Todd Sentell’s Tribute to Flannery O’Connor: I WENT DOWN TO THE INTERSECTION OF PICK-UP TRUCKS AND HOLY WATER

From the National Book Award page.

Concerning the dedication of your Georgia historical marker under the hot Milledgeville sun

Dear Flannery,

Forty-three years after you died too young, a Georgia historical marker was stuck in the ground across the highway from the end of Andalusia’s driveway. On a boiling morning in July, in the long shadow of a big Badcock & More furniture store sign, just before the dedication ceremony started, a suntanned fellow in a red pick-up truck drove past and honked his horn. For an instant, I thought Parker was back.

The mayor of Milledgeville spoke about you in his Milledgeville accent. And then, a priest with an Irish name in a big white robe from your old church got up in front of everybody and waved his hands around and read some things from out of that book that’s not exactly the Bible. He said some things that a few of your fellow Catholics repeated with him, and then the priest flicked the historical marker, while it was still covered with an official Georgia historical marker blue cover, with holy water. He flicked his wood water wand six times. I counted.

The first time he flicked it at the cover you could see the cover quiver. If there was a moment you would have loved the most, other than that redneck in the pick up truck blasting the earnestness out of the hot air, it was that holy water business. I’m not Catholic, but these were moments I deeply understood anyway, especially since we were right across the road from where you made literary history because of those hard, perpendicular intersections you designed in your stories and two novels—the perfectly-timed crashing together of personalities and religion in all its strange forms that you made … and its haunting aftermath. We were having some near crashing together of religion and personalities right there—right by a loud Georgia state highway in a modern time as we quietly stood in the grass that belonged to your new marker and a discount furniture store.

After that priest blessed your marker, the fellow who’s in charge of the Georgia Historical Society got up there and said he was pretty sure that this was the first time in the history of Georgia historical marker dedication ceremonies that one’s been flicked with holy water. Everybody laughed and nodded at each other. God, did I think of you right then. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who got the literary and personal importance—to you—of that moment. I saw you smiling down at this one, too: after everybody stopped laughing I wanted to shout out, like Hazel Motes would at discovering a competing blasphemer, that the feller who’s in charge of the Georgia Historical Society is wearin’ a tie covered with the logo of the state of goddamn South Caroliner!

After the roadside ceremony, we were invited to come across Highway 441—very carefully—for a reception in the main house. Your house and yard were populated with people speaking in only Southern accents and they were talking about how they knew you and when. Or how and when they knew your mother.

On your front porch an old woman grabbed my arm and asked me if I was in church Sunday. That she saw me. I said I wasn’t … I live one hundred miles from here … but if my evil twin was there, then good for him. The lady, tottering on feeble pegs, told me her name but I didn’t get it because she spoke in an accent so rich her words came out like syrup. She said she had moved onto the farm when she was fifteen and that you and her were opposites. She said she lived in that building over there. She pointed at it with a crooked finger … at the old shed where Andalusia’s current caretakers keep an old donkey named Flossie. I wondered if she was drunk. Who cares. We were all drunk on you, standing in your bedroom door gawking and pointing at your crutches, your bed, and your writing table. I’m sure you think that’s repulsive—a bunch of people crowded at your door like that. But I’m a respectful hick. I gawked with misty eyes but I didn’t point.

Heading back home up Highway 441 in my truck, I passed a couple of Georgia roadside markers of another kind—those homemade crucifixes people stick into the ground where a family member or friend was killed in a car or truck or motorcycle accident. You never know. When you see one, and you see a lot of them in the South, all you know is that death happened right there and somebody wants you to by-God know it.

But it’s never at that intersection you write about. You always see those crosses on some long, straight stretch of highway or country road. I think of you as I travel my long stretch of road and across fields of living fire, sometimes in a straight line and sometimes real crooked … as your voice strikes up in my mind … your voice climbing upward, on key, into a starry field … and those who love what you’ve done to them come to that moment of your grace on that road sooner rather than later if we’re paying attention and we thank you for it … whole companies of us … white trash and bands of black niggers and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And those who have always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right … your readers, wrapped tightly in barbed wire … we honk our truck horns in your honor and shout hallelujah.

November 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTodd Sentell, Author of Toonamint of Champions

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