Southern Life

The South is known for its unusual characters, right? They populate the novels of Southern writers like Erskine Caldwell, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers. But we Southerners know, don’t we, that you don’t have to crack one of their books to find such a character’s prototype? Often they live right next door, or just down the street, or they show up at the other end of a conversation. To wit:

Photo by Amphipolis

In sending email, I routinely include a favorite saying or famous quotation in the message’s personal signature section, at the bottom of the page. Recipients often comment on the quotations, which I change from time to time, albeit irregularly because I tend to forget they need refreshing.

Recently, I sent an email requesting information from an out-of-town bank. Louise, the bank’s computer teller, called next day to give me the information. “But first,” she said in a drawl dripping molasses, “tell me how you know my husband.  I asked if he knows you and he doesn’t.”

“Your husband?” I said, puzzled. She was in Mississippi; I was in South Carolina.

“Yes. You quoted him in your email. I was amazed to see that.”

“Quoted?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve got it right here on my screen: ‘Fortune favors the bold’ — Virgil.”

The light bulb came on. “Oh,” I said. “That’s a quote from Virgil, the Roman writer.”

“Oh, then that’s not my Virgil,” she said. “I don’t think he’s ever been out of Mississippi.”

I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask Louise if she knew a young woman named Velma that I used to work with in Aiken, S.C. Velma glowed with vitality, but the glow did not extend far above her neck. (Nor did it need to; Velma was drop-dead gorgeous.) Anyhow, one day when the office staff was having a working lunch, the boss’s way of keeping our noses closer to the grindstone of commerce, somebody brought up that old parlor game in which one is asked to name 12 people they’d invite to a dinner party if they could include anybody who had ever lived. Soon, names like Jesus, Hitler, Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Elvis, the virgin Mary, Babe Ruth rang around the table — until it was Velma’s turn.

So help me, Velma, in all seriousness, named 12 of her relatives: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.

I’ve often wondered if Virgil’s wife Louise was one of those relatives.

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Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After service in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English, and then began a (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and ended years later in Atlanta at The (great) Atlanta Constitution, which I left in late 1982 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. My second novel, Atlanta Blues, spent a few minutes on the best-seller list in (at least) Columbia, S.C., and was described in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer.” My third novel won no honors but at least didn’t get me hanged; titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in the high school of a Georgia town. For my next novel, And Tell Tchaikovsky the News, I returned to an Atlanta setting for a story about the redemptive powers of, in this case anyhow, “that good rock ’n’ roll.” I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. One of its stories, “R.I.P.,” was a winner in the S.C. Fiction Project in 2009. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.comand I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.