Convalescence by Alan Steele

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m from a small town just outside Cowtown (Fort Worth to those who don’t know better), with white gravel roads that claimed my front teeth one time and the skin off my knees and hands a few more times. I’m from a place that meant running around with no shirt or shoes from May to September, trips to Mott’s 5 and 10, and visits to grandma down around Houston to work the fields, each her famous drop cookies, and help her cook pie or cobbler or wild grape jelly. Dad was a cop and mom stayed home, and I’m still close by, though the town has changed and the light in town has a few new friends and a new toll road for competition. The fire department closest is still volunteer and football will always be king on Friday night.

 

Convalescence
In a Petersburg Nursing Home

Was back the summer of sixty four—‘course

That’s eighteen, not nineteen, you understand?

—We lay in a muddy Deep Bottom trench,

On top of hard clods, rocks piercing tender,

Pale, rail think sides, ducked low for cover as

Black powder and sulfur burned inside our

Noses. Musk, mildew, damp and dank mingled with

Stink of charred flesh—danced…stabbed your tongue, clawing

Around the haze and the corn mash amid

Grey, bloodshot eyes.

As tired as I feel now,

As horrid and strong the smell of death and

Ammonia here, on faded tile, cold white;

So much worse then. Sweat drained out below a

Dark wool and cotton, turning loyalty

And elder strength, now crimson sleep and night.

While your granddaddy and his brothers, their

Uncles and neighbors and all their lost kin

Transformed themselves, over and again ‘side

Cannon treads, smoke hid world from infant

Sight. Slavery? Ha! So much more…then, still,

Less, as young and old alike lay side by side.

You know, always and still a Dutch Oven

‘Gainst its lid recalls barefoot coffee, some

Bean hole troop, days of sibling rivalry:

A saber clanging ‘gainst saddle buckles,

Cold iron and hardwood worn slick as ice.

Victory gets to be more question than

Ever were answer, or bodies, be had.

Rite of Passage by Michelle Ivy Davis

Southern Legitimacy Statement: As someone who has almost always lived in the South (Southern Maryland, Southern India, Southern Florida and Southern California) I have these wonderful memories:

Our yard filled with lightening bugs, their twinkle lighting up the night. My sister and I caught them in jar, had my mother poke holes in the lid, and took them to our room to watch until we fell asleep. The next morning the magic was gone and they were just bugs. We let them go, only to repeat the process again that night.

I remember the twang and then bang of the screen door as we went in and out of the house a hundred times on summer days.

I always wrote thank you notes and still do. There’s something satisfying about a pretty little card and words of gratitude.

I remember when standing in front of a fan really did cool you off, even though the air coming from it was as hot as that the room. It was the humidity evaporating off my skin, y’all. And we opened the windows in the morning, only to close them and pull the curtains later to hold the “cooler” air in and keep the hot afternoon sun out.

Pulling off a honeysuckle blossom and sucking out the honey was heaven.

And the calming beauty of Spanish moss swaying in live oak trees? Only in the South.

 

*From our The Day I Grew Up series:

For most people, growing up is a gradual, almost unseen process. Not for me. I can tell you the exact moment I grew up. It was at 7:45 a.m. on a damp January morning in 1958 when I was twelve years old.

The previous July, my father’s Foreign Service job had taken us half way around the world from the United States to Madras, India, where we would live for the next two years. It was my first trip on a plane.

Early that January, my sister–who was ten–and I left for Kodaikanal, the only school in south India accredited for American students. Kodai was a boarding school located at a hill station 7000 feet above the heat, disease, and crowds of coastal Madras. We wouldn’t return for five months.

I felt a mixture of excitement and powerful dread. What would the school be like? Where was I going to sleep and eat? Would anyone want to be my friend? How would I manage without my parents, especially my mother? I’d never been away from home overnight before–not even to summer camp. I was scared.

We sweated in the tropical heat as we packed the bulky footlocker full of our clothes and as many sweaters and jeans as we could find.

As my parents drove the 350 miles across the flat Indian plains between Madras and Kodai, we passed women working ankle-deep in rice patties, families living in mud-hut villages, and children tending water buffalo. The smell of cow dung and cooking fires filled the superheated air that blew through the open car windows. We drove through dusty towns with old names that sounded strange to my American ears. Mahabalipuram. Trichinopoly. Madurai.

Finally in the late afternoon, we started up the Palani Hills. The potholed road was nothing more than a twisting, narrow shelf slashed into the steep hillsides. Walls of dirt and weeds crowded us on one side; a sheer drop made us dizzy on the other side. We met few other travelers, but each hairpin curve and blind corner required a blast of our horn before approaching. From time to time we heard an answering honk, and had to creep around the curve until we saw them. Tires clung to loose paving and gravel as the vehicles maneuvered to the very edges of the road to pass each other.

Just when I thought I couldn’t stand another minute of the swaying car and the heat, a refreshing coolness drifted through the car windows. I opened my eyes and sat up. We were driving among banana trees; little green fruit peeked from under the giant glossy leaves. Soon towering eucalyptus trees shaded us, giving off a pungent aroma as the leaves rustled together. At a bubbling stream, women rhythmically beat clothes on rocks to clean them.

We drove through a gate, then rumbled over a wooden grate. It covered a ditch that stretched from one side of the driveway to the other. I found out later it was a cow guard—the bars were just far enough apart to keep free-roaming cows from wandering onto the property. I sighed nervously. This school was definitely going to be different.

All of the buildings bordering the driveway were made of stone. A chapel sat by itself to the left, and a whole series of buildings joined by corrugated, metal-roofed walkways climbed the slope on the right. Stone walls were everywhere.

As the car slowed at the top of the long driveway and circled the grassy flag pole area, my heart beat faster. I shrank back into the seat. I didn’t want to be abandoned in a place I’d never been before. In that pre-Internet world, there weren’t even telephones to call home, only letters. I wanted to go back to Madras.

We unloaded the car and took our things into the dorm. My room was downstairs; my sister’s upstairs. My roommate wasn’t there. She’d been to the school before and was off somewhere with her friends. My mother helped me put sheets on the thin mattress and unpack my clothes. She took care of me, making sure I was settled in. Then we went to the only hotel for dinner and to spend the night.

The next day I tried not to cry when I hugged my parents goodbye.

“You’ll be fine,” my mother said as my sister ran off with some kids her own age.

I gave my parents another hug before they began the long trip back home, and watched as the familiar blue car drove slowly down the hill and disappeared out the gate.

They were gone. How would I manage? Who would take care of me now?

Early one morning shortly afterward, I had my answer. I stood once more on the damp grass at the top of the driveway. A thick, gray mist swirled around me, and clung to my clothes and hair. Breakfast in the nearby dining hall was over, and the others, in small, chattering groups, had gone back to the dorms. Everything was quiet. I was alone.

There, isolated by sight and sound, I finally knew.

In a life-defining moment, I realized that at twelve years old, I was on my own. I was the one who would take care of me.

On that morning in January 1958, I grew up.

Mule Day by Alex Miller

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Alex Miller is convinced that everywhere is south of somewhere.

 

What I’m thinking before the parade is how to get my hands on some of that candy. When you’re a kid, you think a lot about candy. I still don’t even know why grownups go to the parade—for community or history or because they like to see a bunch of horses shitting on Main Street—I don’t care. When I was a kid, all I wanted was candy.

Here’s how it worked: the nice people in the parade threw candy from the floats, and a bunch of kids scrambled for it and hopefully didn’t get run over by the floats. This one year in particular, I remember a big crowd, which meant lots of kid competing for the candy. Everybody had lined up on either side of the main drag through town, impatiently waiting for the show to start. And then this clown on a bicycle—an actual, honest-to-god clown on one of those old-fashioned bikes with the one huge wheel in front—rode up and made a slow circle, waving to everybody. He had red hair like Ronald McDonald and a big blue ball on his nose. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a brown paper sack, the kind we used to put our lunches in when we took them to school. And then the clown grinned real big and tossed the bag in the air. And I watched it, sort of in slow motion, and all I could think was how much candy would be in that bag. It could have been the biggest candy-haul in the centuries-long history of the parade. I glanced at my brother, and he looked up at me, and we both knew what to do. The two of us and about nine other kids ran at the bag, aiming to catch it like a touchdown pass at the Superbowl. I must have been 11 or 12 years old, just a little older and faster than the rest. I bolted to the head of the pack, never taking my eyes off the bag as it sailed in a delicate arc through the sky, and I reached high over all the other kids and snatched it out of the air. It was mine. That sack full of all the candy in the universe. Mine. So I opened the bag. And inside was another bag, a clear-plastic Ziplock. But there was definitely no candy—just this weird sort-of squishy, brown mass. I held up the Ziplock to get a closer look.

“Is it a brownie?” my brother asked. He stood right beside me, tugging my shirt tail.

“Sure,” I said. “It’s a brownie.”

Then, my face red and burning, I marched to the nearest garbage can to ditch the evidence before anybody saw.

***

Miyu listened to my story. She sat across the table from me at Applebee’s. She sipped a Blue Moon she’d ordered at the bar. She looked at the bottle with a deeply thoughtful expression, then looked up at me again.

“It wasn’t a brownie, was it?”

“It was poop, Miyu. The clown threw a bag of poop.”

“You tell the weirdest stories,” she said.

“And that’s what Mule Day means to me. It’s not horses or cowboys or rodeos or history. It’s a psychotic clown riding around on a bicycle, his painted-on face locked in some bizarro-clown grimace, and he’s laughing it up and throwing poop.”

Just then the waiter came to take our orders. The restaurant was packed, which is rare for an Applebee’s, but the parade had drawn people from all over. We’d waited an hour for a table, and the better part of another to be waited on. The waiter turned out to be a guy from my old high school. I recognized his face immediately but couldn’t think of his name. I’d never known him very well. We shook hands, and I acted friendlier than usual to make up for not remembering his name. He seemed embarrassed to be our waiter. He told me his band was still practicing and getting better all the time. He said he was just waiting tables until the band took off. I wished him good luck. I told him his band was great, and everybody from high school liked it and believed in them. Then I placed a drink order.

“What kind of music do they play?” Miyu asked after he left.

“I never knew he was in a band,” I said.

Later we ordered hamburgers. When you’re eating at a place like Applebee’s, it’s best to keep things simple. The hamburgers were cheesy and greasy. They were OK. Columbia is a hamburger town. Miyu ate her entire hamburger, and I wasn’t surprised. She was slender and only about five feet tall, but she could eat. People think the Japanese eat nothing but fish and rice, but Miyu could put away a hamburger.

“There’s a place like this in New York,’” she said, licking the grease off a finger.

“Is it Applebee’s?”

“No. Just some hamburger place. Like this but better.”

“Applebee’s is the worst.”

“It’s not so bad.” Miyu shrugged. “It’s cheap, anyway. One meal in the city, just for myself, would cost more than you’re paying for both of us. In some ways, you’re lucky to have grown up in a place like this.” She placed an unnecessary emphasis on this, as if my perfectly normal, smallish Southern town, with its strip malls and flea markets and Super Walmart, was somehow set apart from the real world, like a quaint seaside village in Scotland, removed from the normal flow of things and left eerily untouched by time.

I made eye contact but was careful not to overdo it. We hadn’t slept together since the summer, and I didn’t want her to know how much I still thought of her. You have to be careful with girls. You have to be cool. Once a girl knows you love her—when she really knows without any doubt—that’s when it’s over. That’s when she owns you. That’s when she gets bored and starts looking around for someone new, someone with that air of mystery you had once but lost. You gave it away. You gave it away because you love her.

“So how do you like it up there?” I said.

“New York is the best,” she said. “The greatest. You wouldn’t even believe. It’s the center of the universe. You should visit. The MOMA. Central Park. There’s so much. I’ll show you everything.”

“Have you picked a major?”

“You ask all the same questions as my grandmother,” she said. “Ask something interesting.”

“Why did you want to come here?”

“I missed you,” she said, her face lighting up. She reached across the table and took my hand. “I wanted to see you again. I wanted to know where you come from. You used to talk about it so much. I wanted to see it for myself.”

“How are things with Franklin?”

Miyu pulled away. She looked down at her plate. She picked up one of the last French fries and popped it, quickly, into her mouth. Until now when she’d spoken, she’d looked straight at me with her brown eyes, but when she began again she stared across the room.

“Franklin is good. He’s great, actually. He’s great. I’ve never been with someone so intellectual. You’re very smart, Jake, but Franklin is intellectual, you know? And he’s fun, too. And he’s a graduate student and knows everything about the city, all the places to go. I like him. I like him a lot. I love him.”

I started to say something but instead lifted my glass to my mouth.

“I guess what you need to know is that I’m happy in New York. And I’m in love. And I suppose, even after everything, that you were right, and it all worked out for the best. I’m happy. I’m glad I left, and I’m happier now than I’ve been in my life.”

When the waiter returned I asked for the check.

* * *

Miyu and I drove around town, past the Walmart and Piggly Wiggly and all the push-pull-or-drag used car lots. Traffic thickened as we approached the parade route. The two of us didn’t have much to say. My eyes drifted off the road to the tree limbs hanging above. The leaves were only now returning after winter, and the small, green shoots filtered the sun so it painted abstract patterns on the street below. Finally I pulled into the parking lot at a Fred’s discount store. We got out of the car and worked our way through the crowd so we’d have a good view of West 7th Street. Some police on motorcycles rode by, sirens blaring. A few minutes later a horse and wagon drove down the road, followed by a group of men dressed as frontiersman, then a red convertible with a beauty queen riding in it. The platinum blond waved to the crowd and smiled her big, fake beauty-queen smile. The parade went on like that for a long time. A lot of guys rode by on horses. The guys had dressed as cowboys, but they weren’t really cowboys. It was all pretend. The fake cowboys looked nice, all clean and fresh, not at all like men who toiled in the fields, in dirt and horse shit. Occasionally one would wave, and everybody in the crowd waved back. Or one would lift up his hat and whoop, and everybody would cheer like he’d done something special. I clapped, too. So did Miyu. We were all in on it together.

“How long does this last?” Miyu said.

“Hours.” I shrugged.

“Did you ever march in the parade in high school, with the band?”

“Every year for four years,” I said. “The parade is more exciting when you’re in it. Avoiding horse shit requires constant vigilance.”

Kareem came walking down the sidewalk. Kareem was another guy I knew, a little, from high school. We were never close friends, but we’d talk sometimes. I knew him just well enough that I still recognized him after a few years. I waved and he came over.

“This is bullshit, man,” Kareem said.

“That’s the point,” I said. “Once a year the whole town comes together to celebrate bullshit.”

“It’s not just mules they used to sell here, you know?” he said. “They sold slaves. Right on the square. Goddamned slave market.”

“Oh my god,” Miyu said. “I can’t even imagine.”

“They used to grow cotton here,” I said. “Before the Civil War. I guess it makes sense. All the land around here used to be cotton fields.”

Kareem pointed to the parade. A guy with a scraggly red beard drove a carriage. He was overweight, with a shiny bald head and denim overalls. He cracked a long whip over his horses. Several rebel flags flew from the carriage.

“You see that shit?” Kareem said.

“Oh my god,” Miyu said.

“That’s a swastika,” Kareem said. “Motherfucking American swastika.”

“It’s everywhere around here,” I said. “People fly it from their porches. They put the stickers on their trucks. They think they know what it means but they don’t.”

“Oh my god,” Miyu said.

“You see that horse-driving motherfucker?” Kareem said.

Miyu nodded.

“Fuck that guy,” Kareem said. “His great-granddaddy drove slaves.”

Me and Miyu walked up the street. The parade kept going and going, and after a while it all looked the same, more horses and mules and fake cowboys and cowgirls. A group walked by, all of them dressed as settlers. The men wore flannel and the women wore gingham dresses. And the men were handsome and the women were pretty, and they smiled, all big and happy. History classes had taught me that the life of a settler was a hard one of busting sod and living in the dark and isolation. But it was nice to see the reenactors in the parade, all cheerful and lovely. It was better to imagine the settlers that way.

“Jesus,” Miyu said. “All of this. It’s too much.”

“I’m used to it,” I said. “It’s like this every year.”

Miyu stopped. She looked at the parade. She looked at the crowd. She looked at me, her brown eyes large and watery.

“I hate Barnard,” she said. “I hate the city. I hate all the rude people. I hate how the professors treat us like we’re stupid. I hate how all the students are cocky and act like they know everything. I hate how, in high school, I was the smartest. Being the smartest was who I was, and I liked it. But up there, I don’t know. Everybody’s a genius. Everybody grew up a child prodigy. Everybody comes from a rich fucking family. I hate college. I hate Franklin. I hate everything about my life.”

I stepped close to her and put my arm over her shoulders and pulled her close. I kissed the top of her head. I smelled her hair. It was a familiar scent but something I’d forgotten about until just then. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a cowboy ride by on a horse. He was young and handsome. He looked like every other cowboy in the parade. He wore a colorful Western shirt, the kind guys buy at Old Navy, the kind that probably didn’t even exist in the olden days.

Miyu wasn’t crying but seemed like she might. I kissed her—for real this time on the lips—and it felt like it had been decades since that last time. We kept at it for a while, and when we pulled apart she looked just like I remembered her from the summer. We smiled and looked away. We watched the parade. The cowboy lifted his hat and whooped and held it high in the air. The crowd cheered for him. Everybody liked the fake cowboy. A great roar rose up, like thunder from beyond the hills. I didn’t know if Miyu would stay with me or if she’d disappear to the city and back to Franklin. The cowboy whooped again. The sun shown down on his curly hair and the smooth white skin of his face. He looked like an angel from the American West. I kissed Miyu again and felt—suddenly and strangely—that we could travel back in time and write a new history for ourselves and for our world. A better history, a kinder and more honest one. Our love could right historic wrongs and set the young nation on a truer course. The cowboy kept smiling; the crowd kept cheering. They loved the parade and how it made them feel about themselves and their ancestors and the past. Most of all they loved the handsome cowboy. The history I’d write with Miyu would be more beautiful even than our cowboy angel from the wild frontier of dreams.

Falling Down Jack by Tom Sheehan

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My work has appeared before in DMSL and I have vacationed and read in NC, and worked in Bristol, Tennessee.

 

Falling-down Jack,  

Tom Sheehan

Early evening light, what was left of it, spilled near Jack Winters in his one lone room in the big house, a house once flaunting and imposing in its stance, now cluttered like an old shed forgotten in a back lot, debris its main décor. Despite his reputation as the town drunk, a ne’er-do-well from the first day, an inveterate crank, there had been an instant and subtle attraction between me and the old codger, an attraction without early explanation.

At the moment substantial shadows played around him, a host of them ready to take him in some rude and final manner; and no shadow around him ever bore much compassion, not to the alert of eye. It seemed, from my vantage at one of his windows, the north one, that light was seeking him out—and grasping, once it had him, something still warm in October’s dying days. It was as if embers of anything were important: particles of light; pieces of moving air; slight jerking of his left knee as he knelt before the cotton-sheathed bed. In the middle of the bed catching parts of light, the latent day, was an empty bottle throwing back similar silver and gold on the loose, the way precious coins flatter themselves.

All of this came up to me in its quick shot as one supplicating god kneeling before another supplicating god, light-seeking, light-giving, emanations worthy of a thing grander than I could imagine, and at the same time powerfully sad, so sad it could choke you, a crushing taking place.

The crèche scene, an unknown metaphor to me then, was working its way in the back of my mind, drawing distal parts together, making alignments long before the legions of metaphors would put on their spurs and ride rampant on me.

On that October evening I was seven years old. Three of my years had been spent watching the old man in the old gray house on the next corner, from whatever vantage I could find. There had been, early in the scheme of things, the front porch or the front steps of our house. In turn there came the edge of the lawn, widening out to the roadside, which was early adventure’s abrupt perimeter; then, a familiar trip to the corner in my fifth year where the dark green sentinel of the mail box was located; and finally the long, cold-hot, sometimes-green, sometimes-white path to school. All of this was my social laboratory, and Jack Winters a unique specimen or subject for that laboratory.

Falling-down Jack we called him, barnacled if I can say it, red-faced, slightly bearded, and all silence once the whiskey’s stubborn and lengthy acquisition had passed its purchase.  But he was somehow warm to me, pulling at me, a magnet I did not know was forever in place. This draw made me slink around in the near darkness on countless nights (alone and never with Richie or Wally or even my brother who might have been the only one to understand if I had been caught at the glass) to watch Falling-down Jack in the one room of his house that still had windows in it. Even then it was my young desire to see his clock works, his interminable ticking, what made a man like him go.

Oh, we had knocked out our share of the other window panes, six-over-six in that old Colonial pattern most of the other houses had, all of us from Central Street and the lane and the cul-de-sac. But the one room of his stupor and his sleep was off limits, though none of us ever said so. Even then I thought an element of fairness existed, a sense of fair play so honorable in its small passage and so acute it would never be trespassed upon. Drunks too had inviolable rights, prone or upright. My small world, our small world, could make its own share of profound statements.

The world is. I am here.

I’m past seventy now and some of his attributes, indeed some of his mean appearances and characteristics (remembered only by me, I swear) are mine. Now I am red faced, the wide and round face both heather and hawthorn have leaned on, the taste built into my throat as if a dry flume waits impatiently for its sides to be wetted, the small and constantly memorable bubble of joy at the roof of mouth when the first swallow rises over that tongued arch and flows coolness and heat and companionship down that tortured passage. Too, I have my silences. Some of them are like the long times he spent in that single room, a cell in sunlight or darkness, such as the hour just before dawn when a single bird’s cry, the first one looping out of still darkness, finds you ready and waiting for what’s on the line for the day.

I can tell you it’s been near seventy years’ contemplation of that Scotsman who came one day to his just-dead sister’s house (Clarie was her name and all we knew of her, according to my mother). The two main doors he closed off with the permanent clutch of six-inch spikes driven with a vengeance I measured all the way from my front steps (the sun flashed off the peen as strong as semaphores). Then he drew down the curtains on all windows of the other seven rooms, as if shame were being hidden from view. That first evening he drank away, to its oblivion, as much a signal to the neighborhood as one could imagine. On the following days and weeks and months he collected a fair menagerie of likewise friends. Eventually, as if clearing the stages of his life, he passed them off on the world and began occasional retreats into the small redan of his room.

Some people in the neighborhood thought him a balled fist waiting to be thrown, so few of them came into punching range. “He’d as soon as rap you as look at you,” I heard the mailman say to old Kosko one day.

It’s uncanny now, years later, how the light re-appears, the light that was in his room the night he knelt before his empty god, empty except for light answering some other light, though there was no coming from or going to. It was mythical then, is mythical now. The grasping and touching of light is one I’ve never been sure of, the meekest of light falling on the cotton-sheathed bed with the Xs of flour contents faded away thin and pale as two-cent postage stamps I once paid attention to. Prisms, wherever they end up, whatever their inversion, have a way of channeling light.

That fractured illumination fell about his head, pointed out each devilish scar’s waddle, cast shadow across skin more broken up than the lunar surface. If I tried to squander some of that light I’d not be able to put it aside, I’m sure. Now it is an aura in its entirety and must have been designed for such countenance in the very beginning, long before Falling-down Jack came our way, before imagination began its long walk with me, before three hard years of my young life were gathered, as it were, in one hand and dealt this great desire to study another person, to my parents’ utter consternation.

“You keep your fool self away from Jack Winters’ house or he’ll steal off with you some night.”

My mother had been the first to say anything, smiling at me a half tone, her head barely shaking in the lightest act of disgust she could muster. That moment passed, the threat passed from her mind, the occasion moving into the meager parcels of history she would only stir up at gala family events when telling all seemed to lighten family chains, when sharing was positive bonding. To her, as to many people of Saxon, Jack Winters was really no more than an oddity in our lives, in our neighborhood. Safety in her mind was the fact there were no rapes, no kidnappings, no child molesting, and no breaking and entering in the nighttime, at least not in our part of Saxon. We were back up from the river, the sea-borne river’s tide never touching us, or the horrors of the world, where small gardens and lawns and grassy fields spelled silence and a quiet guardianship between houses. Our Saxon, to her, was inviolate; children, its chief commodities, never bothered.

My father had a different mindset, as you might guess. “What weighs on one end must be balanced on the other.” I can remember him saying that marriages, good ones, absorbed all of that demand, and he also said, “You can look all you want, young man. At the way he limps, at the ugly set of his mouth most days of the week, at the misery that flows about him sure as you’re breathing. But don’t ever step across the threshold of that house.” He didn’t wag his finger, but looked me straight in the eye. Commanding was that look.

As it was, his signal working, he had paused then, assuring me that an announcement was coming.  I can remember it as clearly as if he’d just walked in from the other room. In the most serious voice I had ever heard, even in admonition, he said, “Somehow we both realize he looks like the grandfather you never saw past your first year, and I freely admit the mystery of that recollection. I think I know the great draw that’s been put on you and not on others,” those others he didn’t have to name. “If there’s a piece of that light left in your brain, a shadow of that old face, a grimace or a grin or one wild look from the monster John Barleycorn he carried as his own baggage, I can understand. If you’ve found something in the air that sets him apart from everybody else hereabouts, I can understand. He’s odd, we know. But he’s hurt no one, even in his bad dreams when he’s being chased or little folk sit in his shadows cool as embers left over from a bad night.”

In that serious vein he had blessed my small campaign. Later I suspected he had traveled somewhat the same road, seeking answers along the way, questioning as much as anybody else did his own recollection of occasional horrors.

How many times I have struggled to bring back the first sight of Jack Winters, coming toward me hidden in the bushes from my pals along the edge of the canal, I cannot tell you. But come he did, as loud and as vibrant as any man I’d seen on that rude path or anywhere else. His voice rang out as brilliantly pure as a tenor on stage, and just as unintelligible to me, words and rushes of sound whose meanings I could not begin to guess. He gave off long woeful cries that struck like nails in soft places (cries whose pain I can still bring back on my clearest days). Also, sudden beauties of notes any stage would shake with, soaring notes that followed those awful nails into my ears, high rising, majesties of another level, echoes as firm now as then in their grip, then low guttural demands as if a beast of awed proportions shared his skin.

“DOMINAE!” he screamed or yelled or sang. An echo for all times. “DOMINAE!”

I was captured! At first by the sound, then by brazen details rushing into my eyes, details that fixed themselves into permanent niches of my mind. thick gray hair he had the smallest wind talked into, a face nearly purple and crazed with lumps and scars, eyes red as a cardinal bird I’d seen that very morning. His small chin-point beard was as dirty as the town dump. His khaki shirt was tight at the collar (character-building the way only a mannequin would be grasped). A striped suit coat comfortable as bedclothes sat on his shoulders, the kind Rip Van Winkle slept in. I swore his boots had climbed distant mountains or other azure. At his sides his hands, huge hands, powerful hands, worked at squeezing the sense out of air. One thumb, the left one, lay splayed twice as wide as it ought to be (a blacksmith must have tended it with a hot hammer). And that fateful aroma coming at me, on a sheet of air at first, and then purely by its voluptuousness, its triggered volume, ripe fruit at the core, sweet and pear-like and syrupy. Bright crimson cherries carried in the mix, nectarines or limes like beggars hiding just around the corner, green and yellow melons tossed in at random, and finally, as if to top it all off, an edge of peach cutting through all the mix to throw its signature out front.

Immediately I thought of the contrast—he should smell as foul as he looked. I should be sucking my gut back down my throat through which it ought to be passing at any moment in abrupt stages. But the air about him was fruit-sweet, perhaps too thick and too syrupy, but fruit-sweet, and then my mind, triggered again by a message on the air, plunged for recognition. To this moment of this clear day I am aware of how minor mechanics within me were appointed and discharged in a quick plunge into my short history, scratching for identity, scratching for recall, scratching for a face or a body or a name. It was one I didn’t know at first but would know for the striking, left back in the entrails of thought, perhaps an identity squandered in a dim corridor. I could have screamed, because I knew it was there, behind a corner, just inside some thin cover of gray matter’s secrets, my mind holding back from me, teasing me, trying me out.

“DOMINAE!” he screamed or sang again just as he passed by my cover of brush hide-and-seeking me from my brother and friends, just as the fruit came stronger that it would ever again in any encounter. And almost unholy was that cry, but dared not to be. It might have been an imploration, an expulsion, a plea and a curse in one breath, able to rough itself into leaf and limb all around us, an act in itself.

“DOMINAE!” At least, that’s what I thought he yelled, though I’ve surely put some effort over the years into the spelling of that cry. I’ve never known what it was, what passed from his lips, his mouth, his throat, and most certainly, from his soul. Probably it was the most honest sound I have ever heard in all my life. I never heard it again, though, no matter how many times I crouched by his window or heard him coming down the canal path from town or wherever he had been. There had been but that unearthly cry up into leaves and limbs and the far-off blue or darkening sky, a soul rising. “DOMINAE!”

Even within the fruited air at full tilt, and the dense brush at my eyes, my heart shaking its hammer inside my flattened chest, I could not help but pull more parts of him together, as if he were a time puzzle and I had but minutes to gather the millennium. Rough as junk was he, drum-like and thick, pushing exorbitantly at the one button of his jacket. I thought of barrel staves girding just under cover, stout oak, holding in, stiff, rigid, volume-grasping, formed not by the outer but by the inner.

Instinctively, within the fruited atmosphere and the body electric and the royalty of his voice, came something I already knew—though under cover, or disguised, or coming at me from an odd tangent. That knowledge spilled itself at my feet, pooled, then flowed up into me, warm, slow-rising, taking care not to frighten me, as if reins tethered its climb; it was temptation and reach, it was touch and acceptance. I held my breath, and the millennium passed. While that breath was held, while it coiled its harsh wonder in my chest and allowed itself to be separated for recognition some near seventy years later, as if it were now just doing its final dance, strong urges and requirements had fallen into place. Days later, still spelled and caught up in the newness and its necessities, I began to take notes on the Scotsman, The Town Drunk, The Dread Baritone—sheaves of information scratched and scrawled at any moment of sight, drawers of notes the years gave growth to. I knew when Jack Winters left the house, every time out. How long he’d be gone. What he wore in all weather. Could predict the reappearance of a khaki shirt or a purple wool sweater that must have had a thousand lives (and cranked up admiration for the sheep from which it had been scored). And pegged to the hour Friday night’s return down the canal path.

In one quick decision, and much concentration, I had become expert at something. The relationship was intractable.

More than once in those tender years, in that blood-seeking quest, that absolute need for patriarchal warmth and acceptance, I stood between Jack Winters and his mortality. All four or so feet of me did it; calling my father on a very sharp November evening, night coming heartily on from Montreal and the Maritimes, when I ventured up the path that Jack was late coming down. I found him cold and fetal and near bare of breath (though the sweet-fruitiness still had a clutching but cumbersome hand on him), under a bush whose blanket he must have sought. My father called three neighbors, burly ones at that, and they carried him to his room, wrapped him, dropped him on his bed, cranked on the man-killer kerosene stove sitting in the middle of the room like an Easter Island stone infant.

On my first visit, of course, I reacted to the room. He had no books but a Bible shimmed under a lamp on a small table. A dozen empty bottles (green and brown and crystal) were scattered like candlepins and blazoned with rainbows of wax. A blue insignia metal can without a cover that crackers belonged in sat in a corner. There was an icebox with its oaken door hanging by little more than one untidy hinge so you could see the gray rind on its oxidized corrugated inner surface. A whole wall surface showed where pain and loneliness wore themselves into its pale yellow expanse camouflaged with black and OD green, like Army canvas hiding targets. Beneath my shoes the floor felt more of yard and less of house, with sounds in mutual support of that argument. But there was no stench, not a whiff of it, and one look said we ought to be assailed at any moment by such threat. Our trespass did not seem approved despite the mission done. We had infiltrated another man’s domain. The exit was quick.

I dwelt a long time on the room that came away with me, and made its way into my notes, before the sun had risen over Saxon. . Sketches of its boundaries and its contents rose on paper tucked in the back side of my notebook, the then current one, Number Three of my travels with Jack Winters. None of the burly lifters saw the godhead abed, only the faded legend on the surface, veneer of another use, another occupation, when they placed Jack Winters down on it. More than once I’ve already told you I’d seen an empty bottle embedded there, crèche of all the crèches, a passion play acted out and I was the known audience, the lone pursuer.

Frankly, I don’t think any of the men, including my father, saw much in or of the room, visible parts that tell so little, invisible parts that tell so much. Such information could practically spill all over you like unwanted company. But it had escaped all of them, my father too, who kept his eyes on my alertness. There was exhibited a need to be out of there, to not be contaminated by whatever had held this place together as long as it had. Strengths are not easily recognized.

The second time I stepped out in front for his mortality was the Halloween Night, cold as a drawn dagger, star-lit, an evening star almost shouting it hung so low on the horizon. Airy signs coming with the messages of our mouths, when the gathered clan of us neighborhood toughs (as we sometimes liked to think of ourselves, though we’d not readily admit as much) dared speak of burning down Jack Winters’ house. My brother was all for it, seeing an end perhaps of the attention paid to my attention, my mission. His voice did not quiver once, cool as judge without a trial, but his feet moved, little shifts on the coarse gravel, not a dance, mind you, but talking, a penchant I’d noticed too many times to ignore. “They’d hum about it all winter,” he said, “everyone would. It’s a dump anyway. We all know that. Know about him all the way over to Randsville, they do, our most famous citizen.” He snickered to mark his stance and shifted his feet a little more, more punctuation. “He’d only have to go someplace else. Over there, or maybe the place he came from. Right now he won’t be back for more than hour and it’d be a glorious bonfire by then.”

That was a pointed revelation, to say the least.

He came off as spokesman, and looked at me sort of indirectly, matching his feet in a way. Even under the cover of the cold night and the shivering shadows and the silence mostly about our strategy encampment, we both knew that he had looked at my notes had come away with some knowledge. I loved him and hated him at the known declaration, and was determined, though the youngest of the lot, that they’d burn his house down over my dead body. Light of the evening star fell through the leaves at our heads, fell on countenances, shone from the eyes of all of them looking hard at me, first and only obstacle to young pyromania.

“He’s just a drunk, and you know it!” Wally advanced with a sudden burst of courage. I saw the star leap again in his eyes, heard the plea specializing itself in his voice. “It’d be the best fire ever. Everybody would be glad the house is gone. My mother talks about it all the time, how it must stink like socks or old drawers, how it’ll catch fire some night from his own hand, falling down drunk and smoking and the man-killer sucking up the air all night long and the stupid candles dancing in the dark. Says he’s always light as a clerk’s lunch hour.”

He’d never said so much at one time in all the time I’d known him, in all the time he’d been the closest friend of my brother’s, but as tricky sometimes as the bakery driver swapping day-olds. I caught a bit of pride in his voice, some dare. He’d toss the match for sure. I sensed also the recording of his words, which he must have dragged right out of his mother’s kitchen and played it for us in our thin cover, under air sheer at the touch, under a star’s reaching.

When I stood off the log, as much dais as any I’d known, I thought they would rise and mass against me, and the only thing I was sure about was they’d leap at any viable alternative. I was ready to tell the whole world if they proceeded, that much I knew, and if it came down to the last minute of saving the house, I’d run inside it. That would panic my brother no end, them too, so I threw another bone for their gnawing: “I know where there’s fifty feet of chain. We could wrap it around a couple of his fence poles, such as they were, and the gate and then hook it on the bumper of the 8:20 bus when it leaves for the Center.” I mimicked the jerking motion of the old Hart-Line Bus as it would pull away from the corner, mulish, Mack-ish, the clutch in spasms, gears scratching for holds, windows shaking light of every surface, the muffler an abomination of the transport industry. I mimicked well, and tossed in sound effects for their ears, for my argument.

The picture played too much for them, the noise and commotion promising heady delight to cap off Halloween. They could talk about it in secret for months to come; for years to come, as it proved to be.

I did not know until after the bus left, the chain taut behind it, the links sure on post and beam and stave, the rending and riotous clatter like empty drums in the wind as the bus bounced up the street, that Jack Winters lay sick in the cold house. He had left earlier, but had returned, and we had not seen him. I had not seen him. The calamity brought him weakly to his door, coughing and gagging on his own self, wrapping stout arms about his gut as if holding some treasure within. His collapse, the sudden silence, the fear quickly riding on the dagger air, brought the burly neighbors again. They lifted him, bedded him, lit the man-killer again, but we stayed our distance. The wrenching echoes of wood and steel were sharp yet in our hearing, pointing fingers at us, making claims against us, we noble toughs, the promise of the neighborhood kicking a man when he was down, a man I thought was warm as an old acquaintance generating trust, a soft leather wallet you’ve pawed for years.

Jack came back from both those bouts, bounced like the ball in the singalongs at the theater (Camptown Races, Doo Dah Doo), came healthy and kicking out of those depths as I thought few men could. There was no pity about him, that was evident; no wallowing in his own mire (though some would pick at me on that point), no asking for help, no hand out for any spillage, just a gunny sack full of mash and potatoes and some raw ingredients it took me a long time to put names on. He was a tough man born to a tough path and damned sure he was staying on it.

Oh, there were other episodes that pulled us together, though I never once spoke with him, and baseball came and football and a girl just up the street one day who sat on the same dais log with her skirt riding who knows where, and Notebook No. 10 and Notebook No. 11, and a drifting of my years.

Then, as sudden as not, I was in high school and the house on the corner stood yet in its blocky and stubborn way, and Jack Winters went back and forth, shrunk a little, drank a lot, saying not two words to anybody. And one day, as I left my house to go to the game of the year, October clear as a rung bell around me, I saw him walking toward the canal path, the half-graced limp still in place, the arms out of step down his thighs as if he were hearing another music. I looked away for a moment when I heard the band music at the stadium, and when I looked back, he was gone. I think my ears heard another ringing. My chest pawed for breath. Something was happening in the crisp October air. I could feel it.

I never saw Jack Winters again. Nobody did. Gone, like a quick cloud. Gone, as if he’d never been. Gone, only to exist in my notebooks. Three of the books turned up a while back. My brother found them in his garage, tucked in an old bureau my parents had given him. Sixty some years and he read them for the first time just before returning them.

“I never knew he was like Grandfather to you,” he said. “I’d never have thought that in a hundred years, but you and dad did, right from the start, the way he smelled and the way he walked with that little limp, and the stubborn ring he carried in his mind. Never came on me once.” He was, I knew, scratching for differences, the founding of relationships, the minor reasons for found differences.

I didn’t tell him I still think of Jack Winters practically all year long. Often it’s for hours at a stretch, or days: where he went when he went off, what took him off, what kept him, especially when October’s little knife begins its twist, when the evening star comes out to speak on the low horizon, and when I say to myself that if I hadn’t kept him he would not be, that if I let him go he would not have been, that if he had not been there there would have been no pain kneeling before his small godhead in that cell of a room, the man-killer sucking up air, the camouflage hiding him at times from his own self, a minor light source pulling rainbows out of waxed bottles, and a small god looking in a window at his own nativity.

Dale Ain’t Dead and Elvis Ain’t Either by G. C. Smith

Here by special request, back from The Dead, April 2005: Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m for sure Southern cause I chill out on Budweiser while propped up in front of the boob tube watching NASCAR racing. I wrote a novel about murder in the world of Nextel Cup racing. The title is WHITE LIGHTNING. If that don’t make me Southern, nothing will…

-I’m Bill Don Huckins and I’m a stock car race fan. From February to November every year I spend my Sunday’s all over the United States at the Winston Cup races. Listenin’ to the roar of motors from forty three racecars crankin’ out eight hundred horsepower a piece and watchin’ that flash of speed as the racecars hurl around NASCAR tracks is what I live for. I thrill to photo finishes and agonize through the wrecks. Racin’ does somethin’ for me that nothin’ else in this world does. I live for it. I don’t know exactly why but the love of racin’ is in my blood. Maybe it’s because of where and how I was raised up?

-My Daddy, you see, hailed from Kannapolis NC, the same little town that Dale Earnhart come from. Like Dale, Daddy quit high school in the ninth grade and he went to work in Shorty McAuliffe’s garage. Daddy and Shorty built up short block Chevy’s for racecars, and after a while Daddy used his savings and bought into Shorty’s bidness. That’s when they changed the name to Huckins and McAuliffe’s Racing Motors. Shorty and my Daddy got to be well known around the NASCAR circuit for good built race motors. They put motors together for some of the winnin’est racers. And, they made themselves a good bit of money.

-As a kid, unlike many of my buddies from hardscrabble NC mountain families, I was never in want for nothin’. Daddy made sure I had whatever it was I needed or wanted. I always had good Levis and NASCAR logo tee shirts and gimmee caps. I was a cool dude. Some of my buddies was right jealous of my shirts and caps. Then, Daddy bought me a slick red 67 Malibu ragtop when I was sixteen and he helped me to build up the motor. Me and that car was sumptin’.

-When I was a very little boy my Daddy and me went together to NASCAR weekly races all around North Carolina. And as I got bigger my Daddy took me travelin’ to the Busch Grand National races on Saturdays and the Winston Cup races on Sundays. Them Bush and Winston Cup races was big time. I truly came to love watchin’ the bright painted WINSTON CUP racecars and listenin’ to their thunder.

-Daddy introduced me to a bunch of top notch racers and the mechanics who was his friends. It was from Daddy and his friends that I learned all ’bout how race cars was put together. How the tube chassis is made; how racecars is set up for different kinds of tracks; and how to get the horsepower outta the race motors. They even learned me ’bout the sheet metal work and the paintin’ of the racecars. I guess with all that Daddy and them other guys taught to me I could’a become a racecar builder myself. Or, maybe even a race driver.

-But, I din’t become neither. I went into sellin’ rebar for construction. I made a lot of money and was always able to take off time so I never had to miss out on a Winston Cup race. An’, even if I din’t become a racer, bein’ a race fan became a lifelong thing and it surely satisfied me. I got my Daddy to thank for that. Yes sir, I’d have to say that I learned my love of NASCAR racin’ from my Daddy.

-Momma, on the other hand, was nothin’ at all like Daddy. She ignored stock car racin’ when Daddy and just about everybody else in Kannapolis lived and breathed NASCAR, especially WINSTON CUP. Momma, you see, had been a bad ‘un when she was a young girl. Leastwise that was the reputation she picked up in our part of Baptist North Carolina and that was what I growed up hearin’. Rumor was that Momma’s teen years was spent hangin’ around seedy establishments that attracted some of the NASCAR crowd. It was said that she drank a whole lot of corn liquor and smoked cigarettes. An’ it was said around our small NC mountain town that she was a wild dancer in the clutches of Satan, shakin’ her hips like a female copy of Elvis Presley. Singin’ out all a them indecent Elvis songs. She was what the boys call ‘a piece of work’. The town ladies called her somethin’ different.

-There was other rumors about my Momma that were purely nasty. Some said she done the dirty with a lot of the racers. Them rumors hurt but I didn’t believe them. At least I didn’t want to believe them. But, all them rumors, was they truth or lies, was from the time before my Momma was saved.

-Along about when Momma was twenty years old the Reverend Will Smallsmith come to Kannapolis. He was a bible thumpin’, fire and brimstone spittin’ tent preacher who set up in a weedy field just outside of town. Momma and some of the racin’ crowd that she ran ’round with in them days drove on up to the revival preacher’s tent intendin’ on goin’ inside and makin’ mock. But, in Momma’s case, it didn’t turn out that way. Reverend Will (most folks just called him that) got to her with his screechin’ ’bout sin and sinners. Momma come to believe that Reverend Will’s preachin’ pointed right to her wicked ways. It came to pass that instead of makin’ mock, Momma went up onto the stage where Reverend Will laid hands on her and asked “was she saved?” She said she was and that was the God’s truth from her own lips, she was indeed saved. Momma often told me that right there on that stage Reverend Will shouted Hallelujah, brothers and sisters, this lost sister has done come home to Jesus. Praise the Lord.

-Momma put all of her sinful ways aside and started a new life. She soon married Daddy and before another year went by I was born. She never looked back to her old ways.

-Momma nurtured me and learned me to love Jesus. She believed prayer to be powerful good and she believed Jesus listened to those who were born again and who would pray to him. She prayed for Daddy and for me. Prayed that our ways would be pleasin’ to the good Lord Jesus. She prayed that she would never again visit her old sinful ways. And, she prayed that Elvis was still alive. Everythin’ else about Momma had changed when she got saved ‘cept Elvis. Elvis was the one part of Momma’s girlhood that she brung into her born again maturity.

-So, that’s how I was brung up. Daddy teachin’ me about motors and racecars and Momma teachin’ me about Jesus and prayin’. It was the best of two worlds I always thought. My love of racecars comin’ from my Daddy and my knowin’ all about prayin’ to Jesus comin’ from my Momma. When I was a growed up man and Daddy and Momma had passed I had what they done taught me and I was grateful for that.

-On Sunday, February 18, 2001, I was in the grandstand at the Daytona 500 watchin’ racecars and listenin’ to the spotters with my scanner. It was a humdinger of a race. At one point there was a twenty one car pileup and not one race driver was hurt. Anyway, on the last lap Dale was shepherdin’ the racecars he owned and that was bein’ drove by Michael Waltrip and Dale’s son Junebug to first and second place finishes. Dale was set up to come in third, lessen’ he ducked down and passed Michael and Junebug for the win, but that weren’t too likely. There was a lot of crowdin’ and some bumpin’ goin’ on out there on the racetrack. It surely was a real excitin’ automobile race.

-One second we was all watchin’ Michael in the yellow and blue NAPA number fifteen car and Junebug in the red Budweiser number eight car racin’ for the finish. Then Dale in the black number three Chevvy and Sterling Martin in the red number forty Dodge was comin’ into turn four an’ jockeyin’ for position. Suddenly the back end of Dale’s racecar jumped out toward the wall. Somethin’ had happened and apparently Sterling’s racecar had hit Dale’s racecar. I don’t know if Dale lifted or what, but Sterling was just drivin’ hard, he weren’t doin’ nothin’ wrong. Still, Dale’s back end cut loose and he tried to control the slide. His racecar fishtailed, ducked low, and then went up and hit the wall, hard, turnin’ a one-eighty. Then Dale’s Chevvy got rammed nose on by Ken Schrader’s number thirty six Pontiac.

-Lordy, it all happened so fast. Dale and Kenny came off the wall and lot’s of racecars barley missed crashin’ them. Finally, Dale’s and Kenny’s slide spinnin’ racecars come to a halt in the infield grass. Meantime Michael in the number fifteen Chevvy crossed the finish line the winner and Junior in the number eight car was right behind him in the number two spot. Neither of them knew yet that Dale had crashed.

-Everybody in the stands held their breath. The earlier twenty-one car pile up looked real scary but us fans knew the wreck that Dale had just had was worse. We knew that this one was a bad one.

-Ambulances and emergency trucks rushed to the wrecked racecars. Junior got out of his racecar and took off running to where his Daddy was pinned in his famous black number three Goodwrench Chevvy.

-Kenny got out of his thirty six car. He weren’t hurt none, praise the Lord. But, Dale, he just weren’t movin’.

-The emergency crew cut the roof off the number three car and Dale was immediately took off to the hospital. But, a later report said the hospital trip was too late; that Dale had died instantly at the point of impact with the wall.

-I didn’t want to believe none of it. None of us fans did. Dale was the Intimidator. He was invulnerable. Extra-mortal, we believed. Maybe immortal. He was the best in Winston Cup racin’ and he wasn’t supposed to die in a wreck. Us fans, all of us, was stunned into disbelief.

-But, I had somethin’. I had the strong belief that NASCAR racecars are built safe that I learned from my Daddy. And, I had the prayin’ that I learned from my Momma. So, I figured the roll-cage of the number three Chevvy would’a kept Dale safe. And, I harked back to the Mamma’s lessons and I prayed. First, I prayed that the reports were wrong and that Dale weren’t dead. Then out of respect for my dear Momma’s memory I prayed that Elvis weren’t dead neither.

-Yet, somehow, no matter how much I wanted to know that Dale weren’t dead and no matter what my Momma had wanted to believe about Elvis, I was beginnin’ to get an inklin’ that there just weren’t nobody up there listenin’. That was hard for me to accept. I never doubted prayer before in my life. Why was I doubtin’ now? Maybe because of what my eyes had told me. I don’t rightly know. I just know that I wanted my prayers answered and comin’ to understand that there probably weren’t nobody hearin’ was the saddest thing that I ever come to realize. And, was I really to believe that no one was listenin’ and was I really to accept that as a true fact then I would be throwin’ to the wind all that my Momma taught me. I simply could not do that. So, I will go on through my life belivin’ my prayers was answered and that Dale ain’t dead and Elvis ain’t neither.

– End –