Heather Ross Miller inspired terror and love in her students. Who better to teach Southern Women Fiction Writers than the woman who reminded us all that Appalachia is pronounced, “I’m gonna throw an apple-at-cha!” followed by her permanent squint and grin?
I sat up quickly. I couldn’t remember if I had done the reading. That happened a lot in those days. She stared me down. She knew. She paused and then asked me a question.
“Do you know why the government won’t legalize marijuana?” My friends snickered behind me.
“No, ma’am.” My voice was weak, tinny. She smiled one of those Cheshire cat grins.
“Everyone would be too happy to pay their taxes!” She cackled, turned to someone else, and the discussion resumed. I sunk into my chair. After class, I tried to sneak out of the room. Again, I heard, “Miss McDonald!”
I turned around, and she beckoned–eyebrow raised, lips pursed.
“You alright?” I nodded a little. “You sure?” I shrugged.
“Stop it. It’s not even noon.”
“Whatever it is, it’ll be okay. Go home.”
I didn’t go home; instead, I laid out on the front lawn, that Technicolor expanse of green, and read and re-read the assigned stories from that day and that week. Katherine Anne Porter was fierce, a little angry, unapologetic, beautiful. There was a dark humor to her work, a scathing criticism of people but also some compassion, too; yet it was her precise use of words–the sheer ugliness of some–made me cling to every one.
I remember looking around me after reading “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” trying to memorize the front lawn, all red brick and white columns, the bluest sky with a few cotton-ball clouds above me, the way the grass starts to make your legs itchy. Then I read it again. The last lines still rip my heart out every time I read them:
No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.