Richard Weaver : Mule Toe
My Official Highfalutin’ Southern Legitimacy Statement
I was born on the same day that George Armstrong Custer died, though “Autie”, as he called his adopted self, and I never exchanged letters. But that don’t make me a soldier or a Southerner. The first ever color broadcast of commercial television happened in New York that same day in 1951. But I ain’t no Yankee either. Though I was born in Baltimore, a so-called neutral state, my family quickly realized the error of their ways, and 6 weeks later carried me banjo-like back to Huntsville (Rocket City) Alabamy (the Yellowhammer state) where they had met, courted, and later eloped to the land of dreamy dreams, New Orleans, aka The Big Easy. Now we’re talking. Guy Davenport (born in the Palmetto State (SC) in writing about the photographs of Eudora Welty (born in the Magnolia State (MS) offered this up on a heaping platter: Character is the design of our boundaries. Seven goddamn lovely words that say more about what we call the south than Charlie Bob Mason (was the jar named after him?) and Jerry Dixon (Dixon Dixie?), two Brits brought over to arbitrate a dispute between Maryland aka The Free State – it refused to recognize Prohibition) and Pennsylvania (Keystone State). As a side note, I met Miss Eudora once. Her Collected Stories had just been issued by HBJ. I was a bookseller at the time, managing a store in the heart of the French Quarter, on Royal Street. 3 blocks from the meandering Mississippi. One block from the open human sewer that is Bourbon Street.
The American Booksellers Conference was in Hotlanta (Peach state) that year. 1980 it was. What passes for memory says we were all in a Hyatt. It was the second day of the conference. I was on the 15th floor. It’s 5:30. I’m using coffee to dilute the previous night’s overindulgence and working on book orders to be placed. I had brought my copy of Collected Stories with me. It can’t all be work you know. And I like to Read. And Reread. (I later opened my own bookstore named, wait for it, The Readers Bookshop. No Shoppe for me). One last detail is important. For some reason that morning I had removed the book’s dust jacket to look at the spine. (It’s a holdover from my teenage years when I would haunt antiquarian bookstores looking for old books with fore-edge paintings). What I discovered in this case was that my copy was English bound. by American publishing standards. Interesting. Novel. But it was the contents that mattered. Seriously. I put the jacket back on and continue with my ordering chores.
The Hyatt had an open center and an area where coffee, tea, and aged pastries are either adopted and eaten or abandoned. At some point I become aware of Miss Eudora entering. She sits down at a round table adjacent to mine. A young man in his mid-twenties appears, ivy league prep, clearly assigned by her publisher to make sure she is attended to. I overhear the following conversation: Would you like some coffee. Oh, I had some in my room. The helper looks puzzled and she continues. I made some up with hot water from the faucet. He is clearly horrified. Clearly he has failed. He doesn’t have a clue. All this time I have been thinking about what fate has thrown before me. The only time I ever actively sought out an autograph was with Dr. Seuss. (A book I later offered up in an auction to benefit a school in Tuscaloosa, AL). And here I was with her book on my table and her a table away, and no monstrous line. Spoiler alert. Of course I did it. Southern gentleman that I am (my mother beat manners into me with a leather belt), I went over, introduced myself, and asked if she would mind signing my book. And then I added, it’s bound upsidedown, and showed her the spine. Her eyes lit up. (I have another story about Borges, autographs, eyes, even blind eyes, and books in New Orleans, but you will have to read that poem to know about that). She agreed to do it and even offered to sign it left-handed, much to the horror of her handler, who declaimed, oh no we can’t have that. We’ll get a copy that’s not defective. She signed it and I returned to my humble table and tepid coffee with my treasure. I have married two women from Alabama. The first has my copy of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. It was that or chew off another body part. The second has my heart. Unlike Custer I kept my hair. Nuff said.
Tell us again, we’d say every summer,
my brothers and sister and I.
Tell us about your Mule Toe.
Part ritual, part myth,
my grandfather would sit
with us at his feet, and tell the story
of his right great toe.
Fifty, sixty, later seventy years ago
he’d been plowing the family farm
and Bessie the mule had balked.
It had stood its ground mid-furrow
and refused to budge. Cajoling failed.
Death with a two by four was a hollow
threat. He offered it respite
in the Alabama shade of a distant hackberry.
Still it stalled, true to its nature,
true to name. Stuck between worlds,
in this test of wills they were equals
until he thought to move the mule.
His strength always a wonder to us,
the mule rose up in the surprised air,
free of this earth, suddenly a creature of air,
and touched ground as if for the first time
its hind hoof doing a pirouette
on my Grandfather’s big toe.
They finished the field together
true to form; stubbornness runs
strong in my family.
The story continues.
Every year at plowing time,
his toenail changes,
turning brown like the season,
and falls from grace.
And every year
he repeats the story
to seven grand children.
Every year we wait for his shoe
to fall, for his sock to reveal
its darkening mystery.