The Plum

plum editedWe call it The Plum.  It’s the prettiest moonshine that we make.  The shine is made from my PawPaw’s PawPaw’s recipe in a copper still just like it was a hundred years ago.  In each jar, we put 13 sweet plums from the trees my great-aunt planted after the ’37 flood.  Thirteen because that’s the number of the disciples plus Jesus, the number of full moons in a year, and the number of children PawPaw’s grandmother birthed.  Not counting the ones she buried before the rest of them buried her.

The river-soaked land fed those trees well and the plums we harvest are the best you’ve ever had.  They’re a beautiful dark ruby color and as they soak in the shine, they release their juice and turn the shine a color that reminds me of a summer sunset when you just know it’s going to storm in a few hours – the sky all dramatic with bright color and swirling clouds.  I love twirling the mason jars in my hands so as to get those plums moving round and round – the shine gets prettier and prettier as the movement releases even more color from the plums.

Yes, I’m a moonshiner’s daughter and even though I wasn’t the longed for son, Daddy taught me the art.  He passed a few years ago so now it’s just Mama and me making The Plum.  Folks come from miles away to buy it.  One fella bought 40 cases of it – 6 jars to a case!  I asked him what he was going to do with that much shine.  He said, “Why drink it, of course!  Me and my friends just love this stuff.”

He asked me why my Mama and me weren’t more afraid being on our own and selling shine.  What he meant was being without a man to protect us.  I told him that I’m meaner than a wildcat and my daddy taught me to shoot just as well as he taught me to  ‘shine.  He laughed, but I wasn’t making a joke.

He came back every year for The Plum.  The third year, Mama said to me, “He’s courting you.  Or trying to.  Be friendly at least.”   I hushed her and went on stringing beans.   The stuff that get in her head!  I could tell you stories.

Every year he came and each time he stayed a bit longer to visit.  One time he came when a storm was stirring and we put him in my bedroom and I slept with Mama. She hissed, “Foolish girl!  That man is trying to court you.”  I was beginning to think she was right, but he left the next morning.

A few months later, he drove up the holler when we wasn’t expecting him.  He announced he was there to help us ready for winter.  We use a wood stove to heat with and the mountain winters need a lot of wood.  I was used to doing it, but thankful to have the help all the same.

That night, he slept in my bed and I slept on the sofa.  Before either one of us did much sleeping, we did a lot of talking and a fair amount of sipping us some Plum.  By then, I figured Mama was right.  Still and all, I was surprised when he leaned over and kissed me when I was telling him about helping to calf a cow.  So, yes, he kissed me and then he said his goodnight.

I tried to figure out whether or not I should go get in my bed too.  I spent most of the night wrestling with that question, but I did finally fall asleep.  I woke to the smell of sausage sizzling and biscuits baking.  I was surprised to find him in the kitchen doing the cooking.  And playing a mandolin, soft and sweet as the dawn.  I kissed him.  He wrapped his arms around me and said, “I’ve been waiting on that.”

We got married three days later.

Yesterday, I birthed a boy.  Daddy would have been so tickled.

Daddy loved me, but he longed for a boy.  It’s nice now, being loved partly because I am a girl.  I’m a moonshiner’s daughter and now I’m a moonshiner’s wife.  He learnt real quick.  I expect I’ll be a moonshiner’s mother.  My family has been making The Plum for generations, but now it has a love story to sweeten it even more.  Maybe it’s always had a love story, but I’m making sure this one gets told.


This  was born of a writing prompt.  The prompt was to listen to Rhiannon Giddens’ Moonshiner’s Daughter and write a thousand words or so.  This was my offering.

The Year Without a Spring

a lot of workLenora Swann felt a great wave of sadness while in the midst of the downward dog asana. She tried to breathe through the stretch while straightening her legs and arching her back, but the sadness threatened to overwhelm her balance.

She strengthened her resolve with self-talk and successfully walked her hands up to her feet, wrapped the fingers of each hand around its respective ankle and brought her nose to her knees. The burn in the back of her thighs was intense yet satisfying.

She straightened up, brought her hands into position and silently said Namaste to her reflection in the mirror. With that, her yoga was done for the day.

The sadness persisted, however.

The rain wasn’t helping. Today, it was freezing rain and chilling winds. Tomorrow would be 85F and humid. It was the year without a spring.

Lenora sighed and embraced the sadness while hugging herself.

Lenora delighted in spring. That season in Appalachia was almost unbearable in its sweetness and beauty. The sky would be a crystalline blue, the greens magnificent in their intensity, and the daffodils, Lord the daffodils, could make one weep with their joie de vivre.

Yes, the daffodils bloomed at the appropriate time on the calendar. And the rains provoked the greening. But without the blue sky and mild temperature, the beauty of it all was subdued. The rain beat the peonies to the ground and the humidity wilted the green leaves.

Her feelings were similar to those of an unrequited love affair. She simultaneously hoped for mild zephyrs and brilliant sun while mourning their absence. To hope, to mourn. The sadness threatened to overcome her.

Lenora fought against the tears and braved the chilling rain to cut irises to put in a vase. With disgust, she picked a snail off the bright yellow bloom and wielded her shears to cut more. She would fill the house with blooms. She vowed to beat the sadness.

There was green. There were flowers. The scent of the peonies was no less intense for the weather.

She moved through the garden like a human combine. Peonies, irises, roses and mock orange. Ferns, Lily-of-the-Valley. She would requite the love affair through her own efforts. If spring couldn’t be bothered, she could.

The cut glass vase an old lover had given her was quickly filled. Lenora pulled more vases from underneath the sink. Yes, she would fill the house with the colors and scents of spring. While the weather outside belied the calendar, it was comfortable in her home.

Soon her jeans were soaked from the hem to her knees. Her hair was ropey from the freezing rain. Her shoes muddy. She was cold and shivering.

She did fill her home with flowers in each of the rooms. She took the teakettle off the stove and brewed hot, strong, sweet tea to sip from a flowered Wedgewood teacup. Another gift, but this one from an old friend who had since died.

She filled the old clawfoot tub, took off her clothes, turned off the lights, lit a candle and slid into the warm bath. She listened to the rain on the old tin roof.

The candlelight lit the white petals of the fragrant peonies and Lenora’s spirit soared.

It was going to be okay. It was. She stood in the tub, turned and positioned herself in Namaste and bowed to the flowers. She whispered, “The spirit in me bows to the spirit in you.”

The year without a spring couldn’t kill the hope in Lenora’s heart. The year without a spring taught Lenora the power of resiliency. The year without a spring provoked Lenora to bloom and create beauty out of the mundane routines of a cold, rainy day.

Lenora, wrapped in her robe, wandered through her home visiting the flowers. She felt a quiet joy that replaced the sadness. Lenora, once again, was enjoying the season.

Second Hand Smoke

tellabration november 2017Good Evening. 

My name is Connie Kinsey.  I’m a writer who lives in a converted barn in West Virginia. I’ve been there 32 years now.

I’ve put down deep roots in that old barn, but I grew up a nomadic military brat.  I went to something like 5 different elementary schools.  You get used to people coming and going when you’re a brat.

One of the people who came and went a lot was my dad.  As an officer in the Marine Corps, he did four tours of Vietnam.  Of course he had PTSD.  He died almost two years ago and I’m still mourning him.

This story is about Vietnam.  Sort of.  The narrator could be me, but is not.  The Marine captain in the story could be my dad, but he’s not.  Fruitcake, the young marine in the story, is an amalgamation of teenage Marines I met at the skating rink.  This story is fiction.  Never happened.

But it could have.

I’ve titled it “Second Hand Smoke.”

Second Hand Smoke

Damn.  I like men.  I have always liked men.  I was a certified daddy’s girl.  My daddy was the best man of all, he was pretty tickled with me, and I just assumed that most men were more likely than not to be like him.

My mama tells a story about the time I was three years-old and hospitalized for bronchitis.  I can’t remember, but to hear her tell it I couldn’t wait for visiting hours to be over because that’s when the Corpsmen would sit inside my oxygen tent and play Pocahontas Indian Princess with me.  In those days, even parents had to observe visiting hours.  Mama shakes her head now when she remembers how it never ever entered her head to fuss about that.

So anyway, I like men a lot.  That whole Indian princess thing must have stuck with me even if the memory of the hospital didn’t.  Now, I’m not anymore Indian than I am anything else, but I look more Indian than I do anything else.  Everybody thinks my green eyes come from my mama’s Irish people, but the only kin I have with green eyes come from my daddy’s side – the same side that produced the genuine, 100-proof, Cherokee grandma.  Of course, nobody talked about Mawmaw being Cherokee until Indian got to be cool sometime in the late sixties.

A couple of years later, I was fourteen looking twenty and living in a town with forty thousand Marines — most of them still teenagers and either fretting about going to ‘Nam or about what happened there.

Skating at the rink was all the rage.  I was on the speed skating team and taking all sorts of lessons.  For dance, I was partnered up with somebody the right size, finally, to get on with learning to do lifts.  It was 1972 and a lot of those guys had seen some horrible things.  Some of them drank, and a lot of them took up karate so as to feel like they had some control, but almost all of them smoked weed.

A lot of the kids in my junior high smoked pot.  I stuck to cigarettes.  I was an officer’s daughter and the teacher’s pet.  I was supposed to be too smart to fry my egg-head, but I liked the kick of a nicotine rush.  Both of my parents come from mostly poor white trash, but the Corps made my dad an “officer and a gentleman.”  He said that a lot.

I was just me.  I wasn’t all that different from the other girls in that time and place even if I was an Indian princess who skated with the Macs.

It was the summer my dad quit smoking.  It was quite a summer, but I remember that night best.  A lot of stuff when I was young – well, I don’t have complete memories of it.  I haven’t blocked it out or anything, but most things I remember in snippets – freeze frames – not video.  Except for this — I remember this night.

That song Indian Nation, was popular and I was pretty impressed with my newfound Indian blood.  Between the leather headband and the turquoise jewelry, the Macs took to calling me Pocahontas which was just fine with me.   I’d recently decided my parents were morons for having named me what they did.

It was hot.

Hurricane season had just set in and breathing was like trying to grow gills.  The old man had given up on trying to cool the rink.  There were these huge hangar fans that just roared.  The Jackson Five were Rockin’ Robin at a volume guaranteed to blow ear drums when I decided I needed fresh air and a cigarette.

Back then that wasn’t a contradiction.

Between the heat, the noise, and my sunburn, I was ready to jump out of my skin.

Of course, we weren’t supposed to go outside with our skates on, but mine weren’t rentals and I knew the guy at the door.

I skated over to the door, toed to a coast and rolled into the dark.  Walked on my toe stops to the guard rail and sat down.  There was a guy about ten feet down in the shadows.

About all I could see was the glow of his cigarette.  I could hear him banging his skates against the edge of the sidewalk.  It set my teeth on edge.

The cigarette glow reminded me of my dad.  I fished around in my bag for cigarettes, but didn’t find any.  I was already irritated.  I clomped over and sat down next to him.

“If Tim catches you banging those skates, he’ll have a fit.  He’ll have to repack your bearings and he hates repacking.  Besides, you’re not supposed to be out here with rentals.  Can I bum a cigarette?”

He quit clanging his skates.

“I’m not afraid of Tim.  You old enough to smoke?”

“You old enough to kill?”

He dragged a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me.  In the flash of his Zippo, I saw his face for the first time.

He was simply beautiful.

I was astonished.  Even though a fan of men, I had never regarded one as beautiful.  I hadn’t even considered men could be beautiful.  Handsome, rugged, cute, smart, tall, short, old, young — all of those I knew.  But beautiful.  I was already having trouble breathing, when I noticed he was Indian.  I’d never seen him around before.

And I knew all the guys at least by sight.

“What nation?” I said.  It was a line I’d heard in a movie.  I thought it sounded cool and knowing and older — Indian.  Like I really was one.

He looked at me.

My eyes were adjusting so I could see pretty well by then.

He was still beautiful, but details were coming into focus.  His skin was perfect.  He could have been the Cherokee Nation Noxema poster child.

I had never seen a man with skin like that.  Like marble, there were no pores and not even the trace of razor stubble.  I’ve seen baby butts less delicate than his skin.

Of course, he was dark.  The North Carolina sun turns even the very fair dark.

Years later, I saw Michelangelo’s David and commented that ol’ Mick got it wrong.  The image of that man that night burned into my brain with the flash of a Zippo.

“I’m Lakota, white girl.”

“Don’t call me white girl.  What’s your name?”

“Fruitcake.”

“Fruitcake?”

“Yeah.  My buddies call me Fruitcake.”

“And you let them?”

“I kind of like it.”

I couldn’t think of a response.

Fruitcake?  I was already hopelessly in love with this guy and trying to turn the name Fruitcake into something cool.

Stalling for time, I took a long drag on the cigarette and about fell off the guard rail I got so dizzy.

Sometimes the kick will kick you.

Fruitcake laughed for real.

Fruitcake, white girl.  When I rotated stateside, I took to drinking rum.

My wisdom teeth were bothering me and Grandmother told me to chew on cloves.  My buddies said I smelled like fruitcake.”

“So.  How are your teeth, now?” How are your teeth?  I could have died.  I took another drag on the cigarette.

“The base dentist took them out.  Now, I’m just another dumb Mac.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb.”  Good grief, Charlie Brown.

He laughed again.   We both took drags on our cigarettes.

“Stateside, huh?  Just back from ‘Nam?”

“Couple months.  I finished thirty days with the family and shipped here a month ago.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen you here before.”

“It’s my first time on skates.”

It was my turn to laugh.

“Is that why you’re out here?  I could show you how, you know.”

“Naw.  It doesn’t seem that difficult.  All that noise gets to me after awhile.”

I scrubbed my cigarette out.  My breathing was starting to get somewhere near normal.

“Well, I’d like to skate with you sometime.”

“We’ll see, white girl.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“OK.  So, what’s your name?”

Oh god.  No.

“The guys here call me Pocahontas.”

He about fell off the rail laughing.

Big, hearty, deep belly laughs.

“I haven’t laughed like that since R&R in Tokyo.  We were all down at the . . . ”

“How come everybody that’s been to ‘Nam doesn’t talk about anything but R&R?”

“Maybe because nobody asks.”

“Nuts, I didn’t ask you about R&R in Tokyo either.”

He licked his index finger, made a sizzling sound and drew a line in the air.

“One for you, little sister.”

“So.  What’s it like in Viet Nam?”

He didn’t say anything for a long time.

I could hear David Cassidy singing I think I love you.

I reached over and fished another cigarette out of his pocket.

This time, I got close enough to smell him.

I used to think Corps regulations required English Leather aftershave.  It’s the only thing my father ever wore and still wears.   Fruitcake, though, smelled all of Ivory soap and cloves.  I couldn’t detect any rum.

While trying to grip a filter, I felt the beat of his heart.  He leaned sideways, bumped into my shoulder, and stretched to drag the Zippo out of his Levi’s.  My heart pounded and my hands got sweaty.

Lighting my cigarette, he said, “What’s it like? Well, your feet and back are always wet.”

Before I could say anything, he jumps up all of a sudden forgetting he’s on skates.

Arms windmilling, he finally gets control.

It takes me way too long to realize my dad is standing there.  I toss the cigarette behind me hoping he didn’t see it, but knowing he did.

“Captain!  Sir!”

“At ease, Marine.  We’re not in uniform.”

“Sir!  Yessir!  Sir!  I mean . . . Thank you, Sir.”

“Hi, Daddy.”  Jeez.

And the guys wonder why I don’t tell them my real name.  It was the first time my dad had ever picked me up from the rink.  Usually my mom did it.

“She’s fourteen, you know.”

“Sir!”

“She’s too young.”

I could have just died.   “I’ll go get my shoes.”

“See you at the car, Punkin.”

Punkin!  Good grief.

I turned to look at Fruitcake, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes.

I clomped back inside and started pawing through shoes looking for mine.  By the time I got to the car, I was furious.  “Daddy!”

We drove in silence for a while.

There’s this desolate stretch of scrub pine between the skating rink and where we live.  It feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere – No Man’s Land – Jacksonville’s very own DMZ.

Here’s where my memory starts freeze-framing.  I can’t remember what provoked me or if I just got lost in thought or what, but I heard myself say, “Daddy, can I have a cigarette?”

“No.  You’re too young to smoke.”

“How old do you have to be?”  My heart was thundering.

“A lot older than you are now.”

“Daddy, did you kill people in Vietnam?”

The car slowed and pulled to a stop on the shoulder.

He lit a cigarette and started to hand it to me.  Then he pulled it back and took a drag off of it.  I don’t think he noticed the kick.  He threw it out the window.  And then he threw the pack of Pall Malls after it.

“Yes.”

I couldn’t think of a thing to say.  We drove the rest of the way home in silence.

Of course, he told Mama.  She grounded me for four weeks.

There was no sign of Fruitcake when I got to go skating again.

There was a constant rotation of men and I always kept an eye out for Fruitcake, but I never saw him again.

I read this story for the Athens, Ohio Tellabration Celebration at Athens Uncorked on November 19, 2017.

Sucker Punched

tuckered emmylouA few weeks ago, I fell for no good reason and landed on my knees.  The impact was such that I’m quite sure I left an impression in the concrete sidewalk.  One knee was torn up and developed a horrendous scab; the other swelled to the size of a softball.  Both of them astonished me with their cries of pain.

The pain took my breath.  For a good four days, I couldn’t stand or sit or walk or lie down without pain so intense I was reminded of labor.  The pain wasn’t baby-producing intense, but it did provoke the same sort of awe.

This week, I got news that sucker-punched me.  No.  Nobody died.  My relationships are all intact except maybe for the relationship I have with myself.  For several days, my self-esteem has been crying out with the same level of pain as did my knees.

I have decided to get over it.

Today, I spent my time in the much neglected garden doing triage.  I didn’t get as far as I had hoped due to the electric lawnmower dying, but I accomplished much in getting my equilibrium (and self-esteem) back.  The puppies frolicked in the warm spring air and I tended to tender plants while guiltlessly executing weeds and banishing leaves.

Gardening season is upon me.  I much prefer the awe of an Appalachian spring over the awe of surprise pain.