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The Problem with Murmur Lee

:: author Connie May Fowler:: an excerpt from her novel::
:: Doubleday- 2005

CHARLESTON ROWENA MUDD

In Boston they know me as Charlotte, for in that Northern city, positioned as it is in the breadbasket of higher learning, I became a geographical liar. My goal? To hide my true origins. And not simply because people outside of dear old Dixie have unfairly pegged us all as shiftless, ignorant, backward, inbred - should I go on? - but because I, Charleston Rowena Mudd, am a Self-Loathing Southerner.

As such, I have developed various airs and voices appropriate to whatever name I'm using in whatever region I find myself in. For instance, in Boston I truncate my vowels. "My name is Charlotte." Quick as a darting bird: five syllables compressed into one quick wobble.

But after two or three bourbons, I sometimes slip up. "My name is Chaaaarlut, rhymes with haaaaarlot."

Very few of my friends back at Harvard Divinity find my seldom revealed but ribald Southern humor charming.

Only Happy Jim, a fallen Franciscan Brother with the smile of an angel. An easy audience, for sure.



And now I have returned to my old haunts-the sandy coquina-laced beaches that build and recede at the whimsy of the tides, the lesser known shores of Anastasia Island, Crescent Beach, Iris Haven, Marineland for Christ's sake-where I am known simply as Charlee. Charlee Mudd.

And I must confess, the name fits.

I never imagined I would return to this place. I left in order to become an educated woman, to escape redneck culture, to become worldly and intellectual and Yankee-fied. And I pretty much succeeded.

True, I didn't manage to totally stamp out my good manners and, as I said, the old drawl lifted its ugly magnolia scented head occasionally.

And even after coming to terms with the awful realization that rednecks are universal as is racism, sexism, and plagiarism, I still managed to live my life using my brains versus my body. Which, come to think of it, was actually my main goal when I set out from the South. You see, at the time of my exodus at the age of twenty-nine, I was convinced that female brain-driven success was a peculiarly Northern tradition. I never stopped to consider that those Cotillion Queens whom I loathed both out of envy and disgust might have had more going on upstairs than I was willing to give them credit for.

So, yes, I could pass as Northern on most days. I learned to make a phone call and get to the point immediately, rather than engage in the ritualized politeness which is the glue that binds all cultures of the South into one huge dysfunctional gossip tree. You know, How's you daddy, you great grand daddy, you camellias, and you mama doing? —when the point of the call was to ask, Can you please turn down your stereo just a tad, the baby is trying to sleep?

I could meet someone for the very first time and discuss world issues without knowing who their people were. I could bully my way up to the front of a line without ever once saying, "Excuse me." I quit addressing people as sir or ma'am even if they were over seventy. This, alone, would have killed my mother had she been alive. I ate grits only in private. A store in St. Augustine shipped them to me. I hid them in a tin canister I kept tucked out of sight on the top shelf of my kitchen cabinet. The raised black letters on the canister identified the contents as flour. If a friend happened to spy the leftovers in my fridge I would lie, saying that it was couscous. I once spent a weekend alone in New York City. I rode the subway. Hailed a cab. Wandered Central Park without police protection. I've been known to dine out by myself. I learned to stop asking for sweet tea-I grew tired of the dismissive waiters saying, "The sugar is on the table" and me trying to explain it's simply not the same. I paid scant attention to football, claiming not to know that the Florida State Seminoles were anything other than an amalgam of lost tribes chased into the Everglades by the U.S. Army and disease. I owned an ice scraper. I pretended to like, even understand, Phillip Glass. I never ate supper anymore. Dinner. Let's go have dinner. I joined the ACLU.

But there is one fact above all others that illustrates how far I had traveled from Iris Haven and my Deep South roots. My fiancé, the man who dumped me two weeks before we were to say our vows in a Unitarian chapel close to campus, hailed from Nigeria. Ahmed. Ahmed Al-Kuwaee.

His was a lilting, London influenced, perfect grammar accent. A Muslim by birth, training, and choice, he considered my Catholic upbringing exotic, naive. He was, as my Southern cronies would say, black as the ace of spades.

We were a perfect match, a complement of old world and new, cream and coffee, intellect and passion, seaweed and salt.

But he had a secret. One that he revealed, if you will indulge me, in the most startling fashion. It was a Saturday night in early November.

Already Cambridge was locked down in wayward piles of dirty snow and temperatures so unkind I refuse to recite them. Ahmed was to be at my apartment at 7:30 for dinner. He had his own key, which he used. I was in my tiny kitchen that was, if the truth be known, an afterthought carved out of a closet, chopping cilantro-a must-have ingredient in the spicy Thai lemon and shrimp soup I was serving.

Ahmed loved my cooking. And I admit, I'm not half bad in the kitchen. But I digress. There I was, standing at my kitchen counter, YoYo Ma playing ever softly in the background, me concentrating so singularly on the task at hand that I didn't realize Ahmed had let himself in until he cleared his throat.

I spun around, thrilled-I was wild for him-the knife still in-hand, and then froze. Ahmed was pale. I swear. His ebony skin resembled chalk. Beside him stood a petite young thing with downcast eyes. A child, really. Shy, maybe gentle, definitely out of her element. I could read nothing else about her.

He spoke softly, a slight embarrassed smile revealing a thin flash of white. He explained it succinctly, with all the emotion one uses when reciting a textbook passage. Theirs was an arranged union, an agreement entered into before he or she had any inkling of puberty. They were married the day prior to him leaving for America and Harvard. His conscience wouldn't allow him to go forward with a Christian marriage. He asked that I forgive him.

Despite my Northern, sophisticated, and tough as nails in an urban-way attitude, I didn't take the news well. He had barely finished his plea for forgiveness when I heard myself screech, my drawl in full bloom-anger, hurt, and disbelief fueling the elongation of my vowels, "Why you no good lily-livered shit ass!"

He could have run me over with a Jeep and I would not have felt as injured. I feared my eyes were darting about in my head as I tried to recover some semblance of control. My best friend from home, Murmur, scattered like light through my foundering brain. She never let anyone get the best of her-she never showed it, anyway. She could have a cobra sitting on her head and remain steady. I had to slip into another dimension. If only for a moment. In my mind's eye Murmur gathered.

She was smirking, not a drop of fear betrayed, not even in her squinty blue eyes. It did the trick. Briefly, a calm pushed at the thunder clouds roiling through my veins. And I did it. I got righteous.

My voice deepened. I slowed way down. I enjoyed the heft of the knife that I gripped ever so sweetly.

"How dare you. You have taken advantage of my honor. My good nature."

I pushed an errant strand of hair off my forehead with the point of the knife. "Even my honest heart." I pursed my lips as I conjured my next face-saving line, all the while struggling not to collapse at his feet and beg and howl in true Belle fashion for him not to abandon me.

"You are dead to me. Do you understand? And if you don't walk out that door this very second, you will also be dead to your sweet little bride." I tossed the knife-one revolution-and caught it by the handle.

 

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::

For the first time in my life I was grateful that in high school I had been a baton twirler.

Over the top? Certainly. Effective? Oh, yes.

Ahmed backed out of my cellblock-C-sized apartment, shielding his poor shocked bride with his own body, stunned I believe not only by the spin of my knife but, most importantly, by my sudden Southernness.

Yes, it's true. I had deceived him, too. Told him I was from Chicago. My friends at Harvard warned me that I would rot in hell for telling such a lie and that surely he would find me out. But I felt the need to hide my origins because he truly hated Southerners, too. We had so much in common. He had seen George Wallace footage and believed everyone in the South was just a bunch of little Georges blocking school entrances throughout the region, yelling racist epithets into bullhorns, and swiping sweat out of their pale, beady eyes. Their intention? To prevent Ahmed from stepping foot into any of their hallowed halls of second-rate education.

Playing devil's advocate, I once asked him, "What about Jimmy Carter?"

"What about him?" He stared back at me, unblinking, unwilling to admit I had scored a point.

"He's from the South. He's not prejudiced. He's a good man."

"He's not truly a Southerner," Ahmed said thoughtfully, stroking his new growth goatee, seemingly at peace with his flawed logic.

Of course, my deception was minor, indeed barely counts, when compared to not disclosing you already have a wife. My God, he had turned me into an adulteress-and nearly a polygamist-without my informed consent.

So upon learning that my fiancé was already married, the guilt I had borne these last seventeen months transformed itself into seething satisfaction even as my heart was shattering like a K-mart wine glass dropped onto a Terrazzo floor. In the face of my solemn death threat, Ahmed had exited my apartment with a soft shush of the door, but I flung it open and before he and she had made it down the hall to the elevator I screamed triumphantly, pointing that trusty blade at what I presumed to be the upper chamber of his heart, "Yes, you fucking asshole, you have been sleeping with a Cracker!"

Then I slammed the door so hard that my outsider art wall calendar fell off its hook. I started bawling and headed for the kitchen where I poured myself a water glass full of bourbon and ate cold leftover cheese grits right out of the plastic container. I planned all manner of revenge. I could have gay smut magazines delivered to his mailbox in the divinity department. I could call Immigration from a pay phone and say I believed he was in the country on an expired visa. I could tell the FBI that he often had clandestine midnight meetings with men of Middle Eastern origin and he once admitted he'd like to bomb the State Department. Lies. Lies. Lies. I could, I could, I could . . . . But I did not. Instead, I dropped out of school.

One class to go--three credit hours: Christianity and Ecology. Course description: "A rigorous exploration of sound Christian environmental thought." As opposed to? And then there is the matter of my dissertation which, if ever done, will explore the thorny subject of the Historical Jesus. My committee head, Dr. Wise, was hoping for something a bit more traditional. Not my style, I told him breezily.

The truth is, despite a life-long pre-occupation with religion-and yes, I'll say it-the Holy Roman Catholic Church in all its many genuflections-I have lost my faith. I'm not sure when it left. Or was I the one who walked away? Beats me. All I know is that in my current state of lapsed faith I cannot possibly write about a Christian Jesus. A political strategist? A social maverick? A revolutionary par none? Yes. God? No. Not right now.

I am newly home-four days-haven't yet unpacked. The coastal plain of Iris Haven feels as familiar to me as skin. But I am not the same person who left here five years ago. If we are, indeed, defined by the friends and lovers who fill the lonely hollows of our hearts, displacing for a moment our sadness and alienation (those twin sisters of original sin), then I am ash. Not bone.

Ahmed wasn't solely one more attempt on my part to wrestle free from the South's wide guilt. I loved him. When he held me, I felt free. Surrounded. The pain of past traumas receded. The fear of failure faded.

Two months after he jilted me, Murmur died. Alone. In the Iris Haven River. How does a woman who spent her entire life fishing and surfing and snorkeling these waters die by drowning? And what condition was her faith in as she took her final breath? Did anyone care? Did the Christian God-so important to her in girlhood-whisper into her fading ear, "My child, you are a woman of many sins: adultery, drink, promiscuity. But you indulged honestly, with a fair heart, meaning no harm. So welcome home."-?

I always knew that I could gallivant anywhere. Recreate myself a thousand times over. Charleston. Charlotte. Cher. Hell, you name it. I could pass as a Yankee. I could fall in love with a fine-boned man from Nigeria whose dreams were of places, colors, smells, textures more foreign to me than the surface of Mars. I could fall off the edge of the earth and never be honest about the consequences because I had Murmur. Murmur was back home, keeping the world straight, sending me letters about new dune lines and turtle runs and the metaline sound of dragonflies on the wing at dusk. So no matter what new plot I was hatching for myself, at the close of the day, by the time I got to that last flourish at the end of the page-Love you lots, Murmur-I knew once again who I was. Charlee Mudd. A simple white girl from North Florida who loved grits and sea oats and, sans racism, most all things Southern.


Connie May Fowler, an Oprah-pick author, was a Rollins College Writer-in-Residence and was the director of Winter with the Writers event held each year in February. She lives in the Florida Panhandle area, travels to Greece, but the bayous are tugging often at the homestrings surrounding her sassy heart.
For more information on Winter with the Writers, call the event director (407) 691-1159 or the English department (407) 646-2666 or visit the site for the event at www.rollins.edu/winterwiththewriters.

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