"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Brook B&B

My name is Richard Holt and I own The Brook B&B in Natchez, Mississippi. To the questions why I bought a B&B, and more importantly why on earth in Mississippi, no answer was ever good enough. “Why would you do that?”, my friends said. “There’s nothing there”.

On the other hand Yoknapatawpha County, Belle Rive, Tara, Simon Legree, Selma, and Vicksburg are not exactly value-free and neutral places. The Mississippi Delta, said one writer, was the most Southern place on earth, and I wanted to go.

I remember my first trip South – long hours awake in the sleeper car, looking out the window at the piney woods and at the white sandy earth I thought was still snow; my first steps onto the rural rail platform in central Florida, smelling orange blossoms and feeling the warm sun. Even then I hated the dark, wet, dirty winters of New England, and being in a warm, sunny place while my friends were frozen and chapped was like the first day of summer vacation.

My last trip South before buying the Brook was organized by my wife. After four weeks of Southern culture and over 50 historic houses, four states, and period furniture from Federalist to Victorian, all I could remember were the quirky tidbits given on house tours - that Southern ladies drank small quantities of arsenic to keep their complexions pale and pure or that tea bricks that were tightly packed so that they could float.

My wife, however, could get the date of a piece of furniture within five years. She could pick out a Mallard bed from a hundred imitations; decipher the hallmarks on old spoons and tell where and when they were fashioned; calculate the knots per square inch and the years of wear on antique carpets; tell the difference between Victorian, Edwardian, and Colonial ceiling moldings; and give a running commentary on chests, credenzas, highboys, divans, secretaries, and chairs; amboyna, beech, and coromandel woods.

These plantations had all the stage settings of grand melodrama – 300 year-old live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, ladies’ parlors, Georgian pillars, double verandahs, and long drives, and I liked staying there. I just had no interest in the minutiae. The trip, far from being the voyage of reconciliation and rediscovery that my wife had hoped, was just the opposite. Melodrama and old furniture are not the usual reasons for divorce, nor particularly good ones. While final reasons are never the reasons for divorce, they are always remembered most clearly.

I suppose with this recent history, buying a historic B&B would be the last thing I would ever consider, but as is often the case circumstances prevailed. Shortly after our divorce, I met a woman who had fled New Orleans after Katrina and landed in Boston. She had managed a B&B in New Orleans, was on her way back South to Natchez to follow up on job opportunities there, and asked if I wanted to come.

I ended up buying The Brook and Cindy agreed to help run it. Like thousands of fifty-five year old men before me, I hooked up with a younger woman and moved as far away from my roots as possible.

The house I bought was built in 1834 by Thomas Seagrove, a wealthy banker and cotton wholesaler with a financial investment in Mississippi River shipping. Mississippi was booming after the War of 1812. The country was at peace, the Indians had been resettled in the Oklahoma Territory, and once the cypress swamps and forests had been cleared, the rich Delta bottom land produced tons of the highest quality long-staple cotton. Plantation owners of Delta land – both in Mississippi and Louisiana – moved to the high ground of Natchez to avoid the periodic flooding of the River and built the great mansions of the city; and financiers and merchants like the owner of The Brook served their interests.

People who had no good reason to leave the good life on their tobacco plantations in Virginia and North Carolina got scalped by Indians, died from malaria, dengue, and yellow fever; got toes and fingers chopped off clearing the land; lost wives and children to alligators and snakes – just to make money. They were not latter day immigrants in search of a better life. They were rich planters who wanted to become even richer.

The Brook was built on five acres of land of which three remain. The original gardens of the house take up most of the property. The front lawn was reduced by about half as the demand for more modest housing in the early 20th century encouraged owners of large estates to sell off much of their land. It still has four of the live oaks that were on the property when it was built – trees that predate the house by at least 200 years.

By Washington standards, however, the neighborhood is sketchy. It is white and upper middle class, but it is two blocks from a poor area, and black people crisscross the neighborhood day and night. “This is the South”, my white neighbor advised me. “They’re harmless”.

The neighbor is an ex-homicide detective who spent twenty-five years with the Miami-Dade police department. “I have seen everything”, he said. He retired two years ago, bought a “second tier” historic house to renovate – not of the class of Melrose, Monmouth, or Rosalie, but one with land and potential – and became a realtor to supplement his pension. Despite what he said about “harmless”, he still hung his gun on the hatrack by the front door.

“Lose the chintz curtains in the Magnolia Room”, Cindy said. “They shout cheap weddings and saggy anniversaries”. After a few months she had changed the look of The Brook from “Victorian-cum-Walmart” to something I could live with – true to its 1834 origins but with a more comfortable and relaxed feel. She got rid of the plastic placemats and butter dishes, the bandaged-foot patio chairs and faux wrought-iron tables, and removed all the throw pillows and knick-knacks from the bedrooms. With not much investment The Brook had been transformed from a so-so, cheaply “romantic” getaway into a destination B&B. “And change the website while you’re at it”, she said. I purged all the “modern amenities in a historic setting” and “sit in the shade of live oaks and sip mint juleps” that the previous owner had copied from the lower-end travel magazines; and presented The Brook with crafted ads that suggested that only the most discerning and experienced visitors stayed here. I even hinted that not all people who requested a room would get one. The Brook was to be more like an exclusive club, and the criteria for admission were very strict.

Simplicity appeals to the high end of the market and we trimmed the inn accordingly. All the WASP houses in the New England town where I grew up looked like Presbyterian churches while the Italian, Polish, and Irish ones had sconces, cheap china, Florentine wallpaper, and scalloped valences. I discontinued the contract with Southern Living and Southern Cooking, and placed ads in the Yale and Harvard alumni magazines, Sotheby-type antiques websites, and glossy art publications. I focused on history, architecture, and landscaping.

Basically I was selling Natchez like everyone else – old houses, antique furniture, and ornate gardens – just pitched it differently to prospective clients who would never consider themselves to be just tourists.

“What did you do?”, said Imelda, Bert’s Dominican-born wife when she saw the house after our redecoration. “Where are the pillows and the little figurines? The house is so empty”. Imelda Figgins made dolls from scratch. She made her own heads from plaster molds, bought standard plastic bodies, and made all the doll clothes. She had made dolls of Clark Gable (as Rhett Butler), George W. Bush, Jefferson Davis, and Jose Marti; copies of Barbie and the Cabbage Patch kids; and her own variations of religious figures – Jesus as a cowboy and Peter as a bass fisherman with a miniature flyrod and bass boat. Her main interest, however, was portrait dolls – people would sit for her, and she would make little replicas of them. She would cast the head, paint the eyes, give the cheeks color, and tailor the clothes.

Despite all the attention and care she put into the dolls, few people actually bought them. She never got the proportions right and there was always something deformed and gnome-like about the bodies. While the faces were recognizable, they all came out with creepy vacant stares. They were more like totems or voodoo dolls than kind resemblances, and when people saw them, the found some excuse not to take them. Imelda didn’t need the money, so she never objected, and displayed the dolls throughout the house. There were creepy dolls on the bannister, sitting in the Victorian chairs in the parlor, and even propped up on chairs in the breakfast nook.

So when Imelda said that The Brook looked empty, I took it as a compliment.

The Auburn Garden Club is the organization in charge of the Fall and Spring Pilgrimages, historic house tours which generate much of the city’s revenue. Shortly after I had moved in, the Chairwoman, Mrs. Corning paid me a visit. She said that she had seen contractor trucks in the driveway, and knowing that we finally were settled, felt that it was time to say hello. I soon found out that on behalf of the Club, she had come to stop any renovation of The Brook – alterations which would “destroy the integrity of the house and interrupt the unspoiled history of the city”.

I had seen pictures of Mrs. Corning in picture books – not the Mrs. Corning, but a hundred ladies of a certain age in floral hats and long gloves seated in the ornate gardens of Natchez homes. I had thought that these ladies had long left Natchez and turned over ownership to buyers from New Orleans and the New York; but she and her family had never left. Strayer, one of the premier houses of the city, was hers – all fifteen bedrooms, vast formal dining room, a parlor and two living rooms; sunroom, conservatory, library, two kitchens, portico, and thirty-two feet Ionic columns. Having the house on the Historic Registry and on the Pilgrimage meant that the house had not changed since 1854 and never would.

The Brook was on the Historic Registry, but not on the Pilgrimage Tour, and for Mrs. Corning that was all the difference in the world. It might not have mattered so much if her grand uncle had not owned the property in 1880. An important part of her lineage had passed through the house, and her family would not be complete until The Brook became a true part of the Natchez community. I soon found out that every white-gloved, floral-hatted matron in Natchez is related to Mrs. Corning one way or another and that The Brook was not just any historic Natchez home.

The Brook simply had to be on the Pilgrimage Tour, and to do that it had to conform to Auburn’s code. While no one at the Garden Club would object to an odd Victorian piece here or there, the house had to be appointed with the furnishings of the period, and as importantly painted the colors that had been prominent and popular at that time. The previous owner had refused to change the bright yellow of the kitchen to a ferny green and her rejection had become a cause celebre. The fact that the minimum standards for a house on the Historic Registry were far more lenient than those of Auburn made no difference at all. A non-conforming house was like a loose board on a porch: you had to fix it.

When Mrs. Corning heard that not only was I going to keep the color scheme of the kitchen, but I was going to bang out the back wall and extend it ten feet into the garden, she stammered and spluttered, “Why, you can’t….I mean you shouldn’t… the house has always been….” Painting the kitchen yellow was nothing compared to this…desecration.

“All these dried out, blue-haired old Natchez crones should go shrivel up in a corner”, said Cindy.

“Most of them do”, I said and told her about Dorothea Wentworth who had lived in her mansion, Rosewood, for ninety-four years. She had been wet-nursed and brought up by a black mammy, went to a girls finishing school in Natchez, and married the son of one of the best families of the city. She rarely travelled outside Natchez and never out of Mississippi. She was an active member of the Auburn Garden Club and a proud member of the Daughters of the Confederacy..

She survived her husband and three children, lived alone, and had long ago closed off all ten bedrooms, the formal dining room, men’s and women’s parlor, conservatory, library, sitting room, and study. She lived in what had been the maid’s quarters. That and the kitchen were the only functioning parts of the house. A woman from Social Welfare came in once a week to buy provisions - TV dinners, milk, sugar, and tea. Mrs. Wentworth was worth a fortune, but she parceled out her money like a pauper, refused to consider a live-in companion or nurse’s aide, and kept to her routine of knitting, daytime television, and microwaving turkey tetrazzini, the dinner she had every night. It was easier for the lady from Social Welfare to pull out a frosty load of them from the back of the freezer case at Safeway than to vary the menu. When she saw that stocks were running low, she asked the supermarket to reorder. When the supplier was late and she had to substitute chicken a la king, Mrs. Wentworth didn’t seem to notice. The tetrazzini was finally restocked, but Clea decided to stick with the chicken because she didn’t have to stick her hands so far back in the freezer chest. “Clea treats me so well”, said Mrs. Wentworth. “She makes me something different every night”.

Despite the fact that Mrs. Wentworth was a recluse and was becoming dottier by the day, and that Rosewood had been a musty crypt for decades, Dorothea Corning insisted that it be opened for the Pilgrimage tours. Every year she propped Mrs. Wentworth up behind her tea service, gave a brief history of the house, and led the guests on a tour of the rooms. Because the windows of the house were never opened, and nothing stirred within, there was surprisingly little dust in the closed rooms; but the house had a funereal air, and visitors never raised their voices above a whisper.

Cindy went on one of these house tours to size up Pilgrimage and the competition. “Weird”, she said. “Weird and sick”.

Before Bert had turned over a new leaf and went back to real estate and restoration – that is, in the days of his frustration – he and his wife made a very peculiar couple. Bert was 6’5’ at least 275 lbs. and as blocky as a refrigerator. He rolled like an old salt when he walked, and because of a problem with his larynx his neck swelled up like a bullfrog when he tried to speak. Imelda barely cleared 5 ft. and was as wispy and sylph-like as a fairy. She made fluttery movements with her hands when she talked and blinked her eyes. When Bert got home from a particularly maddening no sale, he reddened and puffed up, croaked obscenities, knocked over Imelda’s dolls, and sagged into a parlor armchair. Imelda fluttered over him like a ministering angel, brought him a cool drink, and put her head on his shoulder.

One night during a particularly scratchy period Bert shot an intruder – or rather shot at him. Like most gun owners he said, “If I had meant to hit him, he would be lying dead under the oak tree right now”. He went on to say that he had spotted a man in my garden at 3AM when his security lights went on. Despite his comments about the neighborhood being safe, he had installed heat and motion sensors around the perimeter of his property. They were calibrated so finely that even the smallest raccoons and cats set it off. He must have had terrible insomnia, because whenever I was up at night so was he. Lights went on and off as he moved through the basement, living room, upstairs, and the attic until he finally settled on a resting place. After three years of selling real estate and dealing with tearing up and rebuilding his house, I was not surprised that he had an itchy trigger finger.

“Do you miss police work?”, I asked him. For the first couple of years he was quick to say no. Restoration and real estate suited him fine. He repeated “I’ve seen it all”, and then talked enthusiastically about his mahogany banisters, oak flooring, cast moldings, and new listings; but as time passed, he spoke with less conviction. Occasionally I went with him on lock-box visits. It was a good way to tell prospective buyers about The Brook and to let them know they had a place to stay while they waited for a closing or renovations. At the beginning he was patient, even with the couples who bickered about each house. “Richard, it’s painful to see nice people argue”, he said. Later, after many months of no sales, his patience waned. “Did you see that? The bitch was taking every bad fuck of her marriage out of his ass”; and finally, “Cocksuckers. Buy the fucking house, will you?”. He was clearly veering off the rails, frustrated at a string of no sales. No technique he had learned in Miami could force his clients to buy. At night I heard him whacking away at the floorboards of his front porch long after the rest of the neighborhood had gone to bed.

So the shooting didn’t surprise me, nor his elated reaction. There was never much action reported on the police blotter before the shooting, and there was even less afterwards. “He’s one crazy muthafucka”, said the neighbors who walked past his house on their way to work.

The shooting was somehow cathartic, and my neighbor returned to his patient realtor self. “Well”, he said to an indecisive couple, “if you don’t like this house, there’s plenty more where that came from”. The all-night banging next door stopped. Bert Figgins was a new man.

The ladies of the Auburn Garden Club, however, were mortified. There was simply no room in Natchez for a maniac. He had never belonged in the first place, and the sooner he left the better. His talks at the Rotary Club and his presentations at the high schools about personal security, far from demonstrating the civic responsibility they honored, revealed his crass preferences. The ladies of the Auburn Club knew how to deal with their colored - with whom they had gotten along for 200 years - and shooting them was simply not done. I invited him to meet the Auburn Club ladies when they next met at The Brook, hoping to mend fences, but they both refused. The ladies said they would never lower themselves to meet a policeman, let alone a would-be murderer; and my neighbor said the ladies should stick with potting geraniums and mind their own fucking business.

Bert Figgins never had any patience for either the Natchez blue-haired ladies or the Northerners who came down here to relive the antebellum experience. “The Other”, said Bert. “That says it all”.

“Take your case”, he continued. “People are going to think you’re a faggot with all these ladies teas and Pilgrimage tours. How did you ever get into this business anyway? The Other, Richard. The Other.”

However, the Natchez ladies had staying power and the tourists paid my rent I had my Pilgrimage guests, and our decision to redecorate The Brook was a good one. We had more and more history professors, serious antique dealers, and Southern scholars. One such couple was from New York – he was a lawyer, she worked for a non-profit foundation, and they were thinking of retiring here. They liked the city and she had just discovered that she had distant relatives who had settled in Natchez. She wondered if I could introduce her to people who might help her track down her great-great grandfather.

I had made peace with Mrs. Corning and arranged a meeting She poured tea and offered cakes, but between the tinkling of the bell for the maid and her final sip of tea, Mrs. Corning had dismissed the distant relative who had landed in Virginia in1693 and disappeared into the American West and supposedly emerged in Natchez, quickly established that my guest was only a generation removed from lace-curtain Philadelphia Irish, and moved on to the weather.

Of course she was far more gracious and genteel than to put the issue that way, but her feelings and intentions were perfectly clear. “Did you say your mother’s family came over during or before the Potato Famine?”, she asked.

Bert’s wife Imelda was turning out dolls that were creepier and creepier. People stopped coming in for sittings, and she began to make her own dolls that were weird replicas of people in the city. She did a very accurate depiction of Mrs. Wentworth. She dressed her in the vaguely Victorian clothes she wore, meticulously reproduced her silvery hairdo; but made her face morbid and frightened as though she had just heard the Angel of Death. She made one of Mrs. Corning that looked like a Francis Bacon painting – scary teeth, and all her other features scrambled up but somehow looking like her. Bert told me that these dolls were keeping people away, especially since she had started making them larger and more lifelike. She had worked out a way to stiffen them up and pose them in various places in the house. She stood the Mayor on the top step of the front stairs and when anyone came in the front door, they could see a ghoulish zombie looking exactly like Henry Creighton taking his first step towards them.

When word got around Natchez that Bert had a strange wife, whatever little local business he had dried up quickly. The Northern buyers still came through, and I gave out Bert’s card to them if they showed any interest; but the new, patient, implacable Bert was beginning to crack, and he was back to grousing and complaining. He was spending more and more time at The Brook, less with Imelda and even less with the clients. I was waiting for him to throw in the towel and head back to Miami.

After a few months the brouhaha died down. Pilgrimage came and went and distracted the ladies; and Bert decided to leave real estate for security work. He had to swallow his pride – working in security at the casino was a big comedown for a police detective from a major metropolitan area - but it was much more satisfying than selling houses. Besides, he said, he had not given up his realtor’s license.

I didn’t think he would last at the Isle of Capri. They let him work in plain clothes and circulate among the patrons but all he did was handle drunks and hookers; but the interesting police work, catching the card counters and the tandem operators was all done by video monitoring. All Bert did was make the collar. In six months he had quit and was back selling real estate.

After Katrina the real estate values of the city went down, at least where Bert was operating. The influx of poor, black refugees from New Orleans overcrowded the neighborhoods surrounding ours and the historic downtown, and fewer retirees wanted to settle here. Bert hadn’t sold a property for months. Imelda had gone totally off the rails and joined a holy roller storefront church that saw Armageddon coming before the end of the decade.

“You’ve got to hear this guy”, said Bert. “He’s fucking nuts”

We drove downtown on Sunday, and stood in back of the church. “This place used to be a Laundromat”, Bert said. It was packed, people sat on benches and packing crates. It was hot outside and stifling inside. The air conditioning wall units had been ripped out when the business was sold, and the empty spaces had never been filled in. Birds had nested in them, and bird droppings streaked the walls.

“We have been the victims of a conspiracy”, began Strickland Pusey, the preacher, “and you know who I mean”. The congregation nodded. “As agents of the international Jewish lobby, aided and abetted by the insidious hand of the Trilateral Commission, these……….” Here Pusey paused as he twisted his mouth, curled his lips in disgust as if the word he was working on was spoiled or bitter. His eyes narrowed, and he pouted and stuck out his chin like Mussolini. “…invaders who have raped the South. They have defiled our sacred, hallowed ground. They have invaded our sanctum sanctorum out of which will flower a new generation of humanity - a cleansed, beautiful, illuminated, powerful generation which will repopulate the earth after Armageddon.”

“Totally fried”, said Bert. “Now all her creepy dolls begin to make sense”.

The Auburn Garden Club had never organized anything more controversial than the auction of Mrs. Wentworth’s risqué Art Deco lamp. Everyone assumed Mrs. Corning was behind the auction because she had tried to pry it from her neighbor for years. The women chirped over the near-naked figures swinging up the base of the lamp, and when the elegant piece was banged sold for over two-thousand dollars to a dealer from New Orleans, they all looked for any sign of disappointment in Mrs. Corning’s face to prove their assumption.

Because of Mrs. Corning’s organizational skills, she decided to mobilize the Auburn Garden Club against the church and said that the first step was to protest at City Hall. She had few takers at first. The older women either couldn’t follow what she was saying or could see their own Armageddon coming; but the relatively younger members were outraged that yet another assault on decorum and tradition.

“If that policeman’s wife belongs”, said Mrs. Harlan, “you can imagine what it must be like. Have you seen her dolls? She did one of Eugenia Mather that made her look skeletal”

“Well, my dear, you know that Eugenia could stand to lose some weight.”

“It’s not funny”, huffed Mrs. Corning. “It’s a matter of principle.”

It wasn’t long before Mrs. Corning’s maid told Imelda’s maid what the old ladies had said. Of course the maid told Imelda, who told Bert because he had always been able to solve her problems. Bert said he was going to oil up his gun because he knew that religion was a social flashpoint.

The Auburn Garden Club did go en masse to the Mayor’s office to protest the cult. Mayor Creighton, looking very much like the zombie doll that Imelda had made and set at the top of her stairs, said the Constitution encouraged lawful assembly and freedom of religion, and while he appreciated their concern, he could do nothing.

None of the ladies had the interest to pursue things further. Spring Pilgrimage was coming up and even though they had done it fifty times before, it always required careful organization and planning. Mrs. Wentworth was being stubborn about the opening of her house as usual, especially since the auction of her lamp, and it took many audiences to convince her to open it “just one more time”. The Brook was another issue that required attention. I had always come close to accreditation and had won the support of the more progressive members of the Club, but the more conservative members still objected to my sun deck which was too “suburban” and to the acrid color of my kitchen.

The only casualty of the church affair was Imelda Figgins. The preacher of the church saw a vision of good and evil in her dolls, and asked her to spread it more widely in the community. She did not completely understand what he meant, but decided that distributing her dolls to other churches, civic organizations, and schools would be a fulfillment of his wishes. These institutions, however, did not appreciate her deformed and ghoulish depictions of well- known figures and the attached notes about hypocrisy and whited sepulchers, but rather than confront her directly, told her husband. Bert loved his wife, but felt that she would be better off back in Miami with her family, at least until she regained her footing. He scraped the dolls off the banister, end tables, kitchen chairs, and settees and tried to get on with his life.

Cindy was permanently pissed and unlivable. The black neighborhoods near us were changing from “harmless” to nasty; and according to her were becoming just like the New Orleans districts she had left.

“I can’t believe this shit”, she said. “I leave New Orleans to get away from cornrows and gold teeth, and they follow me up here. What do I have to do, move to Minneapolis?”

Imelda Figgins had been getting on her nerves, creeping in and out of the house in the middle of the night with a Santa Claus sack of twisted dolls on her back. Bert was spending more and more time at the Brook once Imelda left and started hitting on her; and she was beginning to have sick fantasies about the old crones from the Auburn Ladies Club.

The flaws in our relationship showed up a lot more quickly than did those with my former wife. Cindy’s desires to get her pussy tapped were becoming more demanding and sexless. I got tired of hearing about Bert, his spic wife, and the strays from Hillwood; and since the casinos were the only thing in Natchez reminiscent of New Orleans, she began spending more and more time there.

It’s all about expectations. Middle-aged men fool themselves more than anyone else, and I was no different. Two years were all it took for the blush to fade on the bloom of my Southern rose. Running a B&B was of course ten times the work that I expected, and whatever sense of community I had imagined in a more traditional South disappeared with Mrs. Corning and the cornrows.

Although Atlanta is far removed from my romantic notions of the South and the Mississippi Delta, it is still South and warm. I am living there happily – alone, retired, and for the moment very unadventurous.

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