In the summer of 1971, just before my 17th birthday, my father died and left me the house he had built for our family 20 years earlier. I got to live there, but I didn’t actually own the place until years later, when attorney Frampton Toole Jr. outschemed my evil, snake-faced stepmother in probate court. (That’s another story, though, and I will get back to it.)
Brenda and I got married in 1980 and started thinking long-term. My band was busted up, done in by disco, and the best job offer I had was bulldozer driver at the Huber clay pit. The cotton mills were closing, and Burnettown, S.C., was sinking fast.
Clearly, it was time for us to move on. But I had come home to the house in Burnettown days after I was born, and I’d never lived anywhere else. The soil of three counties was littered with the bones of my once-immediate family members and ex-pets. I’d fought hard to hold onto that house; it was paid for, I was broke, and I needed some inspiration.
It came one hell-hot and bathwater-humid day, while I was mowing the grass (couldn’t call it a lawn) and ran over a mound of basset hound crap. The olfactory shock triggered a voice in my head, You’re a guitar player, it said. Move to Nashville.
And so we did. For a couple of years, Brenda worked like a field hand, taking all the overtime she could get, while I fixed up the house and engaged in deficit spending trying to play and write rock ’n’ roll. (“Hey, darlin’, look what I bought today. A four-track Fostex. The case alone is worth what it cost me.”) But, since I’d rather have my spleen out than play country music, my Nashville music career failed. The yin to that yang: The restoration mag Old-House Journal had offered me an editor job. I jumped on a jet.
My first day there, while on the Park Slope Brownstone Tour, I made it through the vestibule of just one of those overgussied carpetbagger houses and was heading for a rug that cost as much as a Ram Van, when a face-lifted harpy with Pepto-Bismol-pink lips grabbed me and started screeching: “Sir! Sir! You’ll have to get out of the house. You’ve stepped in something.”
Another pile of dog crap, another epiphany. A few months later, we sold our New York apartment and headed back to Nashville. Back to Brenda working overtime. Back to me working on the house. But this time I wasn’t a guitar player; I was a how-to writer and newbie home inspector.
That Christmas, we went home to South Carolina, and I couldn’t help but drive by the house in Burnettown. The front door was open, so I hollered, “Hello.” Nobody helloed back, and I went in.
Nobody home. The place was trashed. The floor was ankle-deep in Cheeto bags and Atomic Fireball wrappers. There were man-size holes in the walls. I could see from the living room all the way through the bedroom that Brenda and I shared to the back wall of the room that was mine from the time I had my own bed. There was writing on the wall. I love Charles 4ever. True love. As I stood there, I swear I felt something tear loose inside me and float out the top of my head. The house went sort of transparent.
Then I looked straight in front of me and saw myself in the beveled mirror of the living room mantel. The mantel was solid oak, a furniture-ized version of a Greek temple. I know now that it dated from the 1910s. The family story was that it had come to my father by way of some shadowy parking-lot vendor. (That’s how Jabo got some of his best stuff.) I walked up to the mantel and looked closely at the mirror. At the time, I was sure I saw a ghost of one of the Glass-Wax Christmas tree stencils I put on the mirror back when I still had some front baby teeth. I put my hands on the shelf where my mother had always put out a few Christmas decorations. The cymbal-roll in my head calmed down to a little ear-ringing, and things started to feel solid again.
Next week: Mantel liberation....
Walter Jowers can be reached at Walter.Jowers@nashville.com