Southern Gothic Great Aunts

“Forest Sleep” by Kelly Louise Judd

When I was a child, I spent, relatively speaking, a good bit of time with my great aunts on both sides of the family. My mother’s aunts, Pearl and Ruby, were the daughters of a god-fearing Baptist farmer from Orangeburg County, and my father’s aunts were snobbish women who valued table manners above morality. I saw Aunt Ruby the most often because she lived the closest. Here’s a snippet from a earlier post with the fetching title “Fragments from a Southern Gothic Childhood”:

Aunt Ruby lives on Warren Street near Condon’s Department store in a downstairs apartment with her daughter Zilla, who is one of the founders of the New Republican Party in South Carolina. Zilla is a Bircher, claims Lucille Ball is a communist, and entertains us with comic books depicting Khrushchev banging his shoe promising to bury us. Not only has Zilla never married; she’s never been on a date.

The house, which reminds me of a train — one room lined up after another — is Jesus haunted. Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus hangs over the bricked in fireplace in the living room. Arts and crafts from vacation summer Bible abound.

On this particular visit, there’s an inflatable man sitting on the sofa. My brother David and I start smacking him as if he were one of those bottom heavy clowns you punch that falls over but returns to the upright position for more punishment.

We’re told to stop. As it turns out, Zilla is afraid of being raped. If she has to go out at night, she rides with the inflatable man next to her.

Sardonically, my father reassures Zilla that she needs not fear being raped.

Up the road in Sumter, where Aunt Pearl lived, things were a bit more laid back. She and my grandmother, “Mama Blanton,” spent their afternoons shelling beans, watching soap operas, and gossiping. Once, when I was seven or so, I saw Aunt Pearl naked through her cracked open door. It was by no means a pleasant sight, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away as in the clichéd horrible-wreck-on-the-freeway scenario.

Because of their Baptist upbringing Ruby, Pearl, and Hazelwood (aka Mama Blanton) considered alcohol an abomination, though once I witnessed Mama Blanton and Aunt Ruby swapping barbiturates like M&Ms.[1] So, anyway imbibing hooch in the house was banned, so my grandfather was reduced to hiding half pints in shoes stored in his closet.

Kiki, what’s this?” I asked one morning after finding a bottle of Old Crow in his tennis shoe.

“Hey, what you doing in that closet?  Get out of there!  Don’t you tell your grandmama, you hear?”

I found my daddy’s aunts to be much more interesting. Aunt Lou, who resided in Columbia, had married a Canadian shipping executive, and according to her, at one time lived at the Waldorf Astoria where she lent the actress Jean Arthur a mink for an audition and had struck up a friendship with “Tony Fokker,” the founder of the aircraft manufacturer who supplied German in WWI with their fighter planes.

Anthony Fokker

When I was in the 7th grade, David and I rode a Greyhound to Columbia to spend the weekend with her and Uncle Harry. She took us to the revolving restaurant at the top of Capstone dormitory and to a movie called The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

Later in life, Aunt Lou and Uncle Harry would come stay with us in Summerville. Every afternoon, she would get tipsy on sherry and tell us the same stories over and over and over, like time that her in-law Sarah locked herself in a bedroom with a gun threatening to kill herself, then opened the door, put the gun to her temple, and fired. This was very same Sarah, the sister of the wife of my second cousin, who had managed to burn a hole in my sweater with her cigarette one Christmas Eve.

“I don’t think Sarah knew the gun was loaded,” Aunt Lou said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve never seen a person with a more surprised look on her face when that gun went off.”

Twice-widowed Aunt Lila we saw the least. Like a character out of Flannery O’Connor, she ran a 100-acre cotton and tobacco farm in Marlboro County with the help of her son Alec, who had not only a swimming pool in his backyard, but also a clay tennis court. Alec unfortunately had drinking issues and buried bottles in hades-hot tobacco barns to keep his wife Jenny from tearing into him. Daddy claimed that the only time he refused a drink was from Alec who had disinterred a bottle, unscrewed the cap, took a swig, and extended it to my father.

Aunt Lila lived in a circa-1810 plantation-like house complete with columns (see below). It hadn’t, I don’t think, ever been renovated. I remember a wagon wheel suspended from the ceiling providing light for the kitchen and a giant ship’s wheel in the foyer. Of course the house was haunted by some woman who had died there. Aunt Lila herself had seen the ghost on several occasions. She also claimed to possess the power of prophecy. Whenever she dreamed of diamonds, someone died. On the night before her daughter, Lila Moore Stanton, perished in a car/train crash with two of her friends from Winthrop College, Aunt Lila had, of course, dreamt of diamonds and had warned Lila Moore not to go out.

Mimosa Plantation

Unfortunately, I don’t see my own great nieces often, but two of them, both under seven came to the house after my wife Judy’s memorial service. Emily, the older one, with that wonderful candid openness of children, asked if she could see the bed where “Aunt Judy died.”

So I showed her – actually it was a futon – and told her a little bit about the death, and she listened wide-eyed, fascinated, so maybe I too am keeping the gothic great aunt/uncle tradition going.


[1] In fact, in grad school I actually copped a downer from Mama Blanton to settle my jangled nerves before a presentation.

True Detective Revisited: The Fall of American Culture

Let’s talk about Pulp fiction — not the movie — but its namesake, those lurid narratives printed on cheap paper that, to cop the cliché of their heyday, explored the “seamy underside” of American culture, publications like True Detective, which enjoyed a 71-year existence from 1924-1995.

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The HBO television series of the same name follows the magazine’s tradition of exposing lurid depravity, though it does so on a much higher artistic plane with shades of David Lynch and Flannery O’Connor, and the depravity depicted in the television series is like to 10th power of the seemingly quaint pistol whippings and murders of the magazine’s beginnings. Furthermore, the series seems to me to be an indictment of American culture, its spiritual poverty embodied in the corrupt Christianity of Southern Protestantism and in the rapacious capitalism of multinational corporations.

The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, constantly underscores these two themes with the visual motifs of crosses and industrial wastelands, which bring to  mind landscapes depicted in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosh.

Check out the opening credits, for example:

Obviously David Lynch’s influence is profound here, not only in the arid, dispassionate images but also in the soundtrack, and this landscape is populated by characters right out of Flannery O’Connor — shiftless Southern scumbags, depraved criminals, corrupt preachers. The twin protagonists Marty and Rust offer an interesting contrast with Marty embodying the hollow hypocritical Protestantism that O’Connor despised and Rust the nihilism that O’Connor, though a devout Catholic, preferred to the mealy-mouthed ignorant insincerity of many of her nominally Christian characters, as we can see in her treatment of the Grandmother and the Misfit in “A Good Man’s Hard to Find.” In fact, in the sixth episode, a grown up child whore whom Marty tried to rescue from a trailer park brothel years ago calls him “a good man” in a restaurant, echoing the Grandmother’s comment to Red Sammy Butts in a restaurant in the O’Connor story. Of course, neither are good men, as Marty clearly demonstrates when he engages in extramarital sex with the woman.

(Here’s an earlier post dealing with Marty and Rust).

goodmanhardtofindThe complex characterization in the context of the cinematic images that create surreal beauty from ugliness makes the series both intellectually and aesthetically interesting, and there’s also a subplot dealing with public education money being funneled into Christian schools to overcome what one character calls “secular, global education.”  These Christian schools lie at the center of the ritualistic Satanic murders the two detectives have spent the better part of two decades trying to unravel.

Certainly, an anthropologist studying the magazine True Detective and the series would conclude that American culture, despite great inroads in civil rights, has declined precipitously since the decades the magazine flourished, and I can’t help but wonder if the creator Pizzolatto is himself a moralist, perhaps even a Catholic in the tradition of both Bosch and O’Connor.

At any rate, the same cultural anthropologist would also have to agree that television has gotten a whole hell of a lot better in the last fifty years.

 

Disorder Above Key West

Image

Click the grey arrow above for sound

 

I lifted my head and croaked

Like a crow, and the nails

Vibrated with something like music . . .

James Dickey, “A Folk Singer of the Thirties”

1

Henry David Dobson

Out of action, losing traction,

I slid down South, a bad mistake.

Florida is flat, crawling with con men,

rattlesnakes, swamps, and tattooed

waitresses who call you “Sugar Britches.”

 

Shooting for Key West, got waylaid in Mayo,

Way down upon the Suwannee River,

A taint of a town (tain’t panhandle,

tain’t peninsula), impoverished

in more ways than one.  No fun.

 

Met Loquacia at a juke joint call’d Phas 2,

a concrete block shit hole

not far from the “Bo Gator Motel” where

I was staying – not clean, not well-lighted –

and my money was dwindling.

 

Loquacia was into iguanas, had them

inked all over her skin, crawling up

her back from butt crack to shoulder

blade and up over down betwixt her tits

crawling down under disappearing into her panties.

 

Just got one tat, the name of my dead son,

Thom, one letter from left to right

in the crotches between my fingers.

I open my hand and spread the span,

and poof! his name appears in Gothic.

 

Anyways, I spent my days scrounging,

hooked up, thanks to L, with this cat who claimed

to be from JA, Mo-Bay, but could have been

some South Carolina geechie for all I know,

but he paid me good to make a run.

 

Seems he supplied some squids

at the base up in Jacksonville.

2 kilos of what the geechie calls ganga

stowed in the trunk of my Chevy

in duffel bags. What could go wrong?

 

Long story short.  I’m writing this

from the Duval County Jail.  Loquacia

ain’t darkened the door.  Silver lining,

my rap sheet ain’t that bad: shoplifting,

public drunkenness, simple possession.

 

Working with a public defender, an

idealistic Jewish girl named Rachel.

She asked me about the tats, and sort

of teared up, she did.  Maybe she can get

me off – and by that I mean out of jail.

 

Anyways, here I sit, way

out of action, with absolutely no

traction. a semi-literate Oscar Wilde,

waiting for my upcoming trial

where I’ll sing like Joan Baez.

2

Durwood Jett

Took the back roads to Tallahassee

to avoid the monotony of mile markers,

dead armadillos, and exit signs.

Took the back roads and took my time.

 

Didn’t make it quick enough to see him die,

but my step-mama filled me in,

sucking on a Marlboro like a man,

“A horrible death, a horrible death,” she said,

over and over, shaking her head.

 

I didn’t know what to say. “Too bad.”

“He fought it hard,” she said, “screamed

‘Get that Gotdamn light out of my face,’

then up and passed.”  She’d took a picture

and showed it to me.  Looked like

all dead people look – his eyes froze,

his mouth froze open like a fish.

 

No, my daddy and me didn’t get along,

the house not big enough to hold

the two of us.  Like in that

Springsteen song.  We’d cuss each other

and sometimes come to blows.  Of course,

me 35, half his age, been able whip him

for a while.  He sure whipped me

back then before, cracking a buckled belt.

 

Can’t quite pity the poor dead bastard,

laying there waxy with his hair slicked back

in that Sears and Roebuck suit, striped tie,

his mouth glued closed, his eyes glued shut.

 

His daddy beat him, and that daddy

beat that daddy before that.  I ain’t

got no offspring, but got my own

business, mind my own business,

so I have the time to take my time,

to take the back roads, to avoid

traffic, to miss all them 18-wheelers in a hurry

to reach them warehouses they can’t abide.

3

Chuckie Brent

When Jimmy Jeffcoat’s meth lab blew,

me and Tiny Wade was smoking a joint

back behind outside the Stop and Go.

 

Boom.  One blast.  BOOM.  Tiny jumped

about a foot and a half, like a bullet or bigger

was headed his way.  “Got damn, what was that?”

I told him I reckoned a transformer blew,

or maybe a sonic boom? but then we heard a siren’s

whoop-whoop and knew that something bad was up.

 

“For sure, it ain’t no Islamic terrorist,” I joked.

“Ain’t nothing in this shitty skank ass town

worth the trouble of blowing up.”

 

* * *

 

We still ain’t recovered from that tornado

two years ago. The kids gone off to college

ain’t never coming back.  Tallahassee, Orlando,

Atlanta  – they got movie theaters and restaurants.

Their parks ain’t littered with them empty canisters

the teens been huffing on all night long.

 

* * *

 

I hear they hauled Jimmy down to Duval County.

He lost his dog and parrot, both burnt to a crisp,

that parrot that perched and shat on Jimmy’s shoulder,

like Jimmy was some long lost landlocked pirate.

“Arrggh,” Jimmy’d growl,” and the parrot’d go

“Arrggh” over and over. I swunny it got old.

 

I suspect Jimmy ain’t laughing right now,

and I know for sure the parrot ain’t,

and that dog won’t keep me up ever again

barking his chained-up ass off all night long.

 

Yep, the sun comes up, and the sun goes down,

And there’s one less loser in this podunk town.

4

Rachel Feldman

Oh, Leah, I’d resign tomorrow

if I could steel myself and endure

mom’s patronizing, smug, I-told-you-so,

but no, I’ll continue to slog my way

through this damned Despond of Despair,

continue to suffer our insufferable DA.

No, I’m good at least for one more year,

my own self-imposed sentence you might say.

 

It’s almost always drugs.  Smack, crack

meth, Ecstasy.  With the resources

we waste prosecuting weed, we could feed

so many food insecure kids.  We need

to get them out of those trailers

into pre-K if this unrelenting

cycle of poverty is ever to cease!

We’re talking Dorothea Lange like squalor here.

 

Let me tell you about these two clients of mine,

Jimmy Joshua Jeffcoat and Henry David Dobson,

as different as night and day, but in

a similar plight.  Unable to make their bail,

they share the same cell.  Jeffcoat’s a creep,

with pitted methadonic teeth.

Dobson, on the other hand, reads Oscar Wilde

and flashes a crooked grin of orthodontic white.

 

Jeffcoat’s doomed to serve at least seven,

if not more, but Dobson wants, as he says,

“a jury of my peers to decide.”  Who knows?

He’ kind of charismatic.  DOB 4/1/75.

He sports a full head of slicked back hair.

A ruddy face, creased, furrowed, but kind.

I’d say he’s suffered way too much sun,

and a few too many dark nights as well.

 

He calls me “Miss” in a formal sort of way,

and he’s practically tattooless, the only one

his dead son’s name, in between his fingers,

upside down from our perspective.

 

Yes, I guess he could be gay, though I hadn’t

thought of that.  But, yes, you’re right, the tat

is indeed a man’s name, and yes, Wilde, could be,

but if I had to bet, I’d bet he’s straight.

 

When this gig’s over, I’ll bugaloo back

to Boca, having done my time.

Might go to grad school, SCAD, get an MFA

in photography.  I’ve learned being a lawyer

is not for me.  Should have listened to my

heart instead of my mom.  Oh, sure, she’s proud

of what’s she made of me, my Ivy League degree,

her youngest brand name of a daughter.

5

Bobby Lee Thornhill

“Please help me help yourself,” my PD said.

“A little remorse could go a long, long way.

Even if you don’t really feel it,

Try feigning it, you know, like an actor in a play?”

 

“No ma’am, I can’t.  I won’t.  In fact,

I’d love to kill him all over again.

Watch him jump when I pump

them shells in place, watch his face go white,

them tiny rodent eyes terrified

as I suggest he pray –

“Boom – “before he can mutter ‘Our Father’ – boom –

bits of brain and skull splattering

sticking to the concrete block wall behind.

 

“No ma’am, remorseful I am not.”

 

Some icy thing shot up her spine,

like she was looking at Satan himself.

 

“It’s cause what he done to that

little girl,”  I said.

 

She shivered again

and crossed her hands across her chest.

6

Henry David Dobson

When I put my hand upon that bible

(its old leather cover was cracked),

I wondered how many hands, both black and white,

were as steady as mine taking that oath.

 

I slowly raised my right hand and swore

to tell the truth, the whole truth,

nothing but the truth – so help me God.

I said it as if the Lord was as real as you and me.

I looked each juror softly in the eye,

the way Jesus might, if he was on trial.

 

* * *

 

They claimed I had to know the 4  kilos

were hidden in those bags, mashed

under wads of dirty clothes.

 

“No, sir, I did not,” I said. “I swear,

I did not know, would have hid

them better if I had.”

 

The fat man snarled; his sarcasm dripped,

“We’re supposed to believe you didn’t look?”

“No sir,  I don’t believe in snooping

through other people’s property.”

The fat man lost his cool, sensing he might lose,

raised his voice, “What about the smell?

The patrolmen could smell it, the K-9s went wild.”

 

I sighed an exhausted sigh and said,

“With all due respect, sir, I’m no dog;

plus I lost me some olfactory in the Iraqi war.

You can check my records on that,” I said.

 

* * *

 

My PD, she played a role as well,

was less a Yankee, more of a good ol’ gal.

She appealed to the jury’s sense of fair play.

 

“Let us hope,” she said, hand on heart,

“we have not come to that sad day

when we’re so cynical

we ‘re incapable of

mustering a reasonable doubt

in favor of a fellow human being.

“He could be your brother or son.

Let us hope we can still manage

to muster a reasonable doubt.”

 

* * *

 

There’s nothing quite like getting out of jail.

You feel so free it’s almost worth

getting locked up to get out again.

You look up and see clouds overhead,

and in your car with the windows rolled down,

you can feel the wind blow back your hair

as you bid adieu to that goddamned town.

You’re free to take this road or that,

free to head north, south, east, or west,

free to holler a rebel yell – you’re free again –

on ’95 headed south to Key West.

Radio Noir

Toshiba Digital Camera

 

Click grey arrow above for sound.

 

Airboat, bayou,

black cat, voodoo

Sam Spade, razor blade,

rattlessnake, bad synapse,

prison break, loan lapse,

nylon rope, smoking

 

dope

 

coke

 

crack  . . .

 

. . . static . . .

 

Hitchhike, tattoo,

peg leg, hoodoo,

tat rat, concrete block,

trunk bang, thump-thump-thump,

shitcan, arm stump,

nylon rope, prison punk.

 

dope

 

coke

 

crack  . . .

 

 

. . . static . . .

 

Knock knock.

Who dat?

 

Po-lice.

 

hoo-hoo    hoo-hoo

 

Crash door, on the floor,

rasp frisk, arm twist

pistol whip, deep shit . . .

 

dope

 

coke

 

crack  . . .

 

. . . static . . .