My better half Glenda agreed to let me take a job at Wofford College, after she’d retired from teaching. I thought, We need to find a compound of sorts. At the old house in Dacusville, in Pickens County, I looked out my writing room window and watched men and women push dogs out of their trucks and SUVs. I watched a man hit a deer, not kill it, then get out of his truck and shoot it in the head right there on my front lawn, then drive off. One morning we found a guy passed out in his truck, pulled right up to our cars in the driveway. “It’s only going to get worse,” I told Glenda. She agreed.
So we found this corner-lot house that’s not even thirty-three years old since construction—with a chain- link fence covering the entire couple acres. On the outside of the fence are ten-foot-high tea olive bushes facing both roads. In the back there’s pine woods, and the inside of the fence holds azaleas, Elaeagnus, faux holly, real holly with red berries, Leyland cypresses, and so on. Hibiscus. Whoever owned the house before us must’ve had a thing for making nursery owners wealthy.
ANIMAL HOUSE // This essay “Writing in a Room That Once Displayed Jesus, Inside a Zoo, Inside a Botanical Garden” appears in Carolina Writers at Home, a collection of essays and photography published by Hub City Press, October 2015.
Listen, I’m no zoologist, but all those plants—and I’m not exactly a plant guy—attract lots of critters. In the past year I’ve sat on the back deck to see a fox zip by me, and crept down the driveway in order to get a better view of deer at four in the morning standing ten feet from me on the other side of the fence. Predawn I’ve listened to coyotes yipping not that far away. Using a Havahart trap, I’ve caught possums that, when released, just stood there beside me. I have a photo of me putting a leash on one possum and trying to take him for a walk. He didn’t oblige very well. Chipmunks and squirrels? Check. Hummingbirds? It’s like standing on a battleship with the F-14s coming home. Bluejays, crows, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, cardinals, bluebirds, mourning doves, hundreds of wild canaries at a time making a mess of the bird feeders. On the other side of the main road, there’s a cell tower that hosts a wake of black buzzards that I watch when the sun comes out. They’re staring at me as I write this, I bet.
Okay, so the previous owners—a nice couple who install big-time kitchens, thus what sold the house to Glenda, seeing as these folks put in a couple gas Wolf stoves and a hood normally seen at a Waffle House—may have been color-blind. Downstairs, the rooms were painted a bright yellow. Then there was the lime-green living room. The laundry room was a shade of orange not known to sane people, the bedroom some kind of blue. If one took off the roof and looked down, it wouldn’t have looked that much different than four or five tubs of sherbet, or a bag of saltwater taffy. Maybe the previous owners had gone to the Caribbean on a second honeymoon and became enthralled with the color schemes of local bodegas.
But here’s the best room, and it’s where I write now: They had hired out some local muralists to transform a perfectly normal room—probably once used as a child’s bedroom, or an office. Four normal walls became a jungle, the ceiling a sky with a bald eagle flying across. On the day after closing, I drove over to the new house, armed with whatever paint colors Lowe’s and Home Depot make up. Me, I call these paints “dark green” and “white,” but they have special names.
I got out a roller and eradicated the eagle, and felt a little unpatriotic doing so. Then I got to the walls and erased the lemurs and rhinos, the elephants and gorillas. I thought to myself, How in the world would I have ever been able to write up here with all these animal eyes looking down on me? I painted over giraffes, a sloth, tigers, lions, chimpanzees, spider monkeys, antelope, egrets, snapping turtles, penguins. Lots of green and yellow flora worked as a border of sorts, down near the baseboard.
SINGLED OUT // Writer and professor George Singleton made his new house a home, with personal touches—but, his office renovation was the crux.
A dachshund showed up. Okay, so at this point I’d already thought, how is a penguin going to survive in the jungle, and I wasn’t sure if tigers and lemurs shared the same habitat. But the wiener dog made me stop. Maybe they had a wiener dog and wanted him memorialized in this odd cosmos.
And then I came across Noah’s Ark, crashed into a snow-covered mountaintop.
Farther down, Jesus on the cross.
Oh, man. I’m not the most religious person in the world, but I do own a number of superstitions. I meant to block off the Jesus part of the mural and leave it—He would be covered with a bookcase—but maybe the paint fumes got to me and I lost my concentration. I rolled right over Jesus, not even thinking. I thought, That can’t be a good thing to do, and then wondered if it might later cause me to sit here at the computer, not write as much as I used to write, and get tempted by all the animals outside, calling for me to come look at them as if I were some kind of nature writer.
Wait—a stink bug just crashed into my head. There are stink bugs all over the place. Nubby the cat just said to me, “Don’t forget the stink bugs,” seeing as they make his entire life worth living. Don’t mess with me—Nubby can speak in English somehow.
Oh, on occasion it sounds as if a ball bounces down the staircase. Glenda says she’s left the bedroom, then come back to find one of the venetian blinds closed when both had been open. The TV changes channels on occasion. We’ve heard crashes, looked at each other, then gone to find nothing.
But maybe it’s Jesus trying to creep through the paint, you know—how hard could that be? Is it those buzzards trying to crash-land into the house knowing that there’s something dead inside the walls? Do the stink bugs have more power than I’ve given them credit?
I blame it on the possums.
Carolina Writers at Home, edited by Meg Reid and published this October by Spartanburg’s Hub City Press, features the work of local authors George Singleton, Clyde Edgerton, Nikky Finney, Allan Gurganus, Dot Jackson, and more, with first-hand accounts of the beloved homes where they make their life and work. Rich photography by Rob McDonald brings out the singular charac- ter and unique details of each space. For more information, go to carolinawritersathome.com or hubcity.org.
George Singleton, Eliza- beth Cox, Drew Lanham, and Rob McDonald will be on hand to discuss the book and sign copies at Hub City Bookshop on Friday, November 20 at 7 p.m. If you can’t make it to Spartanburg, Cox, Lanham, and McDonald will be at M. Judson Booksellers & Storytellers on Sunday, November 22, at 4 p.m. Both events are free. Hub City Bookshop, 186 West Main St, Spartanburg. (864) 577-9349, hubcity.org; M. Judson Booksellers & Storytellers, 130 South Main St, Suite 200, Greenville. (864) 603- 2412, mjudsonbooks.com