The day Jimmy went into rehab, Debby put in a garden. I kept telling her that March was too early, better to wait till Jimmy got out next month, but she wouldn’t listen. She wanted everything to look promising.
Jimmy’s commitment had been court ordered after he’d busted up the pool hall on Radley Road and sent Dennis Sprayberry to the ER with six broken ribs. Jimmy wasn’t always like this, meaning the type who’d take a cue and beat the ever-living hell out of the guy who was the best man at his wedding.
No, Jimmy was good once, and things just went bad, but before that he and Debby got married in the same church he was now exorcising his devil. Dennis couldn’t bring himself to press charges, so Jimmy wasn’t in that much trouble, but he needed to mind himself.
Debby just couldn’t understand how it had all gone wrong, since for a long time all Jimmy did was drink a little too much beer every now and then but bit by bit he kept drinking more, got off all by himself a lot of times and nobody could talk to him and when we did he just said nothing he had going was doing right.
And it wasn’t. He was hanging by a thread with his job, and when he almost cut his thumb off in an air-conditioner changing out the condenser and tested for alcohol for the third time he was fired. That’s the night he ended up down Radley Road and tried to kill Dennis. The sheriff told the prosecutor to throw the book at him, but things worked out so that Jimmy had to spend a month in rehab and two years under observation.
So when Jimmy went in, Debby planted a garden in the cold earth under a cool, cloudy sun. She went to the garden store in Tupelo and bought tomatoes and peppers, squash and cucumber seedlings, which she set out in a bed off the porch. She wanted her and Jimmy to be able to sit there in the afternoons and watch the sun go down over the garden. She said she was going to make Easter eggs so she and Jimmy could go looking for them the day after he got out.
I knew it was a bad idea, but I’d said all I could.
Good Friday came, and Debby got a call. Jimmy had broken out, so they had to put him in jail for violation of a court order. That night a cold wind came in and threw down a hard frost. Come morning the garden was nothing but frozen rows with withered plants. All I could do was be there.
“You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” she said.
I just shook my head; I didn’t. I was blinded by hope, too. I loved my brother Jimmy more than she did.
One morning Trudy Morgan found her bird feeder on the ground surrounded by the mutilated remains of two cardinals, three starlings and a squirrel. She was prepared to blame her elderly tomcat Horace for this slaughter until she found his eviscerated body under her gardenia.
“Dogs,” she thought, saying it aloud. It must be stray dogs. She had seen them wandering the streets in packs, scavenging in the alleys. How they got into her fenced back yard was a puzzle, but they must have gotten in, somehow.
Trudy lived in an old neighborhood of the city, in the house her husband George had built after he returned from Vietnam. They’d spent many happy years together there, had watched the neighbors’ children grow up and move away. They had none of their own. Now George was gone and most of the neighbors they knew had moved away, leaving Trudy among strangers. She didn’t mind; she had her garden, her job at the library, her parakeets Bess and Harry, and poor Horace.
She heard the doorbell ring, a sound she’d not heard in many years. When she opened the door she saw nothing other than a shivering ripple beneath the shrubs. Trudy closed and locked the door quickly, thinking somehow a dog had thrown itself against the ringer. She buried the birds, the squirrel and poor Horace against the back fence and went to the library.
When she returned, the front door was open. She found the bird cage in a corner, and the only trace of Bess or Harry was a single speckled green feather on the sofa. Nothing else seemed disturbed, even the gold coins she’d had framed and foolishly kept on the wall in the hall. Trudy called the police. “It’s probably a raccoon,” they said, and gave her the number of an animal remover.
Before dawn, Trudy awakened and felt a weight upon her. She tried to shove it off and roll over on her side, but it was heavy. She opened her eyes and saw a bearded face with amber eyes looking back at her. Trudy was too scared to breathe, much less scream. She could feel his hardness against her gown. It licked its lips and began rubbing against her, kneading her breasts and twisting her nipples. Its movements and breath quickened; it grunted, and she felt wetness. It jumped off the bed and ran out into the hall before she could even think.
She waited, frozen, until the sun came into the room; once washed and dressed, she ran to her car and drove to the café near the supermarket. She ordered coffee. The waitress, a plump young blonde named Sylvia, said, “Miz Morgan, you look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
“I don’t know what it was,” Trudy whispered, still dazed. Sylvia had ornate knotted tattoos on her arms and many rings in her ears. She looked at Trudy with lowered brows. “What do you mean?” Trudy told her about everything; the birds, poor Horace, Bess and Harry, the ripple in the hedges and, in a whispered rush, about the thing on her chest. She was still shaking, and held her coffee with both hands. Sylvia bit her lip. “Miz Morgan, you just sit for a minute. My shift will be over in a little bit. I can help you.”
“How?” Trudy asked.
Sylvia said nothing, but refilled her cup. When she returned, she had changed into a loose green blouse. She put her hand on Trudy’s and said, “You’ve got a yampus. They’re not really evil like a demon, just mean. It won’t hurt you, but it will kill everything you care for, more out of spite than anything. It will keep you and use you. I know these things. My granny was a voodoo lady. I follow a different tradition,” she said, glancing at the worsted tattoos on her arms, ”but a yampus is a yampus no matter how you look at it.”
Trudy just stared at her. She could still feel it kneading her breasts and smell its warm breath on her neck. “I can’t go home,” she said.
“Of course not,” Sylvia said. “You’re coming with me to my house, and we’ll deal with that yampus tonight. Now get your purse and follow me.”
Sylvia lived in a cottage near the divinity college not far from the library where Trudy worked. The house had a stone fireplace, a crowded library and handful of cats that took their time doing anything at all. Trudy bathed and changed into a housecoat while Sylvia made a light lunch and washed her clothes.
“You need to sleep, Miz Morgan,” Sylvia said, “So go to bed and don’t worry about anything while you’re here.” Despite the assurances, Trudy slept uneasily, but she did sleep, awakening when the sun was sinking. “Get dressed and let’s go,” Sylvia said.
Trudy looked at her, wide-eyed and questioning. Sylvia smiled. “I’ve done this before. Don’t worry.”
When they got to Trudy’s house, the door was still locked. Sylvia followed her in, carrying a brown valise. “I don’t have a stake and a hammer in here,” Sylvia said with a short smile. “Now show me to your kitchen, I’m going to make us some tea, and then I want you to get to bed.”
“I can’t!” Trudy said.
Sylvia took her hands. “Yes, you can. Listen to me. I know he scared you, but he won’t hurt you. He just wants to use you, and you know how he wants to use you. A yampus just wants one thing, and as a woman you ought to know what.”
“Oh, yes,” Trudy said, smiling thinly, remembering and growing warm with the memory. Sylvia looked at her, cocking a brow. “Well,” she said. “Let’s get ready. Dress for bed. I’m going to turn out the lights and sit in the spare bedroom. I’ll be able to hear him when he comes into the house. He’ll take no notice of me. I’m not the one he wants.”
Trudy went to her bedroom, undressed and went to her closet where she selected a silk nightgown and a satin negligee. She turned out the overhead light, folded back the bed and turned on the lamp atop her dresser. She sat, applied lipstick and blush, brushed her neck with perfume, and then climbed into bed. He came through the window, and the warm night air followed. She could hear him as he moved to the end of the bed.
Suddenly he was upon her, holding her, moving his head against her, his hands on her body, touching and probing. He parted her clothing and she felt his lips upon her nipples and his penis pressing upon her stomach.
She caught her breath as he entered her and began to move as he moved, as if she were telling him something. Suddenly he squeezed her with his arms, she gasped, and then she felt him finish and heard him whine as if he wanted more. Then he was gone, as suddenly as he had come, leaving nothing. As she lay there, she heard Sylvia’s voice. “I’ll be going now, Miz Morgan.”
“Yes,” Trudy said. “I’ll be in for coffee in the morning.”
Joyce Sexton was proud of her garden. It occupied the edges of her back yard along the fences; broad beds of perennials punctuated by flowering shrubs whose Latin names she had memorized; they sounded like an incantation as she recited them in her mind.
In the southwest corner was a short dead spruce stripped of twigs and leaves whose trimmed branches were adorned with brightly-colored glass bottles. Joyce enjoyed the way the glass caught the morning sun and reflected in the lights from the porch during the evenings. It had taken her months to find just the right bottles for the tree, and this morning she finally found the last one, a bright red bottle on top that seemed to glow from inside. She was admiring its light when she heard the front doorbell. She had invited her friend Sandra over for a drink.
“Well, it is pretty,” Sandra said later as they sat under the porch fans.
“At least you’ve got different bottles. I don’t like those with just one kind, especially those milk of magnesia models. They just send out the wrong signal, if you ask me.”
“I think it’s the best bottle tree in town,” Joyce said. “I know it sounds silly, but a bottle had to really say something to me before I put it on.” Sandra just stared at it with her arms crossed.
“You don’t like it?” Joyce said.
“Oh, like I said, it’s pretty, Joyce. And it looks good right next to the Lady Banks. But do you realize what those things are?’
Joyce laughed and said, “You mean that nonsense about trapping evil spirits? Cassandra June, your fanny hits a pew every time First Prez is open. And besides, you’re over-educated to boot. Surely you don’t believe that voodoo junk. ”
Sandra sipped her gin and tonic and smiled at her old friend. “Oh, you wouldn’t care if I were sacrificing stray cats in my basement, you’d still never get along without me.”
“If you were sacrificing stray cats, I’d bring you a few,” Joyce said.
“They kill the little birds, they yowl all night long and they beat up on poor Lucky.” A little terrier of dubious parentage under the table between them raised his head and thumped a raggedy tail.
“Okay, if you think its all stuff and nonsense, let me break one,” Sandra said. “Oh, don’t look so shocked. Admit you had fun looking for these bottles, and one of them’s bound to break sooner or later.”
Joyce thought about it. “Okay, you old witch,” she said. “But break one of the bottom ones. Use Glen’s putter. It’s over there on the corner.”
Sandra retrieved the putter, walked into the back yard and shattered a small green bottle on a lower branch. At the sound, Lucky jumped up and scrambled under the gate towards the street outside. Before Joyce could gather the breath to summon her dog, she heard the screech of brakes and a choked, mournful howl.
. . . . . . . . . .
“Mother, it was just an accident,” Rachel said. “Sandra shouldn’t blame herself. That’s just silly.”
Joyce looked at her daughter. She and Glen had been surprised when her infant golden hair had not only remained gold, but had also matured into a mane that Rachel merely pretended to complain about. Today she had wrestled it back into a tawny mass that spilled in a shower over the back of her bright blue scrubs.
“I know,” she said. “But you know how Sandra loved Lucky. She brought him liver snaps every time she came over. I think she did it on purpose; they always gave him gas.”
Rachel brought her coffee to the table and sat next to her mother. “Mom, just ride it out. I know you loved Lucky, too. Hell, we all did; except Richard, of course.” They both made a face at each other and laughed. “Cliff Stevens told me he was still wearing an ankle bracelet in Chattanooga,” Rachel said.
Joyce sipped from her cup and wished Richard were much further away. She still ran into his parents at parties, his father formal, his mother always managing to snag Joyce away from the crowd and update his doleful story. (“He didn’t mean anything, Joyce. You know that.”)
Rachel glanced at her watch. “I’ve got to go, Mom. Joe Wright told me I could scrub in on a valve replacement this morning.”
Joyce kissed her daughter and took her coffee to the patio. She called Glen at his office, forgot he was in court that day and ended up talking to his secretary Cathy about the upcoming office party.
“Glen’s just a mess about it,” Cathy said. “And I do mean a mess. He can’t decide on a damn thing, and that puts me in charge of everything from food to felonies. Would you please try to sit him down for five minutes and nail something down for me?”
“Oh, just do what you did last year, Cathy. It’s not like he’s going to notice.”
“I know,” Cathy said. “He’s such an airhead.”
Joyce laughed and said goodbye, went and poured another cup and settled back on the porch to admire her garden. The azaleas had exhausted themselves long ago, and the Shastas were now coming into their own, as were the hostas she’d planted last October. Lucky’s grave by the holly was marked with a shaggy little stone dog and a weathered scattering of liver snaps.
The bottle tree glistened in the morning sun. One bottle caught the light extremely well, a beer bottle Joyce found behind the back fence that had a white and blue label. The light it caught dazzled. Joyce laughed, picked a hand spade from her garden shelf, walked up to the tree and shattered the bottle into hundreds of pieces. She was still smiling when she heard the phone ring.
. . . . . . . . . .
Glen knocked gently at the barely open door. Joyce lay on the bed, the golden afternoon light pouring onto the floor and casting shadows upon morning windows.
He moved into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “Honey?”
“How did he get out?”
Glen turned, bowed and rubbed his hands together. “He’s been out.”
Joyce rolled over and looked at her husband’s back.
“It’s been eight years, Joyce. He was convicted as a juvenile. It was not a capital offense. He served five years, and then they put him in a rehabilitation unit. He was clean and sober; he had a job at a Walgreens. He was evaluated twice a month.”
“He just killed our daughter,” Joyce said.
Glen’s shoulders heaved and he began to sob. Joyce reached up and brought him to her and they lay there, crying, while the shadows grew on the wall.
. . . . . . . . . .
The summer office party was never conducted, but as the holidays approached, Glen suggested that the traditional year’s end celebration be held, and to his relief Joyce agreed. The firm had had a very good year, and Glen, as senior partner, always enjoyed giving out bonuses and promotions.
Predictably, it began on a muted note, but as the night progressed, the mood lifted and Joyce found herself enjoying being around friends. As they were driving home, she and Glen found themselves laughing about Cathy’s QVC jewelry and Jerry Wineman’s new toupee.
It was warm for a winter’s evening; wisps of fog were settling into the low places along the road, and the lights from the house glowed as they pulled into their drive.
Glen grabbed Joyce’s hand and said, “Let’s sit out on the back porch and have another drink.”
“No, Glen,” Joyce said, caressing his hand, “I’d rather not. Let’s just sit in the living room.”
Glen looked at her and said, “You used to love the porch. You used to love looking at the garden. What’s the matter?”
Then Joyce told him about the bottle tree, about Lucky, about Rachel. Glen sighed and said, “Oh, honey, you know that’s just ridiculous. What did they call it in college, synchronicity? Come on, let’s build a little fire in the fireplace and huddle up next to it on a blanket with a couple of beers.”
“I’d rather have a martini,” Joyce said.
After they’d changed, Glen settled Joyce in front of the fire with her drink. “Glen, I know it’s just a bunch of nonsense, coincidences, like you said.”
“Of course they were, and I know it, but I don’t believe you believe it.”
“I do,” Joyce said, “And I’ll prove it to you. Is your 12-gage in the hall closet?”
Joyce retrieved the gun from the closet, along with a box of shells. “Show me how to load it again.” Once the gun was loaded, Joyce slung it over her shoulder and headed out the back door.
“If you stand back about ten yards, you ought to be able to get all of ‘em,” Glen shouted. He smiled, took off his shirt and sipped his beer. Then, with a smile, he slicked back his hair and lay down on the couch. A shot echoed from the backyard.
When Joyce came running back in, she said, “Glen, I got them all! And the trunk is in splinters. I’ll have a hell of a time cleaning up all the glass. Glen? GLEN!”
My grandmother Emma would sit me on a kitchen stool and tell me stories while she cooked. I can hear her voice, low and level, moving with her work, smell the cornbread in the oven, and see the softly plopping pot of beans on the back of the stove.
She told me how she jumped rope with her sisters, about the tomatoes her grandfather grew, and she’d rap her spoon on the side of the sink to make a sound like sudden rains on a tin roof: “Rat-a-tat at first,” she’d say, “Then so loud you had to shout to talk.”
She told me about roses so blue they made the sky look like it had no color at all. “Gramaw,” I’d say in my most grown-up way, “roses are red! Or white. Miz Stevens has some white ones. And I saw some yellow ones in the store. But roses aren’t blue!”
Emma would smile and tend to the stove. “Oh, you are such a smart girl!” she’d say. “But you’re not as smart as your old granny. Some roses are blue, but you ain’t gonna to see ‘em in Loris Stevens’ yard, and you ain’t gonna see ‘em in the store. The only place blue roses grow is Africa, on the Mountains of the Moon.”
She told me that the east wind from the sea air keeps the mountains clouded against the sun, but at night, when the north wind comes down from desert sands, the skies clear, the moon shines on the grey-green slopes, and roses with blossoms as blue as a gas flame climb toward the pale stars.
When Emma died my heart broke into a million pieces, but when I remember her, my heart heals and is whole. And when I find blue roses for sale, I smile because I know blue roses only grow in Africa, on the shrouded slopes of the Mountains of the Moon.
You asked me about the dog statue in the cemetery.
The statue is on the Guinn family plot. The Guinns are gone now, but they were well-known. Robert Guinn was an attorney who handled mostly small claims, but did well enough to own a house on President Street. He had a lovely wife, Rose, and a little girl, Doris.
All little girls should be pretty, but Doris wasn’t; her face fused improperly in the womb. There’s a name for the condition that I can’t remember, but it’s a cruel assessment of the divine to say that was God’s will, if you ask me. She was never photographed, but there was a portrait painted, and the artist aligned her features.
I saw it long ago; she had dark hair and a shy smile.
Doris in all other respects was a normal little girl; she had dolls and dresses and went to school with all the other little girls on the street. She also had a small dog, a spaniel of some kind that she adored. Her father had given her the puppy when she was five years old, so she named it after him. She called it Little Bob. The dog would follow her to school, wait afternoons on the corner for her to come home, and was with her when she died at twelve.
After that, Little Bob would go to the corner every afternoon and wait; at dark he’d go home until one day he couldn’t, and Bob Guinn went and got him. Oh, there was a fuss about putting a memorial to a dog, much less physical remains, but Robert Guinn took it to court and won, his finest hour before the bench.
So that’s Little Bob there with Doris. He was a good dog.
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.
These words passed among the neighbors each time it happened, and they all nodded knowingly, having long ago concluded that Clara Curtis had indeed slipped over the edge into a comfortable sort of crazy that was perfectly harmless and acceptable.
It was simple enough, after all; they had all known people who had grown up in the Depression, when every penny, every scrap of cloth, every button or buckle was precious, and the food, well people would have shelves upon shelves of home-canned vegetables, pickles, even meats, and smokehouses were filled with hams and salted sides of beef. So it was only natural that Clara, who was born in Mississippi the very year Calvin Coolidge was elected president, would harbor the bitter memories of her early years and retain the habits of her childhood for a lifetime.
Why, those freezers were just full of frozen food—chops and steaks, bags of blanched limas, green peas and corn, stocks and soups—most of which, they said, were fed to the occasional homeless men who having heard of her soft touch would end up first at her front door, then on her back porch eating a hearty meal, usually with plenty of her homemade yeast refrigerator rolls, which were a highly-regarded addition to the pot luck suppers at St. John’s Methodist Church, where she was a devout attendee and tither. Her neighbors would see them stretched out in a post-prandial snooze on the white wicker settee on her back porch in the warm afternoons, but they were always gone by the morning.
Then there were the dogs. She couldn’t abide cats, Ms. Clara, but she loved dogs, all kinds of dogs, and if she found a stray she would take it home for caring. Those she fed from the heavy sacks of dry dog food she had Kenny the check-out man at the local grocery deliver to her house. Though home deliveries were long a thing of the past for most, Clara, being of such an age and means, was an exception to this rule, and nobody begrudged her the privilege. She was, after all, Mrs. Harvey Curtis, that same Harvey Curtis who was one of the founding fathers of a local oil exploration group that happened upon a rich field in a nearby rural county, resulting in a considerable fortune which the childless Widow Curtis held with formidable tenacity in the palms of her tiny immaculately-groomed hands.
And the flowers, let’s not forget the flowers. Clara’s house, an unpretentious two-storied brick affair with three awkward gables, stood in a space surrounded by a ring of trees that provided shade by degrees according to their nature, but around the building itself circled a ring of light that in the spring brought daffodils of every shape, size and color as well as what one local horticulturalist called “the most magnificent collection of heirloom azaleas in the state”. In the summer her marigolds and zinnias laid a golden/scarlet quilt across her south beds, and in the fall burgundy castor beans towered over crimson cockscomb. The coda of every year was a pirouette of the beautiful old mums that shared her name.
How many freezers did she have? Oh, at least three, some argued four and one or two knowledgeable observers just nodded sagely and whispered “five”. There really was no telling, since the house was old and after all did have a huge basement that was sure to be cluttered with God-knows-what else. But this was bound to be her last one, they nodded. After all, she was what? Nearing ninety? And sure, she got around just fine, called a cab when she needed to go anywhere. She’d had a string of regular drivers from the company over the years, the current one a wiry, sullen young man with a shaved head and tattoos who watched over her like a hawk and helped her in and out of the cab.
“I’m sure she tips him very well”, they’d say with more knowing nods. Her alone in that house without a soul in the world, but all the money! That church itself would have folded a long time ago if it hadn’t been for her. Mr. Curtis had that (much younger) half-brother, of course (a drunk, a wastrel, but handsome as Satan they said) who would probably lay claim to some money, but they knowing Clara and her tight fist knew he wouldn’t get a penny.
Still she was getting on, and it was in October, in the lingering heat of a clinging summer, she died. Her driver, who had to break through a window to enter the house, alerted the authorities. They found Clara downstairs in the basement with a dead puppy in her lap surrounded by not three, but five freezers.; written on the first were Cleatra, Rose, Milo and a dozen others; on the second Ophelia, Casper and Rue in the same number; on the third was Mr. Callahan, the fourth Mr. Jones, and in a far corner, Mr. Curtis.
As the year cools down, hunters up and down the Mississippi flyway flock to the wild with guns and dogs for game. In the Mississippi Delta, arguably the heart of the flyway, men of a certain feather abandon their usual nests of domesticity for camp, in Irwin Hester’s case his duck camp on Concordia Island in Bolivar County.
“It’s not really an island,” Irwin said. “If anything, it’s a peninsula, since the river makes a tight loop around it.” He looked out the window at the sunset spread out over Arkansas. “You’d think they’d have a special name for a riparian peninsula, but they don’t.”
Irwin retired from what he calls “the oil business” almost a decade ago. He received his degree in geology from Mississippi State in the early 70s and began working with Gulf Oil, stayed with them through the merger, and remained, working his way up the ladder, eventually landing in Pittsburgh at U-PARK. An only child, Irwin never married (“Just too damned busy,” he explained). When he retired in 2012, he came back home to Mississippi, made a home, renewed old friendships, and moved his folks’ old home to the end of a dirt road on Concordia Island. Twice a year, the beginning of duck season and the end, November and January, he holds camp.
“I make real, Texas-style chili,” Irwin said. “It’s the best, and once you’ve had it, you’ll never call anything else chili. I learned to make it when I lived in Austin. I knew a guy who cooked it at his hunt camp up on the Pedernales River. He said he got his recipe from Lady Bird Johnson herself.
Irwin’s chili has no beans, no tomatoes, and no onions. He uses a lean cut of beef, usually a top round, cut into large chunks, coats these in a mixture of smoked paprika, crushed leaf oregano, cayenne, and ground cumin, and browns them in a cast iron Dutch oven. For each pound of beef, he soaks, peels and seeds four anchos. He uses the water from the peppers in the beef, adding more to cover about an inch, and places the heavily-lidded pot in the oven at a low temperature (“Just enough to make it simmer”) in the morning, and by the time the sun begins to go down, the chili must be stirred (“Once is enough”) and returned to the oven until the men return from the field, the fire is blazing, bottles opened, and a guitar is passed around. He keeps a bottle of Crystal hot sauce available.
“It’s as good a bowl of red as you’re going to get on this side of the Mississippi,” Irwin claims.
The name beneath this recipe from Jackson’s New Stage Theatre’s Standing Room Only: Recipes for Entertaining (1983) is Ellen Douglas, but everyone should know that Ellen Douglas is the pen name for writer Josephine Ayers Haxton. Born in Natchez, she married composer Kenneth Haxton in 1945 and shortly afterwards moved to Haxton’s hometown of Greenville. There she befriended Shelby Foote, Hodding Carter, and other local literati.
According to the author, she entered into a wager with her husband and a mutual friend on who could finish a novel in the least amount of time. She won the bet by writing A Family’s Affairs (1962), which is largely autobiographical in nature, requiring her to get her family’s permission to publish the narrative and resulting in her adoption of the pen name Ellen Douglas. The book not only sold well, but it also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award for best new novel and was named as one the year’s ten best books by The New York Times. Her second work, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), a collection of short stories, also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award, and her 1973 novel Apostles of Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other works include The Rock Cried Out (1973) and A Lifetime Burning (1982). Josephine Haxton died in Jackson in 2012.
Though Ayers was not Jewish, her mother-in-law Ellise Blum Haxton was the daughter of Jewish merchant Aaron Blum of Nelms and Blum department store in Greenville, and this recipe may have come from her kitchen. From my (demonstrably non-Jewish) perspective, fried matzos seem like just another variety of hushpuppy, though serving them with catfish—which is decidedly non-kosher—might be a bit rude. These make a great side for any number of meat dishes—baked chicken or fish, beef roast, what have you—but they’re also a great buffet nosh served with a sauce made with one part each grated horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise seasoned with salt and cayenne to taste.
Soak two matzo crackers in water; drain and squeeze dry. Heat 2 tablespoons chicken fat, and sauté ¼ medium onion until golden brown. Add soaked matzos and cook and stir until the mixture “clears” the skillet. Cool. Add a teaspoon chopped parsley, a teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth teaspoon both ground pepper and nutmeg, two lightly beaten eggs and enough matzo meal (about a quarter cup) to make a soft dough. Let stand for several hours to swell. Shape into small balls. Fry in deep fat (assumedly not lard, jly) until golden brown. The balls can be formed and frozen before frying. (This recipe makes about 20 balls.)
“I grew up poor! We were so poor! Rupert, tell them!”
“They were so poor they had to piss in a bucket a block away!” Rupert said from the back porch, where he was working on the lawn mower.
“But we were proud!” Lucretia said. “My mother, she was the old Creole blood. She sold the calas on Dauphine, her apron white as an old nun, stiff as a young priest, and she’d go, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!” And all the girls who worked up in their rooms, they’d come down to get Mama Diart’s cakes for their gentlemen who were sleeping it off in the beds like they’d get the strong coffee from Monsoir’s. The bottle they had already.”
“We ate the rouge ser riz, all the time! If we were lucky, Mama would get the ham joint that Hector Monsoir had saved for her because you see he was secretly in love with Mama from a long time ago when she was so beautiful and slender like a dancer with her laughing eyes.”
“They were so poor, she had to share her brassiere with her sisters!” Rupert tried to crank the lawnmower, but failed and he cussed.
“But not like those beans they make now!” Lucretia shouted. “Pah! Those beans they make now they taste like those little wads of dough the Italians boil to put in that red gravy they make. Beans that have no bones, no flesh, no . . . spirit. They use those big long-nosed beans, those . . . what do they call them, yes, them kidney beans, the light-colored ones like a bean the white people in the country use to put on their meal bread.” She made a face like spitting. “And they should be pissed on! No, she used the little red beans she bought from old Helene on Magazine.”
“They were so poor, if her brothers didn’t wake up with bones, they didn’t have anything to play with!” Rupert pulled the cord and the mower cranked, coughing and spitting. He pushed it into the yard and began mowing.
“She would bring the beans home when she sold her cakes, put them in the big pot on the back of the stove with water enough over the joint and start the laundry for the ladies in the Quarter. All afternoon they’d soak, and she’d start the fire. She had the herbs, too, from the market on Decatur, and pepper. When we all got home she made the rice, and we would eat while all around us we could hear music play and see shadows dancing in the pretty rooms where the ladies sprayed perfumes on the pink lampshades.”