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Excerpt: 'Poor Man's Provence'

The Tool Shed Reading Club

I quit my Atlanta newspaper columnist's job in 2001. The money was good, the position prestigious. The newspaper, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, was the most editorially liberal I'd ever worked for, and that being the case, its owner liked both me and my politics. To give up the newspaper salary and keep only the syndication would reduce my salary by nine-tenths, literally.

Quitting was the easiest decision I ever made in my professional life.

I had arrived in Atlanta as a columnist in 1994, exactly one month after the wildly popular Lewis Grizzard died. The newspaper, though shrewd enough not to bill me as his replacement, put my column in the same bit of journalistic real estate Grizzard had left empty. Grizzard was a political conservative, a University of Georgia graduate, a humorist and a man. I was a liberal, an Auburn graduate, not a humorist, and not a man. It seemed as if most of his fans wanted the column space left blank indefinitely, or at least filled by a Grizzard wannabe; there are plenty of those. If only I'd saved my angry mail from that first year in Atlanta I would have had an effortless book: Grizzard Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself.

After a couple of years in the column spot, though, I managed to find my kind of readers, or rather they found me. I rediscovered my home state of Georgia in the process, column by column, driving from town to town in the only way I knew to keep a running commentary interesting. I loved most parts of the state, but never managed to warm up to the capital city that dominated it. All my best-laid plans to reconnect with college chums and relatives who had settled in Hot 'Lanta quickly died in the face of logistics. It took hours to get from one part of the city to another, and by day's end I was relieved just to get home. Going out again to face more traffic jams or parking hassles was not even possible; I was always bone-tired. There had to be monumental motivation to make me drive back into the fray in the evenings. As a result, the city's plays and art exhibits and first-run movies and concerts were nothing to me. I might as well have stayed in Mississippi. And, most days, I wished I had.

After I had been six years on the job, another Atlanta columnist, the iconic Celestine Sibley, died. Editors moved my column to her vacant spot. Here we go again, I thought. I dreaded hearing from her six decades' worth of fans. This time, however, it was a far better fit, a smoother transition; Celestine had more thoughtful fans, and now readers at least had heard of me and knew my work. And, we were both women. But by this time I was physically and emotionally tired. I hated the horrendous traffic I was forced to deal with daily, and the relentlessness of four columns a week was working on my psyche. I no sooner finished one piece than another was due. My cartoonist friend Charles Schulz best described the deadline business when he said, "It's like running up a glass hill."

I'd been running up a glass hill for nearly thirty years. I wanted off.

I struck a deal with my syndicate, King Features, to write one general interest column a week. For the first time in my adult life — with the exception of thirteen months when in desperation I took an editing job for the State of Mississippi — I was not working for a newspaper. It was dizzying, almost, having time for the first time to go to leisurely lunches with girlfriends, or to spend a day putting photographs in a scrapbook. I loved having a day here and there to work in the yard, or to write a real and rambling letter. I was broke but happier, a lot like my Henderson friends who seemed always to put leisure time over big salaries, staying home over mandatory travel. I had learned that lesson from them, and well.

When I decided to quit, we immediately put the nice, roomy Atlanta-area house on the market. The house had kept me sane during the Atlanta years. It was surrounded by a farmer's four hundred acres and cozy to the Little Tallapoosa River. We could drop the canoe into the river in our backyard and float ten miles without seeing another house.

The house, with its idyllic setting, sold in one week. I hurriedly shoe-horned our furniture and most of our belongings into the one-bedroom home in north Mississippi and proceeded to sit back and enjoy life. And enjoying life, for us, by now, meant spending lots of time in Louisiana. Freed from Atlanta, and with Don already retired, we now could spend entire winters in Henderson.

A snaggle-toothed girl named Carly and her brother Sam had moved into the pink house across the street from us in Henderson. It was Katy's former house and at first I swore I wouldn't get attached to more street urchins who might or might not stay around. Carly lived there with her mother and the mother's boyfriend who had three children, not to mention grandchildren, who frequently visited. I tried to ignore them all. But kids, especially when fate places them so close, are hard to ignore. One morning little Sam was kneeling by an injured baby bird next to our gate. He was stroking the bird's head and trying to feed it.

We drove off on some errand or another, but when we returned I saw Sam in his yard and asked after his bird.

"I killed it," he said matter-of-factly. "He was biting me with his nose."

Sam was like that. A bit surly, no-nonsense, but smart and funny. One Christmas day we were watching out the window as Sam tried out his new go-cart, zooming around the block, into the gravel church parking lot behind us. He wrecked, of course, turning the machine upside down in the gravel, breaking his arm and spending the rest of Christmas in surgery.

Carly was shy at first. She'd come over to play with our yellow dog Mabel, squealing when the oafish puppy would jump up on her and lick her face. She had a dog, too, and one day I asked Carly what its name was.

"I already told you that," she said. Thus ended the conversation. Later, I recalled she had in fact about six months before told me the ugly pug's name was Nos.

Carly had black, worried, hound dog eyes. She could stare a hole through you and usually get her way by saying nothing. She loved for me to read aloud to her. I started bringing children's books from Mississippi to share with Carly. She was a bit hyper, as are most children these days, so I'd try and plan an art project for her to work on while I read. It was simply beyond her to sit perfectly still and listen. So she would color or paste while I read aloud from Charlotte's Web or Because of Winn-Dixie.

Carly would sometimes argue with the plot of the story, a reassuring sign that she was indeed listening while running from room to room looking for art supplies or more cookies. "I don't get why she named the dog Winn-Dixie just because she was in that store," Carly said in typical contrariness. "It's not a good dog name at all." I started to ask what she would have named the dog, but thought better of it. She'd probably already told me.

Thus began our pattern. Carly would get home from school and rush inside her own home to do her homework as her mother insisted. But by four o'clock every weekday she was at my house, ready for reading, art, and a snack. The art work usually involved glitter and glue, and soon a sparkling patina covered everything in the house. Tired of vacuuming daily, I suggested we move out to the almost-empty tool shed. Carly agreed. Children love small spaces.

By now Carly was bringing her friends and relatives to the after-school event. On a regular basis there was Allyson, a doe-eyed beauty who had her own cell phone. Toby and Taylor, the boyfriend's grandchildren, started showing up. And Sam was a regular. When it grew cold in the tool shed, I suggested we move back into the house.

"No!" Carly insisted. "We're the Tool Shed Reading Club. We have to be in the tool shed."

Henderson had no library. The nearest one was about eight miles away in Cecilia, much too far for latchkey kids to visit on their own. I wrote a column about the Tool Shed Reading Club in my backyard, making the name official, and the idea fascinated lots of people. Strangers from as far away as Knoxville, Tenn., left books in a box on our Henderson porch. Mississippi and Alabama friends sent stacks of books their children had outgrown. Reporters from newspapers around the South contributed. A woman in Florida offered thousands of books to the town if it could find a place to house them. What had begun to amuse Carly was the genesis of a Henderson town library.

A Mississippi friend, Anne Holtsford, made a special trip down to Henderson to help me fix up the tool shed, which, much to Don's chagrin, was becoming less of one every day. I'd let the kids gradually push the shovels, saws, and duck decoys to the back of the building, leaving more space for their artwork and books. Anne and I hung a bamboo blind with parrot lights above it. We could drop it ceremoniously whenever the Reading Club was in session, hiding the "ugly stuff," as the children called the tools and hunting paraphernalia. Anne, who is artistic, painted a sign for the front of the building, and we held a grand unveiling with the children present. We recovered an old sofa with a bright, striped tablecloth and used plastic flower placemats for seat cushions. Colorful lamps, a Snoopy clock and flea market rugs added to the look, something like the attic in Little Women. Best of all were the books, which now filled a used white bookcase and several long shelves across the length of the room. People kept sending us books, beautiful books, with the marvelous illustrations that you don't get anywhere else. The children worked on clever bookmarks to send as a thank you for the donations.

I let the children check out the books to take home, carefully writing down the book's name and specifying when it should be returned. Our membership understood more about the checking-out than the return process. Few books were returned. That was all right, too. At least they were in the hands of children--and being read.

Allyson, a strikingly precocious little girl, read aloud better than anyone else, including me. Until you've heard Allyson read Davy Deer's New Red Scarf in her lilting Cajun accent and with appropriate and dramatic pauses, you haven't lived. She arrived one day in a simple white T-shirt that she'd decorated herself with Magic Marker: "I Heart the TSRC," the shirt said on one side. Only the "heart" was drawn, not written. On the other side was her name. Allyson's sweet and earnest effort inspired me to get T-shirts customized for all the regulars. The shirts were yellow like the shed. Our logo was a bookworm.

Sam pretended he wasn't that interested in the clubhouse that the others took so seriously. He was older. He was beyond cool. He didn't like girls or school. But almost every day he'd arrive, late but somehow available. He'd squeeze into a chair at the bare board of a table where we were painting or making sand-dollar necklaces or gluing together Popsicle sticks to make little sleds. Before you knew it, Sam was working intently, just as involved as the other children.

You can learn a lot about kids when you spend hours with them in such a tight space. They snuggle against you with freshly washed hair, or running noses, that intoxicating blend of need and love that only children radiate. I heard from them guileless reports about divorces, debts, drinking, stepparents, and house repossessions. Toby's mother, still in her teens, was in drug rehab. He and his brother soon moved in with his grandfather and Carly and Sam across the street. On Christmas day the reading club boys all rode over to show me the new bicycles Santa had brought them. Except for Toby; he was riding his old one.

Of all the children, Toby touched me the most. He had curly brown hair and saucer eyes and a quick grin. He seemed almost resigned to the endless shuffle between grandparents and parents. He never complained and always gave me optimistic reports on his mother. She was better. She was due home. She was going to go to school. She was back in rehab.

Sam was Toby's Fonzi, his James Dean, the ultimate hero. Toby would run to the clubhouse, eager to begin whatever games or craft I had planned for the day. When Sam arrived, late as usual, Toby would rush to show Sam whatever we were doing.

"Look, Sam," Toby would say. "We are painting flower pots for Mother's Day."

Sam would snort and grumble and say something sarcastic to a crestfallen Toby. Then, inevitably, Sam would settle down and begin his own version of the daily project, satisfying Toby that the task, whatever it was, was acceptable for he-men.

Toby never volunteered to read aloud, but one day, when I asked, he started to read in a small voice. I was amazed. His reading ability was far beyond that of most of the other children, with the possible exception of Allyson. In the tight and friendly confines of the tool shed, he was a bright, enthusiastic boy, happily making a flower pot or necklace or bookmark for his missing mother.

The ever-changing members of the Tool Shed Reading Club broke my heart on a weekly basis. Some days a pathetic story worked its way out as the kids made valentines, or played dodgeball. One day a rare verbal fight ensued, and one child called another child's father a deadbeat, who retorted, "Yeah, well, your dad's been to jail," and then all hell broke loose. It didn't take much imagination to see they were repeating verbatim the slurs and accusations they'd heard from the sundry adults who populated their little lives. It killed me to hear it.

The membership of the Tool Shed Reading Club began staying around until dark, refusing to leave until I cooked up a big pot of macaroni and cheese for them. Don got used to the routine, too, which basically each weekday involved a house full of children when we had none of our own. Don was a sport.

And I knew deep down that the fall and winter of 2003 and 2004 were special, that there would never be another time exactly like it. I got tired of the mess and considerable expense occasionally, yet I savored every moment. I knew that if I'd still been working for a newspaper, any newspaper, I'd never have had the time to devote to this tool shed full of hapless little rascals. And I knew that I'd gotten far more out of the experience than they had.

When we left Henderson for the summer, I didn't worry too much. The children of Henderson — unlike most kids today — played outside during the warm months. Watching them was like going back in time to my own childhood, when everything outside was better than anything inside. An ice cream truck even rolls through Henderson during the warm months, something I hadn't seen — or heard — since I was small. Again, the sight and sound harkened to the 1950s, part of the town's trademark appeal. I rightly reasoned the kids wouldn't miss the clubhouse or the books that much while I was in north Mississippi for the summertime. But I figured come fall and cool weather, they'd be ready to read in their colorful tool shed once again.

The pink house — Katy's house, Sam's and Carly's house, sometimes Toby's house — was jinxed. I'm sure of it. When we made a visit in mid-summer to check on things, we found chaos where order had been. The pink house, invitingly landscaped by the mother, now looked abandoned. Litter was in the yard, and the flowers and shrubs she had planted were neglected. If ever a house looked as if a woman were missing, this was one. Not since Katy's father threw the carcass of the Thanksgiving turkey in the yard for the stray dogs had things looked this rough. Carly's mother had left the pink house, taking her belongings and kids and moving into a travel trailer at a nearby RV park. I rode over to see them.

It had been too much, the young woman said, working full-time and taking care of her own children and her boyfriend's children and grandchildren as well. She planned on staying in the travel trailer until she saved enough money to buy a house.

The boyfriend, eager to save the relationship with his girl-friend, sent his own children and grandchildren to their mothers and also moved to the RV park. I never was sure where any of the other children landed. The pink house sold again. Once I saw Allyson shopping with her grandmother at the Breaux Bridge Wal-Mart. We hugged necks and Allyson explained that she might not be visiting her father in the near future as he had an out-of-town job. The grandmother offered no extra information. I haven't seen Allyson since.

The attrition was insurmountable. The children scattered like BBs on linoleum. The Tool Shed Reading Club disbanded.

And yet I still can't bring myself to roll up the blue rug and give away the few remaining books. Freewheeling art work still hangs on a string across the middle of the shed, and Don's picks and shovels are still in the back behind the Magic Screen. And some afternoons when the school bus passes, I half expect to see the children running toward their clubhouse, ready to debate the merits of Madeline and cream-filled oatmeal cookies. Macaroni and cheese makes me cry.

Excerpted from Poor Man's Provence by Rheta Grimsley Johnson. Copyright 2008 by Rheta Grimsley Johnson. Excerpted by permission of NewSouth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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