Read an Excerpt
The Hollow Log Lounge
By R. T. Smith
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2003 R. T. Smith
All rights reserved.
One Man's Sanctuary in Opelika, Alabama
Names count, and some buck called this hideout
the Hollow Log after its den dark and a stuffed
fox snarling over the bar. I park on a stool to kill
surplus brain cells and fuzzle my memory with spirits.
I study sweet Miss Pattie in her fishnet tights,
watch folks frisk by neon light to slow down the dying
or guarantee they'll live to see one more dawn as bright
as the drummer's jumbo cymbal. We live off the lean
of the land and keep the wolf from the door. Signs
at the state line declare We dare defend our rights,
but we really live by Dixie, Roll, Tide, or War Eagle,
and when the jukebox twangles out the lead-in
to "Stars Fell on Alabama," I commence to feel
neighborly enough to cross the dance floor and invite
the lady with curls red as vixen fur and a local grin
to help me shake off alimony and bills long overdue.
I'm already stepping lightly, all confident and male,
rolling sleeves past my heart and eagle tattoos.
I'll have one more before they shut off the lights.
My name is Sam Buckhannon. This is no fairy tale.
It's all fantastic and bizarre and true. It's my life,
a raspy song that sounds better if you sing along.
Confession in a Booth at the
Hollow Log Lounge
I seam towels for Dundee over in Georgia,
a non-union sweatshop with a dozen
rows of them blue glass windows all around.
Some of 'em says it's like a church.
Been there fourteen years, since just before
me and Hubert said vows at Devotee Baptist.
We've been divorced since eighty-four.
Seems he had another woman on the side.
Yessir, I been cold and warmed my hands
at the motor of my jury-rigged machine,
been Florida-hot and deaf from the fans
that don't do a damn bit of earthly good,
for me at least. I'm right fleshy, as you
can see. Been so hot I'd get the hives
and swell up like sourdough rising, but
I hardly miss a sick day, you understand.
I hate the feel when another woman's
been sewing on my machine. Substitutes
will break a needle or jack the floating
bobbin out of line. They don't give a hoot.
It ain't like they got a steady station
or reputation to uphold. This working's
almost a moral thing, Preacher Wilkes
would say, like marriage, and every thread
has got to be caught in the hem's edge
so the whole towel won't ravel first time
some salesman in a motel or shoe clerk
in his own home after a sweaty day
dries off from a cold shower bath. You see,
I know it don't take no giant brain
to sit behind a Singer machine and stitch
hour after hour, but I'm proud just the same.
I'm regular as a clock, and I don't dare fiddle
with another worker's machine. Some nights
I lie in my bed, once was my mother's,
and watch the gas flame jump beautiful blue
as the mill's windows and wonder how many
skins have been wiped dry on my towels,
and whose. It gives me a blushy pride
right on the edge of sleep. I'm over here
tonight with my sister Lily and her husband,
Buddy, supposed to be having a fine time
instead of talking my whole life at you.
This country and western band, specially
the drummer in a blue silk shirt, makes me
want to eat a hot pig's foot, drink beer,
and shake my tail. Let's show 'em a thing
or two. You ain't married just now, are you?
A Local Doc, over Rocky Lunchtime
Bourbon, Speaks of Barter and
Hopeful Home Remedies
Nostrums? Lordy, I have seen them all.
Alcohol's the favorite. Many a quack's
panacea bottled in a cellar and hawked
from door to door is thriving still.
Bindweed's supposed to heal a bruise.
Cherokee remedies still survive,
and slave recipes—hyssop, juniper, chives.
Waitress, freshen this elixir, if you please.
One day a hefty woman who works a loom
down at Pepperell Mills sauntered in
with no appointment and perched herself prim
as an English queen in the waiting room.
What happened next? For a prolapsed
uterus, folk medicine recommends
inserting an Irish potato. It works,
if you can stand the weight, my friends.
Well, she'd relied on that specific
since winter. We'd hit, you understand, July,
and her complaint, not one bit shy,
was, Leaves in my Virginia. Not beatific,
no, but she was composed, no maniac,
and it made some sense. What better place
than a protected pocket, warm and moist?
But the spud had sprouted, sent runners amok.
You never know in these flatland burley
counties if your manual skills will bloom
as sawbones or private gardener. Deftly,
I removed the obstruction and took it home.
I've raised a whole colony in my window box,
and bake, fry, or boil, I'm proud as hell
of this year's crop. The woman paid her bill
with eggs and applejack. Life is a paradox.
Now I've got to rush back and tend my flock.
Got appointments at four—a pregnant lady,
a leg to set, twins to inspect for chicken pox,
and Marvin with his routine emergency.
I guess you could say my practice is thriving.
Drop by, and I'll fry you up some shallot
hash browns in Margie's seasoned skillet,
a flavor I can promise is sure to revive
any ailing soul. Where do I get my onions?
Don't ask. The whole sweet world is a garden.
Charlene Sperry on Safe Beauty
What I imbibe is a Virgin Mary—
tomato juice, Tabasco, and a stalk of celery.
No vodka, so I can watch the world clearly.
From what I see, this life is bloody
and dirty enough without whiskey,
which is alcohol and might explode.
And dancing's as bad. You breathe deep
and sweat like when you're angry
or in lust. It makes you look cheap,
except the waltz and Texas two-step,
where you touch, but just barely.
Mostly hands. I won't paint my lips
or let my skirt slip above my knees.
No smoking, pool shooting, or dirty
words. That pink in my cheeks is me,
not rouge, and undyed hair is my glory.
It's no sin to be pert, but nothing coy
or skimpy or too tight. Don't worry,
I'm not the type to judge others harshly.
That would be a sorry twist. I testify
for Jesus when I get a fellow eye-to-eye.
Like now. You know, it's a tragedy
how even upright folks will sully
the precious gifts of the Lord—modesty
not the least. If they studied scripture
they'd know about the coming Rapture
and what the hungry Devil has in mind.
I've got six friends who agree exactly.
We get together every Tuesday
and call our little clique Safe Beauty.
It's our Born Again self-defense,
but we also learned Christian karate
to keep our bones from harm. Good sense
tells us death happens. There's no drink
can change it. It was peach brandy
in fifths taught me that. Now I want to free
everybody from the pain. What do you think
evil is if not the lack of sympathy?
Your patrons—getting down or high or randy—
need to sober up and quit this tomfoolery.
Lord, can't these poor benighted people see
the world is an emergency?
Flat-footing on Bluegrass Night:
Dorsey Hostetter Explains It
All to a Stranger
Banjo picks flash silver
as twilight on fast water,
and a Goshen oldster steps out
and drifts to the dance floor's
center. Born kicking
in the Blue Ridge to hard luck
and hardscrabble, he can still rise
limber in the spell of a fiddle.
Pivot and crossover, he bucks
the wing, his body stiff
but feet in time with "Sugar
Hill," as his friends step back
to let him shine. His trouser
pleats are sharp as hoe steel,
but he is clogging deep in bliss,
hot licks and hotter rosin,
as he follows Greg Hooven
bowing a freight train
straight from heaven,
and a solo whippoorwill
outside in the treeline
adds his three-note trill
to the dobro's drone. Hold still,
then join in the dance,
for what on earth, after all,
is beauty if not this moving
fast while nearly holding
still? Now click your heels
and get frisky. Footwork's
the best gift we have to offer
mountain children, pass it on
along with "Cherokee Rose"
and "Cold Jordan"'s moan,
which leaves us tapping toes
and hoping hard as we go down
the dark road winding home.
He Gets Nostalgic in the Hollow Log Lounge
Just Before Friday Night's Last Call
There's talk from locals that a girl can prove
her virtue by tying a cherry stem in two
with her unassisted tongue. My last love
could do it with ease, if gin's bitter shot
tamed the cherry's sweet taste to tart, but
she proved to be untrue, and I'm a lowdown sot
if it didn't cut me deep in the gut
when she left with a peg-legged guitar man.
She could shimmy, shiver, shake, and strut,
and I miss her a bunch. The way this band
plays "Let's Go Juking" brings her fancy dance
moves to my mind, and I say cherries be damned
and all other tests of eternal romance.
I'd shovel rock salt at the pickle plant
on graveyard shift to fandango in her trance.
Pick It, Squirrel:
Steve Gresham Sees the Light
Under the flashing stage lights six men
from far upriver strum the stand-up bass,
the git-box, banjo, fiddle. "Uncle Pen,"
"Fox on the Run"—a solo, a riff, a blend,
bottle glass sliding across a Gibson's neck,
until all eyes light on a scarecrow picker
in tight Levis and a burgundy shirt,
his white hair brushed to a rooster's shock.
He is beautifully strangling a mandolin,
but is he mouthing a grimace or a grin?
Short, and old as Elvis would have been, skin
strawberry, eyes jaybird blue, teeth bucked.
Oh, how can mortal fingers fly so quick?
As a drunk disciple shouts, "Pick it, Squirrel,"
I yearn to see such savage vision. Squirrel,
what secret do you see tuning this world
narrowed by your squint? You can lead us
beside still waters, fret the Devil's dream,
splitting the air with your wild discipline.
Not even the fiddler can play this nimble.
You've got the fire and down-home sizzle
in service to life swirled in live-wire frenzy,
saying praise must outshine the ordinary,
as if being on the trail to bliss were easy.
Give us an old-time run to burn out sin.
Tickle those strings till we shiver and spin. Deliver us from evil. Beseech and bewail.
Pick it now, Squirrel, you blessed man.
Excerpted from The Hollow Log Lounge by R. T. Smith. Copyright © 2003 by R. T. Smith. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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