18 May 2005

A New Novel Begun with A different Voice

Greetings Dear Readers,

I have begun a semi-autobiographical work that is also a work of fiction. I hope to capture the essence of growing up in the transitional South of my youth and the emerging South of my older years. It is intended to be humorous and speak with a voice differnt from my other writing . Here is a sample to enjoy. Let me know what you think.

The title is Sheetrock on the Road. I could use some ideas for cover art.

Glimpses of Eden

Sometimes in the early summer there are glimpses of Eden. We catch them out of the corner of our eye always wondering if they are really there. The reality that must have been a world where everything was perfect and right eludes us when we attempt to grasp it. One such glimpse presents itself each year during early summer.

Frost fades, humidity rises, and the farmer’s market fills with the smell of summer’s first offerings of fruits and vegetables. My Grandfather always knew by instinct the right day for this particular pilgrimage. It was one of his high holy days and the ritual began at sunrise. We would clean out the trunk of his ’57 Chevy, reluctantly but necessarily leaving behind the fishing gear and small tool box he always kept there.

Armed with our 450 air conditioning[1] and the vast empty trunk of the Chevy we embarked on our pilgrimage seeking the rare Edenic treasures yielded from the fallen Georgia soil. The drive lasted under an hour and no real line formed until you reached the gate of the farmer’s market. This is why we began our journey early. Another of my Grandfather’s magical abilities was to be the first one to arrive practically anywhere.

The line of cars formed, stretching down Sylvan Road, waiting for the gates to open. It formed behind us. We waited, dining on the breakfast pilfered from my Grandmother’s refrigerator. This morning’s plunder included cold pecan pie and left over salmon croquets from last night’s dinner. Just as we finished our repast the gates opened.

The Chevy slips easily from neutral to drive and the engine’s powerful idle is enough to propel it forward. We cruise easily through the long shed rows that make up the vending stalls for the farmers. You can smell the earthy freshness of the produce and its bright colors magnify the richness. It is too early for corn or okras and too late for strawberries. Early peas and crookneck squash, even the first crop of cucumbers fill the large vending trays. An enterprising vendor or two even has some pallets of green tomatoes. Our treasure lies further on.

My Grandfather always drove every isle of the market even if what he sought were on the first isle. It was his way of paying homage to the men and women who worked the sun-baked soil of summer. He would nod to all the farmers and wave to those he knew. This slow drive through the stalls was as much an act of worship for him as the hymns he led in his small Baptist church on Sundays.

Occasionally he would stop and talk with a farmer he knew well. More than once I saw him slip some folded money to a farmer who was having a rough year financially. He loved and respected these men who split the soil, begged God for rain, fought round worms, and sat in sweltering stalls hoping to get full price for their produce. I knew what we sought and was impatient to get to it. I also knew that the treasure would be sweeter because of the pre-purchase acts of worships and giving.

After what seemed thirty hours but was really thirty minutes of conversations about the weather, soil conditions, and trout fishing on the Flint River, we move to the last isle of the market. I can smell the treasure before I see it. The sweetness both the savory and the sugary intoxicate me at once. I begin to salivate and anticipate. The powerfully purring Chevy seems interminably slow now. I am sure arthritic snails could outpace it.

I see the onions first. Pearly translucent globes of yellow white stand piled high in several stalls. The scent is savory and demanding. My Grandfather slowly pulls over to the second to last farmer in the row and calls out. “Good morning James Brock.”

The man knows my Grandfather and greets him by name, “Morning to you Reverend Sam.”
At this moment a signal passes between the two southern gentlemen and a time honored ritual begins. This ritual is as old as the open air market but my Grandfather had honed its subtleties to a rapier edge. Keep in mind that both men know the purpose, content, and outcome of the evolving conversation. This knowledge will in no way abbreviate or limit the conversation. The ritual is an entity in Southern life and it will be served. Long sworn family oaths and ancient expectations preclude me from giving away my Grandfather’s actual methodology in the ritual but here is the gist of it.

The first step in the verbal waltz is the cordial misdirected inquiry. The farmer, shirtless under well worn overalls, walks around to the driver’s side of the car and doffs his oversized corn straw hat. He pauses a moment to spit the juice from his chaw being sure to miss Sam’s car. “So what brings you out today?” He bends down to look in the window at me. “Are you showing the Grandson[2] how honest men work?”

Sam’s step in the dance is to respond with equal indirectness. He smiles back at the nut brown farmer. “We came out for a morning drive and a pecan pie breakfast. Just don’t tell Janie we had pie for breakfast or we’ll both have to cut a switch.”

While this exchange seems innocuous important groundwork has been laid. The shared secret knowledge of the pie puts the men on the ancient equal footing that all gentlemen need. Sam has forged a bond between them. By enlisting the farmer in the ranks of southern men who live their lives in constant trepidation of their wives discovering the small subterfuges used to indulge in daily life, Sam has made the man both his equal and his confidant.

The farmer grunts. “My wife Lizzie feels the same about me fishing in the evening. Way I figure, there’s no use having a four acre lake on your land if you can’t drop a line in when you have a mind.”

The man has given Sam the perfect opening to make the next move toward actually buying onions. “That lake of yours would tempt me to fish all the time too. I think we are having some of the catfish you and I caught together last spring for supper tonight.”

The farmer’s smile broadens and he gives permission for the dance to move closer to the onions. “Is your Janie going to make her home made hush puppies to go with those cats?”
It is Sam’s turn to produce a larger smile. “Even the magnificent catfish from your lake would seem incomplete without Janie’s hush puppies.”

The farmer rolls his eyes and looks wistfully over toward the mountain of fresh onions. “I guess you might need some onions for those puppies.”

Now the farmer has created a misstep in the dance. Traditionally this line belonged to the buyer not the vendor. The thing about my Grandfather was that no one would be embarrassed by him no matter how blatant their social blunder. At the same moment the farmer’s eyes widen in realization of his gaff, Sam steps in with a graceful saving joke. “I am so glad you reminded me. We were looking to get some fruit for a fruit salad. Janie would have skinned us both if we had come home with some Vidalia’s.”

Now you need to know a few things before we can continue. Not only had Sam just said one of the few truly power magic words in the entire world, but he has saved the farmer from seeming pushy in the same moment. That the farmer will save face is excellent. That my beloved Grandfather has finally spoken a magical incantation is beautiful. For the uninitiated, the magic word is ‘Vidalia.’

The Vidalia onion is unique in the vegetable world. Unlike most onions the Vidalia is sweet, robust in flavor, and eatable in almost any form imaginable. These miraculous, softball sized globes of savory sweetness are only available in limited quantity as they may only be grown in a six county area in South Georgia. Anyone claiming that they have some other onion that is just is good has one of several problems. They either have never truly had a Vidalia, they are out right lying to take your money, or they have an onion that suffers from delusions of grandeur.

In short, there is nothing in the universe that compares to a fresh, firm Vidalia onion. People will try to sell you fakes and some folks in Texas have the idea that they grow an onion just as good. In every field of endeavor there is a best. In the world of onions the Edenic soil of South Georgia produces the best there every will be. The world may never plumb the depths of its epicurean uses. My Grandmother used them to make amazing onion rings, luscious jars of pickled onions, and her literally award winning hush puppies.

The instant I hear the word my mind recalls last year’s onion rings and pickled onions. I know that tonight’s hush puppies will exceed all my memories. Before that can happen Sam and the farmer must complete their waltz. Recovering quickly from his unintentional gaff the farmer slides into comfortable negotiation. “I have plenty of Vidalia’s but they are small and not sweet enough.”

Two thirds of what the farmer has just said is a lie. He does have plenty of onions but they are huge and the pungent evidence of their sweetness permeates the air. In most bartering cultures the buyer works to lower the price by calling into question various aspects of the quality of merchandise. In the slow humble system of the Georgia Farmer’s Market, the rules are different.

The farmer’s quiet downplay of his merchandise requires Sam to give a polite and honest evaluation of the produce. Ever the Southern Gentleman, he does just that. “The onions I see look larger than any I can recall.” Lifting one he sniffs it thoughtfully. “This smells as sweet as any. I think you have a fine crop this year.”

Sam’s natural kindness gives away his genuine respect for the man and his produce. The man responds in kind. “I am happy you are pleased. How many onions do you need this time?”
The question is perfect. It inquires about the needs of the buyer without yet touching on the base issue of price. My Grandfather knows what he needs. “We intend to put up a lot of onions this year. I think that two bushels will be enough.”

The farmer’s eyes widen at this good fortune. Even though he will never speak it aloud, he knows that my Grandfather will not haggle on price. He will pay whatever the man asks trusting God and the bond of friendship he shares with the man to see that both are treated fairly. Price is never discussed. The farmer and my Grandfather load the onions into the trunk of the Chevy. As the trunk closes the farmer barely speaks the price. Sam pulls the bills from his wallet, pays the man, and they shake hands warmly.

Before Sam gets back to the drivers seat, the sweet pungency of the onions permeates the car. My Grandfather knows the smell has made me ravenous. It is why he saved the next slice of our brief visit to paradise until last. The Chevy rumbles to life and with a final wave to the farmer we move to the last row of stalls.

If the smell of the Vidalia onions assaulted my senses then the aroma of the final isle overwhelms and conquers them. Again the stalls hold vast piles of tempting globes. The color of the fruit transitions along the surface from buttery yellow to a deep purple red. Each globe of fruit holds a promise. Locked inside the beautifully painted skin of each one is the sweetness that to me will always be the taste, smell, texture, and feeling that must have been Eden.

Unlike the onion farmer, Sam does not know the peach vendor. This does not inhibit the dance in any way. Subtle differences play out but the result is the same. The two men reach the end of their mercantile minuet six half-bushel baskets of ripe Georgia peaches[3] are loaded into the back seat of the Chevy.

I understand that peaches grow all over this fine country. Some upstart in the North West thinks that their peaches are the best. They have a tourist oriented farmers market in the Northern Mid-West town in which I currently reside. One of the vendors actually sold something they called “Home State Peaches.” These small bits of yellow granite no more resembled real peaches than the icy freezing rain of South Georgia resembles real snow. You may as well try to feed me banana slugs while telling me they are banana peppers. There is nothing like a Georgia peach.

Another difference in the peach dance is that after loading the peaches into the car, the farmer moves around to my side and leans into the window. Looking to my Grandfather he waits for a nod of approval. Once received the man smiles and me and silently proffers two huge peaches in a large paper napkin. Rubbing my head he warns me, “Don’t get peach nectar all over your Grand’s car leather. Any youngster who sits so quiet while his elders do business deserves a treat for the ride home.”

I thank him out of duty and joy. My real thought is to get my teeth into one of those peaches as quickly as possible but the dangers of transgressing politeness give me the strength to briefly delay my passion. After about two centuries of proper goodbyes my Grandfather slips the Chevy into drive and the car prowls down the back roadway past the stalls heading toward the gate. A nod from my beloved Grandfather tells me I need wait no longer.As I lift the peach toward my mouth its scent precedes it promising all the joys that are the first peach of summer in Georgia. The Next few days will be spent peeling, pickling, and preserving. Peach cobbler, home made peach ice cream, peach preserves, and pickled peaches all wait in the four half bushel baskets in the back seat. My lips brush the fuzzy skin, my teeth sink into the succulent flesh, and ripe juices flood my taste buds. Eden is as real to me as that first morning Adam woke up and saw a naked Eve made just for him. Few things in this fallen dying world are blazing reminders of a better life. The hope is encased in the sunset skin of the first Georgia peach each summer is enough to remind us that God loves us. That first taste screams that the world will be redeemed and that we are promised a future composed of that single succulent moment stretching out endlessly in every direction forever.

[1] If you are unfamiliar with 450 air-conditioning, it is the earliest type available in automobiles. You can find it in any model four-door car. You simply roll down all four windows and drive at fifty miles per hour. This does not do any good when stuck in traffic or on days (about 362 of them a year in Georgia) where the humidity is too high for the wind to matter. Cars used to have small triangle shaped vent windows that you could point inward to force the wind directly onto your sweltering form. This always helped when you were moving. The ignoramus auto designer who got rid of these should be forced to sit in a black car in the afternoon summer sun in Plains, Georgia until her swears to put them back and retrofit all existing cars with them. Another amazing cooling device removed from cars was the lower vents in the dash board. My 1965 Dodge Dart had them and you could send a flow of cool to tepid air over your legs just by driving. All the environmental Nazis worried about Fluorocarbons and the Ozone Layer should demand a return to cars with triangle windows and lower vents. It makes it a lot easier not to push that little blue button on the dash board.

[2] It used to be that children under twelve rarely were introduced by name. At first thought this seems impersonal but I must say that I did not really care if people knew my name when I was eight. I did, however, glory in the feeling that emerged every time Sam referred to me as “his Grandson.” Perhaps there is something in the belonging that goes beyond the name.

[3] A note here is necessary on Georgia peaches. There is not nor will there ever be, this side of heaven anything equal to a Georgia Peach. Nothing will ever match the intricacies of their flavor, sweetness, smell, juiciness, texture, colors, and out right perfection. In a fallen world there are few absolute proofs that God created the universe and declared it good. Anyone who claims that the Georgia Peach happened because some amino acid bumped into just the right protein in some pool of primordial ooze is just plain stupid. If you believe peaches evolved you have never really tasted a Georgia Peach. If you disagree with this I will acknowledge your God given right to be absolutely wrong.