Dinner in Boomtown

Trip Start Nov 22, 2004
Trip End Dec 01, 2004

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Flag of United States  , Mississippi
Wednesday, November 24, 2004

When you see magnolia blooms on all the signs, you know you're in Mississippi. US 78 is easy driving, smooth and mostly straight, and yes, there's the sign, to welcome me. Mississippi. Every kid learns to count with Mississippi. One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, enough Mississippis to mark the seconds off. Every kid learns to spell with Mississippi, M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-humpback-humpback-I.

Little girls know that Miss Americas come from Mississippi, such pretty women, with picture hats and sweetheart smiles. All that Mississippi humidity, keeps skin soft and smooth, like the petals of magnolia blooms. All that Mississippi heat, sets hearts and loins on fire, pushes feelings to the top. How many of our greatest writers grew up here, are living still? All those Mississippi wrongs, and rights, how many broken hearts, expressed in blues, the sweetest music of the soul? All that Mississippi catfish, fried up crisp and brown, served on a plate of southern hospitality, come on in.

I stopped at Holly Springs, a few miles off the highway, a county seat. Parked by the courthouse square and walked around the block. The buildings are two stories high, painted, clean and neat, some white, some yellow, one teal-blue green. Shuttered windows, porches over sidewalks, a little bit of comfort here. Drove past the houses, yards so deep and wide, room to run and play, to crunch the autumn leaves that fell as I passed by.

A Sonic Drivein up ahead, that southern chain with burgers, hot dogs, really fancy shakes. I stopped and ate a corndog in the car, although it took a while to get the window down. I pushed each button till I found Left Front, the server waiting patiently outside. "It's a rental," I apologized. Better that she didn't think an addled brain.

The sky is black ahead, not charcoal gray, but BLACK, the clouds are pushed and tumbled, slammed together, dense. They're full of lightning, I am sure, with rain enough to drown. These are the clouds that give tornadoes birth, and I am driving straight into their midst. Tornado alley, this is called, I grew up in its path. Almost 30 years ago, one came through Jasper, like a shopper, picking this and that, from every store in town. The windows disappeared, the merchandise was sucked away, swirled to elsewhere, the courthouse clocks were stopped at 8:02.

Another year, Guin took the hit, Aunt Hester's house destroyed, their truck stuck in a tree, the children blown into the woods, Aunt Hester pinned beneath the fallen timbers until dawn. Her chest was crushed, she never spoke again, and died, before too long. Aunt Minnie heard the noise, she and Uncle Herman in their bed, they each rolled underneath, the suction pulled the sheets away, the pillows too, while they lay trembling, wondering if they'd make it through. They did, but one wall of their house was gone, the kitchen side, a glass of tea still sat beside the sink, and yet the wall was blown away. We have those pictures still, an act of nature stranger than a dream.

That was my cousin's house, I slept there many summer nights, the cousin I would see in only hours. Sis, we called her then. Her real name and my Mom's the same, Mother's namesake, Sis to me.

I finally get to Tupelo, but I am tired, and tense. Too little sleep, and barometric pressure dropping fast. The rain begins, the thunder cracks, and rolls. I check into my motel room, unload the car, and draw the lightproof drapes. I need a nap, before I talk.

"I'll pick you up," Sis said on the phone. "No need for you to try and find my house in all this rain." We agreed on 6 PM. She told me I should pack my things and stay with her, but I demur. I guess I'm too old now, I need my time and space, to use the way it fits. I've come to town, planned to visit, let me treat for dinner, we'll sit and talk, you've been at work all day. That's love, and old times sake, I think. Time together, that's what counts. Don't make a fuss.

I see Vanelli's from the window of my room, that's where I want to eat. I saw the billboards all around the town, as I drove in. The local fame, that's what it has, and high ratings in the Mobil guide. Always try the local stuff, the traveler's credo, right? I go downstairs, wait by the door. The rain is pouring hard, now, and here is Sis. Hello and smile, I'm glad to see her, this is great! I get into the car.

She pulls across the parking lot and stops. Outback Steakhouse. We'll eat right here, she says. How about Vanelli's? It's just next door. I don't think so, she replied. I'm sure it's greasy. Have you ever eaten there? Oh no, I wouldn't think of it. Open up the car, I jump out quick in all the rain. Sis pulls out her plastic hood, ties up her hair.

I order Outback chicken, mushroom topped. We talk about our travels, places we have been. She's been to Europe, China, cruised the world and split the difference through the Panama Canal. Next time I'm going round the bottom of the Cape, she says. Her husband doesn't go, he'd rather be at home, and keep things going here. Their business, radio. 

She wouldn't let me pay but drives me to her house, let's take a tour. Set way back in the trees, a curving drive, the lightning flashes show white columns, all across the front. A spacious spread, in weathered brick, and perfect as a pin. You could have had this room, she pointed, or this other one right down the hall. Your pick of bathrooms, too. They're very nice, I said, next time I'll plan ahead.

The rain is coming harder now, the thunder booms. The sitting room, TV, the weather is the thing. Tornado warnings flash across the bottom of the screen, oh, one has struck, not far away. It's flooding too. She calls the station, asks, What's coming, on the wire? Her husband's in Atlanta, on a business trip. He calls about the storm. I watch the TV screen, the Doppler arm swings over where I am, bright yellow pinpoints danger, I know that.

At last we sit and family-talk, it's mother's birthday, I remind, your namesake aunt! It's 90 years today, since she was born. We talk about her and Aunt Minnie, two sisters oh so close, they lived long peaceful lives. The other sisters died so young, most were dead before they reached our age. Is that our heritage, to live long lives, like our mothers did? We hope that's true. We're warm now here, the old days almost back again. You want some tea, she asks?

We pull out pictures, look and reminisce. I recall that summer day when Dwight took the sled into the watermelon patch. He was picking stuff to sell, and let us tag along, two giggle girls. It was very hot that day, we needed watermelon cool. We opened one or two, and then our sillies hit him too. We busted melons, here and there, drunk with juices running down our chin. Look back down the row! A trail of melons busted up, we laughed and walked back to the house. That night, Uncle Herman used his leather strap. Dwight took the blame for us, and never said a word. I guess that's what big brothers do. My second-oldest cousin. Did I ever tell him thanks?

I brought a present, I remember, and get the box out of my pack. It's a Christmas wreath, just-right small, and red, I bought four, alike. One for cousin Sis, one for cousin Sarah, one for my new step-sister I have yet to meet, one for myself. "When you look at it each year," I say, "you'll know I have one like it in my house. Then think of me!"

Sis walks to the shelf, picks up a book. A present for you too, she says, that I had planned to mail. The man who wrote it lives in Macon, where you lived on your farm. I thought you'd like it, just for that. She flips the cover open, to show his autograph. Thomas Hamill, a hostage in Iraq, on the news, prayer and yellow ribbons brought him back. He wrote a book to tell of his escape. I beam, say thanks. It's late, and time to go.

Back at my hotel, the thunder booms, I watch the TV screen, the mesmerizing banner never stops, each county named, the danger spelled for all to see. The storms are moving east. Tomorrow, that's my route, into Alabama, place where I was born.

I should have stayed at Sis's house, I think, too late.
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