On bed, looped


THIS PHOTO appeared in my mind this morning, lying in bed before dawn listening to distant howls from glue-sniffers (that or something similar), a common occurrence on weekend nights here in the barrio.

I am atop another bed,* one I inherited from my maternal grandmother, in New Orleans about 1978. By the look on my face and the glass in my hand, I detect that I was five sheets to the wind, as I often was in those distant days when not at my duty station at the newspaper, and sometimes even then.

I am (Good Lord!) sporting polyester shorts, and I weigh about 225 pounds, the heaviest of my life. But, as you can see, I am not really fat. I am simply very big. I don’t know how I pulled that off. And the shirt is a baby-blue guayabera I had purchased in Puerto Rico a couple of years earlier.

Now I weigh 170 tops, am a teetotaler, own no polyester or guayabera, and there is not a black hair on my head. It all went silver like the Lone Ranger’s horse. Colors change. Lots of things change.

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* I used to go to sleep as a child on that very bed next to an open window in rural Georgia, listening to crickets singing in the nearby grass under Southern moonlight.

The first memory

My first memory is pretty clear. What’s not clear is whether it’s real.

Here’s how it goes:

I am small because I am only 5. It was 1949. I am in the bed of my maternal granddaddy’s Ford pickup truck. My sister, who would have been 8, and my granddaddy, age unknown at the moment, were standing beside the truck.

Age 7
Age 7

We are outside the farmhouse where we lived in southwest Georgia. The subject of conversation was my impending first day of kindergarten. I was apprehensive.

My sister, who was kind to me when I was young, was telling me how much I would like kindergarten. I don’t recall my granddaddy saying anything. He was the silent type, and he died when I was 12.

A few days later, perhaps it was the next day, I recall entering kindergarten. My mother delivered me, and I squalled like a stuck pig but — as is often the case — I settled down quickly when my mother vanished from view.

The teacher likely was a nun. I recall nothing of her, but I spent kindergarten and First Grade in a Catholic school even though my family is not Catholic. It simply was the best school in Albany, Georgia, or so thought my parents.

By the Second Grade, we had moved to Jacksonville, Florida, and I went to public school from then on. I always did well at school. From kindergarten to LSU, I got good grades, and teachers liked me. I was a very good boy.

It was only later that I went haywire.

As I say, I am not sure if that memory, there in the Ford pickup truck, really happened. I think it did. Memories — like life — can play tricks on you.

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(Tip of the sombrero to Jennifer Rose for this topic idea. Alas, I think I’ve written about this before. But I cannot remember.)

In the land of cotton …

. . . old times there are not forgotten.

I once had an American family, back when I was young. We were sons and daughters of the Old South. We are almost all gone now. Dust to dust.

Three generations, and we had names.

BollDee, Charlie, Diane, me, Mama Powell, Papa Powell, Mama D, Papa D, Aunt Ned, and Marthalyn. Not that many, actually.

All dead now, save three. Diane, me and Marthalyn who is quite old, my father’s younger and only sister who never married.

Willie and Cap, the domestics. And Pepper the pooch. The cars in the southern end of the state were Fords, farther north Chevrolets. All made in Detroit.

The places had names like Sylvester, Red Rock, Albany, Marietta, Atlanta — and Jacksonville, our 10-year exile in Florida with the Yankees and Cubans.

We had crops like pecans, cotton, peanuts and corn. We had beasts called cattle. And, for a spell, chickens, lots and lots of chickens.

Especially in the southern end, we ate what we grew. Corn, string beans, beef, chicken, tomatoes and okra, which is good when battered and fried.

The roads in the southern end were red clay. Farther north they were paved. Down south we were farmers. Up north we were a number of things, including housing developers.

I gaze around me at times, and wonder how I ended up here.

Among sombreros and tacos.

The Olden Days

Georgia road

I‘ll soon chalk up another in a long, growing line of birthdays, and I marvel at how the world has changed in nearly seven decades and how I can recall another time and place.

My family visited my maternal grandparents often in the 1950s, far more than we saw my father’s folks who lived twice as far from our Florida home.

My mother was an only child, and attached to her parents. My father was not so fond of his parents who were a staunch Baptist and Methodist who listened to gospel music every morning on the radio in North Georgia.

Yes, they attended separate churches. Isn’t that odd?

My father wasn’t like that. He was not religious, plus he was a boozer, a fact that was hidden from his parents, or at least he thought so.

We actually lived with the maternal grandparents in the late 1940s for six years before moving to Florida. My father wrote short stories and raised chickens on the farm while chasing a literary fame that never came.

It finally arrived late in life in the small universe of haiku poetry.

My grandmother would twist the necks of hens, killing them, and later those chickens would be dinner after being fried. Those same grandparents had a big meat freezer in a place in downtown Sylvester (like the cat) that rented such spaces, much as businesses rent storage lockers today.

herefordThere was a big freezer on the back porch too, but when you kill an entire cow and cut her up and package her bloody pieces, perhaps along with a fat hog, it won’t all fit into a standard freezer.

I don’t remember ever seeing a cow butchered, but I recall the death of pigs and what happened to them after, stuff that was done in the pasture in a big cauldron of boiling water, things that were fodder for kiddie nightmares, which perhaps I had. I don’t remember any nightmares.

A murdered hog makes a terrible sound.

Granny often had up to 25 cats living in the back yard. I doubt it was intentional. There were simply cats doing what cats do, which is to multiply like bunnies. We also had bunnies, which got sold and/or eaten.

And there were cows and a bull. You don’t need more than one bull, and since there were maybe 30 cows, he was a satisfied bull, one supposes.

They were Herefords, which are meat cows, different than dairy cows such as Guernseys. We were not dairy people. We were beef people.

We didn’t mess with pigs much.

And before we moved away, the chickens were sold. Grandfather wasn’t interested in thousands of chickens. However, the two huge chicken houses, almost as large as football fields, sat abandoned for years after.

There were sprawling fields almost literally as far as the eye could see of peanuts and cotton. The tractors — I recall at least two — were those gray Fords whose look never changed year after year after year.

There were two black servants, Willy the housekeeper and Cap the handyman, who lived half a mile down the red clay road in a dreadfully rundown shack owned by my grandparents.

The unpainted shack, which looked like a stiff breeze would upset it, was ancient. There was a porch, a big room with a fireplace, and an adjoining kitchen. The entire, leaning shebang sat atop brick pilings.

Willie washed clothes in a cast-iron pot over an outside fire, and Cap got drunk on weekends, sometimes during the week too, which did not very set well with my grandmother. Sometimes he had to be bailed out of jail.

Willie always seemed happy. Cap always seemed sullen. They were a permanent fixture of my childhood, and they died in the 1960s. Now they’re buried somewhere in the woods in what once was a black cemetery.

That graveyard is long abandoned and overgrown, and it’s as if they never existed, though they live on in my mind.

The summers were hot, and starry nights were filled with fireflies that flitted though the field that sloped down from the house, across the dirt road.

The winters were cold, and there were fireplaces in every room, save the two bathrooms, one large and one very small.

Along the way, father died and mother died and all the grandparents before them, buried in their graves, and I stepped into their slots as the decades vaulted over Louisiana and Texas, aiming at Mexico.

* * * *


orioleThere is no future now.

The present has expanded from one horizon to the other, and all is now here where I have moved far, far away.

The present is filled with hummingbirds and black-vented orioles that sit on maguey spines, and the night sky shines again with stars, and summertime sometimes brings fireflies just like before.

The Olden Days are gone, and I awake to mornings that are always cool in bed with a beautiful woman under warm blankets, and this present is better than the past, and the lack of a future just doesn’t matter.

* * * *

(The same story can be told a thousand ways.)