10. The Widow Ledbetter

Most everyone can tell you that Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford.  What most people cannot tell you is how Frank James managed to live until he was 72.  Was he not also an outlaw?  Did people not die at his hand?  How is it that Jesse died and Frank lived?

It seems luck.  Or maybe Jesse was less likable than Frank.

If you ask around Fort Campbell, though, you hear a different story.

Frank James lived to be an old man because any man who sleeps with the Widow Ledbetter is promised a death from natural causes at an old age.

This is trickier than it was in Frank James’s day because the Widow Ledbetter has long been deceased.  But it still can be done.

Maybe it’s best to start with Frank, who arrived in what is now Bordeaux with his wife, Anna, in July of 1876, sick with malaria, and being hunted by the authorities.  He was calling himself Ben Woodson; Anna had changed her name to Fannie Woodson.  They arrived at the home of Ben Drake, who lived along Hyde’s Ferry Pike, and Drake recognized that Woodson was dying.  He also suspected, looking at Mrs. Woodson’s jewelry, that they were quite wealthy.  He insisted they stay until Woodson was better.  One night, after Fannie had gone to bed, Drake and Woodson were sitting at the table by the fire playing cards.

“Friend,” said Drake, “You’re not well.  In fact, you may be dying.”

Woodson sat silently for a long time, and then said, “You may be right.”

Drake proceeded cautiously.  “I have not asked you much about yourself.”

“And I have appreciated that.”

“As I have appreciated you not asking me much about myself.  But tonight, I am going to tell you one thing about my family.  The women in our family have a… shall we say… a gift.”

“And what might that be?”

“Sir, I’m afraid there is no delicate way to put this.”

Woodson laughed and shook his head, “Then it is good that I am not a delicate men.”

“The women in my family can make men well.”

“That’s hardly unusual.  My mother kept seven plants in her garden that could, in one combination, heal a man, and in another, kill him.”

“Well, yes, that is part of the skill she has.”

“And the other part?”

“She can give a man old age.  Any man that… sleeps… by her side… will live to be an old man and will die of natural causes.  No harm can come to him, except at her hand.  And, I can promise you that my sister has no more interest in harming anyone than… Well, I can guarantee that she is not a violent person.  And she can cure you.”

“For a price, I assume.”

“Yes, $250.”

They had not seen Fannie come back in the room.

“Please, Ben,” she said.  “Please let’s at least try.”  It may sound, to our ears, hard to believe.  But imagine Fannie’s situation.  She is on the run and in a place where she has no friends and her only close family is her crazy brother-in-law, who was living somewhere nearby, though they weren’t sure quite where.  If Frank died, she would be on her own, hundreds of miles from anyone who knew her and might take care of her and she knew there was a baby on the way.

She, herself, in fact, handed the money to the Widow Ledbetter, who, in turn, took Woodson’s hand and led him to her room.  I suppose it goes without saying what happened in that room.  The important thing is that Woodson recovered and, as promised, lived to be an old man.

And that might have been the end of it, except that Anna Ralston James lived until 1944 (make of that what you will) and she mentioned to a friend whose son was going to fight in the Spanish American War that there was a woman near Whites Creek who could guarantee his safety.  The son, the story goes, found the Widow Ledbetter and survived the war.  That was, it is said, how it became an Army legend–fuck the Widow, live forever.

Okay, not forever, but you’d grow old.  And that is almost the same as forever to a man who’s being shot at.

I’m not sure how they learned how to make the deal with her after her death.  But I have heard that, during the Vietnam war, if a soldier said he was “going down 41,” it was understood that he was going to Nashville, to summon the Widow and that soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell have been, from time to time, forbidden from getting off at the Old Hickory Boulevard exit.  If they want to come to Nashville, they must go straight into the city.  No hanging out on the outskirts of town.

Now that no one is sure where she’s buried, this is how it’s done.  You must acquire a jar of water from Whites Creek, preferably from betweenClarksville Pike and Hydes Ferry.  You must also procure a heaping handful of dirt from the creek side.  You need three white candles, flowers if you’re feeling romantic, and, of course, $250.

Find yourself a room with a bed.  Most folks use now use the Super 8 out where I-24 crosses Old Hickory Boulevard, but you can still use one of the old motor lodges alongClarksville Pike, if they have room.  Take a shower.  Turn off all the lights.  Light your three candles.  Open up your jar of water and place the $250 in the creek water.  Smear the dirt on your hands.  As you do this, look into the mirror in the room, and repeat, “Harriet Ledbetter, grant me long life/ And just for this evening, I’ll make you my wife.” over and over until she appears in the reflection of the mirror.  Do not look directly at her until she touches you.  And do not let her go until she lets go of you.  She will vanish at dawn and then you must take everything–the water, the dirt, the candle stubs, the money, flowers if you brought them for her, everything, and dump it in Whites Creek as soon as you can.  Toss it over your shoulder and leave without looking back.

I know, you’re thinking, it’s so easy.  And, if it works, why don’t more folks do it?  Why don’t folks tell everyone?

I met a man who attributed his having lived through Vietnam to Harriet Ledbetter.  He agreed to have French toast with me at the Hermitage Cafe and I sat across from him and asked him that very thing.

He said the first thing that stops you is embarrassment.  You don’t want folks to think you’re crazy.  You don’t want the folks who don’t think you’re crazy to think you’re a bad Christian, summoning spirits, which the Bible expressly forbids.

The second thing is that it’s not good, that night.  Her skin feels and smells like cold, wet earth.  Her breath smells like a cup full of night crawlers.  And she looks at you like she knows some terrible secret you’ll have to die to find out.  And yet, when she touches a man, he responds.

And then, he explains, running a big, square hand through his shaggy gray hair, it ruins you after that.  You cannot sleep alone, because, if you do, you wake to find a corpse-cold leg thrown over yours, a dead hand resting knowingly on your chest.  She is there when no other person is.  And so you must work to always keep your bed filled.

“The guy I learned about her from?” The vet says, rolling the paper napkin between his fingers.  “His wife died from breast cancer last year.  He’s only 62.  His doctor says he’s got another twenty years, maybe more.  He don’t want another woman.  But what can he do?  Any living woman is better than what’s waiting for him otherwise.”

What America Did You Have?

Yesterday broke me, I have to admit. I got home and I wanted a fire and there was only one match left and the wood was wet and I wanted to crochet and I’ve lost my hook and I just felt like there was not a single thing I could easily pull together to make sense out of the day.

Yet, the fire still started with only one match.  And it burned as long as I needed it to.  I don’t know what to make of the hook situation, though.  And I was counting on it to keep me busy at the Southern Festival of Books.

I was thinking, as I always do when I wonder just what the fuck kind of country it is where a man can espouse the position that some people aren’t good enough for a family and other people have long, “rational” discussions about it–as if there should be some common ground we can find or point of understanding we can reach about wanting to codify into law such a ridiculous position.

I know I all the time talk about how I feel like there are two Americas.  Not John Edwards’s two Americas, but the America of Walt Whitman, which is grand and sad and silly and people are broken and lonely and beautiful and they ramble on, too long, and they are lost and found again; Whitman’s America is full of artists and freaks and outsiders and people who are at the heart of America and still considered un-American. And then there’s the America that would and tries to destroy the other America, as often as it can, as thoroughly as it can.

And we, at any minute, may be citizens of one America or the other.

That is my deepest belief about America, that we are two countries, together.

Yesterday, when I told a friend that I was feeling kind of defeated by politics, she said she was, too, and was coming to feel like the only way to really change this country is through the arts.

Stop fighting with and on the terms of the one America and fight on our own terms.

I find that idea very appealing. And I felt comforted by it.

I woke up, though, with the end of this poem running through my head.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage? Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?