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.

 

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.

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.

Toughness

summer heat

I spent some time today in the seat of my John Deere, mowing pasture that has been mowed twice and will likely be mowed again before the end of August.  It is hot, dusty work, but I like seat-time because it is think time.  Not worrisome thoughts, just mental meandering through the uncut meadows of my mind.

Today I did some thinking about the heat.  Specifically summer in Alabama.  Not for the faint of heart.

The weather apps I have on my phone and the television weather people advise that it will be 92 degrees at two o’clock but it will actually feel like 105 degrees.

Well thanks for that.  Blesses my heart to know that I should be feeling hotter than I already do.

My thoughts turned to the last few weeks.  I spent my days teaching some young folk a little about forestry and logging.  They are “millennial” or “Gen Xers” or “Gen whatevers.”  I can’t keep up with all the classifications.  I could Google it, but it doesn’t interest me enough to bother with a few key-strokes to even do that.

I thought they were a bit whiny.  Actually, a lot whiny.

“It’s too hot out here.”

“You walk too fast.”

“Can we stop at the store?”

I rather liked that.  I am tough.  They are weak.  Can’t keep pace with the old man.

My generation’s view of the next.  Spoiled.  Can’t take it.  The “I got a trophy for showing  up” generation.  Comes out quickly in the Alabama sun.

The tractor and my mind turn down a new trail.  It’s old ground, but sometimes my thoughts need to cover old ground to be put right.

My daddy worked outside most of his life.  The cars and pick-up trucks he drove never had air conditioning.  So far as I know, he bought the first air conditioner he owned when I was about five, a “window unit” that we ran until bedtime.  Electricity cost money, and we didn’t have an abundance of that.

His daddy was a carpenter who worked outside all of his life.  Had a house with high ceilings and a floor fan with blades roughly the size of a Cessna propeller.

His daddy had no electricity because it hadn’t made it to the country.  High ceilings, shade trees and rain the only respite.

His daddy had nothing.  I have a list of his net worth when he applied for his Confederate pension at age 69.  It included 40 acres, one log cabin, four hogs, a clock, household furniture, and a few farming tools.  Total value $130.  Maybe some shade in the yard.  Hopefully a cool water creek on that 40 or at least not too far away.

Toughness is relative, by summertime heat or any other gauge by which we use to measure.

Supposed to be hot again tomorrow, but I don’t feel so tough tonight.

Psalms

psalms tree

My sacred ground is a little clearing in the bottomland along a creek with no name.  I come here almost every day.  Sometimes I linger a bit.  Others I simply turn back toward a home on the hill.

The tree I call “Psalms.”  A water oak that has clung to the bank of No-Name for at least a hundred years.  Just a sapling when this bottomland was all corn.  Feed for the horses and mules.  A few barrels of meal and some roasting ears.  Maybe some traded to a family of famous bootleggers who still live over the ridge, the last now too old to do anything but piddle around the yard, tending fruit trees and flower beds.

Psalms will lose the battle with gravity one day when a hundred-year flood undercuts the bank.  I hope that I am not alive to see it.

Because this is sacred ground.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

Two graves here, each covered with field stone.  One for a companion, a dog that I loved more than most people.  The second a sweet little lady who never was anything but.  I had her put down sixth-months ago, before the suffering of ruined hips became more than she or I could bear.

I have cried four times that I can recall in the last 40 years.  The first when I lost my dad.  The second when I found that some certainties are not.  The third and fourth over these two small graves.  Biblical crying.  Great sobs and blubbering.  Sorrowful moans worthy of sackcloth and ashes.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

He brought her here six years ago, because he is like me and this spot is sacred to him too.  Got down on a knee and asked her to be his wife.  A happy day, the kind that sticks with you forever.  Love that clings tenaciously to the bank of the river of your heart.

I came here today, as I am accustomed to do on a Sunday afternoon.  Two little ones riding along behind me in a pull-cart.  They look at trees and butterflies.  Ask a lot of questions.  Throw rocks and sticks into the creek.  My stony heart smiles.

It is written that an ancient Hebrew put up a stone on his sacred ground, a place where he met with God.

I have no stone, but I have Psalms.

Weeds

butterfly

The softness of twilight covers a multitude of sin.

A sunset ride through the open fields and along the woods trails.  Early spring growth hiding the depredations of winter.  A downed tree here.  Broken branches there.  Saplings leaned over.  Grass already knee-high, dappled with scatterlings of milkweed and thistle and flowers I cannot name.

My mount does not balk, but I must stop often to clear the path.  Unlike her namesake, she is reckless and her footing unsure.  Her name is Kawasaki.

These paths were clear last fall.  The grass was short.  My heart sighs.

Mother despises what we call neatness.  She will not tolerate it.  Tenderness is not in her vocabulary.

Establish.  Nurture.  Destroy with violence.

The Redhead despises what we call chaos.  She will tolerate, but not quietly.

Maintain neatness with equal violence.  Bush hog and drip-torch.

I will clear trails, fully aware that I will do so again and again and again, ’til death do us part.  Whether she or Mother, it matters not.

I will mow the fields even though I know what hides the rattlesnake also feeds the butterfly.

Because a thousand disappointed butterflies are better than one disappointed Redhead.

A Good Cup of Coffee

A Good Cup of Coffee

I made a semi-annual visit to my cardiologist a few days ago.  Semi-annual because my family tree has heart-rot, and this fellow has made it his personal challenge that I not die on his watch, at least of any cardio-related illnesses.  I sometimes think if I got hit by a truck it would take some of the pressure off him.

The worst part of these exams is the prerequisite blood work.  They are “fasting labs,” meaning that I am not supposed to let anything other than water cross my lips after midnight.  Doable except for one small detail:  they always schedule the blood-letting mid-morning.

I have mentioned here before that I am an early riser.  I can skip breakfast, but I absolutely require one thing.  Coffee.  Hot, black, strong, and now.

I always survive until the appointed time, but let’s just say I am not good company.

Blood-suckers satisfied, I always treat myself.  I head for the nearest Waffle House.

I was working on my second cup, waiting for a fried egg sandwich (take that cardiologist), when I glanced at the parking lot.  A lady was hobbling toward the door, struggling to manage the trip on crutches.  Her knee-high cast looked brand new.

I got up and opened the door for her.

“Oh, thank you so much.  I’m really scuffling to get used to these things.”

I told her it was no problem at all.  Glad to help.

I know a little about navigating with crutches.  Surgeries on both feet and a knee.  My first go-round was interrupted when I fell down some stairs.  Broke my right wrist and my left elbow.  The surgeon said, “you are not supposed to go down stairs on crutches.”

Thanks Doc., I kind of figured that out.

I helped the lady get seated at a booth and went back to my coffee.

When I finished my third cup and sandwich, I went to the front to settle-up.

“It’s been taken care of, sir.”

It didn’t register.  I just stood there.  I think I even offered the money again.

“No, your bill has already been paid.”

Dumbfounded, I was nearly outside before it registered.

“You didn’t need to do that ma’am.”

“My pleasure.  Now you have a blessed day.”

I did have a blessed day, mostly from a renewed faith that there are still some very nice folks hobbling along in an increasingly self-centered, broken society.

They say that coffee isn’t good for you.

I think they are wrong.  It was good for me.