big fat free bird end of times

by james jacob seawel

“Ever so often,” God or the Universe conspires to remind me, now that Granny V has “gone to Glory” and isn’t here to do it, that I’m fat. She thought she was simply making an observation – no offense intended. Her assessment of others who were a bit – ah – “fleshy” was, “They are as fat as a tied coon.”  

Might not have been intended as an insult, but it sure weren’t no compliment. 

My fundamentalist Granny occupied no middle ground; things were either black or white. They were good or bad. Vittles had a “good scald” on them, or they weren’t “fittin’ for a dog to eat.” Souls were either lost or saved (and, in her assessment, mostly lost, bless their hearts). 

Opinions on weight, however, proved her one exception. Apparently, she had a set of scales in her mind, both literally and metaphorically. 

Her happy medium fell somewhere between a healthy house cat and a relative who came to her for an outfit despite the fact that the challenge was “like sewing for an elephant.” Granny (and only Granny) was the arbiter of who was or wasn’t too plump. Granny knew best and spared no one the truth, though for her funny-turned little grandson, she might sugar coat it a bit. 

When I started my “husky jeans period,” about the Sixth Grade, she let me know I was getting pudgy. But she always qualified her opinion. “That’s okay, Honey, there’s lots of big fellas that are still good to look at. I’d a-heap rather you be filled out than be one of these dried up little fellas looking for all the world like a high wind could carry ‘em off into the wild blue yonder.” 

The irony that having her genes and eating her cooking contributed to my inability to fit into normal sized Levi’s never occurred to her. Still, even if it had, rest assured she would not have done a cotton-picking thing different. 

A few months back I visited my friend in a gentrified area of Charlotte. With the skyline of Uptown in view, the Biddleville area is a mix of half-a-million-dollar homes and quaint old bungalows. Each time one of the latter (typically black-occupied) residences sells, it is quickly replaced by a modern, and too often garish, edifice. Some of the original residents refuse, admirably, to sell out, making the community eclectic and diverse as the newcomers to the neighborhood are a mix of gay male couples and northern yuppies who have “discovered” Charlotte. It really is the New South. The historically black neighborhood is now part black, part gayborhood, with a fair sprinkling of the types of young white families that sport Bernie Sanders signs and have free libraries in cutesy overgrown mailboxes on the curbs in their front yards.  

What’s all this have to do with my being fat? I’m from the South, so digressions are par for the course. Bear with me, my tubbiness will factor back in soon enough. 

Every neighborhood I have ever spent so much as a night in has seen me explore the area on foot. Even if I can’t get my diet or anything else straight, I must get my bearings straight when I’m in a new place. Besides, I like to observe the homes, yards, trees, and landscaping. It matters not to me if the houses are simple or complex. I love architecture, and I have a writer’s attention to detail. As my Mom says, I’m not nosy, I’m “curious.” 

Walking Biddleville affords me many opportunities to people watch. Skinny jean-clad city gays with Botoxed brows who live in overpriced, purple-sided homes bedecked with rainbow flags really aren’t my scene, and my big ass strolling by in my Merle Haggard tee seems not to be theirs. They don’t give me the time of day. The yuppie whites nod hello as they chalk their sidewalks with their preschoolers, but their hearts aren’t really in it. 

It’s the old black men, the holdouts in this steadily bleaching neighborhood, who never fail to speak. I have long noted that Black culture is a front porch society. An old African American man washing an even older car in front of a still older house in the shade of a creaking and ancient live oak listened to Chubby Checker as I passed. We spoke and agreed it was a beautiful day. He patted the plump belly beneath his wife beater tee-shirt, though my Spidey Sense told me he’d never laid an uninvited finger upon the fairer sex, looked at me and laughed before asking, “You tryna lose some of this here?” 

I smiled and admitted that I was. “Me too, brother. Me too, but hey, we all gonna die anyhow, am I right?” 

A few blocks away, just before I made it back to The Black Holiness Church next door to my friend’s place, an old man with a potbelly and sad eyes sat in a plastic Dollar Store chair on the porch of an old mill house. I waved from the cracked sidewalk. He wondered aloud where I was headed in such a hurry. I told him I was just trying to walk off a few bites of lunch. He suggested I was on the right track as he remarked, “You sho’ a lot bigger than last time I seed you.”

Suddenly on the spot, I felt a need to lie. Before I knew it, I agreed that I was fatter than last time. In truth, this was the first time I’d ever traversed the shady route. Speaking of shade, he certainly knew how to throw it, but like my Granny, he didn’t seem to mean no harm. 

Today – back in Arkansas – in the midst of this Coronavirus Pandemic, I, as Dolly Parton sang in Joshua, took me out walking. In my case, it was not “down the railroad track to see if all them thangs I’d heard was true.” No, I set off afoot down a road my people have walked for over two centuries. Historically, it was called the “Bellview Road.” Randolph County’s 911 Commission, in a bid to make us more findable when disaster strikes, set out to name or rename all the area roads. The stretch north off the Old Military/Civil War route my parents live on was renamed and misnamed in the same stroke. Bellview became “Cattle Creek Road,” which sounds Ozark-y enough, except the creek our area ancestors settled is named “Tattle Creek.” We all raised Cain about it and blamed the townsfolk who didn’t know no better, but, of course, in rural fashion, we didn’t serve on the committees deciding such things. Now, we just horse-laugh their “ignorance” while overlooking our own. We go right ahead and call it what we, and probably the Lord, have always called it—the Bellview Road, particularly the branch that runs north from the Thomas Place up past the Spikes Place and the Barnett Cemetery and across Tattle Creek and the Bat Ridge.  

Anything but Cattle Creek.

Anyhow, Granny V’s offspring see to it that the whole clan stays well fed. After a churchless Sunday morning (country folk don’t do no livestream), Harmon Ray and Linda Sue, the best brother-and-sister duo of cooks this side of Maynard, served a fine Southern dinner. Smothered poke chops, pinto beans slow cooked all night in salt meat and fatback, a fresh pone of cornbread, and two types of potatuhs—mashed Irish, naturally called “Arsh,” and candied sweet. Sweet iced tea and chocolate pie were served in heaping quantities. Seconds around here are a given. 

Now, back to that walk. It’s not that rednecks haven’t gotten the COVID-19 memo; it’s more that they seem to find it a hoax. My parents’ new neighbors have restored one of the county’s first single-wides and were today planting okra—they didn’t say “okri,” so they’re likely not from around here—and other garden vegetables. Always before, a polite wave sufficed, but today we talked from six feet away, mostly stating the obvious about the garden and the weather. The man, the spokesperson of the family, added, “We’ll have a nice little garden if the birds don’t eat it up. Myself, I don’t really believe all this virus business, but if it kills us, it kills us. Know what I mean?” 

I said I did. 

North toward the hinterlands, I walked down the gravel road and up it to where the valley gives way to hillsides. I’ve walked this old road my entire 40 years of life, and many’s the time I’ve never encountered a soul. Often, I’ve seen more copperheads and dog-pecker gnats than folks. Not today, though I did see a crow face-stabbing something in the leaves in the ditch. Without my specs, I couldn’t make out just what. Probably a worm I reasoned, then my inner drama king kicked in and talked me into believing it was a snake. No doubt a copperhead, an over-poisonous baby one. The feathered forager flew forward and I could not see the contents of its beak.

Country people are good to offer folks a ride. They are also good to rattle past you in jalopies in the name of eat-my-dust-mother-trucker. Today, though, folks wanted to stop and chat, shoot the shit, offer me a ride. Nothing like a world-ending virus to make my tribe want to lick truck stop mirrors, pile into airtight cars, and breathe each other’s particulates, I thought. But folks were talkative and so I reminisced with a few, told others “just walking” before they, windows rolling down, could ask, and returned waves to those who slowed down so as not to spray me with too much dirt road dust. 

Having made it past Camp Creek and Tennessee Creek and even to the Athel Early Place near the Ellis Pond (but not quite to Tattle Creek), I headed back south with my aunt’s homemade blondie-bars in mind. The old Morris (locally “Marse”) Home-Place-turned-hay-barn caught my eye as it had slipped further into disrepair. Squirrels jumped from branch to branch above me as I approached the spring-fed Joe Perry Spikes Pond. I peered through the briars and cedars to see if the beavers still dammed the overflow end. For the record, they don’t. Not that I could see. 

Before I could get on past the old Kibler Place, erased from the Earth except for a few old yucca plants in the ditch in front of where it used to be, a candy-apple-red pickup slowed to a stop. The face looked vaguely like one I should have known, though the three sheets to the wind driver and his toothless female companion did not appear to recognize me as anything or anyone but fat. Yes, I had almost reached home, when (sensing one last chance) the Universe as expressed by Chevroleted passersby saw fit to tell me the Gospel truth. 

First, the driver spoke, or shall I say, slurred, “Hey, buddy, you need a ride?” It’s worth noting that he was headed north—all bets say to Mud Creek to finish getting his load on—and I was heading south, assuredly toward dessert.

I hesitated to answer because he looked for sure like a dude who, if I said yes, was capable of retorting, “Then piss in your boots and float awhile.” I said, “No, I’m just walking.” 

I must’ve reflexively patted my belly like the old gray-black gentleman back in Carolina, for the fellar took to laughing. Then, his female companion, chewing her gums—not to be confused with chewing gum—joined him. They both sat in comfort and laughed, seemingly good-naturedly.

In true drunken fashion, he spoke, “To be honest with ya, buddy, it sure looks to me like you could use the extra size.” 

“Exercise,” yes; “extra size,” no. Thanks, anyway, good buddy. But this didn’t seem like the day and I didn’t want to tussle verbally or otherwise with the dude, so I laughed at his joke. I mean, he wasn’t lying. Assuming that they had contributed to the Sonic bags and Michelob Lite cans along the roadside, I bid them farewell anyhow and excused myself. 

He grew apologetic. “Oh, I’m sorry, buddy, I ain’t never meant no harm,” he offered. His lady friend, assured somehow of his motives, called out, “He didn’t. He really didn’t.” I smiled and told them no harm, no foul, but I’d best be getting on. He took the occasion to get out and show me his. Belly, that is. As such things go, his was “dog tick full,” white as a hospital sheet, and likely had sported an outie as a child, but his heft had arranged his flesh so that he had only a dimple for a navel at this stage of the game. 

I acknowledged his beer belly, but, unsure of the protocol in such backroad encounters, I didn’t lift my Walmart-bought Hanes tee in return. I wanted to congratulate him and tell him I reckoned he’d be a helluva dad to the twins he was obviously carrying, but then I hated to get my butt whipped so close to home. And it being a Sunday. I laughed in a friendly manner, but not one that would encourage an encore performance of the mobile Shakespeare Theater of Tattle Creek Road. 

Before he hopped in Ol’ Red, he expressed well-oiled love. “Brother,” he paused to compose a minute, before letting ‘er rip, “I love you. And, G-g-god, luh-luh-loves, loves, you, too.” Before I could return my own expression of affection or my assurance of the Lord’s love for him, his lady friend called out between gum-smacks, “He does; He really does.”  

While the Blue Hole on Mud Creek and the can in the cup-holder seemed to be calls they could temporarily resist, Skynyrd proved not to be as gracious. Free Bird came on and lady love commenced to hoot and holler from her shotgun position in the truck before singing along and beckoning her beloved to join her. His eyes lit up like a coon hunter’s lantern when, after a beat or two, he recognized the unmistakable tune. 

A true rebel patriot sings along with the anthem of his people. He tipped his camouflage hat with a local funeral home’s logo on it before hopping back in the truck. The last words I heard them slur were quite apropos, “For I must be traveling on, now.” 

Same here, friends. The image of the love-drunk fools stuck with me and their song entered my spirit. I sang along in the mid-afternoon heat.

I’m as free as a bird now. And this bird you cannot change. And this bird you cannot chaaaaaaange. Lord knows I can’t change.  

Losing the lyrics as I also lost my breath walking up the hill past Curtis Hill’s long-forgotten truck patch, I laughed at my life, patted my belly, and thought of all the honest, tell-it-like-it-is folks of the South, drunk and sober, white and black, male and female, who see fit to remind me of what I already know. From my own Granny to the last black men in Biddleville to day-drinking rednecks in my own little postage stamp of native soil (apologies and shout out to William Faulkner), the consensus seems to be this . . .

. . . the world is ending and I’m fat.

James Jacob Seawel grew up in the Ozark foothills absorbing the stories of his family and community. James’s essays have been featured in The Bitter Southerner and Tales from the South. His editorials frequently appear in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He travels with the U.S. Military as a civilian counselor.

Image Credit: “Total Totem” by Edward Michael Supranowicz


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