I think of the specifics we wish for each other at the new year’s beginning—good health, loving family, dreams fulfilled—and I know it can’t be. Because this is Life. Even now, those I care about are facing health challenges, overwhelming obligations and anxiety while fighting rolling fogs of unknown troubles.
So what do I wish for?
Unexpected gifts. Pleasant surprises. The discovery of new skills and appreciation of old talents. Awareness of happiness as it creeps into your life.
A slowing down of the grinding pace of life. Relief. Bursts of joy. Contentment. Pride. Satisfaction of accomplishment. Acceptance of endings and beginnings. A calming of fears. The determination that you, not circumstances, will define your peace.
In this spirit, last night, after a wonderful dinner at Peche and a pleasant New Year’s Eve, when the neighbor (predictably) cranked up the music, my husband said, “Well, he’s due,” and I said, “Let’s take these blankets and sleep in the living room.” So we drifted off to sleep, back-to-back, him on the sofa and me on the futon, awoken only once by the fireworks booming from Crescent Park in a splendiferous display of light.
And, because it can’t hurt to ask, let us wish that I sell a manuscript, the Saints win the Super Bowl, and WordPress quits fooling with its format. 🙂
He stopped me in the stairwell of the yellow brick church on Monroe. It was our first session of the Door of Hope Writing Group held at the church. The church was temporary. We’d moved there from the backyard of Manna House where I teetered across the gravel in my high heels and June Averyt flung out her arm and said, “This is Ellen Prewitt. She’s going to teach us how to be a writing group.” In the church, we wrote in the kitchen, but at least we were inside.
I didn’t know him. I didn’t know anyone yet, though Leroy Scott and Tommy Payne had already lodged themselves in my memory. I don’t know if I even recognized him from a prior session—was his beret familiar?—or if this was our first time going from strangers to a person. He wanted to know, “What was that word you used about my writing?”
We talked about craft in writing group. We talked about it a lot. Each time a member shared their writing, I commented on something craft-driven in what they’d written. He had written a story about his time working on Beale Street and, to describe the impact the glittery African-American street in Memphis had on this small-town boy, he included backstory on his life.
“Backstory,” I told him in answer to his question. “When you include something that is necessary to understand the point you want to make.”
He repeated it—”Backstory”—like I do when I wanted to stick something in my brain.
Gradually, I came to know him as Roderick. Roderick Baldwin. I wasn’t clear if he was a guest at Door of Hope or in charge, but that was a decision I made early on, not to differentiate between staff, who often joined us writing, and guests who were experiencing homelessness. Over time, he became the manager of the Door of Hope support center where we moved shortly thereafter.
Roderick—along with Leroy Scott, Tommy Payne, Robb Patton, and William L. Hogan, Jr—was a founding member of the Door of Hope Writing Group (not me, because—and this is basic—one person can’t start a group; I was the instigator, trigger, grit in the oyster, but not a founder.) He was at the first organizational meeting of what became The Bridge, the Memphis street newspaper started by the Rhodes College students. He because its vendor liaison. He became one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. He became my mentor, guiding me along the path of interacting with those who were living on the street. And he became a friend.
Unless Roderick was out of town or had a doctor’s appointment, I think it’s safe to say he attended every Door of Hope Writing Group meeting we ever had. We met for 8 years. Weekly.
Roderick passed last week, and we will be having his funeral Saturday. We talked on the phone whenever I was out of town. We visited whenever I was in town. One of the last things he said to me when I told him I was stopping by with something for him but not coming inside because I had a bug and might be contagious was, “Oh, you and me, we’ll be okay.” Of the Door of Hope Writing Group founding members, only Tommy remains.
It was a sad day when the Magic girls left town. The three—a brunette, blonde, and redhead—brightened every party, enlivened every boring Sunday afternoon, skipped every brunch, and danced on every unoccupied table. They were fun girls, the Magics. Each born within twelve months of the other—brunette first, blonde second, redhead bringing up the rear like the bright caboose—they were distinguishable only by their hair.
Plus, the redhead wore less clothes.
She showed her midriff, a no-no in a small Southern town.
The aunt commented on it, the bare tummy. The Magic girls were orphans, you see. No papa and no mama. The aunt fulfilled the mama’s roll, lax as she was, only surfacing every so often to lazily comment on her wards’ inability to comply with social mores. The blonde, arriving at the aunt’s house to request a recipe for cheesy popcorn, heard the aunt’s midriff complaint uttered to the librarian who’d come to reclaim an overdue book. The blonde did not defend her sister. She did not object at all. She pondered and, as the complaint marinated in her brain, it led to a competition. After all, the relationship among the sisters was built on nothing if not extravagance.
The blonde created an excuse to appear in public in a very low-cut ball gown. The redhead, suddenly aware that a contest was afoot, entered a karaoke contest in a sleeveless, backless romper. The brunette, worried where this was headed, began wearing ruffled granny blouses, trying to derail the vibe. It didn’t work. When the local Memorial Day parade rolled around, the blonde appeared perched on the backseat of a Mustang convertible, waving her pale hand, nothing on but a swimsuit. When she smiled, she channeled the ghost of her dead mother, whose head had been bald as an egg.
I forgot to mention. The Magic girls all had the same smile. Imprinted since birth, identical. And, on each one, a crooked left incisor.
One was a pharmacist (the men said “You wear fewer clothes than any pharmacist I know”) and one was a farmer (she grew prize-winning sweet potatoes) and one was a driver long before there was anything known as Lyft or Uber. An entrepreneur in a small town where everyone drank excessively and the local police made the budget off DUI arrests. The tipsy town folks loved the redhead. When their annual festival rolled around, they named her the muse who married Poseidon (the town spread along the Gulf Coast) and crowned her with a seaweed crown. Which she wore with a nude body suit. She looked like a wild naked mermaid.
The blonde seethed with jealousy. The brunette, mourning the closeness that had been, began wearing black funeral attire. A tight black suit with a satin jacket. Black pumps. Half veil. She looked really sexy.
The worm turned.
The blonde and the redhead realized they’d been left behind. Mystery had reemerged. There is nothing worse than being caught without enough clothes on.
The two ignobles decided there was nothing left for them in the small seaside town. They packed their bags. The aunt made arrangements to send postcards. The brunette, so newly enthralled with her ascendency, could not imagine life without a foil, or two. She stuffed black lingerie into an overnight bag and hightailed it to the airport, driving her own car because the town’s only faux-Lyft driver was already at the airport. The three bought tickets to Memphis. New territory to conquer. Bigger but not too big. Land of Cotton Carnival. And a pig festival.
When the plane’s wheels lost contact with the runway’s asphalt, the town shuddered in abandonment. The jet engines roared, and sucked all that had been glamorous right out of their lives.
Not quite all.
For back in town, in a park hosting the world’s largest live oak, on a green-slatted bench, sat a girl with legs as long as that elusive ribbon of highway. The fourth Magic sister. A sleeper. Ready to dominate. She could tap dance the varnish right off a stage. She rose and walked toward the center of town, her raven hair swishing like fireflies. When she smiled, her crooked incisor glittered.
So, men and women showed up to my book signing with chickens on their heads. They sat in the audience while we conducted the heart of the signing, a “True or Fiction” poll. I read excerpts from TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE and the listening audience voted: Fact or Fiction. If the excerpt was actually true, my DJ husband let loose a train whistle (for ‘You’re on the right track’).
If the excerpt was a pure product of my imagination, the expert DJ let loose a chicken clucking (for ‘You’re clucked.’)
One of the excerpts I selected was a sex scene. Yep. I went there. I read it, then the audience had to vote if it was true. The scene had to do with taking off your silver lame britches before climbing a ladder into a treehouse. As I read, the room got quieter. A collective sigh of relief rippled through the audience when the scene turned comic.
(ps It was Fiction, though as an audience member pointed out, the bit about the silver lame pants was true.)
Also, an audience member asked me during the Q&A, given how totally funny and hysterical the book was, had I been the class clown growing up? Y’all. I was quiet as a mouse. Totally shy. Extremely self-conscious. I told the woman in the audience I am very introverted…as I clowned around on stage. It gave me pause. When had I gone into comedy? So, right there in front of a room of people (half of whom I didn’t know), I worked it out. I told her I got divorced. I’d been uncomfortably repressed in that marriage. After the divorce, I sprung up like a Jack-in-the-box.
Good Lord. Doing public therapy at a book signing.
Then the audience members in chicken hats did a mysterious chicken dance and an improv on a chicken’s reaction to reading the book, which ended with a reference to chicken’s singing during sex.
Early, early in my writing career, I attended a writers’ conference in Oxford, Mississippi. It was full of writer panels. The writers were serious, full of themselves, dare I say pompous? I thought, get over yourself. You haven’t cured cancer. You wrote a damn book. After an accompanying cocktail party, I was walking back to the hotel with my ever-supportive husband and I said, “Please, if I am ever lucky enough to get a book published, dear God, don’t let me turn into a turd.”
I fed the plants with fish food today,
and my hands smell like fish gunk.
I turned my back for one second,
and the dog who won’t eat her expensive food
was lapping up the gunk.
I read on the internet she wouldn’t die.
I wrote a novel and gave the hero my
dereliction of housekeeping duties
(my sister once said, “Marcee keeps a cleaner house than you,”
and I silently huffed, she’s a full-time homemaker, I practice law.
But that was the hit dog hollering.)
An old friend told me this week
she remembered my husband from when we stood in the front of the church
and I recited “Ode to Puppy Tongues” while he held my 3 Yorkies.
It was a talent show.
I am so proud of my crazy younger self.
Who needs housekeeping skills
Approved the final back cover for MODEL FOR DECEPTION, my next and second novel I’ll be releasing, and worked with the graphics person on formatting its content and taming a Table of Contents that, when properly formatted, ran on for 5 pages….sheesh.
Finished the final manuscript revisions to THE HART WOMEN, the third novel I’ll be releasing, which I pared down to 127 pages.
Researched how a novel is actually supposed to be formatted (then re-formatted THE HART WOMEN to meet those standards) and began a conversation with the extremely talented artist who will be transforming this story into a book.
Visited with a bookseller to see if my THE HART WOMEN idea is crazy or brilliant (and exactly how much does a bar code from Bowker cost?).
Filed HARBORING EVIL: A COOT LONG MYSTERY with a small press, after tackling the thankless job of revising its synopsis.
Touched base with another small press that was considering HARBORING EVIL to see if they’ve made a decision (no response yet).
Filed THE BONE TRENCH with a small press, this being the novel that was agented until my agent dropped me to join the Foreign Legion (actually, to sell foreign rights) which, incredibly, required 4 trips to 4 different stores/post offices just to find a damn envelope.
Reviewed my Bio for Crack the Spine Journal that will be publishing a short story (which I didn’t know would be used as my contributor’s note so the bio contains NONE of my publishing credits and makes me sound like a dork), only to realize how OLD I am compared to the other contributors.
Revised and filed 5 short stories with literary journals, which includes cross-checking to make sure I haven’t already sent these stories to these particular journals and researching to make sure none of them have bitten the dust since I last submitted on a regular basis about 4 years ago (some had).
Revised 2 outtakes from JAZZY AND THE PIRATES (that became orphaned after I deleted the Jean Laffite narrator from that story) and filed them with 5 literary journals that hopefully will not die before they can read my work.
Set up 2 additional book club appearances for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE—yay! You can listen to the TRACKING HAPPINESS AUDIBLE sample here.
Mailed 2 copies of TRACKING HAPPINESSto a review service (which, I know, is wayyyyyy late, but I decided to see what they had to say about it and maybe I can use it to the good) and submitted it for an award, I’ve forgotten which.
Worked with ACX to get the right distribution on TRACKING HAPPINESS so the podcast can go forward (because even if you’re using ACX as the exclusive audiobook distributor, if you’re using the audio content in your podcast, that’s a non-exclusive distribution—okay?)
Worked with the podcast producer of ELLEN’S VERY SOUTHERN VOICE: NOVELS TOLD WRITE to get a promotional video going.
Drafted an email to send to my friends begging them to come to the TRACKING HAPPINESS book signing at Novel Memphis in 3 weeks so I won’t be mortified when 4 people show up, but if 4 people show up, they’re gonna get to take home punch and nuts.
Researched audio capabilities at said signing and food/punch at said signing and created a vignette for said signing that will physically represent the theme music from the podcast, “Get That Chicken Off the Tracks.” (I have a sick, sick sense of humor).
Arranged to go to a book event this week with the Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Gulf, which inspired my next novel on which I am currently reading and researching, MOSES IN THE GULF (which spellcheck, for some reason, thinks should be MOUSE IN THE GULF).
Began planning for a talk at a creative retreat in March of 2019 that I want to participate in to be around other writers.
The above is in addition to the endless IG, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads postings that seem to be necessary to keep TRACKING HAPPINESS alive.
All of this is to say that being a writer is so much damn work. And I know I’ve made my job that much harder by deciding to release these novels myself (and in ebook, print, audio, and podcast). And I feel like I’m involved in a marathon, one I set for myself and, of all things, it has an end, which is called MOSES IN THE GULF. I will write this final novel and get it out there one way or another. Then that will be that.
At least that’s how I feel now. Get the 4 old novels out there (TRACKING HAPPINESS, MODEL FOR DECEPTION, THE HART WOMEN, and HARBORING EVIL). Then get the 3 new ones published one way or another (THE BONE TRENCH, JAZZY AND THE PIRATES, and MOSES IN THE GULF). Then call it quits.
Or maybe return to short stories.
But there will be a stop, maybe a soft one, but definitely a stop.
As if any of us are truly able to plan our futures. <3
I’m sitting in church this morning, and I’m getting madder and madder. How much longer am I going to have to listen to that secondary, pitiful account of creation (“poor ol’ Adam—wah, wah, wah—all by his lonesome needed a helper”) and ignore the primary story of creation: “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea….So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number…” (Genesis 1:26-28).
Why would my modern Episcopal church choose the wah-wah Adam story over the story of God’s creation of “them” “in our likeness”? The church has a choice, and by choosing the wah-wah story over the “in the image of God, male and female” story, we refuse to proclaim from the pulpit that women were created in the image of God exactly like, at the same time as, and with the same blessing as men. Instead, we validate and continue a story where women were only created because of some man’s needs.
I thought of walking out. I truly did. I felt complicit sitting there. (Was this life-long reaction to male-dominated storytelling exacerbated by the recent stamp of legitimacy on devaluing women as evidenced by the Kavanaugh hearing? You tell me.) But I didn’t want to leave my husband’s side, a man I love dearly who would fear I wasn’t feeling well. So I sat in the pew, and, finally, Jesus entered the scene.
The Gospel reading was the admonition against divorce found in Mark 10 where Jesus does the extraordinary thing of extending the right to divorce to women as well as men (“and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”) This was a radical departure from the belief at the time that women were property to be treated as men decided. Then, whoa, along comes Jesus and says, guess what? Women can divorce too. As a woman who divorced a rotten husband, I don’t like the admonition, but Jesus recognized I had the same right (and same responsibility) to divorce as my rotten husband did. How did Jesus get there? Well, he started with the primary creation story: “But at the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.” He had to start there because you can’t get to equality starting with the wah-wah Adam story.
Now, I am fully aware that those who are against same-sex marriage and even same-sex love quote this “male and female” language to say, see: it’s only supposed to be male and female. But Jesus wasn’t asked, can same-sex couples marry? He was asked, can men divorce women? And Jesus said, yes, with consequences. And guess what? Women can too.
This is why Jesus was an ally of women. He found every opportunity to say, you blind men, quit judging it only from your point of view. If you want to divorce, understand women can too. If you’re without sin, throw your stone at this woman (this John 8:3-11 story isn’t the generic “don’t be a hypocrite” story it’s been turned into—it’s a specific story about men wanting to control and judge the sexuality of women while letting their own sexual behavior go unchecked.)
Further more, Jesus says, by the way, you women who have co-opted yourselves into the patriarchy? You open your eyes too. Quit telling other women they have to follow traditional homemaker roles (how many specific stories about women’s equality like Luke’s Mary/Martha story have we turned generic so we don’t have to hear the message?). And don’t call my mother blessed because she was a baby-maker; she was blessed because she followed God (Luke 11:27).
Jesus heard the devaluation of women in the question, in the comment, in the action. And, when he heard it, he called it out. That’s what an ally does. He stood up for the equality of women. The church has spent hundreds of years running from and piling dirt on top of this truth about Jesus, and it needs to stop.
As I said to my husband as we exited the church, “The only reason I’m a Christian is because of Jesus.” Literally, thank you Jesus for that.
I alternate between super excited and terrified. That’s because it’s both hilarious and super embarrassing, this new podcast I’m about to release.
I mean, a print or e-book is one thing. The reader is safely tucked away in the privacy of their own home, curled in an overstuffed chair, giggling as they read.
With an audiobook, I’m talking to them. My voice is saying things out loud. I am present as they experience my words. They know how I sound. They know ME. It is so personal. That is the mortifying part.
At the same time, the podcast makes me giggle, and I already know the joke.
Season 1 of Ellen’s Very Southern Voice: Novels Told Write launches Friday September . Season 1 features Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure. Each episode has 3-5 minutes of deep background on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. The actual chapter follows. So: me introducing a chapter, followed by the chapter itself. Like an audio book with benefits. Some writer talk. Some truth or fiction? talk. Some random outtakes. Lots of Fun Chicken Facts and Helpful Train Hints.
And, most amazingly, the podcast features an original musical theme written and sung by the incredibly talented Corinne Alexander Sampson. “Get That Chicken Off the Tracks.” If you can’t stand my writing, if humor in a book makes you wanna barf, if you’ve hated me since you first laid eyes on me in the 5th grade, you need to listen to the podcast to hear this theme music.
Season 1: Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure. Join single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins as she takes off on a wild—if slightly ribald—cross-country train ride to clear her dead daddy’s name from a drug scandal erupting at the local fried chicken joint. Hopefully along the way, she’ll discover the secret to happiness. Spiced with Fun Chicken Facts and Helpful Train Hints. It’s all good.
See, hilarious and also I might die of mortification (which is kind of redundant, since mortification is death).
But there’s no stopping it. We’re gonna do this thing. Ellen’s Very Southern Voice: Novels Told Write will be found on the Oam Network, iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine places. I’ll share the URL Friday.
As I was talking to my grandsons about my crush on Baby Groot (and sharing a video to prove how cute he was), it occurred to me that this is not an aberration. The boys will remember that I love the bug band (officially known as the Fiesta Trio) in Dora the Explorer (“Gogi! Come quick, it’s the band!) and correctly conclude that I have an affinity for small adorable critters.
So here’s a list to prove my life-long attraction to adorable non-human bitties that began with the bug child from the Pogo comic books, which I so loved in the sixth grade I sewed it into being with leftover fabric and stuffing. (Surely that gives me extra credit on the aptitude test for commitment.) In fairly chronological order:
Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh Dough Boy. My dad who was in the grocery business actually got me a vinyl Poppin’ Fresh doll exactly like this one; if nothing else, I have family who loves me.
Chilly Willy, the penguin who cries ice cube tears in Bugs Bunny cartoons. My sister gave me a sweatshirt with little Chilly Willy embroidered all over it; I wear it every Christmastime. (see above re: family who loves me)
Potbelly pigs. I never got one, stuffed or otherwise.
Hedgehogs. I once adopted a hedgehog at the Jackson Zoo. His name was Reggie. As his adopted parent, I got to pet his tummy. I’m not gonna tell you the rest of the story ’cause its sad, and this is an upbeat post.
Mothra’s fairies. These cutie-pie twins who summon Mothra with Mothra’s Song are my all time favorite movie characters, other than Godzilla of course, and excepting my current crush on Baby Groot.
And, as the one outlier to “non-human,” I include the E-Trade baby, remember him? He was the cutest thing, though connoisseur that I am, I only liked the original baby.
Baby Groot is actually a refinement of my “small adorable” attraction in which I’m particularly taken with “small adorable and odd.” Here’s a photo of my Halloween collection. You’ll see the level of my devotion.
Similarly, my unconventional Nativity scene is full of odd but adorable critters.
My cousin the psychologist once walked through my house and asked what my extensive collection of odd critters said about me. I have no idea. But here’s a National Geographic article that says while the attraction to baby-like creatures relates to nurturing and protecting, the odd factor morphs it into simple joy. I can go with that. 🙂
Please enjoy this kicking review of Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure found on Susanne Fletcher’s Wuthering Bites blog. I am thrilled Susanne compared the comic dialogue to P.G. Woodhouse, whose Jeeves collection I long ago fell in love with and read in its entirety (how one gets so lucky as to be compared to a beloved writer, I don’t know.) It’s an extra special bonus when a review quotes some of your very own favorite lines from your book (“…a woman who represented everything I was not: sophisticated, voluptuous, and a really good speller.”) A well-written review is surely a gem unto itself.
If you haven’t discovered Susanne’s Wuthering Bites blog, take some time to look around. She is a great creative nonfiction writer, a true wordsmith who combines spectacular turns of phrase with insights that make you nod in recognition. I have followed her for years and thoroughly enjoy her work.
As an extra special super bonus, if you follow the link below, you can enjoy a haunting rendition of Gordon Lightfoot singing “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which, yes, is relevant to the review. Happy reading!
Traveling North Parkway with the windows open, I drive through a scent, and my head jerks in memory: a cracked sidewalk with weeds springing tall; a blossoming hedge that smelled so sweet. That’s all I remember, but it’s enough to keep me searching for the bushes all spring. Along roadways, on vacant lots, in other untended places, the hanging Ligustrum drapes the city like weedy Babylon. With the nonchalance of a woman tossing her hair to course water before wrapping a towel, the May branches weep cream, almost colorless blossoms.
“Noxious” the garden manuals call the smell and advise us to await its departure in June. My nose has never been compliant.
Mississippi summer nights in the 1960s, dusk descending on our block, we run behind the fog machine. The orange truck, spraying for mosquitoes, idles down the street, hitting every yard, and my sisters and I are right up underneath it, breathing in, holding the burning in our lungs, breathing out—the heavenly smell!
The dense smoke plumes white, the motor chugs. The evening descends around us, the thrall of summer stretches just beyond our reach. We weave inside the fairyland down our block, then—Mother said just our block—turn and trudge back home.
Behind us, mosquitoes drop dead in droves.
On Sunday afternoons, on our drive to Mamo’s farm, we cut through the poorer section of town. The linseed plant rises full of steel tubes and open-air wires. We kids tumble to the car window, roll the glass, gasp in the oily smell.
A thing I loved: leaning out of the car as Mother slowed for the linseed plant. But sometimes when we drove and rolled, the linseed plant was shut down, and there was no smell. Disappointed, we wrapped our fists around the crank and slowly closed the dividing window.
TEARS FROM HEAVEN
A rainy day descends on the farm. Restless, we run outside as soon as the rain slacks off and discover the tarp over the tractor. The onslaught has filled the green tarp with water, wetting the mud below. We slosh our hands through the warm water, pat the fat belly of the tarp as if it were a beloved water baby. We squat and shape the slick mud into doll plates and saucers, our noses full of the clean mud smell. The caramel clay curves and molds; the tiny dishes sit sweet. The scent of the canvas tarp is as strong as an animal hide.
When we return the next day, the water has soured. Dirty moss furs the belly of the drained tarp. The dishes are no more. We don’t go near the tractor again.
All grown up, visiting a tony Memphis flower shop, I walk the dampish aisles. Expressing leaves reach from pots and kettles and man-made bird’s nests. As I venture deeper, the musty earth and growing smells close rank as if the floor itself might crumble to dirt. I bend to smell the red roses.
“Now, roses aren’t going to smell,” the clerk says.
Excuse me? Rose hand cream and rose body powder and rose eau-de-toilette, all thick in the outer vestibule of Mamo’s country Methodist church? The old lady smell that wafted the sanctuary, burrowed into the oaken pews, colored the rose light streaming through the cheap stained-glass windows?
Since when are you telling me roses don’t smell?
MADISON STREET AT THE RIGHT TIME OF DAY
Hit Madison Street at the right time of day and you’ll slam into the yeasty hotness of the Wonder Bread factory. The scent billows like a cloud through downtown Memphis, spreading to Monroe, Adams, Jefferson Streets. I inhale and recollect: one time at Mamo’s Sunday dinner I ate seven Brown-N-Serve rolls. In this new, adult city where smells give way to concrete, the white bread factory provides an unencumbered memory.
Or maybe not. Turns out, the wages paid by the bread factory are crumbs. The workers picket. The smell stops. For weeks, the streets run blank while we hunch along, cobbling life together best as we can in an arid world.
FINALLY AT THE RIPE STAGE
“Those puppies stink,” my husband says, so I take the dogs—finally at the ripe stage where I can bury my nose in their fur and sniff deeply—and reluctantly hand them over to the groomer. No, do not perfume them, I recoil. Bows, that’s okay.
Outside my wintertime house, the Mississippi River sinks low, the thick river smell rises high, and I step into the brushy bank to get close. You have to be near and stilled to smell it. I use the dog as my excuse. She sniffs the tips of leaves, and I peer down the slope through the angled tree trunks, searching for the moldering scent of narrow, matted pecan leaves and a play house that never lost its raw lumber smell and knit hats tight on heads. Only once every seven years did it snow and bring out the sleds that crunched on ice that slicked because it melted fast. More normally, it was a cold too wimpy to scare a soul and bare fields of swinging vines with the cool rot of lake mud and the slick part of the branch exposed when bark the color of coffee peeled away, and the bark stuck to your gloves and the vine’s nasty thorns must be slowly carefully plucked from your sweater or the vine would grab again, loathe to let you go.
Like a woman stepping into the hidden current of the river, I move through my days, desperately seeking my known world of uncultured smells. Yet, you cannot hold on to scent. I must wait until the end when I am embedded in the coughing aroma of incense, the bitter scent of a chrysanthemum blanket, the wormy aroma of turned earth. And, finally, when all is over, I’ll sleep in the thin, clean aroma of Ligustrum, weeping over my grave.
(This essay is another of the old essays I wrote a while back and dutifully sent off for publication and received warm gushes of praise in return but no offer of publication. I’ve decided life is too short to keep them sequestered in my computer. If one person enjoys the words or grasps at their own flickering memories, I’ve succeeded in doing a good thing. – ellen)
For you go-getters who’ve already bought into Lucinda’s antics, TODAY IS THE DAY TO POST A REVIEW!
Join others who’ve found Lucinda’s adventure “uproariously funny” with “gritty Southern determination” and a feel reminiscent of Confederacy of Dunces and Wicked while presenting a story that “truly entertains the reader” and “defines the greatness of the human spirit.” All in all, “perfect summer reading.”
To post a review on Amazon, follow this link and click on Write a Customer Review.
“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins
Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi, fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way. Join Lucinda on the most hilarious—if slightly ribald—adventure of her life.
A good book should remind you of another book you really loved. Ellen’s incredible imagination, keen wit, perceptive knowing, and spoofy style is reminiscent of John Kennedy Tooles’ “The Confederacy of Dunces,” as she captures the delightful craziness of small-town Mississippi life. Amazon review
It should have values you share. gritty Southern determination and a particularly strong confidence in her abilities scoops of endearing drama that spell out what honor, integrity, loyalty, sex, and determination are made of Amazon Reviews
The writing should be awesome. The book is beautifully written, with phraseology reminiscent of Gregory Maguire’s writing In “Wicked”. This is a fun story that you will love. Amazon Review
You always want a page turner, no draggy plots allowed. “Tracking Happiness” kept me turning the pages to see what could possibly happen next to such goofy but very likable characters. Amazon Review It only gets better from there. Amazon Review
A healthy dose of humor is a must. Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure is an uproariously funny and refreshingly different look into life in the modern South and beyond. Amazon Review
It really, really can’t be fake or a stereotype. Author Ellen Morris Prewitt, a Jackson, Mississippi native, utilizes her unerring eye for the real south to bring to life a story that truly entertains the reader with a quirky hilarity that defies description. Amazon Review
You want a deeper message mixed in with the fun times and entertainment. Ellen Prewitt shares Lucinda Mae’s cross-country, coming-of-age journey that paints not only a picture of the New South but defines the greatness of the human spirit. Amazon Review
It should all come together and work. Prewitt has produced perfect summer reading. Amazon Review
When you finish, you want to know your time was well-spent. It’s worth the ride! Amazon Review
So there it is. The reviews are in: TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE is all a good book should be. Hope you enjoy it soon.
“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.” Lucinda Mae Watkins
Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi, fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way. Join Lucinda on the most hilarious—if slightly ribald—adventure of her life.
Enjoy this excerpt from TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE where Lucinda Mae’s amazing train trip is interrupted by a phone call from her mama Rita Rae and her mama’s boyfriend Clyde Higgenbotham. Turns out, back home in Edison, Mississippi, gossip is flying about Lucinda’s poor dead daddy’s role in the local drug scandal, with the flames being fanned by none other than her daddy’s old business partner, Bennie “Big Doodle” Dayton.
Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure: CHAPTER 3
Clyde was talking in that nasally voice he used when he wanted to sound important, like at the supper table when he was spouting off Learning Channel wisdom. “Law enforcement are crawling all over the Chicken Palace, looking for evidence on the drug ring. And Stirling’s getting remarried.”
“Don’t tell her that.” Rita Rae was back on the line. “She can only take so much. You wouldn’t believe what they’re saying about your daddy now.”
“Who’s saying?” I asked.
“Newspaper. Online.” Clyde again, a real I-told-you-so tone to his voice. Clyde was at his most obnoxious when the topic was small-town politics. Clyde’s dad had been a state legislator. Never mind that after the man had died, they discovered the old coot had another family over in Jackson. Mother claimed that mortification didn’t count because Clyde “wasn’t from that other family.”
“The Clarion Ledger’s been quoting inside sources saying your daddy was the linchpin king behind a goat-doping, chicken-smuggling scandal.”
“Daddy? A goat-doping scandal?” I flashed on an image of a goat sitting on a stool, arm braced for the illegal shot that would make him a better mountain climber. “What does that even mean?”
“Focus, Lucinda.” It was my mother. “They’re saying Bill ran a drug ring out of the Edison Chicken Palace, and Bennie Dayton isn’t raising a finger to stop this malicious talk.”
“Ol’ Bennie practically called Edison a rogue operation,” Clyde added. “‘Whatever the local investors were up to shouldn’t reflect on the good name of the Chicken Palace Emporium,’ blah, blah, blah.”
“They’re calling Daddy a criminal? Are you sure?” Mother and Clyde had a tendency to exaggerate (“They’re closing the I-20 exit to Edison! Traffic’s being re-routed to Bovina!” When the only thing that was happening was a re-paving). It was best to ask twice.
“You got your work cut out for you, little lady, dealing with that Bennie Dayton. Your mama is counting on you to clear this mess up. Everybody in town is believing your daddy was a criminal. People’ll believe anything they read on the Interweb.”
He paused. “The scandal could improve attendance at the museum, though.” Clyde was referring to Big Doodle’s Chicken Palace Emporium Museum located off the highway exit. The museum featured memorabilia commemorating the Chicken Palace story, such as the Ride-a-Rooster—a big, bucking chicken whose name took on a whole ’nother meaning when us kids hit middle school. “That crappy museum might finally outdraw the Tomato Museum in Bovina.”
At that, Mother snatched the phone and launched into a garbled explanation of the “biggest drug ring in the Southeast”—something to do with goats imported from Jamaica, smelly chicken parts, and a tractor-trailer distribution system—until I said goodbye, trying to remember as I hung up: did someone say Stirling was getting remarried?
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!
I needed a place to read my Walter Mosley mystery so I put together the porch cot.
The last two years, I’ve put together lots of furniture in this house. Some of it was easier than others, like these pieces:
Others were harder, like these sets of shelves:
I guess I technically put this side table together, but it was more of a design: add a tray to a discarded garden table:
And here is my piece de resistance:
I’m getting out the bookplates on TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. If you want one, use the Contact form, and I’ll mail it to you. As they said in the 1950s when twin beds gave way to the double, “They are VERY popular.” As Lucinda says, “I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”
Speaking of beds, I’m now off to the garden to add stepping-stones to the soon-to-be flower/crops bed. Being productive makes me feel so good!
Have I told you about the time I was at a book launch for my beloved mentor Rebecca McClanahan where I found myself seated on a sofa and a woman with the most pronounced South Carolina low country drawl I’d ever heard leaned over and said, “My huzzzz-band wrote Riiiiising Tide,” and I realized the man seated next to me was John Barry, the author of the book that was at that moment my most favorite book ever? I was not cool. I erupted into a fit of hero-worship. John graciously offered to sign my book if I mailed it to him, which I did, and he did, and I have loved him even more ever since.
Now I’m the one who’s published a book that’s calling for me to sign it for all the lovely people who are buying it. I refuse to be daunted by the geographical distance that separates us. Blame it on my peripatetic life or relationships born on the Internet, but we’re miles apart. You couldn’t sling the book at me if you had the world’s strongest arm. And I WANT to sign it.
If you click here and send me your address using this website’s contact form, I’ll send you a bookplate, a little sticker you can put in the front of your book. I’ll sign it. With my name. And inscribe it to whomever you want (you or a person receiving the book as a gift.) It’s specially designed for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE and features a shot of the book cover. I’ll send it to you FOR FREE (I mean, it’s an envelope and stamp 🙂 ). It’s cute as all get out.
To make this work, put Sign My Book! in the Subject box of the Contact form and in the Message box tell me:
* how many you need—I’ll send you one for each book you’ve bought
* who you want (each) inscribed to or if you simply want me to sign (them)
* the address where you want me to send it
Then hit Submit. In a few days, you’ll have a book signed by me, the author. It’ll be magic.
Lord, why do I want you to buy my book? What’s so important within the (amazingly awesome) covers that justifies your spending $13.99 for a printbook or $3.99 for an ebook? I mean, why does this book matter, other than the fact that it’s mine?
Top Ten Reasons to Buy TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE (From Worst to Best)
10. You feel sorry for me and want to make me feel better by liking my book
9.You need to money launder $13.99, and no one can trace your money to my book
8. You want to see if I can spell “sashayed”
7. You’d given up on my ever publishing a novel, and now you’re old as Methuselah, and you can’t afford to wait for the next novel to come out to see if you like it better
6. You are my mother, my husband, or my dog
5.I bought your book
4. You want to find out how an entire novel can be set on a train without being boring as dirt
3. You’re headed to the beach and need a really good escapism read
2. You want to read about sex in a treehouse
1. You love chickens and want to see them passionately defended in a novel
1 +You’ve heard my short stories and know my novel will be funny as hell with a good message
1 ++You think the cover is really funny and promises a good read
Final 1 (I promise) The jacket blurb caught your attention and wont’ let go:
Okay, there were 13 reasons. I tend to share Lucinda’s exuberance. And 13 is an unlucky number, so I had to lie.
“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.” Lucinda Mae Watkins
Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way.
When I left Mississippi, I lost the Midnight Gardner.
In the middle of the night, he would arrive. The next morning, on my way to work, when I locked the door behind me, a small brown paper bag with a crumpled neck waited on the hood of my car. Inside the bag tumbled tomatoes. The tomatoes might be a little wormy or spotted with yellow patches, but they were homegrown. They were delicious. I would eat so many my tongue broke out in hives.
The Midnight Gardner did not confine himself to tomatoes. Sometimes a round cantaloupe would bulge the bag. The Midnight Gardener was known to prefer the Ambrosia Hybrid melon whose meat was so smooth it would melt under the knife, the knife slicing through the orange, the slice curving onto the plate.
I knew the bag was from the Midnight Gardener and not some bomb-wielding terrorist because the M.G. always used Ace Hardware bags. How he got such a large cache of these bags, I don’t know. Sometimes, when special instructions were needed, a typed note would be stapled to the bag and, in a spidery hand, would be the valediction: “Signed, the Midnight Gardener.” Standing in the morning air of my stoop, spying the bag’s brown striped visage, my mouth watered. Jumbled inside would be pods of homegrown okra aching for an iron skillet, calling for buttermilk and cornmeal, eager to be fried in hot oil.
Or—oh, my goodness—the figs. Purple skinned, shaped like the ball on a court jester’s hat, the figs would be stuffed into a plastic baggie. The baggie steamed from the breathing life of the figs. Rescue the caught figs quickly, or they liquefied. Don’t bother with peeling, wash them off, sink your teeth into their seeded insides. Gulp them down—plenty more where that came from.
How did I know about the unlimited quantity of figs? Because the figs came from my family’s tree, the officially-certified State Champion Fig Tree of Mississippi. That means it’s the largest fig tree in the state. The gargantuan tree produced enough figs to make fig preserves, fig tarts, fig whatever. But because my family is a family of fig purists, mostly just plain, raw figs. Summer rolled around, the tree did its job, and the figs flowed.
Until I moved away, and it all stopped.
Not right away. For a while the Midnight Gardener took to the post. He couriered the produce between my old law firm in Jackson and my new law firm in Memphis.
But that didn’t last.
Law firms aren’t big on couriered produce.
Soon enough, I lost it all. Figs, Ambrosia melon. Silver Queen corn. Banana peppers. The food of the gods offered like manna in fistfuls, sufficient only for a couple of days. More than sustenance, it was essence. The essence of what it meant to live in the South in the summer. To be fed with the land’s bounty, not from a tilled field but from a plot of earth you could identify. Shared produce, gifted from a generosity of seeding and weeding and watering and hoeing and picking before the pods got too large, the worms too destructive, the birds too greedy. Then slipped into a crumpled brown bag by my Uncle Hebron who donned his magical cape and became, for the night, the Midnight Gardener.
Stepping into my drive, he settled his bounty on the hood of my car. He is still with us, my uncle, but not the produce he produced.
For all of you who’ve been following my tortuous path to publishing a novel, I am pleased to announce that TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE will be released this coming Tuesday, June 26. Full and exciting instructions on how to purchase it will be posted right here on this very blog on Monday. Love to you all, ellen
When Mississippi was dry, my mother drove across the bridge to buy liquor. The bridge was concrete, pockmarked and moss-covered. Below meandered the muddy Pearl, a brown sludge of a river that lazed along until the spring rains came and flooded its banks, a rising loaf of a river that spread through unprotected Jackson.
Jackson was the law-abiding capital of the state. Semi-law-abiding. Its citizens, like my mother, bought black market liquor. They didn’t buy it in law-abiding Jackson. Yes, they drank it in Hinds County, even at the Jackson Country Club, where in 1966 the raid by the Sheriff’s Department during the revelry of the Carnival Ball—the deputy sheriffs with raised axes surprising the tuxedoed men and perfumed women, ruining the biggest social event of the year—belatedly put an end to Mississippi’s Prohibition.
Yes, you read that correctly: Mississippi did not allow the legal sale of liquor until 1966. Before that, the good—but thirsty—citizens of Jackson drove across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and entered Rankin County’s Gold Coast to buy their liquor. The liquor was bootleg. Sort of. Mississippi might have been officially dry, but it also officially collected sales tax on the liquor. The black market tax was collected by the State Treasurer who would later become Governor of Mississippi. No one held the man’s black market tax collections against him. How could they? They were the ones paying the tax.
Only on special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve, would Mother cross the bridge, and only once do I remember her including us, her children, in these trips. Deep into the curve of Jefferson Street, we turned left instead of taking a right to Battlefield Park where we usually played. The car bumped onto the bridge, the joints of the bridge clicking under our tires. Nose pressed to the window, I watched the overhanging vines squirm in the breeze, flicking their dragon tongues.
We crunch into the gravel parking lot. Mother disappears inside. I gaze at all the lawbreakers, men in cowboy boots, and wait for Mother to emerge with a brown bag. We drive away.Back across the bridge, back into the normal world where we played tennis and swam in swimming pools and didn’t undertake illegal activity unless it was to snake our arms inside the vending machine to snag a free Zero candy bar and, even then, sooner or later, we confessed.
Last week I learned the iron stool that stood in my grandmother’s kitchen throughout my childhood then moved to Mother’s kitchen after Mamo died; later, it would make its way to my sister’s kitchen—the stool was from the Gold Coast. It was confiscated in a raid by a deputy sheriff who donated the doubly illegal stool to his family friends.
Now a family heirloom.
Hard stool under my butt, foot propped, sipping a beer: I’m Gold Coast dreaming in Mother’s kitchen. Where, I want to know, does a Mississippi girl buy her illegal booze today?
Last week, I drove through my old Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, taking photos of the houses I’ve lived in. I spent two periods of my life in the neighborhood: from age 3 years to 12; and again through the decades of the 1980s and ’90s.
My life in Belhaven began in a duplex my mother rented when we moved back from Denver, Colorado, after Daddy Joe died. On this street, we ran behind the fog machine that sprayed for mosquitos and lived to tell the tale. (The house doesn’t tilt; that’s me tilting the phone as I took a photo through the car window.)
When I was in the 5th grade, Mother bought a house (!—a single mom with 3 little girls: the older I get, the more I’m impressed with that feat). We adored the Arlington Street house. It had 7 levels (if you counted landings) and 2 balconies. As you can tell, the balcony over the front porch where we used to sleep under the stars has been removed. Who knows if they still use those French doors to go out on what is now basically a roof. The house is also painted blue where it was white then. And you can’t see the little house in the back which, though it was a real house, we used as a playhouse and where Cheep-Cheep the duck lived for a while.
We left this house when Mother married, and we moved to North Carolina. I moved back to Jackson in 1982 to practice law and returned to my old neighborhood, kicking it off with another duplex. My unit was the downstairs screen door on the left of this yellow house.
I didn’t last long here before I moved to the Arcadia. I loved this four-plex (that’s my unit with the upstairs porch on the right), but I left it when I married. Doing my drive-by, I noticed it still has window units.
We (actually me, though I was married) bought this wonderful little house that we extensively renovated. It’s on Pinehurst Street, right down from Eudora Welty’s house. Miss Welty is a famous short story writer. You can hardly see the house up the hill. The sign indicates it’s for sale again.
For a brief period, I lived in exile from Belhaven. When I got divorced, I returned to the neighborhood and bought my very own house which I loved dearly. The trees around it have gotten so overgrown it, too, is almost hidden. It had a magnolia, fig, redbud, and an oak. When I married again, I commuted a while between Jackson and Memphis. I sold my house (marriage was not good for my house tenures) and rented the Love Shack behind this pink house in Belhaven. That’s an orange trailer of some sort in the driveway. You can’t see the Love Shack, but I didn’t want to leave it out of the chronology. It was tiny. It had 3 patio areas. The heating was terrible in the winter. I adored it.
When I look at these collection of houses, I see how similar they are. My taste did not change much. As you can tell, the Belhaven neighborhood is lodged in my heart. It formed me. It might be why I’m a writer. I dream of it at night. It’s now a historic district.
Oh, and just for fun, here’s the ditch area where we kids told each other a crazy horse with red eyes reared and stamped in the darkness. We never saw the horse.