R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Throwback Thursday (page 1 of 3)

Reunion in Brass and Mother-of-Pearl

Twenty-five 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 74th 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 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.

 

Statler and Waldorf vs. Milton Berle

When The Muppet Show was in production, I was a small child. Now that I’m an adult, I appreciate the show even more. The writers include humor for everyone.

Here’s one of my favorite clips. Statler and Waldorf, the cantankerous, heckling old farts in the balcony of the Muppet Theater, finally get the best of comedy legend Milton Berle.

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. It 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)

 

Advice from Raptors

As I washed this evening’s dishes, I heard them call from the water oaks behind the house: Who-who? Who-who? Who-cooks-for-YOU? Barred owls—the first time I’ve heard them this season.

Some folklore traditions regard owls as harbingers of doom. Others maintain that they signal change of many kinds, not necessarily bad news. Still others hold that owls mean your house and property will soon become rodent-free. For a long time, I discounted the first two. But that was before the hard-partying bunch of barred owls moved into the trees around my house several years ago.

Since then, every new phase of my life—whether painful or pleasant—has arrived in the company of owls. They go quiet for days or weeks, then return, and HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT?!? something new and previously unimaginable shows up along with them. Tonight, when the first hoots reached my ears, I almost dropped a soapy dinner plate into the floor: “Please, universe. I can’t handle any more. Please, please—have mercy on me.”

Fortunately, neither the owls nor the universe heard my plea.

When I stop and listen to the stillness of my soul, I’m sure of several changes heading my way. While I don’t yet know what they’ll look like, what form they’ll take, I know to expect them, to get ready and do what they need for me to do when they finally get here. Others, though, I cannot and will not know until they are upon me. The owls are just the early warning system.

Good or bad, sweetness or sorrow, I’m grateful and humbled to hear those feathered harbingers call once again from the walnut tree. Whatever they bring, I brace myself and welcome it with open arms. Which, honestly, is about all any of us can do.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sit in the cool of the back yard for a while. I’m gonna soak up the dark and the quiet and the peace. I’m gonna listen for advice from raptors, whatever they may decide to pass along.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

The Daffodils That Always Mean “Home”

Living in a small town often means commuting a long distance to work somewhere else. Before I began working from home, I drove about 90 miles round-trip to my university teaching job. While the commute itself sometimes bored me, the scenery on U.S. Highway 27 between LaGrange and Carrollton never, ever did.

So it’s Spring now—the season that, in the Deep South, gives us an ice storm one day and tornadoes the next. This year has brought out the daffodils a little early. I delight in watching them pop up along U.S. 27’s shoulders.

When you see daffodils, you can safely assume that someone put them there. Unlike seed plants, daffodils and other bulbs have to be dug up and replanted. In order to get them from where they are to where they’re going to be, someone has to move them at the right time of year (late spring, after blooms and foliage have died back), transport them to a suitable location, and plant them.

Most of the daffodils we see along the roadside make their homes in someone’s yard. Sometimes they’re in neat flower beds. Sometimes, as is the case with my own yard, they’re randomly planted in a sunny patch of lawn to surprise everyone, year after year, with unexpected yellows and creams in a sea of brittle brown grass.

But what about those planted in or near a roadside ditch—without a house nearby?

Just because you don’t see a house doesn’t mean one hasn’t ever been there. Daffodils stay underground most of the year. Once they’ve finished blooming, their leaves die back and don’t reappear for another year. So old houses get demolished, their sites fading into and gradually out of memory—yet the bulbs embedded around them come back. They come back every spring thereafter, house or no house.

Plant ghosts, I call them. They don’t know the house and the people are gone. They come back because this is their home. In every sense of the word, they are rooted here.

The daffodils pictured above are very simple, single-cup daffodils, an old variety we often see around old houses. They’re about 12” tall at most, and amazingly hardy. Judging from what’s left of the house, and from the size of the flower clumps, these daffs have been here for about 50 years.

Behind the thick, overgrown privet hedge, nearly 20 feet down the bank from the southbound lanes of U.S. 27 in Carroll County, appears the faint outline of a house—or what used to be a house, anyway. Out in front: these happy yellow bells.

I wonder why the last residents left. I wonder if they left in a hurry. I wonder who decided to let a once-sturdy farmhouse simply fold itself back into the earth.

I wonder if, on leaving, they took one long, last look toward the flower bed. I wonder if they wept for the flowers waiting beneath its surface, for the daffodils that always mean “home.”

Photo: “Daff Nipped by Frost” (Carroll County, Georgia – February 2012)

NOTE: Earlier versions of this post appeared here on 2 March 2015, and at Forgotten Plants & Places on 25 February 2012.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

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 awful for having hoped we could cut down the elderly peach tree. I had doubted it, and 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 it could.

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)

 

Looking East from My Father’s Grave

Heard County, Georgia – 3 April 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Every Place Is a Sacred Place

Oak, hickory, dogwood, mountain laurel, sassafras, tulip poplar, elm, sweet gum, locust—I wished I’d brought along my tree book. Frothy green ferns carpeted the ground, but not so thickly that I couldn’t see the dark, glossy poison ivy leaning into the trail. Leaves of three, stay away from me.

Hundreds of young saplings reach skyward for light. Sheltered by the mature trees, they will stay relatively small and grow slowly until those larger trees die and fall. As the saplings become larger trees, new saplings will sprout from the nuts, seeds, and cones nestled in the leaf litter. The new trees will mature, die, and fall back. More new saplings will take their places—and on, and on.

How long has this scene existed? It was here long before the trail; it will be here long after the trail. What did this hollow look like when the only people here were Native Americans? How about before the Native Americans? What plants were here then that aren’t here now—and vice versa?

Thousands of years before we were born, this hillside was home to plants, insects, animals, and people. Hunter and hunted lived and died close to one another. Over thousands of years, something or someone has breathed a final breath and lay down forever on every patch of ground we see here. Every spot is important, hallowed, sacred.

What if we were to bring this presence of mind, to everything we do, everything we say, everywhere we travel? How different would the world be? How different would we be?

Every place is sacred—even if we choose not to think about it.

Photo: “North Georgia Woods” (Blue Ridge, Georgia –19 May 2010)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: This piece has been revised from its previous version, which I first posted here on  23 July 2012.

Hazel and the Well

One warm afternoon in the spring of 1998, walking near the old hand-dug well in her back yard, my mother heard desperate, raspy meowing. A longtime cat lover, Mom pried away the well cover and pointed a flashlight 40 feet down. There, between the red clay wall and the well cistern, glowed two tiny green eyes. At the end of what must’ve been a terrifying fall, the kitten had somehow managed not to land in the murky, stagnant water. (A nearby mouse had not been so lucky.)

Mom, Steve, Val, and I were all too large to fit into the well. We also didn’t have the equipment to get us into and out of there safely, with kitten in hand. But none of us could bear to leave the poor little thing where it was.

So Mom came up with a solution. She opened a can of tuna, dumped it into a two-gallon bucket, and tied a long rope to the handle. Then, with Steve holding the flashlight, she carefully lowered the bucket into the well, as close to the kitten as she could. She tied her end of the rope to an old concrete block.

“I’ll check in the morning,” Mom said. “Maybe the kitty’ll figure it out.”

Morning came, and Mom hauled up the bucket. In it was the bony brown-tabby-and-white kitten—barely eight weeks old, and, of course, covered in tuna juice. And NOISY.

“Eeeeert. Eeeeeert. EEEEEEEERRRRT!”

The kitty had been crying for help so loudly, and for so long, that her meow was broken. Worse, blow flies had found her in the days before we did. A live “wolf” larva writhed and turned in the pencil-sized hole in her neck.

We took her to the vet, where she stayed for several days after surgery. When the little cat was feeling better, Mom took her home for foster care and general spoiling. A few months later, when Val departed for graduate school in Florida, she brought the kitten with her. Val named her Hazel, after a favorite character in the novel Watership Down. When Val moved to Colorado after graduation, Hazel and sister Madeleine (RIP) went along, too.

For most of her life, Hazel was semi-feral. She hid from almost all people, especially visitors. Only in her old age did she finally mellow and “learn how to cat.” She needed IV medication nearly every day, and toward the end of her life, she had mostly reconciled herself to accepting help from people. (There was still plenty of cranky, irritated meowing, the Cat equivalent of “Get off my lawn, you damn noisy kids.”)

After a short bout with liver cancer, Hazel died on 15 September 2017, at age 19½. We miss her so much. But we’re also grateful to have had her in our lives for so long, and that she chose Val as her forever person.

Hazel remains one of our all-time favorite cats—the best Caturday, and everyday, companion ever.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I published this piece in February 2017. It appears here today in edited form.

Can I See a Doctor’s Note?

Here’s another story from my many years of teaching college English. I wrote it down a decade ago, and somehow forgot about it until just the other day.

*****

My morning class was finishing an in-class practice essay. One by one, the students completed their essays and walked to the front of the room to turn in their papers. After they’d handed me their practice essays, they were free to leave.

One fellow, smelling of cigarette smoke and some kind of antiseptic, made his way up to where I was sitting. He folded his paper in half lengthwise, handed it to me, and gave me a sheepish little smile. “Just wanted to warn you: that’s probably not very good,” he said, motioning toward his paper on the top of the stack.

Writing students say things like this all the time. “No worries. That’s what this class is for,” I said. “We have individual conferences next week. That way, we can sit down and talk about any essay problems you’re having.”

“Well, no, that’s not it,” he said. He reached under his FREE MARY JANE trucker hat to scratch his head. “I, uhh—well, I spent all weekend in the hospital.”

“Oh no! I’m sorry to hear that! Are you all right now?”

He paused, and grinned again. “Well enough, I guess.” A long pause. “It was, umm, ya know—” He made the motion of turning up a bottle to his mouth. “A little too much, ya know.”

I didn’t get it. “Umm—”

“Alcohol poisoning,” he said. “Went in early Saturday morning, and they just released me at 7:00 this morning to come to class.”

It was Tuesday.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

In the Craft Supply Store with Mom

On a shopping trip with my mother, we find ourselves browsing kitschy wall decor in a “big box” arts-and-crafts supply store. Mom spies a piece of mass-produced wall art, all text, with the words nearly 12″ high in mirror-polished steel.

MOM:  [reading] “Faith. Hope. Love.”
ME:  I think it’s from 1 Corinthians. Goes something like, “And these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
MOM:  Oh, that makes sense. It’s a Bible reference. But… [gestures down the aisle]
ME:  But what?
MOM:  The rest of this stuff. It’s just so cheesy. How come nothing else gets any airtime?
ME:  Airtime?
MOM:  Why don’t any other ideas get a mention? You know, realistic ones.
ME:  Such as?
MOM:  “Despair. Oblivion. Hatred.”
ME:  Dammit, Mom.
MOM:  I mean, it’s always the same sappy bullshit. [points to other side of aisle] See? Like this.
ME:  [reading] “Live, Love, Laugh.” Ugh, yeah. And here’s another one: “Dream.”
MOM:  “Dream?” How about, “Give Up?”
ME:  [reading] “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
MOM:  No! “Freak Out and Fuck Off!”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Bullet Holes, Either Way

At this shot-up sign, County Road 20 dead-ends into State Highway 22, near Rock Mills, Alabama. Years ago, just behind this sign, a rickety shack once balanced on stilt-like pillars. How no car ever missed the road’s end and crashed into that house, I will never know.

I was born in Randolph County. My childhood home is about three miles from this intersection. My paternal grandmother’s childhood home, demolished in the 1980s, was just half a mile from here. My sister and I grew up with our grandparents about seven miles away, in Glenn, Georgia.

All these places say “Home” to me.

“Bullet Holes, Either Way”
Rock Mills, Alabama – 16 June 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Snake Bones

By the front steps, I discovered the remains of a small snake, decomposed beyond the point of species identification. One of the outdoor cats probably killed and brought it to the front of the house, an offering to the human who feeds them. Or perhaps it was instruction in how to hunt: “See? This is what you do. Start small, and work up.”

Tiny ribs protrude from the delicate spine, barely larger than hairs; the jaw still opens in a last threatening hiss. An omen? Impossible to say. The surprise of horrible beauty stays with me just the same.

Photo: “Snake Skeleton, Sept. 2013”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

My Sister Helps Me Write a Throwback Thursday Post

ME:  Look, I need help with this “Throwback Thursday” post.
VAL:  Help?
ME:  I can’t think of anything to write.
VAL:  Hmmmmm. Oh! Remember that public TV show, 3-2-1 Contact? And when we were really little, how I’d call it “Rumma-Tumma-Summa,” just to piss you off?
ME:  It still pisses me off, 40 years later.
VAL:  Or how we were our own Dukes of Hazzard sibling pair, driving around in our “car” which was just our two matching kid-sized rocking chairs side-by-side? And how we named our car “The Doobie”—like the Duke boys named theirs “The General Lee”—but nobody bothered to tell us what a doobie actually was?
ME:  What? I don’t even remember that.
VAL:  Okay, uhhh—how about that time you crawled into an old 55-gallon drum with the ends cut out so you could roll down the backyard hill? You got up some speed by the clothesline and BLAM! crashed sideways into the well-house wall.
ME:  Nobody wants to read about my first concussion.
VAL: Nah, probably not. But here’s a good one—when we were in high school, and you sat straight up in bed one night, in the middle of a dream and shouted, “Needs more sauce!”
ME: Oh, for God’s sake.
VAL: Oooh! Oooh! I’ve got it! The time when you were a baby, just learning to walk, and somehow you got behind the sofa and ate a dead spider.
ME:  No.
VAL:  Why not?
ME:  Because Mom swears it was poop, not a spider, and she’ll post something on Facebook to that effect.
VAL:  So was it?
ME:  Was it what?
VAL:  Was it poop?
ME:  Forget it. No Throwback Thursday this week.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Georgia 109 Spur

Sunday, summer. Hot. Humid.
Nearly a hundred at a quarter til noon.
How the world stays plump and green in this steam, I do not know.

In the opposite lane, warming itself: a box turtle. No—a pinecone.
In my lane, warming itself: a shredded fan belt. No—a king snake.
Wheels dodge, spin past.
Neither moves.

By the old Whatley place, two does materialize. From the furry green ditch, their eyes ask permission. I slow. They traverse the double yellow line, as always graceful yet unsure, as always one at a time.

A squirrel, bushy tail an eternal question mark, never asks permission. Zig-zag-zig-zigzig-zag-ZIG! across pavement and almost-not-safely into tall grass.

In the hollow by the Primitive Baptist cemetery, a great blue heron glides across the tops of the pines. Wide blue-gray wings, yellow legs, crooked flight-neck: hello, hello, goodbye.

All an omen, all a blessing—all a signal of hope.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: This encore post first appeared on 22 June 2014.

 

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.

 

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