A Failed Southern Lady at Ole Miss

In this excerpt from her (somewhat fictionalized) Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady (1985), self-confessed misanthrope Florence King—celebrated by conservatives and liberals alike for her arsenical wit—renders a somewhat breezy and most definitely catty account of her brief career as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi in 1958. She wrote Confessions in graduate school, which she never finished after embarking on a career as a writing putative first-person stories for pulp magazines like Uncensored Confessions. (Her first: “My God! I’m Too Passionate for My Own Good!”) Many might find her impressions of Ole Miss in the late ‘50s of interest, and fans will like the way King lays the overwhelmingly Southern-ness of Oxford on with a trowel. This selection also describes the beginnings of her passionate love affair with a young woman who was killed in a car accident shortly afterwards.

My South was a region of narrow red brick Federalist houses and vast rolling acres of cobblestones. I had never seen naked children playing with a dead snake, nor a four-year-old standing up to nurse at the breast of a mother seated on a porch, but these riveting sights were mine from the window of the Memphis-Oxford bus.

Oxford itself was a pretty town with a courthouse on the square and a Confederate statue in front of it. It was almost dark when the bus pulled into the depot. As I got off, a taxi driver spotted me for a student and jumped forward, tipping his cap.

“Carry you up to campus, l’il lady?”

His idiom for “drive” was another first; for a moment I visualized myself arriving in a swoon in his skinny arms. He loaded my luggage and I gave him the name of the dorm the dean had assigned me to.

“That’s Miz Arvella’s dorm,” he said, referring to the housemother the dean had mentioned. “A fine woman.”

Proctors had to arrive two days earlier than the other students, so the campus was empty and unlighted when he pulled up before a dimly outlined rectangular house set in a copse of dark overhanging trees. In the tradition of Gothic paperback covers, one light burned in the house. The driver shone his headlights on the walk so I could see and I mounted the porch and rang the bell. I heard footsteps and then the door opened.

“Hey, Miz Arvella!” the driver cried happily.

“Hey, Mistuh Reece! How you doin’? How you been? You have a good summuh?” She turned to me. “You must be Flarnz. Are you Flarnz? Are you the proctuh named Flarnz? They said you wuh comin’ tonight. The Dean said to me this mornin’, she said, ‘Flarnz is comin’ tonight.’ Did you get heah awright? How you doin’?”

Everybody started talking at once; the driver answering his questions, I answering mine, and Miz Arvella asking more. It made walking through the door difficult: other people enter houses but Southerners surge in on wings of speech. Miz Arvella was the same age and shape as every other old lady I had ever known, but there was nonetheless something un-Daughterly about her. The word “askew” came to mind. I was used to rigidly glued gray fingerwaves and personalities to match, but Miz Arvella looked as if she had been cut out of her own speech pattern.

I reminded myself that I was getting a free private room out of this. Miz Arvella took me upstairs and showed it to me as the driver followed behind with my bags. It was huge and attractively furnished and sans Granny-my first room-of-one’s own. I paid the driver and he left me alone with the fine woman.

“Come on down aftuh you wash up. We’ll have us some coffee and Ah’ll explain your duties,” she said, and waddled out.

I washed up and looked out the window but could see nothing except an amber patch made by my own light; beyond it lay the wet black velvet of a Southern night. It was as still as death, yet there was something pervasively alive about it, a sense of things unseen moving among the trees on soundless wings. No wonder so many of the early settlers had gone mad. (“One Nathaniel Upton was floggèd for shewing himself in publick unclothed.”)

I went downstairs to join Miz Arvella. She led me to a little room with a wall board that contained buzzers and corresponding room numbers. Next to the board was the proctor’s desk and a table containing the sign-out book. According to the dean’s letter, I was to alternate odd and even nights with Miz Arvella, each of us having every other weekend off. There was very little to do and I could study at the desk once the girls were out on their dates. I had to check them in, keep track of late records and grace periods, chase any boys out of the lounge when the witching hour struck, and lock the doors.

As a woman of legal age, I had no curfew. I could go out after I locked the magnolia blossoms in, and stay out all night if I wished. My job entitled me to a key to the dorm, which Miz Arvella issued me now.

Next she explained the buzzer system. This is what she said:

“When a guhl has a phone call, you know what Ah mean, when the telephone rings, when somebody is callin’ huh up. When a guhl has a phone call, you press huh bell once. When she has a calluh, when a boy comes in to get huh, you know what Ah’m tryin’ to say, when they’ve got a date that night and he picks huh up, when he comes in and asks for huh in puhson ‘stead of callin’ on the phone, you unnerstand what Ah mean? When she has a calluh, then you press huh bell twice. That way, she knows whethuh she’s got a phone call or a calluh. ‘Cause see, if she has a calluh and you press huh bell once ‘stead of twice, she’ll think it’s a call ‘stead of a calluh. She’d come downstairs in huh dressin’ gown with huh hair up in cullahs, and there stands huh calluh, just standin’ there right in front of huh just as big as life. She’d just die of embarrassment, you know what Ah mean, she’d just fall down dead is what Ah’m sayin’, she’d just perish!”

She invited me to dinner in her apartment but I pleaded travel fatigue and escaped to my room. I poured myself a drink from Herb’s Prohibition flask, which he had filled with Scotch and given me for a going-away present. I heard the phone ring in Miz Arvella’s bedroom. A call, not a calluh. I put my hair up in cullahs, had another drink-you know what I mean, I poured some more whiskey out of the flask and drank it is what I’m saying—and fell into bed.

I slept twelve hours and awoke to the kind of morning that can turn night people into morning people. The warm sunny air was so fresh and sweet that I actually stuck my head out the window and inhaled. Ole Miss had a bona fide campusy look that my city college had striven for and missed. It was enough to make a graduate student feel like a co-ed at last, instead of the strangely haunted, secret-drinking proctor of Miz Arvella.

No sooner did this thought pass through my mind than I heard a tap at my door.

“Flarnz? You there, Flarnz? Come on down and have breakfast. Miz Zaviola’s heah. She’s one of the othuh housemothuhs and she’s just dyin’ to meet you.”

I was starving to death, so with two of us in extremis there was no reason to try and get out of it. I dressed and went downstairs, sniffing appreciatively at the aroma of Miz Arvella’s home-baked biscuits.

The other housemother looked more like my kind of old lady but she sounded exactly like Miz Arvella. This is what she said over breakfast:

“When Ah heard they wuh lettin’ the freshmen guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy, Ah saw the handwritin’ on the wall. Ah said to myself Ah said Ah can just see the handwritin’ on the wall if they let those guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy. Ah said the same thing to one of the mothuhs that called me. She asked me what did Ah think about them lettin’ the freshmen guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy and Ah said to huh Ah said Ah can just see the handwritin’ on the wall.”

My stomach was shaking. I was sorry because I had always enjoyed old ladies and I wanted to enjoy these, but I had to escape the echo chamber. As soon as I could politely do so, I excused myself and went for a walk around the campus. It was nearly deserted without the students but I had an imaginary companion. As we strolled through the grove in front of the white-columned Lyceum, Somerset Maugham whispered in my ear: “It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with equal zest.”

Maybe. Probably. But there was something a little too sweeping about Willie’s theory. The most feminine temperament I had ever encountered belonged to Evelyn Cunningham, but though she was a chatterbox, she was not a repeating rifle. No matter how much she talked she always moved forward, usually too fast; her needle never got stuck. Compared to Miz Arvella and Miz Zaviola, Evelyn was taciturn.

I stayed out as long as I could, but with the campus closed and no car to take me into town I was thrown back on the dorm. That meant having my meals with Miz Arvella because I want to emphasize this-she was what the South calls “a good soul.” She would give you half of anything she had to eat and three of everything she had to say.

As long as I had to endure her echolalia, I decided to analyze it. Perhaps she had been the youngest in a large family and had trouble getting people to listen to her. When she told me she was the oldest of seven and had raised her siblings after their mother’s untimely death, I decided that her thrice-told tales sprang from saying “No, no, no” to children while she herself was still a child. When both housemothers told me their late husbands had been farmers, I blamed isolation in the country with laconic men. This did not explain the absence of echolalia in farmwives in other parts of America, especially New England, but by then I was in no condition to pick a fight with myself.

All of my theories collapsed on the first day of school when the dorm was invaded by girls and mothers from every part of Mississippi, representing every social background and sibling rank, who all said everything at least three times.

“Well, lemme tell you, Ah’ve been on the horns of a dilemma evva since we got up this mornin’ to drive Tulaplee up heah from Jaspah City. Ah’ve nevva seen a fuhst day like this one. Ah tole Jimmy Lee while we wuh drivin’ up heah, Ah said Jimmy Lee Ah said, Ah’m on the horns of a dilemma, that’s what Ah tole him. When we got to Clarksdale, Tulaplee remembuhed that she forgot huh opal necklace and we had to tuhn right around and go back home and get it. By the time we got stahted again, Ah was on the horns of a dilemma the likes of which you have nevva seen.”

“Mary Lou’s upstairs just cryin’ huh eyes out ’cause it’s the fuhst time she’s evva been away from home. But Ah tole huh, Ah said Mary Lou Ah said, there’s no point cryin’ your eyes out ’cause there comes a time when the Mama bird pushes the babies out of the nest. You know what Ah mean, Ah said Mary Lou Ah said, Nature tells the Mama bird to push the babies out of the nest, so you hadn’t ought to cry your eyes out like that, ’cause the time has come for you to leave the nest, that’s what Ah tole huh. But she kept cryin’ huh eyes out, so I went and got huh Daddy and Ah tole him Ah said T.J. Ah said, you make that chile unnerstand that she’s just got to leave the nest. So T.J. talked to huh a long time, a right good while, and finally she dried huh eyes and she said to me, Mama, she said, you’re right. Ah’ve just got to fly.”

The front door burst open, crashed against the wall, and shuddered on its hinges as an embattled mother and daughter surged through the foyer and stormed upstairs. This time it was the daughter doing the talking.

“Ah got sick and tard of listenin’ to all that ole hoorah so Ah tole him Ah said Purvis Lee Thornton Ah said, Ah don’t want to heah another word out of you, so you just hush your mouth right this minute, that’s what Ah tole him. And he said to me he said Jackie Sue he said, Ah know good ‘n’ well you been datin’ Lamar Creighton on the sly, and Ah said now listen heah Ah said, that’s the biggest bunch of hoorah Ah evva heard! Ah said you just take that up the road and dump it, Ah said, ’cause you’re just as full of hoorah as you can be, that’s what Ah tole him.”

Thus vanished my slim hope of blaming it on the menopause. I took four aspirin, helped Miz Arvella get everybody squared away, and then escaped to the allmale world of the History Department to sign up for my classes. I took Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Age of Reason, Historiography and Historical Research, and Thesis I. After I registered, I had an interview with my thesis advisor.

“I see from your transcripts that you’ve had six years of French,” he said. “I assume you’re planning a topic from French history, since you can do the research in the original. How about Syndicalism?”

Ralph had warned me about professor-generated topics. (“You can bet he’s writing a book on it and wants a free research assistant.”)

“Labor movements don’t interest me,” I replied, “and besides, it’s too recent. I like the distant past.”

Having blurted these sentiments to the only liberal at Ole Miss, I was smoothly but quickly transferred to another advisor, but he too pounced on the French, albeit with much more chronological empathy.

“How about Pippin the Short?”

“I’ll think about it,” I lied.

I wanted to write on the historical Bérénice, but I hesitated to say so for two reasons. First, very little was known about her and I was afraid there would not be enough to make a whole thesis. Second, I did not want to suggest a female topic after two men had suggested meaty male topics. I knew what History Departments thought of “hen scholars poring over Godey’s Lady’s Book.” I decided to see if I could solve both of these problems by fleshing out Bérénice with Titus and her father and grandfather, Herod Agrippa and Herod the Great. The latter’s policy on watery moles was bound to be an inspiration.

Next I went to the library to get my carrel assignment. The study nooks for graduate students, smaller versions of Herb’s first alcove at Park Road, were on the top floor of the library. The room was blessedly quiet and deserted. My carrel was next to a half-moon partitioned window that faced east and got the cool morning light. The desk was a Formica slab bolted to the wall, which made me think of the stationary desks bolted to the floor in high school. I gazed around the partitioned little space and smiled. It seemed more like my first private room than the one I had in the dorm. I ran my hand along the bookshelf above the desk. I was going to like studying here.

I heard a chair scrape and turned around. A woman stood in one of the cubicles in the back of the room with her arm draped over the top of her partition. The sleeve of her white shirtwaist was rolled up to the elbow in a businesslike way but the arm was languidly, almost bonelessly Southern. Just then she moved, seeming to push herself off the partition with a conscious effort, and started up the aisle toward me. She looked slender even though she wore a gathered skirt, so the body under it must have been thin. Her hair was dark and wavy and twisted carelessly up on the crown of her head in a chignon from which a few strands escaped and straggled down. She was taller than I, and as she came closer I saw that she was older. She looked about twenty-seven.

It seemed to take her forever to get from her carrel to mine. Southerner she undoubtedly was but a repeating rifle, never. Her smile was slow and lazy, too, but her undernourished air did not extend to her teeth. They were strong, perfectly aligned, and as white as her cotton blouse.

“Hey,” she said.

It meant “Hi.” Her eyes were dark grayish-green with golden flecks. I wondered what she put down when she filled out an application. She wore no makeup at all.

“Saw you get in a cab last night. I was going to carry you up to campus but you got away.”

I was still not used to “carry” for “drive” but her voice was as soft as velvet. I introduced myself and she responded with something that sounded like “breast.”

“Beg pardon?”

She gave a resigned smile as though she had been through this many times before.

“B-R-E-S. Rhymes with dress. My mother’s maiden name was Le Brès. Huguenot. We’re from the Gulf.”

“Are you a graduate student?” I asked.

“Graduate assistant. Classics. I got my master’s last year. I’m doing independent reading this year.”

“You mean Latin and Greek?” She nodded. “But Latin’s my specialty.”

It explained her oddly un-Southern, elliptical way of speaking. The military precision of Latin would necessarily eliminate the Mississippi daisy chain. I was terrifically impressed. As I tried to think of something ungulpy to say, she looked at her watch.

“Want to go get some coffee?” The jukebox was playing “Tom Dooley” when we entered the snack bar. It would continue to play all that year and become the song I afterwards associated with her, incongruous as it and she were. Several people gave her a quick glance and then looked speculatively at me. She continued on through the main part of the shop and led me to a smaller annex around a corner. I put my books down beside hers on the table she chose and we went to get our coffee.

“That’s our section,” she said, jerking her head back toward the annex. “It’s known as the Poet’s Corner. The campus cuties and the meatheads always sit in the main section. It’s called segregation,” she added with light irony.

I decided to test her. “I call campus cuties malkins.”

She knew what it meant. “Yes, they are that, but campus cutie is a proper noun around here. Capitalized. An official title. An award.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. The student newspaper picks a Campus Cutie of the Week. Black.”

“What?” “No, I mean the coffee.”

We returned to the table and I told her about my idea for a thesis on Bérénice. Once again she picked up the intellectual ball and ran with it-much farther than I could.

“Hmm. Not much to go on. Tacitus mainly. ‘Titus reginam Berenicem, cui etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur, statim ab Urbe dimisit invitus invitam,’” she quoted rapidly. Something that was pure joy went through me. “There’s a little more in Deo Cassius,” she continued. “And the New Testament. Saint Paul met her. Bet that was an interesting occasion.”

Two co-eds at a table at the end of the main section were peering around the bend and staring at us. When I looked at them, one smirked and jabbed the other with troopers looking for cars with low trunks. I heard about the bootlegger who ran “Johnny’s Grocery” who became so undone by hypocrisy that he eventually came to believe he really was a grocer and started attending meetings of the Retail Food Merchants Association.

The strangest story they told me was about the local option situation over in the next county. Anyone with a powerful thirst could drive thirty miles to Batesville where there was a tavern that sold perfectly legal malt liquor. Not beer, malt liquor.

“Why malt liquor?” I asked.

Nobody knew. “That’s just the way it is,” Lucius said with a shrug.

It was an example of those recumbent QED’s that so infuriate Northern liberals. Another is: “It’s always been that way.”

Suddenly I found myself dying for a drink. I was not much of a drinker at this time, and it was only mid-afternoon, but going to live in Mississippi was like being transported back to the 1920s: I wanted it because it was against the law to have it. The others evidently felt the same way; all had a parched, panting look. I was about to suggest a drive to Batesville when Augustus spoke up.

“Hey, I’ve got a jug of Thunderbird wine in my room. How about if we take it down to Bres’s apartment and drink it?”

I had never drunk Thunderbird but like all city people, I was familiar with the vintage, having seen empty bottles bearing the label scattered in alleys. Bres agreed to the suggestion and we left the coffeeshop.

First, we had to stop by Augustus’s dorm and stand watch while he brought out the jug in his laundrybag, surrounded, for authenticity’s sake, by a bundle of his underwear. I expected to hear sirens closing in on us. It was a heartrending example of the sanctity of states’ rights.

The six of us walked down to the well-named Faculty Shacks, tiny frame houses like beach cottages whose peeling exteriors evoked the old saying, “Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.” Each little house was a separate apartment with its own driveway; Bres’s contained a 1954 Ford with Pearl River County tags. She opened the door of the house and we trooped in.

The uncarpeted living room was like an oven. While she was in the kitchen getting ice, I looked around. The furniture consisted of two mattress-on-a-door couches facing each other and separated by a cable spool coffee table; the lamps had been made out of green wine jugs weighted with pebbles, and the bookcases from planks of lumber and cinder blocks. All in all, bohemian done to a turn.

She was fairly neat but not shockingly so; her slut’s wool was coming along nicely and her window ledges contained that undisturbed layer of aristocracy to which I was accustomed. There were books everywhere, in and out of the bookcases, and an enormous collection of grant literature: prospecti and brochures on Fulbright-this and Guggenheim-that. Lucius noted my interest in them.

“If you want to know how to live on grants forever, ask ole Bres. Freighters to Europe, too. She’s got the schedules memorized.”

It was exactly what I did want to know. I imagined the two of us living in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and sharing a Left Bank garret. It was an easy dream to realize in the fifties; grant money fell like rain and Arthur Frommer was the Vagabond King.

Bres brought in the ice and we started drinking the awful wine. I could barely swallow it but everyone else lapped it up. Still thinking about the Southern-ness of classical studies, I ventured my opinion and asked the others what they thought.

Bres shook her head. “That was true once but today’s Mississippians wouldn’t buy it. One way or another, Latin makes them mad.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Three reasons.” She shot a long index finger out of the relaxed curve of her fist. “Primo, it’s Catholic, so the Baptists hate it. Secundo, it’s the symbol of scholarship, so the anti-intellectuals hate it. Tertio, the campus cuties hate it because it has a reputation for being hard to learn, and that makes it unfeminine.”

She turned to me with the barest inquisitive glance. I had difficulty swallowing, but this time it had nothing to do with the wine.

“Actually, they’re right for once,” she went on. “It is unfeminine. It’s ideal for writing military reports, which is what Caesar’s Gallic War is. The g’s and c’s are hard. The Church has ruined the real Roman pronunciation, you know?-and then there’s that marvelous brevity. Southern women like to put things in, but Latin takes things out. Like “Where is the mirror?’ Ubi speculum est? You don’t need ‘the.”

Once again she looked at me. Her glance was wry at first, but as I held it her eyes widened with unmistakable meaning. Suddenly she put down her wineglass and raised graceful arms to her hair and began to reorder it in that half-abstracted, half-automatic way of women who wear their hair up, swiping at the nape of her neck to catch loose strands and tucking them into the chignon at the crown. As I continued to watch her, she removed a bobby pin and opened it with her teeth. There is no gesture more womanly, yet it has all the carelessness of a little girl who loses her sweaters and breaks her Thermos jars. Something melted inside of me, a hard tight ball in whose center lay a tenderness I had never acknowledged or expressed. I wanted to hug her, to pull her into my lap and rock her. When she smiled shyly up at me from under the bow of her bent arms, it was all I could do not to cry.

The ghastly wine was nearly gone. I had drunk only one glass but my tongue tasted like a Croatian army sock. I shuddered as the others drained their glasses in one gulp and smacked their lips appreciatively; evidently Mississippians would drink anything. Sorella suggested that we turn our afternoon into a night of serious drinking, and the Grope started discussing a gas station near Water Valley where, it was rumored, you could buy a pint of applejack. Not whiskey, applejack; not gin, applejack. It being impossible to telephone ahead and ask point blank if the gas station sold illegal hooch, they were willing to drive all the way down to Water Valley on the strength of this uncertain gossip.

Reluctantly, I looked at my watch. “I’m on the desk tonight.”

“We’ll make a hooch run when Florence can go with us,” Bres ruled, and the argument subsided at once.

We all went to the cafeteria instead. I should have been hungry but I could barely finish a hamburger. I had fallen in love at last.

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