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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Miss Lucy

Miss Lucy
My name is Lucy Dilford and I run the River Overlook B&B in Greenwood, Mississippi. The River is the Yazoo which had its days of glory when it flooded in ’27, but now, especially at this time of year, it is low and rank. I recommend that any actual overlooking from my front porch wait until Spring when the rains come and the magnolia blossoms are out all along Main Street. In 1927 the Yalabusha and Tallahatchie, the Yazoo, and a hundred other rivers and streams as far north as Minnesota kept rising with rains that lasted as long as the Biblical Flood and there was nothing left from the Mississippi to the Hills when it was done. As soon as we were able to dig ourselves out from the sludge and debris the Yazoo dumped on us and began to rebuild the downtown, realign the railroad tracks, and re-open the courthouse, the town fathers erected a monument showing the depth of the water at its height. It was twenty-two feet. That’s twelve feet above the bayonet tip of the Confederate soldier standing in the square; up to the top windows of the Bank building; and clear above the hardware store and notions shop that had stood long before ‘27.

Most people who stay at my house are overflows from the new hotel built by the Viking Corporation built last year. That only happens when all their stove people come in from around the country, there’s a cotton festival and a revival. Now, it takes some bad planning for that to happen, but it does more often than you’d expect. I do get a few Yankees every year doing a Delta blues excursion. They’ve heard about J.L. Hunter who at 85 still growls and belly-aches at 12 noon every Thursday on KBGW, our local station broadcasting from Cottonlandia, an old warehouse renovated as a museum. There’s nothing much in there except some dried out cotton plants, a broken down wagon, old mule halters, and a few pictures of black folk bent over picking cotton, so they only open the place when J.L. is playing or when there is a Cotton Board or stove convention.
Fantasy is a wonderful thing, and it keeps the Yankee tourists coming to Mississippi. They come here all ready to see the South they’ve read about in Uncle Remus, Gone with the Wind, or Mississippi Burning. They’ve made up their mind before they leave home that they’re going to tell about the endless white fields of cotton, the romance of the Yazoo, and the soulful blues of J.L. Hunter no matter what they see and hear.
Any B&B owner who tells you they make a living off the business is lying. I’d have to be full up for 365 days of the year just for me to pay off the mortgage; so I have a regular job as a psychiatric nurse, and if any guests are expected I get my neighbor to open the door and show them to their rooms. She shuffles out her door in housecoat and mules and goes through my house like a guide in an art museum. “This here’s the kitchen where y’all be havin’ breakfast”. Or: “Here’s y’alls bedroom. There’s the shower and the commode which should work if Mr. James fixed it after the last guest gummed it up.”

Most of the guests driving here think they’ve got the wrong place. I tell people on the phone, “Be sure you take Route 7”, but nobody ever follows directions so half of them come through Peaker’s Bend and get an eyeful of the old and very unreconstructed South. It’s harmless enough – our colored areas are nothing like New Orleans or what you have up North – but the shacky look about all the houses and people just sitting around doing nothing on the porches can look like something from sharecropping days if you’re not used to it. Then they see Betty Granger traipsing through the weeds and on up my front stairs and they’re convinced they should have left Greenwood off the tour.

My husband James hasn’t worked since ’92. He fixes things that are broken in the house and is working on taking up all the warped boards on the porch; but he thinks showing guests around is beneath him so Betty does it, and I have to nurse her brother as compensation. He is incontinent and senile but was released from Jackson two years ago because they needed the bed space. I tell Betty that being a psychiatric nurse does not mean dealing with his bedpans and cleaning up the food he sprays around the room; but she says “A deal is a deal”.

After the tourists have seen Cottonlandia and heard J.L. Hunter I send them to Miss Bowen. She’s got seven sheds full of the finest antiques in the state if you can find them under the dust and debris. Most of the stuff is junk, although she won’t admit it. She’s got old sleds, thresher parts, flower stands, cradles, shotguns, and washboards. I guess she’s just one of these old ladies who hoards things; but has enough money, space, and good taste in antiques to stay respectable. She’s also has had the good fortune of having Moses Brown with her for years. Moses is a restorer and refinisher who antique dealers from New Orleans have been trying to pry away from her for years. Moses is the only one who knows where anything is in those sheds, and he keeps an eye on Miss Bowen as well. She forgets to eat, and Moses defrosts a piece of meat for her every morning and lays it out on the kitchen table. She has never thanked him or even mentioned it; but without Moses she would go hungry and probably wonder why.

She has always been a stickler about the price of her antiques. She’s tagged each one with a price which could just as well have been from yesterday’s auction in Oxford as from a place and time she barely remembers. If you want to buy something, she checks the tag, eyeballs the piece, and quotes a price which could be – depending on her mood the day she tagged it - as overpriced as anything in New Orleans or worth not much more than a old umbrella. These days she would be lost without those tags. I have seen her fumble for a price on an item which had lost its tag, and if it hadn’t have been for Moses, she would have given the piece away.

I grew up in the Mississippi Hills not far from the Alabama state line. My father was a farmer who grew corn, raised pigs and chickens on five acres, moved to soybeans when the price went up. I’ve got one brother who went North and has never come back since; and two sisters who stayed at home, married local, and never will leave even if they hit the Lottery. My mother still owns a notion store, one of the only two places not boarded up on the mainstreet of Splunge, a town that never had more 500 people. It now has none since you can’t count my mother who drives in from the farm or the owner of the hardware store who lives in Alabama. My mother and Miss Bowen would get along real well because of the hoarding. My mother has so much junk piled up in the store the few customers that wander in can’t even make it down the aisles without knocking down old combs, doll heads, bolts of material, and bags of balloons. The material is so old it is faded and getting brown on the edges, and all the balloons have that crinkly look which means they would crumble and fall apart before you could get your lips on them. She sits in the front corner of the room and crochets baby booties by the hundreds. She got it in her head to send a pair to Queen Elizabeth when Prince Charles was born, and one of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting sent her a thank you letter, embossed with the royal seal and signed with a real signature. When word got around that bonnie Prince Charles was wearing a pair of her booties every new baby in Nenosha County had to have a pair too. She had the letter framed and still shows it to any tourist who wanders through.

I was in the store one day when one of these tourists came in to look around. He asked my mother how long she had owned the store, which was 50 years, and he said “You must have seen a lot of changes in this town”. I knew what he meant – everything was boarded up, a car passed once a morning, the cement on the railroad siding was cracked and weedy, old boxcars sat rusted and overgrown with kudzu. She thought a minute and answered, “No, can’t say that I have”. Well, that’ll give you some idea what living in a small town in Mississippi was like. There was so little in it that when it went to seed she hardly noticed.

My brother doesn’t think much of Northern tourists who come down here, and always asks me how I can cater to them at the B&B. A doctor he met told him that he and his wife had just come back from the Delta and loved it. They stayed in great old plantation homes, ate country fried cooking, visited little towns like Splunge, and talked to people like our mother. “Slumming”, my brother described it. “Nothing but elitist slumming. They stay at $250-a-night plantations, eat five dollar steam tray filling station lunches, commiserate with black folk when they drive through shantytowns, and pick cotton plants to bring back and put in their offices”. Sour grapes. Every poor Southerner who has left the South resents every Northerner who finds anything but misery and servitude here; and my brother is no different. He can’t forget his childhood, and he blames the whole South for it.

I may not have had the the ambition of my brother, but I wasn’t going to be a red dirt girl in a country song for the rest of my life either. I just figured I didn’t have to go as far away as Boston to take a step up. I enrolled in nursing school in Jackson and came home weekends to help my father on the farm and sort out my mother’s junk at the store. Even then, boxes were piled three and four deep and closing in on each other so much that whole aisles disappeared. My mother never wanted to throw anything out from her “inventory”. She had little business sense – no rotating stock, shelf appeal, mark-ups or discounts for her - and she just bought junk from catalogues and piled up the merchandise until she could barely see over it from her perch by the front window.

Yankee tourists aren’t that bad. They’re a bit eager, but I’d rather have them then some of these Viking guys who have pussy on their minds the minute they arrive, like some escapees from prison; and certainly more than these holy roller preachers who come in for revivals. They’re looking for pussy as much as the stove guys; they’re just more sleazy and sneaky about it . We’re no different from any other small town in the South and get our share of revivals. Every Spring there are two or three, and in the Fall they start up all over again. We’ve got Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches; AME Zion, Emmanuel, Beulah, Enon, Faith Temple Spiritual, and ten other black Baptist churches; and every other boarded-up dry cleaners, haberdashery, or shoe store in the old downtown has been converted into a walk-in Pentecostal or Charismatic congregation. With a new church built every year, you’d think there’d be no need for storefronts, but they’re all stuffed to the gills every Sunday.

The stove guys hang around the house waiting for my husband James to be alone, then ask him where they can get some action. The preachers hang around the tent until only the groupies are left, weed out the weak and infirm and hit on the dewy-eyed ones who have stood up for Jesus.

“Action”, James drawls to the stove guys. “Hmmm, I guess for that you’d have to drive up to Oxford, but it’s mainly college bars and keg beer. Or then again you could head up to Tunica on 49. It’s a bit far, but they’ve got the casinos…” James just likes to be ornery because he wouldn’t mind a little pussy himself, but his bum leg has put him in a funk. Ol’ James isn’t that much different from the preachers. I’ve seen him buzzing around sweet young things at church picnics, bringing them ice tea and giving them a shoulder to cry on about how boring life is in Greenwood and how there’s nothing here but cotton farmers and stove guys. “Take Billy Perkins”, I overheard Marva Lane whining one summer afternoon. “He thinks showing off his sweaty muscles in a cutoff T-shirt is hot. Like I’m going to get turned on watching him lift a tire off his truck”.

James doesn’t realize that when women feel they can talk to you about other men – even the likes of Billy Perkins – they figure you’re too old to be interested. To them he is just an old gimpy out-of-work cotton ginner, and he still doesn’t get it.

Greenwood reinstated celebrations for the Fourth of July a few years ago, even after the South’s longest holdout, Vicksburg. Union forces captured Vicksburg on July 4th, 1863 and the city has never gotten over it. Greenwood never had any major battles of the Civil War, or at least none to match the historical importance of Vicksburg’s; but never got over it either and is proud that it was at the heart of Southern resistance to the Second Aggression of the North in the 1960s. James always thought the Fourth of July holdout was stupid. We have been Yankified as much as anybody, he said, maybe more; and after two defeats the South might as well face facts and take a holiday like everybody else.

Once every couple of years I can get my mother to shut the store and to come to Greenwood for a week. James always objects and says that she would be much happier if I went up to Splunge to visit; but it is easier for her to close the shop – which gets one customer a week at best – than for me to shut down the B&B; which is what I would have to do because I can’t leave the running to either James or to Betty Granger. James says that taking care of my mother is worse than a houseful of guests. “She’s not here more than a day and I see her junk everywhere. Explain to me why she put three boxes of potholders in the bathroom.”
With me working at the hospital and James out most days with his friends, my mother wanders the downtown. The owner of the Gift Shoppe has known her since we moved here and sells her items they can’t move at cost; and there are enough people who keep a yard sale going on their front lawn permanently that my mother never comes home empty-handed. There’s one old lady a few blocks from here that trucks out her junk every morning, trucks it in at night. She never sells much, and the price tags are getting all beat up and unreadable; and some of the stuff she never bothers to bring in. It took two people to get the ornate birdbaths shaped like Venetian gondolas out into the yard, but nobody wants to buy birdbaths no matter what they look like. The old lady is actually running an outdoor gift shop, but calls it a permanent yard sale to avoid getting a city license and paying taxes; but it makes no difference what she calls it because she never sells anything until my mother comes to town.

My father died five years ago and is buried in the hills near the farm. He wanted to be cremated. “No sense in taking up valuable land”, he said; but my mother said that since he had complained for 50 years about the miserable fields he worked, six feet more or less wasn’t going to deprive anyone of anything, so why not be given a proper Christian burial like everyone else.

When my father died my mother stayed in the house, but the fields just went to seed. There was no way my brother was coming back from Boston; my two sisters were happy enough to have their husbands away most of the time on the oil rigs in the Gulf; and I wasn’t about to go back to the hills. I worry about my mother because she is alone all day in the store and alone all night at home; but she’s stubborn. The house is beginning to get as junked up as the stores, and I’ve asked the neighbors to keep a lookout and check in on her every so often; but they’re two miles away, and if the dogs hear a car come crunching up the gravel drive at night they’ll charge it and leave slather and spittle all over the windows trying to get in.

My work as a psychiatric nurse is no picnic, but I was trained for it and it was my ticket out of Splunge. I spend mornings at the Greenwood Hospital psychiatric ward - mainly Alzheimer’s patients, occasional teenage suicides, and druggies who come in strung out, delusional, aggressive, and mean. I don’t go near them unless I have two orderlies with me. In the afternoons I attend to my private patients, mostly Alzheimer’s cases who live at home but who are constantly falling, banging their heads, or burning themselves. One patient had turned on the gas, put pots on all burners, but forgot to put anything in them. When I walked in, the kitchen was filled with smoke from all the caked-on grease which had been blowtorched off.

Sometimes I wonder about James in the head department. He has taken up the same board on the porch and nailed it back in twice. He says it is because there’s no point in wasting good lumber when the board is flat, but I’ve never seen him out there with a level, and the board is still as bent as a bow when he gets through. Betty Granger says it’s because he doesn’t have enough to do and his mind wanders, but I have seen enough of Miss Bowen and my patients at Greenwood to have to wonder and worry.

When I first opened the place I subscribed to B&B Quarterly, a trade magazine; and it had a list of do’s and don’ts: “Your throw pillows should complement the color scheme of your bedrooms. Always use fruit in your breakfasts. They’re healthy and festive”. I know some owners make their breakfast dishes so complicated that the guests don’t know where to start eating, especially the ones with three or four layers. This may be all right for Yankee tourists who are used to the “architectural” creations suggested in Southern Living, but these cracker preachers who come in here want fork to hit egg and be done with it.

One tip the Quarterly had was “Diversify your clientele” which, given our location is hard to do. I would have liked to have weddings and anniversaries which are big revenue-earners for most B&Bs; but other than Billy Perkins and Marva Lane who would want to spend their wedding night on theYazoo River with James banging porch boards and Mrs. Granger poking in the weeds trying to look in the bedroom window?
Besides, if I followed the advice of the Quarterly, I would have to make the place romantic and put books of love poems beside the bed, heart-shaped soap in the bath, and ceramic cupids on the mantelpiece. James and I stayed at a B&B in Hernando that had so many cutesy pillows, stuffed animals, and dolls on the bed it looked like one of the theme yard sales that are becoming popular here.

We had an Assemblies of God revival here last year, and the preachers stayed here. It takes three preachers for one revival because the main preacher sweats through his suits and his assistants have to take over when he goes backstage to change. At breakfast they yammered on about their golf games and their wives’ shopping bills; and at night said their dogs were barking, kicked off their shoes, and sat in the parlor to do a postmortem– how many people accepted Jesus, how the band played, how much they took in, and did they notice the girl with the big tits third-from-the-left in the choir. I have never held preachers to a higher standard – they have the same frailties and strengths as the rest of us - but these ol’ boys stretched my convictions.
The stove guys are no different – they bang away about golf and their wives and rehash sales figures no different than the preachers. James says it’s like snapping towels and talking poontang in the locker room. All men are the same.

I don’t know how much longer James will keep on making sense. The floorboards on the porch episode was just the first of many. I can’t leave him alone, Betty Granger is too far gone to be of any help, and if I quit my job we’ll have no income. The only choice I have is to ratchet up the B&B business – stop relying so much on the stove company and the preachers, do some PR, and suck some more Yankee tourists down here. Right now it’s nothing more than a dribble. My model is the Riverdale B&B in St. Martinsville, Louisiana which features a testimonial on its website: "The rooms were the biggest we had ever seen, and furnished with beautiful antiques - rates in our opinion is a steal - truly elegant, with wonderful food and great coffee …My personal favorite, with its vast rooms and its dreamy view of the Bayou Teche".

Now, none of this is true but it’s not a lie either which is the genius of the website. There is a view of the Bayou, but only if you look out the bathroom window in the back. That far from the Gulf the bayou is stagnant and greenish and littered with Coke cans and coffee cups. The “antiques” are nothing but old furniture, most of it mismatched, chipped and wobbly. The rooms are big but empty; and the roach spray has soaked so deep into the woodwork that the smell will never come out.

As I said before, most tourists travel to confirm what they already know, so the B&B they describe to their friends will always be the dreamy view of the Bayou Teche and have nothing to do with the roach spray, the stale coffee-flavored chicory, and the greasy beignets.

If I do more business and keep my rooms filled throughout the year and not just at revival and stove times, I will have to figure out a way to keep James out of sight when guests are around. One day he barged out of his room wearing only his bathrobe and floppy mules, walked right up to one of the preachers asleep in the armchair, dogs up on the Ottoman, and says that he wants to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Preachers always work from a practiced script and aren’t particularly good at improvising but being startled out of a deep sleep by poor naked James, hairy stomach and sagging balls in his face, this one had no chance. “Well”, said James. “What are you going to do about it?” I figured I had to rescue him before the pastor could realize what was happening, so I picked up his Bible and read James a verse from the page the preacher had been reading before he nodded off, which was from the Song of Solomon, all about rapture and ecstasy. I remember chapter and verse because I was so amazed at the time that these bastards were so horny they had to get their pizzles dingled even from the Good Book. James was satisfied, and I took him back to bed.

If I do go big time, I will have to figure out a way to keep James in his room or at least on a short leash when he is out. I don’t find it cruel to laugh at some of the things he says or does – that would just be ignoring something which is funny; but I don’t want Yankees telling dinner table fables about Southern inbreeding. It’s OK if I join James in his demented world, but no one else is allowed.

There’s a point when you have to admit you have no money – never have and never will. You can go years ignoring it, or simply choosing not to accept it; but one day there it is. In your last gasps of denial you can say, well sure we don’t have much money, but we’re not on welfare, like all of Peaker’s Bend; but that excuse is no better than the Yankee tourists who use the tarpaper shacks as a backdrop for their distorted image of the South.

“Lucy, where’s my toothbrush?”

I can only say that God knew what he was doing when he guided me into psychiatric nursing and the B&B. I have a permanent guest, and he is my patient.

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