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They smelled … peculiar.

Pungent. Astringent. Sevin dust mixed with old-lady perfume.

I once crawled under azalea bushes in our front yard in Alabama to see baby kitties. Their foolish mother littered right there, in the tangled shadows. I touched the week-old kittens, soft things with their eyes barely open. They hissed and spit like bacon in a skillet.

Pungent. Astringent.

My ambivalence with azaleas didn’t begin or end there. Every spring time, obscenely purple blooms exploded in slow motion in our flower bed. A dawning horror followed.

Just as the stick limbs of the azaleas would have new blossoms, the feral McNair children would have new Easter clothes.

Itchy pants. Ill-fitting jackets. Pinching new shoes. Clip-on strangulation neckties. Stiff new dresses for the girls.

We hissed. We spat.

We posed for family pictures.

Sweating, inharmonious, mama and daddy lined us up in the front yard. Like heroes before a firing squad, we squinted bravely into a terrible Sunday sun and wept and wondered if we dared ask for cigarettes as a final request.

Before a backdrop of florid purple azaleas, we miserably posed. Year after year.  

Azaleas seemed vulgar to me even then. Too purple. Too abundant. Too profligate, promiscuous, prostitutional.

Bumblebees crawled drunkenly out of purple azalea bedchambers, moist with gleet, buzzing drunk with pleasure. They flew heavily, yes bumbling, to the next purple hallucination.

Up and down Parish Street, both directions, purple azalea flanked and fronted every house. All of them.

I imagined that azalea bushes, like enormous purple caterpillars newly hatched and swarming, surrounded every house in the entire South.

Many southern towns have Azalea Trails, routes through the best neighborhoods where Sunday drivers can bumble from one empurpled front-yard bordello of color to the next, admiring the spring.

Often, virginal pretty girls pose in front of the azaleas. In purple hoop skirts, they wave and smile to passing cars.

Yes, they itch.


“Before a backdrop of florid purple azaleas, we miserably posed. Year after year.”

Photos by Rick Olivier

Photos by Rick Olivier

Charles McNair’s latest novel, "Pickett’s Charge," is currently a finalist for the two most prestigious literary awards in Georgia, the Townsend Prize and the Georgia Author of the Year Award. McNair's essay, "Denise McNair and Me," and an excerpt from "Pickett’s Charge" ran in The Bitter Southerner in early September.



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