Wednesday, 23 June 2010


Harriet writes doggerel. She improves. Harriet writes verse. She improves. Harriet writes poems. She's enthusiastic. She's single-minded. Harriet works at it. She keeps a notebook in her apron. A pencil stub is fastened with string.

Harriet works at it. She's single-minded. She can't be distracted. She will cut Jed off. She cuts him off midstream. Her poems are important. Her poems are personal. Her poems survive.

Harriet's poems give a view: They tell of love. They speak of loneliness. They seek deliverance. They pray for redemption.

Harriet writes one called Torn:

There ain’t no pennies from heaven
That ain’t just stones in the pathway
Rather be forgot than forgiven
And set free from this dark place
I don’t mean no aggravation
And to you sir, I wonder
If you can give me salvation
Why did you tear it asunder?

Sometimes Harriet has a tune. Sometimes she sings. Sometimes she lullabies her boys to sleep. Jesse goes out like a light.

Ray stares into the blackness.

The axe and the chinaberry tree

The axe blade is sunk deep into the wood. The axe blade glints darkly.

Moss grows fat on the handle. Rust grows deep into the blade. Oxide bleeds deep in the hardwood. Oxide bleeds into the grain. The axe sticks fast. The wood flesh binds. The wood flesh enfolds. The scar deepens.

The chinaberry tree adapts.

The young boys grow. They're like sandy-headed tiger cubs. The roll and tumble. They cuff each other and tussle. The play each other and hustle. The young tigers fight. The tigers break free. They taste their own blood. The tigers break out. They taste their own tears.

he axe blade is sunk deep into the wood. Jesse pulls the axe. It won't come. The blade bites hard. The handle thrungs. Jess moves on.

The chinaberry tree grows. It grows slowly: there'll be time enough for dances. It grows straight. The wood flesh enfolds.

Jed pulls on the axe. It won't come. The blade's bitten hard. The handle thrungs.

The chinaberry defies. Jed gets an idea.

The tiger cubs grow. They look to the sky. They look for a vantage. They look to climb. Jesse makes an attempt. Ray stays below. Jesse overweans; Ray plays it low.

Mark it: the first step up to the upper reaches: that old axe handle. Jesse ascends. Jesse aspires. Jesse gets stuck. It's too great a stretch.

Jed scratches his chin. He looks at the tree. He pulls on the axe. The axe won't come. The blade's bitten hard. The handle thrungs.

The chinaberry defies. Jed gets an idea. He makes for the shed.

Jed comes back with old screwdrivers: a route to the stars. Jed bangs them in, a step up at a time: a stairway to heaven. Jed bangs in more: a route to the heavens.

Sap runs galore. Sap runs like tears. Sap runs like rust. Rust flows into the blade. Oxide bleeds deep in the hardwood. Oxide bleeds into the grain. The old blade hold fast. It's sunk down to the handle. The wood flesh binds. The woodflesh enfolds. The scars deepen. The sap runs galore. The chinaberry weeps.

The chinaberry tree adapts.

Jesse climbs at once. He makes the low branches. He scales the upper reaches. He gets a view.

Ray stays below. Ray plays it low.

Jess makes it his home. Jesse makes it his sanctuary. Jesse spends hours at the top of that tree. Ray stays ground level. It's that axe.

Sap runs galore.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Guinns in Toccopola

There is a picture of the Guinns in Toccopola. A journalistic record. It is pre-spring, the year of our Lord, 1933. Walt Mitchell and Truman Lyon are the real deal. They are journos in the field. Mitchell takes pictures, Lyon writes words. They work freelance. They tag-team the South. They work on assignment. Their assignment is crime. They track the reportage. Reportage takes time. They call their piece Prose and Cons: Reporting Crime in America. They sell it to Millions magazine. It makes the cover, February 1933.

Mitchell and Lyon are the real deal. The real deal hits the road. They go far and wide. They come through Toccopola and run out of gas. They stop a few days. Lyon take copious notes. They leave no stone unturned. Mitchell take lots of pictures. All kinds of stuff.

Mitchell is Snap-happy, Lyon verbose. Lyon gregarious, Mitchell morose. Lyon sows wild oats, Mitch keeps his close.

Harriet sees Lyon. Lyon clocks. They hit it off. Opportunity knocks. There's repartee. Lyon sets up an interview. Lyon prepares to take notes. Mitchell prepares to take pictures. He runs out of film. He runs to the truck. He runs into Jed. He runs out of luck. The interview stops. The boys beat a retreat.

Lyon: snooped round her door. Howled at the moon. Begged her scraps. Harriet gave nothing.

Mitchell took snaps.

The writers got bored. The writers moved on. They packed up their stuff. The writers were gone.

They left a memento. They marked out their time. A sepia portrait. A record in time.

The portrait reveals: Jed is wiry. Dark-featured. Clear eyes. They're pale. They're almost hidden in sunken sockets.  Jed is naked to the waist.  Jed is filthy from the field. Jed is fully six foot, but narrow. Jed lacks heft. Jed has an abundance of bones.  Jed has an abundance of scars. Jed is stitched up from his belt buckle to his ribcage.

The portrait reveals: Harriet Guinn is tall. She's willowy. She has olive skin. She has long black hair. The ghost of a smile plays on her lips. Harriet looks down. Harriet averts her eyes. Harriet is demure. Harriet is uneasy with the camera in her house. Harriet's mother was a Cherokee beauty. Harriet's father was a redheaded brawler from County Kerry.

Harriet was gentle. Harriet was volatile. Harriet had two speeds. Harriet could blow like a volcano - hot, fast and infernal. She could be still like a deep pool - cool, clear, dark and eternal.

The portrait reveals: Harriet has her mother's looks.

The portrait does not reveal: Harriet has her father's temper.  It comes on as fast as a late summer hurricane. It is gone just as fast. Same sort of damage.

The portrait does not reveal: Harriet Guinn is pregnant.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Toccopola, Mississippi

Toccopola is a village. Toccopola is a bunch of railroad huts. Toccopola is the intersection of Church St and Route 334. Toccopola is the rural Mississippi archetype. Toccopola is the black heart of America.

Toccopola is miles from anywhere. "Anywhere" is Dogtown, Mississippi. Dogtown is to the west. Dogtown is miles from anywhere. "Anywhere" is Tupelo. Tupelo is to the east. Tupelo is somewhere.

Last time they bothered to count, the people of Toccopola numbered 189. One hundred and eighty-nine stubborn souls, spread amongst the same few clapboard sheds that lined the 334 when it was put there.

At one end of the main street stands a stark wooden building. It bears a sign. The sign is rusting. It wheezes and groans. It says “DANCE”. At the other end of the street stands the church. The church is American Gothic. The church is burned out. This church is a silhouette. The church, too, bears a sign. The sign is rusting. It wheezes and groans. It says “SALVATION”.

It’s been a good while since folks living in between felt the need for either.

Jed came from Detroit. He had a pretty girl. It was 1929. All seemed good.

Jed built Fords. Jed was not alone. Jed had sixty thousand co-workers. All seemed good. But in 1930, sales tanked. Production cut in half. In 1931, sales tanked some more. Production cut in half again. All seemed bad. Old man Ford cut them loose. All of them. Jed was not alone. Old man Ford cut them all loose. There was unrest in the city. The workers marched. Jed packed up. The workers marched by the thousand. Jed sold up. The workers threw rocks. The cops opened fire.  Jed left town. Jed set out for California. Jed took his girl. Check it: Jed headed south.

Roll forward eighty years. Toccopola gives little cause to stop.  That hasn't changed since Jed and Harriet pulled off the 334 one summer night in 1931. They needed gas. They needed to eat. They needed a room. They filled the Terraplane at Lenny Decatur’s bowser. They got food at Manny’s Hotel & Guesthouse and a bed there too.  They took a look around the next day. They went no further.

Jed found some work. Jed rented a shack by the railway line. Harriet made it homely. They bust their backs. They bust them twelve hours a day. They worked the cotton fields. Jed fixed engines in Lenny Decatur's auto workshop. They made do. They got by.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Hallowe'en Parade

Hallowe’en 1933, Jackson, Mississippi:  A storm rages. A storm blows. A quiet night in at the emergency ward at the Jackson Municipal Penitentiary.

Most nights saw the full slate of wounds. The whole gamut. Wounds from carelessly operated farm machinery. Wounds from carelessly swung sickles. Wounds from carelessly swung punches. Wounds from carelessly drunk whiskey.

"Quiet night in": a fine change to the routine.

The storm rages. Only a fool would venture out. The storm blows. The streets are busy.

Hallowe'en, 1933, Jackson Municipal Penitentiary: Sister Irene Lyons stares out the window. All is black. The storm rages. The storm blows. Tendrils whip the window. Tendrils scrape the window. Rain clatters. Rain spatters. Droplets track down the pane. Branches crash. Sister Irene watches her reflection. It distorts. The droplets track. It distends. The droplets track. The tendrils whip. Sister Irene keeps watching.

The storm rages. Only a fool would venture out. The door is battered. A man staggers in. He's wet. He's carrying a woman. She's wet. She's heavy with child. They're all wet. They both collapse on the floor. A puddle pools. A dirty pool.

The woman moans.

Sister Irene removes her spectacles from her nose and gently places them on her book.

The man groans.

Sister Irene regards the woman. Sister Irene diagnoses. Sister Irene swings into action. Sister Irene barks instructions. 

“Hester, put the kettle on. And git me some towels.” Ward Nurse Hester Ratchet bustles for the sink.

Jed lies on the floor. Jed diagnoses. “it’s her appendix, ma’am”.

Nurse Ratchet drops the kettle. Sister Irene arches her brow. “Her appendix?” 

“Yes Ma’am. O-bese Appendicitis.”

Nurse Ratchet stiffens. Nurse Ratchet is is skeptical. Nurse Ratchet picks up the kettle. Nurse Ratchet exclaims: “Whut?” Nurse Ratchet fair spits out her words.

Sister Irene soothes. Sister Irene calms. Sister Irene eyeballs Nurse Ratchet: “How you doin’ with them towels, honey?” Nurse Ratchet glares.

Harriet groans. She's on the floor. She's wet.

Sister Irene turns to Jed. “Now, what’s that you sayin’, honey? Appendicitis?”

 Harriet catches Sister Irene's eye. Harriet shakes her head. Harriet scowls. Harriet contracts. Harriet groans.

"It's a family condition," says Jed. "On my wife's side." Jed pauses. "This here's my wife." Jed pauses. "Harriet". 

Harriet catches Sister Irene's eye. Harriet shakes her head. Harriet scowls. Harriet's eyes show fear. They're big like cue balls.

Sister Irene opens her mouth. Harriet shakes her head.

Sister Irene remarks cryptically. Sister Irene alludes to some other news. Jed looks blank. Sister Irene figures she has some talking to do. Harriet figues she has more.

Harriet contracts. Harriet howls. Jed looks blank.

A muted squeal issues forth. 

Jed looks around. Jed looks blank. Jed looks at Harriet. Harriet winces. Harriet didn't say a thing.

Jed looks blank. Jed pauses. Jed cries out: "What on God’s earth was that?" 

The storm rages. The storm blows. Only a fool would venture out.

Harriet is quiet a while. Harriet ventures out. Harriet groans. "It’s the baby, honey, He’s calling to get out!" she says. Harriet is calm. Harriet is equable. Harriet contracts. Harriet howls.

"Baby?" said Jed. "But we..." Jed fumbles. "I … but it’s not…"

Sister Irene interrupts. Sister Irene understands. Sister Irene gets the gig. “The Lord moves in mysterious ways. He is a merciful God, and he loves his children”.

Nurse Ratchet stiffens. Nurse Ratchet is is skeptical. Nurse Ratchet fair spits out her words. Nurse Ratchet plays it sotto voce.

The storm rages. The storm blows. The tendrils whip and scrape.

One hour before dawn, Harriet Delores Guinn is delivered of a baby boy. He's a big size. He's a beauty. You wouldn't throw that one back. Sister Irene smiles.

The child goes puce. The child goes wild. The child howls. The child screams. The child screams as though the vengeance of the Lord is in his heart. The tempest rages.

The storm blows out. The thunderclouds clear. The child sleeps at his mother’s breast. His mother sleeps. A finger of sunlight  reaches through the window. It feels its way across the floor. Sunlight fills the room.

Sister Irene goes to the window. Sister Irene watches her reflection. It's true. It's straight. The sunlight plays.

Harriet has the name. Harriet knows what she will call him. Her son, who sang before he could speak. Her son, who sang before he could breathe. Her son, who found peace in the morning sun: Ray.

Half an hour later another child arrives. He does not cry. He does not sing. He does not whimper. This child is docile. He lies with his brother close to his mother’s breast, mute and placid, until the morning. His name will be Jesse.

Harriet sleeps. The children sleep. The sun streams in.

Jed Guinn lies silent. Jed lies next to Harriet’s bed. Jed is stretched out on the floor. Jed is on the spot where, three hours earlier, he fainted clean away.

Sister Irene watches her reflection. It's true. It's straight. The sunlight hardens.