Lost Song

Lurking in the back of my mind, an emotional revelation waits. What it is, I couldn’t tell you. A memory from my past? An understanding about myself? About life in general, the world? I don’t know.

I think that if I waited long enough, carved away the distractions like a pending visit from one of my kids, or the telephone that might ring, or the dog barking outside at falling leaves, whatever It is might reveal itself. It might stand fully formed in front of me, shimmering in magnificence. Terrifying. Fulfilling.

It won’t come, though. I know this because I’ve felt this way before. It never comes, at least, not lately. Now when I need it the most.

In the past, it came with LSD and mescaline. It came with sex. It came when I pounded out the last bars of “The Long and Winding Road” on the piano and tears ran down my face. It came when I reeled off the walls, tequila rushing through my veins, and the truth was made known.

This is different.

I get nowhere with booze. Won’t even consider psychedelics or sex. I can’t look at a piano, much less sit down to play one.

This is like singing, something I once did well. Singing came out of me like some truth too profound to express any other way. I can’t sing now. My voice is old and broken. In my dreams, I can sing. In my dreams, I’m also younger, lovely, strong.

When I try to sing, my voice breaks around middle C, something I noticed after one of several surgeries and which I assign to a tube being forced down my throat. Vocal cords pushed aside, deformed or broken. I want to open my mouth and let a pure note emerge, then another and another until the last note shines off into the distance. I feel it inside me, waiting to come out.

One of my expectations, now that I think on it, was to surround my older years with the things I had no time for when I was young, things like painting where my brush would drift over the paper spreading colors into magical swirls and hues. Things like strumming a guitar again, forming chords that drifted off into the evening air. I would sing along, remember “Scotch and Soda,” “Girl from Ipanema,” “Turn Around”…

I can still paint. I have the supplies. The method has become rusty, but if I applied myself, I could remember how to make shadows while the paper is still damp. I could let orange fade into indigo along a sunset horizon.

Somewhere in all that is the thing I can’t quite reach.

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Class Reunion

banquet

Senior Banquet 1966

Fifty minutes remains until the time arbitrarily assigned for my departure. Fifty minutes until I load the backpack I’ve borrowed from my daughter into my car. It contains the clothes and shoes I’ll wear tonight and the clothes I’ll wear tomorrow, along with toiletries and other items I may or may not need. Fifty minutes until I ease down my rain-rutted gravel drive and traverse the dusty dirt road to hit the county road and then the highway and then the route north.

I will drive for two and one half hours, hours to fidget in my seat as countless half-formed scenarios scroll through my head along with tentative smiles, greetings, and snatches of conversation I imagine making. Hours to panic further about this long anticipated event.

My fifty year class reunion.

Despite the cliché in all this, I’m not sure I’ll survive. But then of course I will, unless fate takes some kind of wicked glee in choosing this time and place to terminate my time on this earth. I’ve soothed my frayed nerves with the image of myself back home tomorrow night—not that far away—where I’ll sit on my familiar couch with my TV remote in my hand and try to let the static die away.

Forty-five minutes now. Mental checklist—underwear, toothpaste, my morning requirements of oolong tea in its strainer and a mango ready for my waking in a strange hotel room in a town I haven’t lived in for fifty years.

A town where so much of the tangled fabric of my life was woven in ways I, even now, have not untangled. It’s a place sadly diminished in the thirty years since its major industry closed up shop, yet signs of revival dot Main Street. Public housing covers the block where our venerable red brick school building once stood with its red-curtained stage, with its hallways that smelled faintly of janitorial chemicals and teenaged angst, with classrooms haunted by teachers we still hear explaining the details of osmosis and conjugation. Long dead.

This will be the fifth time I’ve returned. The first was for the funeral of a close friend when we were twenty-two. The rest of the visits have been class reunions. Since the 30th in 1996, I haven’t been back. Too much to stand in a room full of strangers knowing that once I could have called them by name. Too much to watch their faces as they read my name tag then glance at my face as if they too are staring at a stranger.

The fiftieth is different. People who’ve never been to a class reunion before are coming now. Fifty is a milestone. An arbitrary line in the sand. Those of us still living will step over it.

A half hour until I embark on this journey. I’ve tried to convince myself that it will be good to get out on the highway. It’s been too long since I set out on a road trip, let the wind blow my hair, watched the lines fly past on the pavement. I could be going anywhere.

A half hour to feel my stomach tighten even more. The first man I loved will be there. The cheerleaders will be there. The jocks. The money kids. The fellow nerds—members of the band, the choir, the thespians and class clowns. The girls who married young. The ones I didn’t really know. There were 235 of us.

Only a fraction will show up, maybe fifty or seventy. They will look old. They will look like that unrecognizable person who stares back at me in the mirror.

I think of prom and the formals I wore. I think of the shops I haunted on Main Street, the places that sold Vassarette lingerie and dyed to match satin high heels and Evening in Paris perfume, aisles I haunted in search of what it might mean to be a woman. I’ll revisit the drive-ins at either end of town where cars loaded with friends made the turn to once again ‘drag Main’ and remember the hours we spent forging our place in a world we hardly knew.

I don’t want to think of these things. I don’t want the tears that will undoubtedly sting my eyes as I look around the room tonight and see people who are like family in my memory and strangers to me now.

I’m on the road. A high sky of intense blue frames my journey. The land shifts from wooded hillsides to flat prairie. The town comes into view, the town where so much has changed and nothing has changed.

I wade into a room full of people I once knew. The dinner where we gather narrows and concentrates the experience as I try and fail to hold myself apart from the emotion. Hugs, laughter, squinting down to read name tags. Joy in reconnecting after so much time.

Hours pass as each in turn stands to tell of his or her life. How many children, grandchildren. Jobs, travels. Each one speaks on what defines them. Or what they thought everyone expected them to say. Or what they could remember of hastily gathered thoughts now scattered as the microphone shakes in their hands.

In my hotel room at midnight, I realize these hours will be forever reduced to an ephemeral moment in time.

The beauty of our youth transformed to the sags, lines, and the weight of adventures great and small, hopes fulfilled, dreams lost, loves too great to calculate, tragedies too terrible to remember. Burdened and enriched, we glance at each other from a vantage we’ve only just now gained.

These are our lives framed in this moment between where we face each other in this banquet room and the time we faced each other in caps and gowns. It’s a marking of the passage of time in a way more visceral than we anticipated, tears standing in our eyes as familiar young faces from our yearbook appear as big-screen images, a slow scroll of those who have died. Like we all will die, the reminder too close for comfort.

In this room, I see women where girls once stood, men in place of boys, our gaze reflecting our singular paths through time. The girl who played flute, the guy writing formulas at the chalk board. The intellectuals. The invisible ones. That’s not who they are now. And yet it is.

This man I loved when we were young—we’re still connected in ways beyond time. I value the time we spend together, catching up. Looking at the town, the places we thought we’d remember, but no, wait, wasn’t it another block down, that house where he once lived, another that once belonged to my family? He laughs and says Sonic chili dogs have lost none of their outrageous charm, he the transplant to the glittering northeast where that uniquely southern talent for perfect chili cheese dogs remains elusive.

All of us share this struggle to reacquaint ourselves with who we once were. We try to discover in each other’s faces what if anything it means about who we are now. Our eyes reflect our grief in the inexorable passage of time, a ticking clock quickly marking off this momentary memorial to our youth and all those years we saw each other day after day in class, across the gym at sock hops, at pep rallies and football games, in the cafeteria where even now, if ghosts still walked, the smell of yeasty rolls would lie heavy in the noontime air.

The essence of what we were then is what we are now. We are gentle with each other as we seek that affirmation.

Bittersweet thoughts rise and fall in the late afternoon sky that frames my journey home. Tattered white clouds drift across a faded azure dome. The road winds as I re-enter hill country. I’m tired. I want my own bed.

Overwhelming sadness edges in. The event has come and now gone. I doubt I’ll ever see most of these people again. There may be more reunions—a fifty-fifth, the sixtieth. When I took my mother to her seventy-third, no one else was there.

I am thankful to have shared a brief moment in time with others who remember the same teachers, the rattling locker doors and dim hallways, the same gossip and scandals. We shared a time in our lives when all things were possible, when everything seemed larger than life, rife with pivotal moments.

I have lingered too long in the past. Long ago when I left that town, I made a point to live without regret. I rushed out to embrace the adventure. What I knew then I know even more strongly now. I stand on all that came before. But life only moves forward.

Gift of the Season Day 5 — Book Price Markdown

goat cover skewedA visiting guinea? A ‘possum in the dining room? What strange and wondrous occurrences can one expect while living on an Ozark mountaintop for thirty-five years?

These lyrical adventure stories feature chickens, raccoons, bugs, dogs, cats, and natural critters of this woodland home. Throw in a few neighbors who shoot copperheads or remodel the dirt road. Ponder the passage of time through a philosophical lens of wonder and delight. The seasons bring summer heat, winter snow, pouring rain, the power of fire. Lessons learned, questions posed-who has lived and died on this land? What is our responsibility to this place, its creatures, each other?
Come meet the goat on the road.
Now available for only $6.95. A lovely gift for anyone. Amazon buy link 
“I enjoyed all these stories and especially admired the author’s ability to describe the creatures she encounters with a naturalist’s eye and a pet lover’s emotions. My favorite story was ‘Summer,’ a languorous description of a 102-degree day on the mountain where the smallest movement seems difficult and time slows down. The author’s prose is lyrical and yet unsentimental. You can feel the heat and the sense of relief when the day draws to a close. A beautifully-written series of stories…”      Reviewed by Annamaria Farbizio for Readers’ Favorite

Best Burger Ever

brendas

Brenda’s Bigger Burger circa 2012. The metal railing was added when a street widening took half the parking lot. Photo from an article by Dustin Bartholomew, November 8, 2012, in the Fayetteville Flyer, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Today was one of those days when I came face to face with the passage of time. In traffic at a stoplight, I studied my surroundings and realized that Brenda’s Bigger Burger property sat vacant with a big ‘SOLD’ sign on the parking lot. A pang of nostalgia twisted in my chest. I knew it had closed. I just hadn’t thought about what it meant.

Through no fault of its own, the place always marked a pivotal moment in my life.

I never knew Brenda’s Bigger Burger existed until December 1970. Never mind that it stood on the corner of 6th and South Hill, an intersection I had passed countless times growing up. Several blocks further down South Hill nestled the modest little white building where my parents dragged us kids to church every time the doors opened.

On this particular weekend, my church-going days had long since passed. Finally. Now at the end of my first semester back at university after nearly three years living in California, I sat in the front passenger seat of Sam Holloway’s white Ford Galaxie waiting impatiently for our food. I was starving.

In retrospect, I realize that my ravenous appetite had not just a little to do with my first marijuana ‘high’ the previous night.

Momentous enough in its own right, my initiation into the drug culture hardly topped the chart of radical changes that occurred that night. Even more staggering was the fact that I had unexpectedly become unfaithful to my husband.

I could lay all this at the feet of Sam Holloway, a friend of an old friend whom I’d encountered on campus just a few days earlier. Old Friend and I were both married, him in grad school and me finishing my bachelors. We agreed to get together sometime.

‘Sometime’ turned out to be one evening a few days later when he called and wanted to stop by with a friend. They brought a six-pack. I was on my second glass of Chablis.

When Old Friend and Holloway arrived stamping snow off their shoes at my carport door, I was baking banana nut bread to send to my husband. He was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines earning a captain’s hazardous duty pay as a courier flying in and out of Southeast Asia with top secret missives. Our separation had begun in late September, an eighteen-months’ tour for him before he could get out of the military and enough time for me to finish my degree.

I’d been lonely. I’d fretted over whether to dally, an inclination I’d fought even while still in California. We’d been together five years, married for nearly three. We’d discussed new ideas like open marriage but hadn’t made any moves.

That doesn’t excuse what I did. In an open marriage, there would have been an agreement. This was more delicious and awful than that, unplanned, unexpected, and entirely outrageous.

Old Friend passed out on his fourth beer and snored at the end of the couch. Having no other furniture, I sat in the middle of the couch and Holloway leaned back on the other end, his hand-tooled alligator cowboy boots crossed at the ankle. Twirling one end of his elaborate mustache, he pulled a skinny yellow cigarette out of his jacket pocket and flicked his Zippo. Sweet smelling smoke spiraled from the tip.

Several minutes later, the ‘high’ hit me with a warm caress on the back of my neck. My forehead floated upward. Lights dazzled. Colors like the black and white plaid sofa and the big red and yellow candlesticks I’d made out of flower pots began to pulse. Even more intriguing were Holloway’s green eyes.

Incredible as we found it, we’d been born on the same day in the same town. His mother and my father both taught school at Rogers before we moved away. My father was remembered there, Holloway said.

It was the Chablis. It was the weed. It was the strange coincidence of our connections and the scintillating repartee that flew back and forth between us. It was a slice of time cut from both our regular lives and set aside for this experience.

The next morning every icy surface including the streets glistened in bright sunshine. The ground had been white with snow for two days. Just driving across town to Brenda’s had been an slippery adventure. He insisted on Brenda’s, so that’s where he took me.

The food came out steaming hot, a sizzling beef patty on a big round bun. My teeth sank into the burger and saliva instantly flooded my mouth. Yellow mustard! Fresh sliced onion! Dills lovingly arranged so that each bite included just enough pickle. Tomato when real tomatoes were all you could get.

The burger and fries came wrapped in thin tissue paper, enough layers that when Holloway spread out the fries on the seat between us, the fat didn’t seep through to the upholstery. Heaped in long limp strands, the fries were salty golden treasure.

My hands trembled as I ate. I savored my Dr. Pepper down to the last crunchy nugget of ice. For the third time in less than 24 hours, I died and went to heaven.

I broke two more promises before it all ended. One I broke immediately, my promise never to smoke cigarettes again. After we’d crumpled the mustard-stained tissue papers, Holloway pulled out his pack of Winstons. My brand.

The other, the promise to myself that I’d never do that again? I lasted ten days. The affair lasted a scant two months before we both moved on. The marriage lasted another three years.

When the day arrives that Brenda’s building falls before the bulldozer blade, I can tell you right now—I will shed tears. Not only for Holloway or what we had. Not only for the marriage or the man I never quite stopped loving.

My tears will also fall for the fact that there’ll never be a better burger than the one I ate that day.

[From an untitled work in progress which may or may not see print in my lifetime…]

Old Timers

100_0565I’d made it halfway down the dog food aisle when the woman’s words penetrated.

“Hey, aren’t you…? Didn’t you…?”

The woman had turned to look at me. I knew she thought she knew me. I looked at her closely, moving my cart against the bags of dog food so I didn’t block the aisle. She did look kind of familiar. I glanced at the man standing behind her. He looked slightly familiar too.

“Virginia Wilson,” she said. “Dennis,” she added, motioning to her husband.

“Of course! Wow, it’s been so long.” I studied them as my brain clicked backwards through decades. In 1974, when Steve and I first moved to the land his parents deeded us on this mountain, Dennis and Virginia had a place on past ours another two miles down the rough dirt road.

“Yeah, we thought that was you,” she said with a smile. “I hardly know anybody up there anymore. They’re all dying off.”

“I only know a few,” I replied. “Burkart, Northcutt—can’t call them anymore.” I pondered the sorry state of affairs. “After Art died, you know his wife hooked up with a guy named Ron Martin. They had a kid and raised Art’s son Tommy—he was only two when Art died, and he’s about thirty now.”

We shook our heads at the passage of time.

I continued with my story, because at some point it would make sense why I told it. “Ron, he moved out. He lives down there in that little house Williams built for his son out by the road. Lives with a guy named Chris. They work together.”

That brought the topic back to people who lived on the road. Names of people who used to live here. Who lived in their houses now.

I could have said a lot more about Ron and Chris. How Ron’s back is messed up bad, an injury he’s carried since his days in Vietnam when the 101st Airborne was jumping out of helicopters into jungle, when Ron was a skinny little eighteen-year-old kid with a fifty pound pack on his back. He’s missing a few teeth now, thin as a rail, damn proud of his ‘Nam days and the 101st. He still tries to work, has to work since he’s got a seventeen year old son and his military pension even for a disabled person isn’t enough. He’s not supposed to work.

He’s got COPD, has to use oxygen. Wakes up in the morning in agony. Has to take his pain meds and stand in a hot shower until his back settles down. He had to move out on his wife, Art’s widow. She’s got issues, mostly anger. So he moved in with Chris.

Chris never was in the service. He lost an eye when he was nine, one of those running wild in the neighborhood situations, somebody throwing rocks or using a slingshot. Nobody really took care of Chris. His alcoholic dad did things to him, to all his kids, but Chris loved him anyway. Like kids do. By the time Chris hooked up with Ron, he was in his forties, had done every drug long enough to see himself sliding down a hole. Managed to get himself off heroin, off meth.

But Chris will never give up alcohol. Somewhere he’s got grown kids. Once he had good jobs in construction. The man has an amazing talent—just understands how to put things together. And an artful eye—one. Painter, carpenter, drywall guy—he’s got the skills. But he works to drink. Soon as he knocks off the job for the day, he hits Roger’s Rec. Sometimes he has enough sense to give Ron his money and listen to Ron when he says it’s time to go home.

Sometimes he wakes up in the wee hours with police shaking him awake and pulling him from where he passed out in the bushes behind Roger’s. They don’t even book him. They just call Ron. Nobody can fix Chris.

“Yeah,” Virginia says. “Remember Foster Copeland? Lacy Barrett bought that house after he died. I think they rent it out.”

I remember Foster—tall, sandy red hair, big guy. His house sits across the road from Ron and Chris. Not the house he had when we moved up here. That one burned. Then all the Jehovah Witnesses came up to help their ‘brother’ build a new one, a house raising that lasted a weekend and put him and his family back into a home.

Foster sold tool handles. He’d drive around these parts, I don’t know how far his route extended, selling handles from the back of his car. We’d take tools down there for him to fix. Five dollars. Pitchfork, hoe, shovel, maddock, axe—he had all the right handles made of good strong hickory. Some of my tools still have Foster’s handles in them. He died of a brain hemorrhage sometime in the mid-Eighties.

“I know the guy that lives there now,” I said. “Sammy something. He’s friends with Ron and Chris. He and his wife live in Foster’s house.”

“Is there somebody new living in Randy Northcutt’s house?” Dennis asked. Randy’s house is next door to Foster’s. Next door as in, maybe a hundred yards down the road.

“Yeah, I guess it sold—the realtor sign is down and they’ve cleaned up the place. Too bad about Randy. He really let that place get messed up.”

“Oh, that wasn’t Randy,” Virginia said. She glanced at Dennis and he shook his head. I knew he missed Neal. For years, every day, late afternoon, Dennis’ dump truck would be parked up next to Neal Northcutt’s fence and they’d be inside having a beer and discussing things in general.

“He sold that house,” she continued. “Soon as Neal died, Randy sold it to his sister and left. Haven’t heard a word about him since.”

“She lived in that trailer for a while, the one that used to belong to Davenport?” Davenport was a skinny little ex-military who married a big German woman. He died of cancer, left the place to her. She gave up after a couple of years and sold everything to Neal.

“Yeah, her and her husband. They fixed it up then sold it to Wesley Harris, I think was his name. They added on a really nice house, but that trailer’s still in there.” She paused to scoot her cart over so another shopper could go by. “I think they’re there, but I don’t know. I can’t keep up.”

Virginia’s a cute little woman with a petite figure and friendly smile. I think she’s into Jesus. We never socialized much, even in those early years when Steve, his brother Art, and Dennis got together to drink, smoke, and cuss. The guys hung out while the women went about the business of fixing meals, taking care of kids, keeping house. I saw no reason to buck the system—they never talked about much of interest to me.

Early on, we hired Dennis to build us a nice pond below the first pond. He was in the hauling and heavy equipment business. We’d see him driving home, groaning up the mountain with his dump truck in first gear, hauling his bulldozer behind him on a beat-up flatbed. Once the pond filled up, Steve and I took the kids—I think we only had two at the time, late 70s—and drove over to Huntsville to a fish farm. Brought back buckets of fingerling catfish to stock it. Never once caught a catfish out of there, at least that I can remember.

Time changes everything. The dam settled and trees took hold. Now their roots have riven the red clay dam base and weakened it enough to erode. The overflow ditch to the side filled up with fescue and weeds, so water spilled over the top of the dam after heavy rains. A ditch developed across the top. The ditch is big now, maybe three feet across at the top and cutting down into the dam at least two feet. I keep thinking I’ll get somebody up here with a load of red clay to fix all that. I’d have them clean out the overflow ditch at the same time so water can’t top the dam again. But that’s at least $500 that I don’t have. So Dennis’s dam keeps getting worse.

We tried to keep it up. I dug out that overflow ditch. Steve dug it out. The kids got older and the deer population exploded and making a garden down there became a painful futility. Then Art died and a few years later Steve and I fell apart, and then I didn’t have the money or the heart to go down there and walk around in our ghosts.

But things with Dennis fell apart before the pond dam went bad. One day Steve came home from work furious. He’d stopped down at Neal’s. Neal was kind of the godfather of the road, him and Walter Burkart. Both were retired military, hiding out in the Ozark woods after a lifetime of being bossed around. Walter didn’t drink, so he didn’t hang out with the drinking crowd. Neal’s second home was the White Star Tavern, especially after Penny died. He called it his office. Everybody loved Neal and Walter.

So Steve came home from Neal’s where he’d seen a dead redtail hawk in the bed of Dennis’s pickup. Dennis admitted to shooting it, like there was sport in it. Proud of himself.

Steve loved redtails. He loved anything in nature, but especially hawks. When we first got together, he’d tell me the names of trees, types of birds, insects, snakes. I learned a lot in those twenty years until I couldn’t stand living with him anymore. Ironic that because of the kids, I stayed on the land and he moved to town.

Anyway, Steve stormed into the house ranting about the dead redtail and called the game warden. I remember his hands shaking while he looked up the number. Redtails are protected birds. You can’t even have a dead one you pick up off the road. Can’t have a feather off one. Red-shouldered hawks I think are the same, like eagles and other birds of prey mostly killed off by early settlers under the idea of protecting their chickens.

Dennis got in trouble on account of that hawk. I think Art would still socialize with Dennis, but Steve never did. Then when Art died in 1989, the mix of Campbell and Wilson at Mineral Springs just withered on the vine.

We stood there in Walmart, the Wilsons and I, talking about the old timers. We were the old timers now. As we were turning away to go on with our shopping, Virginia laughed and allowed as how I’d probably better not call if I needed anything, because she didn’t do much for anybody anymore. And I said yeah, I felt the same way. Besides, we agreed we didn’t know most of the people who lived up here now and wouldn’t be likely to take kindly to any neighborly overtures unless there was some kind of gawdawful emergency.

Lots of us who lived up here in those early days thought there would be a gawdawful emergency at any moment. Some lunatic would push the button and the world would go up in mushroom clouds. The Ozarks was one of the places where wind drift would save us from the worst of the fallout. We’d be the ones who could still grow food, pull clean water up from our wells, join together in a tribe to share what we had and fend off the savage hordes.

We learned how to raise and slaughter animals, grow and preserve food, and we stocked extra supplies of salt and bullets. Slowly our kids grew up. We started to understand we could never possess enough bullets.

Now we’re the old timers. Until our reunion in the dog food aisle, it had been at least twenty years since I saw Virginia and Dennis. People don’t move to the woods to socialize. We probably won’t live long enough to see each other again.

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