context in writing memoir: focus or deception?

Wild morning glories in the Florida panhandle fierce wet August heat remind me of the ubiquitous kudzu in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Kudzu covers it all: from tumble-down shacks to car bodies left in a field. It makes pretty green hillocks and columns that last until the first freeze. When the little chocolate Lab and I walked to the gate yesterday morning about seven, before the withering sun caused the flowers to twist up and hide as best they could, these lush morning glories were on full display, nearly hiding the ugly chain link fence surrounding the county’s stormwater drainage structure at the edge of our property.

Pull back the camera to see the whole picture and perception of the scene goes tilt. I shot the picture below about a month ago — you can see the morning glory vine had just begun to climb the fence. Purpose was to send it to a guy I know at the county road department to see if they would come out and clean up the end of summer mess their drainage structure had turned into. They weed-eatered the overgrowth and mowed, but the large white boulders initially installed to slow and channel water off our twisty, sad road have been gradually stolen by dirt road sports. Only a few remain.

Memoir writing is like this. What do you tell? What do you withhold? Hell, what do you even remember?

resilience

It was more like a crawl through steam than a walk to the gate this morning. Sometimes after a lightning show and hours-long farmer’s rain like we had last night, the next morning is a little cooler. Not today.

I’m bone-weary from a weekend of research, writing, and preparation for meetings this week concerning our property rights situation. What situation? I’ve written a bit on this before, and will write a whole lot more before we’re done. But right now, there’s work to be done and a pot of French roast to help me get there.

Thank goodness the woods don’t care about such fleeting, temporal matters. The forest does what it does. It’s resilient. It gives me sustenance and strength for the journey. And I am grateful.

eye of the storm ~ chapter eleven

For the record.

Chapter 11 

Brandon, Florida 

Claire pondered her diminishing options for years. If she had only herself to worry about, it would be easy. She would work at her job until one day there was a hit and run, or a drive by shooting. At least she could continue taking care of the babies in the neonatal unit at the hospital and maybe do some good right up until she was killed.  If she were the only one in the picture, she would have taken her chances and contacted her parents years ago. Maybe. But even that would have likely put them all in danger. She went over it in her head a thousand times, trying to figure a way out of this mess. 

Sometimes a young person makes a decision that irrevocably changes the course of their life forever. That day twenty-five years ago when she ran away with Pete Hunsicker was such a move. Claire was 17, a junior in high school, and pregnant, the latter a fact that she did not share with Pete until they were well away from Waynesville, North Carolina and living in a third-floor walk-up apartment in New Orleans near the French Quarter, where he worked as a bartender and ran the illegal video poker room at a dive off Rue Morgue. 

Claire thought running away to New Orleans with Pete, a good-looking, slick-talking older guy, a friend of her Uncle Rory, would be a romantic adventure. She had dreams of becoming a writer or an actress, and figured this episode in her life would be a fun lark, something she could tell her grandchildren about someday. 

Besides, her parents were consumed by building their company, Berringer Software, and probably wouldn’t miss her, anyway. Such were the thoughts of a lonely 17-year old. 

Pete blew up when Claire told him about the baby. He gave her enough money for an abortion, but when she refused, he told her how dumb she was and that he had no intention of being saddled with her and a kid, slapped her, and said “You will take care of this. Tomorrow, okay?” She worried about it all the next day, but couldn’t bring herself to go to the family planning clinic and kill her baby. Pete went a little crazy with her when he found out she didn’t go. He shook her, got right in her face and told her if she didn’t go the next day, he would take her himself and then throw her out on the street. So she promised she would go. 

When he was at work that night, she packed her one small bag, wrote Pete a note telling him he wouldn’t have to worry about her anymore and left. There was enough cash from the abortion money to rent a cheap room in another parish across town. She got a job a waiting tables at a café next door. It was a local place with a trade that mostly included the drunks that came from any one of several neighboring bars to get cheap omelets, beignets and chicory coffee. 

Claire poured herself a tall glass of vodka over ice and muttered to herself as she walked around the house making sure all the doors and windows were locked. She took the bottle of liquor and a small ice bucket to the bedroom, turning off lights as she went. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Hot tears collected behind her eyes. No. The time’s past for that, idiot. Time to protect Grace if you can. 

Claire had been preparing for this day ever since she got the first anonymous threatening card more than twenty years ago. She hated lying to Grace all these years, hated the mess she made of her own life, hated the bastard that made her life a living hell, hated Pete Hunsicker, and hated herself. 

She especially hated lying to Grace on their last phone call. She wrote the points she wanted to cover on a small sticky note which she flushed down the toilet after they said good-bye. 

Claire researched how to check if your telephone was bugged. Pretty simple, really. When she found the bug three weeks ago, she couldn’t stop shivering. She was so mad she wanted to rip it out of the wall and drown it in the bathtub. 

That’s when she knew “he” – whoever “he” was – wouldn’t quit until she was dead. She had to convince him or them that she never told Grace who she really was. And she hadn’t. So she needed to concoct a little bit of theatre for the listener’s benefit and then cut off any potential of a future leak at its source, which, sadly, was herself. 

Claire’s access to substances from the hospital would guarantee a quick, certain, painless result. She cautiously gathered them for months. She sensed there was a narrow window of opportunity to do this thing once Grace graduated from law school, took her after-graduation trip to Italy with her friend Ariel, came home to pack up all her belongings, and moved to her new job in Pensacola. But she couldn’t drag it out. She was convinced she was a dead woman either way. At least by following her own script there was a chance she could save Grace. 

The one dumb thing she had done was to send the bear made out of flour sacks, Elisha Walter, “E.W.,” with Grace. Putting the big stuffed bear in the Grace’s car was a last minute irresistible impulse. She still didn’t know what she hoped to accomplish, and hoped her rash act never endangered Grace. 

E.W. held a secret in his belly. Claire used a surgical scalpel to make an incision along one of the flour sack seams on his back. She carefully removed part of the packing material and inserted a thin scroll of papers into E. W.’s mid-section, re-stuffed him, and resealed the seam with tiny stiches. 

That thin scroll was the only evidence in the world that proved Claire Ringer was born Ann Mathis Berringer, only child of Troy and Mary Alice Berringer, billionaire founders of Berringer Software. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter ten

For the record.

                         Chapter Ten 

By the time Grace got home to the condo and changed into what she called her “soft clothes,” – an old t-shirt and some running shorts with the elastic nearly worn out – she had become more philosophical about her roller-coaster of a day. 

She thought about it while she brewed a cup of Zen green. Just my luck. Meet the man of my dreams, charm him and then turn him into a sworn enemy all in one day. Oh well. I’ve got job to do and there’s more than one good-looking guy in Pensacola. 

She took her mug of tea and a ginger cookie out to the balcony. What a day. It wasn’t just meeting Jess. The whole day was wild, from the hurricane drill itself, to the great music and food, the gorgeous beach, meeting P. J. and Evangline and the twins, and, well, Jess. It really started and ended with him. I’ve got a feeling we’re not done, yet. 

Grace sat in a patio chair facing the water and watched as a gleaming trawler angled into its berth at the marina next door. She enjoyed watching the waterfront comings and goings of boats, people and their dogs. 

One of her favorites was a sailboat “live-aboard.” The owner was a fat guy who looked for all the world like he was wearing a muskrat on his head. His dog, a tiny, feisty Yorkshire terrier, had fuschia bows in his fancy dog salon hair, and wore a set of designer canine water wings. Grace knew the harness was a floatie, because earlier in the week she saw him try to get fresh with a big black female Labrador retriever. When the retriever’s belly fur got tickled by the bodacious little Yorkie walking under her and sniffing, the Lab gave a loud bark and ducked her head under her chest to grab the little dog. The alert owner yanked on the Yorkie’s leash which propelled the little dog straight into the water. Grace leaned over the balcony and watched the big man scoop up the floating dog. It looked like a wet rat. Together they disappeared into the cabin of the sailboat, leaving the Lab looking like “What did I do? 

Grace spent a few more minutes on the balcony, listening to the strains of music floating over from the marina, and suddenly realized she was exhausted, and went in to bed. 

The next morning Grace woke up early, pulled on her running gear and headed out. After only one week in Pensacola, Grace had developed a great enthusiasm for living downtown.  Her law firm was only three blocks away in the core of downtown offices and government buildings, and she loved being able to walk to work. There were sidewalks everywhere, just right for runners. She decided to jog by her office building first and then explore the downtown core by running a grid pattern. 

She ran by all sorts of little shops and restaurants sandwiched in between City Hall, the post office, the courthouse, and countless lawyer’s offices, including her own. There was a beautiful old Episcopal church that showed Pensacola’s Spanish heritage. She passed a French bakery with adorable little black iron chairs out front. People sat at round tables reading the morning paper and chatting. Smells of café au lait and croissants wafted across her nose and made her stomach growl. 

The ornate wrought iron balconies with cascading flower baskets on second floor loft apartments above shops on Palafox Street caught her eye. She stopped to snap a couple of photos with her cell phone. 

“Grace! Hey, Grace!” She turned at the shouted greeting and saw P. J. Whitacre motioning with his hand. “Come on over!” 

He was sitting by himself at an outdoor café. A jowly bloodhound that had to be Minnie Pearl was sprawled on the sidewalk by his side. 

“Good morning, P.J.!” Grace said as she headed over toward him. 

“Come on. Sit down and have a cup of coffee with me.” 

“I’ve been running. You may be sorry you asked.” 

“Shoot. Set down.” 

“Are you by yourself?” 

“Right now, I am.” He signaled the server to bring another cup of coffee. “Sit.” 

She sat. Minnie Pearl raised her head to sniff at the newcomer. Grace reached over and stroked the dog’s long, soft ears. Then she cocked an eyebrow at P.J. “You must not have talked to Jess since last night.” 

“Sure I have. You remember that old “Godfather” movie?” He looked serious. 

“Sure. I’ve read the books and seen all the movies several times.” 

“Remember where the Godfather says, ‘Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer?’” 

Grace felt like she had been struck in the face, looked down at her shoes, and started to scrape her chair backward as if to get up. Then she heard a low rumbling chuckle. It was P.J. 

“Grace Ann,” he said, laughing. “You ought to see your face. Now stay put and drink your coffee, girl.” 

“But, P.J., this isn’t funny. This is awful.” 

“Look, I know it’s bad. Jess is sulled like an old possum. But you didn’t plan to meet him yesterday, did you?” 

“No.” She frowned and shook her head. “I had no idea until you brought up Tom and Sally Harper that I would become a black hat all of a sudden.” 

“Well, it’s a serious matter for Jess and his whole family, Grace. No doubt about it. And it’s a damned shame that you’re going to caught up in the middle of it.” 

“I guess Jess is really close to his grandparents?” 

“Sure. Old Tom and Sally are two of the best people ever put on God’s green earth. Wish they were my grandparents.” 

“I guess the whole family’s close. I met his step-mom, Evie, and his little sisters last night.” 

“Jess was 15 when his real mom died. It was bad. Jess and Grant and their dad, Doc Ryan, were messed up for a long time. Everybody worried they were going to just dry up and blow away. Jess was bad to fight there for a few years. Look close at him and you’ll see that nose of his has been broken a couple of times.” 

“How old was Jess when Dr. Harper and Evie got married?” 

The server drew near their table with a carafe of coffee. P.J. motioned with a nod and an index finger to Grace’s mug and his own.  “He was 18. That’s easy to remember, because we were both just about to head off to college. Hard to believe that was almost 12 years ago. 

Grace smiled. “Evie’s really something. She really made me feel at home.” 

“Yep. She’s the luckiest thing that could’ve happened to that crew. Her and those two little girls.” 

“I can see why. I got to meet Kate and Belle last night, too.” 

“Yeah, they’ve got Jess totally wrapped. If you ask me, I think Jess is hankering to settle and have some rug rats of his own. If he could find the right woman, that is.” 

Grace felt color in her face, but she tried to act casual. “Has he had any near misses?” 

“Only one. That would be Miss Logan Nicole Westmoreland.” P.J. spoke her name like some historical figure he didn’t much care for. 

“What happened?” 

“She and Jess were high school sweethearts. She went to FSU in Tallahassee when we did. He sure was crazy about that little gal. She had modeled some in high school, was queen of the debutante court, all that stuff, then got into FSU’s theatre program.” 

“Sounds good, so far.” 

“Yeah, it was all good for the first three years. She and Jess got engaged, and set a date to get married soon as they graduated. But something happened in our senior year. She decided she wanted to live in New York and work in musical theatre on Broadway; that she didn’t want to get married and live in a small Southern town where she’d been all her life.” 

“Is she still there?” 

“No. Last I heard she had moved to California to try and get into movies or TV and wound up marrying several guys along the way. ” 

“Not at once, I hope.” 

P.J. laughed. “Oh no, she’s a serial marrier, that girl.” 

“Well, I guess she broke Jess’s heart.” 

“Yeah, but he’s been past that for a long time. It made him wary, though. Half the girls in town want to marry Jess, or at least dance around some with him. Good lookin’ cuss. That black hair and blue eyes gets ‘em. I should be so lucky. They don’t seem to notice he’s a little sawed off and most of them are taller than he is when they put on those spike heels. Plus, he’s courtly, almost like one of those Texas cowboys. Got that from his dad and his granddad. Add to that the fact he’s vice-president of the family’s bank and the youngest person ever elected Mayor of Pensacola,” P.J. grinned, “what’s not to like? But nope, none of them have rung his bell . . . at least not for more than a few weeks. The most important female in Jess’s life right now is that damn dog. Nothin’ more loyal than a good dog.” P.J. reached down and scratched behind Minnie Pearl’s left ear. She snuffled and yawned, her long pink tongue curling up to her nose. 

Grace sighed. “I’ve never had any kind of a pet before. No brothers or sisters, either. In fact, I was adopted, and I don’t even know who my real parents are, so all this big family stuff, with grandparents and dogs and family history is new territory. Unfortunately, there’s a conflict of interest that precludes a personal relationship. Any advice?” 

“Not really, Grace. You’ve got a job to do. Jess has his family’s interests to protect. The fact that ya’ll met and hit it off is what some old politician used to call an ‘inconvenient truth.’ Before he ran off with a sweet young thing and left my mama and me about ten years ago, my daddy used to say, “Son, sometimes the only way around a thing is through it.” 

“That’s your advice? What the heck does it mean?” 

“Well, it’s the best I can do on short notice. P.J. looked past her and said, “I guess right about now is as good a time as any to test that advice.” 

“What? What do you mean?” 

“’Morning, Jess. Pull up a chair. Hey, Angus. Come here, puppy!” 

Jess pulled up a chair and gave Grace a professional politician smile. “Good morning, Grace.” His face was smooth, unreadable. 

It cut her much worse than if he had been cold or hot with her. That studied neutrality made her ashamed and angry at the same time. She could feel her face grow hot. 

“Hello, Jess – oh my gosh, that puppy is adorable!” Grace forgot all about Jess and their conflict. If a puppy could possibly be dignified, this one was. She sat up, forepaws crossed like she had just graduated from finishing school, with her deep brown intelligent eyes and shining black coat. 

Grace surprised herself by reaching for the pup. “May I?” 

“Of course,” Jess said, and transferred the pup to Grace’s waiting arms. “This is Harper’s Angus Blackvelvet.” 

Grace nuzzled the puppy, who cuddled in her embrace. “Angus, you are even softer than velvet.” She was feeling some brand new connection. She was falling in love with a dog for the first time. 

Jess looked on without speaking. P. J. said, “Hey, now, Grace, ya’ll are gonna hurt old Minnie Pearl’s feelin’s. You didn’t make over her like you’re doing with Amanda there.” 

Grace looked up, embarrassed. She held Amanda close. She was clearly reluctant to let her go, but smiled at P.J. as she gently passed Amanda back to Jess. “I’m sorry, P.J.  I’ve never held a puppy before. Guess I got a little carried away.” 

She stood. “Thank you for the coffee, P.J.  She looked over at Jess, looking as though she was about to cry. “Thanks for letting me hold the pup, Jess.” 

Jess didn’t speak, just looked at her steady with his poker face. 

Grace took off down the sidewalk in a slow jog back toward the condo. 

“Got it bad, don’t you, son?” P. J. said, bumping Jess’s knee with his own. 

Jess looked at P.J., tight-lipped. “Drop it, P.J. I’m a big boy. That,” he said, pointing toward the disappearing Grace’s trim form, “isn’t happening, okay? You ready to head out to the farm?” 

web

Spider in its web near the streambed at Longleaf Preserve this morning.

Some days we’re the spider. Some days we’re the fly. And some thrilling days we’re the web itself, drawing all things delicate and delicious, big ideas and small, into our inexorable orbit.

black mushroom on a gravel road

Interesting. Ugly, maybe. A head-turner, for sure. This fungi (could it be a variant of plectania?) had emerged out of the gravel road Lou-dog and I walk each morning from house to gate. We’ve had so much rain lately, I need to take off alone with my good camera and go walk the fire lines. Take my little gun, too, to late the mid-July snakes and coyotes know I’m not some scaredy-cat little woman (which I pretty much am).

Any micologists how there who can give a girl a hand in identifying this mushroom?

one-sentence post

Simple meals with honest ingredients help keep me focused on the beautiful and the true, and away from things that mess with my zen, like some of our homegrown social media bullies who have become legends in their own minds and delight in the cruelty of wielding reputation-destroying power over ordinary folks.

fireworks, pistols shots, & a foggy full moon

Our house has an idiosyncratic feature that we forget about most of the time. It’s a small observation deck some forty feet off the ground, accessed by stairs from the second floor terrace. A pretty cool space, but the somewhat steep wooden steps are often slick with humidity and the deck is open to the sky, which means there is no shade in the brutal summer sun. But with last night’s foggy full moon, rumbles of fireworks beyond our woods in all directions, it was mysterious and wonderful. The photo I shot from the top deck shows our old van in the portecochere below and the full moon trying to break free of the fog.

Traditional fireworks displays in Florida communities were canceled due to Covid-19, but the Florida legislature legalized fireworks purchases for individuals for certain holidays, including the 4th of July, so — if you’ll excuse the expression — sales skyrocketed.

Last night the war zone sounds went on for hours, long after Buck, Lou Lou Belle and I had carefully descended from our high perch and retired to the bedroom to read and nibble dark chocolate. No chocolate for Lou, of course, but she lay at the foot of the bed and snored. There had been a loud thunderstorm late in the afternoon. She paced around and whimpered a little at those sounds, but the fireworks and intermittent pistol shots didn’t bother her at all, even with the sliding glass door open to the night with all its sounds.

Maybe Lou understands that humans who have been cooped up so long just needed to let their wolf loose for a night.

eye of the storm ~ chapter nine

For the record.

Chapter Nine 

Pensacola Beach, Florida 

            Well, now, ain’t love grand. When Bo Perlis chuckled, a nasty sound came out of his mouth, gritty like old coffee grounds. He didn’t sound amused. He leaned against the pilings of a fishing dock, boots anchored in sugar white sand. Perlis lit one cigarette from the butt of another, and occasionally lifted a small pair of Leica bird-watching binoculars in Grace’s direction for a closer look. He had caught her and his Honor’s conversation thanks to a small deer hunter’s “bionic ear.” 

Perlis picked his teeth with a mother-of-pearl toothpick he got off a high-roller he knifed in a Las Vegas storm drain under the Luxor Casino. Bo liked souvenirs, and this was one of his favorites. He remembered that fat sucker, how his red-veined blue eyes bulged with surprise as he watched his own bright arterial blood pump and spurt. 

Bo spat, remembering how he jumped out of the way to keep from getting blood on this boots. Jesus Christ, I’ve had some good times. Who else gets to do this kind of stuff and get paid for it, too? 

He stashed the toothpick in his pocket, and brought his hand-held video camera up and zoomed in on Grace and the Mayor at a picnic table a hundred feet away. Damn, she’s hot. He zoomed in to get a better look at the girl’s long legs. Perlis felt a familiar swelling begin in his tight Levi’s. Down, boy. Patience. Got to save this sweet thing for later. 

Bo watched them earlier when they walked on the beach. Couldn’t keep their hands off each other. But now, the couple’s mood had changed from play to argument. He kept on filming and angled the bionic ear microphone to try to pick up their conversation. It was windy, though, and he could only get snippets. Clearly, the Mayor was angry. Perlis saw him jump up from the bench, practically assault the woman, and high-tail it down the beach. 

He continued to watch Grace until she got up from the table and half-walked, half-ran back toward the parking lot. 

Shit. I hate the damned beach. Perlis left the pier and stepped as lightly as he could back to the asphalt parking area, trying to avoid getting sand in his boots. 

He pulled in a few cars behind Grace’s red pick-up truck and followed her back across the bridge. He broke off when she turned into the gated entrance at Balconies on the Bay, punched the key pad and disappeared from sight. 

Perlis drove on a few blocks, and then pulled into the busy parking lot at Sam’s Seafood. He found an open space at the back of the lot beside a scraggly looking scrub oak tree. His nondescript rental car looked like half the other vehicles in the lot. By now, it was fully dark and right in the middle of the restaurant’s dinner hour. Perlis lowered his window, turned off the ignition and flicked a cigarette butt onto the pavement. He pulled out his cell phone and punched in the one number he had on speed dial. 

“Report.” The voice creeped Bo out every time he heard it. It was sultry and breathy like a Marilyn Monroe clone. The client used some kind of voice changer software. Bo suspected the client was actually male, but there was no way he could know for sure. 

“I found the girl.” 

“And?” Damn, that come-hither voice was distracting. 

“Nothing suspicious. Acts like any young kid on their first job. Spent the day at the beach participating in a community hurricane drill; then made out on the beach with the town Mayor, got into an argument with him; he left; she drove back to her condo. End of story.” 

“Did you say ‘mayor’?” 

“Yeah. He looks like a kid, too. Must be the youngest mayor in America.” 

“And the argument?” 

“Don’t know for sure. Something about her job. It’s real windy out on the beach and I didn’t catch every word.” 

“Her phones?” The real voice might have a slight southern accent, but Perlis couldn’t place the region. 

“Got her land line at the condo. The place is on the market for sale. The woman is a glorified house-sitter. A realtor gave me a nice little tour of the place. I came back later and got the phone and placed a couple of cameras around.” 

“Just remember you’re there for information, not for fun. What about her cell phone?” 

“No luck yet with her cell.” 

“Not a matter of luck, Mr. Perlis. Skill. The cell phone is critical. Nobody under thirty uses a land line anymore. I was told you could do this. Do not disappointment me. Get it done and report back tomorrow.” 

That was the longest speech Bo had heard from his client so far, not that he was crazy about the content. “Will do,” he said. 

Goodnight, Marilyn. Jeez, that’s weird. Bo put the phone back in his shirt pocket and reached under the seat for the pint bottle of Early Times he kept there. He took a long pull, recapped it, lit up another smoke and drove away from Sam’s in search of a drive-through double cheeseburger and fries. Bo hated any type of seafood: fried, stewed or nude.