January 12th, 2024

Two Essays by Scott Oglesby 

Waiting for Mama

We had noticed the humble B&B on every trip to visit Mama. Hard to miss, it’s right across the street from the nursing home where she had lived for the last two years. Quaint it was not, just a squat stucco house on a corner lot, the local high school campus on one side, a sprawling brick ranch home on the other. There wasn’t a tree on the property.

The Inn was vintage Thirties with two second-floor dormers and concrete steps leading up to a wooden plank front porch. A suspended swing and two white rockers were its only attractive features. We would learn later that the house had been the childhood home of the B&B’s owner, the current county sheriff, who had moved to the ranch next door.

Smith Bed & Breakfast, like the small town we were in, Haynesville, had seen its better days. A sign in the yard advertised rooms by the night or week, but on none of my many visits had I ever seen a soul around the place, not even a car in the driveway. And why would there be—it was thirty feet from a busy highway in a boring Bible-Belt parish of upstate Louisiana. The view from the porch was the nursing home, a Sonic Drive-In and a Chicadilly Chicken, and the prominent sound, shifting gears of tractor-trailers and log trucks.

I could never imagine why anyone would ever stay here. I learned why soon enough. It was the only place to rent a room for twenty miles around, and I needed to be near my mother, on her death bed. My sister and I were here to speed her along. To be across the street would be the only easy part of this process.

nursing home.webp

Only two months earlier, we'd finally sold Mama’s house in our old hometown thirty miles away. Rhonda and I always stayed there when we came down from New York for a visit. For the last five years, we'd been making the best of a bad situation after Mama was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and a vicious case of Crohn’s disease. This, after losing her husband of fifty-five years, our father, to cancer a few years earlier. At first, we worried how she would do without him, but for a while, she seemed OK. After all, Mama was smart—a retired executive secretary, a voracious reader, a crack bridge player. She rarely complained and didn’t call us very often. It seemed like her personality had flourished in the absence of her controlling husband.

But ultimately, her independence had proved illusory. On Christmas Day, two years after his death, she pleaded with us to take over everything and place her in the local nursing home. We knew from her growing complaints that she had become ill, anxious, and forgetful, but the last straw was her inability to balance her checkbook. We were shocked but shouldn’t have been, we already knew that we were dealing with dementia.

Luckily, my sister and I had flexible work schedules—read arty, no dependents, career-challenged, and under-employed. This had allowed one or both of us to come down and shepherd Mama through a relentless gauntlet of physical and mental emergencies.


We did what Mama asked but kept the house so we’d have a place to stay on our tri-annual visits. After a year of intense treatment at the nursing home, she recovered physically, and for the next couple of years, we adjusted to her slow mental decline. On one visit, Rhonda and I drove to a music store in Magnolia and bought a piano so we could share a joyful activity when we were able to kidnap her for a few hours. On other visits, we’d just piddle in the yard, trimming hedges, or take her clothes shopping. Mama had always been a looker and immaculate dresser; even in her eighties, she still loved to shop. Silver-haired, trim and busty, she had high cheekbones and cleaned up well even in the worst throes of dementia.

But her beauty was also a curse. She was obsessed with her appearance and could spend hours primping in the mirror. Dressed to kill with no place to go, and clutching her ever-present handbag, she would roam the halls of the nursing home, mistaken as a visitor by all but the employees. To keep an eye on her, the Home's hairdresser eventually drafted her to help out in the beauty shop. We worked hard to keep our sense of humor through these changes. Persuaded to compete for “Ms. Fountainview,” the in-house beauty pageant, Mama won hands down. This could not be said about “Mr. Fountainview.” Handsome codger that he was, he had to be whisked off the parade float because he kept trying to grope her.

            Eventually, the stages of her disease worked their black magic into progressive episodes of confusion and erratic behavior. Conversations became Spartan. Shells of communication—robust sentences and smart words that took you nowhere. Or worse, she would repeat the same questions or statements within minutes. We learned patience.
“I don’t know why they’d do something like that,” she’d say out of the blue. “Three or four of those people are enough for anybody. And they’re crazy if they think I can do anything about it. I just don’t know. Do you think we should take some of that home?” She’d look me dead in the eye for an answer.

“Well, just give it some time, Mama, it’ll be OK,” I’d say. If her mysterious queries persisted, I would wing it, improvising elaborate verbal creations that sounded good but made no sense. Sometimes her discourse was rational but meant for people who weren’t present. I wondered: did she not recognize me? With Mama, it was more nuanced; she couldn't say my name, but you could tell she knew I was family of some sort, or at least someone she trusted.

I was amazed at the hoops we jumped through, trying to keep her from knowing the extent of her illness. Ironically, her fleeting moments of clarity terrified us the most. She told us she had this vague feeling that something was wrong, but she just couldn’t describe what it was. We faked our way through these moments, telling her she had a memory problem, not to worry. If ignorance was ever sold as bliss, we were its prime hucksters.

After Mama’s second year at the Home, bringing her back to the house became dicey. Once, after being there for only a few minutes, she told me she wanted to go home—meaning her room at Fountainview. Then with a forlorn look, she said, “I'm sorry to be so much trouble.”

The arc of her dementia imprisoned all three of us. As soon as we learned to cope, a new stage would kick in. Her struggle with word retrieval digressed into total loss of speech generation. She still understood much of what she heard but was hopeless at verbalizing her simplest needs. Every thought became an obstacle course. We coaxed, we guessed, we read body language. We became mind readers.

We learned to expect the unexpected. Later that year, my sweet mother socked an orderly with her purse when he stopped her from bolting out a side door. But she got the worst of it in another incident, a black eye after swapping blows with a male patient who had tried to steal her food tray. Mama was no pushover.

Eventually, her feistiness got her into bigger trouble. In a tug of war with a rookie aide, she fell and broke her leg. After three months of rehab, we found a better facility in Haynesville, thirty minutes away. But due to her dementia, the new Home required that we provide sitters. Mama, in her right mind—frugal and studiously prudent—would have been appalled to see her savings eaten up by nursing home bills and sitters. And, the sad truth be known, it was a battle not to think of Mama’s savings as our inheritance. Money and guilt shouldered their way onto our crowded stress list.


From the highway, the new facility looked like a long motor court. It was small, housing less than a hundred “inmates,” as Mama dubbed her fellow residents. It was a cozy place, everyone congregating in the cafeteria, which served home-style country cooking. There were no large TV monitors like the ones I had seen in other homes. People talked to each other, and the director told me that once a month, the head nurse set up a sound system and crooned songs herself. Omigod, I thought at first, but my snooty judgment ended when I heard her sing. Her "set" was all country music, of course, but she belted out the real rootsy stuff, like Kitty Wells. She was amazingly good, and if I hadn't been afraid of insulting her, I would have told her she had chosen the wrong career.

We had first introduced the new sitters, Jan and Janice, to Mama as her new “friends.” Little did we know what true friends they would become. And working for cash, barely above minimum wage, they were indeed a bargain. They also brought comic relief; God knew we needed it. Jan was a reed-thin ex-army sergeant in her sixties and an aggressive driving force. More docile was Janice, a thirtyish obese blonde, who came with a rumored meth habit and a weakness for video poker. She was also a single mom, raising a beautiful mulatto girl, the daughter of a snaggle-toothed, mostly absent Choctaw father. Both gals were chain-smokers, but they loved my mother, and we loved them.      
Later, we would discover that Jan was a distant cousin; the rural South is a small world. No matter, she treated Mama like family from the get-go, driving her out to the house sometimes, bringing her home for dinner and taking her shopping. It wasn’t long before she was buying her stuffed animals and baby-dolls with her own money. What a waste, I thought, knowing Mama was a cynical stoic. But still full of surprises, Mama embraced them, especially the dolls; she called them her “babies.” Arranged in neat rows, her favorites upfront, they sat in mute adoration—stand-ins, I was sure, for the grandchildren I never provided.

In the following months, Mama regressed to childlike motherhood, cooing and pampering her growing breed of faux children. Rotating favorites each week, she showered them with baby talk, primped their hair and clothes, carted them in her wheelchair, and cuddled them in her bed at night. It was love at a primal level, a marvel to see and very touching; I was horrified. And not a little jealous.
And God forbid that I would accidentally sit on one—easy to do because they sprawled all over her daybed. Mama would give me a stern look and pull me into her world. I’d grab the offended baby, apologize profusely and shower it with kisses. Mama’s smile was worth it.

Baby dolls were the least of the changes that came with the sitters. Mama’s room was also the sitter’s workplace and it evolved to fill their comfort needs as well. Television became the room’s default white noise—entertainment for them and Mama. The sitters had to be kept happy; they were her real family, the day-to-day folks. Her organic connection to food, drink and the bathroom. My sister and I were blood family, but a distant one at best, having moved from the South in our twenties, returning only for holidays, emergencies, and life and death decisions. We weren’t about to complain. The meager signs of life that still shined from Mama’s distant eyes came from their daily interaction. Trash TV was a small price to pay.


By the end of their first year, Jan and Janice were priceless interpreters of Mama’s skewed communication. And the tellers of dementia war stories. We had cringed, then laughed when Jan told us about arriving too late one morning to help Mama get dressed, and then later in a Walmart dressing room, watching her peel off three pairs of pants to try on a new pair.

In hindsight, I marvel at the ease at which we intertwined our Big Apple lives with these sweet, hardscrabble rednecks. True, it only took a few days in Louisiana to bring out our hog-fed roots, but I worried about what the locals thought of us. The sitters and staff were all within driving distance of their kin; Jan’s grown son lived across the street from her. They dropped their kids off at grandma’s, attended the big game on Fridays, schooled at the community college. They even found ways to like Sarah Palin. Not only did I feel guilty, I felt un-American.


At that point, I was sure that all coherent contact with my mother was history. And then one day, my sister shocked me with a report of her last visit. She had approached Mama, atypically sitting by herself in the cafeteria. “What are you doing out here?” she asked. Mama flashed her a droll look. “Just sitting here trying to look like I got some sense.”   

For me, her answer proved that somewhere in her damaged mind, my real mama lived on. I shared her retort with all the staff I could corner on my next visit. They had only seen her as an Alzheimer's basket case; I hadn’t realized how I longed for them to experience the smart and sassy woman that I had known.


Still, the last year of Mama’s disease had not been pretty. Bathroom visits were replaced by adult diapers and being changed by aides several times a day. She showed an increasing disinterest in food. Every meal became a game of coaxing mixed with mime and trickery. If not supervised, she would play in her food instead of eating it—more likely to place a spoonful of creamed corn into her iced tea than her mouth. The last few months had regressed to the sitters spoon-feeding her like a baby.

And finally, the country-crooning nurse called to confirm what the sitters had been telling us for weeks. Mama was done with eating. She was down to ninety-eight pounds. Worst of all, she had forgotten how to swallow, silently holding a mouthful of sputum until someone could persuade her to spit into a tissue. My sister and I knew that this moment had been stalking us for at least a year—a period when we had lowered our expectations about her dignity. Our Mama deserved better than this.

We told the sitters to stop trying to get her to eat and we made plane reservations. There was no reason to drag out the inevitable. My sister called up the Smith Bed & Breakfast and found out that no guests were scheduled. By trading off breakfast for privacy, we got the entire house for eight hundred a week.


It’s  easier and cheaper to fly to Paris than upstate Louisiana, and we were dog tired when we pulled our rental car into the Inn's driveway. At the end of our twelve-hour trip it was almost midnight when we lugged our bags up the steps. Our only greeting was a lit porch light and an unlocked front door. We guessed that being the sheriff provided an enhanced degree of confidence about his property.

I was parched from the flight, but it wasn’t until morning that I discovered the massive bright red Coke machine humming in the pantry. Other features were more dramatic—­like the piano and weathered upright bass that graced the dining room. We were travel zombies by then, but all we could think about was walking across the street to see Mama.

We were prepared but still stunned when we first saw her. She was sound asleep, her lips red and swollen from dehydration, her face reduced to the raw essence of beauty, her features harsh and vivid, and yet glamorous like an aging movie star in her last cameo.


The following morning, we paid the sitters for the coming week and sent them home. There was no reason to put them through anymore; it was our turn. We knew that it wouldn’t be an easy goodbye, and to hurry it along seemed our only choice. Still, we would spend the first week squelching each other's doubts. Were we rushing Mama's dispatch for her comfort or ours? Regardless of the support we received from the nurses and sitters, to say that we didn’t feel like cruel heathens would be a lie.

The head nurse tells us that if we withhold food and water, Mama will last five days. Resigned, we settle in, planning to spend most of our time at her bedside. Just as life can be a blessing, so can death, my sister says; it’s Mama’s escape from a tortured body and mind. She’s right, her departure is no tragedy; in a previous marriage six years earlier, I had lost my wife to leukemia in the prime of her life. That was tragic, I remind myself, its devastation still fresh in my memory. It will never be like that. But we can’t escape the harsh irony of withholding sustenance from the woman who nurtured us.

We were also made aware that Haynesville was in the heart of fundamentalist Christendom—a lot of people didn’t approve of our decision. As word got out, one of Mama’s crusty old friends confronted me, “You’re not gonna starve her to death, are yi?” To her, it made little difference that Mama had been rejecting food for months; she was standing up for her friend. A friend she was going to miss.
Old clichés of “playing God” swirled in the air. We had barreled head-on into the intersection of right-to-life and quality. But after only one day with Mama, suffering her dazed stare, and nursing her cracked, bleeding lips, I began to muse angrily, if this was God’s work, I could do better. My confidence was paper-thin, though, and after a day or two, I was unable to join the line in the cafeteria to buy myself lunch.


We held Mama’s hand, we wiped her mouth, and the long hours dragged on. Very soon we were exhausted and begin splitting our shifts, staying at her bedside alone. I longed to sit quietly and read, but it was safer to just veg and bombard myself with Animal Planet and CNN. After three days of this, I realized the sitters were no longer around. I could turn off the TV.

On one long afternoon, I was changing Mama’s socks when I happened to notice that her neglected toenails were curling ominously over her toes. I shouldn’t have been surprised, haircuts were the nursing home’s only personal frills, and Mama was oblivious.  I dug up a pan and some clippers and then took my time washing her feet. I then carefully cut her nails, trying to focus on Jesus instead of the old rural custom of washing the bodies of departed loved ones.

            On our fourth day, we finally met Tony, our B&B host and sheriff. He had pulled into the driveway, bounding out of his police cruiser, talkative, and sweet and friendly as a Bassett hound. His voice had a high-strung mellifluous cadence, like a reincarnated Andy from the Amos and Andy Show; and at first, I thought he was gay, but a Southern black gay sheriff was too big a stretch. I concluded that he was just blessed with a natural flamboyant exuberance.

We learned everything about him in ten minutes; his youthful move North from Haynesville; then his return as an adult; converting his folks’ home into a B&B, and the story behind the photo in the living room of a black couple straddling a Harley—his mama and daddy.

Consistent with his loose ship attitude, he didn’t ask for a deposit, not even a credit card. His ramblings were charming, but showed evidence that when donning his badge, he was all business. Combining civic needs with tough love, he boasted about his new police cruisers, bought with the $250 fines he levied on luckless kids caught blasting music or wearing baggy pants. “Oh yeeaah,” he had cackled, “no butt cheeks hanging out in my hood.”

By day five, we realized the obvious, that Mama was full of even more surprises, which included plenty of life. We scratched our heads, our relief spiked with anxiety, confusion, and finally, “travelers.”

“Travelers” are a peculiarly Southern invention, perfected at Mardi Gras, where folks could legally stroll out of bars, drinks in hand. Upstate Louisiana did it one better—drive-in liquor stores with colorful menus highlighting boozed-up frozen cocktails. Drive up, order from your car and motor merrily away. 

Mama’s turn for the better, or worse, depending on outlook, pushed us to seek such travelers’ aid. We had discovered them on previous visits but had avoided them this trip because of our low spirits. But in Mama’s honor, I ordered a frozen “pond scum”—crème de menthe, vodka, and brandy. And yes, it was bright green.

Later the same night, almost daybreak, I was awakened by noises outside my bedroom window. Peeking through the Venetian blinds, I spot a hearse backed up to a shiny trailer-sized aluminum cooler in the sheriff's backyard. In sleepy disbelief, I squint through the morning fog at a shroud-covered human form on a gurney by the cooler. A pair of pale feet poke out from under the white sheet. I tried hard not to be freaked out.

Suddenly, I remember Tony, our quirky host, bragging about his many jobs. “Lots of irons in the fire,” he had said, laughing; then with a serious growl, he imitated his daddy's critique, “Too many irons, not enough fire.” This brought more howls. It all made some kind of perverted sense and my deductions were validated later. After all, who could be better situated than the sheriff to moonlight in the body transfer business?  


By that Friday, we had been in Haynesville almost a week. The talk at the Home was all about that night’s Homecoming football game. As I walked back to the B&B, the wafting sounds of brass and drums from their marching band reminded me what a small blip we were on the local radar. Daily life still had a life of its own, and in a strange way, I found it reassuring.

Each day, we would find ourselves sinking deeper into small town Southern life—dollar stores, fried everything, grits for breakfast. But when we found out that the local BBQ joint was owned by a friend of Tony’s, it was another “travelers” moment. We had driven by it many times but were always too wary to stop in. Too Tall’s BBQ was to restaurants, what “travelers” are to fancy bars—a homemade sign fronted a trailer, picnic table, and a screened-in outdoor kitchen, sporting a tin roof and two wood-fired thirty-gallon drums.

We called only to find Too Tall’s closed for the night. But because we were Tony’s guests, Too Tall said he’d be happy to deliver. For the first time in Haynesville, we felt special; we couldn’t believe our luck. We also couldn’t believe his height when he showed up at our door. He was pushing seven feet, and like the sheriff, he wore a badge indicating that he too had other things in the fire besides BBQ. Dog catcher, he replied when I asked. I said not a word as I glanced at my Styrofoam box of grilled meat. Best damned BBQ I ever had.


The first Sunday morning of our trip, we spent at Mama's church in Springhill, our old hometown. We had come to inform her church friends of the situation and to put her on the prayer list. Living up to his billing, the newly hired pastor kept breaking into song mid-sermon. I wondered if he drank the same water as the singing nurse.

He had never met Mama, but when we chatted with him, my sister asked him to drive out and share a prayer with her. He agreed and came out the following day. But at Mama’s bedside he was a bust, and we struggled to keep him on task instead of waxing about his new job. At least he never broke into song.

The afternoon was better. Mama’s brother and a few of our cousins came by for an unspoken last goodbye. Getting family support was nice, and in Mama's eyes I thought I saw signs of recognition. Before he left, our uncle invited us to join him later in the week for Thanksgiving dinner. He lived up the road a piece in Arkansas, and since there was precious little bedside comforting to do, we accepted.


The following day was our seventh at Mama’s side, and we were feeling worse than useless. I was only able to entertain short bursts of introspection about her imminent departure, and they always converged on my failures. How was it that she lost her own mother at the tender age of nineteen, and I, her only son, had never spoken to her about it? And where was the “granny tape,” like the one I made for my mamaw on her ninetieth birthday? My childless marriages had struck again—no grandkids meant no movie for Mama.

We had previewed this loss a few months earlier when we sold Mama’s house. I had convinced my sister that it would be smarter to break down the homestead before Mama died rather than after. We flew down and combed through the house, packing up a lifetime of furniture, dishes and memories—three generations of photos, school annuals and personal letters. It was rich with discovery, but also melancholy, sobering and draining. You try not to read every letter you wrote your mamaw when you were thirteen.

At the end of that visit, I actually had a good start on an essay about Mama and the fallout from her illness. It was only two pages, but its hopeful insights were clear-eyed and genuine. Then like a hapless fool, I had lost it on the return flight—one of the top ten regrets of my life. In hindsight, I blamed Continental for a long delay forcing us to change planes at 4:00 am. But at the time, I accused my sister for spilling a bottle of water in my backpack. In my frenzied repacking, every soggy item from gum wrappers to tanning coupons made it back home. Everything except my draft. I was never able to recreate those thoughts, and as George Carlin observed—you can’t do anything again, only something similar.

In reality, my carelessness had immobilized me, and targeting my sister became a flimsy attempt to counter my history of doing less than my share in managing Mama’s care. It’s usually womenfolk who take the reins of caregiving, and I had bowed conveniently to that custom.

That sorry past and the present weighed on me anew as I climbed the steps of the B&B. A little later, I found myself sitting in the living room self-consciously trying to write down something meaningful. Cramming for intimacy as if for a final exam. It was an itch I couldn’t scratch. All prospects for closure had been permanently dashed by Mama’s harrowing journey from bridge playing to complete dementia—the slow-motion train wreck that had described her last five years.


By the time we rolled into Arkansas for Thanksgiving, my sister and I were running on empty. When I heard my uncle drawl out grace at dinner, I was thinking it was probably the last time I’d hear it. With Mama gone, there would be few reasons to come down here again. Except maybe for his funeral. My sister and I were feeling no shame in hoping that Mama would leave us that night. It would be a sure sign from God, or at least the Pilgrims, that her passing was merciful and a truly thankful occasion. In silence, I muttered my own prayer—that God would show some mercy and turn my iced tea into wine.

Thanksgiving evening was my toughest time alone with Mama. She had reached the labored breathing stage and it was awful. It looked like the Pilgrims were on our side. And maybe our father too. Yesterday, my sister reminded me that we had buried him on this same holiday exactly eight years ago that day. I tended to doubt such celestial math, but later that night my certainty faltered when I stumbled upon a radio station playing swing music from the Forties, Glenn Miller and the like. It was their music, songs that she and my father, also a looker, had cut many a rug with. Call it luck, WGOD, or my dad, impatient for a dance; whatever—it left me smiling when my sister appeared, and I slipped quietly out of the room.     


Later in the middle of the night, I was startled awake—Rhonda was banging on the window; she had forgotten her key. Mama’s going fast, she said, better come quick. By the time I got dressed and hustled across the street, it was too late. But I was okay with that; we’d gotten our wish. I gazed at Mama’s stilled form and swam in a strange muddle of enormous relief and great loss. Forget what you’ve heard about disaster survivors, or diagnostic predictions—Mama lasted ten days without food or water.  


We wrote a gracious thank you note to the Home’s staff and put it on the bulletin board. Despite their poverty wages, they had done their job well; and many of them loved her, telling us so. And when the time came, we were happy to invite the sitters, aides and nurses, even the administrators, to ply through Mama’s closet, still bulging with classy apparel. Our invitation seemed a fitting tribute to Mama’s taste and her caretakers. It was sadly beautiful, and in my mind, as right and natural as cooing with dolls and stuffed animals.

And though Mama was a true believer, I doubted that I would ever picture her in a white robe, sitting at the right hand of God. I’d always see her roaming the halls of heaven in one of her chic outfits, and when she was all worn out—snuggling up with her favorite baby-doll.                         


For the next year or so, I would ponder the countless indignities inflicted by Alzheimer’s and wonder how we ever managed. Living with it was like being immersed in that pot of water with the frog where the heat is turned up so gradually, you’re cooked before you know it. At Mama’s memorial service, I shared the one thing I had learned—how over the course of her illness, I finally stopped worrying about whether Mama always recognized me. Instead, I focused on remembering who she was.


Rednecks and Sofa-beds


It had only been a year since our long drive through the South, and yet here I was again, this time reading a menu at a breakfast dive on the Florida panhandle. My so-called goodbye to Dixie had become a life-long bad joke and this morning I was grumpy about it. Glancing up from the menu, I leaned forward, and whispered to Ann, sitting across from me, “there’s a 1000 pounds of Trumpers right behind you.” She smiled curiously then stole a peek at the three morbidly obese twenty-something triplets squirming into a booth behind her.

“You’re so mean,” she frowned.

“Well, it’s annoying,” I grumbled, “I see all these natural beneficiaries of Medicare-For-All, when I know damn well, they all vote Republican.”

“Give it a rest, sweetheart.” Ann sighed and returned to the menu.

I nodded in compliance, trapped as we were at the All American Diner, the only eatery open on a Monday morning in Panama City. Glossy life-size statuettes of Elvis and Marilyn had greeted us at the entrance. They didn’t offer much promise for haute cuisine, nor did their logo, scribbled in large letters on the Diner’s front window—“All You Can Eat Breakfast, $9.95.”

Our Southern vacation was shorter than usual this time, and as Yankee lib-tards in Trump-crazed Florida, we found ourselves paranoid and a little self-conscious. The folks around us, were probably packing heat, and for sure, way off to our right, politically. Our trip was a last-minute sojourn begun in Myrtle Beach where I had picked up Ann after her month stint at a writing retreat. From there we drove to Charleston, then on to visit her brother in St. Pete before finally ending up at my sister’s ex-boyfriend’s beach house in Panama City.

The diner experience was just one of many where my ambivalent Southern roots would act up at odd times, loving these familiar good folks but hating their MAGA politics. The waitress was as sweet as their lemon pie, asking us three times if everything was okay, while my own conclusions—certain that the large booth of teenagers, three whites with six blacks, was a basketball team—spoke volumes.

First of many welcome surprises, the Elvis fare turned out to be the best breakfast of our trip so far; and in the evenings we got hooked on baked oysters—the favorite appetizer at the local cafes. Forget Rockefellers, these sampler plates were stuffed with everything from parmesan to garlic, jalapenos, ham, bacon, you name it. Crawfish cakes came atop a fried green tomato in a pimento cheese sauce; and at one bar, a guy on an adjacent stool offered me a bite of his deep-fried cheesecake covered in creamy chocolate. To hell with germs or Covid, I came close to gobbling it down. And portions everywhere were so huge that we usually filled up for twenty bucks and change.

We were still pinching ourselves trying to wake up from our luck at being on the Panhandle at all. My sister’s ex, Jimbo, was a good ol’ Alabama boy and footloose musician/artist, who had for years offered his eclectic beach house to us for free. He was rarely there, usually off in LA selling his hand-crafted buffalo leather bags at Beverly Hills boutiques; or engineering recording dates for his talented 10-year-old daughter, a promising vocalist. His downtime was spent troubadouring with his flute in the Big Easy or at the Big Meetinghouse at Burning Man. We had always resisted his generous invite but in an attempt to loosen up our old feet as well, we finally showed up.

What we discovered was an original hand-built abode on a sandy half-acre enclosed behind a six-foot wooden fence. Wild sculptures populated the yard, shaded under palms and other jungle fauna. Inside, more homegrown art was scattered throughout the house culminating in a humongous dream-catcher the size of a small trampoline that hung in the spacious living room. An intriguing spiral staircase led to a second-story dance studio, and out the back door, three smaller cottages charmed the backyard. The scent of salt hinted at the miles of wide Gulf beaches only a block away. Jimbo called his place, “the compound,” and it could be all ours for several weeks in March, he told us, with the homey caveat that we buy a sofa bed for the empty living room—preferably at Salvation Army, he insisted. It was an offer we found hard to refuse.

Our accommodations were not perfect; a doorknob was missing in one of the bathrooms and there was only one wineglass, plus three hungry pussycats—two of them outdoor vagabonds too skittish to touch; the third one, our host’s needy old purr-butt, became so attached to us, we had to shoo him out of our suitcase on the day we left.

Eventually, after two weeks of pigging out on Southern vittles, beachcombing and cruising flea markets, we finally got around to sofa shopping. We couldn’t locate a Salvation Army but we found a Goodwill only a few miles away and off we went. It was big and well-stocked and as we searched for furniture, we loaded up with respectable bargains. To our dismay, however, there was no furniture department per se, but when we reached the far corner of the store, there they were—a sofa bed and matching chair in tropical paradise colors. Bright and wild to the eyes, and perfect for our arty beach-hippie pad, especially the attached price tag—150 bucks for both. Ann ripped off the tag and then sprawled on the sofa with a silly grin, posing for a photo. I happily obliged.

A step ahead of buyer’s remorse, we spirited the sales ticket to the counter and paid cash. Delivery service was nonexistent, we learned, and we had 24 hours to pick it up, no refunds, no returns. No problem, we figured, we’d use the compound’s big pick-up truck, and be done by the following afternoon and back on the beach. Damn, we gloated, what a coup. I texted Jimbo our shot of his “new” used furniture and we were out of there.

The following morning we roused Stu, our host’s old friend and handyman, who lived in the compound’s rear bungalow. Turns out Jimbo’s rusty old half-ton Chevy was rarely used, but Stu gamely set up a charge station using our car’s battery, and twenty minutes later the truck’s old V-8 engine varoomed to life. Then, shouting over its deafening bass growl, I somehow persuaded Ann to climb into the passenger side while I squirmed into the roomy driver’s seat. Grinning with precarious dare-do, I backed into the street and off we went.

We didn’t get far. Just as we chugged past two blue-jeaned dudes digging in the front yard of a house midblock, the engine sputtered out. We coasted silently by them as their curious gaze followed us to a rolling stop 100 feet down the road. Ann and I swapped fearful looks, both of us hoping the other had a plan B. We didn’t, and neither did Stu when he walked over long-faced to join us. After trying in vain to get it started, we called our car club. They could come out in a couple of hours, they told us. Great, we thought at first, but then fretted that even if it started, would it be trustworthy for our Goodwill trip? It was 3:00 o’clock and our 24-hour window was closing fast.

That’s when we began eyeing the yard-diggers’s truck parked in front of their workplace. Wimps that we were, Stu and I talked Ann into approaching them with a desperate request that they rent us their truck for a couple of hours. Stu and I then dicked around under the Chevy’s raised hood while stealing sly glances at her mission impossible. We watched as Ann gamely chatted up one of the guys for a bit, and then to my great surprise, she proceeded into the yard, up the sidewalk and into the house.

“What the…?” I muttered, and with concern, began walking over.

The guy she had been talking to, a scruffy middle-aged guy, met me in the street halfway. “Your wife’s in there looking at the couch,” he said, in a thick Alabama drawl. “She told me about your Goodwill thang, and I said shit, we got one you can have for free.”

“You…what…you have—”

“Yeah, there’s a hide-abed and a chair too. We just gonna haul’um off, if you want’um, take’um.”

“Well, that’s…really nice,” I stammered, “but I‘m not sure you should—"

“Naww, go on in and check’um out.”

Ann appeared at the front door stoop and beckoned me over. I smiled uneasily and after negotiating the excavated front yard I joined her inside where we swapped bewildered looks.

“What the hell are we doing?!” I asked.

“You’re asking me!?” she huffed. “Next time you do the bartering.”

“OK, OK,” I nodded guiltily, “when you’re right, you’re right.”

We stood in the living room which was in total disarray but sure enough, partially covered under a stack of venetian blinds there was indeed a couch and next to it a matching chair. Both of them tastefully upholstered in an earthy brown fabric. Maybe our luck was turning, I wondered, as I proceeded to check them out. Yes, a convertible sofa and a chair, both in good condition, free for the taking and right across the street. What were the chances? Was this some sort of cosmic cracker scam?

Nope, it was for real. In the next half hour, we would learn all we needed to know and a whole lot more, as we chatted with our unlikely patron in the street by his truck. His name was Ray and this house was one of eight different rental properties that he was whipping into shape. All of them owned by some guy from Nebraska. Thirty bucks an hour, all cash, he grinned, and he was giving away stuff because his warehouse was crammed with used furniture from former jobs. He was also trying to squelch his daughter-in-law’s scheming on the refrigerator. Hoarders they were, he explained, splaying his arms dramatically, “they had eight used fridges already, for God sakes.”

Ray had two daughters of his own and three sons. One of them was Jason, the strapping 25-ish longhaired blonde hunk, still digging up the yard like a chain gang convict. Both were shirtless and tattooed—Ray’s, a mysterious work of art circling his left nipple and spreading like a colorful roadmap across his chest. My curiosity about it was stifled by my imagination of the pain involved, and I wasn’t about to ask. Jason was just finishing up a 200-hundred-foot “French drain” around the house, Ray bragged, digging every foot with a simple spade shovel. Counting the driveway and the drain, they had used up seventeen tons of gravel, he added, proudly.

Somewhere in the conversation, we also learned that he’d only been out of jail for a month after being arrested for an open container. His very first DUI and he was 61-years old, and the judge gave him four months in the slammer. “Can you believe that?” he hawed, wide-eyed, “and I was a white boy!” Panhandle justice, I reckoned silently.

Ann and I listened intently, too far out of our element to really say much at all. Finally, we managed to communicate, “Yes…we’d love to have the couch, uh…the chair too, thank you so much.”

I’m not sure if it was the pungent smell of good smoke, but something sparked me to head back to the compound and return with several beers. Ray tried to get the old Chevy to crank over by pouring gas into the carburetor but it was fruitless so we retreated to chugging beers and toking up by his truck. Between swigs, Jason continued digging his Frenchy ditch while the rest of us, Yankees and rednecks, partied on.

At some point, the car club folks showed up and towed our truck back to our driveway. Ann and I tagged along stupid-vizing, and then unsure of what came next, we retired to wait anxiously in the compound. But as the light of day faded, I finally ventured outside and was surprised to see Ray and Jason hefting the sofa bed and chair onto their truck. It was only half a block and I had thought they would have just schlepped them over on foot. Only when I tried to help did I remember how much weight metal bedsprings add to a couch. Flitting about like an obnoxious bee, I tried to help them unload, holding doors open, grabbing corners of the couch, whatever I could do.

Politely ignoring me, they expertly brought both pieces in and placed them in the empty living room. They fit in perfectly. I quickly brought out more beers and then despite having worked physical jobs all day, they strolled around digging Jimbo’s eclectic pad and wild art. I responded with a ten-cent tour of the house, thanking them over and over for everything they had done.

Twenty minutes later, I worried that my inclination to offer them money for their efforts would insult them. But when we said friendly goodbyes, I quietly slipped Ray fifty bucks. He seemed surprised but not insulted and I breathed a sigh of relief; although later, I would agonize that it was not enough.

After they left, Ann and I spent the evening lounging on our new old furniture, sipping margaritas and staring in silence at the dreamcatcher hanging above us. I was feeling quite good about our day’s adventure but also strangely chastised. My uppity conceit and haughty assumptions had been trumped (no pun intended) by a couple of sweet Southern hicks. In the space of a short afternoon, Ray had saved our ass with his selfless generosity, while entertaining us with gamey details of their hardscrabble lives. Their unfiltered personas and willingness to help total strangers without guile had shaken my comfy world.

They had given us so much more than a matching couch and chair—they had schooled us in the joy of surprise—reminding us that trust and intimacy are not always limited by agreeable politics, cultural boundaries or class judgements. Ultimately, our time together would revive in me, a little hope for our country. And once again, force me to remember where I came from.

About the author: Scott Oglesby is an assistant nonfiction editor for Bellevue Literary Review (BLR) . A NYC transplant from Louisiana, his varied work history includes stints as a disability analyst, actor, singer, photographer, teacher, homemaker, and café-owner, along with other sketchy side-gigs, all before publishing his first novel, Riding High (ridinghigh.net). He has also written nonfiction and humor columns for Manhattan weeklies: West Side SpiritThe Villager, and Village Sun. The literary review, Gravel, published his story, Divorcing Rhonda, and his essay, The Best That Love Could, was also produced as a podcast. His critique of David Amram’s book, Upbeat, appeared in American Book Review; Outpost19 published his short memoir, Summer Job, in their 2023 anthology, Rooted 2: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction. Currently, he’s working on his memoir, Telling Dixie Goodbye.

Scott Oglesby