Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sunday Scribbling #182: Mississippi Cheese

Fragment from Ignes Fatui, an unfinished novel:

Joe was on his third lap of the D’Lo Water Park exercise trail when he felt a pinch on his bottom. ‘Lo, Livvy would have been his usual greeting, but his dark mood wouldn’t bring it up. A feeble wish in a county where all knew all, but he’d been hoping for invisibility. Three generations of Choctaw relatives going on all the time about how easy it was to disappear, he could hope, couldn’t he?

Olivia Wade, oblivious to social cues, swept by, then turned to face him, walking backwards. Navigated the trail curves better than Joe did plodding forward. Olivia Wade, the one ray of light in Joe’s dismal career at Mendenhall Middle School. Principal at the time, she’d hired him. Knew – and told him – he wasn’t long for the job (“you’ll take it too seriously” – and he did), but wanted him around for his fine face and lovely voice. Made it a point to stop into his classroom every day at the end of last period, slip off her shoes and listen to him read. Tolkien, mostly, though sometimes Twain, or from Narnia, or – her favorite – the stretch of days when he’d read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. Probably lost on most of the drowsing seventh graders, but no matter. To the consternation of half her faculty (the Baptists, the ones who got her fired) and to the astonishment of the other half (the Episcopalians and assorted other pagans), she kept a decanter of sherry in her office window throughout the school year. Joe was the only one to dip into it, without even asking. Best way to read Yeats aloud, he said, and then, to her great pleasure, did.

“Bad day?” said Olivia, smiling brightly, deftly sidestepping a bobbing urchin from the other direction. Joe was not so quick: fat red toddler head careened into his right knee.

“Dammit!” Throwing down his walkman, stumbling to the nearest green bench. Olivia followed, years of playground diplomacy writ large on her face. Sat down beside Joe and reinstalled the batteries of his now cracked walkman. Punched a button, put an ear to the headphones.

“Mmm, Satie.”

Joe glowered on at his three foot tall assailant and the oblivious mother in its wake.

“Fucking – ”

“Well, good afternoon to you, too, Mr. Campbell.”

“Goddamn – ”

“I’d say the little Hindenberg did you a favor. From the looks of it, you didn’t want to be out here anyway.”

That pulled him in. Still frowning, but his noise had settled. Olivia pulled a silver flask out of her back jeans pocket, set it on the bench between them.

“I’ve only had one sip, you can have the rest.”

“No, thanks.”

“You don’t have to read me a thing.”

“Really, Livvy, no thanks. It’s okay.”

“Well, finally. Nice to be noticed.”

She followed his gaze to a stand of trees a hundred yards west of where they sat. In between, an old man was laying out home sweet home astroturf in front of and alongside his Winnebago. A woman twenty years his junior was hanging out pots of yellow and red plastic flowers.

“Been there lately?” said Olivia.


“The river. You think I was talking about Strom and his child bride over there? Of course I meant the river.”

“What river?”

“The Strong River, you fool. The river you schlep your, pardon my French, fat ass over every time you drive over to this godforsaken water park. You think D’Lo Water Park stood for the water fountains?”

“I’ll be damned. I never noticed.”

“Most men of your intelligence would be blushing by now. That’s downright idiotic, Joe.”

“Choctaws don’t blush,” he said, blushing.

“Liar. Some Choctaw you are anyway. As I recall, one hundred and seventy years ago, when the assholes up in Washington were shipping the Greenwood LeFlore toadies off to Shangra La in Oklahoma, your smarter ancestors just hightailed it off into the woods. You think they didn’t notice a river unless they fell in it?”

“Alright, maybe I did know something about it.” Still blushing.

“Liar again. You’ve really never been over there, have you?”

“Well, I – ”

“It’s no sin, Joe. Choctaw or not, it’s just strange.”

“Thought you said it was Strong.”


He stayed on another ten minutes with Olivia, polished off the rest of her flask, then set out across the bright green lawn in search of the river not seen. Breathed a warm sherried smile at the homesick Winnebagons, stepped into thick woods, and teetered onto a wooden bridge that had seen sturdier days. He looked in vain – and foolishly, he finally realized – for the river beneath his bridge: it spanned a dry ravine. The sound of water pulled him further into the trees.

A small asphalt road crossed in front of him, ran to a ghostly playground in the trees to his right. The sound of water was still up ahead. What looked like a trail and break in the trees turned into a dirtslide – one step and all two hundred pounds of Joe Campbell toppled down twenty feet of riverbank. He landed on his feet, tried to look as if he had planned his impromptu descent, but no matter: the river was completely deserted. Looked, for some reason felt, as if it had always been deserted, not just his first time there, but anyone’s. He shivered.

Then took a deep breath. The sound of the river, its black water, filled him. He stood on a wide shelf of stone, dragon’s back, he thought, stairstepping down to the water’s edge. No fiery eyes or nose, just smooth curve of the creature’s spine. On the final step down, his hand rounded the shape of the stone, haunch, Sally’s haunch in dark night, Sally’s haunch as out of dark dream tunnels he came crawling.

To his right, the black water ran smoothly down under a canopy of cypress trees, small eddies and roils, but mostly black glass, a glass he might walk on. He wished he’d come without Olivia’s flask of cheer, wondered how he would have seen this new world without it, wondered, was the peace descending his or hers.

To his left, the river came tumbling out of a sweet bend, cascades of white water across blackened shelves of stone. Up above the falls were more pools of still water, in the center of which was an island of rhododendrons. He felt the dormant green man within him stir beneath layers of stone, years of flight. Across the river stood a huge cypress, fairy knees strewn at the foot of its girth, and a flat bed of stone in its shade. There, he thought, seconds before what followed: I have never crossed a river.

The water was black, but clear. Looking beyond fear he could see leaves like multicolored jewels in the bottom of the shallows. He kicked off his shoes, pulled off his socks, this man for whom barefoot meant the beige carpet of 264 East Street. The smoothness of the stone startled him, oddly warm and cool at the same time. He set one foot tentatively into the water, stepped upon the bed of soft leaves. Not slick, the floor held him. Halfway across, no way to avoid this, the water sluiced through a cut of stone, picked up speed. He paused, gazed over at the isle of rhododendrons. Tolkien was in the water, was in his ears. Mississippi?, he thought – and laughed. Native American?, laughing even louder. Tis the land of the Fairie Queene. His nerves settled. He stepped into the sluice, felt the pull of water around his knees, felt submission cry, did not obey, though his knees did, for a moment, buckle. I’ll see thee yet, and as if wings took him, he raised up out of the sluice and into the far shallows. The fairies in the cypress knees did greet him, and the green man within bade him sit.

High thick trees across the river from where he’d come. Ludicrous to think of what within them lay hid – deserted playground, half a dozen RV camping pads, the winding asphalt snake of a half mile exercise trail beneath incongruous yet uncomplaining pines, Olivia Wade behind the wheel of her blue Honda, eyes closed to Erik Satie through a cracked walkman. Might have been worlds away, not just a Strong River’s width.

The green man took him down to the waterfalls, some trickling, some fast and loose. Knots in arms, legs, and back unwound in the fast white foam, hands gathered flat stones to fill pockets from the falls that trickled. Two men – the green and the red – slid into the deep pool of water basined in the river’s bend, but only one emerged from a quarter hour’s baptism. Polarity sank, swept away. Not green, not red. Cypress, spawned in the shade of a father.

Newborn, the not green, not red man stretched, touched sky. He filled the river, felt himself around its bend, followed. Night was coming, but light from somewhere still poured into what seemed like a wide lake of water up ahead. He moved boldly into this new aspect of himself and then suddenly stopped. He was not alone.

The bird stood two hundred feet off, all in profile. Stock still, a thin yet regal bird, in the middle of the River Strong. Dusty blue, a long beak. The green man would have heard, would have felt, I can wait. The green man would have known of the black tips on the wings when unfolded, would have known the telltale s-profile of flight, would have known, heron, great blue, but the green man was gone. For the man left behind, it would be an unsteady crawl back across river, up hill, across bridge, and back to his car. The long drive to Jackson to Lemuria Bookstore, the usual comfort of its overstuffed fifteen foot high bookshelves, the long drive back, almost – almost – heading for the coast, none of this would steady the nerves of the man left behind. And most certainly not the confirmation he found in the pages of this decidedly unnatural man’s new copy of Audubon’s Birds.



Blogger gautami tripathy said...

This is wondrfully told. Would like to read all of it!

dad, will you walk one more time with me?

11:34 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Thank you, GT. I would write all of it! I've got a lot of back burners...

11:45 AM  
Blogger b said...

I loved this just rang true. Thank you.


12:48 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

My, oh my, Murat. I just love rivers and green men (and sometimes little green men) and Choctaws and herons and wading in and among the waterfalls and stepping stones.

"Please sir, can I have some more?" This be tremenjous food for the soul...

1:07 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

b: Thank you for stopping by from your travels, and thank you for your wonderful words.

1:45 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Sista T: Glad this fed the reader's soul. I'll check to see what's left in the cupboard.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

It's all glorious food, preferably some hot sausage and mustard!

1:51 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Knowing Mendenhall, it's probably bubba-que or chicken fried steak. You kin pour the Looziana hot sauce on, more'n likely.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

ooh! some jambalaya and black-eyed peas with a few hominy grits on the side. Maybe he caught him some crawdads in the black waters of that thar river...

I take it you are not familiar with Oliver! I have been quoting from the scene and song where Oliver asks for more porridge in the orphan asylum. but if your mind is too mired in the swampy bayous to tesseract to Dickensonian London of the 19th Century, that be cool, too. I love bbq, especially rich meaty ribs! Much better than thin watery gruel. And nothing can beat Jambalaya as a word or a food dish. It just has the right sort of picante taste and jazzy beat to get you dancing round the dinner table. (You can create your own DIY Broadway musical in your dining room.)

4:38 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Oh, I got the Dickens, I love me the Dickens, he be tremenjous, too. But, as for Mendenhall, it just occurs to me that it's more'n likely fried catfish down that way...and polk. salad. annie...(the gator's got your granny).

5:34 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

polk. salad. annie (the good lord's got my granny). I'm not catching the reference here. Annie as in "The sun will come up tomorrow" Annie or is there another one doing a polka across the lettuce beds in Oklahoma that I don't know about. Or do you have a musical in the attic that hasn't seen the light of day since before Al Gore invented the internet?

Fried catfish could be problematic. I'm allergic to fish, especially bottom-feeders.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

Lawsy Mercy Brother P - from the green Choctow man to Tony Joe white LOL - throw a little Dickens inbetween and please give me some more jambalaya. This place be shaking and shimmying tonight and Livvy is oblivious, plugged in to the walkman. The green man went to the mountaintop (river) and wanted to stay but life ain't like that and we all come back to reality sooner or later. This was a tasty little trip.

10:17 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Lord, no: Polk. salad. Annie. As in, Tony Joe White, late 60s turnip greens swampy blues song. Try it here, complete with His Supreme Anachronism, Mr. Andy Williams. Friend Steph and I used to imagine, say, Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell trying their hands at the song.

10:50 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Good evening, Ms D: Throw in Shreveport's Ms Bettye Swann and we're back in your Louisiana neck of the woods, just down the road from Minden, no? I'd say Dickens ain't too far psychically from the cajun swamps.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

Sorry Bro. Murat, You're showing your age, I guess. I turned 8 in 1969. I didn't get my own radio until my 12th birthday in 1973. My mom had her radio firmly tuned to easy listening. So we listened to "Downtown", "I can Remember the Days of September" and other melodious ballads. I guess that's why I seem to know more songs from Broadway musicals. Never heard of Tony Joe White before reading his name on your blog. You expand my musical horizons every weekend! I cannot imagine Joni Mitchell singing that song at all.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

was there really a connection betwen Strom and Yazoo City or is that all a part of the will-o'-the-wisp?

Oliver re-written as a cajun orphan? I can definitely see Fagan. Has some promise..

4:13 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Teresa: Joni doing "Polk Salad Annie" is certainly a major tesseract, but how about Petula Clark instead? I think you're on to something. The whole point of the fantasy was to go firmly against the grain.

6:48 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Ms D: Cajun squalor, London squalor: not a stretch methinks. I'm with you on the swampy transplant.

How'd you get us up to Yazoo? You have traveled, girl. These folks is down Mendenhall way, south of Jackson, no relation to the real Strom: Joe was just musing the age difference between bride and Mr. Astroturf.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

Haha - the Mississippi Cheese Straw Factory is in Yazoo City. Following a google path - seeing which dots might connect. Should have stayed with the river :)

Teresa - I graduated high school the year before you got your first radio. The one path I am always sure to connect without any search engine abuse is the music although there have been some surprises there too...

7:03 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Dee: I love the cheese straw connection to YC. Now it has Willie Morris and cheese straws to boot.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

They would go good with some Jambalaya. Soon as the weather gets cool enough I'll have to make a pot. And some bread pudding...

I think Betty would stay for supper.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

I love the cajun squalor/London squalor connection and the idea of Fagan hiding out in a bayou. The Cheese Straw Factory sounds hilarious; I was thinking it would be the Cheese Cake Factory and had to do a double-take.

I met Strom Thurmond working in the US Senate during college. He was old then, older still when I got back from Taiwan. He certainly deserves the title Mr. Astroturf!!

Dee: I might be flying over to wherever you are when you get the Jambalaya and bread pudding cooked. Murat can bring the music. I'll bring some California wines. We'll have a tesseract party!

10:01 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Teresa and Dee: That's quite a party y'all got goin' on. Quite a jump we've made from Joe's heartache to the tesseract party. And the ghost of Strom joining in the festivities, record party courtesy of Ms Swann.

5:19 AM  
Blogger Teresa said...

Well, you know old Strom. He can't resist any party with younger women... (of course, we're all young compared to him!!!) He was a regular at all the lobbyist buffets and receptions, but he was NOT talking to lobbyists. He was scoping out the interns getting free food.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Tumblewords: said...

Lovely writing - love the feel of the mindwork and the touch of history.

3:24 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Good to see you again, Tumblewords, and thank you for the kind words...

6:23 PM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

I did a little reading about Strom on the google path - he was a playa alright and Teresa - won't that be a party LOL. Good thing about a pot of jambalaya - doesn't matter who all shows up - you can just keep adding to the mix...

9:08 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

Just as long as you don't add any 'possum meat, I'll be doing good. :) What kind of wine goes with Jambalaya? Riesling? Zinfandel? Rose?

12:21 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

In the words of the immortal Cajun Justin Wilson, "enny kinda wine you like, cher." In and out dee jambalaya.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous missalister said...

Olivia Wade. I like the sounds—live and wade—perfect for oblivion and sweeping by. I know the gatekeeper, Dark Mood. Dude does what he wants, lets through whomever he will. And I know how hard it is to disappear. I’m looking for a drug for that, a new drug, one that’s Huey Lewis-approved. A lovely voice reading lovely things helps. And sweet with Sherry? Ooh-la! I loved so much else in this: the playground diplomacy; the Baptists, Episcopalians and other pagans; the home sweet home Astroturf; the cozy dialogue; the uncomplaining pines; and the whole of the great river crossing to the land of the Fairie Queene. It’s always a sad farewell when the green one leaves. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be green all the time. Would I be able to function in society with its unnatural terms? I can only hope to know. I want a new drug for that, too.
Another good hands read, my dear : )

12:47 PM  
Anonymous missalister said...

Oh dear, now that you’ve let this one through the security check point, I see my fingers typed live instead of liv, because they’re more used to live. Auto pilot is a scary thing, has no idea what I like about Olivia Wade, the sounds—liv and wade—perfect for oblivion and sweeping by...

5:45 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

DOM: I'm very happy for your relishing of this piece. The mother coming to her peace in the woods before going over to the side, writing her letter? Joe is her son. The image is actually of the D'Lo water park, south of Jackson and near Mendenhall, and looks like the very bend where Joe found his green: I know I did. And found the heron, too. Walden, a mere babe, used to climb amongst the stepping stones of the tiny falls. Ah, the days of Mississippi exile, the days in Egypt.

5:32 AM  

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