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Gone So Long

He was a tall, hawklike man who hunched about his harmonica when he played, fitting his body around it as he might a woman. In later days he took to wearing a bowler hat and houndstooth suit. He'd been over to England, he said. Had made some records there, all these young white kids coming to see him, wanting to play with him. No one in Helena believed any of it.

Whenever I'm tired, my wife points out, the accent returns. I began consciously expunging it in the ninth grade. Reading a memoir by Cornelia Otis Skinner, I came across her own revelation that the contraction of can not does not rhyme with paint. By the time I'd reached Tulane, the accent for the most part was gone; years of living in the midwest, in London, New York and Boston swept away what vestiges remained.

Disavowal of the accent, of course, signalled a deeper apostasy. I sat there on South Biscoe Street in Helena, Arkansas, with Mozart, Mahler or Tchaikovsky on the turntable, looking across at a mile-long row of tarpaper shacks where black families lived, sons of whom had been my childhood playmates until the age of ten when without preamble I was told it was no longer proper for me to play with black children. Beyond those shacks the levee rose like broad shoulders above the Mississippi. With that music, and with books, I was creating my own kind of levee, inventing a life in which I would not be Southern, little suspecting that forty years later I'd find myself engaged in a series of novels about another man, a black man, who fled, just as I had, that same South and all it meant.

Meanwhile I'd lie propped up in bed reading Wilde, Joyce, Sturgeon, biographies of Shelley and Byron and Shaw, Starkie's Rimbaud, while all night long from the outside speakers of a drive-in close by at the edge of my grandfather's property spilled songs by Ray Charles, Conway Twitty, Arthur Alexander, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole and Jimmy Reed.

Grandfather, though no longer a rich man, lived in what was nonetheless a mansion, an enormous structure with wraparound porch, massive entryway and wooden staircase, two-inch-thick doors between rooms. As a boy he'd broken his leg and, lacking access to medical care, had a box built about the leg until it healed; all the rest of his life, Hephaestuslike, he limped. Once, sawing wood in his workshop, he cut off a fingertip and, retrieving it from a pile of sawdust, threw it to the dog then went on with his work. When he came to see us, limping up the hill beside our kitchen window, knowing my love of books he'd declaim for me the poetry he'd memorized as a child, long, rolling stanzas of Longfellow, Whittier, Sidney Lanier, William Cullen Bryant. My other grandfather was French.

The black man I left hunched over his harmonica there at the first of this piece was Rice Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson. Most summer days I'd tune in to the noontime King Biscuit Hour on KFFA to hear his mournful harmonica and voice. Throughout the Thirties and Forties Helena, with its factories and farms, with juke joints like the Blue Moon Cafe, and especially with KFFA, had been a hot spot for itinerant blues singers. Everybody passed through: Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Nighthawk, Charlie Patton, Johnny Shines. Robert Johnson lived there a while. Sonny Boy was the last hurrah of that rich blues tradition.

Sonny Boy's was wild, loose music, music with a deep anger and sadness to it. The only other connection I had with this other, alternate life lay in my odd kinship with Buster Robinson, a shambling, ageless black man living with his family in a rough cabin on my grandfather's property and surviving on odd jobs. Buster was always smiling. He called me Mister Jimmie till the day he died.

These days when I teach I tell my students: Write about the things that hurt you, write about the things you don't understand.

Been gone so long, Sonny Boy sings. His harmonica fills the spaces between halting words, harmonica and voice become a single instrument. Been so long the carpet's half faded on the floor.

Rimbaud wrote: I inherit from my Gaulish ancestors my whitish-blue eye, my narrow skull, and my lack of skill in fighting.

So it is that Grandfather's poetry, memories of those tarpaper shacks and of Buster Robinson, Sonny Boy's music, the books I read, have combined in some manner, an unlikely raft, to bring me here, to make me the writer I am today. I go on listening to black music, go on writing about the world of a Southern black man who, like myself, fled.

One does not escape, Rimbaud says.

 

First published in Gently into the Land of Meateaters (Black Heron Press, 2000). Previewed on this website in November 1999.

 

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