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Preface & Reader Response



Paul won't be taking a honeymoon because, as he said, "We all know how many couples die in auto crashes or get robbed and murdered on their honeymoons."

 


LIFE IN LETTERS



WHEN LETTERS COULD TALK

by Jerry Murley

A few weeks ago, I found three folded packets of paper together in a box of old personal documents. They were drafts of letters written within four months of one another. Words, phrases, and whole sentences were crossed through to indicate they should be left out of the final handwritten correspondence. The three represent a tiny but integral part of the Bayeux Tapestry that rolls through each life binding other lives and events together. What happens within such fragments ties the here and now to centuries past and continents far away. The stories do not fade unless forgotten. They are surely forgotten if not retold.

J. To M. (November 1982) [1]

It seems a sin to sit and read, especially books one is barely interested in, when letters are yet to be written. It's like staying inside on those rare, wondrous fall days full of golden maples and crisp air.

We just had a full weekend. I shoveled several-years-old cow shit from the barn all day yesterday. Bob fooled me, again: little did I know that the shit on bottom was intended for my garden. Then we went to the H.'s for a Halloween party after dark. Susan and Mark had come out earlier in the day to cut firewood, and Jan had brought her kids out to keep them from trick-or-treating in the city. All but Joyce and me, and Carole and her family, stayed the night over at the H.'s. They had a bonfire going in the orchard above the garden when we arrived. Joyce and I carved our pumpkins in the presence of other orange monsters while the others put on costumes. I'm proud to say that my pumpkin was voted the scariest. Susan was a witch dressed all in red, Mark was a cowboy, and Bobbie was Mrs. Santa Claus (but we had an awfully hard time guessing that fact). Bob, Joyce, and I played ourselves, except for the werewolf mask that Joyce and I shared.

While waiting on Jan and her kids to put on their costumes, we all drank wine and listened to Bob recite a passage from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Around the fire we made some feeble attempts at group ghost-story telling. The moon was bright and the air was warm, and we managed to still laugh at old corny jokes and sing silly songs from the '50s.

Jan stole the show, as usual, when she jumped up suddenly and spun around shedding article by article from her matronly disguise to reveal her true identity as Wonder Woman, a performance which she had to repeat when Carole's family arrived following their trick-or-treating at a suburban neighborhood closer to town. It was a very good and memorable Halloween.

Today, Bob's brothers, including Jim, the one who lives in New York City, came out with their wives and Nanny for brunch. There were great stores of breakfast goodies from ham to Nanny's biscuits to Carole's whole-grain muffins to egg souffle. After eating we all broke up to doing little chores around the farm, from loading shit onto the manure spreader to car mechanicing to firewood splitting and loading to football with the heathens (as Harlin refers to the children).

We voted Tuesday; it was much easier than expected. Back in August, I was a little startled when we voted in the primary election. I had taken off early in expectation of shorter lines at the polls than there would be towards evening. News people had been predicting long periods in the voting booth due to an interminable and complex ballot. But I was unprepared for what actually happened.

When Joyce and I walked into our designated polling place, there was no line at the registration table. However, people were seated in multi-color plastic elementary-school cafeteria chairs all around the perimeter of the room, with chair backs turned toward the center of the room. Around this large empty rectangle, waiting voters silently faced the wall or turned side to side to watch or converse with others. The last chair was some ten to twelve feet from the voting booth.

And what notable people there were in that room! Women walked in barefooted with dirt-splattered legs; most men wore overalls and T-shirts. It was a dental hygienist's worst nightmare; I've never seen such a rebellion from the ideal of clean white middle-class teeth. These were my new neighbors – hill folk not much removed from Appalachian mythology. We were shocked that they even knew there was an election. Some were jovial and chattering as if they were at a church social, while others sat either hunched and dumb-faced or like straight-backed renditions of figures in the painting American Gothic.

There were only sixty people ahead of us, yet after one hour we weren't halfway around the chair path to the lone, foreboding booth standing in the middle at the head of the cafeteria. We watched that secret closet as people disappeared behind the curtain as if they were going to the electric chair or they might fall through some hole in the floor and vanish forever. Of course, as they left the room after voting, each had the smirking appearance of triumph over all the poor saps left behind. With each exit an empty chair remained; everyone stood up in a delayed sequence and moved to a newly vacated, warm seat next in line. It seemed a chain reaction of human dominoes, an involuntary response of stand up, shuffle sideways, and sit down – on cue and without a smidgen of levity.

Joyce and I would have left after an hour of waiting, but our neighbor Paul was four or five positions ahead of us, and I had promised to vote for a friend of his. Therefore, he unknowingly shamed us into sticking it out. One old decrepit couple spent ten minutes each in the booth; I think the poll watchers were afraid they had had a stroke or gone to sleep in there. When the woman was voting, they had to send her husband in to get her out. In a high-pitched, sing-song voice, they kept yelling, "Mrs. ____, do you need any help?"

Right before we got to the booth, Bob walked in and Joyce went to tell him how long of a wait he had before him. The two of them standing together looked like Madison Avenue executives in that crowd.

* * *


J. To J. H. (Fall 1982) [2]

A lot has transpired since the glory days of summer travel. I guess word has reached North Port and Boston about my huge fighting-tiger catfish. He was two and a half pounds of pulling and tugging, of give and run. The old pond next door hasn't seen so much action since old Harlin tried out that used twenty-dollar outboard motor he bought for his John boat.

Course, too, news has spread about that two-foot long, fifty-pound watermelon Joyce and I picked last weekend – Labor Day weekend. It wasn't near as sweet and juicy as the smaller, earlier ones, but it sure was heavier and harder to chill.

Last week, after we'd gone to Memphis and watched the fireworks on Mud Island, we were coerced into going to Belle Meade Country Club to my office's 20th anniversary reception. Now this was the Thursday evening after that Sunday night. Nothing happened of note, except that Ronnie S., whom we all call Elvis – on account of his wanting to be a country singer and him kinda looking like Elvis – showed up in a white tuxedo, accompanied by a tall, buxom, so-called Irish girl dressed in a low V-front, green sequined gown. Now that in itself was pretty flashy for a lowly draftsman in the midst of our genteel company, but in addition, he arrived in a rented limousine and had hired a photographer to follow him around, taking pictures of him while getting out of his limousine, while entering the club, while shaking hands with the boss, and while mingling with the crowd. However, his photographer missed the best shot of Ronnie allowing two meatballs to fall on the club floor, which were subsequently kicked around the banquet room floor for about thirty minutes by others of my illustrious co-workers.

Dead and gone are the hot summer and the garden of plenty. I'm sure M. will be relieved to learn that I no longer cut grass every other day. M. was horrified by the cutting-of-the-grass ceremony, expressing much concern that the habit might somehow be associated with the toils of hell or, at the very least, be a root cause of the decline of Western civilization. Whereas in these parts we think a freshly cut lawn is Western civilization.

* * *


J. To L. (Winter 1983) [3]

The big news in the hollow is the upcoming nuptials of Paul P. Remember the newspaper clipping he showed us Christmas about the ranch for orphaned girls on the other side of our western hills? Paul had built a chicken coop for the girls and two young ladies (two of three sisters there aged 17 to 22) were pictured in the article. Paul is engaged to the oldest sister.

Old men around here tittered a little in their first discomforted reaction to the news; then they swelled with speculation and foreboding as to Paul's future happiness. Conversely, nosy biddies among the women are speculating and foreboding as to the satisfactoriness of the situation from the young girl's point of view.

Paul broke the news to Bob and Bobbie one evening several weeks ago. He told Bob that he had considered him for his best man, especially since his older brothers don't want to be mixed up in the wedding. But then he said he had decided against it because he didn't like the way Bob's legs had been bowing out the last few years and that made Bob look a little silly and would not do his image any good at all at the wedding. He also said he'd decided he needed to get married before July because he'd be 57 then.

The way we hear it, Rose and Paul won't be taking a honeymoon because, as he said, "We all know how many couples die in auto crashes or get robbed and murdered on their honeymoons." Sounds pretty convincing to me, too. So, Paul's going to just take a few days off from his chores. When he was asked if Rose was going to continue working in town keeping other people's children, Paul said he didn't believe so because he thought Rose would probably want to work with him in the fields and doing other farm chores. Well, let's hope so.

Paul is an original. What really has the old farts around here clucking with envy is the thought of a 57-year-old farmer corralled with a 22-year-old attractive blond.



FOOTNOTES:

1. This re-enactment is taken from a rough draft of a letter. I have corrected some gross errors – and I probably missed a few and added a few, too. Names have been abbreviated to protect ... me.

2. This, too, is taken from a rough draft of a letter. I have made a few corrections and omitted parts. This letter is oblique thank-you follow-up to the girlfriend of the recipient of the first letter in this collection.

3. You have possibly got the drift of the pattern by now: This is taken from a rough draft of a letter. I have made corrections and excisions. This one was written to a former girlfriend of the first recipient. She, my wife, and I had long since become friends.

 

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