Excerpt from Today, Oh Boy – in the Principal’s Office

photograph by Joseph Szabo

A loud electronic crackling.  The red light of the intercom is 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, please. Right away.

Miss Turlock: Yes sir.

Speakerbox: (crackle)

All pencils, brushes, kneading hands have halted. Rusty’s on his feet, a look of panic stamped on his 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 to use 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 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. He 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 deep 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’s breast. And he’s left Mr. Zig Zag denim jacket back in the art room, but that just might be for the best.

 “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 legs like crazy.

“Yes, sir?”  

“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 wearing shorts in the summertime. 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.

 “Yes sir,” Rusty says automatically. He’s a terribly inept liar anyway. 

 “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 refrains from 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 iAlexander Pope called pride ‘the never-failing vice of fools.”’

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he wants them back.  

“What!?”

“Nothing.”

“What did you say?”

“I meant sometimes pride can be a bad thing, so I was hesitant to admit I had some.”

“Well, son – or should I say – Mr. Philosopher? Son, 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.”

“Yes sir.”

 When he’s out the door, Paul looks over at Eula Lynne and asks, “What period is his anatomy test?”

 “Fourth.”

 “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. . . ”

Poolroom except from “Today, Oh Boy”

Here’s a very short excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Today, Oh Boy.[1]

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!

  J-I-Double L   B-I-R-D-S-O-N-G    

 Jukebox:     Knock on my door

                        Come in my room

                        Make me feel alright . . . 


[1] You can read other excerpts here and here.

2020, the Year in Review

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.

A record shattering year with 37,840 hits and 22,969 visitors from 132 countries

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.[1]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. 

February

On February 15th, Caroline and I visited Mosquito Beach’s Island Breeze for the last time, not knowing it was the last time. Alas and Alack!

By 29 February, the virus was flourishing, so I published this enlightening expose on vultures.

March

The Charleston community lost a richly talented English teacher, a learned Charleston historian, and lovely human being, Erica Lesesne.

Also, my pal the poet Jason Chambers allowed me to read and record on of his compositions.


April

April is, as Eliot, put it, is the cruelest month, so I brought this post up from the dead land, the first post directly dealing with the pandemic

I also wrote a poem dedicated to my friend Richard O’Prey, who is alive and well I’m happy to say. 

May

My wife Caroline wrote this brilliant villanelle in memory of my first wife Judy Birdsong who died on Mother’s Day of 2017. There’s an audio clip of Caroline reading that accompanies the text of the poem.

I also bid farewell to Porter-Gaud’s Class of 2020 who lost out on the springtime rituals of severance they so richly deserved. 

June

With the year half done, I came up with this pandemic parody of of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus.” 

July

In July, I began a series dedicated to my native town of Summerville. Here’s the most popular one that brings together two rather antithetical citizens of that once quaint village. 

August

Not much going on in August. Here’s another one from the Summerville series chronicling my first night ever spent in a jail.

September

For some odd reason, I had death on my mind

October

Another pandemic poem, this one on the wearing of masks. 

November

With the election seemingly over, I posted this celebratory poem

Also, here are a handful of videos celebrating George Alan Fox and Chico Feo’s  Songwriters’ Soap Box Open Mike Extravaganza.

 

December

Ah, those lazy crazy deathly dangerous days of college.

Thanks to all of you who stop by and read the blog, especially my regulars, Rodney, Bill and Dana, Furman, Sue, Gary, and, of course, my siblings, and my loving, patient, and beautiful wife Caroline.


[1] With apologies to Ry Cooder

On Arrogance, Therapists, and Overweening Parents

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Over the years some have accused me of being arrogant, and when it comes to a some things, I guess it might be true, especially if you’re talking about my exquisite taste in the arts or the immense love I have of the sound of my own voice.*

And, yes, especially when it comes to choosing therapists, I’ll admit I’m as arrogant as hell.

For example, a couple of decades ago, my synapses went on the fritz. I lost about twenty pounds in three weeks, and it wasn’t the type of weight loss where people complimented you on your svelteness but wondered if you had shared a needle with the wrong Haitian. “You okay?” they’d ask.

Each afternoon, I’d come straight home from school, climb the stairs to my study where I’d lie on the floor, weep like Niobe, and listen to Peter Gabriel’s Us or the Counting Crow’s August and Everything After.

After all, if you were undergoing a dark night of the soul, what would make a better soundtrack than this:

 

Anyway, one evening after prying me out of fetal position with a tire iron, my wife Judy insisted I see a therapist. The thing is, because of my arrogance, I didn’t want to deal with a therapist who wasn’t extremely erudite. I didn’t care how empathetic, how many Ivy League degrees she had hanging on her office walls, if she and I couldn’t talk about the Compsons of Yoknapatawpha County or the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neil’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night or Yeats’s interest in the occult, I wanted nothing to do with her.

After all, characters from literature offer a mother lode of archetypal experience in understanding the human psyche, and by my reckoning someone interested in how the psyche works should necessarily be interested in literature. No, I wanted someone like Jung, someone older than I, someone who spoke High German, not someone who rattled off stock phrases like “I think I hear you saying” in a flat Midwestern monotone.

I longed to administer tests to prospective therapists before I chose one, something quick for them to take and me to assess, like 50 multiple choice questions.

Which of the following Faulkner characters has the mind of a three year old?

A. Vardamen Burden
B. Joe Christmas
C. Homer Barron
D. Benjie Compson
E. No clue

The first therapist I tried didn’t hack it at all. Recommended by my physician, this fellow had a mere masters in social work, which meant he couldn’t prescribe meds, so instead of shoveling serotonin jump-starters my way, he’d have me close my eyes and imagine I was flying like Peter Pan from his office to my childhood home in Summerville. The idea was I could re-experience in a new light some of the unpleasant incidents from my childhood that he considered responsible for the harrowing nightmares that visited me about 3 a.m every fucking morning.

So up and off I’d go with my bad sense of direction, flying straight over the Cooper River Bridge, then just above the steeples of the peninsula, taking 61 instead of 26, checking out the plantations on the Ashley River, noting the traffic, wondering if the cars should be an earlier model since I was ostensibly going back in time — all this while the therapist’s meter was ticking, so to speak, at $75 a half-hour.

Then he’d say it’s time to fly back before I had a chance to go get inside my childhood house, before I’d had a chance to relive some wretched Christmas Eve or stumbled-across suicide note. The house didn’t have a chimney to slide in through a la Santa, nor was I, strictly speaking, a ghost who could walk through walls, etc.  I’d be on the roof trying to figure out how to get in when he’d tell me it was time to go.  So I’d take off and head back, and like in real life, the trip back was always quicker than the trip there.

Once again, Judy to the rescue. I told the therapist that my wife was displeased at my lack of progress, and he immediately referred me to the Medical University where I was triaged by a woman whom I wouldn’t have minded being my therapist because she was much older than I, a bone fide psychiatrist with a pleasantly patrician foreign accent; however, she had recently moved to Charleston from Johannesburg and couldn’t practice in the US.

Anyway, I passed the triage, got assigned with a fellow who put me on Zoloft and Klonopin, and even though he and I didn’t talk about Wittgenstein or, for that matter, Raymond Chandler, we did have interesting conversations, mostly about his life, how it felt like to tell someone he had a month to live, etc., and I started sleeping through nights and feeling like my old self again, i.e, like a somewhat angry and pessimistic middle-aged man who held most of the bourgeoise in contempt.

flight

Well, that was 21 years ago, so imagine my arrogance level now, especially when these whippersnapper parents-of-students young enough for me to have taught commence to instruct me about how I should be conducting my classes.

For example, at lunch, the other day, one of my colleagues started bitching about a parent who actually texted her after a 9th grade weekend retreat to complain that little Bartholomew or Bianca had declared the retreat was the worst trip the sweet darling had ever been on ever. My colleague texted her back photos of beaming kids looking as if they’d were being filmed in a soda pop ad.

I told her I thought that was great but added that I would have handled it somewhat differently, would have engaged in some dialogue before sending the photos.

Mom: . . . the worst trip my sweet darling has ever been on ever!

Me: You are, Mrs. X, familiar with the philosophical school of existentialism, aren’t you?

Mom: Huh?

Me: You know, the movement started by Kierkegaard, embraced by Nietzsche, espoused by Sartre and Camus.

Mom: What does this have to do with anything?

Me: Well, it has a lot to do with everything. Existentialists posit that each individual perceives the world through her own unique perspective and therefore ‘reality’ is relative. Because your Portuguese water dog lacks the optical cones and rods to perceive your sweater is red, to him the sweater is gray, but your reality is no more legitimate than his, and let’s not forget you can’t hear the high frequencies that he perceives, but that doesn’t mean his reality is more legitimate than yours.

In other words, although this may have been the worst trip ever from B’s perspective, it might have been the greatest trip C has ever been on — or as Hamlet puts it, “There’s nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”

Therefore, I suggest you and B bond together by reading Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus. “ And in the mean time please enjoy these photos from the retreat.

Have a nice day!

Like, I say, I can be arrogant when it comes to some things, but I’d arrogantly like to think my arrogance is better than that mother’s arrogance.


* But, hey. I’m not arrogant about the things I suck at, like my inability to find my car in a parking garage or remembering the person’s name I was introduced to 30 seconds ago.

Deserts of Vast Eternity

TIME.2No 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.

O what shall I do with this absurdity –

O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

Blink.

A Rural Funeral

Funeral ProgramWhat 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

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.

The Parakeets’ Funeral

1957-Ford-Station-Wagons2In 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.

Red-Necked Crake

Red-Necked Crake

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.

il_fullxfull.298559756We 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

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.”