R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Holidays (page 1 of 2)

A New Holiday Essay, in Columbus & the Valley Magazine!

Many thanks to Jill Tignor and Mike Venable of Columbus & the Valley Magazine for publishing my new essay, “A Perfumed Christmas.” As someone who doesn’t have many happy holiday memories from childhood, I find it impossible to write about this time of the year. My creative powers mostly shut down between early November and early February.

Jill knows this about me. Yet it still didn’t keep her from asking me to send her and Mike an essay for their November/December 2018 issue. Just when I was thinking my writing ideas had dried up for the winter, the idea for this piece came to me while I waited in the Kroger checkout line. Glory!

“A Perfumed Christmas” appears on page 14, and is available both online and in print around the Columbus, Georgia, area.  To order a print copy, send an email to contactus@columbusandthevalley.com. And, while you’re at it, join me and subscribe! One year of beautiful, glossy photos and news from Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley area costs just $18. It’s money very, very well spent.

Thank you again, Jill and Mike, for believing in me and my work. Y’all are the best.

Post text © R.S. Williams
Cover image: Courtesy of Columbus & the Valley Magazine

 

Caturday: 11/24/18

“Me and My Grand Marnier”
LaGrange, Georgia – 2015
Model: Nooz

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Thanksgiving 2018

“Mom in the Woods, Thanksgiving Day”
Heard County, Georgia – 2014

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

This Holiday Season, Be Kind to Yourself

Here’s a revised version of a piece I wrote last year on surviving the holiday season.

It’s two days before Thanksgiving, and my social media news feeds are full of holiday stories. Scores of people tell of the frantic cooking, cleaning, packing, traveling, and visiting they’ll be 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 be gentle with yourself as you navigate this difficult time of the year. You’re in good company.

If and when you feel horrible this season, know that I’m right there with you. We’re all in this together, surviving the holidays a little at a time.

Photo: Self-Portrait in Black, Rabun Gap (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 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)

 

Last Day of School, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Tale for Mother’s Day

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom stared down at him. “Excuse me?”

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

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

“In homeroom. Last week.”

“From?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re kidding.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

New piece in Columbus and the Valley Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

Wherever Someone’s in Need

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

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

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Buy some art for Mother’s Day

Yes! You can buy my artwork! For whatever occasion you like.

We’re three weeks away from Mother’s Day. If you’d like to place an order with me, do so ASAP. Most prints take about a week to come in from the lab. After that, it’s another 2-4 days in transit from my house to the customer.

Here’s the link to my Etsy shop. Even if you’re not in the market to buy art, stop by anyway and give it a look.

And, as always, thank you!

Happy Easter 2018

“Easter Hat with Methodist Clubhouse Door”
Glenn, Georgia – 3 April 2015

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Friday Photo: 3/30/18

“Church Sign, Centralhatchee”
Heard County, Georgia – 24 February 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Caturday: 3/17/18

“No Time for This Foolishness”
LaGrange, Georgia – 11 August 2016
Model: Nooz

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 3/14/18

“Tulle, Glorious Tulle”
Columbus, Georgia – 4 January 2016

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Happy birthday, Steve!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday, Seeben! I love you!

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 2/14/18

“Pink Heart in the Gutter”
LaGrange, Georgia – 17 February 2017

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

No Questions

When she heard the familiar squeaky fan belt out in the yard, Eula had already peeled off girdle and slip and was walking about in her gown-tails. Eight-thirty was no time for visitors, least of all those who didn’t even have the decency to call ahead. She stepped to the door, gathering her summer housecoat around her waist. Damned if she’d put on a clean dress this late in the evening.

As he swung his legs out of the car, Corvus saw her shadow behind the weathered screen, and grinned. Eula did not. She grasped the solid comfort of the steel pipe that she always kept behind the wide front door, and spoke without a greeting.

“Your letter said you didn’t want folks to know. Said you didn’t want to have to answer any questions about who you been courtin’.” The cool, smooth pine beneath her feet reminded her just how awake she was. “So, no, I didn’t stop or speak yesterday when you saw me on the square. I thought I’d wait. Maybe see what you’re made of.”

He warmed all over. She would be his again in a matter of minutes. “What am I made of?”

“Oh, the usual. Snakes, snails. A few puppy-dog tails. But mostly chicken shit.”

His broad, tan face turned coleslaw-pale.

She smiled. Her words had hit their mark—bull’s-eye. “No questions: that’s what you wanted. Now you got it.”

Eula stared into his icy blue right eye, the good one. Too bad she couldn’t gouge it out, grip the living jelly with her fingers, leave him screaming as she snatched the bloody orb from its socket. Maybe she’d keep it in her purse for her very own good luck charm. Maybe she’d tote it to work, send the Davis brats shrieking with the dried grayish-blue lump, and for once hang their mama’s drawers on the line in peace. Knowing that his eyeball dangled from her key chain would hurt him far worse than blindness.

“Get out of my yard.”

He took a shaky step and set his mind to the screen door handle. Pulling it open would take strength he wasn’t sure he had. “Eula, I didn’t—people were just—”

“I said: Get out of my yard.”

In the wide front seat of the Pontiac lay an armful of tiger lilies and Queen Anne’s lace, her favorite flowers. He’d picked them in a ditch outside Eckersley. Next to them sat a deluxe box of the cordial cherries she loved, the ones that made her kisses even sweeter. His voice wavered in a way neither of them had ever heard. “Please, Eula. I—I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I—well. All that’s in the past. Let’s make up.”

“Let’s make up. Just like that?” She snapped thumb and forefinger to emphasize this last.

“I know. It’s been a while. But I had to let it all die down. Had to lay low.”

“Lay low for what? Two years ago, you were ready to tell everyone.” Eula wiped the sweat that beaded her brow. “The world’s changed, you said. Didn’t matter that I’m colored, you said. But then you ran for office.”

“You’re not colored, baby—not enough for it to matter. C’mon.”

“Not enough for it to matter?” Fury rose from her soles clear to the top of her head, clean and cold and pure. “Show your face around here again, and I will lay you bare.”

He stood as if his hip might be welded to the car. His eyes widened. For a split second, he resembled a forlorn hood ornament.

Eula straightened herself against the edge of the door. “Surrounded yourself with yes-men and crooks. They’ve got you believing your own piddling little press releases. But step out past that courthouse a ways. Ask around. Nobody in this county is a big enough fool to believe you anymore.” She wiped her brow again with one cherry-print housecoat sleeve. “God knows I used to be.”

He buckled slightly at the knees. At least he could lean against the fender, play it off a little, while he squinted at her through the house plants lined up against the screen. “Aww, you know me. I just like to stay off the gossip circuit.”

For a moment, she thought she would never stop laughing. “‘Stay off the gossip circuit!’ Oh, now that is precious. I’m gonna use that one.” She shook her head. “Corvus Eugene Watson, you are County Commissioner. You’re on the gossip circuit whether you want to be or not.”

“And what your yes-men have failed to tell you,” she continued, “is that it’s the way you treat the people at the edge of your world that’s so important. It’s how you treat people like me—people you use and throw away once you get what you want from them—that keeps the gossip circuit running. How you conduct yourself with those who can do the least for you—that, Mister Commissioner, is what they will always, always talk about.”

In the evening light, the mighty red oaks stretched mute and watchful over the sandy, clean-swept yard. Eula saw his proud figure turn shabby and wounded. His pant cuffs made sad blue seersucker poufs atop his dirty brogans. The ribbon bow tie hung in jaunty, defeated loops. Even the expensive Stetson on his head was soaked clean through with flop sweat and reckoning.

He was trying, and failing. “Please, Eula. Please.” His mouth bent at one corner.

In the loam-scented shadows of the porch, she closed her eyes, forced her thoughts back to the cold galvanized steel in her hand. “I haven’t hit a man in fourteen years. Don’t make this the day I break my streak.”

Corvus turned so she couldn’t watch his face crumple. He slid back into the Bonneville, fired it up, and was gone.

She let the pipe fall ringing behind the door, and steadied herself—she’d forgotten to breathe. Inhaling big, she stepped onto the porch and watched the dust cloud at the mailbox swirl, swirl, swirl, then settle. At the edge of the yard, Hyatt stood before the boxwood hedge, his redbone hound leg raised in urinary bliss. He hadn’t so much as whimpered when Corvus pulled up. Sorry-ass dog.

Once she was in her favorite chair, she realized she could not stop shaking. She fumbled in the half-empty tissue box for an emergency cigarette. No, she would never, never have struck that man. Or would she?

Her fingers answered her question and refused to work. Both lighter and pack clattered onto the porch floorboards. Across the road, the last magenta remnants of daylight flared, then dimmed, just beyond the hog pen where the sows already lay dreaming.

Until it was time to go to bed, Eula just sat there, and sobbed, and wished it wasn’t so goddamn hard to hate and love at the same time.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Roadside Valentine No. 330

Troup County, Georgia – 4 August 2012
One in a series of photos from “Roadside Valentine,” 14 February 2013.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wishing You a Happy 2018

“Turquoise Leap”
Denver, Colorado – 10 August 2014

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Goodbye, 2017

“Stars All Along the Way”
Pine Mountain, Georgia – 7 December 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

New Year, Same Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RSW

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Merry Christmas 2017

“Bright Lights against the Pines”
Heard County, Georgia – 6 December 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Happy Christmas Eve 2017

“A Lesser-Known Christmas Vigil”
Waffle House #646
LaGrange, Georgia – 13 December 2014

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Caturday: 12/23/17

How does Nooz deal with a house full of Caturday-before-Christmas guests? The same way everyone else does: Bourbon.

© 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)

 

Caturday: 11/25/17

Is your house full of Thanksgiving Caturday guests still hanging around? Deal with them the same way Nooz does: by drinking top-shelf liquor.

“Me and My Grand Marnier”
LaGrange, Georgia – November 2015
Model: Nooz

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Happy Thanksgiving 2017

MomAtThanksgiving2014_COPY

“Mom in the Woods, Thanksgiving Day”
Heard County, Georgia – 27 November 2014

© 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)

For Veterans’ Day

“Leaf Ghost, 173d Airborne Memorial”
Fort Benning, Georgia – 9 October 2015

© 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)

 

Two Years of Hank

Two years ago yesterday, 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.

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. He  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, maybe three, days left.”

“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. 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.

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 two years ago, before it was too late. And I’m forever grateful to be his forever person.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: This post is an update of the one I published on 20 October 2016.

 

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)

 

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)

 

Friday Photo: 4/14/17

“Church Sign, Centralhatchee”
Heard County, Georgia – 24 February 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Hillside Monday: 2/27/17

“Saint Francis Goes to Mardi Gras”
LaGrange, Georgia – 28 April 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Friday Photo: 12/23/16

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“A Lesser-Known Christmas Vigil”
Waffle House #646
LaGrange, Georgia – 13 December 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Happy Thanksgiving 2016

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“Gratitude in Stained Glass”
Heard County, Georgia – 27 November 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Story for All Hallows’ Eve

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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)

 

Hillside Monday: 10/31/16

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“Miller, My Good-Luck Charm”
LaGrange, Georgia – 7 September 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Tail for a Halloween Caturday

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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)

 

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.

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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)

 

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)

 

Hillside Monday: 9/12/16

SilkTreeAndSkyLincolnStreet_COPY_2014-07-05

“Silk Tree and Sky, Lincoln Street”
LaGrange, Georgia – 5 July 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Looking East from My Father’s Grave

LookingEastFromMyFathersGrave_COPY_2015-04-03

Heard County, Georgia – 3 April 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

There’s More Than One King at Graceland

TheresMoreThanOneKingAtGraceland_COPY_2013-07-25_15

Presley Family Grave Site
Graceland (Memphis, Tennessee) – 23 July 2013

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Church Sign, Centralhatchee

ChurchSignCentralhatchee_COPY_2016-02-24_11

Heard County, Georgia – 24 February 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Luck of the Groundcovers

Clover and Other Common Groundcovers, LaGrange, Georgia (8 March 2012)

LaGrange, Georgia – 8 March 2012

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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