I drove a 1963 Flamengo-orange Thunderbird, wore navy blue tennis shoes, and sat eating a banana split at the A&W. It was 1986. In White Haven, Tennessee, where truck drivers were thought to be rich, it was still considered a big deal to go to the movies. Girls looked forward to losing their virginity in the back row at the Malco Theatre.
I sat in the parking lot, sipping my root beer, and smoking Marlboros, one after the other. Graduation was weeks away and my Daddy wanted me to join the army. I was busy hatching a plan to run away. I’d have to leave everything behind, including the pork rinds and chocolate shakes. I figured I wouldn’t be able to afford them once I got out to California. I hardly had any money.
I couldn’t tell anyone. I’d say I was leaving but not for California; instead, I’d lie, tell them I was going up to Boston to stay with a cousin, and make them all swear not to tell a soul. Of course, I knew they’d tell them everything they knew as fast as the words could run out of their mouths. I was counting on their inability to show loyalty, at least not to me. They’d cave and no one would have to threaten to set their pubic hairs on fire.
There was no show business in my hometown. There was showing off, all right, plenty of that, so I don’t suppose anybody needed acting lessons, you know, but we weren’t brought up to think showing off and business went together, although clearly, they do.
How could everybody be having an amazing time? And when did awesome replace fine and dandy? Can you tell me that? Because, all this enthusiasm just didn’t make any sense, not that I was into singing the mockingbird blues. I sometimes thought we all got lost on the hallelujah trail.
“Running away never solved anything.” You must have heard that. I wondered if people really meant it. It was so obviously bullshit. One day, you are in, say, Birmingham, Alabama, and the next, you are pulling into Grand Central Station, the first day of the rest of your life! I’d say, running away solves a lot. You may miss your parents but you won’t miss the moon.
You’re seventeen in Mississippi; yes, that one, on a chilly February afternoon, heading for the little airport. You’ve got a flight for San Francisco leaving at 3:43pm, with a change in Dallas. In less than seven hours, you will be at Bryant and Van Ness smoking a joint with a friend of a friend and her lover, a black saxophonist who is a junkie. Don’t tell me running away never solved anything. Life just got more interesting.
She left me with her lover and his roommate, a white speed freak, who provided me with some necessary papers, including a fake social security number, and enough stuff to get me a local driver’s license. I went down to Market Street where, for a dollar, I could have it laminated. At night, the boys headed to the back room to shoot up and fuck each other silly while I sat in the red and yellow living-room watching TV. I was having the time of my life.
What the dickens does “solve” mean anyway? Problems disappear the minute you land at SFO. Now it was just a matter of staying out of trouble. My advice to myself was this: better not join the boys in the back room. Don’t let them undress you and stay away from smack. Otherwise, I’d be fine. That was precisely what I said to myself. Follow Mrs. Moore’s advice; she was my 3rd grade teacher. I remembered her telling me to keep my hands to myself and not to draw unwanted attention.
I had that tattooed on my ass on a street in the Tenderloin, back when San Francisco was a small town. It had low rent. The homeless were still called hippies. They sang songs and begged for money. My first thought was they lacked talent. I went instead to Union Square to watch the pantomimists. I became aware of my body and felt awkward. I didn’t like the pigeons. I followed my mother’s advice and refused offers from strangers.
I ate in Chinatown, but the turning point came the day I was taken to the Mission to try pork belly burritos. The cook called me “Amigo.” Nobody ever called me amigo back home, although some people called me “Bud” or “Son” or “Asshole.” That burrito, prepared over 25 years ago, was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. Running away may not have solved anything, I’m not too sure, but I can’t imagine life having any meaning without flour tortillas.
“What the hell did you expect?” That’s what he said, my father, who sat right there in our house and called my sister a slut.
“Hey, whoa, hey, slow down there, gramps. Let’s show some respect for your daughter there, sir. Just show the bitch some respect!”
This here was my sister’s husband, Derby. He knew whereof he spoke, or so she thought. He’d better. He had himself a fine brand-new Cadillac sedan which he bought on his winnings from last year’s darn Tupelo poker championship. “Don’t start, Daddy! Just don’t you dare try telling me, you hear?” She had a way of getting all worked up.
They met at the Magnolia Nights Formal-Wear Annual Party held at Ole Miss this year on April 8th, in the Bellevue Towers dance hall over on Shake N’ Bake Lane. Afterwards, she said, “He swept me off my feet and I’ve been off them ever since.”
Mind you, he took right away to slapping her around. She told me but made me swear not to say nothing to Daddy who had a volcanic temper and a handgun. “I told him right then and there that I would not have him hitting me like that.” She said she didn’t like it. “I don’t want men slapping my bare bottom unless he’s fixing to fuck me. Then, it’s all right, when he’s good and stiff and in me real good.” That’s what she told me. She’s always been that way, ready to tell her side of the story.
Mamma told us Daddy liked to haul off and smack her real good, too, and she wouldn’t have it, not any of that slapping crap, so she grabbed a skillet and whomped him over the head. Just lay into that fucker, I mean it, and he learned to cut that out. Wham! It just ‘bout tore a hole in his head.
But, see, that’s how folks were. That was how it was. “A woman’s got to stand up for herself or men will be on her twenty-four hours a day, I kid you not. They want to fuck you in the ass, in the coochie cooch, shit, guys will fuck you in your ear if you don’t learn to stand up for yourself.” Thus, spoke Sis.
“You don’t need no Nobel in literature to know the ways of men.” That’s what my mamma used to say. She knew William Faulkner’s cleaning ladies, ‘cause they shopped at the same Kroger’s just outside Oxford. They knew. They knew. That is all I’ll be saying on that subject. But see, the thing of it is, pecans do grow on trees. Oh, yes, they do! And, so, that’s why a woman like Sis had to put out. It was expected. Otherwise, she going to be left behind. The guy’s ‘round here would just dump your ass. My sister told me all this before I ran away to California and I had trouble putting it out of my mind. Even then, I caught the madness of Southern good ol’ boys expecting girls to stay virgins while putting out on first dates.
That is exactly what Jed McFadden demanded of my big sister. He was fixin’ to stop the car, had his dick out and all. He was driving one of those big ole’ Mercury 500s and she told him in no uncertain terms she wasn’t about to hand over her virtue, no sirree. “Girlie, you are not leaving me with no blue balls after I spent thirteen dollars so you could feed your fucking face with catfish,” so he up and done it. He put her out of his car and drove off. “You gonna give me some, or you are can take your damn self back home.”
Bread gave me nightmares. Yes, that’s bread in a tin. Lots of choices for vegans and vegetarians: General Tso’s cauliflower; potato croquettes; spicy zucchini tacos; shiitake seitan marsala; and chocolate pudding. I tried a slice of the masala tofu pizza. The sweet potato croquettes were delicious.
“Get me some of that stewed squash, honey, and I’ll take an order of the sweet potato casserole.” It’s autumn all year round in these vegan places. The very mention of squash made me think of Halloween. Pumpkin seeds sprinkled on the salads reminded me of cutting out faces and scraping the bottom of one of those big scary things.
“Save room for the vinegar pie, you hear. I’ll have me some of that fried eggplant and a grape soda.” Generally, I ate pretty well and that was probably why you wouldn’t see a whole lot of cheese pulls, pizzas, and ice cream on my account. But the whole thing was to get my Daddy to clean up his act. He was what my Granny used to call “a real mess.”
For our main dish we ordered the Portobello Pesto Penne and the Buddha Bowl. He decided to stop for a Big Mac as soon as he finished his broccoli and brown rice. “I’ll just stop right quick when we pull off to get gas. Don’t tell Mama. “Stuff’s all right, just not filling.” Daddy used to call it hippie food. “Comfort food for the low IQ crowd.”
Daddy died of the knife and fork. “Eat like this and you be dead ‘fore sixty, sure enough,” Mama said. “Get yourself a fatty liver and a burst kidney, you old fool. Have yourself a heart attack for all I care. You will be stuck on one of them dialysis machines next to the 7/11, and a goner for sure, but don’t listen to me. Why would you? You’re from Itawamba County.”
He said the soup was creamy but a lot blander than most butternut squash soups, probably because it had less salt, and other fatty things. He used to ask the butcher to grind his meat with the fat from around the kidneys. “You want the juices down your front. Let it ruin your Sunday best.” He never wanted to go to New Orleans. “It is a loony bin. The madmen were once waiting in the wings. Now, they’ve taken the stage.”
Daddy was buried at Hollywood Cemetery down in McComb, Mississippi, the closest he ever got to stardom. People tossed their trash on the streets and illegally dumped in the area. He wanted to run for mayor. “It is no laughing matter,” he’d say with a twinkle in his eye. They sprinkle pecans on the pizza down there. Puts me in mind of Richard Ford. Eudora Welty was not the only writer from the area, you know.
Ford is a great explainer of all things New Jersey, even though he was born in Mississippi. Better than Philip Roth, who was too Jewish to enjoy hot dogs. Daddy loved to read about life in New Jersey. “One day I’ll take you up there. We’ll go to Wildwood and Atlantic City.” But he knew he was dying. “It’s not the burgers. It’s that damned emergency bread we ate during the war. Who ever heard of putting bread in a can?”
I came back from San Francisco for my father’s funeral. I got a cheap flight into New Orleans and drove up, saving a couple of hundred on flying direct into Jackson.
I had taken a bus to the airport in SF. I didn’t live far. Right on Potrero Hill and not more than a minute from the grand burgundy Victorian owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In a little closet I slept, rented from a left-wing activist who drank cognac and smoked with an ivory cigarette holder. Sharon Gold: her refrigerator was off limits. When I told the head of the local party, he confronted her and made her cry.
I took classes at the People’s Law School at Glide Memorial Church where I met curly-haired lawyers determined to mend the world. They’d known the Mitford sister over in Oakland who ate caviar and drank the best champagne. They held poetry readings in her sunken living room. One claimed to have known where Patty Hearst was hiding. Another said she was a nymphomaniac. A lot of the people I met seemed to live in the past. They were in some ways as bad as the Civil War reenactors back home. They talked Haight-Ashbury and closed their eyes. They missed the days when mayhem was in the air. They were descendants of radical chic; they all wanted to meet the famous killers, such as the San Quentin 6 or the Soledad Brothers. People I met regretted not having attended parties with Eldridge Cleaver or Angela Davis.
My roommate came home one night to say he had struck a man in the road and killed him. The police told him to just drive away. He was a homeless nobody. We were no longer in emerald city but gritty Oakland. Not far from where the Hearst family delivered whole frozen turkeys to the masses, consisting mostly, I was told, of CAL frat boys, who drove to town in their BMWs, copped a couple of turkeys, and threw all-night parties. It sounded a lot like Ol’ Miss to me.
By the time I got to the Bay Area, Dungeons and Dragons had replaced the Communist Manifesto. Young people were no longer demonstrating but playing board games in the attic. I worked at a Jesuit seminary over on the posh end of town. We left the side door open for the priests returning after midnight from the gay bath houses. They raided the ice box for servings of rum raison ice cream. They were so lazy they’d leave out the containers of ice cream, so they’d melt over the counter and run down the cabinets.
Two of the young priests were dying of AIDS. Their middle-aged brothers would stand at the buffet, too greedy to carry their food back to their tables. They’d cut the centers out of three or four chops and leave the bone and the grizzle for their late-arriving brothers. They picked off the strawberries and left the short cake on the counter. The priests took one sip of coffee and demanded refills. They’d just lift their cups and snap their fingers.
I was happy to get back home, even if it was not a very nice day. Dad’s death was not all that surprising but no one was happy. We always stopped in Buckatunna on the way back from one of dad’s trips, so I talked everybody into going there when the minister told us it was time to head home. Mamma said, “You hungry, I’ll cook,” but I wasn’t hungry. Crazy K’s was Dad’s favorite. Everybody knew it but he acted like it existed for him alone. He acted like he owned the place. He’d order the baked potato covered in garbage – that’s what he called it – they called it a “Train Wreck.” A potato with cheese, chicken, bacon bits, and chives. Daddy added Tabasco.
He loved to tease, chiefly for the thrill of watching me get upset. Sis just went along with him, but he knew I didn’t like being embarrassed in front of strangers. I was a prude. When the waitress visited the adjoining table and bent over to wipe it, he asked if I wanted to put my hand up her skirt. “Go on. Give her a feel.”
I remember the time I had to go to the restroom at the moment our waitress showed up. I said I wanted something real cold. “Float or shake?” I answered on the run, “Shake,” but he pretended not to have heard and ordered a glass of pokeberry juice. Then he tried to look mad when she said she didn’t have any. I knew his tricks. Finally, he got a root beer float for himself and a chocolate shake for me. Sis and mama always ordered banana splits with extra whipped cream.
We talked about old times. I remembered the year I discovered the Beatles for the first time and started talking about them over dinner. He barely listened. Finally, he said, “Well, anyone who’s read Faulkner is acquainted with Ringo. What I want to know is why that drummer took Ringo’s name.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Ringo? It was new to me “What do you mean you aren’t reading Faulkner?” We weren’t reading any Americans. “I think his name is Thomas Hardy, Dad. Guy named Dickens. Shakespeare. That’s about it.” “We’ll see about that.”
When I asked him about it later on, all he said was “never you mind.” That was my cue to shut up. The next year – was I in the ninth grade? – Mrs. Appelbaum gave me a funny look. “We’re starting with Sherwood Anderson.”
But that time after the funeral, we barely spoke. Mama sat quietly. Sis was all hot and bothered. “Stop looking at me.” I didn’t want a shake and they didn’t order banana splits. In fact, we just had coffee. We got an order of fries but they arrived cold. Nobody felt like complaining. We just left and decided not to come back. Mama said we should try the new place in Meridian. Sis said she liked the diner over in Pearl. She’d had a fight that morning with Derby so he didn’t show.