R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Songs My Father Barely Knew

On Returning from Maryland

As of 5:42 this morning, I was physically home from Maryland. Never have I cried so hard at a memorial service as I did on Tuesday, at my friend John “Mac” McNamara’s funeral. A thousand thanks to all of you who’ve helped me make this pilgrimage of sorrow, of loss, of gratitude, of goodbyes.

Despite having come there because of tremendous heartbreak, I did not want to leave Maryland. Emotionally, I’m still in College Park, Silver Spring, Annapolis. I can’t explain why. My intuition told me to stay: “Don’t go just yet. You’re not done here.” We shall see.

For the rest of my days, forever, I will be grateful to John. His kindness and encouragement literally saved my life on that March afternoon 16 years ago. When death felt like the only thing that would stop my suffering, John appeared almost out of nowhere to challenge that notion.

John was the first professional writer I ever met. He was the first person to take me seriously as a writer.  He was the first person to suggest I write about my father’s 1997 murder. Not only did I have a story, he said as he smacked his hand on the table for emphasis, but a story that I told as no one else could. He was the first person who meant it when he said I had talent. He was the first person who wanted me to understand, more than anything, that my stories were worth sharing with the world.

John’s words have buoyed me for almost two decades.

In the weeks since his murder, I’ve made almost no new photos. I’ve written hardly any new words. Words fail me, as does my sense of what makes a powerful image. At least I know this is normal. It’s how grief and trauma work.

But on the way to Maryland, at the Virginia state line rest stop, I did finally snap an image that fits the entire trip. Next to the sidewalk, this dead butterfly lay beautiful and broken—for no apparent reason. I saw it and sobbed like a little kid.

Dearest Johnny Mac:
Thank you, sweet friend.
You are the reason I am still here.
You are the reason I am still telling my stories.
I will miss you forever.
I will see you on the other side.
And when I see you, I expect you to roast me (again) for being a Celtics fan.

Always your friend,
Rachael

 

For John

My friend, sportswriter and editor John “Mac” McNamara, was one of the five newspaper employees killed on June 28 in Annapolis, Maryland. He was 56.

When we met, I was living with friends in Atlanta. Depressed and broke, I had a dead-end cocktail waitress job at a Midtown bar. The long hours and the daily parade of new faces took the edge off the misery of almost, but not quite, making ends meet.

John was in Atlanta covering the University of Maryland Terrapins’ appearance in the 2002 NCAA Men’s Final Four. He stopped in for a burger before heading out to that evening’s game. It was a strangely slow afternoon, despite the Division I college sports tournament happening a few blocks away. In that cavernous bar, John was my only customer.

Which turned out just fine, since he was one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Not many of us can carry on a lively, intelligent conversation about literature, college and pro hoops, music, and journalism with someone they’ve just met—oh, and while they’re at it, also be funny as hell. But that was John.

He wound up spending maybe four or five hours at my bar. We talked the entire time, with me getting up now and then to check on my three other customers, or to pour him a fresh beer from the tap. When he left, he gave me his card and some parting wisdom.

I had a storyteller’s gift, John said. He hoped I’d write about my dad one day—that I’d tell the story of Daddy’s 1997 murder and the bizarre aftermath. “What happened to your father is horrible. It’s worse than heartbreaking. But you make it compelling. That’s a gift. Not everybody has it, but you do. If you ever decide to write about it, Rachael, I’d love to read it.”

Please forgive me, Johnny Mac.
Your words have kept me afloat like no others.

I had meant to finish the book before now.
So you could read it.
So you could see your name in the acknowledgements.
I’m so, so sorry.

For those of you looking to help or pay tribute to John, Rob, Wendi, Gerald, and Rebecca, the owner of the Annapolis Capital has set up a fund. The proceeds will help with funerals and other expenses, hospital bills, scholarships for victims’ kids, help for surviving coworkers as they recover, and so on. Another fundraiser for victims’ families, set up by a D.C.-area journalist, has raised double its original goal in just three days.

Although I met him just once, John McNamara’s kindness and sincere encouragement have stuck with me for almost two decades. For the rest of my days, I will remember him with gratitude—and with love.

Photo of John “Mac” McNamara via The Annapolis Capital
Post text: © R.S. Williams

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

Biohazard

Before they were his, they were hide.

Before the goatskin was stripped of flesh, bone, sinew, it cinched fur in follicle, held together bone, gut, muscle, bile. Three square feet of full-grain hide would one day protect my father’s hands from the hot corrosive black-and-clear liquid inside electrician’s splice packets; from the powder-blue edges of just-sawn three-inch Schedule 40 PVC pipe; from the slow and subtle and inevitable hardening of hands that work in dirt.

No matter how I open the drawer, I’m never fast enough. I still see them. Behind the artfully arranged failure of a dozen jumbled mementos, they wait in the bottom of the dresser, curled as always. Dusty green mildew wraps them in frosty fuzz and a sharp, tangy-bitter smell. They remain in the battered plastic biohazard bag where the homicide investigators carefully placed them.

The evidence from a death.

The detritus from a life.

My father’s final work gloves lie in the drawer corner, bent and shriveled as if immolated. Dark, stiff, foreboding, they put on an obscene mime show of his hands as they clamped the backhoe steering wheel—the backhoe steering wheel behind which he sat for hours missing the back half of his skull while the crime scene crew processed the evidence, surveyed the damage wrought far beyond the sprinkler heads and backfill going in at the 12th tee. Once light tan, the leather slowly turned dark with each successive layer of Lowcountry dirt, of peat and brackish bog, of cattail and swamp water, of sweat, of blood.

Blood.

That’s the other smell—twenty-one years on, still spattered along the cuffs.

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Song in the Key of Why

songinthekeyofwhy_copy02_2015-11-18

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

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

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

I don’t know why I kept the key.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Haiku for My Father, Buried 19 Years Ago Today

I asked my father
for a sign, in a dream. He
said: “That boy ain’t shit.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Biohazard

NewtWilliamsGloves_COPY_15Jan2014

Before they were his, they were hide.

Before the goatskin was stripped of flesh, bone, sinew, it cinched fur in follicle, held together bone, gut, muscle, bile. Three square feet of full-grain hide would one day protect my father’s hands from the hot corrosive black-and-clear liquid inside electrician’s splice packets; from the powder-blue edges of just-sawn three-inch Schedule 40 PVC pipe; from the slow and subtle and inevitable hardening of hands that work in dirt.

No matter how I open the drawer, I’m never fast enough. I still see them. Behind the artfully arranged failure of a dozen jumbled mementos, they wait in the bottom of the dresser, curled as always. Dusty green mildew wraps them in frosty fuzz and a sharp, tangy-bitter smell. They remain in the battered plastic biohazard bag where the homicide investigators carefully placed them.

The evidence from a death.
The detritus from a life.

My father’s final work gloves lie in the drawer corner, bent and shriveled as if immolated. Dark, stiff, foreboding, they put on an obscene mime show of his hands as they clamped the backhoe steering wheel—the backhoe steering wheel behind which he sat for hours missing the back half of his skull while the crime scene crew processed the evidence, surveyed the damage wrought far beyond the sprinkler heads and backfill going in at the 12th tee. Once light tan, the leather slowly turned dark with each successive layer of Lowcountry dirt, of peat and brackish bog, of cattail and swamp water, of sweat, of blood.

Blood.
That’s the other smell—seventeen years on, still spattered along the cuffs.

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Songs My Father Barely Knew

DaddyAndValOnMotorcycle_RandolphCountyAL_LateSept1979

My father was many things: a farm kid, a country boy, a ditch-digger, a quick study who hated school, an automotive repair genius, a Vietnam veteran, 5’7” and 155 pounds on a good day. Newt Williams was a Southerner, a capital-R Redneck, a loyal brother, a dutiful son, a proud parent. But he was not a singer.

For nearly two decades, my mother said he “couldn’t carry a tune.” That was just the divorce talking. Daddy could hear and repeat notes. He had a clear, confident tenor voice and a strong sense of rhythm. The problem was that he could never recall more than a few lines of any song. Textual memorization never did fit into his hands-on world. “Happy Birthday” was probably the number he knew best—but even then, he still sometimes faltered. He had to hear a tune scores of times before it would burn into his brain. Only then could he remember enough to sing a few lines.

And sing a few lines, he did. Daddy was always singing: at 5:30 AM under the weird orange glow of the bathroom heat lamp; while cranking open a family-sized can of Dinty Moore; while tearing kudzu out of the azaleas that grew between the clothesline and the outhouse. He sang while barreling down Interstate 20 in a worn-out station wagon he never could completely rid of Lowcountry dirt; while inspecting a broken vacuum cleaner; while cheering us up or calming us down.

My father sang from behind his safety helmet in the skin-scalding light of the arc welder. He sang from the back of a lowboy trailer as he tied down machinery with chains weighing as much as he did. He sang from a dinky motel room in Charleston as he and his brother planned their construction equipment exodus under the looming violence of Hurricane Hugo. He sang while sweating clean through his work uniform in hateful South Carolina heat, and while waist-deep in brackish, evil-colored water as his crew installed a drain culvert. He sang while picking up the day’s seventh load of three-inch Schedule 40 PVC pipe, and while accidentally reversing the tractor clutch pressure plate on which he had just spent $200 and a trip into town.

Not knowing what was to come for himself or for any of us, Daddy belted out his three or four chosen lines no matter what. Chances are he sang a few bars of something as he drove to the job site the morning my uncle shot him twice in the back of the head at point-blank range.

DaddyInPumpStation_MyrtleBeachSC_July1989

Daddy may have burst into song wherever and whenever the urge struck, but he was particular about his audience. He sang to my sister and me, to our mother before they split, to our stepmother and step-siblings, and to our cousins—but not to his own friends or siblings. His songs were for those closest to him, and conveyed the love that his words usually did not.

His catalogue, too, spoke volumes about his life and times, which often brimmed with bewildering loss and deep regret. His setlist included hard country singers such as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Waylon Jennings. “Countrypolitan” and the Nashville sound, à la Jim Reeves and Charlie Rich, showed up now and again. Movie musicals, 1980s pop hits, Christmas classics, one-off novelty tunes, and most everything Elvis were in there, too. If a particular medley appeared in our school marching band’s show one season, Daddy would add a couple of those numbers to the rotation. Gospel standards also sneaked into his repertoire. This made sense for a man who, every trip home, attended his elderly mother’s tiny, nearly dead Methodist circuit church in the hope that one day he might finally let himself believe the unbelievable.

Though I have not heard his voice in nearly seventeen years, the songs my father barely knew still comfort me. As I stand in line at the drugstore, Glen Campbell’s voice on the PA melds into Daddy’s: “I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main roads…” As I stare into the lunchmeat case at the grocery store, the “oooh-wah-aaaaah” of Huey Lewis & the News’ “Stuck with You” startles me into tears. Fragments of hooks and choruses in pedestrian locations ambush me with reminders of my father. The melodies and words coalesce into a musical Morse code from beyond: I’m proud of you. You can make it. You know what you’re doing.  

DaddyAndRachael_RockMillsAL_LateSept1975

But I do not know what I am doing. I have never written publicly about my father. I have no idea what shape these posts will take, or even how often I will be able to post them. Some of the “Daddy songs” I remember may be wrong. What if I mistake one I heard on television for one of his numbers? What if my words cannot adequately convey the beauty, hurt, and longing behind the lyrics?

What if, what if, what if?

Three years ago, immersed in crises, I visited my father’s grave in Heard County, Georgia, for just the third time. With a heart freshly seared by the brand of absolute and undeniable professional failure, I lay on the red earth and poured out my sorrow. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m a disappointment. I tried so hard, but I really am a loser. It’s stupid to pretend I’m anything else. You said I had potential, but I don’t. I just don’t.” I could hardly breathe for the crushing sadness. “And nothing I do is going to fix things—not now. Not ever. I’m so sorry, Daddy.”

The next night, I dreamed I was trying to cross the raging torrent that Little Wehadkee Creek—my favorite Alabama childhood swimming hole—had become after an epic storm. Beneath a brutal and massive concrete overpass, the Little Wehadkee rushed through the culverts at levels far above flood stage. The roar of the near-white water so filled my ears that I could not even hear my own screams. Knowing I would drown whether I remained onshore or attempted to cross, I froze at the water’s edge. Trees, cars, homes, and children’s stuffed toys swept helplessly past.

While alive, Daddy adamantly refused to believe in an afterlife, which made his presence in this dream even more bizarre. Suddenly, there he was, dressed as always in brown long-sleeved Dickies, lug-soled boots caked with mud, sunglasses and welder’s soapstone pencil sticking out of his shirt pocket. Without warning or explanation, he grabbed my arm and bounded across the first roaring channel, pulling me shrieking along with him.

In single bounds, together we broad-jumped twelve, fifteen, twenty feet at a time, barely getting our toes wet as the water eddied below us. Crossing the wider parts of the floodwaters, we sometimes rested on low concrete pillars that appeared in the middle of the rushing water. Then we sprang high and safely to the next foothold.

The last swirling section reached at least fifty yards beyond our perch. On the other side, I could see dry land and people huddling together. But there were no pillars in this part of the flooded creek—no, nothing but more terrifying, churning water waiting to suck me under for good. I looked again to my father. “Daddy, this one’s too—”

Hands on hips, standing motionless, he surveyed the waters. After a moment, he waved me away with the same gesture he used to send me back to the stockpile for another case of pipe gaskets. “Tell you what—you go on ahead. You’ll be all right. You know what you’re doing.”

A lump of squall rose in my throat. My feet seemed to grow roots where I stood. But with a strange calm and patience that I rarely saw when he was alive, Daddy motioned again in the direction of the far shore. “Now get on over yonder. Go on! Anything happens, I’ll be right here.”

Before I knew it, I leapt. Suddenly, I found myself safely on the other side, yards away from where I began, high above the water. Daddy, by that point a tiny figure far out of shouting range, became a speck, and then vanished completely.

With that dream in mind, I begin.

I am not sure how frequent (or good) this post series will be. I am not sure which songs to write about first. Still, the stories from a life ended too soon plead with me to try and make sense of convoluted scenes and thwarted dreams. I write knowing that even as I am compelled to share my father’s life through the songs he sang, I risk running off the ghost. I risk chasing away this ghost that shadows my dreams and my waking hours, that haunts and harrows me, that keeps me ever-vigilant, that makes me laugh.

In sharing my father’s favorite tunes, I may banish his ghost forever. I may inadvertently put it to rest. If and when it disappears, it will take with it the last recollections I have of him—not mawkish, maudlin old things remembered, but ragged scraps of an increasingly distant past. A past I wish were so very different.

Gravestone_HenryNewtonWilliamsIII_06-13-2013

I write my father’s story in song in spite of—and because of—all this. I have to. Maybe, through a moth-eaten patchwork of obscure lyrics and dissipating memories, I can tell my father’s story as unflinchingly as possible. Not to write it down would be an unpardonable sin: the sin of ignoring what I am called to do.

As Daddy often said, “I’m fixing to do something, even if it’s wrong.”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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