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?
The summer I went to camp, it rained every day for eight weeks. I was in the eighth grade. It was my first major camp experience. I’d been to church camp (Baptist and Episcopalian) and Girl Scout camp (in Brandon, Mississippi, where we chased a greased watermelon around the lake), but not to a camp where girls traveled from Puerto Rico to attend. We were in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, me and all the rich kids. And every day, it rained on our heads.
I was at the camp on sort of a scholarship. My grandfather had left me and my two sisters trust fund money. Yeah, you might think that made me one of the rich kids, but it didn’t. Our trust fund money was largely unavailable, to the extent I told one of my friends that I had money in the bank, I just could never get to it. My parents couldn’t have afforded to send three girls into the mountains at hundreds of dollars a week for no reason other than to have a good time. “The trust includes education funds,” Mother said. I guess learning to live in the pouring rain was an education.
At the last minute, Mother had gone to Sears and bought ponchos for us to take with us, because ponchos were on the list of required clothing (any hints there?). The other girls’ ponchos were daisy-flowered in soft baby blues and spring greens. The Morris sisters’ ponchos were fluorescent orange like highway workers wear. Every day, head down and trudging to lunch, I could pick us out of the sea of ponchos: me; my one-year older sister; and baby Bettie, bright orange flames in the wavering line of little girl ponchos.
The spots of orange were about it for my interaction with my siblings. Summer camp is segmented: first by age group and then by cabin and finally by bunk bed. I had a great cabin, I remember that. But at the foot of my bunk bed, in the locker we’d bought for the camp experience, my clothes grew moldy from all the rain.
It did not rain the entire day, only every day. Spurts of sunshine appeared, but even then, when your horse passed beneath a low branch, droplets showered you. The tennis courts carried puddles. When you held the bow taut on the archery range, wetness tickled your ankles. We wrote home: “It’s raining.” Back in Charlotte, Mother moaned: “All that money!”
But in the snatched sunshine, on the steeply sloped hills, along the dirt paths, I learned to run. Up and down, swerving to miss grabbing roots, feet pounding—I ran. Looking back, my body may have been overwrought with the need for physical activity. In summers past, I’d spent my time on the tennis courts, every day, all day, smacking the tennis ball. The inactivity of rainy camp chaffed, and my need burst through.
So I ran. This was long before “jogging” was an activity. And I wasn’t jogging. I was full-tilt running, pausing only when I had to choose a fork in the path. If you say to me today, “Camp Ton-A-Wandah,” this is the memory that rises to the surface: me on the paths, running. At the time, it was the purest form of physical activity I’d ever experienced. Later, I would recognize that physical immersion in sex, but that was a long, long way off.
No, the summer of the eighth grade, my camp nickname was “Stick.” I had yet to get my period. I can’t remember if I even wore a bra. Stuck in a place between childhood and teenage-dom, I was loath to take the next step. I rightly surmised it meant swapping the joy in my body for angst. Too soon, freckles would become blemishes, the smooth front of my soft tennis shirt a defect. Teenage girls, in those days, frequently did not appreciate the way we were built.
But that summer, on the pine straw paths of the North Carolina mountains, before I began worrying about whether my hair looked stupid or my poncho was something a construction worker would wear, I waited for a break in the rain and, when the sun appeared, I ran for dear life.
On the flight to Jerusalem, I watched my Israeli seat mate, a seasoned traveler, do a nifty trick with her contacts, using no water. I followed suit, and two days later I couldn’t see out of my right eye. Of all things, one of the priests on our trip had been an ophthalmologist before taking his orders. “The human eye,” he said, “is the fastest healing organ in the body. But it needs to be covered up.”
Again, in a tumble of coincidence, one of the other priests in our group was blind, the result of a high school accident that severed his optic nerve. He produced a black eye patch. I put it on. Moshe Dyan was reborn.
Of all the sights in Jerusalem—a city filled with extreme costumers—apparently nothing was as odd as a white woman wearing an eye patch. Crowds parted at my approach. Staring abounded, as did laughter. At age forty-eight, I learned what it felt like to be made fun of for a physical difference. A schoolboy spied me in the window of the tour bus and pointed, doubling over with laughter. Then he poked his friends so they, too, could howl. “You look like a model,” one of the women in my group said, because I had cut my hair so very short for the trip. Not to the little boys, I didn’t.
Most surprising, though, was the effect the patch produced on the notorious groupings that make up Jerusalem’s Old City. The city is visually divided into tribes. You can tell who belongs to which tribe immediately based on their clothing. The Palestinian women wore monochromatic pantsuits. Orthodox Jewish men were draped in black with their distinctive beards. Armenians tended toward traditional dress that complemented their blue eyes. We Americans were well-recognizable in our typical tourist attire. My black eye patch acted as a talisman of acceptance, or at least tolerance.
When I misstepped (literally) and bumped into someone, the automatic gesture of annoyance interrupted itself mid-expression and became a hand blessing. Jew, Muslim, Armenian concentrated to figure me out. Who was I? Why was I wearing a patch? I was no longer a Christian, American, Westerner. I was a chick in an eye patch. I will not forget the bright eyes of the Muslim boy who wanted to sit beside me on the stone steps to find out who I was, discover what this new and strange thing might be.
Within my own group, I shunned the obligatory souvenir photographs. Why did I want a reminder of this? But my friends clamored, “We need you in the picture!” and I relented. Now I have a photo of myself in a limestone café at the top of a hill in the Old City. A pensive look bathes my face, as if I were listening to the far-off call of the city. In the background, the Dome of the Rock gleams in the sun. It is, for me, the image of Jerusalem: a place where God was rendered human.
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.
At the foot of the Mud Island bridge runs a trolley. The trolley is painted a happy yellow and green. It toots across the street like a toy. But every day, when the trolley is approaching and the caution arm descending, people veer around the arm and scoot cross the track. This is the level of our collective sophistication: trying to “beat the trolley.”
In 1960, on a cold December night in Colorado Springs, my father was killed trying to beat the train. He was in a hurry, he had places to go. Only a short time before, the Western Slope of Colorado had been working alive with the uranium boom. That time had passed, but my dad still pursued uranium business on the Slope, still worked uranium leases. So when the red lights flashed, telling him to wait, he sped up instead.
Three years old at the time, crazy about my Daddy Joe, I was traumatized by his death. The experts actually call it “traumatic bereavement.” When death is sudden and violent, the horror of it all trumps the grief. The little girl is afraid to think about her Daddy Joe – hit by a train! – just as sure as she’s drawn to the lonesome whistle whine.
Before I understood the effects of traumatic grief, I would feel guilty when I reacted in kinship with the passing train. How could I love this roaring monster that killed my dad? Now I know: we love that which is left for us to love. So I wrote a novel, TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE, where the protagonist is a young women on a cross-country train trip coming to terms with the grief of losing her dad. It’s funny, this novel. But most things serious are.
So when folks look left and right, then scoot around the trolley arm, I wonder: what would your family think if you didn’t make it across? What if their grief was symbolized by a yellow and green toy trolley?Hit by the trolley!You can’t get much sillier than that.
Slow down. Wait. Lose your impatience. Don’t let death laugh at your passing.
I have been grappling with—what the hell, that makes it sound so sophisticated; I’ve been moping around the house wondering—the “Why?” question. Actually, it’s a “What?” question. What am I doing with my life right now that matters?
When I was facilitating the Door of HopeWriting Group, the answer to this question was easy: I’m bringing to a group of folks who might not otherwise have it a tool to understand and speak their truth into the world.
Even earlier, when Paraclete Press published Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, and I conducted ALL THOSE WORKSHOPS, I could tangibly see what I was doing: giving a tool to folks for them to better understand their relationship with God.
So, okay—maybe the problem is my history of “purpose” sets the bar kind of high.
Be that as it may, even when I was recording my short story collection, I knew exactly why I was doing it: to transition from everyone knowing me as “the cross lady” to seeing me as a fiction writer. And I paired the stories with charitable contributions, so all was good.
And—here’s the important part—that venture was laying the foundation for Something Big. For my novel. Which would be Full of Importance. Even if the Importance was wrapped in words and plot that were funny as hell. It would Matter.
But as my telescope narrows to focus on my own writing career, I’m getting lost. Yeah, TRACKING HAPPINESS has as a major theme being nice to chickens. Raise them humanely. Treat them like living animals sharing the planet with us. But still. It’s mostly funny. And fun. It’s not earth-shattering. Where is the “What?” of it?
Then I read this article entitled Teaching and Purpose by Jon Chopan on the Glimmertrain website sent to me by the Jane Friedman emails (total aside: her emails are great; if you’re a writer and don’t already get them, you should sign up.) Mr. Chopan said a lot of things (though the essay is mercifully short), but he quotes Tim Seibles as saying, “I certainly don’t want my poems to be in cahoots with the nightmare.”
I read this and thought, ahhh, that’s it: my purpose is to not be in cahoots with the nightmare. And it’s enough. (Are poets the smartest ones among us?) I can go with that. To gently ask us to be kind to chickens. To explicate grief rather than shoving it aside. To offer folks an escape, if just for a moment, from the grind of our lives. This I can do. Thank you, Jon Chopan and Tim Seibles. Thank you.
The smell of a Mississippi summer is a dirt and weed smell, hot and bitter and full of insect noises and blaring sunlight and popping grass seeds that scent the air black and loamy so that your mind wanders to your toes and the dirt below and the small things that crawl inside the cool dark earth. But, in a flash, the blazing sun will bring you back to your world, the human world above, where the heat churns the growing smell, packing it into layers that fill the spaces between the draping honeysuckle and the broad-leafed hydrangea, the needly pines and the big-headed poison oak. Acrid, stringent, porous—the smell comforts like a green stem broken, weeping into my fingers.
Rain won’t make the smell bow out. Heavy clouds only re-form the scent into an uplifted storm, flooded grass waving in clear water, backyard mounds of rain-slicked clay.
Or steam rising from baked concrete.
Or magnolia blossoms ringing through the newly-drenched night.
A smell that dense, you’d think it could never be lost, but you’d be wrong. Its stamp is easily washed away by years of moderate lands, civilized places, articulated loves. And even if it lingers and is remembered, too often the mind will interrupt, the curtain of smell will part, the knowledge of the Mississippi past will invade and the sweet, dirty perfume of my home state will evaporate into righteousness, severity and decay.
If I’m blessed by its return, it arrives, patient but thickening, to round and throb the air until it hovers like a Genie just outside my stretching fist, grasped and released, grasped and released. And when it is finally grasped, I’m called back again, into the pine trees of Sunday afternoon, thick old pines whose branches begin at scrambling height and whose trunks are scarred with rutted sap—hardened, milky, streaked with reality.
Up in the covering scent of the tree, I bend the rubbery branches until I can peer inside the green cones flowering with yellow pollen, then sit back into the vee and pick the layers of bark—crumpled and pleated on top, smooth as gray slate beneath—and drop them through the branches to the lacerated ground below.
Hot pine straw. Heated brambles. Lightly fluttering mimosa gowns.
Mississippi, come back to me, quickly, this summer.
(I’m gonna credit WKNO-Memphis for first airing this essay, though for the life of me I can’t remember if they did or not. Happy Summer!)