Southern Life

My father died in 1993. It was an event which created not a, but the, chasm in my life—the one separating Parts I and II. Part I seems somehow more real to me—as I stand here in Part II where the ego is losing its muscle tone, dissolving into my past selves and the people I love. Daddy, a mild temperament stretched over a steel frame, was aware of Lynn Curtis, and like all his power company, gas, telephone-type buddies, and everybody else I knew in Auburn, accepted him. I’m sure I don’t know the half of it, but I was never aware of anyone harassing him, or making an issue of him. He was just part of Auburn. And this as far back as I can remember—the mid if not early ’60s, or before.

(Photo by Eva the Weaver)

I don’t know when Lynn Curtis came to Auburn, and that he had come was a given—rumor had it, from New York where he had been a dancer in his youth. Nor do I know why he had come here. Doubtless there are people who know these answers—not I—I do not claim to have known him well. I offer only this peripheral view.

My mother, who worked for many years at Glendean Drugs, even at the original location, like everybody else around there, knew and liked him. It was hard not to; there wasn’t anything defensive about him. He simply was himself. He was not defiantly himself, by God. Not at all. He just was himself—without apology or even the need to suspect one might be needed. He lived just down the road from Glendean, on Glenn Avenue, and as he didn’t drive he often cut a colorful figure walking that path, his jet-black coiffure big and radiant. Made you think of Liberace. And when you saw him up close there was something thrilling about him—older than he appeared at a distance, and vivid. I realize there are places where he would not have stood out especially, but in Auburn at that time, he was unique. Why he was here instead of there, I have no idea.

He was just Lynn Curtis, and he ran a dance school.

It was not until the ’80s that small town osmosis provided me with more information. I found out from my friend Brian Upright, who ran the Pet Stop and did handyman work on the side, and had done a good bit for Mr. Curtis, that the dance school, which was in Mr. Curtis’s house, was lucrative and he had a lot of money. I don’t guess that’s really surprising; I’d just never considered it. Then from the woman who was cutting my hair at the time, whose name has drifted out with the tide, I learned that every summer Lynn would treat a group of women, his girlfriends, hairdressers and the like, to a trip to the beach. My haircut lady had been on several of these junkets, and said they had a ball. I find it fascinating to try to picture this: the daiquiris, the food, the long thin cigarettes, the raspy laughter, the card games, the glorious girlie mess in some condo—who knows? And the husbands, to whom Lynn Curtis posed no threat, doubtlessly appreciated this annual contribution to their sanity.

My next advance in knowledge of him was, I felt fortunate, personal. In the mid-’80s I owned and ran a printing shop in Auburn, Village Printers—and one day a big car drove up, and what might have been Little Richard arriving at a show, but was Lynn Curtis arriving at Village Printers, emerged from the back seat in a white ensemble with a shoulder bag, and came inside. He was a charming man. No doubt most of us are charming in brief encounters—I couldn’t follow him into all the corners of his life, or all his moods—maybe he had seasons of dark depression, maybe he was a tyrant to his students—I don’t know! I was never really interested in his private life; I guess I was more enthralled by the myth of him. I really liked him. He was colorful, ebullient, just the right amount of self-deprecating, and he seemed more interested in my shop with its embossed tin ceiling and odd machines than in the task at hand, the printing of his spring dance recital program—Swing Into Spring! I named a price—he didn’t flinch—he seemed to have no taste for arguing with petty tradesmen over their fees. He was equally careless about the program itself—he barely glanced at it when it was done. It was marvelous! The clip art—lovely! I will say I had obsessively proofread it with an eagle eye—and that did matter. Getting all those little princesses’ names right. Not for the princesses, honey—their mothers! He knew I had slaved over it, bless my heart—he trusted me completely! And so he became a customer, though I rarely had personal dealings with him after that. I dealt with his secretary.

I sold Village Printers in 1986, and not too long after, left Auburn.

My father died, stranding me over here on this side of the chasm. I’ve rarely visited his grave, because with him so alive inside me, I don’t do well with the iconography of death: graves and marble and hushed solemnity. But one day not too long ago I brought my kids there. They had never known him, but I had downloaded him into them as much as is humanly possible, and he lived inside them too. We looked at his grave; sure enough, in spite of the severely chiseled name, he wasn’t there. It was all a mere abstraction. The rooms he kept on this earth were inside of us—so we drifted away, my kids somewhere, and I to look at neighboring graves. I was immediately struck by how many of these people I knew! A cast of characters from my parents’ generation, from all walks of life. The town I had known was migrating, piecemeal, from there to here. My God—Lamar Sellers, a policeman I once as a youngster ran afoul of in some business I’m too ashamed of to confess here. I always believed he knew I did it, and was protecting my parents. So he took my secret and God knows how many others with him to his grave. Mrs. Umbach! My first grade teacher. Prototype of that era’s matronly grade school teachers. A loving, strict woman who paddled us, when needed, with a bolo paddle, who rubbed a lotion on her hands I can still smell, who had a whistle that I searched the markets of the world to find a replica of, and never did. Mrs. Mignon Andrews! My seventh grade biology teacher, perpetually reaching in her blouse and yanking up a bra strap, who graded our insect collections with approving nonchalance—and if one had, let’s say, glued the wings of a luna moth to a walking stick and called it a Reticulated Sphincter Moth; or maybe, like a buddy of mine who’d had the good fortune of finding a grasshopper trapped on the curb when the yellow curb-painting machine came by, half yellowing it, put it in the box, labeling it a Yellow-Backed Dippenhopper, Mignon just took it all in, pulling up her bra strap and not breaking stride, cooing only an impressed Mmmm! A+!

And many others.

But the one that took me aback, because it was in a row with several others with nothing, including the company it kept, unique about it, was Lynn Curtis’s:

Lynn Curtis
1926-1997
Dancingly Yours,
Mr. C

I think I’d heard he’d died—but figured he’d have been spirited away to some colorful rarefied resting place for dancers in New York maybe. Or if here—off by himself with a splendid monument and manicured grounds. But no. He was only here—permanently in death just what he’d been in life, and apparently what he’d wanted to be, a part of the community.

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John M. Williams

John M. Williams

I teach at LaGrange College–a small, pleasant island in the ocean, Academia.  My colleagues are my friends; we are collegial.  I deal with creatures of inexhaustible charm, a foot on either side of that just beginning to widen crack which will force them shortly to leap one way, or fall the other.  They have vastly more promise than ignorance, but are rich in both.

I’ve been here so long I’m beginning to suspect some sorceress is playing a joke.  How did I get here?  Circuitously.

I was riding a stick horse in the pecan tree filled yard of a flat-roofed house in Auburn, Alabama–that much is vivid.  Then, it all begins to blur.  All my grammar school teachers were old (perfectly lovely) women; my children’s grammar school teachers were all hot babes.  Why is that?  The main thing I remember about high school is Mr. Goff.  Him, and a handful of friends (you know who you are).  I think everything I learned in high school could have been easily condensed into one strenuous afternoon.  Then college, where I was rejected by calculus and attracted to letters, my favorites being M and G.  The eras of my life have all been covered, one way or another, in my scribblings.  My childhood is encoded most accurately and completely in my story “In the Beginning Was Kitto.”  That gripping tale is not included here because it’s in a collection called Snake Dreams that I’m trying to sell!

After college, travel–then grad school, then travel, then five years in the printing business, then aimlessness, then LaGrange, grad school again, marriage, children, and a series of red felt-tipped pens.  Here, the birthdays have become like cards being fanned in a deck.  Like I said, a blur.  Blur blur blur.  You have to fight the blur!  Speak truth to blur!  You have to nail little exertions of precision to the shadowy walls of life’s dubious corridor.

To those of you in other trenches who hear this faint tapping–tap back!