ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN’
“I know how silly and paranoid that sounds, especially coming from a man who gets a perverse thrill from taking chances. But it is a common condition of being poor white trash: you are always afraid that the good things in your life are temporary, that someone can take them away, because you have no power beyond your own brute strength to stop them.”
“That night, when he came home, Sam and I, pitiful in our inability to help her, to protect her, stood in the door of the kitchen and watched as he opened the cupboard and reached for his home brew. ‘Not all of it?’ he asked, and she nodded. My momma did not run, did not hide. She stood there like a statue. Then, slowly she took off her glasses.
‘Don’t hurt my teeth,’ she said.”
But then, there were not many saints working at the end of an ax handle in the woods of Alabama and Georgia, as an era of failed, corrupt reconstruction gave way to a new century. The history books showed it in black-and-white, and in my mind’s eye, as a child, I imagined it that way, a place just too mean for color. I saw a gray landscape under lead-gray sky, where white-robed Klan rode through dead gray trees, where convicts striped in gray and white swung picks into the bleached, colorless ground, where even the big rivers, in my mind’s eye, ran black as tar.
He was blessed with that beautiful, selective morality that we Southerners are famous for. Even as a boy, he thought people who steal were trash, real trash. He thought people who would lie were trash. “And a man who’ll lie,” he said, even back then, “will steal.” Yet he saw absolutely nothing wrong with downing a full pint of likker—a full pint is enough to get two men drunk as lords—before engaging in a fistfight that sometimes required hospitalization. He saw no reason to obey some laws—like the ones about licenses, fees and other governmental annoyances—but he would not have picked an apple off another man’s ground and eaten it.
Some historians say the time that defines us, as a people, was the Civil War, and I guess that is true for those Southerners who hold tight to yellowed daguerreotypes of defiant colonels, distant ancestors who glare at the camera like it was a cannon, leaning on their swords. But you seldom hear people of the foothills talk much about the Civil War, contrary to the popular belief that all of us down here are sitting around waiting for the South to Rise Again, gazing at our etching of Robert E. Lee and sipping whiskey from the silver cups our great-aunt hid in the corncrib when she saw the Yankees comin’. But you hear them talk a lot about the Depression, at reunions, at dinner on the ground, on that bench outside E. L. Green’s store, down the road from my momma’s house. They cannot tell you who commanded much of anything at Little Round Top or Missionary Ridge, but they know the names of all the knothead mules that dragged their daddies cussing and sweating across ground so poor that grass would not grow, and will look you dead in the eye and tell you that, yes, people really did work themselves to death. The Depression, endured in the lifetimes of people we know, was our time of heroes and martyrs, and our monuments are piled neatly on the ground.
The doctor didn’t know when exactly, just that it was certain, the hurting and the dying. Charlie walked out of there and went to work, and just kept working, for months, because pity don’t feed the bulldog.
THE PRINCE OF FROGTOWN
The machines shut down five years ago. The roar that shook this village across a century shushed to a hateful quiet, and a blizzard of cotton fell through dead air to lie like dirty snow on scarred hardwood planks. The last to leave said they heard a rustling, as if generations still moved in the vast rooms that killed them one cut, one cough at a time.
The sharecroppers marched away to hurrahs in one of the true oddities of Southern history, to die to preserve a way of life closed to them. It is hard to explain that to Northerners, hard to explain why, a century and a half later, poor men still fly the Confederate battle flag from rusted pickup trucks. It is hard to explain that, for some men, the fight, not the cause, is what they have.
“I have run,” I explained, when I knew I couldn’t win, and the cause didn’t seem worth the pain. But I was always sick, after. You choose the sick feeling you can stand most, the one before you fight, or the one after you run away. But that was complicated, for a ten-year-old.
“Doin’ somethin’ was always better’n talkin’ ’bout doin’ somethin’.”
“I remember this time, up in Rich Bundrum’s barn loft, we found this case of dynamite,” Jack said, and then he paused and shook his head, as if realizing now what he should have then: that there are no good endings to stories that begin with we found this case of dynamite.
Jack wiped at his eyes a lot as he talked of the last days. It is an acceptable way for a Southern man to cry. You can leak, when your heart busts in two, but you by God better not make any noise.