Dimestore, p.7
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       Dimestore, p.7

           Lee Smith
 
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  Of Sand Lick rise in a single body to glean the valleys,

  To drown lush pennyroyal, to unravel rail fences;

  Though the sun-ball breaks the ridges into dust

  And burns its strength into the blistered rock

  I cannot leave. I cannot go away.

  Being of these hills, being one with the fox

  Stealing into the shadows, one with the new-born foal,

  The lumbering ox drawing green beech logs to mill,

  One with the destined feet of man climbing and descending,

  And one with death rising to bloom again, I cannot go.

  Being of these hills I cannot pass beyond.

  —James Still

  Big River

  Sometimes life is more like a river than a book.

  — Cort Conley

  IN MY NOVEL THE LAST Girls, the trip starts like this (imagine a winter afternoon on the historic campus of a women’s college in Virginia; imagine a group of girls discussing Hucklebery Finn around a table in their American Literature seminar) . . .

  Another day, Mr. Gaines read from the section where Huck and Jim are living on the river:

  Sometimes we’d have that whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water, and maybe a spark—which was a candle in a cabin window . . . and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft.

  His words had rung out singly, like bells, in the old classroom. Harriet could hear each one in her head. It was a cold pale day in February. Out the window, bare trees stood blackly amid the gray tatters of snow.

  Then Baby had said, “I’d love to do that. Go down the Mississippi River on a raft, I mean.” It was a typical response from Baby, who personalized everything, who was famous for saying, “Well, I’d never do that!” at the end of The Awakening when Edna Pontellier walks into the ocean. Baby was not capable of abstract thought. She had too much imagination. Everything was real for her, close up and personal.

  “We could do it, you know,” Suzanne St. John spoke up. “My uncle owns a plantation right on the river, my mother was raised there. She’d know who to talk to. I’ll bet we could do it if we wanted to.” Next to Courtney, Suzanne St. John was the most organized girl in school, an angular, forthright girl with a businesslike grownup hairdo who ran a mail-order stationery business out of her dorm room.

  “Girls, girls,” Mr. Gaines had said disapprovingly. He wanted to get back to the book, he wanted to be the star. But the girls were all looking at each other. Baby’s eyes were shining. “Yes!” she wrote on a piece of paper, handing it to Harriet, who passed it along to Suzanne. Yes. This was Baby’s response to everything.

  That’s an excerpt from the novel. But this is the truth.

  The summer after my junior year at Hollins, I actually did go down the Mississippi River on a raft with fifteen other girls, inspired by reading Huckleberry Finn in Louis Rubin’s American literature class. This trip was organized by the indomitable senior Patricia Neild from Shreveport, but might not have happened without the help of a sophomore named Vicki Derby, whose old New Orleans family had invaluable ties up and down the river. Underlying the entire project was the subliminal message that Hollins had been giving us all along: that we could do anything, if we worked hard enough for it. Girls could do anything. We browbeat all our families for cash, then raised more any way we could think of, including loans and endorsements for various products. We made actual commercials for Chicken of the Sea tuna, Rayovac batteries, and Wrangler jeans.

  On June 9th, 1966, we launched the Rosebud Hobson at Paducah, Kentucky, and headed 950 miles down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. The Rosebud Hobson was a forty-by-sixteen-foot wooden platform built on fifty-two oil drums and powered by two forty-horsepower motors. It cost us eighteen hundred dollars to build. We had a superstructure of two-by-fours with a tarpaulin top that we could pull over it, mosquito netting that we could hang up, and a shower consisting of a bucket overhead with a long rope attached to it. The raft was named for an early Hollins College alumna from Paducah, a pianist whose European career had involved some mysterious “tragedy,” according to her sister, Miss Lillian Hobson, who entertained us before the launch.

  Our captain was a retired riverboat pilot named Gordon S. Cooper. We painted rosebuds all over the raft and sang, “Good-bye, Paducah” to the tune of “Hello, Dolly” as we left. In fact, we sang relentlessly all the time, all the way down the Mississippi.

  We sang in spite of all our mishaps and travails: the tail of a hurricane that hit us before we even got to Cairo, sending the temperature down below forty degrees and driving us onto the rocks; a diet consisting almost entirely of tuna and doughnuts; the captain’s severe sunburn, requiring medical care; mosquito bites beyond belief and rainstorms that soaked everything we owned despite the useless tarp. If anything really bad happened to us, we figured we could call up our parents collect, and they would come and fix things. We expected to be taken care of. Nobody had ever suggested to us that we might ever have to make a living, or that somebody wouldn’t marry us and then look after us for the rest of our lives. We all smoked cigarettes. We were all cute. We headed down that river with absolute confidence that we would get where we were going.

  We worked and fished and played cards and talked and talked and talked. It was wonderful. In between stints as cook and keeper of the ship log, I was writing my own first novel. I had it all outlined, and every day I sat down crosslegged on deck and wrote five or six pages of it, on a yellow legal pad. I followed my outline absolutely. In creative writing class, I had learned how plot works: beginning, middle, and end; conflict, complication, and resolution.

  Huck, our inspiration, was an American Odysseus off on an archetypal journey—the oldest plot of all. According to the archetype, the traveler learns something about himself (not herself) along the way. What was I learning? Not much. Only that if you are cute and sing a lot of songs, people will come out whenever you dock and bring you pound cake and ham and beer and keys to the city, and when you get to New Orleans you will be met by the band from Preservation Hall on a tugboat, and showered by red roses dropped from a helicopter, paid for by somebody’s daddy.

  In all my yellowed newspaper clippings, the press refers to us as “girls”; today, of course, they’d call us “women.” We were the last girls. In 1966, a lot of things were changing for good, though we didn’t know it yet. More possibilities and opportunities for women would bring greater expectations and responsibilities—along with a lack of both illusions and stability. Whatever happened to romance, for instance? or the sacred Fifties Family?

  Over the years, many people asked when I was going to write about the raft trip—it seemed like such a natural. Why, we’d been famous at the time, appearing nationally on Huntley-Brinkley, covered by every TV station up and down the river and by every newspaper in the South. A three-column closeup photograph of me had appeared on the front page of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, wearing a bandana on my head, cut-off jeans, my Rosebud Hobson T-shirt and a big grin, smoking a cigarette. (When somebody sent this clipping to my mother, she went to bed immediately.)

  In that picture, I was clearly having the time of my life. We all were. But this was the problem, this was why the raft trip was not a natural for fiction, even though the journey is, of course, the archetypal plot for a novel or a story. Somebody once said that there are only two plots in fiction. The first is, somebody takes a trip (The Iliad, The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, Heart of Darkness). The second one is, a stranger comes to town (Absalom, Absalom; The Great Gatsby; The Glass Menagerie). If you think about it, this is absolutely true.

  But a trip—or a plot, let us say—is merely a series of events, and even the most interesting events do not add up to a story. We have to know who these events are happening to, and the better we know this person, the more we will care about what happens to him, the more w
e will want to read his story. There is a big difference between a plot and a story. A story requires not only events, but character, theme, meaning—and above all, conflict. Conflict is the essential difference between fiction and all other types of prose narrative. For fiction is a structured imitation of life, not life itself. Fiction organizes and reforms the raw material of fact to emphasize and clarify what is most significant in life for its characters. What do they want? What do they love?—hope for?—fear? What is up for grabs in the world of this story? What do these events mean to these characters? Because frequently, their lives will be forever changed by the events of the story. In any case, the possibility of change must arise: that’s conflict, and without conflict, fiction does not exist.

  The story happens at the point where event and character converge—or, more frequently, collide. The story tells how events affect and change the character (s), and how the character(s) affect and change events. The events of the story must mean something to the characters—or at the very least, to the reader, who is sometimes able to discern a pattern in these events that the character himself cannot see or understand.

  So . . . taking a trip, even the best trip in the world, with the best companions, is not enough. Fact is, we had a great time on the raft. Period. And that was not a story. But years passed, and then many years passed. I attended my thirtieth Hollins reunion, where I was stunned by all our lives. We were divorced; we were gay; we were running large companies; we were living alone on an island; we were dealing with cancer, mental illness, aging parents, children who had not grown up as we’d expected. Some of us had already died, including Mimsy Spieden, who had been on the raft with us. Another woman had simply disappeared. There was a big difference between our youthful expectations and the reality of our lives, between the girls we were then and the women we had become. Suddenly I had plenty of conflict, brought to us by the simple passage of life itself.

  Not long after the reunion, a tipsy book club member about my age buttonholed me at a literary festival someplace in the South: “Why do you keep writing about old mountain women?” she demanded. “Why don’t you write about us?” Her question hit me with the force of revelation. Okay, I thought, okay. Time to get back on that raft.

  SINCE IT’S ALWAYS EASIER FOR me to tell the truth in fiction, The Last Girls is a novel. Many of its events are real—luckily I had saved that ship’s log, so I knew exactly where and when we had docked all the way down the river, and what happened there. The time the photographer fell in the river trying to take our picture in Arkansas, for instance, or the time that sheriff in Mississippi insisted upon bringing “trusties” from the jail to guard us as we camped—we were all terrified of the trusties, and kept a watch on them ourselves. But we are not the characters of the novel. I made the characters up from scratch, to exemplify various aspects of women’s lives that I wanted to talk about. The most important one was Baby—the wild one, the unpredictable one, the catalyst for everything. We have all known somebody like Baby. Conflict follows her around like a puppy dog.

  In the novel, a tragedy has brought four of the original “girls,” now middle-aged—plus one husband—back together for a repeat voyage under very different circumstances, on the luxurious steamboat Belle of Natchez. These women are all carrying a lot of psychological baggage from the past, while dealing with unresolved conflicts in their present lives. In The Last Girls, I’m trying to examine the idea of romance, the relevance of past to present, the themes of memory and desire.

  For me—and for most of us on the real raft, I suspect—it was the only journey I ever made that ended as it was supposed to. Subsequent trips have been harder, scarier. We have been shipwrecked, we have foundered on hidden shoals, we have lost our running lights. The captain is dead. I can’t stick to a traditional plot anymore. I’ve got plenty of conflict, plenty of complication, but no resolutions in sight. Such a plot (the heroic quest and conquer) may have been more suited to boys’ books anyway. Certainly, the linear, beginning-middle-end form doesn’t fit the lives of any women I know. For life has turned out to be wild and various, full of the unexpected, and it’s a monstrous big river out here.

  On Lou’s Porch

  IT WAS THE HOT, MUGGY summer of 1980; I was in Abingdon, Virginia, for a week to teach the creative writing class that always preceded “literary day” at the Virginia Highlands Festival. I got hotter and hotter each step I took up the long staircase to the room where the class would meet, above the sanctuary in the old United Methodist Church right on Main Street. Finally I made it, and surveyed the group seated around a big oak table. It was about what you’d expect—eight or ten people, mostly high school English teachers, some librarians, some retirees. We had already gone around the table and introduced ourselves when here came this old woman in a man’s hat and fuzzy bedroom shoes, gray head shaking a little with palsy, huffing and puffing up the stairs, dropping notebooks and pencils all over the place, greeting everybody with a smile and a joke. She was a real commotion all by herself.

  “Hello there, young lady,” she said to me. “My name is Lou Crabtree, and I just love to write!” My heart sank like a stone. Here was every creative writing teacher’s nightmare: the nutty old lady who will invariably write sentimental drivel and monopolize the class as well.

  “Pleased to meet you,” I lied. The week stretched out before me, hot and intolerable, an eternity. But I had to pull myself together. Looking around at all those sweaty, expectant faces, I began, “Okay, now I know you’ve brought a story with you to read to the group, so let’s start out by thinking about beginnings, about how we start a story . . . let’s go around the room, and I want you to read the first line of your story aloud.”

  So we began. Nice lines, nice people. A bee hummed at the open window; a square of golden sunlight fell on the old oak table; somebody somewhere was mowing grass. We got to Lou, who cleared her throat and read this line: “Old Rellar had thirteen miscarriages and she named every one of them.”

  I sat up. “Would you read that line again?” I asked.

  “Old Rellar had thirteen miscarriages and she named every one of them,” Lou read.

  I took a deep breath. “Keep going,” I said.

  “Only of late, she got mixed up and missed some. This bothered her. She looked toward the iron bed. It had always been exactly the same. First came the prayer, then the act with Old Man gratifying himself . . .”

  She read the whole thing. It ended with the lines: “You live all your life and work things up to come to nothing. The bull calf bawled somewhere.”

  I had never heard anything like it.

  “Lou,” I asked her after class, “have you written anything else? I’d like to see it.”

  The next day, she brought a battered suitcase. And there it all was, poems and stories written on every conceivable kind of notebook and paper, even old posters and shirtbacks.

  Lou grinned at me. “This ain’t all, either,” she said. The next day, she brought more.

  All that week, I read these poems and stories, immersing myself in Lou’s magic, primal world of river hills and deep forest, of men and women and children as elemental as nature itself, of talking animals and ghosts, witchcraft and holiness. For Lou Crabtree was that rarity—a writer of perfect pitch and singular knowledge, a real artist. And most amazing of all (to me, anyway, simultaneously revising a mediocre novel of my own), she had written all this with no thought of publication. Writing was how she lived, I realized. It was what she lived by.

  “I just write for my own enjoyment,” Lou told me. “It pleases me very much to sit down with pencil and paper, and something will come out that looks pretty good, and sounds pretty good, and it gives me pleasure in my soul. I think the best writing time is in the night time. And it is a wonderful time between twelve o’clock and maybe four . . . It is a very strange feeling when all the world is asleep but you. You feel like you’re in touch with something special. And then as I write, I don’t know what time it is, what
day it is. It is that thing of getting out of yourself, of getting out of the world, going out of the world. You feel good, real good. You have none of these problems or hurts or anything. It is something I wish everybody could discover in their work. If they really are doing the thing they like to do, they are able to get out of their self. And it is wonderful. Very wonderful.”

  I asked her then what she’d do if somebody came along and told her that she couldn’t write anymore. “Well, you know, I would just have to sneak!” she said.

  For the first time, I began to understand the therapeutic power of language, the importance of the writing process itself. Years later, I would write a novel named Fair and Tender Ladies in which my main character writes letters in order to make sense of her life, in much the same way Lou had always written her poems and stories.

  But that summer, I put aside the lackluster novel I was working on, and took Lou up on her offer to guide me and my little boys out “adventuring.” We climbed down into a cave where Lou swore that Daniel Boone himself had “hid out.” We went walking in the woods. She showed them how to make frog houses and pokeberry ink; we all took off our shoes to wade in the creek, then made little plates and cups for fairies from the red clay mud.

  “Here, honey,” she said, leaning over to pick up a buckeye as we walked back beneath the sunset sky. “Put this in your pocket. It’s good luck. And get your head out of them clouds, honey. Pay attention.” We went back to sit on her porch, talking to everybody that came by. We had potato chips and Moon Pies for dinner.

  I’ve been trying to pay attention ever since, realizing that writing is not about fame, or even publication. It is not about exalted language, abstract themes, or the escapades of glamorous people. It is about our own real world and our own real lives and understanding what happens to us day by day, it is about playing with children and listening to old people.

 
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