Night Things

She wakes tonight the same way she has for the last 50 straight — at exactly 3:13 a.m.

If anyone had been present to watch, they would have observed that she woke with a rasping gasp, as if she had suffered a recurring nightmare.

It seems more gradual to her, like swimming toward the surface of a lake from the bottom, the light from above coming closer through the murkiness with each stroke.  At least it had felt that way when she was a girl, swimming in her grandaddy’s  pond on Sunday afternoons.  Back then there was always a lingering doubt, an adult-sized fear that she might not reach the surface before her breath ran out.  Always sweet relief when she broke gasping through the still surface.  Always comfort in seeing her grandaddy waving from the red clay bank.

She feels no relief now — only despair.  The dismal prospect of another night of rest cut short without explanation.  The promise of another day of tiredness and lethargy surely to follow.

She says nothing, staring at the ceiling above her bed for a moment, as if the answer might lie in the faded white stippling of the ceiling.  She glances over at the mocking red numbers on the alarm clock on the bedside table.

3:13.

The thoughts start gradually, a trickle from a leaky facet, then flood outward in a torrent as if a handle has been twisted and a valve opened.

Why?  Why 3:13?

What is wrong with me?

After the first two weeks, she had called her family doctor.  He had advised her to lay off the caffeine after lunch, which she had done.

Two weeks later he had called-in a prescription for Ambien.

“No, no” he said.  “No need to come in for a visit right now.  Too much flu going around.  I’ve got a waiting room full of really sick folks.  These are mild, but they’ll do the job, and they won’t hurt you.  Just don’t drive after you take it.”

Two weeks after that, she had started to feel desperate.  She doubled the recommended dosage.

Last night she took three, washing them down with a glass of wine.

3:13.

She believed that the fabric of her mind was beginning to tear.  Once torn, the cloth could never be mended.

Never.

*to be continued?

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Yard Sales

We’ve had “re-distribution of wealth” for a long time here in Alabama.  We call it the yard sale.  It’s a cultural phenomenon where we periodically get together and trade some of what we have accumulated for part of what others in our community have accumulated.

For the uninformed, let me explain the basic concept.  We buy a bunch of junk we think we want but don’t really need.  We accumulate said junk for a period of time (let’s say three to five years — some folks more, some less) until we no longer have any room in closets, on bookshelves, in pantries or in storage sheds.  One day the lady of the house will announce “we need to have a yard sale.”  The sole purpose is, of course, to free-up space for some new junk that we don’t need.

The little woman collects everything for about a week in a convenient location (in the den in front of the television, for example) for sorting and pricing  until the big day.

The yard sale is always on a Saturday.  If you are smart you wait until August, when the weather in Alabama is really pleasant.  Heatstroke and shopping fit together like hand in glove.

On the big day you get out of bed before daylight to arrange your inventory of junk on the front lawn, because everyone knows that serious shoppers will arrive at dawn.  All Southerners are taught from the crib that “the early bird catches the worm” (although I’ve never sure what this says about the intelligence of the worm).  You simply must arrive early in order to get the very best junk a community has to offer.

As the man of the house carries the sale contents out to the yard he will begin to notice that the sale pile contains a lot more of his junk than her junk.  At this point he will try to recover what he can.

I still have my kangaroo-skin baseball spikes from high school.  Now I’m aware that it’s becoming more and more unlikely that I’m going to make a comeback, but you never know.  These shoes have been secreted away from the pile at least three times over the years.  I might have to buy them back next time.

I remember our first yard sale.  We’d been married seven or eight years, so we were thinning the collection I like to call the “early years.”  We were young, kids still little.  Hadn’t hit the real wage earning years yet — mostly making payments and trying to retire those student loans.  Not enough time or money to accumulate quality junk, so I was skeptical.

This is when I first became aware of the power of the yard sale.

The Redhead set up shop in our little driveway about dawn.  I hadn’t even gotten everything out of the house before the cars began to to roll up.

We only had a few items I thought she might actually sell.  Toys the kids had outgrown.  Baby clothes.  A high chair and a crib.

But she had put some straight-up junk out there too.

I surveyed the lot.  Some of her old underwear was on one of the tables.

“Ain’t nobody gonna buy your used drawers*” I said.

“Just stand there and be quiet and watch ’em leave here.”

She smiled that “you’re not nearly as smart as you think you are” smile.  I’ve seen that one a lot over the years.

She sold them all — and they were what the young ‘uns call “granny panties” — big ol’ baggy drawers she wore when she was pregnant.

All our junk left that driveway in about an hour that day.  She even sold an old coffee can that she had used to hold the change.

“How much you want for the can?” this old lady asked.

“Well, it’s really not for sale, I was just keeping change in it.”

“I’ll give you fifty cent.”

Lady, you just bought yourself a coffee can.  Enjoy.

The power of the yard sale.  Y’all come back now, you hear?  In about five years.

* “Drawers” is a fine old Southern expression for “underwear.”   I may be the last person alive that still uses the word in the course of public conversation.   In fact, I use it exclusively for the shock value, particularly with young people, who seem to be absolutely horrified by it.

The Visitor

Almost August in Alabama.  Another year races by.

We have no need for a weatherman this time of year.  I wonder how they get motivated to go to work each day.  I’m not sure how they sleep at night — how their conscience could be clear — having done absolutely nothing to earn a paycheck.  It must be like owning one book and having to read the same page over and over and over again.

The forecast is the same for about three months:   “Partly cloudy and hot today.  Highs in the mid- to upper- 90’s, with a 50% chance of widely scattered afternoon or evening thundershowers.  Low’s in the lower 70’s.”

The last two days we’ve experienced one of those widely scattered thundershowers at my house.

Both were brief.  Both were welcome.

Unexpected visitors are often the best.

The Crow Nation

I’m not much of a “birder.”  I don’t have a list of all the species I’ve seen.  I do recognize the basic, common, everyday birds like robins, blue jays, mockingbirds, cardinals (these are called “red birds” here in Alabama), and sparrows.  But my knowledge of the secret life of birds doesn’t go much beyond that.  To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t know a pine siskin from a golden-winged warbler.

I do however like crows.  I consider them the under-appreciated representatives of the bird world.

We have lots of crows in central Alabama.  Quite a few frequent the little plot of ground where I live.  They are always milling around, stealing uneaten dog food and harassing anything and everything that gets in their way.

My dogs pretty much ignore them.  This is a marked change that the crows have received favorably.  My previous dog, the late great “Butch,” wouldn’t tolerate any intrusions into the confines of his five-acre kingdom.  This included his airspace.

The crows now have unimpeded access, which has allowed me to get to know them a bit better.

They are a roving gang of thugs — intelligent and highly organized.  They have a complex social structure that I can’t even begin to understand.

This fellow had “look-out” duty this morning.  Crows always post a sentry, a kind of advanced scout who finds food (or trouble) and calls the rest of the flock to the scene of what is about to become a crime.  A flock of crows is called a “murder,” by the way.  If you’ve ever witnessed one in action, you would appreciate the humor in that.

The sentry was not pleased with my photography. Shortly after I snapped this photo, he sounded a crow alarm and they all flew away to commit some sort of thuggery elsewhere.

I think old Butch would have been pleased.

The Fawn

I mow last year’s riotous growth in the dog-days of July, when the temperature is scorching hot and everything is dry but the afternoon humidity.  These fields once grew hay, but by today’s standards they are considered “too small to fool with” by those who must feed cows and horses.

I don’t have cows and horses.  I hope to keep it that way.  But I maintain the fields every year, partly because they are good for a variety of wildlife species, but mostly because I just like to look at them.  Even a tree man can appreciate an open view once in a while.

I mow in July when it’s miserably hot because the white-tailed deer usually fawns in early August here.  The weeds and brush can get so high in a season that it’s difficult to see a fawn, which will lay perfectly motionless as a defense.  They have no scent for the first few days, so if a coyote or free-ranging dog doesn’t see them, they have a pretty good chance to survive.

If they are not run over by a man on a tractor who is mowing the fields.

No, I didn’t.  But I almost did.

I was mowing around the old house-place, trying to reclaim an area that kind of got away from me over the past several years.  I was mowing very slow, not sure what kind of junk might lie hidden in the tall grass (old house-places are a repository for all kinds of interesting things people think they might need some day).  My slowness saved her.

She stumbled up on spindly legs and actually tried to go under the house, like a dog afraid of a thunderstorm.

She was too big for that, though, so she wobbled on out into the field and collapsed into a ball — unmoving.  I watched her for a moment, unsure of whether to intervene in some way.  I could have caught her — but then what?  I knew the momma was likely nearby.  I finally just eased the old tractor away, deciding that the mowing around the old house-place could wait until another day.

Even weeds can serve a purpose.

I hope she makes it.  She’s been lucky so far.

The deer are a little like the fields.  I once spent a lot of time hunting them.  Now I mostly just like to look at them.

A Campfire Story from the Piney Woods

Gather ’round the campfire, children.  The old forester-poet has a little story to tell you.  It’s not a ghost story, but it’s kind of scary.  Pull up a camp chair and grab one of those hickory sticks.  We’re going to roast some marshmallows while I tell it.

It’s about the forest, conservation, and government policy.  Sounds boring and complicated, right?  Well, I’ll try to keep it simple so it’s easy to understand.  I’ll put the hay down low where all the little donkeys can reach it.

First the government policy part.  If you pay attention to the news, you may have noticed that the “Bush-era” tax cuts are set to expire December 31.  Now you may be saying “Good.  Time to stick it to the 1%.  Those rich fat-cats aren’t paying their fair share.”

Well I’m not going to try to persuade you that you have bought into the politics of class warfare, children.  I’m not a politician — I’m a tree man.  But I do want you to know what effect this change will have on the landscape in Alabama and the rest of the South.  Lots of trees are in the balance.

One of the taxes that Congress and President Bush reduced was what people call the “death tax.”  Lawyers and accountants call it the “estate tax.”  Beginning January 1, this tax will return to the old rate, and the heirs of a person who dies will owe the U.S. Government 55% of the value of any estate that totals over a million dollars.

“Millionaires!  Let’s get ’em,”  you say.  Well hang on a second — and watch your marshmallow there, Frank.  You have to keep an eye on it or it will burn.

Let’s say your daddy is 88 years old.  He grew up on a 80 acre farm in Coosa County, Alabama.  He left the farm at 16 (lied about his age at the recruiting depot in Sylacauga) to cross the big pond.  There was a war going on, and he and a bunch of other farm-boys like him are the reason we don’t speak German or Japanese.

Daddy came home to the farm after the war –but he didn’t stay.  He got a job in the new papermill in nearby Childersburg, met your momma, and bought a nice little house in Sylacauga.  Pretty soon you and your brother came along.  It was a nice middle-class life.  You’ll weren’t rich, and daddy put in a lot of hours at his job, but things were pretty good.

Daddy never forgot that farm.  He was always a farm-boy at heart.  Every time any land became available near it he went to the bank and borrowed the money and bought it.  By the time he retired at age 65, the original home-place had grown to 437 acres.  He worked a lot of overtime hours in that hot, stinking papermill to pay for that land, but he loved every acre.

Most of the land was just woods.  He always had a little garden and a cow or two, but he loved those woods.  He was always dragging you down there, teaching you and your brother about the different trees, animals, and plants that occupied he land.  You saw your first fox squirrel in a longleaf pine up on the ridge.  He taught you how to tell the difference between a buck track and a doe track.  You learned where to find wild grapes, blackberries, and ginseng.  You made lots of memories there.

His land.  Your land.  He made sure that you knew that.

Daddy’s getting really feeble now, especially in the last two years since momma died.  He can’t get down to the land much unless you or your brother drive down from your homes in North Alabama and take him.  He still loves to be there — and by now you do too.  You showed your two boys their first fox squirrel there in that same spot where you saw yours.

The day that you’ve been dreading finally comes along.  You and your brother and the grandchildren are standing next to a fresh grave at Evergreen Cemetery.

Now don’t get scared, Janey.  I told you that this was not a ghost story.  What’s that noise?  Why that was just an old hoot-owl.  He’s not going to bother us.  Get you another marshmallow, and I’ll finish telling my story.

Several days later you head down to the lawyer’s office to “settle” your daddy’s estate.  The lawyer has bad news.  You and your brother owe the Internal Revenue Service $319,950 in Estate Taxes.

“That can’t be,” you say.  “Daddy wasn’t rich!”

The lawyer shows you the math:

  • Current appraised value of 437 acres in Coosa County:  $1,311,000.
  • Current appraised value of home in Sylacauga:  $150,000.
  • Life Insurance policy:  $50,000.
  • Amount left in paper company retirement plan:  $35,000.
  • Savings and bank accounts:  $35,000.

That totals $1,581,000.  Everything above one million is taxable at 55%.  You owe $319,950.

What are you going to do?  You and your brother don’t have $319,950.

Well I’ll tell you what you will have to do.  You are going to sell some timber, and you’re going to have to do it fast.  Uncle Sam is kind of funny that way.  He’ll tell you it’s HIS money and he wants it NOW!

I’ll predict that over half of that land your daddy worked so hard for and loved so much is going to wind up clearcut just to pay the tax.  And since other folks are in the same predicament as you, they’ll be at the mercy of the market too.  If timber prices happen to be down when all this happens, you may have to cut more than half the acres.

It’s a sad thing, children.  It’s bad policy.  It’s bad for people and bad for the environment.  It’s the very opposite of the American ideal of conservation of natural resources.  Conservation means “wise use.”  There’s nothing wise about using resources in this manner.  Daddy would have been heart-broken — and you are heart-broken just thinking about it.

Children, listen to the old forester.  I was around before the Bush tax cut when this was going on.  I’ve seen it too many times.

Hey, the fire is getting low and I believe that it’s about time for some of you to get to bed.  Let’s head on back to the farm-house.  That’s enough for tonight.

What’s that Deb?  Will this place ever have to be clearcut to pay some outrageous government bill?

I don’t know, child.  I sure hope not.

I Think I’m Gonna Be Sick

I get up this morning like most mornings–get the coffee going, check on my dogs–mind accelerating as I begin to think of what lies ahead today.  I flip on the TV to make sure the world is still there, and I’m greeted with this:  an image of three twenty-somethings, smiling happily, obviously at an office somewhere, pursuing the American dream.  One of the three is a slender, attractive woman.  She taps on the window of an office in which one of her friends is hard at work and holds up a sign.  It reads “Let’s have a barbeque today!”  They all grin like four mules eating in a briar patch.

The camera cuts away to a picture of something that looks like a sandwich.  “Come to Burger King now for our Barbecue Sandwich with sweet potato fries!”

As we used to say when I was a teenager:  “Gag a maggot.”

There is no way on God’s green earth that Burger King could serve ANYTHING resembling a barbecue sandwich.  They have no pit, no seasoned wood, no quality pork.  Nothing to make real barbecue.  This “limited time offer” is a blasphemy, an abomination, an insult to real pit-masters across the South.  Maybe they could manage the sweet potato fries, but I’m even skeptical of that.

Listen young twenty-somethings.  I need to tell you a few things–maybe save you some grief on life’s hard journey.  I don’t know a lot, but I know a little about the subject of barbecue.

First off, let me assure you that if you want to stay young-looking and attractive, you should never eat anything from Burger King.  May I offer you “Exhibit A,” my generation, which is the fattest and unhealthiest group of Americans to date.  Yes, we did want fries with that, and yes, we did want it super-sized.

Now regarding barbecue–I can assure you that you will never find edible barbecue at a fast food restaurant.  Fast food and barbecue are contradictory terms.  Barbecue is, by its very nature, slow food.  It requires that a fire be built.  Coals most be formed that are just the right temperature.  Pork loins must be carefully prepared and tended, lovingly watched and daubed with hand-made marinades and sauces.  Cooking must be constantly monitored–otherwise, a pig has died in vain–and that would be a culinary tragedy.

For the inexperienced, may I be so bold to suggest that you start at one of the numerous barbecue franchise restaurants.  These are wildly popular and will provide you with the country-hip atmosphere that you likely expect when eating country food.  The barbecue and sides will be decent, and you can probably pick up a t-shirt or a ball cap that you can wear to the next Zac Brown Band or Lady Antebellum concert.  Not exactly street cred–more like dirt road cred.

After you’ve done this a couple of times, move on up to the next level.  Look for a tumble-down looking joint with smoke rising from a sooty chimney.  Most Southern towns have at least one.  It may not look clean and safe, but I assure you the barbecue will be on a much higher level than the big chains.  Here’s a pit-master secret:  you can spend money on fancy overhead stuff like a sturdy building and clean tables, or you can spend it on the food.  Real barbecue cooks have their priorities straight.

Finally, when you think you are ready for the best, drive around a Black neighborhood or somewhere out in the country until you see a hand-made sign that reads “Bar-b-que.”  There will be an old man standing next to a smokey grill made from a 55-gallon drum.  He will have on jeans or overalls, a white t-shirt, and will probably be wearing a ball cap, which he will remove periodically to mop the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief.  Politely ask him for a barbecue, and remember to tell him “Ray says hey”–he’ll know what you mean.

Good luck young folks.

 

 

**If anyone comments “Hey, that Burger King barbecue is really good!” please be advised that I may hunt you down and spit hot coffee on you.

Omega Update

It’s midsummer at the Omega Project–time to make a report.

 

 

From the humblest of beginnings, my little garden has survived scorching heat, drought, and a myriad of critters (two-, four-, and six-legged varieties).

 

 

This is where we are today.

 

The yield has included an abundance of herbs, three varieties of peppers, two varieties of tomatoes, squash, and sweet potatoes.

 

I have learned a few things that I’ll pass along:

 

  1. If you have limited time and space, raised beds are the way to go.  I’ve had no weeds, and watering is easy and efficient.
  2. Deeper beds are better.  Mine are only four inches deep.  This means that my plants must be watered almost every day in Alabama heat.
  3. There’s a whole world of wildlife out there that I know very little about:  insects.

Self-sufficiency?  Hardly.

 

Could it be done?  Yep.