A decade after the trauma of the ’60s, Oxford settled into a laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater, full of good people with great ideas. The art scene was strong, and the town was full of bright, ambitious young businessmen. Oxford’s flowering of culture in the ’80s was seeded in that time. Those were halcyon years for me, as they were for many, many other people, and the Hoka was very much a part of it for us all.
Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in 1974. The theater was located across a parking lot from the Gin, the first among many restaurants and bars to open in Oxford after Lafayette County voted wet. The theater was set up in a long, corrugated building with a walkway that extended perhaps 2/3 its length on the west to street level north. A single door was at that end; midway was a short-roofed porch with a glass-paned double doorway. To the left of those doors was the Hoka logo, a winged Chickasaw princess, painted by a local academic artist. In time, many local artists would festoon the structure inside and out. The bathroom graffiti at the Hoka constituted nothing less than an anthropology seminar on local culture.
The auditorium seated perhaps 150-200 people, though our audiences were usually much smaller. The projection booth was up a short flight of stairs from a tiny untidy office, and the concession stand sold candy, popcorn, and soft drinks. We sold tickets from a roll atop what looked like a rough-hewn pulpit at the top of the sloping concrete floor. Inside the projection booth was a table for processing incoming film–checking it for tears, bad splices, twists, or crimps–and the projectors were twin 1936 carbon arc machines, which took a lot of practice with a complex procedure involving levers and foot pedals to switch from one reel to the other. A typical film might be on five or six reels.
I began working at the Hoka in 1977. Typically, in the early days, we’d have two showings, an early movie that started around 6 or 7, and a later feature beginning at 8 or 9, depending on the duration of the first. Later we started showing X-rated flicks at midnight, which caused quite a stir at the time, but were very popular and, of course, profitable.
Films were rented for three to four days, shipped in bulky hexagonal aluminum containers holding anywhere from one to three reels of 35mm film. Most often they were shipped by bus, and we’d pick them up at the Greyhound station on the corner of 10th and Van Buren, but at times we’d drive to Memphis. Once in the theater, the film had to be checked for tears, mended if needed, and then loaded on the antique projectors.
Ron was a good boss; pay could be erratic, but if I needed money, he’d give me enough to get what I needed or do what I wanted. Ron also taught me a lot, and I do mean a lot, about movies. At that time, in that part of the world, movies were still considered by most people to be nothing more than entertainment, but for Ron, as they were for many others like him who operated small independent “art cinemas” across the country, cinema was the leading art form of the 20th century, as well as a portal to other worlds.
Ron showed a lot of great cult movies by cutting-edge artists like John Waters, Russ Meyers, and William Castle. Several years later, Betty Blair Allen opened the Moonlight Café in the Hoka, and before long, it became a very special sort of place for dinner and a movie.
At a time when film was just coming into its own as an academic medium, Shapiro introduced generations of Ole Miss students to the works of Fellini, Wilder, Woody Allen, Capra, and Chaplain. Shapiro brought film as art to Oxford.
It was Willie Wallace–a jovial man with the presence of Jove–who started me out on the gumbo thing.
Willie was from somewhere down on the Coast, where of course he grew up eating gumbo, whereas in north Mississippi, the only gumbo I’d had was out of a red-and-white can. Willie was a big supporter of the Bean Blossom Bistro and he spent time there helping out. I remember vividly the day when Willie was hunkered down in a corner peeling potatoes, and Carol and I were talking about soups.
I think I was the one to mention a gumbo–mea culpa–and I started talking about how I’d make it and Willie looked up at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “So how did you say you did your roux?”
Well, I tried to bluff my way through, but it was all of about ten seconds before Carol and Willie both started howling, Out of this incident grew a determination to learn how to make a distinguished gumbo. I think I’ve succeeded, too. This recipe makes lots and lots
To begin the gumbo, make about a half cup of roux ( I use a “beer bottle” roux) toss in about three chopped white onions, two chopped bell peppers, and a half a bunch of celery chopped, leaves and all. Stir until the mixture has cooled slightly and the vegetables are coated.
Then add a quart of warm stock. though you’ll find disagreement on this point, chicken stock in various strengths–full for chicken and sausage, weak for seafood–works just fine, dammit. Stir this mixture vigorously until the roux has been assimilated and the mixture begins to thicken. Transfer to a heavy six to eight quart pot, add another quart of the stock and put the pot over a low flame with a buster and stir frequently.
After this mixture has begun to thicken, add another quart of stock, three tablespoons of minced garlic, and another chopped onion. Let this mixture cook until the onions begin falling apart. Then add one pound canned diced tomatoes and a pound of frozen okra–thawed, sliced and rinsed okra.
At this point, add about three heaping tablespoons of dried basil, fresh or dried chopped parsley, a bunch of chopped green onions, two tablespoons of leaf thyme, and a tablespoon each of oregano, black pepper, white pepper, and a teaspoon of cayenne. Blend this very well and adjust your liquid. Leave on low heat for an hour or so, then off the heat and cover.
Take about two pounds of small shrimp (20-25 ct.), and sauté with olive oil and garlic (I tend to have a heavy hand with the garlic; use your own discretion). Add the shrimp to the gumbo mixture. Take about a dozen small (3-5 oz.) catfish fillets (you can use any non-oily fish, but where I come from catfish is good and plentiful). Cut them into one inch chunks and poach until just done. Add to the gumbo mixture along with two dozen poached oysters.
Bring back up to heat, being extremely careful not to scorch the bottom of the pot. (I can’t emphasize the importance of using a flame buster.) If the gumbo seems too thick, add a little more liquid. Adjust your salt and pepper. Serve over rice with a bare sprinkling of filé powder,
To make a chicken gumbo, use a full-flavored chicken stock, omit the tomatoes and add a tablespoon of sage to the spice mixture. You can add sausage to either the seafood or the chicken gumbo, but I prefer it in the chicken. In either case, blanch the sausage first so it won’t get too greasy.
This is my gumbo. It’s a good one because it follows precepts; know the rules before you break them. With presence of mind, you will find your own gumbo.
To have Angelo Mistilis teach you how to cook onions is on the level of having Yo-Yo Ma show you how to tune a bull fiddle. Angelo has without doubt cooked more onions than anyone in the state of Mississippi on that seasoned grill in his restaurant on College Hill Road in Lafayette County and served them up to generations of Oxonians, Ole Miss students and assorted riff-raff on his legendary hamburger steaks. Thanks Lisa for sharing this gem.
Willie Morris is one of Mississippi’s most beloved authors, particularly due to his homespun WWII memoir, My Dog Skip (1995).
Morris is less fondly remembered for his autobiographical North Toward Home (1967; written when Morris was all of 29), which was hailed by the Sunday (London) Times as “the finest evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain”, but was damned with faint praise by the Sunday (NewYork) Times as though “lacking in focus” was “well-written.”
Then there’s The Courting of Marcus Depree (1983), which Christopher Lehmann-Haupt says that, “Instead of catching a story by the tail, Willie Morris staggers around, lunging after whatever happens to catch his eye.” (“Lurching” would have been more apt.)
Morris’s early successes as editor of Harper’s led to early failure. After his summary dismissal by John Cowles, Jr., the scion of the conservative family that owned the magazine over a dispute about the publisher meddling in editorial operations in 1971, Willie hit the skids. He bummed around Long Island for a while, soaking up booze with the likes of Craig Claiborne, whom he recklessly advised to write an embarrassing memoir.
He then he came home to Mississippi, to Oxford, the literary nipple of Mississippi, where he quickly became the central figure of a dissolute group of rakes and hangers-on who trolled the bars in varying degrees of pixilation and retired to his home at closing time for late-night revels with Willie as the Prince des Sots.
At that time, I was working at The Warehouse, a restaurant in Oxford that saw its heyday in the early 80s, where James Ruffin was the head cook. Garrulous and scrappy, James scared the hell out of me when I came to work there as his right-hand-man. James was blind in one eye, as I am, so I figured between us we would get along like those old women from myth who shared a single eye.
And we did, working together in a cramped, noisy, hot kitchen. We came to know and trust each other well. The last time I saw him was the day after the Warehouse burned in the wee hours of February 15, 1986. When he died many years later, our old boss Frank Odom let me know, and I was saddened. James was a good man who lived a hard life.
The Warehouse enjoyed a somewhat upscale reputation and business was good. Now, after-hour diners are always an irritant to restaurant staff, but they hold big appeal for management who enjoy enabling significant people to entertain themselves and their significant friends after the riff-raff have gone and a strategic table can be commanded.
Willie Morris always came in at closing time with a number of his adherents to occupy the big round table in the southwest corner of the floor, far enough away from the noisy bar where Willie could hold court without distraction. The management always alerted us that they were coming, which gave me and James ample time to halt our closing procedures and grumble until the table had been seated and lubricated with ample rounds.
Almost invariably, Willie ordered the calf’s liver, which came to us pre-sliced and individually quick-frozen. A serving consisted of two 4-oz. slices of liver, dusted with seasoned flour and cooked on a well-oiled griddle and served with potatoes and a small salad. At $9.95, it was our cheapest entrée.
Cooked properly, a seared slice of liver is a wonderful thing. But it takes a little consideration, and by 11 p.m., James and I were on our last legs of the day. His wife had been waiting for him in the parking lot for an hour (he couldn’t drive at night), and I had less than 30 minutes to have a beer with my friends at the Rose before it shut down. So when it came time to prepare Willie’s liver, James put a griddle iron on it and let it cook while we mopped the floor. The end result was leather. Neither the besotted nor the hungover Morris ever complained.
This grumpery against Morris can easily be dismissed as carping of the pettiest sort, but one day I was in the Gin, a landmark Oxford restaurant and watering-hole. At the bar, in his usual corner on the south end, sat Doxie Kent Williford, one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever known and one of the very few openly gay men in Oxford at the time. You rarely heard Doxie say an unkind word about anyone (including Willie Morris), and he was regarded with affection not only by the staff in the Gin, but by many Oxford residents and students.
I remember it was a late afternoon. Willie came through the swinging doors with his entourage and characteristic bonhomie. They settled in at a large table in the center of the floor. Not a half-hour passed then Willie, in a very loud voice, said, “Look at that faggot at the end of the bar!” and snickered.
The room fell silent. Doxie put his head in his hands, asked for his check and left. Willie laughed more at that and resumed telling whatever impressive lie he had launched upon earlier. We were all in shock, and I tried to follow Doxie out to say something, but he left in a hurry. He was back the next day, but refused to talk about it. I let it go for then, but after forty years, Willie’s gross incivility remains a defining moment of his corrupt, dissolute character.
Season liver with salt and pepper, sear in light oil, turning once until just done and set aside; working quickly, add more oil, increase heat, add clove of crushed garlic and a half an onion, sliced into slivers or rings. Layer liver atop vegetables and cover for about five minutes, or until the meat is firm. Invert to serve.
My family’s New Year’s celebrations always included fireworks and black-eyed peas. Many of the fireworks were left over from my father’s superb Christmas collection, which contained the usual array of bottle rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers, but he always had a few fire fountains and a loud sparkling rocket or four put away for the last night in December.
The peas, which we had on the table pretty much year-round, assumed an incandescence all their own that night as signatures of memory and rapport.
Our freedom of worship brought many people to this country. Among the earliest were Jews who had endured centuries of barely tolerable hardships. Many Sephardic Jews settled in South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana.
In time, this custom spread to their New World neighbors who were already familiar with the bean (yes, a black-eyed pea is a bean) but doubtless confused as to why the Jews celebrated New Year so early and didn’t use a ham bone in their peas like everyone else did. Still, the tradition caught on and endures as evidence of the South’s many-layered and multifaceted culinary heritage.
This is another recipe I made at the Harvest Cafe in Oxford, a vegetarian restaurant on the corner of Jackson and South 10th. On the brunch shift, I’d make soup specials, which was always a challenge, because the black bean chili was outstanding and one of the most popular dishes.
Under duress, I rose to the occasion and in a memorable effort made a gumbo using black-eyed peas. This combination of peas and okra in a thickened, richly-seasoned stock with aromatic vegetables and tomatoes seemed a good combination for our clientele; most people who ordered soup wanted something warm and filling around Sunday lunch time, and this recipe seemed a good alternative to the favorite chili.
My idea received a guarded reservations; when my boss, John Anderson, asked me what he needed to put on the blackboard as the soup of the day, I said “black-eyed pea gumbo.” He blinked his eyes behind those big glasses he wears, slowly nodded his head and said, “Okay”, which in my experience with this gentle man I recognized skepticism of a profound and imponderable nature.
Jennie Lee, my co-worker, asked me if I’d lost my mind, but she’s from Charleston, was more perloo than gumbo. She also didn’t sign my paychecks.
Besides, the dish was well underway. I’d made a good brown roux with vegetable oil and our lightest flour, added minced garlic, chopped onions, celery and bell pepper. This primordial goo I combined with a good base made with vegetable stock, basil, thyme, oregano and bay. Not only that, but I’d been soaking the peas since happy hour the day before, and they were simmering on a back eye. I also had two packages of organic okra stashed in a refrigerator in the back; these were expensive contraband (imagine the price of a frozen package of organic okra in 1995 Mississippi), but essential to my enterprise.
The okra I rinsed under warm water before adding it to the pot to relieve it of ropy-ness. The peas I drained but kept the liquid. After adding the peas and okra to the pot, I started adding the liquid to achieve a good consistency (I like it thickish, but with a good juice) then added two small drained cans of diced tomatoes that I’d smuggled in from James’ Food Store. Once that was done, I began adjusting the seasonings, and finally put the gumbo in a serving pan on the line.
Of course, John ordered the first bowl. His critique was just as laconic as his first, but delivered with a smile, which I took as a positive sign. This interpretation was confirmed when the orders started coming in, many for the gumbo. This earned me a grateful nod from my co-workers, since pouring something in a bowl and sending it out the window is one of the less stressful acts you can perform in a busy kitchen.
Before the end of the shift, John was gracious enough to come into the kitchen and say, “They loved your gumbo. How did you make it?”
This recipe comes from the Harvest Café in Oxford. We always served it with a dollop of sour cream and sides of (brown) rice and dense crusty bread we got from some stoner in Abbeville. It was a substantial dish. The tomatoes were optional depending who was cooking and how hungover, but were always added after the beans were cooked; this is crucial: if you add tomatoes or salt before, the beans will toughen and sour.
1 lb. black beans 2 medium white onions finely chopped 5 cloves garlic, minced 1 4 oz. can chopped green chilies 4 poblanos diced 1 can diced tomatoes, drained (optional) 2 tablespoons ground cumin 2 tablespoons paprika 2 tablespoons chili powder 1 teaspoon black pepper corn oil Salt
Sort and rinse beans, place in a heavy metal pot with six cups water (or vegetable stock) and bring to a rolling boil for fifteen minutes. Reduce heat, add onions, garlic and chilies; simmer until beans are soft, adding liquid as needed. Season, add tomatoes if you want, and cook on low heat. Add a slash of corn oil for consistency. Salt to taste. Provide more heat on the table, pico de gallo or a pepper sauce, and toppings: diced avocado, fresh chopped cilantro, diced red onion, jalapeños, and/or serranos.
Homemade soups should grace our tables more often; they’ve fed body and soul long before canning came along, and a good soup made with stout stock and proper care is a measure of the cook.
Gazpacho is a king of cold soups, an easily-made, refreshing and to most minds somewhat novel way to serve fresh summer vegetables. Old recipes of this dish always include bread as one of the basic ingredients, usually melded early on with oil, salt and garlic into something resembling a paste. While my recipe does not include bread at that juncture–to me, it gums up the soup–take it from someone who crumbles cold cornbread over his, bread is a service requirement, and any well-textured bread will do.
This recipe is from my halcyon days in Oxford, which was an intoxicating environment, doubly augmented by the wine of youth itself. I was desultorily studying for a degree, diligently exploring my capacities for vice, and desolately working in a string of eateries, among them The Bean Blossom Bistro, by some reckoning the first health-food restaurant in Oxford. It was located on Jackson Avenue across from the old telephone exchange. The Good Food Store, Oxford’s first health-food store—then in its second incarnation—was on the corner next door. Carol Davis opened the Bean Blossom in 1978. We had worked together at the old Moonlight Café, which Betty Blair had opened up in the Hoka a couple of years earlier. Carol and I became fast friends during that time, and when she opened up her own place, she brought me with her.
The Bean Blossom, like so many small restaurants, was founded more on good intentions than experience. I don’t think we ever seated more than fifty people at one time, and usually far, far less. The kitchen could barely hold more than three people. Our menu changed daily, though we could always whip up a tofu burger, or a veggie stir-fry or a great salad any time you wanted it. Carol introduced me to a lot of new foods, including adzuki beans, which I cook like cowpeas, and tofu, which I of course deep-fry.
She also brought gazpacho into my world, and for that I am evermore grateful. I remember dipping the soup from a bucket in the bottom of our double-door refrigerator, a sheen of oil glistening atop the mixture. We served it with a variety of breads, and each bowl I eat now is a serving of nostalgia. Like memories themselves, this soup improves with age, but sours if mishandled.
Bean Blossom Gazpacho
Take two or three cloves of garlic, mince very, very finely and mash in the bottom of a glass or enamel bowl with a teaspoon of salt and about a half a cup of olive oil. If you want to try adding bread, now is the time, but I can’t make a recommendation as to what kind. Add in fine dice one yellow onion, three very ripe summer tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, two ribs celery (with leaves), and a sweet pepper if you like, though be careful, since the pepper can overpower the other vegetables; a sweet yellow banana pepper works well. If you want to add a hot pepper such as a jalapeno, fine, but I don’t recommend heat; this is a cooling dish, and should be refreshing rather than pungent. Likewise, starchy vegetables such as fresh corn or peas seem out-of-place to me as well, though there are countless variations.
Add another teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cumin, a teaspoon of fresh basil, a heaping tablespoon of freshly-chopped parsley, a teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper and a bit more olive oil, perhaps a tablespoon. Add a vegetable juice such as V8; tomato juice is too thick. Let this mixture sit for a couple of hours in the refrigerator in a sealed non-metallic container overnight. An hour before serving, add more juice if needed, a little fresh chopped parsley, adjust the salt and pepper and return to the refrigerator. Serve in chilled bowls (freshly chopped chives are a nice touch) with good crusty bread.
In this excerpt from her (somewhat fictionalized) Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady (1985), self-confessed misanthrope Florence King—celebrated by conservatives and liberals alike for her arsenical wit—renders a somewhat breezy and most definitely catty account of her brief career as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi in 1958. She wrote Confessions in graduate school, which she never finished after embarking on a career as a writing putative first-person stories for pulp magazines like Uncensored Confessions. (Her first: “My God! I’m Too Passionate for My Own Good!”) Many might find her impressions of Ole Miss in the late ‘50s of interest, and fans will like the way King lays the overwhelmingly Southern-ness of Oxford on with a trowel. This selection also describes the beginnings of her passionate love affair with a young woman who was killed in a car accident shortly afterwards.
My South was a region of narrow red brick Federalist houses and vast rolling acres of cobblestones. I had never seen naked children playing with a dead snake, nor a four-year-old standing up to nurse at the breast of a mother seated on a porch, but these riveting sights were mine from the window of the Memphis-Oxford bus.
Oxford itself was a pretty town with a courthouse on the square and a Confederate statue in front of it. It was almost dark when the bus pulled into the depot. As I got off, a taxi driver spotted me for a student and jumped forward, tipping his cap.
“Carry you up to campus, l’il lady?”
His idiom for “drive” was another first; for a moment I visualized myself arriving in a swoon in his skinny arms. He loaded my luggage and I gave him the name of the dorm the dean had assigned me to.
“That’s Miz Arvella’s dorm,” he said, referring to the housemother the dean had mentioned. “A fine woman.”
Proctors had to arrive two days earlier than the other students, so the campus was empty and unlighted when he pulled up before a dimly outlined rectangular house set in a copse of dark overhanging trees. In the tradition of Gothic paperback covers, one light burned in the house. The driver shone his headlights on the walk so I could see and I mounted the porch and rang the bell. I heard footsteps and then the door opened.
“Hey, Miz Arvella!” the driver cried happily.
“Hey, Mistuh Reece! How you doin’? How you been? You have a good summuh?” She turned to me. “You must be Flarnz. Are you Flarnz? Are you the proctuh named Flarnz? They said you wuh comin’ tonight. The Dean said to me this mornin’, she said, ‘Flarnz is comin’ tonight.’ Did you get heah awright? How you doin’?”
Everybody started talking at once; the driver answering his questions, I answering mine, and Miz Arvella asking more. It made walking through the door difficult: other people enter houses but Southerners surge in on wings of speech. Miz Arvella was the same age and shape as every other old lady I had ever known, but there was nonetheless something un-Daughterly about her. The word “askew” came to mind. I was used to rigidly glued gray fingerwaves and personalities to match, but Miz Arvella looked as if she had been cut out of her own speech pattern.
I reminded myself that I was getting a free private room out of this. Miz Arvella took me upstairs and showed it to me as the driver followed behind with my bags. It was huge and attractively furnished and sans Granny-my first room-of-one’s own. I paid the driver and he left me alone with the fine woman.
“Come on down aftuh you wash up. We’ll have us some coffee and Ah’ll explain your duties,” she said, and waddled out.
I washed up and looked out the window but could see nothing except an amber patch made by my own light; beyond it lay the wet black velvet of a Southern night. It was as still as death, yet there was something pervasively alive about it, a sense of things unseen moving among the trees on soundless wings. No wonder so many of the early settlers had gone mad. (“One Nathaniel Upton was floggèd for shewing himself in publick unclothed.”)
I went downstairs to join Miz Arvella. She led me to a little room with a wall board that contained buzzers and corresponding room numbers. Next to the board was the proctor’s desk and a table containing the sign-out book. According to the dean’s letter, I was to alternate odd and even nights with Miz Arvella, each of us having every other weekend off. There was very little to do and I could study at the desk once the girls were out on their dates. I had to check them in, keep track of late records and grace periods, chase any boys out of the lounge when the witching hour struck, and lock the doors.
As a woman of legal age, I had no curfew. I could go out after I locked the magnolia blossoms in, and stay out all night if I wished. My job entitled me to a key to the dorm, which Miz Arvella issued me now.
Next she explained the buzzer system. This is what she said:
“When a guhl has a phone call, you know what Ah mean, when the telephone rings, when somebody is callin’ huh up. When a guhl has a phone call, you press huh bell once. When she has a calluh, when a boy comes in to get huh, you know what Ah’m tryin’ to say, when they’ve got a date that night and he picks huh up, when he comes in and asks for huh in puhson ‘stead of callin’ on the phone, you unnerstand what Ah mean? When she has a calluh, then you press huh bell twice. That way, she knows whethuh she’s got a phone call or a calluh. ‘Cause see, if she has a calluh and you press huh bell once ‘stead of twice, she’ll think it’s a call ‘stead of a calluh. She’d come downstairs in huh dressin’ gown with huh hair up in cullahs, and there stands huh calluh, just standin’ there right in front of huh just as big as life. She’d just die of embarrassment, you know what Ah mean, she’d just fall down dead is what Ah’m sayin’, she’d just perish!”
She invited me to dinner in her apartment but I pleaded travel fatigue and escaped to my room. I poured myself a drink from Herb’s Prohibition flask, which he had filled with Scotch and given me for a going-away present. I heard the phone ring in Miz Arvella’s bedroom. A call, not a calluh. I put my hair up in cullahs, had another drink-you know what I mean, I poured some more whiskey out of the flask and drank it is what I’m saying—and fell into bed.
I slept twelve hours and awoke to the kind of morning that can turn night people into morning people. The warm sunny air was so fresh and sweet that I actually stuck my head out the window and inhaled. Ole Miss had a bona fide campusy look that my city college had striven for and missed. It was enough to make a graduate student feel like a co-ed at last, instead of the strangely haunted, secret-drinking proctor of Miz Arvella.
No sooner did this thought pass through my mind than I heard a tap at my door.
“Flarnz? You there, Flarnz? Come on down and have breakfast. Miz Zaviola’s heah. She’s one of the othuh housemothuhs and she’s just dyin’ to meet you.”
I was starving to death, so with two of us in extremis there was no reason to try and get out of it. I dressed and went downstairs, sniffing appreciatively at the aroma of Miz Arvella’s home-baked biscuits.
The other housemother looked more like my kind of old lady but she sounded exactly like Miz Arvella. This is what she said over breakfast:
“When Ah heard they wuh lettin’ the freshmen guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy, Ah saw the handwritin’ on the wall. Ah said to myself Ah said Ah can just see the handwritin’ on the wall if they let those guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy. Ah said the same thing to one of the mothuhs that called me. She asked me what did Ah think about them lettin’ the freshmen guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy and Ah said to huh Ah said Ah can just see the handwritin’ on the wall.”
My stomach was shaking. I was sorry because I had always enjoyed old ladies and I wanted to enjoy these, but I had to escape the echo chamber. As soon as I could politely do so, I excused myself and went for a walk around the campus. It was nearly deserted without the students but I had an imaginary companion. As we strolled through the grove in front of the white-columned Lyceum, Somerset Maugham whispered in my ear: “It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with equal zest.”
Maybe. Probably. But there was something a little too sweeping about Willie’s theory. The most feminine temperament I had ever encountered belonged to Evelyn Cunningham, but though she was a chatterbox, she was not a repeating rifle. No matter how much she talked she always moved forward, usually too fast; her needle never got stuck. Compared to Miz Arvella and Miz Zaviola, Evelyn was taciturn.
I stayed out as long as I could, but with the campus closed and no car to take me into town I was thrown back on the dorm. That meant having my meals with Miz Arvella because I want to emphasize this-she was what the South calls “a good soul.” She would give you half of anything she had to eat and three of everything she had to say.
As long as I had to endure her echolalia, I decided to analyze it. Perhaps she had been the youngest in a large family and had trouble getting people to listen to her. When she told me she was the oldest of seven and had raised her siblings after their mother’s untimely death, I decided that her thrice-told tales sprang from saying “No, no, no” to children while she herself was still a child. When both housemothers told me their late husbands had been farmers, I blamed isolation in the country with laconic men. This did not explain the absence of echolalia in farmwives in other parts of America, especially New England, but by then I was in no condition to pick a fight with myself.
All of my theories collapsed on the first day of school when the dorm was invaded by girls and mothers from every part of Mississippi, representing every social background and sibling rank, who all said everything at least three times.
“Well, lemme tell you, Ah’ve been on the horns of a dilemma evva since we got up this mornin’ to drive Tulaplee up heah from Jaspah City. Ah’ve nevva seen a fuhst day like this one. Ah tole Jimmy Lee while we wuh drivin’ up heah, Ah said Jimmy Lee Ah said, Ah’m on the horns of a dilemma, that’s what Ah tole him. When we got to Clarksdale, Tulaplee remembuhed that she forgot huh opal necklace and we had to tuhn right around and go back home and get it. By the time we got stahted again, Ah was on the horns of a dilemma the likes of which you have nevva seen.”
“Mary Lou’s upstairs just cryin’ huh eyes out ’cause it’s the fuhst time she’s evva been away from home. But Ah tole huh, Ah said Mary Lou Ah said, there’s no point cryin’ your eyes out ’cause there comes a time when the Mama bird pushes the babies out of the nest. You know what Ah mean, Ah said Mary Lou Ah said, Nature tells the Mama bird to push the babies out of the nest, so you hadn’t ought to cry your eyes out like that, ’cause the time has come for you to leave the nest, that’s what Ah tole huh. But she kept cryin’ huh eyes out, so I went and got huh Daddy and Ah tole him Ah said T.J. Ah said, you make that chile unnerstand that she’s just got to leave the nest. So T.J. talked to huh a long time, a right good while, and finally she dried huh eyes and she said to me, Mama, she said, you’re right. Ah’ve just got to fly.”
The front door burst open, crashed against the wall, and shuddered on its hinges as an embattled mother and daughter surged through the foyer and stormed upstairs. This time it was the daughter doing the talking.
“Ah got sick and tard of listenin’ to all that ole hoorah so Ah tole him Ah said Purvis Lee Thornton Ah said, Ah don’t want to heah another word out of you, so you just hush your mouth right this minute, that’s what Ah tole him. And he said to me he said Jackie Sue he said, Ah know good ‘n’ well you been datin’ Lamar Creighton on the sly, and Ah said now listen heah Ah said, that’s the biggest bunch of hoorah Ah evva heard! Ah said you just take that up the road and dump it, Ah said, ’cause you’re just as full of hoorah as you can be, that’s what Ah tole him.”
Thus vanished my slim hope of blaming it on the menopause. I took four aspirin, helped Miz Arvella get everybody squared away, and then escaped to the allmale world of the History Department to sign up for my classes. I took Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Age of Reason, Historiography and Historical Research, and Thesis I. After I registered, I had an interview with my thesis advisor.
“I see from your transcripts that you’ve had six years of French,” he said. “I assume you’re planning a topic from French history, since you can do the research in the original. How about Syndicalism?”
Ralph had warned me about professor-generated topics. (“You can bet he’s writing a book on it and wants a free research assistant.”)
“Labor movements don’t interest me,” I replied, “and besides, it’s too recent. I like the distant past.”
Having blurted these sentiments to the only liberal at Ole Miss, I was smoothly but quickly transferred to another advisor, but he too pounced on the French, albeit with much more chronological empathy.
“How about Pippin the Short?”
“I’ll think about it,” I lied.
I wanted to write on the historical Bérénice, but I hesitated to say so for two reasons. First, very little was known about her and I was afraid there would not be enough to make a whole thesis. Second, I did not want to suggest a female topic after two men had suggested meaty male topics. I knew what History Departments thought of “hen scholars poring over Godey’s Lady’s Book.” I decided to see if I could solve both of these problems by fleshing out Bérénice with Titus and her father and grandfather, Herod Agrippa and Herod the Great. The latter’s policy on watery moles was bound to be an inspiration.
Next I went to the library to get my carrel assignment. The study nooks for graduate students, smaller versions of Herb’s first alcove at Park Road, were on the top floor of the library. The room was blessedly quiet and deserted. My carrel was next to a half-moon partitioned window that faced east and got the cool morning light. The desk was a Formica slab bolted to the wall, which made me think of the stationary desks bolted to the floor in high school. I gazed around the partitioned little space and smiled. It seemed more like my first private room than the one I had in the dorm. I ran my hand along the bookshelf above the desk. I was going to like studying here.
I heard a chair scrape and turned around. A woman stood in one of the cubicles in the back of the room with her arm draped over the top of her partition. The sleeve of her white shirtwaist was rolled up to the elbow in a businesslike way but the arm was languidly, almost bonelessly Southern. Just then she moved, seeming to push herself off the partition with a conscious effort, and started up the aisle toward me. She looked slender even though she wore a gathered skirt, so the body under it must have been thin. Her hair was dark and wavy and twisted carelessly up on the crown of her head in a chignon from which a few strands escaped and straggled down. She was taller than I, and as she came closer I saw that she was older. She looked about twenty-seven.
It seemed to take her forever to get from her carrel to mine. Southerner she undoubtedly was but a repeating rifle, never. Her smile was slow and lazy, too, but her undernourished air did not extend to her teeth. They were strong, perfectly aligned, and as white as her cotton blouse.
“Hey,” she said.
It meant “Hi.” Her eyes were dark grayish-green with golden flecks. I wondered what she put down when she filled out an application. She wore no makeup at all.
“Saw you get in a cab last night. I was going to carry you up to campus but you got away.”
I was still not used to “carry” for “drive” but her voice was as soft as velvet. I introduced myself and she responded with something that sounded like “breast.”
She gave a resigned smile as though she had been through this many times before.
“B-R-E-S. Rhymes with dress. My mother’s maiden name was Le Brès. Huguenot. We’re from the Gulf.”
“Are you a graduate student?” I asked.
“Graduate assistant. Classics. I got my master’s last year. I’m doing independent reading this year.”
“You mean Latin and Greek?” She nodded. “But Latin’s my specialty.”
It explained her oddly un-Southern, elliptical way of speaking. The military precision of Latin would necessarily eliminate the Mississippi daisy chain. I was terrifically impressed. As I tried to think of something ungulpy to say, she looked at her watch.
“Want to go get some coffee?” The jukebox was playing “Tom Dooley” when we entered the snack bar. It would continue to play all that year and become the song I afterwards associated with her, incongruous as it and she were. Several people gave her a quick glance and then looked speculatively at me. She continued on through the main part of the shop and led me to a smaller annex around a corner. I put my books down beside hers on the table she chose and we went to get our coffee.
“That’s our section,” she said, jerking her head back toward the annex. “It’s known as the Poet’s Corner. The campus cuties and the meatheads always sit in the main section. It’s called segregation,” she added with light irony.
I decided to test her. “I call campus cuties malkins.”
She knew what it meant. “Yes, they are that, but campus cutie is a proper noun around here. Capitalized. An official title. An award.”
“No. The student newspaper picks a Campus Cutie of the Week. Black.”
“What?” “No, I mean the coffee.”
We returned to the table and I told her about my idea for a thesis on Bérénice. Once again she picked up the intellectual ball and ran with it-much farther than I could.
“Hmm. Not much to go on. Tacitus mainly. ‘Titus reginam Berenicem, cui etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur, statim ab Urbe dimisit invitus invitam,’” she quoted rapidly. Something that was pure joy went through me. “There’s a little more in Deo Cassius,” she continued. “And the New Testament. Saint Paul met her. Bet that was an interesting occasion.”
Two co-eds at a table at the end of the main section were peering around the bend and staring at us. When I looked at them, one smirked and jabbed the other with troopers looking for cars with low trunks. I heard about the bootlegger who ran “Johnny’s Grocery” who became so undone by hypocrisy that he eventually came to believe he really was a grocer and started attending meetings of the Retail Food Merchants Association.
The strangest story they told me was about the local option situation over in the next county. Anyone with a powerful thirst could drive thirty miles to Batesville where there was a tavern that sold perfectly legal malt liquor. Not beer, malt liquor.
“Why malt liquor?” I asked.
Nobody knew. “That’s just the way it is,” Lucius said with a shrug.
It was an example of those recumbent QED’s that so infuriate Northern liberals. Another is: “It’s always been that way.”
Suddenly I found myself dying for a drink. I was not much of a drinker at this time, and it was only mid-afternoon, but going to live in Mississippi was like being transported back to the 1920s: I wanted it because it was against the law to have it. The others evidently felt the same way; all had a parched, panting look. I was about to suggest a drive to Batesville when Augustus spoke up.
“Hey, I’ve got a jug of Thunderbird wine in my room. How about if we take it down to Bres’s apartment and drink it?”
I had never drunk Thunderbird but like all city people, I was familiar with the vintage, having seen empty bottles bearing the label scattered in alleys. Bres agreed to the suggestion and we left the coffeeshop.
First, we had to stop by Augustus’s dorm and stand watch while he brought out the jug in his laundrybag, surrounded, for authenticity’s sake, by a bundle of his underwear. I expected to hear sirens closing in on us. It was a heartrending example of the sanctity of states’ rights.
The six of us walked down to the well-named Faculty Shacks, tiny frame houses like beach cottages whose peeling exteriors evoked the old saying, “Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.” Each little house was a separate apartment with its own driveway; Bres’s contained a 1954 Ford with Pearl River County tags. She opened the door of the house and we trooped in.
The uncarpeted living room was like an oven. While she was in the kitchen getting ice, I looked around. The furniture consisted of two mattress-on-a-door couches facing each other and separated by a cable spool coffee table; the lamps had been made out of green wine jugs weighted with pebbles, and the bookcases from planks of lumber and cinder blocks. All in all, bohemian done to a turn.
She was fairly neat but not shockingly so; her slut’s wool was coming along nicely and her window ledges contained that undisturbed layer of aristocracy to which I was accustomed. There were books everywhere, in and out of the bookcases, and an enormous collection of grant literature: prospecti and brochures on Fulbright-this and Guggenheim-that. Lucius noted my interest in them.
“If you want to know how to live on grants forever, ask ole Bres. Freighters to Europe, too. She’s got the schedules memorized.”
It was exactly what I did want to know. I imagined the two of us living in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and sharing a Left Bank garret. It was an easy dream to realize in the fifties; grant money fell like rain and Arthur Frommer was the Vagabond King.
Bres brought in the ice and we started drinking the awful wine. I could barely swallow it but everyone else lapped it up. Still thinking about the Southern-ness of classical studies, I ventured my opinion and asked the others what they thought.
Bres shook her head. “That was true once but today’s Mississippians wouldn’t buy it. One way or another, Latin makes them mad.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Three reasons.” She shot a long index finger out of the relaxed curve of her fist. “Primo, it’s Catholic, so the Baptists hate it. Secundo, it’s the symbol of scholarship, so the anti-intellectuals hate it. Tertio, the campus cuties hate it because it has a reputation for being hard to learn, and that makes it unfeminine.”
She turned to me with the barest inquisitive glance. I had difficulty swallowing, but this time it had nothing to do with the wine.
“Actually, they’re right for once,” she went on. “It is unfeminine. It’s ideal for writing military reports, which is what Caesar’s Gallic War is. The g’s and c’s are hard. The Church has ruined the real Roman pronunciation, you know?-and then there’s that marvelous brevity. Southern women like to put things in, but Latin takes things out. Like “Where is the mirror?’ Ubi speculum est? You don’t need ‘the.”
Once again she looked at me. Her glance was wry at first, but as I held it her eyes widened with unmistakable meaning. Suddenly she put down her wineglass and raised graceful arms to her hair and began to reorder it in that half-abstracted, half-automatic way of women who wear their hair up, swiping at the nape of her neck to catch loose strands and tucking them into the chignon at the crown. As I continued to watch her, she removed a bobby pin and opened it with her teeth. There is no gesture more womanly, yet it has all the carelessness of a little girl who loses her sweaters and breaks her Thermos jars. Something melted inside of me, a hard tight ball in whose center lay a tenderness I had never acknowledged or expressed. I wanted to hug her, to pull her into my lap and rock her. When she smiled shyly up at me from under the bow of her bent arms, it was all I could do not to cry.
The ghastly wine was nearly gone. I had drunk only one glass but my tongue tasted like a Croatian army sock. I shuddered as the others drained their glasses in one gulp and smacked their lips appreciatively; evidently Mississippians would drink anything. Sorella suggested that we turn our afternoon into a night of serious drinking, and the Grope started discussing a gas station near Water Valley where, it was rumored, you could buy a pint of applejack. Not whiskey, applejack; not gin, applejack. It being impossible to telephone ahead and ask point blank if the gas station sold illegal hooch, they were willing to drive all the way down to Water Valley on the strength of this uncertain gossip.
Reluctantly, I looked at my watch. “I’m on the desk tonight.”
“We’ll make a hooch run when Florence can go with us,” Bres ruled, and the argument subsided at once.
We all went to the cafeteria instead. I should have been hungry but I could barely finish a hamburger. I had fallen in love at last.
Mississippians, particularly those of us from north Mississippi, should resign ourselves to literary scrutiny by writers of stature, since those without standing dare not scale the Parnassus of Oxford without credentials. Paul Theroux is no exception, but we should ask ourselves not only why he and others of his ilk come here, but what (if anything) they’re looking for.
Coming to Mississippi, enigmatic to others and even more so to us who live here, is objective enough for writers seeking an exotic locale within the United States (as such Theroux joins the ranks of V.S. Naipaul, Bill Bryson and Richard Grant), and without exception they each have paid homage to the one strong and often strident if not always clear clarion that reverberates from the center of Lafayette County across the world.
Theroux reserves a passage for “The Paradoxes of Faulkner”, in which he provides a thorough analysis of the man and his works as well as observations on peripheral matters such as Blotner’s biography. The paradox of his title refers to Faulkner’s writing itself, which Theroux describes as either falling or flying, a critical encapsulation that might well describe any major writer with a significant volume of work, and Faulkner’s effort spans generations.
Theroux is a thorough writer, meaning he is considerate to detail, often to excess as is evident throughout Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, which includes much that we should be grateful to have on record from a writer with an exceptional eye. It’s good to read the words others write about us, but it’s also important that we read what others have to say about Faulkner’s twisted, frayed and fleeting fabric of the South, perceivable better by far in his excesses than by any others details.