White-Nelson tell tales of hard knocks, real and imagined

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White-Nelson tell tales of hard knocks, real and imagined

Jessica Nelson and Jacob White

Jessica Nelson and Jacob White

Travis LeClair

Jessica Nelson and Jacob White

Travis LeClair

Travis LeClair

Jessica Nelson and Jacob White

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Jacob White and Jessica Hendry Nelson are smart, accomplished authors who are dear to the writing and literature community at Johnson State College.

White and Nelson read in the Stearn’s Performance Space on April 1 as part of the Spring Reading Series.

JSC Professor Liz Powell introduced Nelson first. “From the moment I met her I’ve been impressed and wowed and dazzled. I just have so much respect for her writing and her person,” said Powell.

Nelson began reading from her title piece “If Only You People Could Follow Directions” from her book of memoirs and essays.

Nelson forced the audience to join her and her mother in a claustrophobic motel room, at the helm of visiting a brother/son who suffers from heroin addiction. “The motel is flamingo pink . . . walls dripping with humidity, the whole rectangular complex feels, from the fever I suppose, like a gaping mouth. I am in the wet center of the mouth, floating in a pool of tepid water and staring up at the rainclouds that rush by,” read Nelson. “This is Del Ray Beach, Florida, a place inundated with recovery homes, and so called pain clinics, pill mills, manned by crooked doctors, profiting from an epidemic of painkiller addiction,” she read.

“My mother and I are visiting Eric, who has been in a recovery home here for the past nine months, or so we had thought,” read Nelson. “We are in a duel, and this is the standstill. Or, we are in a play and rehearsing the same scene for the gazillionth time,” she read. “Mother and sister wait outside anxiously while son/brother gets high in tacky Florida motel room/mother’s unfinished attic/dimly lit McDonald’s bathroom/snow-heavy parked car/bowling alley urinal/New York City diner/ . . . family’s friend’s gold rimmed bathroom/bathroom/bathroom/bathroom/small black space of empty and release,” she read.

“Cut,” Nelson read. “Take gazillion and one. This time with a little less weepy-weepy please. A little less lip. A little more faith. A little more higher power . . . Hate less or more. Work harder. Chew slower. Be better . . . Give it up, let it go, take it back, take control. Say yes. Say no. Say no, no, no. Stick to the script. Steps one through twelve . . .If only you people could follow directions,” she read.

Nelson read about Eric cracking his head open as a baby. “When Eric was four, he fell backward down a flight of stairs inside our grandparents house . . . I was six” read Nelson. “His mouth was a big read O that chewed my heart out. He didn’t make a sound,” she read.

“I remember that phrase, ‘cracked his head open,’ which the grownups repeated, which seemed both more and less than what really happened. Sharper than a blow, or say, a thump. Something razor-edged and irreparable. Cracks are small and insidious, the start of some unforeseen disaster,” she read.

Nelson also shared a newer, untitled piece that she is working on. The piece explored the narrator’s relationship with children and men in three scenes.

“The first time I held an infant in my arms I was eleven years old. My mother had offered me over to watch a son of a client,” read Nelson. “We danced in circles, my feet gliding easily on the wooden floor. He was worm and heavy, heavier than I expected,” she read.

Nelson’s piece told a terrifying accident and lie. “I must have not been looking when he tumbled the three feet from the sofa to the floor because I only remember the sound of his skull thumping twice on the wood, and it was a strange a sound as I’ve ever heard,” read Nelson. “I remember scooping up the child and staring into his face and silently begging him to cry. Instead he stared through me, his blue eyes blank and wide, his mouth a cavern of silence . . . my mother appeared and I told her everything, that I had been walking with the baby in my arms and tripped over the edge of the sofa . . . but the baby . . . had been startled by the sound. ‘I didn’t let him go,’ I said, thank goodness I didn’t let him go,” she read.

The second scene paralleled another babysitting experience with the narrator’s first boyfriend. “Rory liked to crawl up my shirt, lay his head on my bare stomach, close his eyes and suck his thumb. He liked this most of all . . . I remembered that boy fifteen years later when my first lover called me a cunt then laid his head on my stomach and slipped his fingers inside my body half asleep. Such creature comforts are not easily forgotten, I thought,” read Nelson. “The next morning I shattered his glasses on the kitchen floor,” she read.

Before reading White praised the JSC community. “This is my favorite place on earth, and my favorite people . . . there are no places like this out there, so I am so happy to be back,” said White.

White read the title story from his book “Being Dead in South Carolina,” which explores hillbilly culture, dysfunctional family, suicide, face-punching and blotted memories.

White read with the voice of Dayton, a narrator who six months ago suffered a gunshot wound the head by an assailant who called him “dribble-dick” before pulling the trigger. Dayton abuses alcohol and his wife and son left him shortly before the shot.

White’s story balanced darkness and depravity with humor; he had audience members laughing and begging to hear more Dayton.

The story begins at the site of a tumbled Chevelle. “Look. Have you ever tried to right a car you yourself have tumbled? I mean, working alongside a few others, rocking the dumb hulk back and forth in hopes of landing it back upon its four sound tires. No, of course not. You have no idea . . . It’s the sort of story you expect to tell your asshole friends years later but never do, never do because you don’t know what else will come spilling out,” read White.

The first scene tells that Jackie is the type of Methodist Christian who isn’t afraid to punch his cousin in the face. “Why I am here with these grayer and more humorless versions of my childhood friends is by order of my mother, so I can reassociate my memory, which is defective somewhat,” read White.

The next scene tells of a childhood Dayton shooting his cousin Jackie in the shoulder. “There are things I remember now I’m not sure I remembered before. Like the day I winged Jackie with a .22 . . . he howled and ran at me like someone named Igor,” read White. “Bullet went clean through Jackie that day, never found it, and I know Jackie’s preaching to himself now how the bullet that got me was the same . . . you don’t know Jackie, his is a strange brand of Christianity,” read White.

In a later bar scene Dayton stares at a bear head hanging on wall while he finishes his fast dwindling beers. “I study the measly, retriever-sized head of a black bear, and . . . begin to deem it the saddest species on earth. It looks almost apologetic. Its mouth is open with the ‘I’ in ‘I’m sorry,” read White.

White’s voice was slow like the scenes and southern drawl that his characters must have. At times, the story had a sense of real-time.

“I think I’ll stop there,” said White. Audience members grunted complaints and pushed White to finish his story.

White’s story continued in the bar, where Dayton muscles the courage to ask Peat to dance. “For some reason she nods, for some reason she gives me her hand . . . my hand worries stiffly over the fleshy ravine small of her back . . . whatever the song is I love it,” read White.

“I’m digging up more of these moments lately, for instance we did get that Chevelle over after all, we somehow got it up to a point for gravity to take over . . . you imagine a thunderous noise but there was none, imagination’s got nothing to do with it,” read White.

White’s story offered a hazy inner-monologue before the final parking lot fight scene that ends the story. “I know I’m tearing once again from the cradle of kindness. I’ve been born again a thousand times, and each time’s scarier than the last. You know what I mean? Of course not. And that’s the hell of it,” read White.

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