T.J. Ray’s story of the hanging of Mathis and Lester is one of those books you read and come away thinking, “Wow, that would make a damn good movie.” And it would. Death as the circumscription of all human activity is also the Great Equalizer, uniting men of all stripes, but the hanging of Will and Orlando brought fate and justice together in a jagged gray crescendo. Fashioning a screenplay for Side by Side would be aided and enhanced by Dr. Ray’s meticulous research, his informative narration that moves us through the court speeches with appropriate dispatch, his accounts of media coverage that enhance the drama now as it did then and his descriptions of Lafayette and Pontotoc Counties that set a sordid Yoknapatawphan stage for what ultimately is a squalid incidence of multiple murder.
At the turn of the last century, north Mississippi was still for the most part a wilderness, little more than a network of villages and towns strung together along dirt and gravel roads, traveled by or with a horse, united only in proximity. The scars of the Civil War ran deep, and the adjusted system of laws in the newly-Reconstructed state were little more than the legal ramifications of military defeat. Yet the state was growing, law had to be enforced and the cases of Will Mathis and Orlando Lester, grisly in detail, profound in ramifications, proved in to be a public circus ending in a lethal trapeze. Side by Side is as much about race than it is of the reestablishment of justice in the South, an ongoing trial if there ever was one.
One of my favorite people in the world is a graceful, ginger-haired slip of a girl who when I knew her was Jenny Lee. She’s married to an earth scientist of some sort and they live in rural Lafayette County east of Oxford now, but she became my friend in graduate school when she’d console me after classes in Middle English because the professor, Dr. T.J. Ray (God love him), would single me out and thunder at me from the podium for the least pronunciation or mistranslation, of which there were many I assure you. I’d leave class shaken and dejected, but Jenny Lee (bless her sweet soul) would sit next to me on a bench outside of Bishop Hall, put her arm around me and say, “He likes you. You’re his pet.” All I could do was wonder what kind of life T.J.’s dog had.
Jenny Lee and I also worked at the Harvest Café in Oxford together, and while there she taught me about red rice. Jenny is from Charleston, South Carolina (“South Of Broad”), and often rhapsodized about her grandfather’s red rice, which he would make for her when she’d visit him. She told me how it’s made, and while we couldn’t make it at the Harvest because it involves that most grievous of vegetarian sins, bacon, I learned to make and love it.
For four servings, fry three strips of thick bacon until crisp and set aside. Sauté about a cup of chopped white onion and the same amount of chopped bell pepper in the bacon grease, add two cups water, an 8-oz. can of tomato sauce and one cup of rice, season with a little salt and pepper, cover and cook until rice is tender. Stir in the cooked bacon before serving. This is the most basic recipe for red rice imaginable, and it goes with almost anything.