Hugh Dean Miller is one of those people who believe that there is a reason for everything, that his life (and, incidentally, yours) is a juggernaut of nuts, bolts and formidable steel plates that steams without perturbation across the stormy waters of existence with a placid,ponderous, faith in an eventual haven. No rogue nor berg, neither Scylla nor Charybdis will interrupt his voyage.
I find Hugh Dean’s crow’s next enviable, but then again, he is regularly beset by petty nuisances of no impediment that disturb him with their absence on his charts. Such was the case when Hugh Dean and I were shopping, and he stumbled upon oyster crackers.
“Jesse!” he shouted. “Get over here!”
Two aisles over, I abandoned a fruitless search for large curd cottage cheese and came upon Hugh Dean with sacks of Premium oyster crackers in both hands, wiggling them this way and that, watching the little hexagonals tumble in the cellophane.
“Have you ever seen these?” he asked with a look of naked and furious accusation.
“Yes, Hugh Dean, they’re oyster crackers. Some people put them in soups.”
Typically, Hugh Dean wasn’t listening to me. “You can’t put an oyster on these,” he said. “Do they have oysters in them? They don’t even look like an oyster.” Puzzlement was written all over his face.
“Hugh Dean, that’s just what they’re called,” I tried to explain. “That doesn’t mean you eat them with oysters or they’re made of oysters. They’re really popular in clam chowder.”
Somehow that made a connection. “Well then why in the hell don’t they call them clam crackers? Or chowder crackers? Who decided to call them oyster crackers anyway? Why would anyone make something like this when you can just crumble up a saltine in your soup like normal people do in the first place?”
Hugh Dean sighed, tossed the sacks back on the rack and struck out towards the beer cooler. “Jesse, let me tell you something,” he said over his shoulder. “There are some things in the world you ought not waste time wondering over. They’ll just keep you from focusing on the Big Things.”
“Hugh Dean,” I said. “That’s the smartest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life.”
In her splendid work The Southern Hospitality Cookbook Jackson native Winifred Green Cheney includes this savory and unusual tribute to Eudora Welty. I always include more curry and sauté the livers with some onion; it’s delicious. The crab variation needs a lighter touch, a white sauce, and citrus. Winifred writes:
“A tribute in the field of cookery is called a ‘signature recipe.’ Squash Eudora is just such a tribute—a toast to my friend and neighbor Eudora Welty for her perfection in expressing the written word in both the novel and the short story. ‘In these dark days,’ writes Martha Graham, the great dancer, in the 1969 Spring issue of the Washington and Lee University’s Shenandoah, ‘it is all the clearer that Miss Welty’s novels and stories are a national treasure. We must guard it zealously for such a glory as Eudora does not often come to look at us, study us, and sing about us. For those who would enjoy an unforgettable meal using Squash Eudora as an entrée, serve a chilled garden tomato, peeled and stuffed with cottage cheese mixed with well-seasoned mayonnaise; tender Kentucky Wonder pole beans cooked with ham nubbins; a pickled peach; hot buttered biscuits; and your own blackberry jelly.”
2 pounds tender yellow squash
3 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried green onion
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon paprika
¾ pound chicken livers
3 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon curry powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
Grated Parmesan cheese
Wash squash but do not peel. Slice as thinly as possible, and place slices in a saucepan with 3 tablespoons butter, ½ tablespoon salt, dried green onion, ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and paprika. Simmer over low heat about 25 minutes or until squash is tender when tested with a fork. Wash chicken livers and cut in halves. Melt 3 tablespoons butter; put in a 2-quart baking dish and add Worcestershire sauce, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Marinate livers in this mixture for 20 minutes. Bake, uncovered, in a preheated 350̊ oven about 25 minutes. Turn livers after 10 minutes. Add cooked chicken livers to cooked squash, celery seeds, curry powder, and lightly beaten egg. Mix lightly and taste to see if more salt is needed. Place mixture in the same baking dish. Sprinkle top with grated Parmesan cheese, and bake in a 350̊ oven about 25 minutes. Yield: 6 to 8 servings. Variation: You may substitute 1 pound lump crab meat for the chicken livers. Carefully pick through crab meat for bits of shell. Delete marinating ingredients and add crab meat directly to cooked squash.
Deena Boydd sipped a triple-cream latte and began her editorial for the next edition of The Jacktown Liberator. “The worst problem in the world today is a false sense of self-importance,” she typed, considering it a brilliant beginning for a piece designed to skewer her detractors, a legion of local journalists, politicians and businessmen, not to mention creditors. While the journalists and politicians had other ridiculous axes to grind, her creditors, she reasoned, simply did not understand that she was a woman on a mission and that their concerns over money betrayed their petty sense of the world while confirming her broader and certainly more legitimate world-view.
A knock on the door of her tastefully neutral and largely barren office interrupted her reverie. Before she could say “come in” the door was opened by a short, very stout young black woman with a scowl on her face.
“Hello, Arusha, how are you this morning?” Deena asked, beaming with false goodwill.
“I been trying to get that man on the phone you told me about, but he ain’t takin’ any calls now,” Arusha said. “They said he got your message and he workin’ on a response.”
Deena frowned. Not only did she hope that the man Arusha was referring to, who happened to be the chairman of the city council, would respond to her questions by 5 p.m., her deadline to the printer, but she was also frustrated at trying to encourage Arusha to adopt a more sophisticated approach when it came to contacting people. Deena needed to speak with others simply in order to give the patina of reliability to her otherwise fabricated news stories about the inner workings of the city’s administration, but she felt that at the very least she should put a good face on her trumpery.
Deena clinched her teeth, which Arusha interpreted as a smile. Smiling in turn, Arusha asked, “Do you still want to go to lunch with me and Syllis at that foreign restaurant? She said it’s expensive. You know it’s my birthday that day, don’t you?”
“I thought you were a Virgo,” Deena said.
“Oh, I ain’t a Virgo. I got two kids. Anyway, I gotta go. It’s my turn to clean the bathroom, and Mr. Tadd’s picky about that. I thought he was going to have to be put in the hospital that time he found that cricket on the window. He sure is jumpy.”
Arusha left, slamming the door. Deena gritted her teeth hard even harder. Her gaze wandered from the door to the mirror on the wall opposite her desk.
‘I still look good,’ she said to herself. Deena was 53, a bottle blond with rapidly graying roots. She had begrudgingly decided to approve of her expanding bulk, which she reassuringly found in keeping for a mature woman of what she considered significant social stature. For a decade, her publication had ridden the modest wave of a small southern city’s liberal sentiments. Deena knew that her vision of the city’s future was the only one with any reason or design; she alone had her finger on the true pulse of the city. She felt that she’d established herself as a distinctive voice in local politics, when in actuality most people only picked up her publication in order to find out what bands were playing in the local nightspots.
Another knock at the door signaled the arrival of her partner, Tadd Stuffer, a pale, untidy man who stooped, snuffled and continually dusted his shoulders with dandruff. “We have to talk,” he said, glancing nervously down the hall before he closed the door.
“What is it this time?” Deena asked.
“Payday is this week,” he said. “And we don’t have enough money to pay everybody.”
“How much do we have?” Deena asked. Tadd quoted a figure. “Well, that’s enough for you and me, and enough to put out two more issues before another payday. We’ll issue everyone else vouchers.”
“We did that last time,” Tadd pointed out.
“In that case, you know what you have to do,” Deena said. “Call your mother and tell her we simply need a few thousand to see us through this rough spot.”
“Deena, I’m beginning to think Mommie’s patience is wearing thin with our continual need for money,” Tadd said. “She’s well-off, sure, but she’s already spent over a half a million dollars keeping us afloat for the past eight years. I don’t think she’s willing to do it for too much longer. Of course, it might help if you were a bit nicer to her.”
“Why should I be?” Deena thundered, her normally pallid, flaccid features mottled with fury. “She’s the one who made life miserable for you all those years, putting you in that clinic with all those other pathetic losers when all that was wrong with you was the need for the love of a strong woman. Look at all the good I’ve done for you. She should be grateful for that alone!”
“Deena, listen to me . . . “
“No, you listen to me! You get on the phone to that gold-plated bitch of a mother of yours and tell her that if she doesn’t send us twenty thousand bucks today, I’m going to tell her exactly what went on with her husband and your step-brother when he stayed in the pool house last summer.
“Deena, you promised!”
“I’m sorry, Tadd, but this newspaper is more important than your ugly family history. We are here in this city to help bring about a change, to bring a people out of bondage, to make good the wrongs of a century, and you’re worried about a measly case of incest?”
Deena was red in the face, her disproportionate Rubenesque body heaving with emotion. “Call her. Now!”
Tadd stared dumbly at her tits, which she had begun to knead provocatively. She started to unbutton her blouse. “Close the door,” she said.
“Here?” Tadd asked nervously.
Tadd closed the door and whimpered while Deena drew a big black latex phallus from a bottom drawer.
In an office down the hall, Parsley Horton-Hoopey was giving her husband a lesson in political correctness.
“Zeus, I thought we’d agreed to call it ganja,” she said. “Marijuana is just a vulgarity invented by drug lords who only sell this sacred herb for money. And while we’re at it, it’s ‘maize’, not ‘corn’, for Demeter’s sake.”
Parsley had only recently moved to Jacktown from the West Coast, where she had lived in the commune near San Francisco her mother had founded in the mid-Sixties. She had moved to Jacktown to live with her grandmother after a series of arrests for larceny, fraud and drug charges had made it clear that the State of California teetered on the state of barbarism. Parsley had charmed Deena with her tale of persecution and woe. Deena, always the champion of those she perceived as underdogs, took her to her breast (quite literally and quite often, usually when Tadd was bound in handcuffs) and made her a managing editor, which meant that Parsley was in charge of the contributing writers, who were one by one becoming more and more frustrated and alienated because of her incompetence when faced with a paragraph and her indifference in dealing with deadlines.
In addition to her job at The Jacktown Liberator, Parsley also worked for a successful online marketing firm from which she had been pilfering funds in steadily increasing amounts for over six months. She reassured herself that if she got caught, she’d just get Zeus, who owned a small restaurant in the city’s trendy Fondue district, to pay them off and everything would be fine, and of course Deena would fight tooth and nail to keep her managing editor out of prison and avoid a scandal, wouldn’t she?
“And Zeus, don’t forget we have to go to Amelia’s house blessing Saturday afternoon.” Parsley listened on the phone then exploded. “I don’t care if you have to open the restaurant at 5! We’re going to Amelia’s! I’m supposed to hold the Holy Laurel Wreath! Besides . . . (she cooed) I have a surprise for you . . . Remember that black teddy you liked? . . . I bought it, and I’m wearing it to the ceremony.”
She hung up the phone with a sigh. God, she got tired of pushing sex, especially her own.
Across town from the Liberator offices, in Jacktown City Hall, Mayor Henry Jackson was meeting with his public relations man, Moore Dimm.
“Well?” he asked.
Dimm fidgeted. “It looks like Boydd at the Liberator is sniffing around the Harris Street Project again, and this time she claims to have found the contractor files.”
“Impossible,” Jackson said.
“She’s been talking with Stevens,” Dimm said.
Jackson frowned. Ruben Stevens was a hotshot developer from Little Rock who had piloted several urban renewal projects such as the Harris Street Project in the past seven years. When Stevens first became involved in the project, he had recoiled in horror at the lack of progress as well as the copious evidence of waste, ineptitude and graft that had stretched to over twelve years. But he quickly realized that profit was to be made by playing ball with the Harris Street Revitalization Committee, which was steadily funneling fraudulently-acquired state and federal funds into dozens of outstretched palms, including those of the mayor and his top advisers.
Stevens himself justified this foray into graft by rationalizing that the project would be finished eventually, albeit at many times the cost of the original estimate, on a much lower scale and in a much greater amount of time. Once he had assessed the lay of the land, Stevens settled into a lap of luxury, cushioned by a plush downtown office staffed with lots of giggling interns of both sexes and a top-floor apartment in the city’s Fondue district, one block from the offices of The Jacktown Liberator, where his latest inamorata, Parsley Horton-Hooey, gave him quite possibly the best hum jobs in the known universe on her lunch breaks at the insistence of her boss, Deena Boydd, who saw in uncovering the corruption behind the Harris Street Revitalization Project a way to lend some degree of credence to her fabricated forays into legitimate journalism.
Mayor Jackson was unaware of the Horton-Hooey connection with Stevens, but Dimm had heard about it from one of Stevens’ interns, a muscular young blond who also happened to be sodomizing Dimm (as well as Stevens) on a regular basis. Modesty, as well as the First Amendment, of course, forbade him to reveal his source. It was enough for the Mayor to know that there was a potential breach of security, and as the polished bureaucrat he was, he immediately began making plans to seal it.
“Can we get one of Huntson’s boys to take care of it?” he asked, meaning could a shooting be arranged.
“No,” Dimm said. “Too obvious, and Huntson would want a bigger cut.”
Jackson frowned again. When he frowned, Jackson’s face changed radically from the benign, plump, smiling figure he presented in most public images. It became a dark, sullen and demonic cloud. “Well,” he said. “It looks like it’s time to play ball with Miss Boydd. Let’s put her on the team, okay?”
Dimm smiled, looking for all the world like one of those simpering puttis in a Renaissance painting.
(All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)
When I told my cousin Jackson that I was going to the gun show, he looked at me like I had lost my mind.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, you know, I’ve never been to one, and I think it would be interesting to write about the experience” I said.
“You’ve never even been to a deer camp,” he countered.
“I have, too,” I said. “Ewell took me to his uncle’s camp in the Delta once.”
“Yeah, now I remember. He told me you spent the whole time bird-watching and going off about affiliated peckerwoods.”
“That’s `pileated woodpeckers,’” I said. “They’re very uncommon, and I saw three of them in one day.”
“He also said you almost got your ass shot off.”
“I was trying to blend in and not scare the birds. They’re really shy.”
“Speaking of blending in, what are you going to wear to the gun show?”
“Slacks, sweater, shoes. Why?”
Jackson rolled his eyes. “That’s it,” he said. “I’m going with you.”
“I’ll be fine, Jack. It’s not like they’re going to string me up for wearing Hushpuppies.”
“Look, do you want people to talk to you, or what?”
“Sure I do,” I said. “That’s going to be the heart of the story. It’s a human interest piece.”
“Then you don’t need to look like a roving reporter for Martha Stewart. Let me see what I’ve got.” One hour later, we were stepping out the door. I had on jeans, boots, a flannel shirt and his dad’s old flight jacket. Jack was Mossy Oak from head to toe. Just as he was about to close the door, Jack turned to me, wrinkled his nose and said, “What’s that smell?”
“Gel,” I said.
“Go wash it out. Thank God you need a haircut.”
Five dollars each gained us entry into the floor room, and despite Jackson’s careful preparations, within five minutes I had run afoul of a vendor.
All I did was ask for a catalogue from the proprietor, a black lady in a neon t-shirt that read “Real Hunters Shoot More Than Once.” She asked me, in a very strong voice, “What do you need a catalogue for? I’ve got all my stuff out right here. See where this green tablecloth is spread out? This is my stuff. You don’t need no catalogue.”
She had her hands on her hips and was looking at me like she was daring me to say something, so I just said, “Yes, ma’am,” and backed off, nodding and smiling. The folks at nearby booths glanced over to see what was going on. Paranoia seemed to be the neurosis de jour.
Jack came up from behind me where he had been checking out the VibraShine Vortex, a shell-polishing system that employed crushed corn cobs (“Organic. I grow `em myself.”), aluminum silicate (“Just like you find in toothpaste.”) and motor oil (“Keeps the dust down.”).
“What did you say to her?” he hissed, grabbing my arm and nodding towards More Than Once.
“I just asked for a catalogue,” I said.
“She does not work for L.L. Bean,” he said.
“I just thought she might have a price list or something,” I said.
“Young man!” More Than Once was pointing at me, shouting from ten feet away. Heads turned.
Jackson said, “Oh, shit. We are so busted.”
“Young man!” she said again. “I do not have a catalogue, but I do have a card. Come here and get one,” she said. And she smiled.
I went over and picked up the card and thanked her. By the time I got back to where Jackson was he had disappeared into a wilderness of denim, flannel and camouflage.
Jackson caught up with me about the time I found the camo women’s apparel. “Don’t touch that!”
“I wasn’t going to touch it,” I said.
“Yes, you were,” he said.
“Oh, hell,” I said. “I couldn’t help it.” I couldn’t believe it was real. “Can you imagine there’s a hooker out there wearing this stuff who calls herself Bambi’?”
“Would you please not talk so loud?”
“Jackson, I happen to know that you have an intimate acquaintance with ladies’ apparel.” I picked an item off the rack and held it up for his inspection. “Just what is this?”
“It’s a teddy,” he said, looking away.
“It’s got white lace with a camouflage bra.”
“There are drag queens in Oktibbeha County who would sell a family member into slavery for this stuff,” I said.
About that time, a young lady came around the rack. She had what looked like an all-day sucker in her hand and was flipping through the clothing. Before Jackson could stop me, I said, “Excuse me.”
“Yeah?” she said.
“Would you wear this stuff?” I asked, holding up my prize. I heard Jack’s jaw hit the floor behind me.
She looked at me for a second. Then she giggled.
“No!” she said, “but Momma does.”
“Just on special occasions, I bet,” I said with a wink.
She giggled again. “Yeah, mostly during hunting season.”
We giggled together for a little bit, then Jack started dragging me back to the main aisle.
I spent some time wandering around the Winchesters, Colts and Mausers until I came upon the Christmas ornaments.
“These are so unique,” I said to the lady in charge. She was a little grandmotherly type in a maroon pants suit with a champagne bouffant. “Did you make them yourself?”
“Yes,” she said. “But it was my husband Pete’s idea. I’ve always been artsy-craftsy, and had a glue gun and everything, but he was the one who thought of doing the lights like this. And I thought, well, if you’re going to do lights, why don’t we make a couple of little wreathes and maybe even a star for the tree and we just went from there.”
“Are they safe?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I used too big ‘a bulbs the first set, and they all just melted, didn’t set anything on fire, but these are a lot smaller. You should see them when the house lights are off. They just glow.”
I thanked her and wandered off down the aisle, wondering what the Prince of Peace would say about shotgun shell Christmas lights.
God bless Uncle Daniel! If anyone can be generous to a fault it’s him, though Grandpa called it an open disposition and claimed that within the realm of reason there were people who would take advantage of such, which is how Uncle Daniel, attracting love and friendship with the best will and the lightest heart in the world, ended up with Grandpa in his new Studebaker sitting with old Judge Tip Calahan driving through the country on his way to the asylum in Jackson. From the word go Uncle Daniel got more vacations than anyone because they couldn’t find a thing in the world wrong with him, and he was so precious all he had to do was ask and he’d be on the branch-line train headed back to Clay County. Everybody missed Uncle Daniel so bad when he was gone that they spent all their time at the post office sending him things to eat. Divinity travels perfectly, if you ever need to know.
Three cups of sugar, one-half cup of Karo corn syrup, three-fourths cup of water, 2 eggs (whites), 1 cup of nuts, one-half teaspoon of salt, vanilla. Boil the sugar, syrup and water until it becomes hard in cold water; beat the whites of eggs until stiff, with the salt. Pour the syrup over the eggs and beat in the nuts and vanilla. When it begins to harden drop by spoonfuls onto wax paper or pour into a pan to cut into squares.
Evie Stone grows roses. She sits on her porch in the afternoons and calls you “darlin’”. Her son and daughter are buried in another state. The mayor is her great nephew.
In the old church tramps curse and strays whelp. Streetlight shines against the vaulting. Shards of blue glass cling to corners of the broken windows.
White smoke climbs from a field of burning cotton. Silhouettes twist in the flames. Passengers watch from parked cars. Goldenrods wave in the ditches.
You take a seat at the diner counter beside a man praying. The waitress puts a glass of ice tea before you. “Corn bread or roll?” she asks. It’s the only choice you have.
People bury pets in the woods. Dogs prowl in packs and kill everything they can catch. Nobody locks their doors at night.
The town constable takes football players hiking in Tennessee. His daughter weaves tapestries and listens to jazz in the garage. His wife drowns puppies in the kitchen sink. His son is somewhere in Canada.
When the flower shop burned, Charlie the mynah trapped inside said, “Poor Charlie! Poor Charlie! Poor Charlie!”
East of town is a sun-bleached, tattered neighborhood that no one ever seems to leave, where feelings and relatives are buried alive, and the earth waits to swallow you.
What compels writers of great works for adults to write for children? For whatever reason, many do, and some titles are familiar: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and T.S. Eliot wrote a series of whimsical poems published under the title Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a childhood favorite of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
More obscure are Joyce’s, The Cat and the Devil, Twain’s, Advice to Little Girls, Woolf’s, The Widow and the Parrot, Mary Shelley’s The Fisher’s Cot, and then we have these little-known children’s books by two of Mississippi’s brightest literary lights; Welty’s The Shoe Bird and Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.
In 1927, Faulkner gave the story that was to become The Wishing Tree to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham. Faulkner was still infatuated with Estelle and had hopes of her leaving her current husband and marrying him, which she did in 1929. Faulkner typed the book on colored paper, bound it himself and included a lyrical dedication:
‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard Grave and windless bells; mine air Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.
Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve, Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’
But Faulkner made copies for three other children as well and when Victoria tried to publish the book decades later, copyright had to be worked out between the four. In 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese.
The Wishing Tree is a grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland and To Kill a Mockingbird. Dulcie, a young girl, wakes on her birthday to find a mysterious red-haired boy in her room who whisks her, the other children, the maid Alice, and a 92-year old man through a “soft wisteria scented mist” to find the Wishing Tree. They wish, and they unwish, and at the end they meet St. Francis who gives them each a bird–a little winged thought. The Wishing Tree is about the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration. “If you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.”
On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, which went through three printings that year alone and no more. The book is now regarded as a literary curio from the man who put an Ole Miss coed in a cathouse in Memphis.
Eudora Welty finished what was to become The Shoe Bird in 1963 under the working title Pepe to fulfill a contractual obligation to Harcourt Brace—and to put a new roof on her house. She sent the final draft to Diarmund Russell in March, and he was enthusiastic: “totally charming—something all ages can read.” Eudora readied what was now entitled The Shoe Bird for publication in early 1964 with illustrations by Beth Krush, dedicating it to Bill and Emmy Maxwell’s daughters, Kate and Brookie.
The Shoe Bird is Arturo, a parrot who works in The Friendly Shoe Store “in a shopping center in the middle of the U.S.A.,” helping Mr. Friendly greet customers and bringing him a match for his end-of-the-day pipe. Arturo’s motto is: If you hear it, tell it. One day, a little boy who was leaving the store said, “Shoes are for the birds!” and after the store had closed Arturo, true to his motto, repeats the phrase and all the birds in the world—including a dodo and a phoenix—gather at the shoe store to be fitted for shoes. The Shoe Bird is a nice little story with lots of puns, but it’s heavy-handed with the moral of speaking for oneself instead of just repeating what others say.
Reviews in adult publications were “cordial but restrained,” while reception among children’s literature commentators was either negative or—as in the case of the influential Horn Book, nonexistent. Kirkus Reviews described the novel as uneventful and concludes: “the overly wordy result is so obscure that readers are likely to want to leave dictionaries as well as shoes to the birds.” An orchestral ballet was composed by Welty’s friend Lehman Engel and performed by the Jackson Ballet Guild in 1968. A 2002 choral piece was also commissioned by the Mississippi Boy Choir and composed by Samuel Jones.
As to what compels a writer to write for children, can it ever be as simple as to win over a childhood sweetheart, or to roof a house? It’s never that simple, and it’s not that easy.
It was mid-morning, late June, and Harlan’s truck was shaking, rattling and rolling, kicking up dust on a snake-neck red gravel road two miles northwest of Big Creek, Mississippi, hauling ass over about a hundred square miles of nothing but hills and woods, heartache, hydrocodone and honky-tonks, bait shops and the occasional double-wide Baptist church, making our way by fits and starts to the backwaters of Grenada Lake.
I was red-eyed from a blunt, grumpy and road-weary, but Harlan was ebullient behind the wheel, grinning like a Tartar, regaling me with his cynical and irreverent observations on the state of mankind and his critical assessment of my life as a microcosm thereof.
“I told you not to take up with that nigga Ricky, but did you listen? No, hell no, you had to move into that shit-hole duplex he shared with his sister.”
“That was three years ago,” I said. “Besides, I was in love. People do stupid shit when they’re in love. What about that Miss Lauderdale County you took up with who threw that five-carat engagement ring you gave her out the car window while y’all were driving across Lake Pontchartrain?”
He just threw back his head and laughed and said she was worth every damn carat and if he’d had any sense at all he wouldn’t had fucked her sister. Suddenly it occurred to me how little I knew of Harlan; he never mentioned a wife, never mentioned children and always changed the subject.
For the last week and more emphatically for the past hundred miles he’d been explaining why we were making our way to a farm near a place called Cave Hill in the middle of nowhere to get a damn watermelon. Harlan claims to be the world’s leading expert on watermelons. His qualifications include a stint in the Navy, a PhD from Cornell and 32 years in USDA’s harness. Along the way he picked up enough knowledge to make him a recognized authority on not just watermelons, but the melon family of plants. Watermelons, however, are his consuming passion and he has traveled across the globe in search of rare ancestral varieties. On his farm in George County, Mississippi he grows dozens of varieties, his prize crop the white-fleshed tsamma of the Kalahari. Harlan is a tall, solidly-built man with a head full of thick, unruly greying red hair, an incandescent smile and a voice like Sam Waterston. He’s also full of shit he can talk his way between tiger teeth and gets his way in places most people won’t even go, like this farm in the middle of nowhere that grows the world’s most sought-after watermelon.
Bred from ‘Black Diamond’, ‘Moon and Stars’, ‘Charleston Grey’ and the Ur melon itself, the so-called “vine of Sodom”, Citrullus colocynthis, the fabled Red Zeppelin is a pearly green oblong melon averaging some twenty-five pounds, it’s most distinctive characteristic a lateral ribbing of pale, subtly shaded stripes that gave the fruit an illusion of light ribbing unknown in Citrullus lanatus. The Zeppelin is also distinguished—indeed ennobled—by a dense, velvety flesh of surpassing succulence. Arabian weddings are scheduled around its ripening in late August, when second-field melons are just coming in from other farms.
The watermelons grow on a tall dune that climbs out of an indenture in the ridge south of the Schoona River, the “hill”, nd a deep depression of red, clay-ey sand with an ever-weeping spring. We’d been on the road a long time, and I was just flat-out tired from the long drive up from Jackson, tired of the road and impatient with Harlan, who seemed alternately fidgety and distant. I just wanted to get there, get the ‘Zepp and go.
On a wave of bravado, I summed our mission up: “So basically this laid-back ass-lick who makes more money in a day than I see in a month working for a slick new regional calls you up out of the blue and says he’ll give you a dollar a word?”
“I’m all over it.”
The sun, lowering towards the rim of the world, shone in random rays over a stark country sculpted by loggers and downpours. The road turned round and around, looping over the hills, plunging down the hollows, following the design of some sweaty, half-drunk supervisor to no rational destination whatsoever.
Then suddenly there it was, a gently sloping sandy hill, glowing and imposing, on the red side of gold, a washy bronze in the pale summer sun. as lyrically striated and undulating as a vineyard and punctuated by tiny glowing ovals situated like so many open whole notes up and down a page of symphonic notation, As we grew closer I made out upon that terraced hillside a lithe figure in loose, faded red overalls with wearing a broad red straw hat with a billowing polka-dot ribbon gently hoeing a row of bouldered vines.
“That’s Royce,” Harlan said. “Let’s go on up to the house.”
The house was a solid dogtrot overlooking the broad Loosa-Schoona bottom. The original structure, which dated from the 1890s, had been refitted with a wrap-around porch sheltering high windows that framed dangling melded Mardi Gras bead disks, swinging strings, mandalas and figurines of colored glass. Each line, angle and corner of every room of the house, glowed in turn with ruby, topaz, purple, aquamarine and a hundred dozen colors in between, refracting light into blades, spears, and arrows. The brilliance brought tears to my eyes.
As we stood in the foyer, Royce came in. “Hey, daddy,” he said.
“Hey, sugar-booger,” Harlan said, giving him a sloppy kiss and a pat on the fanny. “Where’s Owen?
“He’s on his way back from Grenada. He’ll be here around dark. Y’all come get something from the refrigerator and we’ll sit on the porch.”
The winds were warm and shifty, the gloaming sky a bowl of scattered dirty cotton clouds. We arranged ourselves on the back porch. Around dusk, a light breeze sprang from the bottom. We could see the cloud pushing it sailing north up the river from the backwaters of the reservoir. and a little slipper of a moon dangled over the fading sun. Soon,we heard a car horn beeping in the distance.
“Here comes Owen,” Royce said, looking in the distance, and turning to Harlan said,“Where is she?”
Harlan exhaled, stretched, stamped his feet and said, “In the back floorboard. I had a nice little box made, put a couple of photos in with her. One of us on our honeymoon in Daytona Beach. We both were wearing cut-offs. We were so happy. I put a picture of you in there, the one at the Sugar Bowl after the touchdown. She did love you, Royce. Don’t rob yourself of that.”
Royce looked up and pointed to a faint star at mid-heaven. “There she is, Daddy. That little dot of light nobody can touch caught in the middle of the sky. Momma was a lightening bug in a beer bottle, caught up in a storm of her own making.”” Royce leaned over and patted Harlan on the knee. “I’m settled with it, daddy. You know, she always tried to keep herself pretty for you, even when she saw the end coming. Let’s go get her.”
Owen, dark and quiet, embraced Royce as we walked down the hill, the field sky blue around us . We came to the east side of the hill, and there in the shadows Harlan placed the glossy black box on a flat red rock beside the weedy rill leading from the slow spring. The wind began to rise again, and Royce said, “Bye, Momma. Go home now. Don’t hurt anymore.”
Harlan began crying and we helped him back up to the house where we sat on the porch and drank and told stories about love and pain and loss until the noise of the night coaxed us inside and abed. In the morning Harlan and I drove south with a clutch of pearly melons nestled in pine straw against the cab in the bed of the truck. An orange-red sun blistered the morning sky.
Will and Scott met in a dusty New Orleans bar on a wet November afternoon and shortly fell into a discussion of favored bridge abutments in surrounding states. Neither in fact were vagrants, both family men: Will an attorney, Scott a businessman, both Mississippians in NOLA for the wedding of mutual friends, Will the bride’s, Scott the groom’s. In time they found ethanol, automobiles and tall women in common too, but not hunting. Scott had never taken the field for game.
“Let me take you hunting,” Will said.
“Okay,” said Scott. “For what?”
Will looked him dead in the eye and said, “Snipe.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I’m serious,” Will said.
“It’s still not funny.”
. . . . . . . . . .
They left Jackson in the darkest dawn, drove through for coffee and biscuits, then went up 49 watching the earth settle, fall away and go somewhere else.
Clambering from the truck with gear, they sank ankle-deep in muck, slugged first to one patch of mud just above the pooled water to another atoll of broken grasses, the Delta sky pushing distance to the rim of a tall lens, bringing all else into focus, amplifying sound. The rattles of the brittle grass echoed into the distance, across the river, all over the world. The mud was as old Egypt’s, deeper and richer than sin itself.
That close to the river, the land is a matter of water–making it, shaping it, teaching it–letting earth absorb all light, all air, all crisp, cold and fragile, brushing a thin bitter crust on a north Mississippi morning with clouds coagulating white and gray atop a steady northwesterly breeze.
Furrowed and churned, dead with intention, the field was a patched mat of pale brittle stems that collapsed hither and thither, hiding muck, confusing footwork and sheltering snipe, the being itself, a will-o’-the-wisp the very color of winter—white, grey and black fading to or from indiscriminate brown, beige or buff in indifferent patterns on insignificant substance—a bird of earth without place in air where it seeks in fits to find a place and failing, furtive rustles back to the tussocks.
. . . . . . . . . .
“Here we go,” Will said, stepping into the muck and pointing out into the water-mirrored field. “The birds hide up in piles of grass near water. They flush easy, so ease up before you move in.” The grass in front of them rustled and set alight two birds, translucent in the sun trailing faint alarms before they lit in another field.
“Can’t even see them mid-air,” Scott said. “They’re too light and grey.”
Will grinned. The sky was a blinding blue that dribbled down in pools and puddles. The only wind blew way above under a small cool sun, moving shadows of blades, leaves and stems. They walked, guns at their hips, talking to fill the void.
. . . . . . . . . .
“You don’t talk much about over there.”
“Not a lot to say,” Scott said. “It wouldn’t make sense to you.”
“Does it have to? Did it to you?
“Some of it did.” Beside them a clump of cattail folded brown and enclosed exploded into a busy ball of air. Scott crouched and shot, the sound bouncing across the field, the bird falling, twisting, one wing still struggling for buoyance.
Will found the winged bird, wrung its neck, put it in the sack on his shoulder and said, “I want to know what it’s like to kill someone.”
“Why? You gonna kill somebody?”
Will grinned. “Maybe. Maybe I just want to know what it feels like to point a gun at a man and pull the trigger and watch him fall.”
“They weren’t men,” Scott said. “Not to me. They weren’t even enemies. They were just things in the distance. Dark shapes that moved. I never killed anyone. I just shot things and watched them fall.”
“But didn’t they shoot at you?”
“Yes, dammit! Sure they did. You know they did, and I got hit, too!” Scott said.
“I didn’t know that,” Will said.
“In the fucking back,” Scott said. “Shattered my shoulder blade. It’s a steel plate now. Went right through. Bled like a motherfucker.”
“Can I see the scar?”
“It’s too cold to take my shirt off, man,” Scott laughed.
“You don’t have to. Just let me feel it,” Will said.
Scott stopped walking and rubbed the tears off his face. He cradled his gun in the crook of his left arm and with his right unzipped his jacket. “It’s on the left side,” he said.
Will took the glove off his right hand, turned and moved his hand into the jacket, beneath the shirt to the skin, the hair, gently probing, pausing, feeling.
“That’s not it,” Scott said, “That’s my . . .”
“I know what it is,” Will said.
“Up,” Scott said, “There.”
“Yes. Does it still hurt?”
“No,” Scott said. “Not any more. It’s still tender, but you’re not hurting me.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Will said. “I just wanted to feel the scar.”
“You’re not hurting me, Will.”
“It’s okay, Scott. It’s okay. Why don’t we call it a day, have a couple of drinks on the way home?”
. . . . . . . . . .
They moved towards the ruts atop the dam that passed for a road, their steps less measured, more insistent, no longer stalking, but in pursuit, the sinking sun reddening, silhouetting the distance, a glittering planet punctuating the blueprint heavens.
They climbed into the truck. Will cranked it up and turned on the lights.
“We can grab a bottle and go to Smitty’s cabin on the Big Black. I’ll call Beth and tell her to call Ann,” Will said. “We’ll tell them we didn’t kill anything, be home tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Scott said, wiping his face. “I’m just tired.”
The Fairchild household is in an uproar over Dabney’s marriage, but however peculiar the match, the proprieties must be observed, standards maintained, and that includes lavish decorations for rehearsal supper. At one point during the hustle and bustle the matriarch Ellen says, “I thought in the long run . . . we could just cover everything mostly with Southern smilax.”
Most of those who read Welty’s Delta Wedding probably skip over Ellen’s references to smilax without taking the time to find out what smilax is, likely thinking it a type of fabric or paper, but had they bothered to look it up, they’d have found that smilax is a coarse evergreen vine whose many varieties proliferate throughout the South in woods, fields, roadsides and back yards. Evergreen and durable, the vines have long been used for greenery in the home during festive events and holidays, and not just in the South. In the stage version of Harvey, the opening scene describes the home as being “festooned with smilax”.
Members of the enormous lily family, smilaxes are close relatives of asparagus, and they’re just as edible, just not as toothsome. In fact, before the invention of artificial flavorings, one species, Smilax ornata was used as the basis for sarsaparilla and root beer. (S. ornata was also registered in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a treatment for syphilis from 1820 to 1910.) Linnaeus named the genus Smilax after a nymph who was by reason of some divine infraction transformed into a brambly vine (her lover Croesus for the same reason was—unfairly, it seems to me—transformed into a crocus).
Indeed most smilaxes are “brambly”, profuse with thorns, a notable exception being Smilax smalii (previously lanceolata), which only has thorns around the base of the stems. Steve Bender says one name for this plant, Jackson vine, comes from ladies in Alabama who would decorate their homes with the evergreen when Stonewall Jackson came to town, but frankly I have a hard time swallowing that. Most people just call it, as Ellen Fairchild did, Southern smilax. People once often trained smilax vines around their porches for evergreen framing, but is no longer cultivated because of an undeserved reputation as invasive.
Smilax takes readily to use in wreaths, swags and garlands. Like any plant cutting, the vines last longer when kept in water, and must be discarded when dry.