Faulkner’s and My Racist Past

I’m currently reading Faulkner’s A Light in August, and I’m not sure I will ever finish it. It is a difficult read, of course, because it is Faulkner, and his writing is challenging in the best of circumstances, but it is also difficult because of the violence, sexual abuse and unmitigated racism. The entire fabric of the narrative is woven from the common threads of racism and misogyny, and I was cut from this cloth of southern bigotry. I’ve spent most of my life trying to unravel that fabric and create a new narrative from the threads of compassion and universal human dignity, but it’s hard to destroy what you can’t see.

For the most part, the principle characters in the novel are white. I say for the most part because one character suspects and is suspected of having at least “one drop” of mixed-race heritage. He and all the other characters use the n-word prodigiously, and violence simmers just below the surface even in the times when it is not erupting, which is far too often. Just beneath the racial violence is misogyny and violence against women. At the root of it all, of course, is the abysmal treatment of children. This is a critical story, if you have the stomach for it, and we should all have the stomach for it.

Some might think this is a grotesque exaggeration of white culture or some throw-back to days long since passed, The language and attitudes of these characters will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the American south, especially the rural south. [I should add here that I don’t for one minute think the rest of the country is or ever was free from racism, but I speak here only of my and Faulkner’s context.] In this setting, violence, or the threat of violence, pervades every living space and every waking moment. And it is meted out with a righteous religious fervour.

We currently live in a time when the overt, unabashed and unapologetic racism of Faulkner’s story is gaining acceptance in the public sphere. I had hoped we had put such times behind us. Perhaps it is good that we’ve dropped the facade of political correctness and pulled the veil off the danger lurking beneath.

It makes me think back to an earlier time (it was the 1980s) when I had a particularly upsetting encounter with this bald-faced style of racism, and it came, of course, from my own family. I was in my 20s then, and I tried to fulfil family obligations when possible. Wanting to keep the remains of his family together, my grandfather would host family reunions from time to time, and he insisted that we all attend, because nothing was more important than family.

This reunion would be my last, though. Before the food was set out and served, the family was sitting around in lawn chairs just passing the time. The weather should have provided enough fodder for mindless chat, but their minds turned to their own suffering, which was caused (they thought) by having to work with people who were not white. Even worse (they thought) was the fact that their colleagues demanded minimum levels of respect and human decency.

As you already realise, they described these people using the n-word in every sentence, and sometimes used it more than once in a single sentence. The hatred flowed like water from the tap. They said many upsetting things, but the sentence that still echos in my mind said, “We got us a bunch of sensitive (this word was drawn out for emphasis) _________. It’s bad enough we have to work with __________. Now they don’t even want to be called __________.”

I left. My wife and children and I all got in the car and left. Later, I was scolded by family members. They told me family was paramount, and that we all have to accept family unconditionally. Blood is thicker than water, and all that. The problem, which I knew at the time, is that this demand for unconditional love and acceptance only goes one way.

Would they embrace a family member who was not Christian? Not straight? A vegetarian? Gender nonconforming? Not white? I can assure you they would not. While demanding unconditional love and acceptance, they offered only hatred and judgment for anyone who veered from their vision of a “good” person.

I remember a conversation with my grandmother where she described how nice and helpful some of the local boys were. I tried to explain to her that I was the target of their bullying. I tried to tell her they were only nice to members of their own group. I tried to explain that they were violent toward outsiders. They were violent toward me. It turns out my family thought I was the one who needed to change, but I never did.

Memoir: Lonnie and Matrimonial Complexity

Like me, my Uncle Lonnie (great-uncle, actually) married an English woman. He met her when he was stationed in England during the second world war. I always heard the story that he married an English woman, she flew over to Texas and then high-tailed it back to England in short order. I always assumed she found the conditions in Polk County somewhat lacking for a woman of good taste, because conditions around there were a little Southern Gothic, to be sure.

I’ve recently found that many memories of my family are based on false assumptions I made when I was too young for the adults to tell me the whole truth. So to be safe, I asked my mother if I had the story straight. First of all, Mom said I was at their wedding, which means it was after 1960. I had always assumed it was the late 40s or early 50s in the years immediately after the war.

While I had assumed the wife wasn’t happy in Texas, Mom said the problem, as she remembered it, was that Lonnie’s Texas girlfriend was none too happy when his new English wife showed up, and made things uncomfortable for everyone.

So, I had to ask a followup question. “His Texas girlfriend? Did he have another one besides Aunt Jewel?” No, that’s the one, Mom assured me. She also added a bit of additional information: the English wife, I wish I knew her name, had “medical problems” related to sex. This was all so upsetting that my Aunt Edith took her to the doctor and let her stay with her and my Uncle JC for awhile before she returned to England. Apparently, the rest of the family was appalled by the way he had treated his wife.

My own memories of Uncle Lonnie are fairly benign. He owned an ice cream stand just outside of Livingston and a general store a few miles down the road. Jewel, previously mentioned, lived in a house next to the store with her children and ran the store. I only remember her being kind and patient. I never knew any of her children.

When Lonnie would smile, you’d get a glint off his gold tooth, and he smiled a good bit. My memory is a bit sketchy, as it would be, but on one occasion, I remember his bending down, smiling and either giving me quarter for ice cream or just telling me to tell “Aunt Jewel” it was okay for us to have some ice cream. It may well be a phantom of my imagination, but I remember his saying, “Here, take this quarter to Aunt Jewel and tell her I said to give you some ice cream.”

You know, it may have been a Coke or candy or something, but I left with something. When I got back to my grandmother, she asked where I’d gotten my treat. I told her, “Aunt Jewel gave it to me,” and she went white and said, “That woman is not your aunt, and I’ll not have you calling her that in my house!” I never forgot the lesson, but I also didn’t understand it till years later.

About the only other thing I can tell you about Lonnie is that he was reputed to be quite a miser. He never really looked like he had a dime to his name, but owned quite a bit of property in Polk County, and he was the only person I ever knew personally who owned an industrial-sized backhoe, though I don’t remember a time it was ever out of the shed he built for it. When he died, some people had quite a bit of anticipation about where his money would go, but I don’t know how that turned out. I can only share that it didn’t go to me.

Memoir: Dispatching Flies to the Sweet Hereafter

The flies didn’t stand a chance. When people came in to get a hair cut, flies would sometimes follow them in the door, but they were short for our world so long as my grandfather, Dolphe, was around. He would just stand quietly, almost motionless, and suddenly flick out his middle finger and thump them from the air to total oblivion in an instant. Their carcasses would just drop from the air to form litter for the shoeshine boy, me, to sweep up. 

Dolphe was a quiet man with thick glasses. When business was light, he would just sit and watch people walking by on the sidewalk. The shop had tinted windows, so we could watch the world go by without the world watching us in return. We had the panopticon barber shop, I guess. 

Sometimes, I would go home with him for lunch. He drove a Chevy Malibu that wasn’t a race car, except for when he was driving it. I remember well stopping at a red light at one of the few intersections in Galena Park when two teenagers pulled up next to us. “These boys think they’ll be in front of us when this light changes,” he said, “but we’ll see about that.” And sure enough, he got out in front. I think it is easiest to win races when the other competitors are left unaware of their own participation. 

When not dispatching insects to the great beyond or racing teenagers, Dolphe was a gardener. He was a gardener who had many houses over the years. I can remember seeing his successful gardens in McDade, Galena Park, North Shore, and Bolivar. I’m sure he had many other gardens unknown to me. Often, when the rest of the family was milling about and making noise, he’d be enjoying quiet contemplation among the squash, tomatoes, and other edibles. 

His cats were mean. Some attributed this fact to the breed of cats, but others were pretty sure it was because he played rough with them. Whenever they would go near him, he would play fight with them, and they seemed to think this was the way to interact with humans, so the rest of us just stayed clear of the cats, ornery things that they were. 

He loved watching television, apparently, with the colours all out of whack. It never looked natural, and he liked to fiddle with the tone and brightness adjustments, so it was always changing, like a cathode ray kaleidoscope. This was entertainment in itself; anyone could see that.

Finally, I learned to play “Tennessee Waltz” on the piano just because he asked me to. Most times I visited him (not big family gatherings but quiet visits), he would ask me to play it, which I always did, quite badly. I don’t think my version ever really improved, but my audience of one was always appreciative, and I still love that song. 

He is pictured here on the left with my father, who is on the right, obviously. 

Memoir: Ice Crescent Moons

My grandmother, Blanche, made the best iced tea. It was the ritual I loved. She’d boil water in a large pan and add a generous portion of loose tea leaves as the water continued to boil. She’d then let it steep for a few minutes as she got everything else ready. She added sugar to the tea pitcher and ice (the ice machine produced four connected crescent moons of ice in sequence) to the large Victorian (I really don’t think they were Art Deco, but maybe) goblets. 

Once the tea had steeped sufficiently, she strained the tea into the tea pitcher, creating a super-saturated solution of strong black tea and what most respectably regulated people would describe as too much sugar. While the tea was still warm, she’d pour it into the goblets, and those frozen crescent moons would scream in protest, cracking with a ferocity that made me fear the glass would come apart, but it never did. Brought to the lips, the tea was a sweet mixture of warm and cool replenishing dry throats. I don’t believe the world contains a more satisfying way to quench thirst. 

When I was young, she lived in Galena Park, Texas, and at the time the only way to cross the Houston Ship Channel from Galena Park to Pasadena was through the Washburn Tunnel. Large bridges now carry several lanes of traffic across the channel, but in those days only one lane of traffic at a time could pass through. Thanks to the paper factories, refineries, and grain elevators, Galena Park had a distinctive smell in those days, and the smell was concentrated inside the tunnel. I don’t think I will ever forget that smell.

And if you passed through with Blanche driving, you’d be in the tunnel for awhile. She was cautious and never bothered about the tailbacks she created as she made her way from one side to the other. I usually prefer a quicker pace in life, but I found great amusement in giving the drivers behind us a few moments to reflect on their life choices and contingent salvation. 

In the early days of my life, I would sometimes get frustrated when she would start a story and then say, “Well, I can’t tell that,” leaving me to wonder what adventure or scandal she was hiding from my innocence. When I was older, though, I liked to visit her to hear her spinning yarns with considerably less obfuscation. A few family secrets came out, but mostly they were tales of her time working in a hospital. She had been a teacher and later worked in hotels and hospitals. Anyway, the hospital tales weren’t really scandalous, but they sometimes included more detailed descriptions of medical waste than some people would prefer. I loved hearing them, though. 

She and my grandfather had a beach house in Bolivar, Texas, and they would sometimes fish from the jetties. I can’t remember all the details, but on one occasion I think she was wrestling a catch from the water when she slipped in and was forced to struggle back onto the jetty. I just remember her saying, “When I fell in, I had my keys in my bra. By the time I got out, they were in my panties!” She was a woman to be reckoned with. 

Poem: Center Drugstore (#napowrimo)

You would open the door to mingling aromas
of coffee, toast, perfume, and disinfectant.
After the shock of the olfactory assault,
You’d see a few toys to attract the kids
alongside perfume and various toiletries
to attract their moms. Three aisles
pretty much stretched the length of the store.

Items became more personal as you made your
way to the back. After the toys and toiletries,
you’d find grooming products, followed by
over the counter medications, with “feminine”
products, haemorrhoid creams, and laxatives
at the absolute end of the aisle. To get condoms
or prescriptions, you’d have to go to the counter
that stretched across the back of the store.

These were the earliest days of the birth control pill,
and it was only purchased in silence with no hint
given to prying bystanders that the customer at
the counter might be in search of childless sex.

To the left of the three aisles of products, you
would find two fairly comfortable booths,
big enough for six people to slide in,
three on either side with room to read a paper
or magazine while eating breakfast or lunch.

Behind the booth was a long counter with
bolted barstools inviting a brief reprieve,
but not comfortable enough to encourage lingering.
Behind the counter, you’d find the usual:
Soda fountain, griddle, toaster, sandwich counter.
You could get a standard assortment of bacon, eggs,
toast, coffee, soda, grilled cheese, or maybe a tuna sandwich.

No one complained about the menu. People rarely
complained, except to get a rise out of the soda jerk,
just for amusement and to pass the boredom.

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Reclaiming My Voice

I guess some people thought (and I was one of those people) I might lose my accent after moving to the UK. I was sort of hoping I might lose it, because I associated my East Texas accent from my youth with ignorance, bigotry, and violence. And, yes, I have been assaulted more than once or twice by someone dripping with the twangy tones of east Texas intolerance.

I always knew, but tended to put aside, the fact that my suppressed accent was similar to the voices of people like Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, John Henry Faulk, Ann Richards, Robert Earl Keen, Dr. Red Duke, Ray Wiley Hubbard, Joe Ely, and many more. Now that I’m further away from the KKK-loving shit-kickers, I often miss the sounds of home. I miss a voice I strangled more than 40 years ago.

Lately, I’ve been trying to write and speak in the voice I lost so long ago. Coming out of the closet, so to speak. I’m stepping from the shadow of shame, I guess. It turns out you can sound like that and not be a total asshole. You can be queer, embrace religious tolerance, celebrate your neighbours’ differences, and just try to be a decent but hopelessly flawed individual (just like everybody else).

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Flash Fiction: Foul Air and Revenge in Bolivar, Texas

Eddie had a beach house in Bolivar. Now, Bolivar, Texas wasn’t exactly a resort. It was mostly retired people and stragglers who like to fish and comb the beach for sand dollars and whatever. It’s not too far from Gulf Coast refineries, so things aren’t exactly pristine, and people don’t go on too much about the smell of the fresh air. It was just kind of a grimy place with gritty people wandering around.

The only place to drink was Bob’s Sports Bar, which was just a bar, really, with a TV, but people seemed to find their own places to drink, though you never saw scantily clad hotties strolling the beach with fancy cocktails. You’d more likely see grungy men and women pushing off in a fishing boat with a couple cases of beer.

You had a fair mix of retired people, refinery workers, laborers, and a few artists and musicians. From time to time, you could see music at Bob’s. If you wanted a nicer restaurant or bar, you’d have to take the ferry over to Galveston. I used to like walking out on the jetties and just taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. You’d hear the horns on the ships approaching the ship channel, the sound of rats scuttling across the rocks, and the bickering of older couples loading up their boats to try their luck at the trout, red fish, and flounder just beyond the breakers.

And you could smell, always, the remnants of dead fish, shrimp, crabs, and so on. When people would clean their catches, they’d put them in barrels at the marina, but of course various predators would also leave carcasses scattered about, which would add to the pungent aroma that is Bolivar. And, yeah, the refineries added their own sweetness to the miasma.

If you looked around, you’d see a bunch of clapboard houses on stilts, many a little worse for wear. You’d also see a shipwreck out in the water. Some of the locals could tell you how it got there and how long it had been there, but most people just thought about it the way you might think of a mountain in the background. It was just always there. Something you expect to see.

The beach was named Crystal Beach because it was crystal clear and clean in someone’s imagination. In reality, it wasn’t the worst beach. It was usually covered in driftwood and seaweed, but not as much litter as you’d find on a commercial beach. Most people on the beach lived nearby, so they weren’t interested in making a mess of it.

So Eddie loved Bolivar. It was a great getaway for him, and he spent as much time as possible there. He loved the fishing, walking out on the jetties, going to Bob’s from time to time, and just hanging out on the porch with a cold beer. He liked the sights, sounds, and even smells of Bolivar, but he didn’t like his next-door neighbors.

To be honest, I personally never even understood his grievance with them. His kids said they didn’t think he even remembered why he was mad at them, but he was mad at them all right, and he did everything he could to cause mischief. Understand that Eddie was a gruff and ruddy sort of guy, never really in a good mood, but I can’t remember ever seeing him do anything that actually hurt anyone in any way. Maybe when he was younger he did, but he was pretty harmless in his middle age.

So when he caused mischief, it didn’t amount to much. His neighbors had a big century plant on the border between their property and his. If you don’t know what a century plant is, it is a large agave plant. It’s a succulent, so it just looks like a big, blue cactus in the shape of a flower. They’re popular around the Gulf Coast because they grow well and impress the eye. They’re called century plants because folks say they only bloom after 100 years and then they die, so it’s a real treat to see one in bloom.

Well, that’s not how Eddie saw it. He hated the God damned neighbors, and he hated their God damned century plant. He’d sit out on his porch every night and drink a few beers and then go relieve himself on that plant. No one really understood why he thought the best way to kill a plant was by pissing on it. Sure, maybe it seemed disrespectful, but it wasn’t poison in any way.

At least, it didn’t seem to be poison for the plant. That thing grew up like Jack’s magic beanstalk, which delighted Eddie’s kids to no end. They teased him constantly about how he helped that plant grow. He had five daughters, and they really enjoyed annoying him, and annoying him was easy, but I guess it was all affectionate in the end.

Of course, other neighbors got wind of it and started asking Eddie to come pee on their tomatoes and everything like that. They would say that and just laugh in his face. He always acted like he was so mad he might blow up the world or something, but nobody ever believed he would do anything more harmful than fertilizing a despised neighbors plants.

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Flash Fiction: Almost Suburban Murder, Really

“I guess I’m just too innocent,” she said. She was looking through the sex ads in the back of one of those independent papers all the cool kids used to read in whatever city you happened to be in, and for reasons you can only guess, she’d never seen any independent papers the cool kids read. She’d never seen ads for “hot, wet bisexual babes waiting for your call” before, so she figured she was pretty innocent.

The courts disagreed, of course, but she didn’t seem aware of the irony of her being too innocent for the commerce of the flesh but guilty of attempted murder. I mean, what’s a little attempted murder between friends? She never would have gone through with it, surely. Truth be told, and I think it was, she didn’t even know how to do it the right way, which is surely why she got caught. It’s safe to say a real criminal would have handled things a little differently.

She got off pretty easy, because the jury found her guilty but basically too incompetent to take out one of her neighbors by hiring a backstabbing cousin who wouldn’t lift a finger for you, much less kill someone. She later admitted she was crazy for thinking this layabout cousin could kill a mosquito, much less a neighbor lady. So she was back to her more or less suburban life, living two houses down from the woman she tried to have taken out. And her daughter was still good friends with her intended victim’s daughter, so they all just continued to live their suburban lives, except with lots more publicity.

These are the kinds of things you are driven to, she explained on television, when you love your children a little too much. That’s exactly what she was guilty of, she said, loving her daughter too much. You know, if you love your kids, you should be willing to hire someone to kill their friends’ mothers. Otherwise, can you really say you care at all? Donohue seem sympathetic but unconvinced, and that irked her even more. What did he know about her or her life? He acted all sensitive and everything, but he was still a man, and no man can understand the love between mother and daughter.

So there you have it, the picture of innocence, sitting in a Mexican restaurant while being scandalized by the idea of bisexual women taking money from desperate men. Some sins really seemed worse than others in her eyes. She was counting on the fact that Jesus would see a mother’s excessive love as the way of God and not at all like flaunting perverted sexual proclivities in ads that could be seen by children. I mean, good God, can you imagine a family eating in that restaurant and having to explain those ads to their six year old?

So she just went about her business, taking classes at the community college and hoping to work up to a better job and everything. Maybe make enough to send her daughter to a good university. Of course, it was a little awkward at the community college. The mother of her intended victim was the supervisor over at the college food court. She couldn’t eat lunch at school without seeing her, so she ate at home, in her car, or just on a bench in another classroom building. It was a small sacrifice but worth it.

Of course, everybody knew her business, anyway, seeing as she’d been on national TV during and after the trial. Even after the Donohue fiasco, she’d accepted a few interview offers, and she’d again tried to explain about how much she loved her daughter and all that, but the audiences never really want to hear the truth. They just all thought she was some kind of joke, and she made her way into more than one comedian’s monologue. Luckily, she could laugh at herself, too. After that all the hullaballoo had died down, the local video store had the movie about her in the bargain bin.

She walked right up to the cashier, waving that video around, and said, “Hey, this movie is about me. I’m a local celebrity! I think I’m worth a little more than $1.99, don’t you?” The cashier doubled over with laughter and said, “I sure do, lady. I sure do. Y’all have a good day now, y’hear.”

Poem: Sulfurous Attacks on Blood-Sucking Arachnids

A sock of sulfur by the door,
And you better not ignore
It before going out in the woods,
Or it’s certain you would
Pick up hitchhikers in the form
Of ticks, chiggers, and no-see-ums.

It really made no difference,
You’d be facing weeks of itching,
And soaking in Calamine lotion,
Epsom salts, bleach, magic potions,
Or anything you could find
To soak in and hope to die.

Chiggers are the worst,
They’re a sentence or evil curse
From the God’s of wooded adventure
Or the demons of dark overtures.
Burrowed just under the softest skin,
Dissolving flesh and turning it to poison.

So, anyway, don’t forget the sulfur,
Before you go stomping through briars.
And be sure to take a shower when you get back
To wash off the ticks and prevent an allergy attack.
And when your done you better be sure,
To thank God for the blessings of nature.

male bugs illness disease
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Fiction: On the Behavior of Bears, Bobcats, and Wolves

After a pretty much fruitless day of hunting that big trophy buck Johnny said he saw, the guys were just sitting around the fire doing all the things you’d expect a bunch of grown men to do around a fire: you know, drinking beer, pissing on the fire, throwing pennies in the fire to watch the flames change colors—the usual stuff. The only difference was that Ricky had one of those new Q-Beams, I think they were called. It’s like a flashlight, except it has the brightness of a thousand suns or a million candles or some other damned thing I can’t remember.

The idea was that you could shine this light around and see animals in the dark, especially if you happened to catch their eyes. So they were just shining it around, not expecting much of anything, especially with all the noise they were making, and sure enough they picked up some reflections.

They suddenly went all quiet and started shining it around more slowly to see if anything jumped out at them. They were all cool about it. They were like, “Hey, man, maybe it’s a bobcat. I’d like to have a bobcat to mount on my wall.” But they were getting a little more serious about their search for wildlife or game or whatever. They were aware, also, that a few black bears were moving back into the area, and it would be nice to get a glimpse of one.

“Just remember,” Jimmy said, “If it IS a black bear, you don’t want to run a way from it. If you run, it WILL chase you, and it WILL catch you. No, you want to stand up to it. Show it your ready to fight it—man on bear.” At that, they all laughed, “Don’t worry, Jimmy, we’ll punch it right in the nose if it tries to get you. There ain’t no black bears around here, anyway, though.” But Jimmy still thought they’d better take a minute to verify that fact.

So, anyway, they kept shining that light around and just looking for bears or bobcats or whatever. Hell, I guess they would’ve been excited to see a ‘possum or armadillo or anything really. And sure enough, they picked up another little glint of something. They kept shining until they could see a set of eyes just as clear as if it was the light of day.

And then they saw another set. And another. Pretty soon they saw seven or eight pairs of eyes, but they thought they saw much more than that, because their adrenaline production had picked up a bit, if you know what I mean, so they were convinced they were surrounded. And then they heard a little sound that was kind of like a dog but different enough for them to know they were surrounded by a vicious pack of wolves. At least that’s how it seemed to these drunk boys who’d been pissing on a fire all night.

They weren’t too worried, though, because they had guns and everything. They were on a hunting trip, after all. It was about that time that Ricky remembered they’d left the guns in the cab of his truck, and he thought it might be a good time to go get some of them out. So he walked slowly out to his truck as Bobby shown the Q-beam on it to light the way.

Once he opened the truck, Bobby started shining the light off at the trees to see if he could see any more animals. About that time they heard a bark or a howl and a crashing sound over by the truck. They were a little worried and Johnny called out, “You good, Ricky?” Ricky shouted back that he was and then came back to the fire without his gun and didn’t say anything.

After that, they all decided it was time to get some shuteye, so they all just got in their respective campers and went quiet. They next morning, when Ricky got up, Johnny was waiting for him. He said, “Looks like you had quite a night fighting them ol’ wolves, Ricky! The barrel of your gun is clogged with mud and the whole gun looks like you dropped it in slop. There’s also about 8 or 10 holes punched in the dirt by your truck.”

By this time, Johnny was laughing so hard I worried he might have a cardiac. They still give Ricky a good ribbing about that every time they go to the hunting lease.

black and beige short coat dog head photo
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