“I feel,” the letter went on, “an imperative necessity to make you see what I see; to show you through my eyes, illuminated by the same power of language that clothes them for me, all the things which have stood before my inner eye….
“I will do no more than relate what has been and what is: I will merely tell a story… simply in my own words.”
----Thomas Mann, “Tristan”
The sun, shining through my shutters, wakes me up five minutes before my 6 a.m. alarm. I take a shower, put on my suit, and head out for the Mississippi Delta. It’s been a few months since my last voyage, when a favorite band played at one of the casinos. I had of course stopped by Cottonville and visited with Lucy and her parents, but now Lucy’s dad is dead and I’m driving towards the funeral.
I leave Crossroads City about 6:30, taking Highway 72 westward across the state. In little more than two hours my car will cover the hundred miles that connect Mississippi’s northeast corner (which is the “Hill Country”) to the northwest (which is “the Delta”). By the clock and on the map it is a short trip, but to place someone from northeast Mississippi and someone from the Delta in the same category- say, as “Mississippians”- is to commit as grand a sin of generalization as to assume that a New Yorker and a Californian will act the same simply because they are both “Americans.” A professor of mine used to say that environment is what shapes a person, and that the same applies to a society. I don’t know how true that is in the rest of the world, but it goes a long way in explaining the cultural differences between my Hill Country and Lucy’s Delta.
In the Hill Country, the rolling hills provide a sense of safety, enveloping their small towns like mothers’ wombs. The forests give shade; the breeze makes the unbearable summer heat almost bearable. One can breathe. The eye, unobligated to roam to some distant horizon, is constrained to the familiar- between this hill and that lies Johnny’s house, the magnolia where whole summers were spent climbing, the old Methodist church, and the new video rental store. Between the next hill and the next are other memories of the past and dealings of the present but all connected and contained in separate, digestible pieces. Life is as gentle as life can be. However, that is not to say that we hillbillies lack depth: it was here after all where Faulkner found his Yoknapatawpha County. But the Blues could never have been born in the Hill Country.
No, nowhere else on earth other than the Mississippi Delta contains all the psychological and physical ingredients, coming together in the perfect order, to have produced the music of the Blues- the oppression of a people forced to work a foreign land, the dusty desperation of early morning cotton fields and late night juke joints, the sublime soul-grinding escape divined through a guitar or harmonica. In the Delta when you look across a field your eye travels to the horizon and it seems as if the whole round world is bearing down upon you, and your thoughts and hopes travel with your eye and having nothing to impede their journey they keep going and going and going across those flat fields, seemingly unto infinity, simply to disperse in the distance. The frying pan heat drains your body, and the rest drains your soul….
I hit a bump, wake from the half-consciousness one so often experiences when driving alone in the early morning. My mind stops its rambling, and I remember why I am driving. Lucy called yesterday. It is July, 1999. I have finished my freshman year at New York University, taking mostly pre-med classes. I returned home for the summer a month ago. I’ve been volunteering at Crossroads City Hospital, working in the mornings. Lucy woke me yesterday from my afternoon nap. “Marcus… Daddy’s dead,” is all she had said. I was silent and as if to clarify she added: “He had a heart attack yesterday. In the store. I was there.” Then she started crying. I didn’t know what to say except that I was sorry; she told me when the funeral would be and asked if I would come.
At the funeral they’ll surely call Mr. Forester a good man: all funerals are basically the same and the preacher always calls the deceased a good person. But Mr. Forester actually was good. He was a good husband and a good father. And considering that I was dating his daughter, he was always good to me, too. He was a man of the earth: in his youth he worked the fields until it was his turn to run the family general store; and he was as seemingly constant as that earth: he greeted me with the same gruff expression, from the same angle on the same stool behind the same eternal counter, every time I ever entered the store. He may have never left the Delta, but he was well-read, and as time passed and he began to let his guard down with me and I begin not to fear him, we would talk about the world (he did the talking); over these conversations we became friends. I was not close enough to him that I feel any sadness over his passing, but close enough that I feel as if I should be sad, that I should have somehow sensed the moment he died- my thoughts halted in their tracks, overcome by a feeling of inexplicable loss. I knew him well enough to understand why Lucy loves him so.
I think about Lucy’s dad, and I think about Lucy. As soon as my thoughts turn to her I get the same aching feeling in my stomach that has come every time I’ve thought about her since we broke up before going to college. The first time I saw her since we broke up, also the last time I saw her, was a few months ago. Both of our Spring Breaks happened to fall on the same week. We both had come home: she the hour’s drive from Ole Miss, me the flight from New York. During the week some of my high school buds and I went to a concert in one of the casinos in Tunica County. I stopped by Cottonville, where I found Lucy working with her parents in the store. We visited for a minute, but my friends were waiting on me, and the feeling came strong to my stomach, so I made sure it was just a minute. Not long before Spring Break, one of my professors had out of the blue asked the class if any of us had ever been in love. I’m not sure why he asked, maybe out of curiosity, maybe to see how young we really were, maybe to find a common ground. None of that occurred to us at the time; no, we were all too focused on showing how intellectual and cynical we were, so not one of us raised our hands. But after I left the store all I could think about was finding a computer to confess: I sent an email to the professor saying that yes, I have been in love, and that her name was Lucy. I think of these things and the knot tightens, so I allow, no, beg, my mind to slip back into half-consciousness, to think about nothing but the drive….
A fog covers the highway and hills, allowing me to barely make out ghost cows on my left and an abandoned barn on my right as I speed to the west. The giant-leaf vines of kudzu, which were originally brought over by the farmers to help prevent soil erosion, long ago turned on their masters and are now the wiliest of weeds; they climb and entomb the entire landscape- morphing trees into godzillas or massive hands or some other ghastly green shape. I traveled this road so many times during the year Lucy and I had dated that I feel as if the road is carrying me. It turns off on Highway 7, which conveys me into Holly Springs. My tour car slows down by one of the antebellum houses- an ancestor’s of mine, a Confederate officer’s home where some intriguing tale had taken place that I can’t now recall- and then speeds back up towards Senatobia. It is still hilly, but you know you’re getting close to the Delta when the yellow CHURCH road signs begin to dot the highway. As I crest one of the hills I slam my brakes and barely miss ramming a tractor, whose driver- an elderly man with crinkled beard falling over his faded flannel shirt- waves me around. The road becomes bumpy enough to scratch the Bob Dylan CD (during “To Ramona”) so I take out a Muddy Waters tape and try to play along with my harmonica (one hand on the harp, the other on the steering wheel). On the straight shot from Senatobia to Tunica, the narrow highway is engulfed by kudzu-crusted trees, their tentacles stretching down so far they sometimes scrape the top of the car. I used to love flying through this green tunnel, but now I feel as if the vines, with their monster shapes on all sides, are just waiting to swallow me up. But my car gets through: out of the green, and into the flat, flat, flat land of the Delta- the wide expanse of cotton fields, the muddy ponds of catfish farms, and forever that bowl of blue above.
Billboards advertising the casinos officially announce my arrival to the Delta; one good thing they brought are these perfectly paved roads which carry me swiftly to the unmarked Cottonville exit. The casinos were one of those things “that’ll come over my dead body,” as I can imagine Mr. Forester saying, but on they came and now Mr. Forester is dead, no longer to remember (in this life anyway) how he once herded livestock and worked the fields, some of the fields which are now infested with those neon weeds. Before the casinos, the Mississippi Delta was the poorest part of the United States: the few rich plantation owners’ wealth being so greatly diluted and averaged down by the multitude of the blacks’ tenant shacks and the modest houses of the poor white sharecroppers and shopkeepers. But things are changing now. I’m not talking about how the casino money brought new roads and school buildings and stop lights, which is as an important a change as giving a new wig to a terminal cancer patient. No, I am talking about real change, about how the Delta society, a feudal aristocratic land that has somehow survived until the eve of the 21st century, is slowly beginning to melt away, while modernity and a middle class begin to creep in.
I get off the highway and take the back country roads to Lucy’s house. My car parks in the front yard and I get out, carrying the cake my mom had whipped up for the family last night (she made me promise to drop it off early so it wouldn’t go bad in my car). The front door is open and I am greeted by two obese middle-aged black women, one sitting in the yellow-upholstered chair and the other on the couch (the same couch where Mr. Forester always waited up on Lucy and me to get back from our dates). Both ladies wear long dresses covered with dark blue flowers; their black flesh jellyrolls over their black heels, giving their angled shoes a surreal donut quality. The ladies are here so someone will be at home to receive memorials, that much I gather by the stacks of cakes on a folding card table, but I wonder how these black women are connected to Lucy: I had never seen her with blacks before, except at school dances at my high school.
Race relations was another huge difference between what I had been brought up with in the Hill Country and what I found in Lucy’s Delta. After the Civil Rights movement, the two regions took two different paths. In the Hill Country, where the black to white population is around one in three, integration went relatively smoothly. Everyone in the Hill Country goes to public schools, and except for the county schools (which are the “country” schools and often almost entirely white) whites and blacks grow up together. Racism does occur, but in places like Crossroads City it is the rare exception, not the rule. After all, it is impossible to hate a person simply because of their skin color when you spend your childhood recesses playing together. But in the Delta, where the population is closer to ninety percent black, after integration the whites started their own private schools. The consequence was another two school system, with poor academics and poor race relations for all. My thoughts are rambling again; I realize one of the ladies is repeating what she just said.
“They’ve all gone to church,” says the lady of the yellow-upholstered chair for the second time, “but you can leave your cake over there.” She motions to the already overloaded card table; I awkwardly shove in the cake. Across the room in the recliner, standing on her head and watching television, is a young girl. We lock eyes and I smile to her, but in the honesty of childhood she doesn’t smile back.
“Well,” I mumble, “thanks.”
“Who are you?” the other lady asks from Mr. Forester’s couch.
“I’m one of Lucy’s friends.”
“Well, as soon as you got out of your car, I said, ‘I betcha that’s one of Lucy’s friends,’ and sho nuff.”
I smile again at the little girl, who is still staring at me upside down, but she just keeps on staring, so I say “Well, uh, I guess I’ll head on out to the church. See you ladies later.” As I leave, another lady, this one a trim white bird of a woman, walks in with her offering of condolence, undoubtedly a cake of some sort.
I’m back on the road and heading towards the town of Tunica. Once I’m on the straight, and as always, flat, shot to town, I’m doing 90 past the cotton fields and it’s all just a big treadmill, nothing changing except for an occasional country church (foreshadowed by its yellow CHURCH road sign) or one of the great snaking watering pumps, until I finally hit the turnoff, and I turn away from Clarksdale and go towards Tunica, take a left at the first stop light (the one by the Blue and White Diner, don’t you know there were no stoplights a few years back, but look at ‘em now), and I’m driving through the elegant residential neighborhood of one and two-story houses and green lawns with a few magnolia trees until I stop in the Sturgills’ driveway.
I had called the Sturgills last night to tell them I’d be coming into town and that I didn’t know where the church was, so Mrs. Sturgill invited me to go to the funeral with her. I was glad not to have to go by myself, and besides, Mrs. Sturgill is a nice lady, and always a hell of a lot of fun. Her husband, the great Jim Sturgill (or simply “Sturgill,” as everyone, including his wife, calls him), hosts the annual dove hunt (in one of those nameless fields I had just flown past; Sturgill had taught me how to drive in the Delta- damn fast- which I always imagined he learned in Vietnam). The hunt was a Labor Day weekend tradition of my father, Sturgill, and some of their old fraternity brothers from Ole Miss. Outsiders were strictly forbidden; I, however, had been born into the event. Lucy and I had our first date during one of those hunts.
The house is under renovation; I remember Sturgill griping during last year’s hunt about how his wife wanted to add on. Mrs. Sturgill greets me at the door- “Good to see you hon, have you heard about JFK Jr.? It is just terrible, they can’t find his plane”- and shows me the house- “the floor is the original 1916 oak, and this here is going to be the kitchen if we ever get it finished”- and sits me down in front of the TV. I drink the tea she offers and straighten my tie. The newsman is crying; pictures of John Kennedy, Jr. are flashing on the screen. “That family has had so many tragedies,” Mrs. Sturgill is saying, “but I hear they’re a religious bunch.”
Mr. Forester’s funeral isn’t for another hour, but we decide to go by the church (a couple of blocks down the road) and be sure it isn’t crowding up fast- “a good idea ‘cause you never can tell in a small town how a funeral will be.” Mrs. Sturgill drives us by the church; only a few cars are there now, so we decide to go see Sturgill. The hearse crosses our path as we head back towards the highway- “that’s Mr. Roberts, he usually helps Sturgill on Saturdays but since he has to drive the hearse, and well this is the off-weekend when the farmers just have their crops sitting there, so they use it to take all their machines that need work to the shop, so Sturgill is just so busy.” We turn left by the Blue and White back onto the highway, and then after about a quarter of a mile turn into Delta Auto and Tire. Delta Auto and Tire is Sturgill’s ever-expanding entrepreneurial empire: what started out as a tire shop now services farm machines, deals in firearms, and sells clothing. We park and get out; a customer stops Mrs. Sturgill and offers to help with the church family night supper; we enter through the hunting supply part of the store; Mrs. Sturgill talks with an elderly man with blue workman shirt about her house’s wiring; and finally we enter Sturgill’s office where Sturgill is guffawing with a saintly obese man. Sturgill and I are glad to see each other but now Mrs. Sturgill is kissing him goodbye and we are heading back to the funeral.
The church is about half-filled when an usher escorts us to a left middle pew. The shepherd and flock stained glass windows cast the sunlight into a bluish-gray mist. The droning buzz of an air conditioner keeps the heat away, and keeps time with a hidden organ, or maybe it’s a recording, which begins playing “How Great Thou Art” and then “Amazing Grace.” This prompts Mrs. Sturgill to whisper “God, it’s enough to make anyone take a downward spiral.”
The church is now full. A funeral director enters from a door beside the pulpit and stands by the first of the five reserved family pews. And behind him comes the family. First, Lucy’s older sister Charlotte, then Lucy’s mother, and now Lucy. God, she is beautiful.
The rest of the family files in after them, sitting together so tightly that they leave the last pew empty except for three children, not quite understanding but glad they have the room to roll around, and their fazed mother, not quite understanding either but trying to keep her children from embarrassing her.
After the service we all file out, following the funeral director’s directions. The humid heat hits like a boiling tidal wave; the other men in suits and I argue within ourselves whether or not to take our jackets off, and since we are all watching and waiting to see if anyone else takes theirs off, no one does, so we men stand around gawking and wiping the sweat from our foreheads with the backs of our palms while the women fan themselves with their funeral programs. I tell Mrs. Sturgill I will see her in a couple of months at the hunt, and go try and see Lucy. I spot her across the church lawn, sitting in a car, surrounded by friends. I make my way to her, but the funeral procession is beginning and she is driven away. I get in my car and I follow the two dozen or so vehicles back to Cottonville. Highway patrolmen stop opposing traffic at the red lights- one looks like a cross between Elmer Fudd and Patton with his bald head held straight back and belly barely slipping out of the front of his uniform while he holds his hat over his heart. We drive through the tiny town of Cottonville (just big enough for a few scattered houses, Lucy’s family’s general store, a post office, and the cemetery) and arrive at Arkabutla cemetery.
After the burial service– we men holding our jackets (thanks to some adventurer, don’t you know we’d follow whoever took theirs off first anywhere) and wiping the sweat off our sunglasses and the women fanning themselves faster and faster- everyone stands around waiting to get their time in with the family. Charlotte comes over and hugs me, and then Lucy. What can one say? We stand around each other: Lucy, Charlotte, and I, along with a couple of Lucy’s friends from Ole Miss, and a cousin of Lucy’s named Nathan, who looks like he is around thirteen or fourteen. He seems to be intimidated, being with us college kids, and shifts back and forth on his feet, unknowingly upon an ancient gravestone.
Lucy speaks: “Nathan, get off that stone, it’s one of our great cousins or something.”
He gets off the stone, but compensates for this obedience by giving me the once-over: “You the guy that used to call Lucy every night long distance?” he asks with true incredulity. I decide he must be closer to thirteen. I nod and then ask Lucy about the small cemetery.
“Yeah, the first person buried here was like my great great great great grandfather, the founder of the town. Are you coming to the house?”
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copyright, 1999, 2003, Matt Hedges
last updated 24-Apr-2003