“Kind Woman: Please say It’s All Right” by Terry Barr

I first saw her as I was sitting on the grounds outside Old Main, gazing up at the shadowing limbs of the oak trees that framed the beauty of this 100-year old campus.

My friend Cheryl sat next to me, her hand casually and naturally resting on my leg. I looked toward the waning afternoon sun and saw Loretta heading our way, trailed by a girl I didn’t know. A tall girl with reddish hair and freckles. And green cat eyes.

“Hey Terry, I want you to meet my niece, Lynne. She’s a freshman this year.”

Lynne was wearing jeans tucked into long brown boots. I couldn’t help imagining her legs outside of those jeans.

Cheryl and I had tried being lovers and maybe we still were trying. So after exchanging perfunctory “Hi’s” with this otherwise quiet girl, I only halfway offered Loretta and Lynne a seat on the ground by us. It was the week after orientation and a Sunday afternoon. A band was warming up on the quad, and summer was still holding on in central Alabama even though we were into September now.

“Thanks,” Loretta said, “but we’re moving on. Just wanted to say hello.”

She smiled at me then, this freckle-faced girl, and let that smile linger. I should have known something then.

But after they left, all I thought was “A very pretty freshman girl, like so many others.”


I tutored for Loretta in the college’s newly-launched writing center. I remember the first student I coached through freshman comp: Bernie, short for Bernadette. She was an able writer and just needed some refining. I helped her move from low B’s to A’s, and maybe it was this success that sold me on a career teaching English. I often wonder what would have happened had Bernie been Bobby, the dyslexic guy who came later and whom I tried tutoring that entire year. Bobby was a sweet kid, and goofy. He kept laughing at his mistakes, drooling a little bit too at my attempts to help him spell words like “freshman” and “thought” and “friend.”

And “help.” He kept spelling it h-l-e-p.

I got paid extra for tutoring Bobby, but whereas Bernie passed her classes and knew the foundations of writing an analytical essay within just a few sessions, Bobby, even after months of help, barely wrote three-word sentences, and even then they were chock full of basic errors.

If Bobby had been my first, I might have pursued a journalism career, as my father advised.

Maybe I could have written an expose about him, too, because before I graduated, I learned from a fraternity friend that the previous Saturday night, a bunch of brothers brought a girl over to the house, one who was willing and, alcohol-aided, able to “pull a train.”

The caboose to this freight was Bobby, the sixth car standing in the line.

As my former friend put it, “Well, we had to get Bobby’s cherry popped.”

I had given up tutoring Bobby by then. If he ever was, he was no longer my problem, this goofy guy who drooled on his own essays. Loretta made sure I knew that his problems were beyond the sort of tutoring any of us could give, and in that, she was more right than she ever knew.

A few weeks after she introduced us, Loretta brought Lynne to a party for all the tutors held at my house, hoping to encourage Lynne to become one of us. Lynne was not as shy this day, and over spiked whisky sour punch, we talked a little. This was my senior year, though; I thought I didn’t have time for freshman girls, what with Cheryl and all my other friends. So for most of that party, Lynne was still just a girl, a pleasant chat.

Yet I remember when she left. I walked her to the door. It was a late October afternoon, colors all around. She left with one of her roommates, as if she needed the safety of another girl. I can still see her walking down the cracked, uprooted sidewalk to the left of my house, back toward campus and her room in Old Main. I had almost turned to go back inside when I saw Lynne look back.

“Bye Terry,” she called.

It was the first time she had said my name, but what should have really screamed “this girl wants you” was the way she caught my eye when she called my name. Like she had literally run back to my front stoop, grabbed both my eyes out of my face, and embraced them in her long fingers.

Maybe I had been looked at this way before, and maybe I have been since. But this time I noticed. It was a look that said, “Follow me.”

Yet I didn’t.

For college seniors know so little, really, about signs and suggestions. About who they are or could be.

A week later as I was finishing my slot in the writing center, Loretta walked over:

“Are you going to the Max Apple reading next week?”

“Sure I am,” though I really didn’t know much about this author of The Oranging of America.

“You ought to ask my niece to go with you.”

“Really?”

“Oh Terry, why do you think we walked over to you back at the beginning of the semester? She asked me to introduce you. She does have a boyfriend back home in Georgia, but I think that will pass.”

I knew that this was one of “those” chances. I knew, too, that whatever I felt about Cheryl wasn’t enough. And I knew that in my stomach I felt the way I did back when my father agreed to stop at my favorite newsstand for comic books.

Anticipation.

The colors behind the cover.

Though Lynne and I attended Max Apple’s reading, I don’t remember what he read, whether I even liked it.

Certainly not how or why America had Oranged.

We both wore faded Levi’s jean-jackets and held hands during the reading. And that night we kissed under the dome light in front of Old Main.

I don’t know why people fall in love with one person over another. Cheryl and I were far more compatible than Lynne and I would prove to be, and I had known Cheryl far longer than Lynne. Cheryl was comfortable, familiar, and many guys envied her long exotic body and how close she and I were.

Yet I chose Lynne over Cheryl.

I loved Lynne in that way my therapist now says is the love to beware of. The love that screams danger like a speeding Amtrak whistle.

Over the next two years, Lynne broke up with me several times, the most excruciating being on the evening after she took me to a rural Alabama farm to meet her grandmother.

“Me-Maw really liked you,” she told me as we left her grandmother’s farm that Sunday afternoon.

Which is why I came undone later that night when she called and asked me to meet her in the quad, at a bench just yards away from where we first met.

“It’s Carlos,” she said. “I can’t leave him.”

“But I’m here. And you like me, right?”

She paused and looked at me. It was the kind of look you never want to get from a girl you love. A look that says, “You understand, don’t you? Aren’t you the kind that understands?”

And even though on this late autumn night under the trees I also thought I loved, I pretended to be that kind of guy for Lynne, I wasn’t. I couldn’t be. For she had just looked me in the eye and told me that she preferred him to me. So no, I didn’t understand.

Later she told me that she watched me weave my way back to my house from her hall window. She didn’t know I was crying, or maybe she did. She might have learned later that I called Loretta some time after 11, not caring if I woke her up.

“Your niece just broke up with me,” I said, sitting in the lighted staircase of my house.

“Oh, Terry. She took you to meet Me-Maw for God’s sakes. You know she likes you. She’s confused. Just give her time.”

But seniors have only so much time.

I left campus early that week, the week of Thanksgiving, intentionally cutting Loretta’s husband Bill’s Southern Lit course. For what could Flannery O’Connor possibly tell me about love?

The day I left, I had already run into Lynne at the cafeteria. Her look of concern and pity was too much. And later, as I was waiting for my brother Mike to drive from our parents’ home to get me, Cheryl dropped by.

“You’re actually leaving? Because of Lynne? Why don’t you stay? We’ll find something to do. My friend Claire is coming tonight and we’ll go out.”

That she almost convinced me was another sign that I willfully blew past.

“I have to. I keep seeing her, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Just at that moment my phone rang.

“Hi Terry. I wanted to see how you’re doing.”

It was anything but comforting to hear these words from the girl who had broken up with me the night before.

I don’t remember what I said, but it wasn’t much. When I stepped back outside and told Cheryl, she looked at me hard:

“You’re right. You do need to get away.”

Cheryl waited with me until Mike arrived, and as we drove away, she was still standing there, on the walk outside my house. I wonder now if I ever thanked her for seeing about me. If I ever really appreciated what she was offering.

Before I returned to campus the next Sunday, I called another girl I knew. Big wheels keep on turning. We made a date for the campus basketball game on Tuesday night, where, sitting directly across the court from us was Lynne and her roommate. I didn’t know she’d be there, and seeing her wasn’t my purpose at all.

It just made everything that much better, at least for a time.

After the game, we all ran into each other at the student center, and there were Lynne’s eyes locked into mine again.

“Hey Terry.”

“Hey Lynne.”

After we passed, I looked back and saw Lynne kind of stagger against her roommate. My date didn’t notice much, or if she did, she never talked about it.

But then, we were never a couple. Not really.

The following Sunday, my phone rang.

“Hey Terry. My mother is here and she wants to meet you. Can we come by?”

I tell my students today, when we’re studying contemporary fiction—like The Perks of Being a Wallflower—that guys truly have no clue what’s going on in a girl’s mind.

This is the experience I’m remembering when I tell them, but I try not to mention Lynne or how she hurt me. It would be distracting and, finally, there is just too much tot tell.

Late that night, Lynne, her roommate Bebe, and my friend Billy all drove 15 miles to the Saw Mill, a 24-hour breakfast place stuck between Montevallo and Tuscaloosa on some strange county highway. As we huddled together in Billy’s back seat, she confessed that “When I saw you with that girl, I was so jealous.”

I thought we were back together then, and maybe we were. Then.

But not for long, or rather, only intermittently, and to this day, I’ve never understood completely why.

Was it Carlos? The fact that I was leaving in a few months? That I loved her too fast?


Despite the periods where we didn’t see each other, where I found others to love, or she did, Lynne always wound her way back, calling me at the most random moments, travelling alone to see me when I moved off to graduate school in Tennessee.

It was only during these visits, however, after we had been so far away from each other, that we became lovers. Loretta had advised me back at Montevallo just to “take” Lynne, but I couldn’t.

I’ve never wanted that kind of love.

I understand, and I think I always have, that when you are in love, you’re quite able to hurt the one you love even at the best of times, but especially when you’re confused. When you don’t know how to disentangle yourself from friends and former lovers.

Having sex with Lynne seemed dangerous and wrong to me back then, when whatever we had was so unstable, when we were still undergraduate students looking for majors and other forms of purpose.

Maybe you understand what I mean.

Even though I was older than her, I was the more vulnerable one, the sort of guy who would get hurt even before our two bodies embraced.

Now as a worldly graduate student whose former love had ridden a bus for six hours to be with him, a guy she couldn’t bring herself to leave, I thought I could handle the intimacy. And maybe I did, by continuing to date the other woman I had been seeing in Tennessee after Lynne returned to Alabama. I suppose you could say that our timing was never right. Or that whatever love we had couldn’t hold us still, couldn’t make our pasts all right.

Lynne and I made love three times, twice on a single bed in my studio apartment in an old Victorian house in Knoxville, and one time, the last time, in her dorm back at Montevallo, at the college where we met. I spent the night with her there, against dorm rules. As we lay in her double bed, looking up at her Tom Selleck poster, I realized that I didn’t love her anymore. Maybe it was Tom Selleck bare-chested and buff, or maybe I realized what she had figured out a long time ago: That one day I would take her away from home and her old life, from the world she knew: a more rural world. A world back in Austell, Georgia, where her Daddy preached against fornication and other sins of the highly-educated liberal life.

For in that way she had of looking so deep within me, she realized that she was truly the mature one. The one able to see what exactly she could do, and what she couldn’t.


It was not long after that last time—the time in her dorm when I got up at 5:30 in the morning and snuck out while it was still dark and drove the 25 miles back to my parents’ house and ran into my Dad as he was leaving for work—that Lynne called me. We had let things drop, and while I hadn’t forgotten her, I had almost quit thinking of her. But she wasn’t announcing a visit or break-up this time:

“Uh Terry, I hate to tell you this, but I went to the doctor yesterday, and he said I needed to tell you.”

Of course, I knew what she was about to say. Of course I didn’t know what we would do. Of course, as usual, I was wrong.

“My doctor says I have venereal warts, and that I probably infected you. I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m so embarrassed.”

I assumed that she had never broken up with her old boyfriend. But then I wondered if she was seeing a different guy. We had never promised each other fidelity. We were always so free.

So I accepted her news. I told her I appreciated her telling me and that I hoped she was OK.

“I am. Believe me, Terry, I’m so sorry. I’m so stupid.”

I can’t remember what else I said though it was surely something lame, something less than genuinely comforting.

“I’ll talk to you later.”

Maybe she said that or maybe we both did. In any case, that was the last time I ever spoke to her.

I remembered these scenes again when I began reading Loretta’s husband Bill’s memoir, Captain Billy’s Troopers. At one point in his narrative, Bill recounts the day he and Loretta got married in Birmingham, a gathering where Loretta’s sister Annette and her three children accompanied them. I thought about that passage: those three children.
Of Lynne.

But here’s what you never knew Lynne. You weren’t to blame. It wasn’t you who gave those warts to me, but I to you. There was a girl I met at a bar. At, oddly enough, a gay bar in Knoxville. We slept together a couple of times, and it was after that that I noticed my warts. I know we had been together somewhere during this time, too, Lynne, but in my heart, I never believed it was you. I’m sorry and I always have been. I should have said something, and if I could look into your eyes right now, I would.


Terry BarrTerry Barr has an essay collection coming out this winter: Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, drawn from his life in Bessemer, Alabama. It will be published by Red Dirt Press.

“Honeymoon” by Joy Krause

She paused midway up the last porch step carefully avoiding the rotted wooden edge to listen to the night’s silence. She knew that sound, had known it for her fifty-two years. She smiled in reverence to Trinity, North Carolina’s country nights.

Barbara’s porch features two paint chipped rocking chairs. She sits in one and begins moving back and forth slowly, the stillness still attached to her weathered face, “I’m just a country girl. I live at a dead end street. My neighbors are wonderful. We all know each other. I’ve lived there for years and years.”

Buster, the black & white, totters up the stairs and moves close to Barbara’s hand for a head pat, then eases down belly to wood. His three brothers follow and repeat the ritual. “These are my children.” Buster snorts.

“I don’t have family. Both of my brothers got killed. My mother is in a nursing home. My father’s gone. I have no children. So it’s me and my dogs and I like it.” The dogs, like Barbara, were comfortable with routines and remoteness.

A smile softens the deep crevices around her upper lip. She stops rocking, starts remembering and lights a cigarette.

Deep inhale. “I love crime shows.” Exhale. “That’s how I met Jamie.” Pause. “I was watching Almost Got Away With It on TV one night. I’ve always watched these shows, just didn’t pay attention. But this one got my attention. Oh yeah.”

The episode featured former honor student and star athlete Jamie Wiley. On November 24, 1990, 15 year-old Jamie Wiley picked up a shotgun and methodically gunned down his stepmother Becky, and two of his brothers, Jesse Lee 13 and Tyrone 5. When his ten year old brother Willy ran out of the house, Jamie reloaded the shotgun and went looking for him. He caught Willy in the front yard, dragged him back into the home and shot him in the head. Once everyone was dead, he set fire to the home. When it was engulfed in flames, Jamie walked to a neighbor’s house and called the fire department. Jamie has been in the Wyoming prison system for over twenty years.

As she reminisces about the first time she saw Jamie on TV, the cigarette ash grows longer and licks her finger with heat. She shakes her hand quickly, the ash falling to the floor, she stubs out the cigarette and leans forward with young eyes. “So I watched the whole thing and at the end of it I looked up the prison’s address on the Internet and wrote to him.” Buster’s eyes open, he stands up, reconsiders and settles back down.

She is suddenly cautious. The lighter flame against the end of another cigarette. Deep inhale. Slow rocking. Eyes ahead. “This might sound morbid, but I’ve always wanted to know how it felt to kill someone. I mean, I don’t think anybody could say that they haven’t felt that way. What would it take for someone to kill their own family?”

There. It is said. Her silent thoughts exposed. Her eyes snap open. The rocking abruptly stops. The air becomes prickly. Buster is on his feet, followed by his brothers. Then, like Barbara, they begin pacing back and forth from one end of the porch to the other; like Confederate troops marching into battle.

The troops stop suddenly, Buster bumping headfirst against his brother’s back leg. Barbara slaps the porch post. “So, I thought…I’m going to find out. I’m going to write him.”

“So I did.” She sits back down and begins to rock.

“And he wrote me back.”

Honeymoon_1It had been raining the day the letter arrived. Barbara slogged through the muddy path to the mailbox and opened the dented tin door. There were the bills from Peace Electric Co. and Archdale Animal Clinic, the April issue of Country Living and an envelope stamped in red Inmate. Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution. She gasped, stared at it, looked around quickly, then hid it tightly against her chest and ran toward the porch, each muddy step spraying water up her legs. She was covered with wet grit.

“I stumped my toe running in the house with the letter, and when I was holding it before I opened it, I thought I’m holding a letter that, excuse this, but I’m holding a letter that a murderer wrote.” Tap. Tap. Tap. Raindrops on the tin farmhouse roof. She opens the letter. Tap. Tap. “Hi Barbara, what are you doing today?”

“You ready for this? My favorite TV station is that religious one, Trinity Broadcast Network. I watch all their shows. And the second thing is – I always told people when I get out of here I want to live in North Carolina. So I get your letter and it’s from Trinity, North Carolina. It’s fate.”
She rests the letter gently on the pine knotted kitchen table and gets up. Standing over it, she looks down at its large curly letters as she savors the thrill of danger and of destiny.

The letter contains a killer’s friendship request. It has traveled from a prison cell, to a dirt road mailbox, over a weedy path, up a porch’s rotted steps, into a lonely heart. A heart that had sworn off all men and relationships ten years earlier.


Reaching up to put the dinner dishes back inside the pine cabinet, she stops and stiffens, noticing the dent inside the cupboard door. “This was where my head landed.”

The dent is the size of a tennis ball. “A lot of people don’t like the way Jamie and I are writing each other but I was married to a man worse than him. I mean, he raped me. He beat me for five hours and never went to prison for it.” She closes the door to the memory and sits. Then a cigarette. A tear. No more cigarette. Many more tears. “Last year he beat his girlfriend to death.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m a magnet for killers.” I look at the dent in the cabinet then at the growing stack of letters from Wyoming Correctional Institute she has accumulated during this last year.

An amber light drifts in through the faded blue and white ruffled kitchen curtains, caressing her face and softening her skin to a luminescent youthfulness. “I feel so sorry for Jamie. I know he’s done what he’s done, but he’s paid for it. People change.”

Jamie’s parents divorced when he was five. He stayed with his mother in Florida while his younger brother moved with their father across the country. His dad eventually remarried and had two more sons. Jamie’s mother dealt with her loneliness by swallowing pills during the day then taking Jamie into her bed each night for comfort.

Between the ages of five and fifteen, Jamie was invited to visit his father’s new family three times. In 1990, just after his fifteenth birthday, his father decided that Jamie would live with them and he could bring along his beloved spaniel, Sandy. His step-mother did not want Jamie there, causing much disharmony between her and her husband.

For a few months, Jamie thrived in school. He wanted desperately to please his father. He won school wrestling matches then came home and studied late most nights to maintain an A average . At home, however, his father and stepmother continued to argue. She felt Jamie was an intrusion in their family’s lives and she wanted him gone.

One afternoon Jamie came home from school and Sandy didn’t run up to greet him. His stepmother walked into the living room. Jamie turned to her.
“Have you seen Sandy?”

“He ran out of the house this morning and a truck killed him.”

Jamie walked into the back bedroom and quietly loaded his shotgun.


Rocking gently back and forth, back and forth, porch floor slats creaking rhythmically, Buster snuggles in Barbara’s lap. She gazes out at the night. “Jamie’s the smartest person I’ve ever known. Since he’s been in prison he’s earned a college degree and has lots of computer awards. If I’m having a problem with my computer, he tells me over the phone how to fix it in two seconds. He says he wants to make a million dollars and take care of me. Can you believe it? He wants to take care of me.”

“I’m not someone that really loves, I’m a loner and I’m scared to love because I’ve been…I can’t say that word.” She says that word. “I’ve been shit on so much. Before I met him I didn’t feel like I had anybody else that cared about me.”

Nearly a year after that first letter, Barbara flew to Wyoming and visited Jamie in prison. “It was just like I pictured it. He grabbed me and kissed me. It was the first time he’s ever kissed a girl.” Jamie proposed to Barbara that day. She said yes.

Honeymoon_2It is unlikely he will ever be released from his Wyoming prison. Barbara will stay in the North Carolina farmhouse where she grew up. They will never be physically intimate because conjugal visits are prohibited.

She will marry Jamie soon by signing a document, having it notarized and sent to the prison’s warden. With Jamie’s signature it becomes legal and they are husband and wife on paper.

Holding up a keychain braided with colorful strands of plastic gimp, she says, ”Jamie made this for me.” She twirls it around, then sets it down on top of the stack of letters.

“This is a perfect relationship for me. Jamie loves me unconditionally. I have my independence. No one is trying to tell me what to do, where to go, how long to stay. Most of my relationships have been like the Honeymooners. With Jamie, I feel like I really am on a Honeymoon.”


Joy Krause is a creative writing student at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. For several years, she has researched the psychology of serial killers and the people who are attracted to them. She recently completed a documentary film called Serial Killer Groupies – A Love Story.

“Hot Mouth” A Memoir on Memory” by Nicola Preuss

August 2006 was the beginning of third grade at my new school. I tried on many made-up personalities the first few days, picking them out like dresses from my closet. I tried having a sassy attitude and that didn’t work in my favor, so I tried to be obnoxious with loud, usually unnecessary laughs, but I was too annoyed by the fakeness of my own voice, as if I had practiced each word in front of the mirror that morning. So I tried on silent and obeying, and that wasn’t exactly me either. My skin told me it wanted to burst. Maybe my uniform was too tight.

I wore glasses on the second day of school, they were a cheap pair from Walgreens or some other drug store, with lavender rims and rectangular lenses, but they got uncomfortable so I took them off. Can’t you not see without your glasses? I lied to them, saying that I was getting new ones. I didn’t need glasses though. I just wanted to look smarter, more unique, more un-me. Smothered like a worn book, buttered like bread at the dinner table, stuffed like a turkey.

I called two peppy blonde-haired girls, Keely and Rita, my best friends. We ate the same flavor sno-balls on Thursdays at lunch and laughed at the same things, so we were good friends. Weeks passed slowly and I was formally invited to my first sleepover. We made cookies with Keely’s mom and then jumped on the trampoline. I didn’t like trampolines; I felt out of control. I didn’t know where or when to land and that uncertainty stained me, nudged me. There wasn’t enough room in the bed, so I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag. I was freezing but I did not ask for extra sheets. I used my forearm as a pillow. I wanted to be in my own bed, with my own mother, my own food, my own blankets and my own dog.

That night I dreamt that I could not open my eyes and I couldn’t tell if my father or my mother was yelling at me from across the street. But I could taste. I tasted cherry jellybeans and spearmint gum, sitting in the cave of my mouth. I did not want to be red anymore; I did not want to feel so red. I wanted to be bright blue flying through polluted air and exhales, having no spare time for fear.

I woke up early, around eight o’clock, and pretended to be asleep until the two girls woke up. I looked at my feet and saw a puddle. The puddle had just been electrocuted. I looked again and there was no puddle. There was no ground. There were no feet. But I could taste. I could taste the dry cereal stuck between my back teeth and snow, I tasted snow but there wasn’t snow. It doesn’t snow in Louisiana. I looked outside the bedroom window and there was not a sun, either. I was the night sky. When the ceiling greeted my face, I smile. The fan was on, moving full speed in my body. whirr whirr whirr. How many seconds did I have left to wait? I think I had grown a new skull.

Makeovers were suggested. I didn’t know what this meant entirely but I knew I wanted to put makeup on. I knew I wanted to be pretty, or to feel pretty, or to feel, or to be. I knew I wanted that. I was twelve; I wasn’t ready. Keely’s mom allowed us to use her old makeup and we locked ourselves in the guest bathroom. They blindfolded me with toilet paper, pressed brushes and their fingers onto my eyebrows and cheeks. I felt beautiful, even though I could not see myself, I felt prettier than I was thirty minutes ago. They giggled to each other, which they did often, so I didn’t think much of it, I giggled too.

About fifteen minutes must’ve gone by when they took my blindfold off, laughing hysterically. I looked in the small mirror next to me and saw a monster, saw a girl who was not me. They made me a clown, put bright red lipstick all around my mouth, touching the tip of my nose, alarming. They put mascara on my eyelids and colored my eyebrows black. I laughed, still as a bird, but I remember feeling ill, drained, almost. Maybe I wasn’t still, maybe I was shaking. My mouth was dry, though.

They skipped their own makeovers and decided to go outside, as long as I put on an old Halloween witch costume and didn’t wash the makeup off. I was too scared to say no. Or maybe I did say no. But it didn’t matter, didn’t change the storyline or the time or the date or the foundation choking my pores. I tasted a bitter taste, like salt and nail polish remover, settling onto my tongue and my throat. We went to the backyard, and thankfully, there was no one outside, but then appeared the next-door neighbor, who looked at me and looked down immediately after. I was too embarrassed, or too stupid, to move. I told them that I was too cold or that I needed to use the bathroom. Doing so, I called my mother, I don’t remember how I did because I didn’t have a phone, but somehow I reached her. And soon enough, I was in the passenger seat crying so hard my mom stopped the car at a gas station to buy me some lollipops. She held my face, or the steering wheel, probably the steering wheel, and said sorry, as if it was her who painted storms on my face. I tasted baby wipes and the steam from the hot shower I took when I got home.

Childhood was not a challenge; it was a form of dedication, something dancing in between wonder and a will to live. I did not know the difference between existing and surviving. I still question it.

I exist. I exist. I exist.


My mother raised me, with occasional help from my father, whose job was to take me out on fun dates, like the park or the local swimming pool. She, my mother, always asked me to thank my doctor for checking my ears for infection. Instead of just smelling, sniffing the air like a dog, I tasted antiseptic, hand sanitizer, soap, the nurse’s perfume, and the cold pressing against my skin. And how could I forget my camp counselors, who made me do laps with the other girls when I was terrified of the green, mucky, Tennessee lake water and what was swimming underneath my toes. I tasted sweat on my upper lip. How could I forget the school nurses who called my mother about seven times a month because I could not, did not, understand why other kids enjoyed teasing me about my height and making fart noises. I tasted anger on the car rides home. It was red and hot in my mouth. I tried sucking lollipops but then I tasted sour anger. And I did not like that taste.

A journal entry:

“I smelled rain but the sun was out,
shining on my face,
turning my skin
a darker shade of pink.”

I will not forget the beating inside my head when I tried to break my hand against my bed frame just to get a cast. I tasted x-rays and the gauze I stole from the medicine- cabinet. I tasted attention that kept me full for a few days, but then left me even hungrier. One time I lied about not believing in God in front of my Girl Scout troop leader, I tasted my thumb and the shocked faces of my peers. Shock was what I valued, what made me feel special. The night I ran away into a section of trees in the golf course and waited for my mom to come looking for me, I tasted gold. Maybe I had a war dancing around the floor of my knees. Maybe I collapsed. I wanted to be a building. I wanted to touch the sky but only if I could stand still with my feet grounded.

Pressing my bobbed head onto streetcar windows, I tasted my grandmother’s hand lotion, and walking on Bourbon Street when I was thirteen, seeing too many screaming drunk men without shirts on, I tasted a Shirley temple. When the Saints won the Super Bowl, I cried of happiness, but not because the Saints won the Super Bowl, because the whole restaurant was jumping up and down and screaming and hugging each other. I haven’t seen excitement like that again. I tasted my dimples. I will not forget my first movie night with both boys and girls invited. I was hoping that a boy would sit by me and share his popcorn with me, but I sat on the last seat of the girl’s row by a girl named Sam, who was also pretending not to be ignored, while everyone else was jumping from one seat to another, and one girl was even making out with a boy and it was the first time I’d ever seen someone kiss like that in public. I tasted the edge of my flip phone. I bit down.

I was alive. But when I tried to feel my heartbeat, I could only feel the incline of my breast.


Did I have a place to fall down or was it rock bottom? Maybe I was at the bottom of the ocean. Maybe that’s why I felt fins brush against me instead of hands.

I remember the meals I rushed through. I watched my mother as she watched me from the corner of her eye. She probably noticed the way I ate, hurried, and maybe how angry I got when we discussed abuse together. It sank into me, but did it sink into her? They flourished inside of me, my beliefs, my attention seeking hobbies, my drawings, my need for special thoughts of me. I believe they were a part of my making, my body, and my skin. I would sometimes feel her glance at me in the car while driving, so much defeat and fatigue in those cheeks that caved in. All she saw was a blank slate, but maybe she felt thousands of pricks underneath her feet and palms. \

Doctor’s visits were not the hell other mothers told her they would be. There was no excessive crying or stubbornness at the doorway of the clinic, but there was something else throughout the years that grew with each doctor and each cold, fluorescent-lighted room. She watched me as I had my ears prodded and breathing checked. I felt her watching me as the male doctor pressed down on my stomach, asking if anything hurt.
She did not cry when I went to camp for two weeks, at least I didn’t see her cry, but maybe she did when she noticed the sadness in my first two letters and my doubt about flying on the airplane. I was always nervous walking through security, somehow convinced that inside of me was a hidden bomb. There were no cell phones or email permitted, but I needed to talk to my mother. I needed to get out. I called her from my camp leader’s cell phone. Something probably like:

Hi, it’s….from… Nicola is here with me. She needs to talk to you.

Hello, we miss you at home. What’s been happening?” straight to “Mom, I need need need to come home. I am crying a lot and there are so many big bugs in my bed I cannot sleep. There is too too too much and no breaks in between. I have no friends and I am scared and I don’t like tennis.

School wasn’t always so difficult. Most days, the earlier ones, when motivation and routine went hand-in-hand, I would tumble right out of bed to eat breakfast and get dressed in my school uniform. However, there were days of refusal, days of sickness, days of frustration, and of sadness. Only in eighth grade did I begin to not wake up when my mother went to my room in the morning, but she kept checking, constantly, kept popping her head through the door or calling my name from the kitchen, the three loud syllables stumbling from her mouth, still dry from night. She couldn’t worry about why. She had to worry about me missing school. That was her job: to get everyone to work, school, or appointments on time and safely; that was her job. Looking back, those mornings must have seemed nearly impossible.

I had unraveled and was spreading like a pool of water. A spark went out and I missed the chance to save it. We both did. There were days when I could get out of bed, to the kitchen table, and out the door in thirty minutes, but they usually followed by calls home, telling my mom that I was not feeling well enough to be at school, and that I’d like for her to pick me up early. Did it scare her? She must have had her doubts. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to school, but that I did not have the ability to. My body ached all the time and I was exhausted, always looking for my next nap or my next meal. Sleep took me away, buried me under the covers for hours after school, and stopped me from doing my homework or talking to my family. I would wake up and still feel tired, mentally and physically. My bones felt heavy against my skin and my ears rang and my fingernails were bitten to the cuticle and my face was being picked at and bled and my hair started falling out in the shower so I stopped showering and then my body needed more food so I ate and ate and ate until I could no longer feel the empty shell around my stomach. I tasted stomach acid. I tasted bile. I tasted air.

I hated discussing religion, trying to convey that the concept of God is full of shit. But my argument was weak; in fact, it almost always included me raising my voice and shaking my head, saying, “I can’t talk about something so stupid.” It amused her, my mother, but I imagine it also warmed her, how I was so willing to disagree. I don’t know where the hate came from; I just remember it happening instantly, as if I had changed my mind about the world over night. My mother never made me pray, never forced me to church unless it was Christmas Eve or Easter, never bought me a bible. So when I first told her that God wasn’t real to me anymore, as with Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny, I wonder if it hurt. God meant faith. Faith meant hope. In her eyes, no matter if God was real or not, the thought of salvation calms her when she becomes cynical. But I didn’t have that. I didn’t have that faith that so many kids my age had, it vanished and she had not seen it coming so soon.

I drew myself every chance I got; I’d pull out a box of crayons and markers at the dinner table and draw the same picture over and over again, in different colors. The girl was a stick figure with brown square hair and a smile so big it almost touched her button eyes. Sometimes I would draw us both, my mother and I, standing side by side, with that huge little-kid sun in the left corner of the page, electric yellow or orange, sun rays reaching her hair. Journal entry, 2013:

Momma
there’s a rock in my boot
And the dog is scratching
at my door again
I found your necklace
in the backyard by the tree
A sheet of dirt

Momma,
I’ve been pressing
a hot rag to my cheek
to clear the mountains
sprinkled on my salt skin
There is no warm water left
and the kitchen is not clean,
in fact, it might be gone
Empty coke cans align the hall
to my noise and my room.

Momma, my stomach has a pulse.

Does she remember my dimples? She saw those so often and now does she forget that I have them? When I speak, the skin under my eyes curls up, and the two dimples at the sides of my small mouth are deep, soft indents.


Nicola Preuss is a Creative Writing student at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. She started journaling four years ago and discovered poetry, which led to an intensive study of various writing genres, such as fiction, prose, personal essays, playwriting, and magical realism. She recently won a Gold Key for the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and will be receiving her award at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She enjoys Virginia Woolf, creative essays, discovering new music and taking care of animals.

“Kindness of Strangers” by Louise McKinney

—wherein the reader finds a monologue recorded aboard St. Charles Avenue’s streetcar line, Uptown, to Canal

I’m walking up Felicity Street in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District, trodding over broken sidewalks crumbled to pieces by heaving roots of the live oak. An elderly black man, the only other person on the street within earshot, calls out a greeting from opposite side, “How ya feelin’, dawlin’?”

I look around, not sure he could mean me. Big Easy familiarity.

Where I’m from (Toronto), people don’t talk to each other on the street. People whirl by on the sidewalk with a singular bead on destination, silent and fast enough in passing to twirl you like a top.

Then it happens again. I’m “making groceries” at Schwegman’s where I’m told shelves are emptying fast because people are preparing for their “hurricane parties,” since a storm is headed our way from the Gulf. I’ve just emerged from the store to be confronted with bruised storm clouds, black, purple, silverish, mounting in almost vertical dimension on the skyline. A sudden fresh gust.

Mm-m-m, the house is just a quick walk from here, I tell myself. I can make it. And off I go, yanking the bundle buggy and creating a terrible racket in my wake—but no such luck. That sky cracks open with thunder and torrents of water begin to fall. Bowing my head I dodge some crepe myrtles that are blown almost completely back and take shelter under someone’s front door awning—then begin waiting it out. That is until a young woman almost obscured by her golf umbrella sidles up and stands beside me, peering into my face: “Miss, can I walk you home? Looks like you might be here some time, awaiting out this storm.”

Then, in yet another deluge (they seem to come daily, almost like clockwork, in subtropical New Awlins, 11 a.m. and 3), a delivery man running between shops in the French Quarter says he’s going to save me the soaking and drive me back to work after lunch hour, and buys me café au lait while we while away midday as the storm rages on. . . .

In two final affronts to my mien of cultivated urban detachment, one day a Royal Street bank teller calls me “Dawlin’” and, while I wait at her wicket to make my withdrawal, she commiserates with me over the cost of living today and how tough it’s gotten. Just a couple days later, on St. Patrick’s Day, a New Orleans Police officer taps my shoulder at a parade and forks over a cute fuzzy green stuffed frog he’s managed to snag while waiting for the next float to pass on by. . . Oh? Well, thank you! (Frankly, I’d heard so much about the “N-O-P-D” –usually in sentences combining the words “police” and “brutality.” This behavior didn’t jibe with the stereotype.)

What gives? I’m not used to all this. . .warmth.

Ahh-h-h, but wait. Pretty soon the Mississippi River’s medallion sun must have its effect, and I think now I’m beginning to feel my extremities. No one can remain too, too cool in this hothouse of a climate. And it’s not long before I begin to anticipate—even depend on this—“kindness of strangers.” It was here in New Orleans, at 632 St. Peter Street, that Tennessee Williams penned A Streetcar Named Desire. And it was here in a Vieux Carré walkup that Blanche Dubois famously confessed her weakness: an over-reliance on others’ compassion that perhaps she felt she didn’t earn, or perhaps didn’t even deserve. . . .

As it turns out, I learn not only to rely on it, but I fall in love with it. And every morning I “get-on-up” with the man I call (quietly inside) the “Sex Machine,” James Brown of the New Orleans Regional Transit. Here he comes now, conductor of a forest-green 1920s-built, Perley Thomas St. Charles Street trolley emerging from vanishing point, way down Carrollton. He’s this morning’s performer, every morning’s savior, mixed blessing, sit-down comic. His long dark Jeri curl hairdo is slicked back. Great dark muscled arms take the wheel, skin the color of the skin of an eggplant. With saintly prayer cards fanned out for viewing on the dash, pants and shirt so tight to bursting—he’s the very nexus of sacred and sexual. And, yes, “Dawlin’,” as they say, “he be lustin’ after the ladies. He be drivin’.”

The trolley pulls up to Burthe Street Stop, at the Riverbend, and we’re destined for the Central Business District in downtown New Orleans. It’s first thing in the morning, and only the start of summer, but things are already heating up. The streetcar’s electric mechanisms, its power train, sound like humidity, if humidity had a sound. It resembles a big green metal cicada with that particular nonstop droning—rocking, electric whirring. Metal wheels on the track all in sympathetic syncopation. . . . And before he even gets to the stop you can hear his bass voice through wide-open windows.

I board. (Will he speak. . .?)

The mechanism of Brown’s metal box laps up in my fare like a sly green tongue. Swallows. His eyes pick me out. He’s staring straight at me. . . beam of coal-black pours steadily my way, rests awhile at the collar of my blouse, flutters down V neck.

Take a seat, I command myself. Tuck in skirt.

(Won’t you ravish. . .?)

The car’s rocking sound now merges with the heat, with cicadas’ chirring, and the whirring of this car. Sound makes stimulation that insinuates through Mississippi River delta, down to the delta of Venus. . .

“Hold that wagon now, Poppa,” James Brown sings out cheerily to the elderly gentleman in an ancient car trying to overtake the trolley and cross the tracks before the car arrives. Brown throws his arms up to protect his face in mock abandon as he makes the motions of crashing purposefully headlong into the car. “I’m comin’, I’m comin!!

But now a pretty Creole girl with fine brown legs is getting ready to debark. He calls after her solicitously, “Have a good day, dawlin’. Have a good day, Little Momma!” Smiling. He stretches his rubberneck until it’s well nigh broken as he watches her saucy booty disappear around the corner. Soon we’re on our way again.

Now the morning traffic’s really heating up—cars, trucks, buses glide under St. Charles’ leafy canopy. And New Orleanians assume the look of people actually trying to get somewhere.

“Here come the train, watch that little wagon,” James Brown shouts out the open window, laughing away, wholly entranced by his own jokes. “Hold that work-wagon, or Ah’ll knock all the wheels off’it!” he growls, but is still smiling.

“Tou-roh Hospital—if you sick, we gonna getchoo well again,” he shouts out in sing-song. We’ve managed to come a good many blocks now. Ahhh-h-h-h, yes, and we’re nearly having fun aboard this excuse for public transportation, the region’s best amusement ride. High speed? Not. You see, we, all of us in the car, are in cahoots. We’re laughing silently at the ridiculous commuters who don’t know that James Brown of the New Orleans Transit is having his way with them.

“Move that buggy, you got another buggy waitin’,” he scolds one driver right now, imperiously, through the open windows. “Streetcar drivers, he’p us out, now!” he pleads in falsetto. “Come on, ol’ mule.” Brown encourages his steed: “I’m pushin’, too!”

Then there’s quiet for awhile as our conductor rolls the light-blue cotton sleeves of his uniform up to the shoulder, exposing muscled biceps, triceps. His triceps have triceps! Pant cuffs are rolled and show bright white sports socks sagged down around sturdy-looking brogues. Looks like he could push this thing the rest of the way if he had to.

“Step right up!”

Here comes the morning riffraff, mounting the trolley’s steep steps with fare ready: “Step right up for the St. Charles Streetcar—don’t hold this buggy up.”

“Come on baby, full speed ahead—comin’ on through,” he’s cajoling, “Where y’at?” (the standard Crescent City greeting). He turns his miraculous torso quickly (it looks like an Etruscan statue’s) and it seems as though he’s about to throw his conversation to someone like an Olympic discus. Now we’re closing in on Felicity Street and, just before it, the beautiful old dowager Pontchartrain Hotel. Visitors are boarding hesitantly, ever so slowly.

“Don’t put that credik [sic] card in the box!” James Brown whips out this command at an old lady who almost mistakenly slides in her VISA card; he begins castigating them all, wearing a furrowed brow of mock despair. “You’ll be in bad shape.” He turns around to all the passengers, ruing the dunces the Good Lord has seen fit to deposit on his car today: “The tourists are just wakin’ up this morning, y’all.”

“Come on in with your credik cards!” (Now Brown has quickly forgiven us and we’ve come to know what the prayer cards are for. The right-hand bower among them is St. Jude, a favorite in this city’s hagiography. He’s the patron saint of impossible causes—something New Orleans to this day is quite familiar with. . . .

“Man, it’s always good to have good credik, but cut them credik cards up, y’all,” Brown advises. “They’s nethin’ but trouble. And them ATM machines? They otta call ’em automatic trouble machines, especially over by the casino. Lord!. . . .”

And now we’re all off again.

Come on wid’ it. Comin troo!!!” He adjusts the wide rear-view mirror, little to the left, little to the right. “Now I can look ’em in the eye. Gonna let ’em have it.

As we go on skirling ’round Lee Circle, heading up through the CBD on Carondelet, I’m thinking about the workday ahead. I get up out of my seat early so I can be ready to debark at Canal. I don’t want to trifle with James Brown’s patience or lay any more insolence on him than he’s already endured. The hordes of commuters at Canal are massing ‘round the stop, ready to get on the trolley for their ovoid route back Uptown. I’m wondering if he’ll say anything to me because, just now, I can see him visually devouring my leg. The glance nibbles my calf and disappears, gliding up and underneath the hem of my dress. He thinks I don’t feel it, but I do.

Just then a mockingbird that’s been singing lustily from the scalloped edge of a storefront blue-and-white canopy swoops down and alights on the branch of a sidewalk sapling. The tiny tree in its concrete planter begins to sing. All’s right with the world.

“Have you a good mornin’, Little Momma, little dawlin’.”

And I do. I know that I did. . .

Now if only I were there waiting, in that very same spot, bound for home. Waiting expectantly on the arrival of the St. Charles car. Waiting, once more, to be reminded of my own humanity.


Louise McKinney_1Louise McKinney is originally from Toronto but lived in New Orleans throughout the ’90s. In 2006, she published a book about the culture and cultures of the Big Easy entitled Cities of the Imagination: New Orleans (Oxford University Press). It was favorably reviewed in The Times-Picayune, The Independent, The Guardian, and New Orleans magazine. Currently, she lives and teaches in Atlanta, GA, and is a faculty reader at The Chattahoochee Review. Her poetry, stories, articles and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of North American journals. Her website is www.louisemckinney.net.

“The Lyric” by Tom Whalen

I could check the exact release date for In Search of the Castaways, a 1962 Disney adventure starring Hayley Mills, but it’s enough to know that the wind off Lake Charles is cold and damp and the neon lyre above the letters L Y R I C hums in the twilight. At thirteen I’m happy to be alone. My mother has dropped me off in front of the Lyric Theater and will pick me up again when I call her. A rare event for me to miss the evening meal, but becoming less so—my brother will likely be at basketball or band practice, my father still at McNeese Esso. Perhaps my mother won’t have a meal to prepare this evening and will spend her time in the empty house grading papers or watching a Perry Mason rerun. “Enjoy yourself,” she says as I pull my London Fog overcoat (black with hidden buttons) tighter about me and step out of her two-toned ’56 Chevy. “Call me when it’s over.”

I could walk home after the movie instead of calling for a ride, but walking would take almost an hour through regions of the city not altogether familiar to my pubertal self, past Weingarten’s Supermarket and Thibodeaux’s Saw Shop, two of my markers on my way home from downtown, but also open fields, railroad tracks, mansions (at least to my lower-middle class eyes) and slums, a confusion of Pak-a-Saks and liquor stores, an Esso station (not my father’s, his isn’t on the way home from downtown), a Conoco, a Gulf, and dark would have fallen two hours before. Today is Thursday, tomorrow a school day, though perhaps it’s Christmas time and that’s why I’m out on a week night. But no, I’m sure it was a school night and the lessons to learn as oblique as ever, in fact present already in the lobby of the Lyric, though how could I have known it then? The lobby takes me in, little Jonah, fleshy Pinnochio, about to be swallowed whole into the story.

Is the girl I’ll soon meet already here?

I don’t know. The posters and stills for the coming attractions call to me, but this evening I move quickly deeper into the lobby’s popcorn-spiced air toward the concession stand with its bouquet of moonpie-sized suckers and Paydays, Fifth Avenues, Zeros, Boston-baked Beans on display. The concession stand lady in her red vest is cracking a roll of quarters on the side of the counter; the coins rain into the register. From her, with the remains of my summer lawn-mowing money, I purchase a pack of Pom-poms, then hang out in the lobby for a moment, flicking the snap-on band of my watch open and closed, open and closed, like worrying a scab, the solid click, the give and take of the metal as it snaps shut.

Am I here only to see Hayley Mills in a movie?

Yes, already felled, as perhaps only an adolescent at that time can understand, by her performances in Tiger Bay and Whistle Down the Wind, dark black-and-white tales of childhood and perception brought over from England after her successes in Disney’s Pollyanna and The Parent Trap. I am here most of all to see this actress on the screen again. The need to be alone, it seems, secondary to the pleasures of watching Hayley Mills, even if only in this rickety Disney adventure with her as Mary Grant on an island in search of her missing father. Though alone enough on this day—the cold, the gray, my London Fog coat, the theater, the stained carpet, its golden lyres faded, the air stale from years of popcorn and sweat and the thick, warm Gulf air.

What other than Miss Mills interested my 8th-grade self?

The year before, I write a research paper on cowboys, draw a Picasso-esque chap on the cover of the notebook, paste pictures from magazines, the material only as interesting as the American Educator Encyclopedia allowed, but the object itself—the drawing and pasting of the pictures, the feel of it—meant more to me than the potted history I’d written. Shortly after turning the work in to Mr. Houston, I start my first novel, a baseball tale modeled on the books by the contemporary masters I was reading then—Bishop’s Larry of Little League series, McCormack’s Bronco Burnett, Bee’s Chip Hilton with his buddies Soapy Smith, Biggie Cohen, all as wholesome as Holsom Bread, the bread of choice in our home.

What else was I reading that year?

The Hardy Boys. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m not keeping a list yet.

Had the girl watched me as I entered the lobby, ticket gripped tight between my finger and thumb? Perhaps she was in the restroom or coming down the stairs from the balcony in search of someone like me, or perhaps it was the weather outside, night falling fast, the fact that children aren’t supposed to be alone at the movies, perhaps this is why she comes up to me and asks, “Do you have a light?”

Of course I don’t, but she is thin and her hair long and her face not at all unpretty. Surely she’s no older than I. But I don’t have a light, am only thirteen, and shy and very sorry I don’t have a light. Lord, why didn’t I have a lighter? What is she thinking? The same as I in my dark gray London Fog overcoat with the collar turned up in the back and masturbation at least a half year before begun?

And isn’t she, too, wearing a long dark coat? Was this the affinity that attracted her?

Size and shape and the late afternoon light going fast in the lobby and at the most only two or three other patrons in the huge theater, and she coming down from the balcony stairs.

I pat my pants pockets. “Sorry,” I say, “I don’t . . .,” but already she’s drifted away and the lazy usher tears my ticket and I sail down the aisle toward the front of the auditorium.

How many times have I taken this journey in movie theaters? By now, four to five hundred—in Baton Rouge, Texarkana and Magnolia, Arkansas, and now Lake Charles, Louisiana in the Lyric, the Paramount, the Pitt, only these three left after Hurricane Audrey five years before closed down three other city theaters and as many drive-ins, as if a giant hand had swiped through the middle of the screens, leaving only a U-shaped skeleton and rubble.

From all the way up here at the top of the aisle to all the way down there, down front, where I always sit. A bank clerk on the back row stares at me as I pass, as if I had entered his room without knocking. But the librarian arranging her shopping bags in the empty aisle seat beside her acknowledges me not at all. Today I veer to the right at row five, I don’t know why, but all that emptiness between me and the other two patrons, and me as small as Scott Carey shrinking and shrinking, the incredible shrinking man, my favorite childhood film—the transformative fog, the battle with the spider, the Magritte matchsticks, the descent into the infinite—and I, too, smaller than small in the enormity of the theater.

Nervous, distracted, I sit down and wait for Miss Mills to take over the screen, watch the previews blur past while I peel Pom-poms off the clump melted in the box. The encounter in the lobby still taunts me with its possibilities. She must be in the balcony. She couldn’t have only wanted a light. But I don’t carry matches or a lighter, not yet, and I preferred down front with the world above, not below me, preferred where I as a child mostly sat, seldom in the balcony, so I did not follow her up the stairs, no matter how hard I told myself I should.

Hayley runs toward the camera, hits her spot, and in low-angle throws her left forearm above her as the sun strikes her troubled forehead, and then someone touches my shoulder, says, “Can I sit here?”

I make room, the film shattered, silly, irrelevant to the moment, the back of her legs touching my knees, her hips for a moment obscuring the garish colors on the screen. She slumps down in the seat beside me, her hand grazing my right arm. Nothing now but the overwhelming sense of her, the rain-cold cigarette scent of her, her quick breaths, as shallow and terrified as my own.

“What’s your name?”

I tell her and ask her hers.

“Glenda Demaris.”

“Where are you from?”

“Westlake.”

“Did you have Miss Arnott in the sixth grade?”

“Yes.”

I don’t tell her I know she is not Glenda Demaris because I knew a Glenda Demaris who sat in the back row of my class over a year ago while I attended sixth grade at Westlake Elementary where my mother was in her last year of teaching before transferring to Brentwood a few blocks from our home. For nine months I rode with my mother or with her colleague Jane Perry and one of Jane’s two daughters across Lake Charles to Westlake, a small town nestled under the bridge and petro-chemical plants. For the rest of the day I would be at the service of Marge Arnot, my mother’s best friend and my sixth grade teacher, who often sent me on errands into town. I would stay for hours in the public library or wander the town with Margie’s handwritten, undated pass allowing my release, spin the book carrousel in the drugstore, buy a soda at the Tastee-Freeze. Altogether a magical year, strange and all my own, from trapping flying squirrels which no child should ever have done, no child should ever not instinctively know not to do, to my three loves in the classroom: Sherry LeBlanc, dark-haired and as smart as a whip who one day cries out and faints from appendicitis and is carried out of the room by an ambulance crew; and Donna Lee, the beautiful tomboy who really was one of the top three in baseball and basketball on the playground; and Barbara Dennis who sang “Tammy” at the school talent show I was chosen to emcee. Not that being the teacher’s pet didn’t have its downside, but I was only chased, never caught on the playground by the bullies of the school, and in the afternoon while my mother graded papers in her classroom, I strolled under moss-laden oak trees at the side of the elementary building, dug holes in the dirt, shot marbles by myself, sang “I love to go awandering across the mountain plain, and as I go I love to sing, a knapsack on my back.” If the world was flawed, it wasn’t by much. (Then why one day do I break out in a rash the moment after I’ve turned in a test I had worried over for a week?) That year Glenda Demaris sat in the back row and I seldom talked to her. A shy girl, not altogether pretty, rather plain, a bit overweight. Not at all the girl in the seat beside me, her hair and coat ghostly with cigarettes, cheeks splotched from the cold, her thin shoulder touching mine.

Why had she lied about who she was when I hadn’t?

“Will you come sit in the balcony with me? I don’t like it down here.”

Nor today do I. The auditorium is too big, the cave too bare, the images on the screen no longer compelling. But the twilight is full of promises, some I can only barely discern, others deepening into the folds of fantasy and memory formed over my already richly sexual life. The bathtub, the woods, the bamboo, the alleys. Magnolia’s fever dream, Baton Rouge’s beginnings. Whatever it is we take with us down the corridors of the self that lead to this walk back up the aisle behind the girl in the dark coat, as thin as I, her hair, as best I can tell in the screen-lit dark, a light brown, perhaps tinged in the summer with red, but now plain, lusterless, as ordinary as this day is not.

If she weren’t from Westlake, how could she have known the right lies to tell?

Westlake was where she was from, I didn’t doubt that, only knew she was not who she said she was, knew she was lying.

Did she, then, know me?

Perhaps she might have heard of me—less than two years had passed since my time in Westlake—but she didn’t say. I followed her into the balcony, to the corner in the back beside the projection booth, the side opposite the booth’s door, wondered if Mr. McCallum, the father of a friend of my brother, were projecting the film, wondered if he might have spy holes to look out onto the balcony at us. Why else were we here in the balcony’s back row, the highest point, the darkest, while light coned out to the screen?

“Do you want to do something with me?”

In her fear and desire, her adolescence, surely she was as confused as I.

I slid my hand into her blouse and she did not stop me, but held my hand over her breast, and we kissed some more, both of us eager for that which will never happen no matter how we lose ourselves in the other or the moment or whatever it is we’re after, oblivion, I don’t know, only this surge toward it. Like suicidal lovers we step off the cliff, and her eyes for a moment gleam in the dark, our words lost in the whir of the booth beside us and the screams of Mary Grant’s siblings as they escape from cannibals, though in every sense nothing is right in our fumblings, our kisses too hard, my hands fingerless paws, the caramel taste still thick in my mouth, her hair sour with cigarette smoke, our mumblings monosyllabic “do you can I yes yes yes,” and her hand now in my pants, fumbling there.

Not long and I came into her hand.

Lucky boy.

Perhaps.

And then?

“You can touch me here, if you want,” she said.

But my heart’s no longer in it. I’m still too young, too unsettled and naive to share. Uncomfortably we sit, led into temptation with or without grace, two children, but only barely, holding hands in the balcony of the Lyric Theater, then not holding hands but wondering at the distance between us and the screen, us and our lives, while Hayley and her siblings evade a volcano.

Afterwards, I walk downstairs with her, wondering if we’ll ever meet again. The lobby is empty. No evening viewers line up yet for the next feature.

Outside, huddling in his long coat under the marquee, a man smaller than I (her father?) awaits her. She does not say goodbye to me, nor I to her, already lost as we separate.

I finger a nickel out of my jeans pocket, then call home to tell my mother the movie’s over.


whalenTom Whalen has written for Agni, Bookforum, Film Quarterly, Georgia Review, The Literary Review, Mississippi Review, The Southern Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. He teaches film at the State Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, Germany.

“Separate, But…” by Terry Barr

Secrets are opened in moments like this:

“Daddy, why are you and Mommy sleeping in different bedrooms?”

The befuddled Daddy stares at his six-year old son, a boy not old enough to understand that he wasn’t supposed to ask this question, though he feels the disruption to the natural order of his life.

I watched this boy’s face wonder and wonder, and I felt all of his confusion.

I felt his age.

However, this was only a movie about a madman threatening to “pick the little kiddies off one by one” as they rode their daily school bus. If the madman is a zodiac, then what sign hovers over separate bedders?

What’s wrong with us? We tolerate brutal violence in our media on a regular basis, but one day we decide that we can no longer tolerate someone we’ve lived with longer than we’ve lived with anyone else. All the years that we loved: where do they go?


I remember the day I first heard Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” a song that had about as much popularity as I did back when I was fourteen.

Most of my friends blasted Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, or the Stones. Fourteen year-olds flee intimacy and inner truth as passionately as they plot to sneak out of houses on late summer nights. Intimacy drew me, however, in the same way that I had to look more closely at the objects stacked in a certain order on the top shelf of my father’s closet. When I first heard Carly’ song, I moved up in my seat, leaned toward the car radio, and turned it up. My mother was driving us to the mall where I would meet my friends and hang out somewhere between Musicland and Expressions, an actual head shop with black-light Mr. Natural posters and coke snuff. At first, it was Carly’s voice I heard, eclipsing the story she was revealing. It was one of those songs that like any other ballad should have caused me to look down, look away, look anywhere but at the car radio, the person driving, or in the eyes of anyone who might understand and agree. I should have pushed the button on the dial to the next station down the kilohertz path, seeking “Honky Tonk Women” or even “Smiling Faces.”

But I didn’t push a button on the day I first heard that song. I listened on in part because I trusted the DJ’s on WSGN (“The Big 610”). And in part because a girl who could sing like that was somebody I wanted to love.

The song wasn’t in “heavy rotation,” so I didn’t get to hear it often, and even when I did, I probably pushed my preset WAQY or WVOK buttons because my buddies Jeff or Jon might have been riding with me and of course Carly wasn’t boy-cool. Of course, I couldn’t show them that I had any room in my adolescent life for someone else’s pain.

I remember, though, listening to it late at night, on the hand-me-down Magnavox AM radio sitting on my night table. I remember sinking deeper into the covers of my bed as Carly sang about the house she had to call home.

Life, and songs, force even fourteen year-olds into a consciousness outside themselves. On another summer day I’m riding in a green Volkswagen with a young woman seven or eight years older than me—someone I’m supposed to trust. She sings in locally-produced musicals and loves Streisand, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King.

And Carly, whose song, after the weather update, soothes its way into our conversation. She turns the radio up and sings knowingly:

“My father sits at night with no light on
His cigarette glows in the dark…
I tip-toe past the master bedroom where
My mother reads her magazines.
I hear her call ‘Sweet Dreams,’
But I forget how to dream.”

I hadn’t thought about it until then, until I heard the twin voices: separate bedrooms. That’s what the song whispers—a secret that the singer is admitting, sharing. A secret that, as I look at the woman by me who’s lost in her own reality, isn’t such a secret anymore.

Picturing the images and scenes that the story conjures: that’s my generation’s experience with pop music. My parents never got this. Periodically, withstanding as much of my radio tunes as he could, my father would complain: “They forget about melody and harmony, because all they want to do is tell a story.”

That was my Big Band era father, a jewelry salesman, a man who thought I studied English because I loved the finer points of grammar.

“He’ll never understand Carly or James or Neil,” I thought. Back then, I didn’t completely understand their stories either. But they all felt true.

They felt true because the young woman in the green Volkswagen started having affairs with boys my age, and her husband, I assume, followed suit. For a while they stayed together in their little house with the screened-in porch where I once went to a party and drank too much Canadian Mist. But there wasn’t enough mist to prevent me from seeing clearly their two bedrooms.

And from remembering all I had seen before.


Through adolescence I often spent the night with Dickie, one of my best friends. His family lived outside of town on a remote stretch of road in the country where they had built their own house. They had a private lake and a swimming pool that even in the middle of our sauna Alabama summers would turn a hearty person blue at the mere toe-touch of water.

Dickie was an only child and so staying with him meant that we had uninterrupted hours of playing board games, wandering in the woods with his white German Shepherd, and staging desperate but orderly car races with his Hot Wheels set.

At night, things were so quiet at his place that, even though we slept in bunk beds and Dickie let me have the top, I often got scared and homesick and begged to be driven home. Their house had been burgled before, but Dickie’s mother reassured me that everything would be all right. That we were safe. And as much as I continued to worry, she was right: everything was all right. For me at least.

Dickie’s Dad was a musician in his spare hours, playing Shriners Club affairs and wherever else Big Band music was desired. He loved Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, just as my own Dad did. But unlike my Dad, Dickie’s wasn’t always around at night.

Also unlike my father, when he was there with us, Dickie’s Dad wore silk robes, ascots, and while my Dad didn’t smoke at all, not only did Dickie’s father smoke, he also used a cigarette holder for his Carltons. He was also the first person I knew to drive a Porsche.

Still, my friend’s father was always nice to me, just a bit formal, stand-offish. My own mother described him as having a “quick temper,” but I don’t remember ever seeing it displayed.

Dickie’s mother, though sweet, was rather plain looking: short, somewhat bow-legged, with the thinnest hair of any woman I knew. She was the first woman I knew, too, to buy a wig. I suppose it made her feel prettier.

But it must not have helped, not where it really counted. After all, the evidence was right in front of me.

We were eleven or twelve then, and on the morning after one of our sleepovers, I walked down the extended hallway to Dickie’s room to get something for one of our games. Passing by the “guest bedroom” on the left—where my grandmother had slept on the one occasion she came with me in order to paint the beauty of the woods and lake around Dickie’s house—I noticed that the bed had been recently used.

I looked across the hall at Dickie’s parents’ bedroom, and that bed had been slept in too. That’s where Dickie found me, stuck between two former lovers: “Uh, Dickie, don’t your parents sleep together anymore?”

“I guess not, not for a while anyway.”

“Oh.”

And that’s all. What else was there for us to say? We returned to our Hot Wheels double-elimination tournament with our diecast-metal and painted Firebirds and Mustangs and Deoras.

But every time I had to go to the bathroom at the far end of that long hallway, I passed those facing bedrooms and considered again and again what it all meant.


Despite my absorption in pre-adolescent games, the secret world kept finding me. My sixth grade teacher was a very young woman, straight out of grad school, who formerly belonged to a clique of high school girls who sunbathed with our next-door neighbor, Nancy. I used to watch them from my bedroom window in the room next to my parents’ bedroom whose own window faced a different side of the house, the back end. From their double bed, you could see pecan trees, and in the distance the brown stone South Highland Baptist Church. But from my window, all I saw was a white stone patio and several teenaged girls in two-piece swimsuits. Sometimes Nancy, and Beth, my future teacher, waved at me. I was just this six-year old boy looking out a window at four or five or even six high school beauties.

I thought of this scene as Beth, now Mrs. Thames, explained to our class the intricacies and beauty of pop culture: the complexity of “Sgt. Pepper” and her favorite song, “She’s Leaving Home.” And the romantic pathos of her favorite new film, The Graduate. She especially loved the ending when Ben and Elaine take that bus to nowhere. From her words, I fell in love with the film, too, though it took another twenty-five years before I finally saw it on a home VCR.

However, it kept its real secret from me for an even longer time.

My profession today allows me to teach a course on Film and American Culture, and in it, I invariably assign The Graduate as essential 1960’s viewing. What better example of American culture than plastics, age-inappropriate adultery, and the aimlessness of privileged college grads!

This last semester, one of my students wrote her major essay on the film, and in her excellent analysis she discussed the scene where Mrs. Robinson confesses to Benjamin that she and Mr. Robinson have been sleeping in separate beds for some years.

I discovered then that there are some secrets that I’ve forgotten I remember.

So in the privacy of my office, I re-watch that scene.

In Benjamin’s face I see the flickering of other scenes, other memories, and maybe a dawning truth. I wonder what my sixth-grade teacher thought when she saw that scene—if it spoke to her too? But as I gaze at the empty spaces this time, I do something that I can’t believe now that I never did before: I begin adding up all the separate beds in my past.

When I tell my wife about my hauntings and countings, she tells me that my reaction to separate beds has always been dramatic: “One night apart, and you’re OK. But let it go onto the second night and you get anxious and have to remind me that you don’t want to end up like your parents!”

“Yeah, it’s definitely one of my primal fears, up near the top with ‘angry white men,’ pictures of open hearts, and the Book of Revelation.”

She laughs at this and so do I. But these fears are just the ones I’m telling.

We don’t sleep apart often, but the reality is that I’m a very light sleeper, and my wife has trouble breathing through her nose. So on occasion, one of us hits the couch or, now that they live away from us, one of our daughter’s beds. But I find that sleeping apart doesn’t really help me sleep.

It’s just a different kind of wakefulness—a state that finds me wondering why I’ve chosen to sleep separately from the woman I love. So I return, for nothing feels quite as good as slipping back into our hand-crafted bed and listening to her breathe, even though she may be doing so in very irregular rhythms.

Sleeping apart doesn’t necessarily mean your love has died, and I know ours hasn’t. But as my friend “George” puts it, “It doesn’t help,” intimacy either. So despite knowing how sound we are and that we don’t live in a separate or secret world, on those fitful mornings after, I worry.

“The couples cling and claw, and drown in love’s debris.”

I believe that I was intimate with Carly’s words before I ever heard them.


Shortly after we were married, my wife and I were visiting my parents. When we got there, I saw that my mother had redecorated my old teenage bedroom—the one I moved into after my grandmother died–with Civil War battle prints, Confederate swords mounted over my former bed, and the faces of Lee and Jackson staring at me from my past-life dresser. I wondered if I had ever occupied this room. Where was my deep-orange suede trunk, my old stereo that sat on it, and all those vinyl LP’s that used to collect dust in the corner of the room?

And that radio?

“I’m sleeping in here now,” my mother said, her voice taking on the accusatory tone that had now become its default position.

“When my elbow was operated on,” she continued, “I had to wear a cast, and I was just too uncomfortable to sleep in that double bed with your Daddy. So I started sleeping in here until the cast was removed. But your Daddy never said a word to me about coming back, that he missed me, kiss my foot, or anything. So I just decided to stay in here. Do you like it?”

Figuring that the “it” meant the décor, I said “Yeah” with as much enthusiasm as one normally finds in that word. Besides, Nouveaux-Confederate just doesn’t grab me.

Knowing, too, that the “it” was probably not an invitation for me to comment on my parents’ sleeping arrangement—although how can I be sure that she wasn’t asking for sympathy, or agreeable outrage on her behalf?—I tried to mask my feelings of horror. I tried to recall all my visions of my parents sleeping side by side and let them overwhelm this new and indifferent reality.

I envisioned those years when my childhood bedroom adjoined theirs. When I’d pass through it some early mornings on the way to the bathroom, sometimes I’d see them lying with their arms around each other. Getting back in my bed then I felt warm and safe. Comforted.

Once, long ago, I thought they were so happy.

I knew that hadn’t been true for some time, but I still had this illusion, this comforting image: this illusion that their marriage wasn’t an illusion. This illusion that at night, despite a day full of disagreement that kept them emotionally apart, they would end the evening together.

In the same bed.

Staring at a room, at a configuration that I no longer recognized, I began thinking of all those TV sitcoms from the 50’s where married couples slept in twin beds. I couldn’t understand it then: why didn’t they sleep in the same bed like my parents did? Weren’t they in love and happy?

I thought my parents were the standard, that the marriage bed wasn’t merely symbolic. That a home was a home, and everyone kept to the script of his and her assigned places, just as we did at the supper table. Just as we did with all of our closets, our dressers, our bathroom towel racks, our seats in front of the TV.
And, of course, with the bedrooms that separated us all, equally.


When I think of these revealed secrets, the separate realities that I’ve put together, I envy the innocence of the little boy in Zodiac because without any understanding of why, he could invent reasons, could convince himself that his parents’ sleeping arrangement was only a temporary reality, that it didn’t mean anything, that nothing was truly wrong, and that the reason for this uncovered secret might be as simple as that one of his parents had hurt an elbow; that one of them was snoring too loudly.

He might not understand completely, but he might just go about his business then, and if a spend-the-night friend asked about his parents’ bedrooms, he would simply shrug and explain that it had been going on for a while, that it was nothing big, and then go back to his Hot Wheels or Carly Simon records hoping that this horrible reality would fade.

And it will fade with time, as we get used to the arrangements we’ve made. Or the ones others have made for us as if we have no concern in the matter, no feelings, no voice. As if we can make a lasting peace with the secret world that found us on the radio dial, in the theater, or in the form of a woman sitting too close to us in a cramped Volkswagen car.

As if we can make peace with the reality that we’ve forgotten how to love or why we ever did so in the first place.

That we can sleep peacefully through the night in removed spaces, waking up refreshed and with a newfound sense of purpose.

That, though there may be another person in the house, we aren’t clearly and utterly alone.


Since being published in Steel Toe last spring, Terry Barr has also had essays published in The Museum of Americana, The Montreal Review, Orange Quarterly, and Scissors and Spackle. He is also a regular contributor to the web-zine, culturemass.com, where he writes on pop music and memory.

Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man (Excerpt) by Frank “Doc” Adams and Burgin Mathews

Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, released this fall from the University of Alabama Press, chronicles the life of Dr. Frank Adams, a local jazz icon and a ceaseless and inspiring educator. Drawn from more than two years of interviews with collaborator Burgin Mathews, the book presents Doc’s incredible story in his own words, telling along the way, too, the often overlooked story of jazz in Birmingham.

In this excerpt, Adams recalls his experiences playing with trumpeter Joe Guy at a spot, well on the outskirts of Birmingham, called the Woodland Club. A figure largely unsung in the history of jazz, Guy had performed and recorded with Coleman Hawkins’ influential orchestra; he had helped comprise, with pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke, the house band at Minton’s Playhouse, the after-hours New York nightspot that witnessed the birth of bebop; he had been involved, professionally and romantically, with Billie Holiday, whose band he briefly led. In 1947, in a raid on their New York hotel room, Guy and Holiday were busted for narcotic possession. In the trial that followed, Holiday was sentenced to a year and a day in a federal reformatory; Guy was acquitted, broke his ties with Holiday, and slipped back home to Birmingham. Today, Joe Guy most often appears as a footnote in the history of jazz, a promising player whose career was cut short by addiction and whose story ends with his severance from the legendary “Lady Day.” According to one of Holiday’s biographers, Guy “permanently dropped out of music” after the trial and split; in the words of another, he “faded back down South where he was born.”

Back in Birmingham, Guy teamed up with Frank Adams, who had just begun his decades-long career in education and was putting together his own band for what would become a fourteen-year weekly run at the Woodland Club. In Adams’s reminiscences, Guy emerges as a warm if eccentric mentor and friend; a master musician, even after his fall from the jazz elite; a good man and a powerful artist haunted by the demons of his addiction. Guy passed away in 1962, at forty-one years of age. Eighty-four at this writing, Frank Adams remains today a tireless and inspiring performer, teacher, and storyteller.

The following excerpt is printed with permission from the University of Alabama Press.


I had some of the best years of my life when Joe came back home, with all his experience and all these things he would tell me. We would be playing. And you know how people like to collect memorabilia, or they want to be related to some great artist or something. You run into these kinds of folk: they want to impress you that they’ve been there. This guy would come in the club and he would say, “Listen.” Said, “Joe, I know Billie Holiday. And I know you had some problems. I’m so sorry that you and Lady Day had to break up.” Said, “I’m going back to New York tomorrow, and I’m going to see her.”

Joe’s sitting there. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, I’m going. What do you want me to tell her?”

He thought a minute. We were listening.

“Just tell her . . . a little dog says: bow-wow.”

Joe worked for me for years and years at the Woodland Club, and he would often have to go to Lexington, Kentucky, for a cure. I remember one time, which was probably prophetic, he came to the home and we were sitting on the porch–he had just gotten back from Lexington–and I said, “Joe, we missed you.” I said, “Look how wonderful you look,” and I talked about what we were going to do together–he said, “Well, we can do some things, but it won’t last.”

“What do you mean, it won’t last?”

He said, “It just won’t last. I’ll be back out there again.”

I said, “No–look at you! You’ve picked up some weight, and you’re thinking good, and your skin looks good–”

So he told me something I never will forget. He said: “Once a junkie, always a junkie.”

He said, “You just can’t cure it.” And he said, “If I ever see you try it, I’m going to kill you.”

I remember Art Pepper, the saxophone player, said that the first time he got high off of heroin, he knew that that was his life; he didn’t want anything else. He just did it ’til he died. Joe was like that. And even though I was a mature man–he wasn’t much older than I was–he was very protective of me. He was like a brother: “Don’t you ever, ever try it. I’d come from anywhere and kill you–because you don’t have to do that.”

I remember that, and I always have a soft spot with Joe.


Something I often think about: you had these guys in the music business that had these wonderful minds, and you wonder–what could have happened to them if they hadn’t gotten hooked on drugs?

I found out–one reason that musicians turn to narcotics–they hear this music in their head. I do. You probably do. You hear these things in your head, but you never, never can produce exactly what you hear. It’s critical to musicians. You get a guy who hears these demons in his ears–you hear him playing and you say, “That was magnificent.” But he says, “I didn’t do what I wanted to, man.” He hears something else. He could be sitting down, trying to work it out, and he can get some of it–but just when he gets that, before he finishes it, here comes something else. So he says, “Maybe if I can get a little taste of something, to make me relax, I can reproduce it”–but that drives him further away from it. He goes back again: “Maybe this time I can do it.”

It’s like searching for the Holy Grail. You can’t find it. And a lot of musicians lose their sanity.

Some people, like Ellington and other great musicians, had sense enough to say: development comes in time. Duke Ellington would say, “Wait ’til next year.” And Sun Ra: he made a decision that he would hear these things from outer space, but he would take his time in dealing with them. But the anxious say, “Hey, I hear it, I hear it; up here I hear it, man. So let me get something to make me cool down and do it.”

It’s like Shakespeare said: some people can succeed, but they have that one damn spot. That one damn spot. That no matter what you do, that thing’s going to come and get you. You step on the worm, but the worm’s going to eat you in the end. That’s the kind of thing some people have. We all have our frailties.

Some of the things that Joe Guy played were beautiful–most of them were–but there were nights that Joe would be sickening, because he’d hear these things in his head and he’s got to go and get a fix to make it come out. He would try to get something that could make him climb to a level that wasn’t natural for him to climb at that time.

I noticed Joe’s behavior could be bizarre.

He lived not too far from me, and we’d take him home. I remember one night, we got home real late–it was just before day in the morning–and Joe said, “Can I come in a minute?” I said, “Sure.” I thought he needed to use the restroom.

My sweet mother was in there, asleep. Joe went back to Mom’s refrigerator and started cracking all these eggs and swallowing them: just cracking eggs, cracking eggs, and swallowing them. Mom got up: “What in the world are you doing?” She had never seen anything like that. To the day she died, she would say, “What was wrong with that boy, eating up all my eggs?”

Joe had two trumpet mouthpieces. Both of them were old. He would take a mouthpiece, and he’d play something, like “Winter Wonderland by Night.” If he missed a note, he’d take that mouthpiece and slap it–“You’re no good!”–and put it back and get the other one. In about an hour, he’d slap that one: “You’re no good, you rascal.”

He would say–what was the word?–“Shuckaluckaduck.” Shuckaluckaduck. He would say these things, and we didn’t know what they meant, but we knew he was happy when he’d say that.

Shuckaluckaduck. Joe Guy.

Joe was another one who opened me up to a lot of things. We would play together, and he said, “Turn your back; your back to my back.” We’d put our backs together and play–and we could really hear each other. I had never thought of that.

He’d say, “Anytime you pop your eye.”

“What are you talking about?”

He said, “I’ve watched you, and when you pop your eye a little bit”–I didn’t know I was doing it–he said, “then you’re really playing, man!”

Joe’s thing was, he wished I could be in “fast company.” That I could have been another Charlie Parker if I had been around fast company. But he said sometimes I’d be playing and I’d pop my eye–and then the real Frank Adams would come out.

I remember, we’d be at the Woodland Club, and we’d have somebody come and sit in with the band. They’d come after hours, after we’d played our regular set, and they’d bring music for us to read. All the young arrangers, some of the well-known white composers—they’d come with their little pieces: “Play this,” and “Play this”; “Play this,” and “Play this.” Joe would sit there like a soldier, in this militaristic pose he always had. He’d have his horn in his lap, straight up, like a rifle–he wasn’t going to play anything.

They’d say, “Let’s have a jam session.” You’d get ready to play, and Joe would hit you: “Don’t play nothing. They’ll steal everything you’ve got.”

One thing about Joe: he had class. He had been around classy people, and he had class. He knew exactly what to do, and he knew exactly how to do things. He did not put down any music. You might hear another fellow say, “I don’t play anything but bebop,” or “Those guys over there are dumb.” For example, the things that Louis Armstrong did back in 1920 were marvelous, but somebody would say, “Oh, that old crap–I don’t want to hear that old slavery-time music” or whatever: “Man, get hip, get modern.”

Joe never did that. He always found something good in music. And whatever he did wrong, he did to himself: it was his self-destruction.


Once we were playing at the Woodland Club–these are things I remember so vividly–and Mr. Red [the owner of the Woodland Club] was drinking heavily, as he would usually do. He had some of his cronies around the bar. I guess he wanted to show off. It was after one of those big University of Alabama games, and he was really inebriated.

At this time Joe was really himself: he hadn’t had any drugs or anything, he was just Joe Guy. He was doing fine.

Red was the one drinking. He stopped Joe at the bar, and his friends were there with their beers. He said, “Joe, they tell me that one time, according to DownBeat, you were the third greatest trumpet player in all the world!”

As I like to say, Joe was like a soldier. He had been through all of these things, and he was at home, nowhere to go. He’d wear this old blue suit–a lot of musicians have these blue suits, where they’ve worn it out, and the stripes break loose, and they shine and all.

He said, “That’s true, Mr. Hassler.”

Everybody was listening. “Now look at you. Man, you’re down here in my raggedy old place, playing out here with Frank Adams and all of them–you sure have fallen from grace. And they tell me you were the top of the line.”

We’re hearing this. Dot was getting angry. She said, “Why don’t you say something, they’re just insulting Joe like that?”

We knew Joe was a good guy. He’s dressed up in those shiny clothes, with this old, beat-up trumpet–but when we got married, the first telegram we got was from Joe. He was supposed to be such a down-and-out, but he had this class about him. I wasn’t getting disturbed, because I knew Joe could handle himself.

They were talking: “Yeah, Joe, you’re such a has-been, and washed out,” and all that kind of stuff. “What you got to say about it, Joe?”

Joe said, “Mr. Hassler, I’ll tell you one thing.” He said: “It’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.”

Boy, you could feel the climate in that club, and you could hear a pin fall.

He had this dignity about him. It’s like he said: “A little dog says, bow-wow.” When you reach the bottom, you’re at the bottom. How far do you want to deflate me? I’m a dog: bow-wow. Nothing I can do.

But better a has-been than a never-was.

That had a profound effect on Mr. Hassler, and it had a profound effect on the ones that were standing around. After that day, they still didn’t call him “Mr. Guy,” but you could see this respect coming from them. Before long Mr. Hassler was telling people, “I got the best musicians here. That’s Joe Guy.” And all those who would come down to the Woodland Club with their arrangements or to jam—they didn’t say it, but they knew that he was one of the greatest in the world.

That’s why they would come out there: after they got through playing their thing, they wanted to hear the real thing.


Burgin Mathews is a writer, teacher, and radio host in Birmingham. Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, his new book with Frank Adams, was published this fall by the University of Alabama Press. More of his writing, including the self-published Thirty Birmingham Songs, can be found at www.ladymuleskinnerpress.com. Burgin’s “downhome roots radio hour,” The Lost Child, streams online at Birmingham Mountain Radio every Saturday (9-10 a.m. CST) and Tuesday (9-10 p.m.).

Dr. Frank “Doc” Adams is a lifelong educator and a master musician whose credits include work with Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, and others. For five decades he served Birmingham City Schools, first as teacher and next as director of the district’s music programs. Inducted to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1978, Doc continues to teach free Saturday jazz lessons at the Hall of Fame, where he also offers deeply personal, informative and entertaining tours. Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, his new book with Burgin Mathews, was published this fall by the University of Alabama Press.