January 16th, 2024

A Glooming Peace This Morning
by Allen Mendenhall 
(Livingston Press, 2024)


Synopsis: Cephas recounts the story of the forbidden love between Tommy Cox, who has an intellectual disability, and Sarah Warren, the underage darling of polite society. The two are pushed together by a mysterious illness, and their resulting illicit relationship results in a heated trial that stirs the entire town. Tommy’s prosecution turns on whether he could have, under the law, formed the requisite intent to be found guilty of the crime for which he’s charged. Cephas and his friends—Lump, Brett, and Michael—struggle to come to terms with their growing knowledge of Tommy and Sarah’s intimate relationship. Along the way the four learn much—perhaps too much—about justice, truth, lust, and love.

Magnolia County

Let me tell you a story from my childhood, a tragedy worthy of ancient Attic theater, a sordid account of illicit love and unfortunate loss, of law and order, justice and mercy, life and death. Some forty years later I recall these sad events with the clarity and devotion with which Matthew, Mark, and Luke—faithful followers each—recounted their timeless message of hope, grace, and promise. Only my story is different, more ominous. Listen and hear my voice. Pay attention to what I have to say. Store up my words for wisdom and instruction.

I used to stick out my tongue to lick my mashed potatoes, not as an eater but as a cartographer. To prove my world was measurable, I’d slide my fat pink tongue along the steaming mush, bulldozing it into lumpy mountains along the corners of my plate and flattening it into a smooth valley somewhere in the middle. Eventually I tongued the topography of Andalusia, my hometown in Magnolia County. Mom’s hollering or smacking me with a napkin or spoon almost always disrupted this modest achievement. Despite her interruptions, I maintained the skill to actualize into small-scale the enormous world I envisioned.

The place now known as Andalusia was once named for the Etowah Indians whom the British and Spanish, on the pretext of trading, gradually and thoroughly dispossessed. Andalusia’s first European settlers, all Christians, didn’t record the Etowah name because, the story goes, it signified sun-worship. They couldn’t have foreseen the long stretch of highway that split the cotton fields and brought truckers and hookers and other unsavory characters to the rest stops and gas stations on the outskirts of Magnolia County, where hitchhikers gathered and poor black families lived in shacks and shanties even though it was, for heaven’s sake, the 1970s. Words like “folks” and “yonder” still circulated back then, and everyone was “fixin’” to do something but never actually doing it. The class divide was sharp. It was déclassé to speak like a redneck or a hick, though we all had strong accents and used strange colloquialisms. The aspirational and ashamed among us spoke as we imagined refined Southerners to have spoken a century ago: with Victorian vocabulary and musicality, a ridiculous mix of faux-aristocratic inflection with theatrical, measured enunciation. We didn’t know many Yankees and couldn’t bear the thought of them labeling us “uneducated” or “ignorant.” So we overcompensated, making speech into a differentiating form of recreation, a pretend pedigree.

I sometimes wonder whether other small Southern towns were anachronistic like ours: a simulacrum of feudal plantation society disconnected from the distant, daily machinations of President Nixon, the political fallout from Roe v. Wade, the Kent State massacre, the hostage crisis at the Munich Olympics, and whatever else occupied the news.

Black folks were not, I’m sorry to say, part of my quotidian experience as a boy. They lived on the margins of town, in isolated neighborhoods, and attended different churches. They had their own restaurants and little leagues. I saw black fathers and mothers walking to and from work but did not interact with them. The law, mind you, no longer permitted segregation, which was accomplished instead through habits and practices that amounted to law in those days. Left to their own preferences, the blacks and whites at that time and place regarded each other with polite and tactical distance, avoiding at all costs the fraught history that had hardened the hearts of their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers. We wanted to understand each other, perhaps forgive each other, but didn’t know how and wouldn’t risk the effort. We favored an imperfect peace over disruptive improvement when it came to race relations.

Few written records survived Andalusia’s infancy. The first settlers were either illiterate or didn’t safeguard information. Maybe they felt no need to document their existence or connect with their posterity. Whatever the reason for their interminable silence, they left behind no information about Andalusia’s early years. Legend held that an old blind man, the oracle in overalls, wandered Magnolia County in the 1920s and prophesied that Andalusia would perish if a local virgin murdered her one true love. He was found dead in a field with coins over his eyes, possibly the victim of foul play.

I lived in the valley, the nucleus of the county. Some thirty miles east of my house were the homogenous buildings of the gray and graying city. At night these lit up like a fluorescent forest. From town, on a clear evening, you could see the distant glow of these colossal structures as if they were teeny candles illuminating the yawning divide between urban and rural, cosmopolitan and country. I never set foot in these towers but heard that they afforded a full view of Andalusia. I pictured businessmen and elegant women gathered on the rooftops and upper floors, looking down on me and my house, all those miles away, with disdain and aloofness.

Many were the twilights when, alone and brooding, I would watch the sun set behind that inadvertent sum of architectural ambition: the gray and graying city. During these moments of solitude I learned that day is day and night is night, and that the distinction between the two can be beautifully ambiguous. I also developed a notion that the vital forces of the universe were not the result of human choice but simply the given state of things. A city could spring up, unwieldy and without design, to no one’s fault or credit. Sure there were engineers and builders and countless workers, but no individual purpose could explain the disorienting energy of the mighty metropolis with its incomprehensible multitudes.

Little lay to the west of Andalusia besides allegedly haunted forests and fields where goats and cows groveled and grazed. Etowah burial mounds—massive conical heaps of dirt—gave the landscape there the look of pregnant women lying prone. Near those mounds, Michael’s dad and my dad shared a law office, formerly a doctor’s home with a Greek revival design and thriving japonica bushes. In warm seasons, cheerful Morning Glories trained along the railing of its front porch. You could hear the highway from its rooms and see the huge wooden replica of a Coca Cola bottle that lured tourists en route to the beach or the mountains, depending on which direction they were headed.

Michael Warren was my best friend. Our fathers, too, were friends, not just business partners. They drank scotch together every afternoon before calling it a day. Not far from their office was the public library where I spent many hours and discovered that I wanted to tell my story one day—whatever that story turned out to be. I wanted to be Ishmael, Huck Finn, Nick Carraway, Jack Burden, Holden Caulfield. But you cannot touch time. You cannot grasp it as you can a baseball. I didn’t have a story yet to tell. Not until Tommy Cox and Sarah Warren gave me one.

West of Dad’s office and the library, the arresting and lonesome splendor of the Blue Ridge Mountains bent like an arthritic finger pointing to England, the home of my Anglo-Saxon ancestors. In the summer, on a clear day, these wide ranges looked like giant green broccoli bulges cast up on the horizon by some fantastic film projector, above them a long reach of white clouds across a bright blue sky.

Folks referred to the heart of Andalusia simply as “town.”

Town was a geometry of eclectic shops, aromatic bakeries, quaint restaurants, and ostentatious law offices. Its centerpiece, withdrawn from the bricked streets and manifold statues, was the courthouse, a commanding structure announced by wood-mold brick and a stately, neoclassical colonnade of imposing height and width.

Behind the courthouse, away from the square, pine trees steepled above a copper cranium dome where a clock, forever stuck at six, stared down like a panoptic cyclops. Dad used to say that the courthouse was so daunting that William Tecumseh Sherman couldn’t bring himself to burn it. Others said that Sherman spared the building, and much of the town, because he had a girlfriend there.

The belly of the courthouse was no less astounding. Beneath a vast rotunda the tip-taps of loafers echoed off marble floors, up to the cupola above. Adorned with handsome antiques and oil paintings and patterned in floral arabesques, the hallways led to various courtrooms and the judges’ cloistral chambers. Busts of Washington, Jefferson, Story, and Kent guarded the ornamentally carved doors within these semi-sacred corridors that led, at length, to an oil portrait of Sir William Blackstone, a Bible in his right hand and a law book in his left, who greeted visitors, or so it seemed, with a mischievous smile.

Georgian revival oak paneling lined the courtrooms. Unfinished sketches of Andalusia’s legal legends—judges, prosecutors, government officials—filled the unpatronized rooms down the dark hallways leading to the judges’ chambers. In the atrium, people of distinction, and some of disrepute, scuttled here and there, indifferent to any children, like me, who might have been wandering without supervision.

The courtrooms were eerie when vacant. This, I suspect, had to do with Dad’s telling me once that if you listened closely, when no one was around, you could hear the faint echoes of long-ago closing arguments sounding from the rafters. Dad also claimed that, because Sherman had spared the courthouse, these disembodied voices belonged to lawyers living before the Civil War, or, as he called it, the War Between the States. They alone of their generation endured as apparitions to monitor the halls of justice, he said.

Outside the courthouse, each weekday, around noon, lawyers in tweed and seersucker filled the town square, smoking pipes or cigars, conversing about politics and recent cases, the noisy industry of sparrows and crows convening at their feet. Sometimes lawyers would grab a bourbon at Bar Noon, or at the rowdier Y’all Come Back Saloon. Because drinking was considered out of keeping for a lawyer, most of the bench and bar carried flasks or didn’t drink at all. Those who didn’t drink lost the most cases.

A funny feeling overtook me if I walked by these bars in the mornings, their lights off and doors shut, the smell of beer in the air. Hours before, they were full of conviviality, conversation, energy, ambition. But sleep had set in. The sun was up, but sleep had set in. The floors had been mopped, the chairs were stacked on the tables, and the doors were locked. And sleep had set in. The taps stopped flowing. The malaise of the workaday world presented itself just as the sleep had set in. And it had set in.

On one corner of the square was a butcher shop owned by a Turkish man who had immigrated to the United States and, however improbably, settled in Andalusia. When he saw how pleased people were to be eating turkey on Thanksgiving, a holiday he had never experienced before, he decided that, each and every holiday thereafter, he would sell a particular item suitable for the occasion. Easter arrived. He saw chocolate bunny rabbits and eggs in the shop windows where turkeys had been during Thanksgiving. So he slaughtered some rabbits in the back of his store and displayed their raw carcasses in the window of his shop. Children were horrified. Some cried. One stood outside the window weeping, “He killed the Easter bunny.” The butcher didn’t make that mistake again.

Little new besides happened in Andalusia. Our perceived novelties were reformulations of old manners and methods of living. No two days were alike. Yet everything was the same. We were indifferent to Watergate, removed from bellbottoms and flower power, and thrilled when Hank Aaron broke the Bambino’s homerun record. The Babe, after all, had been a philandering, potbellied Yankee with bad manners and a loud mouth.

No matter what news arrived by print or television, we favored ourselves over alien outsiders, especially Yankees. We were irrationally loyal like that.

These details about Andalusia are important—they must be important—because I remember them and consider them necessary to my story, which, as I say, is chiefly the story of Tommy and Sarah, who made me who I am. Knowledge is an awareness of truths you create for yourself from images your mind retains. The mind processes facts, in other words, but truth emerges only after you’ve pieced them into narrative. It took me a long time to realize the truth about Tommy and Sarah.

I understood, when I was looking through photographs I’d taken from Dad’s drawer, that Magnolia County was fixed in time and space; the natural rules of temporal succession—of moment followed by consecutive moment—didn’t apply to us. I remember looking at the images in my hand and thinking how the town appeared no different today than it had a century ago. I fingered the faded, busy outlines of folks in the square, tracing their dark suits and flowing dresses with my thumb, they being so alive, occupied, and unaware of me, a boy they’d never know in an era they wouldn’t reach.

Then I remember wondering whose face was behind the camera. Why had he or she taken these photographs in what must have been, in those days, an explosive flash of smoke and lamplight?

I gazed down into the palm of my free hand and imagined time slipping through my fingers as would water.

I shaped the words, to no one in particular, Give me something new. And something new came.

About the author: Allen Mendenhall is a writer and attorney who serves as an associate dean of the Sorrell College of Business at Troy University. (AllenMendenhall.com.)

Allen Mendenhall