Excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds
Purslane could not remember the last time she’d flown and she felt as free and excited as a child going away by herself for the first time. Purslane sat in the hard shell like plastic seat, her carryon luggage parked beside her. She was too antsy to write in her journal as she’d planned and sat watching the actions and activities of the other travelers. By 2pm she was in Tennessee. Purslane walked slowly through the Nashville airport. Country music filled the corridor near a bar and images of Elvis hung from the wall. Neon lit guitars and cowboy boots were everywhere. Purslane happily pulled her small wheeled suitcase behind her as she navigated through the slow moving crowd, finding her way to the car rental station.
On the road Purslane took a deep breath and hoped the way to her Aunt’s house in Knoxville was as easy as it looked on paper. A straight shot down interstate 40, exit on Broadway and a few miles to Fountain City in Knoxville. The trees along the freeway were full of green delicate leaves and the temperature was near 70. This trip would be quick, just a day with her Aunt Rose and two days with her father and then back to the airport and back to Seattle. In just four days she’d cross the great state of Tennessee driving east from Nashville to Knoxville then west to Nashville and southwest to Millidgeville where her dad lived. Purslane rolled down the windows and inhaled the southern air. She expected something different. She’d felt different but the air was the same although warm. Every station on the radio played country music and Purslane found a familiar song and turned the volume up. She cruised easily on I-40 for at least two hours. Her fears of getting lost abated. Purslane relaxed and enjoyed the ride. The wind, music, freedom and the knowledge of being so far away—nearly 2000 miles—made Purslane feel…well… unlike Purslane.
Fountain city was easy to find and it was just that—a small city with a fountain and man-made lake at the town’s square. Aunt Rose’s house was up hill from the lake and sat back on a gentle slope of land surrounded by trees. Purslane bounced the car along the cobblestone driveway and smiled at a concrete gargoyle sitting on its haunches near the garage door. She walked to the porch but before the old wood planks had a chance to creak and announce her arrival, Aunt Rose appeared, “You made it girl! Ain’t this somethin’? You come to visit me again!” They embraced and then stood apart studying each other’s face. Purslane followed Rose inside the small house and felt instantly at peace. The living room seemed to be built just for the sake of having a place for the window; an amazing large expanse of glass that looked out onto a tall and very old hickory tree. Beyond the hickory in the distance Purslane could see the great Smokey Mountains. Purslane’s mouth opened in amazement and appreciation of so much beauty but no words came out. Rose appeared with a tray and a steaming teapot and two cups. “It’s quiet a view” her aunt commented, “Me and Franklin used to spend hours just watching the world from here.” Rose smiled and Purslane reached to take the tray, finding a spot for it on the coffee table. Purslane poured a cup of tea for each of them and they sat and talked quietly until the sun began to cast shadows on the trees outside and the sky became a dusty pink. When Rose carried the tray back to the kitchen, Purslane stood and studied the bookcases that lined each side of the brick fireplace. Various knickknacks and pictures in silver frames shared the space with books by John Steinbeck, Virginia Wolf and Hemmingway. A cuckoo clock hung on the wall and beneath it sat a sewing machine, its cast iron wheel and foot petal dusty from years of not being used. Every table held a doily and a vase of flowers or potted plant. There were black and white photos of relatives on every wall and as Purslane studied their faces she felt a sudden regret at not knowing them, of never even meeting many of them and now they were dead. Her mother had done that. Disconnected Purslane from her father’s side of the family. She was a stranger to her own blood.
Purslane was grateful for the openness of her aunt Rose and uncle Frank and happy that she’d been able to make a few trips down south to visit them.
“Come on and take a look at your room” Rose’s voice brought Purslane back to the present. Her Aunt stood smiling with a small vase of Honeysuckle, “These are for you, a gift from my beloved Franklin.” Purslane took the vase and held the flowers under her nose, remembering her uncle Frank and his love of gardening. “Aunt Rose, I almost expected to see Uncle Frank in the Iris patch when I got here today. It doesn’t seem right that he’s not here with you.”
Rose smiled and walked slowly down the hall with Purslane in tow,“I miss Franklin every day. I surely do.”
The spare room hosted a large brass frame bed dressed with a worn and faded quilt of pale green squares in a floral print. Pillows in cotton eyelet cases lay invitingly on top. Purslane sighed and sat on the edge of the bed, suddenly weary from the long drive. A milk white hurricane lamp sat on a desk beside the bed and Purslane carefully put the vase of Honeysuckle next to it.
Purslane awoke to the sound of birds. She thought she was dreaming at first but the chirping was accompanied by the sound of branches brushing against glass and she remembered the bed she slept on was beneath a window. Purslane sat up and separated the ruffled yellow curtains. A Holly tree filled the entire window and a family of cardinals filled the Holly tree.
Rose sat at the small wooden table in the kitchen. The smell of scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy wafted from the stove and drew purslane from the comfort of her bed. They drank hot coffee from a percolator that bubbled away on the counter. “I wish you’d stay on a little longer dear.” Rose looked sadly into Purslane’s eyes. “We don’t ever get to talk much and I never seem to see your daddy no more. Course he’s old now too and not likely to travel all the way out here just to see me.”
Purslane nodded in sympathy and when Rose placed another warm biscuit on her plate she asked,
“Aunt Rose, didn’t grandma used to write?”
“Oh honey, I don’t know.” Rose struggled to open a jar of Muskedine jelly until Purslane took the jar and quickly popped the seal.
“She was the editor of that newsletter remember? When she lived at the Edgewood Towers.” Purslane’s eyes eagerly met those of her Aunt’s.
Rose spread the jelly on her biscuit and added thoughtfully, “She wrote articles and wrote stories about the residents. I suppose you’d call it that. She’d like to know you thought of her as an editor” Rose’s coffee cup clattered its way back in the groove of the floral china saucer.
“You wrote that book of short stories.” Purslane stood and brought the percolator to the table refilling Rose’s cup and her own too.
“I did. My oldest boy had it published for me. You know every once in a while I’ll even get a small check in the mail when someone buys a copy.”
Purslane smiled at her Aunt and took the last biscuit from the cast iron skillet. Rose laughed and said, “You should stay longer just so I can show you how to make biscuits like that.”
“Do you think writers are born or made?” Purslane seemed to be pondering the question as if she might answer it herself, but then she looked at Rose and waited.
“What do you want honey? If you want to write, then write. Writing is an art. There’s some writing that’s like a pretty picture and people will pay money to have it. They want it because other people have it and it’s easy. You know it’s easy to understand and make sense of. There’s some writing that’s funny or will learn you a thing or too and then there’s a kind of writing that folks don’t really appreciate right away. Like the artist that dies without ever selling a picture. Do you think anyone could tell him to stop painting because nobody’s buying?” Rose reached across the table and took the coffee cup from Purslane. She squeezed hard at her niece’s hands and looked fiercely into her eyes. “A writer has to have gumption. That’s all. Gumption.”
“Aunt Rose have you read those books you have by Virginia Woolf? She says in order for a woman to write she must have 500 quid and a room of her own. What do you think of that?” Purslane felt a familiar anger rise in her chest. She didn’t want Rose to see it or see the resentment that often came with it.
“She’s right honey, I’m sorry but it’s true.”
“And if a woman doesn’t have those things?”
“If a woman doesn’t have those things and wants to write then she’s a born writer!”
Purslane smiled widely and rose from the table. Her aunt steadied herself and stood and the two embraced.
Her father’s home was in a remote and rural part of Tennessee, five hours away. Purslane listened to country music and watched the farmlands roll by on both sides of the interstate. She pulled onto the long gravel drive at the small house on Ellis Road and smiled as Ole Henry began to bark. The dog was good company for her dad who lived alone and was nearly 80 years old. Both were fat and grizzled and set in their ways but they made room enough for Purslane to invade their territory at least once every two or three years. Her dad sat on the porch trying to slap Ole Henry’s back with a tree switch but the dog was too excited and wouldn’t calm down enough to be disciplined by the old man.
Avery Willis Jackson was a loner. He gardened, read western paperbacks, smiled and waved at the nosey old widows who lived nearby, accepting their occasional chocolate pies and “howdy doos” and secretly cursing them under his breath when they turned away. He seldom cleaned his house and tended instead to move piles of junk and clutter out of the way. ‘Clearing a spot’ was his way of cleaning. Avery let Ole Henry off the chain and the dog ran to Purslane waving his tail so hard that the motion nearly caused the poor overweight animal to lose his balance. “Henry git away from her!” Avery slapped the hound on its hind legs with the switch and shooed him back to the porch. Purslane followed her dad inside and purposely let the screen door slam behind her. That sound—the cheap wood frame slapping against the door jam—was quintessential country and it made Purslane smile. Her dad’s house consisted of four rooms exactly. The living room was dirty and cluttered with a broken easy chair left in the reclining position. A couch sat full of books and old quilts and two end tables so heavily laden with dust they almost looked like they were covered in doilies made of grey felt. Purslane followed her dad to the kitchen, a big square room with a chrome and formica table in the center. “Let me clear a spot for you. I thought you’d want coffee so I put on a fresh pot just a few minutes ago.”
Purslane watched as her dad stooped over the dirty table gathering magazines, pill bottles and a bowl of what looked like dried up chili. The overhead kitchen light shown on his head and what was left of his black hair was nearly white. Ole Henry sniffed the air, got excited again and nearly caused her dad to trip. Purslane quickly grabbled the magazines and put them on the kitchen counter, scattering and knocking over a half dozen washed and empty tin cans. “Henry you lookin’ for a whoopin’!” Avery looked at the bowl of chili and sat it down on the floor. The dog licked and pawed at it until it eventually flopped upside down and reminded Purslane of a turtle in protective mode.
“The yard looks nice, dad. I can see you’ve started a new garden by the walkway.”
“I started it but cain’t finish it. Don’t have the strenth. Might get that crazy fool that sold me this place to help.” Avery sat down slowly at the table and leaned forward on his elbows. Purslane said, “I’ll help you dad, it’s not that big of a space.”
“Girl this dirt ain’t like that soft Yanklee soil ya’ll got up there”, Avery scoffed, rapping his knuckles on the table top, “this here’s hard clay.”
Purslane smiled at the old man, “I’ve hoisted river rocks the size of bowling balls from the dirt in my own back yard dad. I think I can handle a little clay.”
Avery laughed and picked up a used toothpick from the table. He rolled it from the left side of his mouth to the right. “Well alright, we’ll work on it tomorrow. I got me a watermelon patch in the back too– and some cantaloupes.”
The next day Purslane followed her father around the perimeter of his house as he gave an overview and update on the status of plants and trees as well as repairs he’d made and work he still needed to do. It was their routine and Purslane enjoyed listening. It was his way of connecting her to the place and filling in the gaps of the years and season’s she’d missed. His stooped shoulders seemed a little more curved with every visit but his enthusiasm for the land he owned never wavered. He owned the acre of land and house outright and one day it would belong to Purslane. The old Magnolia that graced the large, flat front yard was nearly 50 feet tall and was a bane to her father every October as it dropped its red fuzzy cones in a dense carpet. Every year Avery had to pay someone to rake and carry them away. The pecan tree produced so much that nearly half the nuts went rancid and the apple tree was a big disappointment—the fruit so full of worm holes and black spots that her dad barely had enough fruit to make a single pie. But Avery had plans. He had ideas to make the place more enjoyable, like a deck to replace the back stoop. Purslane walked slowly and listened to her father’s report. The grass felt soft under her feet and the smell of wild onions wafted occasionally under her nose. The back yard was gently slopped and looked out onto a large lot of trees and bramble that was owned by someone else but not developed and beyond that was Highway 22. Semi- trucks left West Tennessee and rolled by in the distance on their way to every big city in nearly every state. The trucks could be seen but barely heard and Purslane liked to sit on the back stoop with a cup of coffee and watch them. She hoped her father would make good on his plans for a deck. The tour concluded on the side of the house under the big oak tree. Its branches fanned out expansively in a grand welcome and Purslane stood near the trunk and looked up into the myriad of branches and leaves. “I never get tired of seeing this old tree. It’s amazing. It’s majestic.” Avery stood under the tree with his daughter but kept his eyes level with the trunk. He reached for a rake that was propped against the tree and carried it to a nearby shed. Purslane watched him move slowly across the yard. She felt a pang of hurt for the old man. He was stubborn and ornery sometimes and all alone. He was born and bred country and would never leave this place for the city—ever. Ole Henry followed Avery’s path across the yard and behind the shed to where a chain link kennel was stationed. Avery opened the gate and the dog slumped in, turned and stood looking forlorn until giving up and laying down in a smooth circle of dirt he’d scratched out of what used to be grass.
Avery turned and nodded in Purslane’s direction, “Let’s go in to town and get us some fried pies for breakfast.” Purslane smiled and then laughed out loud as Avery backed his truck down the gravel drive. “Only in Tennessee will I eat fried pies for breakfast!” Avery shifted the truck in gear and headed toward highway 22. “Elma’s a damn good cook. Her pies’ll make you forget how awful the coffee is.”
Elma’s was a gas station, grocery store, smoke shop and bait and tackle place all in one. Purslane sat with her father and three other old men at a wooden table on the long side of the store. Shelves full of toilet tissue and other paper products filled the space behind Purslane’s chair and an old Bunson coffee carafe burned coffee on a red coil to her left. A television blasted the local news from its anchored spot near the ceiling and Purslane sat fascinated by the faces and expressions of her father and these other loners and farmers. They’d nod their heads, sip at their cups, scratch at their leathered skin and sometimes break into laughter. The pies were indeed good and Purslane had one and then another, the hand held crust warming her fingers and delighting her taste buds with just the right amount of cinnamon, butter and sugar.
Later the same day Purslane finished digging the garden and mowed the back yard. She plowed round and round in a circled path that grew smaller and smaller as she worked her way to the center of the yard. She blatantly ran over an ant mound not really believing the ants would survive the mower blades. Purslane watched the soft dirt from the mound scatter as she forced the mower over it, bouncing her way back into the circle pattern she’d started. Within seconds her ankles began to burn. Little hot needles were stabbing her calves and even her toes that were tucked sockless but covered by her canvas Ked’s were afire with pain. Purslane stopped the mower and slapped at her legs. She wanted to take her shoes off but realized that would only make it worse. The yard was nearly finished and she wasn’t going to let a few fire ants stop her. Purslane restarted the mower and forged ahead. Her legs were burning and itching from the knees down. She rounded the last small circle area and left the mower in its place. Avery met his daughter on the back stoop with a cold wet rag and a bottle of calamine lotion. “Didn’t I point out those ants to you?”
“I thought the mower would scare them!” Purslane scratched and slapped at her feet, ankles and calves one more time before taking the rag and bottle of lotion from her father. She sat on the stoop and rubbed the soles of her bare and bitten feet across the brick. She poured the calamine onto the rag and dabbed at the itchy, stinging bites that appeared to be getting bigger and redder. She paused and sighed looking at her chewed up skin. Avery stood behind her with a glass of ice tea. “The yard looks nice.”
Purslane took a gulp of the cold, sweet tea, “The yard looks real good but my legs look like hamburger.”
When Purslane left for the airport the next morning she hugged her father goodbye and dragged her suitcase across the porch and down the steps. She stood for a long time in the dewy grass in the front yard. It was just after four AM. A slight breeze blew gently at her hair and the sky was black as licorice. There were so many stars above that it looked like someone had spilled a jar of glitter. Purslane watched the little house her father called home. She followed his movements from one room to another by the soft glow of lights in windows until finally every window grew dark. Shadows from the great magnolia fell across the yard. Highway 22 was narrow and pitch black on both sides. Purslane heeded the warning her father gave about deer running across the roadway and kept the radio off to stay alert and focused. By the time she merged onto interstate 40 the sun was beginning to bleed through in parts of the sky. She was still an hour away from Nashville and several hours away from her life in Seattle. Purslane had rested, feasted on southern food, laughed and listened to her aunt’s advice and father’s commentary. She had not thought much about writing at all. That would change when the plane touched down in Seattle. Cherry would come to mind and to Purslane’s mind all the haunts of her wounded spirit would resurface and demand action or answers. Gumption. It will take as much gumption to write or not to write –so what? I have to find beauty in the process, in the writing, in the art of creation itself, Purslane thought. She returned the rental car and took the escalator up to the main floor of the Nashville airport. She pulled her small suitcase along the promenade looking for a place to eat and have a beer. She felt light and free, suspended for the next several hours from reality. The air buzzed with the slow honey of southern drawl and Purslane felt her own tongue surrender to the pace. She ordered a salmon burger and a Heineken and took a seat near the entrance where she could people watch. Unlike most of the other travelers, Purslane had no interest in continually texting or chatting on the phone. She preferred to examine the details of her surroundings or watch how people interact with one another. She wasn’t lonely but she sometimes longed for witty conversation and would certainly respond in an interested, friendly manner if anyone approached her—but she would not initiate any interaction. Gumption was what she lacked socially. Purslane smiled thinking of her aunt and of the word, gumption. She took another swallow of cold beer from her glass and let a foamy beerstache form on her upper lip. Purslane laughed softly to herself but was afraid to look up to see if anyone might be watching. She quickly wiped her mouth on a white cocktail napkin and waited for her salmon burger to arrive.