JACKSON, MS (YPI)—In an effort to reduce the theft of maintenance equipment, the City of Jackson has initiated a program of placing their more valuable pieces of machinery at “random and undisclosed” areas of the city until needed for upcoming projects.
“We are determined to protect the taxpayers’ property,” a spokesperson said, “and this method of dispersing machinery instead of keeping it in a vulnerable centralized location should greatly reduce the loss of expensive heavy equipment such as backhoes, trenchers and excavators.”
The location of the equipment, while “obvious to local residents” would be unknown to organized criminals who could steal and sell the machinery. “Some of these machines are worth a lot of money,” the spokesperson said, “and we need to protect them while they aren’t in use.” An estimated 75% of the city’s maintenance equipment is currently idle.
While most metro news outlets were quick to point out that this move is nothing more than a “frivolous” and “shamefully useless” effort, designed according to one periodical as “nothing more than a blatant attempt of the administration to draw attention away from its legal entanglements”, a metro alternative weekly applauded what it called “the city’s bold and innovative new initiative”.
One Jackson resident said, “I just wish they’d leave the keys in them and provide me with a pile of asphalt mix.”
Ellen Gilchrist’s body was found spread-eagled, her blouse torn open, and her hair spread out around her head on a grassy hillside. Her neck was discolored by strangulation, and the shoulder-bag she carried was open with the contents spilled on the grass: open lipstick, a purse, compact, nail-file, chewing gum, perfume, keys, address book, earrings and a hair brush.
Ellen’s murder was virtually identical to that of Deborah Harrison, another schoolgirl who had met her death at the hands of the perpetrator in Peter Robinson’s 1996 mystery Innocent Graves, the eighth in a series of novels about Yorkshire police Inspector Banks. Robinson was born in England, and after getting his BA in English Literature, he moved to Canada, where he got his master’s degree in English and creative writing. He started writing his Banks books series in 1987, and so far he has currently 24 books written, with a latest one published in 2016 with the title When The Music’s Over.
Whether Robinson is at all familiar with Mississippi writer Ellen Gilchrist (who I’m happy to say is still very much alive), while certainly a possibility, is a matter of debate, though if he does know of Gilchrist, that raises the question of why he would have a character with her very same name as the victim of a homicidal pedophile. When we run up on such coincidences (if indeed that’s what this is, a coincidence) what are we left to do but wonder, or perhaps speculate for a moment before dismissing it as another one of life’s mysteries.
Food rarely plays a significant role in fiction, but when it does the part has a specific function. Adam Gopnik, in a his article “Cooked Books” (The New Yorker, April 9, 2007), points out that there are four kinds of food in books: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”
As an example for a writer who uses food in fiction to illuminate character, which seems to be its predominant use in fiction, Gopnik serves up Proust. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”
This Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home he describes in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”), as does Eudora Welty, whose novel Delta Wedding, in itself the most lyrical evocation of life in the Mississippi Delta on the eve of or in the 1920s, a delightful, warm-hearted and spellbindingly-written work, is a Southern (perhaps “the most Southern”) smorgasbord. Though three main meals are described, a rehearsal supper, the wedding feast itself and a picnic afterwards, people are eating all the time on almost every page of this book, and a listing could very well be offered as a textbook example of foods served in a well-to-do household during the Coolidge administration. In both instances, the food is a prop, a signature of their collective character, not a judgement.
Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane (likely left on the porch for the children to peel and chew), homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, “Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it”, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), the patty cake gift for George Fairchild (made with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him), licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger Stage Planks, bananas and cheese, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (likely yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopia (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits (an “aristocratic” Eastern seaboard recipe: i.e. blistered biscuits), chicken salad, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelons and greens.
As much as I want to call this a complete list, it likely is not. When it comes Welty, who is subtle and understated, it’s easy to miss things; read it again.
This is an excerpt from Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, written by his step-son Malcolm Franklin and published in an exclusive edition by The Society for the Study of Traditional Culture in 1977. Franklin is a capable story-teller himself.
One of the most frequent questions that people ask me about Faulkner is about his writing routine and writing habits. Pappy really had no set routine. He worked in an apparently erratic manner. I do know one very important fact. He never carried a notebook or made any notes. He did not at any time carry a pencil or paper. He seemed to work largely from memory and observation.
He had a small portable typewriter that was presented to him by an old sailing friend, Jim Devine, whom he had known in New York in the late twenties. To this very day it remains in what is now known as Pappy’s Office at Rowan Oak. I always associate it with Pappy’s noisy periods, the ones that let us all know Pappy was at work. During what we referred to as his silent days, he used pen and ink. On such days you could not be sure whether he was writing or not. It was all very quiet. No telephone, no radio and no doorbell! These were forbidden items. All you could hear were the sounds from the woods beyond the formal gardens and the barnyard. The dogs would bark. A rooster who had lost the time of day might unexpectedly crow. Cows would occasionally let out a low moo reminding those in charge that milking time was near. Otherwise, only silence; for we were too far from the road and out of the way for the sounds of traffic to interfere.
Then there would be the times I would see Pappy walking along the driveway, perhaps headed for a walk down Old Taylor Road, in the direction of Thacker’s Mountain, some six miles away. It was not out of the ordinary for Pappy to cover the distance between Thacker’s Mountain and back in one afternoon. Quite often I would go along, riding the small quarter horse that Pappy had given me, Dan Patch. Pappy, of course, walked through the woods, and by the time I reached Thacker’s Mountain by the road, there would be Pappy sitting on top of one of the large boulders, perfectly still, not saying a word. I would ask, “Pappy, would you like to ride Dan Patch back and let me walk?” “No,” he would always answer, preferring to go through the woods rather than by the road. Upon returning to Rowan Oak he would not say a word. Instead he would go straight to the library, or to his bedroom, where he had a small writing table. And then you would know he was writing. Even in the silence.
Another trait of his which took him outdoors but was still connected with his writing was squirrel hunting. Every fall, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and often on weekday afternoons, too, Pappy and I would hunt squirrels—always at least one mile from Rowan Oak. The squirrel we were after in particular was the fox squirrel. Unlike the ordinary gray squirrel, who carelessly slits about, the fox squirrel demands great patience from the hunter, for he will sit perched motionless on a limb for long intervals at a time. The hunter must outsit the fox squirrel. If he waits long enough, in absolute silence, the squirrel will show himself in a vulnerable position. It was during these long periods of utter silence that I believe Pappy did a great deal of his thinking about the plots and characters he was writing about. He never said anything about it. However, many times when we arrived back at Rowan Oak he would say to me, “Buddy, would you dress out my squirrels? Or have Broadus dress them out for me?” I would reply, “Certainly, Pappy,” and then he would disappear, and I would hear the typewriter going for the rest of the morning. Other times he would come on back and dress out the squirrels with me.
We would never have more than two or three each at the most. Pappy brought me up never to kill more than we would need. Further, to make our stay in the woods longer and more of a sport, Pappy and I had a pact where we would only shoot for the head. We kept an old tin tobacco box with a slit in the top. Either of us who hit a squirrel anywhere but the head had to put a quarter in the tobacco box. When it was full, we bought a bottle of bourbon with it. Preferably Jack Daniel’s. Despite the fact that there have been many stories told about Faulkner’s drinking habits, including the statement, in many cases, that he was an alcoholic, he was not. It is a fact that he was a hard drinker. But only on occasion. And during a period of twenty-five or more years of close association, I never observed Faulkner’s drinking heavily while he was actively writing.
Faulkner gave a well-deserved reply to columnist Betty Beale of The Washington Star, whose society gossip column was widely read. She asked for the largest number of words he had penned on one day. His answer, printed in the June 14, 1954 column, clearly showed his attitude when he was asked a stupid question He gave an absurd answer: That he had climbed to the crib of the barn one morning with his paper, pencil and a quart of whiskey, and pulled the ladder up behind him; when daylight began to fail, he realized he had torn off five thousand words. In our barn at Rowan Oak there was no crib overhead—only a hay loft with no retractable ladder.
When he had completed a particularly long and involved piece of writing he would take a Sabbatical, indulging heavily in his favorite bourbon. Perhaps it might last a month or six weeks. Quite often the last week of his binge I would spend driving him around Lafayette, Marshall, Yalobusha and Panola Counties. In the summertime we would drive in my jeep. In the wintertime the excursions would take place in a closed car. He would sit there in the front seat, viewing the countryside. But sometimes he would carry on a very animated conversation with me in which he showed his love for and knowledge of that section of North Mississippi. He would point out places he had drawn on for certain incidents in his books or stories. Thus, I know exactly the location of As I Lay Dying, which is southeast of Oxford on the south side of the Yocona River. The location of one of his best stories, “The Hound”, is northeast of Oxford in the Tallahatchie River bottom, in a locality known as Riverside. On one long drive we made together in my jeep, he said, “This is where ‘The Bear’ took place.” We were passing through the old Stone place, between the Sunflower and Tallahatchie Rivers, some seventeen miles southwest of the old river town known as Panola, situated a few miles north of Batesville in Panola County. It was in the late fall, I believe, and we had been hunting at Mr. Bob Carrier’s plantation, where Pappy took Clark Gable to hunt once in the late 1930s.
On our return trip to Rowan Oak that evening, we travelled along an old, dusty road. Cotton stood on either side of the road, but much shorter and scrawnier than that we had passed earlier, around Batesville and Clarksdale in the Delta country. Pappy had noted there that some of the cotton had been picked by hand, some by machine—this was one of the earliest occasions, if not the earliest, that we had seen machine-picked cotton fields. Now from the road we could glimpse the tops of the trees in the river bottom beyond the fields—just a faint outline against the fast fading evening. From Pappy’s silence I realized, as we had rolled along this country road, that he was headed towards his typewriter again, and that soon I would be hearing once more the tap-tap sounds that so often penetrated the quiet darkness of Rowan Oak at odd hours during the night.
Dog Days at this latitude (Jackson is 32.2988° N) begin between July 22-August 3 with the rise of Sirius, the Dog Star, and lasts for about forty days. Sirius, Orion’s hound, faces Taurus in a brilliant constellation, and it’s just hot as hell all the damn time.
Now that I’m safely in Virginia you want my impressions of Jackson. I should say first that when I moved to the city eight months ago my life and experiences provided my only perspective, but nothing prepared me for Jackson, Mississippi. I’m still not sure if it’s because that is as far South as I’ve ever been (or want to be again, to be honest) or because Jackson itself is so sullen and isolated.
The city is frozen; those capable of formulating effective fixes for the neighborhoods of row upon row of abandoned/half-demolished houses and the economic riptide washing away businesses from the city are bound and gagged by their racial, familial and petty political connections. Even compared to the rest of Mississippi, Jackson seems narrow-minded, racially divided and culturally backwards, and it’s hard for me as an outsider to understand why. Jackson reminds me of a once-thriving outpost of some diminishing empire that with a loss of trade and population has begun to erode and decay, leaving only those structures that house an indifferent government and an inefficient bureaucracy as well as places of worship blind to suffering and deaf to prayers.
I found that there is literally a black side of the street and a white side of the street, and folks of both complexions will gawp at you if you are on the wrong sidewalk. A city councilman can patronize three-star eateries yet demand that his constituency throw bricks at the patrol cars from neighboring towns and counties when they pursue thieves and drug dealers into his ward. The waitress filling your cup at a coffee shop will complain about the racist environment permeating Jackson and in the next breath whisper some platitude concerning the unfitness of black people for civilized society.
Jackson is just a bunch of piebald people huddled together on the banks of a dirty river for safety, but there nothing is safe. Children are shot through the walls of their homes while sleeping. What should be a treasure is instead a wallow of swine and cormorants.
“Rez” Barbie comes with mid‐life crisis Ken and an SUV with stick figure family depicted in rear window and Republican candidate bumper stickers as well as a mega church membership and directions to the nearest wine shop in Hinds or Madison County. Options include a black party dress and a Xanax prescription.
Manufactured outside Rankin County, “Flo” Barbie drives a Chevy Tahoe with multiple private school stickers on back window. Options include a tennis outfit, an IPhone 6s with a permanent hand attachment, matching earbuds, a Shih Tzu and a Kroger grocery cart with pineapple.
West Pearl Barbie
This pale model comes dressed in her own Wrangler jeans two sizes too small, a NASCAR t-shirt and Tweety bird tattoo on her shoulder. She has a six-pack of Bud Lite and a Hank Williams Jr. CD set. She can spit over 5 feet and kick mullet-haired Ken’s ass when she is drunk. Purchase her pickup truck separately and get a Confederate flag bumper sticker absolutely free.
East Pearl Barbie
This tobacco-chewing, brassy-haired Barbie has a pair of her own high-heeled sandals with one broken heel from the time she chased beer-gutted Ken out of Brandon Barbie’s house. Her ensemble includes low-rise acid-washed jeans, fake fingernails and a see-through halter-top. Also available with pink trim mobile home.
This outdoors Barbie comes with her own kayak and Ducks Unlimited Ken as well as a Longleaf camo outfit, a pair of Merrell Reflex Waterproof Hikers and an L.L. Bean backpack. Options include a Browning Citori 725, a Magellan GPS and a pedigree water Spaniel.
This anorexic teen Barbie comes with a revoked driver’s license, Stage Mother Barbie and an alcoholic closeted Ken. Options include an NYX Cosmetics Soho Glam makeup kit, skin tight Daisy Dukes, ten pairs of glitter high heels and a pregnancy test.
This Barbie has jet black straightened hair, over-plucked, drawn-on eyebrows, a LOVE tattoo on her neck, skin tight jeans, a fitted tank top and fringed soft cowboy boots. Her Meth Head Unshaven Ken has a Yeti logo tattoo, an NRA tattoo, and a recently-added Trump tattoo. Options include a voicebox reocrding with “Come back here, you motherfucker!” and a traumatized Baby Ken.
Thank you for submitting your work, The Existential Tomato, to the University Press of Missitucky. I want to assure you that your book did receive a great deal of consideration.
The title itself was subject to intense study. Our assistant senior editors, Mr. Stanley Pastel and Ms. Judith Brawn, engaged in a lively debate on whether a vegetable can be considered “existential” with Mr. Pastel contending that it’s not the vegetable itself that is existential but rather the perception of the vegetable that is of an existential nature whereupon Ms. Brawn threatened to tear the rug off his head and flush it down the toilet in the ladies’ room. Ms. Ergot, who manages most of our culinary titles, said that while The Existential Tomato does have many farm-to-table aspects, the recipes for the most part seem to be more in the grandmère à petit enfant vein, which while certainly a valid culinary movement is very little known and even less understood in this country. I must say that the graphics editor, Mr. Wing, was quite enthusiastic, and prepared no less than nine prospective covers, none of which had anything remotely resembling a tomato. The copy editor, Mr. Rupert, said that your writing, while crisp and clean, not only had too many semi-colons and long dashes, but was peppered with such unfamiliar words as “macerate”. At this point the senior editor, Mr. Crabtree, had what we politely refer to as an “incident” and had to be taken by our receptionist, Ms. Harcourt, to the showers in the women’s dorm across the street for assistance, and the meeting was adjourned until the next day.
In the final analysis, I’m sorry to say that The Existential Tomato while informative, amusing and illuminating of the state of mankind in the 21st century does not meet the criteria for our publishing house. We wish you the best of luck.
The day Jimmy went into rehab Debby put in a garden. I kept telling her it was too early, but Jimmy would be out in a month, and she wanted everything to look promising. He was in what once was a church to get rid of a demon, to build a future, and the very day he entered was sunny and warm.
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, a guy who was also the smallest football player in Mississippi ever to make All-State. 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 played on the same All-State team, and he 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 not much sun and a lot of rain. 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 said 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, and all I could do was be there.
“You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” she said. I didn’t. I was blinded by hope, too. I loved my brother Jimmy more than she did.
Hugh Dean Miller is one of those people who believe that there is a reason for everything, that his life is a juggernaut of nuts, bolts and impenetrable steel plates that steams without perturbation across the stormy waters of existence in pondering, placid faith of reaching an eventual haven. Hugh Dean is a man with supreme confidence that no rogue wave nor berg will sink him on his voyage through life, a man to be envied in many ways, but like most people who have such a secure mindset, he regularly finds himself beset by petty nuisances that present no impediment to the eventual success of his progress yet distract him to no end with their niggling, irritable inability to fit into his navigational chart. Such was the case when Hugh Dean and I were picking up some supplies for a party at Jolene’s and Hugh Dean stumbled upon a package of oyster crackers. “Jesse!” he shouted.
I was two aisles over picking up a case of Miller Lite, but I heard him clearly enough. “Get over here!” Knowing this would take a few minutes, I put the beer back into the cooler and joined Hugh Dean, who was grasping a sack of Premium oyster crackers in both hands, turning it over up and around, trying to read the ingredients, jiggling it to see the little crackers toss and tumble in the cellophane.
“Have you ever seen these?” he asked.
“Yes, Hugh Dean, those are oyster crackers. Some people put them in soups and stuff.”
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. I hear 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 sack back on the rack, and struck out in a determined stride down the aisle towards the beer cooler. “Jesse, let me tell you something,” he said over his shoulder. “There are some things in the world you just should 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 heard in three months.”