I'll skip the details and get right to it: riding down the Natchez Trace on a glorious fall afternoon with the sun spotlighting leaves colored like Kix cereal is no fun when your spouse has read the blog you wrote about hating musical films and decides to serenade you with all the songs he knows from 50's and 60's musicals. And he knows ALL of them and ALL the lyrics of the many verses. I'd rather be held down against my will and have someone rub dirty socks in my face. Still we make it to the Delta just as the sunset gives us a big sky light show as we cross the rickety old two lane bridge across the Mississippi at Greenville, MS to Lake Village, AR (looks like the same bridge I remember crossing as a kid on the return from the obligatory family car trip out West). We are spending the weekend in the Delta.
Though others may see flat fields, catfish plantations, and poverty with no genteel patina, when I get to the Delta, I am thrilled to see place names such as Itta Bena and Leland, names I have grown to love through Buddy Nordan and Ellen Gilchrist. And besides, when you've grown up in the poorest county in the poorest state in the nation, the Delta in many ways looks like home, just flatter. The Sunday lunch we eat is the same I grew up with for the most part: fried chicken, chicken and dressing, and fifteen overcooked but somehow delicious vegetables infused with the essence of cured pork. The iced tea is sweet. But the whiskey sauce on the bread pudding has way more kick to it than the bread pudding sauces of my Alabama childhood.
The real treat is the thirty minutes I spend alone on a bench just inside the entrance doors to the Greenville, Mississippi, Walmart on a Saturday afternoon. What a rich cast of characters. What incredible conversations. What variety. What a show. Delta writers have it easy. All they have to do is look around and tell what they see. The world will think they have excellent imaginations when all they really need is a keen eye for description.
But there is a price to pay for being a literary voyeur.
A young woman in her early twenties comes in, holding a color circular WalMart ad, the kind that comes in the mail. She walks up to the 'greeter', the woman checking the receipts as customers leave, and waits until the greeter has a free moment. The young woman points to the circular and says something in a whisper to the older woman who then reads the ad aloud, pointing to each individual word. There is a lot going on. Two elderly farm couples are having old home week over in a corner. Two young guys who haven't seen each other in a year catch up on one guy's recent return from California. I'm sitting there soaking it all in when the young woman with the ad turns to leave and shoots me a furtive glance, looking at me to see if I had seen, the flash of embarrassment on her face impossible to hide.
I'm pretty dense sometimes. It takes that look from her for me to figure out that she can't read and that it is a painful part of her life. She's coping, but me sitting there glancing her way is a definite intrusion.
I'd thought I was being nonchalant and cool, but I guess I stood out like a tourist in New York City, gawking up at the buildings, hardly believing just how high they really are.