The Weariness of the South
©John M. Williams
The Weariness of the South
Down the hill from the church the stagnant pond spread like an inkblot in the summer afternoon, while behind the building a small crowd milled over the concrete tables. He watched absently, then realized it was kids—hardly any kids. A pick-up rattled by on the dirt road, sending a cloud of dust onto the already choking roadside weeds. The old homeplace sat just out of sight around the curve—but only that, a place, nothing left—and across from it Talbot and Juanita’s house, unchanged, except for the addition of an inside bathroom sometime in the seventies, for eighty years. Back the other way Carlton and Tina’s FHA house baked on a treeless hilltop.
Carlton, in a short-sleeved shirt and green and yellow tie ending at his pot belly, had wandered over.
“You through eating?” he asked with feigned incredulity.
“Yeah,” he answered. “Isn’t it pitiful? We used to not eat for two days. Used to go into training.”
Carlton laughed. “You doing all right?”
“Getting by. Getting on with my life.”
“Yeah,” Carlton nodded, “you got to.”
“Naw, she had one of them headaches. That sorry brother of yours didn’t come?”
“No—can’t hardly get him up here anymore. Says it’s not the same.”
“He ought to.”
“Maybe one of these years he’ll feel guilty.”
“You don’t know anybody hoiring over by you, do you?”
“No, Carlton,” he answered. “I’m sorry, I sure don’t.”
Thinking about Tina, surviving on Slim Jims and Rainbo coconut bars, not even dressed, in that hot little house—once a damn year, people driving a hundred miles, she can’t even come two hundred yards.
Granddaddy floating around in his head, hands behind his back, hat bobbing among the recently weedeated headstones, but when he looked up the little rise to the cemetery he saw only Aunt Edith, walking in much the same way.
Like an old bird picking its way along a creekbed—looking at every marker. It’s not like she doesn’t know them all, hasn’t done this a hundred times. But people have to keep doing things over and over—not different things, the same ones.
“Seems like there’s more over here and less over there every year,” she observed.
“It don’t seem like it,” Talbot replied, walking along behind her sneaking a chew. “It is.”
From the vantage point of the cemetery the scene looked more self-contained, framed. The hot, mimosa-haunted world they’d all died from.
Mama approaching—looking like Granddaddy too, making her way through the safely dead. He could see the old woman waiting just inside her like something slightly out of focus.
“I tell you what,” she says,” you close your eyes there’s no you anymore.”
“Don’t close your eyes then.”
“Can’t help it. I’m not saying it’s bad—it’s just what you realize. Oh, there’s Gwen.”
Like, look, she’s still here. She’s decided to stay an extra night. 1925-1968.
“Now tell me again who she was.”
“Aunt Rebecca’s daughter. Twins—Earl and her. Earl’s still alive—of course he never comes to Reunion—and she’s been dead thirty years. I still think about her. I bet you don’t remember her.”
“No, I do. For some reason I just can’t ever remember where she fits.”
“Aunt Rebecca’s daughter. We were close. I was the one she told her troubles to—I don’t think she had anybody else to listen. That snake Paul she married. Running around on her all the time. She’d get so depressed. Four kids. He wouldn’t even give them any money.”
“I remember their house smelled like cat pee.”
“Well—it doesn’t matter now. When she had the heart attack he didn’t even go to the hospital. Didn’t even go to the hospital. I’ve never been able to understand people like that.”
“He was just a standard jerk, Mama. It’s not that unusual.”
“And the funny thing was, they said she was fine. Just a mild heart attack. Gave her a clean bill of health—of course she was going to have to lose some weight—but she was coming home. It was just out of the blue. I’ll never forget that phone call. I was staying at their house taking care of the kids. It was the doctor—not a nurse or a receptionist, but the doctor—and he asked if her husband was there—but nobody had seen hide nor hair of him through the whole thing—not with a chance like that to run around with his girlfriends—and so he asked if I was kin to her and I said I was her cousin staying there taking care of her children, and he said he was sorry but he had some bad news, a blood clot had broken loose and gone to her heart and she had expired, was how he put it. And I can remember wanting to tell him that couldn’t be right, wanting to talk him out of it, she was too young, but all he could say was he was real sorry, and there wasn’t anything else to say. So I hung up the phone and I thought to myself, God help me I don’t believe I can face this—but I had to go in there and tell those four children they’d lost their Mama. And do you know what that snake did?”
“Kicked her mother out of the house.”
“He kicked her mother out of the house they’d been letting her live in—said he needed the money. Kicked her out. Made her go into a nursing home. Her own mother—the dirt hadn’t even settled on her grave.”
“That would be Rebecca.”
“Yes, Aunt Rebecca.”
“And that’s putting it mildly.”
“Well, you need people like him or half the world wouldn’t have anything to do.”
“Nobody needs him. It’s a wonder I don’t end up like Aunt Isolde. But God is in control. It’s all in his will.”
“Which he had the foresight to make before he died.”
“Don’t be sacrilegious. There’s Aunt Rebecca right there.”
“Doesn’t seem that long ago she died. And Tolliver, her husband. Of course I never knew him.”
God, even the woods have that tired look. Clawing life out of this brick-red dirt. No wonder the hymns are all about peace, rest from toil, and that blessed valley.
“Nothing’s what it was,” she says.
“No, everything is a shadow of itself. Including itself. So much for everything.”
The Look. A laser beam from fifty yards. Really, a beautiful woman, you had to say. Knowing he shouldn’t have left her, it just happened—he goes over to her by the side of the church and they walk down the path to the pond together, past the church outhouse, to a rotten pier. Two wooden johnboats lay overturned on the bank, and were gray.
“How much longer?” she asks.
“Oh, I don’t know. A little bit. You ready to go?”
“Just ready to get back to the twentieth century, Jason.”
“What could I possibly have to talk about with these people? The okra?”
“It’s just once a year, good God. What’s left of it. When we were kids . . . ”
“Yeah, I know. There were thousands of people and the food was spread out for miles. And what is the difference between Aunt Isolde and Aunt Rebecca?”
“They’re different people.”
“Well, Aunt Isolde went crazy and Aunt Rebecca worked herself to death. That’s about the only difference.”
“Working yourself to death is not crazy?”
“It may be, but the family has always made a distinction. Just say it’s not wise—but it’s not ending up alone in a room with a cast of characters between your ears. I don’t guess.”
“Who was Aunt Rebecca?”
“Mama’s father’s older sister.”
“Somebody called Aunt who really was an aunt?”
“Yes. And actually there was a lapse between the work and the death—she spent the last seven or eight years of her life in a nursing home.”
“But not crazy.”
“No—I think just tired. She worked like a man—that’s what everybody always said. Plowed and cut trees and butchered hogs. Not trying to prove anything—she just had to.”
“She had children.”
“Yeah—twins. But she was only married a week.”
“She was almost thirty and he was several years older and he died a week after their wedding. Only man she ever had.”
“God.” She shakes her head. “Can we go?”
“All right. Let me go tell Mama.”
“Don’t be a stranger now,” said Carlton, standing at the corner of the church helpless to stop the bleeding away of the people. That look on his face—the one left behind. Back home, Tina. Somewhere, Aunt Isolde.
* * *
Late afternoon, thinnest place in the veneer of reality, he sneaks a long warm guzzle for the drive. Like all poetry, beautiful and painful—painful because it’s beautiful, beautiful because it’s painful—no way he can start that long slide to twilight unaided.
The landscape drifts by like the music of solitude. All the people of the world, the hordes, clans, families clinging to each other—and still one person per grave.
Death. The state or immanent state of everything. Or maybe not a state, the absence of something—maybe just a trick of perspective. Like sticks of different lengths on a table—they don’t begin or end, they just are. Like a story, a lifetime—not wholly real until complete. Close your eyes there’s no you, or leave them open—either way you drown in your lifetime—what they mean by spirit, afterlife. Sometimes, that impatience with the physical world—the joke of organs and bones and sleep and death—ghost sensation—what is it that life reminds you of?
How else to explain time? That things can both be and not be. Has to be some concoction—has to be—and space is what it looks like. And yet she had no taste for it.
He looks across the seat to the roadside unfolding. Five deep breaths—eras ending, how I once yearned for that—the winds of change!—youth! all youth!—now dread. Trading time for story, as the day slides nightward and the tired world deeper into summer. Always summer, seemed like with her.
The woods, the houses, garden plots, shacks. But imposing purpose onto it—is what you invent more impossible than surviving without it? Wiser to see it as what it appears: random, unconscious. Science just does its job—eliminates every belief to see if maybe a million years from now there really was something we reckoned ill to leave out. That there won’t be is not the point.
Because amazing, the world going by, vulnerable in the late afternoon—one heartbreaking scene after another, each a little miracle of light and shadow, angle and shape: a camera crew would work all afternoon just to capture one, and yet here they are everywhere, cheap, for the taking: vine-entangled chimney, listing porch, light, careless virtuoso, playing over them; mowed-around rusted truck moored, weed-framed, in a pasture; lone finned trailer choking in kudzu at the back edge of a yard, where they put somebody’s mother until she died; roadside cross draped in artificial flowers and the plaintively-lettered “Darlene”; Ruth’s Flea Market, closed, an ocean of rickety canopied tables waiting for Saturday; light dappling the forest floor like something sloshed from a bucket; clay bank, split open in a red gash. Supernatural. If when the world’s a cold cinder you could awaken from your long deep sleep for one minute into this: that’s what it looks like. Especially the bereft—the empty houses, the no longer stores, the rusted gas pumps—all the times holding each other in symbiotic echoes.
The lurid allentangling drug of poetry. That vivid burning quality deep down things—dark sweet drug—dangerous nectar. Except not her. Has to be good, right?—living up top in the light. The bright cold light far from that dark cousin.
Needing to say something he says, “sometimes I imagine it’s already happened—you met somebody else—rich, of course—you aren’t really here—I’m only seeing you when I had you, in memory.”
“Or you’re here and I’m imagining when you’re not.”
“An abstraction in your mind—how validating.”
“It talks, doesn’t it? Almost.”
She looks—a row of little houses with people doing nothing on the porches. “ To you maybe.”
“Well yes, to me.”
“Just looks hot and tired from here.”
“As opposed to what?”
She looks at him. “As opposed to not hot and tired, Jason. As opposed to modern. Progressive. Ambitious.”
“I see—a world where people aren’t merely greedy, they’re shallow.”
“Greedy. Right. Looking out for yourself. Bettering yourself.”
“What do you see into?”
“Nothing. That would be you. The romantic.”
“Seeing the beauty not the shit of things?”
“Getting you some beauty out of the poor and exploited.”
“You have no sense of the tragic.”
“Oh for God’s sake. When things are wrong you change them. You don’t set them to strings.”
“Why not? How else are you going to remember them?”
“I’m not. I’d rather breathe. Somewhere where people don’t throw their garbage all over the road.”
“You know why we don’t ever talk?”
“We’re talking now.”
“No we’re not. We’re arguing.”
“Because of that. You don’t talk—you attack.”
“And if I wake up feeling good in the morning—”
“Which you don’t.”
“No—I do. It’s just that you’re the last person in the world I’d let know it because it’d take you what? thirty seconds to take it away from me? Fifteen?”
“You’re such a baby.”
“Do you know what a conversation is?”
“Something people enjoy—I’m not kidding, it’s actually pleasant—just find an interesting topic—preferably something besides how cheap everything we have is or what losers my family are.”
“Jason, if you weren’t so unbelievably selfish you could probably figure this out. What I want is you. That’s all.”
“Nobody can have anybody.”
“Okay. Some of you.”
“You have some of me.”
“No I don’t.”
“It’s the way life is.”
“There’s no way anything is, Jason. There’s only how you choose to see it.”
“I didn’t choose anything. God, look at that.”
She glances. “ I’ve got to tell you, Jason: sometimes I think if I see one more kudzu-covered shack I’ll scream.”
“There’s something about you that’s not like these people and you know it.”
“These people. Jesus. What I am is what I am.”
She exhales wearily.
* * *
Silence entering the mystical town of Ash Mount.
The late sun sinking, burning the little world in roseamber, etching long elegant shadows—he slows to a crawl, turning his head attentively in the procession of scenes: the light! slashing a row of crape myrtles, leaking through the pecan trees making radiant unrepeatable mosaics against the old houses, inching over the columns and unpeopled rocking chairs of a front porch like a knife, mottling the huge magnolias and tidy yards where a few children quietly play or the denizens stare. Around the curve: the sprawling cluttered porch and yard of some mechanical-minded packrat, a collection of things so vast one would need hours to stand there just to see it all, let alone hear it—but floats by in seconds, then gone. A shudder goes through him—the town peters out, the highway resumes.
Deep silence for a while.
Self-absorption to almost absolute zero. Black hole: things fall in, never quit falling, never escape. Quiet quiet quiet—so profound it flirts with non-existence.
But he’s thinking again—you only get seconds, gleams—the closer to nothing you get the more everything is—to see without thinking, to know, God this is beautiful without knowing you know it—feeling not seeing how beautiful they are.
Because if the poetry lets you down—
No traffic at all.
The house lurks around a slow curve—its mystique bleeding for at least a mile. He slows then pulls onto the apron of sandy driveway outside the gate—the two halves not quite meeting, locked with a rusty chain.
The wind, the fall of pinecones, the slither of a snake—these are the only movements—it looks as it would to some nuclear survivor. Even twenty years ago when he first took notice of it, it felt that way, and ever since—unvisited, untouched. Small brick ranch house set far back from the road, miles from town, only pieces and the discolored roof showing through the trees and feral shrubs, cluttered garage permanently barring a faded green rusted roof 50-something Pontiac. The deep front yard gone to a sort of grassland under the tall pines, the woods converging on either side, but a sedge field opening up behind. Who—when—how? You could stare for hours. Oh, to go inside.
A woman, a young woman, gazing out the window over the yard and field, an undeviating pattern of footsteps worn into the floor, a curse upon her: find someone to cherish you or stay here forever—turns and watches the car pull away—feels the mad impulse to run after it rise and pass, who are you kidding, he’s not coming, she said.
The highway unfolds. Wild orange day lilies scattered over the ditches. Houses at country distance—little mute isolated quadrants of guarded life. Mimosas in bloom, cannalilies, fig trees smothering someone’s bedroom window. Trailers with satellite dishes, houses with fancy racing trailers in the yard—the only way to bear it: pipe something in, or go flying through it so fast you can’t feel it. And there, hanging by the door of a cinder block house, not a tree not a blade of grass, not anything but that: a basket spilling a flowering red vine. Somebody thinking “it’s purty”—the aesthetic sense, common as dirt, like “I itch” or “I’m thirsty.” Universal.
So few miles, really—like a handful of dwindling coins—he expends them dreamily. Heaven would be a neverending trip with a magic flask. Pecan grove—shady, light-speared—reminds him so unbearably of something he stops to look. At the far back of the orchard a house—but this shadowy underworld, what does it mean to say I’ve been here, he thinks. Granddaddy in his hat up by the house under the trees talking to a man in overalls. He stares, not seeing them—only Aunt Isolde can do that—but helplessly conjuring them. Granddaddy the preacher, the only one who got the hell out, married a town girl, opened the door.
“The funny thing is,” she says, “all we have to do is give—and we can’t even do that.”
He doesn’t look at her but draws a deep sigh. Why try? Marriage is an unnatural state. Not mating—marriage. The whole idea of trying to make it mean something: weary, useless, insane. Surrendering to the deep irrationality of chaos is the only sanity. Bam, bam—you hit those sealed-up doors. Then the letting go.
“Why can’t we do that, Jason?”
Driving. Just look ahead or to the left. Home closing in with the dusk. What is it again—where you keep getting closer and closer but never get there?
There. The house melting into the roadside tangle—a little less of it every year. He knew he would, and does, stop.
They forgot him. Now, he hears it all, just barely interested, knowing nothing can really reach him nor he anything. Young white man—pulls just off the road and comes picking his way down. Through the roof he can feel slices of the dying summer sky—sometimes the evening star in a crack. Chinaberry trees, privet, briars, the front yard or what is left of it littered with appliances and discarded furniture, a rainstained mattress spilling its life onto the ground. Behind, the wild growth choking right up against the half-collapsed porch. Used to be able to see a mile—cotton fields—can’t stand to remember it. Not hate—just can’t bring himself to think of it. Gone—everybody gone. They forgot him—doesn’t know how to find out where they went. The young white man pulls back the privet branches and tries the steps with his foot—takes a step, then another, then onto the porch with a creak. He comes to the vanished front door and looks inside, right at him.
Looking in, he feels some deep reflection of himself and shudders, but it’s the poetry—the wild poetry. If only you could drink it, become it. Old enough to remember the yard full of children, old woman hoeing the garden out front—nice garden, tomatoes, cabbage, corn, beans. Bare smooth yard all around it. Sometimes gatherings—cars all along the highway, people clustered, barbecue smoke. Then with the years, fewer people, then fewer, finally just the old man—in a black hat and carrying a staff—in the yard and moving like a glacier—you had to drive by an hour later to see he had moved. A long time ago, that. Then only whispers. He takes a leak in the snaky weeds, and leaves.
Home stretch. Big swaths of clear-cut land. That’s the story: so much sold off so cheaply. Trade your soul for a bass-rig. As though they’d never heard of tomorrow. But just try to stop it. Lime green house with a junky yard—then a saffron yellow. Look like tired game pieces. Cars everywhere. People idly looking. Some ill-advised banana trees. Cemetery with three crosses in the center, one leaning. The light truly on its last gasp now—the western sky dying a fiery death, the rich beams catching the tips of the tallest trees, slicing open blood-gold gashes in the yards and on the houses, scattering bright ringlets over the lake as he crosses the river bridge. Something closes in like the shady uncle coming down the hall for his visit.
Just get through this. Every night has its morning—or every morning its night? Both of course. Nothing proves permanent—no absolute lasting things. Not just people, families, places, times—but justice, love, all of it—even place and time themselves. Everything degenerates into something as grotesque as it once was graceful, as malignant as it once was sublime, if it lives long enough. Nothing holds up. You come to see that. And if you want to think, wander enthralled in your own labyrinth, then that’s it for you—you sacrifice the rest. Life’s illusion unravels in countless ways—but that way, you know, lies madness. End up like Aunt Isolde.
The last mile, the street, the house, the driveway. He pulls in and stops. As the motor dies, the silence oozes in to fill the vacuum. No, not quite: the rise and fall of insects in the hot night, the call of Chuck Will’s Widow, distantly answered. He tips up the flask, looks over at last to the passenger seat—close your eyes there’s no you. The only goddam thing that ever reached from outside and tried to take me.
Sits for a moment listening to the world which, having found something to cherish it—what do you get for that?—holds it like a spider—then goes inside.