Novelist Childress, Feeling a Mississippi Yearning

Mark Childress i i

Mark Childress. Kelly Campbell hide caption

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Mark Childress

Mark Childress.

Kelly Campbell

Writer Mark Childress has one foot firmly planted in the cornfields of the Midwest and the other tangled in the kudzu of the Deep South.

His latest novel, One Mississippi, features a teen protagonist who is transplanted from Indiana to a small Mississippi town. By the time young Dan has graduated from high school — in 1975 — he and his best friend have been through horrible tragedy, hysterical comedy and high drama.

Childress, an Alabama native who has lived in Mississippi and Indiana, now resides in New York. He tells Liane Hansen about his own writing and his literary influences.

Excerpt: 'One Mississippi'

Cover of the Mark Childress novel 'One Mississippi' shows boy mowing grass.

A family on the move lands in Mississippi, minus most of its possessions, in the latest novel from Mark Childress. hide caption

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"You feel anything?"

"Nope."

"Maybe you're supposed to hold it in longer."

It was summer in Indiana, the week before I turned sixteen. All afternoon my friends and I had been on our bikes, following the mosquito truck through the streets, breathing the sweet-smelling clouds of DDT because we'd heard it would get you high.

One glimpse of Dad's steel-blue Oldsmobile Delta 88 in our driveway on a Thursday was enough to bring all the fun screeching to a halt. I waved the boys to go on without me.

My father was a good man — I can say that now, after all these years and everything that happened — but on a day-to-day basis, he was about as fun as Hitler. Dimly I remembered a time when he picked us up in his arms, hugged us, played with us like any other dad. As we got older, though, he turned against us. He had to be hard, he said, to keep us from turning out soft.

His name was Lee Ray Musgrove. He came from a poor Alabama family of Musgroves who went all the way broke in the Depression. Dad never got over how poor they used to be. The Depression always loomed over our family like a dark thundercloud, a certain promise of doom just beyond the horizon.

Every Monday at four a.m. Dad would arise to eat his lonely bowl of Wheat Chex, check his list of sales calls, and head out to keep that thundercloud at bay for one more week. Monday to Friday he was a traveling salesman, the jolliest most hardworking devoted salesman in the history of TriDex, District Salesmanager of the Year three years in a row, a good smile, a nice word for everybody. All week he saved up his anger, all the slights and disappointments and frustrations of a salesman's life, and on Friday nights he brought it all home to us.

But now he was home on a Thursday. This was different. At our house, different was never good.

I managed to stow my bike in the garage without making a sound. The back door squealed and gave me away. His growl from the family room: "Get in here.Where have you been?"

When Dad used that voice, he didn't want an answer. I crept into the room. The whole family was gathered around the TV but the set was turned off. This must be some really bad news.

I eased myself down between Bud and Janie on the sofa. They all looked so somber I thought someone must have died.

"All present and accounted for," Dad said. "Okay, here's the big announcement. I got a transfer. We're moving again."

I tingled all over, as if my body had gone to sleep for an instant. A transfer. TriDex transferred its salesmen every year or two, to keep them on their toes. Indiana was our sixth transfer in ten years. TriDex did not know or care that this was my favorite of all the places we had lived. Lately I'd been hoping we might get to stay here. I loved Indiana. I had lots of friends. It was flat, you could ride your bike everywhere. In the winter it froze hard and snowed a lot, so you could stay inside and watch TV all the time.

I waded into the rising silence: "Moving where?"

"Mississippi," said Dad, "and I don't want any lip out of you." "Aw now, Lee, don't say it that way."Mom interposed herself between Dad by the sliding glass door and us on the sofa. "Y'all, this is big news for Daddy - for all of us, really. You know how bad I been wanting to get closer to Granny and Jacko... and you know how I hate the winters up here."

That was true. Mom was a flower of the South. Her feet had been cold since the first time Dad moved her away from Alabama.

"Are you nuts?" Bud said. "We can't move now, Mom. I just made varsity." Bud was a wrestler. Dad was proud of the fact that Bud wrestled so hard he puked after every match.

"Aw now, Bud, come on, it's a better territory for Daddy," said Mom, "and anyway we haven't got a choice, so let's just go on and be happy about it."

"You all can go, I don't care, I'm staying," said Bud. "I'm a senior this fall, Mom, we can't move to — where did you say? Mississippi? That's the dumbest thing I ever heard!"

Bud took my breath away saying things like that, things that would have got me backhanded and sent to my room. Dad darkened and loomed in his corner, but stayed silent. Bud looked like Dad, and Dad respected him for that.

"Okay Bud, you stay here," Mom said with a desperate smile. "Who's gonna cook your supper and wash your dirty clothes?"

"If Buddy's staying I wanna stay," Janie said.

"Nobody's staying," said Mom. "We know how to move, we've done it plenty of times. The movers will be here Monday morning bright and early to start packing."

Bud got up and slammed down the hall to his room BANG! "I'll be dog," said my father. "I'll be god dog, that boy..."

"Now Lee,"Mom said, "don't start."

"Start what? Don't you start."

"I told you they'll need some time, honey. Of course they're not gonna be happy at first — having to go off from all their little friends."

She turned anxious eyes on Janie and me. "I promise, you'll like it down there. You'll make new friends. Daddy's found us a beautiful house in the country. The schools are supposed to be great."

I mustered up a sneer. "Yeah, I bet. Mississippi?" I'd never been there, but I knew all about it from the evening news. Mississippi was last in everything you could measure. There was nothing down there but redneck sheriffs and protesting Negroes and civil rights workers buried in earthen dams.

"There's nothing wrong with Mississippi," Mom said. "It's nice and warm, for one thing, and at least the people will understand me when I talk."

"What if we don't want to go?" I said. "Why do we have to?" "Daddy's got a new territory." She fingered a sheaf of honey-gold hair from her eyes. "A smaller territory, so he won't have to be gone so much." She turned smiling, but Dad's eyes were narrowed down, fixed on me, waiting for one word that would give him the right to come over there and strangle me.

"Mississippi is the Magnolia State," Janie read from the World Book. "The capital is Jackson. The products are cotton, lumber, poultry, and cattle."

"Good, Janie," said Mom. "I told you those books would come in handy."

Mom was trying to sell this as a big promotion for Dad, but I knew better. I was almost sixteen, I knew everything. I read their mail, I went through their filing cabinet. I read the life insurance policy and thrilled at how rich we kids would be if they died. Many nights I had heard my father god-dogging the name of Larry Semple, his district manager. I knew that a smaller territory in Mississippi had to be a comedown from a three-state sales district based in Indiana. I knew just where to stick in the knife. "Why does he have a smaller territory?"

A subterranean vibration from Dad's side of the room, a trembling of air.

Janie preened for the invisible camera that always followed her around. "Well, I'm glad we're moving," she announced. "I hate this place too, Mama. It's cold. And I want to live closer to Granny."

"Attagirl," Mom said. "The power of positive thinking." I coughed the word "suck-up" into my hand.

"Mom! He called me a suck-up!"

"I did not. I coughed. Can't a person even cough?"

On Monday we watched the movers load our things onto a giant orange tractor-trailer from Allied Van Lines.

On Tuesday we set out down the brand-new interstate highway toward our future.We drove all day, into the late afternoon. South of Memphis we hit a bump that banged my cheek against the glass. The four-lane highway had become a broken two-lane. A sign said

WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPI

The land flattened out and got wide. At first glance it looked like Indiana again: green flat fields running off to the horizon, fence lines and grain elevators in the blue distance. But instead of neat Midwestern farmhouses I saw tarpaper shacks, poor black folks on the porches: skinny kids in rags, stooped old men in straw hats. Occasionally a mansion peeked out of a huge grove of oaks — a Greek temple with columns, white and impressively hidden.

Mom said, "Can you imagine living in a house like that? I would feel just like Scarlett."

"Mama," said Janie, "that girl hasn't got on a shirt."

"Don't stare, Jane. People can't help it if they're not as well off as us."

"Hmp." My father scratched his neck. "Anybody's willing to work can get along these days. Not like we had it in the Depression."

"They let her just run around without a shirt?" Janie threw herself against the seat to watch the girl receding in the rear window. "She's as old as me."

"Well, it's hot down here, honey," said Mom. "I'm sure she has a nice shirt she wears all the time."

In our air-conditioned car we were almost chilly, but beyond the glass you could see waves of heat rising up from the road and the fields. Even flashing by at sixty-five miles an hour, you could see sweat on people's faces.

"Oh heavenly days," Mom said, "it's so good to be home. Let's just open up and see how she feels." She cranked down her window. In an instant, every ounce of cool air was sucked out and replaced with this blast of summer air - a hot, wet slap in the face. We hollered and moaned until Mom rolled the window back up.

She grinned. "Hot! Just like I like it." Now that we were back in the South, Mom's accent had kicked in — the thickest sweetest south-Alabama accent you ever heard. Just lack I lack it!

"I am never going outside again — never," said Bud. "This house better have dang good air-conditioning."

"Oh, you'll be seeing plenty of outside," Dad assured him. "You boys got a world of grass to cut."

"It's a country place, y'all," Mom said. "It's out from town, so it's got all the peace and quiet you'd ever want, and a great big old yard. I can't wait to put in some azaleas. They'll be blooming when Indiana is still up to their eyeballs in snow."

"Nobody knows if the stupid school even has a wrestling team," Bud said.

"I'm sure if they don't, they have something just as good," said Mom. "They practically invented football down here."

"I hate football," said Bud.

"Don't let anybody down here hear you say that," Dad said. "I mean it, Bud."

"Mommy, I'm hungry," said Janie. "Well you weren't twenty minutes ago, when we had lunch." Mom rattled the Kroger sack. "What you want, honey? Peanut butter, or there's still one ham and cheese."

"Peanut butter but take off the crust."

"The crust is the best part," said Dad.

Dad was not just saying this to make Janie eat the crust. This was the thing about Dad: not only was the crust good enough for Dad, he considered it the best part. He liked the neck of the chicken on Sunday. He liked leftover corn pone with cracklins, served cold, with turnip greens, for breakfast. He liked food that tasted like when he was poor.

He squinted into the distance at the long line of cars backed up in our lane — a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere, stretching around the next curve. "Would you look at this?" He blew out a sigh as if all these cars had stopped way out here just to get on his nerves. He folded his hands behind his neck, cracked his shoulder joints. "Come on, people," he said, drumming his fingers on the wheel. "We got miles to go."

We idled behind an old station wagon from Kentucky, overflowing with kids who stuck out their tongues at us and smeared their dirty feet on the windows. You could just smell the misery rolling off that car. The parents were shrunk down in the front seat, ignoring everything to the best of their ability.

"Thank God we had just the three," said Dad.

Mom smiled. "Amen to that."

"You guys," Bud said. "Thanks a lot."

"Take a look at that car, boy," said Dad. "That right there is as good an argument for birth control as you'll ever see." "Lee."

Janie said, "What's birth control?"

"Now see what you started?"

"It's a way of making sure you don't take on more than you can handle." Dad laid his hand on the horn to join the chorus. Across a flat field I saw a column of black smoke rising behind a wall of pines.

"Hey Dad, something's burning."

He looked where I was pointing. "You know you may be right, it's a durn house afire, and all these people are just rubbernecking." He pounded the horn. "Get a move on! Didn't you ever see a fire before?" The guy with all the children honked too, and waved his fist out the window.

That was something large and on fire, sending up rolling clouds of black smoke and flashes of flame. The people in front of us began three-point-turning their cars, driving past us. Mom said, "Everybody's going the other way."

Dad coasted forward one car length. "It would take you twice as long, time you went around." He fiddled with the radio, settling on an old flat-voiced man giving a farm report.

"Your soybeans is headed up again, and your cotton holding steady as she goes," the man said. "All you boys out spraying today, this report is brought to you by the good people of TriDex Chemical, We Know What Bugs You."

My father said, "Hey hey!" and turned up the volume. "Listen to that. Just got here and already talking about us on the radio."

"That's a good sign," said Mom. "It's like a welcome. I tell you, Lee, this is all going to work out for the best."

More people were giving up, turning around, heading the other way.

We crept around the bend. Now we could see it was not a house burning but something in the road, hidden by the rise just ahead. State trooper cars flashed blue lights. Troopers in wide-brimmed hats waved traffic off the highway.

"Heck of an accident," Dad said. "Must be a tanker truck, way it's burning."

"That's cool," said Bud. "It's not 'cool,' Bud," Mom said. "Someone might be hurt."

"No, but I mean look at it burn," Bud said.

"Don't get too close, Daddy. I don't want to see any burned people."

"Don't worry, Janie. Neither do I."

Now we could see it was a tractor-trailer jackknifed, sprawled on its side across both lanes. A crowd of firemen and state troopers stood at a healthy distance, watching the fire — a huge orange toy, broken and burning, pouring fire from the cab and the split-open trailer.

Two men in gray uniforms stood off to one side. One of them bent over with his hands on his knees, as if he was about to throw up. It took me a moment to think, Hey I know that guy, and to flash a picture of where I'd seen him: yesterday, closing the doors of the Allied Van Lines truck at our house in Indiana.

"Hey Dad," I said, "that's the guy who put our stuff on the truck."

"What?"

"That guy, there! Isn't he the guy from Allied?" And then it dawned on me why our driver was standing there with those state troopers beside the burning wreck. The wreck was his truck. Our truck.

Dad steered the Oldsmobile onto the grassy bank. He switched off the engine, rolled down his window, folded his hands on the wheel. Hot acrid air filled the car.We heard the popping and crackling, the rifle-shot of aerosol cans exploding, a deep monstrous underneath sound, like a beast sucking air.

Janie said, "Why did we stop?"

"You idiot!" I cried. "Don't you get it? That's our stuff!"

"What do you mean our stuff."

"Children." I shiver to remember the silvery calm of Mom's voice. "I don't want to hear another word."

A trooper came bowlegging down the hill toward us. "Folks," he said, "I'm gone have to ask you-all to just move on along."

My father's neck turned very red, as if he'd been sunburned suddenly. I could not see his face, but the sight of it was enough to back the trooper up a step.

"Come on now," he said. "Y'all had your look, let's move on along now."

My father did not speak. He just stared at the man. "Sir? Maybe you didn't hear what I said."

My mother leaned across the seat. "Officer, that truck is from Allied Van Lines, isn't it?" "Why, yes ma'am, it is."

"Well see, I'm Peggy Musgrove, and this is my husband Lee? And the thing is, I do believe those are our belongings on that truck."

"Hm." The man's face didn't change. "Y'all movin' down this way?"

"Yes, sir, we were," Mom said, in a voice that probably sounded chipper to him, but seemed to me one note short of a scream.

"Well, I hate to be the one to tell you, ma'am, but I don't think you're gone be able to save too much out of that." He indicated the conflagration with a little wave of his hand, as if maybe we hadn't noticed it. "Could you ask your husband to come up here and talk to us a minute?"

"I don't think he is able, right now," Mom said. "Would it be all right if I came in his place?"

Bud opened his door. "I'll go with you, Mom."

"Me too," I said.

"Bud, you come. Daniel, you and Janie stay here with Daddy." She glanced at her hair in the mirror and got out, smoothing her skirt. I had often seen our mother rise to one occasion or the other, but I've never seen her rise as she rose that afternoon. She marched with Bud up among all those troopers and stood answering their questions as if she had practiced for just such an occasion.

We watched the truck burn. Dad squeezed the steering wheel. The Allied driver sat under a tree with his head on his knees. The other man crouched beside him, whispering in his ear.

In the roaring innards of the split-open trailer I saw Mom's antique hall tree ablaze, all the wardrobe boxes, the jumble of the dinette set, chrome legs drooping like wilted flowers. Our possessions made a hot fire. The firemen stood watching with excited eyes. I guess they had decided to let it burn awhile before turning on their hoses. I heard a great crackle-cracking and a BOOM as our television shot straight up from the inferno, sailed through the air, and smashed facedown on the pavement in front of me.

A fresh cloud of fire billowed up from the wreck. Some of the passing cars honked their horns, cheering this display.

After a long time, Bud and Mom got back in the car. Dad started the engine and gunned onto the highway, spraying gravel.

We rode at least a mile before the first sound — the scritch! of Mom's Zippo.

"Lee," she said carefully, around a mouthful of smoke, "I understand if you're too upset to talk. Probably just as well. But we're all here, honey, we're all together and safe, and it doesn't matter if we lost those things. Just things, Lee. The insurance will replace it. It's none of our fault — not yours, and not mine. It was that driver. The son of a bitch was drunk."

"Mama, you cussed!" Janie cried.

"Shut up, Janie. He was drunk, Lee, I could smell the whiskey from ten feet away, and the troopers, they smelled it too."

"I didn't take the insurance," Dad said.

Mom cocked her head to one side. "What was that?"

"Homeowners don't cover stuff while it's on the truck. The movers wanted extra for it, and TriDex won't reimburse it. So I declined. I had to sign a paper saying I declined."

"You did that?" Mom said.

"You know how much they wanted for insurance that only lasts three days?" he said.

"Well!" She let out the breath she'd been holding. "Isn't that interesting."

In our house the only thing worse than "different" was "interesting."

How long do you think five people can ride in a car without talking? Let me tell you, it's longer than you think. We kept driving, long after dark. I would bet we drove for three hours without anyone saying another word.

At last Mom gave a tentative cough. "Lee, shouldn't we be close to Jackson by now?"

My father never even glanced away from the road. Mom said, "Honey, that sign said twelve miles to Hattiesburg. Isn't Hattiesburg south of Jackson? You know, I believe it is. I believe we have done rode right past Jackson. Bud, would you please hand me that map?"

My father kept driving. Even when Mom turned on the dome light and confirmed that we were seventy miles southeast of Jackson and getting farther away every second, my father had nothing to contribute to the conversation.

As we entered the outskirts of Hattiesburg, Mom said, "Lee, now, you're scaring me, honey. Let's just stop for the night at one of these motels. I'm sure we'll all feel much better after a good night's sleep." Dad didn't answer. When we drew abreast of the Rebel Yell Motor Lodge, he suddenly turned the car in and jerked to a stop at the office. He left the motor running. He went in and came back with a key.

I don't know why I felt moved to speak. It was like when I was little, playing hide-and-seek — I could find a good place to hide, but I couldn't stand staying hidden. I always gave myself away.

I got up on my knees in the backseat to peer out the window. "Dad," I said, "are you crazy? We can't stay here. The pool doesn't even have a slide."

It's a good thing there are laws against killing your kids. What I will never know is how he managed to hit me all the way from the car to the room without making a sound of his own.

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Childress

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