Howl

Clear skies and cold.  The moon 75 percent waxing gibbous.  Her zenith around 8:00 p.m.  Tonight he will be back, down in the bottom field, just 100 yards below the house.

The song begins with a few sharp barks, then a crescendo into a long, mournful soprano.  It will be answered from down in the swamp bottom first, then from another pack two ridges over, a double-chorus of Banshees, each with no individually distinguishable voice.  They could be 50 or even a 100, a ruckus that almost make a man feel surrounded in some Jack London tale.  Stoke-up the fire as the circle tightens.

My pit will lift his head, awakened from whatever canine dreams be on a winter night.  His growl low and deep, as if it originates somewhere around his back haunches.  Each lasts about ten seconds, followed by a single syllable “umph.”  A ridge of hair stands like a white belt from skull to tail, a sign that he is approaching the red line, where some other creature has produced in him a rage that will lead to fury.

I say “hush, now,” but he will not be quieted until the lone singer and his cacophony of answering choirs have ceased.  I need only open the door and he will charge off into the night.

I wonder, not being well-versed in coyote song.  Is he calling out of loneliness, or simply trying to locate the others, to gauge their distance?  A measuring of reasonable trot should he be so inclined to rejoin the evening rituals of the pack.

I like to think that it is a voluntary solitude.  Chosen, not forced.  Still a path back.  But I don’t know the ways of coyotes.

Sunday past I found a single arrowhead on a low, flat ridge above the creek bottom.  The first in twenty-five years of walking this land.  The parent rock just beside, cleft clearly visible where two pieces once fit together.  I looked again, for where there is one there are usually more, indicating a camp, even a temporary village.  But there were no more.  A single piece of flint shaped by a solitary man.

This lack of relics is curious.  I stand five miles as the crow flies from the last stand of the Creek Nation, fought to the last man, woman and child in the shallow bend of a river.  Stone points and wooden shafts no match for Andrew Jackson’s band of muskets.

Again I wonder.  Was the point-maker in voluntary solitude?  Still close enough to coyote-call over the low ridges.  Far enough to escape the evening banter.

Perhaps kindred spirits, man and coyote.  Seeking solitude, but always curious if others are still within range.

Maybe only on this patch of sacred land.  Solitude calls to solitude.

The sun is setting.  I have cornbread in the oven, Hoppin’ John in the pot.  I build my  evening fire against the chill.

Bully and I await the moon.  The evening performance will begin soon.

Tonight we howl.

 

Roshambo

books

I hold it in my hand, a connection between what was and what is.

An old book I received from my mother at Christmas, a priceless gift of what was.  Aged and somewhat worse for wear.  Yellowed pages, but still in remarkable condition.

I read it last night.  A children’s book titled Billy, by Irene Elliot Benson.  Published in 1912, it was also a Christmas gift, to my grandfather by his sister in 1916.  Inside the cover, written in a beautiful cursive:  “To Raymond from Loretta, Xmas 1916.”

The story is not remarkable, a fictional tale of an orphan who is adopted by a well-to-do lady.  A romantic “happily ever after” written in the style of Charles Dickens.

I am struck by the language.  There are words that I don’t know, have never seen.  I wonder if even children a century ago had a greater command of the language than adults today, the age in which the young (or even the middle-aged) communicate in one or two electronic sentences, many of which aren’t even complete thoughts.  Lines filled with what I call “glyphs.”  Little smiley faces.  Hearts.  Thumbs-up.  The era of LOL and BFF.

I like paper books because they are solid, something that I can hold in my hand.  Something that someone else held in their hand 103 years ago.

An hour later I pick up what is, my Kindle.  I read a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, knowing full well that I am a hypocrite, a slave to immediate gratification.  Want to read William Faulkner?  A click and a charge to a credit card and one minute later you are at the title page (but who am I kidding, no one wants to read “The Sound and the Fury” unless they are taking American Lit. at the University, and even then they don’t want to read it).

This morning I look at the considerable number of books on my bookshelves.  I look at images of books on a small screen.

Some (maybe most) will say that I am old-fashioned, but I cannot shake the feeling that the first will long-survive the latter.  Scissors cut paper.  Paper covers Cloud.

I look at what I write here, and know that one day it will simply vanish.

I will finish Mr. Vonnegut, but I am resolved to return to paper.  I have more room on my shelves.  If I run out, I can always build more.

One day my grandchild will hold a yellowed book.  Just inside the cover will be a few lines, “To Ray from Mom, Christmas 1968.”

I hope that will mean as much to her as Billy means to me.

 

On Blogging

typewriter

“A blog?  What is a blog?”

A co-worker asked this question.  He is a real writer, an old-school journalist who made his bones in the newsrooms of two of Alabama’s largest newspapers, back in the day when there were print newspapers.

“Well, uh, um, it’s an internet thing where people write about stuff.”

I am a silver-tongued devil.  A published author I met once told me “You are smarter than you look, and you write a whole lot better than you talk.”

My friend’s response to blogging was derisive.  “What’s the point of that?”

Indeed, sir.

The point of blogging, at least for me, is that I simply like to write.  It takes a lot of time (more than you would believe), and I am rarely satisfied with the final result.  I certainly do not do it for money, because there isn’t any to be made as far as I can tell.  There are a few writers who have figured out a way to turn blogging into an occupation, mostly through ad sales, but I don’t see a market for the little homespun “aw-shucks” essays that I write.  I simply do not have enough readers to justify advertising dollars.

I have written a few pieces that actually made it to print.  Several in a trade magazine, and a couple of others in a small town weekly newspaper.  But I have never been paid for a single word.

Just once I would like get a check in the mail, and just once I was really close.

A few years ago I ran across an advertisement for free-lance writers for a quarterly magazine.  I would describe this publication as “hotsy totsy,” because it caters to rich lake house owners.  Sort of a small-scale imitation of Southern Living or Garden and Gun.

I sent the editor an email and received an immediate response.  She hired me sight unseen (or writing unseen, as it were).  My assignment was to write a 5,000 word story about a local Vietnam veteran whose valor had earned the Medal of Honor.  I had a five-day deadline to conduct an interview and submit the story.

The pay was a whopping $50, but I eagerly accepted.

The interview took about four hours of a Saturday, and I spent about 20 more writing and re-writing  to “get it right.”  The finished result was a high-gloss feature story.  One sentence was edited in my final draft.

I was pleased and proud to actually hold something I had written in my hand, but I never got that $50.  The publisher’s response to my telephone inquiries were the equivalent of the old “the check is in the mail” line.

That editor called me about a month later with another assignment.  This one had a 48 hour deadline.  I politely passed.  I have a day job that actually pays the bills.

Thus ended my brief career as a freelance writer.

Still, I have not given up the dream of getting paid for something I wrote some sunny day.

Maybe I just need to ask for a $25 advance.

 

This Little Light of Mine

flashlight

Let’s just say I’m lacking.

My dad could fix almost anything mechanical.  His degree came from the School of Necessity, a university a lot of men attended in the mid-20th century South.  We were not poor by standards then or now, but there wasn’t a lot of cash lying around to spend on things like eating out or buying new cars.  I think dad only had one new vehicle, a Chevy pickup that he managed to keep running for the last 15 years of his too-short life.

Some traits are genetic.  Mechanical ability apparently is not.  Or perhaps it just skips a generation every now and then.  I am mechanically-challenged.  My youngest son is not.  He simply clicks-up YouTube, watches a couple of videos, then proceeds to do things like rebuild the front end of a wrecked motorcycle he bought at a good price.

I watch the videos too.  All they do for me is remind me that I am a mechanical doofus.

It’s not that I didn’t have my chances to learn.  My dad worked on that aforementioned  pickup almost as frequently as he stopped to put gas in it.  I remember replaced starters, water pumps, radiators — even a transmission.  I was the assistant for all these repairs, but I didn’t learn the skills to actually do them.

I was standing right there.  But my mind was not.  It was always somewhere else, like on that girl in seventh grade homeroom, the skinny one with the big brown eyes and the double railroad track braces.

I did develop a specialty, however, one that I am skillful at even today.  It’s called “HOLD THE LIGHT OVER HERE.”

I don’t know why that old pickup had a tendency to break down in darkness, or maybe we just didn’t get finished before sunset.  But dad was going to finish.  Not finishing meant not having a way to get to work the next day.  Not working meant not getting paid.  Not getting paid meant not — well, you get the picture.

My skill at “HOLD THAT LIGHT OVER HERE” was developed through a rigorous training system that usually went something like this:

“Hold that light over here on the bolt.”

“Yes, April, I would like to hold your hand.”

“What?”

“Uh, um, yessir.”

“No son, on the bolt, not on my hand.  I can see my hand.  Shine it on the bolt.”

“Yessir.”

“On the bolt, son.  HOLD THAT LIGHT OVER HERE.”

It took years to master.

A few nights ago the Redhead called me from a gas station.  “I just filled-up, and now it won’t start.  All the indicator lights are flashing on the dashboard, but it won’t turn over.  Not even a click.”

“Ah,” I said.  “The battery is dead.  I’ll grab some tools and a flashlight and be there in a few.”

Fortunately, there was an Advance Auto Parts right across the highway.  I managed to get the battery out.  Ran over and bought the replacement.  Dropped it right back in.  But the cables would not fully-tighten on the posts.

“This must be the wrong battery,” I said.  “They’re on well enough to get us over to the store.  Follow me.”

There was no look of skepticism or disappointment.  The Redhead knows my limitations.

Parts Guy immediately diagnosed the problem.  “These new batteries are made so that the cables won’t fit tight on the terminals.  You need sleeves.  We have those.  Let me grab a set and I’ll help you hook it up.”

No, I did not ask why he didn’t sell me the sleeves when he sold me the battery.  But I sure thought it.

Parts Guy had trouble with the installation too.  After twenty minutes of wriggling, cussing and finagling he finally got that battery installed properly.  I just stood there, flashlight in hand.

Not once did he say “HOLD THAT LIGHT OVER HERE.”

I told you I had skills.

 

Author’s note:  This is not a Christmas story per se, as you might have expected.  But in a way it is, at least in a metaphorical sense.

A lot of people will have difficulty seeing the light today in a sea of darkness.

If you have the light, try to shine it in some way that may help them see it too.

Sleigh Ride

sled

I no longer listen.

As the years pass, Christmas songs have simply lost their magic.  I am a grown man.  My sons are grown.  If it were not for the grandbabies, I would have little motivation to do anything on Christmas Day other than say a simple prayer of gratitude, which I plan to do anyway.

Note that I did not say Christmas carols, which are a different subject altogether.  My favorite is Sweet Little Jesus Boy, a negro spiritual written in the ’30’s by the late Robert MacGimsey, a white man from Mississippi.  I suppose he and I are some sort of racists in today’s America.  I contend we both know a good carol when we hear (or write) one.

A couple of weeks ago the Redhead and I went to church to hear the dreaded “Christmas Musical.”  She sings in the choir, so I sort of had to go.  Men with wives, red-haired or otherwise, understand the “had to” part in the last sentence.  “At least I will get to hear some of the old carols,” I thought.  “Maybe they will get me in the Christmas spirit.”

Imagine my surprise when the choir opened with “Sleigh Ride.”  You know the one.  “It’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.”

And there you have it.  That is why I no longer listen to those old Christmas songs.  They are outright lies for someone who lives in the deep South.

I am from a small town in central Alabama.  When I was a kid, there was a Western Auto  downtown on Broadway.  I went there a lot with my dad because it was an auto parts store, something he needed frequently back in the day when you had to fix your own car. And trust me, dad spent a lot of time fixing.

Western Auto was more than today’s auto parts store.  Between walls covered with hoses, belts, and batteries were shelves lined with things that kept a boy occupied while his dad and a greasy guy looked for a water pump for a ’63 Rambler.  Bicycles (Western Flyer was the store-brand, a forgotten piece of Americana), sporting goods (from the Red Ryder BB gun to the more tempting Revelation 20-gauge single-shot shotgun) and other merchandise made a boy yearn for that glorious “some day, when you’re all grown-up.”

But the one thing that got my complete attention, every year just before Christmas, was the Flexible Flyer sled that sat on the top shelf in the center aisle at the very front of the store.  I would stand there, transfixed, hoping that Santa Claus might see fit to leave it under our lop-sided red cedar Christmas tree.  I dreamed of dashing through the snow, bells jingling, while my mom and dad went walking through a winter wonderland on that white Christmas.

Every year I asked my dad for that sled.  Every year he said “No.”

Finally one year, exasperated, he stated the obvious.  “Son, it don’t snow here.”

Seems like I would have figured that out in eight or nine years of living, but my childish hopes were still anchored in those lying Christmas songs.  Alabama Christmas is not white.  It may be gray, which I suppose sort of approaches white, but any precipitation is drop and not flake.

And yet even here the lies continue.  Some time back three ol’ boys from north Alabama made a pile of money with the song “Christmas in Dixie.”  It goes “Christmas in Dixie, it’s snowing in the pines…”

Liars.  I will not listen to your propaganda.  There won’t be any snow here on Christmas Day.  Not this year.  Not ever.

Still, after all these years I have to wonder.

Did any kid’s daddy ever buy that sled?

Funeral for A Friend

smooth stones

The Irish call it a wake.  People in Alabama call it visitation.

It is a ceremony for the living, held in the presence of the dead.  A family stands like deer in the headlights as others shuffle by, hands extended, hugs offered.  A surreal numbness.  Asleep and awake.  Time pauses, hesitates, hovers like a feather on an imperceptible breeze.

It is early and the line is long.  I expected that.  He was well-known and well-liked.  I take my place behind a friend, a friend of this friend.  We swap stories between starts and stops.  Stories are the life, after all.  Tales true and untrue, embellished or plumbed on the mark.  They keep the memory for as long as they are told.  Longer if someone takes the time to write them down.  A life is brief.  Words are the substance of eternity.

I turn over the words in my mind as we approach.  Lift them like smooth stones from the creek bottom.  Feel their heft.  Discard some.  Put a few good ones in my pocket.  Keep one or two of the very best in my hand.

First, the wife.  A natural Southern beauty who has lost a partner she has loved since high school.  Built a business.  Raised a family.  Maintained a quiet gracefulness throughout all these last months-weeks-days-hours-minutes-seconds.  She thanks me for coming.  Her eyes radiate weariness in waves like heat from Alabama asphalt in August.

“I’m very sorry,” I say.

The son is a big strapping guy, broad-shouldered and handsome.  Strong handshake,  pretty wife.  Recently passed the Bar.  The future will be much brighter than the present.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” I say.

Then momma.  I have met her on a few occasions, but I don’t recall ever having a direct conversation with her.

I am not prepared for momma.

“Ma’am I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m –”

She stops me cold.  “Of course I remember you.”

And then a remarkable thing.  This sweet little lady I hardly know puts her arms around me and lays her head on my shoulder.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  I told him, ‘you can’t go before me.’  It’s not right.  It’s not supposed to be this way.”

What does a man say to such as this?

Should I quote some cherry-picked Bible verse suitable for the occasion?  “Let not your heart be troubled…”

Perhaps a platitude.  “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” or “God must still have something important for you to do.”

Maybe something just downright stupid, like “I know how you feel.”

I am at a loss.  A man who places such value in words is without a good one.  Hands empty, pockets turned-out.

“Yessum,” I say.

It’s the best I can do in the moment.  It’s the best I can do now.

Nocturnus

waltz of death

Somewhere in the darkness.  I know not the hour, for there is no bedside analog, nor the ticking and tolling of the hour and half-hour that marked the passage of night from the mantle of my youth.  I may be awake or asleep, or in some space between where the conscious and subconscious dance the Valse triste, a bony hand lightly placed in the small of his fleshy partner’s back.  A light film of dust arises from the shuffle of sinew and bone across this ancient ballroom floor.

Everyone will waltz if they have seen enough sunsets.  The very young may be spared.  Not enough memories.  Balance sheet heavy on happiness, the burden of sadness and regret entered in pencil in the margin of their thin ledger.

Thirty-seven years gone by.  Few dreams of him until lately.

He is as I remember him, the age at which he passed.  I suppose it is cognitively impossible to remember someone older than they were, even more impossible to see yourself older than they.  I am younger in these dreams, even though the timeline is skewed or bent beyond the linear.

She is there too.  Young.  Aloof.  Oblivious.  Too pretty and unfettered to notice my presence in the shadows.  Or perhaps I know that she does, and this is the wound that will not heal.

These dreams are always a slant-wise remembrance, youthful sorrow.  More often the learning of sorrow, for such must be learned by the young.  The loss of an innocence, a summation or accumulation of singular events that make a young heart old before its time.

Always a moment, just when my heart begins to break, that I notice that he is at my side.  Never a word.  No expression.  No comfort or advice.  Just present.

I sometimes awake in a cold sweat, bearings lost for the moment, a solitary traveler seeking a trail-sign — a broken branch, a boot-print.  Passage through the dripping fog and darkness of an ancient forest.  My breath heavy.  Heart pierced.

In the light of day I am told that there is no point in looking back.  Best not go there.  Give no lodging to regrets.  The past cannot be altered and my time is thin.  She tells me I am beyond the mid-point, that I should focus on the days I have left.  No sense sifting through the ashes, looking for relics either happy or sad.  Eyes forward.  Make memories for those you will leave behind.

This is cheerful advice, meant-well and well-paid.  But the truth is our days past are all we do have.  A summation.  The one true mystery of the quotient.  Because a word spoken cannot be brought back across the lips onto a sharp tongue.  A sight will not be unseen, nor a sound unheard.  Acts forgiven, yes, but never forgotten.

A man cannot un-think a thought.

And so I am left with him in the night, unsettled and wondering at the meaning of his presence in this time and place, after so many years of absence.  Is he here to witness the sum of my sorrows, or simply to remind that I will be joining him soon?