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Camera of the Mind
By Stephen Orr Manning
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Stephen Orr Manning
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Second Birth of the Grayhair
Returning now on remembered paths
can the Grayhair become once more
a barefoot kid with muddy feet
splashing up and down some river or creek
or is it now just memory?
Dim at best but just how different
these mind movies of chasing crawdads,
long legs and dragonflies,
minnows swimming upstream,
waterbugs floating down?
Three kids on a swaybacked mule named "Mule"
stop and cut a cane for candy
on the way to the fishing hole.
One of them brought bread
so all of them would have lunch.
Siblings not of blood but of the land
who roamed the woods, listened and learned,
who carried a line and hook, cut a pole,
caught a bug then a fish or two to cook upon a fire.
With the bread it was enough for all.
The one who arrives at this moment,
presents himself to the energy of now,
has new tools but worn with practice,
is not that same muddy footed kid,
more's the pity.
Late Shift at Maybelle's Diner
The only Caution light blinked yellow
adding color to the panorama of Bonnie Sue's visible world
of a streetlight on the far corner
and the neon "Vacancy" aptly describing the town
at the crossroads shared by a gas station
that closed at nine. The constable stopped in for coffee at 10
unless Jimmy Joe was drunk and trying
to beat up on Sue Emma which was a real dumb thing to do
she being twice his size and real mean.
Bonnie Sue liked shirts with those fancy pockets
with snap buttons that looked like pearls.
Bonnie Sue was a sucker for any smooth talker
that had a story about "them is real pearls
on them buttons, they is special made in Hong Kong
by a little old man that uses silk threads
to cut But wait there's more to this magic day.
em into slices. It took a long time
so they cost a lot."
Bonnie Sue's prince had come, but the next morning
had turned into a frog with beer breath
and smelly armpits. And the buttons
like all the others came from shells
of freshwater mussels dug out of mud
from the bottom of the brown smelly river
flowing through leached out dirt
of the dying no hope town.
Bonnie Sue would sleep awhile before
the late shift at the diner.
Maybe, tonight Bonnie Sue's prince would come.
Growing Up Southern and Poor
In the cool morning hours after midnight
of what had been hot Southern nights,
the radio muffled under the covers so Momma would
not hear and come to turn it off and make me sleep
but if lucky the sound came
"... from high on the mountaintop
in Gallatin, Tennessee, bringing you the sounds
of Red, Hot and Blue"
or what grayhairs white and black
call rhythm and blues and played it together
in back rooms of music stores where
Calvin played piano and
taught us how to play the sound
and feel the sound
and love the sound
which might be the Memphis Jug Band
an old time down home bunch blowing on
earthenware crocks, thumping on washtub basses
and chanting and singing their field whoops and hollers
or maybe the Memphis Horns
which was a real old time rhythm and blues band
but these folks just played their horns
and bent their notes and flatted their fifths
that cried about good times and hard times
and night times and ain't no time to be poor
'cause your batteries run low right in the middle of
Muddy Waters singing Little Red Rooster.
You children have no idea
what music means
to those who came before.
Those black boys
who walked the cotton rows
and those white boys
who walked beside them
poor but yearning just as they
for something better and sang along
stoop pick and drag your bag
to earn your fifty cents.
The story is not over
still forges white-hot memories
now fitted with a context
to give it meaning
like a molded vessel
gives liquid shape.
What were before
some job of work
thought hard labor by
a child struggling
with the heavy pail
full of needed water,
or the armload of firewood
that was actually arms load
leaving no hand free
to open the screen door
without dropping a few logs,
or the mowing of grass,
or raking of leaves,
may now be thought
in manhood to have been
strengthening of muscles,
learning and practicing of lessons,
disciplining of character,
contributing of self
to the work of a family.
What better chore
than the early gathering of peaches and berries
when no wind stirred but the
mists were moved
and a young boy given
to a sense of wonder
was ready to believe
what moved them
were fairy wings and butterflies.
The Big House
The Grayhair rocked the cradle
long before some loose-hipped country boy
kicked down that split rail fence
in the country of white folk and
black folk playing music from
wherever it was they came from
before they decided they came from here
but hearing it all and playing all
the licks in the style of the most players
at this particular hootenanny, ceilidh,
getting down blues jam, or djembe circle
and some could only dance but
no one could keep still feet
in the presence of the driving beat
and a coal shuttle voice
sometimes singin' 'bout
"Annie May's Cafe,
there's one in every town.
.38 special behind the bar
another in the pocket of her gown."
Some hand-lettered board or
half broken neon sign might say
Gutbucket Blues Hall, Rib Shack,
Uncle Milton's, P. J.'s,
Big Mama's Music Hall, or
something close to it
if they could spell at all.
Singer, mouth harp, guitar
maybe squeeze box and a walking bass
shufflin' on, and every hot night
was a long good night to
drive it on down,
take it on home.
The young folk followed that
loose-hipped white boy
away from Beale Street
towards the Sun on Madison Avenue,
had to call their music
something else to make it
in southern-state Holiday Inn
lounges and convention center
ballrooms in Bible-belt
county seats patrolled by
blue-nosed prudes, blue-rinsed matrons
and newly self-ordained and self-annointed
storefront preacher men who
talked to old what's his face
just last week and was struck
deef and dumb for some number
of hours corresponding exactly
to the time it takes to sleep off
a three day drunk. (Glory! He is risen.)
And he will share his great new revelation
in a spirit of jubilation and in
anticipation of remuneration, (Hallelujah!)
for the inspiration provided by the
deification of old what's his face.
(Somebody gimme an Amen!)
brought to you now through
the magic of radio, the electrification
of superstitious farce. "Send 5 dollars
and I will pray for you. In the meantime here is
a good old time Christian gospel tune
for you to handle snakes by."
All Robert Johnson's chillun heard it all
and all the childeen of the Scots-Irish way back
up in the coves of Appalachia
playing mandolins, banjos,
dobros, zithers, fiddles
and the 'small box' that survived
the salt spray below decks
on the long boat ride to Amerikay!
The troubadors sang about
Six Black Horses and
Brown Mountain Lights.
The black orphans in the marching bands
struttin' on home to honor the dead
Way Down Yonder in that once great city
where it came together and started
a long boat ride upriver.
THE river. Ole Man River. The Big Muddy
flowing through cotton fields with
bargemen chanting, field hands whooping
and hollering work songs that sometimes
turn to rain-makin' god-praisin' gospel singin'
just like Sunday mornin' go to meetin'
music. And that early mornin hurryin to Jesus is
still a little bit too close to that
Saturday night hurryin to
'get some of that ole sweet roll,' when
the spider-skinny men get to struttin
and the sticky-lipped gals get all twitchy-hipped.
Beat's the same, maybe the words are too,
four-beat 12-bar boogie with a thumping bass
'Comin on home to the promised land.
At Memphis, barges landed on the cobblestone bank
near the old Cotton Exchange at the
foot of Beale Street to take on
bales and lumber to carry north
and let the bargemen visit the ground-floor
blues parlors and the
upstairs pleasure parlors.
Some went further north
some in freight-cars,
some on the back seats of Greyhounds
as far north to where the land
quit fighting the cold winds and
swirling snowstorms off the lake,
and let the water have it.
Those raw winds off the lake
chewed the ears and chilled the brain,
gave urgent reason to hurry up and
take it inside like those
steel-string electric guitars
of the Chicago blues players.
Keen leading edges of notes like broken ice
slice through electric space.
They zing, hiss and buzz
crack and spit, cut and sting
like mean fingernails
flicking frozen earlobes.
And then it spread east and west
back down to barbecue land
like blood oozing
over uneven sidewalks,
over curbs into gutters
with the mud and unlucky
numbers slips down the
drains into the rivers
upstream and down,
gushing from the cracked skull or
bullet in the chest of
some faithless lover who
won't be kicking in her stall
tumbling splashing roaring crashing banging
twanging yodeling sliding picking and chording,
No matter how far they went,
coming back home.
The Big House was always big enough,
as big as it needed to be.
How big does it need to be to
hold all that American Music?
Lightning confuses the clock,
we watch the display and do not sleep.
Dark thunderheads delayed dawn,
under the canopy it is still dark,
gentle rain for hours
the thirsty earth sighs relief
and then the leaves will drip
and the creek will rise.
Perhaps "significant other" is
a bit adventurous if
not downright pretentious
for one having dumped a third husband
and met this guy in a bar.
After six drinks or so or
was it seven anyway who counts
anymore if you've still got money
and can still walk. They
were both sure they had found
true love at last.
Anyway, having spent at least
three hours together and they were
not getting any younger,
it was high time to pursue
a meaningful relationship
which they proceeded to do
by retiring to the nearest
hot-bed motel to
more effective in the nude
sort of like buying Playboy
for the articles.
Owing to their state of
inebriation and even more
to the sharp penetrating
thrusts of logic distracting them
from trivialities like buttons,
took longer than expected,
leaving them three minutes
to complete the deed before
the rent expired. It's
all a bit hazy from there,
did they or didn't they,
who cares anyway,
but one thing for sure
he's still got gas in his pickup
so she'll be damned if
she lets him get away.
Geezlin Brothers Fish Camp
They sure weren't much to look at
these brothers of the deep woods
by a river in Mississippi
named something strange
ending in—hootchie or could
be—hassee or maybe—loosa
that flowed wide and deep
enough to host the river
catfish big enough
to make it worth a living
to set and check the trotlines
then make a run to town with
that day's catch all cleaned
and white and cut to suit
the restaurants on their routes.
They lived in a big Army tent
banked with earth half way
and heated by an old wood burner
as centerpiece, lit by oil lamps.
Bunks, chairs, tables, cabinets
made it seem otherwise normal.
But I was young then
and this is but a memory.
I will try to make it true.
No matter, I lived there
and knew these men
or men like them.
I was young and went where taken,
one such place was the Magic Stump
where we stopped on the way to the camp.
A bill was left inside the stump
before the curve. Then on
to camp for a bowl of stew.
The pot simmered all the time, they
added this or that, rabbit made it
rabbit stew, possum or squirrel
made it something else with a
few potatoes and a handful of flour.
Some water when it got too thick.
They taught me to skin and
clean the critters, to cut and
cook, and cure the pelts.
Granddad collected Mason jars
for some odd reason,
we always took a box to them.
Coming home the Magic Stump
would once more earn its name.
A jar of "catfish milk" appeared.
In summer, the Train Boy helped
in the general store at one end
of the small Arkansas town.
The train was big and loud and
so unlike the mundane things
that filled the summer days
in a small town where
small boys were bystanding observers of
haircuts, horse trading, and horticultural
swaps of sweet corn and strawberries.
The train came from somewhere
out there, maybe behind the woods
past Cecil's barn where the pony was kept,
or the other side of the tracks, or down
the old dirt road into the swamp,
and it went somewhere else out there.
Maybe it went to see Ernest Tubb and
Minnie Pearl at some place called
Grand Ole Opry that lived in the radio
wherever that was.
Out there. Where the train boy
did not yet understand.
The train came through midmorning.
Its whistle blew first outside of town
alerting loaders, drivers "Here I Come!"
And the train boy in the Racket Store,
one of those who waited for that
distinctive sound unlike the
tame dogs and cats more like the
wild siren scream of coyote, bobcat
or other wild things that could come from
another strange place and go to some new place
and announce "Here I come. Here I am!"
The Train Boy ran the length of town,
a long block to stand and wave.
Hello, we are still here and all is well.
And they waved back,
the daily summer ritual fulfilled.
Bottleneck Blues on a
He heard his momma singing gospel,
fell asleep to her soothing lullaby.
His daddy's deep bass voice
led work chants in the fields.
He heard cows and frogs and barking dogs
and older kids playing hopscotch, and
skipping rope on the hard baked dirt
near the stoop where Granny's rocker squeaked.
He waked to the trill of wrens, fell asleep
to questions of secretive birds he had never seen.
He punched the bag of herbs
Big Mama Lil tied to his crib.
He heard the tractor growling louder
as it climbed the slope, the rattle
of lids on boiling kettles, and the
flapping of sheets drying in the breeze.
Big Mama said we got us a music man!
Daddy bought a guitar with a broken neck.
It was the best this field hand could afford.
He boiled hides and bones for glue.
Daddy pegged and glued and strapped the neck.
The neighbors brought some strings.
Big Mama knew a bluesman
with an extra RC bottleneck.
The boy began to play and
mimicked music of the birds and of Momma
and of Daddy. With that slide
he played the sounds he heard within him.
I listen to flamenco guitar
hear that one-note walking bass
that is still a melody enough
to call up from memory
the delta blues of field hands
akin to grape pickers of Jerez.
They may also share those
high tremolo runs of busy fingers.
The sounds so different
the feel so much the same.
"My baby don' lef me,
Please come back home."
Young southern boys just learning
to play the blues and rhythm and blues
on hot Southern nights in
small Southern towns in
cotton country or rice lands,
could not go to the
front door even to sit
on the sidewalk to listen
to the big blasting boogie
spilling out the front door
because the Sheriff was watching.
It was still too soon to dream
of playing tenor sax in a band
with Calvin in that town,
except in music store back rooms
or late night jams when
sound trumped color
and soul trumped skin.
We were too young but mostly too white
to be allowed to listen to, let alone play
this music that might sully
the souls of future overlords.
But the pull was strong. We found
the alleys, listened at the back door
always left propped open so the
girls could get in without paying the cover,
and the white boys could sit outside
and hear the music where
white faces wouldn't shine.
But when Houston Stackhouse came to town
and if Calvin was playing piano
he'd give a high sign and
you could sit inside behind the stacks
of cased beer and watch the band until
the bottles flew, the knives flashed
and the fat man in the corner
pulled his .44.
A Day in the Country, June 6, 2009
Part 1, Cattle drive at the old home place
In common with the cattle
a cecropia moth
visited the castle
on this day.
The dog heard them
coming down the drive,
the cattle not the moth,
invading his territory
which is off-limits to squirrels,
crows, wayward horses and
cows but especially obnoxious
sissy-groomed lap dogs but that is redundant
isn't it? You get the idea.
Paddy proceeded to herd them back home
with a minimum of human assistance which
no doubt he would rather have done without
but recognizing the inept assistants
as those who filled the dinner bowl,
he did not protest too greatly.
The cows ran back up their own drive kicking
but missing and mooing to answering barks.
Thinking we had taken care of that little problem, we returned to
more productive pursuits
but prematurely. Cattle are dumb but these at least
had learned to turn the other way
and ran down the road back onto our neighbor's unfenced land.
At least we've kept them off the highway of which more later. We
called all the available numbers, left messages and were about to
alert the National Guard,
when the wife happened to spot the moth.
No Dusty Miller this, but a five inch behemoth
that viewed upside down
owing to the spots on its wings
could have easily modeled for the monster in
Alien 17 or so. Stop everything, we have
a genuine creature conundrum! What is this?
Call the neighbor, she'll know, and if she doesn't
she's got a butterfly book.
Sure enough, she knew so we spent some happy time learning
about this new winged friend,
But wait there's more to this magic day.
Excerpted from Camera of the Mind by Stephen Orr Manning Copyright © 2011 by Stephen Orr Manning. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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