R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Throwback Thursday (page 2 of 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The lightning?”

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

“My God!”

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

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

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

*Note: All names have been changed. 

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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)

 

The Little Peach Tree That Could

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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.

And, 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.

 

Throwback Thursday: A Teaching Story

My first job out of school was at a small technical college. The previous year, as a University of Georgia graduate assistant, I’d taught all of four first-year English classes. I knew I could handle small-town students with finesse and aplomb.

Oh, yes. I would be the one to bring them the Good News of the Gospel of Literature. My students would gladly, hungrily devour all that my newly-minted American Lit MA and I could serve them. By midterm, their comma splices and run-ons would be a sad but fading memory. By finals week, their effortless prose would flow like the waters of the mighty Jordan. Hallelujah!

Fall Quarter 1999 found me thoroughly prepared. I’d done everything I was supposed to do. My textbooks had come in weeks before. I’d long finished my syllabus by the time I made thirty copies of it in the faculty mail room. I was so prepared that, days in advance, I’d chosen what to wear that late August evening. I’d even ironed my dress, and used extra starch. With a haircut, a little makeup, a manicure, and a pedicure, I was set. A new professor can’t be too careful.

On the first evening of the quarter, my students trudged into the musty classroom. Most had arrived directly from work, and looked a little bleary. A few, dressed in standard-issue Dickies uniforms, would head to late-shift jobs after class. Tired, sure, but overall a solid bunch. Half a dozen recent high school grads sat together in the back row. Everyone else, ages 25 to 70, sat as close to the front as they could. (As one near-retiree explained weeks later, the older students had long ago stopped caring what their classmates thought.)

The Showing of Books and The Reading of the Syllabus went smoothly, but the class still seemed nervous. (It would take me several more years to realize this is normal for the first class meeting—and even the first three or four weeks of the term.) I wanted to get to know them a little before the red pen and I became their sworn enemies.

Ah-ha! Perhaps an icebreaker game would help. I explained to my students that I’d go around the room and ask each person to introduce him- or herself. Students would tell us their hometown, where they worked, what they planned to study in tech school…and one thing that most people didn’t know about them. This would be fun.

Starting stage left, I worked my way across the front row. Grocery store cashiers, carpet mill workers, pulpwood cutters, receptionists, telemarketers, cable TV techs, and delivery drivers all introduced themselves, revealing cute, funny, yet safe personal details to their new classmates:

“My favorite foods are marshmallows and pickles. Together.”
“Growing up, I wanted to be a hip-hop astronaut.”
“I collect pink ceramic unicorns.”

The last student on the front row smiled as he introduced himself. Dressed in a polo shirt and khakis, neatly groomed, the earnest late-twenty-something probably had a job in customer service or sales. He told us his name, his hometown, his job title, his major—and stopped.

“Thanks, that was nice. But how about that one thing most people might not know about you?”

He hesitated, then mumbled an answer.

“Pardon?” I cupped my hand to one ear.

His face flushed carmine. “I—umm. I—I have—a foot fetish.”

One, one thousand.
Two, one thousand.
Three, one thousand.

He reddened more, cleared his throat. “I get turned on by ladies’ feet.”

I looked down. Against the nubby gray institutional carpet, my perfect candy apple red toenails peeked out from new shoes.

Black patent leather.
Open-toe pumps.
Three-inch heels.

I wore sneakers the rest of the quarter.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

This post first appeared here on 28 February 2014. It appears today with revisions.

 

Song in the Key of Why

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

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

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

I don’t know why I kept the key.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

 

A Vivid Memory, in Ruins

What does it feel like to drive past a place you knew for many years, only to discover it’s gone?

Wait, wait. Maybe place isn’t the right word. Perhaps building, or what used to stand at that place. The place—meaning the site, the GPS coordinates, the location on the face of the earth—is still there. It’s not going anywhere. But what used to be there, where the metaphorical X of the GPS ”marks the spot,” has gone, has disappeared, has completely vanished.

It’s an otherworldly feeling.
The older we get, the more we should probably expect it.

Years ago, my family’s Labor Day weekend tradition was to spend a day at the Powers’ Crossroads Festival. In the cool of the morning, I picked up Mom at her house. We’d then drive twenty-six miles on Georgia Highway 34 to the Festival grounds east of Franklin. This route intersects Bevis Road, which in turn winds past my old elementary school. Same route every year, nothing different—until September 2010.

The hand-lettered sign on the corner by the funeral home caught my eye. “Heard Elementary salvage sale this weekend?! What the—”

“Wonder what’s going on?” Mom said.

I whipped the truck onto Bevis Road. “Maybe they finally remodeled the old sixth grade wing. I’d love to get an old soapstone counter out of Mr. Smith’s lab and put it in my kitchen.”

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Imagine my surprise, then, at the rubble strewn everywhere—and at the heap of orange fiberglass chairs in what was once the bus parking area. My sister and I probably sat in a few of them. They were nearly new when I began first grade in the fall of 1980.

Seeing them all piled up in front of the remnants of the school was surreal. Sure, the county had built a brand-new elementary school on Pea Ridge Road. Students hadn’t been here for several years. In my memory, though, the old Heard Elementary building stood as immovable as the Appalachians. It had always been there. It would always be there. It would never be reduced to a broken tangle of orange and chrome.

But as I learned in Mr. Smith’s fifth-grade science class, every physical object—even a mountain—will eventually disappear. Occasionally, mountains blow up all at once, like Krakatoa. Most of the time, though, they gradually erode and crumble, turning into boulders, then rocks, then pebbles, and then the finest sand.

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My classmates and I loved the playground in front of the school. We loved the 1950s equipment, loved the rocks and trees that served as make-believe palaces, fortresses, and secret hideaways. Those granite chunks and red oaks and sweet gums endure; every trace of the swings and slides has vanished. Not even a concrete anchor remains. Despite seventy years of foot traffic, the hard-packed sand of the ball field now wears a glossy green fescue coat. With sun, water, and time, plants will return almost anywhere.

I thought about running down the steep bank beyond the dirt of the front drive, just to relive a memory. But I didn’t. It’s a lot more vivid, and bittersweet, where it is—in my mind.

This post originally appeared at Forgotten Plants & Places in March 2012, under the title “When a place is no more.” In June 2012, a revised version of that post appeared on this website.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Ray & Dot, February 1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ray & Dot, February 1970” – original photographer unknown
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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:  Okay, how about the time when 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)

 

On My Sister’s 40th Birthday

Today is my sister’s 40th birthday. For almost all of those 40 years, she has been my absolute best friend—my true “other half.” So, to celebrate her and our lifelong bond, I tell you the following story.

For one of her electives at Georgia Tech, Val took an upper-division English course called “The Grotesque in Literature.” It was a fascinating class, and covered a wide range of works, such as Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. The roster was full of intelligent, well-read students. The professor’s lectures and discussions always got everyone thinking and talking in depth about the function of carnival/the carnivalesque and “the grotesque body” in literature. (That’s all from Mikhail Bahktin. Go look it up on your own; I don’t have time to explain.)

What a dream course.  It wounded my heart not to be able to audit, or even sit in on a session. Imagine my joy, then, when Val told me her professor would be giving a Friday afternoon guest lecture at the University of Georgia, where I was completing my senior year.

When the day arrived, Dr. H_____’s lecture was excellent. After it was over, I shook Dr. H_____’s hand and thanked him for his talk. I explained that my sister was in his 4000-level “Grotesque in Lit” course, and that I’d been enjoying the class vicariously through her. He seemed a little surprised yet happy that at least one student at another college had been following the course through someone enrolled in it.

The next week, Val’s class met again. As the period began, Dr. H_____ told everyone about his Athens trip. “Over the weekend, I gave a guest lecture at UGA. Afterwards, I met Val’s sister, who’s an English major there. And as we talked, all I could think was, ‘My God, Val has possessed this woman’s body, and is speaking to me through her.’ It was like there was one soul in two bodies.”

“One soul in two bodies.” That’s a good way to explain it.

Happy birthday, Bla.
I love you so much—and I always will.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Turtle Story

Several years ago, while walking in the pasture by her house, my mother rescued an injured eastern box turtle. In his pain and confusion, the poor thing had lost his sense of direction. Instead of heading for the safety of the brambles along the old fence line, he was pointed toward the busy two-lane state highway. Before the dogs could figure out what turtle fritters taste like, Mom scooped him up and checked out his wounds.

The turtle was not in good shape. He’d probably had an accidental run-in with one of those massive disc mowers that farmers use to cut hay. His carapace (upper shell) was damaged, with several scutes missing, and others bearing deep cuts. No blood on his shell, thank goodness. But with all of one front foot and half of the other completely cut off—oh, boy.

While Mom held him, the turtle poked his head just a little outside of his shell. He blinked his red eyes slowly.

In the wild, eastern box turtles can live as long as 100 years. Mom did not have such expectations for this one. So she put the dogs back in their pen, and then took the broken little reptile deep into the woods behind the house. Closer to the branch, he’d have plenty to eat, and plenty of hiding places. Maybe he’d survive. Probably not. If not, perhaps he could at least die in peace.

Mom tucked him under a fallen, mostly-rotten pine tree. “Hang in there, buddy. Hope you make it.” She sighed and trudged back up the steep path to the house.

Last Saturday morning, walking down to the branch, Mom spotted something moving across the path. It was a turtle, an eastern box turtle with a badly scarred, fully healed shell, ambling along as if on a mission. As Mom approached, the turtle paused—with his mostly-amputated-yet-healed front legs solidly on the ground, ready to run.

The turtle watched Mom with one red eye. He blinked slowly, then disappeared into the Carolina jessamine, honeysuckle, and wild blueberries.

So to all those who say, “You can’t save ‘em all” and then dust their hands of both kindness and responsibility, my mother and I say, “Maybe not, but we can try to help one at a time.” We raise our middle fingers to those sad, cynical folk, and go back outdoors to serve our non-human brethren.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Throwback Thursday: 10/16/14

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Rock Mills, Alabama – February 1983

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Throwback Thursday: 9/18/14

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July 1995:
On the back deck at my family’s house in Franklin, the summer before my senior year at the University of Georgia. Here, I’d just come home from my summer job as a Kelly Services temp (my first “office job”). This navy-and-white polka-dotted dress was one of my favorites. My sister and I traded it back and forth for another ten years before it finally wore out. The gold watch was a high school graduation gift from my mother. I still wear it all the time.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Throwback Thursday: 8/7/14

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Rock Mills, Alabama
August 1978

 

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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