Editor’s note: I wrote most of this on Saturday, May 4, the day after we forced ourselves upon Audrey and Anthony Williams. I had no idea we’d stay another 10 days. Southern hospitality, Audrey says, is making people feel at home even when you wish they were. She always made sure to say this adage didn’t apply to us. This just touches the surface of our Tallapoosa stay. There’s much, much more to come.
May 4, Tallapoosa, Ga. – We’re back in the little town by the Alabama border. This is my fourth visit, Becky’s second and Max’s first. I was last here in June 2007 with intrepid friend of the blog Lauri Lebo.
Much has changed since then, but the lyrical rhythms of the rural south remain constant.
We came here in 2007, as I’d come in 2002 and then returned with Becky in 2003, to visit with Clara Williams, sister of our beloved Bremerton neighbor Stanley Clarke.
Stanley, as Clara was found of saying, was a dilly. Stan and Clara were two of 11 children born to John and Emma Clark. Stan took it upon himself to add the punctuating “e” to his surname. He also gave himself a middle name. Stanley D. Clarke. The D was for “Darling.”
Stan died on Oct. 15, 2005, only 44 days after Monophae, his wife of 58 years, passed. Stan was 90. Clara followed him on Aug. 26, 2009. She eclipsed him, totaling 92 years and 12 days before walking off this troubled coil.
That left Etta, or as they say it here, Etter. When we got into town yesterday, we drove up to the cemetery at the Riverside Baptist Church. We learned immediately that Etta had made it long enough to earn the crown as champion of all the Clark(e)s. She died in September of last year, making it to 92 years and three months.
Clara is gone, but her spirit endures. I type this from her kitchen. My belly is full of biscuits and coffee and cantaloupe. Clara was never happy unless your belly was full to the point of discomfort.
After visiting the cemetery and paying our respects to Clara and Etter and the rest of the family, we found our way to Terry Shealy’s house. Terry is Etter’s son. I got out, walked up to the door and knocked.
When we were here 10 years ago, Terry showed off his scuppadine vines and Bucky, his 3-year-old buck. A couple years later, Bucky nearly killed Terry. Gored him in the leg and threatened to overpower him. There’d be no scuppadines, no Bucky today.
We drove off Shealey Road (Note the spelling inconsistency). They say Terry’s daddy, Herschel “Shorty” Shealy, was a wizard with an ax. He could cut up a hog with an ax like no one else. A Camel cigarette hung off the side of his mouth like it had been sculpted.
When the Camels finally caught up to him and he was dying of cancer in a hospital in Rome, Clara, Etter and Estelle took some of the kids for a visit. Clara drove. She didn’t drive much, and she made a wrong turn and crossed over the Etowah River. She couldn’t seem to find her way out of the maze. Every time they crossed the Etowah, Etter said, “There’s the Etowah River again.” On the third such occasion, Clara said, “Etter, if I hear you mention the Etowah River one more time, I’m going to slap the shit out of you.”
At least that’s the story we heard last night. For the record, I never heard Clara cuss.
We spilled back on Highway 78 (down here, they call it 78 Highway), only I turned wrong, and soon we were in Alabama. We turned around and drove back into Georgia and past Clara’s old place. We slowed down, and a man standing in the driveway issued a friendly wave. We went a quarter-mile up the road toward town before stopping. I wondered if the guy in the driveway possibly might be Anthony, Clara’s oldest boy with her second husband, Ollie Williams. I’d met him once, but had scant memory of the meeting. I only knew he lived in Tallapoosa.
I made a U-turn and slowly headed back in the other direction. I nosed into the driveway, just far enough so we wouldn’t get clipped by marauding trucks rumbling by on 78, and made tentative steps toward the porch.
I noted the name Williams remained on the mailbox.
“Have you folks got lost in our big city?” came a female voice soaked in the reassuring, lyrical lilt of West Georgia.
It was Audrey Williams, Clara’s daughter-in-law and Anthony’s wife.
We spent the next eight hours on the porch, listening to stories, sipping bourbon and abandoning ourselves to the serendipitous bonhomie of random encounters. With no disrespect to the lovely Clara Williams, this was the most wonderful Tallapoosa day yet.
It is pouring. It has been pouring constantly since we returned to the Behemoth at 1:30 in the morning. This makes our new friend Audrey quite happy.
“Rain (ray-en) is a treasure,” she said. “It makes me feel good all over.”
Audrey and Anthony, like Clara before, make us feel good all over.
Max has made a new friend in William, the 6-year-old son of Alison, Audrey and Anthony’s daughter.
In the midst of all the good feeling, we received terrible news.
We’d been chatting for a few minutes, remembering Clara and Etter and past visits, when I asked Anthony about his little brother Keith, the big, old country boy they called Beefy. We’d gotten to know Keith a little, enough to know he had encountered his share of trouble.
He drove us over to Terry’s house back in 2003, and he had been quite generous. He told a racist joke or two, but us being white and all, we managed to get along just fine. Anyway, Anthony shuddered and said, “My brother took his own life back in 2010.”
Dec. 1, 2010, to be precise. After doing time for drugs and stalking his ex-wife, including pulling stunts like putting nails under her tires, Keith came home and said he was going to start his life over. Anthony said he was home one day when he was busted up on the hill between the house and town. He was holding meth and pot. He was due back in court to face those charges on Dec. 2.
“I am tired, physically, mentally, emotionally and financially,” he wrote in his journal.
They found him outside the house. He’d shot himself in the head.
Anthony has become quite philosophical. For a year he couldn’t talk about Keith without breaking down and crying.
“What is, is,” he said.
Years ago a friend said something that’s stuck with him. Perhaps he was quoting Hank Williams, perhaps he came up with it on his own.
Now he thinks about Keith and tortures himself about all the things he might’ve done but never did, and then realizes there’s not a damn thing he could’ve done.
He shrugs his shoulders and waits for the rolling thunder of traffic to pause.
“No one gets out of this world alive,” he says.
And so. And so. Anthony reports Lily, Keith’s 16-year-old daughter, is back in town. Her mom had remarried and moved to Texas, but she’s back now.
When Becky and I came here in 2003, we got to meet 12-year-old Levi, Lily’s half-brother. Sweet kid. I rode bikes with him. He even raised the seat on his bike so I could pretend to be a kid.
I asked about Levi.
He was killed in a wreck in March, coming home from work in Alabama. Everyone said what a nice young man he’d become.
He was only 21.
No one gets out of this world alive,” Anthony repeated.
So, that makes four, Clara, Etter, Keith and Levi, gone since our 2007 visit.
Gone. And the beat, you know it goes on and on.
“Ain’t no one gets out of this world alive.”