On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cheek by Jowl: A Southern Story

    I was there when they died.
     I had worked there summers my junior and senior year in high school and most weekends, picking up trash around the place, mowing and gardening, doing whatever Joe Fred wanted. He liked to order me around, sitting in a sloping lawn chair, his navy blue dress pants pressed sharp, his white shirt unbuttoned at the neck.
     "Boy, you tend to the bean runners properly. They'll rot if you let them drag on the ground. I've never seen such stupid, slovenly work."
     Miss Frances would get him all wound up the way she'd pick at him, so he'd get on me or on the servant girl Liz.
     Joe Fred was a real dude, his hair barbered every two weeks, his shoes pissy clean, just like he was a man of fortune when all he was was Miss Frances's dog. She'd taken him on to work for her years ago, out of the gutter, really, my mama said, when his drinking was terrible. His family was educated, though Joe Fred was not. He couldn't settle to anything, studies or a job, and that with his father being the headmaster of a small private school. His brother had done all right, though, retired from the Forestry Service; he didn’t have much to do with Joe Fred. Only Miss Frances, now so old she was like a dry tea leaf, had settled him down.
     Each morning, Miss Frances would call Joe Fred into the large front parlor to go over accounts. Joe Fred collected eggs from a few chickens along with the vegetables he raised, with my labor, and sold the eggs to a local grocery store and the vegetables to truck farmers for their roadside stands. She'd count the money and hand over Joe Fred's percentage.
     Miss Frances had plenty of money. No children, an old maid, but she had three nieces she hated who wanted the big house and whatever else they could lay claim to. Miss Frances showed them the door regularly.
     Joe Fred always acted fierce like he owned the place. He was disrespectful to Miss Frances in front of her, calling her names under his breath like "pecky sparrow" and "old creaky bones." If she heard, she ignored him. But she'd complain to him about things. If he took an occasional snort, she called him a "drunken sot." She told him he was lazy and didn't get enough work out of Liz or me.
     "I've got dust kittens under my bed," she'd shriek in her funny old lady voice. And Joe Fred would get Liz to take a swipe with a dirty mop to please her. He never actually disobeyed her. Miss Frances couldn’t stand to be contradicted.
     The upstairs was filthy. It had been shut up for years and was nothing but a storage bin for old furniture and junk. Except the attic where Joe Fred lived. I'd been there once at Miss Frances's command to locate Joe Fred.
     "Probably nursing a hangover," she said, her voice matter-of-fact. I was not supposed to say a word about him though.
     I picked my way through the stacks of chairs, boxes, an old organ, several dressers and cupboards to find the door to the third floor. I had to go up a winding, narrow stairway lighted from afar by the window in Joe Fred's little room. He had made a place for himself in a section of the attic. He was laid out that day, bathed in fumes from the whiskey. He didn't always smell of drink. Just on his bad days
     Toward the end of that last summer, I was mowing and it was hot. I had permission to come in for lemonade mixed up by Liz and kept in a pitcher in the refrigerator. Liz had gone to her duties in another section of the house so I was alone when I heard raised voices from the front parlor. I eased my way through the darkened back parlor, never used as far as I could tell, and stood by the open door, listening shamelessly. Miss Frances and Joe Fred were arguing.
     But Miss Frances’s voice was weak and at first I could catch only a word now and then: "draw up papers," and "legal and binding." Then I distinctly heard her say, "you’ll marry me." I peeked around the corner and saw that she had leaned forward, staring up into Joe Fred’s face.
     At those words he reared back as if she’d struck him, muttering something. Miss Frances went on, clearer now, her kazoo voice all in her throat. "My nieces won’t get a thing." She said something about "common law," and I figured she was setting up a marriage and a will that couldn’t be broken, that involved Joe Fred in a way he couldn't abide.
     He’d begun to pace in short steps in front of her, this way and that. He reminded me of a polar bear I’d seen at the Zoo, confined to a tiny cage in the heat of the summer. All he could do was take a step or two and turn, over and over, in his frustration and anguish.
     Then Joe Fred paused and shouted, "I won’t do it. You can’t tie me up like that!"
     Miss Frances started to rise from her chair, holding out a tiny claw to catch at him, but he fended her off, shoving her backwards. She fell with a snap of her head into a corner of the chair, a bundle of lace and bones.
     I crept back into the kitchen. I had finished my drink and put my glass in the sink when Joe Fred came in. He had a funny look on his face.
     "I guess you'd better call someone. The old thing has had a stroke maybe, maybe died, I think. I don't feel so good. I'll be in my room." He turned and went up the back stairway from the kitchen to the second floor to avoid the parlor, I guessed.
     The phone was in the front hall, and after dialing 911, I slipped into the parlor and saw that Miss Frances was in the same collapsed position. I went back to the kitchen to wait for someone to come. Soon, Liz started screaming. She had come from somewhere in the house and discovered her mistress. She ran into the kitchen with wild eyes. I told her we had to wait, and we sat at the kitchen table without saying a word. Once I thought I heard some commotion upstairs or maybe outside, but I didn't think much of it.
     They came with sirens blaring. I ran out to the driveway and noticed Joe Fred right away. He was lying on the sidewalk. For a minute I couldn't get it straight. I thought he’d tripped, hit his head. I wondered how he’d come out without me knowing. I remember thinking, "The front door?" The ambulance driver saw the blood.
     "Is this the casualty?" he asked me, stooping over the body. "Must have come from that window up there." He pointed to the open attic window and then leaned toward Joe Fred's face to examine the wound. "Dead all right, broken neck. And smells like a distillery. Must have lost his balance and tumbled out."
     I didn't say anything.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

JFK, Charlton Heston, Johnny Cash, et al: Close Encounters of the Famous Kind

First of all, I am not a celebrity hound.  In fact, I go out of my way to appear unfazed at the appearance of anyone of note who comes within my ken, and there have been more than a few.  Living for many years as I have in the Nashville area, celebrities are bound to show up no matter where one goes.  At one time, our suburb boasted over sixty country music stars in residence, including Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Barbara Mandrell, and Boots Randolph.  (Tammy Wynette lived two doors down from our first house, and William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys lived across the street from our second one.)
    My own personal experience with celebrities began earlier, however, after my January graduation from high school in Des Moines, Iowa ( at that time they had midyear students).  I didn’t want to start college until the fall, so I got a job in the advertising department of the Des Moines Register and Tribune.  One day a buzz went around the office that Charlton Heston was in the building and would be signing autographs in a certain room at a certain time.  My co-workers all wanted to see him up close, so I too went along out of curiosity.   
    The great actor was in his prime then, having just finished making The Ten Commandments, but my first glimpse of him after standing (foolishly, I felt) in a long line was a little disappointing.  He had on a khaki jacket and casual shirt, sitting behind a desk and looking singularly bored.  Finally, I approached him, standing mutely by his side.  I don’t think he more than glanced at me before he signed his name on a tiny slip of paper.  The only other thing I recall as he bent his head to write was seeing a wart on his neck.  Then it was over.  I put the slip away in my box of mementos, along with letters from old boyfriends and dance programs.  As time went on, those mementos got thrown out, as did the autograph.
Jeanne seated in the communications tent
    A few years later, my husband and I were living in Cedar Rapids where I was employed in the business office of the telephone company.  One day, my manager tapped me and two other account representatives to take charge of the communications tent at a multi-state event called the Corn Picking Contest.  President Eisenhower would be there to say a few words to the crowd of over 100,000, and also putting in an appearance was the Democrat hopeful for the upcoming election, Senator John F. Kennedy.  The communications tent was a hub of activity in those low-tech days, for all the reporters called in news from one of the many phone booths in the large tent.  I and my co-workers would then get a call-back from the operator with charges. 
    Soon after we got set up, a flurry of activity outside the yet virtually empty tent heralded the arrival of someone important.  In walked a tall gentleman, who scanned the area, followed by the man himself.  Senator Kennedy immediately spotted us at our desks and with a friendly (and no doubt practiced) smile approached us with hand outstretched.  He introduced himself and chatted briefly about the venue and then departed.  It was over in a few minutes, but later I could say I shook the hand of a President of the United States in a rather intimate setting.  As far as Ike was concerned, I only saw him from a distance when someone lifted me onto the bed of a truck for a minute when he was speaking.
    It wasn’t until several years later that we made our home in Tennessee and I again came face to face with notables.  As I mentioned, this area was a hotbed of celebrities of a certain kind–and still is to a lesser extent today.  Shortly after taking up residence in the town, which was only about 16,000 at the time (it’s now about 50,000), I took our young boys to a small public pool.  It was there that I began to see Johnny Cash with his (or rather June’s) daughters, about the same age as my sons.   No one ever paid any attention to him, and he usually wandered around the perimeter while the girls swam.  I liked to take a rug and sit on the nearby grassy bank.  Occasionally, he also sat down, sometimes close, sometime far from me.  He might nod a little greeting, but never spoke; nor did I.  Hardly the man in black, he invariably wore jump suits in various colors.
    In reflecting about these brushes with the famous, I’ve decided that though we get a kick out of mentioning our encounters, they are really quite meaningless; we know these people are no different from anyone else, only more accomplished in certain areas.  One can admire them for their talents or even for their character, if indicated, such as my observation recently of Reba McEntire at a local restaurant.  As is my wont, I refused to stare, but I couldn’t help but observe that when she saw a young sailor dining alone, she sent word for him to join her party.  It was a thoughtful, entirely unnecessary act, one that probably went unnoticed by most people in the restaurant, but it will always color my regard for her.  That kind of memory is more meaningful, from my standpoint, than clustering around for an autograph that will probably fade or get lost over time.