Delta*

If you find yourself in downtown Delta don’t go looking for the river because it’s not close by.  No cotton, no corn, no rich alluvial farms that stretch out so far and flat that heat shimmers upward in waves in summer and a good shade tree and a cold drink of water might be worth a thousand bucks if you had it to spend.  No history of callused black hands picking cotton on the plantation, or of poor white tenants buying supplies on the promise of cotton prices that never seemed to pay-out at harvest time.  No dynasties in this Delta, be they Duck or otherwise.  You might find the Blues down at the crossroads, but don’t go expecting to make any deals with the devil for your guitar licks.  The Book says that even he has limited time, so he likely shops up the road in Anniston.

On the west side of Highway 9 you’ll find the post office and general store.  Not much on the shelves in store, and I wonder if a couple of thousand dollars might buy the entire inventory.  It does offer “Hunt Brothers Pizza!” and “Wing Bites!” — but you won’t find much to wash them down.  The coolers aren’t full and the selection of soft drinks is limited.  You won’t find a beer because Clay County is “dry,” one of few counties in Alabama still under prohibition.  Again, if you’re looking for a little sin head on up to Anniston.

Next door is the “Delta Mall,” an old-style brick and glass-front facade building that is empty but for a few items that look like they might pass for antiques.  A handmade sign near the door near reads “Come Buy Honey!”

I wonder where Honey lives, but there is no one to ask.

Across the highway is “G & S Auto Sales” which has no autos to sell.  Next to that is “Morrison Feed and Meat” which I assume has got a man covered from calf to freezer.

I head west of the crossroads and find the Clay County public lake, which offers fishing for three dollars a day.  Business is good for a weekday, and a man with a heavy stringer of bream looks to be getting his money’s worth.

Headed back I notice my friend The Land Man has a nice old farm for sale.  Sturdy country house with a big front porch.  I let my mind wander for a second and see the picture postcard potential.  A little sweat and diesel fuel would put that land back as it should be.  Add a porch swing and a dog or two and contentment is served at sunset every day.

Back at the crossroads I take a second look and notice that everything in Delta is neat as a pin.  Prosperity may have moved on down the road (if she ever lived here to begin with), but nothing looks run-down or neglected.  Mostly it looks lonesome, like some stray lyric in an old Hank Williams song.

Lonesome suited Hank in a convoluted way, and sometimes it suits me too.  I reckon we both believe that the best way to view it is in the rear view mirror as you head back out on the road.

 

*This piece originally appeared here in 2014.  According to the analytics on this site, it was read by more people than anything I have ever written — several thousand in one day.  Unfortunately, most of these readers carried torches and pitchforks because they felt I had been disrespectful to the community and the county.  I had no intentions of that whatsoever.

I have tried to be more careful with metaphors since.

 

Faraway (So Close)

Over the last couple of days the news has been dominated by the death of a famous athlete who was killed (along with his daughter and several other people) in a helicopter crash. There will be tributes, candlelight vigils and ribbons over the next few months.  It was a tragic loss of life, to be sure, but it’s a celebrity story and Americans are enamored with celebrity.

I read further down the page until I see the photo above.

Angel also died this weekend, when she was shot and killed by the police in a small Alabama town.  I don’t blame the cop who pulled the trigger, because she started firing as soon as the cruisers rolled up in the driveway at the trailer park.

Almost like she wanted to get shot.

The story indicated that Angel had one previous arrest for “obstructing governmental operations.”  Neighbors said that she had “mental problems.”  Others alleged drug use.  One neighbor was quoted as saying that he “hoped this meant peace and quiet would return to the neighborhood.”

I read each of the 35 comments below the electronic news story.  All political.  Bad cops.  Racial  implications.  Alabama politicians.  The mental health system. President Trump(?!?).  I read on, expecting someone to try and weave the Alabama and Auburn football rivalry into the commentary, but no one figured out how.  This the back-and-forth irrelevant nonsense of electronic anonymity.  The downfall of civility in America.

Just one comment:  “So sad.”

Indeed.

I know nothing of Angel’s story, but I cannot get that photo out of my mind.  She was younger than she looked, but still very pretty.  I am drawn to her eyes.  I magnify the photo as large as the computer will allow.

I see it.  Loneliness.  Darkness.  Hopelessness.  Sadness.  A brokenness that I am not sure can be fixed.  It’s a long, slow death spiral into the ground.  I see it because I’ve looked into eyes like that before, up close.

I’ve heard it said that things aren’t remembered if they aren’t written down.  I think that refers to people too.

Here are a few lines about Angel.  May she rest in peace.

 

 

 

Tender Things

I once helped a friend mark timber on his client’s small ownership near Auburn, Alabama.  Timber marking is forester lingo for painting a mark on each tree to be cut from a designated area of a forest.  It is a select cut or partial harvest, as opposed to a clear cut in which all trees are removed before reforestation.

The middle-aged landowner lived alone in a rustic cabin that he had designed and built himself.  He was a factory worker by day and a musician in a local band by night.  I would describe him as an “artsy” type, but I could just say he was an old hippie.  He gave us a quick tour of the cabin’s interior which was decorated with framed concert posters from the ’60’s and ’70’s, some of his own original paintings, and even handmade furniture.  I thought it was all pretty amazing, but I excused myself to walk the woods while my friend discussed business with his client.

Against my friend’s counsel, this nice man insisted that he wanted to sell only the largest, most valuable pine trees on his land.  He wanted none of the other trees cut or damaged in any way.

I suppose he was a gentle spirit with an empty wallet.

My friend chuckled a little as he gave me my instructions. “He wants you to mark the pines so that they can be cut tenderly. Those were his exact words. “I’d like it cut tenderly.'”

Now I am a forester by profession but I’m also a word-man, and though I wasn’t a part of the conversation with the owner, I would been compelled to teach a brief lesson in semantics.

Allow me to explain, dear reader.

Some tender things:

  • a mother’s touch;
  • a baby’s bottom;
  • a lover’s caress;
  • a butterfly kiss;
  • a nice filet;
  • a sprained ankle;
  • a broken heart.

Some things that are not so tender:

  • a cockfight;
  • a right uppercut to the chin;
  • a grizzly bear with cubs;
  • a T-bone steak at Waffle House;
  • a hornet’s nest;
  • a half-time speech when you’re down by three touchdowns;
  • a hickory switch;

And most importantly, a 90 foot tall pine tree when it is severed from the stump.

A pine tree this large will break, smash, cripple, maim, annihilate, or otherwise destroy anything it touches as it proceeds from the vertical to horizontal.  Don’t blame the logger, blame gravity — it’s the law, you know?

I have a feeling the musician sang the blues when his trees were cut.

I, however, sang a little tune as I marked them.  It went:

“Softly and tenderly
timber is falling,
Falling for you and for me…”

You have to be an old Baptist to get that joke.

 

A version of this story appeared here in 2009.

A Christmas Day

One Christmas stuck forever in a man’s mind, a memory like an old Polaroid in faded sepia tones.

It was ’65 or ’66.  Small living room in a little white clapboard house on Spring Street.  Hemmed-in by a hospital parking lot on one side and a creek ditch deep enough to hold a train car on the other.

A red cedar Christmas tree in the corner, cut from somebody’s fence row out in the country in a time when folks didn’t mind you doing things like that.  Decorated with a string of popcorn, a lot of tinsel, and some of those big colored lights that appear to be back in fashion.  A few store-bought ornaments, but mostly construction-paper Christmas shapes and candy canes.

Presents under the tree, some wrapped in fancy printed paper, others in simple colored tissue.  A hand-made Christmas stocking hanging from the mantel, just below a wooden Nativity scene.

A boy got up about 4:30, because he could no longer lie still and listen to the mantel clock strike the hour and half hour.  Presents from Santa arranged on the oak floor in front of the tree.  Cowboy hat, gun belt, and two shiny cap-gun six shooters.  A Jellystone Park set complete with Yogi, Boo Boo, and Ranger Smith.  A bag of plastic army soldiers, enough to have his own little Vietnam just like the one he could see on a 12-inch black and white every evening at six.  Other small items, now forgotten.  The Christmas stocking yielded an orange, a few pecans, and a roll of Life Savers.

It was a great year. A BIG haul. Important to a boy in a working-class family in Alabama in the ’60’s.

Why?  Because that was pretty much it for that year, with the exception of a couple of presents on his birthday.

That’s what made a boy think about Christmas all year.

“No’s” and “put it backs” filled the rest of the year.  The boy was a man before he realized the reason — there wasn’t any extra money back then.  Money kept the lights on.  Kept gas in the car to get to work and back.  Kept food in the refrigerator.  Kept up hope that the refrigerator held out another year or two.  Christmas required sacrifice.

Different world now.  A man’s kids never understood.  A man’s grand kids have no chance of understanding.  A single trip to Target can trump that ’60’s Christmas.

But then again, that ’60’s boy had more in his stocking than his parents had on their Christmases.

Don’t misunderstand this little tale.  The man isn’t complaining about his childhood, or bemoaning the prosperity that allowed him to buy gifts for his grandchildren this year that cost more than his daddy made in a month back in ’66.

It’s just a memory a man will replay tonight, as he does every year.  All lights off except for the tree.  Aware of the time going by.  Trying to get that ’66 feeling back.

Here’s to your Christmas memory.  If you don’t have one, make it this year.

Life from the Porch

porch

“This is Catherine Hinds.  Buddy wanted me to call and let you know that he seen a turkey this morning come out across the road from our house, a gobbler, and he went back in the woods going toward your place.  He wanted me to call and tell you.  Seen his beard hanging down.  I thought I’d call and tell you.  This is Catherine Hines and my phone number is XXX-XXX-XXXX.  It’s uh…What time is it?  It’s 12:03, is what time it is.  Thought I’d call and tell you.  Bye.”

This was on my voicemail last Friday.

Catherine and Buddy are my neighbors.  The live in the next to the last house before the last house on a rutted-up red clay road.

She is 89, he 92.  They are porch-sitters.  Neither can hear well, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with their eyesight.  Nothing comes down that road without notice.

Needless-to-say, I don’t have a security system.  Be a waste of good money.

The last time I stopped and visited (which was way too long ago), we all sat on the porch and talked turkey.  Mostly the lack thereof.  I bemoaned the fact that the wild turkey had disappeared in the last couple of years.  Every Fall for 20 years I watched droves of hens pass through green fields and oak flats as I waited for a glimpse of a deer.  Every Spring, gobbling like thunder on ridges all around.  Now I can’t even find a track.  Buddy, who has lived on this same plot of ground his entire life (except for the War, of course), was just as perplexed.

Thus, the reason for the voicemail — turkey sighting.

The Redhead and I stopped and visited the next day to thank Ms. Catherine for the call.  The ladies chatted while Buddy and I hashed-out our theories about the mysterious turkey decline.

The conversation soon turned to the community.

Catherine said we have new neighbors in the next house back up the road.  They keep to themselves.  Looks like they’re going to be good neighbors.

Wednesday is her “go to town” day.  The grocery store is a good one.  It used to be a Food Town.  Now it’s Renfroe’s, but she said she still calls it Food Town because that was the name for so many years.  She knows everybody that works there by name and they know her too.  It’s not a big store, but they have everything you need.  Meat’s good too.

Buddy said the timber on the Nelson place just up the road was recently cut.  Billy Dennis cut it. Buddy knew his daddy.  He was a fine man.  Lived about three miles up the road.  Died about ten years ago.  The lady who owns that land now lives up north somewhere.  She was a Boone, you know, before she got married.  This country used to be just slam eat-up with Boones.  She stopped last time she was down.  Wanted some red berries off that bush out back.  Told her that she could have the whole damn thing if she wanted to dig it up.  Her land, now, they sure skinned that place, but Billy said they were going to set it back out or seed it with pines or however they do that stuff next Winter.  He couldn’t remember it looking so “clean” since they used to farm it.

This goes on without pause the next thirty minutes, a seemingly random conversation, but really a chain of thoughts, each link leading to the next topic, all within a few miles from the house.

We eventually excuse ourselves.  Our dogs are in the truck and we need to “get on down the road.”

Buddy said what he always does.  “You’ll stop again next time you pass.”

We have to pass to get to our house.

I tell the Redhead that Buddy and Catherine have a better life than us.

She doesn’t understand my thinking, can’t see how I could believe such a thing.  Just two old folks living in a little house on the same plot of ground for the last sixty years.

I see it differently.  No computer.  No cellphone.  No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest.  No Fox, CNN, MSNBC.  No Left, Right, Center.  No Trump, Peolsi, Biden, Bernie.  No Venezuela, China, North Korea.  Not much interest in the workings of the world more than a few miles from home.

Really not much interest in anything that can’t be seen from the porch.

All they have is each other.  It’s their world, and that suits them just fine.

I think that’s about as good as life can get.

Moonstruck

moonstruck

A friend of mine wrote a short piece about a Parhelion, which I had never heard of.  You should read it here.

In our subsequent email conversation about the phenomenon, she wrote that she was surprised that her local newspaper didn’t have a photo.

I’m not.

I’d wager that nobody down at the paper saw it.

I don’t think anyone looks at the sky much anymore.  They’re too busy looking at their phone.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a thirtysomething man out on a timber yard.  I happened to notice that a full moon was rising.

“Look at that,” I said.  “It is going to be bright tonight.  My dogs will bark all night if I don’t put them up.”

“Wow,” he said.  “I didn’t know you could see the moon in the daytime.”

I didn’t know what to make of that.  Still don’t.

We weren’t in New York or L.A.  This is Alabama, where we still have plenty of sky to go ’round.  This young man is well-educated and spends a lot of his working life outdoors.

Apparently he doesn’t look up much.

A lot of people think we are living in the greatest time in history.  I reckon there is some truth in that notion.  Technology has information at our fingertips, 24/7.

Still, I can’t help but wonder where things are headed when people stop looking at the sky.

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.