Meeting Brenda's Brothers
When Brenda's daddy died,
we took a Trailways bus from Tallahassee,
and had the driver let us out on Highway 98,
in front of the Parker Post Office,
and walked three blocks to 3rd Street,
where Brenda's mother had just made
a hoecake and tomato gravy. Food sat out--
one would have said set--
until it was eaten, or thrown away.
That is, was not refrigerated.
It didn't last long enough to spoil
before it was consumed. Back then,
whiskey was not drunk in the house,
or beer, although a bottle, in the yard,
passed around, went uncommented on
by the vigilant Christian ladies, who were not
deceived, but chose to look the other way.
That's where I met Brenda's brothers.
Sharing a bottle, and a cigarette.
I was trying to quit, and hadn't brought any,
and had to bum a smoke, until I broke down
and bought a pack. Unfiltered Lucky Strikes.
The kind that killed Jack Neff.
So that was Potter's first impression of Brenda's boyfriend.
A tall man, with glasses, bumming a cigarette.
Drinking liquor like the winos in the movie Barfly,
when Henry Chinaski sold a story to a little magazine,
and got rid of the money, lest he become accustomed to it.
Brenda's Daddy's Wake
I put my car in the shop,
and rented a car, and had to wait,
for it to be delivered, by an Arab-American citizen
who looked like he thought I suspected him of being a terrorist.
The days of the loaner car are gone the way of listening booths,
in record stores. But I wasn't in a hurry. Why be?
I got a complimentary cup of CarMax coffee
and wrote a poem on a scrap of paper about meeting Potter,
when Brenda's daddy died, in the yard, with relatives who fished,
or shrimped, and came to the wake in a double-breasted suit coat,
clean trousers, and bare feet.
Potter and Suzette
The summer Brenda and I dug on the Navy base,
Potter was living at Granny Brown's,
and fishing with Uncle Ed, on the Friendship.
The net ban hadn't put seine fishermen out of business yet.
Suzette was working as a barmaid at the Highway Bar,
across the street from the paper mill. An ex-squid shit
and the base commander's daughter.
O, strict, tight-assed fathers; O, payback.
Well, they lasted 30 years, sir.
Have two fine common law
sons-in-law, Owen and Balder Saunders.
Many picker friends, and former shipmates.
Potter went swimming with Brenda and me
at The Jetties. It was hurricane season,
and the surf was up. Big rollers
breaking out beyond the bar.
He and I swam out so far
the weenie lifeguards closed the beach,
blowing on their whistles, waving at us.
We acted like we didn't hear them.
Waiting for the right one.
Potter and I caught a monster wave,
and rode it all the way to shore,
stepping out of the surf in one smooth motion,
and walking past the crowd,
who had been watching us,
and cheered, at our skill, our grace,
our defiance of authority, our drama.
Brenda's brothers got me drunk
at Dee's Oyster Bar in Callaway.
I was nervous, or showing off.
Nobody had to twist my arm
to begin with. In the first place?
Back at the house, where I was a guest,
I got up to piss, in the dark,
and thought I was in the attic.
I crawled around on the floor,
afraid I would fall through,
moaning, "Brenda," pitifully.
She was dead asleep in another room.
Connubial accommodations for unmarried couples
were not de rigueur, chez Georgia Brown.
The first words I said to Potter,
his daddy dead, were, "How you doing?"
He looked at me like I was crazy.
Definitely, I got off on the wrong foot,
and showed them I could hold my booze
to make up for it. The old outlander
faux pas. Something I was used to.
Brenda and I went to see Potter and Suzette
in Niceville, when they were living in a CBS apartment
that looked like Bob's Country Bunker in The Blues Brothers.
You could practically hose it out between families
of Mexican farm laborers. Orange bean-bag chairs.
A half gallon of wine under the bed with a corner in it
for emergencies. It was on the road down by the bay
that splits off from Highway 20, and goes in front of
the hardware store, the fish company, and Giuseppe's Wharf.
I had no idea how to find it, but came out of the turn
I would come from and there Potter was, waiting to direct us
with hand signals. Semaphore. Extrasensory perception.
Thoughts have wings, say the Rosicrucians.
Ground Safety Hazard
When we stayed with Potter and Suzette
at the A-frame house on Choctawhatchee Bay
I ate so much take-out fried chicken
my burps tasted like gas off a septic tank.
Their toilet was backed up, or I had a bug.
A gall bladder. I also remember Potter cooking
wilted turnip greens, and he threw them, washed,
in a skillet full of hot bacon fat, and they went
to popping and spitting. This is the part I hate,
he said. Little pinhole burns, like sparks on a blanket.
Thelma and Louise
Potter helped me move. The heavy stuff
I couldn't lift myself. A refrigerator
on a fork lift pallet, covered with
black plastic, outside the back bedroom
of Granny Brown's house in Parker.
Loading my winemaking equipment,
from the shed, I discovered two fifths
of OG-37, or goat beer. I put it up
in champagne bottles, which take
a Crown cap. OG stands for
original gravity, so it proofed out
at 17%. Not light. Heavy. Dense.
Naturally conditioned, which meant
there was dead yeast on the bottom.
There's a ritual for pouring home-brewed beer,
off the dregs, carefully, so it doesn't get cloudy,
but Larry just tips the bottle up and drinks,
glug, glug, glug. Fusel oil and all. That's where you get
the B vitamins, and the Green Apple Quickstep.
By the time we hit the bridge across Phillips Inlet,
or the west end of Lake Powell, we were both
shitfaced, and giggling like a couple of teenagers.
Highway 30A stories.
A Tale of Two Cities
Owen had a polystyrene horse
named Gaylord. Held to a frame
by four springs. He wore a hat
and boots. Twin cap pistols
in tooled holsters on a leather belt.
Potter told him he was a stone cowboy.
Later came on him singing, "I'm an
Owenstone cowboy," to the tune
of the song Glen Campbell made a hit.
Not to be confused with David Allan Coe,
whom Owen would grow later to more closely
resemble, in temperament, than Glen Campbell,
who went from being a pretty fair country guitar picker
to playing golf on television with Bob Hope.
While Coe wrote "Jimmy Buffett Doesn't Live
in Key West Anymore." Fort Walton Beach. 1976.
I traded my truck in on a rusted-out Peugeot 404.
Potter gave Brenda his Gibson guitar.
It wouldn't stay in tune, but had a low action,
and was easy to play. He'd stop by on his way
to or from his CETA-program bricklaying classes
at Okaloosa-Walton Community College
and pick with Brenda at the tract house,
off Racetrack Road, in the oldest subdivision
in Fort Walton Beach. Here Brew says,
"full of enlisted military dependents and retirees
raising their divorced daughter's children."
Brenda later confessed she hated that house,
but it was the best that I could do.
Potter was drawing unemployment,
the GI Bill, laying bricks, off the books,
and playing with the Crooked Island,
sometimes called the Crooked Smilin'
String Band. Oh, that night life
ain't no good life, but it's my life.
David was living in Nashville,
sleeping on other people's floors,
being a writer, as songwriters
deign to call themselves.
George Jones loaned him his van,
to come down to Florida.
The first Stop sign, David hit the brakes
and a fifth of Old Crow squirted out
from underneath the seat.
I was trying to quit drinking,
but who could resist
a fortuitous twist of fate
like that? Not me.
I fell off the water wagon
like a ton of bricks.
Abba dabba doo, The King is dead.
And so is Fred Flintstone.
Would You Choose Writing For a Career?
Potter invited a woman over to meet me,
she wrote a little, poems, prose vignettes,
I sat on a stool, drinking whiskey, and telling stories,
I went to coughing, puked, wiped my mouth,
with my sleeve, and didn't miss a beat.
He was a doomed poetical failure,
and a damned irascible crank,
but say this for the poor, sad, son of a bitch:
he wrote as hard as he drank.
With a Friend Like Me
I had a flat in the Peugeot 404
and couldn't figure out the bumper jack.
It had a square peg. There was a square hole
in the bumper. I called Potter and he came
and changed the tire for me. I was drunk.
Stupid. I hate these road calls, he said.
Another time, we got stuck, at the dump,
and he got out to push, and sucked down
a dump fly, with fighting spurs on his hind legs,
lancets, barbs, a light covering of wino shit
that he'd been squatting in, you don't know where
a fly has been. But Potter could imagine it.
A Beer Can Out of the Dark
One time coming back from Potter and Suzette's,
Owen in the front, Balder not born yet, before we traded
the pickup truck for the clapped-out Peugeot 404,
I was sitting Buddha-fashion in the back, Brenda at the wheel,
and a car full of teenagers drove by, and one of them threw out
a beer can, half-full, and it hit me in the head, and made me bleed,
and I felt stupid, rather than pissed-off, and glad I wasn't driving.
I was a magnet, then, for stuff like that. Just like now I am
a homing beacon for rejection, with my homing pigeon manuscripts.
It doesn't make me sad, being based on freak-luck chance.
One day the law of averages will catch up with me.
Even a blind pig finds an acorn, every dog has his day,
with all this shit there must be a pony, hew to the line
and let the chips fall where they may. Hit mought
'n' hit moughtn't, William Faulkner says. The highway,
not the inn. The journey, not the destination.
Follow the Money
There was a hurricane, and Potter and Suzette came to stay
with Brew and Brenda, in their tract house off Racetrack Road.
They lost electricity, and Brew cooked eggs and corned beef hash,
made coffee on the charcoal grill in the carport, after the storm had passed.
This was before they owned a propane stove, or went camping.
Before they took the kids to bluegrass festivals.
A campfire and a can of beans, as Tom Waits says.
Tom Waits and Randy Newman on the educational channel.
Marshall Efron making a lemon pie out of everything but lemons
on The Great American Dream Machine. Before corporate underwriters
co-opted noncommercial public television. Advertising rules.
Brew and Brenda moved to Tallahassee.
Jim and Jesse played at ABC Mobile Homes,
on a flatbed trailer, under a string of lights,
over a PA System. Potter and Suzette drove
from Choctawhatchee Bay to see them,
and stay with Brew and Brenda, Owen, Balder.
Mark O'Connor was playing fiddle with them.
He was 14 years old. Potter asked him how he liked
being on the road, and he said they were in a rodeo arena
in Oklahoma the night before. On the other hand,
you don't get what he was learning in a conservatory.
Also, as Brew, blacklisted by the Florida Department of Commerce, knew,
to paraphrase Scott Nearing, "In the College of Hard Knocks,
an expulsion is often a promotion."
Potter had a job on a research vessel, something classified,
he couldn't talk about (the only jobs available, post-Nixon,
were narc and prison screw), and it put in at Port Everglades,
in Fort Lauderdale. Potter took a Greyhound bus up to Delray Beach,
to see us. We were living in The Cottage. Riding bicycles.
I went to get him, on my bike, early in the morning, steering Brenda's ten-speed
in formation, coming down Federal Highway, big as you please.
I saw Potter and he saw me and I started veering, crashed into myself,
and collapsed in a heap. "Esther Williams has retired," I said.
A reference to precision water-skiing at Cypress Gardens.
The Life of Riley
When Potter was divorced from Suzette, and she was living in a condominium,
and dating airline pilots, and Potter stayed in a van at the Navarre Campground,
and showed up at bluegrass festivals with waifs who looked like Mia Farrow
when she married Frank Sinatra, he got drunk one night and went to her place,
and she wouldn't let him in, so he flew into a rage and kicked the door down.
It was the wrong apartment.
Once, coming back from a festival, Saturday night, late,
Potter and Suzette were drunk, and pulled over to get some sleep.
They woke up Sunday morning, Suzette with her skirt hiked up over her head,
to feel eyes on them, like the exotic birds and animals in an Henri Rousseau painting.
They were in front of a colored church, Easter Sunday. Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.
The people streamed around them, little kids looking in, grown-ups mumbling, "Phew-white folks."
One summer, Owen stayed with Potter and Suzette.
He and Potter fished on the New Florida Girl
out of East Pass Marina, in Destin. The sleepy little
fishing village. Not. I dropped him off, with his fishing rod
and surfboard. His fiddle. Owen travels light.
Rides around the tri-states. On a fishing boat, a band bus, a car
fit for a snapper reef. Now he has a guitar. What tri-states
is that? What have you got? Florida, Georgia, Alabama.
North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee.
Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia.
Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas.
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
The split-level house in the suburbs.
The tight white collar. Upwardly mobile
house pets instead of children, for the career-minded
significant other of the two-paycheck combine.
A combine is a thresher. But who is being thrashed, I ask.
Drop-Outs From the Rat Race
When we moved back to Parker,
Owen entered a fiddle contest in Atmore, Alabama.
Potter comped for him, on rhythm guitar. He played
"Back Up and Push" and "Texas Crapshooter."
I remember him setting the sound post on his instrument
with a cocktail fork with the middle tine bent back,
his knuckles full of festered fish-spine puncture wounds.
Ten thousand ways (apologies to Tom McGuane)
to honky-rig your life. It beats the tight white collar
and the split-level house in the suburbs, the picture window,
the crabgrass problem, keeping up with the neighbors,
who are raving assholes. Barking mad, and frothing at the mouth,
in their green-eyed lust to earn a gainful livelihood, no matter how.
We went to Laurel Hill, Florida, up by Florala, Alabama,
twice a year, and camped under the live oak tree Walter Moore
brought a load of wood to make a three-day fire under.
A coffee pot was often percolating. People would pick, and sing,
tell stories, cook, and eat. Drink whiskey, step in open guitar cases.
Marriages would break up, people die, children be born. The festival had
a longitudinal dimension, like one of Trollope's chronicles,
or Balzac's Comédie humaine. Jack Saunders' stack.
The Great American Unpublished, or Underpublished Novel.
We watched each other's kids grow up.
No thieves, no whores, no junkies, no investment bankers.
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