My dad is visiting. He has a car. Suddenly the wide, flat dinner table of the Delta is ours to explore – I am temporarily an equal citizen of this Highway Kingdom.
We went to Sumner, a small village nearby, where the murderers of Emmett Till, a 14-year old African American visiting from Chicago, were tried. A five- day trial that quickly ended in a verdict of ‘not guilty, was followed within a month by magazine interviews in which the accused happily confess to beating and drowning the boy. The village square is leafy and green, quiet. A granite confederate watches over all, unseeing. For a long time the town did not want to see, either. The death of a young boy has echoed loud through the years, even the courthouse chairs were re-arranged in an effort to confuse memory. But some locals have begun the difficult process of acknowledgment. A young man shows us through a collection of exploded newspaper clippings (to think a boy could be referred to as ‘little darkey’ just 60 years ago!) and explains how a local man chained the memorial plaque to his pick-up in an attempt to uproot the truth – until he was asked to think about his own 14-year old son.
We went to Rosedale – it rhymes with ‘Beirut’. This quiet American town looks like a warzone, populated with refugees – the few standing buildings are a jumble of collapsed roof beams and bullet-scarred bricks, most windows are smashed, everything is gutted, cars sit up on bricks and a handful of gnarled amputees loiter outside a warped plywood shack with a hastily scrawled ‘beeer’ sign smeared over its door. One of them waves warmly as we pass.
Only a few miles away, the town of Cleveland MS. Five minutes’ drive and an entire world apart. Here is a University, a neatly manicured town square flanked with quaint gift shoppes and a swathe of lace-windowed little sandwich cafes. There’s even a place selling quilting fabric, so that you can pull the blankets up and close your eyes.
|Actually Greenwood - photos of the towns discussed languish on a different camera.|
Such is the contrast of the Deep South.
My room is full of wasps, there’re always a few but I left the window open while painting and suddenly found myself at the edge of a drifting cloud of menace. I took the wasp killer from under the sink and the innocuous little spray can spat death at them. What an unbelievable poison it must contain! The three-inch demons fell dead as soon as the foamy horror touched them. Almost 30 littered the carpet, even in death they look violent and warlike. Amongst the carnage, one poor little lady bug, its delicate hide hideously burnt by whatever ghastly poison I’d employed.
Dinner in a big old mansion, a flag hangs listlessly beneath the ancient oak on the lawn, the wide porch is screened-in and sports a wrought-iron bed and deep, lazy couches. Inside, a large staircase twists about itself, the floors are covered in faded, glorious Oriental rugs, the walls are covered in family portraits and prayers; everywhere, little statuettes and keepsakes. From amongst the high-backed brocade armchairs of the drawing room – the slowly-flowing drawl of conversation, like the current of the river itself. All are kin at some point, family trees are recounted with an intricacy and an intimacy that bedazzles, the families are closely tied to the land – they know what building stood where, who owned it and who lived there. Over all reigns the resident dowager, last word of authority on any potentially confusing entwinement of family branches. She sits relaxed with an almond liqueur, her warm face smiling contentedly, her bright zebra-print blouse electric-fresh against the faded flora of the wallpaper behind her.
My friend broke his hand in a drunken punch up, his guitar-picking fingers swollen into grotesque sausages. Hours spent in the ER queue, only to be told he doesn’t have insurance and to be sent home promptly, even though his hand is folded in two and you can see the bones poking into his palm. No insurance, no service. Luckily, my friend is Native American and his tribe has some form of civilized community health protection. Although that does mean he must hitch to faraway Dakota with a thumb that doesn’t work.
Another evening, another dinner with friends. Standing in their garden beneath the spreading branches of an old plane tree, the leaves are beginning to turn gold. We cradle cold beers in the last heat of the day. The rich scent of sizzling barbeque drifts over the vegetable patch – a wonderful space filled with the huge leaves of pumpkin vines growing over the remnants of recently harvested corn. They fry up some okra from the garden, a crunchy, earthy deliciousness. Their neighbour joins us, a weather-beaten old gentleman, already swaying slightly from the heady mix of beer and knowing that his football team has just won an important match. He has lived here for many, many years but sometimes, halfway through a sentence, his Sydney-sider accent will emerge, blunted by decades in the Deep South. His face seems creased into a permanent and deeply-etched smile, as though he’s always on the brink of some larrikin cheekiness. His hands are callused and suntanned.