R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Writing (page 1 of 7)

If Blake Shelton Is the Sexiest Man Alive, Then I Am the Jolly Green Giant

So People Magazine has declared country singer [sic] Blake Shelton their 2017 Sexiest Man Alive. And this country music scholar HAS SOME STRONG OPINIONS.

Sexiest Man Alive? In what universe? Have we just stopped trying, as a society? (Wait, no, don’t answer that.) Y’all, I can go to any bar in any town on a Friday night and find half a dozen middle-aged white dudes who look just like this. Standing on any street in downtown Nashville, I can throw a rock with my eyes closed and hit 20 Shelton look-alikes. It’s a goddamn travesty.

Hell, I could browse my Facebook friends list and easily find a couple hundred men who are sexier than Blake Shelton, plus none of them have cheesy-ass redneck stereotype tattoos. Nor do any of them look like everybody’s ne’er-do-well uncle who’s 48 and still lives at home but dresses like he’s 18 and just stepped out of an Ed Hardy catalog photo shoot. (Don’t act like you don’t know which uncle I’m talking about.) Mmmmmmmm, smell that entire can of Axe body spray he fumigated himself with put on before exiting his room.

Jesus, Mary, and Johnny Cash help us.

Who’s sexier than Blake Shelton? We’ve all got our picks, but I’d like to present my favorite: the great Buddy Miller. Here’s my photo of him from his AmericanaFest 2014 show:

This man is 65 years old and even on his worst days is still sexier than Blake Shelton. AND! He doesn’t make shitty country music.

People Magazine really needs to rethink this whole Sexiest Man Alive deal. Or at least NOT make it so cheap that any middling country star with a regular role on a TV “talent” show can buy the title for $25,000. Means about as much as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which costs about the same—and there are upwards of 5,000 of those damn things making Tinseltown sidewalks that much uglier.

Since you asked (and I know you didn’t, but too bad, because I’m telling you anyway) here’s my definitive list of things that are sexier than Blake Shelton:

Bronchitis
A dirty litter box
2 gallons of mayonnaise
The rear view mirror on a ’92 Oldsmobile
Stewed tomatoes
The Pruitt-Igoe implosion
A colonoscopy
Merkins
Stale Coors Light
A partially demolished CMU wall
No. 10 envelopes
Dentures
An outboard motor
Partially-used roll of tracing paper
MRI room doors
Conjunctivitis
Tom Petty’s ghost
Mortgage insurance
Creepy church fans
Dental floss
Murphy’s Oil Soap
205R65 steel-belted radials
Store-brand maxi pads
Any K-Tel Kenny Rogers box set
A 22-ounce framing hammer
The Microsoft Excel formula for compound interest
Elevation drawings of any Frank Gehry building
The ladies’ restroom on Saturday night at the Flora-Bama Club

Seriously: If Blake Shelton is the Sexiest Man Alive, then my 5’2″ ass is the Jolly Green Giant. Now, if y’all will excuse me, I’m gonna sit over here in the corner and drink bourbon (neat) while I sing “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger.”

© 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.

 

In which I witness Grace and Love in action

For a while now, people have been asking me about setting up a patron campaign. You know, something with rewards for a monthly pledge, kind of like the patronage system of the Renaissance (except without all the Medici intrigue and espionage and murder). I know several other artists whose patrons–their fans, their readers–gladly support their productivity.

I thought about that for a long time, almost two years. But something in me just wouldn’t let me reconcile myself to it. “What? Let folks show me how much they enjoy my work? Give them special new pieces in return for their money?”

“It’s not the right time,” I kept telling myself. “It’s just not the right moment to think up a patron thingy. I dunno, it’s just not the right time, not yet.”

The truth was–and I couldn’t yet see it–that I didn’t fully believe my work was worthy of people’s support. I didn’t believe my work was worthy of the love people had been showing it. If I didn’t think my work was worthy of love and support, then who else would? And if that was true, then why on earth was I still writing, still taking photos?

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t think my way around this mental block. But then an answer came to me, when and where I least expected one.

A few nights ago, I dreamed that I was living in a run-down apartment building somewhere several hours from home. In this dream, I was moving out of the building–“going home” at the end of my long, unhappy time in this place. My apartment was on the fourth floor. It was accessible only by a rickety set of metal stairs on the outside of the building. And I was one of the last people to move out of the dingy building.

I was sad, but not because I was leaving this awful place. No, I was sad because I had so many things so pack, and they were so disorganized that I was overwhelmed to the point of tears. I needed to be out as soon as possible…but how, with only myself to sort and pack what looked like ten years’ worth of disorganized belongings? On top of this, I had no transportation besides my feet–no car, no moving van, not even a rickety bicycle.

All I can really do, I thought, is pack some clothes in a small suitcase, and set out on foot. It would take at least a week to walk home, if I made it at all. I sat down on the dirty sofa and began to sob.

Just then, someone knocked on the door. I opened it to find several dozen people standing there: former students, longtime friends, new friends, neighbors, and even a few total strangers. The “ringleader” of the group blushed and smiled, and gave me a sheepish wave. “Hi! We came by to help.”

Before I could stammer my customary polite “Oh, no thanks, I’ve got it,” the group pushed past me into my messy room. Then they got to work.

Three former students grabbed my baskets of dirty clothes: “We’re going to the laundromat! Back in a little while.” Several other people brought empty cardboard boxes and began filling them with my belongings. I watched in awe as they seemed to know exactly which items I wanted to leave behind and which items I wanted to take with me. They packed my dishes in layers of old newspaper, placing each inside the box so it wouldn’t jostle against the others and break.

Two more people bounded through the door: “We got the van! Y’all bring down some boxes!” I peered out the grimy bathroom window. In the parking lot by the dormitory door sat a moving van. A writer friend waved to me from the open passenger window. On the metal stairway, a long line of people stretched down four floors. Each person carried at least one large box.

I returned to the living area to see more people bearing pizza boxes and grocery bags full of drinks and snacks. “We figured you probably hadn’t eaten,” one said. “So we thought we’d go ahead and get food for everyone.” Other friends kept me focused and happy, guiding me through each area of my room: “Do you want to take these towels? How about this pan? That bowl? These socks?”

When I peered out the door, I saw my ringleader friend and some former students skipping like little kids down the hallway. Cardboard boxes in one arm, they high-fived each other as they made their way out to the staircase. Back inside the apartment, everyone’s eyes shone with joy and compassion and love.

I awoke to the sound of pouring rain outside my bedroom window. I sat up in bed–three cats lay asleep at my feet. One snored next to my knees.

I lay back down and marveled at the kindness–even in dreams–of the people around me. I marveled at how that kindness reappears to buoy me when I think I may sink for good. In the dream, I felt stuck and helpless. In the dream, the people who see me for who I really am appeared out of nowhere, and helped me make the impossible possible. 

This was the miracle of other people’s love. This was the miracle that is Grace in motion.

In the dream, I did what I had been unable to do in waking life: I listened to these friends, and to the wisdom and love in their actions, their smiles, their presence. For once, I understood: This is Grace in action. This is love and kindness and healing, a huge interconnected net of help that I didn’t even know existed. Yet it had still been wrapped around me, around ALL of us, the whole time. In the dream, after a lifetime of not trusting others, of trying (and failing) to do it all on my own–I let go, let myself fall backwards into that web of love and grace.

The dream’s message was clear: People love you. People love your work. Now let them help.

Here’s the link to the campaign.

Thank you for cheering me on, for supporting my work in whatever ways you can and do. Your encouragement means so, so much to me.

Even if you can’t pledge, keep checking in. As always, I’ll post new material at least three days a week on my website. I’ll be posting some free public content on the Patreon page, stuff you won’t see elsewhere. And I also post a lot of stuff on social media–so keep on liking, commenting, sharing, and telling your friends about my work.

Thank you again for everything. I love you all.

RSW

 

Photo: “Self-Portrait with Stripes, Rabun Gap” (Rabun County, Georgia – 5 October 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Story for All Hallows’ Eve

Most Halloweens I spend at my mother’s house. It’s the same house where her father was born in 1922. Like many old houses, it has plenty of stories to tell. And it won’t tell them to just anyone. Oh, no. The house plays favorites when it has something to say.

In non-drought years, Halloween means we build a bonfire in Mom’s yard, then make s’mores and tell family ghost stories. We listen to the deep, hollow hoo-hoo-hoooooot of the great horned owls in the pasture next door. Sometimes, well after dark, the local coyotes begin choir practice. Their not-quite-dog-like barking, their yip-yip-yip-yip-ooooooOOOOOO! far off in the woods, stirs up in the human heart something ancient and primal. That’s when Mom and I feel the hair stand up on the backs of our necks. It’s our All Hallows’ signal to grab the dogs and scurry back indoors.

Since 1834, there has been a house on this spot in Heard County, Georgia. The original cabin burned in the 1880s; people built another using the foundation and field-stone pillars from the first house. When that one burned 30 years later, they built yet another house. That’s the one my mother and stepfather live in today.

Mom and Steve have spent the last couple decades renovating the house, taking what was essentially a falling-down sharecropper’s shack and turning it into a cozy home in the woods. It now has insulation, gas heaters, a full kitchen, and two bathrooms with hot running water. They even refinished the 14-inch-wide heart pine floors, original to the early 1900s version of the house and likely similar to the floors in the first two houses on this site.

The ghost story about the house that I always heard goes something like this:

Late July 1864 saw one of west central Georgia’s few Civil War battles: McCook’s Raid, in what is now Coweta County (about 45 miles east of Mom’s house). In the days after the battle, one Union soldier appeared, on horseback, on the dirt road that once passed in front of the house. The soldier, who didn’t look much older than a teenager, was all by himself.

He wasn’t in good shape, either. He was slumped over onto the horse’s neck, over the horn of his saddle, unconscious. The skin-and-bones horse seemed to follow the road of its own accord, carrying its rider per its beastly duty. The people inside the house no doubt heard the hooves clop-clop-clop on packed dirt, and walked onto the porch to stare.

Just then, the Union soldier fell off his horse into the middle of the road, a dead-weight heap in blue homespun. His eyelids did not even flutter as the people ran out into the road, hoisted him by his armpits and ankles, and brought him inside.

They lay the soldier on a straw mattress, and fetched fresh water from the well out back for some cold compresses. The Union soldier was still knocked out, and now sweating profusely.  He was very badly cut and bruised. Other than his ragged dark blue uniform, the young man offered no other clues as to his identity. The people wondered if he had been wounded in a nearby battle. Or perhaps he had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead by unknown assailants, many miles from where he was now.

There were no letters from home stashed inside the young man’s coat—no mementos, no lock of hair, no faded daguerreotypes of loved ones waiting for his return. He simply lay there in the bed, barely breathing, just a kid sent far from home by a country who probably didn’t even know where he was.

He never woke up, and died the next morning.

They buried him in the cemetery 300 feet down the road. His coffin was made from weathered old boards pried off of the barn. They marked his grave with a large rock. It was all they had.

In the spring of 1928, C.B. Adamson decided it was time that the unknown Union soldier had a fitting tribute. C.B. was a child when the solider died at the house on the ridge. So he composed a long poem for the soldier, and went down to the graveyard, where he mixed up some homemade concrete, poured the fellow a gravestone, and stamped the poem in the wet concrete. Community historians sent a request to Washington, DC for an official Union Army headstone. When it arrived, they placed it next to the concrete slabs. Despite nearly 100 years of harsh weather and occasional neglect, the unknown soldier’s grave is still intact. Caretakers patched the slabs back together a few years ago after an ice storm sent a four-foot-thick white oak crashing into their center.

When Mom moved down here from Michigan in 1969, her grandparents were still living in the old house where she lives today. She moved in with them until she could find a job and apartment. In 1989, she returned to Heard County, and has lived in the family home ever since. Of course, Mom grew up hearing stories of the Union soldier’s ghost. While she’s never seen him, she’s heard him walking around and felt his presence in the house.

“When I hear him,” she says, “it’s usually the sound of heavy boots along the floor—like the boots don’t fit very well, or maybe the person’s feet really hurt. It happens when I’m the only one at home. Other times, it’s just a funny feeling I get, like someone’s in the room with me or is watching me. But when I look up, nobody’s there.”

On Halloween 2006, Mom and I made our usual bonfire a good, safe 50 feet from the house. About 9:30 that night, I turned my back to the fire and was finishing the last of the s’mores as I watched how the blaze illuminated much of the yard. For safety’s sake, we’d left the lights on in the kitchen, dining room, and living room—the rooms on the west side of the house, and the ones I into which I could see from where I stood in the yard.

That’s when I saw him in the house.
A man.
Dressed in dark blue.

He walked from left to right: starting in the kitchen, he made his way slowly through the dining room, and into the living room. I watched the man, of average height and build, walk along and reach with his right hand as if to open a door. His dark blue sleeve reached to his knuckles, as if his shirt or coat were several sizes too large. He walked steadily through the house, opening one door and the next, passing by all the windows. When he reached the living room’s old chimney. . .he vanished.

“Mom, is someone in the house?”

“Nobody but the cats. Why?”

I blinked hard, and began shaking. “I just saw someone walk through the house. From the kitchen, to the dining room, on through to the living room.”

Mom sat straight up in her lawn chair by the fire. “What?”

“I swear to God, Mom. I just saw somebody walk through the house. A man, wearing a long-sleeved blue coat or shirt.”

Mom was quiet for a long moment, then turned to me. “You know what this means, right?”

“No. . .”

“It means you’re the first person I know who’s actually seen the unknown Union soldier.”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Tail for a Halloween Caturday

NOTE: This is an updated re-post of the piece I published on 31 October 2015.

My house was built in 1915 as one of many in the Hillside “mill village.” While I’ve called this house home since 1999, many other people have lived here over the last century. Many have moved on.

Some of them have never left.

In 2013, my family and I began remodeling what is now my den/home office. We removed the faux Queen Anne-style “wood beams” from the ceiling, gave the smoke-stained paneling half a dozen coats of fresh paint, and pulled up the mildewed 1970s carpet and the 1950s particleboard beneath it. We were sad to discover that, probably in the 1930s, the original red oak floor had been covered with 9” linoleum squares (a common size for that time).

But at least we were making that room more pleasant to be in. I’d wanted to return the Happy Kitten Cottage to as close to its original layout and function as possible. At last, the house was getting there a little at a time.

That’s when the smell showed up.

A week or so after we’d finished, I noticed the strong smell of butter in the den—and only in there. It smelled as if someone were melting three or four sticks of butter for a day of baking, or even for a huge batch of popcorn. A very comforting scent, for sure. It would linger for several hours, then go away, and then return a day or two later. The problem: I was not cooking anything.

It occurred to me that my neighbor makes her legendary cornbread with a whole stick of butter, rather than oil or shortening. But the delicious smell happened while Ernestine (not her real name) was at work, or at church, or out fishing on Saturday morning. Add to this the fact that Ernestine’s kitchen, on the north side of her house, is at least 80 feet from my den, and—well. That’s just creepy.

I mentioned the butter smell to Mom. She and my stepfather had spent several days tearing out the den floor while I was out of town. “Haven’t smelled any butter,” she said, “but the whole time we were working in the den, I felt like somebody was watching us. Someone was there with us. Not the cats—that’s different. A person.”

She added that the presence didn’t feel hostile. “It felt happy, like it was excited to see us taking out the nasty carpet and particleboard and cleaning up the linoleum floor.” Mom also reminded me that, in the house’s original four-room layout, the room next to the den was the kitchen. “Maybe it’s happy that the house is back like it remembers. Maybe it’s glad to see us—you know, welcoming us with something good to eat. Old-school Southern hospitality.”

Since then, I’ve smelled the strong butter smell a couple times a year, for a few days in a row. It doesn’t bother me. I look forward to it. I smile when I catch a whiff of melted butter out of nowhere. It’s kind of comforting.

But there are other strange happenings. Tools too heavy and bulky for the cats to pick up somehow migrate from the toolbox in the old kitchen to other parts of the house: A box of drywall screws on an end table in the living room. A 22-ounce framing hammer set next to the bathroom sink. A 100-foot metal tape measure by the front door. A plastic case full of drill bits in the middle of the cooktop.

One October day a couple years ago, I had a doctor’s appointment and several errands to run. While I was away, I left Hank, then my sweet, sickly new kitten, out to roam the house. At that point, he had been here only three days. The bigger cats already enjoyed playing with him, though. They were amazingly gentle with the scrawny little fellow who wasn’t even one-eighth their size.

When I left home, Hank was in the den, purring in a sunbeam by the hearth. When I returned a couple hours later, he was sitting in almost the same place—but inside this wire basket.

Funny, because when I departed, that wire basket sat eight feet away.
On the other side of the room.

All I can figure is that the ghosts in my house are happy to see these familiar, sensible changes in my (our?) home. They encourage remodeling. And they love Hank. You can’t get much more Halloween Caturday than that.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Disappearance

They haunt me, the ones who disappear. We meet a few times, and then they vanish. I half expect their pictures to show up on so many milk cartons: HAVE YOU SEEN US? CALL 1-800-ENG-1101.

Two, eight, sixteen years later, they still shuffle around the classroom of my mind. Was it an emergency? The syllabus? The circus? Addiction? Epiphany?

Maybe they remembered something that they’d tried to forget. Maybe they fled after an early round of Fail ‘Em All & Let God Sort ‘Em Out. Maybe it was a terminal case of the I-don’t-wannas, metastasizing through their transcripts like fire ant hills in a spring pasture. Or maybe—bound by need and love, by duty and blood—they turned back, toward home.

I’ll never know. But I think of them often, and pray they’re all right. Over the years and across the miles, I wish them patience, wisdom, and a chance to reappear.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Things I Have Overheard at Funerals

Note: All identifying details have been changed.

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

*******

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

*******

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

*******

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

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

A Late Grocery List

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

Candy corn:
It is the worst of the worst Halloween candy, plentiful as fleas and twice as hard to get rid of. In all its corn syrupy FD&C No. 6 glory, it refuses to masquerade as blood sugar-friendly. He never craved sweets like we did, but it was his favorite—in small quantities. At Halloween, when we brought home sack after sack of the stuff, he never complained. Had we asked him to, he would have eaten it until Kingdom Come.
Overall: Cloying, slightly giddy, with a letdown at the end.
Base: Unabashed enthusiasm.
Top Note: A bad case of the Sunday evening can’t-help-its.

Michelob:
Maybe he switched from PBR and Bud tallboys to feel more sophisticated after the divorce. Maybe it was too many late nights spent thumbing through Cosmopolitan, trying to figure out “the modern woman” and what she wanted. She wanted back then the same thing she does now: To be treated like a human being, with respect, dignity, and compassion. Besides, would a modern man in a modern relationship with a modern woman drink a redneck beer? Of course not.
Overall: Hoppy, skunky, with a bitter finish.
Base: Rancid barley.
Top Note: Mule piss.

Sardines:
In oil, in mustard, in cream, but never in hot sauce. His ulcer couldn’t handle it. How he could work fourteen hours in 110-degree heat on just a tin of these and a box of saltine crackers is still beyond me. Meanwhile, the rest of us on the crew tried not to honk up our turkey-Swiss-teriyaki-meatball-chitlins-on-wheat lunchtime transgressions. He tossed the empty cans behind the stock pile, where they proceeded to attract every stray cat within a half-mile radius.
Overall: Stridently fishy, yet earnest, with a hint of struggle.
Base: Sweat-soaked long-sleeved Dickies.
Top Note: Waccamaw River silt.

Candy corn.
Michelob.
Sardines.

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

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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)

 

Rubber Soul

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)

 

On My Sister’s 42nd Birthday 


Today is my sister’s 42nd birthday. For almost all of those 42 years, she has been my absolute best friend—my true “other half.” So, to celebrate her special day 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 The Life of 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 me not to be able to audit that class, 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 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.

Photo: “Valerie and Rachael with Bo the Dog” (Rock Mills, Alabama – August 1978)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Somewhere in Harris County, Georgia


Driving down Georgia Highway 219 to Columbus, I saw the broken, furry heap slumped at the edge of the asphalt, just beyond the white line. It was a long-haired miniature Dachshund. Someone had loved it enough to dress it in a little Christmas sweater.

You could’ve heard my heart shatter from ten miles away.

As the car and I zoomed past, I made plans for the trip home. On my way back to LaGrange, I’d pull over and see if the dog had a collar and tag. That way, I could call its people with the sad news. If not, I’d move the poor little thing off the road, so it wouldn’t get mashed and scattered about by the tires of passing cars and log trucks. That was the least I could do: give a helpless creature the bit of dignity in death that had escaped it in life.

It was almost dark when I returned. I stopped the car on the side of the road, about 75 feet from the pitiful carcass. That was the safest place to park on the curvy, hilly two-lane road. I walked back to where I’d seen the little dog early that morning. The knot in my stomach grew. It always does, when I stop to move dead animals out of the highway.

And there it—wait. What?

Nope, no dead weenie dog in a fancy sweater. Instead, there lay two beautiful ceramic dolls. Both were a little scraped up from the fall onto the pavement, but still in good shape. 

I peered down the bank into the ditch. Strewn for maybe 50 yards were all kinds of items: a few household gadgets, some discarded clothing, pieces of children’s toys, a little garbage. All of it, dolls included, must’ve flown unsecured out of the bed of someone’s pickup truck.

Funny what we think we see when we’re moving by at 70 miles per hour.

All I could think of was some little girl—or maybe a not-so-little girl—sick with panic over her missing dolls. I gently picked them up and carried them back to the car. They looked so sad lying there in the passenger seat. But I thought it a shame to leave them lonely and abandoned by the side of the highway.

That was seven years ago.
I never found the dolls’ little girl.

Photo: Roadside Dolls (17 September 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

New piece in Columbus and the Valley Magazine!


My latest piece, “Attic Fan Days,” is now online and in print (page 71) in Columbus and the Valley Magazine. Thanks once again to Jill Tigner and Mike Venable for this wonderful opportunity! And if you haven’t yet subscribed, please do. I love seeing the glossy, full-color pages in my mailbox every other month.

NOTE: Artwork courtesy of Columbus and the Valley Magazine. 


When Dreams Speak

Lately, I’ve felt uncomfortable in my own skin. All I want to do is hide from the world. Everything feels weird, ungainly, and awkward—like a return to my teen years, times 100. And, of course, this feeling hits exactly when I most need to be visible, both in person and online. Of course.

Then I sigh and remember that this is how it always goes. This always happens when I’m dealing with a lot of emotion. Everything has to find a place to go. Eventually, it all finds its way out, in some form. Sharing it here with you makes the process a little more bearable.

This overwhelming urge to hide reminds me of a dream I had several months ago. It means even more to me now than it did then.

In the dream, I had to go onstage at my friend Maggie’s small music venue, as part of Singer-Songwriter Open Mic Night. This was NOT something I wanted to do. I do not play guitar well at all. I have written exactly five-and-a-half corny, semi-original songs.

But I had to do it. Maggie needed my help. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint her. So I picked up my guitar, trudged to the stage, and steeled myself for utter humiliation.

There I was, singing and playing each of my little songs: timid, ready to cry, dying of embarrassment. My performance wasn’t bad; rather, it was just so painful to be in front of a crowd when I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a musician or songwriter. My fingers kept missing frets when I’d go for a C major, a B7 major, or an F# minor barre (“easy” for most players, but difficult for me due to peripheral nerve issues). The muted strings and missed notes made me want to disappear. “Why did I ever agree to this? I’ll never be able to show my face in town ever again…”

But when I’d finish a song and start to walk offstage, the people in the audience clapped and clapped. They kept asking me to stay and play another. And another. And another. Each time I sat back down behind the mic, I thought, “Oh God, what if I run out of songs? I don’t think I have any left…not that I had that many to begin with…”

It didn’t matter. Again and again, every time I tried to leave, they waved me back up onstage. I guess I didn’t run out of songs after all. There I was, red-faced and wanting to crawl into a hole…but the people were so kind and supportive.

And they weren’t just being polite. They kept asking for more—more songs about trains rumbling in the distance. More songs about orphaned baby chimney swifts, and day lilies in roadside ditches, and the ghosts of beloved cats, and the smell of kudzu blossoms in the rain, and sweet, lonely, messed-up fellas from Opelika, Alabama.

Don’t get too excited. You won’t be seeing me at any real-life Open Mic Nights, at least not anytime soon. Instead, I take all this to mean I’m supposed to be “onstage.” I take all this to mean that there are people out there just waiting for my little “songs”—people who need to know that someone else knows what it’s like to be weird and uncomfortable and awkward, yet still fully in and of this world.

Photo: “Self Portrait: Restoration No. 1” (Newnan, Georgia, 3 August 2017)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Moonlight

I walked outdoors in the cool air to watch the near-full moon, and wondered how many other people were watching it, too. “No matter what divides us,” I thought as I climbed into the back of the little truck, “this silver light falls on us all, falls on everybody the same way.” Even that which decays by day transmogrifies come night into grotesque, strange beauty.

As I reclined against the corrugated bed, I gazed into the night sky and thought of all the people I know. I thought of the people I know who are traveling, who are coming home, who are working, who are hurting, who are lonely, who are frightened, who don’t know what to do next.

Some live nearby, while many others live far away. Many know I care about them. Others don’t. A few would rather not even think about it. Many I haven’t seen in years; some I’ve never met. Some I won’t see again until I’m on the other side.

How I love them all.

Under the silver light of the moon, I held every one of them close to my heart, and sobbed. I climbed out of the truck bed, and stumbled back indoors.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Notes from the Happy Kitten Cottage: Next Issue Out Aug. 20

A quick reminder that the latest issue of Notes from the Happy Kitten Cottage, my twice/thrice-monthly newsletter, will go out Sunday 20 August. The newsletter is mostly “notes on my writing & photography, my cats, rural places, plants and wild animals, dilapidated buildings, country music, and Lord knows what else.”

You can sign up here, and unsubscribe anytime.

Photo: “Self-Portrait #3, 2 August 2017”

 

On Inspiration

When I write, the worst part is when I can’t figure out my emotions, when I feel numb and disaffected. Of course, I know from experience that it’ll pass. It always does—otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. But the fear that whispers close behind the numbness can be mighty persuasive: “Give up. You can’t do it. You can’t make it happen again.”

Eventually, I do make it happen again. Always. However, this is not and has never been a matter of low self-esteem, poor self-image, or any other pop psychology cliché.

It is a matter of writing for a living.

Every professional writer experiences this unreasonable doubt and fear. Every professional writer works around and through it. The key here is acknowledging the whispers while continuing to write, instead of waiting for them to go away first, or for a brilliant idea to pop up before writing again. Taking action—that is, writing while we feel deeply uninspired—leads us out of the darkness and toward something worthwhile.

Do not wait for inspiration.
Write, write, write.
The ideas will thaw, melt, and flow your way.

I doubt this process every time.
It saves me every time.

There is no such thing as “waiting for inspiration to strike.” It’s just waiting, and it produces little of consequence. Most people who are not professional writers fail to realize this. As such, they become dilettantes along the sad, sorry way. My students teetered at the edge of dilettantism. It was my job to pull them back.

Where young writers are is not their fault. After all, their ideas about how excellent prose happens have been shaped by romantic, highly unrealistic beliefs about writing. They are completely enamored with the idea of Being A Writer. They are passionately in love with the Idea Of Writing. And inspiration, they are sure, is what fuels this searing, delicious tinderbox of an affair.

For all his promises, Inspiration is a lousy lover, more wet kindling than lighter fluid. Inspiration is full of tease but never delivers: “all hat and no cowboy,” as a Texan friend says. Inspiration is sexy, charming, mysterious, compelling—on the outside. Get inspiration home and in the sack, though, and all we’ve got is a whiskey-dicked frat boy who, for all his looks and talk, gives our crotch half a clumsy rub before rolling over, puking in his own shoes, and passing out.

Well.

Wake him up. Don’t let him put on his clothes. Don’t give him a chance to rinse out his penny loafers. (Because you know Inspiration still wears penny loafers with his Members Only jacket.) Slam the door. Bolt it shut. Do NOT open it again, no matter how he begs. Don’t call him a cab. Call him what he is: a dud. No, no, he’s worse than a dud. He’s a charlatan.

So kick his drunk ass back out in the street with the amateurs, where he belongs. It’s for your own safety. As Carl Sagan once explained, “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

When we depend on Inspiration, he stops us cold. Hard as it may seem, we must guide ourselves. We must trust in the process, even when we’re angry and heartbroken and numb and completely blank. When we rely on Inspiration, he’s a no-show. And suddenly, we’re all dressed up and dateless at the Winter Formal, stuffing those racking sobs back inside our rib cage and pretending to enjoy ourselves. We’re scared, humiliated, devastated that The One We Love has crapped out on us at such an important moment.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Inspiration is out back of the Teke house, blasted on Thunderbird with our potential and our creativity. He’d much rather get schnockered on the cheapest poison around—and steal our dearest friends—than deliver what he promised. He lives for this. He controls us when we depend on the illusion that we cannot create without him.

How, then, to work around the seductive, greasy charms of Inspiration?

By listening—listening to everything and everyone, listening to tiny flashes of things and people and creatures and plants and moments. The way we get big ideas is by paying attention to the small ones.

Now, ideas are wonderful, but they need a while to grow on us, to get to know us better. By noticing the things nobody else does, we give the small ideas the time and space and care they need to become stronger ideas—to become sentences, images, story lines, characters.

A tuft of fur caught on a hydrangea stem, flapping helplessly in the wind. The daddy-long-legs crawling inexplicably up the truck tailgate in front of us as the traffic light turns green. The way Wednesday morning lights up the plastic rain bonnets of old ladies at the grocery store—all small, and all vast, all at once.

Write it all down.
Yes, even if it “sounds stupid.”

When I was still teaching, I’d hand back a set of papers and ask students to reflect on where they might have gone wrong. They’d often say, “Well, I was going to write about ______, but it seemed stupid.” And I’d clap my hands in wonder: “That’s not stupid at all! It’s what would make this essay work.”

And they learned, little by little, that Inspiration will not swoop in, all grandiose and deus ex machina, to save our writing asses. Good work happens in small pieces, and often almost imperceptibly.

In my first-year college writing classes, I’d often show students a portfolio of my work, from eighth grade to the present. Professional, academic, creative—it was all in there, the entire process. Some of it was under construction, some of it was pretty good, and some of it was capital-T Trash. “Look, dammit,” I always wanted to shout. “Look here and look hard. This is how we spin garbage into gold.”

Look, look, LOOK.
Soak it into your skin.
Soak it into your bloodstream.

This is noticing on the deepest, most profound level. This is where we build creative eye and ear and soul. This is where we begin: in noticing, instead of in waiting for someone or something to save us. In noticing the small, the insignificant, and writing down every last bit of it, we rescue ourselves from Inspiration.

And that is all I have to say today.

Photo: “Sky on Fire, Centralhatchee” (Heard County, Georgia – 30 September 2014)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first published this post on 31 January 2014. It appears today with revisions.

 

An Awkward Blessing

Although it sometimes causes me heartache, I’m grateful to be shy, reserved, awkward, and worried. I’m grateful to be enthusiastic, creative, and a little strange. I’m grateful to be supportive, loyal, and encouraging in spite of the tremendous cynicism that surrounds us.

Plenty of people, of course, would find all this wrapped up in one person to be a tragedy—a cause for deep, enduring shame. For years, I did, too. But now, in my forties, I’m beginning to understand the blessings of my natural quirkiness.

Being me means being highly sensitive. As a writer, I recognize and value this gift: the ability and willingness to experience strong emotions, to be unafraid of my feelings, to identify deeply with others’ fears and hopes, joys and pains, wishes and failures. Even though my emotions sometimes overwhelm me, my closeness to them reminds me what it means to be human. . .what it means to be fully, completely alive.

I know many sophisticated, urbane people. I admire them. But I never have been—and never will be—one of them.

Not that I haven’t tried. For a long time, I hated myself for never fitting into that crowd. I hated myself for being essentially openhearted and goofy, for my comfort in showing and saying how I feel. Much later, I discovered that so many of those jaded, worldly people tremble with fear at the thought of genuine human connection.

Once, I envied these folks. Now, I feel awful for them. As I once did, they too hold themselves to a false standard of behavior that doesn’t match who they really are. They wear the mask of their inauthentic selves because they believe that’s what they have to do for others to accept them. On some level, most unconsciously recognize that this lie leaves them strangely empty and unsatisfied.

Everywhere I go, I meet them. I extend to them kindness and patience. And I say a little prayer that one day, they’ll shuck off those masks, allow themselves to feel, and finally start living.

But sometimes, despite all this, I’m still afraid to show others my true self. What if they don’t like me? What if they reject me? What if my contributions aren’t welcome? What if I’m weird, unacceptable, unworthy, unlovable?

No matter. I’ve learned (and relearn all the time) that everyone feels this way. We’re all terrified that others won’t love us as we are. In that spirit, holding back who I am helps no one. If others don’t care to include me in their circle, that’s all right.

I can’t control what other people think. I can control only myself. It hurts when I discover that others find me too unconventional for their tastes. But I’m willing to risk the hurt, to risk looking like a fool, because the rewards are priceless for every one of us.

I’m grateful not to have lost my emotional edge over the years. I’m grateful to be me—awkwardness, eagerness, and all.

Photo: Self-Portrait No. 2, 13 September 2016

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Note: First published on 11 April 2014, this post appears here with revisions.

 

New piece up at Madcap Review!

My latest piece, “First-Year Seminar,” is now out in Volume 6 of Madcap Review! Go read it!

Photo: Self-portrait at Cochran Gallery, LaGrange, Georgia – 20 January 2017

 

Two new pieces in Sleipnir!

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve got two new pieces, “In the Studio” (poem) and “Clearcut” (flash nonfiction), in the Spring 2017 issue of Sleipnir literary journal. Named for Norse god Odin’s fearsome eight-legged horse, Sleipnir strives to

…create a space for other crooked-smile clowns wandering away from the path of courtiers and kings, [and who are] burning the midnight oil to tell a story.

Yep. My kind of publication.

Editors Robin Andreasen and Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen teach English at South Texas College in McAllen, TX. They’re a dream to work with. Liana and Robin tell me that the next issue will feature fiction, poetry, and art about Texas. By all means, send them your Lone Star State-themed work!

Cover illustration by Leszek Kostuj and quoted text appear courtesy of Sleipnir
Other text © R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

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