(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. Serialized, because long. The first part is here.)
The Illinois State Memorial at the Vicksburg battlefield is a domed marble temple that looks like the kind of place you might sacrifice a goat or a daughter on the way to fight Trojans. I’ve been stretched out on the cool floor of its portico for about fifteen minutes. My official excuse is that I’m trying to shoot an artful picture of the blue sky between the columns. The actual deal is that I’m sleepy and I hate the battlefield and everybody visiting the battlefield and the history that made the battlefield necessary. I eavesdrop on visitors It’s just so sad what happened to the confederates. I think it’s awfully suspicious that our southern boys didn’t get fancy memorials like this. Why do you think that is? And because I’m fifteen, I just keep repeating, “Because you were on the evil side and you lost, dummy” under my breath and start making up a story about a southern belle who burns down her father’s house, runs off with the union army and ends up in New York running a combination theater/dancehall with a bunch of attractive, if impoverished immigrants on the Lower East Side and even though she’s broke she never once feels a twinge of regret or considers going home because literally everything and everyone sucks there.
A battlefield park ranger gives me a side-eye and suggests I find somewhere else to rest. I shuffle back down to the minivan, which smells like Doritos and farts, and ask Dad’s girlfriend if we’ll leave soon or if we’re going to ride out the siege. She thinks this is funny and laughs. I stand with her against the side of the car, thinking that she’s beautiful and genuinely kind and smart and I can’t figure out what she sees in my dad. The kids come bounding through the grass followed by Frederick and my father, snapping his own photos. We trundle into the van to drive on to the next grand monument to the Union Dead. I talk loudly about the attractiveness of Ulysses S. Grant.
A toxic combination of heat, hunger and collective annoyance at Civil War history finally curtails the battlefield visit after about another hour. By that time, Frederick’s in a foul mood, my sister is near tears and I’m furious enough at lost causes that more than twenty years later I will find vengeance by forcing my otherwise disinterested father to spend several chilly, gray, rainy hours at Culloden as payback. Dad announces that he wants to drive a bit before we get lunch. This decision incites the starving masses into a van-wide scrounge for the last remaining crumbs of snacks. I reluctantly surrender the last of my granola bar, as Dad’s girlfriend recommends an alternate plan. Maybe we should just stop at McDonalds. Dad demurs, as he pulls onto the scenic, rural highway you may know from a Dusty Springfield song, and insists that we’ll certainly find something better, something healthy and authentic, just down the road apiece. I’m dubious. And after miles of absolutely nothing save abandoned churches and heavy greenery, Dad’s girlfriend referees a fistfight between her two sons over a single peanut M&M and forces the issue. We take a less scenic, more rural highway into a ghost town full of empty-looking mansions and a Depression-era downtown.
There’s no fast food but Dad points out a small grocery on an otherwise empty block of Main Street and assures us it will be full of wholesome fruits and vegetables, perfect for me and his girlfriend to make lunch! I think this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard and find seethe at the notion that I should be responsible for making lunch. I tell Dad that he’s a chauvinist and I’d rather die than make him a sandwich and stomp out of the van It is gloomy and unairconditioned in the shop. The Stars and Bars-hatted gentleman behind the counter greets us with a look of pure contempt as we peruse sparse shelves of Vienna sausages and fishing tackle. We end up buying mustard, American cheese, white bread and some perplexing variety of off-brand Frito with a horse on the label. Dad’s girlfriend pays and seems about as peeved as I am, which is probably why she lets me grumble about my father all the way back to the van. I stop to take some pictures of decaying mansions and insist I’m not hungry. The children make disgusting white bread balls moist with hand grease and Frito dust. I cue up Private Idaho so I don’t have to hear anyone chew, but before I do I hear Dad saying something about Authentic South and ask how I thought my life would be if I grew up in a place like this.
I think it’s unlikely I’d survive long in a place like this. I don’t even mean that as a joke. Bad enough you assholes brought me up in hippie Appalachia, but this . . .I sigh, “This town is hell, Dad. I’d rather kill myself than live here” and put on my headphones before he has a chance to respond.
It’s less than 80 miles between Vicksburg and Natchez. Somehow trip takes us five hours. Warp zones and alien forcefields are weakly suggested. I know for a fact that we inexplicably backtracked for an hour or so because I studied the map for a while. The reality of what Dad’s short cuts and scenic routes actually are, what they really mean, and how much time they will waste have slowly started to dawn on everyone that does not share his surname. By the time we check into the motel, everyone is grouchy, gross, hungry and spoiling for a fight
In a rare moment of clarity, Dad ascertains that he’s in clear danger of a mutiny, possibly even a violent one, and recommends we all go downtown for a nice dinner at an historic inn he remembers from childhood. Everyone showers. I put on a dress. Frederick puts on a shirt with a collar. It’s rosy dusk when we glide into town past the superb neoclassical birthday cakes of the historic district. All of them are well lit, well maintained and stir complicated feelings that I decide not to talk about.
The concierge at the Inn tells us one of the houses is owned by tanned celebrity George Hamilton and another by Hari Krishnas The latter are particularly reviled by the local socialites. “They do so spoil the Pilgrimage. Nobody like seeing a bunch of bald hippies in orange bedsheets among our fine ladies in period costume,” he says.
“Period costume means hoopskirts,” I say to Frederick, though he doesn’t seem interested. He’s taking in the lobby and all of its ferns and shutters and wicker and floral chintz. He probably thinks it’s not very metal. I think it’s a bit on the nose, including the obsequious team of elderly black waiters in bow ties and white jackets hovering over our table to ensure we never see the naked bottom of an iced tea glass. The kids are making forts out of napkin rings and saltshakers. I watch them for a moment and wonder if I shouldn’t try to make a point about the complicated racial politics at play in the dining room or the fact that my father seems to be indicating that the black men in the white jackets are, in fact, what makes this place “fancy.” I consider the fact that we’re all starving, save my father, who seems perfectly content to pick at a salad after a whole day of nothing but stale Wonderbread and mustard sandwiches, and decide I should probably eat something before I say something inflammatory in a dining room I imagine to be thick with Klan members and Boss Hog types. I order two fried appetizers and don’t even care that Frederick can see me eat them.
After dinner, Frederick announces that he’s going for a walk. I go with him. We wander out into the otherwise silent streets. There’s not much to Natchez, but we dawdle through the lamplight down to the river. I walk close enough to him to know how he smells—clean, but not American. He makes a comment about the end of the Cold war and I’m thrilled he wants to discuss European History instead of the South. I find the way he says Moscow kind of sexy. I wonder if people think we’re a couple. I hope so because the lamplight is flattering and it’s probably hard to see all of my zits in the gloom. We could kiss now. We could totally kiss.
But instead I start talking about the news. Because I want to appear smart. Because I want to appear progressive and radical and not southern. I ask his opinions on pertinent issues of the day. His answers horrify me and by the time we’re at the river, we’re arguing about saving the rainforest, an issue I have several t-shirts about.
He says: “The only way you’re going to fix the problem is to get rid of the indigenous people in Brazil and all of the foolish Latin Americans—either bombing or prison—and take over. Because they are too stupid to save it themselves. Those people down there are not like us. They are like children. They have no sense of their own welfare.”
And this is when I stop dead in my tracks, thinking I’ve spent the last few days crushing on this Scandinavian douchebag in order avoid dealing with this whole Deep South thing and it turns out this selfsamedouchebag is a giant racist. The call is coming from inside the house. I sniff. “I think you’re a fucking nazi,” I say, because it seems accurate and sounds harsh and is really the only thing I can think of to say. He laughs and tells me I’m a stupid American. I turn and fast walk back to the hotel.
He comes in later, aggrieved perhaps, but unapologetic. I resolve to ignore him entirely, completely for the rest of the trip.
Dad’s girlfriend pulls me aside at the motel to ask if I’m okay. I tell her what happened, expecting her to be horrified. She equivocates. His English is not perfect. Maybe he didn’t mean— But I’m sure he did. I’m sure.
That night I wake up sweating out of a dream about getting picked up by the Gestapo and forced to make mustard sandwiches at gunpoint.
The Gestapo, of course, is six Fredericks in matching black uniforms.