Quiet time by myself and as much sleep as I can manage. If I do any shopping, I do it during the least-crowded times of day. If I’m feeling particularly frazzled, I ask loved ones if I can drop by and see them when they don’t have a house full of people.

Spending time outdoors helps, too, even if it’s cold and I’m all bundled up. So does marking off the days on a calendar: “Ah, just two more weeks until the holidays are over. I think I can make it.” When the forced jolliness and extroversion feel as if they’re about to flatten me, I try to think about just today. Or just this hour. Or even just the next ten minutes.

Most importantly: if someone’s being particularly awful, I give myself permission to leave. In the moment, I may or may not tell them to go to hell—but I will remove myself from the scene of their bullshittery. The holidays are tough enough without a PTSD relapse. Those are particularly unpleasant, and if I can avoid one, I will.

Yes, I’m a Southerner, but I draw a big, thick “hospitality line” around my sanity with an extra-large permanent marker. Jerks do not deserve my company. My mental health is one thing I will not sacrifice for someone else’s comfort. Besides, as the saying goes: Life is short, and I am not the Asshole Whisperer.

Now and then, in the thick of the holidays, I forget to follow my own advice. That’s when I stumble. It takes me a while to get back to my version of “normal.” I try not to beat myself up about this. (The key word here is “try.”)

Wherever Thanksgiving and the weeks to come may find you, I wish you peace and calm. I hope you can show yourself the kindness you deserve as you navigate this potentially difficult time of the year. You’re in good company.

You are worth showing yourself a little kindness. When you catch yourself feeling horrible, know that I’m right there with you and many, many others. We’re all in this together, surviving the holidays a little at a time.

Photo: Self-Portrait in Black, Rabun Gap (Rabun County, Georgia – 3 October 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

If Blake Shelton Is the Sexiest Man Alive, Then I Am the Jolly Green Giant

So People Magazine has declared country singer [sic] Blake Shelton their 2017 Sexiest Man Alive. And this country music scholar HAS SOME STRONG OPINIONS.

Sexiest Man Alive? In what universe? Have we just stopped trying, as a society? (Wait, no, don’t answer that.) Y’all, I can go to any bar in any town on a Friday night and find half a dozen middle-aged white dudes who look just like this. Standing on any street in downtown Nashville, I can throw a rock with my eyes closed and hit 20 Shelton look-alikes. It’s a goddamn travesty.

Hell, I could browse my Facebook friends list and easily find a couple hundred men who are sexier than Blake Shelton, plus none of them have cheesy-ass redneck stereotype tattoos. Nor do any of them look like everybody’s ne’er-do-well uncle who’s 48 and still lives at home but dresses like he’s 18 and just stepped out of an Ed Hardy photo shoot. (Don’t act like you don’t know which uncle I’m talking about.) Mmmmmmmm, smell that entire can of Axe body spray he fumigated himself with put on before exiting his room.

Jesus, Mary, and Johnny Cash help us.

People Magazine really needs to rethink this whole Sexiest Man Alive deal. Or at least NOT make it so cheap that any middling country star with a regular role on a TV “talent” show can buy the title for $25,000. Means about as much as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which costs about the same—and there are upwards of 5,000 of those damn things making Tinseltown sidewalks that much uglier.

Since you asked (and I know you didn’t, but too bad, because I’m telling you anyway) here’s my definitive list of things that are sexier than Blake Shelton:

Bronchitis
A dirty litter box
2 gallons of mayonnaise
The rear view mirror on a ’92 Oldsmobile
Stewed tomatoes
The Pruitt-Igoe implosion
A colonoscopy
Merkins
Stale Coors Light
A partially demolished CMU wall
No. 10 envelopes
Dentures
An outboard motor
Partially-used roll of tracing paper
MRI room doors
Conjunctivitis
Tom Petty’s ghost
Mortgage insurance
Creepy church fans
Dental floss
Murphy’s Oil Soap
205R65 steel-belted radials
Store-brand maxi pads
Any K-Tel Kenny Rogers box set
A 22-ounce framing hammer
The Microsoft Excel formula for compound interest
Elevation drawings of any Frank Gehry building
The ladies’ restroom on Saturday night at the Flora-Bama Club

Seriously: If Blake Shelton is the Sexiest Man Alive, then my 5’2″ ass is the Jolly Green Giant. Now, if y’all will excuse me, I’m gonna sit over here in the corner and drink bourbon (neat) while I sing “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger.”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Georgia 109 Spur

Sunday, summer. Hot. Humid.
Nearly a hundred at a quarter til noon.
How the world stays plump and green in this steam, I do not know.

In the opposite lane, warming itself: a box turtle. No—a pinecone.
In my lane, warming itself: a shredded fan belt. No—a king snake.
Wheels dodge, spin past.
Neither moves.

By the old Whatley place, two does materialize. From the furry green ditch, their eyes ask permission. I slow. They traverse the double yellow line, as always graceful yet unsure, as always one at a time.

A squirrel, bushy tail an eternal question mark, never asks permission. Zig-zag-zig-zigzig-zag-ZIG! across pavement and almost-not-safely into tall grass.

In the hollow by the Primitive Baptist cemetery, a great blue heron glides across the tops of the pines. Wide blue-gray wings, yellow legs, crooked flight-neck: hello, hello, goodbye.

All an omen, all a blessing—all a signal of hope.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: This encore post first appeared on 22 June 2014.

 

In which I witness Grace and Love in action

For a while now, people have been asking me about setting up a patron campaign. You know, something with rewards for a monthly pledge, kind of like the patronage system of the Renaissance (except without all the Medici intrigue and espionage and murder). I know several other artists whose patrons–their fans, their readers–gladly support their productivity.

I thought about that for a long time, almost two years. But something in me just wouldn’t let me reconcile myself to it. “What? Let folks show me how much they enjoy my work? Give them special new pieces in return for their money?”

“It’s not the right time,” I kept telling myself. “It’s just not the right moment to think up a patron thingy. I dunno, it’s just not the right time, not yet.”

The truth was–and I couldn’t yet see it–that I didn’t fully believe my work was worthy of people’s support. I didn’t believe my work was worthy of the love people had been showing it. If I didn’t think my work was worthy of love and support, then who else would? And if that was true, then why on earth was I still writing, still taking photos?

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t think my way around this mental block. But then an answer came to me, when and where I least expected one.

A few nights ago, I dreamed that I was living in a run-down apartment building somewhere several hours from home. In this dream, I was moving out of the building–“going home” at the end of my long, unhappy time in this place. My apartment was on the fourth floor. It was accessible only by a rickety set of metal stairs on the outside of the building. And I was one of the last people to move out of the dingy building.

I was sad, but not because I was leaving this awful place. No, I was sad because I had so many things so pack, and they were so disorganized that I was overwhelmed to the point of tears. I needed to be out as soon as possible…but how, with only myself to sort and pack what looked like ten years’ worth of disorganized belongings? On top of this, I had no transportation besides my feet–no car, no moving van, not even a rickety bicycle.

All I can really do, I thought, is pack some clothes in a small suitcase, and set out on foot. It would take at least a week to walk home, if I made it at all. I sat down on the dirty sofa and began to sob.

Just then, someone knocked on the door. I opened it to find several dozen people standing there: former students, longtime friends, new friends, neighbors, and even a few total strangers. The “ringleader” of the group blushed and smiled, and gave me a sheepish wave. “Hi! We came by to help.”

Before I could stammer my customary polite “Oh, no thanks, I’ve got it,” the group pushed past me into my messy room. Then they got to work.

Three former students grabbed my baskets of dirty clothes: “We’re going to the laundromat! Back in a little while.” Several other people brought empty cardboard boxes and began filling them with my belongings. I watched in awe as they seemed to know exactly which items I wanted to leave behind and which items I wanted to take with me. They packed my dishes in layers of old newspaper, placing each inside the box so it wouldn’t jostle against the others and break.

Two more people bounded through the door: “We got the van! Y’all bring down some boxes!” I peered out the grimy bathroom window. In the parking lot by the dormitory door sat a moving van. A writer friend waved to me from the open passenger window. On the metal stairway, a long line of people stretched down four floors. Each person carried at least one large box.

I returned to the living area to see more people bearing pizza boxes and grocery bags full of drinks and snacks. “We figured you probably hadn’t eaten,” one said. “So we thought we’d go ahead and get food for everyone.” Other friends kept me focused and happy, guiding me through each area of my room: “Do you want to take these towels? How about this pan? That bowl? These socks?”

When I peered out the door, I saw my ringleader friend and some former students skipping like little kids down the hallway. Cardboard boxes in one arm, they high-fived each other as they made their way out to the staircase. Back inside the apartment, everyone’s eyes shone with joy and compassion and love.

I awoke to the sound of pouring rain outside my bedroom window. I sat up in bed–three cats lay asleep at my feet. One snored next to my knees.

I lay back down and marveled at the kindness–even in dreams–of the people around me. I marveled at how that kindness reappears to buoy me when I think I may sink for good. In the dream, I felt stuck and helpless. In the dream, the people who see me for who I really am appeared out of nowhere, and helped me make the impossible possible. 

This was the miracle of other people’s love. This was the miracle that is Grace in motion.

In the dream, I did what I had been unable to do in waking life: I listened to these friends, and to the wisdom and love in their actions, their smiles, their presence. For once, I understood: This is Grace in action. This is love and kindness and healing, a huge interconnected net of help that I didn’t even know existed. Yet it had still been wrapped around me, around ALL of us, the whole time. In the dream, after a lifetime of not trusting others, of trying (and failing) to do it all on my own–I let go, let myself fall backwards into that web of love and grace.

The dream’s message was clear: People love you. People love your work. Now let them help.

Here’s the link to the campaign.

Thank you for cheering me on, for supporting my work in whatever ways you can and do. Your encouragement means so, so much to me.

Even if you can’t pledge, keep checking in. As always, I’ll post new material at least three days a week on my website. I’ll be posting some free public content on the Patreon page, stuff you won’t see elsewhere. And I also post a lot of stuff on social media–so keep on liking, commenting, sharing, and telling your friends about my work.

Thank you again for everything. I love you all.

RSW

 

Photo: “Self-Portrait with Stripes, Rabun Gap” (Rabun County, Georgia – 5 October 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Story for All Hallows’ Eve

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 even 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 about the house that I always heard 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)

 

A Tail for a Halloween Caturday

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. Many have moved on.

Some of them 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 Ernestine’s kitchen, on the north side of her house, is at least 80 feet from my den, 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 a couple times a year, for a few days in a row. It doesn’t bother me. I look forward to it. I smile when I catch a whiff of melted butter out of nowhere. It’s kind of comforting.

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 October day a couple years ago, 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. The bigger cats already enjoyed playing with him, though. They were amazingly gentle with the scrawny little fellow who wasn’t even one-eighth their size.

When I left home, Hank was in the den, purring 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.

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Disappearance

They haunt me, the ones who disappear. We meet a few times, and then they vanish. I half expect their pictures to show up on so many milk cartons: HAVE YOU SEEN US? CALL 1-800-ENG-1101.

Two, eight, sixteen years later, they still shuffle around the classroom of my mind. Was it an emergency? The syllabus? The circus? Addiction? Epiphany?

Maybe they remembered something that they’d tried to forget. Maybe they fled after an early round of Fail ‘Em All & Let God Sort ‘Em Out. Maybe it was a terminal case of the I-don’t-wannas, metastasizing through their transcripts like fire ant hills in a spring pasture. Or maybe—bound by need and love, by duty and blood—they turned back, toward home.

I’ll never know. But I think of them often, and pray they’re all right. Over the years and across the miles, I wish them patience, wisdom, and a chance to reappear.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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