R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: In Memoriam (page 1 of 5)

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.

 

Friday Photo: 10/20/17

“Factory Windows No. 1”
Newnan, Georgia – 3 August 2017

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Things I Have Overheard at Funerals

Note: All identifying details have been changed.

B:  Who’s that talking up there now?
A:  You don’t recognize her?
B:  Uh-uh.
A:  That’s Barbara.
B:  Barbara?
A:  Larry’s first wife. 
B:  No way!
C:  Yep, that’s her. 
B:  Damn. She sure has aged.
C:  More like “put on 50 pounds.”

*******

PASTOR:  So she asked that everyone gather at the graveside, family and friends, and everyone who wanted to could stand up and say one thing about her, good OR bad…
C:  Aww, that’s sweet.
B:  No, it ain’t.
C:  Why not?
B:  [points] Well, first up is J_____, with A______ in the on-deck circle…
A:  Shit. We’re gonna be here all day.

*******

A:  Your grandma just looooved to talk.
B:  Yep. So it’s fittin’ how she died: eyes closed, mouth open.

*******

A:  When your mama and daddy pass on, what’s your brother gonna do?
B:  Without.

© 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)

 

Friday Photo: 5/26/17

“Handed Down in Stone”
Heard County, Georgia – 7 February 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Friday Photo: 4/28/17

“I Can’t Be a Pessimist, Because I’m Alive”
Denver, Colorado – 27 February 2017

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

In a Churchyard at Dusk

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“In a Churchyard at Dusk”
Heard County, Georgia – 7 February 2015

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Song in the Key of Why

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Fifteen years have passed since I jiggled open the always-half-sticky lock. Fifteen years since the old hatchback Mustang and I left clouds of black gravel dust behind us as we raced out around the driveway curve where the tulip poplars crowded together. Fifteen years since I gathered the last of my old furniture into a big boxy truck and, sobbing, walked that last Via Dolorosa out across the threshold.

Never again will I trudge up the twelve steep steps from the car to the front deck. Never again will I narrowly miss ramming the whiskey-barrel-bound banana tree that nobody could convince to bear fruit. Never again will I scuff the battleship-blank two-by-fours under my shoes. Never again will I notice how that expressionless gray is peeling off in long shoddy strips because of the late-December-freezing-rain-why-bother-with-primer paint job I gave it three Christmases before our lives broke forever into a thousand splintered shards.

Never again will I pray that nobody remembered to set the burglar alarm. Never again will I dread the questions on the other side of the door. Never again will I wonder why I bothered coming back at all.

I don’t know why I kept the key.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Hillside Monday: 11/21/16

IfMarvoleneAintHappyAintNobodyHappy_COPY_2014-05-21_10.44.40

“If Marvolene Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy”
LaGrange, Georgia – 21 May 2014

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Ray & Dot, February 1970

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When I browse old family photos, sometimes I see faces I don’t recognize. On occasion, the context reveals who they are: Oh yeah, that’s So-and-So’s friend from Scouts. See the t-shirt? 

Mostly, though, I cannot identify these people from the clues in the image. Their pictures often include no descriptive caption on the back, or perhaps a brief, unhelpful scrawl. In the washboard-rough dirt road of images in this forty-five-year-old photo album, these photos are mud holes. They are in here for some reason that I cannot figure out. I cannot help splashing through them again and again.

On the back of this picture, in Palmer-Method-plus-a-lifetime cursive, someone wrote “Ray & Dot.” And that’s all. I do not recognize their faces. In all my years of eavesdropping on grown-up conversations, I do not recall my grandparents, or their many friends, ever mentioning anybody named Ray or Dot.

As was the Kodak 110 photo lab custom of the time, the white border is stamped “FEB 70,” to denote the image was processed and printed in February 1970. No telling whether the photo was taken in February 1970. If the photographer was like many amateur family snapshotters back then, the film could’ve been exposed for months or even years before she or he finally thought to get it developed. The right edge has been cut away at a scissors-in-the-right-hand angle.

I showed the photo to my mother and my sister. Neither recognized the faces or names. The setting, though, looked familiar to Mom. “They might be at the old Rock Mills Cemetery, where Mildred’s folks are buried. Who in the family died in February 1970?” Nobody that I could think of, right off. I suggested to Mom that the background could also be the cemetery behind Paran Baptist Church, an eighth of a mile from the Georgia line on Alabama Highway 22. “Yep. Could be Paran. And it could be the big cemetery in Roanoke, too.” She sipped her coffee.  “But I still have no idea who these people are.”

Ray and Dot are dressed in fashionable clothing for the late 1960s and early 1970s, and are pretty stylish for people who look to have been about twenty years older than my grandparents. Dot’s long-sleeved, high-necked green dress and brown purse suggest fall: cooler weather, but not quite coat season. The green dress also tells me this occasion was not a funeral, as does Ray’s rumpled light tan suit. A church homecoming, perhaps? Dot’s corsage indicates she was someone special at this gathering.

While Ray squints into the sun at the camera, Dot turns toward him and smiles broadly, as if anticipating the funny remark he’s on the edge of making now that somebody’s taking his picture for the hundredth time today. Do they know the dark-suited fellow in the background who’s strolling off into the cemetery? Are they about to hop into that big brown Chevy and rumble down narrow two-lane roads to their house? Are they married? To one another?

I cannot answer any of these questions. Chances are that I never will. Just the same, forty-five years after someone froze this moment onto light-sensitive paper, I keep Ray and Dot in my photo album—and in my heart.

“Ray & Dot, February 1970” – original photographer unknown
© 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)

 

After the Harvest

Ten thousand starlings cover the orchard floor—a green-purple-bronze carpet delivered six weeks too late. Pecan branches arch in rough cathedral peaks against the weeping sky. Muddy footprints fill with broken hulls, with lost feathers, with rain.

None of this brings you back.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Marginalia

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

Off we went.
And oh, how we danced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A 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)

 

Dr. Parker’s Gardenias

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When I was a baby, my parents rented a tiny house trailer in Randolph County, Alabama. Their elderly landlord was a retired country doctor. Dr. James Parker* and his wife, Opal*, passed their days tending to their legendary vegetable and flower gardens. Born in the late 1890s, they also shared with my mother many stories from their childhoods.

One thick summer evening, sitting on the Parkers’ front porch, Mom complimented Miss Opal on the waxy, heaven-scented white flowers blooming at the very edge of her yard. “Your gardenias are amazing. Would it be all right if I cut a few to put in a vase?”

“Help yourself,” Miss Opal said. “I can’t stand gardenias. James loves them. I told him if he just had to have them, he needed to plant them as far away from the house as he could.”

This was a new one for Mom. “How come you don’t like gardenias?”

“They remind me of my Uncle Bert*.” Miss Opal looked across the lawn at the hundred-foot row of waist-high, glossy-green-leaved shrubs that separated her yard from the overgrown pasture next door. She sighed, and turned back to Mom.

“Uncle Bert was Mama’s youngest brother. He left for Oklahoma when I was a child—thought he’d try farming out there, where it’s flat and you can see for miles and miles. One day, he was fixing a barbwire fence when a bad storm came up. He didn’t worry, though. The storm was still a good way off. He’d figured he’d patch that fence, get on his mule, and beat the rain back to the house.” She paused. “He didn’t count on the lightning.”

“The lightning?”

Miss Opal nodded sadly. “Lightning struck about a mile away. The charge traveled all the way up the fence to where Uncle Bert had his hands on it. Killed both him and the mule.”

“My God!”

“Even worse,” Miss Opal continued, “was that he had told his wife he wanted to be buried back home, in Alabama. And he died in late June.”

She closed her eyes. “The funeral was open-casket, even though we could barely recognize him. There was this big old burned streak down his face, down into his shirt collar and, I reckon, the whole length of his body.” Miss Opal shuddered. “Took the train eight days to get here from Oklahoma City. His wife didn’t have the money to have him embalmed.  With all that time passing, and the summer heat, by the day of the funeral—Lord, have mercy. They had that church full of gardenias to cover up the smell. It didn’t work.”

“To this day, every time I catch even a little whiff of the blasted things, all I can smell is sickly sweetness—just overpowering summer and perfume and death. I see Uncle Bert again, all burned and purplish-black there in the casket. And I just about faint.” Miss Opal pointed toward the edge of the yard. “And that’s why I made James plant his gardenias way out there.”

*Note: All names have been changed. 

Photo: “Gardenia Ghost No. 2” (LaGrange, Georgia – 6 June 2016)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Gardenia Ghost

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LaGrange, Georgia – 6 June 2016

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Joy, to the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,
Mama

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Lusee, Our Fluffy Girl

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

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

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

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

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

We miss Lusee every day.

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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