Thursday, February 2, 2017

SCHOOL JANITORS

We were talking of the early school-starts yesterday  morning, Chris and I, speaking loudly from adjoining rooms, after he'd read me a line in his book which perfectly captured the scent of the penned-up energy of small humanity, and both those subjects segued us into our own memories of those echoing halls and all the sounds and scents and colors.   He mentioned the floor cleaner that we both remember so well---the canful of crumbly, rubbery stuff scattered before the janitor’s broom to quell the dust from all those playground feet.

His words in blue; the rest are mine---even in Mid-sentence sometimes, for we finish each other's thoughts and sentences all the time.

It came in a big paper/cardboard barrel, with a metal lid that fit around the edges with a levered cammed strap that popped into place to hold the lid on.




It was the scent of looking down the cool-shaded hall, where the smell rose from the wooden floors and enveloped your senses in an invisible pink---almost a pepto-bismol---aura, like that pink coin candy that came in a wrapped stack like a roll of quarters.    The flavors were not exactly like any real flavors, but there was a pink coin in there that was a cross between pepto-bismol and the smell of that floor cleaner. 



He was speaking of Necco wafers, long-lived Edsels of the candy-world---crinkly-tubed flat things, with none of their dusty pastels flavored as they looked, but rather like succeeding pale whiffs of the mysterious nostrum bottles behind Leon’s drugstore counter.

The crumbly red compound with the consistency of slightly wet sawdust had the smell of that pink candy rising from it like heat.

The janitor was a person of consequence at the school---not like a teacher or an administrator, but a person with power of unspoken things.     You could look over into the can, and see the gallon can he’d gone to the lunchroom and got---the label was still on, from the cut green beans or peach halves.    He used the can to scoop out a canful, and then grabbed handfuls of it and strewed it down the halls like a farmer throwing crack-corn to his chickens.  He would cover a length of the hall with a good dusting of this stuff, then start the sweeping, manning a big wide push-broom.



He’d start pushing, leaning into the broom, sweeping always toward the door in the hall, sweeping into the light, and as the little grains like coffee grounds gathered the dust in upon themselves, the floor was magically clean in those just-swept rows, like the tracks of a very close lawnmower.

Mr. Book was erasing all the scuff-marks and tracks and spills, with all those old erasers, eradicating those traces for one more day.

Image result for old wood-plank floor

Then when he got to the end of the hall, he’d take a big flat piece of cardboard he’d cut from a box, and scoop it up onto the cardboard, and when he’d picked up everything he could trap, he’d wide-sweep all the rest out the big doors, giving a big hard swack or two on the threshold to dislodge the last of the crumbs.


On some days, especially hot ones, you’d approach the school doors and get a big whiff of the rubbery-mint scent under your feet, like someone crunching one of those flat dusty candies had blown his breath in your face.

The floorboards were a bit wider than the ones in the gym, and dark and oily like the planks at the feed-store; they looked like they’d been worn down by the shoes of centuries, and it’s just possible that by the time the school had been there for a few more years, the floors would have been worn through entire, completed by the sanding of those crumbs.
Image result for floor sweeping compound

I always thought the stuff was all the old ground-up erasers from every school that there was, thrown useless into the trash with a tick onto paper, or a plink into the bottom,  then picked up all over the country and retrieved from the bottoms of countless big brown metal cans in unknown classrooms.    I had visions of all the inch-pencils, too short to hold, with their erasers being hulled out with a little twisting motion, like the wrist-twist to release an oyster from its shell. 


Where this big universal grinder was, nobody knew, but it turned out great barrels of the rubbery-mint crumbs.    Who EVER saw or smelled anybody using that particular stuff in a doctor’s office or a bank?   It must have been manufactured exclusively for schools, and made to erase that unmistakable chalk/gum/hot-puppy odor of children.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

MISS PEG---STARDUST.



Miss Peg Ogletree has a little place just outside of town, on the old homeplace owned by her family for generations. She’s the last of the lot now, with her only brother lost in Vietnam at nineteen---just three months between the time he stepped off that plane into the smothering heat, and the time his metal box was slid into the cargo hold of another for the trip home.

Chunks of the farm have been sold off bit by bit when times got hard in years past, slowly eroding the borders down to the twenty acres surrounding the house and creek like edges of a melting floe, until only her small island of green and flowers was left. She owns the place, free and clear, along with four dogs, a windmill pump, two tractors, a ten-year-old red GMC pickup and a little waterfall brimming the creek.

She is a wiry, wire-haired Sixtyish woman, in loose-butted jeans and a checked shirt smelling of Ivory Snow and clothesline drying; she scrapes her flyaway hair back in a severe ponytail every morning, pinning the ends under into a neat bun, but by day’s end, after seeing to the chores all day, running the little tractor with the bush-hog for cutting the several-acre lawn, chasing two escaped chickens out of the melon-patch, and hoeing out the pole beans and the squash hills, the springy tendrils have escaped and sprung into a sunlit silver halo around her head. Her skin is sun-browned, with an astonishing lack of wrinkles for her age and her outdoor activities; her eyes are a backlit icy blue, with a glint of interest and easy amusement.

She plays the old gap-toothed piano which sits in the end of her dining room---the old foot-patting Baptist Hymns, smooth waltzes from times ago, like Let me Call you Sweetheart and The Band Played On and Que Sera, Sera, and always, the piece that she played in her Senior Recital in High School. It was her Daddy’s favorite, and he had whistled the tune almost every day of her life, as he drove through the fields, moved irrigation pipe, worked in his workshop.
Mr. Ogletree would enter the auditorium hat in hand, nodding to friends and neighbors. He’d take an aisle seat on the far back row, just waiting out the first dozen or so pupils, enduring the 1-2-3 Waltz and the Mexican Hat Dance and, if there happened to be a boy amongst the performers, there was sure as shootin’ to be a startling version of Halls of Montezuma never before heard by any Marine living or fallen in battle. So far, Mr. Ogletree had heard nine of those interpretations, and winced every time for the battering of the notes and the tempo.

He’d squirm a bit in the hard flip-seat where he’d sat in his own schooldays, waiting for the moment she’d appear in the light of the stage---his GIRL.

And all those lessons, all that practice with the repetition of the same drilled scales competing with the sounds of What’s My Line and Lawrence Welk, all the recital dresses commissioned twice a year or shopped for in TOWN by her Mama with the discrimination and care of selecting a wedding gown, all the times she’d needed ferrying to Mrs. Carpenter’s house for Saturday lessons---those moments all melted into a shine surrounding his Girl, as she smiled and sat down and began to play. Just for him.

It was Stardust, all nine pages of the special arrangement, all learned in afternoons and Saturdays and times when her Daddy was out of the house, practiced furtively, with the pages of music whisked immediately away into her sock drawer so he would be surprised at the performance.

And he was---he sat there looking down that long straight center aisle at her in the golden light of the stage, as she played the first few notes, drinking in the melody of a song he’d only heard on the radio and television. And played, for HIM, by his child. No one noticed when he reached unobtrusively into his hip pocket for his handkerchief, or when he wiped his eyes.

It was a moment of moments in his life, one of those experiences seared into his consciousness with the golden hue which had surrounded his meeting her Mother, and of Peg’s own birth.

And years later, as his family gathered around his bed for his last moments, the strains of Stardust drifted into the room, as softly as the Spring wind stirring the pale curtains---his Peg at the piano, playing her Daddy Home.


 Marty Kittrell photo

MISS PEG OGLETREE



Long before Miss Peg Ogletree was the star member of Mrs. Carpenter’s music pupils, long before she spent countless secret hours learning STARDUST by heart, so her Daddy would be surprised she’d learnt his favorite song for her Senior Recital, and even longer before she was left on her own on to maintain the little family place, she was a long-legged little girl, lively as quicksilver, and special even then.


When she was in first grade, she was smart and clever, learning her Arithmetic and Writing in a flash, and always bringing in her take-home pages in her neater-than-most printing. She loved Rhythm Band day, hoping ever for the triangle amongst all those red clacky sticks and the maracas and scratchy boards, and when the Music Teacher sat down at the piano, Peg was too rapt looking at those graceful, competent hands on the keys to much mind her own instrument.


And when her Mama took her to her first Piano Recital that May, in a stiff-starched little dress and her wire-spring hair painstakingly smoothed down with Tame and four barrettes, she was absolutely transported.

She asked her Daddy that very night if she could take piano lessons, and she was “taken on” for the Summer, going into town two days a week for lessons at Mrs. Carpenter’s house, to “see if her heart's in it,”---Mrs. C’s euphemism for “if she can learn the notes, practice and listen to what I teach her.”


Peggy was admitted that next Fall into the two dozen or so of Mrs. Carpenter’s regular pupils, and the half hours at twelve-thirty on Mondays and Thursdays were some of her favorite moments of the week. She learned the names of the notes and their positions on the staff in the first week’s time, practicing without any prompting on the already-old piano which had belonged to her Aunt Idell when she was a little girl.

And her Heart WAS in it---she wanted to Play, she wanted to Make Music, and she wanted above all to play like Mrs. Carpenter.

For an unprecedented thing had happened at that first Spring Recital---instead of just the steady plod of the beginners, then the flow, then the beautiful rush of the progressively more practiced students, there was a special
treat. Mrs. Carpenter herself walked onto the stage at the end of the little intermission. She told the audience that in honor of her late Mother’s hundredth birthday, she was going to play her Mom’s favorite song, Rustle of Spring.


The windows of that big old creaky-floored school auditorium were open, and the muggy air lay on them all like a wet flannel sheet; the buzz-bugs circled the room in the stage-lights like mini-buzzards, and a dozen little girls in stiff taffeta-and-net dresses squirmed in shiny discomfort as Mrs. C. touched that much-pounded keyboard and brought forth something that room and most of those folks had never heard.
 

She usually stood in the wings, her beige lace mother-of-the-groom dress stretched tight over her vast bosom as she counted out the time the children SHOULD have been playing. They had all heard her play at church, or during a little section of their lessons to give them the proper example, but this was Magic.

THIS---this was water falling and leaves swirling and fairies dancing; it was like a MidSummer Night’s Dream, with Titania and Oberon peeking out from behind those dusty maroon curtains, with that enchanted forest misty on the stage, and all those whimsical creatures arrayed behind trees and looking down from the foliage---just from being inside the encompassing circle of that perfect piece of music.








And from that day on, Miss Peg’s heart was in it.


SUMMER SAVORS



Sweetpea and I have been missing our warm-weather walks and activities.   We were just talking of popsicles in the shade last night.   What a lovely phrase, that, conjuring moments of childhood and memories in the making.   As we sat on the patio with our break-and-share treats, I told her about the trips to the little corner store for a fresh popsicle---none of us could have comprehended the actual having of a popsicle in our own freezers---that would have been like harboring a fairy or Batman actually at your house.   Usually two of us would troop along together, knowing the flavor would depend on who-had-the-nickel, for buyer got to choose.    One of us would grasp the whole thing firmly in our two hands, wrapper still on, and gently give that little wrist-snap which divided it into its two lovely intended halves.   There's a purpose to a popsicle, aside from the cold sweet refuge on a Summer day---they're MEANT to be shared.   They're incised in the exact spot which physics dictates as just right, and when they snap with that vague little crunch, and one half is handed to a friend, it's a charming Childhood Communion, with a satisfaction of anticipation and of companionship not available in a cupcake or plate of cookies.

One of us would usually "keep the paper," to catch errant drips, then we'd walk out and amble home, enjoying our treat, trying to capture every escaping drop as the hundred degrees of the day worked its will on the melting ice, running the colors down our elbows as we walked in that careful forward tilt to keep the stains from our clothes.

I told Sweetpea about REAL screen doors---the flappy kind, with the strong, faithful spring which smacked the door behind you (or you in the behind) as you went in and out, to a Mama-chorus of "Don't slam the door!" all up and down the block.   The cunning little flip-latch was a bit of a mystery as I described it, until I made a little flat circle, thumb and forefinger, and hooked the other index into it, pantomiming lock.


She certainly knows "picnic table," with the attached benches, for they're in every park, but they're so well maintained that she hasn't had the full experience---the brush-off-the-bird-poo, swing one leg over, then slide your shorts-clad skin gently along to get settled, without getting a splinter or flake of paint into your hide.   Those old tables were for EVERYTHING (I will not mention the year-round fish-cleaning which went on at the one between our house and the next, for it put me off seafood for life).   

We sat at those tables for picnics, for cookouts.    We read and embroidered and did little crafts-of-the-day, scrolling our names or initials on notebooks with the names of various boys over the years, never daring to incise them into the wood of the table like that daring and slightly-trashy Opal-in-the-eighth-grade did---she of the grubby rhinestone jewelry and black suede ankle-strap high-heels-for-school.   Our Mamas would have been mortified.   

We carried our little phonographs out there and spun the same Elvis record until somebody's parent (not necessarily our own) shouted "Play something ELSE!" through the window-screen.     We had tea parties and did homework and drew maps to great treasure, and those old boards heard young secrets and dreams, and felt the splash of many a teenage tear.

The heat of the day was often assuaged a bit when whichever  kid belonged to the backyard would go into the house and make KoolAid.   It was the real thing, as well, requiring a cup of sugar into the pitcher with the nose-filling doooost of the powder.    A big long stir, the crickkkk and clunnnkkkk of a twisted ice-tray, and grabbing of whatever glasses or cups were allowed out into the yard.    My favorites were these:
Holding those thin, flash-freezy aluminum cylinders in your hand, rolling them across your reddened, blazing forehead, holding them to a sunburnt cheek---the relief was blessedly soothing.    And even as the ice melted, the glasses seemed to stay miraculously cold, as the last sweet dregs were uptipped and swallowed. 
 



Sometimes we'd all troop down to the store with its own clackety door, and an even-more-adamant command not to slam---over the years that screen billowed and stretched, prey to a thousand knees and elbows, with the Nehi or Hires or Coca Cola handplate wearing to rust.   Outside of touristy Kountry Kitcheny places or old plank-floor originals, who of today could imagine a place of business with an actual screen door? 
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First, there was a trip over to the old Coke 'case" with the uplift of that heavy lid carrying the scent of galvanized metal, the deep rich tire-store smell of the black rubber gasket, and the somehow-salty scent of the ice-floating water within.   

We never grabbed a standing bottle by its neck---if it was sticking out of the water, it wasn't cold enough.   We'd fish deep into those Arctic depths, feeling the shock on our immersed hand, letting the pure-D bone-chill and then the ache of the fumbling set our hand on fire with the deadening.     

And despite the hundred-grubby-hands-a-day jooged down into that water, and the probable rarity of a good cleaning for the whole thing, we never bothered to dry the bottles or wipe off the moisture, and I don't think anyone ever caught anything from it.    A WISSSSSP past the opener, hoping that the almost-freeze of the drink didn't cause it to foam up and waste a drop in overflow, and then those first upended burning swallows.    Nothing can describe it; nothing can equal it.

And sometimes, just sometimes, if you'd been really good, or played your cards right, or the planets were aligned, you could hold your bottle up to the sun and actually watch the drink freeze---top to bottom, as "the air hit it."     And THAT was the prize---that primeval Slushie unattainable in any other fashion, coveted and enjoyed down to the last little crumb of ice coaxed and bottle-smacked into your head-flung-back mouth.


We've gotta find one of those stores, and perhaps as soon as she's a little older, Ganner will bring home some little glass-bottle cokes, we'll chill them super-cold, and I'll teach her the true ritual of Summer:   Peanuts in her Coke.


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EVENING IN PARIS


The breathtaking blue of a bottle on Meme’s Corner yesterday kindled a whole delicious cascade of memories of another time.   A windows-open sunny late afternoon in a hot, close house, with the odors of recently fried fish, a cut lemon, a sweet flurry of Coty face powder.

It’s my very favorite shade of blue, for it's the color of the little pointy bottle of Evening in Paris with the small tassel, which the neighbor girl (a senior when I was in first grade) let me dab behind my ears a couple of times.   The bottle, scarce half-size of my Mother’s fountain pen,  was quite the most covetable, incongruously luminous thing in that dumpy little house.

She lived in a small room off the little hall, in a most unusual house.   Her Daddy was a retired railroad foreman, and he’d taken two boxcars, set them on those lacking-a-point concrete pyramids which formed the supports for so many of the small houses in every town I knew, and made a kitchen/dining room/living room down one side, and three bedrooms and a bath down the other, with windows cut and framed and glassed, and no doors on any of the inside rooms but the bath.    They’d put a sort of peaky roof on the thing, and the roof and entire structure were covered in that sandy, several-shades-of-brown fake brick stuff with the texture of a super-coarse emery board.

Her room was the smallest, for when the long space was divided, parents and brother got kind of equal shares, with the last space split into her room and the bath.    Her bed took up most of the space, and was placed squarely across the closet---the only place in the room that wouldn’t block the door.   She had to stand on her bed, or pull it out enough to stand behind it, butt-bumping the bed, in order to hang up or get down any of her clothes.   She said she was really little when they “built the house” and I suppose the menfolks in charge of the design gave no thought of that small girl’s growing up to need more than an 8x8 room.


The only other item of furniture in the room was a dresser---one that I longed to duplicate, for it was immensely beautiful to my girly-girl heart.   My own room had a bedroom “suit” consisting of bed (the one I later took a saw to and shortened the posts), chest of drawers, and dresser in that old thirties style of the big mirror set between two little wings, with a center shelf thing that allowed no foot or knee room to sit close to the mirror.

Helen had made her own dresser, of a wooden box on its side, opening facing out for knee room and access to shelves, with a curvy piece of plywood (also cut by her with her Uncle Booster’s hand-saw).   She’d taken the satin and net of her Aunt Maude's big pink evening-dress skirt from her Eastern Star Installation, and tacked it somehow around front and sides of the curve of plywood to form a lovely dresser-skirt. 

I’m sure the vision in that country-girl’s heart was possibly straight from this:





which caused her to tackle hammer and nails and make herself just One Beautiful Thing in that cramped gingham room.   Her small homemade version shone in such dull quarters, and a seat on the bed was the only access to the table.  

  How I loved those words---Dresser-Skirt.   I yearned for the wonderful crackly pink cloud to cover my own old brown dresser, and also mightily wanted some of the ribbon and tulle from the couple of dozen dried corsages festooned around her bulletin board with pearl-beaded pins.  

Despite the small size and meager d├ęcor, I thought her room to be absolute heaven.   And she never seemed to get impatient with my presence---she let me watch her wash her hair on Saturday mornings, standing at the linoleum-covered kitchen counter with a small white red-rimmed pan, filled from the battered old “tea-kittle” of the same pattern.  She rolled her wet hair onto cigarette papers bobby-pinned flat onto her head til she resembled my rubber-flowered bathing cap.   By evening, the curls had dried, and were combed out into a shining do around her head---a perfectly smooth, satiny cap in the back, with a halo of luxuriantly bouncing thick hair curved just so, and a finger-waved flip of bangs on the right.   




I was surprised when I googled "permanent of the fifties" and got this old magazine ad.  I'd noticed back then that she looked so much like Virginia Mayo, but this---this is Helen to the life, right down to the forehead wave, eyebrow arch and perfectly-blotted lipstick.   Exactly as I remember her.
She'd let me watch her get ready for a date---pulling on her stockings with the little snub of the rubber clips on her garter-belt, putting on her lipstick, smoothing all around her mouth with her little finger and a blot of toilet paper, and THEN the opening of that fragrant padded box where the "perfume" lived. 

  The box was an ashy-pink quilted satin thing, with little compartments inside, where she kept a couple of lipsticks, a tangle of earrings, a bottle or two of Cutex red-red polish, and that enchanting cobalt blue bottle of Evening in Paris, with the small silky tassel draped up and over the divider of the box. 





That exotic little bottle was elegant and dainty, cool and smooth and regal in my hand, and the simple honor of holding it was a thrill of my little-girl life.


The delicious scent was doled out sparingly, precious as frankincense.   Just a fingertip pressed tightly to the tee-ninecy mouth of the bottle, then touched behind both ears while the finger was still damp.    I don’t think I had any concept of feeling “grown up,” but I felt like the very best ME, transported from those end-of-day grubby shorts and shirt, filthy bare feet from who-knows-where, hair flying and nails bitten, to someone made welcome and worthwhile by that kind young woman, and feeling elegant and lovely in that sweet-scented aura.





I’d love to smell that beloved fragrance again, or hold that cool slim blue bottle in my hand.




Tuesday, January 31, 2017

PAXTON PARTIES


 



When Marguerite Roseberry married the oldest Ellis boy, after she finished at Mississippi Southern and he was going for his CPA at State, the ladies of the town gave several nice parties to honor the young couple.

One of the fetes was a Cocktail Supper, out at ShadyLawn on Quinn Bayou Road, at the big old family home of the Meltons---four couples went in together and threw the party. Sissy and Perk Covington, of course, as the Melton’s nearest neighbors, and the Kings and the Heafners.

They hired a lot of the food from a nice woman who worked out of her home kitchen, and had done a lot of the local parties, and they all went in together on the Marinated Shrimp and the Tenderloin in Yeast Rolls and the Caviar/Avocado mold, but the hostesses all contributed a dish or two of their own. Something about the Kitchen-Pride of a Southern Woman just WILL NOT let her set down all “Bought Food” for a gathering she’s hostess of, NO MATTER HOW GOURMET OR HOMEMADE IT IS. 


Now Sam's food, and Costco food---those are exceptions---those lovely croissants and Bagel Bites and the paper-thin salmon or already-cut little perfect cheese cubes (in three flavors) (with flags!) are quite acceptable, right out of the packages. Other stuff needs gussying up a little bit, like Miss Sandra would counsel---just pouring the small marinated Mozzarella balls into a pretty glass dish isn't quite right---you need to toss in some shiny grape tomatoes, to take away the "bought" look. 
And a pound cake, snapped right out of the clear plastic store box, flipped upside down on a cakestand and anointed with some lemon and powdered-sugar glaze, run all down to pool on the plate for even more of a homemade effect---now THAT you could set down as Preacher Food, anytime.

And so Sissy made a big platter of Crab Rollups, with cream cheese and green onion tops and a big black pound can of Phillips crabmeat, all stirred together with a clop of Blue Plate and some powdered garlic. She spread it on big flour tortillas and rolled them up, snugging them into a 9x13 pyrex with waxed paper between the layers. They needed to sit overnight in the fridge under damp Vivas to get the flavors just right, and firm up the filling.

On the afternoon of the party, she cut all the uneven ends off the tortillas, then cut them in half, half again, and then once again, to make eight neat pinwheels. She laid them in pretty rows around a big clear fish-shaped platter she had bought right out of the cold case when the folks at Piggly Wiggly realized how above themselves they had got for such a small town, so they’d closed down the seafood department and sold off all the equipment.

She put a clump of frilly parsley down on the tail-end, and arranged about a dozen tiny red crawfish claws in the green cushion---when Perk went to get a plate of crawfish off the hot buffet at the Super Lucky Eight several weeks before, Sissy told him to pick out some with some good-sized claws. She had yanked off the biggest of the tee-ninecy claws, and stashed them in a napkin for the trip home, where she rinsed them off and stashed them in a baggie in the freezer.

Sissy just feels like she should warn whatever folks need warning that there’s SEAFOOD in there.  And it’s real pretty.

LOVE




And LOVE to all who enter here. The brick is not one of those garden-shop inspirational ones, those with sweet sayings and mottos like Gratitude or Peace or Hope, though I do have several of those scattered about. This old fellow is from back in the late 1800’s---it is the last relic of the small-town school which my Sis and I attended.

It was torn down quite some years ago, after sitting fallow for a time, as the passing years and idle hands created a shambles in its once-filled insides. The building’s eyes, once witness to so much boisterous chatter and lively goings-on, were stone-broken and empty, victim to time and the laughing vandalism of the young---the shards of glass scattered onto the pathways and sidewalks, and onto the small desks inside, still bolted into their face-the-front tableau.

I thought of it over the years, site of all my childhood learning, place of Magellan and Paraguay and Pi,school to my grandparents, my Dad, my own generation of cool cats and Elvis and sweet flirtations in passing hallways, of droning hot afternoons in study hall or class, the wasp-whuzz against the panes as lulling in the heat as Mr. Adams’ monotone in right-after-lunch Math.

When the school was demolished, Sis bought all the hardwood from the gym floor, those pale golden inch-wide planks of our playing field with its echoes of thundering feet, cheering crowds of long-still voices as loud still as the echoes from the Circus Maximus. And Daddy got us each a brick---it was a school legend that kissing beneath or pressed against one of the few out-facing ones with the word LOVE visible on it was almost as good as a Promise Ring---you were steadies thenceforth.

And it’s a wonder that there was an imprint left, for it was Good Luck to run your fingers across one on Exam Day or Finals or that quiz you didn’t study for. Or to grant your wishes that Jimmy Parsons would ask YOU to the after-game dance. I imagined that the grooves of the L and the E looked a bit shallow over the years, eroded by countless finger-smoothings to little shallow wells, and the O a small cup in the brick.
Click to blow it up---let LOVE fill your screen. See the little remnants of mortar in the letters---this fellow probably spent his life lying down between his comrades, laid square and true into the pattern, holding up the whole. And so, no fingermarks, no touches from hopeful small hands, no light-of-day until the wrecking-ball smashed so many of the long-standing bricks, and left mine to fall untouched into the pile. It seems that "my" brick might have been part of a corner of the building, for there's a paler rim around two sides---the deep purple of the face still the dark of the clay and firing, and the two small strips of "frame" could have been rain and sun-bleached into a lighter shade.
We never gave a thought that the word DIDN’T carry happy wishes; the pure commercial aspect that it might be the name of the brick company never entered our romantic little heads. OUR school said LOVE, and even the folks listed as “VISITORS” on the big bright scoreboard would stroll over and touch the word for luck.
And before a game, any game---or even before they boarded the old yellow bus to go to another town for a game, the players all scrambled down the backside of the building, giving a rub to the "V" for VICTORY. It was like the run down the line on the field, slapping the hands of teammates for luck. I'd love to see one of THOSE bricks today, smoothed into a valley by all those rough farmboy hands.
I think about who might have touched it---was it Daddy's teenage hands, so callused at his young age, from the work on the farm? Perhaps my own Grandmother, a blushing young girl whose schooldays ended in the eighth grade, or one of my dear Aunts, beautiful in their teen years, humbled by their homemade clothes and passed-down shoes, and all inspired to do better in their later lives, as they grew into even more beautiful strong, smart women, with dash and flair and lovely outfits and perfume. Was it a young man of my own generation or a hopeful girl I knew, gently tracing the letters, with a wish upon each? 

And so I spent my schooldays, in those hot, frozen-in-time, ever-changing days of the evolving South, going every day into those doors, to the scents of chalk and childhood, to be embraced and sheltered by thousands of graven images of LOVE.


SOUTHERNISMS



Do come and sit at our table---you're welcome any time. The coffeepot stands ready, the tea kettle can reach a cheery boil in the time it takes to reach down a teapot, and there's usually something sweet in one cake dome or another.

You may or may not understand the language, for it's foreign to many of our visitors, at least the first time---we speak Southern, and it translates easily.

Some of the things you hear may be:

I Wishta gosh-----I do sincerely hope.

I hopeta shout----- I couldn’t agree more; it's as fervent as my hope of Heaven.

Hind Wheels of Destruction-----My first MIL’s description of either a messy house or the looks of a lady whose grooming left something to be desired.

Omtombow-----I am speaking of . . .

Hissy fit-----Angry outburst ranging from actual hissing at the object of wrath, when others may overhear, to a screeching, plate-throwing tantrum. Usually indulged in by females, but a Good Ole Boy, who has witnessed these all his life, may surprise you with quite a creditable one of his own, on occasion. Such as being on a charter boat and having the marlin get clean away. With his $700 Star Chair Rod.

Screamin’ heenie-----Ditto, but starts out full-blown, without any of the hissy buildup.

Slick over cloudy-----Raining and gonna get worse.

Come up a wind-----Started to storm.

Commenceta rainin’-----Began to rain, especially spoken by someone WAY out in the field when the storm started.

Takin’ on-----Crying or wailing or gnashing of teeth.

Don’t let on-----Do not dare speak of what I just told you.

Havin' a Dog in the fight-----An interest beyond curiosity in whatever’s happening. If the proceedings will affect you personally, you can complain, speak up, or sue. Otherwise, hush up about it.

Lit a shuck-----Ran fast, usually AWAY from something. Paralleled by Bat-outa-Hell.

Puttin’ on the dawg-----Putting on airs; or dressing, entertaining, or purchasing beyond your means.

Puttin’ the big pot in the little one-----Entertaining a big crowd.

Might could-----Perhaps I’ll be able to.

Ditten GO to-----Did not meant to.

Don't know Pea Turkey-----Has absolutely no knowledge of the person, place, happening or idea. (but is usually willing to talk lengthily about it, anyway)

Ain't seen Hide nor Hair of him-----Have not been in his presence, nor have I even waved at him in the road

A Coon's Age-----A LONG time, as referenced by the supposed years of a long-lived raccoon. Spoken mainly to someone you haven't seen in a while----Why, I haven't seen YOU in a coon's age.

Drunk as Cooter Brown-----WAY past inebriated, up into the territory of the mythical (or factual) Cooter, who seems to be the epitome of tosspots

Great Day in the Morning!-----Exclamation of surprise, shock, or admiration, depending in inflection

Shine-----Moonshine---the clear, distilled corn squeezin's sold in quart jars from the back of pickups. Usually in the dark.

I DO declare!-----Exclamation of mild astonishment. I'd totally forgotten the froufraw when my Sis' college roomate was all up in arms that her Not-from-the-South Sister-in-Law was about to name the new baby niece Heidi Claire. Poor thing just didn't know. I don't remember how that came out.

I Swannee!-----I DO declare, but exasperated

You DO beat all-----Also depends on the inflection and voice---can be a form of approval, in expressing admiration or thanks. In an exasperated tone---getting close to ON MY LAST NERVE.

Which brings us to various levels of anger:

There's spittin' mad, and there's "it flew all over me," and there's "I could just pinch his head off," as well as "so mad I could fly." REALLY bad occasions are reserved for "I could just go to bed and eat Velveeta right out of the box."

And Chris' personal favorite: The famous last words of Good Ole Boys:

"HEY, Y'ALL!!  WA-CHIS!!"

G. R. I. T. S.

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I just have so much to say about my raising and outlook and cooking, and who taught me, and all the wonderful Southern cooks and writers and farmers and woodcrafters and just plain good folks who've been such a part of my life and all that I am.

And one question, which always arises: Grits. And people also have a great curiosity about G.R.I.T.S Girls---not Magnolia Blossoms or Sweet Potato Queens. G.R.I.T.S.--- acronym for Girls Raised In The South, the down-home, Southern-raised group of women whose company and goodwill have been such a part of life as I've known it. My own membership is a treasured thing, indeed. G.R.I.T.S. Girls (and Guys, if they're lucky) are of a Southern State of MIND, not geography. They are be-mannered at birth, born to be gracious, social, tolerant of others' foibles, and just a tad bit short-tempered with foolishness and unkindness.

They may be young or old, hair ranging from whalespout wisps to blue once-a-week helmets sprayed into submission at their Standing Appointment. They almost all own pearls, gloves, compacts, and several sturdy purses. Hats are optional, though the G.R.I.T.S set probably own as many feathery sweeps and veiled toques as the Royal Families of Europe, and wear them with more panache, as well.

They can take their French manicures straight home from the salon and plunge right into that bowl of buttermilk chicken, flour it up and fling it in that skillet beside the pot of collards as well as they can sashay their satin-clad selves into a country club, the Opera House or the White House. Dirt under those fancy nails just means they've been in the tomato patch or the rosebed or the horse-stall, but they clean up REALLY well.

They have a zest for life, for literature, for Family and Friends; both are legion and necessary. Countless generations are remembered and celebrated; Grandma's necklace is a lovely accent to Granddaughter's wedding dress, and the newest new member of the clan is welcomed with her own add-a-pearl and a whispered word of womanly wisdom in her tiny ear. The littlest ones know to say, "Yes, Ma'am" and keep their skirts down and their knees together on their trikes...they aspire to be cheerleaders and doctors, mothers and teachers, writers and world-fixers, and usually achieve any and all of those, and much more.

And G.R.I.T.S. of both genders usually have a home-learned knowledge of Nature and the hows and wherefores of where their food comes from. They see the fields---from Spring, when the tillers are crawling the land, sending out that primal earthy scent of First Turning---to the last plowing-in of the Fall-brown stems shorn of their bounty, ground into the land for enrichment during the long cold days.

We know that meat does not spring from the Earth wrapped in plastic, and have witnessed the hard facts of raising and getting those hams and sides of beef into the freezer, have hefted a deer carcass onto the hanger for skinning, and can cook all the above in more ways than Emeril. Quite a few of the G.R.I.T.S. contingent are proficient at bringing down game for the table, having received their first small rifles when most kids are still clamoring for Elmo or Barbie, and more than a few of the female persuasion can outshoot all the males at any Huntin’ Camp.

Tiny girls in the smallest-size camo are proudly loaded into pickups to ride happily out with Daddy for a day at the deer stand or duck blind, taking their own places and turns at very young ages. Nobody messes with a woman holding a 30-aught-six, and many a 12-gauge stands in a closet behind the sweeping skirts of a prom dress. Some with the credentials of breeding and a family older’n dirt get away with owning their own assault rifles.

Martinis and Mystery, Chanel and Chainsaws, Satin and Skillets, White Gloves and Workboots---all are part of a G.R.I.T.S. Girl's makeup, along with good manners, kitchen knowledge, love of animals and the outdoors, luxurious perfume and scandalous underwear and perhaps a good knock of bourbon on occasion. Florence King is the Queen of writing about G.R.I.T.S. and Belles and all manner of Southern Womanhood; Fannie Flagg is an absolute genius with a golden gift for dialogue and character and scene, as well---her Idgie Threadgoode will live on as long as Scarlett O’Hara in the minds of female readers---just as memorable and smarter, besides.

My friend Klary lives over in Amsterdam, but her picture of a fried drumstick, properly marinated in buttermilk, Tabasco, etc., then cooked to the perfect golden-brown, perfect shattery crust, is worthy of any Below-the-M/D-cook in possession of her Mammaw's black skillet and a leftover cotillion corsage.

And G-girls sure DO say “BUTT,” but most of the ones I know say "Bee-hind." In exigent circumstances, they say "ass"---pronouncing it "ice"---as in "Dayum, Bobby Ray! Get your sorry ice in this house 'fore the neighbors see you!"

It's a soothing, sizzling Sisterhood, and location is no deterrent to membership. It's all in the outlook.


MISS EVVIE'S HAMBURGERS

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All this rich Thanksgiving fare gave us a crave for a plain old hamburger off the grill last night, and so that’s what we had, with a nostalgic delve into a hokey Harryhausen movie “The Magic Sword,” fondly remembered by Chris from his teens.  Nothing like childhood memories all at once to set you up for the holiday season.

There's a wonderful article on Slugburgers by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, Mississippi's famous writer of articles-on-all-things-both-arcane-and-interesting. I read it several years ago, and it featured sounds, sights, smells, tastes, reactions and aftereffects of her first and only exposure to Corinth's most famous culinary creation. 

It was a lovely bit of writing, bringing to life every greasy, salty, mustard-clad bite. You could almost hear her arteries begin to harden.

My raisin' was in the Delta, and we had never heard of the "hill" folks' delicacy, though our local Milk Bar---guess we were too rural for a complete "Dairy" title--sold something similar. The little one-room building, whitewashed all around, had so many items and prices printed backward in white shoe polish on the INSIDE of the windows that you could barely see the workers within. You walked up to the little screen-flap window, picked your poison from the long list of cholesterol, paid your money, and promptly had the screen slammed down as the cashier turned to yell your order at the frycook standing two feet away.

The refrigerator door was opened to reveal several tall stacks of half-inch pink checkers, each separated by a small square of tornoff waxed paper. Heaven knows WHAT was massaged into that “ground beef” before the final patties were formed---last week’s unused buns, all crumbled into one last effort of use-it-up economy, or the last lingering heels of every employee’s loaf of Wonder Bread at home, brought in to stretch the “bought stuff” into more than it was. It coulda been oatmeal or even grits---we didn’t care.

One of these pink coins was grabbed by the paper and slapped upside down on the grill. The hot, dusty parking-lot air began to fill with the tongue-aching scent of sizzling meat as the cook threw two bun halves into the grease deposited by decades of burgers. And the not-quite-mixed bread-and-meat goo began to cook at different rates, different reactions of sizzle, so that each bite of the burger might offer a different taste and texture.


I remember the soft center section, the part that would’ve been rare had the patty not been so thin and the grill-cook not so watchful---that part was unctuously creamy with moist meat and soggy bread. And it was tempting to eat all way round the circle first, to get the mouthfuls of the crisp edges with their crunchy taste of meaty, grease-crisped croutons, or the almost country-fried-steak effect of all that bread mixed in and sizzled on the flat-top. 

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It never mattered to the cook if you got two tops or two bottoms, bun was bun; you didn't care either---you just wanted that sizzling and frying and mustard-smearing to be done, with a nice slice of onion and a coupla rings of salty dills slapped on. The meat, by this time, had been spatula-smashed with all the weight of Miss Evvie's muscular right arm, flowering into a bun-sized, thin circle with crisp, lacy edges. Greasy spatula saluted top of bun, the lot went into a crisp crackle of waxy paper with the fancy pinked edges, and you received your prize, seizing it to your bosom like a holy relic.
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You backed away, averting your eyes from the waiting hordes, lest they lose control and wrest your long-awaited treasure from you. A clink of coins into the machine around the corner, the sissssssss of an ice-filled Dr, Pepper, and you retreated to the grimy picnic tables in the shade of the back lot, sinking onto that splintery bench like returning from battle. Rustle of paper, scent of onion-mustard-meat approaching your lips, then Heaven.



As I said, I've never tasted anything called a Slugburger, but I remember those filler-filled burgers of my youth with great pleasure, and with regret for the young of it, the bright-eyed lusty joy with which we wolfed down whatever was put in front of us, the uncaringness of the days before cholesterol and triglycerides were invented. That Milk Bar owner built house after house, renting them to many families, and later, the town cafe, of the orange captain's chairs and steam-table line and great gatherings after church. (There was even talk now and then about one church or the other "letting out" fifteen minutes earlier, so as to be first in line at the Caffay).   And she built them one burger at a time.

Slugburgers: No. The most memorable sandwiches of our lives: Oh, yes.


THE MILAM SISTERS


Miss Eve and Miss Edna  Milam---whose invitations and most mail, unless an individually-addressed note, were addressed to The Misses Eve and Edna Milam---were two getting-there maiden ladies who kept cats.    They were the only people in Paxton with THE in front of their names, and the only nearby one was The Right Rev. at the Presbyterian in Expedia, the next-town-over.

The ladies and the myriad cats and one old lump of a dog lived over by the Methodist, in a small gray house with a little porch.   There were quite a few bird-feeders around their house for the amusement of the cats, and the ladies had had Havlon Bright in to bump all the windowsills a foot out into the room and stretch indoor/outdoor carpet on the boards, so that all their kitties would have ringside seats to all the activity out in the yard.   On any day of the year, a group of little faces were aimed at the bird-centers, and at twilight, the still silhouettes outlined against the lamplight of that tall thin house with the two little chimneys caused many of the town’s young folk to call it The Halloween House.

Miss Eve was tallish, a spare, lank woman in print  shirtwaist dresses cinched with a matching belt and nearly-always-matching shoes.   She’d always leant toward pretty wedge-heels, and had a pair of canvas ones in almost every color she could find.   She knew her looks were nothing to boast, but she was proud of her beautiful shoes.  On most other women, the bright canvas shoes would have connoted a snap of gum and big chunky plastic earrings, but shoes were her only vanity.


Though she had not a flirtatious bone in her body, she had a way of sliding her feet way forward under her big metal desk at the Mayor’s office, so that her peep-toes would, indeed, peep out just a little bit in their neat charm.  But lately, the sevens she’d always bought seemed a bit snug and tottery, and she was veering into unknown, frightening territory---squarish lower heels, size 8½. 

    Her iron-gray perm waved to the left, for she was left-handed, just as her sister’s stiff, lighter-gray shingle-bob waved off her face to the right, and both ladies’ oyster-blue eyes gazed gently out at the world through thick glasses framed in clear pink plastic.

 
School Secretary through four principals and more than three decades of pupils, Miss Edna was a shorter, stockier woman, with no apparent vanities at all---given to solid colors in dark jumpers and pinaforish garb, for her own job entailed dealing with countless small hands and notes-from-home and excuse-pads and mimeograph drums and handfuls of go-show-the-principal-what-you-brought-to-school-THIS-MINUTE, Young-Man!.   And her own shoes---she seemed to have gone straight from little hard-soled Buster Browns to the big-heeled lace-ups favored by nuns and nurses. 

 Miss Edna could be glimpsed out in the yard every day at 5:40 a.m. and almost the same time of the evening, standing patiently looking cloud-ward with her back discreetly to the street, her glasses smeared and her dress creased into a gentle wedgie, as  she waited for the chunky old dog to do her business.

The two ladies were ladies in the sense of decorum and modesty---they referred to “limbs” and “powder rooms” and “expecting,” even in their own conversations at home, and were equally modest in even their bedtime baths and robings.   They never sat in the living room in their night-attire, but changed into loose, comfortable smocks as soon as they got home from work, and wore them through Wheel of Fortune andJeopardy and on into the evening til the clock chimed nine.   

After nine, there were only the hour-long dramas, mostly unfit for good folks to watch, so that was it for the day.   (There WAS that year that the premiere of Rich Man, Poor Man came on for the first chapter at eight o’clock, and they were hooked.   The mere TIME of it made it watchable, and even with the shocking moments, they enjoyed it immensely.   They followed it to the end, and when the teenage Nick Nolte held his dying mother and murmured "I've got cha," they both fished in their pockets for their hankies and sobbed quietly.

 Miss Eve was the Town Clerk, sending out the Water Bills, balancing the books, and collecting the wadded dollars from the procession of folk filing through on the First and the Third, when their checks arrived.    Her modest salary and their modest needs coincided nicely, and Miss Edna’s School Check was equally sparing. Their small existence, with that houseful of cats and their little church activities their only outlets, was pitied by all but the Banker.

Only he knew of the bonds and the Savings and most of all, the Serena Chase Scholarships, named for their late Mother, and benefiting students anonymously for thirty-some years, and then the good-sized Trust left to continue when they’d both passed on.   Miss Edna's daily proximity to all the students gave her a deep knowledge of which were the most deserving candidates for their help.   Not the best grades, nor the most activities, which seemed to be the criteria for all other awards, but which of the young people, by character and behavior and promise, deserved the impetus and the boost offered by the assistance.

 The house, reeking of CAT, was eventually sanitized and sold, and the money put into the Trust, with the cats parceled out to anybody that would take them.

There are almost two generations of young folks whose educations were mightily encouraged and enabled by those two quiet, unobtrusive ladies, and not until that new young woman at the bank meddled where she shouldn’t be and let it slip at the beauty shop, did anyone learn of it.

I’ve read that it’s one of life’s niceties to do something good in secret, and be found out by accident.