Leroy of Barnwell and other Southern Gothic characters

telephoneHand over my heart, this is a true story.

The South is known for its unusual characters, right? They populate the stories of Southern writers like Erskine Caldwell, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, etc. and et al.

But we Southerners know, don’t we, that you don’t have to crack one of these authors’ famous books to find such a fictional character’s prototype? Often they live right next door to us, or just down the street, or they show up at the other end of a random conversation. To wit:

In sending email, I often include a favorite saying or famous quotation in the message’s personal signature section, at the bottom of the page. Recipients of the emails often comment on the quotations, which I change from time to time, as the spirit moves me. Some samples:

“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” ~Ben Franklin

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” ~Walt Kelly’s Pogo

And a personal favorite: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” ~Henry Ford

Still with me?

Well, recently I sent an email requesting information from an out-of-town bank. A woman named Louise, the bank’s computer teller, called the next day to give me the information. “But first,” she said in a Southern drawl dripping molasses, “tell me how you know my husband. I asked if he knows you and he doesn’t.”

“Your husband?” I said, puzzled. She was in Mississippi; I was in South Carolina. Hadn’t been to Mississippi in years.

“Yes. You quoted him in your email,” Louise said. “I was amazed to see that.”

“Quoted? Your husband?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve got it right here on my screen: It says, ‘Fortune favors the bold.’ ~Virgil”

The light bulb came on. “Oh,” I said. “That’s a quote from Virgil, the ancient Roman writer.”

“Oh, then that’s not my Virgil,” she said. “I don’t think he’s ever been out of Mississippi.”

I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask Louise if she knew a young woman named Velma that I used to work with in Aiken, S.C. Velma glowed with vitality, but the glow did not extend far above her neck. (Nor did it need to; Velma was drop-dead gorgeous.)

Anyhow, one day when the office staff was having a working lunch, the boss’s way of keeping our noses closer to the grindstone of commerce, somebody brought up that old parlor game in which you are asked to name 12 people you’d invite to a dinner party if you could include anybody who had ever lived.

Soon, names like Jesus, Hitler, Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Elvis, the virgin Mary, Robert E. Lee, Babe Ruth, and Thomas Jefferson rang around the table — until it was Velma’s turn.

So help me, with not a hint of self-consciousness, Velma, in all seriousness, named 12 of her relatives: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins!

I couldn’t believe my ears. Give somebody a chance, in theory, at least, to have a tête à tête with the likes of Jesus of Nazareth, and she chooses Leroy of Barnwell and Cindy Lou of Allendale!

We all stopped in mid-bite to stare in disbelief at Velma, but I doubt that she even noticed.

Anyhow, I’ve often wondered if Louise, the wife of Virgil of Mississippi, was one of Velma’s relatives.

‘Those ever-lovin’ blues’

The BluesI was still in mourning for Bobby “Blue” Bland, who passed in 2013, when a short while ago the house lights went down for the last time on B.B. King, too.

What to do, what to do? So many of our great blues singers have made their Last Road Trip, have gone on to that Great Jam Session in the Sky: Bland, King, the two Jimmys (Reed and Witherspoon), Ray Charles, Lou Rawls, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Little Milton, to name but an octet of the very best.

Think what choir practice in Heaven must sound like nowadays!

Thank goodness for recordings (and for YouTube). I’d hate to look down that long, lonesome road thinking I could never again hear these artists sing songs like “Stormy Monday,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” “Drown in My Own Tears,” “The Thrill Is Gone,“ “Bright Lights, Big City.”

I can hear Bland now, voice smooth as silk, sliding and gliding from one blue note to a note bluer still: “If I should take a notion to jump into the ocean, ain’t nobody’s business what I do.” Insouciance personified!

And what about Blues Boy King, a national treasure from tiny Itta Bena, Mississippi, by way of Memphis, Tennessee? If his rendition of “The Thrill is Gone” doesn’t turn your inmost thoughts to The One That Got Away, count yourself lucky. Or guilty. You decide.

I tell you, if these great blues songs were paintings, they could hang in the Louvre, they’re so good. In the same room with the Mona Lisa would be a fitting place. She, too, broke a lot of hearts, they say – which is what most blues songs are about – that and being lonesome.

Why, even a lady’s man like Elvis once had a room at Heartbreak Hotel – and where was the hotel located? “Down at the end of Lonely Street.” And it was “always crowded.”

Some with broken hearts prefer to suffer alone, of course. No desk clerks dressed in black for Ray Charles. No lachrymose bellhops, either. He is “so all alone” and crying so hard that he will drown in his own tears if his woman doesn’t “come on home” – and soon!

How could any woman who loves music resist such a plea? Charles’s rendition of that song is a perfect fusion of blues lyrics and gospel chords.

Sing it again, Ray, wherever you are. And if the Raylettes are now the Angelettes, invite them to  join in.

Men, too, break hearts, of course. What woman has not sighed in painful recognition on hearing  the one and only Billie Holiday lament: “Love is like a faucet, it turns off and on. Sometimes when you think it’s on, it has turned off and gone.”

Sadder still is that the song’s singer has turned off and gone. Checked out of Heartbreak Hotel, apparently her permanent residence, in 1959. Though born in the City of Brotherly Love, Billie Holiday had a hard time finding any, brotherly or otherwise. Born Eleanora Fagan, Holiday died in a New York hospital bed while under arrest for narcotics. (For one hell of an obit: NYTimes.com.)

Now let’s give thanks for the blues artists who are still with us, performers like:

  • James Taylor (“Steamroller Blues”): “I’d like to roll all over you…”
  • Eric Clapton (“I Want A Little Girl To Fall In Love With Me”): “You know I’d give her everything I’ve got…”
  • Delbert McClinton, a national treasure himself (“Standing on Shakey Ground”): “My car got repossessed this morning. harder times I haven’t seen in years…”
  • Mick Jagger (“Honky Tonk Women”): “I met a gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis, She tried to take me upstairs for a ride…”

And let us not forget the blues that from time to time befall all of us, the blues about simple rotten luck, as in “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which manages to make a double negative sound negative indeed: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

An aside: The late Albert King, no kin to B.B., made “Bad Sign” popular, but the best version I’ve heard was by Robben Ford, whose “Bad Sign” is actually a good sign because he is still among those working to keep the blues, a genuine American art form, alive and well.

And who do we have to thank for this art form? Well, the blues are as old as heartache, as old as sorrow itself, but W.C. Handy is widely regarded as the Father of the Blues, and I know of no one with a better claim to the title.

Born Nov. 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama, Handy was a musician (cornet) and composer. It is said that he harvested the rhythms he heard in his travels throughout the South, put them into his compositions, and brought them into the mainstream of American music aboard classics like “Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Aunt Hagar’s Blues.”

I like ‘em all, but, oh, that last one! I can hear ol’ Louis Armstrong singing it now:

“Old Deacon Splivin, his flock was givin’ the way of livin’ right.
Said he, No wingin’, no ragtime singin’ tonight.
Up jumped Aunt Hagar and shouted out with all her might:
‘Oh, ain’t no use to preachin’, ain’t no use to teachin’;
each modulation of syncopation just tells my feet to dance.
I just can’t refuse when I hear the melody they call the blues,
those ever-lovin’ blues.”

Sing it again, Satchmo. You, too, were a national treasure, but, alas, one of a kind. We won’t see your like again.

And now I’ve really got the blues.


(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I found the songs mentioned above on YouTube via Google. B.B. King must have recorded “The Thrill Is Gone” a hundred times, but two of the best versions are the one he did for the TV show “Austin City Limits” and the one he did with the great Eric Clapton.)

  • Image: We got this image from ImageBoard.com listed as a free wallpaper. ImageBoard had a link to the source, but that link went to a scareware site. Since the image was on thousands of pages with no real attribution, we believe it to be an abandoned copyright. Should anyone determine the true copyright holder, we would be happy to attribute, attempt to license or take it down.

The F Word

Ralphie Parker washing his mouth out with soap

Talk about coincidence, I was thinking the other day how popular song lyrics have changed over the years – and not for the better, I fear – when I stumbled into an odd kind of research online that supported my suspicion and set me to thinking about language in general.

The research. Believe it or not, somebody has gone to the trouble – brace yourself – to count the words that have shown up most often in popular songs in every decade since the 1890s! And if you thought song lyrics were getting cleaner and classier, move to the rear of the line. Yes, the “f” word was one of the five most common words appearing in the current decade’s popular music. “Hell” was another.

Why am I not surprised? I saw a novel recently that would have been a short story if the author had left out the “f” word. And today’s comedians (I use the word loosely) seem unable to set up or deliver a punch line without a plentiful use of the “f” word. Don’t they know they could stand out from the crowd just by following the G-rated example of such great comedians as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Jerry Seinfeld?

Just as an experiment, try this: In the history of American comedy, one of the funniest lines ever delivered on TV was a simple two-word sentence by Jack Benny, who was a notorious skinflint (and master of comedic timing). In the skit, he was held up at gunpoint by a robber who had demanded, “Your money or your life” and, after a moment, repeated the demand. Said Benny at length: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” America exploded in laughter!

Now go ahead (though not out loud in public): Throw a few “f” words into that fourteen words of famous dialogue and watch it wilt before your eyes (or fizzle in your ears).

When it comes to using foul language, believe me less is more. Much more. Not because one is Pecksniffian, but because one cares about language, which thrives on economy to make a point, not on gratuitous helpmates, especially foul adjectives. You couldn’t improve on this funny line by adding anything at all: “’Shut up!’ he explained.”

Still not convinced? Then consider these famous lines from movies, each so well-crafted (and well delivered) that it has become engrained in our collective consciousness. (I’ll list at the bottom the movies they came from). Notice how many of the words are one-syllable, how few adjectives are employed – and how effective when employed, and how dramatic understatement can be:

  • “Go ahead, make my day.”
  • “Houston, we have a problem.”
  • “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
  • “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”
  • “I’ll have what she’s having.”
  • “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
  • “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
  • “Show me the money.”
  • “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
  • “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
  • “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

That last one, spoken by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in the 1939 American Civil War epic Gone with the Wind, was selected by the American Film Institute as the most memorable American movie quotation of all time. “Damn” in this case, by the way, is a noun, not an adjective.

Moral of this story: Current usage might have gone to hell in a handcart, but simple, straightforward, unadorned language is still the best route to being understood.

(The movies, in order: Sudden Impact, Apollo 13, Cool Hand Luke, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, When Harry Met Sally, Jaws, On the Waterfront, Jerry Maguire, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Gone With the Wind.)

  • Image: Ralphie Parker (aka: Peter Billingsley) washing his mouth out with soap from a production still from the MGM movie “Christmas Story” (fair use)

Up the Hill, down the Hill. . .

(From Ch. 8, Striking Out)

SOthumbI lay in bed that night thinking it was over and telling myself to forget Cherry and move on. I even went to sleep and got up the next morning thinking it was all settled. But when the city bus that I often rode to school left the stop at Riverside High, heading up the Hill, I was still on it.

I didn’t know what I was going to do. A part of me that I barely recognized seemed to be running the show, with the rest of me just along for the ride. But I got off at the stop closest to Cherry’s house and walked straight to it, barely noticing what an absolutely beautiful day it was: clean, bright, fresh.

Mrs. Ashford looked very surprised when she answered the door, but she recovered quickly and called back into the house, “Billings.” Telling me to wait there, she pushed the door nearly closed and turned away, saying as she went, “It’s that boy.”

Next thing I knew, Mr. Ashford, wearing a coat and tie, and smelling of aftershave lotion, loomed in the doorway. “What do you want?” he said. He sounded short and looked put out, but I had the impression that he thought he’d overdone it. At any rate, he repeated in a softer voice, “What do you want?”

I felt like saying, “Gee, I don’t know. I’m just as surprised to find myself here as you are.” But I blurted out the simple truth instead: “I want to know about Cherry — the truth.”

The last, the part about the truth, stung him, I thought, but he looked at me as if gauging how much he should tell and said, “All right.” He stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door to behind him. “The truth is that Cherry can’t see you anymore.”
“Where is she?” My tone of voice, demanding, surprised me.

But it didn’t faze him. “To tell you where Cherry is would defeat our purpose in sending her away.”
I couldn’t argue with that. “What did we do that was so terrible?”

“It wasn’t so much what you did as what you might have done. We felt that certain precautions were in order. You understand.”
I did, but I didn’t want to accept it. Feeling cornered, I said the first thing I could think of that might make him see things my way. “Cherry’s in love with me. Doesn’t that matter to you?”

He smiled. “It matters more than you know. But Cherry’s young — young and inexperienced.”
“And I love her.” I was snapping at him now and feeling foolish because of it, but I couldn’t seem to stop.
He smiled again, making me feel more foolish. He had the upper hand and he knew it. “And what can you offer her?”
That surprised me. Hell, I wasn’t talking about marriage, just love. “Sir?” I said.

“Let me be frank, Benny. You asked for the truth and you’re old enough to hear it. You have nothing to offer my daughter. She’s young and, I admit, spoiled, and doesn’t understand these things, so we must protect her until she does.”
What the hell was he talking about, I wondered. “But we love each other,” I said. Why couldn’t he understand that?
“Let me finish,” he prompted. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Benny, but I’ve found out some things about you since Sunday. I don’t enjoy prying; it was my duty to Cherry.”

He stopped there, hoping, I guessed, that I would see what he was getting at. But I didn’t. “Found out what? Where?”
“I had a long talk with the principal about you.”
I was thrown. “Mr. Thompson?”

He nodded. “I also talked to the good priests at St. Jude.”
I still didn’t see it coming, and it must have shown on my face.

He acted a bit awkward and said, “Benny,” as if I were a keen disappointment to him. “Must I say it? Can’t you see? Girls like Cherry don’t marry boys like you. Oh, once in a blue moon it happens, but even then–”

“You mean I’m not good enough for her.” Suddenly I felt helpless, defeated, angry, and I silently cursed a world in which roses could bloom, birds could sing, and the air smell so fresh while a rich man stood on the porch of his fine home and told me I was nothing.

He seemed self-conscious and looked away. “I’m sure you’re a nice enough boy, Benny. Nobody I talked to said you were bad — a little mixed up, maybe, but not bad.”

“Just poor–was that it?” I couldn’t help myself; I wanted him to say the worst so I could hate him that much more.
“Well,” he said, looking about, hedging.
He turned a shade cold himself. “Just that you’re a Milltown boy. And that your parents are mill workers.”
“You sure they didn’t say lint-heads?”

He looked at me again. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. But I had to put Cherry first. And now . . .”
He motioned toward the door with one hand and stuck out his other for a handshake.

I looked at the hand and then at him. I wanted to spit on it. Then I turned and walked away.

#  #  #

Striking Out is available from the publisher, The Permanent Press (www.thepermanentpress.com) and at www.amazon.com. This novel was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Reason & Mystery

I think of myself as a realist. A diehard realist. I believe I am truly a child of the Age of Reason.moon

But can reason explain all things, unlock all mysteries?

Don’t think so. My Uncle Lehman, for instance, my Aunt Mary Grace’s husband, could talk warts off.

As I write this, I can see you shaking your skeptical head.

Well, I didn’t believe it, either.

Nor did Meredith, my first wife, who once was his “patient.”

But he did it anyhow, and it couldn’t be called faith healing, for the subject’s disbelief was no deterrent to the cure.

You ready for this?

We go by their house one night in Augusta to see him and my aunt. While we’re there, Uncle Lehman notices warts, lots of ‘em, on Meredith’s hands. I’d seen the warts myself, of course. Ugly things. Horny growths. Blemishes on otherwise pretty, feminine hands.

“I’ve tried everything to get rid of them,” Meredith tells him, holding out her hands, turning them this way and that, so Aunt Mary Grace can see the warts, too.

“I can make ‘em go away,” says Lehman.


“Come with me,” he says.

He then leads Meredith out the front door and onto the front lawn, which was blanched in alabaster moonlight. I tag along, dubious but curious. Is this a prank of some kind? He always liked his little jokes.

About 10 paces from the front doorsteps, Uncle Lehman stops, takes hold of Meredith’s hands and, looking up at the moon, instructs her to look up, too.

Then he rubs her hands while murmuring something under his breath.

The whole exercise takes no more than a minute or two. Then back inside we go, the conversation turning soon to other things.

A week later the warts are gone!

And they never came back. Till the day she died, five years later, she never had another one!

“How’d you do that?” we asked Lehman next time we saw him.

“Nothing to it,” he said, smiling.

But he didn’t explain.

I guess he took the secret with him to his grave.

I forgot to mention that his wife, My Aunt Mary Grace, could talk the fire out of burns.

I hear you loud and clear:



Yes, I’d say the same things – if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own baby blues.

But that story will have to wait till next time. I’ve run out of space (and perhaps overstayed my welcome, too).

Till then, in case you think I’m pulling your leg, I leave you with the strongest avowal of truth-telling that I can muster. It’s borrowed from a love sonnet by the Bard of Avon, but is, I trust, adaptable to any situation requiring trust.

“If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ and no man ever loved.”



‘Amazing’ Grace charms fire from baby’s burns

yves-guillou-Fire-forbidden-sign-300pxLike her husband Lehman, who could talk warts off, Mary Grace never revealed the secrets of her magic. She would lose her powers, she said, if she revealed them to anyone except a male child of her own. The legatee was my cousin Buddy, who figures prominently in this story.

In writing all of this, I have hesitated to call any of it magic, for that might imply my belief in the inexplicable feats I’m telling you about. But I looked up the word “magic” not two minutes ago, and it is indeed the right word for what I’m describing. For, in part, the definition says: “any mysterious, seemingly inexplicable, or extraordinary power or influence.”

This, Mary Grace possessed in full and, like her father, my grandfather, she became well-known around Augusta for performing “inexplicable” feats, her reputation spreading first by word of mouth and later by newspaper stories about her and “her mysterious gifts.”

I used to tease her (she’s gone now; lung cancer. Lehman, too, soon after; grief): “If this were Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, you’d be toast by now.”

But in truth nothing about her, not even her magic, suggested witchcraft. On second thought, burning at the stake might have posed no threat to her, for her most mysterious power was the ability to talk fire out of burns. (She also could stop bleeding.)

Yep, you read me right: my Aunt Grace could talk fire out of burns. And maybe I’ve got a supernatural power, too, for I already know what you’re thinking. And I agree with you: Such things are impossible. But somebody forgot to tell that to Mary Grace and her supplicants.

I witnessed this ritual only once, but the memory of it has stayed with me in vivid detail all these years.

I must have been eight or nine years old. Aunt Grace used to keep me evenings while my mother worked. Anyhow, I’m sitting at the table one winter evening, having just washed up for supper after bringing in a bucket of coal for the kitchen stove, which was the main source of heat in Aunt Grace’s three-room shotgun house in one of Augusta’s mill villages. Across the table from me was Lehman Junior, Aunt Grace’s little boy, maybe a year and a half old, still in a high chair, the tray thrown back but the baby strapped in (with a diaper) for safety.

Busy putting food on the table, Aunt Grace takes a pot of boiling stewed potatoes from the stove and pours them into a bowl on the table, heat still bubbling up through the thick, lava-like sauce. She turns back to the stove and my eyes follow her – until we hear a blood-curdling scream from Lehman Junior. He has reached from his highchair and plunged a little fist into those steaming stewed potatoes.

Writhing in paroxysms of pain and bawling like a banshee, the baby is holding a trembling hand aloft, staring at it as the thick potato coating drips from it to reveal the lobster pink of burned baby-flesh underneath. Aunt Grace flies to his side, uses her apron to wipe the sticky coating off the burned hand, enfolds the injured hand in her own hands, and begins murmuring indistinguishable words.

It’s like watching somebody’s lips move in silent prayer, but she seems to be uttering an incantation rather than praying, maybe because her eyes are open the whole time.

Well, in no time at all, Lehman Junior’s four-alarm screams subside to soft cries and moans, and a few seconds later to sniffles that themselves are soon extinguished. I watch as Grace examines the injured hand. It is no longer red. It looks, well, just like Lehman Junior’s other hand, a soft baby white.

So what’s to be made of all this – of Lehman and Grace’s magic? Well, they wouldn’t be the first among us who had fashioned a reality built of incantations, enchantments, spells, and a belief in unseen powers. But my aunt and uncle’s delusional world strikes me as harmless, whereas the delusions of some – yesteryear’s Nazi Germany and today’s ISIS come to mind – subvert reason and undermine sanity.

Too, ostensibly Lehman and Mary Grace actually helped people who sought them out for help – and did it for free, never setting up shop as healers or, thank heaven, advertising their “powers” in any way.

As you can see, I have no ready answer. But, hey, I have my hands full in dealing with my own reality. So if I had anything at all to say, it would probably be: “Help!”


Book Review

Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land

Image of Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 512

If you like modern poetry, or simply a good biography, Young Eliot is the book for you.”

In Young Eliot, biographer Robert Crawford has delivered the definitive account of how Thomas Stearns Eliot became T. S. Eliot, the most important English-language poet since Walt Whitman. Best of all, the story reads like a novel about that most productive period in Western literature, the early 1900s, as the reader follows the education, both formal and otherwise, of Eliot from fledgling poet to emerging literary icon.

For Eliot fans who know only casually that “he was from St. Louis” and that “he went to Harvard and then settled in England,” this biography provides the chance to see how arduous was his journey from typical undergrad to polished poet. Indeed, he might not have made a breakthrough at all without the patronage of the great English philosopher Bertrand Russell (who in turn helped himself to the sexual favors of Eliot’s wife Vivien).

One of the surprises to the uninitiated reader is how long it took for Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to win recognition: years. Surprising, too, is how long it was after “Prufrock” until Eliot produced another of his great works, again years. But Eliot was creating a new kind of poetry, much more cerebral than that of his predecessors, and Crawford does an excellent job of detailing Eliot’s gestation period from his days at Harvard to his completing “The Waste Land,” arguably his crowning achievement. (Some would give the laurels to “Four Quartets.”)

Perhaps the most interesting parts of this wholly interesting book are about Eliot’s education, which included doctoral work at Harvard, a year at Oxford, and reading, reading, reading; not to mention Eliot’s sojourn in France and then England just when both countries were in a literary ferment not seen before or since, and names like Proust and Joyce and Woolf were on the lips of the cognoscenti as heralds of a new era in literature. They were right, and before long Eliot’s name was on their lips as well.

If you like modern poetry, or simply a good biography, Young Eliot is the book for you. Even if you’re not sure about the poetry part of that recommendation, consider heeding the words of Prufrock himself: “Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”/Let us go and make our visit.“

You’ll be glad you did.

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