NONFICTION ISSUE #22

"Vegas Heights" by Cathryn Sugg, 9' x 7' Oil and Mixed Media Femmage, Mud Season Review Artist
“Vegas Heights” by Cathryn Sugg, 9′ x 7′ Oil and Mixed Media Femmage

A Song for the Beautifully Useful

by Barry Maxwell

 

I discovered the clock radio in an out-of-the-way niche of Granny’s living room, wedged on a bookshelf behind a ribboned bundle of last year’s Christmas cards and a stack of miniature New Testaments. It was an early ‘60s model, a minimalist white cube atop a round footing, designed to look space-age and modern, with no place in Granny’s poor-folk country décor. I spit on my finger and rubbed grime from the plastic face. The green-coated clock hands were already crackled from age, and as I experimented with the knobs, a red-painted dot rolled along the numbered line of AM/FM frequencies. I had never heard an alarm clock in Granny’s house. Her obligations woke her before dawn to tackle the routines of life. She had me to look after during the summer months and a “no account” husband year round. She had a vegetable garden to tend, flower beds to water, simmering pots to watch, and never-ending chores to complain about. Granny had no time for alarm clocks.

A late summer wet spell had sentenced my grandfather and me to house arrest that August afternoon in 1969, and excitement was hard to come by. Granny and Pawpaw lived on a small plot of scrub pasture about twenty minutes from my mother’s suburban Austin home, in the confused landscape that wasn’t quite farmland but had not yet been swallowed by the city’s northerly expansion. For a nine-year-old held captive by rain and mud, the cramped, crackerbox house may as well have been jail. In better weather I would have been outdoors, either stretched in the shade with a novel, or exploring the mesquite and cedar thickets, roaming in search of horned toads and imaginary adventures. Instead, my boredom hung as thick as the humidity condensing in lukewarm droplets on the screen door and windowpanes. I had read and reread my weekly haul of library books, and the black-and-white TV offered nothing but soap operas and commercials for Camel cigarettes or equally toxic cleaning products. My grandfather kept well out of the way. He napped in his back bedroom while Granny steamed and clattered in the kitchen with a chicken on the boil for supper, adding a note of gamey barnyard fat to the thick soup of dullness.

I untangled the radio’s power cord and searched for an outlet.

“Granny? Does this thing work? Can I see what’s on it?”

A lid slammed onto the countertop and wobbled to a rolling stop. Granny came into the living room wiping her hands on her apron, muttering, “Oh, Lordy, will the aggravation never end?” as she stooped and plugged in the radio. I hushed, worried that I had personally insulted her with the interruption. She sighed when I asked how to turn it on. “Well, I never … Hand it here. Let me show you.” She gave a brief instruction on tuning and volume, and returned to her chicken, leaving me alone with the static.

I turned the dial past faint blips of over-excited Spanish commercials and monotone farm reports until suddenly a stronger signal emerged. A larger-than-life choir of gingham-toned girls burst through the background noise, harmonizing with the power of a thousand voices at once: “KVET! Thirteen Hundred! The Country GIANT!” The overdubbed station ID sounded to my young ears as though colors had blossomed into song, like the landscape of Oz had surged in Technicolor brilliance from the tiny speaker. The walls seemed to fall away, and my boredom dissolved in a rush of light, and fresh, cool air. I recognized the DJ’s redneck persona from local TV ads as he introduced the next nugget of country gold, and while Granny grumbled in the kitchen, I sat cross-legged on the floor with that radio in my hands, captivated. KVET’s playlist rotation might have led to any of hundreds of songs. I might have wound up hearing “Okie from Muskogee,” or “A Boy Named Sue,” and had nothing more than three minutes of grinning distraction and a reason to keep the red dot sliding along the frequencies. But I got lucky. The DJ timed his intro perfectly; he spoke while fading in the record, and landed his last syllable on the downbeat before the vocals began. It was Glenn Campbell’s rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.”

The hairs on the back of my neck still rise when I pull up “Lineman” on my computer, the same as they did that muggy afternoon nearly 50 years ago. My eyes tear up if I’m not careful to guard against it. The song is simple in its delivery, exploring the thoughts of a lonesome soul pining for a distant love and pondering his workingman’s responsibilities, and much of its power comes from the lineman’s vulnerability, an implicit faith that his longings might someday be fulfilled. I had heard music all my life before “Wichita Lineman,” but at that moment, in that empty state of openness, I was able to listen, to sit without defense and allow the song to take me where it wanted. Something shifted in my perceptions, a quality akin to faith was born, and I believed with the certainty of a boy’s bottomless appetite that the odor of a freshly-killed hen bubbling on the stove would soon become the aroma of creamy chicken and dumplings, and that the rain would burn off before dusk.

I can only speculate that I must have dialed into an instant of readiness, hungry to imprint on the finer facets of a deeper world. I felt observed as I listened, intimately tested, as though the song sensed me there as its audience, and had chosen me alone as its witness. It was my first experience of how music could not only communicate a danceable beat or an engaging melody, but could also evoke emotions where there were none, and raise them like sympathetic vibrations across space and time, resonating with equal depth at both ends of the conversation. It sounds pretentious, doesn’t it? And obvious, I’m sure, to any adult mind. But that dreamlike conversation is the aim of art, I believe. And I’ve found that the artistic exists not only in the ways we are taught to expect it—neatly framed and formally defined—but also as a subtler presence, hidden in places as overlooked as Granny’s devotion to seemingly tiresome chores, in the rhythmic snores of a grandfather in failing health, or in the solitary yearnings of a lineman on the job.

____

I had spent weekends and summers at my grandparent’s place for as long as I could remember. I probably went straight from the hospital to a pallet on their living room floor. I think the novelty of childrearing had faded for my mother (I was her third and last born), and she was busy, anyway, a businesswoman. I didn’t mind my dropped-off-at-the-door childhood. Self-containment became normal, and for an introverted kid who preferred being left alone, the routine was perfectly sufficient.

Granny and Pawpaw’s life on their postage stamp of acreage was sufficient for them, too, it seemed, but it wasn’t well-suited to making art for no good reason. Granny sewed, embroidered, knitted, and crocheted in the evenings. For a time, she also occupied her creative side by making poured-resin ashtrays, plaques, and paperweights, the kind you see at tourist shops with rattlesnake rattlers, sea shells, or angry scorpions embedded inside. But those were only practical pursuits, I imagined: money-saving gift ideas. She made dresses for church, booties and blankets for new babies in the family, fresh curtains for the kitchen, and Christmas presents for everyone. If I thought at all about her arts-and-crafts pursuits, I’m sure I didn’t give her much credit for the work. Whatever I thought real art was, I sensed it was out of our reach, and far too exclusive for anyone in my family to aspire toward creating.

Granny used her Baptist religious convictions for a decorative theme, including a VW-sized bible as the coffee table centerpiece. The massive tome—decorated with gilt-edged pages and white, faux-leather covers—lay open when at rest, ready for quick reference. It was paired with gold plaster praying hands, and several blue-eyed Jesus portraits gazed lovingly from the walls. Family members and Granny’s church-going friends gifted her with plaques and knickknacks along those lines, too. Her home ranneth over with piety.

In Granny’s living room hung the requisite bluebonnets-along-a-gravel-road landscape, a secular image, but as essential to a rural Texas home as an iron skillet, a can of Crisco by the stove, and a clothesline out back. The painting was amateurish and crude: the colors leaned too far to the brownish-green, and the perspective was confused, almost Escher-like in misplaced reaches of foreground and distance. But someone had imagined it, worked it through to a finish, and had signed it into life. A companion piece depicting the round rock of nearby Round Rock, Texas—presumably a later work by the same artist—showed some growth in skill and daring. It was a fine tribute to the landmark, a midstream anomaly of erosion marking the Brushy Creek ford, where Mother Nature made a bid for recognition and won the prize of a town named for her artistry. The painting’s perspective was more accurate, the scene was recognizable from life, and the colors of the foliage and rushing waters were more realistic. The portraits of Jesus in Granny’s house may have been better executed, but of the artwork she hung, the round rock had the most soul. It and the bluebonnet scene offered themselves with sincerity and humility, their creator had no agenda to press upon their audience, and if the paintings themselves had longings, they must have wished simply to be seen, to have a wall to call home.

____

I played at art as a child. I was never good at creating anything fresh, but by high school I’d become a pretty decent technician with a pencil, producing copies of copies, and realistic renditions of pre-existing photos. I co-opted composition and creativity from images in National Geographic, Playboy, or my mother’s Vogue magazines. I borrowed the visions of others with only a trace of plagiaristic guilt, but my mother adored me for the skill.

The art in Mother’s house was nearly as limited as my creative genius. She favored arrays of the notorious “Big Eyes” waifs for the kids’ rooms. Behind the sofa she hung oversized color pieces that looked to have been painted with rollers and putty knives, and she filled empty wall spaces with cityscapes of countries she’d never visited. “Not so high! Eye level,” she’d say when I held a frame for her to assess from across the room. An inch or two up or down mattered to her eye. It was never right the first time, and behind every piece of art were the marks from missed opportunities for a potentially more interesting imperfection. For Mother, the effect of the whole was more important than any individual piece, and presentation was everything. Art did not reflect reality, it disguised it.

Mother presented herself as a sophisticated modern woman, an escapee from her parents’ rural roots and countrified lifestyle. In many ways she became what she strived for and she led me in the same direction. She encouraged me to read, and forgave me for choosing drums as a musical outlet, but she pushed me toward the drawing, for the glamorous cachet of birthing an artist into the family, I imagine. One of my stepfathers took great pride in my creativity, and coincidentally, he was a lineman. He worked for the old Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, and spent his days in spiked boots climbing telephone poles. My second stepfather, though, saw any positive attention toward me as an obstacle to his dominance. Creativity to him was a waste of time. Boyfriends before, between, and after Mother’s two marriages were usually shown something I’d drawn. They praised me during our awkward introductions, out of politeness and self-interest, and I would thank them as politely before hurrying back to my room.

Mother was a realist, though. She never fostered illusions in me of a long-shot career in fine art, or even in my cranking out sofa-sized accent pieces, factory-style. She pitched a future in architecture or advertising, in graphic arts. I craved the precision and the order, and I might have excelled, but my artistic expectations always exceeded my talents, and drawing became more frustrating than joyful. Instead I chose to pursue a career in drinking and drumming, and stopped drawing as soon as I left high school. Even now, though, I still love a good pencil, the sturdy feel of a fine Staedtler compass, and the sweeping arcs of a French curve. I venerate the creative work that goes into an elegant logo or a good jingle, the distillation of an abstract concept into “The Real Thing.” I respect the making of meaning from nothing, for whatever aim, and on good days I can make those meanings from language, in the curves and corners of a sentence. I can’t rely on my old copyist’s skill with a pencil, and I wouldn’t want to—with words I prefer to draw from life as best I can.

____

I’m convinced most people hope, as I do, to uncover some hint of genius within themselves before life is over, yet still find nothing but an empty canvas, a blank page, or an uncomfortable silence. Jimmy Webb was only twenty-two when he wrote “Wichita Lineman.” Two sparse verses and a melody, an idea inspired by the sight of a man working alone, strapped high on a telephone pole along a stretch of empty highway. Webb recognized the mind in the man, the art that might be in him, and gave him a voice of humble longing:

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line[1]

The overall effect is modest, and by today’s standards the song is under-produced: Campbell’s unadorned vocals are clean, with no overdubs or countrified twang, the delicate percussion track is almost imperceptible through most of the song, and a bottom-end lead break mimics the melody with no flash or glitzy tricks. The chorus isn’t even technically a chorus or a traditional hook. The words conflate the simple and the sublime to create an imagined life and the world the speaker inhabits:

I know I need a small vacation
But it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south
Won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time

And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

The emotional weight is carried by the melody and understatement in the lyric, by the orchestral arrangement, and by a Morse code motif playing off the telegraphed poetry of the lineman communicating with his faraway love. Webb said in a 2012 interview that he aimed to express the artist hidden in an unassuming soul:

…you can see someone working in construction or working in a field, a migrant worker or a truck driver, and you may think you know what’s going on inside him, but you don’t. You can’t assume that just because someone’s in a menial job that they don’t have dreams … or extraordinary concepts going around in their head, like “I need you more than want you; and I want you for all time.” You can’t assume that a man isn’t a poet. [2]

As with any language, listeners expect popular songs to follow a familiar grammar, and Webb uses these habits of hearing by ignoring them. The tonic note—a musical baseline that defines the key—is a point to which we naturally assume a song will return, much as an essay’s conclusion often revisits its opening thoughts. Webb touches on the tonic prior to the “I need you more than want you” lines but then abandons it, as though posing a question that has no answer. The song does not return to its baseline, nor do the lyrics offer us any more certainty than the faith of the lineman himself. We are left suspended in a musical ellipsis, a poetic moment with no boundaries, fading to silence in an ending that doesn’t end…

____

Granny’s poetry surrounded her house, blossoming from beds of day lilies and scores of potted and hanging plants. The oaks in the front yard hung thick with plants whose names I could never get right as a child: bougainvilleas, hydrangeas, nasturtiums. On stands around the tree trunks huddled the shade lovers, miniature rain forests of dieffenbachia and great fern-shaped beasts that she would crack open and groom. The ground stayed spongy and moist even in the hottest months from her early morning rounds, and I often woke to the sound of water dripping like rain from sphagnum-lined baskets.

Granny let me assist in small ways. I managed the hose as she wove through the trees, followed her with a bag to collect the dead blooms and leaves she’d pinch off. The activity was more interesting than the plants, and though she tried to pass her green thumb skills down to me, I used those times as handy excuses to play in the water while she minded her floral charges. Granny’s well-tended plants served no purpose; she raised them for no reason but beauty, pride, and pleasure. Seed and garden catalogs were her Amazon.com, and she’d sit after the post-supper cleanup shopping hybrid varieties, calculating her color palette, her planting schemes, and plotting early versus late-blooming layers of thematic color. She looked after the people in her life out of willing obligation and a hard-tested love, but Granny nurtured her lilies, talked to her potted plants before any pseudo-scientific fads recommended such a thing. She whispered to them and divined their needs. Her fingertips those mornings were like a painter’s, working in a palette of earth tones, stained from poking the soil to judge its moisture.

My grandfather also spent his days under the oaks, somewhat like a gray-whiskered potted plant. His station was in consistent shade and out of the way—if the hose tangled around his lawn chair in spite of my management, Granny would blame Pawpaw instead and chase him off. “If you can’t be of any use,” she’d tell him, “then stay out from underfoot of those who are.”

I didn’t know Pawpaw in his prime, before his mind became as unsteady as his tremor-stricken hands. We must have spoken all the time, but I don’t remember any specific conversations. Nor can I manage to imagine any. His voice I recall being mostly on the defensive, slightly high and hurt, like a child begging for mercy from an adult. He was a cedar chopper in his productive years, a few miles north in Cedar Park. If manual labor can be judged as art, he must’ve been a maestro, or maybe a just master of tall tales. I was told he bragged of stacking a flatbed full before the coffee got cold, and that with a sharp axe, he could strip a cedar’s branches on the upswing as quickly as on the downstroke. He must have seen beauty in a clean, straight fence post, but I only saw him work at shuffling dominoes in the shade for solitaire games, murmuring rhymes I didn’t know were dirty. Of his ribald doggerel, all I remember now is: “I’ll give you a dime, if you’ve got the time…” and a reboot of “Jack and Jill” involving Jill’s undies, with sexual innuendo he knew was safely over my head.

Pawpaw had a sly gift for smuggling alcohol into Granny’s teetotaling queendom. He always kept a bottle of Nyquil tucked somewhere nearby, only 20 proof, but coupled with the hypnotic ingredients, it boosted his mood with a steady buzz. He trusted me enough that he didn’t mind my seeing him sneaking shots nor fear I’d rat him out when he pulled a fresh bottle from his stash in the wash house or the pump shed. If he were alive today, my grandfather would be a robo-tripping senior citizen, a shade-tree OG.

In later years Pawpaw preferred the indoors to the shade trees and spent most of his time sitting on the edge of his bed, as though he’d awakened moments before and hadn’t yet stood, or waited for a visitor who never came. He was still free and mobile, and able to get around on his own. He spent his mornings on a half-mile trek to Ballard’s Market for a plug of Day’s Work chewing tobacco and his Nyquil fix, the pockets of his smooth-worn corduroy coat drooping with fresh bottles on his return. I was curious about him, about what he did in his room all alone, and I’d weave through the lily beds to peep in his window, but there was nothing to discover, only stillness and quiet. He was a mystery by then, like a nameless boarder, a threadbare presence who was once my grandfather. Whether “extraordinary concepts” occupied his thoughts, I can’t know. He was connected, but alone, and I was childish and self-involved. If there was poetry in him, I suspect it would have been of helplessness, of inadequacy, and of loneliness. I imagine him like the lineman, only peripherally aware of me as I drove past. I would glance up long enough to notice him there, and forget him as quickly as I disappeared down the highway.

____

I wrote my first of many awful songs that “Wichita Lineman” summer. I had turned the dial from country to top-40 rock, where I found Three Dog Night and their hit, “One,” a Harry Nilsson song inspired by a late-night busy signal, and yet another ode to isolation that stirred my preteen heart. (To quote Joyce Carol Oates: “I must have been a lonely child.”[3]) I retooled the lyrics to suit myself and called it my own. I had not yet envisioned songwriters or the authors of the library books I hoarded as normal human beings. I didn’t understand how those miracles resulted from the hard work of their makers. Books and songs were like movies or TV shows: they materialized full grown and complete, independent of their creators. Authors were simply names on the covers, pensive and wise-looking in their headshots. Songwriters were even less, hidden faceless behind stars, the unseen sources of their light.

I knew my attempt at songwriting was something to be concealed, although I didn’t know why. I wrote the lyrics perched in the fork of the old pecan tree across Granny’s caliche driveway, where no one but the squirrels could see me through the rattling leaves. A shyness hung over the writing, or maybe a knowledge that I’d presumed beyond my capabilities to produce what, in essence, was a poem. Those lyrics have drifted from memory like Pawpaw’s doggerel, but I do recall how hard it was to get each syllable to fit where it landed and to mean what I hoped. I remember the pride of believing I’d created something from thin air.

If I had been more aware, I might have felt closer to the painter who signed off on the brownish bluebonnets and the portrait of the round rock. I might have been bold enough to share those lyrics with Granny while she crocheted gifts for the coming Christmas or to answer Pawpaw’s verses with some of my own. I might have known sooner that art isn’t limited to museum icons, or musical and literary masterpieces, but that art is also born from the uncommon labor of common hands, and may be as simple in its expression as that of an odd boy with a pencil and paper, forcing rhymes in secret.

____

Most artists are braver than I’ve ever been in my attempts. I’m lucky to make it through a public reading without a panic attack, while some folks put their work flagrantly, confidently out there. Take Quills, for example, a film featuring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, and Joaquin Phoenix, that offers a fictionalized take on the madhouse years of the Marquis de Sade, dramatizing the Marquis’ dogged commitment to his pornographic writings in spite of censorship and increasingly cruel imprisonment. As de Sade’s privileges are lost, the titular tools of his trade, his quill pens, are also taken from him. He is ultimately confined alone and naked in a stone-walled pit, yet continues to write on those walls in his own blood and feces. The Marquis dies an unrepentant rebel, choking himself on the crucifix with which his last rites are performed. Hell-bound, for sure, but a hero in spite of himself and certainly a role model to those espousing the mottoes of creativity that demand “writers write every day” and that you must “do what you can, with what you have, wherever you are.”

In my teens, Granny moved off the old place and into Round Rock proper. There were no oaks at the new house, no shade, no familiar routes to walk, only asphalt and strangers on all sides. IH-35 roared nearby with busy arterial streets a block away. Granny adjusted, but for Pawpaw it was catastrophic. His dementia escalated as his world shrank.

His behavior became more erratic, and Granny feared he’d wander off, get lost or run over, and she saw no alternative but to shut him in alone with what mind was left to him. She locked him in his room when she couldn’t keep an eye on him or when he got out of hand. It wasn’t imprisonment without reprieve, or cruelty for no reason. He was fine some days and sat calmly in the living room recliner, occupied with ‘Nilla Wafers and sweet coffee, but mostly he existed in confinement. I chugged shoplifted Lone Star beers by the open window of the spare bedroom, waved away cigarette smoke, and turned up Zeppelin on the boom box to drown out Pawpaw’s rattling doorknob, his interminable knocks, and his cries of, “Mama! Why won’t you turn me a’loose? What did I ever do to you?”

I couldn’t conceive of comforting him—it simply wasn’t my place, and I wouldn’t have known how. Sometimes he would rage and demand his devil-take-it wife let him out, that this wasn’t no way a grown man ought to be treated. He didn’t know this new place, but he knew his jailor. He knew then, I believe, that he was lost.

I took him meals sometimes. Sandwiches he could pick to pieces and gum toothlessly, sweet rolls in plastic packs, and banana cream icebox pies he spooned straight from the aluminum pan. It was hard to sit with him long, what with the unwashed smells, the closed-in headache stench of Pine-Sol, and the sadness. His breath was rancid, like the aftertaste of sourdough, but it still carried the medicinal taint of Nyquil. He kept the bottles tucked out of sight behind a pillow or in the nightstand. I suppose Granny deliberately forfeited her Baptist morality to pacify him, and kept her husband well supplied.

Pawpaw—maybe not hell bound like de Sade, but similarly imprisoned—would smear his walls with feces, too, and whimper for hours behind that door. I struggle now to separate the younger man I’d never met from the bewildered soul he became, to overcome the association of both men with the rust-brown hand prints covering his walls like a nauseating imitation of the Chauvet Cave, and with piss-saturated baseboards, the Sheetrock behind them molding to a permanent crusted beige, freckled with uric acid crystals. Granny kept pyramids of stain sealer stacked in the garage, along with disposable roller trays, Clorox, and ammonia. She punished Pawpaw with tirades and harsh scoldings. “Look at what you’ve done—like a filthy animal! Oh, Lord! Jesus, take me! What did I do to deserve such misery?”

To the Marquis de Sade, art doubled as rebellion, a literal shit taken on his priestly critics. For my grandfather this was a behavior: Scatolia, like the name of some reeking West Texas ghost town. Nursing home staffers call it finger painting. Awful brown landscapes. Hieroglyphs in a language of fear. A palette of melancholy and despair. “Help me,” my grandfather’s walls might have read.

____

No one in my family wrote or painted. No one read for pleasure, or played an instrument, not that I ever witnessed. None of the artwork survived that I know of, though I still have one of Mother’s gold-rimmed highball glasses, if that counts. She’s been gone since 2005 and still haunts me: art hangs at eye level if it hangs at all. In her final years, my mother’s room was as cluttered with memories as Granny’s house had been with religion. Her demand for decorative order had given way to the sentimental: small gifts and souvenirs filled shelves and glass-walled cabinets, and even tacky, worthless mementoes held places of honor where they would never have been allowed before.

Pawpaw died when I was 16, in July of ’77. I was too cool by then for Glen Campbell and foolish enough to believe I was above all that mellow, sappy stuff. I don’t remember tears. In the hospital before he died, Mother made a point of having me clean Pawpaw’s dry tongue and lips with awful, citrus-flavored swabs, particularly when others of the family were in the room. I don’t know whether it was to show off how compassionate a son she’d raised or because she didn’t want to do it herself. Regardless, my grandfather finally withered like a neglected houseplant, but I bet some of the posts he cut still stand in the barbed-wire fence lines north of town.

I tried for a life without walls or fences, but ended up building my own from stronger stuff than Nyquil. It works that way, sometimes, that striving for an imaginary freedom is what ends up confining you. Granny, I think, built her own walls, too, and resented every day inside them. When she was at her best, she made an art form of getting through the day: a cleanly plucked chicken, a bible laid open to the just-right page, a warm quilt made from scraps. She created a landscape of blossoms more artful than the paintings in her home, and she laid her hands to work on the commonplace, the useful, the overlooked and unnoticed art of the mundane. At her worst, her mastery of practical necessities approached the hardness of her life. She may have had more in common with the Marquis de Sade than I care to imagine, but she was jailed, too, by my grandfather’s illness. I’m sure she felt she had nowhere to turn but toward coldness and indifference.

Granny died in 2000, after I had moved for a time to Issaquah, in the mountains near Seattle. I flew home after she’d deteriorated like her late husband into unyielding dementia. My mother was not doing well, either, and my visit served a dual purpose: a death watch for Granny, and as a helpmeet for Mother during a heart surgery scare. She and my Uncle Bennie had done what they could for their mother. They had placed Granny in a nursing home under palliative care. “She’s not Mama anymore,” Bennie told me. “She doesn’t know much of anything at all.”

I sat in a borrowed car in the parking lot, sweating, smoking, drinking myself brave enough to go in to see her. Midday in her room was dim and over-cooled, to keep the air fresh. She slept—no life support gear, no tubes or bleating machines. Just a room with minimal furnishings: a bed, nightstand, and chairs, a few potted plants on the wheeled hospital table, and an old dying woman. If there was art, I didn’t notice. I remember little, not so much from liquor as from nerves and from the shock of seeing her in that state. I spoke to her and she stirred but didn’t truly wake. Her eyes opened, frightened. That I remember clearly. She reclosed them tightly without speaking, turned and slept again, as though it was a conscious decision.

I stood with her, wondering if I should try to rouse her again. I stayed for a few minutes and selfishly hoped she wouldn’t wake up or that she would and she’d be fine, lucid, and ready to head home. She didn’t wake, though, and I bolted, having done my duty. I vowed to return the next day, but never did. “She’s not Mama anymore,” my uncle had said, and I felt her lack in the room; she was as gone as if she’d died already. I told myself that had she awakened she would not have recognized me; my being there wouldn’t have mattered to her anyway. I tell myself that now, though it may be her pragmatism and her stern life lessons speaking through my blood. Granny hung on through my stay, ever stubborn. It was not time for a funeral yet. Mother recovered without surgery, and I had a family and work waiting, so I returned to Washington. “The service was beautiful,” my aunt emailed by the end of summer. She attached photos of Granny’s grave, the marker overwhelmed by a mountain of blossoming flowers.

____

No art survived, I wrote earlier. I may have been mistaken. I’ve got all this to piece together, to impose meaning where there is none, to find the “real thing” in the abstract, if only to feel okay about myself and my failures, and to permit myself some occasional successes. That’s what we do: quilt together scraps of our fabric, struggle to make art of the struggle, to create works of art from the work of living. We impose a palette on chaos and choose which of our landscapes and self-portraits to frame and hang.

“You can’t assume that a man isn’t a poet,” Jimmy Webb said. I fight that assumption still when looking at myself, and at the people around me then and now. The Wichita lineman hasn’t lost his poetry, but I sometimes forget his lesson: that the art of a simple soul is as valid as any housed in museums of the beautifully useless, and that the tasks of common folk might be masterpieces if viewed in the right light. The palette I choose assumes that art is there still, in the paved-over gardens and repainted walls that the artists have left behind.

Granny’s old house is gone, her radio and religion scattered along with her and Pawpaw’s other relics. Their thickets and pastureland have been consumed by Austin’s sprawl. But the pecan tree where I first wrote those juvenile lyrics still stands. I can zoom in on Google Earth and see its crown from my desk. The tree is confined now on a cramped island of brownish grass, surrounded by the asphalt lots of a gutter company and a plumbing supply shop. I’m tempted to go offer some libation of honor before it goes the way of the Giving Tree, of my grandparents’ house, and of the lives lived there. I’m tempted to climb into the branches, hide behind its leaves and write a song. And if the song is awful, love it anyway, and sing it into life.

 

[1] Wichita Lineman. Jimmy L Webb. Copyright 1968 Universal Polygram International Publishing, Inc.

[2] Morrison, Allen. “Behind The Song: “Wichita Lineman.” American Songwriter. ForASong Media, LLC. American Songwriter, 09 Jan. 2012. Web. 18 May 2016.

[3] “They All Just Went Away” The New Yorker, October 16, 1995 P. 178

Barry Maxwell

Barry Maxwell is a 56-year-old native of Austin, Texas, and a creative writing student at UT. His publication credits include essays, poetry, fiction, and memoir in venues including PitheadChapel.com, UT’s Hothouse Literary Journal and The Liberator, and Austin Community College’s Rio Review. His work has been featured in the Northern Colorado Writers 2013 Pooled Ink Anthology, and in the 2014 Writing Texas Anthology from Lamar University Press. Barry, formerly one of Austin’s homeless, is also the founder of Street Lit and the Street Lit Authors Club, which provide books and creative writing workshops to Austin’s homeless community. You can contact Barry at www.streetlit.org or www.barrymaxwell.net.

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