These people live down the way from me. They’re from California. They have a pond in their front yard, and every once in a while a commotion breaks out because they’ve seen a snake around the pond. “It’s a cottonmouth!” they yell, eyes bright.
They wouldn’t know a cottonmouth if it jumped up and bit them on the be-hind.
I admit it: I’m a snake snob.
I know cottonmouths from fishing on the big lake at Mamo’s farm. Cottonmouths, what we also called a water moccasin, would lie in wait on the bank. Dark colored like the muddy shore, they hid. Or else they’d hang from the trees, thick bodies swaying in the breeze, mouths open, tongues darting.
Okay, that last part might be an exaggeration. The point being, I was taught as a child to recognize a cottonmouth, so named because its mouth, when opened, looked as soft and fluffy as a pad of cotton.
Deceptive, that snake.
In a triage that is necessary when you spend long, slow hours wandering in the fields, I knew the copperhead too. Orange and dusty brown, laying perfectly still it could be mistaken for a vine—that was a copperhead. We knew the drill: when near the water, look for the cottonmouth. In the fields, keep your eye out for the copperhead.
The thing was, the copperhead was pretty tame, not bothering you unless you bothered it. The cottonmouth was a mean snake (don’t believe the Wiki article I cited above when it says their aggression is overstated—that snake is mean.) The snake—a viper—didn’t like us, would bite in an instant, and that bite was the real-deal, deadly poisonous. We’d see the menacing snake out in the lake, swimming with its head held high above the water, the snaky body zig-zagging across the lake’s surface.
That part’s not an exaggeration.
The point is: if you see a nonpoisonous water snake or a king snake or a common garter snake, don’t come hollering and jumping around me. You live on an island. In the Mississippi. That’s where the snakes live. You best learn to tell them apart.
(I’m sparing y’all’s sensibilities and not including a photo of a snake. Here’s a photo of Chompers the alligator instead.)
Two weeks ago, this bed was fill dirt. Before that, it was a driveway, a leftover scar from Hurricane Katrina.
The storm, which hit in 2005, decimated the community where we built our beach house (yeah, I know—it’s a calculated risk.) Waveland, Mississippi was “Ground Zero” where the Category 5 hurricane made landfall. We’ve been here for two years and recently bought the lot next door on the beach side of the house (we’re about 800 yards from the water—I was willing to take a risk but unwilling to build right on the Gulf.)
I used an old Coleman cot as the trellis for this vining plant. Only after I placed it inside the cot did I realize it was a Passion flower. 🙂 They say it’s heavenly to butterflies. If so, that will make me happy.
Here’s a close up of the Dragon’s Blood ground cover I’m using in the bed. It did well for me in Memphis so I’m trying it here.
When the temperature drops in the fall, I will transplant some Asiatic and Oriental lilies into the bed; I was using them to demarcate the lots, which doesn’t make sense now. We’ll put sod around the bed where the driveway and former house foundation were. That is, if the grass doesn’t grow into the bare spots all on its own—it’s trying. The soil here is TERRIBLE. Not as bad as the red clay that I encountered in the hills of North Alabama, but pretty bad. Heavy white clay. The plants I used in the bed are said to live in clay. As always, we will see.
Oh, and the bed has advanced my being in community. As I was working, my down-the-street neighbor came by. He stopped to talk. I wound up with an offer of three new plants I’ll pick up tomorrow. This winter, I’ll give him a cutting from my fig, which I’d already bragged to him about (from my Morris family’s State Championship Fig Tree, which I’m sure I’ve also bragged to you about—I’m a braggart). He requested a cutting, thankfully—sharing only works if it goes both ways. He said, post-Katrina, he could stand at his house at the far end of the street and see all the way to the beach, not a tree in sight. The devastation is hard to imagine.
Still to do in the bed: mulch around the recently planted day lilies and liriope and put up an iron gate that I’ll be buying in New Orleans. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, here’s a photo of Mr. Potato Head taking on the chickens. Story to be continued.
At the end of the dock on Ocean Isle Beach, three ladies sit.
They are waiting on the moon.
Together in their small southern town, they were high school friends, skinny as bean poles all. Waved and curled in the 1940’s style, their group was “It.” Now they’ve spread. Not spread as in, “You gaining weight, or are you just starting to spread?” Spread as in across the years, over the miles, through the landscape of their lives. Into and out of time, like waves upon the beach, like the moon rising in the sky.
At the beginning of the ladies’ beach week, the moon rose quickly. The first evening, at six o’clock, hardly allowing the sun to set, the ready moon showed its shiny face.
But each day thereafter, it lagged.
The women waited impatiently—there wasn’t enough time left to waste. Just one week together, just one life. The unheeding moon took its own sweet time.
The bouncy redhead of the group, the one with the gangly young-girl limbs: she lives in Boston now. Married to a doctor who works at a university, she’s in academia. Sophisticated, you know. Still, her whole face erupts when she smiles, and when she says “Hello, darling,” she swallows her vowels like any woman of the South.
Which she is.
Not even up North for fifty years can erase that.
Her first marriage still intact, all her children alive, when the moon arrives, she might look at it and slowly say, “Hello, darling.” Sophisticated even with the moon.
The night is May, the ocean air cool. When the moon drags its feet, the women drag blankets from the beds. In their rockers on the dock—each has her own by now—they wrap themselves warm.
Eleven o’clock, the moon deigns to rise.
The lithe brunette with the big brown eyes, she has survived three marriages, and she’s never going to do it again. “Lord, no,” she’ll say if you ask. “I tell them right up front”—she points a shaky finger —“Friends. That’s all.”
But she has family and fests and luncheons she beautifully readies, and sometimes a man friend is at the table. When he tells a joke, she just laughs. Because without the softening glow of the moon what is the night but endless?
The women have talked all week, catching up. They’ve giggled themselves back into the group they once were. But when they sit on the end of the dock, waiting, they are quiet.
The third and final lady—the auburn beauty who is now my white-headed mother—she is the hostess of the group. Early on, right out of college, she married the brunette’s brother. “People think we’re sisters, not sisters-in-law,” the two brag. But the brother died, the auburn beauty remarried. Her new husband brought her to Ocean Isle Beach where she fell in love with the pounding surf (“We don’t have a surf on the Gulf Coast.”) Now she’s brought her high school friends to her beloved beach so they, too, can fall in love. Who knew it would be the moon that stole their hearts?
It’s the last night of the trip. At two o’clock the stubborn moon rises. “We set our alarms,” they proudly tell us afterwards. In the darkness, at the time when the sea oats wave alone, when only the phosphorescent waves lick the shore, the moon appears.
Cold. White. Haughty moon.
Trailing into the sky like a queen ascending her throne.
Down below, on the dock, the shimmering light catches on weathered boards. The moon’s attendants gaze into the distance. Their upturned faces shine silver, bathed in the coveted glow.
As they said in the 1950s when twin beds gave way to the double, “It is proving VERY popular.” Y’all are buying and reading and sharing photos of your very own copies of TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. That tickles me to no end. Your smiling faces, your wonderful support—thank you, thank you!
In 1969, in Jackson, Mississippi, the summer before I entered junior high, I played tennis. I played under the boiling sun. No cloud drifted overhead, no shade cut the heat. In the afternoons, the temperature on the courts hit 110 degrees.
I could’ve chosen the cooler Rubico courts where the adults played, but the hard courts with their slick, green-painted surface favored power and speed. I chose the heat, the power, the speed.
I did not come to the courts alone—I’d followed my mother onto their demanding surface. Mother began playing tennis soon after she turned thirty. She started me in lessons when I was seven, because she wanted me to learn along with my older sister. The pro’s rule: you had to be eight years old to begin lessons. Marcee turned eight, and the pro made an exception for me. Turns out, I had “natural talent,” “a perfect swing.” By the summer of ’69, I knocked the cover off the ball and aced grown men. I weighed less than eighty pounds.
Every day I was on the courts. So I was probably there—my shoes squeaking as I pounded and hustled—the moment Mother decided to re-marry. Maybe I was resting between games, my muscular, trophy-wise legs stilled, my hip leaning against the cording of the net, when Mother concluded that widowed ten years was long enough. As I filled the tennis ball can and drank the metallic water, she put an end forever to the four of us. A man would join the mother and her three girls.
That November, during Thanksgiving week, in the middle of our living room, Mother married. Her friends from her single days—tennis buddies, all of them—clustered on the front porch, peering through the picture window, because the wedding was family-only.
What the tennis buddies saw was not Mother in her tennis whites, but Mother wearing a dazzling suit of formal, distancing beauty. As she exchanged vows with my new father, I fell in love with the suit.
The suit was blue watered silk. Jeweled buttons closed the jacket. A matching hat, small and round, perched on her head. A hip-fitting skirt with the hem cut high showed her legs. On her legs: nylons.
The stockings bent and shaped the light. Their swishing texture gave Mother a shimmering calf, a sparkling thigh, so different from the bare leg under the tennis skirt. Only once before—when she wore a Flapper costume to a party at the tennis club, a make-believe outfit—had I seen Mother dressed beautiful. But the wedding suit wasn’t a costume. It was the real thing.
Several years later Mother would pull the wedding skirt from the closet and whoop and holler at its short length. Dated, she’d say. Much later, when she was handing down vintage clothes, I got the suit. It hangs in my closet. I wear the jacket all the time, with my torn and patched jeans, in an ironic way. It is gorgeous.
Two weeks after the wedding, while Mother and my new father were away on their honeymoon, I sat in the bathtub at my grandmother’s house on the farm. The tub was low on the ground, without feet, and its sloshing well water slid brown and slippery between my fingers. My curved back was cold, my skinny bottom hard against the ridges that kept old people from slipping. Beside the tub, Mamo’s yellowing galoshes bent against a galvanized washtub. A slightly dirty smell lifted from the galoshes.
It was my birthday. I had just turned twelve, the age Mother said I could start shaving, so I scraped a razor up and down my legs. The razor was my birthday gift from Mother. She’d left the razor with Mamo who’d handed it to me—not even wrapped—and left the room. I’d punched a hole in the cardboard backing and lifted the razor from its plastic case. I puzzled over the mechanics of the blades, maybe even shaved bladeless for a while, but now I was going steady.
The door to the bathroom stood open. Mamo was twenty steps away in the kitchen, complaining. What was someone my age doing shaving, she queried my two sisters, my absent mother. I was using only soap—no shaving cream came with the gift, no instructions for the ignorant—and I sliced the blade up my shin. A long white streak appeared over the bone, and, slowly, as the skin recovered from the shock, blood filled in. I kept that scar for a long time.
By the eleventh grade, I’d given up tennis. I wasn’t the best anymore, my stride no longer the swiftest. I had changed from the girl with the strong legs who could best teenage boys on the courts to the one they called “Stick” in honor of my long, thin body. Eventually, my legs would return as an asset. But even so, by college, and ever after, I engaged in battle with those legs.
The razor touches the skin. The burning inside my legs ignites.
Or I shave and all is fine, until the next time I step into the shower. The water hits the smoothed legs, and the pain—like ants burrowed below the covering skin—stings afresh.
“Does it burn right after you shave or two to three days later?” one dermatologist asks.
“Both,” I say, seated on the end of his examining table, my bare leg dangling under review.
The doctor waits, staring at the leg. He suggests an experiment: leave one leg unshaven, shave the other. I do as he suggests, and the unshaved leg rests sanguine for weeks. We conclude it is indeed the shaving, but remedy doesn’t follow diagnosis.
Another dermatologist lectures: “If you lived in France, you wouldn’t have this problem. Women in France don’t shave their legs. It’s a cultural problem, not a medical one.” I pay him for the office visit anyway.
Finally, a new doctor prescribes hydrocortisone. I slide the white cream onto my newly shaven legs.
All is quiet.
But I pity the skin, for consistent use of the cream will leave it thin and vulnerable, the very thing that made the legs angry in the first place.
We are doing fine, my legs and me, but the legs envy my mother, who at eighty-nine, still stands on the baseline, racket in hand, waiting for the ball to come her way so she can knock the hell out of it.
I’m in a really good place right now, professionally. I have four projects going on.
First, I’m continuing to get the word out on TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. It’s available in print and e-book now, shortly in podcast and audiobook. Soon, I’ll be agonizing and biting my nails over not having enough reviews on Amazon and how on earth am I going to get the word out about this hilarious book with a heart for chickens, but I’m copacetic for now.
Second, I’m working through a (hopefully) final edit on MODEL FOR DECEPTION: A VANGIE STREET MYSTERY. The cover is done for this cozy mystery (with my own peculiar brand of humor), and it is a show-stopper. My goal is to get the book formatted and audio completed while all the team members (cover + formatting; sound engineering; and podcast production) remember how to do what we are doing. 🙂
Third—and most exciting—I’ve begun reading for the new novel, tentatively titled Moses in the Gulf. The story will take place in Mississippi; it will involve a quest to “let my people go;” and it will be funny. In preparation, I’m reading A New History of Mississippi(lord, I’ve read lots of old histories, and they are SO terrible, I petitioned the Memphis Public Library to remove one or shelve it wherever they offered propaganda, and they removed it). I’m still forming an opinion of this book; it tends toward a traditional telling interspersed with more honesty than was previously found in Mississippi histories. On my bedside table are two biographies of Moses and one each of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, which I can’t wait to get into. Many of my books (surprisingly enough) are heavily researched. For me, facts are keys that unlock the imagination, and the resulting stories are my attitude about those facts.
Fourth, and final, I’m waiting to hear back from an agent who is reading JAZZY AND THE PIRATES. Have I even told y’all I finished the rewrite of the manuscript, got good reader feedback, and sent out a query letter? The agent was “very intrigued,” and it’s in her hands now. Steps 1-3 are keeping me distracted from the nerve-racking hope that I get an agent for this story who can sell it and release Jazzy’s rambunctious spirit into the world. But anticipation is not a negative for me; it’s part of the fun.