The Lunatic

The lunatic sits under the firmament, waiting for the appointed time.

Tonight, both sides of the moon dark.  A blood-moon.  Blood cries from sky as well as the ground.

In a little patch of pasture grass between stands of pine, darkness falls slowly then all at once.  Thunder off to the northwest, air heavy but cool.  Sky thick with clouds.

The first lightning-bugs of the year hover along the tree line.  A visage that once meant empty pickle jars with hole-poked lids.  Remembered days of daisy chains and laughs.  Does it mean anything now?

We are refugees from Babel.  Once sky-gazers, mumbling in strange tongues.  Huddled by fires against the darkness outside animal-skinned shelters.  Looking for a sign from the sky.  Now screen-gazers huddled inside, forsaking all but strange truths.

The appointed time passes, and the clouds will not part. 

The Book says “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign.”

The bulldog sighs. 

“Okay,” I say.  “Let’s go to bed.”

Stone Blue

For Ellen

A long time ago when my youngest son was around 14 years old, a tragedy happened in our community.  A girl, too young to have a driver’s license, borrowed her parents’ car keys for a joy ride.  She picked up four friends who slipped out of their homes and sped away into an Alabama summer night.  Wild and free, the yearning of a teenaged heart and the fear in every parent’s.

The drive ended on a stretch of blacktop where the road just seems to fall away.  I imagine they were looking for that feeling, the one you get at the top of the rollercoaster just before you drop into the abyss, but they never made it.  The car left the road at the crest of the hill and smashed through the trees on the side slope.  Two little girls were killed. One of them was my son’s classmate.

There was an outpouring of community grief, especially at the school.  Soon a little memorial appeared on the shoulder where the car left the road.  Flowers. Photos.  Little handmade crosses.  A place where classmates gathered to cry and leave notes to their friend on colorful scraps of paper.

A few days after I drove my son past the crash site.

And then I said a hard thing.

“It’s nice that the girls are still crying and you’ll have made this for your classmate.  The emotions are all fresh and raw and it seems like she will never be forgotten.  But the truth is, all this stuff will be gone in six months.  In a few years you’ll have a hard time remembering what she looked like, and not long after that you won’t remember her at all unless someone mentions her name.  You will never totally forget, but you won’t really remember, either.”

It was a blunt and maybe too soon, but I tried to teach my sons the hard truths of life early — what was coming as they grew into men.  In this instance about how life goes on after tragedy, transcending the moment.

I knew this from experience.

I think she was a couple of years younger than me.  Shoulder-length auburn hair and skin covered with freckles.  What I call “country-girl pretty.”  Jeans and t-shirt pretty.  Long, lanky, athletic.  A girl you would pick first on a cool October Friday night when a scratch game of coed touch football broke out on the church lawn.  Or ask to the Spring dance if you had the courage.

She liked good music.  What’s called “classic rock” today was the soundtrack of our lives then.  When most of the girls were Bee Gees and Barry Manilow, she was Zeplin and Skynyrd.  I thought that was cool.    

She liked a group called Foghat.  Especially a song not heard today because it wasn’t a big hit.  But it got some airtime in ’78, and I remember some of the lyrics:

Wind tearin’ through the backstreet, I hear the rhythm of my heartbeat
Rain blowin’ in my face, I’m tired of being in the wrong place
Turn up the radio higher and higher, rock and roll music set my ears on fire

When I was stone blue, rock and roll sure helped me through

She died one rainy Friday night when a drunk swerved across the center line and hit her car head-on.  Her friend in the passenger seat survived, but it was touch and go for a while.  Some called it a miracle.

I heard the news, but I had been away at college for a while.  I wasn’t there for the memorials and the grieving.  It was sad, but I was detached from it, and after a while most of my memories just faded away.

The song lived on.  Whenever I have heard it over the years it brings back those scant memories.  I think of the lyrical irony.  In my mind’s eye I see her tearing down that rainy highway, heart beating wild and free.  Foghat in the 8-track, volume cranked-up higher and higher.

Mostly I think about her being in the wrong place.

My memory is stone blue, and I wonder if it is so neglected and faded that the details are no longer accurate.  So much time has passed.

When the song ends life goes on, transcending the moment.  I never totally forget, but I don’t really remember, either.

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?

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.