The End

This short essay is an experiment in “The Rolling Now,” a structural technique I’m learning to use, taught by my mentor Ken McGoogan at the U-Kings MFA residency in August 2018. We were asked to shape an in-class free-write with three “now” moments and two flashbacks. “Like rocking back and forth, between past and present,” Ken said. Imagine a “W” with the present at the top and the past at the bottom points. The success of this technique depends on choosing the right moment for the “now”–a moment that represents a turning point, about which you have enough detail to write a vivid scene. 

“The End”

By Sarah White

It was late May 1991. I took a seat–near, finally not at–the head table in the banquet hall outside Campobasso, Italy. The Governator’s Cena was the capstone of the Rotary District Conference that was itself the capstone of our five-week tour as “Outstanding Young Professionals” in a Rotary International Group Study Exchange.

To my left sat my husband Jim, just arrived to join me. To my right sat Ron, bane of my existence for most of the last five weeks. Rockstar-handsome with his mane of golden hair, he was flirting with me outrageously. If only the past five weeks had been like that! I’d have had a lot more fun.

 

At first, he did flirt with me. Or was it flirting? He seemed so sincere that night at the end of the first week, when our team had just come together again at a hotel in Spoleto after being separated to lodge in various Rotarians’ homes in Terni and Todi.

After that night’s banquet concluded, Ron invited me to walk up to the aqueduct we’d toured as a group that morning. The moon was full. After I stumbled on a cobblestone, he held my elbow solicitously.

“I feel like we understand each other—more than the others,” I had said.

“Let me say this—I’m not out here with them. I asked you.”

After he whipped out his cock to pee off the aqueduct, piss arcing and glinting in the moonlight, what moved between us felt like intimacy.

 

Now, at the Governor’s Cena, it felt like that intimacy was back as he reached out to touch my hand, touch my hair–my husband just a seat away. It felt delicious, after the way he’d ignored me since that night on the bridge.

I’d been sucker-punched by his rejection. It wasn’t even an active verb, that rejection—he just steadfastly directed his attention away from me.

That day at the art museum in Urbino, a week or so after the Spoleto incident, I tested it as we followed a guide through the museum. Every time I moved near Ron, he edged away. I moved closer again. He moved away again.

Annoyed, I gave up thinking about him then. Even so, he managed to sabotage the next weeks—flirting with every translator, abducting her, leaving us with the old Rotarians while he rode in her daddy’s Lamborgini up the coast, or whatever.

 

Now I turned toward Jim on my left, giving him my attentive smiles, making in-jokes that cut out Ron to my right. Take that, you asshole, I thought. You’re all getting up at 3 a.m. to drive to the airport.

I’m taking my husband in our rented car to the Adriatic coast, where I know the best hotel, the best gelato, the best fish restaurant—all thanks to these Rotarians.

Take that, you damn rockstar asshole hunk.

(c) 2018 Sarah White

p.s. I know you want to see a photo of the rockstar hunk but I’m not including one because  I purposely took none that included him after Urbino, and don’t feel inclined to seek his permission to post his image if I had one. Here’s a link to a photo of the rest of our team.

 

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The Counterpoint

By Deborah Wilbrink

 

For everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth;
and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.  Matt: 7:8

 

The quiet, empty bar featured open doors at one end that revealed a spot-lit lounge. A local jazz band was swinging in full flight. Silently I made the sign of the cross, giving thanks for those who dared to demand and deliver entertainment on a small town’s Sunday.

The matriarch of the local Jazz Society sat doing the books by the lounge door as the electric guitar peaked and subsided, making room for the next soloist. She took my money and issued a nightly membership card. A small, wizened woman, dressed in an embroidered shawl, leather pants and a beret, she shone a wide smile to a chosen few. I was not one of the chosen. I dismissed her coolness as that of urban Yankee origin.

I spotted Precious and moved to join her table.

The music filled me with a longing to do more than listen. A muse began wailing inside my breast in counterpoint.

“Look, Precious, they have vocalists up during the jam. I’d like to try it.” She looked at me speculatively, probably wondering if I sounded more like a cow or a sheep. Did manatees sing?

“What songs do you know?” she asked reasonably. She obviously had not had enough martinis yet.

“Well, what are some jazz standards the band would know? I could learn some of those. I’ve heard them enough on the radio over the years to pick up the tune.” But not their names. I was bad with names.

“Come on, Mrs. Rainey will know.”  She dragged me by the arm over to the matriarch.

“Mrs. Rainey,” said Precious, “this is Deborah. She’s got a question for you.”

“Hello, Mrs. Rainey,” I smiled respectfully.

“Hello, Deborah. It’s nice to meet you,” Mrs. Rainey replied. This was our fortieth introduction over the last eight years. She said the same thing every time.

Angered that I was so unmemorable, I managed to say, “I want to sit in and sing sometimes. What are some of the standards I should learn?”

“Buy a jam book,” she advised.

“Thank you,” I mouth, but she’s not listening. Someone more important, or more talented, was at her other elbow. I knew the expense of a damn jam or “fake book”—it was a luxury buy.

The pianist lingered over the last notes of a lonely sound. The trumpet called the sadness home, and the band took a break.

There’s more than one way to skin a jazz cat. Maybe that red-haired pianist would let me come over and try a few tunes with him at home. Best smile forward, I nodded to Precious and approached the pianist before he could slip away.

“That was wonderful,” I opened. The stout man beamed, then shook his rust-red hair back from his eyes. “Who was that last song by? You know, that’s the only thing about these jams that I don’t like. I don’t know that much about jazz, and no one ever tells the names of the songs. They just play.” I gave what I hoped was an engaging dumb-blonde laugh. I never know if it is for sure, since I’m a brunette.

“That one was Charles Mingus. If you noticed the different keys being played in counterpoint, that’s one of his signatures.”

With honed peripheral vision, I saw the old witch looking. She was smiling in our direction, and then rose. She couldn’t possibly want to speak to me, so I’d better make my next move fast! Musicians, egos. Egos, musicians. Plus, Southern courtesy…

“Thank you, I’ll listen for that next time. And you gave the bass solo such wonderful support! I didn’t hear the band introduced either. I’m Deborah. What’s your name?”

The average fellow lost his average look. He gained three inches and began to resemble an angry bear, growling, “Do you know I’ve met you at least forty times over the past eight years? You never remember my name. Why should I tell you again?”

The lights and smoke and noise and ambition died away. A man, a human being, not someone to be used, came into focus. I was a jerk.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m not good with names, but I do remember your playing, and your face,” I stumbled through an apology.

“I’m Rusty, for the forty-first time…Hello, Mrs. Rainey! How are you?”

“Wonderful, Reggie, except for those senior moments. They come even more frequently than when I smoked. But I do remember that this young lady wants to try some vocals.”

I blushed for myself, and for the old woman who could not remember names. But her mistake didn’t seem to matter to Rusty. Mrs. Rainey was just being herself.

“She just has to get her feet wet with some lyrics. You know quite a lot of Billie Holiday. Used to play it with a trio and a vocalist, right? And she’s left town, right?” The old dinosaur actually winked at me!

Lately, I’d been praying for guidance. “Ask, and you shall receive,” and tonight I had. Rusty might not teach me any songs, but he has just taught me a lesson in respect, humility and observation. And, that my ego probably qualifies me for membership in the musician’s club. Just as soon as I learn “God Bless the Child” from that damn jam book.

Still Singing – October 3, 2018 at Betty’s in Nashville.

This is a true report of an event as I remember it. I have changed the names, except for mine.

© 2018 Deborah Wilbrink

Deborah Wilbrink is a ghostwriter and owner of Perfect Memoirs. also a singer songwriter, her music can be found at CDBaby, Amazon or iTunes. She is the author of Time to Tell Your Personal & Family History, which I reviewed on this blog in 2016.

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What meaning does a purse carry?

Writing prompt:

I started a 4-week “Flash Memoir Write-In” workshop in Madison recently. One woman wrote about her dad’s anger when she wouldn’t start carrying a purse. (Every woman knows that’s the cusp of womanhood, like that other thing).

I thought–what a great writing prompt!

On the topic, of purses, blogger Lisa Monica wrote:

A woman’s pocketbook is  synonymous with a child’s security blanket, they see it as a constant, it is a familiar item that has become part of their existence and when they hold onto that strap or feel it over their arm they are complete and can face one more day…

Let’s give it a shot–when did YOU start carrying a purse, why, and how did your self-identity change? Men, you’re welcome to play along–tell us about your sporrans, your man-bags, your fanny-packs! Let’s hear YOUR purse stories!

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Money Matters

By Jane Anderson

August 15, 1945, the day World War II ended, was one of the most exciting days for me. I was nine years old and knew there would be changes in our lives—for the better. We had accepted the shortages during the war as a fact of life—everyone sacrificed; our sacrifices helped to support the troops.

We had ration books, limiting the amount of meat and sugar we could buy, the number of pairs of shoes we could purchase, the amount of gasoline Daddy could put in the car. We collected newspapers for paper drives, took jars of saved, strained cooking grease to the butcher for recycling into bullets. We forgot the taste of chocolate, marshmallows, chewing gum and butter. I’m sure for the adults there were more considerations that affected their lives. Mother was very careful with her hose. Silk ones were not available at any price. Parachutes were made from silk. Nylon hose were scarce “as hen’s teeth”. All the wartime shortages would end soon.

On that wonderful day of August 15, 1945, or V-J Day, I earned my own money at my first job! Stores throughout the city were closed. Very unusually, the drugstore my Daddy managed would be closed. However, Daddy, a pharmacist, had some prescriptions he needed to fill. He asked me to go with him to the drug store and sell the newspapers that would be delivered whether the store was closed or open. I could sell the San Antonio Express outside the store and keep the money. I jumped at the chance.

When we got to the store, Daddy helped me set up a wooden crate near the street corner and close to the bus stop. The crate held the stack of papers. He gave me a cigar box for the money, then retreated to the store to prepare the prescriptions.

The papers weren’t very thick, not like the Sunday editions, but the headlines were huge, across the top half of the front page: WAR’S OVER!

The newspaper edition that day where Jane grew up in San Antonio probably looked a lot like this.

People were eager to get a souvenir of the war’s end and the papers sold. Car passengers leaned out and traded a nickel for one. Bus riders reached through the opened windows for a paper. People waiting for the bus bought one to read during their wait. As the stack of papers declined, the change grew in the cigar box. An hour or so passed and I was kept busy and enthusiastic, calling out, “War’s over; buy a paper here!”

Then Daddy came out, locking the store, and said it was time we went home. I didn’t want to quit my growing business with a number of papers left to sell. Daddy said, “Take the money from the cigar box and leave it on top of the crate. People will put their nickels in the box as they take a paper.”

I was very skeptical about anyone doing that. “We’ll check it later, but most people are about as honest as we expect them to be.” Daddy said assuredly.

That didn’t make sense to me and I counted the number of papers I was leaving and figured how much money should be in the box if all the papers were taken. Reluctantly, I got in the car, trying to pin down Daddy to the exact time we’d be checking on my business endeavor.

Mother didn’t allow us out of the house between noon and four o’clock during the hot, humid summer. I just knew it would be a long, boring afternoon. I couldn’t listen to the radio. It was nap time and I had to be quiet. Finally, I grabbed a Saturday Evening Post magazine. Sometimes it had interesting stories. Eventually the long hours passed, and it was time I set the table for supper. After eating, my parents announced we’d go downtown to join the crowds in celebrating war’s end, stopping first at the drug store.

When we got there, I leaped from the car and raced to the corner. I could see the crate was empty. When I picked up the cigar box, there was a satisfying heft to it. Inside were many coins. Some people had made change and left half dollars, a few quarters rolled about, and there were lots of dimes, nickels and pennies. How surprised I was!

I don’t remember how much money I made that day or what I did with it, but I did learn that, as Daddy had said, “Most people are just about as honest as you expect them to be.”

 

© 2018 Jane Anderson

Jane Anderson shares memories of her life from a time few have experienced or can even imagine. Through her stories we  glimpse a time when Polio was a constant fear, segregation was the norm, and expectations of an airline flight attendant were cringe worthy.  Writing mostly from her experiences of growing up in San Antonio, Texas, one can hear Southern conversation through her prose, feel a laid-back life style, and drink in the charm and grace of a family dealing with the highs and lows of life.  In this particular story, Jane reflects back on a lesson learned of trusting people at a time when our world was fraught with evil.

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Destination New York City

By Suzy Beal

This is the second episode of a memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas. Click here to read the first episode.

 

Not long after the card game fiasco, we got involved in another game, but this one Dad instigated.  Freeway driving was a new experience for us except for Dad who had driven on them in California.  He drove up behind a large semi-truck and crept up so close that the wind suction from the truck pulled us along in the van with no need to use the gas.  We careened along the freeway behind the truck for miles. Terrified and white-knuckled, Mom hollered “Tom,” putting a stop to this dangerous, but thrilling, sport.

My mind goes to my friends back home and I spend hours thinking of John and what he and Sandy might be doing.  John and I had been going steady, I thought, for a year, but on the last day of school Sandy told me she had been dating John, too. Crushed and unhappy, I cried all the way home in the school bus.  Will he meet her at the ball games between Newport and Toledo the way he did with me? Will Sandy go to the movies with him? I can’t bear the thoughts and turn them to Clover, my horse I’d had to sell.  I hoped she happy in her new home? I’d told Linda, her new owner, “Clover loves oats, so to give her a can full each day.”

Dad picked up Highway 80 heading east.   This highway was a part of the new U.S. Interstate Highway system just completed during the Eisenhower administration.  The Howard Johnson’s Hotels/Motels and Restaurants were a part of this new plan. We didn’t get to stay overnight in them no matter how much we pleaded, as they were too expensive, but when Dad needed to stop for gas, he pulled into a Howard Johnson’s restaurant for lunch.   These motels became a Mecca for us kids.  First, they represented a stop, a break from the boredom. Second, their modern complexes reminded us of the restaurants of the future we’d seen in magazines. We spent our pocket money in the gift shops or purchased ice cream cones and wandered around in disbelief.

“These new highways put in by Dwight Eisenhower are amazing, Tom. They make our trip across the country so smooth,” Mom said. They were avid supporters of the Republican Party and fond of Eisenhower and praising his accomplishments. New and clean, these highways looked like speedways we’d seen in movies.

The editor of our High School newspaper The Harbor Light asked me to write to him of the things I experienced in our travels.  He said he would publish them in the school paper, so I took notes in a special tablet for that purpose.

Notes to the Harbor Light

Driving through Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois we have seen hundreds of silos filled with corn and wheat. I’m glad to know if we had a war with Russia there was enough food to feed everyone in the U. S.

 The new highways are so cool we speed down them going 50 mph.

 The days are long and boring, and I am caught between the excitement of this trip we are on and parting from my friends back home.

There were days, out of sheer boredom, we changed places with each other or because of “infighting.” Mom hollered out “Everyone change places, now!”  There was no room to stretch out.  Our new 1961 VW van wasn’t as big as we’d thought, once we were in it with our luggage. Everyone was sleeping on each other’s shoulders. Cramped and impatient with the miles and miles of wheat and corn fields going by, we hid in our own thoughts.

The further east we traveled towards more populous areas, the more our interest was piqued by the hustle and bustle of the cities.  Most of us had never been in a city larger than Portland, Oregon. As we approached Chicago and skyscrapers came into view, they enthralled us.  I wanted to share these sights with my friends back home.

“The next city we come to is Gary, Indiana” said Mom as she read from the Trip-Tik.  We broke out in song, “Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana my home sweet home.” The musical The Music Man was one record we nearly wore out back home.

We spent a few days in Washington D.C. visiting the Rogg family, friends of my parents.  We visited The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, The Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument.

Conrad, Suzy, Jan, Hank, Carl, Tommy and friend David Rogg (Frank not shown)

 

Our final destination in the U.S. was New York City. Our bus had a slide-back top, so we asked permission to open it and stand on the seat as we drove through the streets of the city.  We took turns because the middle seat was the only one beneath the open top.  We craned our necks to see the top of the skyscrapers while fighting each other for a turn to stand on the seat.  Dad found a place to park the van and we headed out on foot.  We visited the Empire State Building, where Dad took everyone but Mom and me up to the top in the elevator. Mom and I stayed on the ground floor with little Frank, since neither of us liked heights.  After everyone descended, we walked the streets, and even saw ourselves on a television that faced the street from a TV studio.  Mom insisted on taking us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Monet’s Water Lilies were on displayI tried to enjoy them because Mom made such a big deal of them. “We are so fortunate to see these paintings of Monet’s.  They normally stay in France and are only here on tour in New York during this month,” but what I loved were William Turner’s sea paintings.  They were of boats and harbors and familiar things even though of different times.  Several showed harbors shrouded in fog; they could have been paintings of Newport.

We parted company with Tommy the next day.  He took “La Cucaracha” to board a ship headed for Spain and Mallorca, which was our destination, too, but Dad hadn’t been able to get the van on the same ship as the one we were going on, so Tommy, at age 17, took a different ship with the VW van.  Tommy had travel experience since he’s been to Europe with Dad in December, so Dad and Mom figured he could handle this crossing on his own.  He was to arrive in Mallorca only two days before us.  Dad slipped him money, I assumed, for a hotel and food once he arrived. The smile on Tommy’s face showed he knew he was ready for this adventure, but the look on Mom’s face, her eyebrows drawn together, as she hugged him goodby, showed how worried she was for him.

I worried if Tommy and La Cucaracha would be in Mallorca waiting for us when we arrived.

© 2018 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.

 

 

 

 

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Santa Comes Through

By Faith Ellestad

The year I was six, my big brother, who was seven, introduced me to the Sears Christmas Catalog, A Complete Guide to Children’s Avarice. He had learned to read using the Sears Catalog, (gen-u-ine sim-u-la-ted lea-ther base-ball glo-ve) and helpfully instructed me in its use. Thoroughly exploring the pages in the “girls’” section, I discovered a real, working child sized stove with miniature cake mixes and pans so you could make tiny, real cakes and cookies. It actually heated up to 350 degrees, a dangerous but not unusual reality for toys in the 50s. That was it for me.  I knew I had to have that stove.  I needed it.

As a little girl I loved playing house with my dolls. I had a sizeable collection of baby and little girl dolls, most of whom sported crew-cuts due to my older sister’s penchant for “styling” their hair. They came with all sorts of furniture, including cribs, high chairs, clothes, and accessories. I had bottles and dishes and a tiny china tea set, but I longed for a kitchen to prepare our parties. My sister, probably as penance for styling all my dolls to resemble a platoon of miniature GI Janes, helped me fashion some appliances out of cardboard boxes since I was considered too small to use the real ones. I had accepted this as an unfortunate but incontrovertible state of affairs up until I saw the little stove.  I wasn’t sure my parents would approve, so I didn’t mention it to anyone.  I had developed a clever plan on my own.

Mom and Dad had promised to take us to visit Santa a few days before Christmas. And the older kids, exercising unusual restraint, had managed to keep the origin of Santa a secret from my little brother and me.  I suspect in my case, it was so they could tease me mercilessly after the holidays. But at the time of the visit, I was still a wide-eyed believer, and leaning against Santa’s knee, I divulged my secret desire. To my parents’ extreme dismay, and my total delight, Santa promised he would bring me my stove.

The wait seemed endless, but Christmas morning finally arrived. At approximately dawn, my siblings and I awoke on cue, and raced into the living room, buzzing with excitement, like four greedy little bees. Mom and Dad, still bleary-eyed from their marathon, post-Midnight Mass gift-wrapping session, quickly started some coffee and settled in to enjoy the show.  Santa had come and delivered mounds of packages, one of which was very large, gaily wrapped in festive Christmas paper, and adorned with a big green bow. It had to be for me, Santa would know my favorite color was green, but I checked the tag just to be sure.  “To Faith from Santa.”

I knew it! I ripped the paper off, and there it was, my promised electric stove, its gleaming white surface reflecting the multicolored lights of the tree.  It looked exactly like the picture in the Sears Catalog. I remember stroking it and touching every accessory.  I was beside myself.  Everyone else’s gifts paled in importance compared to my glorious real appliance.

My glorious stove unwrapped

After all the presents were opened, which seemed to take forever, I plugged in my new stove, excitedly anticipating baking my first tiny real cake, While I waited, mesmerized, for the little preheat light to turn red, a strange hot waxy smell suddenly permeated the living room, and gooey purple liquid began to ooze out the bottom of my oven door. As everyone watched in stunned disbelief, the explanation of this bizarre occurrence became evident almost immediately, given away by the excited squirming of my little brother. In the midst of the present opening frenzy, he had, unnoticed by anyone, decided to cook something. From his brand new box of Jumbo Crayolas, scattered about on the rug, he had selected Purple and popped it into the oven.  While the stove heated to the promised 350 degrees, Tommy’s crayon melted spectacularly, forming an indelible, wide, drippy purple stain down the front of my formerly pure white stove.

Furious and horrified, I impulsively did the worst thing I could think of in the moment. I told him his new tricycle was second hand!  Being three, he didn’t care a bit, and wasn’t even given the spanking I thought he deserved. Fortunately my beloved stove, even with its newly acquired purple stain and slightly waxy scent, worked perfectly, turning out tiny cakes and cookies, and burning many small fingers, throughout my house-playing years. As I think of it now, I should have become a better cook. But my inch-wide Snickerdoodles were the best ever. Grandma said so. Grandmas know these things.

Ready for church. My brother is perfectly happy with his trike.

Thank you “Santa” for that wonderful stove, and for the valuable lesson you imparted: if you take your kids to visit Santa, go well before your Christmas shopping is done.

© 2018 Faith Ellestad

Faith describes herself as a serial under-achiever, now retired after many years as a hospital scheduling specialist.  When her plan to cultivate a gardening hobby resulted only in hives, she decided to get real and explore her long-time interest in creative writing. She’s so happy she did. Faith and her husband live in Madison, WI with Ivy, their beloved old Belgian Tervuren. They have two grown sons, (also beloved), and a wonderful daughter-in-law.

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Hello from Oxford, MS, Classroom edition

I have just returned from the Southern Foodways Alliance grad student conference in Oxford, Mississippi–as nice a little college town as Halifax. My purpose in going was, of course, related to my Big MFA Adventure and my manuscript-in-progress, working title Glory Foods: A Soulful History of the First Food Company to Target the Southern Palate. 

The theme of the conference was “Between the Disciplines,” so it seemed the right place to bring my interdisciplinary question: As a book, the history of Glory Foods is packed with inspiring examples of black success, practical business lessons, and Southern food culture. But who is the audience for such a book? An SFA conference seemed the perfect place to test the waters (or potlikker) regarding the appeal among foodies of a book on the first company to put seasoned collard greens in a can.

And it was. My presentation was well-received; the questions I got were helpful in answering my authorial questions. Turns out they groove on the history, even though they hold the typical foodies’ disdain for the humble can.

The conference was fascinating, if occasionally over my head in its academic-speak. Of the roughly 20 students presenting, some were bent on tenure-track academic positions, and learning to sling the lingo required. I learned to use “troubles” as a verb and to insert “contextualize the narrative” whenever stumped for a response, in case I should ever need to speak like an academic.

Other attendees were foodies, or documentary filmmakers, or farmers, or activists, or…  in other words, cool peeps to hang with! Their topics ranged from tomato festivals across the South to the Pure Foods Act of 1906 to Hurricane Parties as a cultural phenomenon–and beyond.

We met in a little railroad depot dating from the 1840s, nicely restored into meeting space.

After the conference ended, I visited the library at Ole Miss, where the archives of the Southern Foodways Alliance are housed. There were collaborations between Glory Foods and the SFA in the 2000s, and I was looking for documentation. Living the dream, nibbling on a pencil while diligently digging through banker boxes of files in the cool hush of the archives room!

The high point of my visit to Oxford Mississippi came Wednesday morning, when, with time before my flight back to Madison, I went to Rowan Oaks, home of William Faulkner. There I found shady Adirondack chairs waiting for me! I read Faulkner in Faulkner’s side yard and communed with spirits that wished me well on my writer’s journey, until it was time to drive to the airport. Happy moments, stolen out of time.

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