Willoughby de Mèche and me, being born in the same town on the same day, and no more than a quick, 30-second-fuse apart, were naturally destined to grow up fast friends in Firecracker, Tennessee. But to me he was always a kid, and will forever be my friend known as “Willie Cahoots,” a nickname that put in “a pea goober’s nutshell” his boyish, redneck flair known to everyone in town as a shady, colluding, boondock schemer. And he knew early to always keep an ear to the ground “so’s t’ear whats po-lice might be a-comin” just in case he didn’t think twice as the impulse-riddled teenager he was, about cold-cocking a blind nun because he thought it meant there was “even a chance thinner than a frog’s hair split four ways fer fast beaucoo from the Lord”
Willie was known to be a rough-cut whiz of sorts, smart as the whip his Daddy used to wup him, so he managed, to the surprise of most, to acquire early the kind of knowledge about how the chaos he saw in the world was partly what keeps it going. He always said, “Folks like wishing with one hand and letting shit pile up in the other; then lookie-see which one fills up first.” For Willie, “hope” and “wishing” were “The Lazy Angels of ever’ chance tuh suck-seed.” And Willie would always rather be lucky than good.
Truth be told, despite the popular trope that folks “livin’ in the holler” were backward, stupid churls, we had some good teachers who saw we just needed a decent chance to learn. By the end of high school, and though there were only 7 in our graduating class of 33 who started, and all seven could devour “Moby Dick” over a long weekend. And in 9th grade Miss LaSalle, “a real purdy lil’ pistol of-uh gal whose’ edgy-cated at sum faincy Yankee universti’ near to Bahzton, an had even gonta Purse in Yerp” gave us “ee-lo-q-tishon” lessons so we could learn to speak “Anglush ko-reck” without a trace of hillbilly, when we wished.
So, given our early starlight parallels, it’s no surprise that Willie and me kept up our friendship, faithfully believing it depended mightily upon “them hazy stardust co-cidentals” of our birth, then on to the sturdy, successful men that starstuff helped make us. But Willie stayed put in Firecracker while I left for a hoity-toity, big-buck, fast lane career after college in Manhattan’s late 70’s. He stayed all of his 50-odd years with the company that defined the town. It was the same place his kinfolk had worked gone back through two or three granddaddys, “The Firecracker Firecracker Company, Inc.” It kept the 250 or so folks populating that “Tennessee holler” able to make decent money doing dangerous work, not only those 80 or so employed directly who Willie became the “boss man” of, but everyone else in Firecracker who, in one way or another, depended on FFC.Inc. It let them all mostly live in something besides a trailer, the house “Boss Man Willie” lived in often becoming a target of ridicule “when his behind wuzzint’ lookin” and the rough talkers would say, “The Boss, he’s livin’ all by hisself in a house so big he mus’ be thinkin’ his shit don’t stink!” The town, till about ‘83 or ‘84 at least, maybe for a few years after for reasons that turned gossipy for miles around, became something of a tourist destination even though you had to travel on hazardous roads where Spring rain brought mud up so far “one-half hubcap” or “three quarter hubcaps” became local gauges for measuring its depth. Winter blizzards “burried the bob wahr” and “summers was like walkin’ through soup.” They were good people, forever proud of a world class reputation as “The Largest (legal) Fireworks Manufacturer in the U.S.A East of the Mississippi” up until the late 1970’s and early 80’s when, like so many industries, China went back to its Chinese roots and started making tons of cheaper (and more dangerous) crackers. FFC was able to keep going because Chinaman Jack had a cousin in Yunnan who passed along some of the secrets used as far back some B.C. something, (which locals liked to say was “By Christ”) FFC could survive making vintage crackers with names like “Crax Boy,” “Mobster (So loud, it’s criminal!”, and “Kamikazee Wedding.” The cousin had a relation in the Philippines who provided some other novel brands banned like “Ill Eagle” because the fumes were toxic. But there was “Goodby Crying Baby,” “Hello Special Papa,” “Goodby Delema” (sic), “Hello Pop Boyfiend” (sic), and “Popsicle Sukker Lady” (sic.)
So every few years Willie and I would visit to catch up, alternating between Firecracker and Manhattan. Back in the day even stable landline connections to Firecracker could be sketchy, “rare as sneezin’ at the Lord.” During thunderstorms and solar flares they were routinely missing. So we kept up with letters and every few years I would visit Firecracker or he would “‘omage the Turncoat Yankee Badass in New Yawk,” never staying more than a week, but always with plenty for each of us to tell about how we remembered Firecracker, who had left and who had stayed. Was “Chinaman Jack” still alive? Did Mac Bombay ever marry the waitress at xxxxxxx Diner?
But 1984 was different. Willie came in the middle of June and said he was staying for a month.
“Why so long? Not that it’s a problem.” I said. Stay as long as you want.”
He replied as, as he so often had in recent years, with what could have been deep wisdom or deep nonsense: “If you are to succeed in a disruptive world without success becoming a gaudy luxury, you will need a direction whose justifying arguments do more than reveal its flaws, one that is fractured enough to be gathered and tossed by the wind, float over details, then go to ground like Autumn’s leaves as revelations of a universal grip on perspicacity that does not injure smiles or make a dog sneeze,” he said.
All I could say was, “Huh!?!” And then, “Willie, we’re over 50. I don’t need anymore directions than I already have! And how do you know anyway?”
“The cards, man. The cards will give you an answer even if you don’t have a question. “Hello!”, it’s never too early or too late to be looking for a direction? I mean 50 could be early. Maybe you should just be thinking about whether you want dying to be a work of art instead of some butt-ugly day you wake up feeling tippity-top and ya’ start pissin’ blood. So’s you go to your P-e-e-S-e-e-P-e-e who slides you over to the y-o-u-rologist, Dr. Galoshes or sumpn’, who says after seen’ the biopsy, ‘It’s cancer I’m afraid, so maybe we’ll slosh some BCG or valrubicin up there and see if we’re OK.”