Friday, September 30, 2011

The Moon Yellow / The Night Young

   Onetia Mae Wilson meets Willie Talmadge Cothern at Topeka High School in 1930. Having seen him at some dances, she's aware of who he is and that he has a reputation for drinking. On the first day of school, the students there to register before going back home to chores or to finish picking cotton with their families, Onetia is standing with a group of her girl friends near the door of the school. Just inside the doorway, sitting on the edge of a desk, W.T. watches them, no doubt with that sly Cothern smile. The girls chatter about their summer, their hopes for the upcoming school year, and, probably, there is talk about the boys, gossip and the inevitable judgment about their looks. Glances are exchanged, perhaps a shy smile from Onetia, perhaps a slight nod from W.T., some acknowledgment of the future.
   The two weeks at home, daily chores of cooking, mopping the broad plank floors in the house, feeding the chickens or wringing their necks, those days before school starts, before Onetia can see W.T. again, those days drift ever so slowly along, stretching out ahead like an horizon that never seems any closer.

   W.T. never drinks beer or any homebrew before coming to see Onetia. Sometimes he uses his father's automobile to travel those rutted red clay roads in Mississippi, sometimes a bicycle, and a few times he walks those dusty miles. Once after getting a late start home, still miles to go, he spends the night on the porch of a colored family, perhaps before drifting off to sleep, his head propped up on a piece of firewood, listening to nightsounds and watching stars wheel above the tin roof.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Over the River and Through the Woods

   At age eight, listening to the hushed fragments of conversation at the farm in Mississippi, some images enlarged by my imagination become fixed so strongly they bleed into sleep.
   Long ago, Allen Brister, my Great Uncle, Mama Cothern's brother, is an alcoholic, who when he spends the night at his sister's raises the upstairs window and urinates slowly on the tin roof of the porch, hoping his relatives below will think it is rain. Strikingly handsome in his youth, three-piece suit, early photographs belie the disheveled, rheumy look I remember. Uncle Allen manages to kill his wife Vera during a dense fog while she is riding on the front fender of a 1935 Dodge with a dim flashlight so Allen can see the edge of the gravel road. She is crushed between the automobile and the ditch when the car runs off the road. Sleeping upstairs in the cold, in the same bed Uncle Allen slept in years before, I am always afraid Aunt Vera will be standing at the bottom of the stairs during my family's short Christmas visits at Mama Cothern's house. Not ghost or imagination. But there. Nude. Her left breast gone from the accident. Scarred body. Bloodless wounds. Staring up the stairs at me.
   Hello, Raymond.
   Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


   The first time Laurie visits Jen in the hospital she moves slowly around the bed, her back pressed against walls and furniture, keeping as much distance between her and her younger sister as possible. It is that first time shock of seeing someone you love, the unexpectedness of serious illness no one is prepared for, of viewing something hard to understand, accept, something creating changes in the everydayness like the wake of a boat long after it passes.
   Still standing away from the bed, still acclimating herself, Laurie calls Jen's name. Visibly, Jen fights her way to the surface, is able to open her eyes for a brief moment, tries to find her sister in the dim room, is able, for the last time before descending, to speak with sense, to mouth the words, Hi, Laurie.
   Two years apart, always different in most ways, the girls grow up with our idea that they are coming into our lives, that we are not going to center everything around them. We walk around the house normally when they are sleeping babies, play music, loudly sometimes, have friends over and laugh and argue. Dee and I make all the right moves, disciplining them with a swat on the butt when they are learning right from wrong, no means no, never letting them interrupt adults when they are talking, never letting adults interrupt them, loving them and caring for them, treating them like we wish we could have been treated as children, always aware of everything we are doing is molding them, especially the first two years; during all those days in the late 60's, early 70's, referring to Dr. Spock occasionally about ailments, aware we are doing it differently from our parents, we make all the right moves and still fuck our children up.

   Only a few months old and Laurie is sleeping all through the night. (Nothing to this child-raising gig.) Always independent and head-strong about food and clothes and opinions, even as a child, she is looked at by others with a touch of envy because decisions come easily, no endless debating like most folks over choices and consequences. Choose and move on. Just like her mother. On the other hand there's Jennifer--who doesn't sleep through the night as a baby, whose disposition is reflected in a photograph of her on the front porch on Bernardo Street in her windup swing, arm on the front of the seat, chin resting on arm, eyes staring straight into the lens, questioning, reserved, a weary resignation like she's had enough of this childhood thing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Unofficial Lifeguard

Part Three

Summer, 1977

   Also this summer, after saving the kid, one humid Friday night, I am relaxing in the pool, floating on my back, occasionally propelling myself off the side with my toes, away from Dee sitting on the edge with her feet in the water. We are joined by five black women. One I recognize from nods in the laundry room and along uneven sidewalks; the other ladies seem like visitors and all of them are unaccustomed to the water. They swim awkwardly, arms chopping at the water, their kicks creating turbulence but little forward movement. One of the ladies refuses to venture in the water any deeper than her thick waist. They laugh and tease and cry out to each other. Amused, Dee and I sip our beers and watch.
   Dee says she is not comfortable swimming either. She looks at me and nods for emphasis.
   The women squeal like girls--their voices echoing from the walls of the apartments surrounding the pool. Two of the women race the length of the pool--their thrashing along a crooked course causing a choppiness in the entire pool.
   I hold on to Dee's toes and float on my back. Ears under water, the noisy women sound like barking seals. The closer sound of Dee's voice brings my head up.
   . . . brother Petey drowning, my parents instilling such a fear in me. These women lacked opportunity, too.
   One lady veers off course so badly that she swims into the side of the pool. Her companions hoot at her.
   I'm going for beers.
   Dee nods.
   Coming back down the stairs, beers in hand, drops of water from my suit still running down my legs, I hear Dee call me.
   The cries of the women have changed.
   She's in trouble, Raymond.
   Dee's voice is surprisingly calm.
   Two of the women struggle in the deep water. One has panicked and grabbed the other. By the time I reach the deep end, one of them manages to free herself and makes it to the side. She holds on, both arms stretched out on the wet concrete, screaming rage and panic and worry and relief. I think once of the long-handle pool net but instead jump into the deep water near the woman. She grabs me immediately in a fierce stranglehold around my neck. A surge of panic and I start to rip myself free. Facing her, my face buried between her breasts, I wait until we sink deep enough to propel us off the bottom with my toes. We gulp air and sink again. She tightens her hold and her legs come up around my waist and lock behind my back. She no longer struggles but holds on and waits for air each time we bob to the surface. Locked tightly together, I use my arms and begin to move us to shallower water. Her soft breasts cocoon my head. Finally, with her up on me, her head above mine, she is able to gasp for air and cry out once. I tip-toe until my head is out of the water.
   It's okay.
   We're in shallow water.
   Okay now.
   Feel better?
   Slowly, slowly, staring, the woman loosens her hold around my neck and leans slightly away from me. Slowly, finally, recognition, like waking from sleep, comes into her eyes, across her face.
   The woman is embarrassed.
   She releases her legs and backs away from me.

   Later, in the pool, alone, thinking over the events earlier, the panicky feeling of the woman's fierce hold around my neck, I remember, when he was still alive, Dad's main expression of love is always in the form of a dilemma: imaginary situations involving choices equally unsatisfying. What if two of his sons are drowning, who to save? What father doesn't know about his youngest son, Raymond, feeling trapped because of his adolescence, too scared to strike out on his own like his brothers, staying on instead, is that he feels that he and his parents, the three of them left in that small house on Bernardo are all drowning and can no more save each other than express their love openly.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Unofficial Lifeguard

Part Two

Summer, 1977

The first person I pluck from the pool this summer is a five-year-old boy who is left to play on the steps in the shallow end while his mother paddles slowly to the other end to eye the tanned men swimming there. The application of sun tan lotion on sleek bodies is rampant. The blonde living across the parking lot floats on a green rubber raft, her long painted fingernails trailing in the water. Another paragraph read, another glance around to find my daughters. I read on--aware how hot the sun is on my shoulders. Another glance around, the young boy not on the steps. He is stretched out under the water--struggling--his legs kicking but creating no real movement in the water. Two steps, the chair collapsing behind me, I jump from the edge of the pool and reach down and grab the boy around his waist. I stand him up on the wet concrete to study his face. A shocked look then he exhales through his nose--expelling water and mucus. Activity ceases in the pool. The boy cries for a moment and holds his arms out to his mother. She takes him and holds him while standing waist-deep in the water. They say nothing to each other but stand for a long time in a comforting embrace. Finally, still carrying her son on her hip, still silent, the woman walks slowly to the steps and climbs out of the pool, pausing only to pick up a towel across the back of a chair.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Unofficial Lifeguard

Part One

Summer, 1977

I sit--the unofficial lifeguard who will save two lives this summer--sunbathing and sweating at poolside. A beer at hand getting warmer. Shouts of children and the deeper hum of adults mixes with the rumble of traffic from Jefferson Highway. Later the children will tire and go in; a few adults will remain then leave for showers before Saturday night movies or parties or smoky barbecues on small balconies or enclosed patios. Saturday nights the pool is empty, the traffic vibrating the water enough to smear the reflection of white-lighted windows and yellow bug-lights in long bands across the dark water.

Nights are quiet at poolside with only an occasional person loaded with laundry passing by or some people on their way to the parking lot. After 10 p.m. even the underwater lights are extinguished and I often slip out of my bathing suit and let it sink to the deepest part of the pool as I swim away, unencumbered, bubbles of air moving along my body like the touch of silk.

The pool is crowded today.

Both daughters are tanned and slick. They cruise underwater like seals, arms along their sides in a graceful glide. Laurie surfaces quickly, hands running over her hair to slick it back off of her face. She checks to see that her sunglasses are still on the side of the pool then sinks below the surface and propels herself off the bottom of the pool. Jennifer crashes to the surface from below, head tilted back, streaming water slicking back her hair. Beads of moisture form a mosaic on her dark face.

I watch, ready to save them, reading a novel about the center not holding, reading a sentence or two at a time before checking on them.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Garage

Sitting here at the keyboard I can pull open the sagging double wooden doors of the garage where long ago I plot nighttime raids on plum and pear trees, construct crystal radios to pick up that exotic Del Rio, Texas station, where buckets of foul water are suspended over the doors in elaborate snares for friends in disfavor, where giggling girls with budding boobs are tempted to smoke stale cigarettes and then laugh at attempts to feel them up; arming for battles on cold nights and throwing rocks at my brother Wayne or Bill Leet or Charles Parent or Joe Silvio or John Wayne Collier or J.C. Saintangelo as they dance out of the dark, coming close, their breaths visible laughter in the cold air, flashing through the spill of light out of the doors just for a moment; and where long ago on Sundays my father spends his day off drinking Falstaff beer and puttering between the unpainted walls, his vast array of tools spread out on various workbenches, fixing bicycle flats, busting knuckles and holding them against the cold beer can, tightening the handlebar on the same bicycle, perhaps, but usually repairing dip nets or fooling with minnow jars for bait, tying lines and swivel hooks for a catfish line, and one day a clear varnish on the wooden frame of my backpack used not as much for camping as it was for adventures imagined, dreams of excape, long hikes away from household tension.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hunting and Gathering

It passes down directly--from a father who grows up on a farm, who adds fish and squirrels and rabbits and venison to the farm-raised table fare of chickens and vegetables grown in a plot down by the barn and hogs butchered for bacon and pork chops and ribs and ham and roasts.

It is undeniably a thrill when young to wake up before dawn, perhaps fog shielding the familiar, knowing an adventure awaits. That it will end in taking life with the rod of a barrel or a rod and reel is last in the young to the thrill of holding fresh kill in the hands, a larger sense of self being peeked at, the adventure of fingertips finally touching for a moment some place of absolute control.

And it occurs to me that almost all those companions on those hunting and fishing trips are dead now, my father, my father's father, uncles on both sides, Mississippi cousins, brother-in-law Ricky, my brother Wayne. And those adventures begin to roll into one, certain moments from different trips with whomever (it doesn't matter) spotlighted for a moment then on to another adventure with someone else, all those images assuming more weight the more distance from them, repeating countless times while growing older.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hurricane Gustav / Part Two

Hurricane season in south Louisiana is always a time of nagging worry that weather patterns will align and a path will open up through the Gulf of Mexico, sending a storm of destruction that changes people’s lives. Hurricane Gustav in 2008 was one such storm.

And when the worse of it has passed, but still the gusts scary enough to walk with back flattened against the outside walls of the house, it is like emerging into a wartime battlefield. Nothing is left untouched. It is like those views of Vietnam, seen from bombers dropping so many close-patterned bombs, carpet bombing, and then the view up close, at ground level. Even after going through it, seeing a small portion of it happen through rain-streaked windows, it is still difficult to wrap my mind around what has happened.

Later reports state it is the worse storm ever for Baton Rouge. Gusts of 90 mph with sustained hurricane force winds for nearly 5 hours, the result of Gustav's eye coming close to the city, putting it on the northeast quadrant, the strongest area of destruction. And every neighborhood is the same: 20% of the trees in Baton Rouge down, every third or fourth house with a tree on it or in it. Streets blocked by huge oaks, trunks as big around as cars, street signs found miles away from the actual streets.

Now comes a long week. No power. Move everything from refrigerator into the freezer, eating sandwiches, Shredded Wheat before the milk goes bad. Trees across the driveway blocking in cars. No stores open even if there is a means of escape by automobile. No streetlights or traffic signals working in the entire city. At night it is like being in the country: no ambient light from any source. Only the sound of a few generators running, powering someone's refrigerator, a fan, radio, a lamp. It is eerily similar to those end of the world movies. And for the first two days the wind continues to blow, bands of rain falling, the weather cool enough to get some exhausted sleep. It is Wednesday before a crew is hired to cut a path through the trees across the driveway. And the crews like Carpetbaggers after the Civil War, from North Carolina, Alabama, Ocean Springs, all seeking work in the devastation. Thursday the sun comes out, the humidity rising and the nights miserable, sitting in the dark with as few clothes on as possible, candles, hurricane lamps aglow, reading (because there is nothing else to do) by booklight and flashlight, finishing three books in as many days. And every day, start that day by burying two or three koi, ten-pounders each floating in the water pitch black from the undisolved oxygen, beautiful fish, raised from thumb-sized specimens for six years. Like burying pets each day.

When the lightless nights are becoming the norm, when it is second nature to light candles and lamps at dusk to keep from entering totally dark rooms, the lights come on at Sunday dusk, the light over the kitchen sink suddenly lighting a small area on the patio, the sound of the pond pump with its first surge of water through the hose into the waterfall basin. Finally back to work after a week off, coming home into air conditioning, watching off-air TV because the cable is still out, and feeling for months to come somehow still disconnected, disgruntled, discovering it is the aftermath shock of driving home along a street no longer the same, a stranger street, not the same neighborhood of so many years before.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hurricane Gustav

Hurricane season in south Louisiana is always a time of nagging worry that weather patterns will align and a path will open up through the Gulf of Mexico, sending a storm of destruction that changes people’s lives. Hurricane Gustav in 2008 was one such storm.

Part One

Sunday night the outer wind/rain bands are moving inland. By early Monday morning the wind begins to gust at alarming speeds. Lose electricity at 10 AM and still the winds are building. Mid-afternoon it is downright scary. Thinking the brick fireplace down into the house is a strong point and because it is close the to walk-in kitchen pantry with walls all around, I sit on the raised edge of the hearth for long moments hearing and feeling the distinctive crack and ground-shaking thuds of falling trees, each time backing into the pantry doorway, waiting for a lull to venture back out into the house proper.

Peering out of rain-streaked window panes in the middle bedroom, the huge oak at the end of the driveway comes crashing down along Sevenoaks, taking all the poles and previously-dead power lines with it. Amazing how fast it comes down, earth-quaking up my 8" thick driveway into slabs as big as kitchen tables. Venturing to the large picture window in the kitchen, not standing too close because of the possibility of the glass exploding inward, here comes the large oak across the driveway, on the other side of my fence, crashing toward the house, top branches stopping two feet from the house, splitting the tall Bradford pear tree next to the koi pond, crushing plants and smaller trees and shattering lantern-like patio lights on supposedly immovable iron posts. And still all around the crack and ground-compressing whoomp of falling trees felt in the chest. Like standing next to a speaker at a rock concert, the vibrations like a cello bow being drawn across the ribs. And it goes on for hours and hours. The feeling of helplessness building endlessly with each minute, what it must feel like to be in the middle of a battle.

Two more trees from across the driveway come crashing down, one of them hitting the corner of the house, enough so it is being helpless in battle because the first thought is, I got hit that time. And it goes on and on.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Writers of a Certain Age

Writers of a certain age have come a long way from Underwood and Royal typewriters and the actual cutting and pasting when moving paragraphs about. Having done that with Scotch tape or staples gives a real appreciation of the ease of formatting and printing out work at the end of the day. And now, in this cyberage that still feels so new to so many, getting published is as easy as creating a blog and going at it. Nothing new in these thoughts but only the coming again wonderment of the ease in the trappings of writing, of putting something down (however good or bad) and hitting the Publish Post button for any to stumble across in cyberspace. Interesting times, these.