Since retiring from the corporate world, a little over three years ago and devoting myself to a lifelong desire to write more, I have probably spent an average of twelve to fifteen hours a week at my local Starbuck’s. It is a small L-shaped space wrapped around the bar with four club chairs, one large table, and half a dozen small tables with chairs. There are another half a dozen tables on the sidewalk outside; a few have umbrellas.
Spring, summer, fall and winter, hot weather or cold, rain or sunshine, in almost all weathers, I usually arrive at my Starbuck’s between 5:30 and 6:00 AM, every Monday and Friday, and sometimes an afternoon in between.
The morning begins with a grande Pike Place no room for cream and either a Blueberry Muffin with Honey and Yogurt (not warmed) or a Sausage, Cheddar & Egg Breakfast Sandwich (warmed). Then I fire up the laptop, clean out the spam filter, read and respond to email, and check the news feeds. Then I get down to business and start writing.
In the last three and a half years, amid the clatter and chatter of customers coming and going, of running into to old friends and making new ones, I have conservatively consumed something north of 100 gallons of coffee while finishing my first novel (120,000 words), a volume of my outdoor adventures (48,000 words), a novella (30,000 words), and any number of mostly forgettable poems. Additionally, I am 68,000 words into a memoir of my junior and senior high years and 17,000 words into a novelized account of 20 years of my grandparents’ lives. Oh, and I blog.
That is a lot of coffee drunk and a lot of words written, mostly at the second table from the front door by the window with the view of the traffic circle in the small shopping center. My window faces east and catches the sun as it rises over the stores on the other side of the traffic circle.
The sun’s rising over the stores’ façades serves as a rough calendar. In the height of summer, the sun rises over Total Wine. By fall it rises over Sun ‘n’ Ski Sports to the south. In winter is rises over Anne Taylor Loft. With the winter equinox the sun begins working its way back north over Sun ‘n’ Ski in the spring and back to Total Wine. On bright days, I must pull the blinds just to see my laptop screen.
From that window I can watch the changing of seasons. As I write this the trees are all clad in autumn browns and oranges, the small patches of lawn are lush and green, swept clean by the yard crew. In winter, my window drips condensation. In the spring, rain cascades and puddles around the sidewalk tables and chairs chasing everyone inside. Heat shimmer rises off of the pavement in midsummer.
My wife, who prefers minimal or no distractions when concentrating, once asked, “How in the world can you write at a Starbuck’s?”
I thought for a moment and replied, “I guess after nearly 40 years in an office with constant noise and interruptions, it just seems normal. If I hadn’t learned to concentrate in that environment, I’d never have gotten anything done.”
Besides it’s not all writing. There is the regular crowd at the first table: Mark, Jim, Butch, Charlie, Mario, William, Gordon, and Larry, to name a few, all engaging and entertaining company, some still in the workplace, some retired. They gather daily, and each arrival is a Cheers moment. I am a peripatetic member, allowed to enter or withdraw from the general conversation at will.
Sometimes an old friend from the corporate world walks in, a co-worker or a vendor with whom I dealt, like Braden or Bob or Mark or Matthew. There is that initial, brief glance, then the flash of recognition as the mental tumblers fall into place. It is a time to catch up on life and families and friends still punching the clock or finding fulfillment in other areas.
And then there are the hours spent on research. Having written one period piece and in the process of writing another, one must purge any modern colloquialisms that might creep into the text and to have some idea of what a cotton farmer in 1905, in Mississippi, might expect to get for a bale of middling, long staple Delta cotton. Then on other days it might be preparing and uploading a manuscript for self-publication or updating my website or trying to generate some activity on social media or blogging or designing a book cover or even trying to find a literary agent, a process yet to yield any fruit.
Through it all, the line for coffee ebbs and flows as the morning progresses. At one table is a business meeting, at another a sales pitch or a Bible study group, or someone just touching down to make a call or to check email at a Wi-Fi hotspot. People shake hands or embrace depending on what brought them to Starbuck’s and with whom they are meeting. People of all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors come and go in suits, casual wear, or workout gear, speaking in accents or even languages from far away.
There is also the relentless carousel of baristas. Most are congenial, some more reticent. Some sport piercings or tattoos or hair of hues with which no human has yet been born. For many it is a first job or a second job or a stop-gap job. For a few, it fills idle hours of retirement. Most are well educated. Many have phenomenal memories for customers’ regular orders.
It is a comfortable milieu, a retreat, one on which I have become so dependent that in a life no longer ruled by the alarm clock, I invariably wake up by 5:00 AM on Mondays and Fridays. That is rarely the case on the other five days of the week.
Around noon I am well into my second refill of Pike, and it is time to start wrapping up for the day. There may be an errand or two to run, then back home to Sherrie for a quiet lunch and maybe a short nap, before an afternoon of chores around the house and in the yard.
But I will be back at Starbuck’s in a day or two, maybe for a morning of writing or an afternoon meeting with Scott, my best writing and critiquing buddy, but I will be back to that small hub of familiar faces and friendly chatter, that little writing home away from home, my neighborhood Starbuck’s.
Category Archives: writing
Since retiring from the corporate world, a little over three years ago and devoting myself to a lifelong desire to write more, I have probably spent an average of twelve to fifteen hours a week at my local Starbuck’s. It is a small L-shaped space wrapped around the bar with four club chairs, one large table, and half a dozen small tables with chairs. There are another half a dozen tables on the sidewalk outside; a few have umbrellas.
I have recently completed the first revision of my novel, Beside Still Waters. Here are the first two chapters. More will follow. If there is interest!
1 – IT HAD BEEN WINTER THEN TOO
The rays of the weak winter sun, diffused by high thin clouds, flooded the kitchen with pale, white light. The old man’s hands rested on the checkered tablecloth that covered the kitchen table, big hands, weathered, curled in repose.
It was warm and quiet in the kitchen. The only sounds were the susurration of gas vaporizing in the heater, tiny tongues of blue flame heating the waffle pattern of the ceramic bricks cherry red; that and the soft, domestic clattering of his wife at the stove. A one-pound coffee can half-filled with water sat steaming on the fender of the heater, releasing moisture into the stove-heated, dry air.
From time to time the northwest wind, sweeping unhindered down from the Great Plains and across the Mississippi Delta, would whip another gust against the house with enough strength to rattle the windows. But inside it was warm and protected and redolent with warmed-over leftovers.
The old man told a story which was at one moment rich in vivid, life-giving detail, draping flesh to bone, then opaque, lost in a frustrating paucity of telling features, like an old man’s memory, which it was, dredged up from over a lifetime ago, memories long buried, subsumed, as a long-suppressed shame, which in part it was, but recounted now with a firm conviction that the years of silent, unshared retrospection had imparted, obliterating any uncertainty or equivocation of thought, will, or intent that might have existed at the time.
He shifted his gaze from the boy across the table and stared absently out the window across the ocher stubble of the pasture and field to the gray smudge of the distant forest, a diminished remnant of what it had been when he had first come here, still rich in thick stands of oak, wild brakes, sloughs and bayous, small game and deer, gray and red fox, too. But it was only a shade of its former self, too little left to sustain the bear and panther which were hunted out long ago as the shadowed world they roamed was remorselessly reduced by axe and plow and given over to pasture and field, the woods still wild but no longer primeval, subdued now, diminished if not tamed.
His wife, almost as old as he, adjusted the heat on the stove as she warmed their supper and listened with belying inattention. She knew some of the story but not all. She never had. They were of a time and place, another world really, where the orbits of men and women, the things they shared and discussed, even if married to each other, overlapped far less than in these days.
But it was more than that, much more. There were things he talked about with men, men who shared the same goals, desires, and hopes: bank shares and loans, cotton prices and gin rates and yields per acre, things he would never have even thought to share with her. Just as he would never have presumed to interfere with how she managed their home and household expenses or raised their children.
But it was even more than that. There had been men he could not understand with motives he could not fathom and threats he could not ignore, things that he wanted desperately to shield her from.
But even that was not the whole of it. He had never shared with his wife, the mother of all his many children, the only woman he had ever loved, all that he had risked, all that he had dared, the part of him that he had sacrificed during that first year of their marriage.
The house in which they now lived was larger than that other one but still wood-framed, still simple, still painted white although green striped fabric awnings stretched over metal frames shielded the windows from the remorseless Delta summer sun. That other house, long gone now, had been warmed by wood-burning fireplaces, cooking done in a wood-burning stove. Now gas appliances made all of that easier, although he was not convinced it was better, only easier, but there was something to be said for that.
It had been winter then too, when it had all started, not deep winter with the ground frozen iron-hard and brittle branches rattling in the northwest wind like the sound their antlers make during the tentative jousting of bucks in rut, but that last gasp of winter when one senses that spring is just holding its breath waiting for the right moment to exhale.
The old man paused and without conscious thought ran the blunt fingertips of his left hand along the scar on his left temple just above the templepiece of his wire-rimmed glasses. The scar was as wide and long as his forefinger, not deep, not even puckered, faint, lighter than his sun-browned face, almost white. His big hand drifted down his cheek and across his mouth, then dropped back to the kitchen table.
“This all happened a long time ago, 1905, to be exact. Your grandmother and I had only been married about a year,” the old man spoke slowly, softly.
He hesitated and looked at the boy across the table not sure exactly why he felt compelled, after all these years, to tell the story or why he chose to tell it now, to this boy, one of their many grandchildren. Was it because the boy had spent so much time with them, had followed him all over the Place until he knew every inch of the farm and woods as well as the old man did, had listened enthralled to so many old stories?
His decision made, the old man continued, “You know, I’ve never told anyone this before, but I have to now. Son, old age doesn’t just take your strength, it takes your memories too. Almost everyone else is gone now. All but one, and she doesn’t know the entire story, no more than I do. When the two of us are gone it will be lost.”
The old man hung his head. “And I don’t want the story lost,” he said, even as he thought, too much had happened, things that had shaped him and consequently his entire family, even this smooth-faced, eager boy across that table from him.
He raised his dark eyes and looked into the boy’s face, unlined, innocent, trusting, on the verge of manhood, just a few years younger than he had been when it had all started. The old man paused. Could he have been that young, that innocent then? No, not quite so much. After all, he already had a family at that time and responsibility for a farm, the farm which he now owned and on which he still lived.
“I wadn’t much older than you when I first came to New Bethel,” the old man sighed. “But I already had a couple of crops behind me when it happened.”
2 – THE FADING OF THE DAY
With a gentle pull on the reins and a light touch of the brake, the man eased the creaking wagon to a halt in the middle of the bridge. The mules stood patiently in the weak, late winter sun, their hindquarter muscles twitching in that peculiarly equine manner to the perceived presence of imaginary flies. The only sound was the soft rattle of trace chains and the occasional hollow thump of a hoof against the sun-bleached planks of the bridge when one of the mules shifted its weight.
The man draped the reins across his thigh, stretched his back, and lifted the brown hat from his head to run his fingers through his short, dark hair. Settling his hat back on his head, he re-gathered the reins, but instead of calling up the team, he leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and let his eyes drift over the edge of the rail-less bridge to the still, brown water of Flautt Bayou far below. The low-angled rays of the sun filtered through the trunks of the cypress trees rising from the murky water in fluted columns like ancient architecture, casting alternating bands of light and dark across the water, sun and shadow.
The man pulled his makings from his coat pocket, folded the paper into a little trough which he filled with tobacco from his pouch, and rolled a cigarette. He struck a match on a bolthead of the wagon’s seat, lit his smoke, and again stared at the water.
The sluggish water was brown, but not really muddy. It was so still that one had to take it on faith that the water in the bayou even moved at all, except after a heavy rain. Rather, silt and untold number of decaying leaves and other vegetation had released tannins giving it that distinctive flat, almost milky, brown color, like cloudy tea. The occasional bubble broke the otherwise surface, gas released by rot and decay in the murky depths. The man knew all these things without even thinking, knew it as one understands and internalizes his world.
Even seated on the wagon, it was obvious that the driver was a tall man. His attire was as dull and monochromatic as the surrounding countryside: hat, jacket, tie, trousers and boots, everything was some shade of gray or brown. Only his stark white shirt relieved the monotony.
He shifted on the hard wooden seat and stared at his wrists protruding from his coat and wondered why it was so hard to find a coat that fit his frame and had sleeves long enough to cover the wrists on his inordinately long arms. One of the mules shook its head. The abrupt movement was transmitted up the reins and brought the man out of his reverie. The day was fading, more cold already seeping into the chill, late winter air. He had just enough time to make his last delivery.
The fruit trees, their root balls wrapped in heavy burlap, had been delivered to the train depot in New Bethel from Stark Brothers Nurseries on Monday. The rest of the week he had been at the depot by dawn to rewet the burlap, load the wagon and make his rounds, delivering the trees that local farmers had ordered months ago. Many of the farmers ordered and planted in the fall, but some preferred the spring. The Mississippi Delta’s long growing season and relatively mild winters allowed for success either way.
As a representative for Stark Brothers, it seemed that between selling and delivering trees that he had met nearly everyone in Okaloosa County in the few short years he had lived north of New Bethel. But the time away from the land he farmed meant that fewer chores had been accomplished, although the extra money was welcome. Any money that he didn’t have to borrow to make his crop was money he wouldn’t have to worry about repaying.
After one last draw on his cigarette, the man rolled the last shreds of tobacco and flimsy paper between his fingers. The remnants cascaded from his fingers only to be lifted away by the winter breeze, as ephemeral as the smoke that drifted from his nostrils. He flicked the reins and the mules eased back into their plodding gait, pulling the wagon off the bridge with a clatter and into the ruts in the hard-packed dirt road. The Gentry place was not far, but it would be dark by the time he made it home. It was his last delivery and Mattie would have supper waiting, maybe squirrel stew, one of his favorites.
He hated being away so much this week and not just because of the untended chores. The baby was due soon, their first, and the strain on the once slender wisp of his young wife was obvious. Not that she ever complained. In fact, the patience and serenity that was so inherent in her character, if anything, seemed to be enhanced by the mere idea of the new life growing within her.
The road stretched away through gray, fallow fields, stubble from last season’s cotton was barely visible, having been cut and plowed under after last season’s harvest leaving softly rounded furrows after the winter rains. Soon turning plows and middle-busters would be digging deep beneath the dry surface to reveal the moist, black earth below where the moisture from those winter rains and snow was stored. Jake knew from experience that the Delta got more rain in the winter than in the summer, his rain gauge and records didn’t lie, but it sure didn’t seem that way.
Maybe it was because he was indoors a little more in the winter, or maybe it was because in the summer he was always concerned about whether he was getting too much or too little rain. Too much early rain could flood the fields and drown the crop; too much rain later could mean that he wouldn’t be able to plow the rows to kill the weeds that would sap the moisture and nutrients and choke his crop, compelling him to the alternative of sending the hands into the fields for the exhausting, back-breaking work of chopping the weeds out with hoes. Too little rain at any time could stunt the crop, and if it was dry for too long it could burn the cotton up in the fields. A lot could go wrong, either way, during the planting, growing and harvesting seasons.
No, he thought, winter was somewhat of a respite for farmers. Not from work, there was always plenty to do, but it gave them the opportunity to think of weather in the abstract rather than the particular. In many ways it was a hard life and a challenging one, the only life he had ever known. It was such a part of him, so deeply planted, that he never even thought in terms of whether he actually cared for it or rather he would rather do something else.
Making a crop was what he did, how he provided for himself and his family, but it was more than that, too. There was a deep satisfaction that he felt but hardly ever articulated, even to himself, but it was there nevertheless: the relentless, renewing wonder of growing things; empty, desolate fields erupting with life; then tended, cared for through growth, blossom, maturity, and harvest; ever new and ever beautiful, but in its own way a violent struggle, the struggle for life anew.
A wagon wheel dropped into a rut with a jarring thud, jerking the man from his contemplation. The fields on either side of the road were giving way to the scattered frame houses of farmhands on the Gentry place. Twisted tendrils of woodsmoke curled upward from brick chimneys into the still air before slowly dissipating among the bare limbs of black-trunked trees spreading above shacks of weathered boards huddled desolately along the road.
As the road curved, the man could just make out Mister Gentry’s Commissary through the oak saplings, saplings he had delivered here only a couple of years ago, his first season in Okaloosa County.
A sharp crack almost like a pistol shot shattered the winter stillness. The man jerked his head around toward the nearest house to see two men, bodies clutched together in a frantic, clawing embrace, hurdle off the porch and land with a dull thud on the hard ground.
The man hesitated, realizing he had only heard the door of the hovel slam open against the wall. It looked like it was barely hanging from its hinges. He stared at the motionless bodies amid the softly settling dust. Slowly the more slender man, the one on top rolled to the side and up onto his knees, his mouth bleeding, a smear of blood on the front of his patched and stained overalls.
The man hauled back on the reins and flipped them around the brake pole and leapt from the wagon before it even stopped rolling. Charging across the yard toward the two men, he came to a halt and gaped at the body of the larger man lying face-up on the ground. Thick, dark blood, nearly black in the fading light, oozed around the blade of a small hunting knife which jutted from his chest and was already soaking into the man’s clothing. The man recognized the body still sprawled out on the ground. It was one of Gentry’s hands, Rad Timmons.
The man’s mouth tightened into a grim line as he stared at the kneeling man. “What happened here? You hurt?”
The smaller man gradually became aware of his presence and pulled his stunned, anguished face up from staring at his cupped, bloody hands. Tears pooled at the edges of his eyes and made moist tracks down his dusty cheeks. It was not a man. It was only a boy, Rad Timmons’ oldest son, Henry.
A flat, hesitant voice answered, “I – I don’t know, Sir. It’s hard to say just what happened. Is he dead?”
The man squatted by the body carefully avoiding the spreading puddle of lifeblood, already beginning to soak into the packed dust, and kneaded the still-warm flesh of Timmons’ neck, searching for the pulse he never found. The sweet-sick miasma of cheap liquor hovered around the dead man’s face. The man grimaced, swallowed the bile rising in his throat, looked sideways from under the brim of his hat.
“He certainly is, Son. How about you? You hurt?” he asked for the second time.
The boy, his blood- and sweat-soaked overalls and shirt plastered to his chest, rose slowly, unsteadily to his feet. Tall for his age, he looked no more than 15, and rail thin to boot. He was so thin and dazed that he looked insubstantial, as if he might disappear in bright sun or be completely dissipated by a strong wind.
No, Sir.” The boy’s voice was flat. “Only from being hit.”
The man stood too. “Wanna tell me what happened?” He prayed it was an accident.
“He come home drunk again. H–he kept hitting Momma. He wouldn’t stop. I tried to make him stop. You know how he could git.”
The man really did not really know that much first hand but had some idea based on his few experiences with Rad Timmons, what he knew about some of the company Rad kept, and certain things that he had heard, some of which he believed.
“That’s when he started hitting me. I hit him back, the first time I ever did that.” The boy sighed. “That’s when he went crazy-like. He kept hitting me, harder and harder. The next thing I knew he had a knife. Everything else is just a jumble ‘til we landed in the yard. Did I really kill him?”
“I’m afraid so. Let’s get him covered up. Where’s your momma?”
He looked up to see a woman standing in the doorway, simultaneously tugging at her torn dress and apron while trying to push stands of her disheveled hair back under the faded rag tied around her head. Her thin, almost gaunt, face already livid red where her husband had struck her, could not hide the stunned expression on her face nor the deep lines that life had carved there.
“He’s daid, ain’t he, Mister Jake?” Her gaze was steady but the question caught in her throat.
“Yes, Vertie, I’m afraid he is. Are you hurt?” Jake felt curiously uncomfortable looking at her, kept involuntarily averting his eyes. He had never seen a woman who had been beaten.
She sagged against the doorframe and a sob wracked her shoulders, whether from the death of her husband or the fact that her son was responsible Jake could not tell. Both facts had distinct and profound dimensions that the new widow would be forced to plumb, if not articulate, after the shock wore off, but not now. Now they were just part of the enormity of a single act.
“I’ll be alright,” Vertie replied, gingerly drying her battered face with a corner of her apron. “Besides, a coupla bruises ain’t my biggest worry right now.”
As uneasy as he was looking at her, Jake could sense the weight that was beginning to settle on the woman, inevitable and crushing. She looked like she might collapse at any moment.
Jake started toward the porch, but the boy leaped up ahead of him, gently placing his arm around her shoulders for support, taking care to keep his blood-smeared hands and clothes from brushing her. Jake watched as the boy’s dirty, tear-stained face softened as he comforted his mother. Not the first time, I’ll bet, thought Jake.
The boy looked down into his mother’s upturned face. “Don’t worry, Ma. Everything’ll be alright,” he whispered.
Brave young man, Jake thought, especially considered what just happened. I hope he is right.
The distant, happy, unaffected chatter of children drifted over the fields in the crisp air and brought Jake’s attention back to the task at hand. “Where are the other children?” he asked.
“Down by the slough, playing,” Vertie answered.
“They weren’t here for any of it?’
“No, thank heaven,” she sighed.
“Probably for the best. Mister Gentry up at the house?” Jake wasn’t sure if the Gentrys had returned from their trip.
“No, he and the family’s been visiting kinfolk for the last coupla days. Should be back later tonight.”
“Sounds like him. Wouldn’t dream of traveling on Sunday or even being away from home, would he?”
“I reckon not.”
Jake thought for a minute. “If you’ve got something to cover him with, I’ll unload these trees over at the Commissary and bring the wagon back so we can load the body and take it into town. I expect I had better take the boy along with me.”
“No, no,” she pleaded, clutching her son more tightly to her. “Please don’t, Mister Jake. Henry’s only a boy.”
“I know that, Vertie,” Jake said, staring at the boy, “and I know how much you depend on him, but a man is dead. The sheriff has to be told, and he’ll want to talk to him. But first I ought to get this body to town. Doc Tate ought to have a look at you, too.”
Gathering herself together, she pled, “Oh, no, no, I cain’t go into town looking like this. Folks think poorly enough of us as it is. I’ll be alright. Besides, I got the kids to gather in and feed.”
“Well, alright then, but let’s get this cleaned up. Don’t call the children up ‘til we are gone,” Jake said with finality and turned toward the wagon.
It was less than a quarter-mile to Gentry’s Commissary, a large, low building with a wide, deep porch that ran all across the front and halfway down both sides. As Jake suspected there was no light within. The Commissary would be locked. A black and tan hound resolved itself from the dusty gloom of the crawlspace as the wagon rattled up to the porch. The dog stretched, head low and hindquarters high, then clambered up the steps onto the porch, waiting expectantly to be petted.
Jake pulled the wagon right up to the edge of the porch for ease of unloading and stepped right onto the porch. The old dog ambled over and Jake scratched him behind the ears.
“Hey there, Old Fella,” Jake said into the deep brown eyes.
The hound closed his eyes in apparent bliss. When Jake withdrew his hand, the old hound moved aside, walked in a circle, and settled on the well-trod planks and dropped his chin to his extended front paws as he watched Jake unload the trees.
Jake lined the trees up neatly along the south wall to provide them warmth from the morning sun. He considered going to the wellhouse for a bucket of water to rewet the root balls, but decided against it. Too much to do, and the trees would keep until tomorrow when one of Gentry’s hands noticed them.
Jake reached down to pet the old hound one last time before settling back into the wagon seat and turning back toward the Timmons’ house.
By the time Jake got back from unloading the trees at Gentry’s Commissary, the last of the sun’s rays were brushing the distant treetops, burnishing them all golden even as their lower limbs and trunks were dissolving into gray.
Jake knew that Mattie would soon begin to worry a little, not much, but a little. She knew as well as he that a mule could pull up lame or a wagon wheel might cause a problem. Life had its uncertainties, as Jake knew now more surely than ever before. There was just not much he could do about it at the moment.
Vertie Timmons had cleaned her face, straightened her hair, and changed into a clean, though shabbier, dress than the torn one she had removed. She had also found a faded but clean piece of blanket to cover Rad’s body, the outline of a man’s body distinct despite the sickening way the handle of the knife held the blanket clear of the chest. Like a teepee, Jake thought.
Henry had changed his overalls and washed up. The boy’s hair was still damp. In his ragged coat, he stood beside his mother on the porch, his arm again around her shoulder.
“Time to go, Son,” Jake called softly.
What a grim job, Jake thought, having to load up your own father’s body, especially when it’s you that’s killed him. It was going to be a long ride into New Bethel.
Henry embraced his mother and reassured her again before stepping down from the porch to help Jake. They loaded the limp, sagging, unwieldy body into the wagon bed. There was nothing left but a small pool of drying blood. With the toe of his boot Jake kicked some dust over it, but though obscured, the stain remained.
Jake looked up. Vertie was coming from the porch with a sloshing pail of water.
“Leave it, Mister Jake. I’ll dash some water over it,” she said with finality and a sense of resignation.
The man paused to catch his breath. Rivulets of sweat streamed down his face to collect on the tip of his nose, tremble for the space of several heartbeats, then drop to the limb on which he rested astraddle, creating an ever increasing dark puddle on the rough oak bark. Climbing a tree was harder than he remembered. His abraded palms and scraped shins were testimony to that. But he had been twelve then, and now he was north of 60.
The air was still warm from the late afternoon September sun, but the first hint of dryness and autumn cool was noticeable, just like it had been when he was twelve and he and his father had hauled a few 2X4’s, some 1X6 planks, nails, and hammers into the enormous oak that dominated their front yard, spreading its branches into the neighbors’ yards on either side, out into the street, and back over their own house.
The horizontal fork, ten feet off the ground, equidistant from the massive, four-foot thick trunk, and the street, had been selected as the ideal spot. That afternoon a little platform, about four feet wide and six feet long with little two foot high walls on three sides, had been constructed, father and son working together, rare but not unheard of. There had been countless groundballs thrown in the backyard and untold pass routes run, but to build something together, that was different.
His father would surprise him again the following month, October, on a Saturday in mid-morning, by suggesting that after lunch they drive over to Ole Miss for a football game. Trips with his father, just the two of them, had been rare, and had never included a college football game, much less an Ole Miss game. The afternoon had been crystalline as only a sun-drenched October afternoon in Mississippi can be, the long, long, hot summer finally supplanted by autumn.
He had thought his father was a football genius with eyes that missed no detail: a flag was thrown in the offensive backfield and his father said “Holding”, then another was thrown during a punt return and his father said, “Another clipping penalty.” Only when the boy was older did he learn that nearly every flag in the offensive backfield was for holding and nearly every penalty on the returning team during a runback was clipping. Even then it did not matter; his father had played football and knew football. Practically everything the boy knew about football, and a lot about life, he had learned from his father.
He would see many more college football games, most with people other than his father, but this was his first and it still lived in all of its idealized, autumn-hued clarity, the precisely lined, emerald field, Ole Miss in crimson and blue, Vandy in black and gold, the rickety bleachers on the visitors’ side, the only seats available for walkups. Funny thing was, he could remember the mood and feel of the day as if the intervening years did not exist, but he not the score. Ole Miss must have won for the memory to be so wonderful.
His father was gone now, lost first to dementia, then completely gone, gone and buried, resting beside the man’s mother under a patch of ground so flat and grassy that it seemed improbable that it held their earthly remains even though he could clearly remember the sickening, hollow thump of dirtclods striking their coffins as the workers began filling the holes in which his parents now rested.
Rested, the man continued scooting out on the limb, gripping the limb desperately on occasion, the rope tied about his waist tugging gently, his goal in sight. The fork that was his destination was not as level as the one had been over 50 years ago, but the man knew how to correct that with shims. Settling into the fork, the man took hold of the rope that ran from his waist to the bundle of lumber and tools on the ground and braced himself. Hand over hand, he pulled the swaying, shifting load up into the tree and settled it across the fork, lunging for the hammer before it slipped from underneath the knotted rope, just as his father had done years before.
The treehouse had been the boy’s own personal retreat. As a man remembered the smell, the feel of Friday afternoons, no school for two days, homework deferred. Even as a man, some Friday afternoons felt almost the same. It was the smell, that first hint of dry fall leaves, that first caress of coolness in the air. It came back in a rush, unexpected, unbidden, welcomed, embraced, the feel of that last year of complete innocence when his world had been narrow, protected.
When he was twelve years old, he would race home from the junior high school – another transition being that sixth graders went to junior high that year – with the latest delivery from the Scholastic Book Services or a new treasure from the library tucked under his arm. Folding up an aluminum lawn chair, he would thrust his book inside, tie his rope to the corner of the chair, and toss the free end of the rope over the limb by the treehouse. Scrambling up the trunk, he would walk out along the broad limb to the treehouse, then pull up his chair and book and settle in among the leaves, leaves on the cusp of changing color but still holding onto summer’s green, a green now gone a little dull and tired, the long, golden rays of the setting sun slanting through them, burnishing them with hints of the colors to come.
It was peaceful, serene. The world passed beneath him unaware, unconcerned, just as it did today in the tree in his own front yard. The man pulled out the first 2X4, seven feet long, and laid it along the left side of the fork. The limb dipped a little at the far end. The man drove a 16d nail through the 2X4 and into the limb at the near end, grabbed a couple of 1X’s and scooted to the far end.
The man brought no level. Rather he decided to eyeball it like his father had done. There was a time for precision as practiced and taught him by his father, but there was an organic quality to a treehouse. It had to fit in and grow from the tree. Sliding the shim under the low end of the 2X4, he sighted along it. Level enough. He drove another 16d nail through the 2X4 and the shim and into the limb. Scooting back to the fork, he drove a couple of more nails to secure the 2X4.
The man was sweating again. The temperature hovered at that range that was absolutely perfect for a person at rest, but only at rest. A little exertion was all it took to start him sweating.
Dropping another 2X4 onto the right side of the fork, the man quickly and surely nailed it down. He quickly arrayed the pre-cut 1X6’s (all five fee long) across the fork on top of the 2X4’s.
They were new, yellow planks, not the grey, weathered ones, reclaimed from some other project that his father and he had used. As a boy he had never used a new plank, board, or nail. All had been scavenged from abandoned projects or repurposed, the nails carefully knocked straight only to frequently bend again when used. If nothing else, as a boy he had developed some pretty impressive hammering skills. At first the boy’s father had said he hammered like lightening. His momentary pride sank at the follow-up: You never strike in the same place twice.
Although true, It had been said in jest, not to be mean. His father had probably heard the same thing from his own father. The boy’s father had grinned, ruffled the boy’s short hair, and said, “Here, let me show you how.”
The man quickly lined up and nailed down the planks and was left with a mostly level, reasonably flat platform seven feet long by five feet wide. He imagined it was the same size as the one his father had built, but knowing childhood memories assumed it was larger.
The man stretched out lengthwise on the platform letting his drying sweat plaster his shirt to his chest while he stared up though the shifting leaf patterns, sun and shadow, light and dark. The greener tops of the leaves still maintaining some of their luster compared to duller lighter undersides.
Why was he doing all of this, building a treehouse of all things? The man honestly did not know. He loved his wife, even more deeply than ever, with a love too deep and committed to be attributed to habit or inertia. He had always been faithful to her despite the opportunities available to most men, having learned the difference between desire and love before he had met her.
His entire family, children, grandchildren, in-laws, nieces, and nephews were a never-ending source of wonder and joy to him. That he could be so loved by so many still filled him with amazement. He accepted it but could not understand it. Why him? He knew he did not deserve it but was thankful for it every day. No, that was not it.
But it could not be his job either. He had been reasonably successful in his career, remarkably so considering his frequent reliance on circumstance as opposed to actual planning. While his job was not perfect, he enjoyed it more than not, as much as any man wondering if he could afford to retire yet, and it paid well, meeting their needs with enough left over for the occasional indulgence.
No, it was none of those things. Maybe it was being nearer the end than the beginning. Maybe it was the loss of so many from those innocent days: parents, teachers, neighbors, Sunday School teachers, even contemporaries, people who had shaped his life, the last living touchstones with those days. The freedom and innocence could never be reclaimed, but faint glimmers like emotional memory washed over him from time to time. Like this afternoon.
Shaking his head and rising to his knees, the man laid the short 2X4’s on the deck and nailed the 1X6’s, three for each pair of 2X4’s, to them to create the kneewall (shinwall?) that would go around three sides of the platform. The boy’s father had thought that would be perfect: three walls with little 45% pieces tacked at the corners and longer uprights at the front joined by a crosspiece. And it had been perfect, perfect for the boy.
Sitting in his lawn chair with his heels resting on the corner of the low wall, the boy had read his first science fiction novel, Mission to Mercury. It was one of the last juvenile books he read, but it added fuel to the fire that the dawn of manned space flight had already lit in his heart and mind, a passion that ruled off and on for years, nearly but not quite shaping his career. He also read his first adult (in terms of not written for children as opposed to a euphemism for raunchy and steamy) novel, The Beasts of Tarzan.
No boy of his age and time had escaped the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies of the 1930’s and 40’s, and few enjoyed them more. That summer his mother had dropped him off at the hospital gift shop on her way upstairs to see his father who was recovering from routine surgery. In those days children were not allowed on the wards, and the lady who managed the bookstore lived only a few houses down the street from them.
Armed with an incredibly generous 50¢ and faced with a virgin field of comic books arrayed before him, he had eventually settled on the best four at 12¢ each. The problem had arisen as he approached the cash register. The revolving paperback rack had never in his short life caught his attention, but it did this day.
The cover had been mostly burgundy-colored, EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS across the top, THE BEASTS OF TARZAN right below. On the bottom half of the cover, Tarzan, a monkey on his shoulder and a spear in his hand, had sat astride a bull elephant with an African warrior in the foreground. The boy’s eyes had never left he book as his right hand reached out of its own volition and set the comics on the glass cabinet on the other end of which was the cash register.
He had lifted the paperback from the rack and had begun thumbing through the book. This was not a Tarzan he knew. This Tarzan was both more sophisticated and articulate and more savage than M-G-M’s Tarzan. He had been transfixed. Inside the front cover there had been a list: Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, The Beasts of Tarzan, The Son of Tarzan. The list went on and on, more than 20 titles. The boy had flipped back to the cover. Yes, plain as day in the top right corner, “Tarzan 3.” He had sensed rather than known that he had stumbled onto source material, and a wealth of it at that.
The decision had been difficult. The comics were a known quantity, not so the paperback. For the love of heaven, it had no pictures at all unless you counted the cover. Finally, fatefully, the boy had returned the comics to the rack and laid The Beasts of Tarzan on the shiny glass counter by the cash register. The man could not remember if he had four cents for the tax in his pocket or if his neighbor lady, the cashier, had covered for him. He knew that she would have. Neighbors did that in those days.
Slipping into the waiting room the boy had dived into The Beasts of Tarzan. It would take him a month to finish the novel. He had no idea what Stygian meant or what a denizen was, so he spent a lot of time with a dictionary. But the door to new worlds had been thrown open, and Burroughs introduced him to Africa, Barsoom, Venus, and Pellucidar.
The man smiled at the thought, memories coming unbidden yet welcome. He knew that if he rummaged around in the closet long enough, he would find that book, his name in cursive on the flyleaf with a ballpoint pen drawing of a loin-clothed Tarzan, one foot resting on a log, spear in hand, quiver and bow across his back.
The man rested, his back against the newly erected wall, his legs stretched out on the floor, ankles crossed, and listened. It was surprisingly still and quiet, little if any breeze, the leaves not even fluttering, very little birdsong. In the distance a dog barked half-heartedly, sporadically, and a solitary crow added its raucous cry on occasion. Then the man heard it. The most wonderful sound, children’s voices at play from the empty lot down the street, rising and falling, crescendo and diminuendo, words indistinct but emotions evident, laced with excitement: Tomorrow is Saturday, and we have not a worry in the world.
The man knew he could never reclaim that, knew when he started this folly that he could not, did not care. His muscles were tired. His wife would have dinner ready soon. He had called it supper as a boy.
But before that, he would climb down and settle into a comfortable chair in the living room with a tumbler of ice and a little bourbon splashed over it at his elbow. His wife’s soft, domestic clatter would drift in from the kitchen. She might even join him with a glass of wine. But until she did, he would look out through the French windows across the lawn to the tree and the tiny, plain treehouse, bathed in the light of the setting sun.
He would pick up his ereader, maybe pull up and read a little of Burroughs’ A Fighting Man of Mars, hold on to the feeling, the illusion, a little while longer, knowing it was fleeting, temporary, maybe a little childish, not really caring.
He would climb down and probably never climb up here again. Maybe his grandsons would though. Maybe they would climb up and lay claim to the treehouse, ask him for some planks and some nails to add on to it, make it their own, make it special. That would be the best, the very best.
Just read Richard Grant’s New York Times article “Sweet Home Mississippi” which stirred up more memories and emotion than I would have expected.
I have not lived in Mississippi in 37 years or the Delta in 53 years, but I will always think of Mississippi, in general, and the Delta, in particular, as home. I was literally born on the banks of the Yazoo River because that’s where the Greenwood-Leflore County Hospital is located, right on the riverbank. Except for a brief sojourn in Drew in the heart of the Delta, I never lived further than three blocks form the Yazoo River until our family moved to Tupelo the year I turned nine.
I attended Davis Elementary School, named for Jefferson Davis, of course, for two-and-a-half years. I spent weekends and summers on my grandparents’ farm two-and-one-half miles north of Brazil, a town consisting of three stores, two churches, a school, and a relocated post office still named Stover after its original location a mile-and-a-half north of Brazil. A spur of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad ran through Brazil but did not stop. The nearest train depot was Sumner, site of the infamous Emmitt Till trial, and yes, I use the term trial loosely.
My first best friend’s great-grandfather was one of the first white settlers in Leflore County and a major landowner. I like most of my friends growing up am descended from Confederate veterans of the Civil War. My playmates at school were all white; my playmates on the farm were all black.
To this day I am both drawn to and repelled by my home. Its heritage of poverty and brutality is abysmal. The reality of the place is confounding to one who knows its history. On a personal level race relations are more amicable than an outsider might expect. My grandparents and their family bought all their clothes from one of my grandfather’s best friends, a Jewish merchant in Webb. Almost every little Delta town had a Pang’s Store operated by a local Chinese family, probably descended form railroad workers. No one gave a second thought to shopping there. Migrant Mexican workers followed the harvest north through the Delta every fall. My mother’s family, farmers too, relied on their help during the cotton harvest.
It is a land of contrasts: the crushing poverty of a family living in a tar paper shack and stately, old multi-generational homes of comfortable excess; the staggering beauty of sunset over a cypress brake, verdant green foliage etched against a fading crimson sky, and the heart-breaking decay of once-flourishing little towns crumbling into vine-choked gray shells; the soft cry of mourning dove over fields shimmering with the early light of dawn and the harsh roar and clatter of soybean harvesters at work into the night; black, white, brown and yellow children at play in parks and ball fields and segregated churches and country clubs and private schools.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Delta, the thing that always seems to get a visitor’s attention, is that its people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age, income, or profession, are open-handed, kind, and friendly. To neighbor and stranger alike. Sir, Ma’am, Hon, and Sweetheart are all used liberally and sincerely, without artifice.
In all honesty, I do not know if I could go back and live there. Maybe I could, maybe not. I have been gone a long time but am still pulled back regularly to visit. I cannot escape it, nor would I. What I do know is that to this day I draw strength from having been born and raised there. Whatever I may be, I am because of that place, the most Southern place in the world, the Delta.
So, thank you, Richard Grant, for taking me back. And for adding “Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta” to my reading list.
Maybe it is because I am a Mississippian, born in the Delta, raised in the Hills, but I have been a devotee of William Faulkner’s writing from the first time I opened one of his novels when i was 15 years old. I was captivated by his concatenation of adjectives, precise and descriptive; his often elliptical way of telling his story, each cycle offeing more illumination; his rich, fully-fleshed characters; his ear for regional speech patterns reflected in his wonderful dialogue; and his subtle yet wicked sense of humor.
I call him Uncle Bill when talking to myself, not because of any blood kinship, but because, in so many ways, it seems that any of us who attempt to tell stories about the South in general or Mississippi in particular, are beholding to him, like a favorite uncle whose influence is neither gentle or harsh but always profound, always there in the background.
Attend any writing seminar or fiction writing class, and you will be bombarded by the mantras of start with a bang, set the hook early, avoid adjectives, and only use one modifier at a time, all of which were rules that Faulkner broke regularly and relentlessly. A novel is not a pop song or a Tweet or a text to be quickly consumed and discarded. It is, if it is a good novel, filled with the complexities of emotion and motive, action and consequence, accomplishment and loss, that make up life, things that take time and effort to plumb, assimilate, and appreciate. That is why we go back again and again to great novels, to savor them and gain a deeper awareness of the beauty of life.