Monday, September 29, 2014

Guess He's Just a Limbo Kinda Guy

Oh to be back in Limboland, where the sock monkeys and brown puppy dogs play, where seldom is heard an appropriate word and the skies are mostly cloudy and grey. But rarely all day. The sun shines in Coon Hollow even when Muir Beach is getting drenched with mist. But the seasons are on the move, the northern hemisphere is shying away on it's elliptical plane, soon to trade rain, wind, blue skies and psychedelic fiery sunsets for the summertime fog.

Yesterday (Sunday Sept. 28th) I read the first chapter of Learning to Limbo at an event known as Words Off Paper at Insalata's in San Anselmo. I have done scant few readings but I enjoy it every time, perhaps because I'm so used to standing up in front of a microphone and making objectionable noises: yelling, burping, sniveling, stumbling over alliterations and blowing punchlines, badly imitating Brits, Indians and Mexicans, scaring the little old ladies bussed in from The Tamalpais who've come for the second coming of Emily Dickinson. Imagine the shock. It's a wonder none of them have croaked in their seats.

The only reason I feel compelled to report on such a generally ho-hum experience is because of the truly warm and enthusiastic reception my next novel - or at least the first chapter of my next novel - seemed to get. I was told by the manager after I relinquished the microphone to the next reader that Isabel Allende had stopped in to pick up some food, then stayed throughout my entire bit. Perhaps she was just gloating on the awkward voice of the amateur, or perhaps she had the more common, sexual reaction to my reading - a faint, uncomfortable itching that temporarily glues one to their seat lest they get up and start scratching in public. Isabel didn't leave her phone #. Hmm. Perhaps it really was more of a circus interest. But I also sold a lot of Hack, just not to Isabel.

All the authors were truly pro, from the genre romance of Kate Perry to the beautiful, conversational
poetry of Gail Entrekin, to the great John Macon King, publisher of the Mill Valley Literary Review and author of an awesome novel about 1979 in San Francsico. There are great stories out there right under our schnozzolas, by the folks standing in line at the checkout counter at Safeway and many more who may have never been to Safeway.

Today I also learned that if sales of Hack don't pick up it may soon be out of print, meaning anybody might waltz in, maybe you, and snatch up the rights. Hack needs an audiobook. Maybe the potential publisher of Learning to Limbo will pick up Hack too and make one. But either way, what's needed now is the Hunter Pence treatment for Hack, the old "Yes! Yes! Yes!" I hear the market is ripe in Rapid City.

So I leave you with this thought: the limbo. A dance, yes. But a place as well. A place between heaven and hell, neither here nor there, happy nor sad, loved or unloved, empty or full. A tight spot perhaps, where as time goes on the bar keeps getting lower and lower and lower. How low can you go? Maybe the melody is the message, not the words except some: Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack go under limbo stick...limbo lower low can you go?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Old Friends

I ran into my old friend Harold Hockalugie the other day down at the mortuary. Normally when I run into folks down there it’s because they have legitimate business to attend to. They’re either making arrangements for someone recently deceased, or they’re stuffed into a bag in the back, waiting for someone to make arrangements for them. But not Harold. At least not usually. Usually he visits to buy an urn - not because he needs someplace to store the incinerated bones of a loved one, but because he needs a nice place to spit.

“Hey you fucking necro-rhetorician,” I imagined him shouting like he usually did when he caught me down there on one of his urn buying trips. I, myself, am not a mortician. Nor am I a rhetorician, necro or otherwise. I just like hanging around dead people, especially dead people who look as if they might sit up and shake your hand at any moment. I am convinced that one day this is bound to happen, so I talk to them, tell them stories, sing to them, put on puppet shows, show them pictures on my iPhone (this is tricky because the mortician, Solly, doesn’t like me opening their eyes), tell jokes, read to them, until the time comes when they get planted. When people criticize my friendliness with the dear departed, I assure them that, when they go, and so long as they don’t choose the barbecue, I will give them equally friendly treatment. For some reason most of them don’t find my promise of post-mortem friendship worth a shit. That’s okay. They’ll thank me some day.


The last time I saw Harold was Detroit in '68 and he told me "all romantics share the same fate some
day, boring each other in some dark cafe,".....Aww hell, there I go again. I apologize. This is bound to happen from time to time: song lyrics that have gotten stuck in my brain like a mosquito in anthracite crack loose and dance across my synapses until they come spilling out my fingertips onto the page, random and irrelevant. I’ve never been to Detroit. I have been to Matteucci’s, a foul-smelling, dark, dank, dingy hole-in-the-wall on Greenfield Ave. I sometimes go to Matteucci's for a glass of red after a couple of hours with the stiffs across the street at Chapel of The Hills.

Last time I was there Hockalugie was holding court in his typical cruel fashion, raking so-called friends, acquaintances, family members, public figures and so on over the coals, relentlessly ripping new assholes left and right. I could hear him from the parking lot before I walked in the door, and, knowing if I didn't show myself he would eventually get to me, I snuck in the back. I took the darkest booth in the joint, way back in the corner where hookers often provide oral ministrations to those clientele that don’t want to be seen walking across the parking lot to their car. In a town that is now populated with a plethora of young multi-millionaire investment bankers/part time little-league coaches, discretion is key. Hence the action in the booth.  

Fortunately the booth had been cleaned just that morning, so what was usually sticky, compost-odored red naugahyde smelled like Pine-Sol. It took awhile for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. As they did, I gradually saw Hockalugie sitting on a matching red leatherette bar stool with a half dozen guys hunched over the bar listening to him rant.

“So, you wanna hear something really fuckin’ bizarre?” said Hockalugie in his trademark nasal whine. “You know our friend Dan Diddy? The so-called writer that can’t even write his own fuckin’ grocery list? The writer that got one fuckin’ book published by some two-bit fly-by-night operation run by that Italian chick with the big hooters? You know the fag I’m talkin’ about?” The guys in the group nodded. Of course they knew. I had been a part of this gang for forty years. I recognized all of them, especially Gary Guzzler and Wally Whacker, both in their early sixties like me, both headed for the establishment across the street in short order from the looks of them. “Well, old ‘Danny-Don’t-Know-Diddley’ hangs out across the street at Chapel of The Hills and talks to the stiffs!” Howard dripped a long amber lugie of tobacco juice into Wally Whacker’s beer while Wally poured a bag of chips down his gullet. “He’s a necro-rhetorician.”

The guys looked at each other, chuckling so obviously that it’s clear not a one of them knew what it meant.

“Wow, really?” Wally Wacker asked. “What a fag.” Wally looks like one of those beached jellyfish you find on the coast in late July with his enormous gelatinous ass drooping like tallow over the edges of the barstool. His basset-hound jowls wiggle when he talks, sending ripples through his blubber that wriggle to his feet and back up again until his whole body is a jiggling mass of strawberry jello. Born big, his family tried everything from liposuction to hypnosis to psychoactive diet pills, all to no avail. He is also as dumber than a cow. “Wasn’t Richard Pryor a negro-dietician?”

His sidekick, Gary Guzzler, is a body-builder: what you might get if you took Wally, hung him upside down, dipped him in boiling liquid copper, froze him, then took a blowtorch and a chisel to him. Guzzler’s muscles are not only sculpted into unnatural shapes resembling rodents and small farm animals, his head is about the size and shape of a small butternut squash, completely hairless and buffed to a high sheen.“Shit, Wally. Your fat has gotten into your eustachian tube. Dieticians and rhetoricians are two entirely different things. A dietician is what you need. A rhetorician is like a musician without music.”

“Jesus”, Harold shouted. “You fuckin’ idiots don’t know the first thing about necro-rhetoricians, for chrissakes!” Harold Hockalugie suffers from classic “little man” complex. That's not saying much. Almost everybody feels small around me at 6'6" 240lbs. But Harold's little man complex is in play even when he's with folks his own size. 

Years ago I did some work for his landscaping company, back when we were real friends in our twenties and thirties, were in each other's weddings and so forth. Even then, he never missed an opportunity to take me down a few notches, or a few feet. If he was wrong, as he almost always was in matters not related to digging trenches, laying sod, identifying plants, installing irrigation, raking topsoil, measuring, cutting, operating power tools, driving the truck and proper fertilization techniques, he made sure it was because the topic was unimportant, thus not worth a shit anyway.
"I tell ya sometimes I feel like Ricky Ricardo with you guys, always 'splainin' something. When I tell you that our old friend Dan is a necro-rhetorician, I'm telling you that he likes to do it with..."

Suddenly Trixie the bartender - a tank-topped, flat-chested, beady-eyed, oblong-headed trailer trash chick with a Rod Stewart seventies layered hairdo of several auburn shades - decided to set these old bastards straight. “Don’t say it, Harold. You’ll just make an ass out of yourself, which you can ill-afford. First, Lucy was the 'splainer. Second, you fucking pencil dicks know about as much about the English language as I know about…” Trixie the bartender stopped and considered the glass she was polishing, her long yoga-stretched biceps contracting and expanding as she thought. “...I was gonna say as I know about cars, but I actually know a lot about cars. In fact I know a lot about everything, including necro-rhetoricians.”

“Okay you skanky bitch, what are they?” shouted Wally, drooling like Jabba the Hut.

“Alright you worthless fucks. Let’s start with ‘necro’ - Latin for ‘death’ or having something to do with death. As in necromancy. Now, I’m assuming you all know what rhetoric is?”
The guys were now flummoxed. The idea that this guy they’ve known since high-school, captain of the golf team, basketball star, football yell-leader, president of The Great Guys Club...this pillar of the community - me - would hang out in the mortuary and converse with the stiffs was simply impossible to entertain. Wally, Gary and the others now turned to Harold as if he’d just called the pope a dicksmoker.
“Uh, did I say necro-rhetorician? I thought I said necro-mortician.” Harold was the type of guy that would go to his grave insisting that he was right and frequently rewrote history up to the latest thirty seconds to cover his ass.

“Oh for chrissake!” Trixie howled. “A necro-mortician? That would be a little redundant, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah, and repetitive, too!” Wally shouted.

“Not to mention basically saying the same thing twice,” Gary added. Harold was crestfallen. Here he had a whole story about my conversations with dead people and what a sick old fuck I had become all teed up, only to see it fall victim to semantics.
I decided I had all I could take, so I slid out from the dark booth, skulked down the hall and out the back, then around the building, past the life size models of Jake and Elmore and the mural of James Dean, Jack Kennedy, MLK, Elvis, Brando and Marilyn, and through the swinging front doors with the porthole windows.
“Hey fellas!” I shouted. I pulled up a stool next to Gary and ordered a glass of pinot.
“Oooh, a glass of pinot. Whattsa matter with you, Diddly? Can’t drink normal beer like the rest of us?” Gary took a big gulp off his bottle of Stella, hardly a “normal” beer, while Harold hocked a lugie about twenty feet across the room into the trash can by the front door. I'll admit, the lugie-hocking, the farting, the never-ending lewd comments were part of what kept our brains young while our bodies were falling apart at the seams.

“Dan, the boys have a question for you about…,” Trixie hesitated. Their conversation had been so disjointed she wasn’t sure how to put it. “...about what it’s like to be a necro-rhetorician.”

I looked into the faces of my drinking buddies with a wry smile, wondering what they were seeing when they looked back. Another old guy, shaped like a giant 6'6" gunnysack, fortunate enough to have retained a full head of silvery hair but unfortunate to have picked up a pair of prodigious manboobs, an extra chin, a bulbous nose, bad teeth, watery bloodshot eyes given to frequent weeping and thick bifocals. I was no rhetorician, nor was I mortician, or a dietician. My back was so wasted I didn't even play golf anymore, or at least not without a few Vicodin and a pint of Hornitos. I was simply a curious guy with a hunch that death was no more permanent than anything else in the universe. 

It was at times like these that I wished Matteucci’s had a more diverse clientele. Had there been a few Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians - hell even a few Kentucky fundamentalists or South Carolina evangelicals -- the conversation about life after death would have been more stimulating. Instead I was stuck with a half dozen white males that were born in the fifties. Could anybody blame me for preferring to converse with the stiffs? At least I could write-in my own sensible repartee, rather than having to listen to the senseless blather of these hopeless halfwits.

“You know, Diddly, you’ve turned into a real prick these last few years,” Hockalugie said, sort of out of the blue. “A real necro-rhetorician. You would rather talk to dead people than talk to your friends.”

The rest of the guys were taken aback by Hockalugie’s sudden vitriol. What had I done to piss the guy off, other than walking into a bar on a Friday afternoon and ordering a glass of red wine? Nobody else seemed to care that I had been at the mortuary across the street for the past couple of hours chatting with the stiffs.
Friday was best for necro-rhetoricians because the stiffs would be dressed in their Sunday best, ready for their funeral and for all their relatives to come and pay their last respects. I gave them pep-talks, reminded them that their souls, if they had not yet departed their current body, would soon go off to start a new life in a new body of their own choosing to do exactly as they pleased. I explained that I believed this because nobody had proven otherwise, so why not go with the best possible scenario?

Harold Hockalugie spat into a paper bag that had been filled with popcorn. “You know why I didn’t invite you and Denise to my 60th birthday party?” He had always had a crush on my wife, and was in the process of making a play for her thirty five years ago when she chose me instead. Denise wasn’t even slightly miffed that we weren’t invited. She saw Harold, who had been single for the past twenty years after divorcing his first wife for getting addicted to tranquilizers and painkillers, as a mean-spirited tyrant who drove his wife to drugs with his relentless psychological abuse. To her, our old circle of friends were nothing more than a pack of whining coyotes who, when together, prayed on whomever was absent. “I didn’t invite you because you’ve turned into a self-important, conceited, arrogant prick.”

As if this was new, surprising information. I was just as unsuccessful then as I had been for the past thirty years, writing books that nobody read and other embarrassing business blogs that paid less than minimum wage. Had I lived in Mumbai I might have been living like a king. But I lived in San Anselmo, but not for long. I was selling the house I shared with my late wife, the house where we raised two kids. I would be moving out soon. 
“That’s okay, Harold,” I said. “I’ve been hoping after all these years that you would be able to forgive me for growing up in a generous, well-to-do family, and for consistently kicking your ass on the golf course." It was true. He would never miss an opportunity to berate me for the gifts my parents heaped on my sister and I. I thought about trying to explain the serious strings that came with accepting their gifts, but that wouldn’t have changed his perception of my sister and I as trust-fund, country-club babies that would never have to work for a living, even when I was breaking my back working for his landscape company.

“Harold you stupid cross-eyed motherfucker,” Trixie wailed, slamming a new bottle of beer down on the bar for fat Wally, who, like Gary and the others couldn’t understand why Harold was so upset with me. To them, my strange necro-rhetoric was just another in a long list of quirks that had always kept me on the periphery of our group, along with my obscene height. “Why do you have to criticize every little thing that you don’t understand? Is it part of your idea of being a true American?” Trixie couldn’t even talk to Harold without belittling him in some way, and Harold was not alone. She had it in for everybody except me, it seemed, which made her rather gamey looks a little easier to handle.

“Oh fuck you, Trixie. Why don’t you and Mr. Necro-Rhetoric here go do a little Kama Sutra in the blow-job booth.” Harold said with a wave of his hand. The color was rising in his pock-marked cheeks above his salt and salsa mustache and beard and beads of sweat popped out on his high forehead just below his receding gray, brown and auburn hair. Ever since I’ve known him, Harold has sported a thick walrus mustache that is as much a fixture on his face as his short, flaring nose and the bags beneath his sienna eyes. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen his upper lip except in photos from grammar school.

Trixie turned around and discreetly rolled up one of the dampened bar towels Then, just as Harold was loading a fresh dip of chaw between his lip and gum, she snapped the towel and sent the can of peppermint Skoal flying, the damp chaw spilling out all over the bar and the guys, all of them shouting and cursing at Harold for letting himself get nipped by the nasty bitch bartender.

In an instant Harold was crawling over the bar and chasing Trixie, who effortlessly vaulted onto a stool on the opposite side just as he was about to brain her with my bottle of Pinot Noir, sending it crashing against the beer mugs underneath the bar in a fearsome riot of shattering glass. “Grab her!” Harold yelled, but nobody wanted to touch the ungainly wench for fear of contracting crabs on contact. Harold then ran around the end and toward us at the bar which Trixie had already vaulted over again. Now she had her baseball bat and was slapping the barrel into her palm, taunting Harold mercilessly.
“Poor little Harold,” Trixie harangued. “So mean to all the girls that he can’t get laid to save his life. Haven’t you heard, Hockalugie? Sisters ain’t goin’ for that bullshit no more.”

Again, Harold jumped up on the bar, kicking at Trixie while she swang at him - he was short enough that she could have reached his head and cracked it open like a cantaloupe. Instead she caught him on the ankle with the bat head and, howling with pain, he fell off the bar like a duck shot out of the sky, smacking his skull as he went down on the corner of a laminate table top. Meanwhile I dialed 9-1-1, and within five minutes the cops had arrived, instantly calling in for an ambulance when they saw the slow, steady stream of blood spreading across the vinyl floor.

"Uh oh," muttered Trixie. "It looks like I've killed the son-of-a-bitch."

I ran into my old friend Harold Hockalugie down at the mortuary the other day, stretched out in
a very comfortable looking casket, dressed in a gold houndstooth sportcoat, a candy cane striped shirt and a royal blue tie with a dozen little silver fly fishermen, each with a fish on the line. True to his profession, he wore Levi's button fly jeans and a full toolbelt around his waist. His beige leather Timberland workboots, barely worn in the last dozen years, look freakishly huge and uncomfortable in the silk-lined box.  I didn't know who dressed him up like that, but I told Sollie that the boots and the jeans had to go.

"Sollie, you don't get it. Harold needs to be dressed for where he is going, not where he's been."

Since Harold's ex and his three daughters had decided to cremate him after the open casket service, against his wishes, I thought we should at dress Harold in an outfit that, once he was reconstituted, would be aligned with his preferred future. So I hurried down to the Good Will and picked out a jazzy lemon yellow LaCoste alligator golf shirt and some green plaid Bermuda shorts. They even had some golf shoes in Harold’s tiny size. The outfit smelled a little musty on the drive back, but I figured it would be nothing compared to Harold’s chemical scent.
Solly and I dressed Harold and set him back in the casket. “Man it really sucks that they’re gonna torch him, he looks so good lying there,” Solly said.

“Yeah. He told me a while back that he didn’t wanna be torched. He was looking forward to stretching out under a well cared-for lawn, smelling the fertilizer, listening to the mower overhead. Right, Harold? Isn’t that what you wanted?”

Though Harold didn’t say, I thought I noticed the corners of his lips turn upward just a smidge.

“Hey, ya know, I bought a few plots over at Mt. Tam a long time ago for situations just like this. You think you can wrangle a few hundred out of his wife and kids?” I figured Solly would probably have something like this up his sleeve. He also knew I would probably foot the bill for my old friend.

“Look,” Solly said, taking me by the arm and walking me out into the casket and urn shop. “If you can scare up five hundred bucks, I’ll take care of everything: the plot, the casket, the gravestone, the burial, the whole ball of wax. Believe me, the full monty costs a lot more than a measly five hundred bucks. Even the economy package.” This was very gracious of Solly, who had brought me into to the casket and urn shop so I could see the costs and would appreciate his generosity.

“All I ask in return, Dan, is that instead of comin’ in here and laying your ‘self-determined’ afterlife schtick on the stiffs…”

“You mean my ‘necro-rhetoric?’”
“Yeah, that too. I want you to get out to the nursing homes and the hospitals while these folks are still alive. Give ‘em your schtick but also put in a good word for Chapel of The Hills. Tell ‘em we specialize in the self-determined afterlife, and can get them set up with a new body for free.” Solly and I wandered back into the embalming room. Harold was still there. There were several other stiffs as well, cooling their heels in closed caskets until it came time for their official viewing. I had prepped each of them for their next move and had received no objections.
Solly’s proposal was enticing, but it also meant that I would be out among the living again, which I wasn’t so sure about. Besides going across the street to Matteucci’s and trips to the grocery store, I hadn’t been out and about since my wife had passed away almost two years ago. She wanted her ashes scattered where the Pacific Ocean meets the San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge, a sort of graveyard itself given it’s status as number one suicide spot in the world. My wife’s father had taken the Golden Gate Bridge to the afterlife, which was the main reason she wanted to be scattered there.
I ruminated on Solly’s proposal while I picked over Harold, ensuring every hair of his mustache was in line and his pock marks sufficiently filled, arranging his hands in his pockets, then across his chest, then over his head, and finally leaving one hand on his head and the other on his belly, just to see if he would start to rub and pat, rub and pat: a trick he never mastered while living, the poor bastard.
“Okay Solly, it’s a deal,” I finally said when my wine alarm went off and my feet starting moving toward the door. “I’ll scare up some dough from the guys across the street.” I figured the gang would want to see Harold planted in the ground like a tree, just like Harold himself might have planted a tree in the ground. Especially under a frequently manicured lawn that looked like a fairway. That's where I got the idea to start planting folks on golf courses, with yardage markers on their memorial in-ground plaques. To avoid disturbing the golfers, the burials would happen at night after an afternoon service in the clubhouse. Of course the only way to visit your dear departed loved one would be to play nine holes, or caddy. They love the idea in Sweden. 

Trying to get the old gang to invest a dime in Hockalugie's proper burial was more challenging than I anticipated. He had insulted everybody in our group one way or another, and we all had to go back a long, long time to remember when he was just a simple funny guy lookin' for a beer and a blow job, back when our requirements for happiness were just that simple. We came up with $450, and Solly went along with us.
It's true that Trixie is not nearly as hard on me as the other guys. It can't have anything to do with aging any more gracefully or handsomely than Wally, Gary, Billy, Arnie, Larry, Teddy, Dave or Harold (now known as the Great Single Guys Club). So it must be something else. Now that it's been two years since I lost Karen, maybe I'll give her a call and find out what she's like when she's not a baseball bat-wielding right hander with a preference for low and outside pitches. After she does her time for manslaughter, of course. I wonder if she would like to join me on these visits to The Redwoods, Greenbrae Care Center, the Tamalpais and Smith Ranch. If anybody can liven up somebody on their last legs, it's her.
For now I'm on my own. Just the other day a decrepit old guy at the Greenbrae Center - a commercial salmon fisherman whose family had abandoned him, so far as I could tell - told me that he loved my idea about the self-determined afterlife. He loved it so much that he made reservations for a plot at Chapel of the Hills, and even wanted me to drive him over there so he could pick his casket and make a few song requests. Driving the old fisherman from Greenbrae down Sir Francis Drake then over to Red Hill Avenue just about did him in, but he made it back to the GCC, so itchin' to get going on the next life that I thought he might check out right then and there. 
We buried Harold Hockalugie in a remote hole near but not under the eucalyptus trees he despised. It was just us guys and a non-denominational preacher (Trixie was already cooling her heels in the clink). We all forgave him for the last twenty years of little-man nastiness, and prayed in our own way that he would come back tall and handsome with a penis like an anaconda.

Then the rest of us went down to Matteucci's where a very comely young woman - the antithesis of Trixie - was polishing her nails behind the bar, just waiting for us. After we got our drinks we retired to a booth where we drank in silence until Wally raised his hand to speak, as if he needed permission.

"Guys, I have a question," Wally Whacker said, jiggling all over, "What the hell is a necro-rhetorician?"

The group was silent. Since I was the one accused of such behavior by our departed friend, I figured I was supposed to come up with something. Finally, all eyes upon me, I said:

"It's what some lonely guys do when they think they have no friends."

And we laughed, and drank, and laughed and drank some more until it was time to go home.

Now on der Kindler for $2.99

Friday, April 4, 2014

Down South, Where Everybody Knows My Name

Being a Northern Californian with a name like Jeb is like being Latvian with a name like Ernie. You tell people your name and people say “nice to meet you, “Jim” or “Jeff” or worst of all “Jed”. Then they’ll break into the Beverly Hillbillies Theme song and you have to explain to them that while you might be having a difficult time keeping your family fed you’ve never “shot” for food and produced bubbling crude, Black Gold, or Texas Tea as a result,  and despite the many requests for you to move away, you’ve never loaded up your truck and moved to Beverly Hills. No swimming pools. No movie stars. 

It’s gets complicated. And very old.

So it’s not unusual for a Northern Californian with a Southern name to start hearing the theme song
from “Cheers” start to ring in the head (The Beverly Hillbillies having begun to provoke a gag reflex), and even start to yearn for a place where everybody knows their name.

This happened to me not too long ago. I was on the phone with a customer service rep that obviously harkened from the land where customer service was invented some place south of Mumbai, and insisted on calling me “Jib”. As in “I like the cut of your jib, matey.” I hadn’t spoken with a native English speaker for weeks, having been laid off and so broke that I couldn’t afford a new pair of socks. When my PC went on the fritz I thought, “aha, my chance to speak to another human being,” so I eagerly dialed to support, only to find that the person on the other end of the line spoke a language that periodically contained an English word but other than that was complete gobbledygook. After trying to get the “eh” sound for “Jeb” I gave up and decided to go someplace where everybody knew at least a dozen “Jebs” and socks didn’t matter: Louisiana.

The truth is I had no choice but to make a pilgrimage to the Deep South – my ancestors were calling me. Not on the phone, but in my head. “Hello Jeb, how y’all doin’? This is cousin Binx, from Baton Rouge. You remember me?” and “Hey there Jeb, how y’all doin? This here is your old cousin Boots. I was just wonderin’ if y’all remembered that night out by the cement pond when y’all tried to put your hand up my dress. Y’all remember? Good! I’m just callin’ to tell y’all that it’s okay for y’all to put your hand up there now. In fact y’all can put just ‘bout anything y’all wants up there, since there’s plenty of real estate to explore if y’all know what I mean.”

Well, how could I turn down an invitation like that?

So off I went, sockless, (and braless, since I heard man-boobs are nothin’ to be ashamed of down there), all the way to St. Francisville, Louisiana in West Feliciana Parish just south of the Mississippi border and just a cannon ball shot from the Big Muddy herself, and when I got there – I know this might be a little hard to believe – but everybody did know my name. What’s more they knew my pappy’s name, his pappy’s name, where they was born, where they died, where they was buried, who they married, who they fooled around with, what they liked to drink, how many turkeys they shot, who caught the biggest bass, who liked to gamble and who put on airs and which one got religion and which one didn’t and I tell you they knew things about my kin that I didn’t know nothin’ about and I swear I ain’t never seen these people before. And every dang one of ‘em swore they was my cousin!

This all seemed most curious, even though I knew most of my pappy’s kin was from Laurel Hill and the Hazelwood plantation just right up the road. But I didn’t pay it no never mind and went up to the old plantation to see if one of my cousins mighta left a pair of socks in the drawers of the old antique dressers, but I didn’t find none. The old house was good as new, considerin’ it was first built in 1832. My old second aunts and second uncles and cousins once twice three times removed had put a lot of tender lovin’ care into the place, and it weren’t like no place I ever seen in California. Nossir they didn’t have no low-flow toilets and little tinklin’ shower nozzles, plus they had an icemaker in the re-done kitchen that would churn out cubes all day long so’s when anybody had a hankerin’ for a mint julep or a bloody mary or just a Coke or a Dr. Pepper they was prepared; and they do drink an awful lot of Coke and Dr. Pepper down there even though they got water spurtin’ up out of the ground and most especially comin’ out of the sky with thunder and lightenin’ like I ain’t never seen in California.  The first night I stayed out there in Hazelwood, which is a half hour drive north of St. Francisville in this little town of Laurel Hill which really ain’t nothin’ but a few double wides, a Baptist church and a cemetery for the blacks, then down the road a ‘piscopal church and a cemetery for all my cousins and my granny and her mama all the way back to the early 1800s – well that first night it stormed something fierce, the lights went out so I got drunk on Kentucky bourbon, stripped naked and went runnin’ around all over the property in the rain, 500 acres of woods and fields and a big old man-made lake with a boat house my cousins built. It made me remember when I was a teenager we went water skiin’ on that lake and as I was puttin’ my ski on in the water my cousins drove right up to me in the boat, whipped out their wieners and took a leak right where I was so’s I had to dive under so’s not to get peed on. They thought that was so funny and I guess it was if all you’s ever had to do in your life was fish and shoot. So when I’s heard one of them cousin’s got so fat that his kidney’s failed and he had to have his legs chopped off at the knee it didn’t make me as sad as I might have had been had he not tried to pee on my head that day.

Runnin’ around naked in a thunderstorm is different when you’re sixty, compared to when I last done it when I was twenty. First, my wife would not go with me this time, but my girlfriend in college was like a regular Lady Chatterly out there in the thunder and you’da a thought she got struck by lightnin’ the way she came and came out in that storm. That was in Colorado in the mountains, but it was still a big thunderbanger.  Second, when you’s sixty you can’t run around so long and you’re always more careful not to step in an armadillo hole, even though it’s all just smooth grassy fields all around the house and sloping down to the pond until it’s woods where you don’t want to go in the spring even with your clothes on and especially with no socks ‘cuz the water moccasins and cottonmouth vipers are just wakin’ up from hibernatin’ and just itchin’ to sting somebody. Also, when you’re sixty runnin’ around naked in a thunderstorm isn’t so much about havin’ fun and bein’ wild as it is about daring God to take you down. When I was runnin’ around out there…mostly walkin’ around out there after awhile, dancin’ a little, staggerin’ around drunk, I was yellin’  “Come on, God, show me what you got!” and the sky would light up: Crack! Crack! Crackety-crack BOOM BOOM BOOM! And it just make me wanna yell louder “look at me you son of a bitch I ain’t even got no socks and I lives in California. You know what that means!? Come and get me, you old motherfucker! Come and get me now! Come and get me or get me a pair of goddamn socks!!”

Well the next day I slept and slept, clear past 7, past 8, past 9, almost ‘til 10 o’clock, and when I gets up all the lights in the house are on and my little radio is playin’ like my cousins all been there and had breakfast. But I knew it wasn’t them because them lights was on before the storm. So naked as a jaybird I’m walkin’ around turnin’ ‘em all off when a black feller roles up in a pickup and shouts out “good mornin’!” Oh my did I jump! I hurried my naked ass into the bedroom and my wife went out and jawed with the old fella, the caretaker, James, while I put my clothes on, without the you know whats, and after a time and coffee and me havin’ a little storytellin’ time we went to some of these very very old houses, though they’s really not any older than Hazelwood.
1832 quilt by my ancestor

Wouldn’t you know when I walk up to take the tour everybody says “well hi there Mister Jeb you come to see your great grannies house?” or “Good afternoon Mister Jeb, are here to see if your 4th aunt twice removed sold her silver yet?” and such silly things. Well my kin sure did have some fancy houses: there was The Myrtles with all the ghosts and such, which they’ve made a bed and breakfast and people can choose to sleep out in the cabins or they can come in and sleep in the house with the ghosts!! People who go say they’s up all night with the ghosts! They even got little meters that tell ‘em when there’s a paranormal disturbance! But I didn’t see no ghosts when I was there. But the tour guide says they live in the mirrors because they had a funeral  for my 3rd cousin in law in the house and forgot to cover the mirror with the traditional black cloth, so old Clara she snuck right in there. But later I learned this tour guide is fulla hooey. She says that the Spaniards would tax them – this was in the early 1800s – on doors and windows so they made it so they could turn a door into a window and vice versa, that is the owner of the house like Mr. Ruffin Stirling, my second great grandfather, to trick the Spanish tax collectors. But later when we tour Rosedown, former house of Sarah Turnbull my 3rd great grandmother and William Barrow my third cousin, the tour guide there says “Mister Jeb, you tell that guide that she’s full of donkey turds, and that she should go do her research,” which surprises me because I have yet to see a single donkey in the parish.

We sure did see a lot of old furniture down there, and small too because the people then were smaller than we are, and if they’re 3 times smaller than me they're ten times smaller than the average resident of Feliciana Parish because the people grow huge down there now. My theory is that this because they’re embarrassed about their tiny ancestors, so they’re doing all they can to get as big as possible. The only trouble is the furniture hasn’t quite caught up to the size of my Southern kin, and out back of the houses and the restaurants are piles of broken furniture, not because of fights but because the folks is just too big.

Eventually I got tired of everybody knowin’ my name and what I had for
Stanton Hall, Natchez
breakfast and how the crawfish etouffee gave me the gas and why I don’t have no socks, so my wife and I took a drive up to Natchez where I hoped nobody would know me, and sure enough nobody did because in the historic downtown area there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Every once in a while a tour would drop off a passel of old folks, who I looked at and said to myself, well me and Holly are doin’ the same as them: do we look like that? Holly didn’t like that idea at all so we tried to avoid them buses. When we came to the African American museum we thought to have a look, but when a feller dressed like Colonel Sanders came out and started goin’ on, and other folks show up and next thing you know we’s getting’ cotton gin demonstrations and seein’ African masks that come over with the slaves and it’s a story that is so depressing we told the Colonel that Holly had the gout, and we left.

Mississippi and Louisiana are as different as catfish and trout. That part of Mississippi around Natchez and south of there is very hilly, while right across from the Natchez bluffs the land in Louisiana is flat as a pancake. And in West Feliciana, which is rolling but not so rolling as Woodville and that high ground just north of the border, the fields are all fallow: just nothin’ but green grass so it all looks like a giant golf course with patches of woods, ponds, sand traps and such, where Mississippi is farmland, growin’ soybeans, rice, alfalfa, though I never saw one cotton ball the whole time we was down there. More cows in Mississippi too. My theory is Mississippi ain’t as sleepy because you got to go to the package store for wine, where in Louisiana it’s right there at the Piggly Wiggly.

Oh, here’s a secret I forgot to tell y’all: you wanna know what the very first thing me and my wife did after we got settled at Hazelwood?  I fired up my GPS on the phone and we drove an hour or more to the Whole Foods Market in Baton Rouge so our bodies wouldn’t go into shock. That’s cuz we’s native Californians and even though nobody can figure out if my name is Jed or Jim or Jeff, or even Jib, we gotsta have our gluten free, dairy free, fat free – everything but real free – or else we will surely seize up and die. Plus the wine selection is better than the Piggly Wiggly in St. Francisville.  (Actually there ain’t no Piggly Wiggly in St. Francisville, but I pretend there is cuz I like the name.)

So now we’re back where there’s a Whole Foods in every town and we’ll won’t never be stuck with a choice of fried chicken or fried pickles or a po-boy, though I’ll admit I could eat them sweet potato waffles every day. But we’re back and our sweet potato fries at Whole Foods is frozen, I still ain’t got no job (can you believe it? Some people tells me to be a writer cuz they tell me I writes good just look at Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, but them fellas with the goatees and shiny heads got no need for Mark Twain. “Give me a writer who can tell a story!” they all say and I say fine and send ‘em a link to this here blog and they still don’t like me! I’m surprised, cuz as far as I can tell those fellers don’t wear no socks neither. Not that it means they ain’t got ‘em. They just don’t wear ‘em.)

So like I’s sayin’ I still ain’t got no job, but I do got 10 acres of woods down at Hazelwood that could accommodate a double-wide and maybe a little storytellin’ cabin. So who knows, I could go hide out there where nobody cares none about my socks and everybody, even the skunks, the raccoons, the deer, the wild pigs, the coyotes, the bass, the water moccasins and cottonmouths, the junebugs and luna moths…every one of the knows my name.

And that’s sayin’ somethin’

The back stairs, used by servants
The front stairs

Greenwood Plantation
St. Francisville Courthouse

St. John's Episcopal