Friday, April 30, 2010


Image from the Internet

My childhood friend Gloria lived in a creaky-board old house, around-a-block-and-down-the-block from Mammaw’s house---in exactly the same place on that block. But it could have been in another town or another country, compared to Mammaw’s neat yard full of flowers and brick edgings and that huge, bountiful garden out back which supplied three families’ freezers.

Gloria’s house was a ratty old thing, much bigger than Mammaw’s---good thing, for Mammaw’s three-room shotgun did well to house the four of them (and I STILL don’t know where they all slept). And Gloria had five brothers, to whom could have been laid the broken windows, the hangy-down screendoors, the screens like rump-sprung skirts, flappy-cornered on the big three-sides porch, and the absolutely naked yard all around---foot-stomped and body-slammed every day of the week.

In the Summer, the boys all slept on pallets on that porch, under those huge old trees for the cool of the night, and I don’t know how they lived through it---the screens were dark-rust blankety things, so stretched and so clogged with grime that they sucked in and out like old curtains whenever the wind blew. They were certainly not attached to the rims in enough places to foil the hordes of mosquitoes which inhabited that yard from dusk til dawn.

They lived just down the street from the “flowin’ well” and we loved to go down there and let the coldcold water run over our bare feet after we’d sorta rinsed our hands enough to cup them full of that wonderful water and get a good long drink. The “well” was an artesian flow, from a big curved red pipe, gushing out onto an area of flat pavers laid so you could walk up and fill a jug or a bucket. And in my childhood, quite a few people still did “go get water” every morning and night, up to and including for dishwashing and their baths.

The flat stones were slick and mossy in places, with the onslaught of the water making the little growth of green wave and sway like the face-fur of a dog in a car window. I’d sit on the low brick wall, watching the hypnotic dance of the green stuff, thinking how it looked like the seaweed in movies we’d seen, trancing myself into being underwater, swimming down deep.

We’d dare each other to walk the bricks, clinging tight with our toes to the slick surfaces, trying to make it past the slippery outskirts, treacherous with moss, to take one quick leap without our feet sliding out from under us, and to land in the drier grass past the ledge.

One year Gloria had a party on her birthday. I was nine, and the day is marked for me, for I never knew her to have one before, and I was the only guest. I was at Mammaw’s for the weekend, having arrived on Friday after school, and she came over and invited me on Saturday morning. Like a kid, I thought nothing of the short notice, and Mammaw got out her pocketbook and gave me a little money out of her old black snap-top change-purse.. My heart lifted when she pulled several dollars out of that tiny stronghold, but she fished around down in there and handed me four quarters, one by one.

I went to Aunt Lou’s store and pondered my choices; socks were a possibility, as were underwear in those days---we thought nothing of wrapping up a pretty pair of panties for a girlfriend’s present, and since the boxes almost always looked the same as handkerchief boxes, a discreet word to the honoree, and she’d hold up the box, say who it was from with a smile, and to the laughter of all boys present, and then slide the unopened box under her chair.

A little glass bottle, much like those in the big grocery spice-racks today, with a foil-wrapped stick of Zia cologne inside was a popular gift---I can still smell the acrid-sweet of those, as well as hear the little muffled cloomp as you shook the bottle in your hand. There was also the choice of a nylon “neck-scarf”—a foot-square scrap of nylon, mostly solid, but sometimes in checks; we all had several colors, and wore them tied off to the side of our necks, kinda like cowboys, but WAY chic.

I finally settled on a little year-diary with a tiny lock and a poodle-charm on the keychain. I appeared at the appointed time, expecting to see a table with the crinkly white paper tablecloth with HAPPY BIRTHDAY around the edges, and a balloon or two flanking the cake-with-pink-roses, which was all I had ever seen for a girl’s birthday. (Except, of course, for the cakes made and decorated at home with a set of grocery-store letters in those hanging packages, those squeezed-out-tiny-points of rock-hard icing, spelling out Happy Birthday, with a few matching candle-holders which didn’t fit any candle known to man). Those were mostly for boys, in awful color combinations like yellow and brown, and featuring rocket ships or lassos.

The cake sat on the same old bird-spattered, faded-to-gray wood picnic table we sat at most afternoons (well-scrubbed and hosed down earlier, with the dirt still damp beneath our feet). It was a “bought cake” all right, but it was an odd little thing.

Aunt Lou’s shelves always held a half-dozen or so of those---white cake, which you could plainly see through the cellophane, for they were like you’d made a LONG loaf cake,with frosting between the two layers and all around top and sides, and cut it into six-inch sections, with two cut sides naked.

There were no games or contests, unless you counted her brothers’ whooping dashes around the yard, or their swinging all up into the trees, or wrestling each other in that damp dirt.We just talked for a while at the table, sitting on those splintery planks attached to the X of the table-legs. There were no candles, but we sang, and then she took the cellophane off the cake, cut it lengthwise in half, and those each into four slices. She deftly placed the slices on eight plates, DARED her brothers to touch them, and opened the two little square cartons of “ice milk” with their dark green cardboard sides. It was fifteen cents a carton, I remember, for Mammaw might send me around the block for one now and then, to divide amongst us three for an after-supper treat.

She cut the cartons open, then sliced each little block into four. When she’d placed the first block on a plate, she directed one of the boys to “take that to Mama,” and he disappeared into the house with it. We all then ate our cake and ice cream and talked a bit around the table before the boys dived back into yelling fists-and-elbows action, I suppose showing off for the party guest.

I remember every moment of that party, as if it’s a movie I’ve watched so many times I can repeat the dialogue. My most vivid memory of it, though, is when Gloria’s Mama finally came outside; she’d stood holding the screendoor open for a moment, just framed there in her faded loose dress, then came gingerly down the steps toward us.

She collapsed into the big faded-red lawn chair, and said she hoped I’d enjoyed Gloria’s party. I said I really had, and was glad I was there that weekend. She sat, feet outstretched, regarding her immensely-swollen feet and ankles, and said, “
She just told me about it this mornin’ and I wish she’d have give me more notice. I coulda cooked up some chicken-backs or somethin’.”

The simple resignation and acceptance and open-handed generosity in those words have haunted me for decades.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Carlisle Emerson wrote for the paper. It defined her. She walked with a different walk than she would have if she’d just been Jimmy Frank’s wife, or Breedlove’s mother.

She was presumed to know more than she did, to have inside info on things that had happened or things that were gonna happen. She was thought of in a special way, somehow, for her inside track on social doin’s, on who just got out of the hospital or who had walked quietly out of jail on the hushhush on account of their friendship with Sheriff Cope Samuels.

And she was given a lot of credit for talents and knowledge she didn’t possess---her being able to put verb to subject and name twelve kinds of wedding-dress lace and nine ways to describe the same old church altar with the same old brass “accoutrements”---well, those just gave her a bit too much credit in other areas, such as life. But still, somehow, people looked up to her, just for her tiny bit of local fame---she got calls all the time, requesting a recipe, help with wording a letter, asking etiquette and even travel questions, because, you know, "She writes for the PAPER."

She was a quite attractive woman, with a short, shiny Hamillbob, WAY after Hamill had retired hers. Carlisle’s wonderful laugh, the not-obnoxious way she chewed her Doublemint, the way her two eyeteeth sat just a LITTLE way sidewise to her cuspids, giving her smile just enough of that charming little oddity which renders certain people almost magnetic---these all added to the charm of her presence.

She had a way of pausing in mid-snap, grinning in the levity of the moment, gleaming at you with an open-faced acceptance and eager look, giving you her full attention.

She wore pastels---pretty pantsuits from Goldsmith’s with pale, matching shells and her gold chain of 10 mm. gold balls, which Jimmy Frank always remembered to add to on special holidays and anniversaries, and her scent was always of mint, good shampoo, and just the teensiest hint of Royal Secret. She could be seen often in her garden, crisp-ironed shirt tucked into even crisper-creased shorts, hoeing and tending her roses just as she looked after the butterbeans and cucumber vines. She had calluses on her palms from gardenwork, and the beginnings of tiny fingerpad ones from typing on the same old Olivetti which she had lugged off to Ole Miss the day she left home for Freshman Rush.

Her Mama was in Golden Years, on the second floor---the one with keys for the elevator and windows with little grates on them; old Mrs. Breedlove thought she was nine again, and regularly tried to scoot out her window at night, to head for the long-demolished treehouse where she and her friends used to sneak off to polish their nails, tell long, complicated love stories featuring themselves and whichever movie star caught their fancy of the moment, and pretend to smoke, finger-waving Leo sticks and blowing airily skyward as their Mamas did. Once in a while one of the girls would sneak a cig from her Mama’s flip-up case, and they’d pass it around unlit, sucking in the acrid dry brown taste of a Kent or the cool throat-tingle of a Salem.

Mrs. B. had loved nicotine, any kind, any form, from the first drag on the first ratty old Camel she’d had the nerve to filch from her Grandpa’s couch-stash. She smoked, she put a little dip of Garrett between cheek and gum, and in her Grandpa's last days, long after she'd married and had Carlisle and her two sisters, she'd join Grandpa in a chaw of Red-Man now and then, after his emphysema got so bad he had to quit the Camels. She DID draw the line at spitting into the coffeecan, though---she wouldn't even touch it. She’d get up from talking to him, go into the bathroom, spit, flush, wash her hands, and return.

And her attempts on the window of her room had nothing to do with real escape or even her Alzheimer’s. When she was nine, she’d SMOKED, and she STILL wanted one, Dammit. And the wanting did not wane; her greedy-need sent her to that window in her gown every night, knowing that her friends were out there in the tree already, but there was no escape from either the craving or the Home.
She'd forgotten a lot of things: her preacher, her neighbors, quite a few relatives, her address. But she NEVER forgot Nicotine---she had gobbled it in every form for a great percentage of her life---great hungry drags on Camels, Kents, Marlboros; the trusty-dust of that capillary hit from the snuff in her cheek, the urge to swallow the addictive, copious juice of the hunk of RedMan in her mouth. She'd had the dubious reputation in high school of being the only girl who could inhale the smoke from a cigar, and if she could have made a pot of tea out of tobacco, she'd have drunk it right down.