Tales of High Cotton, Part One

When I was fifteen, my father took us on a Spring Break road trip through the Deep South with his girlfriend, her sons and their Norwegian exchange student. This is the true story of what happened. Posted serial-style, because long.

i.

Sunday in April in 1991 about four o’clock in the afternoon. We are still east of Memphis, our destination. I sniffle through my fifth sinus infection since Christmas and my mother made me Cross My Heart and Promise that I would not get into a hotel swimming pool, even an indoor hotel swimming pool, because you are on antibiotics for goodness sake and a wet head in my condition would almost certainly resort in pneumonia. I have no intention of keeping this promise. For one thing, I’m no good at science and I still know that modern medicine doesn’t corroborate Mom’s irrational fear of wet hair. Also, the Peabody is fancy hotel. I am positive they will  have a jacuzzi beside their indoor pool. I’ve just turned  fifteen and we are scarcely more than a year out of the 80s. Jacuzzis are a can’t miss attraction.

I reach the end of REM’s “Out of Time,” but I hide my Walkman to rewind it again, so I won’t  have to lie, not really, to Frederick when he asks if I am finished. It is his tape, a dubbed copy. Side A: REM. Side B: Megadeth. He doesn’t even like the REM side. “But this girl at school. She say it very good.” Frederick is eighteen and an exchange student from Norway. He speaks perfect English and sounds nothing at all like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Swedish Chef, but this how I choose to remember him. Frederick is also good looking, with broad shoulders and sandy hair with a charming,lopsided grin that lives at the precise intersection of dorky and red carpet. I have a notion I might like to make out with Frederick, even though he was kind of a dick when I tried to talk to him about Vikings. “Vikings! That’s all Americans know about Norway! Vikings!” I told him  I also knew about Danishes and Abba. This infuriated him even more and he fell into a rant about how Abba is from Sweden and Americans are dumb and Danishes! I actually know  Abba are from Sweden and Danishes are from Entenmann’s and I am probably just as cynical about the collective intelligence of my fellow citizens as even the angriest of angry Scandinavian teenagers. But I like teasing Frederick. I figure it counts as flirting. My mother always told me that the meaner boys are to you, the more they like you. It strikes me, then,that I should be super mean to Frederick  because I am not a pretty girl and I had to do things twice as well as boys did to get them to notice me at all.

One row up from us in the minivan sits my nine-year old sister, and Dad’s girlfriend’s two sons, M and K (eight and six respectively).  K sits on a cooler between the seats repeatedly saying “Dang!”[1]in an incongruously raspy, thickly southern-accented voice. He waits to slap back in on  a card game they call “Rat Slap.” I’d learned this game several months earlier from the girls in my gym class, when we spent a (blessed) two months not dressing out and lounging on wrestling mats in the weight room while my gym teacher failed to get us to give a shit about the nautilus. My classmates called the game “Eygptian Rat Fuck” or “Butt Fuck” or simply, “that game where I hit you, bitch.”  I taught it to the little kids first thing. And they loved it. It occupies them while I try and work out whether the lyrics to “Losing My Religion” are actually about Michael Stipe being gay and/or having a receding hairline, as the chatter in my Latin class suggested.

We are traversing Tennessee to Memphis where we will visit  Graceland, then follow the Delta down through the various one-stoplight Mississippi towns populated by my father’s kin and finally land in New Orleans, home of my formidable Great Aunt Sis, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and, as I understand it, loads of bisexual, glam rock vampires. My kind of town. I’d ripped out a destination guide from “Sassy” and committed it to memory before gluing it into my journal. I also packed eleven novels, six magazines and three secret granola bars in my car bag in the event that my father tacked on one of his nine hour “short cuts” down some one-way mule track that one of the fugitive poets wrote a dirty limerick about and stranded us in some illiterate swamp hamlet with no books. Being Dad’s daughter had prepared me for such dire scenarios and I fear nothing more than being stuck somewhere without a thing to read.

ii.

We arrive in Memphis after nightfall. A jolly bellman guides us through the Peabody Hotel lobby like the gatekeeper of the Emerald City. K can barely contain his excitement. His Dang. DANG, y’all unsettles the genteel quiet of soft jazz and plinking fountain and echoes off the marble mezzanine.  Dad’s girlfriend whispers a quiet, pleading K and puts her fingers to her lips. The Peabody is the kind of  grand old southern hotel that counts on the lobby wowing you so much that you won’t complain  about the small, weird rooms heated by what sounds like Quasimoto ringing the boiler with a tire iron. In truth, though, I am also impressed.  I affect an aristocratic mien and hope the other patrons will understand that I belong to a different species than these hapless prole children in neon socks and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirts. I sigh dramatically and tell the front desk  I could absolutely die for a gin. My sister tells the front desk I am fifteen. I tell my sister to go fuck herself. She tells Dad I am mean and asks God to forgive me.

By the next morning, I’ve explored the jacuzzi, jumped in the colonnaded pool and lied to my mother about it. I’ve watched ducks waddle out of an elevator and into a fountain and puzzled at the crowd’s enthusiasm. I have not eaten breakfast because I don’t want to appear gluttonous in front of Frederick because I am sort of fat and everybody knows that all boys hate watching a fat girls eat. Even weird Scandinavian boys . . . with kind of acne problem and a goose-honk laugh, but whatever, BEGGARS ON HORSES, ALISON, still cute.

I go into to the gift shop, buy a bag of  Cheezits and eat them behind a giant potted palm by the emergency exit. I  hear screaming from inside  where the kids bicker over expensive, yet ugly plush animals that purport to help save endangered species. In some six-year old, machismo-related bid for superiority, K blows almost all of his spending money on a giant, cross-eyed stuffed lynx  roughly the same size as he is. He exits the hotel red-eyed and breathless from tantrum, but triumphantly DANG-ing his stuffed new friend.

We go to Graceland. None of us are Elvis fans, though at least half of the van knows every word of the Paul Simon album your parents had their midlife crisis to. I am much more excited about the strip shopping mall of Elvis-related souvenirs across the street than the house itself. I define kitsch to the kids and almost delve into camp, but it’s hard to explain either John Waters to a six year old.  I buy eight bottles of Elvis Conditioning Shampoo to pass out among my friends and pine after a shield-sized, shiny driftwood clock with gold baroque numbers and  pictures of Elvis and Jesus airbrushed across the face. It would have cost every penny I had, but I spend the rest of the trip (and indeed the rest of my teenage life) regretting my decision not to buy it.

About thirty miles out of Memphis, K emerges from a gas station bathroom grasping for the orange neon cylinder full of money he’s been wearing round his neck since leaving Asheville. We tear the car apart, revealing in process my secret horde of granola bars and Easter candy (sister: “Dear God, please forgive Alison for lying about having snacks”).  We return to the shops at Graceland, but the money is long gone. To drown out the clamor of K’s keening grief and panic, I listen to “Disintegration” and watch Frederick stretch in the parking lot. I puzzle  at his white denim cutoffs. Even amidst the various sartorial indignities of the early 90s, white denim cutoffs seem a bridge too far. I decided they must be a Norway thing—like umlats and pickled fish in mayonnaise—and as such, to be pitied.

“Let’s get this show on the road,” said Dad. “Who’s excited about Mississippi?”

Silence.

And then K started crying again.

iii.

My father was born in Mississippi. He is  a writer and the son of a writer. All conversation about the state comes by way of  a short lesson on its literary history. William Faulkner. Eudora Welty. Tennessee Williams. Willie Morris. “Oh, you haven’t read Willie Morris, bud? Willie Morris is superbulous.”

I am absolutely the only person in the van listening to him and I’m only halfway paying attention because it strikes me that  Frederick’s arms look  more like man arms than boy arms and the thought gives me goosebumps and makes me blush. I try to catch my reflection in the window of the van to see if it’s obvious. No dice.

“You know your grandfather met William Faulkner a couple of times,” Dad says.

I’ve heard those stories. One of them involved a barbershop, another the Kentucky Derby and the third placed the Nobel Prize winner on the porch railing of Rowan Oak, pissing on the cars of curious fans as they pulled up in the drive. Each seems uniquely improbable and my grandfather is a notorious bullshitter. I blink away thoughts of what it might feel like to be ensconced in Frederick’s arms and say: “So what? I met Eudora Welty at the library.”

This is true. If I were my grandfather I’d add that she said gave me a salty smile and told me to avoid brandy and difficult men if I ever wanted to have a decent career as a writing. And that I should avoid brandy, difficult men and a writing career if I ever wanted to have a decent life. In truth, she  said no such thing. She just smiled in that vague obligatory way that famous old people do when they meet the unexceptional children of small town wannabes and went on about her business.

I don’t find actual Mississippi very literary at all. This disappoints me as I’d spent the months before the trip feverishly writing a Mississippi novel during math class. It involving incest, a debutante in flapper dresses, a steamy tryst with a bootlegging, blues-playing sharecropper in a derelict kitchen house and a climactic scene in which the heroes fight the KKK with the help of a friendly vampire named Julian. From the car windows, I see a lot of Waffle Houses and feed stores and then miles and miles of flat green fields. No relation. Where is the the poetry in that?

When we pull off the highway onto the gravel drive to what was once my late great-grandmother’s cotton plantation. Dad points out a small yellow cottage to the right  where I lived when I was very little. I take in the staid brick colonial, absent columns, terraced verandas and hoopskirts at the top of the lawn and feel disappointed.

“I hope you weren’t expecting Tara,”  I say to Frederick. He looks at me like he has no idea what I’m talking about. And in fairness, he probably doesn’t

My second cousin Ruthie and her husband live in the house. I’ve  met Ruthie maybe once before when I was very young. Her awkward reception confirms that our visit is unexpected and probably rude.  Regardless, she ushers us in with promises of iced tea and ginger ale through an airy front hall papered in tromp-l’oeil willow gardens, past dim formal rooms and into a sensible rec room addition that gives no shits about appearing Old South. The adults veer off to into a drawing room. Ruthie’s blonde daughters escort us out back to a trampoline on a small lawn clipped out of an endless overgrown high-grassed sea. It is extremely flat. I try to jump higher to so I might see the river, somewhere past the distant trees, lapping against levees. It is so green outside, we might as well be underwater.

Frederick announces his intention to explore the ancestral fields of the Fields. “Maybe head toward the river.” I want to go with him, feeling that the mild pastel-dressed Delta twilight might Vaseline the lens of the world and transform me into a softer and prettier version of myself . The blonde girls squeal about snakes in the grass, various creepy crawlies, vicious beasts. I fear encountering some evil in the woods at the edge of the property, some unidentified, existential threat, some door that shouldn’t be opened and couldn’t be closed.  It will be a few more years before I read Faulkner and start pontificating about the evils of the past and the unresolved future  and the whole ghost haunted world like I know what I’m talking about, but as far as lurking Mississippi horrors go, its own history is probably the worst. And at least as scary as some drawling good old boy, hunting trespassers with a shotgun in the bushes and jones-ing to rise again.

So I watch Frederick disappear into the scrim at the edge of the field and settle back against the tarp, levitating as the small children jump around me. After a bit, I scoot off and explore the gardens. I attempt artful pictures of the broken statuary felled in the overgrown ivy and think up, like, ten things that it could be a metaphor for as I wasted at least half a role of film (one picture came out, it was blurry. Very blurry). I check in on the adults in the parlor. Ruthie and her husband suggest we drop in and visit my great-uncle Bill and his wife just down the road. Dad thinks that sounds like a capitol idea, even though my  cousin in Virginia had recently told me You know, Uncle Bill? He literally uses racial slurs so old-fashioned that they’ve been considered offensive since, like, the middle of the 19th century. In my mind, Uncle Bill looks like cross between  Boss Hog and Simon Le Gree, but with a private plane and a beach house in Destin. Of course, we should visit him. And so, when daytime goes navy blue, we summon Frederick from his perusal of the empty old cotton warehouses and bid farewell to the Big House.

It turns out Uncle Bill lives in the Bigger House, built sometime during the Civil Rights Era to resemble something built during the Civil War Era. I think it is maybe the biggest thing in Rolling Fork, or maybe just the only thing that still has all  its lights on at 7:15 on a weeknight. I walk in past a lawn jockey and faux flickering oil lamps into an oversized foyer festooned with globe lights and at least one hilarious oil painting of my great aunt in fancy dress. The subject herself receives us in the parlor, a vast room decorated in reproduction Louis XVth in a psychedelic mustard and lavender palette, with enough matching fringed velvet drapes to dress a county’s worth of scheming southern belles. I spend the whole time alternately horrified and fascinated by the possibility of Uncle Bill saying something truly shocking (he doesn’t) and disappointed I am not allowed to explore the rest of the house.

It takes us another hour to get to  Vicksburg because Dad chooses a scenic rural byway that might actually be scenic in daylight. The kids nap. I borrow Frederick’s copy of U2 “War” (Side A: Metallica) and decide that “Like A Song” is the only U2 song I can still tolerate on the record, so I listen over and over until Bono’s voice drops a register and I know my batteries are failing. I stare at Frederick’s profile beside me, his cheek against the glass. A suggestion of beard shadows his pale jaw. I find this fascinating and novel. I wonder what his hair feels like, if it is soft on the nape of his neck. I almost risk a touch, but he belches and harrumphs in his sleep and it is so gross that I hate him for ruining the moment.

At the motel, everyone goes to sleep except for me and Dad’s girlfriend. I haven’t eaten since the Cheez-Its in Memphis so she and I pad across the parking lot to a Waffle House buy bacon,egg and cheese sandwiches to go. I eat mine alone, outside, crosslegged on a stone bench around the back of the hotel on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River, which for all its storied might appears little more than  an oily black chasm in the moonless night, the sound  of its currents drowned out by the cars on the highway and the thumping of trucks tires passing over the seams of the bridge upriver.

 

[1] I suck at writing dialect, but a true rendering of K’s “Dang”  would use most of the vowels and almost sounds like “dying.”

 

 

Standard