For those of you who read my previous post about storytelling and how my first attempt at it went, I thought I’d show you what I can do with a little more time and a keyboard in front of me. I submitted that blog entry for my creative non-fiction workshop class to get feedback, and now it’s time to re-submit the new and improved version, written for readers rather than listeners. I’d love to know what you think!
I’m from Arkansas, which is something I don’t tell many people. Unlike other states with sexy selling points like Broadway, Hollywood, or Disneyworld, we’re best known for cotton, catfish, and the only diamond producing mine in the United States. We also grow half of the rice consumed in this country each year. Wahoo, right? Granted, being able to lay claim to Johnny Cash, John Grisham, and Maya Angelou is a bit of terrific, but it doesn’t make it any less painful that our state’s unofficial motto is “Thank God for Mississippi.”
Folks from “The Natural State,” we’re a little…different. One only need examine the teeming multitudes at a University of Arkansas Razorbacks football game to see why. It’s the only place in the South where grown men slap plastic Hog Hats on each Saturday and scream, “Woo pig sooie!” without thinking themselves the least bit odd. However, I can honestly say that none of those bleacher warriors can keep up with my great uncle Darrell when it comes to idiosyncrasies. My grandmother’s baby brother was the quintessential Qualls, even more so than his twin brother, Doug.
We Qualls, for those of you who’ve never been blessed to be in our presence, are some of the downright peskiest people on planet earth. I once watched my forty-year-old cousin, Lyndal, lock and unlock an automatic car door twenty times for no other reason than to irritate my great grandmother. He only stopped when she flipped him the bird and he couldn’t catch his breath because he was laughing so hard.
Darrell was a Qualls through and through. Tall, lanky, and long armed, he always made me think of Ichabod Crane, and like his literary look-alike, he took his food seriously. So much so that he brought his own onion to cookouts just to make sure he’d have enough. Always optimistic, he refused to let anything—even losing a finger to diabetes—get him down. “I can’t give you high fives no more, Jamers,” he once told me. “How’s about a high four?”
Though he never enrolled in college, he was highly intelligent and creative, which is a lethal combination in a super villain, but just borderline dangerous in regular folks. He was quick-witted and liked to tell stories he made up on the spot. For instance, I once saw him rubbing his bicep like it was sore and asked, “Uncle Darrell, does your arm hurt?” He replied, “Oh no, baby girl. I just love myself.” Another time, he actually was sick with a terrible case of the flu, and I asked him how he was feeling. His reply?—”Little Sister, I’ll tell you this. I’m not buying any green bananas.”
Like many men in the small town he called home, Darrell worked at the pulp mill. He was put on the night shift but wasn’t one of the men throwing wood chips into machines or hauling away the finished product. He sat up in the control tower watching lights blink and gauges move on a leviathan control panel. Unless there was a blockage somewhere in the machine, the water pressure got too high, or a possum got into the factory (which happened once), he had little to do. It was a job custom made for boredom, which was the last thing Darrell needed.
So he started writing letters to his first cousin, Leroy. Like many members of my family, Leroy was a veteran of a foreign war, but I couldn’t tell you exactly which one. It was likely Vietnam, but it could just have been the American Revolution. I honestly don’t know because the man never seemed to age. Many of my relatives, including Darrell, have gone on to their reward, but Leroy is still alive and bumping around. That’s why I’m convinced he made the same deal as Dick Clark, that or there’s a painting somewhere in his attic that shows his true age. My right hand to Jesus, the man looks the same as he did when I was nine and had a crush on Prince.
Leroy had a bad case of shell shock and was a little off in the head in a way that made him endearing to me when I was a kid. I remember he always wore tattered ball caps, their logos made indecipherable by sun and sweat, and he had small eyes, a large nose, and an overbite, which made him look like a rabbit. He never married and isn’t comfortable around a lot of people, but he had an imaginary friend named Oliver who was always after him for something. He turns the television off during the commercials to save energy and is always on the lookout for pieces of Styrofoam to add to his collection. But one of the oddest things he does happens whenever he comes around to eat a meal with us. He loads up his plate, grabs a napkin and fork, and proceeds to stand in a doorway to eat it.
“Leroy, you wanna sit down?” someone always asks, though we all know he’ll answer, “No’um, I’m just fine right here” and keep on eating. He comes back to refill his plate or glass and then returns to the doorway to continue chowing down. And he can put it away, perhaps because it can go straight down his leg.
One of Darrell’s chief delights was playing elaborate jokes on Leroy, some of which involved a bit of spontaneity. Once, he picked his unsuspecting cousin up at his house and said, “Let’s go for a ride.” Leroy assumed the jaunt might take them as far away as Memphis, less than two hours up the road. But when he saw the sign for Chattanooga, he knew he was doomed. They ended up driving all the way down to Florida to visit us.
Darrell repeated the gag years later and drove Leroy—who didn’t have more than ten bucks in his wallet or a change of underwear to his name—all the way to California. As they crossed the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts, Darrell got the bright idea to turn the on the car’s heater and laughed silently as Leroy tugged at his sweat drenched collar and repeatedly said, “I don’t recollect the desert being this hot.” When he told Doug about it, his brother could only ask, “Son, weren’t you a might bit hot, too?” Even Darrell’s answer was uniquely him—“Hammers, yes, I was hot!” I suppose, even for the prankster, great art is born of suffering, and Darrell was willing to do whatever it took in the practice of his craft.
A four-day practical joke is a fine thing, but Darrell was never one to settle. He once got this strange notion that he would pretend to be a salesman and write letters to Leroy to get him to purchase what he called “countless amazing and esoteric works of fiction and non-fiction written for the discerning reader.” In each handwritten epistle, he’d mention who he was and where he worked, chastise Leroy for not purchasing any of the books listed in the last letter, and proceed to offer him another fifteen or twenty titles. He also told him where to leave the cash and when, using a different drop point each time. Sometimes, it was as simple as leaving the cash under a rock on the corner of the porch, and other times, it involved hiding the money between cans of yams at the corner store.
He made up each and every one of the books that were on these lists. No self-help texts or works of classic fiction for Darrell. After all, his brain always needed something to do, especially at work, so he came up with titles like:
The Care and Maintenance of Your Dromedary Camel
Making Stockings for Lady Caterpillars
The Disagreements Between Longshoremen and Shortshoremen
Mouthwatering Recipes from Southern Ethiopia
How to Grow Yellow Blueberries
and (my personal favorite)— How to Fall from a Ladder with Dignity
Every four or five days, Darrell would write another letter and drop it in the mail, and he kept this up without fail for nearly seven years. Never once did Leroy order anything, and he never knew it was Darrell who was behind it all. Perhaps because it was harder to research a company without the Internet or Leroy wasn’t a naturally inquisitive person, but in all the years this went on, he asked very few questions about the letters. He just kept reading and tucking them away in drawers or throwing them away. Darrell also avoided the subject because he knew he’d burst out laughing if it came up—that and he knew he’d have to write any book Leroy ordered. And the secret sat undiscovered for years like the arrhythmia that would suddenly steal him from us in 2000.
At Darrell’s funeral, we were all sitting around the house after the graveside service. We’d done everything we were supposed to do. We’d read the twenty-third psalm. We’d sung “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We’d shaken hands with relatives we didn’t know and wedged smiles on our faces. We’d eaten lukewarm food on plastic plates. We’d spent an entire day sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs. But it still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like Darrell at all. It was stiff, formal, and bland—like a rental house with its white walls and tan carpet.
At the end of a frustratingly long day, the ladies from the church packed up the legion of casseroles, pies, and salads that invariably show up where death comes to visit. As I picked petals off carnations, a flower I’ve long associated with death, we talked about how we’d rather just be chunked in a hole or cremated and scattered on the field at Busch Stadium. Finally, my aunt Nita asked, “What do you think Darrell would’ve said about all this?”
That question sparked a lengthy session of story swapping about the dearly departed over a fresh pot of coffee and slabs of Mary Katherine Schug’s homemade, three-layer coconut cake, the one that involved an entire bottle of Wesson Oil and reduced those who ate it to shameless plate licking. You can guess which story eventually came up. Mind you that up until this moment, Leroy still didn’t know. However, he looked at Doug and said, “Douglas, you mean to tell me it was Darrell Hunter Qualls who was behind them funny letters a way back yonder?”
When Doug (who, having lost a twin, was more heartbroken than he let on) nodded, Leroy did what might have been offensive to some. He laughed. Out loud. It was a joyful, full-bodied chortle replete with knee slapping and head shaking. It was an infectious kind of guffaw that caught us all up in it like a rip tide and pulled us briefly out of the quagmire of our grief.
It was just what we needed and what Darrell had been waiting for, but not because he would have felt he deserved anything special. There were actually two essential things to understand when it came to my great uncle—the sheer genius of his quirkiness and just how fiercely he loved. He could no more have left us brokenhearted than he could have turned down a plate full of fried catfish, and I think that was his reason for writing those letters all along.