I hadn’t thought about donkeys in a long time. And mules, even longer.
Today, I’m out in the middle of some private land managed by the Florida Forestry Service (“We’re really firefighters who dabble in land management,” says Clark, our forestry guide. He has that sexy lisp that some smart grown men have and a ruddy beard, and I’m glad he talked too fast and too much otherwise I may have fallen in love with him). We’re in the midst of our weekly field trip for the Uplands Module of the Florida Master Naturalist Program, and I’m no fan of traipsing around in pine flats. This is because I’m from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a landscape of unloving pine flatwoods that stretch until your life ends in hard times and disillusion. And, pine flats contain three elements I don’t like about the outdoors: ticks, spiders, and distance from water.
We’re in a clearing, surrounded by grasses and sprouting slash pines and bushy baby longleaf pines that shoot up their Christmas-green needles around the living sprout, a white bud nicknamed the “candle” because that’s exactly what it looks like. Clark is talking about hybridization of pines, and most of the class is fascinated, but I am pretending not to be bored out of my mind until he mentions it is like mules.
“These species cross-breed and the tree they make can end up sterile, like a mule. You know, you have a horse and a donkey, you get a mule. But mules are sterile. Like that.” He tosses the longleaf pine fascicle on the ground and we head down the trail. (The fascicle is the thing you pick up from the ground that has the needles and the tiny, sticky brown tube taping the ends.)
“Wait,” I say. “You mean that the only way you can get a mule is by mating a horse with a donkey? Mules can’t make more mules?”
Apparently, this example is common knowledge, and the class turns to look at me. “Oh,” I say. “Did you know that?” I ask the woman next to me.
“Yes,” she says, and walks away. I like mules. I know I will remember this tidbit of information–I think most writers get “struck” in the course of a day by something random and that info ends up being the portal into a piece of art–but I don’t know why Clark’s comparison of the mule lingers in my heart until I am sauteing mushrooms for dinner.
Once, when my grandmother was still alive, years before her mind and body were ravaged by dementia and scoliosis, I watched her frying pork chops with non-stick Pam. The low-fat, low-carb revolution had destroyed our Southern way of life, and Inez Ward, who, until this tragic moment in history, cooked with grease and lard and Crisco and fatback, was learning to change with the modern world. I was probably a sophomore in college, sitting on the counter in her kitchen, and I remember distinctly not liking watching her learn to cook with Pam. She was a sensory cook–smelling and tasting until perfect–and she organized by rhythm. Squirt, squirt, sizzle flip, wait. Squirt, squirt, sizzle flip, wait was how she’d figured out Pam and pork chops, but what we all seemed to acknowledge without speaking was that this dietary “improvement” was, honestly, beneath her. It was like stumbling into a wedding reception to find Baryshnikov leading the cha-cha slide. But that’s how it was, and I never saw her brown pork chops in anything else again.
This memory crosses my mind at the moment I press the nozzle on my generic Pam, called Canola Oil Spray, that I got at my grocery store. I squirt it over the pan of mushrooms exactly like I saw my grandmother do all those years ago. In fact, I remember this snapshot of my grandmother and the pork chops every time I cook with Pam or Canola Oil Spray or Olive Oil Spray or Butter-Flavored Spray.
That’s when I remember Clark’s comparison of the mule. That’s when I realize I am homesick.
I stir the mushrooms, and I think about mules. As a writer, and a Southern writer, I know the mule is our sacred symbol, our Hindu cow. It’s no coincidence that my mind skips along the bridge linking my grandmother to the mule, sturdy and loyal and unflagging as she was carting our whole entire family with her–children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren–as one unit on her back until the end of her days.
I recall one evening as a college senior, an ardent and unstable student of creative writing, quivering into the unlit entrance of The Dead Mule with my boyfriend, David Patterson, then an intern at the famed Algonquin Books, who had gotten us invited to a private reading with Larry Brown. The Dead Mule was a hide-out for the South’s most (in)famous writers, so named for the recurring use of the mule in all of their–and their predecessors’, and, of course, their heirs’–works. That night in The Dead Mule I saw an erratic Kaye Gibbons corner another writer at the bar and furtively ask him if he’d ever heard of PTSD. Larry Brown, my literary hero, complained to me about his editor demanding pages. “I need more pages,” he said, impersonating her. “More pages!” He drank his whiskey. “I can’t give you no more pages, honey,” he said, “than I can give you. You know?” He wasn’t much taller than I was, and eight years after this night his wife would wake up in the morning to find him dead in the bed of a heart attack. Before he’d been a writer, Brown was a firefighter. I wonder if he cooked with Pam. I doubted it. He was a mule, too, carting a whole generation of writers into a gritty south, a man who would keep trying to give his editor pages between visits to the bar at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi.
I am in a peculiar emotional spot, where many of my painful and formative experiences with life are closing, like old knife wounds, many of those collected by the time I was on my grandmother’s kitchen counter disconcerted by her switch to aerosol fat-like substitutes. I read a lot of Larry Brown then, thanks to David, who would later become a very successful New York literary agent.
Thinking about mules has got me wishing I could be who I am now but with the old ways, the old people, who are lost to me now. My grandmother, my college boyfriend, Larry Brown. These were special people, and they can’t be replaced or duplicated. Life goes on and we carry each other; we pass on and the ones we leave behind carry others. This is what I mean by homesick.
Then I remember something that happened to me, a story I heard that same sophomore year in college, when I was in the foothills of North Carolina on my very first writer’s retreat. I was 20 years old. We took a trip to a neighboring town to meet a old farmer, a man who raised mules. “They just old dumb animals,” he said, stroking their ears between his thumb and forefinger, rubbing their noses. “It ain’t like they know me or care about me.” When he walked, the mules followed, sometimes on foot, and sometimes with their eyes. “They get to eating or what have you and leave from time to time.” He wore overalls and and a straw hat and was probably in his early 80s. The people around town knew him as Mule Man, and I’m sure he was introduced to us by his given name, but there’s no way I could recall it now.
“Do they come back?” one of our directors asked.
The Mule Man grinned. “They always come back home,” he said. “I don’t know how they know, but I don’t worry ’bout ’em. One night I go to bed and they gone. Next mornin they back. Always be coming home.”
We were supposed to go back to the writer’s camp and make something of this encounter. I don’t know what I made up. I can’t remember. If I had to guess it probably sounded a lot like something out of a Larry Brown novel. But here I have carried this story with me all these years and it ends up here: mules always come back home.
night night beloveds.