As I’m reading Graham Greene’s 1943 novel, The Ministry of Fear, I come across this line: “The brown leaves from the park were blowing across the road, and the drinkers coming out at closing time from the Duke of Rockingham took off their hats” (73).
It’s not the “drinkers” that arrest me here, nor is it “the Duke of Rockingham.” No, it’s those “brown leaves from the park.”
It’s not so much that they are “blowing across the road” either, though that is a lovely image. It’s just them; I can touch them and crumple them and I have done so many times, but not since I was a boy standing in my backyard on Fairfax Avenue in Bessemer.
Winter leaves, maybe even a residue of fall that has lasted till spring. In my family, though, we raked the leaves both front and back, even the two sides, anxiously, incessantly, until so little was left. Even so, there was time enough to find a few to crumple in my red-cold fingers before continuing to toss a football with my friend Steve or sink free throws in the iron-orange goal my father attached to one of the hackberry trees bordering our next-door neighbors’ house.
Standing on the near-frozen sloping ground, smelling the fractured dead leaves: I knew where I was.
I know it still.
It has taken me almost forty years to listen to the advice of my college friend, Billy Watt, who encouraged me to read Greene. I think Billy wanted me to try The Power and the Glory because Greene apparently captures some notion of faith there. Billy was a faithful guy, as I remember, a member of the Baptist Student Union. I wasn’t a Baptist or even a little bit faithful. I did buy a copy of The Power and the Glory and still have it somewhere on a home or office shelf.
But I never read it, Billy, and even now I can’t say I will.
I am not yet done with The Ministry of Fear, and I might not be done with Greene, because brown leaves speak to me and I wonder what else this British author has to say to a Southern man like me.
Back when I knew Billy, back when he’d visit me at the Episcopal church house where I lived for free, we took a variety of English courses together. Billy, and you can’t make such a detail up even for literature geeks, loved the works of Ben Jonson, a late Renaissance playwright/poet. To my knowledge, I never read any Jonson, and even were I to live another forty years, Billy, I don’t think I will.
Billy majored in English and also took creative writing classes. I was only a minor, still believing that my end was Political Science, though what I would do with that major, I didn’t know — maybe be an investigative reporter on the hunt for another Watergate.
One night Billy knocked on my door, and so became the first person to know how my life had changed. I was taking Professor William Cobb’s Southern Literature class — had just started the class, knowing so little about who these giants of my land, Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty — were. Our assignment for the first class had been to read Malcolm Cowley’s introduction to The Portable Faulkner. At that point I think the only Faulkner I had ever read was “A Rose for Emily,” and what anyone makes of that story on a single read, I’m not sure. But I guess I thought that this was no Kafka or Mann tale, and Miss Emily wasn’t like any other sweet southern elder I knew.
But then I read Cowley’s words about this kinsman of mine, for Mississippi, Alabama, what difference is there really in their people, their terrain, the crumpled leaves:
“No other American writer takes such delight in the weather. He speaks in various novels of ‘the hot still pine-winey silence of the August afternoon’; of ‘the moonless September dust, the trees along the road not rising soaring as trees should but squatting like huge fowl;’ of the ‘tranquil sunset of October mazy with windless wood-smoke”: of the slow drizzle [of rain]…’” (xxiv)
No other American author spoke so clearly to me about what I saw, what I touched, what or who I was.
“I’m changing my major to English,” I announced as Billy settled in on the cracked leather couch beside me.
He was from York, Alabama. He understood.
Dead brown leaves in the sunshine, or skittering across a road, or clinging to your patched, grass-stained jeans as you wrestle for a fumbled ball might be too common of an image to stake a life and career on. But what else can I say? The moonless, dust, hot piney silence, the slow drizzle of a rain that seems endless or blessed. I didn’t know until that moment in my boxy house that anyone did or would write about the back-yard where I played and, just over the hard-wire fence, could see the smoke from the houses of the “colored people,” as we white people referred to them back then.
And as I continued to read and study the works of this famous Mississippian, I found other back-yards to play in, other worlds to gaze on in horror and faithless rapture.
Other kinds of leaves to burn, or store in case I ever need them.