Southern Stories

There are germs in the air.

And stories too.

A writer never knows what winds will carry a seed. Or where a wind blown seed might land. ‘Story germs’, I call them — and they are found most everywhere: planes and trains and bus stations and bars. Hotel rooms and yard sales and subway stations and barber chairs. I once ‘found’ a story seeded in one of those long, slow moving, interminable automobile tag lines before the days of online renewal. A piece about a grandmother and the tattoo of her new Ferrari was there, just waiting for me.

Like acorns, story seeds can germinate and become full-fledged, fully involved, four alarm yarns, though very often they don’t. Or maybe it just takes them some time to properly develop in a writer’s mind already pregnant with another tale of ‘could be’.

With germs of stories likely to show up anywhere though, a writer has license to look and listen …to be nosey, quietly anyway. And to plot “what if” when the seed has invaded the mind.   I’ve gotten quite good at eavesdropping,  though I must admit I am still learning to listen. There is a difference of course and I’ve learned that very often the noise in the air turns out to be just that: noise …mindless prattle… hyperbole… and feigned hubris.  But sometimes, the noise is not just noise, but a kind of song of a sort, a kernel of truth. And food for thought.

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One of the places to find story germs is the coffee nook at a bookstore.  People come to browse but also to interview for jobs or to sign-up another sucker for one of those MLM gambits or to get their taxes done or to conduct business affairs and even affairs of the more salacious kind. (Sometimes, there is mischief afoot in a coffee klatch.)

A few days ago, I’m at a bookseller’s on the Southside and I’m hard to spot, like a PI in a Walter Mosley novel. Even out of the corner of my eye, I can see the family resemblance between an older man and much younger woman seated across the way. She’s inherited his same proud nose and same high cheekbones and the same grin, although neither is smiling much at the moment. They’re  huddled over one of those small round tables barely bigger than the ‘strawberry-chocolate-cranberry-pumpkin-and something or other mocha’ latte that she’s having and the dark, strong smelling espresso the old man’s drinking. There is also the din of coffee beans being ground in the background by a young woman wearing a name tag that says “Wantu”.  As the grinding of beans stops, you can hear the elder man at once kidding, consoling and admonishing his offspring:

 “Baby I wish I could help … I really wish I could just give you the money and you could go like you want to…but I can’t and you’ve got to get over it. I’m doin the best I kin. ‘You hear me, baby?. Things’ll be better in a little while. ‘Course, if I was younger, I could get thru one of these here modern recessions standin’ on my head. The Depression. Now there was hardship for you. I ‘member when I was roun’ twelve, maybe I was even ‘leben, the unemployment rate musta been bout  fitty percent. It was a hunnert percent at our house. We didn’t have hardly nuthin’ to eat for a long time. ‘Lease y’all got food stamps. That Thanksgiving, all we had was soup, rock soup… made out of dirt and gravel”, he winks. “I think mama’d threw in some grass for us to chew on. It is all we had, baby. So if you think you got it tough, yo generation got it a whole lot easier than we ever did…..”

Wantu, the barista girl starts her grinding  again and while you can’t hear through the ambient noise, you can see the woman-child finally grin and mouth:

“Rock soup, hunh?  C’ mon Granddaddy, I think you’re tryin’ to pull my leg and all…but I see what you’re sayin’ I’ll make out ok. Thanks for tryin’ though. I love you Granddaddy.”

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 A few days ago, a woman who appears to be slightly older than middle age vaults through the rapidly closing car doors of the subway car headed further up the line during rush hour. The woman is as tall as she is wide and she has just barely made it aboard an already crowded car before the warning bells signal the train is about to move.

The woman is disheveled and breathing hard. She carries a book marked “Holy Bible” and her blonde wig sits off-center atop her head.  Holding the upright rail for stability as the train moves, she loudly makes a pronouncement:

 “I don’t know none of y’all, but dammit, I need to pray. I need all y’all to pray. For me… and their regular teacher. Last month, I asked God to please send me a job. He gave me one too… as a substitute teacher. Now I’m praying to God to heal that heifer so she can come back and take care of her badass kids. Them kids ran me crazy today. Now les pray…” And she begins, “Heavenly Father…”

Not knowing whether to laugh or be scared, we all lower our heads…

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A city bus ride was recently the setting for a quiet conversation between four hotel housekeepers sitting in the seats in the forward section. ‘The Rosa Parks’ seats, I call ’em. These women too, are slightly older than middle age. They are laughing and tittering on the way home from their shift that has just ended. Theirs is a point of view distilled from the crucible of a long-hard day spent cleaning up after a Hollywood celebrity guest at one of downtown Atlanta’s hostelries’:

“You shoulda seen how that woman and them chiren of hers tore up that room. Ain’t lef not nary a tip either. Took me twice as long as it shoulda to git the room ready fo the next folks. I seen her on TV and the movies. She can sing but she damn sho ain’t got no home trainin’.

“Academy Award winner, my ass.  Seems like Oscar is the only kind of male she’s ever gonna be able to keep. She’s a very pretty girl. I jes don’t know how come she can’t keep no man.”

“Red Carpet? Dead carpet is more like it.  She ain’t had a hit movie since Ramona here was a virgin.”

 “Actor!? That bitch couldn’t play dead if her life depended upon it.”

 “Wasn’t she married to that guy that got hisself eaten by that tiger  or something? That mofo was just askin’ for it. Thas’ what he git for going around the jungle provoking wild animals. Lions and tigers and stuff. I think it says somethin’ ‘bout that in the Bible.”

“Well, if it don’t, it sho should.”

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Just like ‘…there’s gold in them thar hills’, stories and germs are in the air.  Gems too.

 

© Copyright 2011 Will Cantrell

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Photo 1 by Librarian by Day via her Flickr photostream.   Photo 2 by nsdis via a Flickr photostream. Used with Creative Commons 2.0 License.
Will Cantrell

Will Cantrell

Will Cantrell (a pseudonym) is a writer, storyteller, and explorer of the milieu of everyday life. An aging Baby Boomer, a Georgia Tech grad, and a retired banker, Cantrell regularly chronicles what he swears are 'mostly true'  'everyman' adventures. Of late, he's written about haircuts, computer viruses, Polar Vortexes, identity theft, ketchup, doppelgangers, bifocals, ‘Streetification’, cursive handwriting, planning his own funeral and other gnarly things that caused him to scratch his head in an increasingly more and more crazy-ass world.   As for Will himself, the legend is at an early age he wandered South, got lost, and like most other self-respecting males, was loathe to ask for directions. The best solution, young Will mused, “was just to stay put”. All these years later, he still hasn't found his way but remains  a son of the New South. He was recently sighted somewhere close to I-285, lost, bumfuzzled and mumbling something about “...writing' his way home.” Of course, there are a lot of folks who think that “Cantrell ain't wrapped too tight” but hope that he keeps writing about his adventures as he finds his way back to the main highway.