Man Walking Backward in the Wind
Man Walking Backward in the Wind
© John M. Williams
God’s greatest invention was winter.
And I say that with all due respect.
I recall an afternoon somewhere in the drizzly heart of a childhood winter—Daddy was at work—and the power went out. Mama bundled herself, me, and Nate (my brother) under three quilts on the couch in the frigid den, and conjured up, in the air before us, a midsummer day: blue sky, cotton ball clouds, smell of justmown grass, squeals of neighborhood children, raspy music from a radio, swish-swish of a sprinkler, full symphony of birds, salty watermelon juice running down your chin, and real hot—and we huddled there drinking her words like she was Homer. That’s the real Original Sin—getting two things going in your head. Not falling from Paradise. Imagining it.
God’s greatest invention was Original Sin.
She also told us about Rena Combs, who could see things. Back in the country. The high school senior girls had a tradition of going to her. Granddaddy officially disapproved, but was in awe, of her. She told Mama (who was not quite engaged to the golden-locked Bruce) that she would marry a dark-haired man. And have three children: two boys rather close together, and then a girl much later in life. She also described some scene she saw: a porch with glass windows on the three sides, and glass shelves running all around. There’s some kind of flowers, she said. African violets? Mama asked. Could be. Different colors, real pretty. But something happens and they’re all destroyed. Except one.
My grandfather experienced joy and chewed tobacco. The easiest one to imitate was the tobacco. Get a mouthful of raisins. Saw off the top of a milk carton, spit into it, chewing meditatively, like a cow. Sit Nate down: well, well Old Timer—spit—of all the many wondrous sights and sounds and experiences of Camp, what’s the singlemost memorablest thing that stands out? Spit.
Tell it to me like I’m stupid.
At night I would get out the honey. Mama would just shake her head. Those country folks—cane syrup, molasses, honey—only luxury they had. Follows them their whole lives. The Milk of Magnesia (like the Pin’s Thin Natural Leaf), I would fake: set out a little glass with malted milk powder, let it dissolve, in remembrance of him, drink it before bedtime. Okay, couldn’t go with him there—he called it quits about eight. Another habit those country folks never lose. Bad enough in the winter—but in the summer? Go to bed when it’s still light? Not to mention get up so early it feels like the middle of the night—sit around reading Scripture waiting for the biscuit dough to rise. The Milk of Magnesia business went back to his childhood—when he was six and his sixteen year old sister Luris died of what they called compacted bowels. Made a lifelong impression.
Like, probably, many other half-educated, King James-reading, manual labor-averse country preachers, he, happy inheritor of our well-fed tongue, had a love of words. He rolled them around in his mouth, balled them up and sent them forth like pearls. Oh yes, Old Timer, a reckoning will surely come, he might say—then purse his lips and gauge the aftertaste of that good, hard, now luxuriously three-pulse Saxon word like someone swirling a single malt whiskey in his mouth. Yes siree bobtail. As surely as the morning follows the night. And may the Lord bless your coming in and your going out, and protect you from sicknesssufferingdangerorharm.
I vaguely remember his preaching; he would go into a sort of alternate official personality, unlike his usual nutty, cherry bomb-loving self. Except for his jokes. Like the one about the country boy who’d been invited to a high-society dinner and needed a lesson in manners. So his mother told him: just get one piece of chicken, don’t keep asking for more, and when you’re done, lay down your knife and fork and say, I’ve eaten abundantly and I’m ready for my dessert. So he went to the dinner and everything went along all right, until he got to the end, laid down his knife and fork, and got a little flusterated and said, I’ve eaten a bumblebee and I feel him in my shirt! Had em in the aisles. In Lower Alabama.
Or the one about the well-to-do old blind lady with three sons. When it came time for her to draw up her will they all wanted to make a good impression and gave her three gifts. The oldest one gave her a house, the middle one gave her a Cadillac, and the youngest one gave her a parrot that had memorized the Bible. All you had to do was tell him the book chapter and verse and he would recite it for you. Well, she told the first one, thanks, but I’m old and can’t enjoy it; and to the second one she said, thanks, but I’m blind and can’t drive it; but to the third she said, thanks—you alone gave me something of real value that I could really enjoy and appreciate. The chicken was delicious.
A thoroughly social man. Loved meeting people, making the rounds, coming to call. Wherever he was, within a minute he’d be talking to somebody. What do you do, eat, think? What’s it like to be you? Then narrow his eyes and listen. Imagining it.
I tried my hand at preaching myself, when I was nine. Of course, it’s a little hard to draw a congregation at that age—Nate wouldn’t cooperate, so I’d get Ginger and Rex and make them sit, bring out the goldfish bowl, try to get the cats to stay—ha!—and I’d put on a sort of robe-thing Mama had.
“You’re selfish—all you think about is you—what you want—your food—your hambone”—Ginger, you’d have to push her butt down several times until she got the idea; Rex, younger, would generally do what she did—and she would cock her head and look at me and I’d think, I’m reaching her. “It’s not your habits you need to change—it’s your being! Your whole being! There’s a Plan in this world, and a Purpose behind everything. If I walk over here (dog eyes follow me), there’s a Purpose behind it. If I walk over here, there’s a Purpose behind that. Ginger, sit! And don’t think God doesn’t know your every thought—including if you think He doesn’t. And may He protect you from sicknesssufferingdangerorharm.”
Sometimes Sue Askew from next door would be there. She was the one who showed me how to raise my arms to bid the congregation rise, and lower them to bid them sit. Of course, in human terms, she was the congregation, so she would sit in a lawn chair and go up and down like a frizzy-headed piston under my direction. She liked it. She was the one Nate talked out into the woods and we rigged up a little barrier around her head and told her it was going to feel like we were undressing her, but we wouldn’t be really. We were just having to check on some important matters and it was for her own good. Needless to say, she caught on to that pretty fast, and about the third time demanded equal viewing, on pain of reporting us, and it got more interesting.
Come to think of it, I’ve never really topped it, in terms of the sheer thrill. Oh, sublime nastiness! Not that we did anything—just looked and probed. They teach you it’s because of the guilt it obtained when we fell from grace—but how is that supposed to make sense? It got better—therefore, it was worse? Like the church telling you beer is bad. You take a swallow and—no, actually it’s good. Anyway, I think that was the Original Sin—not eating some fruit, but sneaking off somewhere to be nasty.
“Adam—what are you doing?”
“We were just—sort of talking.”
“That’s a funny way to talk.”
“Didn’t I tell you I wanted you to do that out in the open? Without any shame or guilt? I believe I did. I believe I made that quite clear.”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“You’re not pretending it’s nasty and enjoying it, are you?”
Like that old Puritan I remember reading about somewhere and his helpless guiltridden doings with The Creature. He couldn’t help it.
Mama never put much stock in my preaching—until one day I found her in her bedroom sitting back on her bed with the curtains drawn and a glass of water and crumpled-up BC packet on the nightstand. She said she had a terrible headache. Splitting. So on a wild hair I put my hands on her head and commanded her to be healed!—and about five minutes later she came out and stared at me, and I said what? and she didn’t say anything at first, then after about a minute she said she felt better.
I think that’s when she told Granddaddy. He came and listened to me preach, and I believe I made an impression on him.
Next thing I knew he was carrying me to his mother-in-law (my great grandmother) who was ninety-seven and had just suffered her third stroke. The doctor said she would never walk again. But he was only a man of medicine, right?—not a man of God. I put my hands on her bony shoulders and prayed for God out of the wideness of His mercy to heal her, make her whole again—which when you’re ninety-seven is a pretty tall order—but she scooched herself forward a bit—we helped her to her feet—and with a little brave smile on her face that would have broken your heart, she took seven steps. Then we got her back in her chair, exhausted and radiant with pride. She didn’t walk anymore, and in fact died peacefully at age ninety-nine in her bed—a wonderful lady, full of stories.
It sort of went to my head—how could it not when you’re nine?—and then he was dragging me all over the countryside to people with goiters and bunions and everything else—with mixed results—and from there it was only a step to a little white suit and tent revivals. I might even have believed for a while the Holy Spirit was working through me, or something—I never really worked out the details—but it was also when I learned a Valuable Life Lesson—one of the most.
Valuable Life Lesson: whatever it is, it doesn’t matter if you are or aren’t, can or can’t—just act like you can.
So I did. I just basically gave them my backyard sermon, and either meant it or acted like I did—I’m not even sure myself—and they moaned and wailed and lapped it up like cream. Those tent-things actually scare me—that raw energy crackling all around, powerful as hell—I haven’t gone to any since. And in fact I only went to a couple, that spring—ones Granddaddy had been invited to—until Mama put a zip on it and signed me up for Little League. It didn’t hurt my feelings a bit because I’d started to dread them—all those people claiming I’d cured their arthritis and begging me to do something about their cousin’s gall bladder—and while I was at it, tell them what God wanted and what He looked like and what everything meant. Granddaddy understood—either that, or he didn’t want to get into a fight with Mama—which with her is not something you want to try anyway without the Marines. Even then, what I thought—and of course I really think it now—is that you heal yourself—you just need somebody to prance around and act like they know what they’re doing (Valuable Life Lesson) to get you started.
Healing. About the most basic idea there is. There’s something wrong. It’s the second thought that goes through the human mind. First—I think, therefore I am. Second—this stinks. It’s where we get philosophers and preachers. Sad people, lonely people, beaten down people, suffering people—which is all of us, sooner or later—I always wished I could do something for them. Make everything good. Away with gloom, away with doubt! Heal this whole sad, sick, broken world—if only I could.
Well, that episode passed, and about the only thing that survived it was Nate asking me occasionally to heal this scrape on his knee. That, and I believe everybody assumed I’d be a preacher when I grew up—carry on the tradition, be the next Granddaddy—but in fact I wasn’t like Granddaddy at all.
He was born in 1896 in Buce County, Alabama, the youngest of the usual passel of children, including two, as was common then, who didn’t survive infancy, and the aforementioned unfortunate Luris, who didn’t survive girlhood. His parents for some reason (maybe because they were named Lancster and Louvinia) named him Zebulon Tolver, and everybody called him Zeb (in the family), or ZT. Grandmother, whom he met in 1921 at a church social, somehow didn’t care for either name, and from the first took to calling him, ungeneologically, “Billy.” Or, after the children, “Daddy.” And, of course, he called her “Mother.”
He had about a forty-year career—started out in the early twenties and retired in 1962, blazing a trail over the rural, small-town south Alabama landscape that was his milieu, then lived twenty-four more years. We’d go visit them—he’d be kicked back in his recliner by an old Roosevelt-era radio the size of a refrigerator, chewing and occasionally leaning over to spit with Strategic Air Command accuracy into his sawed-off Hall Brothers milk carton. Matthew, Matthew! he would greet me. How you doing, Sweet Buzzy O’Grady? Of all the many wondrous sights and experiences of your Trip, what’s the singlemost memorablest thing that stands out?
And you’d have to come up with something because the real answer in most cases had to be censored.
He was always radiant, always upbeat, eyes twinkling away, and it wasn’t until I was older and got my hands on Grandmother’s journals that I came to appreciate his full humanity—because it obviously hadn’t been easy back in the day and she, who seemed perpetually tired, would make references to “Daddy” being discouraged or frustrated or having a hard time, and I’d have to stop and look up from the page and try to imagine that. They’ve been a real source of interest to me, those journals—and she was damned regular about it for a long time—but the main thing that always impressed me about them—and this has been true of my own short-lived sporadic attempts at the genre—is the unrelenting banality and petty struggle of daily life. Never lets up—even while we’re busy dreaming up all this glory about it.
Grandmother had a pedestrian respect for literal truth that ZT utterly lacked. When she told us stories, we knew they had the disadvantage of actually having happened the way she was telling them. With Granddaddy, what actually happened was simply not one of his categories. He’d be spinning some tale and she’d be over to the side inserting what became over the years almost a subliminal commentary—Oh Billy! Listen to you! Telling a story!—objections which more than anything else had the effect of goading him on. Like that time at their first appointment in Perote when the Bishop visited the young couple (my uncle Eddie was a baby), and Grandmother was all adither about the dinner, and brought out the gravy and stumbled and spilled some on his shirt.
From the kitchen: Oh Billy! Telling the children that!
“It’s true, Mother. I remember it plain as day. A blot—a splotch. Right on his shirt.”
Listen to you!
In youth, when I lit out on my own, the main thing I sought was Experience. But he—he liked for other people to be the ones who had the experiences. It’s less trouble that way. A voyeur, I guess. Or, to put it another way: a man of God. He didn’t work.
And I say that with all due respect.
You have to know where he came from. Buce County is probably one of the last places on earth you’d pick to end up in—half-ass clay soil, a tired and harried piece of Alabama that seems to be situated just where all the surrounding natural splendor ran out—but that’s where my ancestors laid their stake. You don’t live there, you scratch out a living. You eke. You endure. To anybody with a brain the one ambition you would cultivate as you grew up would be getting the hell out of there—and the two most likely ways to do that were 1) marry outside it, and 2) become a preacher. He did both. And just as the pampered (Buce County version) baby of the family he had gotten away with more than his fair share of shirking while growing up, he more than got away with that: he was a source of glowing pride to the family. A hat and tie man. Never soiled his hands—shiny, manicured hands like fleshy porcelain. Meant for the Word of God. His parents, the stringbean, long-bearded Lanc, gentle as an afternoon breeze, and the rotund and peppery Louvinia—staring blandly from two straightback chairs on the bare ground before the old homeplace, somewhere in the twenties, in the only extant photograph—had dutifully given their lastborn to the Lord.
And unlike many cases, it took.
When we were kids (and beyond), we always went to Grimley’s Chapel (about half the airy and austere church, about half the general area) every year the first weekend in September for Reunion. Back then, a pretty good smattering of folks still lived there—sadly no longer true. They’ve died off, most of the children have left, no one has replaced them. Usually in those mythical summers Nate and I would spend a week with one of our cousins—which is when, lolling about in bed until damn near six o’clock, we learned we wouldn’t amount to a thing. And I believe I’ve already alluded to the nights—when about eight o’clock they all started going to bed, and the crickets were going, and it was hot and not dark yet—okay, enough of that. Anyway, the days made up for it: riding horses, fishing, skinnydipping in the creek, stealing watermelons, shooting cans with a .22.
Sometimes when other visitors showed up and all the beds were taken at our cousin’s, we would have to sleep up at Uncle Peresh and Uncle Everett’s. Either that or the dreaded pallet. They were Granddaddy’s older brothers who had ended up, for many years, as widowers living together. Coots, both of them—who had last had their own natural teeth in the Hoover administration. They bickered non-stop with each other, and played with what was left of each other’s mind.
Don’t act like you don’t know where my teeth’s at, I can still hear one of them, it didn’t matter which, saying—and the other one bristling: I don’t know nothing about your damn teeth.
Then #1 would threaten to throw #2’s in the pond, if #1 found them—and #2 would threaten to throw his even farther, if he found them—and so on, pretty much ad infinitum.
They had an outhouse. A two-seater. Once they were both out there and fifty cents fell out of Peresh’s pocket into the hole. He looked in, said “damn!” and took out his wallet and dropped in a five dollar bill. Everett just looked at him funny. “Why the hell’d you do that?” he asked him. And Peresh said, “You don’t think I’m going in there for just fifty cents, do you?”
Actually, that didn’t happen. It was a joke Daddy told Nate and me. Not in anybody else’s hearing.
But as for teeth, they didn’t really need them—except for church once a month, which is the only time I ever saw them wear them. At supper Aunt Debbie, Granddaddy’s even older sister, a widow for fifty years (she had gotten married late in life, age twenty-five, to a man twenty years her senior, been married not quite two years when he up and died—i.e., without prelude or warning or visible reason—and raised their two daughters on her own), who lived in the house across the road, would come over and cook for them (food that would stay on the stove throughout the next day). When they sat down to eat, the brothers would pour pea juice or pot liquor all over everything and smash it into a paste with their forks, and then gum it down. Nobody ever talked or looked at anybody else. Unless Uncle Peresh started jiggling himself in what, I guess, he thought was secret, and Aunt Debbie would just say:
“Don’t do that at the table.”
And, sheepish, he would obey—they both obeyed her—no doubt because of the implicit threat that she would stop cooking for them.
They died a month apart, when I was, I think, ten, and their funerals are the first ones I remember. They were laid out in the same place in the front room—and at the first one, Peresh’s, I remember going in that hot and solemn house with Mama and Daddy, and the mirrors were all covered with blankets. Nobody said anything about it. But later, when we escaped outside, Nate cleared it all up. If you look in a mirror in a house where somebody’s just died, you’ll see the corpse looking over your shoulder at you.
That stuck with me for a while.
Nate coming up behind me in the bathroom a couple of times didn’t exactly help.
* * *
In that same period—I was ten, Nate thirteen—in an act of infrequent but trademark spontanooity, Daddy announced that he was buying a twenty-acre “farm” in Beauregard—a rural area (a “community” in Grandmother’s parlance) about ten miles out of town. He took Nate and me out there and, in spite of its being rundown and overgrown and kudzu-ridden, we fell in love with that place. But Mama took a different view. She thought it was absolutely the most insane thing she had ever heard in her life. And when she realized it was one of those rare but ironclad occasions when Daddy had already made up his mind, she iced the house with her displeasure.
This was when people hardly ever got divorced—or they might have. Daddy got demoted to the spare bedroom for a while, and the few snatches of their arguments I heard were about “afford it,” “money,” “bills,” “pay for it,” “the boys’ college,” and so forth.
Didn’t matter. It was what he wanted to do.
Beautiful country out that way—winding roads, neat little houses, big spreads, gardens, ponds, martin gourds, churches, and, especially in late afternoons, a deep, almost narcotic repose. Our twenty acres sat in a secluded pocket at the end of a tunnel-like road. The house—at the beginning a hodgepodge of a dozen different ideas none of which ever really got finished, and in serious disrepair—sprawled on the highest ground at the edge of the woods with the ruins of a huge garden across from it. It commanded a view of the mostly cleared, sloping land down to a pond, then a pasture. The place had been abandoned for twenty-five years when Daddy, learning about it from a man he worked with, had damn near killed himself working overtime and moonlighting saving up five thousand dollars for a down payment when he bought it in 1962.
So, from then on really, Daddy spent every spare minute, every weekend, every day of vacation out there. He started out by bushaxing around the house and in the feral garden, and always had a big brush fire going. Nate and I “helped”—but mostly rode go-karts on the miles of sandy, pinestraw-padded roads all around there—or hung out with Leland Culver, next hollow over, riding horses, his Honda 65, or fishing, or amusing ourselves with his many firearms. His daddy would come home in a blue shirt with his name on it and impose his rigorous discipline on us—“Leland, yall be careful now”—before disappearing.
Loved that place.
Then Daddy started on the house. He tore off all the crap and gutted it, then got our architect neighbor down the street, in a house with seventeen cats that smelled like it, to design a renovation.
Can’t afford it, can’t afford it, said Mama.
But he afforded it, and started to work. What remained of the original house became a large central kitchen/den area; then he built a big front porch overlooking the pond, the pasture, and that distant line of trees like the edge of the known world, and added on three bedrooms. It ended up equally bizarre and wonderful—and, at least a year after he’d been working out there, after he went out and bought some plaid curtains and left them by the back door for Mama to lavish her most corrosive ridicule upon, she made her first appearance there.
And then—stand back, everybody—she got interested in fixing it up, re-starting the garden, putting in flower beds, doing the decorating, and phase two began. The years went by, Daddy somehow making the payment every month, and it turned out he wasn’t crazy after all.
One day, Leland introduced us to a neighbor of his named Virgil who belonged to a rather strange church out in the middle of the woods—the “I Am That I Am Apostolic Congregation.” Virgil didn’t really hang out with us—he couldn’t—and never did anything bad—which we found out was because in that church everybody was “discipled” by somebody else, and had to account, daily, for every detail of their lives. They didn’t tolerate any form of privacy or any secrets. Everything out in the open. Every year on Day One—which came at the end of March, where it should—they would close themselves in the church, strip naked—young, old, and in-between—and beat each other with straw lashes.
Leland never missed it—and shared his annual vantage point with us—in a privet tangle at the edge of the churchyard where, with binoculars, we took in the show through the windows. Not that you could really see that much. A couple of teenage girls—the occasional flash—but at the risk of turning into a pillar of salt at some of the other possible sights.
Virgil’s father even came by The Farm one day and invited Daddy and the family to join. Daddy politely declined.
I don’t believe that church exists anymore. Though perhaps its rituals live on in private.
Meanwhile, up in the country at Grimley’s Chapel, Reunion was getting a little thinner itself every year. Uncle Sammy would look around sadly and say, one day there won’t be anything left but the owls and the bats. But the food continued voluminous.
You came, you endured the sermon, you ate.