R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Throwback Thursday (page 1 of 2)

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)

 

Snapshot from a Truck Driver’s Life

OTR (over-the-road, also called “long haul” or “nationwide”) truck drivers are expert travel planners. They can figure out the fastest, most direct way to get from Point A to Point B—and sometimes Point C to Point D and back again to Point A. They also know how long each leg of the trip will take, and whether they have enough hours left in their daily driving allowance to make the delivery on time, safely, and legally.

OTR truck drivers also know what kind of construction delays, confusing detours, rest stations, burger joints, and truck stops lie along their routes. This is thanks to the humble CB radio. In spite of its practical origins and relatively low-tech equipment, the CB remains important for truck drivers. In some ways, it is the trucker’s internet.

After all, you can’t simultaneously check Facebook and downshift through 15 gears coming into the I-10/I-610 interchange in Houston. (Not if you want to live, anyway.) The CB radio was social networking long before Mark Zuckerberg arrived. And where else can you find a real-time, almost-in-person restaurant recommendation? “Y’all, there’s this country buffet on US 431, south of Roanoke, Alabama. If you come through there, pull over. I like to have split my damn pants, I ate so much.”

Generally, truck drivers also know how long they’ll be away from home. As a result, they tend to be masters of strategic suitcase packing. They know just how many pairs of clean underwear and socks to bring along, and how many changes of clothes they’ll need. Just like many tourist guides suggest for civilians, OTR truckers will “recycle” an outfit or a pair of jeans if the items aren’t yet so dirty they can stand up and walk all by themselves. And they make great use of those month-at-a-glance medication containers, too. When you know you’ll be away from home for at least three weeks, you make sure to take a full supply of pills with you.

Sometimes, though, drivers’ schedules get screwed up, and they end up staying out longer than either their stash of clean clothes or their medications will last. In the case of the former, many truck stops and company depots have laundry facilities, with detergent packets in wall-mounted vending machines just like you see at the laundromat. In the case of the latter, drivers have several options:

1) Stay out a couple more days and do their best to cope without it until they can get home;
2) Find a CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, or other pharmacy and stop in for an emergency refill; or
3) Ask the company dispatcher to route them close to home so a family member can meet them somewhere with the medication.

My stepfather, Steve, generally chooses the third option when he has more days than pills left in his Pill Minder. He had the good fortune to get a West Coast run, loaded both ways; truckers are generally paid only for “loaded miles,” or miles driven with something loaded into the trailer at Point A that will be delivered at Point B. That’s a juicy paycheck, once you add regular short runs to 5,600 loaded miles. Although it would mean his being out for several more days, Steve said “hell yes” and pointed the truck westward. Never look a gift dispatcher in the mouth, the old saying goes. Or something like that.

So he delivered car parts near San Diego, and then hauled a load of electronics to Minneapolis, making his way back Southeast once he realized he was nearly out of meds with four more days to go on this trip. Mom and I met him at a Waffle House north of Atlanta. We had breakfast, and brought Steve enough medication for the Florida-Louisiana-Texas-Tennessee jaunt he had to make before returning home for a week off.

While we ate breakfast, Steve asked me to give readers some advice: Buy a quality headlamp. Even if you don’t drive for a living, it’s still great in case of nighttime car trouble. Steve bought his super-bright LED setup at a truck stop years ago: “Ain’t like I got three hands, you know.” He says it paid for itself several days later, when he was looking for a map he had misplaced somewhere under the bunk. It paid for itself again when he had to crawl under the truck at 3:30am to investigate a clicking noise.

Seriously: AAA should employ retired OTR truckers as travel advisors.

Photo: “Mom and Steve at the Marietta Waffle House” (Marietta, Georgia – 15 July 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Peony Problems

Here in the Deep South, peonies are a hit-and-miss gardening affair. Sometimes, the weather and bugs and fungi and soil all manage to cooperate, and POOF! an early-blooming variety gives you two weeks of gloriously ruffled, heavily perfumed blossoms six to eight inches wide. (Unfortunately for us all, Southern weather gets too hot too soon for the late-blooming varieties.)

Seeing and smelling these flowers is the gateway drug to a serious gardening habit. You can’t help wanting moremoreMORE after an experience like that. Before you know it, you’ve got three, six, a dozen of them in the yard.

You tell yourself, “I don’t have a problem. I can quit any time I want.” This is while you’re sneaking plant catalogs into the employee restroom at work. You start showing up to important meetings with dirt still under your fingernails. You call in “sick” so you can stay home and dig several cubic yards of composted sheep manure into your garden beds.

It gets worse. You find yourself unable to sleep from your gardening high, so you order even more plants online at 3:00 in the morning. Your spouse gets suspicious. The cycle of lies begins: “No, honey, I don’t know who would order twenty rare peonies, ten Japanese maples, six Himalayan lilies, fifty ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ daffodils, twenty blackberry canes, and a Piedmont azalea all at the same time.” And the peonies started it all.

Most of the time, though, the weather and bugs and fungi and soil refuse to cooperate. You’re left with apricot-sized flower buds that turn to soggy brown mush just as they’re about to open. Then it’s all weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth while you walk around in sackcloth and ashes. Sad, but true: this has been my peony story for most of the ten years I’ve had them in my garden. It’s a rotten way to live.

The exceptionally cold winter of 2014 made this old-fashioned, finicky plant happy—which made me happy. 2015 brought a mild winter and brown ruffled mush. 2016’s joke of a winter will probably mean the same for this spring’s peonies. Guess I’ll hope for a repeat of three years ago, and then take whatever I can get.

Who am I kidding? I’ll be heartbroken without those six-inch, heaven-scented, crinoline-ruffled light pink pom-poms. But it’s no big deal. I’ll be okay, eventually. Besides, I can quit any time I want.

Photo: “Pink Peony Ruffles” (LaGrange, Georgia 8 May 2014)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: This post first appeared here in July 2014, here again in April 2016, and has since been revised.

 

Reunion in Brass and Mother-of-Pearl

Twenty-four years have passed since we last met. Strange, because it seems like just yesterday when we waved goodbye. She looked a little sad, but assured me that she’d be around whenever I needed her. No worries. She’d be right where I left her. And she meant it.

Even as she approaches her 73rd birthday, she’s still radiant. Her voice remains strong and smoky. She hasn’t grown gaunt with age, as some of us do, but still weighs in at a hefty, healthy 20 pounds. She’s never been ashamed of her worn lacquer, her scratches,  her oft-repaired and dangerously thin brass. Don’t make the mistake of suggesting to her that those are flaws to be camouflaged and hidden away. Oh, no. She won’t hear of it. Those “wrinkles” mean she’s been places. She’s seen things. She has loved and been loved—and she will continue to love. She has lived fully and deeply, as most of us never will.

Does she ever think of France? Does she long for that little factory south of Paris where she came into the world, where one of Monsieur Noblet’s craftsmen  stamped “9346” in the small of her bell seam? Whenever I ask, she changes the subject.

She’d rather talk about the Rubank exercises that we both hated at first but quickly grew to love, or that grueling Dvoràk piece we aced in the winter of 1993. She gets excited when I suggest we try “Night Train” again, and pushes for a dirty, raunchy, uptempo “gut-bucket” version. She wonders why I still haven’t bought the Dukoff 10* metal mouthpiece that I wouldn’t shut up about all those years ago.

Is she protecting me? Or herself?

It doesn’t matter. She kept her two-decades-old promise: I needed her, and there she was. Or, rather, here she is, as patient and solid and accepting as ever. As I slowly rebuild my wind and dexterity,  she stays with me. She picks up where we left off, telling her story and mine in that steady, husky tenor—singing every note with longing, and with love.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first posted this piece on 16 March 2015. It appears here today with revisions.

 

The Other Vine That Ate the South

In the Deep South, spring smells like grape soda. Not name-brand grape soda, but the cheapest-of-all-cheapo-store-brands grape soda. Or perhaps it smells more like wonky year-old bubble gum, the kind that’s so powdery and bland nobody will even shoplift it off the dollar store clearance rack.

Whatever it smells like, that scent means wisteria, or, as I like to call it, the Other Vine That Ate the South. (The original Vine That Ate the South is kudzu, which blooms much later in the growing season, and is a topic for a different post or twelve.) In March and April, wisteria treats us to two or three weeks of glorious purple clouds in the trees. After that, it finishes leafing out to spend the rest of the season devouring everything in its path—fences, trees, houses, cars, pets.

It’s certainly breathtaking in the garden, but you have to tame it by pruning it hard every year.  Don’t slack off and skip a year. You will regret it. And don’t let its beauty fool you: wisteria sinensis is invasive. Unless someone keeps it in check, it takes over—a simple gardening fact.

But for whatever reason, the majority of people don’t control their wisteria. Or maybe it’s more like can’t control it. I’m not sure. When early spring passes, so do those amazing foot-long purple drupes. By the time summer gets here, its dark green leaves are so plentiful and thick that we can’t even see what it’s smothering 80 feet above the ground.

Other than adding stunning Pointillist color to the landscape and providing food for bees, wisteria doesn’t have much going for it. Oh, wait—it will also hide any place that you mean for people to forget. Don’t believe me? Just follow these two simple steps:

  1.   Plant wisteria.
  2.   Move.

Give it a few years, and voilà! Nobody will know the place ever existed.

People can say what they want about wisteria. I still look forward to its luxurious hues draped over roadside trees every spring. This is probably because I’m lucky enough not to have any on my property. As much as I love the Other Vine That Ate the South, it’s probably best that I leave it where I found it—far away from my own yard.

Photo: “Wisteria No. 471” (LaGrange, Georgia – 21 March 2012)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Originally published here on 8 October 2012, this post appears today with revisions. It was also one of my most popular posts in 2016.

 

The Little Peach Tree That Could

In the mid-1930s, my great-grandfather planted this dwarf peach tree in the side yard of his house in southwestern Heard County, Georgia. By the mid-1950s, when my mother was old enough to remember the family’s yearly trips down from Michigan, the tree bore heavy yields every summer.

Pap would slice up quart after quart of fresh peaches, from which he and Grandma Edith would make ice cream in an old crank-handle freezer. It was the finest she had ever tasted, Mom would say years later. When she first moved south in 1968, Mom lived with Pap and Grandma while she saved up for her own apartment in LaGrange. Entering its fourth decade, the little peach tree was still producing as many peaches as the three of them could eat (read: a lot).

In 1988, Mom moved back to Heard County and began fixing up the old home place. By that time, the tree was just about dead. Sap ran sticky amber-brown from the peach borer holes along its trunk. Ice storms had broken off about half its branches. The other half, fiercely proud and unwilling to admit defeat, struggled to stay even halfway upright.

The kind thing to do, Mom supposed, would be to cut it down. No sense in letting it suffer. It had served its purpose for many years. Now it was time to plant something new.

But the saw stayed in the shed.  Mom couldn’t stand to cut down the beleaguered little peach tree while it was still half-alive, or even a quarter alive. “When it’s finally dead, I’ll cut it,” she kept saying. “In the meantime, we’ll just mow around it.”

Which she did—very carefully, with a rickety push-mower and a pair of yard shears. Mom mulched it. She sprayed it for insects and fungus. She watered it during droughts, and pruned away the branches split by the weight of snow and ice. For a dying tree, this one sure was getting a lot of care.

Year after year, the little tree hung on. Every spring, the familiar pink blossoms appeared. By early summer, fuzzy green baby peaches the size of jelly beans dotted the branches. By July 4th, the baby peaches would lie rotting on the ground, felled by some fungus or insect predator. At least the fire ants and yellow jackets were eating well.

For almost 20 years, we had hoped for peaches. For almost 20 years, we had none. I began to accept that peaches, as much as I wanted them, were just not going to happen.

Fast forward to 2003: a warm spring day at the old home place. My mother and stepfather had almost finished rebuilding the long-collapsed front porch. Useless with a hammer but still wanting to be part of the action, I stood nearby.

“Uh, Mom?” I said. “It’s about your little tree.”

“I know, I know.” She mopped the sweat from her brow and grabbed another fistful of 16-penny nails. “I’m giving it one more chance. If it doesn’t make fruit this year, it’s coming down.”

So the spring turned into summer, and the blossoms turned into fuzzy green baby peaches. But this time, the baby peaches stayed on the tree. And grew. And grew. And ripened.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, we had peaches.

I felt badly for having hoped we could cut down the elderly peach tree. I had doubted it, yet it had come back—perhaps to prove us wrong, but more likely because that’s just what trees do. This lonely, gnarled little tree suddenly bore two bushels of peaches just because.

That summer, we had the best homemade peach ice cream and the best homemade peach cobbler I have ever tasted. Since then, the tree has managed to produce at least a few desserts’ worth of fruit every season. It has survived nearly a century of drought, disease, ice storms, and straight-line winds—and, one time, a sweet, hungry, clumsy 2,800-pound Black Angus bull. This beloved little tree refuses to quit.

What will this year bring? We don’t yet know. The peach tree probably doesn’t yet know, either. No matter what happens, though, I will always be grateful to it for showing me what endurance really means.

Photo: “Green Peach, Black Cat” (Heard County, Georgia – 27 May 2014)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared at my former blog, Forgotten Plants & Places, on 12 April 2012.

 

Cedars at Christmas

DetailRedCedarChristmasRockMillsAlabama1976_2015-12-24_COPY_18.04.11-2

As I drive around the countryside in late December, I look forward to those fuzzy green oblong clouds along the winter-brown roadside. They float at the edge of the right-of-way, where the natural world waits to retake the built and the mechanized. Often, their knowing gray smirks pucker around twisted steel—Stupid barbed wire. We can’t grow here, huh? That’ll teach you. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, but I’ll skip the farmed Dick and Jane Reader perfection. I like a little asymmetry, a little imperfection, with my major holidays.

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

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Ray & Dot, February 1970

RayAndDotFeb1970_COPY_2015-09-09_19.18.17-1

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)

 

“At free safety, from the University of Georgia…”

Mid-September 2013. My afternoon English 1101 class prepares to write their second essay of the semester. (Students’ identifying details have been changed.)

ME:  All right—in the Week 8 folder online, you’ll see some good, A-plus sample essays from former students.
STUDENT 1:  Can we see some bad essays?
ME:  No.
STUDENT 2:  Why not?
ME:  Because I want y’all to do well on Essay 2. I want you to follow what the successful essays are doing.
CLASS:  Awwwwwww!
ME:  I’m serious. We learn by studying strong examples—by watching people who are good at what we want to do. [turning to Student 3, a football player] What position do you play?
STUDENT 3:  Defensive end.
ME:  Perfect! [turning to class] Think about it this way: I can show you how to tackle, or [Student 3] can show you how to tackle. Whose example is going to be better?
CLASS:  [Student 3]’s example.
ME:  Right! Because [Student 3] knows what he’s doing, and has for a long time. He plays college football. I don’t know anything about football. Why follow my tackle demonstration? I’d be terrible at it.
STUDENT 3:  Aww, don’t say that, Professor. I bet you’d make a good free safety.

© 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)

 

Sisterly Help

VAL:  What’s the matter?
ME:  I’m stuck. Help me come up with something for Throwback Thursday on the blog.
VAL:  Hmm. Lemme think…
ME:  An entertaining story from way back, from when we were kids—something like that.
VAL:  How about the time we went to Cub Foods, and you bought a gummi rat as big as your hand? When we got home, you stomped into my room and bit the head off it like a 7th grade Ozzy Osbourne.
ME:  God, I can’t tell that one. Grossed myself out after the first bite.
VAL:  Okay, umm—how about when we were in high school and I’d make that noise kinda like WNNNNNNNNG!!! and push your butt up the stairs with the top of my head to make you move faster?
ME:  Nah. Too hard to explain the context.
VAL:  You’re right. How about the Halloween where you went to school as Mr. T? Mom ripped the sleeves out of an old t-shirt, and you borrowed every single Estée Lauder free gift bonus necklace Maw-Maw had. Mom made you a Mohawk skullcap from old pantyhose and black acrylic yarn.
ME:  I pity the fool who suggests that story.
VAL:  Wait! How about the time when you fell out of the car at the South Carolina welcome center? You skinned the hell out of your knee because your entire left leg had gone to sleep and you didn’t know it.
ME:  You are supremely unhelpful.
VAL:  I’ve got it—how about the time in the front yard at the house in Alabama, when that guy hauling a mule in the back of a furniture truck ran over our mailbox? You must’ve been about 12—you started screaming that you couldn’t send anyone any letters anymore, and that your life was totally ruined. And then you flipped the guy off, and Daddy just about fell over from laughing so hard.
ME:  Forget it. No Throwback Thursday this week.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Rubber Soul

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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)

 

You Lucky Dog

All my life, I’ve loved cats. Since 1996, I’ve lived with them full-time. And while I liked dogs just fine, I never thought I’d become a “dog person.” Don’t get me wrong: I had nothing against dogs. They just weren’t what I thought of as “my kind of pet.”

Thank goodness all that changed one day in May 2009.

Enjoying the long break between the end of spring semester and the start of summer classes, I was relaxing at home. My date was supposed to pick me up at 11:45 to go to lunch. When he didn’t arrive and hadn’t called, I began to worry. Finally, he drove up just after noon. “Sorry I’m late—but I’ve got a good reason. Come look!”

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And there, in the floorboard of the truck, sat the saddest, sickest puppy I had ever seen.

The puppy was maybe eight weeks old, at most. We could see his ribs, spine, and hips through his skin. A strange mass protruded from the side of his abdomen. Fleas swarmed all over him. And the stomach-twisting smell came off him in huge waves—a horrible combination of grease, dirt, sweat, and feces. Mange had robbed him of almost all his fur, leaving in its place a semi-oily yellow crust an eighth of an inch thick in places.

“Where did you find him?” I asked.

“He was sitting on the double-yellow line in the curve on Swift Street,” my sweetheart said. “Somebody must’ve left him there. I almost didn’t see him. Had to swerve, and just about ran over him. But I looked up in the rear-view mirror, and my heart just broke. I couldn’t leave him. When I put him in the truck, I told him, ‘You’re not gonna die today, buddy, and you’re not gonna die like this.'”

When we arrived at the vet clinic, even Dr. S was surprised. “I’ve been in practice for thirty years, and this is one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen.” Doc diagnosed him with mange and started the weeks-long series of ivermectin shots that would bring the little dog back to health. He gave the puppy a worm tablet, and advised me to wear rubber kitchen gloves: “Don’t bathe or pet him with your bare hands until he’s completely over the mange. Too easy for you to accidentally rub your eye and wind up with a bad infection.”

Doc prescribed a liquid antibiotic for what he thought might be an internal abscess poking out of the puppy’s side.  He also gave us some unusual advice on dealing with the puppy’s mange: “Bathe him every other day in warm water and Dawn dish liquid. Flea shampoo will just burn his skin, it’s so raw right now. But Dawn will help dissolve the crust a little faster.”

We paid our bill and left. As we sat in the truck and stared at the adorable little dog curled up on the floor mat, my fella asked, “Do you think we should take him to the pound?”

“No,” I said. “They’ll euthanize him. He’s in really bad shape.”

“But I can’t take him home. Not with my own dog so sick, and maybe about to have surgery again.”

I nodded. “I’ll keep him, for now. I’ve got an old plastic storage tub he can sleep in, to keep him safe.”

“With all your cats? Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I had to do something, anything, to help this puppy. “Just give me a little while. I’ll figure something out.”

A couple weeks later, we’d named the little dog Lucky. That’s what he was, after all. And he was still at my house, slowly healing, though hating baths with every ounce of strength he had. He was even getting along with the cats. That last was a huge surprise, at least to me.

But by the time Memorial Day Weekend arrived, I had a problem. I had a mange-covered puppy who still wasn’t healthy enough for routine puppy shots—and I was going to Nashville on a faculty research trip. No kennel in town would touch Lucky. He couldn’t be around other dogs until he was fully healed.

Which left me with only one choice.

luckyindowntownnashville_copy_latemay2009

Plastic tub, rubber kitchen gloves, and all, I took him with me. Lucky and I spent four days and three nights enjoying the bright lights of Music City.

It was on the way to Nashville, though, that I knew something in me had changed.

lucky_playbreakcolumbiatn_copy_25may2009

 

We stopped for a play break in Columbia, Tennessee. Not too far from the local Waffle House, there’s an old church cemetery alongside Interstate 65—the ideal place for a small, sickly dog to pee. As I watched Lucky sniff and roll and bark his frail little bark and try his best to wrench the chew toy from my yellow-rubber-gloved hand, I wept, and said out loud, “You’re my dog. I love you. And I’m keeping you.”

Seven years on, he is still my dog.
A handsome, well-upholstered one at that.

luckybylittlehouse_copy_2016-08-17

Lucky’s starting to get a little gray on his muzzle. Since he’s part basset hound, he’s had to contend with arthritis much earlier than most dogs (or humans) ever do. Check out the thick brown fur and purple-spotted tongue. That’s the Chow in him. When he’s thinking of getting into mischief—say, sniffing a cat’s butt, or running after another dog, or spying a week-old dead armadillo just ripe for rolling in—he gets the wrinkly Chow forehead, too. He’s my favorite furry 62-pound coffee table, my rusty-brown Low Rider.

He is also one of the best things that has ever happened to me. And while his name is Lucky, I believe I’m the lucky one here. He has shown me flat-out, unashamed, unconditional love. He has shown me how to trust in the unknown, just as he somehow trusted me in those difficult first weeks after he came to the Happy Kitten Cottage. Every day, he makes me laugh. He shows me how to live in the Now, how to enjoy every moment as it comes.

I’m not just a “dog person.”
I’m Lucky’s forever person.
And he is my forever dog.
Amen.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Dr. Parker’s Gardenias

GardeniaGhostNo2_COPY_2016-06-06

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)

 

At the fabric store with my dressmaker mother

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A warm summer morning at the fabric store…

ME: Ooooh, look! 60″ wide rayon challis!
MOM: No, no, NO.
ME: It’s feathers! Brightly colored feathers of different shapes and sizes!
MOM: And tacky.
ME: Awww! Come on, Mom.
MOM: What the hell would you do with that?
ME: It’d be a Diane Von Furstenburg-style wrap dress. What else?
MOM: Ugh. Just—ugh! [shudders]
ME: You don’t like it?
MOM: Not only no, but hell no.
ME: Look, you should be happy that at least one of your children is making a bold fashion choice.
MOM: Bold, yes. Fashion, no.

A few minutes later, at the cutting table…

ME: [sliding the bolt across the table] There’s not much left on here…
MOM: Thank you, Jesus.
EMPLOYEE: This print’s really been popular.
MOM: You mean to tell me there are people around here with taste as bad as my daughter’s?

Fifteen minutes later, at the thread display…

ME: Just think, Mom—if I were wearing a dress made out of that feather print, you’d never lose me in the fabric store ever again.
MOM: But I would try!

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Just another conversation with my dressmaker mother

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ME:  Val and I went in together on this one. It was kind of expensive. Looks like it’s from the late ’30s or early ’40s.
MOM: 
Yeah, probably so.
ME: 
Whaddya think?
MOM:  So you’re going for the Joan Crawford look.
ME:  [heavy sigh]
MOM:  Wait, no—Buck Rogers! That’s it!
ME:  Dammit, Mom.

Text © R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Still another conversation with my dressmaker mother

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ME:  Check out what I bought on Etsy.
MOM:  What?
ME:  [handing her the pattern] Total badassery, à la 1959.
MOM:  Have you lost your mind?
ME:  Awwwww, Mom! How can you say no to sewing something this awesome?
MOM:  Easy. “NO.” See there?

Text © R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)
Pattern and envelope design/illustrations © McCall Pattern Company

 

History and Tragedy

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This stunning masterpiece of early 19th century architecture boasted 16-inch foundation beams hewn from trees that, if I read the ring counts correctly, were 350 to 400 years old in the early 1830s. The rafters in both the original structure and the circa 1890s addition were three- to five-inch saplings that had been stripped of branches and bark, then flattened on the decking side. I could still see the centuries-old axe marks.

The site on which the house once stood is on Whitesville Road, about a hundred yards from a truck stop and Interstate 85. The acreage is for sale. All the buildings are gone: the main house, the barn, the chicken coop, the slaves’ cabins, everything. No, there’s no historical marker—not even a little something that points descendants to the cemetery out back (most recent grave dated 1868). Word around town says we’ll soon have another strip mall right there. You know, because this place really, really needs another strip mall.

Just thinking about it makes me furious.

Fannin-Truitt-Handley House (built 1831-1833; demolished September 2012)
LaGrange, Georgia – 27 May 2012

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

“We know no difference,” September 1976

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I’ve written before about my fascination with the photos of strangers that I find in old family albums. Even with first and last names, even with a bit of detail scrawled along the border, sometimes nobody knows who these people are. I’m drawn to this photo because of the tension between the image and the words on the back.

Here, crape myrtle trees twist skyward. Low cement dividers behind them indicate perhaps an old cemetery, or maybe terraces in a park. In the far background, there’s a light-colored building with neatly spaced windows, the shadows of which stand out in the harsh light of a bright late summer day. At first, I thought I saw Spanish moss hanging from the taller trees, but no. That turned out to be more shadows in an aging snapshot made with a mid-1970s mass-market camera.

In the foreground, a woman and two little girls focus on something to their right, near the ground. The woman holds a plastic bread bag and a slice of bread in her left hand. With the fingertips of the right, she tears off small bits of bread. It’s hard to read her expression. Her attention may be in several places at once, as is often the case for parents of small children. Or, more likely, she could just be sweaty and uncomfortable in her nice outfit, and beyond ready to go home.

The smaller of the two girls holds something in her hand. Perhaps she’s counting pieces of bread before dropping them on the ground. The larger of the two girls gazes at a point out of the frame; she seems to be on the edge of saying something to the others. Their dresses are typical of children’s clothing for this era. Note how the trim on each girl’s dress matches the colors in the woman’s—all three may be the work of a skilled dressmaker. Check out those seams in the front bodice of the woman’s dress. Putting together four oddly-shaped pieces of knit fabric is neither for beginners, nor for the faint of sewing heart.

Somehow, for almost four decades, I managed not to spot the bird. See it, there in the foreground? It’s easy to miss. The print is old and rapidly fading, and the bird’s head is turned at such an angle just in front of the woman’s left leg that I can’t tell whether it’s a turkey, a chicken, or a large duck. All I can see are what I think are white feathers, and perhaps red wattles and a comb.

Then I look on the back of the photo. That’s where things really get interesting.

In careful cursive and blue ballpoint ink, someone has written, “Our daughter ______, and granddaughters, ________ and ________, September 1976. Ages 2½ and 4.”

For once, we have first and last names to accompany the image, but they’re not among those that I’ve heard relatives mention. A search of local phone directories turns up nothing of use. Facebook searches, too, turn up nothing. Perhaps these people no longer go by the (fairly common) names listed on the back of their photograph. Perhaps they don’t use social media. Perhaps they’re dead. That might explain why they don’t show up in a dozen rounds of Google Crapshoot.

But there’s one more sentence. It stops me cold:
“The larger one is adopted, but we know no difference.”

Oh, yeah?

Because, to my mind, if you truly “know no difference” between the adopted child and the blood-related child, there’s no reason to bring it up. I sure can’t tell a difference. The kids look like they belong in the same family. And even if they didn’t look alike—who cares? They’re family. End of discussion.

While I know that, forty years ago, people felt free to say incredibly rude things about adopted children (hell, they still do), this is something private, something written on the back of a picture. Who did the original photographer think needed this information? And why?

“Now that I think about it,” Mom says, “there’s someone in the back of my memory—maybe somebody from the old sewing plant?—who talked all the time about her two granddaughters. Can’t recall her name. But she was always telling people how one of them was adopted: ‘But I treat them just the same! We don’t know any difference.’”

“Oh, for God’s sake. That’s horrible.”

Mom nods, and rolls her eyes. “Anybody who goes out of her way to tell the world how kind she is to an adopted kid is probably meaner than cat shit.”

Photo: “‘We Know No Difference,’ September 1976” (original photographer unknown)
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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