From Coal Dust to Red Dirt

“Joyce is right about history being a nightmare—but it might be the nightmare from which no one can awake. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”    James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village

            In less than a week, I’ll be moving back to Oklahoma for the third time, a place where I once said I wanted to leave before I died there. No, I’m not near death nor am I going there to die. However, if I stay there for the next fifty or more years, whatever my maker has sketched out for me in They’re Book, that’ll be alright with me. I have now lived there long enough to have history there. I have now lived there long enough to have friends I consider my logical family. I have lived there so long, that my own hometown and the people I left behind there, are foreign to me.

            Last week, I spent the weekend with family in my hometown as a way to say goodbye to them one more time. While there, I heard news about people I once knew, former teachers and neighbors, estranged family members. Most of which I hadn’t thought of in years, some I couldn’t remember. I learned that a former teacher from the high school, a man I’d heard of but never had a class with, was now ensconced at the old folks home next door to my niece’s house, where she worked. She said he writes a poem in his journal almost every day. On days when nothing special happens or he’s not feeling well, his entry for that day simply reads, “Nothing.”

            I don’t keep a journal or a diary. I never have. I tried once but found myself boring and figured other people would too, so I stopped trying to record my thoughts that way and stuck to writing poems. I still find myself boring most of the time, and I doubt very strongly I will ever do something so egotistical and narcissistic as to write my memoirs. Part of the reason is that for any and all moments in my life I could choose to write about, I already know how the story ends, so I have no motivation to start writing it. Sure, I could lie like some do and change the facts, but what good would that do? I’ll still know.

            Every time I go home, I also look at the things in town which have changed in my absence. This time, I was lamenting, yet again, the loss of the A & W drive-up restaurant that used to be on the northern edge of town. The restaurant left during my childhood and another business took over the building, until, eventually, the building itself was gone and now a gas station and convenience store set on that spot. On the other end of town, across from the Catholic school, is a CVS, which I supposedly saw last Christmas because we drove right passed it, but I have no recollection of it and don’t remember seeing it at all. When CVS came in, they drove out the last remaining family-owned drugstore, and now my niece has to go to the next town over, more than sixteen miles away, to get her insulin because CVS won’t take her insurance.

            I didn’t get a chance to see much of the town while I was there, as my niece lives on the north side, near the route we would take out the next day. I had been hoping for one final glimpse of the Main Street. Growing up, I had always loved the architecture of the buildings on that street, and often found myself looking up at them, wondering what they had once been, who had owned them, and what was sold within. Many of the buildings which are there now have been there since the early 1900s, and they still bare the marks of that time when there was more attention put to detail, and things were built to last. When I was growing up there, the local paper, which came out once a week, on Thursdays, always printed a picture from the early days of the town. More than anything else, I would poor over these pictures. I would try to discern the outlines of the modern town as I superimposed it in my mind’s eye over the printed photo. One of my favorite photos, however, wasn’t of the buildings at all, but of the old town square. The square is no longer there. Instead, the library and municipal buildings sit on that space now. But, once upon a time it was a park, with benches and trees and lighted paths to walk. The ladies would walk through on Sundays in their best dresses, carrying umbrellas, usually in groups of three of four, their gentlemen following close behind. This is what the picture showed. Years later, when I knew of such things, it would remind me of a Seurat painting, albeit, a small town midwestern version.

            I’ve never been one to care much for world history. This was something I never questioned, thinking history, in general, was just never going to be an interest of mine. Then, some time ago, I realized that I’m always fascinated by local history of wherever I’m living. Once I’m connected to a place, I want to know how that place came to be. Who gave the town its name? Who were the families behind the names of the streets? And what was so special about this spot that someone had to stop and say, “Here I will make a town?” In grade school I was told the story of how the name came to be and I think that was the beginning of my fascination with local history. As the story goes, in the 1800s, when the town felt they were ready to make it official, they filled out the paperwork to become incorporated and sent them off to D.C., naming themselves after a man who had bought land in the area with the sole purpose of making a town square. When the paperwork arrived in Washington, bearing the same name as the name of a town in Virginia but spelled differently (but correctly as far as its namesake was concerned), the postal worker who received the paperwork thought that those Midwesterners couldn’t spell, and changed the name on the paperwork before he approved it. Meanwhile, back in Illinois, the locals of the new town decided it was too much bother to try to change it, so they kept the spelling, but pronouncing it the way it should be for many years to come, until over time, the stress on the vowel hardened to the way we pronounce it now. The myth around this change claims that it changed from a soft “a” to a hard “a” due to the accumulation of coal dust in the throats of the locals.

            This was not the only town I lived in growing up. In my memory, we lived in seven different towns, sometimes making moves within the town during our time there, or moving away for a year or so, then moving back. We moved so much, that I called my father the “Master Mover.” No one could play moving box Jenga like my father. The reason for the moves was either to find more work, to find cheaper housing, or to move closer to work. The moves occurred so frequently throughout my childhood that I rarely spent more than one year at a school at a time. Making friends was next to impossible and getting attached to a particular place was just not thought of. From the fifth grade through high school graduation, my family moved between two neighboring towns four times, until finally settling in the town where my niece now lives when I was a sophomore in high school. After I went to college my parents moved several more times, but that’s a story for another day. Finally, after all that moving around, I was able to attach the moniker “hometown” to a specific place. Now, when asked where I grew up, that’s the town I will name. Of all the places I lived growing up, it is the one I know the most about. I would never claim that I love it or that I long to see it. However, the history of the place is trapped within me, just as a portion of mine is now trapped within its city limits.

Educated Poor White Trash Goes Home

            I just spent most of this weekend with part of my family in one of the towns I grew up in. As mentioned in previous blogs, my family moved around a lot, which resulted in me attending several schools. I spent the weekend in the place where my family lived the longest and where I graduated high school. It’s a small town of no more than five thousand souls, several of whom are related to me and several more are people I went to high school with who never left. All my remaining immediate family lives there, which isn’t much. There’s my brother and his wife, three of their four kids, and four of their six grandkids. I might also have some cousins still floating about there.

            This weekend I was only able to see my oldest niece and her family, as the rest of the family was out of town or working. My oldest niece is the one in the family the most like me. Not to say we have a lot of interests in common, but we both approach the world in a calm way, not letting drama overtake us and content to just sit and be.

            I was at the hospital when both of my nieces were born. Brandi, the oldest, was born three days before my fifteenth birthday. From the start, she was my little buddy. When her mother and I would go places together, people often assumed I was her mother, though I never understood that. The family resemblance between us isn’t that strong, for one. I also felt I was too young to be considered her mother, even though that technically wasn’t true. As soon as she could read, I was taking her to the library and introducing her to books. She read so many one summer that she was allowed to go on the library field trip for summer readers. I was her chaperone on this trip. The destination was Cahokia Mounds, a Native American burial mound that had been a tourist site since I was a child. We toured the museum, watched the video, and climbed the mound. Well, she climbed it, it was too much for me.

            As soon as she could count, we would watch Jeopardy together and she would keep score for me. She cheated for me, however, as she never took off for the ones I missed. That kid could get me to do things I wasn’t normally inclined to do. Such as play games in the yard, play on the swings in the park, or just enjoy a kid’s company for more than an hour.

Then, in 1993, when I was twenty and she was five, I went away to college, only coming home for holidays and some of the summer breaks. Before I left, Brandi gave me a small Pound Puppy to take with me. I named him Rufus and he sat on my bookshelf looking down at me while I sat at my desk doing my homework. By the time I graduated, in 1998, I had missed five years of her life. I spent that summer with my brother’s family, then I went to grad school for two years. Nearly a year after I graduated, I left Illinois for Oklahoma, where I lived for five years. When I came back in 2007, it was to hear my nineteen-year-old niece tell me that she was pregnant and was getting married to someone I didn’t know. I was only back home for a few months before I went back to Oklahoma and this time stayed for nine years. This time when I came back my niece had two children, a boy and a girl, and was still married to the same man that I had only met a few times.

This weekend I informed my niece that when I’m old and infirm, if I don’t have a partner, I want her to be the one who takes care of me. She asked me why. I simply said, “Because I like you.” And I do. But it’s more than that. There is a kinship there that goes beyond blood and I feel comfortable with her. She told me about one of the residents at the home she works at as a CNA. A woman who needs a little extra care sometimes once asked my niece to lay beside her in her bed as she was going to sleep. My niece did so. It reminded me of when I used to put her down for naps as a child. I would put my arm out and she would lay down next to me in my bed. There wasn’t much talking, and she would settle down quickly. It wasn’t long before I could remove myself from the bed and she was sleep for the next two or three hours.

In less than two weeks I am leaving Illinois again, back to Oklahoma. As has been the case with us, I am leaving her yet again. I have always felt some guilt over this, but I know I needn’t worry. She’s happy, she has a good family, a job she likes, a new house they’re working on, and a good husband who is better than my mother ever hoped he’d be. I hope to see them again at Christmas, but we’ll have to see if the budget works out.

I also have another niece, Brittany. I didn’t get a chance to see her this weekend due to scheduling, but maybe next time. Brittany and I had a good relationship when she was growing up, but she was closest to my mother and we just didn’t gel as much. That said, I’ll have to write about her another day.

A Mormon on the Isle of Lesbos

In the Fall of 2001, just weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, I befriended a young woman, ten years my junior, in a lesbian chat room. She informed me that she came from a strict Mormon upbringing, was currently enrolled at BYU, and wasn’t out to anyone. We quickly became friends and I took on the role of lesbian mentor, albeit from afar. The whole experience inspired me to write poetry about that time, and I’ve recently rediscovered it while packing to move. I believe there were more, but I was only able to find three. Upon rereading them, I believe them to be some of my best work. I do think there is more to tell within the story I created within these poems, and maybe someday I will. The three poems are below.

The Newcomer

A newcomer has come to our little Isle

she seems unsure at times

as if she took a wrong turn somewhere

or meant to stay on dry land—see Athens, perhaps

I make it a point to welcome her

tell her she needn’t write poetry in order to stay

she needn’t do anything, but the longer she stays

she will likely become someone’s inspiration

I think she will be well received here

the ladies will like her and Sapph will

look on her with pleasure

I have prepared a room for her—it is my old room

it is full of books and paintings and paper on which to write

she will find her voice here

as so many of us have

and will learn to cultivate it

and bring out her best

I am to be her servant

she needs anything she need only to ask

tired from her journey, I have drawn her a bath

and will soothe her weary travelers’ muscles

and hope she will look upon me with favor

Sapph gently scolds me for trying to corrupt the young

I remind her that it is a practice

I learned at her side—she laughs at me

and tells me I have learned too much

“Yes, but what I learn has become art”

She smiles gently at me, I am once again her pupil

“To experience is to live and to live is to love…

and to love is to create art”

then she gives me a gentle push

in the newcomer’s direction

and once face to face with her—I falter

Shy, herself, she smiles at me

I remember my voice and offer a welcome

she lowers her eyes and accepts,

not yet knowing the proper response—

which is to merely say thank you

she follows me as I lead her to her room

hanging back, I think she’s afraid of me

I assure her I mean her no harm

and only have her pleasure in mind

and will take my leave if it be that which pleases her

understanding the rules at last, she says, “Please stay.”

The Newcomer’s Servant

I have been the newcomer’s servant

for many months now

she is an undemanding mistress

and still shy about asking me for things

though time and again I have told her

that her simplest wish is my pleasure to fulfill

Sapph says to give her time

that she will become accustomed to me soon

and not still blush and downcast her eyes

when I bow before her and kiss her hand

“She will recognize love soon enough

and lift her eyes to gaze upon it

and the rouge on her cheeks will soften

into a hue of complacency.”

I want to question her on how she can be so sure

but one does not question Sapph

oh, it is not that she doesn’t care for it—

quite the contrary, to enter into a battle of wits

with the tenth muse is to enter into

an argument that can go on for days

she doesn’t need to be proven right

but she will debate and discuss

until you are proven wrong

Then, our Sapph will laugh, though not unkindly

and proceed to write a poem

about you in which she refers to you as her lover

because we all are, after a fashion

and she does love us all

only now and then, she loves one of us a little more

I am selfishly glad that everyone else

is preoccupied with their own inspiration

and have left the newcomer and I in peace

to my knowledge she hasn’t written any poetry

nor has she requested an easel

but I have noticed her watching me

Whether it’s to see how to act here

or with a lover’s eye, I can only guess

she rarely makes a request of me

but when I feel her eyes upon me

I can’t help but wonder what she wants of me

but I can only hope she soon finds her voice

The Newcomer’s Voice

Things have settled into a routine

Fall is upon us and the wind has begun

to rustle the hems of our gowns

and to cover many a brow with strands

of a stray curl here and there

I have seen this happen many a time

to my mistress—I have seen her

blowing the curl away with

a distracted breath—not knowing

that now I am watching her

Sapph has seen my frustration

and each time she walks past

with her hands clasped behind her

she always gives a knowing smile and

a nod of encouragement or puts a hand

on my arm and whispers in my ear

“Faint heart, fair lady—fair chance”

But Sapph doesn’t realize

that all of my bravado

upon the newcomer’s arrival wasn’t real

Sapph doesn’t realize that despite my years here

I still tremble at a lady’s presence,

and that the young newcomer,

who has, on occasion, touched my hand

makes me tremble most of all

The newcomer has seemed to grow comfortable here

she no longer looks down when she addresses me

and has been known to ask my opinion

about which books she should read

and then discusses them with me after

“Why aren’t any of your books here?

I know you’ve written many—where are they?”

I tell her that I gave them all to Sapph

that when I wrote them she was the only

one who understood them—because they were written for her

“So Sapph is your lover?”

This thought makes me smile

the newcomer misunderstands

“Sapph is your lover too—she is lover to us all

as she is sister and mother and teacher”

“And what are you?”

“For, I am your servant.”

“Will you always be?”

“Unless you dismiss me.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then I will remain as I am.”

“And if I wish to change your duties?”

“I will do as you wish.”

“And if I wish you to come to me?”

“It has already been spoken and I am already there.”

I did get the chance to meet the newcomer a few years later. By then, she had been out for a while and was looking forward to graduating so that she could live more openly. During those early days, I only saw her twice, and no, there is no love story there to tell. As life often does, it went on for both of us, in different directions. It would be nearly fifteen years before I caught up with her again through the power of Facebook. She’s currently living her best life, with Dr. in front of her name, a woman on her arm, with a house and a dog. I am grateful for whatever time and whatever role I was able to play for her. And, if nothing else, knowing her helped me produce some of my best writing and I have a few good stories to tell, none of which I’ll put here.

T.L. Hayes

T.L. Hayes was born in Alton, Illinois, but has never lived there. At the time she was born, her family lived in a much smaller town nearby, which didn’t have a hospital. Her father, Richard, though functionally illiterate, was a hard working man who never let his family go hungry. Her mother, Judy, was a stay at home mom, mother of two children. Due to her father’s inability to read, he lost several jobs during her childhood, forcing the family to move frequently from one small town to the next. This vagabond lifestyle resulted in her attending seven grade schools and two high schools. Later, she attended Blackburn College, a work college twenty minutes from her parents’ home, earning her Bachelors there, before moving on to Western Illinois University, and after a long hiatus, The University of Oklahoma, earning a masters degree at each. In the interim, a lot of life happened. Three relationships, one marriage, one divorce, and several jobs which had nothing to do with writing. But, she has met some interesting people along the way. She published her first novel in August, 2016, A Class Act, with Bold Strokes Books, and went on to publish two more with them, as well as various short stories which appear in anthologies from Bold Strokes Books and Sapphire Books, respectively. She also dabbles in poetry, and has had a few appear on Cajun Mutt Press, but the majority of her writing time is spent on trying to complete three different projects at once. She briefly left Oklahoma after living there for fourteen years, and went back to her home state of Illinois for a brief (nearly three years) sojourn, but has recently moved back to the Sooner state to be closer to her logical family.

Prairieland State Series

A Class Act (2016)

Twenty-five-year-old theater grad student Rory Morgan walks into her Intro to Theater class expecting it to be a piece of cake. She isn’t prepared for the diminutive little fireball of a professor who walks in. She is instantly captivated by Dr. Margaret Parks, her forty-year-old professor, and even works up the courage to flirt a little, which Dr. Parks quickly dismisses. After their first class, Rory finds herself thinking about the professor more and more and spends most of her class time watching the professor as she passionately does her job. Rory really wants to ask her out, but she doesn’t know if the professor is even gay, to say nothing of the fact that she’s her professor. What follows is a romance full of humor, passionate awakenings, and college politics. Can they overcome the hurdles that lie before them and still be a class act?

Sweetboy and Wild One (2017)

Graduate student Rachel Cole is feeling the weekend blues and heads to her favorite lesbian hangout, looking for Ms. Right Now. She is immediately attracted to a brown- haired, brown-eyed, flannel-wearing soulful singer named Bobby Layton. But when Bobby introduces himself to Rachel, Rachel questions things about herself–things like her own sexuality and her very identity. Could she be falling for this sweet boy?

Bobby Layton lost a lot when he came out as trans. And he’s sworn off dating lesbians because dealing with hate from the straight world is hard enough. Who needs the drama? But something about wild girl Rachel Cole keeps him coming back.

Love may be enough to take them to unexpected places beyond their expectations.

A Fighting Chance (2018)

Lou Silver is a stage combat instructor by day, and teaches kung fu on the weekends. When Lou meets Staff Sergeant Stephanie “Steve” Adams through one of her kung fu students, Lou can’t resist her instant attraction, even though Steve’s military background stirs old resentments. As Steve battles to break down the walls around Lou’s heart, Lou must come to terms with her past to give love a fighting chance.

Behind the Scenes (2019)

Rachel and Bobby moved to Minnesota so that Rachel could be closer to her best friend Rory, and so that Bobby could leave behind his past in Illinois and start anew. But, one year later and their relationship is on rocky ground, as Rachel struggles with what she feels is the loss of her lesbian identity, and Bobby is plagued with jealousy. Meanwhile, Rory and Maggie are celebrating their second year of marriage together. Rory is ready to start a family, but Maggie is hesitant, as she wants to wait until her career is in a more stable place, which will happen when she achieves tenure. While one relationship is falling apart, another is growing stronger and expanding.