R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Holidays (page 1 of 3)

A Late Grocery List

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

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

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

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

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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

2014-12-17 14.41.14

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Happy Thanksgiving 2016

GratitudeInStainedGlass_2014-11-27COPY 14.08.43-1

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Story for All Hallows’ Eve

gravestoneunknownunionsoldier001_10-30-2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He never woke up, and died the next morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom, is someone in the house?”

“Nobody but the cats. Why?”

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

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

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

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

“No. . .”

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Hillside Monday: 10/31/16

millermygoodluckcharm_copy02

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Tail for a Halloween Caturday

HankInWireBasket_COPY_2015-10-23_14.59.34-1

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

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

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

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

That’s when the smell showed up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Year of Hank

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

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

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

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

hank_guitar_copy_oct2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got a name for him?” Doc asked.

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

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

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

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

hankwithpaintingoct2016_copy_001

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)

 

Hillside Monday: 3/14/16

HopsackSunlightPlaid_COPY_2016-01-19_10

“Hopsack, Sunlight, Plaid”
LaGrange, Georgia – 19 January 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

“Most just don’t know it.”

“Rubygene, if you didn’t even like Mr. Davis, why go to his funeral?” She never did make any sense, and this time was no exception. “Just stay home. Be content to read his obituary, especially with the weather hot as it is.” The inside of the car was a furnace, even with the windows down. Hell is real. It’s an old Pontiac at noon in late July.

My great-aunt shifted her girdle around in the oven of the driver’s seat, steering the massive automobile with just her knees. Surely we would hurtle to our own deaths within a quarter-mile. “Myrtle Mae,” she snapped, “there are some things in life you just do, especially when you don’t want to do them. Besides,” she said as she inexplicably rolled up the window, “funerals are never for the dead. They’re for the living. What’s that sticking out of your pocketbook?”

“Nothing.” I eased a hand over to stuff the racing forms back into my purse. The tires on my side of the car made a fierce rock-slinging noise as they rolled off the pavement and onto the too-soft shoulder. “Watch where you’re going!”

She nudged the car back between the faded white lines and cut her eyes again to the floorboard. “Great day in the morning. Bringing the devil’s playthings into the house of God. You ought to be ashamed.” And I was ashamed, but not for the reasons she was hoping. So we baked on down the road to the Primitive Baptist church, which was no more air conditioned than that tank of a car. Foot-washing, tongue-speaking, grave-digging, and oven-roasting all in one day. I don’t care what your McGuffey Reader says: there is no fun in funeral.

In the worn, sandy churchyard, the old ladies’ cars pointed out like a Detroit starburst: grilles to the road, and fins either to the church, the parsonage, or the clubhouse. Seasoned funeral veterans, they were no fools—set that bad V-8 in Exodus Mode, and let the rear axle throw gravel as soon as the last handful of red clay scattered across the top of the vault. Rubygene did them one better. She parked the Catalina at the farthest edge of the yard, half on the velvety carpet of moss under the last oak tree, and half on the grassy strip alongside the black gravel-dust road. I had to admit it was a pretty good getaway position.

Rubygene shoved the shifter into Park, cut the motor, and swung open the heavy door. “Pull down that hem. Button that dress all the way up.” I did as she said, then grabbed my bag. “Oh no, Missy. There is not even a hint of gambling in the Lord’s abode.”

“Yes, Rubygene.” I stuffed my purse and what was left of my dignity under the front seat, then followed in her dusty footprints to the church steps.

The sanctuary was so full of floral offerings that, even outside in the churchyard, the smell of carnations hung thick in the air. They were “death flowers,” far as I was concerned. In the fourth grade, Otis Hardeman gave me a crumpled little bouquet of them for Valentine’s Day. I was giddy until third period elocution. That’s when Willie Ann Sprayberry pointed and laughed and said he snatched them out of his grandmama’s funeral wreath in the wee hours before the school bus careened down Butler Road to pick us all up. I loved Otis for six more years, but carnations and I were through. Now their sweetly numbing scent mixed with the tacky evergreens in the cemetery, swirled up my nose with the musty oil-soap perfume of the floor and pews. With all these smells, and with it being so hot, I just knew I would vomit by the last “Praise Jesus.”

Deep summer in Georgia means there is no reason for wearing sleeves, girdles, stockings, or dark colors. Yet here we were, in front of God and everybody, breaking every single one of these rules in the name of propriety, tradition, and good manners. Talk about a Lost Cause. Itching, sweating, soaking up every sunbeam, and not even enough sense to stand under the shade of the red oaks yawning out over the cinder-block picnic tables. After we signed the book and nodded to Mr. Wattles from the mortuary, Rubygene creaked on up the rickety front steps of the church. And her with that hat, good grief. It was black and iridescent green, made of moth-eaten felt and the rooster feathers she’d so carefully collected after the original plumes crumbled to dust. The color said “funeral.” The shape said “Phenix City whorehouse.”

Once we were in the door, Rubygene removed her now-sweaty black linen coat. “Had enough of this thing, now that we’re here…”

In the middle of the church, the red velvet-trimmed, red silk crepe number screamed louder than a Pentecostal party of twelve when Morrison’s runs out of dinner rolls. And sleeveless, when she made me wear this long-sleeved torture chamber of a dress. Right then, I swore to God and Rex Humbard that I would get her for this. But we had arrived so close to the start of the service that there was no time to plot my revenge.

The casket was still open. Miss Rainey, whose old maid piano teacher stylings underscored every funeral I had ever attended, wrapped up “He Touched Me” and segued into “Blessed Assurance.” Rubygene lurched up the aisle, dragging me along. Heads turned. Silk flowers practically vibrated atop Methodist and Southern Baptist hats. “But I don’t want to—”

“Didn’t nobody ask you what you want.” She scanned the congregation. “Come on. Let’s pay our respects.”

“Our respects? I didn’t even know the man.” This was the longest walk of my life. All these foot-washers staring us down, with their plain bare no-makeup faces and straight long hair and ankle-length skirts in this heat. Lord, if You’ll just get me out of this, I prayed silently, I will never ever ask You for anything ever again. Which naturally was a bold-faced lie, but good people do bad things under duress.

And there he lay.

Poor old Vote Davis. He was stretched out against the quilted powder-blue satin, as bald and waxy as ever, except now a sickly pale somewhere between buttermilk and pork brains. Heart attack, they said, but his face sure did have a shellacked, patched-together look. His wife must have hated him to let Wattles dress him in that double-knit number. The smell of carnations was extra-strong there at the casket. I felt my stomach heave, and turned to Rubygene.

But she was staring hard, straight ahead and down at the dead man. Maybe she was having another fit. Paw-Paw had warned me about this. Where did I put that syringe? She spoke with a growl, low like the rumble of far-off thunder across swampland.

“Well. It’s a pleasure to see you again, Vote. But this time, the pleasure is all mine.”

“Rubygene?” Oh, God. I had left my purse, and the syringe, in the car, stuffed under the seat with my racing forms.

“Eyes closed. Mouth closed, for once. Legs out straight. Arms by his sides. And his hands—” She craned her crumpled brown paper sack neck to see over into the casket. “Folded over his pecker. Of course.” Over on the piano, Miss Rainey trudged through “Blessed Assurance” a third time, waiting for us to get the hint. Yet my grandmother’s sister stood there, immovable as Moses before the Red Sea, and perhaps about to lift her own arms and work an obscene miracle here in the Primitive Baptist sanctuary. Lord, have mercy.

“They’re about to start! What are you doing?”

“Making sure he’s dead.”

Miss Rainey switched to “He Is Coming Again,” this time pianissimo to signal the start of the service. Someone made a half-coughing noise, and one of the deacons’ chairs groaned against the varnished floor. Rubygene sighed a loud, dramatic sigh and raised her voice so that even the old biddies in the back pew, with their near-dead hearing aid batteries, could listen in.

“I declare! He just looks so lifelike, as if he could set right up and sing along,” she said. “Poor, poor Vote. Gone before his time. He was a good one, yessir. Mighty, mighty, mighty good.” Her voice grew dry and cold at this last. Over the faltering piano strains, I could hear the whooshing rhythm of a hundred cardboard church fans speeding way, way up. In a normal world, I would be sitting in one of those musty pews, semi-cooling myself with one of those ugly fans. Suddenly, I missed Cardboard Paint-by-Number Jesus and His strangely blond hair so much I could cry.

Rubygene went on. “And he sure done a lot for this county. Laid a lot of pipe between here and Mobile. And Tupelo, and Columbia, and Memphis. Maybe not the smartest man, but good. Why, if you put his brain on the head of a match, it would roll around like a muscadine in a truck stop parking lot”—she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief—”bless his heart.” She spun us both around.

Inez Davis stood square behind us. Her boiling red face, almost as red as Rubygene’s dress, seemed as wide as the aisle. “Hussy. You brazen hussy.”

Rubygene said nothing. She kept her eyes locked with the beady little brown ones buried in the rolls of fat on Miss Inez’s face.

“How dare you disrespect my husband.” The woman’s face burned nearly crimson. “How dare—”

“How dare you defend him,” Rubygene said. “Of course, if you don’t know by now who he really was, you probably never will.”

“You whore!” Inez hissed. “Whore, whore, whore!”

“Never could quit talking about yourself, could you?”

Miss Inez dropped clean in the floor.

I can’t recall how we got back out in the churchyard. All I remember is seeing Inez Davis’s eyes slide up as if to look at her forehead, and four hundred pounds of Jesus freak roll out of my field of vision and into a puddle in the middle of the Primitive Baptist church. Bet they didn’t have that much excitement even at Revival. Before I knew it, we were back in the car. Rubygene was straightening her cathouse hat and draping the black linen coat over the seat so it wouldn’t wrinkle any more. She finally saw my face, and spoke.

“You all right? Sick to your stomach?”

“A little.” As with much of what had just happened, I wasn’t sure how true this was.

“We’ll have us a cold ginger ale when we get home.” She paused, looked over her shoulder at the commotion pouring forth onto the church steps, and frowned. “Remember when I said there are things you just do, especially when you don’t want to do them?”

I nodded.

“What you saw in there is a perfect example.”

“But—” My belly hurt so bad. “You’re not a—whore. You’re a decent woman. Whores have sex for money.”

Rubygene shook her head, rustling the defiant feathers that arched from her hat. “Every woman has had sex for money.” She turned the key in the narrow slot of the ignition. “Most just don’t know it.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first posted this piece on 14 February 2014. It appears here today with revisions.  With any luck, Myrtle Mae and Rubygene will soon return in a new scene.

 

Roadside Valentine No. 330

RoadsideValentine330_COPY2016_04Aug2012

Troup County, Georgia – 4 August 2012

One in a series of photos from “Roadside Valentine,” 14 February 2013.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Older posts

© 2017 R.S. Williams

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑