Roger Howell: Memoir: June 2022

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Being of Southern rootage, the past crawls all over me, pestering me when I’m trying to get to sleep. Recently, I read Absalom, Absalom! again. Broke down at the end. Just like I knew I would.

The Ramp Eater

There is a lowly vegetable, Allium tricoccum—the red-headed stepchild of the onion family—known to country people in the Carolina hills. It hides in shaded mountain coves, or spreads its humble flag in ditches along the roadside. Two plain shoots, almost invisible in the general run of weeds, proclaim an underground morsel the size of a walnut.

Ramps are ripe and tender from around the first of April until mid-June. It is a season welcomed by the ramp lover, and dreaded by those who must live with one.

The reason for the notoriety of ramps is their pungency, and on this issue there is no middle ground. Ramps on the breath are an unparalleled affront to the nostrils. Garlic is nothing to them. A skunk might offer some competition, but it would take a dead dog in the living room to cut through the odor of ramp breath in the kitchen. Do I exaggerate? Well then, some facts: they will rid the house of unwanted guests; they have been accepted as grounds for divorce; and even in the earth, ramps generate so foul a miasma that it is known to drive rattlesnakes from the area.

I have tasted them, and they are mildly diverting, but they are hardly worth the price, for ramps convey to the habitual user the status of social leper.

Yet there are those who cannot resist the allure of this repugnant fruit. And rather than endure their lowly status alone, they have banded together into a brotherhood, and they gather at ramp “conventions” held annually in the hills. These are informal gatherings, usually near the mountain coves where ramps like to gestate. At such meetings, ramp eaters make sport of their detractors and sing the praises of their favorite delicacy. Their opinions meet with sympathy, and bushels of ramps are assaulted with vigor.

To date, however, the enthusiasm of the few has failed to infect the many. But I suspect that in their secret hearts the ramp eaters do not want to convert the rest of us. For—let us speak plainly—ramps are enjoyed mainly by those who are outcasts already. And in reinforcing their rank and standing, they achieve distinction. Together, they scoff at the world’s revulsion. Indeed, they invite it.

Marvin was a ramp eater.

He came from back up in the hills, from one of the many hollows or coves that breed and shelter the faceless poor. Not much was known about him. If he had a daddy, he was not successful at his trade, for such luxuries as soap and toothpaste were plainly beyond the family’s means. It was therefore Marvin’s lot to stink, and stink he did. He was cursed with body odor and halitosis to a degree perhaps unsurpassed in the New World. When ramps were out of season, his personal fragrance was dazzling enough. With the coming of April, he would feast on these onions as he walked to school of a morning, and it was hard to tolerate being in the same county with him. And that was not the whole of it, for Marvin smoked.

As far as anyone knew, Marvin started smoking at about the time he started breathing, and smoked every chance he got. Homegrown was his brand, and he rolled it in whatever kind of paper came to hand. By the time he reached the fifth grade, his fingers and teeth were stained with an indelible, yellowish-brown nicotine blot, in contrast to his otherwise pasty complexion. And with Marvin in evidence, the theory that smoking stunted one’s growth was in no danger of being disproved. In almost any litter, he would be the runt. With his frail physique, his sickly pallor and discolored hands and teeth, he was a museum-quality specimen of rheumy ill-health.

It does not take any great degree of perception to divine that Marvin was not much of a mixer. Even at a ramp convention, he might be shunned.

Marvin’s appalling condition—combined with his unknown antecedents—naturally gave rise to rumors, and none of them did his family any service. But rumor aside, one thing was certain. Marvin was poor. Going-to-bed-hungry poor. He neither brought his lunch to school nor bought it in the cafeteria. He scoured the roadside on his way to school of a morning, and the wild foods he found there—dock, pokeweed and ramps—were his diet at least until suppertime.

It is hardly necessary to mention that Marvin was mocked to his face, and reliably bullied.

It was in the fifth grade that I shared a classroom with Marvin. His troubles began quietly enough, but escalated rapidly. Several times a day Marvin would raise his hand and ask to go to the restroom. Permission granted, he would disappear for an hour or two—if he came back at all.

Our teacher, Mrs. Bunch, soon caught on, and openly questioned his motives. “I know what you’re up to, Marvin. Don’t think I wasn’t around when the brains were passed out. You just want to go in the bathroom and smoke those nasty cigarettes.” She thenceforth hardened to his entreaties and declined to set him free.

Faced with this dilemma, Marvin resorted to deceit. He would double over at his desk, holding his stomach, and begin to whine. “I don’t feeeeeel good, Miz-riz Bunch!” At first she brushed off this transparent ploy, but Marvin poured on the coals. He hunkered over and rocked back and forth, moaning. Eventually he wore her down, and she would let him have his relief. Her inconsistency may have worsened the problem, but she only gave in to pity.

I can’t think he really hoped to fool anyone with these histrionics. But then, even more blatant falsehoods have passed for the truth in this world. He apparently thought if he could perform convincingly enough, his act might found credible. But no one bought it, and once he had added whining to his repertoire, he became all the more an object of scorn.

Marvin could freely indulge his tobacco craving for an hour each day when we were all unleashed at recess onto a huge playground edged halfway round by thick woods. While others were enjoying more wholesome activities, Marvin was down in the woods feeding his habit.

There were two or three hundred of us running free at that hour—the entire population of our mountain school. I always thought we were blessed with more than the average allotment of bullies for so small a number, perhaps because I was often the recipient of their courtesies. My troubles in this regard were nothing, though, compared to Marvin’s. It was not a rare occurrence for two or three of them to leave off their softball game and go in search of Marvin. They found him with little trouble. He always went to the same place. There was an old graveyard back in the woods, and it was here, among the underbrush and the collapsed and leaning gravestones, that they would catch Marvin out, and torment him in secret.

The human beast—at least the American species—tends to divide outcasts into two groups. In one class are what might be called the honorable downtrodden—those who have come into a hard fate that the rest of us in our magnanimity have decided is undeserved. In the other group are the pariahs—that breed of persons who are thought worthy of nothing but contempt. The former move us to compassion; the latter we feel justified in shunning, if not punishing.

The sight of poor, friendless Marvin would incline many toward compassion. But we need to identify before we can empathize. The observer must find a point of resemblance before granting an endorsement of honorable downtrodden. If the candidate makes us laugh with his comedic talents, or proves competent to hold forth on baseball averages or some other weighty subject, we might have grounds for overlooking his halting gait or his purple birthmark. If Marvin had been able to take apart a car engine, or to hold two or three gallons of beer without losing it, he might have fared better with his peers.

Proximity counts as well. An offense to the nostrils has an almost magical effect; it can cause a pariah to appear. An outcast at a distance—even one with poor hygiene—can be pitied; a homeless person who comes too close is a nuisance, or worse. 

Evidence of an attempt at personal renovation will help the outcast to better his standing. Marvin might have been redeemed by a bath, and by brushing his teeth every week or so. But at an age when popularity is more important to some children than life itself, Marvin seemed indifferent to the approval of others. So perhaps it was inevitable that he should be a favorite of the bullies.

Why Marvin came to school at all was something of a mystery. Maybe the truant officer had visited his family. Maybe the terrors of school were preferable to the terrors of home. For whatever reason, he came. But he was unconcerned with pedagogy.

When recess was over and he was forced inside again, Marvin took up as soon as possible his place in the boys’ room, often without bothering to return to class. Invariably he chose the stall that put him nearest the window, which he threw wide even in winter. There he would ensconce himself, smoking one cigarette after another, an ear cocked for intruders. And if one should enter, he would flail away at the smoke, trying to push it out the window. This method proved inadequate, for when the door was pushed open, the outside air rushed inward—not out—and a great cloud was sighed forth, billowing thick and pungent into the hallway.

Day after day, Mrs. Bunch was forced to send out a scout to locate our protagonist. This worked for a while, until one boy so dispatched took the rest of the day off himself. After suffering this embarrassment, Mrs. Bunch took her case to the principal.

The principal—Welt, by name—was a huge man with a thunderous basso profundo he used as a normal tone of voice, and a droll and elfish personality. He stood about six foot four, and weighed two-eighty or so, being composed of about equal parts fat and muscle. He could apply the strap energetically, and raised blisters on an acre of behinds—my own included. But he hated the strap and seldom applied it, for he was really no more than an overgrown boy himself, and identified with the temptations of youth. He would sit like a benevolent monarch, eyes dancing, when we were hauled before him for the usual crimes—looking up the girls’ skirts on the stairs, or throwing food in the cafeteria. His mouth crinkled as we confessed our sins, and he chuckled as he bent us over and laid the leather to us. Primarily, I am certain, as an incentive to avoid capture in the future.

Welt was acquainted with the Marvin problem. Time and again, during his routine inspection of the grounds, he had discovered Marvin puffing away in his stall. He had long tolerated Marvin’s habits with customary good humor, concerned only with the damage he was inflicting on himself. Entering the bathroom and fighting his way through the wall of smoke, he would bellow for Marvin to give himself up. Flushing the evidence as quickly as he could, Marvin would respond. Weakly, of course, in keeping with his pretense of suffering from intestinal trauma.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THERE, MARVIN?”

 “Nothin, Mr. Welt.”

“NOTHING? WHAT’S ALL THAT SMOKE, THEN?”

“I donno.”

“ARE YOU SMOKING IN THERE AGAIN?”

“Nossir. I’m sick.”

“SICK? WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?”

“I don’t feeeeeel good.”

“COME OUT OF THERE, BOY.”

And Marvin would emerge, pulling behind him sheets of layered haze. 

“DON’T LIE TO ME, BOY. YOU’VE BEEN SMOKING AGAIN, HAVEN’T YOU?”

“Nossir. They was some boys smokin in here before, but I never.”

By any method short of the strap, Welt could never bring him to admit a thing.

“ALL RIGHT, MARVIN. YOU’VE GOT FIVE SECONDS TO GET BACK TO CLASS, AND IF I CATCH YOU IN HERE AGAIN…”

But Marvin never learned.

Inevitably, Welt discovered Marvin in his stall once too often. No one knows exactly what happened. Maybe Marvin became belligerent, or maybe Welt’s patience and affability were finally exhausted. But there was a disagreement, and in the end Welt collared Marvin, tucked him under one massive arm, and carried him in this ignoble fashion back to the classroom.

I don’t know what Welt must have expected. Maybe he thought that Marvin—frail Marvin who could take any amount of abuse and compound it with self-abasement—would meekly comply. But when Marvin found himself tucked under Welt’s arm like an errant flop-eared pup, something must have snapped.

Long before they entered the classroom, we heard them coming. A distant shriek or scream—rasping and choking—a sound not instantly identifiable. It might have been a murder. The teacher stopped teaching and went pale, and every child sat in frozen silence (except the bullies, who began crawling under their seats) as the sound grew nearer. Suddenly they burst through the door, and there was Marvin, stuck up into Welt’s armpit, squealing like a tackled hog. He was spewing promises of revenge, decorated with a stream of profanity fit to empty a barroom. All four limbs flailed in every direction, and each spasm punctuated a curse or a threat. Welt crossed the floor to the gaping stares of all witnesses, and deposited Marvin at a table in the front of the classroom. As soon as he hit the chair, Marvin’s aria ended, and he buried his head in his arms, letting go and sobbing heavily. Welt stood for a moment—stunned, I imagine—just long enough to be certain the storm had subsided, before he turned on his heel and left the room. He was not smiling.

Marvin did not move for some time. He just sat, face hidden in his matchstick arms, weeping bitterly. The teacher regained some of her composure and having little choice, continued the lesson. There cannot have been many who profited from it after what we had just witnessed.

For Marvin’s part, he was trapped. If he rose and returned to his seat, all eyes would be drawn to him; if he bolted from the room, he might be dragged back again. Intolerable as it was, he had to remain where he sat, and endure it until the last bell.

After a time he stopped crying, and cautiously raised his head. Perhaps he hoped to find that everyone had forgotten about him. But a pair of bullies near the front had been waiting to pounce, and when his eyes met theirs…

“Peek-a-boo!”

And for the next hour it went on—whenever he glanced up from the safe darkness of his own embrace. They were subtle, these two; they mouthed the words, barely whispering, and the teacher never noticed. He would look, they would tease, and he would hide his eyes again.

Why did he keep looking at them? Surely he knew they would be waiting. He above all would know it. But he raised his eyes repeatedly, maddeningly, into theirs—calling forth their ridicule.

“Peek-a-boo!”

How slowly that afternoon must have passed for him. How complete his humiliation must have been.

He did not come to school the next day, or the next, and it soon became apparent that he was gone for good. Under the law, attendance was compulsory, and five years or thereabouts remained on Marvin’s sentence. But he had taken all he meant to take, and withdrew into the mountain cove he’d come from. No one went to fetch him. 

Had it not been for that episode, I don’t suppose I would remember him. The bruises of childhood tend to fade, and the memories they impress grow indistinct of detail. But a singular moment might bring a corner of that world into clarity—so that sometimes, when I lie in the dark and let the past rise before me, I remember Marvin.