By Kelly Murray
The only way to read Flannery O’Connor is while taking a hot bath in a clawfoot tub in an old Victorian home on a warm night in Savannah, Georgia. That’s exactly where I was when I read her for the first time.
I was staying at an Airbnb in Savannah’s Eastside district; a gorgeous renovated Victorian home with four bedrooms, a grand staircase, wraparound porch, a sunny shared kitchen, and, yes, a clawfoot tub.
Three of them, I’d come to find. All the stuff of classic Southern charm.
I had met two of the house guests, an older couple from Seattle who were taking a road trip through the Southeastern states, in the shared kitchen one evening. We struck up a conversation about Savannah: it’s history, it’s people, and its landmarks. I was in town for a few days to attend a wedding, and hoped to fit in time to explore the city.
We fell on the subject of notable Savannah natives when the husband mentioned O’Connor. I told him I had only heard of her by name, but never actually read any of her stories. Admittedly, having studied English literature in college and being a working writer, I was reluctant to reveal this information.
He beamed at the mention of O’Connor. “Oh, you have to read her!” he said “You’ll just love her stories. They’re not what you’d expect. They’re gripping .” Without a second thought, he offered me his copy of a collection of Flannery’s short stories that he had brought with him on the trip. He ran to his room and returned with a yellow paperback in hand titled “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”.
Later that evening, I crept into the downstairs bathroom to take a bath. The room was a beautifully decorated and painted a brilliant teal blue; the clawfoot tub sat in the center between two sinks and beneath a sparkling chandelier. Tall windows adorned each wall, and with one cracked, I could hear the soft hum of cicadas outside. It was May and although not yet sweltering, the Savannah heat seeped in all around me and made it feel like summertime. I turned the faucet. Hot water gushed out and the bath began to billow with steam. I stepped into the water with my new book in hand.
Once settled, I opened the collection of short stories, and began reading the first one; it shared the same title as the collection: A Good Man Is Hard to Find . O’Connor’s prose leapt off the pages with such visceral vivacity that I dove into her story with abandon. At once I understood my housemate’s zeal for her writing.
The characters in the story bellowed with an authenticity that could only be conveyed by a writer from the South: a cantankerous grandmother, her cat, and her acquiescing family all crammed into their car; a foreboding diner owner named Red; and a carjacking jailbird called The Misfit flanked by two his goons on the run from the law. The setting: 1950s Georgia, a time that’s all but archaic to us now, imprinted in the minds by those who lived it, and in this case, by those who wrote about it.
The plot twisted and turned like the dirt roads of the Deep South until the grandmother and her family found themselves groveling for their lives at the feet of the Misfit; and then, the ending walloped me with such abrupt resolve that I had to reread it again amazed by what had transpired. So I did. I drank in the story like a swig of whiskey to cure a sore cough. It stung and soothed; but, I was healed…without even knowing I was afflicted. I had read my first short story by Flannery O’Connor, the masterful mistress of Southern Gothic literature.
There’s something sacred about sharing a well-loved book with another person. Even more so with a complete stranger. The weathered spine, dogeared pages, the front and back covers tattooed with creases created during particularly captivating moments experienced while reading. It’s like sharing a part of yourself…a memory…one that you hope the recipient will cherish as much as you did, and one day pass on to another.
And that’s the thing about those rare moments experienced in transience. When you find yourself sharing stories with another human being — whether verbal or bound by pages — and you know that these moments are precious because they’re random, and fleeting, and true. They only exist as long as those in passing choose to stay; and when they decide to part, the moment is relinquished…relegated to memory, or journal, or maybe even resurrected in art.
Resurrected…like an old, well-loved book given to a curious reader by a generous traveler passing through in Savannah, Georgia.
About the author:
Kelly Murray is a freelance writer, artist, and emerging filmmaker. Her debut short film The Astronomer, an adaptation of the Walt Whitman poem “I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” received the Curator’s Choice Award at The Delaware Contemporary in 2016. A graduate of the University of Delaware, she has written for both print and TV and has worked internationally as a freelancer. Whether by pen, paintbrush, or camera, much of Kelly’s work is wistful and whimsical, invoking bold imagery and romantic narratives; with a focus on the female experience, she aims to explore the transformative, and often serendipitous, moments we encounter through life.