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

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rosswood B&B

I heard once that you could tell when a pig was going to shit by the direction he twisted his tail – corkscrew to the left, shit; corkscrew to the right, nothing… or pig fart. Now why anyone would care to know that totally useless fact is beyond me, but every time I was out in the pen shoveling, I kept looking at these pigs tails to see if the theory was right. There were so many pigs in the pen that there was always one shitting behind me instead of in front of me, and when I turned around to look, the one in front of me shat, so I ended up missing both of them. When I finally did get a look, most often I was too far away or my glasses were too flecked up and gritty to see, so all I could make out was the tail quivering and no chance to see the direction.

I made the mistake of asking my wife what she thought, and she told me it was bad enough that I shoveled Mr. Richmond’s pig shit for a living and now that I was going senile I soon wouldn’t be able to do even that. She always twists what I say and finds some way to turn it back towards me and I’m always getting skewered with my own words; but sometimes when you’ve got something stupid in your head that just won’t leave, you’ve just got to talk about it with somebody.

My wife makes it sound like shoveling pig shit is all I do, which is not true. I am Mr. Richmond’s assistant which means I do tend to the pigs; but I also repair the machinery, bang up the sides of the barn when they come loose, fix the fence line, unclog the chicken feeder, basically keep things running. I don’t mean to take anything away from the farm manager or the accountant; but hell, without me the place would fall apart.

My name is Lyle Bondage and I’ve been here for fifty years, ever since Mr. Richmond’s daddy owned the place. It was a big cotton plantation in those days but nothing like the acreage before the War or after for that matter. Other than the cotton gin, life had not changed much from sharecropping. It still took 100 workers to get the cotton into wagons and over to the gin, tenant farmers worked the land, and the Richmonds and the company store still owned all of them. Mr. Richmond sold off most of the land when his father died, kept about half in cotton and turned the rest into grazing land for beef. His friends told him he was crazy, but he said that he was only going to graze the land up towards the hills which never produced much cotton anyway; and besides, if they could breed cattle in those scrappy lands around Natchitoches he most certainly could here. Now that he’s getting older, he sold off most everything, kept the pig and chicken business going, and turned his house into a B&B – the Rosswood Plantation.

I could understand the cattle business – Mr. Richmond was right about the range land up towards the hills. I could even understand the pig business, particularly because other farmers were getting into it and a slaughterhouse opened up in Leland; but I could never understand why he agreed to let his wife run a B&B. I know she pushed him hard. All their kids were grown, and he was always dipping his wick up in Jackson or losing his money down in Vicksburg on the riverboats. She tried to take her pound of flesh every time she had the chance, bitching and moaning at him, but he just flicked it all away like summer flies. I always had the sense that one day she would move out, but he kept a tight hand on the money and probably had it all sealed up in trusts or Swiss bank accounts where she couldn’t get her hand on it. So running the B&B was her way of planning her escape, although she never did figure out until too late that that no one makes money on those damn things

So we had Yankees where we never had them before – white Yankees who wanted to discover the Blues, black Yankees who wanted to trace their roots; and just plain tuckered out old Yankees who misjudged the driving time from Tunica and the casinos down to Baton Rouge. Miss Emily did her homework, though – dug out the family diaries that dated back to slave times, brought out old furniture that had been stored in the attic and made the house look like it did 100 years ago.

A black family from Chicago tracked their great-grandfather to Rosswood and found his name on the plantation ledger sheet. In 1854 Mr. Richmond bought “Joseph” from a slave trader in New Orleans for $250; and eleven years later, seeing the War coming, sold him at a loss to a buyer in Louisiana for $100. The old Mr. Richmond had been a very careful accountant and every expense and profit had been noted. Joseph had cost $54 a year, including the interest on the loan of his purchase; and he had contributed $544 a year in profits. Everything was in there – amortization costs of the loan to buy him, yearly amounts spent for corn meal, biscuits, overalls, medicine, and boots; and days lost to sickness and holidays.

Joseph had not led a bad life, given what it could have been what with malaria, dystentery, yellow fever killing most slaves before they were forty. He could have been bought by a big plantation owner and whipped silly by overseers, or his children taken as concubines. The fact was he was treated well by the Richmonds, and his new owner put him to work in the big house.

It would have been better if the family had discovered some awful evidence of brutality or mistreatment. They could have more easily accepted the fate of their relative if their notions of slavery had been confirmed – that Joseph’s children had been sold down the river; or that he had been flogged and beaten. That way there would have been someone or something to hate; but all they found out was that he was a piece of property – valuable property that had been treated well to protect the owner’s investment; bought to supply needed labor, sold to avoid loss. People always seem to want to confirm what they already believe, and are unhappy with the truth even if it is better than what they had thought. Maybe that fact – that he was property no different than the cotton gin or a mule team – was even worse.  I don’t know.  Not my history.

Miss Emily was a lady all through the family’s visit, never showed a trace of what she must have been thinking. Her great-granddaddy was one of the biggest slave owners around and the Richmonds and the Stantons – her family – married each other so many times over the years that one of her relatives must have been around when Joseph was picking cotton. She was a Daughter of the Confederacy and went down to Natchez every year to help all those old ladies out with Pilgrimage. She’s related to half of them too, and when they get together they don’t just talk about their children and grandchildren, but family from 100 years ago. Pilgrimage is the only time of year any air gets into some of these old houses, and when the widows try to make the place presentable, they always find a diary or letter they never even knew they had. When they all get together they reminisce. “Oh yes. I do remember Colonel Stanton. He married the daughter of Mary Brillings but the poor boy lost his life at Chancellorsville before the year was out”. They all had diaries and letters, and since Natchez was such a small place the story of one family was the story of another; and they talk as if it all happened yesterday.

As far as black people were concerned, they still tended the garden, worked in the kitchen, and made the beds. They still yessum’ed and Lawdie me’ed just like the slave days, and since these ladies never left their houses how would they know that the rest of the world had changed? They saw black doctors and lawyers on daytime television, but none of it made any sense since the last time they checked, black people were still doing the cleaning up.

As far as poor whites were concerned – hillbillies, crackers, and trailer trash – they should have stayed in Tupelo, period.

The South I grew up in hadn’t changed much since early plantation days either, but my recollections were nothing like Miss Emily’s. Crackers and colored both worked until they dropped and had nothing to show for it when they hit the ground. My daddy walked barefoot out of the hills in 1925 and did colored work – planting, picking, and baling – until he took over a tenant farm near Lorman. The Depression nearly finished him off, but he managed and worked forty more years until he died a thousand dollars in debt which took me and my brothers ten years to pay off.

Now, Mr. Richmond – I mean this Mr. Richmond – hasn’t had a bad day in his life. He’s worth over a million after the sale of all his land, he’s got me to take care of the pigs and chickens, he got his wife out of his hair with the B&B, and has a little pussy on the side. My wife says I couldn’t give a goddam about the money and don’t have the ambition to even think about running Rosswood; and all I want is ‘on the side’ which is “in your case only Jeanette Harper’s sour pussy; and Lord knows she ain’t saving it, but she sure isn’t giving it out to the likes of you”. When she goes on like that I know she loves me because I haven’t cheated on her for years, and twenty years in bed with the same woman when a man is passing through his itchy years is an accomplishment.

Oh, my wife got her pound of flesh all right. After all the “How could you’s?” and “To think I trusted you’s” she went after the hair in the sink, the piled up garbage, the dirty dishes, the socks under the bed – the hundred things that bother women all the time but generally they keep quiet about to keep the peace; but that they remember and save up for times like this.

“How many times have I told you to put down the toilet seat after you go”, she said, slamming the seat and the cover but knowing full well that our deal was that I raise the seat after her and she puts it down after me; but that’s what a pound of flesh means – no logic, just hammering away at the most insignificant things just to piss you off and to watch you keep your mouth shut. I didn’t fight back because I knew enough about women to know that they eventually get over it, particularly if you reform or at least look like you’re reforming. I was pretty bare-faced about my lies, which is another thing women hate – that men always try to get away with things and never grow up. I was sorry for what I did – not the hot sex I had with Myrna Rocque for three years, but for screwing up, if only temporarily, a good marriage. So for the last ten years sexual references have been off the table for discussion; and that’s why when she made that comment about Jeanette’s pussy I knew she still loved me.

Jeanette, by the way, lives in the trailer park outside of Leland with her common law husband. It’s folks like Jeanette and Eugene that give the South a bad name – living in a banged up, rusted out trailer, two broken down cars on cinder blocks by the front door; Eugene hauling shrimp up from the Gulf to Memphis and pissing on his wife on the way up and the way down. When Eugene is on the road Jeanette hangs out at Rodney’s, our local bar – still the only bar in Leland despite folks talking of the “renaissance” that’s supposed to happen thanks to the slaughterhouse. “Look what happened to Greenwood after Viking Stove came in”, people say; but if anything the slaughterhouse has run Leland into the ground even more than it was before. The only people who are willing to work there are illegals, and no matter how many environmental regulations the government enforces, the town still smells of guts and pig parts.

Jeanette means well, and the guys are sorry for her what with her deadbeat husband and all; but she gets sloppy drunk and puts her hands all over whoever is sitting next to her at the bar, working her way up his jeans. Now, every cowboy in the bar just dreams of some pussy doing that to him, sucking his ear, breathing heavy, fingering her way up his pants; but not Jeanette Harper. No matter how horny you are, it’s hard to ignore her floured-over acne pits and the flubber pushing out of her shorts. “Now listen, Jeanette”, Sam Perkins said one day. “I like you and all that, but maybe some other time.”

“Some other time? What other time, you limp-peckered cracker?”

So we have Rodney’s, and the Richmonds have the Cypress Hills Country Club. They have stopped going there together – polite as their friends were, they made it clear that the bitching and yelling had to stop; and since the Richmonds were still in battle mode, it was simpler just to stay away. For a while the Richmonds behaved, but soon the dinners began to deteriorate. “Pass the butter”, he would say, and without looking, she slid her hand along the tablecloth to the butter dish, primed two fingers behind it, and flicked it an inch in his direction. In response he would shovel his food and play with the salt shaker until she finished.

The silent treatment dinners soon ended, and she began to hiss and spit at him: “….refrigerator….Texas….pigs….” None of it made any sense, but all she cared about was sinking her fangs in to him and draining poison into his poor, hillbilly ass. “You bastard”, she shouted finally, and stomped out and left him there looking at the scraps on his plate.

Of course she thought she had won, throwing down her napkin and huffing out like an opera diva; but he just went downstairs to the men’s grill, joined his buddies, and drank until closing. At one o’clock in the morning he and Parker Ames came roaring up the drive, spinning gravel on the flower beds, howling drunk and totally unrepentant. “I got a woman”, sang Mr. Richmond, “way cross town. She’s good to me, oh yeah”.

Even on our worst days Gussie and I never were as bad as that. All our bitching and pissing went on at home or maybe at Rodney’s; but everyone there did it so it was no big deal. It was kind of entertainment when two people got drunk and got out the cutlery to carve each other up. First the little paring knives, slicing off little bits; then the kitchen knives, carving out bigger chunks, and finally, if they’d had enough Rodney’s Own, the cleavers. When people got going, Rodney turned down the TV and served a round of drinks on the house. One of the drunks always started yelling at one of us customers to take their side, so eventually we all got into it. Nothing ever came of it. Nobody ever had enough money to split up and move to another county, let alone get divorced; so we’d drive them home, let them sort things out in the morning, which they usually did because the next night they’d be back all lovey-dovey.

No matter what she did, Miss Emily couldn’t get many people to stay at Rosswood. It was just too far away from anything to be attractive – no historic homes, no casinos, no Mississippi River. There were no jacuzzis or a swimming pool. It wasn’t even on the way to someplace else. Having so few clients was discouraging. Not only was Miss Emily not building up any equity for her eventual move away from Mississippi, she was bored. Mr. Richmond used the B&B as an excuse never to be around, and she spent her days watching TV or meddling in my business.

One day she got a reservation from a French couple and thought that maybe her fortunes were turning. One Frenchman might be the beginning of a flood of French tourists – finally visitors who would appreciate her efforts at restoration and respect for historical tradition. She took off the dust covers on the furniture, laid out her best china, and gave the house a thorough cleaning from top to bottom. This being the South most cobwebs were working spider webs, and it wouldn’t do to have the French couple see a big brown recluse splayed out in one of her Federalist cornices.

She needn’t have worried – there was nothing that she could have done to elevate Rosswood in the eyes of the French couple. Auguste and Danielle smiled at her “minor” cabinets, sideboards, and dressers; smirked at her “irritating” faux bois, shook their heads at the primitive portraits, immature ceramics, and peasant rugs. They oohed and ahhed over the Mallard bed in the Richmond Room, but Miss Emily knew that Mallard was a Frenchman, and so took no satisfaction in their comments; but went through the rest of the house with dismissive replies on everything else.

Miss Emily made the mistake of making them French toast for breakfast, which would have been all right if she hadn’t made such a big deal about the French part. They do eat more or less the same thing in France, stale bread soaked in eggs and fried; but there is one major difference – the corn syrup. From what I hear, putting corn syrup on pain perdu for a Frenchman is like putting dog spit on it. The French have this big thing about putting sweet things where they don’t belong.

For dinner, of course, there was only Rodney’s, and since they went fashionably late Miss Emily’s guests hit the regulars deep into their fifth or sixth Bud and rancorous. They don’t get many outsiders, one or two Northerners a year, and no foreigners, and it was if the French flag was raised to a cannon salute when they asked Rodney to explain each and every bourbon and blended whisky. They wanted to know about depth, “persistence”, whether it was high-toned or zesty, how it treated the palate, and all about its degree of balance. Rodney was a good host, said he couldn’t rightly say, but gave them some Old Maker’s to taste. They winced, frowned, and pursed their lips. “Too sweet”, the man said. “Yes, much too sweet”, said his companion.

This exchange ignited the far end of the bar where Jeannette was working on Harry Peters, and Bob Matthews, a Vietnam vet, was at the bobble head stage of his drunk. “What about Iraq?”, he yells across the bar. “What about Normandy?” Auguste and Danielle pretended that they didn’t hear or understand, but Bob had had enough Old Maker’s of his own to fire another volley. “And what about Dien Bien Phu?”

The South has a proud military tradition, and we have always given our finest to the Armed Forces; but who knows what Auguste and Danielle thought when they saw wild Bob Matthews - Army jacket with American and Confederate flags sewn on the front; stained baseball cap with paratrooper insignia; ratty beard and straggly, greasy hair - leaning in their direction.

“Yeah. Dien Bien Phu”, shouted Jeannette.

Rodney had no burgers working, so he filled up a dish of peanuts and slid them in front of Bob. “Don’t try to shut me up, you suds pusher. There’s honor at stake here”; and with that he rolled off his barstool over towards the French couple who by now couldn’t pretend they didn’t see him coming. Bob stood over them and butted his beer belly up against Auguste’s shoulder. Here was their worst nightmare come true – a fat, drunk, ignorant Southerner pissed off at them. Bob swayed and tipped, his belly thrusting forward and sucking back. Rodney came over, gave the Frenchies a smile and a “he don’t mean nothin’” look, and set down three shot glasses of Wild Turkey. Giving another bourbon to old Bob might seem to some like throwing oil on a hot fire, but Rodney had been bartending for a long time. Bob sucked the shot down, shook his head as it hit home, whipped his scraggly hair around like a dog shaking off water, and started to sag towards the floor. Rodney nodded to Bill Barker, another regular seated next to Danielle, who grabbed Bob’s cowboy belt, pulled him up and hoisted him into a booth like a sack of corn meal.

On the way out the French couple hissed and bitched at each other just like everybody else at Rodney’s. Rodney said that of course he couldn’t understand a word of it, but he knew when a man was getting hammered; and my ironclad case about the squabbling nature of women everywhere got another rivet.

“Where’d y’all eat last night?”, asked Miss Emily the next morning as she served her honey grits and country ham. “Eeet was terrible”, said Auguste. “Eeet was so….sordide”. It was many things from what I could piece together from the boys at Rodneys the next day and maybe sordid was one of them, but only if you didn’t come from around here or drink at Rodney’s and have nothing to do other than pig farm or cut cotton; so off went another round of tourists who come South with the expectation of understanding rural traditions, small town hospitality and community, and leaving for the same reason that most of us have gone North.

I told Miss Emily not to get discouraged and that with a little persistence she would attract a better class of European. Not all of them would be as huffy as Auguste and Danielle. She tried every gambit there was in the B&B business. First there was Agro-tourism – quiet vacations on farms and plantations for people to enjoy peace and tranquility – but tourists don’t want a real farm; they want the illusion of one. The first tourists sucked in by Miss Emily’s website were sorely disappointed that pigs shat, mosquitos bit, and that it was hotter than hell in Mississippi. What she didn’t know was that successful Agro-tourism B&Bs have empty animal sheds, one horse fenced in a back field, a few halters and pitchforks laying around, icy air conditioning, and a “farm” breakfast in the morning.

Then she billed Rosswood as having a “child-friendly environment” and built a small playground in the back, a water slide in the pool, and stocked video games and movies. Miss Emily was agog when at breakfast she saw the children of one of her first families build forts out of their pancakes and eggs, make swales out of their grits, and pour milk down bacon gullies and over sausage dams. The parents thought all this was cute and creative and just smiled when they dropped an apple on the food diorama and splattered soggy bits of breakfast on the juice pitcher. The kids used the parlor as a playground, and the playground as a place to throw rocks at each other. They watched TV in their parents’ room, nicked and dinged all the furniture, and knocked the birdcage so hard off its stand that the parrot flapped off most of his pin feathers.

Finally she billed Rosswood as a “meditative” place of comfort and had me build fish ponds, rock gardens, and plant reeds around the swimming pool. She bought crystals and incense and piped Indian music through the house which when she was through spanned three decades of counterculture artifacts and decorations. The problem was that the décor pleased no one and turned off everyone. “Incense….How Sixties”, said one. “What actually does one do with crystals?”, asked a survivor of those years.

Mr. Richmond kept up his high living. The poontang and gambling went on for years until one Spring he began to spend more time at home. I knew that there had to be some coersion involved because in normal times he would avoid Rosswood like the plague, but there he was more often than not huddled with his accountant and what must have been Jackson lawyers from the look of them. The crowd down at Rodney’s had seen it coming of course. They knew that gambling and pussy are dangerous enough in their own right; and when hooked up, downright lethal. There was a lot of discussion as to what was the most lethal combination – pussy and gambling, pussy and drinking, or gambling and drinking – but nobody could agree. “Depends on whether you’re paying for the pussy”, said Lem Hammond.

“Hell, don’t get fixated on the economics of the situation”, said Gus Treacher. “Free pussy is just as dangerous. Young pussy can get you locked up; sneakin’ pussy can get you a divorce; nasty pussy can give you AIDS”

“Yeah, but drinking is behind most young and nasty pussy. Lookit what you went and done with Tweedy Marples’ daughter.”

This was all neither here nor there; and whichever theory was right, Mr. Richmond’s combination was deadly enough, and he went broke. First he sold off the back forty, then the rest was parceled off and dispensed with. He and the lawyers cut a deal with the county authorities, and he was able to sell the land to developers. We’re about equidistant between Natchez and Vicksburg and not that far from Jackson, and the developers saw potential in the site for retirement homes. The environmentalists put up a stink, but most of the rest of the county was happy that finally the population hemorrhage would stop, and we would have more people spending money here.

To make a long story short, Rosswood ended up as a pig farm surrounded by retirement condos which didn’t do much for the B&B business. In any case Miss Emily, seeing that she had to get her hands on whatever assets remained before they disappeared, initiated divorce proceedings and eventually moved to Memphis. I ended up as the manager of the farm, which meant I had to handle the accounts as well as the day-to-day operations of the business. I have to say that it has been a success, and we probably should have invested more in pigs long ago. My wife, Gussie, is happy the way things turned out. She thinks there is still some potential in restoring Rosswood to a B&B, but I have not been encouraging.

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