Here’s Faulkner’s physical description of Dilsey Gibson from The Sound and the Fury, Dilsey, the Black caretaker of the fucked-up Compson clan, as dysfunctional a collection of kin you’ll find this side of the House of Cadmus.
She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child’s astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.
A remarkable human being, Dilsey, transcendent in her morality. She stoically endures subjugation, poverty, and the day-to-day depredation of having to tend to the Compsons, all the while doing her best to raise her own grandchildren and by proxy provide damaged teen Quentin Compson some desperately needed love. Dilsey’s just passing through this vale of tears, her degradation a temporary burden before the everlasting glory commences. She’s seen the first and the last, she says.
Like the woman in Douglas Balentine’s painting Cargo II.
When I saw the painting for the “first time in the flesh” at Douglas’s home last Saturday night, I thought immediately of Dilsey. There she is in the center of the canvas, transplanted from Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. She’s traded her Mississippi ratty Easter Sunday purple for something more African, but the expression is hers, Dilsey’s, “with her myriad and sunken face lifted to the weather.” She, too, has seen the first and the last.
The freighters on the right side of the canvas heading to the harbor follow the path that brought Dilsey’s ancestors to Charleston as beachcombers loll about, attempting to darken their skin. The woman lying on her stomach between the two freighters seems to be developing a sunburn. These folks remind me somewhat of Edward Hopper’s People in the Sun, though they’re much more rigid than Balentine’s more relaxed and fleshy beachgoers.
Cargo II is truly a beautiful, thought-provoking painting. I absolutely love it.
 Generally I’m not one to lob f-bombs, but the phrase “the fucked up Compson clan” sounds so right you can almost dance to it, and I can’t think of a more apt word to describe their situation. .
 Okay, let’s start with Benjy, the thirty-three-year-old castrato with an IQ in the teens; then there’s his banished sister Caddie and her neglected way-damaged teenaged daughter Quentin, named for the Compson son who drowned himself at Harvard. The youngest brother Jason makes Bull Connor look broadminded. And, lastly, maybe the worst mother in American literature, the matriarch Caroline Compson, lying in dark rooms huffing on camphor day and night in a wallow of self-pity.
A loud electronic crackling. The red light of the intercom has flashed on. Never a good sign. Every class has one, a rectangular speaker box mounted somewhere on the wall. Another crackle.
Speakerbox: (crackle) Miss Turlock, Principal Pushcart. Is Alex Jensen in your class?
Miss Turlock: (looking up at the intercom, addressing it as if a person) No sir. It was my understanding that he was there with you.
Speakerbox: Who told you that?
Miss Turlock: Althea Anderson.
Speakerbox: By any chance is Rusty Boykin in your class?
Miss Turlock (still looking up, still addressing the intercom): Yes sir. He’s sitting right here working on a drawing.
Speakerbox: Send him to me. Stat!
Miss Turlock: Yes sir.
All pencils, brushes, kneading hands have halted. Rusty’s on his feet, a look of panic stamped on his freckled face. James Hopper glances at Althea, who is frowning. Rusty casts a rueful glance at his crude rendering of the digestive tract lying next to his open Biology II notebook with its hurried, smudged, barely decipherable and misspelled anatomical terms. Then he looks up and encounters Miss Turlock’s sympathetic, blunt, open features.
“Run along, Rusty. You can leave your things here for now. “
“Okay,” he says, oblivious to the students’ staring faces, oblivious to the clay torsos, oblivious to the smell of paint, oblivious to the splattered tile, oblivious to the silence. He’s pushing open the door and stepping into the cool autumn air, oblivious to the yellow disc of morning sun suspended above distant loblolly pines. He’s deep, deep, deep inside the auditory darkness of a cave of dread where an echoing voice catalogs his various crimes and misdemeanors: smoking marijuana; drinking beer; mocking (though behind their backs) administrators, teachers, students, the Mighty Green Wave, Congressmen, Senators, Vice Presidents, Presidents, television shows, movies, Judeo-Christian Deities; purchasing and hiding Playboy magazines as visual aids in acts of self-pollution; masterminding a high stakes scheme to run away from home; receiving stolen goods in accordance with the above-mentioned scheme; not living up to his potential . . .
As an elementary student, if he had been called to the office, Rusty might have feared that someone in his family had died or that he was being summoned to receive an award, but his name in conjunction with the initials AJ can only mean trouble. He’s forgotten his signature walk, the freak flag flop, and leans forward, head down, oblivious to the pebbly paving beneath his high-top Converse All-Stars. In the thin cavity of his chest, his heart pounds like timpani as he reaches for the cold handle of the main building’s outer double doors. The hall is virtually void, the only sound clacking heels, out of sight, dopplering into the distance. His hand shaking, he grips the handle of the glass doors of the administrative offices, pulling outward.
In the bright florescent light of the outer administrative office, he recognizes immediately that the employees are in an everyday mode. No one has died. No uniformed policeman with badge, billyclub, and handcuffs glowers in a corner waiting for him. Rusty clears his dry throat and approaches Miss Cartwright sitting at a desk next to Principal Pushcart’s door. As he nears her desk, a tiny pink bubble puffs out from her lips, then pops.
“Mizz Cartwright,” he says, his voice unsteady, “I think Principal Pushcart wants to see me.”
“Now that’s an interesting shirt,” she says coyly, snapping the gum. “Where’d you get that?” She’s dressed in a yellow alpaca V-neck sweater and a kelly green skirt, the official school colors.
Rusty had forgotten all about his shirt, a new acquisition, part of a service station uniform with the name “Buddy” stitched in an oval on its breast. It’s sure to exacerbate whatever vitriol’s brewing in Pushcart. Rusty realizes he’s left his Mr. Zig Zag denim jacket back in the art room, which is probably a good thing.
“Uh, I got it from Buddy.”
“Good ol’ Buddy,” she says smiling. “Mr. Pushcart and Mrs. Laban are expecting you.”
She gets up and cracks open the door. “Mr. Boykin is here,” she says into the crack.
The muffled bark of a drill sergeant.
“Go on in,” she says.
The door creaks open squeakily like a coffin lid in a Christopher Lee movie. Sitting, leaning forward with his palms down on the surface of his desk, Principal Pushcart looks as if he might be on the verge of doing a hundred or so push-ups. Sitting across from him, looking over her shoulder, a frowning Mrs. Laban pumps her crossed leg like crazy.
“Have a seat, son.”
There is an empty chair next to Mrs. Laban, a wooden chair, upholstered in some sort of dark green leather-like synthetic something-or-other, the kind of fabric (maybe fabric) that sticks to the back of your thighs when you’re wearing shorts in the summer. Principal Pushcart removes his right palm from the desk like some gangster in an old movie and positions it palm-up, sweeping it in a downward motion towards the chair as he nods his head in mock gentility. Across his pink scalp strands of brownish gray flimsily stretch to feebly hide his encroaching baldness. Rusty, dropping into the chair, sighs audibly in tune with the upholstery, which also sighs.
“Now, Blanton,” he says, using Rusty’s baptismal nomenclature. “I want you to promise to tell me the truth.” The intonation isn’t all that unfriendly.
“You know,” Pushcart says, “that AJ was dismissed from homeroom to come to my office.”
This is an easy one. “Yes sir, I was in homeroom this morning.”
“Tell me. What did you think of the events of this morning?”
“Think, sir? I’m not sure I thought anything.”
“You didn’t think it was funny?”
“I wasn’t paying all that much attention. I was sort of preoccupied. I have this really big Anatomy test today.” He looks over at Mrs. Laban for encouragement, but her features have hardened into a Madame Tussaud’s mask of unalterable unhappiness: Lucretia Borgia displeased with the consistency of her soft-boiled egg.
“Did you know that AJ hadn’t come to the office?”
“No, sir. Not till the announcement over the intercom.”
“Any idea where he’s at?”
Rusty successfully stifles the impulse to say, “Behind the preposition.”
“I dunno,” he says instead. “Home, I’d guess. His daddy’s office maybe. I dunno.”
Pushcart can see the little son-of-a-bitch is telling the truth. “Son,” he says, “are you aware that you’re out of dress code?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me. I guess my hair might be.”
“Where’s your pride, son?”
Rusty doesn’t begin to know how to answer this. A trick question? Of course, he possesses pride, that doom-laden quality that they talk about in English class every year, the moral failing that forces Antigone to break the burial edict, Ahab to pursue the great white whale, Macbeth to go all Charlie Manson on his kinsman Duncan.
“I dunno, sir,” he says. “Yes and no. You know Alexander Pope called pride ‘the never-failing vice of fools.”’
As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he wants them back.
“What did you say?”
“I meant sometimes pride can be a bad thing, so I was hesitant to admit I had some.”
“Well, Mr. Philosopher, I’m sending you home to get a haircut and to change that shirt. The dress code is rules, son. Not suggestions. Rules. When you look presentable, you come back here to report to me before you resume your education here at Summerville High. Consider it a suspension. Zeroes on all work missed.”
“Yes, sir,” Rusty says.
“I suggest you hurry.”
When he’s out the door, Paul looks over at Eula Lynne and asks, “What period is his anatomy test?”
“Well, then,” he chuckles. “I wish him God’s speed.”
“That secretary of yours is almost as bad as the kids. Out there chewing gum. I don’t know about that, Paul. It sets a bad example. . . ”
Here’s a very short excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Today, Oh Boy.
An accident in the chemistry lab the period before lunch at Summerville High School on a Monday in October of 1970 has required that the entire student body be released early. Ollie Wyborn, a brainy, super rational, and dutiful transplant from the north who has yet become acclimated to the ways of the South, is on an errand to fetch poolroom hotdogs for three girls who have offered to give him a ride home. Ollie has a crush on one of the girls, Jill Birdsong. For weeks he’s been trying to summon the courage to ask to the homecoming dance, though he’s never been on a date and doesn’t know how to dance.
Like his parents, Ollie is a Doubting Thomas. To him, fire and brimstone are natural phenomena, not the elements of an infernal furnace. Yet when Ollie steps into the smoky gloom of the pool hall, he finds himself thinking of illustrations he’s seen of Hell. It smells weird in here, sour and sweet, body odor mixed with fryer grease, stale beer, and cigarette smoke. Some of these people look damaged. Now he understands why girls won’t come inside.
There’s a cacophony of too-loud raucous voices with those strange vowel-rich inflections – Whatyousaybo, a greeting sounding more like Swahili than English. An older man with sergeant stripes on his uniform talks to and rocks a pinball machine plastered with curvaceous cartoon women. Lights blink on and off – ding ding ding ding ding. The metal ball rolls up the incline but now down again. Flippers flip. Up the incline and down again. Beneath the ding, ding ding ding dinging, the din of clacking pool balls, laughter, blended conversations. Recorded music blares from a jukebox, a familiar song spelling out a girl’s name: G-L-O-R-I-A. Someone hollers “Rack!,” and a young black boy around ten or so, scurries past Ollie with a wooden triangle in is hand.
About fifteen red swivel stools line a bar/lunch counter, every stool occupied by a male. There’s that old, grizzled character with a white cane and seeing-eye German shepherd, the Old Blind Man Ollie’s seen a couple of times at football games. Next to him in paint-splattered overalls sits a middle-aged fellow with a cigarette dangling from his mouth moving up and down as he talks. Others, all strangers, push their way between the stools to get a server’s attention.
Ollie might as well be in Mozambique as far as knowing the etiquette involved with ordering. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern. Only two people taking and cooking orders for twenty. They should have a line where customers receive numbers like in a deli instead of this dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest. Ollie spots four guys wearing SHS shop overalls sitting adjacent to one another, so he decides to lean between two of them to place his order.
Who this is here sticking his head here? Gotdamn round ol’ timey hippie glasses.
“Excuse me, excuse me.”
Ain’t his turn sumbitch.Gotdamn round ol’ timey hippie glasses.
Ollie tries to make eye contact with the older server. Why the dimness? Behind the bar a tin sign in fading red capital letters warns NO PROFANITY. There are carved coconut head monkey faces staring vacant-eyed from shelves next to a large jar of rubberized eggs suspended in a murky solution, also prints of dogs smoking cigarettes and playing poker.
“Well, X-cuse you,” a shop boy growls.
“Sorry, but it’s crowded in here.”
“Kiss my ass, Yankee.”
Circumspection. Circum = around; spec = to look, as in spectacles.
Looking down the bar, Ollie sees a perhaps more convenient place to order, not as close to the door.
He thinks maybe he could dance to this song. G-L-O-R- eye-eye-eye-eye A!
Well, ladies and gents, despite this being a year of too many foul subtractions, too much self-isolation, and a cluster bombed political landscape about as verdant as a WWI battlefield, this blog has enjoyed significant success, if you count success in the number of visitors who peeked in and the total number of hits registered on the site.
Perhaps, we can attribute this growth in readership to the old adage misery loves company.
At any rate, here’s a look backward at some of what I consider the worthiest posts. To revisit the posts, hit the highlighted word, which will transport you to the piece in its entirety. In January I was ignorant that old man contagion was hiding behind a tree laying (sic) in wait to throw at brick.Nevertheless, not realizing that many would turn to the solace of spirits (not to mention IPAs and spiked seltzers) in the coming months, prophetically I posted a pro-alcohol piece .
To counterbalance the somewhat positive with sort of negative, I also produced this piece on the great American songwriter Stephen Foster.
Old Carolina Inn, the first building in Summerville to have an elevator
Before the fast food franchises, before the Wal-Marts, before the sprawl, my hometown Summerville, SC, was a lovely, quiet village nestled in a pine forest 25 miles northwest of Charleston. Settled just after the Revolutionary War and originally known as Pineland Village, the community in those days offered a haven for plantation owners seeking seasonal escape from malaria-bearing mosquitoes.
Eventually, Pineland Village became known as Summerville, and people started settling there year round. In 1847, Summerville officially became a municipality, and that very year the town council passed one of the first conservation laws in the nation, a statue forbidding cutting down trees of a certain circumference without permission.
Town Hall back in the day
This passion for conservation and appreciation for the beauty of nature resulted in the planting of hundreds of azaleas, camellias, and gardenias throughout the town, both in its municipal parks and in the yards of the old clapboard whitewashed Victorian houses. In the springtime, what is now called “the Old Village” or “the Historic District” has to rank as one of the most beautiful towns in the nation. It claims as its official motto “Flowertown in the Pines.”
St Paul’s Episcopal Church (photo credit Fleming Moore)
In 1950, the year my mother graduated from Summerville High School, the population stood at 3,312; in 1970, the year I began my senior year there, the population had barely grown to 3,839. However, it almost doubled between 1970 and 1980 and grew a startling 247% to 22,519 from 1980 to 1990. Since then, the population has doubled yet again, and according to a 2019 estimate, now 52,549 people call Summerville home. When I go there nowadays, have lunch out or hit a bar, I recognize virtually no one.
However, in the old days, being a native and growing up “Flowertown” meant that everyone knew everyone else, which was a real disadvantage if you were a redhead like me.
“Did you recognize any of the boys?”
“No, but one of them was redheaded.”
“I bet it was Rusty Moore. I’ll call his mother.”
Everyone in town knew everyone else, but outside of the town limits, there were a number of smaller unincorporated communities like Knightsville, which had its own elementary school, the Boone Hill community, Stallsville, New Hope, etc. By junior high, children from these communities had matriculated in Summerville schools. Unfortunately, a few of these rural children were dirt poor. I remember shoeless White children hopping on the bus on the first day of school. We’re talking about the days of segregation when only a few handpicked African Americans had been integrated into our classes, and they were from downtown and academically talented. Because academically, we were “tracked,” I rarely interacted with any of the disadvantaged kids from the rural areas, although I became good friends with several prosperous college prep kids from Knightsville.
However, when PE started in the 7th grade, I not only interacted with some of the disadvantaged rural kids, but I also showered with them, and since several had failed a year or two, some sported five o’clock shadows rather than peach fuzz. PE is where I first met Bobby Bosheen, the antagonist (and protagonist) of this piece.
My attempts to google Bobby Bosheen have turned up zilch. I heard somewhere decades ago that he had been chained to a tree and bullwhipped and lost an eye. Another rumor had him throwing a Hanahan boy off the Folly Pier and killing him in a tribal fight between rival high schools. Although I doubt that either rumor is true, I don’t doubt that Bobby is no longer among the quick. To say that he had anger issues is to say that Kanye West has ego issues. Adjectives like volcanic and nuclear come to mind. I would like to think that Bobby overcame his rage, that he turned out okay because deep down inside I don’t think he was a bad person. He had this haunted look about him that suggested his childhood hadn’t taken place on Sunnybrook Farm.
For some odd reason, one Saturday, I let my friend, the late Gordon Wilson, talk me in going to Boone Hill Methodist Church to engage in unsupervised tackle football with the natives of that region. Bobby was among the crew and had a jolly time swinging elbows, crushing ball carriers, and piling on. Even though I enjoyed the game about as much as I would a root canal, I think my participation reaped the benefit of Bobby’s vaguely recognizing me and therefore not targeting me as an adversary. True, he did punch me once as I was sitting in a car at the Curve-Inn Pool, but he was rip-roaring drunk and started fights that night with numerous revelers, including Kenny Reese, a popular basketball player. The very next week I saw Bobby at Tastee Freeze, and Gordon asked him why he had punched me, and Bobby actually apologized, lamenting, “Whiskey and beer don’t mix.”
The Old Tastee-Freeze
What really solidified my self-identification as a coward was Bobby’s girlfriend, a large, stringy haired bruiser with discolored teeth and the calves of a linebacker. Unlike, Bobby, she hated me, hated me viscerally on sight. This was in ’70 or ’71, and I had started to grow my hair long and dress like Neil Young. She used to position herself outside the entrance of the back of the main building and threaten me. “I can’t wait to cut your ass, you red-headed bitch,” she said one day with arms crossed blocking the entrance.
I suspected she could have, given that she outweighed me and I hadn’t been in a real fight since the fourth grade, so I turned tail and found another entryway. Whenever I saw her, I avoided her. She scared the shit out of me.
The last time I heard something concrete about Bobby was in ’75 when I was bumming a ride back to college with one of my mother’s colleagues, a teacher at Newington Elementary School. As we passed Morris Knight’s, a beer joint, the husband of the teacher, a non-Summerville native, mentioned that he had made the mistake of going in there one time to shoot pool and had been assaulted and actually beaten with pool cues. He told me that he had pressed charges against the assailant, who was convicted, but that he couldn’t remember his name, that is was something funny sounding.
“Bobby Bosheen,” I suggested.
“Yes, that’s it! Bobby Bosheen!”
Of course, Bobby’s anger had to come from somewhere. I suspect at home he was no stranger to corporal punishment. Perhaps, like Pee Wee Gaskins, he had been strung upside down naked and beaten with a two-by-four. If he had been born to one of the families living on Carolina Avenue in a Victorian house with a spacious porch beneath moss draped live oaks among the azaleas, I suspect he and the rest of the world would have gotten along much better.
Chances are if you’re waiting at the so-called International Airport in Charleston, SC for a loved one’s arrival from a cancer treatment junket in Houston the day after you discover water dripping from a lighting fixture over your breakfast bar (the consequence of two tropical storms within 6 days having bitch-slapped the barrier island you call home), you might come to the conclusion that your karma sucks, that the odds of your loved one’s arriving on schedule are about the equivalent of Donald Trump’s announcing he’s dumping Melania for Caitlyn Jenner.
And in my case, you’d be right.
Of course, I could have just sat there among those perhaps Pentecostal women in their fusty Little House on the Prairie outfits and watch them stare into their cell phones, or I could decide to make Amoretto Sours out of lemons, to grab the jazz combo by the horns, to get the hell out of there.
It was 7:30, and the flight was now rescheduled to arrive at 9:00.
Go west, Old Man.
Okay, here’s my advice if what happened to me last night happens to you.
Exit the airport and head straight past the Boeing plant, past the 526 on-ramps, straight on International Avenue towards Montague. Keep going until you see the first brightly lit strip shopping center to your left located on Tanger Outlet Boulevard.
That’s where we’re headed, to La Hacienda, specifically into a small barroom inside the restaurant.
the bar inside La Hacienda
I sat in the fourth stool from the left. Two stools over sat a diminutive African American who reminded me of a hatless Thelonious Monk and to my right stood a tall Ricardo-Montalbán-looking cat who was drinking one of these:
I ordered a small Dos Equis on draft and paid in cash. Thelonious was reading a newspaper, working on some chips, the bartender conversing with Ricardo in Spanish, so I decided to leave my beer on the bar and boogie over to Mr. K’s Used Books and Music, conveniently located two stores down. The joint is brightly lit yet cavernous, feels more like a library than a bookstore. I found the non-fiction section and bought a copy of David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
Back at the bar, Thelonious had been replaced by a different African American, a handsome twenty-something wearing a baseball cap cocked to one side and sporting gold caps on his front teeth.
So I reclaimed my seat and flipped to an essay entitled “Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle.” The essay is about Sedaris refusing to change seats on a flight to Raleigh as a favor to a woman “wearing a T-shirt and cutoffs” so she can sit with her husband. The woman is the opposite of gracious. Once in the air, she takes off her shoes, and Sedaris, who’s doing the Saturday Times crossword, notices “her toenails were painted white and each one was perfectly sculpted.”
Eighteen across: “Not Impressed.”
Eleven down: “Whore.”
I wasn’t even looking at the clues anymore.
I chuckled a couple of times, but when I hit this paragraph, I let loose one of my godlike laughs:
It’s always so satisfying when you can twist someone’s hatred into guilt — make her realize that she was wrong, too quick to judge, too unwilling to look beyond her own petty concerns. The problem is that it works both ways. I’d taken this woman as the type who arrives late at a movie, then asks me to move behind the tallest person in the theater so that she and her husband can sit together. Everyone has to suffer just because she’s sleeping with someone. But what if I was wrong? I pictured her in a dimly lit room, trembling before a portfolio of dimly lit X-rays. “I give you two weeks at the most, the doctor says, “Why don’t you get your toe-nails done, buy yourself a nice pair of cutoffs and spend some quality time with your husband. I hear the beaches of North Carolina are pretty this time of year.”
The fellow with the baseball cap to my left said, “You sho seem to be having fun.”
“This book’s hilarious,” I said.
Just then my cell rang. The scoop with Judy, my beloved, is that even though an hour ago her flight was circling Charleston, it had to turn around to refuel in Charlotte. She was calling me to let me know they were getting ready to take off for the thirty-minute flight.
“But I’m having fun at La Hacienda,” I whined. “Why don’t you just take a cab home?”
“I’ll see you in about half hour,” I said.
The man to my left said apropos of nothing that he had beer at home but no liquor and that he just wanted a taste of liquor before he went home. He was drinking something cranberry-colored in a short glass.
I asked the bartender, who called me señor instead of sir, for the tab and told him to add the fellow’s drink to it.
“Thank you,” my friend to the left said. “That’s a blessing.” He shook my hand with the lightest of handshakes. He finished before me and tapped me on the shoulder to thank me again as he walked out.
I asked Ricardo about his drink, which was essentially a margarita getting slow-dripped by a pony Corona. It’s delicious,” he said with an elegant Spanish accent.
“Well, so long,” I said once my Dos Equis was history, having successfully resisted the impulse to say “adios.”
When I hit the airport the arrivals sign now said the flight would arrive at 9: 30, but just then I got the text “landed.”
So I waited for Judy, who eventually appeared, wearing her wig, trudging exhaustedly. Over at the baggage area stood the five pioneer-clad sect members. I told one of them that my wife could literally see the island where we live when the plane turned around to head to Charlotte, that it was like a Marx Brothers movie. They found the entire episode amusing and were happy now that Emily had joined them.
And Judy’s bags were the first two off. Maybe our luck was changing.
 I’ve searched the Dewey Decimal System of my pre-digital vocabulary for a better descriptor than bitch-slapped, but pounded, drenched,scraped, etc. seem too much or too little or too inappropriately concretely rake-like, so I’ve opted for an admittedly sexist cliché rather than going with the weaker synonym backhanded.
No one’s left to answer the questions I have about my first memories, scenes that take place in the gas station/house of my maternal grandparents in the year 1954 or 1955.
World War II has been over for ten years now.
I am two, maybe three. My grandparents, my aunt, maybe my uncle, live in a building that’s part commercial enterprise, part domicile. It’s not a home — or even a house – but the Station. What should be the front yard consists of a narrowing triangle of concrete featuring an island of gas pumps, the apex of the triangle marking the fork where Highway 78 splits into West 5th North Street and Richardson Avenue. Diesel smells hover as cars swish by night and day, day and night. Out back, a wire fence encloses a treeless dirt yard where an unfriendly German Pinscher prowls.
No nature boy, I-and-I.
It seems at the time of these first memories that my mother and father are living at the Station, too. The upstairs, if subsequent recollections are correct, consists of one ark-like bedroom that has two or three beds and a stand-alone sink. There must be a bathroom downstairs, but I don’t remember it.
My first memory ever is of my parents’ leaving each morning. I descend the steep stairs terrified I’ll fall. I lead with my right foot, step after step, right foot first, until I’m about four steps from the bottom. Then I leap into my father’s outstretched arms, and he slings me around in circles. I don’t want my parents to leave me, but they do, and I spend the rest of the sibling-less day in the domestic section of the building while my grandfather pumps gas or fixes flats and my grandmother works the counter cash register. I can remember feeling sorry for myself as I sat sideways on the bottom step with my knees up. I remember thinking that the day would never end.
Of course, it did, and the one after that, and the one after that . . .
At two-and-a-half, I’d experienced fewer than a thousand days, so in that frame of reference, a day looms large. Now, I have weathered approximately 24,759 days, 2063 full moons, 66 Christmas Eves. Yet, even though my frame of reference of a day has shrunk 2,000-fold, the days – especially, the weekdays — still seem long.
Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock . . .
But not the years — the years zoom past like cars on a freeway.
Blink, just like that I’m engaged to be married and attending a party with my mother during her 25th high school reunion weekend. My former classmate Emma Jo Mellard is there with her mother as well. We make small talk, comment on time’s winged chariot’s terrifying swiftness.
Blink. I’m swinging my sons in circles above my head.
Blink. I’m looking at a photograph on Facebook of members of my high school class who will attend their own reunion next year if the pandemic abates.
These classmates are wizened, unfamiliar, old, like my own visage in the mirror.
What they call Main Street in Jackson, South Carolina, isn’t what I would call a street — it’s more like a road running through farm fields, past a row of handsome houses standing on generous lots subdivided from what was once a pecan grove. The only businesses I saw: some type of mechanical repair shop with a hand-lettered sign and a defunct “Super Market.” There appear to be more churches in Jackson than businesses, at least on Main Street. We’re talking the Deep South, the Bible Belt, country music, V-8 engines, spiritual people.
I was at Jackson to attend the funeral of my first cousin Debbie, Uncle David’s second daughter, and although as a youngster I asked God to bless Elaine, Debbie, Pamela, and Scarlet each night as I recited “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” we rarely got together in childhood and virtually never in adulthood, unless we were visiting the terminally ill or, like yesterday, laying a departed family member to rest.
For whatever reason, my branch of the Moore clan isn’t close — even my siblings and I don’t see each other often — so it isn’t surprising that I can count the memories of visiting my cousins on one hand. However, when we did get together, we had a blast playing pick-up sticks and softball or listening to German-born Aunt Maria play her accordion. We simply enjoyed being together because there’s something about blood, about seeing hints of your features stamped on someone else, knowing you have sprung from common roots.
Elaine Ackerman Moore
Roots like our irascible great granddaddy Luther Moore (“I’m deaf and blind so there’s no need to come up and talk to me!”), our sweet great grandmama and great granddaddy Ackerman, whose daughter, our grandmother, the beautiful Elaine Ackerman Moore, died before we were born and for whom my father and Uncle David mourned for the rest of their lives.
Blood, like they say, is thick.
Perhaps the most memorable event of our cousinhood occurred when Mama sold Uncle David a pony my father had bought and tried to keep in our backyard in a subdivision not zoned for farm animals. This pony was the equine equivalent of Homer Jo Roberts, Summerville’s town bully, who once punched 24 different people one night at the Curve-In Pool (I was one of them) because, as he later said by way of apology, “ Whiskey and beer don’t mix.”
This pony kicked, bit, brayed. I doubt John Wayne would have the courage to put a saddle on him. More problematic was the pony’s penchant for busting out of the make-shift fencing Daddy had erected by nailing some 2x4s to trees in our backyard. This transformation of our backyard into a farm helped to solidify our status as not-ideal neighbors (we also had tied to a tree in the backyard a wingless Ryan PT-22 airplane that we had to crank once a week to keep the engine from freezing). Neighbors were particularly unhappy when the pony got out and trampled their flower beds or deposited unsought fertilizer on their lawns.
So, Uncle David to the rescue. He drove from Jackson to Summerville with a horse trailer and relieved us of the nightmare, or, if you will, night-pony, whose behavior seemed to have improved remarkably the next time I saw him in Jackson safely enclosed behind well-constructed fencing.
I learned at her funeral that my cousin Debbie was a devout animal lover and had left behind two beloved dogs, Smoky and the Bandit. I already knew of her generosity because when Daddy was dying, she took off work and stayed for days with Mama. While she was there, she fixed mama’s broken washing machine and rewired the utility room. Debbie was a first-rate mechanic who could repair anything, who could replace the floor of a trailer, who could hold her own working beside anybody.
However, until yesterday, I had no idea of the breadth and depth of Debbie’s generosity. I learned it through reminiscences delivered during the service by her nephews, a niece, and a co-worker. I learned of material gifts galore and also of the gift of time devoted to others, the gift of love bestowed.
For example, when one nephew had to sell his beloved yellow Camaro, Debbie insisted on buying it herself so she could, unknown to him, leave it to him upon her death. I learned of her extraordinary work ethic, her meticulousness, her courage in butting heads with authority figures (a Moore trait for sure), her stoicism in enduring with grace the ravages of cancer.
I also learned of her sense of humor, an attribute that she kept right up to the very end.
For example. during her last week on earth, she was helped out of bed into her wheelchair, donned a wig, and when the nurse came in, Debbie asked her what she had put in her IV bag.
“Nothing special, just the regular.”
“Well, look what it’s done,” Debbie said. “Whatever it was, It made all my hair grow back.”
What I learned most profoundly is how much I had missed by not really knowing Debbie. Watching her nephew Steven manfully deliver an eloquent, heartfelt eulogy, I felt love manifested palatably in that sanctuary. The entire funeral from start to finish underscored the power of love and faith (something I certainly lack). How moving to hear Debbie’s brother-in-law Jeff sing to the accompaniment of his own guitar a medley of “Amazing Grace” and “My Chains Are Gone.”
On the front of the program for Debbie’s funeral are the words “Love is my gift.” How fitting.
In Summerville, South Carolina, way back in the early 1950’s, when my consciousness slowly awakened and started taking note, you couldn’t drive up to a gas station in your spanking brand new Ford station wagon and fill her up yourself. No, when you pulled up to the pumps, you were met by a worker in overalls who would not only provide you with fuel, but also check your oil, fan belt, and tire pressure. He would clean your windshield, take your cash, and bring you your change.
Where Highway 78 splits into West 5th North Street and Richardson Avenue, my mother’s parents owned such an establishment called the Nation Station and actually lived within its confines. When you entered the front door, you encountered a white-washed wooden counter and a cash register where my grandmother Hazel Hunt Blanton sat perched on a stool. Behind the counter a sheet-like curtain separated a space where tires were stacked, and beyond that was a door leading to three rooms, a hallway with steps, a “living room,” and a kitchen.
Those steps led steeply up to the bedroom — I only remember one – a cavernous barn-like space with a sink that stood out in the open. There my Scots-Irish grandfather Kistler, a bantam rooster of a man, ruddy as a crake, would apply frothy cream with a brush and shave himself with a straight razor that he would snap shut with authority when the ritual was over.
The sleeping arrangements were peculiar — a less decorous narrator might use a stronger word. I don’t remember where my grandfather slept. My grandmother slept with my aunt Virginia, who was only six years older than me.* A ratlike (redundant?) Chihuahua named Perfidia also shared the mother-and-daughter’s bed. Why they would name a dog the Spanish word for “faithlessness” is beyond me. “Here, faithlessness! Come faithlessness!”
I do know why “Fiddy” slept in the bed with them, however. It was for medical purposes: Chihuahuas were supposed to be good for asthma, which periodically plagued my grandmother, sometimes resulting in stays at brown-bricked Dorchester County Hospital. I can see her now, encased in an “oxygen curtain,” wheezing, gasping for breath.
In addition to Perfidia, my aunt kept two parakeets whose whistling provided a sonic counterpoint to Fiddy’s high-pitched yelping. They resided in a cage near one of the windows and spent the long, long, days of my fifth year pecking at bells and suet (and, of course, defecating).
One day, when Virginia got home from school, she discovered to her horror that both of the birds were drenched and behaving oddly. She went into a frenzy — and for good reason. My toddler brother David had given them a “bath” with a Black Flag insecticide sprayer. Of course, Virginia directed her inchoate rage at David rather than my grandmother who had left the poison within a toddler’s reach.
We have no idea what David’s motives were. They could have been altruistic (the birdies looked like they needed a bath, though in that case mangy Fiddy seems a more rational target.) At any rate, I’m fairly certain David didn’t make the connection between spraying the insecticide and killing its recipients.
So I stood around and watched the birds have spasms amid the Euripidean howls from Hecuba Virginia. There was nothing anyone could do. How much does a parakeet weigh? What antidote was there? Eventually, the spasms ceased. The soon-to-be uncolorful birds lay still on the newspaper lining the bottom of their cage.
No doubt the Station sold cigars because Virginia had used a cigar box for the birds’ coffin. Behind the Station (whose “front yard” was a slab of triangular concrete narrowing to the intersection of the two highways) was a small area with one fairly substantial tree. Beneath it Virginia dug a hole and buried the gauze-wrapped birds side-by-side like Abelard and Heloise. Dirt thumped upon the lid of the cigar box, Virginia said a few words, and a marker was erected.
She told me that in a few months we could dig them up to see their skeletons, but thankfully, we never did.
My Uncle Jerry and Jack Delk in front of “The Nation Station” in the 1950’s
* Though grammatically incorrect, “me” sounds so much better then “I.”
Because we don’t work from June through July, Judy Birdsong and I tend to take trips to far flung places like Chicago, New Orleans, Lisbon, Paris.
We had planned last summer to head out on a whim in late July to a yet-to-be-decided somewhere, like Nova Scotia or the Pacific Northwest, but just after the 4th, Judy was diagnosed with PTCL-NOS, a more-often-than-not fatal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
I’ll spare you the Lifetime movie of our dealing with uncertainty, calling our sons with bad news, the cheery waiting room posters pushing upcoming studies for the recently relapsed. To make a long, painful story short, after four rounds of in-hospital 96-hour continuous EPOCH chemo, Judy’s last PET scan came back “completely normal.” Although the process is far from over, the quick disappearance of the cancer bodes well for a permanent cure.
Time, then, to celebrate. We hadn’t vacated town since last October’s Leaf Festival to see Dr. John and the New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels*, so we decided to drive down to Edisto last Sunday before Judy’s fifth round of chemo** and visit Botany Bay, 5,000 acres of what once were cotton fields from plantations that are [cue “Tara’s Theme”] no more.
Botany Bay’s main attraction, though, is a three-mile stretch of pristine beach whose bleached dead trees succumbing to the assault of the encroaching ocean serve as poignant symbols of what the ravager Time has in store for all of us. The copious shells that crunch under your feet and decorate the trees along the strand like grave ornaments offer their own testimony that time, time, time, ain’t on our side.
*Click HERE to see a video of Judy, the Soul Brothers, and Dr. John in action.
** She still has two more rounds of chemo, a stem cell transplant, and perhaps radiation before it’s over.
The Drive Down
This trip down to Edisto took us right past the first house owned, a brick-veneer 3-bedroom ranch-style monstrosity custom-built by a good ol’ boy who couldn’t believe we were taking out the red and orange shag carpet he had just put in last year. We didn’t have the heart to tell him the red sink in the green bathroom was also slated for removal. The house’s redemption was that it overlooked Logbridge Creek, which connected to the Intercoastal Waterway. The view from the backyard and bedroom bay window was like, as my friend Steve Rey put it, a cover off of South Carolina Wildlife.
Judy and Me at our first house in Rantowles
So Judy and I detoured right down Chaplin’s Landing Road to check out those digs of yore.
It’s changed. Our old dirt road is now a paved street lined with handsome houses that make our original seem like an embarrassing uncouth great uncle, you know, the one who wears suspenders that clash with his flannel shirt. A large Beware of Dog sign graced the busy front yard with its un-pruned Azaleas, garden do-dads, and array of automobiles.
Once we got back on Hwy 162 headed towards Edisto, we discovered that things haven’t changed that much since the early ’80’s, in fact, haven’t changed much since I was a boy.
Lining the road stood small modest domiciles, a mixture of wooden cottages, manufactured homes, and dilapidated house trailers. Business establishments include Parry Ruth’s Beauty Parlor, Youmans Natural Gas, small engine repair shops — lots of family owned businesses. The one incorporated town you pass through, Hollywood, hasn’t suffered the ever growing proliferation of traffic lights that plague the Charleston area. However, I don’t remember this antique store whose outside sentinel certainly embodies the theme of the post.
Nevertheless, on the drive down, I felt as if I were once again in the Old South, here where black country folk seem to outnumber white country folk, and what a pleasure to see brothers and sisters in all of their finery chatting on the steps of an AME church.
Well, a couple of things had changed. The house trailer we remember perched on concrete block stilts is gone, along with a full sized mattress that hung like a hammock with four chains dangling from the boughs of a giant live oak, each chain attached to one of the mattress’s four corners.
Hollywood to Botany Bay
Once you’re out of Hollywood, you enter even deeper into the disappearing South, pass through tunnels of moss-festooned live oaks, transverse bridges offering marsh vistas, pass a generous sampling of white-washed churches of various denominations. Genteel establishments like the Old Post Office Restaurant closed on Sunday stand as mute reminders of days gone by.
The Beach at Botany Bay
Natural Resources runs the Preserve, so you have to stop and sign in. The friendly ranger, who looked like he might be a volunteer, provided us a map and warned us of what not to do (collecting a shell can cost you a $470 fine), and gave us a brief history of the plantations that once stood on the property.
The beach is being engulfed by the sea, which has created a sort of graveyard of entangled trees, some blanched white and prone, others with beautiful swirls of root wood, other’s standing alone in the ocean like a crazy old doomed King Canute.
A variety of shells carpet the sand, but a chambered nautilus I saw not among the Darwinian litter.
How wonderful to be alive on this island of the dead! How wonderful to know the little that we know.
The Plantation Ruin Tour
Ain’t nothing left to speak of — an ice house, a tabby tool shed, dikes, and part of a plantation house’s foundation.
I couldn’t help but think of the slaves on this Sabbath, their only day off, nothing much to look forward to. Their cottages used to line the Creek, according to our map. Evil.
The six mile dirt road drive was pretty enough, but after four so hours of unrelenting beauty, I longed for the familiar squalor of Chico Feo’s.
We hauled ass home opting for the short cut via Toogoodoo Road where you can go 60 and not encounter another car for miles and miles.