Bars Upon Thars

Chris Crofton’s advice column hit me right in the gut today. I think this is the part that got me hardest:

When I drank, I felt good. The days I didn’t drink, I felt really low. I decided that I would drink every day. I only allowed myself to drink at night, so during daylight hours I felt awful. All I wanted to do was sleep — and I did. During college I started sleeping until 4 or 5 p.m. I went to see the school psychologist. That was the first time I was advised to quit drinking — the first of hundreds of times to come. I couldn’t imagine quitting. What would I do? Who would I hang out with? Also, I wanted to be an artist. Artists drink, right?

I guess everyone knows someone who only feels good when he drinks. But there’s something about seeing it spelled out.

I’m not opposed to drinking–obviously. I like it. It’s fun. But, man, sometimes you see someone you care about with a beer before noon and you wonder if the temperance people weren’t on to something*.


*Please note that I think prohibitions of most sorts are terrible ideas and ruin lives. But I also know that addiction is terrible and ruins lives. And I have sympathy for the wrong-headed idea of “just making it illegal.”

Tunisian Crochet

Since I finished up the surprise afghan, I set about teaching myself at least some basic Tunisian crochet. The important thing I think I learned is that my Grandma’s hook must be for sock-weight yarn. But I found this pattern on Etsy and it’s really easy to follow and the leftover yarn from the surprise afghan is working up really beautifully.

I guess, if you’re going to learn any kind of crocheting, I have two recommendations for you. 1. It’s easier to learn on bulkier yarn. 2. It’s easier to learn on wool.

The parts of the stitch are easier to see on bulkier yarn. Plus, it works up quicker, and when you first start out, you’ll need some early victories to keep going. And wool. Okay, it’s expensive. I don’t recommend you buy a whole project’s worth of wool yarn if you don’t know what you’re doing. But having a skein of wool yarn, the kind that’s fairly stiff, to try out new stitches on is really invaluable. Wool holds its shape where as a lot of other, softer, types of yarn don’t. Soft yarn is awesome. Don’t get me wrong. And, once you know what you’re doing, floppy stitches aren’t going to stop you from finding the parts of the stitches you want. But man, to have a yarn that holds its shape, that has the stitch parts right where you’re looking for them as you’re trying to learn a pattern? That makes a huge difference.

So, needless to say, I spent a big part of the afternoon trying to learn this Tunisian crocheting with soft, acrylic yarn. It was brutal.

Switch to wool? Suddenly, everything is right where the directions said it would be and it’s coming together. Or at least I can see how it will come together.

The Surprise Afghan is Complete!


I have two pet peeves lately that are pretty much ruining my enjoyment of the world.

  1. I hate the reportification of the world. You do anything and some email comes along asking you to write up a report about it. Tell people what you thought of your oil change. Tell people what you thought of that book you just bought. Did the packaging the birthday gift you gave your brother live up to your expectations? We noticed you took a particularly deep breath when you entered the park. Did the smell meet with your approval? Most of the time, I’m just trying to get some shit out of the way so that I can do some other shit I care about. Like, if I have coffee with a friend, I’m mostly concerned about the with a friend part. As long as your coffee doesn’t suck, I genuinely don’t care. I have no opinion about whether it’s better or worse than anywhere else and I’m really fucking starting to resent the implication that I’m supposed to be running around in a constant state of hyperawareness about my interactions with your fucking brands so that I can give you feedback. No, I fucking hate it. Not only don’t I want to write a review, I don’t want your brand fucking nagging me about it. Vomit.
  2. I also hate how much of my ordinary life is devoted to dealing with your fucking ads. Wake up, clear ten emails out of my inbox that are just fucking ads. Same at lunch. Same all the fucking time. I have a few lively email correspondences. But my bullshit to actually useful ads run ten to one. And it pisses me off. Why do I have to hear from Target or Walgreens once a day? I already go there. I hate that the world is just one big goading to get me to buy shit.
  3. I especially hate all this because, to me, it feels like it means the economy isn’t actually very stable. I hate Walmart. I will always choose Target over Walmart, if I can. Target knows, based on my credit card use, that I shop there. That they need me to shop there more and to convert others into Target shoppers? It feels desperate. Same with Walgreens. Don’t even get me started on these loyalty cards. Once you need your customers to market your product for you, I think you don’t know what you’re doing.

Secret Squares Done

The squares for my secret project are done. I just need to tuck tails and put them together.

When I’m done, I’m going to teach myself Tunisian crochet, since that is, apparently, what the long hook my Grandma gave me a million years ago is for.


So, I’ve been listening to the Tanis podcast, as you all know. I love The Black Tapes and this scratches that same itch. Plus, I have to say, I think I’ll be less annoyed if this story doesn’t resolve at the end of the season, since it’s hard to imagine how it could resolve.

But, after this episode, I’ve decided the other reason I’m listening with rapt attention and fear is that they’re taking L. Ron Hubbard and moving him into the fictional realm. Like we talked about this morning, they’re making him a legend. And I am a little afraid for them over it. But also in awe. It feels so brave.

As I’ve been working on Ashland, I’ve been thinking that there are two realms we always live in–real and fiction. And, like the realm of the elves is said to lie just next to but often unrecognized in our world, fiction and fact lie together. Two rivers sharing the same bed, passing next to each other, influencing each other, often intermixing in ways that can’t later be separated.

Sometimes, I suspect that religion is an effort to peel away the too-close-for-comfort nature of the Unreal and set it up in Heaven or down in Hell or off in the distance, somewhere where we don’t have to worry about it. But it doesn’t move. It’s still right here, us always slipping into it without realizing it.

As it must be, because how else can you understand a soul or consciousness or this weirdness that makes us think we have a self? It makes no sense. It is the Unrealness at our very core, the story told to us from the beginning, that we have an interior life.

Which is not to say that I don’t believe in myself, my self. I believe in a great deal of Unreal things. I’m just saying that the strangeness is in us, from the start.

Anyway, I hope the Tanis folks stay safe.

From Fact to Legend and Back Again

One of my favorite things, though I’m also often really frustrated by it, is how facts become legends that then get cemented back into untrue facts.

Take this really awesome thing about the 11 weirdest places in Mississippi and scroll down to The Witch Dance. You may remember the reference to this in my story about Little Harpe.:

First inhabited by Native Americans, the area of Witch Dance soon became a meeting spot for witches. According to local lore, the witches would perform ceremonies that included dancing. It is said that wherever the witches’ feet touched the ground during these dances, the grass would wither and die, never to grow again. Believed to be bad luck, these barren spots were avoided by Indians, travelers, and traders; however, there was someone who wasn’t so lucky. Local criminal, Big Harpe, was told to stay away from the unusual spots, but he ignored the warning and was later found with his head nailed to a tree. Many believe that a witch ended up taking Big Harpe’s head and using it for a special potion.

There are facts of a sort in here. The Witch Dance was a site the Native Americans knew about. But it’s not clear that it was ever associated with witchcraft or bad luck before white settlers got there. But holy shit. Big Harpe was in no way a local criminal and there’s nothing to indicate that he ever even went to Mississippi. This kind of insinuates that the witches nailed his head to a tree, but we know it was the local Kentuckians warning other river pirates. Weirdly enough, there is a Kentucky story that a witch took his head.

Poor Little Harpe, who actually went to Mississippi, gets kicked out of the legend all together.

Things I Think about Sucking

I have said the same things to multiple people over the last few weeks, so I’m also going to say them here.

  1. Revision is a lot of writing. Revision sucks.
  2. There’s no way around rejection. You just have to get rejected, a lot, and you just have to find a way to get used to it, though it never stops sucking a little.
  3. In order to be a writer, you have to write. In order to have written something you have to write.
  4. In order to write, you have to suck.

This, I think, is one of the hardest parts. You want to be a writer because you’ve always loved to read and you’re good at writing. Yes, so say we all. Probably, you’ve always been good at writing. If you’re like me, you’ve never sucked at something you liked. If you sucked at it, you didn’t like it. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t do it. So, getting used to sucking, even temporarily, at something you like and know you’re good at is really hard. You may feel the unpleasant suspicion–one I have regularly–that the sucking is not temporary, that it is your writing life.

Take up a hobby that you suck at, that you aren’t so emotionally invested in it. Practice sucking. Get used to it in a forum where the stakes are lower for you. Suck until you see what it is to get better.

Be prepared to always suck as a writer in some ways.

But, also, have faith in your readers, who are coming a great distance to meet you in a mystical place. They really want to overlook all the ways you suck. As long as you make that possible, the ways you suck will remain a private thing the whole world can see but ignore.

A Little More on Spooky Jones

That story went through a number of endings. For a while, Spooky went to live with one of his sons in the city, nothing exciting for Louise happened at the end, but we find out that Uncle Matt is never able to escape the town. Then, for a while, it ended with them standing in front of the house, Spooky being sad, and Louise calls the dog and, for the first time in its life, it comes when someone calls it and Spooky realizes that Louise is special and is happy to see the dog again. Spooky still goes to live with one of his sons in the city, Louise inherits the dog, and mysteriously, when she’s older and telling this story, she still has the dog. Matt is still stuck in that town. Then, for a while, it ended with all that and a long explanation about how the dog was immortal because it had dug its way into Hell and then back out again and the bad guys wanted it because it was immortal and magic.

All of these had their awesome elements. But they weren’t quite right.

And I think the reason they weren’t quite right is that they moved the focus off of Louise. This is was a tricky thing for me to figure out, because, in my mind, this story was about Louise and her grandfather, with the dog and Matt being kind of equally important minor characters. So, Spooky has an arc, a kind of sad arc, where we seem him disappointed and more disappointed and then losing his house. In spite of all his power, he can’t make a life that makes him happy. And Louise has an arc, where she realizes that she’s inherited the family power.

So, the ending to the story seemed like it should be “how it ended up for everyone.”

But, once I realized that Spooky has always been disappointed and miserable, the main character was obviously Louise. Once you realized Louise is the character, a lot of questions spring to mind. What does it mean to have this kind of power in your family? Could you have it? What would it mean for you to have it? Would you have to be as miserable as Spooky?

The story doesn’t really answer these questions, though. To me, the arc of Louise is realizing that something that has been kept from her is going on, as is often the case for children, and that she is a part of that thing. How will she react to that knowledge?

So, the ending of the story, I realized, needed only to be “What does Louise find out and how will she react to that?”

And, though it isn’t 100% clear how she reacts to it on a first read through, I did try to leave a couple of clues in the story as to what happens.

Anyway, long story short: if your ending is not working, sometimes you don’t need more words, you need tighter focus.

5th Spooky Saturday–Happy Halloween!

Argh, I love this story. I hope you do, too.

They Burned Down the Home of Old Spooky Jones

by Betsy Phillips

When I was ten, I broke my back. There was this big rusty metal dome out on the playground. We weren’t supposed to climb on it, but we all did. No teacher stopped us. I fell from the top. It knocked the wind out of me, but I didn’t even know I was hurt until I tried to get up and couldn’t. Then I was scared.

My grandpa heard it on the scanner when they called it in. Beat the ambulance to the school. And I remember seeing him lumbering across the playground, his big hunting knife in one hand, a squirrel in the other.

“Louise!” He shouted. “God damn it. Don’t you move.”

No problem, Grandpa. No problem.

Everyone in town hated him. Which was fine with him. He hated them right back. His whole life people called him “Spooky Jones” behind his back. Every once in a while, they’d slip up and call him that to his face.

Like, right at that moment, when my teacher, Mrs. Burch, was rushing from the blacktop across the grass, trying to intercept him before he got to me with that knife. And that squirrel.

“Spooky! No!” she shouted. I remember, too, that she was wearing these kitten heels with a really sharp point, so she sank a little into the ground every time she took a step. In a way, it was like watching two horrors—my grandpa, some ancient giant, his hands out in front of him like Frankenstein’s monster, taking each step almost in slow motion, and Mrs. Burch and her herky-jerky steps, arms bent like bat-wings, steady as the rest of her shook. “Don’t kill her, please!”

This did seem to get my grandpa’s attention. He stopped for a second, but then shrugged, as if it was too much effort to explain. By now, there were sirens and the daytime cop, Bill Evans, and a handful of volunteer firemen had arrived. They, too, were now racing toward me. My grandpa stood over me, slit that squirrel’s throat, and yelled out, “Make her lucky, motherfucker.”

I know it sounds crude, but it felt like a prayer. Squirrel blood rained down on me.

I was lucky, too. So very, very lucky. I cracked six vertebrae and two ribs, but just bruised my spinal cord. I lost most of the feeling in my back, but I wasn’t paralyzed. I did have to wear this big cast that wrapped around me like a plaster corset. My mom wanted to take me into the city to the hospital, to see if there was something more that could be done for me. But there was no way my family could have afforded that.

As it was, my mom had to take another job at the gas station just to pay my medical bills. Everyone said we should have sued the school, but we didn’t have the money for a lawyer and, looking back, I doubt the school system could have afforded my medical bills either.

This meant I spent a lot more time with my grandpa. Someone had to watch me. First thing in the morning, my dad would carry me out to the car, drive so slowly and gently, like he was afraid I might break, and lift me out and put my on his dad’s couch. Grandpa would be cooking breakfast.

“Want some?” He’d ask, while my dad was back out at the car getting my books. And that might be all he’d say to me until lunch time. Sometimes he’d go out. He drove an old rusted-out pick-up that didn’t go into reverse anymore and that farted big black clouds of oil-tinged smoke when he came to the four-way stop. When it started up, it sounded like the end of the world. I could hear that truck for a good five minutes after he drove away and get that much warning when he was on his way back. When he got back, he’d always ask me, “Been snooping around?” But early on, I couldn’t get off the couch without help. During those afternoons when he’d leave, I was always afraid that I’d have to go to the bathroom. And how would I get up?

I hadn’t snooped.

Sometimes, he’d bring home groceries, a can of Coke for me, a six-pack of beer for him, a whole raw chicken for the one-eyed dog that sometimes roamed his back yard. That dog. He didn’t listen and he didn’t obey. No use naming him, he wouldn’t come when you called. He was a mess of scars and he was missing not just an eye, but part of an ear. He was the size of a Rottweiler and broad like that, but he was white, with black spots. I always wondered what kind of monster had taken his eye and his ear. It was hard to imagine who could have bested him. His tail had a weird bend to it—when he wagged it, it only went about half-way. And the dog always, always smelled like beer, like he must have sat in a bar when he wasn’t with my grandpa, though I never saw him around town.

My grandpa never smiled. Never had a kind word for anyone, though he wasn’t always mean. He just wanted the world to leave him alone and resented when it didn’t. He never hugged me, never played with me, and never, that I could remember, even touched me before I needed help getting off his couch to go to the bathroom. He didn’t let me die while I was under his watch. He fed me, gave me something to drink when I wanted it, and make sure I didn’t pee myself. That was the extent to which he could do for others.

My mom told my dad that she couldn’t believe my grandpa had managed to father seven sons.

“Just obligation,” My dad said. “He’s his father’s seventh son and his father was his father’s seventh son and on back, for generations. He did what he had to do to make sure the tradition was carried on.”

“Is Uncle Matt supposed to have seven sons, too?” I asked. My dad didn’t answer me. My dad had a hard time with his family, sometimes.

Early on, when I was still pretty unsteady on my feet, Grandpa had gone out in the back yard with the chicken. I heard a noise like someone was trying to play an accordion that hadn’t been used in years. Grabbing various pieces of furniture to steady myself as I walked, I made my way to the back door. My grandpa sat on the stoop, the broken-up raw chicken spread out on a paper grocery bag on the porch next to him. He threw a wing into the air and that old boulder of a dog jumped up to snatch it right out of the sky. That strange noise? My grandpa was laughing.

One afternoon, a month or so before I went back to school, Grandpa got a call from Bill Evans, the daytime cop, that Uncle Matt had been arrested.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get this straightened out,” he said. He was pulling some things—his knife, a rusty pistol, and, weirdly enough, his wallet—out of his pockets and putting them in one kitchen drawer. Out of the adjacent drawer, he pulled a rabbit’s foot, a red flannel bag about the size of a pouch of chewing tobacco, and a small, thick, gnarled root. He put those things in his pockets. He patted himself down, as if to make sure he had not forgotten any weapon he might be carrying on him, and then he headed out the back door. I waddled after him.

His truck smelled like the dog. The vinyl seats burned the back of my legs. I couldn’t get the seatbelt to latch and my grandpa struggled with it a while. “Fuck it.” He finally said.

The jail was the newest thing in our town, built just a couple of years before. It had twenty cells and a set of double doors that had to be opened remotely by a guard behind a bullet-proof window. We weren’t that dangerous—the people who lived there. Sure, people got beaten up and accidents that didn’t really seem like accidents happened. But, for the most part, our problems were not that bad and the people who had those problems, in turn, were also not that bad. The jail wasn’t really for us. The county made a lot of money handing the overflow from the city. Some of those guys really were dangerous.

That time my uncle got arrested, he was one of three prisoners in the whole place. When we talked to him, they let us have the whole visitation room. Not counting the guard, the father of a girl in my class, we were the only people in there.

At the time, I adored my Uncle Matt. He wore his hair long and shaggy, even though everyone at school called him a commie. He also liked to read and he gave me books he thought I would enjoy. When I finished them, he wanted to talk to me about them, wanted to hear what I thought of them.

Looking back, it’s obvious that he must have been miserable in that town, lonely and bored, too smart for his own good. It’s easy enough now to see how tempting anything that seemed interesting, that staved off the boredom must have been.

But then, sitting in that room, across that table from him, watching him run his fingers over the gouges someone had already carved in the tabletop, I was upset and afraid for him. He looked like hell. His eyes were sunk into his head and there were dark circles under them. The jumpsuit they had him in was too big for him and it made him look thinner than he was, so thin you’d think he might break.

My grandpa sat next to me, his hands folded in front of him, his head down. This upset me even more. Could he not see that something was terribly wrong with Uncle Matt? What kind of man doesn’t hug his son when that son is in such obvious distress?

They were quiet a long time, as if they were trying to remember whose turn it was to speak first. Finally, my Uncle Matt broke the silence.

“You have to get me out,” he said.

“I should leave you here!” My grandpa growled before Matt was even finished.

“Okay, okay,” Matt said. “Leave me here. That’s a good idea.” He meant it, which I found confusing. “The longest they’ll hold me is a week. Then I can come by your house and get the bail money.”

I didn’t get what he was saying. Why would he need the bail money once he was out of jail? But I got to grow up with Matt pulling this kind of shit on my parents, too. I came to recognize it. He was always scheming. Once he decided that you were going to give him money for something, he considered that money his. Once it was his money in his mind, he then felt no qualms about telling you what to do with it.

“I don’t have the money to bail you out,” my grandpa said.

“Well, you’ve got to get it, Dad,” Matt said. “I owe some bad—”

“You always owe some bad people!”

“I know. But these guys are really bad.”

“How much?”


“How much do you owe them?”

Now, this was the other thing I came to learn about Matt. He thought everyone in the family’s wallets should be open to him, but it seemed to offend him when you asked questions about his financial situation. He bristled at the question. But he answered it.

“Fifteen hundred.”

At the time, this seemed like the largest real number I’d ever heard of. I couldn’t imagine anyone in town had that much money, let alone in my family.

“Shit.” Grandpa said. “No fucking way, son. I don’t got it.”

Then Matt leaned over, like he was making some great and wonderful deal with Grandpa, letting him in on some secret that would benefit the two of them. Maybe Matt should have been a used-car salesman.

“They’ll take the dog.”

“What?” I blurted out. Grandpa scowled at me, but he nodded at Matt, because I’d asked the question he had as well.

“If they get that dog, they’ll wipe my slate clean. I won’t owe them nothing.”

“My dog,” Grandpa said.

“They’re going to kill me, Dad.”

“Damn straight.”

“Then help me, for God’s sake. I’ll get you another dog. What’s the fucking big deal?”

“It’s my dog. How’s taking my dog clean your slate? How’s that a deal you can even trust?”

“That’s what they said.” Matt shifted in his seat. He looked at me and winked, like this was just some bullshit he had to go through before he inevitably got his way. “That’s the deal. They get the dog and I’m free and clear.”

Grandpa sat defeated next to me, his shoulders slumped, his chin in his chest, his hands hanging limply by his side. Matt tried hard to give the bad news the time it needed to sink in but he was giddy, already anticipating how Grandpa would help him off the hook.

“No,” Grandpa said, so quietly both Matt and I looked at each other to check if we’d heard correctly. “No. You got yourself into this mess. You get yourself out.”

“Louise!” Matt cried out. He wanted me to come take his side. I was frozen between them. I said nothing. When Matt realized Grandpa wasn’t going to change his mind, he shot up out of the chair and began to pace furiously back and forth.

“I’ll get you out of here,” Grandpa said.

“I don’t want out of here,” Matt snapped. “I want the god damn money or the dog.”

“No,” Grandpa said, again, this time louder.

“Fuck you,” Matt said, rushing at my grandfather. I don’t know if he would have actually hit the old man, but the guard stepped in before I could find out.

The guard took Matt back to his cell and my grandpa sat in the chair as still as the dead. His breathing sounded pained.

Finally, he reached in his back pocket and pulled out a white handkerchief. He shifted in his seat and wrestled in his front pocket. I expected he was getting something strange, but he came back with two old mercury dimes. He spread the handkerchief out in front of him on the table. Then, he tied a knot in the two corners closest to me. In the folds of each knot, he slid a dime.

He whispered something to it. I couldn’t make out anything but “in the whole round world, there is only one” and then that handkerchief stood up. The corners where the knots were stretched out toward me like rudimentary hands and the other two corners folded just enough to make the thing some feet. It took a few steps toward me, turned and took a few steps toward the way Matt had gone. It bent forward, and, with a great leap, it flipped over backward and landed.

“Can I touch it?” I asked, but I wasn’t paying any attention to the answer. I reached toward it and it slid, deftly, out of my way. It strutted around the table and, when I put my hands flat on the table top, the handkerchief came over and reached down with its knotted hand and touched my finger.

It felt ordinary. Like cotton against my skin. I looked for the trick, but I could find no wires, no mechanism that made the thing move like that. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. But just as I felt I was making a new friend, Grandpa snatched the handkerchief back. I probably slumped down in disappointment as he untied the hands. I know I didn’t realize until later why he was pressing the handkerchief to his face before we got up and left.

In the truck, I asked him, “How did you do that?”


“Can I do that?”

“It’d make my life easier if you could,” he said. “But no. I never heard of anyone in our family being able but the seventh sons.”

“Like Matt?”

“I keep waiting for him to show signs.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Drugs. And he’s an asshole.”

When I got home that evening, I related everything that happened with all of the enthusiasm of a kid who knows something important the adults don’t.

“Your Uncle Matt is not on drugs,” my mom said, but I could hear in her voice that it was a lie. “He just has some problems. He’s sick and he needs our help.”

Later, as I laid awake in bed, straining to hear what my parents were talking about in the other room, I heard my dad say, “Well, it is just a dog. What kind of man wouldn’t do whatever it takes to help his own son?”

My mom answered, “It’s always just something.”

The next day, my grandpa never left the house. He didn’t come out of his room until nearly lunch. He looked rough, like he’d been drinking all night. When he put my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in front of me, he said, “Sometimes I pray that one of those girls I ran around on your grandma with got knocked up. That there’s another son out there, older than Matt, I don’t know about. That maybe your dad is my seventh.”

My dad was furious that he said that to me. I liked that he talked to me like I was an adult, though. And what could my dad do? The medical bills being what they were, he and Mom had to work. Someone had to look after me. Who else could do it? Uncle Matt?

The next day, when Grandpa left, he said, as usual, “Don’t be snooping around,” and this time, I took it as an acknowledgement that there was something to find if I did look. For the first time in my life, I went into his bedroom. It wasn’t big. The double bed that sat on the far wall took up so much space that I had to turn sideways to get between it and the Walmart pressed-board bookshelves that sagged into broad grins under the weight of all his books. Next to the bed, he had a record player and a few, very few records—Willie Dixon and Johnny Rivers are the ones I remember.

On the other side, there was a huge old chest of drawers, but the bed was so close to them, I couldn’t get the bottom drawers open very far. Only enough to see that they were full of clothes. In the top drawers, though, I found a couple of things that seemed important. One was a picture of my grandfather as a young man, not much older than me, maybe early high school, with his six older brothers—at least that’s what it said on the back. I never met any of them.

Uncle Matt told me once that the Joneses who could leave this place did and never looked back.

“I imagine your folks and you will be gone before long, too,” he said, but it took them a long time to get the money. My accident set them back, the town took a downturn, and then they spent a while being the ones Matt hit up or stole from. But, yeah, eventually, we left, too.

Anyway, the photo. All of them were smiling except my grandpa. He had a huge black eye and he was holding his arm like it hurt. He glared out of the picture.

Maybe if I saw that picture now, I’d understand something different about it. Maybe there was some indication that his brothers were concerned for him. But I remember being so pissed at them. Could they not see that something bad had happened to him? Was there nobody to look out for him? He seemed so alone.

The other thing I found was a small black book. I don’t know where I got the idea that it ought to hold all of the names of Grandpa’s girlfriends, but that was the kind of book it was. The leather binding was cracked and the spine was broken. A piece of butcher string kept the whole thing together. I opened it up and I didn’t recognize the handwriting. My only guess is that it must have been my great-grandfather’s based on the content.

It was full of observations of the weather and about which moons marked the best times for planting, Bible verses with notes on their uses next to them—“Ezekiel 16:6 will stop any bleeding”—and names of relatives in my family going back eight generations with comments about them. Josiah Jones, my great-great grandfather, was marked “useless and unreliable.” Uncles, at various remove, sometimes shared the same description. It seemed to be a family trait, passed down for generations, even more common than all the seventh sons.

There were a lot of seventh sons. By my count, twelve. And the rest of the Jones men seemed to have tried their damnedest to have that many—a lot of families had five or six sons.

I remember flipping through those pages, and how itchy my cast was while I was reading, how it hurt pressing into my thighs when I leaned forward, how hot it was. And then I remember how an ice-cold chill ran through me as I realized I was the first girl in the family. Whoever had written in the little black book knew of none and I knew of none. I hadn’t met all my cousins, but the ones I had met were all boys. No one ever mentioned there being another Jones girl.

I was it.

Young girls daydream about being special, about how, one day, her real parents, who are kings and queens or astronauts or at least rich enough to buy her clothes anywhere other than Walmart, will show up and take her away, or about how she’s destined to save the world. I knew I was not special. Life had made that pretty clear. But I was one of a kind. That must be worth something.

That’s why I took the two dimes out of the tray on my grandpa’s dresser and that’s why I slid them into the knots I made in one of his clean handkerchiefs.

“Stand up,” I said to the linen heap now on the dresser. And it did. That handkerchief stood up just like the one at the jail had. I wasn’t even surprised. I was only disappointed that I hadn’t seen my grandpa doing other tricks, so I didn’t know anything else to try to do.

I sat back on the bed, watching the handkerchief dancing around, the knots bobbing around like hands thrown in the air. I felt satisfied, like much of the experience of breaking my back sucked but this might have made it all worth it.

Just then, I heard someone trying to open the front door. I knew it wasn’t my grandpa. I would have heard the truck and the only neighbor close enough to walk over never did because she was afraid of the dog. My parent were both at work and, anyway, they would have called to make sure Grandpa and I were home before coming clear out here. The bedroom was on the wrong side of the house to sneak a look out the window.

But I knew something was wrong. I don’t know why I did it, but I slipped the black book down the front of my cast. I stood up and felt satisfied it was wedged in there firmly. I was just about to leave the bedroom when I turned back and grabbed the photo of Grandpa and his brothers. I shoved it down my cast, too, and then straightened up my shirt. I darted into the bathroom just as Uncle Matt was coming in the front door.

“Louise?” He said it so quiet that I almost didn’t hear him. I came out of the bathroom and was about to ask “What?” when he hushed me and dragged me into the other bedroom. “Louise,” he whispered. “You get into the closet and hide under some blankets and you don’t come out until I tell you.” He was plainly terrified.

“Is Spooky here or not?” A voice from the front room asked. I recognized it immediately. Bill Evans, the daytime cop.

“No,” Uncle Matt said. “Yeah, I think it’s too emotional for him, giving up that dog. He probably went to grab a beer.”

Officer Evans hollered, sounding like he was in the kitchen now, “You sure he’s giving up the dog? I don’t need the old man putting a curse on me.”

“It’s cool,” Matt said, waving me into the closet. “He’s fine with it.”

“No he’s not!” I said to Matt, but quietly, because I was afraid. He was making me afraid. Matt glared at me, but walked out of the room.

I’ve thought about this next part a long, long time. I’ve wondered if there was ever some time when Grandpa kept the dog tied up in the back yard, maybe when Uncle Matt was a kid, and that’s why he thought the dog would just be there whenever he showed up? But my dad says, no, the dog always roamed free and mostly only showed up in the back yard when he heard Grandpa’s truck. That was his signal to make himself available for food.

All I can figure is that Matt, so desperate to get out of trouble with whatever mysterious people whose interests were being represented by the daytime cop, thought he could just manifest that dog with his magical powers, even though he’d never shown much propensity for magic.

But that dog wasn’t in the back yard.

They waited for, I don’t know, it felt like forever, and I waited, too, sitting in the back of the closet, hiding behind hip waders and ancient snowmobile suits, my legs sore from resting on hard-soled boots. But that dog never showed up.

I was about asleep when I heard Uncle Matt screaming. I jumped up and ran out of the closet. My legs were tingling and I had to use the hallway walls to support myself, but I rushed to the back of the house. Out the window, I could see that one, huge police officer kneeling over my uncle, beating him to a pulp. If Matt had tried to fight back, that strategy had failed him before I got to the porch. He was whimpering and crying, but making no efforts to even protect himself.

The words “Stop or I’ll call the police” were out of my mouth before I could catch them. Here was the police, the only one on duty. Bill Evans, a man I had known my whole life, looked up at me and I swear, he was sorry. Not sorry he was trying to kill my uncle, but sorry that I had witnessed it.

“Oh shit,” I said, next. I turned and ran back into the house. I locked the back door and then hurried to the front. I thought about trying to run for the neighbor’s, but I wasn’t very fast, especially not for long distances. I locked the front door. Then, I went into the bathroom, locked that door, and climbed into the tub. It was all I could think to do—this was an emergency so I treated it like a tornado.

I could hear him pounding on the back door. He was yelling my name, yelling how he wasn’t going to hurt me. That was the last thing he said before he broke the glass out of the door and let himself in. He shook the whole house as he stomped through it. He only pounded on the bathroom door three times.

Thud, thud, thud.

I was shaking, I was so afraid. And, I don’t know why, but I thought of my grandpa the day I broke my back, him lumbering across the schoolyard with that half-dead squirrel. “Make me lucky, motherfucker,” I said, being at a loss for all other words.

Officer Evans kicked the door. But it wasn’t solid. It was just one of those cheap old hollow pressboard doors. The handle and the hinges were the most firm thing about it. His foot went right through the plywood almost to his knee. He tried to pull it back out, but the door had broken in toward me. Pulling his foot back out caught his sock and shoe in the plywood splinters. He lost his balance and I heard a crack that made me feel nauseous. His foot was still on my side of the door, but it hanged in an unnatural way.

I wasn’t sure what to do next. I could hear Bill moaning. And then, thanks to whatever god answers a prayer that goes ‘make me lucky, motherfucker,’ I heard him call dispatch on his radio and ask for an ambulance.

I’m sure Grandpa heard it come across the scanner. He beat the paramedics and the volunteer fire department to the house.

“Louise?” He asked through the door. “You all right?”

“Uncle Matt,” I said.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Grandpa said. Then he said, “Bill, I’m going to make this simple for you. From here on out, whatever you do to my people is going to get done to yours.”

I heard Bill pull his gun. That’s not a sound you mistake for something else. I know he was ready to kill my grandpa.

“This what you want for your granddaughter when you have one?” Grandpa asked him. “To hear you gunned down in your own home? You got no mercy for my family, have some for yours.” The house was quiet enough that I could hear Bill holster his gun.

Of course, everyone has to test a curse. That’s one of the first things you come to learn about human nature once you can curse. So, after the ambulance dropped Bill off at the hospital and they came back for Matt, we were both herded into the back to accompany him, even though Grandpa told the paramedics that Matt could “fuck himself.”

After we were out of sight, the other two cops set Grandpa’s house on fire.

Before we even made it to the hospital, Bill’s house caught fire. You can probably guess which one the fire department saved and which one burned to the ground.

Later, Grandpa and I stood in front of the ruins of his house. I cried to see the place I’d spent so much time reduced to char and stink. Grandpa stood motionless, his hands hanging at his side. I reached for one, held it as tight as I could. He did not grasp back. I looked up at his face and I shuddered, without even meaning to. He looked so alone, like he might not have even known I was still by his side.

I wanted him to be angry, to burn the whole rest of the town down around us, just by wishing and making it so. Seeing him sad was unbearable. How much is a person supposed to just take, before he breaks? I didn’t know the whole story of my grandpa’s life, but I knew, as powerful, as spooky, as everyone thought he was, forces beyond his control had left him without a home. I wanted to make it better. To make it right.

“I did snoop today.” I reached down the front of my shirt, into my cast, and pulled out the book and the picture. He took the picture from me and gave it a little shake, like he was making sure it was real. He nodded, which I believe was the closest he could come to saying thanks.

He didn’t take the book, though. “You should probably keep that.”

My stomach sank. They’d even ruined magic for him.

There wasn’t really anything for us to do until my mom got off work, so Grandpa sat on the tailgate of his truck, drinking a beer, waiting to see if the dog might show.

I stood in the front yard, staring at the neighbor’s house, thinking about the daytime cop and my uncle and the couch and the day I saw my grandpa, sitting on his porch, laughing at that dog. The one time I ever saw him anything even remotely like happy. I was pissed again for him. Fuck this place. Fuck these people. Fuck a son that never stops taking so much from his father. Fuck a hard world that makes men into this. Fuck having so little and losing it so easily.

Just then I saw smoke on the neighbor lady’s roof. Not a lot, just a small tendril, like someone had thrown a cigarette onto a pile of leaves and the leaves hadn’t yet decided whether to burn or just smolder out.

And I stood there, squeezing that black book in my hand, uncertain myself.

The Reading

The other person they had reading was Rita Bulwinkel, who’s an amazing author here in town. She read part of a story and I read the ghost story I read in Memphis. I like that story a lot for reading out loud in that it’s dreamy and scary and funny and the audience gets to heave a huge sigh of relief before being left with a shivery feeling that maybe all was not as well as it seemed.  It’s a really good out-loud story.

So, it went over like gang-busters, I think. And, as I was reading it, I had this realization, “This is a really different story than Rita’s, but I’m not at all embarrassed to have to follow her with it.”

I genuinely can’t tell you how good that makes me feel.

Old Friends

Elias pointed out that Furiosa has one arm. Max doesn’t have one eye, but he’s hanged, upside down, is chaotic, and at the end, he wanders off.

Oh, hi!

I was thinking on our walk this morning, both how amazing it is that these formations stick with us for so long–thousands of years–and how cool it is that women can inhabit these roles now. But I did wonder what ancient stories we tell about women, if there are similar age-old stories with women at their centers we could recognize now?

I Guess I’m Nervous

I dreamed I had to walk to the event Friday, like hike out in the country from one venue that I had wrongly gone to (but where there were wrinkly fries, so all was not lost) to another and, when I got there, I didn’t have the story I wanted to read and I couldn’t get a hold of the Butcher to bring it to me, so I was like “Fine, I’ll just find it in my emails and read it off my phone.”

Which kind of sounds like hell.

I’m really looking forward to November when life goes from being intensely busy to just busy.


I wrote a little bit about John Murrell’s thumb for Pith.

Tomorrow I have many feelings about the Bell Witch, so it’s basically a week of me pooping on Nashville’s most beloved legends.

But here’s the thing I am becoming more convinced of. Oftentimes the legend of something obscures or erases a much more interesting bunch of facts. See Robert Johnson and the legend of him selling his soul to the Devil for very minor regional talent vs. Robert Johnson traveling the country and having a bunch of friends and working really hard to develop his talent.

Or the Mystic Clan, which obscures the bizarre summer of 1835.

As for the Bell Witch…

While I am a firm believer in some kinds of psychic phenomenon (which I am convinced have a scientific explanation we just haven’t discovered yet)–like your mom having a sudden feeling that you’re in trouble or the kinds of conversations the Butcher and I have where something at work can remind me of something that happened twenty-five years ago and I come home and ask “Hey, do you remember that guy with the green shirt who did that weird thing?” and he’ll know exactly which guy in a green shirt I’m talking about and what the weird thing was.–I think most psychics are scam artists. Because I think being psychic is like having a gut feeling or a moment of intuition. You can’t make it happen and it’s not some constant state of being on.

Someone who can make it happen all the time is cheating.

And when you’re cheating to accuse dead people of molesting a girl? That really pisses me off.

Here’s the thing that I didn’t get into at Pith, mostly because I didn’t feel on as firm a footing scholarship-wise as I did about my point about the story treating this spirit the way Victorians would have treated and understood the spirit and not like people in the 1810s and 20s would have, the Red River community was very small and people’s windows were open for a great portion of the year. If Betsy Bell was being molested, there’s a good chance people would have known. Not a perfect chance but a good chance. If Betsy Bell’s molestation had somehow led to the Bell Witch phenomenon, people would have made that connection back then.

If Betsy Bell had been the true focus of a poltergeist, during that time, it would have made her very hard to marry off. If Betsy Bell had been molested and people knew about it, it would have been practically impossible to marry her off. Public knowledge of molestation ruined women’s lives. If Betsy Bell had a poltergeist who told secrets (which this one supposedly did) and was molested (and people knew about it, which it seems likely they would have, if the first one were true), she could not have gotten married.

The fact that Betsy Bell married tells me that the story as we know it, as well as the story as this psychic is trying to sell books on, is not true.

It pisses me off, both at the level of accusing people of a horrendous crime with nothing more than the word of a psychic, and at the level of utterly misunderstanding how that accusation would have ruined Betsy Bell’s life so utterly and completely.

As hard as it is for victims these days to come forward, there’s been such a profound shift in how we understand this crime that it’s almost impossible to wrap our heads around.

I mean, not to be flip, but I’d like to hear some explanation for how Betsy Bell, if she was molested, was able to, back in her own day, keep this mostly secret and not see herself as fallen and ruined, let alone how she’s now come to the conclusion that she’s fine, it’s the fuckers who molested her who are the problem.

That’s something I, as a 21st century woman, firmly believe. But I find it hard to believe an early 19th century woman from a religious home on the frontier would have not experienced this as something profoundly shameful and ruinous that she had caused to happen to herself.

I don’t know. It just feels like making light of how terrible that would have been for Betsy, had it happened, how profoundly different her life would have gone, if it was true and enough people knew about it for it to make its way down to us somehow.

An Accident

I got rear-ended yesterday morning on my way to work. We pulled into a parking lot and the driver of the other car asked me if I was okay. I said I was. I got out. I looked at my bumper. The extent of the damage was that some of the grime on my car had been removed. I was so relieved. Not for my car. It’s almost a decade old and paid off. I’m hoping to get two more years out of it, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it got totaled.

But I realized I’m really nervous about involving the police in things lately. I saw the other driver and thought, compared to me, a middle-aged white woman, this dude is at a serious disadvantage if the cops show up. And as lightly as he hit me, I’m pretty confident he stopped in time but slid into me. Yes, he was at fault, but deserving of having the shit scared out of him so that he’s more careful in the rain, not deserving of having the cops involved. And he was scared shitless, scared that he had hurt me. So, from my end, everything seemed resolved how I would have wanted it–undamaged me, undamaged him, undamaged car, he’s a little more cautious in the future.

But it made me feel weird about our country that I was afraid to involve the police.


The thing about the remnants of hurricanes is that you get quite a few days of soft, steady rain and perfect sleeping weather.

Slave Owning

This weekend, I read Joshua Rothman’s Flush Times & Fever Dreams, which is about John Murrell, the non-existence of the Mystic Clan, and the brutal, bizarre summer of 1835 when people in Mississippi murdered innocent people in Mississippi in order to keep innocent people from being murdered. It’s excellent. I highly recommend it for history buffs.

One thing that stood out to me is that Rothman’s book shows exactly why slaves couldn’t testify in court. Yes, at a surface level, it’s the racism of them not being considered people. But it’s also because it was legal to torture slaves and, if you torture someone, you can make them tell you whatever you want. Slaves not being able to testify in court was about protecting white people from false testimony coerced under torture.

I also read this really interesting article over at the Smithsonian’s website, by a guy, Edward Ball, who tracks the path of a Franklin & Armfield coffle. He finds a descendant of Franklin’s brother, James. It goes exactly how you’d expect it to:

How does a person inside the family measure the inheritance of slave trading? Thomson takes a half-second. “You can’t judge those people by today’s standards—you can’t judge anybody by our standards. It was a part of life in those days. Take the Bible. Many things in the Old Testament are pretty barbaric, but they are part of our evolution.”

Thomson warms up, shifts in his seat. “I do not approve of revisionist historians. I mean, people who do not understand the old lifestyles—their standpoint on life, and their education, are what today we consider limited. That applies to Southern history, to slave history.

“You know, I have been around blacks all my life. They are great people. When I grew up, we were servanted. All the servants were black. We had a nurse, a woman who used to be called a mammy. We had a cook, a black man. We had a maid, and we had a yard man. We had a guy that doubled as a driver and supervised the warehouse. And we had all these servants till they died. I wasn’t taught to be prejudiced. And I’ll tell you what nobody ever talks about. There were free blacks in the South that owned slaves. And there were lots of them. They didn’t buy slaves in order to free them, but to make money.”

Thomson emphasizes these last sentences. It is a refrain among Southern whites who remain emotionally attached to the plantation days—that one in 1,000 slaveholders who were black vindicates in some fashion 999 who were not.

Are we responsible for what the slave traders did?

“No. We cannot be responsible, should not feel like we’re responsible. We weren’t there.” Are we accountable? “No. We are not accountable for what happened then. We are only accountable if it is repeated.”

Thomson is sensitive to the suggestion that the family took benefit from the industrial-scale cruelty of Franklin & Armfield.

“In my family, people looked after their slaves,” he said. “They bought shoes for them, blankets for them, brought in doctors to treat them. I never heard of any mistreatment. On the whole, things weren’t that bad. You see, blacks were better off coming to this country. It is a fact that the ones over here are far ahead of the ones over there in Africa. And you know that the first legal slaveholder in the United States was a black man? That’s on the Internet. You need to look that up. I think that’s interesting. Human bondage began I don’t know when, but early, thousands of years ago. I think slavery developed here primarily because of the ignorance of the blacks. They first came over here as indentured servants, as did the whites. But because of their background and lack of education, they just sort of slid into slavery. No, I don’t believe in revisionist history.”

I’m not really interested in refuting this. If the Franklins are the bar by which “good” slave ownership is judged, then that bar was so low every slave owner in the South could have crossed it. You could leave people’s carcasses in the swamps. You could rape women willy-nilly. You could oversee people’s torture and death. You could break up families. You could sell your own children. You could repeatedly call yourself a villain. And even that’s not enough to get people to lump you into the “bad” slave owner category.

I will say, though, this is something I will never, ever understand about the South. To my way of thinking, you honor someone by taking him at his word, by believing him when he tells you something. When Southern slave owners flat out say that they are villains or that the Civil War was about slavery, I believe them. That, to me, seems like the honor and respect I owe them–to take them at their word, even if it’s painful or uncomfortable. (And let me be clear, one of the most uncomfortable things about Isaac Franklin is that he is very likable. You read his letters and, even as he’s talking about this horrible stuff, he’s engaging.)

But here, honor and respect of ones’ ancestors is garnered through recasting their deeds as noble, even if their cause was unjust, or through pretending that wasn’t their cause, or that they didn’t do those things. In effect, saying that your ancestors were liars.

To me, this is like some kind of nails-on-chalkboard level of disrespect. I’ve learned not to let my jaw drop over it and to not think less of people who say these things, because clearly there’s some kind of enormous cultural difference here. White southerners who insist on the goodness of their ancestors in spite of their ancestors’ own understanding of their actions do not experience themselves at all as being disrespectful or dishonorable. It is, in fact, this willingness to believe the best, in spite of the facts, that is the act of veneration for them.

I find that fascinating. I wonder what’s at stake there. I mean, not to be flip, but everyone my age got spanked. My parents spanked me. I hated it and it was wrong and people mostly don’t spank their kids any more. My parents were wrong to spank me. I still love them and I think very little about the fact that I was spanked. My parents’ generation was filled with kids who were beaten by their parents. It was wrong and now we actively work to keep people from beating their kids.

Not that slavery is as easy as child abuse, but fixing the damage doesn’t require demonizing the perpetrators–though, my god, it surely does require us to stop pretending they didn’t do anything wrong. I wonder what’s so hard about letting them down off their pedestals?

4th Spooky Saturday–A Personal One

Obviously, if you were reading Tiny Cat Pants last year, you know the backstory to this. It got rejected twice, which, in the grand scheme of things is nothing, but I realized it was too close to my heart for me to be able to continue to send it out. The rejections felt too much like someone was saying that what happened to me just wasn’t that interesting.

The City Under Your Skin

Betsy Phillips

The drugs make you tired when you want to be alert and awake when you want to sleep. So you lie there in the dark of your room, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for time to pass. You run your finger absentmindedly along the bandage. You’re constantly touching the bandage, trying to make yourself used to it. It takes you some time to realize how much of your breast has lost feeling in it. You watch the shadows move across the wall. Your belly rises before you like a soft and giving mountain.

Maybe you should be careful with it—your big old body. If these long weeks have taught you anything it’s how surprisingly easy we are to fuck up. A few wayward cells here, a little dark spot on a mammogram there, and the next thing you know, you’re cut open and your mom is bathing you again and pretending she’s not crying while she brushes your hair.

But the night is long and you’re bored so you poke at your belly, watching it jiggle and then settle in place. You push into the bulk of that soft expanse. You flick your belly button. And that’s when you feel it. No, not another lump. Thank goodness. Not another lump.

But a divot. You press harder, right where you imagine your liver to be, and, yes, beneath your skin, just below a thin layer of fat, is some kind of structure. Or the absence of a structure. You feel it, this low hard spot running down the length of you in a line nearly as straight as the incision on your breast.

Your first thought is that this is just that— a trace of some old, forgotten surgery, maybe even something that happened when you were too young to remember, and here is the evidence of it, just now coming to the surface. A scar. But, then, you realize you have not come to the end of this divot. There’s a flat spot and then the ditch continues.


That’s the word that makes sense of what you’re feeling in there. You come back to the flat spot and press at it. Yes, you’re convinced you can feel the edges of a metal culvert. A tiny one, sure, but a culvert. Which means that the flat spot is a path or a road going over the ditch.

Now you’re certain that you’ve lost your mind, that the drugs are making you hallucinate. But what’s the harm? There are still four more hours until dawn and surely that road goes somewhere.

You follow the road up the great hill of your belly and, at the top, a city awaits you. The skyscrapers poke at your fingers, the streets and parking lots feel smooth, barely hidden under your flesh. You inch your finger along, trying to make out any familiar landmarks. Is this a place you know?

Your house is quiet. Your husband lies next to you. Your daughter snores slightly down the hall. Your mother is on the pull-out couch in the basement. All the real people are asleep. You get up and go to the den. In the morning, your husband finds you in the chair, a map pulled up on the computer in front of you.

He wakes your mother and the two of them come back into the room where you’re slumped over, drool running down your chin, dripping onto the keyboard. They try to wake you, but the drugs, the damn drugs. By now, they’re both crying, though they don’t tell you that until later. They manage, somehow, to get you down on the couch. You sleep until long after lunch.

“Visiting my grandmother?” Your mother looks over at the computer, which has gone to sleep. There’s nothing to gain by looking at it, except to be reminded that there was once something there worth looking at.

That blankness, you think, is like the scar on your boob.

It annoys you to be constantly thinking of your boob. You can’t think of anything else.

Over the next few days, you want only two things—to poop and to drive to the city your body has placed a map of in your belly, a city you now realize is one you’ve been to a million times, where your mother’s family is from. The drugs keep you from both and you’re not sure you could survive the trip to make the second thing happen if you somehow cannot make the first thing happen.

You must wait.

Later, you’re sitting in the doctor’s office as he tries to explain that they do not know what they pulled out of you.

“It’s a dysplasia,” the doctor says. “The tumor is not cancerous, but it did appear to be forming,” he pauses, searching for a way to put what he wants to say in language that sounds appropriate for a doctor, language that suggests he knows what he’s talking about, “small, calcified areas. Perhaps made of bone. We need to run further tests.”

“Will it come back? Is it dangerous?”

“I don’t know and I don’t think so.”

He’s sitting down on the stool in front of the exam table you’re sitting on. You can see right down onto the pieces of paper he keeps in your file. Even upside down and in his atrocious handwriting, you read, “Stones?”

This is the moment for you to tell him about the concrete in your belly, the asphalt under your flesh. A body that can make rocks can make windows and steel I-beams. Is it so hard to believe that a body that could make a daughter could make a city? He has seen the stones, how your body creates. Tell him. Just tell him.

But you don’t, because you don’t want to be cut open again. There’s a limit to how much fear a person can comprehend. You can’t face another round of tests, more poking and prodding, another surgery. You know you should be scared of the strangeness in your belly, but you already thought you were going to die once this summer, from one thing growing in you. You don’t have it in you to be properly afraid of something else. Not yet.

You have some vague sense that this is not rational behavior, that this numbness is putting you in danger. But it’s a quiet voice and you can barely hear it over the unrealness of what you’ve been through.

“So, you’re fine?” Your daughter sounds disappointed when you get home from the doctor. “All this for nothing?”

Your husband snaps at her. Your mother packs her things and returns home. You are still sore and tired, but now that there’s nothing to worry about, you can’t imagine anyone is worried about you.

You go to the city. You don’t tell your husband or your mother. Just like you don’t tell them what a hard time you’re having believing that everything is all right. They cut me open. You want to say to them. I thought I would die. You should share those thoughts with them. They want to understand, they want to support you. They’re not the bad guys.

There is no villain. That’s the rough part. You’ve been squeezed and pulled and disfigured, by people who were trying to help you. They ran a wire into the tumor—you were wide awake for it—and it felt so awful you almost don’t know how to describe it. It wasn’t pain. It was pain’s worse brother, a feeling so wrong your body can’t even resolve it into pain. And later they followed that wire down to the tumor, to cut it out. So, even the wire, the worst thing, served a good purpose. You want to be angry and insulted and traumatized by what happened to you.

But angry at whom? Insulted by what? That, you think, is the biggest mind-fuck. All this sorrow and no place to put it. People die. They get cut open and it is cancer and then they die. Why are you being such an ungrateful fucker? Why can’t you be a gracious winner?

Oh, lord, how long have you be sitting at this stop sign? Long enough that your face is wet with tears you don’t remember crying. Too long. You pull into a gas station parking lot, close your eyes, and try to get your shit together.

You reach under your shirt and feel for the city under your skin. You follow with your fingers the same route you have just driven in your car. The parking lot you’re sitting in is hot under your thumb. You sneak a glance out the window. There’s nothing peculiar about the day or the sky above you.

With your hand flat against your stomach, you feel another warm spot just south of your belly button. You decide to go there in real life. You follow the roads you can feel in yourself with your finger. You follow those same roads in your car. You come to a small, gray house on a block of small, rundown houses. An elderly woman is sitting on the porch.

You get out of the car, though you’re not sure what you’re going to say to her. As you come up to the front steps, she smiles and points her crooked finger at you.

“I remember when we bought this house from you,” she says.

“I never lived here,” you say.

“Oh, well, you have the same eyes as the woman who lived here before me.”

“I think that was my great-grandmother,” you say. You think you should ask your mom for sure, but then, again, it hardly matters to you.

“It was a long time ago,” the woman says. She nods to herself, as if that explains something, and then she gets up and goes back in the house.

Now what? You turn from the house and feel around for another hot spot. There’s one, not too far from where you are now.

You like having something to do, even if you don’t quite know why you’re doing it. You follow the contours of your body and you end up in an industrial part of town. You keep driving and you come to a white bridge over some train tracks. On the other side of the bridge is a massive iron gate. Behind the gate is a cemetery.

You drive in.

The cemetery is enormous and ancient. The oldest stones jut up along the road and up the hill like crooked teeth. They crowd together as if there’s safety in numbers. Some graves sit in perfectly straight lines with identical headstones—these are Masons or Oddfellows. A sign tells you that this vast bare spot is where the city buried all the yellow fever victims.

Your mom calls.

“Honey?” she asks. You can hear the worry in her voice. Your absence has not gone unnoticed. “Where are you?”

“I’m in the Elmwood Cemetery.”

“You went to Memphis by yourself?”

When she says it out loud, it does sound like an incredibly stupid idea. That you thought you were okay to do it probably proves that you are not. You don’t know how to respond.

Your mother sighs.

“Your great-grandmother. She’s buried there.”

You check at the office and the woman behind the desk tells you exactly where your mother’s grandmother’s grave is. You find it as easy as can be. You stand under the yew, in the shade, next to her and you try to figure out what to say to her.

But all you can do is imagine what it must be like to be laying in that grave.

You look around and the part of the cemetery you’re in is empty. So, you climb down onto the ground and stretch yourself out next to your ancestor.

“I don’t know how to go on,” you tell her. Not her, of course. Just yourself. The slight breeze in the tree. The bird watching from the mausoleum across the way. The empty air. Your mother is wrong. This visit has nothing to do with her grandmother. There’s no voice from beyond, no secret meaning to what you’ve been through, no lesson the dead are trying to teach you. But you understand why your mother thinks there should be.

“I thought I would die. I thought I would lose my husband, leave my daughter without a mother. I felt like I was betraying my mom. And for what? Nothing. It was all for nothing.” Saying it out loud lets you sob, the kind of gut-wrenching ugly crying you haven’t done since you were a kid. You wail, because there’s no one to hear you and, even if there was, if you can’t break down in a cemetery, where on earth can you?

Let them think you’re mourning for this dead woman you never knew, whose name is familiar to you only because of an occasional mention by your mother. That’s fine.

It’s easier than trying to explain that you are crying because you lost something of yourself you don’t even know how to put into words. You’re crying for the wire and the scar. For the pain and for the spot the size of a softball that might never feel anything again. You’re crying because you thought you would die and now you’re not.

Once you’re done crying, you lie there quietly, your hands folded just below your breasts. The day is gorgeous. The sky is blue. It’s too early in the year to be terribly humid, but it’s warm. Pleasant. You look up in the sky, trying to see as deeply into it as you can. Willing yourself to see farther and farther. Like maybe, if you see far enough, you will see the curve of your own soft belly arching above you.

You absentmindedly run your hand along your stomach, following the path you took to the cemetery again, running your finger over the white bridge.

And then you feel something odd. There is no gate. You move your finger a little closer to your actual location and you feel no grave stones. It’s a vast, empty meadow.

There is no cemetery in the city under your skin.

When your finger is right on top of your location you look up again. You don’t see anything. Of course, why would you? But you close your eyes and reach up with one hand as you press down with the other.

And maybe, just maybe, you can believe you felt both fingers touch.

For the first time since you saw the mammogram technician’s face fall all those weeks ago, you feel that you, yourself, are a real thing in the world and not just a flimsy, malfunctioning barrier between life and death.

Nashville Ghosts, Big and Small

Last night, the little old ladies in my audience told me two ghost stories. One was about a woman whose son died in World War I–Bobby. He had gone to Vanderbilt, before dying in the war, and she became convinced that he was possessing or being reincarnated into a squirrel on Vanderbilt’s campus. So, she would come to campus all dressed in black and call out “Bobby, Bobby!” until a squirrel came up to her and she would know that was her son. She would then feed him and hang out with him. And then she died, but, of course, this didn’t stop her behavior. A couple of the women swore they’d seen her in the 40s and 50s on campus.

I love this story both because of the possessed squirrels, which, I’m sorry, is just awesome and because the hauntings double up. She is haunted and then she haunts.

The second thing they told me about was the Bell Witch. But not any part of the story I’d ever heard before. Apparently the Bell Witch used to haunt the streetcar lines. The drivers would all the time see a dark haired woman riding to the end of the line, but when they stopped at the end of the line, she’d vanish.

I have many feelings about the Bell Witch and the story of what happened in Adams has been debunked to my satisfaction. (In short, I think it’s clear that the first book about it was a piece of fiction kind of in line with what I do–taking real historical figures and making them legendary. Some clues to this effect are that Andrew Jackson never mentions traveling to the area or confronting the witch and, most importantly, that the whole way the witch works is far more Victorian than early Republic. In other words, the witch haunted like fictional Victorian ghosts haunt, not how people really understood the same phenomena before the Spiritualist movement. But that fiction was taken for fact and here we are.) But I’m growing more and more sure that debunking the story of the Bell Witch really misses what’s going on here.

Because, after all, why would the Bell Witch, a supernatural entity from Adams, a good hour north of Nashville, haunt the Nashville streetcars? Why would she appear in the mirrors of anyone who said “Bell Witch” three times in a dark mirror? Folks from Middle Tennessee don’t have “Bloody Mary,” they have “The Bell Witch.”

I think the hint is in the rise of the importance of the Bell Witch Cave. Pretty much any time you have people of European descent talking about a woman who lives hidden under the earth, they’re telling you, without knowing it, why the story has staying power.

The Bell Witch, I think, is, at least functionally, an American hidden folk. There are lots of hidden folks in European folklore. They’re not all the same. An elf is not a huldr is not a troll is not… and so on. But the very general idea that there’s someone to whom this land is important, who lives on it with you, and who’s responsible for the success or failure of your time on that land, who might steal your children, and who lives under or in the ground is wide-spread and old in European folklore.

There are theories, too, that most of the sky gods in European pantheons are actually the same god whose name got mangled as languages changed–Zeus is Ious Pietor is Jupiter is Tor is Tyr, etc. But their wives are not at all alike. Even in pantheons that we think of as being really closely linked, like the Greek and the Roman, Hera and Juno are different in really, really important ways. And Frigg is not much like either of them. The theory is that, much like the Catholic church came into an area and said, “Oh, those gods you’re worshiping? Those aren’t gods. They were just very holy people. They’re saints! Keep on worshiping them, just put your money in our collection plates now!” that the Indo-European sky god’s followers ingratiated him with local tribes by figuring out which local land spirit was beloved enough to function like a goddess-consort and then, in those communities, the sky god became her husband. A wandering Jovial (ha ha ha) dude with a local gal in each place he traveled for business.

In other words, the notion of a supernatural woman-ish land spirit who has a sacred cave and a set boundary of land she cares for and bad stuff she can get up to if you cross her is ancient. And since it can be talked about as if it’s a metaphor and not in conflict with Christianity, it’s the kind of folk belief that lingers.

I think that’s what the Bell Witch is doing for Middle Tennessee. True or not is almost beside the point. She is now the spirit of the place. The female energy we sense in the landscape.