Heading south on 441 and about 25 miles away from my destination–GPS-style–at 2628 N. Columbia Street in Milledgeville, I start noticing how signs and places take on the world that O’Connor has so skillfully depicted in her fiction. First, I am invited to stop at a local fruit stand and pick up some “peches” and “cidar.” Then on to “Unique Yard Art” where multiple copies of the same concrete-molded objects await me in straight lines. I assume that the “unique” part comes in my taking one home and choosing my own colors of paint. Next, I could get my deer “processed” while picking up the pieces of taxidermy I may have dropped off a few weeks ago. Stopping at Sister Nina’s would give me a way to see my future. I notice an upcoming Gun Show down in Macon, perched above where I might drop by and order some “stump grinding.” Finally, as I prepare to turn into 2628 N. Columbia, I see a large billboard from a law firm: “Killed or Injured” it asks, and I wonder just how I might call that firm if I were killed?
Earlier in the week, I had received an invitation from Nancy Davis-Bray on the Flannery List-Serv: two archaeologists were doing some digging in the back yard of Andalusia, trying to find evidence of the exact location of the peafowl pens when Flannery lived there in the 1950s and early 1960s. Come and watch them work. I took the invitation personally and planned to go the following day, a Thursday, thinking, well, who wouldn’t want to have this information. I knew that Andalusia opened at 10 a.m., and I was a little over four hours away, so I woke at 5 a.m. and was on the road by 6 a.m. With me, I had one book: the Library of America’s O’Connor: Collected Works. I hoped to sit on her porch and read a complete story to myself–after, of course, I had observed the backyard dig.
Today I live in the Hickory Nut Gorge, in western North Carolina, so I headed south through South Carolina, where I got a short glimpse of southern rural poverty (a term I find myself using all the time yet always thinking it redundant) before merging unto I 185 to I 85 south towards Atlanta. At the exit for 441, I pull off and head straight for the Krystal–because we don’t have Krystals in North Carolina, and it is still my favorite fast-food place, a hangover from my teenaged years in Florida. I get a sun downer. Just one, I say, and then ask: What is it? With my breakfast in hand, I continue on my way–wondering how many times other O’Connor scholars and fans have taken this road from Atlanta or other places nearby, curious to see the place that nurtured the writer we have come to admire. And, as I once heard Craig Amason, first Director of the Foundation, so skillfully put it–but I will have to paraphrase here: A person ought to hear the “same silences” that a favorite writer hears. I wanted to hear again those silences. It was time.
Upon arrival, a few minutes after 10 a.m., I drove to the parking area as directed by the signs. Already, a type of gazebo tent had been erected and Mike and Liz, as I was to find out were their names, were at work, one tossing the soil into the strainer, the other shaking it this way and that, pulling out pieces of wire in the shape of a cross, pieces of broken pottery, etc. I dragged over a heavy green metal chair and moved it into the shade of their tent, sat down, and began to ask questions about the nature of their work. What was a good thing to find? What would be the ultimate successful moment? What were those pink ribbons on other places in the soil? I was the only observer there–at the dig–just Mike, Liz (the archaeologists) and me. I settled in to the chair, the cool of the shade, and began to think about all there was to see here at Andalusia and how much of it O’Connor saw–and all that she did with what she saw.
And then, from across the way–the most sudden and jarringly loud sound. It was Astor, the peacock, calling from his pen. I got up and walked immediately towards the sound. As I approached the wire netting up close, Astor dropped from one perch down to the ground, turned his back to me, shuddered, and then–majestically–raised his tail feathers and spread them wide. As though to say: and what do you think of that? with the back of his feathers toward me and his head looking back at me. At his own timing, he turned around and there he was in all his full glory. I wondered how many times O’Connor herself was caught up in such moments. I don’t know that a peacock shrieks each time he is about to spread his feathers, but, on this morning, Astor chose to do so. If it was attention he wanted, he got it–but then that would be endowing a human characteristic to a bird, but it is “the king of the birds,” after all.
Now it was time for lunch, so I scurried off to the Milledgeville Krystal, got my ration of two Krystal cheeses, and returned at once to Andalusia. This time, I got my book and walked to the front porch. I deliberately sat in a rocker that was in front of the window in O’Connor’s bedroom. I turned to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and began the story out loud because some Georgia Public Radio people wanted to get a bit of it on tape. I read the first paragraph with expression and accent, as my former elementary education teacher-friends would encourage. Then that team wandered off and I continued to read to myself. But as I read, I was thinking about O’Connor having written the story directly behind my back. So I was looking at what was behind her back when she wrote it. My own reading was a case of interrupting myself — thinking of the lines of the story I know so well, the woman who wrote it in that place, the land that would have stretched straight to a sight of the road out front back then, now the space grown thick with trees. I had come with the hope of settling in, if just for a moment, into holy space, onto holy ground. And I rocked in the chair–stopping my reading to just be aware of all that was around me.
In time, I got up, went to the bathroom where I discovered pictures of a young Flannery on horseback on the wall above the sink. And for the first time, I realized there were no horses in any of O’Connor’s stories. Yet, she must have spent a good deal of time on a horse as a teenager. She doesn’t write about her horse in any letter that I could remember. Well, a whole new awareness. What was her relationship to that horse and horses in general? Back outside again for a last look at Astor, now quiet and minding his own business. A walk back to Mike and Liz, still digging and straining, and wondering what would they find next. Then on to my car for the drive home, back by all the odd signs and places and spellings. A quick 30-minute nap in the parking lot of the McDonald’s in Commerce, Georgia, and home again by 9 p.m. A full and rich day, indeed.
I am in the last decades (should I be given a few more) of my life, and these are the times where we can take the opportunity to really think about what has mattered in our days. For me for years, one enduring relationship has been with the writings of Flannery O’Connor. I went to Milledgeville on that Thursday because being there in that place was something I wanted to do at least one last time while I still have energy to do it. As O’Connor went to her typewriter each day, so that she would be there if the words came, ready to receive them, I went to Andalusia so that I might be there to discover anew something I hadn’t known before and to experience, as well, the often elusive nature of my relationship to O’Connor–to rest, even briefly, in the mystery of the same silences she once heard.