“Wait … you have a gun in your purse here? Here and now? At this dinner?”
“Sure do. I don’t leave home without it. Don’t ask me to pull it out at the dinner table, though. That’s just tacky. That I will not do.”
Hot damn, I love Mississippi.
You know why I love it? Because it’s got this absolute, hard-fought refusal to be anything other than Mississippi. Before you start judging this place … or the lovely blonde, who eloquently explained the etiquette of firearm ownership to me … let me fill you in on a little secret.
Mississippi does not give a crumb off a crouton what you think of her. She will drink-you-under-the-table in conversation.
She’s got stories, and they are sordid and hysterical and sad and real. People here manage to celebrate the Bible and Bourbon with more balance than Simone Biles on a beam.
Mississippi’s old money. It’s also no money. Both bank accounts are having breakfast together at the same diner, where Blues always comes drippin’ out the stereo.
The weirdness of this state is viscous. I’ve known this fact all my life, because I grew up summers in Greenwood, Mississippi. I was born to women who grew up in this lovely, crumbly, big-hearted small town, where writers sprout ferociously but un-fried vegetables can be tough to come by.
Greenwood is in a region known as The Delta. Nowhere in the state is stranger than The Delta – a teardrop-shaped bean of land carved by a smirk in the river. It’s fertile here. And they grow cotton and sometimes insanity.
On my first night back … after a gut-busting, catfish supper … my aunt and uncle drove me to the Little Zion Baptist Church. We tromped through the dewy grass in the darkness, around the edge of the small, white, wooden chapel. We stood looking in reverence at the gravestone for a moment, until the mosquitos drove us away.
The next day when I told my great-aunt Tricia I’d been to Bluesman Robert Johnson’s burial site just an hour shy of midnight, she exclaimed, “Why, Jenny, that’s crazy! It’s snake season!”
Snake season, indeed. However, that would not deter me from tromping through further fields of cotton and Cottonmouths.
“You must ride out to River Road,” my aunt implored over coffee one morning, just after 6am. We were happily wallowing in our shared love of abandoned, sprawling Delta houses and forgotten mansions down dirt roads. She writes books about this very subject, actually.
“There’s one old gothic house out on River Road,” she continued, “where the entire family went insane. The father once waved a pistol at your grandmother. I believe his son is now in the state asylum. Anyways, the house is a wreck and it might even be unlocked. Don’t fall through the floor though. Your mother will kill me.”
I just spent four days exploring The Delta, returning to places I haunted as a kid. The nostalgia was too much to bear at points. I cried twice in the car. I ate Mac & Cheese from a to-go cup and drove the wrong direction down Howard Street. I turned up the AM station loud, tossing boiled peanut shells out the window, nodding sagely to some preacher’s lamentations of hellfire and brimstone. I went a bit insane. It’s The Delta. It’s allowed. Nay, encouraged.
I know I’ll probably never go and shoot guns with that lovely blonde from the dinner table, but the invite warmed my heart in a suitably strange and beautiful way.
I travel the world to some very unsavory places, and conversation remains my weapon of choice. Still, I admire her greatly for being true to her beliefs and for being proud of where she comes from. Her daddy taught her to shoot, love and respect guns. So what if I despise them?
We both like ice cream and happily killed off a carton together. In this age of soap-boxing on Facebook, it’s a blessing to share a table with people who think differently than you … to fist bump responsible, intelligent gun owners, whilst licking cold cream off a spoon.
If you want the best road trip of your life, rent a car in Memphis. Turn it to the AM dial and drive due south to The Delta. Be forewarned. Mississippi will get under your skin and she’ll linger there, with soft hips made of soothing calories, a voice like pedal steel, bare feet in loose dirt and unspooling ribbons of bright green kudzu.
Here’s How You Love Her Best:
As for me, I swung into Memphis and left the AM Baptist preacher’s last staticky testimonial for the rental car guy at Enterprise. I went back to New York with a fine film of Mississippi sweat clinging to my t-shirt.
And … while my moral compass still bounces like a lie detector test only ever asked the wrong questions … my True North is always South.
It’s snake season. I do know that. I suppose I’m repenting in my own way. Repenting for being gone from such a striking and strange place for far too long.