South of Everything

Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to present an excerpt from Audrey Taylor Gonzalez’ book South of Everything. Set in 1940s Tennessee, South of Everything tells a powerful parable about the changing South after World War II, inspired by the author’s own life experiences.

Purchase the book at Amazon.

Amazon Summary: South of Everything is a magical coming of age story about the daughter of a plantation-owning family, who, despite her privileged background, finds more in common with “the help” than her own family. She develops a special kinship with her parents’ servant Old Thomas, who introduces her to the mysterious Lolololo Tree––a magical, mystical tree with healing powers that she discovers is wiser than any teacher or parent or priest. Her connection with the Lolololo Tree opens her eyes to the religious and racial prejudice of her surroundings and readers will root for her to fight against injustice and follow her heart to meet her fate.

Chapter One

In West Tennessee God forgot his geography. Decades past an earthquake caused the Mississippi River to flow backward and form a lake called Reelfoot. That’s all we got. No Smoky Mountains in this part of the state. No table-flat buttes. No skyscrapers. Only the Mississippi chewing its way along the border like an old timer working the tobacco stuffed in his gums. Settlements that imbibed the muddy juice along the river were about as tangy as the brown banks, and people seemed to want to keep it that way—quiet and out of harm’s way, or covered if harm got in the way. Waiting for disaster. Fending it off by doing nothing.

Germantown, where our family lived, on the southeast side of Shelby County, carried on this pace, away from urban Memphis, near where Wolf River set free from the Mississippi. Germantown had less roll than the railroad tracks that passed through it, and the soil was poorer than the rich Delta lands below the riverbanks. The hills weren’t as adamant in their lifting up as the rest of Tennessee, kind of like an illegitimate landscape born of its neighbor states but cut out because it had to be somewhere to hold up all those trees, Herefords, hogs, horses, cotton bales, and unpainted sharecropper houses. Farms backed into each other. Only tornado warnings twirling over from Arkansas charged up the atmosphere, but no one panicked, trusting in the famous Memphis bluffs, humps of hills along the river that old-timers swore clipped the tornado’s tail so it jumped over Shelby County.

This was dull country out here, unpestered by progress. Still safe. People behaved. Everyone knew his place, his role in a situation. Nothing much went on, and if it did, everyone knew about it. Germantown was not a town of Germans. In fact, it changed its name to Nashoba during the World War. Nashoba was an old Indian name for “wolf”, probably Chickasaw. But this wasn’t a town of Indians either. What did we know of Indians? Indians lived out West and held rain dances, wore feathers and moccasins, and showed up in Lone Ranger comic books as villains. When I was ten I got a crush on an Indian, a wrangler at a dude ranch out in Colorado where our family went summers. Neal Ride the Wind, he was, with long black hair under his Stetson, every strand in place as if just brushed, moving like a curtain over his lemon-colored slicker as he brought up the guests’ horses. Back then I was just a pudgy nuisance who could sit a horse pretty well, Western shirt barely snapping across my jelly-roll midriff, shapeless jeans, cuffs turned up off the ground.

But home was Germantown, and in the ’40s, when I grew up there, Germantown was Deep South, not Indian Country—but an uneventful, unincorporated town of insignificant people, tractors taking up half the narrow roads, big farms, rolling grass every whichaway, a “for whites only” county high school with yellow buses, plenty of wood shacks and barns, and a few stately old homes left over from pre–Civil War fancy. There were probably more colored people than white living in the country. Rich white folks had big houses mostly in town. On plantations the houses were colonial style, with portico porches from which there was a view, while colored people had unpainted porches lifted off the ground by bricks stacked under the four corners to keep out floodwater and rats. Hound dogs and sneaky snakes slept under the crooked open-air porches, unraveling screen doors banged listlessly in the breeze, and early Maytag washers rested in the front yard. Hound dogs welcomed visitors, their heads drooped knee level, anticipating an ear-pull. They howled if you played on a piano.

Poor white folks lived like that, too, people like Mr. Hugh and his family, who took care of the cows on our farm. Sons had BB guns and played football, tinkered with dead automobiles, and took girlfriends over the state line to Hernando, Mississippi, to get married. B-Budd Hugh was one of my first friends. But it wasn’t until I was fourteen came my first true love, the beginning of many, a sharecropper’s son who had a squashed nose like a boxer’s. Twice it was broken. He scored touchdowns some Friday nights at the high school. Guys liked him. He had rolled a car in a ditch. Didn’t get a scratch. Didn’t go to jail. His dad had one leg crippled from an old war wound, drove a leased tractor to farm his crops. His mother, her uniform a thin flower-specked housecoat, passed warm days on the front porch shelling black eyed peas into a cast-iron pot or peeling peaches for canning. I spent a couple of afternoons shelling peas before my parents told me I couldn’t see Duke anymore because he didn’t respectfully stand up when they walked into the playroom and I introduced him. He lacked good manners, claimed Daddy, who had no time for that.

We lived in one of those big houses, and we knew colored people better than most because they lived next to or with us on our farms. The farm men got up at dawn, hooked up the mules, drove the feed from pasture to pasture no matter if there was rain or sleet or snow, sort of like the postman. The women rocked us from the cradle and arranged us for getting married and cooked the biscuits Daddy wanted every night for dinner. The men wore white coats to serve dinner, and the women washed and folded our delicate underwear and changed the sheets every other day. They inherited our unwanted clothes and broken toys—not the fine things, which Mother sent to the Junior League. Their children conspired with us to throw baby pigs out of haylofts to see if they bounced and then fled with us from the angry farm manager so as not to get killed. They galloped bareback with us on the walking horse and played war with us by the old ponies in the pastures.

They called me Missy Sara, and they called my brother Master Robertelee, even when we were children. Never first names alone. Daddy called them “the help,” and Mother called them “the servants.” From childhood I guessed they were ours because they were always there, polishing up the house so it was a showpiece. When I was two and three, I knew if I stood at the top of the stairs and yelled, “Yeh-Yeh, come get me,” the butler whose name was Willie would soon have me up in his arms and tote me to the bottom of the stairs.

Like the servants at the big house, where things were nicer, the farm help’s life seemed to begin and end where they worked. The old men hardly scattered from the farm because it was a long walk to anywhere, and weekends they walked to church or to a mule race where they could win silver dollars, or maybe they’d go down to Hoppers’ for fried chitlins and marshmallowed sweet potatoes, which kind Mrs. Hoppers prepared with great skill. Old men poked along on foot at the edge of rut-filled Stout Road, ambling in slow motion, dark apparitions dressed in layers of caramel brown or parson black, even on the hottest days, often a thick stick in hand, a tow sack over the shoulder, a hat on the head, going to or coming from in the same manner so the footpaths were worn like cattle trails. The kids rode thin bicycles or an unkempt pony.

But before the farm, when I was six and we still lived at my grandfather Reddaddy’s mansion on South Parkway, I dressed in my favorite pink pinafore with the bibbed front that barely covered my chubby chest one Easter morning and waited impatiently for Mother to get ready for church. She was taking a long time, so I went out to the barnyard, where our twin goats, Custard and Pudding, lived with my Shetland pony, Penny. When I walked in, Penny, her teeth almost as big as her hooves, gave my shoulder a nip, and then she shook her head with its golden mane and reared up to put her hooves on the fence. A loud whinny and a few nose blows, and she stood on her hind legs for a few seconds before going back down. She did that only for me. I knew she was a trick pony because of that. But no one believed me when I told them. For my birthday parties Penny, on her best behavior, was hitched to the six-seat wicker cart to give my guests with balloons tied to their wrists a ride around the front driveway. Most of the time I wasn’t allowed to ride her unless Old Thomas wasn’t busy. I was only allowed to feed her sugar cubes, which she nudged off my flat hand. So I wanted to go find Thomas. I thought he must be picking strawberries for our cook, Mammyrosy’s shortcake, but before I could, Mother yelled for me to come get in the car.

I turned and ran toward her call, and that’s when I tripped and fell hard on the gravel driveway. The hurt wasn’t too awful, but three rocks stuck in my knee. I cried, and when I got to the car, I told Mother what had happened. She didn’t believe I was wounded. No one did, because no one could see the rocks lodged under the skin and my knee wasn’t bleeding. Besides, we were late, and Mother was in a big rush to get us to Sunday school, so she ordered me to quit fussing and get in the car.

When I told Robertelee about the rocks he said if I kissed my knee, they would go away. So that day when we got home I looked at my knee in the mirror and watched those rocks glistening deep under the skin. I realized there was no way I could kiss my knee. I could only push my finger in and out on the triangle. Those rocks felt like hard candy in the bottom of my Christmas stocking. Day after day I studied them and pushed at them, and when I was fiddling with the rocks, I’d get a fizzy sensation that I was being lifted up.

At that age I didn’t know if it was magical or spiritual or what that sensation was. I couldn’t evaluate it then. But I promise you, this is true: when no one was around, I could fiddle with those rocks and then I could float down the grand curving staircase of the big house. If I whispered, “Lift me up, Lord,” He’d do it. He’d lift me up. I could think where I wanted to be, and a moment later I’d be there. At the top of the grand front steps, my feet would hover a shoe’s length off the first step and I’d drift slowly, in vertical fashion, from the top step to the safety of the bottom one. The sensation felt as smooth and delicious as ice-skating on a cold day.

Sometimes in the night, while I slept with my cat Flossie, the rocks in my knees stung, and I was sure the bogeyman was chewing on my toes. I didn’t want to look to see if he was. If my covers were on, I was safe and the bogeyman would get bored and go bother my brother in his room. But during restless nights, a scary dream began in me. In that same pink pinafore and with my rock-filled knee leaking blood, I had to run in curves around the tall oak trees as I tried to dodge red Chevrolets aiming to run directly over me. I hid behind the thinner elms or turned sharply in narrow triangles around the poplars, feeling wise that I knew metal cars couldn’t bend around trees, and then, exhausted, I stretched out on the ground as flat as possible in my roundness, so wheels could pass by on either side of my body without the belly of the car scraping my stomach.

Of course, I didn’t tell anyone except Old Thomas about these things. Old Thomas was the colored man my grandfather Reddaddy had brought up from one of the cotton warehouses, and he was magical. He could analyze just about anything. Old Thomas knew so many stories I just wanted to be around him all the time. He knew that the inside of people didn’t always tell the outside. Many people came to him for advice. He never admitted to any powers because once the police hauled him off, and he didn’t want that to happen again. Maybe he really was a healing man, but he just wouldn’t practice on people who particularly wanted to be practiced on. He practiced on whatever was closest at hand. Old Thomas had a special way with animals, especially those with religious potential. He taught a dozen pink and black pigs how to pray before they dove into their evening meal, and he taught chickens how to squat down over their legs for an epistle reading and sit still until it was over, and dogs wandered along behind him so that he might have picked up a whole congregation of them by the time he got a short piece down the road. Mother thought it was strange how the dogs that usually try to bite colored people loved Old Thomas. Maybe it was because he hummed like an icebox or a summer ceiling fan. When things were quiet, it was the hum you picked up. Old Thomas even hummed when he was serving and it wasn’t proper to speak, like at dinner when he passed the lady peas mounded up in silver dishes. It bothered my mother to have to put up with his humming. But she couldn’t get rid of Old Thomas because Reddaddy had made an agreement with Daddy that Old Thomas would be there with us all his life. And that he’d be safe. Daddy knew some secrets that Mother didn’t, so she simmered a bit in being left out. “Thomas is doing that humming stuff again,” she’d complain, returning from the kitchen to the den, where the sound of Vaughn Monroe came out of the record player. She’d be hoping to get sympathy from Daddy, who kept his eyes focused on the Zane Grey western he was reading.

“Whenever he gets like that, nothing gets done,” Mother said into space. She was never satisfied with “the help,” even though most stayed with us until death. And she had no patience with burning religion. If anyone got religious inspiration during work hours, it stirred her nerves.

“Is he going into a trance again?” Mother asked Mammyrosy, who was beating the cream for prune whip.

“Dunno, Miz Lucy,” Mammyrosy replied, the muscles in her walloping arm like knots in a seaman’s rope. Mammyrosy wasn’t getting into anybody’s debt. She had a tendency to nap when Old Thomas hummed, and when dinner was all ready to be served, the turnip greens and corn pudding and squash casserole pierced at right angles by the oversize serving spoons so Mother would have no problems with the first serving, Mammyrosy rested in her metal chair in the corner and fell asleep sitting up. Automatically at 6:00 p.m. her eyes snapped open, and Old Thomas would quell his humming and go announce that dinner was served.

Now and then Mammyrosy wore a long white cotton dress and white beret to work; this outfit signified that she was going to the meeting of her Salvation Sisters group at the Coloreds Methodist Episcopal Church after she tidied up. Mammyrosy, too, had “experiences” with the Lord, but they were quieter than Old Thomas’s and pretty much hers alone. When she got into a state of vision, she’d just close her eyes and beat whatever batter she was mixing even faster.

“I don’t know why you all have to do these things right at dinnertime,” Mother mumbled, pushing out the swinging door as she left the kitchen.

I figured Mother was disturbed that she couldn’t order around the time and place of Jesus’s activities, which seemed to have a priority around dinnertime. Or maybe she was disturbed because Old Thomas had a white eye that had been turning whiter and whiter lately and looked like the star opal one of Daddy’s friends brought back from the war in India. You never knew where Old Thomas was looking, but he could see clearer than a dog’s scent, and I always knew when he was looking at me, because when he was, I felt warm.

Even before I told him, Old Thomas knew things. I often passed my secrets on to him. He could spot a miracle from any distance and tell if it was real or fake, and when I told him about the dream, he claimed it had something to do with those rocks in my knee. He said my knee had snagged the three spots off the devil’s dice, the kind we used playing board games but a more powerful version because they were red with brown spots. I couldn’t figure out what the devil’s red dice were doing in my grandfather’s gravel driveway. Old Thomas didn’t go into detail. But he did promise one day the devil would get his comeuppance and wouldn’t win any more games.

On Sundays the population of Germantown swelled with Sunday drivers from Memphis looking for an outing or a good barbecue sandwich, because Germantown was home to the best barbecue pit in the country. Bozos, it was called, ten miles down Highway 61 from our farm. Barbecue lovers drove the twenty miles out of town for good pulled-pork barbecue sandwiches and a slab of ribs. Barbecue was born out of a way to make cheap, fatty meat edible, complimenting the laid-back lifestyle of these parts. Slide a pig’s thigh on an iron grate, turn it every now and then, slop it with a sauce that stung with vinegar. This land I came from was a land where violence was turned deep into the soil, but no one dared bring it up except in whispers at Bozos. Bozos was an enigma. Besides being home to the best barbecue in the country, it was also its own sort of church where ideas got disturbed in conversation. Pull open the door, and be assured your spirit would soon be saved.

Two aged sisters, Miss Irma and Miss Lulu, with overbleached blond hair and aqua-blue eye shadow, ran Bozos on an old family recipe, a secret they planned to take to the grave with them, so we had to eat it while we could. Miss Irma looked like she was the barbecue taster, big and buxom in her spotty white apron over a flowered dress, and Miss Lulu was skinny. She always wore a green bow in her hair and green socks with her sandals because they matched her green apron with its big pockets. My Reddaddy went to Bozos so much he should have owned the place, and some days Old Thomas went along to visit with the sisters, too. But Reddaddy and County Sheriff Ferget met there every week, and sometimes on Sundays when Reddaddy could sneak away from the big house. For me it was the forbidden place I had to get to. Mother got upset when Reddaddy took me there and fed me pork barbecue. Pork was unkempt for a proper young girl, she said. And all that sauce, too messy for good manners. But besides the Lolololo tree, Bozos was one of my favorite places in the world, and Old Thomas and Reddaddy were my favorite people.