This memorial was originally published in our Summer 2012 issue.
You should know:
I am not a tattoo guy. It’s not that I don’t think they’ re pretty. I do. I watch Icarus fall down my buddy’s leg. I stare at the dinosaur on my friend’s forearm and feel embarrassed when he catches me peeping. I’m married, too, so as for the places women put them? Oh boy. I just try not to look.
No, I’m not a tattoo guy because I’m cowardly in philosophical ways. To get a tattoo you must be willing to claim something essential about yourself, something so important that when your children run to your bedside to wake you, or come to you in a high-school panic, or finally lay you to rest in your coffin, that particular image or phrase is one you’d like them to think about. It’s too heavy for me.
That said, here’s the story of the time I came close:
It’s Mississippi a near decade ago. Only five people exist in the world. They are the writer Tom Franklin and four of his students, two of them Yankees and the other two Southerners. We gather on the back patio of Franklin’s Oxford home and the beer in the ice chest is so cold. We’ve been doing this weekly for a class we call “Southern Story,” and the books have been tremendous. Barry Hannah. William Gay. Dale Ray Phillips. It is writing so good that our livers hurt.
Then, one night, a miracle happens and our lives change forever.
The assigned book is small, almost pocket-sized at five-by-seven inches, and it feels as peculiar in our hands as its stories do in our minds. We wait nervously for Tom’s wife and child to go to sleep so class can begin. We then whisper to one another, because it feels like our own incredible secret, that there is a man from Itta Bena, Mississippi, named Lewis Nordan and he has written a masterpiece called Music of the Swamp.
It was the best book I’d ever come across. Yet, in the same way I have trouble explaining why I love my wife in the earth-shaking manner I do, I often have trouble communicating to people just how good Nordan is. When I try, I say things like “big-hearted” and “hilarious” and “virtuoso,” but that is vague and boring. The truth is simple. At the house party of Southern fiction, full of death-dealers, drinkers, and unshaven folks behaving badly, Lewis Nordan stands alone in the yard, like a boy in a bright-blue suit his mother picked out for him. Yet his is the same haunted South as ours. He’s witnessed the same troubles, fought the same demons. Through his eyes, though, the South is transformed. His swamp is full of mermaids. His trashy neighbors sing arias in the cabbage patches. His depressed and alcoholic father is magic. His heart is open and honest and shredded and, thank God, he was willing to show it to us.
In Music of the Swap there is a story called “Owls.” It’s a quick seven-pager about a boy on a late-night ride with his father, who’s had a few beers and, as it turns out, it’s the most important story in my life. The plot is that the boy is nervous about his father’s driving and mentions the yellow SLOW sign they speed by on a curve. The dad agrees the sign had meaning and turns the car around because, as he saw it, it read OWLS, not SLOW. The first magic of this story is that, when they face the sign again, the boy sees his father was right; it does say OWLS. The father then kills the engine and rolls down the window and, in what any other writer may have turned to a predictable scene, Nordan creates a second magic. All around the car, as if rising from the stubble fields of the Mississippi Delta, a flock of owls lifts from the ground and circles them. The boy can hear their wings on the air, the soft calls of their throats, and feels for the first time as if he and his distant father are connecting. He says:
I don’t know what I believed would happen. I think I believed I would feel the fingers of my father’s hand touch my arm, the sleeve of my shirt. I believed I would tum to him and for the first time in my life I would know what to say. I would tell him all my secrets. I believed my father would say, “I love you.” This was what it meant to sit in a car with your father in the middle of the night and listen to a flock of owls while looking at a diamond-shaped sign that said OWLS.
Then he rolled up his window, and so I rolled up mine. In the darkness he said, “You know, your mother is a terrible housekeeper.”
We only sat there looking at the OWLS sign. I knew things would not go well after this.
The story moves on. We flash decades ahead to when the boy is a man and is retelling this anecdote to the woman he loves. They are enjoying one of the quiet moments in life, lying in bed with a band of sunlight across their thighs, and the woman is incredulous. As she gently presses him for details (the size of the moon in his memory, the color of a rabbit’s eyes along a dark country road), he realizes the story of the owls is a self-made creation, cooked up to make his relationship with his father more like he wanted it to be rather than how it was. And the real magic, what Nordan wants us to see, is that he is now able to release this false memory because he has found true love with a woman that, in turn, allows him to finally feel it with his father who is, by this time, long dead.
Back on that Mississippi patio, the five of us realized there was no better way to explain what we’d been doing for so long with our own lives and memories, both on and off the page. So, as only few do, that story became more than a story and colored the rest of our days. The color, of course, was the bright yellow of a street sign that read OWLS, and so we mapped out where we might ink this symbol on our bodies. This way, if anyone asked, we would have the pleasure of telling them about Nordan and owls and short stories and love. But then a strange thing happened. As time went by, the preliminary sketches we traced on our chests soaked in through the skin to our hearts and there became little need for an actual tattoo.
But there is one more thing to tell.
Last week, I received an e-mail from my old teacher, Tom Franklin. It read, sadly, “Buddy Nordan died. Yesterday. Can you tell the other Owls?” My wife saw me slumped at my computer, and, when I told her this news, she put her hand on the back of my neck to comfort me. It was not long after this she told me she’d recently had a dream in which her mother died and returned to her a ghost. As she relayed this dream to me, this made-up thing, it stirred up such fear in her that she began to cry and I touched her hair in a way I so desperately hope she’ll always like. Then, as I watched her pick up the phone to call her mother, I was reminded of one of the truest lines I’ve ever read in fiction, the one that ends Music of the Swamp and says, “There is great pain in all love, but we don’t care, it’s worth it.”
And so now I’m thinking of a new tattoo, one that says, simply, HELL YES, BUDDY.
I’m hoping someone will ask me to explain it.
I’ll be so happy to.