Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Very Odd Birthday: A Trew Story

I knew it was going to be an odd day when I saw the leopard-skin high-heeled shoes coming across the floor.  Rather, I heard them click-clacking on the linoleum and then tracked the source of the clicks and clacks.

But I digress.  Rather, I begin in medias res.  And you know nothing of the res in the midst of which you now suddenly find yourself.  

It began this way: 

Steve: If you could take a little overnight driving trip for your birthday, where would you want to go? 
Me: I don't know, really.  Nowhere much.  Nowhere within driving distance of Little Rock that I can think of. 
Steve: But I do want to take you for a little trip.  I've taken the day off just for that.  Name someplace. 
Me: Well, I could probably benefit from spending a day in Savannah, Tennessee, tracking loose ends for my book.  [For readers not inside my head: the book begins, in some sense, in Hardin County, of which Savannah is the county seat--the county in which my mother's maternal grandfather was born, and on whose uncle the book focuses]. 
Steve: It's settled, then.  We'll drive to Savannah on Friday, spend the night, then come back after another day there on Saturday.

And so enter the leopard-skin high-heeled shoes.  On my birthday.  In a tiny, dusty, fallen-down going-nowhere town in the Arkansas Delta (which is to say, in a typical little town of the Arkansas Delta) where we invariably stop for lunch, invariably fantasizing about a non-existent catfish restaurant we believe we've visited there in the past, never remembering we made precisely that same mistake last time we drove through here on the way to Memphis and points east.

And so, as we always do, we end up at a little cafe on the outskirts of town, the only non-chain place we can spot anywhere near this particular town.  Which is not half bad, because it's neat, clean, and populated by friendly owners and waitresses, though its restrooms approach the squalor of something on the pre- (and post-) Revolutionary Russian steppes. 

And then the leopard-skin high heels: as we wait for our lunch of barbecued chicken to arrive, across the floor comes clicking, clacking a pair of leopard-skin high heels.  Not very nice ones, either, I'm afraid I have to inform you.  Those slick, plastic-covered kinds of shoes that are, frankly, a bit nasty to look at.  

But attached to a pair of shapely legs that lead up to a rather elegant black sheath dress with a surprisingly daring décolleté.  A plunging V of décolleté filled with outspoken metallic jewelry in several incongruous geometric shapes.

Above which, a pretty Grecian profile with a neat chignon in the back.  

And yet, those leopard-skin high heels.  In Tinsley, Arkansas.  At a little country café.  At lunchtime.  Amidst farmers and gossiping and laughing good old girls with frosted hair arranged in unbecoming styles a gay hairdresser would cure in a heartbeat.  Amidst waitresses bearing steaming plates of beef tips and smothered chicken.  

On a Friday noontime in March that happens to be my birthday--a very odd day, because there's no reason in the known universe that someone should be wearing a black sheath dress with a deep-cut neckline filled with clashing geometric jewelry at lunch in a country café in a tiny Delta town.

All topped off--or whatever the directional opposite of that expression is--by a pair of plasticized faux leopard-skin high-heeled shoes.

And from there, the weekend only proceeded to click and clack its way to further oddity.

After hours of driving, we arrive in Savannah (population: 7231) half an hour before everything shuts down.  But for a sleepy little Southern county seat late on a Friday afternoon, the place is surprisingly hopping.  So that when I pop into the information center to get a map of the town and recommendations for someplace to have supper, I have to wait in line . . . .

To be greeted, when I reach the head of the line, by a smiling lady who inquires, "Are you in town for the re-enactment?"  "No," I declare, "I'm writing a book.  I didn't know there was a re-enactment.  Re-enactment of what, please?"

"This is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Shiloh, and tomorrow and the following day, there will be a re-enactment of the battle with some 25,000 people attending."

"Oh.  How strange.  What are the chances that I would choose this very weekend to come here and do research?  Could you please tell me how to find the library and whether it will be open tomorrow?"

And stranger still: we then make our way down to the river to a catfish restaurant (a real one, as opposed to the phantom one we imagine we remember in the Arkansas Delta, which is never there when we try to find it again) that the nice lady at the information desk has kindly recommended.  We enjoy our catfish meal (sort of: the detritus around the restaurant entrance, the tables laden with dirty dishes, the fermented pickled beets on the salad bar all make the meal less than resplendent) and the view over the lazily moving Tennessee River.

And then we ask for our check, only to discover, when it arrives, tally side down, that the waitress has scrawled across the back of it, "Jesus loves YOU!!"  

Leopard-skin high heels click-clacking across the shiny linoleum squares of an Arkansas country café; landing squarely in a re-enactment bringing more people than the county's total population to the little lost-in-time county in which I want to do research; and "Jesus loves YOU!!": a distinctly odd day.  

Happy birthday, you odd thing, you!

Nor did the oddness abate one little bit throughout the entire weekend.  There's this:

1. In our two days driving in the west Tennessee countryside, we see six white crosses.  Not all at once, you understand.  They're scattered here and there.  Some are on hillsides in the woods.  Others are on the outskirts of towns.  Some are in front of buildings.

All are huge.  One, on the outskirts of a town, must be twenty-feet high.  All are blazing white.  All are severe, austere, unadorned.  Did I say white?

And I can't help wondering as we pass them how soon after the election of the current president these began popping up in west Tennessee and--I have no doubt about this at all--in other places throughout the South.  Symbols many naive folks living outside the region (and many self-deceived ones within my Southern homeland) would like to think of as signifiers of how pious we have always been, how pious we're becoming as the end of the world approaches.

But outright political symbols every bit as nasty in their subtextual proclamation as the "Jesus loves YOU!!" scrawled across the back of a restaurant tally presented to a gay couple in a small-town catfish restaurant.  Symbolism people not steeped in the thinking, in the mentality (loosely so-called) of this culture, my native culture, don't understand when they imagine we're those wonderfully Christ-haunted Southerners who have clung faithfully to our religious roots when everyone else in the country is going to hell in a handbasket due to the radical secularization that is attacking good old-fashioned religious values.

2. And then as we begin our drive back home, we notice the twenty-foot high JESUS planted on the verge of another town.  Equally white.  Equally austere.  But the whiteness has been kicked up a notch with glitter embedded in it, so that JESUS glitters his politico-religious message to you as loudly as if a megaphone is attached to the word as you pass it by.

3. And then home, to Arkansas.  Where we stop to buy gas at Forrest City in the Crowley's Ridge area that blessedly breaks the flatness of miles and miles of Delta.  

And I go to the restroom, only to be joined by a man who stands at the urinal next to me.  And proceeds to talk.  Something men almost never do in restrooms, and certainly not complete strangers.

"Last time I was in here," he says, "I dropped my glass eye down in there"--pointing to the bottom of the urinal.  "And it was hell trying to get it out.  I finally had to pay someone $50 to fish it out for me."

But I can plainly see the man's two eyes, though, given my druthers, I'd not have chosen to be peering over the urinal divider to engage a complete stranger in one of the most bizarre conversations I've ever had, bathroom or no bathroom, birthday weekend or no birthday weekend.

And he doesn't have a glass eye.

Happy birthday, you!

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