Why do Southerners romanticize dreck? They positively gush over everything in sight, including the weeds covering the telephone poles along the highway. Kudzu, an invasive weed, is treated like gorse. Southerners are proud of it, like everything else. Kudzu is nothing to be proud of, but Peter Taylor is. Light in August is something to get excited about. Tennessee Williams knew a thing or two, but is he invited to the Liberty Bowl? What of Eudora Welty?
As kids, we lunched in the backyard with the dogs. Sat up on the wall and ate chips. Prime Minister, the neighbor’s English bulldog, humped our legs while King Faisal and his Queen, a pair of Afghan hounds, chased imaginary hares through the trees. I have memories, too, of Frankenstein and the Mummy, but JFK’s assassination made death a whole lot less glamorous.
Yes, the BBQ is divine, but where else except in Mississippi would any one accept slices of Wonder bread as a side? They were serving sliced bread when I was a kid back in 1960. It’s as if Starbuck’s today served Sanka. Or old black men were still wearing women’s stockings on their heads when they cut the yard.
Consider the case of Johnny Cash. With a voice like that, he didn’t need to dance, but having a mother who preferred Elvis undermined one’s confidence. He stood for something that is now long gone. Who knew then the country was going to hell?
But, you know, for Memphians, this, too, is just another thing to be proud of. Let’s face it. Southerners are taught to be proud of everything including what they leave in the toilet. Is there to be no discrimination? Why couldn’t dreck be called dreck without crying about the Lost Cause and all that shit?
These are my fond memories. Between the dogwoods and the azaleas there is enough color. It is the blossoms of magnolias that draw one’s attention, to say nothing of their shiny leaves. The allure of the South is connected somehow to the magnolia blossom’s readiness to wilt. Its silken white blossoms are so quick to turn black as soot.
Not that I don’t love kudzu. I think it’s beautiful, growing as it does on the side of the road, draped over the electric lines and choking out the pines. I love it. And that’s not all. I adore pecan pie, along with Cole slaw, and, even more, that great flow of mud they call the Mighty Mississippi. There’s a lot to love in the South, but why must I love that fucking weed?
This is all I’m saying. My wife has a weight problem and the last thing she needs is an invitation to eat herself to death. As they say back in Mississippi, or did in my day, “she died of the knife and fork.” Yes, sir, there are a lot of overweight people in the Delta, between Jackson and Memphis, part of it is due to the food and partly one’s blood. It’s biscuit and gravy country. My wife doesn’t know how to say no. She cannot resist. She cannot refuse. No matter how big she gets, her girlfriends tell her she looks great. “Honey, you look fine.” Lots of compliments, lots of bending of the truth.
“Mississippi is America without the lying.” People used to be proud of our harsh truths. Jenny’s Granddaddy said that. It’s not just another place across the state line, he’d say. It’s the State of Mississippi. They want you to believe it is the state of refinement. Not that there’s anything wrong with fine dining. Grandfather could send you to a nice place in Clarksdale, Vicksburg, or even Tupelo. But he wouldn’t recommend baseball on a Sunday, not if the state flower was the Magnolia. Lucky for us, there aren’t many crows down here, just mocking birds.
She belongs to the Eudora Welty Society and, let me tell you, the Society doesn’t want to accept the fact that its members remain a cliché. They insist it is all about gracious living, Southern-style. If you ask the Friends of Walker Percy, of which I am a member, they’ll surely agree with Jenny. We do look like Senator Lott, on account of the fact we use our wives’ hairspray.
There are no toilets in Mississippi, just rooms for gents and powder. Ladies in Mississippi don’t use the toilet. Not white ladies anyhow. They just love poetry readings and recitations. Conferences on flower arranging and ophthalmology. The folks in Oxford are especially fond of the Japanese tea ceremony. Pissarro and the French Impressionists are a big draw at the local art gallery. University life as we all know concentrates on smart dialogue. Discussions and lectures dominate the schedules of busy young people preparing for a future of three-bedroom mortgages. At half-time, on days of play, the young ladies strut their wares. They only carry pom-poms to hide their daggers.
My point is that Mississippi is a tougher place than people want to admit. It’s not all finger sandwiches and high tea at the Peabody. Good girls only give head when the home team wins. Nice people are appalled by the Negroes. Chains down there weren’t used to keep black folks from running; they were used to beat them to death.
See, back in 1966 Jenny’s Granddaddy’s pal Minnis and his team from Wilson, Arkansas won the biggest ballgame of the season. Minnis did some hauling for Granddaddy’s laundry. His team was so famous, a radio station announcer challenged their team to head over for a fight to the finish, a Mississippi Delta Championship. The boys climbed into a big yellow school bus, crossed the mighty river, and headed south on I-55 from downtown Memphis.
They were greeted upon arrival by the local sheriff, Clarence Turner, and his cow-shit-stained deputies who aimed their shotguns at their heads and shouted, “Niggers don’t play ball down here, so you all better git back yonder.” Granddaddy’s pal and his buddies didn’t say a word.
Minnis didn’t want to die for no pecan pie as other folks did, and not for anything else for that matter. Not for the gooseberry wine, the catfish, the hushpuppies, nor the grits; not for nothing, as they used to say. Not even for the fried pickles white folks always say are to die for. He wasn’t about to get himself killed over some tossed salad with earl and vinegar, and certainly not over some shit talk at the barrel of a shotgun.
In those days, they might have killed the old man, too. He told me white folks knew not to take their girlfriends on a country drive south of Shelby County, not to cross into Mississippi, on some back road late one Saturday night. Might not come back. Better to park on private property, stay well inside the Tennessee state line.
Minnis and the team headed home to Arkansas. They didn’t talk that night of word choice or syntax. Walker Percy and Eudora Welty never came up. Not them and not Grisham and not Faulkner neither. They talked that night of how dangerous it was down in Mississippi and they swore to God never to return.
Jenny’ll say I only cook once a year. She’ll tell you I cook for friends and family. I’d be the first to admit I always leave a mess. I’d have to say, too, that I am hated. It’s not the way I intended. It’s not what I wanted. It was never supposed to be this way. It came as a shock when my wife said she couldn’t stand me.
When the pots are clean, I feel good. When the sauce is simmering, I feel powerful. Love the smell of it, mainly the garlic. And I listen always to the radio on the refrigerator, WMPR. When the spaghetti is done, I feel gratitude. When she cries, I feel like shit.
My friends’ arrival was joyous. My friends gave me a hug and her, a kiss. My friends balanced their plates on their knees. My friends thanked me but as usual forgot to thank her. They forget to tell her what a wonderful time they had. They said they appreciated it. They should have known I had nothing to do with it.
She just screamed: “There is tomato sauce everywhere. There is a napkin in the toilet. There is parmesan cheese in the carpet. There are broken plates on the patio.” She kept on even after I said I was sorry. I said I was sorry. “The oven is filthy,” she replied. “The refrigerator door was left open,” she shouted. “The ice maker has stopped working.” I begged her to forgive me. “The gas range is covered in marinara” was her answer. And then she said it all over again, starting with the sauce.
My friend who promised to help, left. My brother forgot to bring wine. I had thought I could handle thirteen guests. I thought I could clean up my own mess. I thought I could offer to take her out. I thought she wouldn’t leave me. My head would not stop throbbing the entire time she was gone.
And this time she took the car. My car. My wife took my Chrysler 300 sedan. “I hate my car,” she said.
She wondered why they didn’t name cars after dogs. She’d have loved to drive a Suzuki Pekingese, she told me, or a Nissan Boxer. She said her mother would have liked to have had a white Cadillac Poodle, while her Daddy would have preferred a big black one with leather. GM could market the model in toy, miniature, or standard. It was a running joke. I told her I’d buy her a Volkswagen Dachshund GT, but she said she’d rather drive a Hyundai Chihuahua. I thought she was on to something. Everyone loved the idea. I could just see myself waltz into Cherokee Ford in West Memphis and ask to see a maroon St. Bernard pickup with a sunroof, but she said it would be too expensive. We settled on a Peugeot Pug.
She said she went to visit her cousin outside Vicksburg. We met down there. This was years ago. A century earlier, 17,000 Union and 11,600 Confederate soldiers died on this site. They fought at dawn in the rain. There’s a monument for the Generals in town but none for the soldiers. Now they want to take the monuments down. Jenny said she felt like one of them soldiers.
They can have the monuments for all I care. Just don’t cut down the trees. The men were said to have been so hungry they gnawed the bark. To this day you can see their marks. Men relieved themselves where they stood. They couldn’t bathe. Best friends committed mercy killings and then killed themselves. My wife said she felt like killing herself. There is nothing natural about war.
The calm down there along the river clears with the fog. Look carefully, people said, and you could see the blood. Grown men cried and hid their faces. Men said goodbye in the dark. They say now they fought for nothing. They say now they were vain. They say now they were racists. They say now they were weak.
It may be true; maybe not. Cousin Verne, though, was no chump. At 6’3” with feet size twelve, he was a strapping lad. He didn’t die to protect slavery. Verne fought alongside his dear cousin, Albert. His mother asked him to tag along, that’s all. Verne had poor eyes but could throw a knife.
My wife came back after five days to pick up a few things. She took her jar of manuka honey. Jenny didn’t eat for a week. She said. Not a thing. She stayed with her cousin and hid in her room. She drank tea. She had yoghurt. She puts honey in both. Not a thing else. She went on long walks.
“This land here is a pretty sight. If I were a deer, I’d be happy here. If I were a rabbit, I would make a family. As I’m only a woman, I’m content to look on. I don’t want to kill.”
She wrote this to me in a letter.
She said she thought of that time back then when we hitched all the way to Moscow, Tennessee. We caught a ride with a guy in an aqua Cougar, a man who had been on the road for months looking for his wife. He had Joan Baez on the radio. Did I remember that? And then for no good reason we headed back instead of going on to Nashville. That was the year that Altman movie played at the Malco.
We are not far in America – and is it just in America – from evolving a right to feel good about ourselves. Yo! My son won his 3rd grade spelling contest! He only made two mistakes. Everyone wins a prize. First this, and then one learns to be offended.
I drove down to Vicksburg that afternoon after reading Jenny’s letter. I convinced her cousin to let me take them all out for dinner. Jenny didn’t order. In the morning, Suzie cooked. She held a 2-foot long pepper grinder as she stood in the kitchen, but served the eggs cold. The coffee had been excreted from the anus of a Cambodian squirrel but she poured it lukewarm. The bread was offered untoasted. Breakfast promised to be a gourmet delight but the temperatures weren’t right.
She made the eggs first, set them aside, and forgot to toast the sourdough. She spread each slice with frozen unsalted butter flown in from France – the best money can buy, but it wouldn’t melt. I sulked. It was like a breakfast served by the Mad Hatter.
Suzie is the kind of person who has nothing for anyone she is not fucking. Another woman? Men? She searches for signs of availability. The coffee was cold because she was sleeping alone. She’d been working on Jenny, trying to get her to see things her way. It’s all in The Dying Animal. The politics of oral sex. The politics of same-sex partners. It is always a story of so what or whatever. Every failure leads to failure; every triumph leads to failure.
“Do you know who you are?”
“Of course not, who does?”
“I remember you, a shifty-eyed little fella with his fly open.” She loved to speak of me in this light. I recognized it as a sign she was beginning to forgive me.
“After a life of turmoil and defeat ….”
“Place your head between your knees. I’ve been saying this for years, but you never listen. You are too busy trying to take over.”
“All I wish is to get along.”
“Genghis Khan with a phone.”
“And a colander. Don’t involve me.”
“My God, what a sight.”
“We settled that.”
“I’d just as well not come. I am not coming.”
“Don’t. I said. Out. Free.”
“You’d prefer I kick it, let the world go by?”
“One sprig, one asparagus apiece. White for the girls; boys, green.”
“Fifteen fucking asparagus. One for each guest.”
“I thought you were moving to St. Louis.”
“You confuse me with T. S. Eliot.”
“I’d be in panic city. Do you know panic city?”
“Not really. I prefer Nabokov.”
“People in the hood don’t have kerfuffles; they have ass-kickings.”
“I’m not that esoteric. You always confuse me with someone else. You say, you said I looked like that long-necked lady in that painting, but I don’t. I’m not. I’m not a Modigliani.”
“Then who, what? I don’t know you?”
“I’m one of Picasso’s cave women. I’m a brute.”
“My Daddy used to say people deserve the violence.”
“Every penny of it.”
“I remember when you called me a brute.”
“Back when I was a frat boy and you were a girl.”
“You used to sit naked on the floor of my dorm room, with your legs spread
“I did not.”
“I’d roll oranges across the floor toward you.”
“Better than an egg.”
“When I hit your bell, you’d give my friend a little kiss.”
“How about that?”
“And what did you say?”
“’Come and get it?’”
“You can’t stay here and live off honey.”
“‘Isn’t it darling?’ Oh, no. I know: you asked me to put on more lipstick.”
“We have any oranges?”
“We’re desperate, don’t you know? The lies are killing us.”
“The fat don’t benefit from being called thin.”
“It applies to the stupid who call themselves smart.”
“People used to speak the truth.”
“Thank God for death.”
“If people didn’t die, we’d still be listening to Demosthenes.”
“You’re just showing off.”
“What about grapefruit?”