The Magnolia Under Glass

THE MAGNOLIA UNDER GLASS

Lobutcha, Mississippi – 2003

Okay. Guess I should say something.

The traffic outside sounded like surf. A maid was pushing a squeaky cart down the hall. Someone was filling an ice bucket. Suddenly she twisted from beneath him, ran into the bathroom and slammed the door. The rings scraped and the shower burst on.

Guess she has to be somewhere.

He rolled off his hands and knees onto his back. The bed was warm.

At the tiny Yazoo airport, he’d expected a nervous grad student to be waiting with a sputtering Honda. Or maybe one of his old professors, with a sputtering Saab. The fourteen other passengers hurried to the parking lot, and he was all but alone in the terminal. A whistle and the splat of a mop came from the open door of the men’s room.

The sluggish automatic door let him out into the Mississippi sauna. A whiff of magnolia would have triggered Proustian flashbacks, but this heat murdered lost time. His twenty years in New York had been a dream. After walking the length of the curb, his hair was drenched.

He watched a butterfly rise from its twin in the hood of an incongruous limousine and light upon the antenna. An engine groaned beyond the pines edging the parking lot. An overloaded log truck rumbled out and disappeared around the bend.

He went back into the air conditioning. He took out his cell phone but couldn’t find the scrap of paper on which he’d scrawled the coordinator’s number.

“Is that him over there?”

“Oh Lord!” a jet-black man in a uniform was hurrying down the hall that led to the gates. “Thank you! Thank you!” the man called back to the helpful stewardess then began waving a sign with Robert’s name. As she clicked past Robert in her heels, pulling her suitcase, the stewardess smiled.

So hot. Kept bumping into my arm.

For weeks he had been looking forward to this drive into town. When they got off the service road, they would pass that old house with spotted cows grazing and chickens pecking. Then that yard where wild roses wound around the trunk of a huge oak. The drive would take them over the bluff just outside of town. In one direction, a creek snakes through a cotton field, into the hazy Delta. In the other, the road descends toward campus. You can see the red brick chapel rising above the patchwork of trees and roofs. He used to ride his bike up to this bluff in the late afternoon. With the fading sun softening the vista, especially in autumn, he could pretend he was in Oxford or Bennington. The graceful martins wheeled around in the sky like Keats’s gathering swallows. From this distance you couldn’t tell that the chapel’s chimes were recorded bells. But you also couldn’t ignore Ronald McDonald, waving from a billboard that was too close to the Yazoo College sign. It looked as though the school’s mascot was a clown.

But since his last visit, the transportation department had connected the airport’s service road to a new highway.

The window separating him from the driver slowly buzzed down.

“This used to be a swamp we’re driving through,” the chauffeur shouted.

“I remember,” Robert shouted back.

“Wasn’t nothin’ like a road here.”

For the rest of the trip to town, the driver delivered a monologue about his childhood experiences of fishing in the swamp. At appropriate moments, Robert grunted “You don’t say?” or “That’s something.”

Finally, the car glided up the exit ramp. Half a mile down the two-lane, they turned at the old factory and wound past houses where flowers hung in baskets on the porches. Then they emerged onto the main square where the courthouse loomed with antebellum dignity.

The limousine stopped in front of what used to be Robert’s bank, a big stone block with diminutive Corinthian columns in front. “Lobutcha Inn” welcomed guests in cursive on a modest sign over the revolving door.

High above an emerald and white chessboard floor, a fan turned slowly. He was about to ring the bell when a woman’s voice called out: “Mistuh Harris?”

“Yes?”

He turned and saw a plump middle-aged woman standing in the doorway of a fern-crowded parlor.

“You don’t need to check in. Everything’s all set.”

“Oh? Great.”

“I’m Mary Margaret Bryant.” She shook his hand with just her fingers.

“Hi. I was looking for your husband.”

“No, he’s teaching now. Getting them all excited about the Festival I hope.”

Someone else rang the bell. The stewardess was leaning against the counter. She had changed into an un-tucked button-down and blue jeans.

Doesn’t see me.

“So how is Frank?” he asked.

“Oh, I keep him in line,” Mrs. Bryant said.

“That’s good to hear. And it’s good to meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine!”

Wonder if she’s alone.

“Now if you’re worn out from your travelin’ you just tell me.” Mrs. Bryant touched his arm. “But I thought you might like for me to give you a run down of the agenda.”

What does it matter if she’s alone?

“That’d be fine.”

It’s not like I’ve ever picked up anyone at a hotel.

“Are yew hungry?” Mrs. Bryant had a shockingly thick drawl.

Slow as molasses.

“I know that food on planes is just terrible. The restaurant in the hotel here is the best in town.”

“How’s the gumbo?”

“Oh Lord!” she aimed her heavily made-up face toward heaven, “They brought up this chef from Antoine’s down in New Orleans, and you have never in your life put gumbo like this in your mouth.”

“I guess the pecan pie isn’t fit to eat.”

She laughed and said, “I’ll let you be the judge,” as she headed across the chessboard toward the restaurant’s French doors. Robert followed behind.

Must judge her fair share of pie.

The stewardess was busy asking for a better room.

Put her next to mine. Next to mine.

There wasn’t a soul in the dining room. A man swished out of the swinging doors behind the bar, clipping on a bow tie.

“How y’all doin?” he asked, setting a straw boater on his head.

“Oh, we’re just fine,” Mrs. Bryant answered. “Are we too early?”

“No m’am, no m’am. We’re ready to go!”

“Thank goodness!” She sounded deeply relieved. “We’re ready for some of that gumbo.”

“Well,” The bartender squinted skeptically. “I guess we’ll let y’all have some. Sit where ever y’all want. Jenny’ll be right over.”

They chose a table by the window. The gossamer drapes were full of sunlight.

“I like this one ’cause you can look out on the square.”

“Glad to see Mr. Thario still sells his tamales,” Robert said as he pulled the curtain aside.

“Lord, do you know Mr. Thario disappeared one day a while back, and WEEKS passed before someone found out he had triple by-pass surgery.”

“My God!”

“I know! But he came right back out there, with that durn wagon.”

“That’s that indomitability Faulkner’s always talking about, if I’ve ever seen it.”

“I guess so.”

A skinny red-head interrupted. “Hi you doin, Mrs. Bryant?”

“Why, hey Jenny, I want you to meet Robert Harris.”

“Oh! I feel very privileged to meet you.” Jenny offered her fingers.

She’s pretty cute.

“Let me just tell you, I thought your book was just great. Just great.”

She read my book?

“Thanks. You must be in Professor Bryant’s class.”

“Oh, I wish, but my boyfriend is, and he said you just gotta read this book.”

Boyfriend, damn.

“Can I get you a drink, Mr. Harris?”

“Iced tea for now.”

“And you, Mrs. Bryant?”

“Well, I shouldn’t, but I want one of those HURRICANES.”

Makes it sound like a technical term.

“Lord, Mrs. Bryant, you’re getting an early start.”

“Oh, you hush, Jenny, I need something to relax me. Not often I’m in the presence of greatness.”

The stewardess was standing in the French doors checking out the restaurant.

Oh Jesus.

She smiled at Jenny and declined the invitation to sit down at a table. Instead she wandered over to the bar. Perching herself on a stool and arching her sinewy back, she twisted her mass of blonde hair into a ponytail.

Wouldn’t you know it. Could come down by myself every five minutes for my entire stay and never again see her alone at the bar.

“…and I told Frank, ‘You just can’t throw something like this at him the last minute.'”

“I’m sorry. I’m afraid I’m not following you.”

“I know. I’m rambling cause I feel so bad to have to ask, but would you mind reading from your novel tonight?”

“Oh? I was under the impression that—”

“I’m so sorry. I tried to tell Frank months back that he couldn’t just casually assume that you would—”

“No, no, don’t feel bad. I’m flattered but, I mean, I did actually prepare some scholarly remarks about the Southern Writer—”

“Here y’all go,” Jenny interrupted to set the drinks down and take their order.

“—but really I’m always happy to read, I just, you know, didn’t expect—”

“Thank you so much! Oh, I cain’t tell you!” She tossed the barber pole straw aside and took a big swig of her Hurricane.

Just like Frank. Let me be the token “actual writer” who’s published an “actual book.” God forbid they let me DISCUSS anything. Not like I know anything about literature after living it all this time instead of sitting on my fat ass wishing I could fuck my farm girl students.

“Lord! This is gonna go right to my head.”

“That’s the raison d’etre of Hurricanes, isn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

Doesn’t know the phrase.

The ice clinked as she took another long swig.

“Now that was the hard part. Everything else should be just like they told you.”

She leaned over the table as she showed him the printed agenda.

Ample bosom, they used to say.

“You remember the patio behind the Holman Complex? We are gonna have THE biggest catfish fry anybody has ever seen.”

Across the room, the stewardess was swiveling on the stool by tapping from hand to hand on the lip of the bar. Her feet dangled in white Nikes.

Looks bored. God. If I were just alone. Maybe I should pretend I have to take a piss. I could at least say hello. “Oh, hey, weren’t you …yeah, I thought so.”

Jenny appeared with a tray and set down two enormous bowls of gumbo on the table along with a basket full of fat golden cubes of cornbread, and a plate with Robert’s blackened catfish next to a mound of collard greens.

“Wow!”

“I tell you, you won’t have room for that fish.”

He scooped a spoonful of gumbo.

“Now they make it good and spicy here,” she warned, but he didn’t hear. The stewardess distracted him by spinning a full circle on the stool, feet thrown straight out.

“Yowza!”

“I told you!”

He gulped down his glass of tea.

“You know—” she said sotto voce “—I’m not telling you how old I am, but you and me are reaching the age where we can’t eat this sort of thing without thinking twice about it.”

On cue, a boy in the bloom of collegiate youth entered the restaurant. The stewardess leapt from the stool and into his arms. Abandoning an almost full glass of Chardonnay, they ran out holding hands.

Oh well. That’s that.

For all the to-do about the gumbo, Mary Margaret was showing little interest in hers. But Robert ate ravenously.

“I’m sorry if I seem a little nervous,” she said. “I’m not a real big reader anymore. I used to be, but you know how it goes as the years pass.”

“I know. I can’t remember the last time I finished anything.”

“Well, I sure finished your book, and it just meant a whole lot to me.”

“Great.”

Must be a shrimp.

“I picked it up when I knew I was going to be helping Frank with the festival, but I didn’t expect to like anything as much as I did yours.”

“Really?” He set down his spoon. “That’s nice to hear. When you’re writing a novel, it’s easy to lose sight of how it could possibly mean anything to someone.”

“Oh, it meant SO much to me. When I was reading about Sarah, I just felt like I was reading about myself.”

“Yeah?”

“See, I am a real Mississippi girl like Sarah. I grew up down near Laurel. I’ve gone to church all my life. I have my values and there are just things that are real important to me, but there is a mysterious part that I do keep to myself, like you described with Sarah.”

“I’m so glad that came through because I wasn’t sure how to render…”

“It’s a kind of secret you don’t wanna have to explain cause then it wouldn’t be what it was.”

“See, I think the novel itself…that any work of art is like that.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but I just felt when I was reading that you understood this…this—” She squinted to get the phrase just right. “—Delicate balance.”

She lowered her eyes and fiddled with a tiny pearl button on her blouse.

“So like I said, I’m sorry if I seem a little nervous. I just feel sort of exposed.”

Her free hand was ostentatiously resting by the empty Hurricane glass, and he saw his own hand fly over to it. In the moment before she drew it back, the glass over the magnolia lifted. The Baptist matron became a flesh and blood woman.

“When am I expected tonight?

“There’s a cocktail party at seven.”

“So I have some time to kill.”

She looked up and smiled.

Fucking huge bed. Room’s right out of Southern Living. That chair looks like it could be in a Cambridge smoking room. “Good evening, Winston. Ripping fox hunt, eh?”

Didn’t really notice the room before. Just wondering if she’d show up. That pretend goodbye in the lobby was pretty convincing. Plenty of practice, I suppose. Constant parade of visiting writers. Wonder if Frank has a clue.

Been so long since I’ve seen him. Gonna be weird seeing him right after fucking his wife. Hell of a thing. Hard to take in.

Should take a shower too. Probably wouldn’t be cool to join her though.

She rushed out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel and frantically snatched up her clothes.

Seems pretty shy though. Antsy. Sexy. Wish we could do it again.

“Lord, look at the time!” she said before shutting herself back up in the bathroom.

He got up and crossed over to the chair by the window. He kneeled in the seat and propped his arms on the back.

Disappointing view considering how nice the room is.

Next to the Piggly Wiggly loading dock was a narrow creek with steep cement banks under trashy overgrowth. Broken bottles glittered in the afternoon sun. On the other side of the creek, a young mother was chasing a toddler across the yard.

Jim’s old place. Crazy parties. Passed out on that picnic table. New then. Woke up with a cold.

He heard the door and turned. She had reassembled herself with remarkable speed. He climbed out of the chair and went toward her.

“So I thought I’d read from the fourth chapter.”

“That’d be just great,” she sang as she reloaded her pocketbook.

Definitely antsy. Guess she hasn’t had all that much practice after all.

“Actually, the whole novel started as just a short story. Which I then turned into that chapter.”

“That’s interesting.” She stared down at the clasp which she kept snapping and unsnapping.

Should say something nice.

“So what I’m saying is that it works pretty well on its own for all the people who haven’t read the book.”

She kept looking down.

He suddenly realized he was stark naked and grabbed a robe.

“Are you…you know…is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I’m…this is just not something I…I’ve never—”

Never?

“It was really…I mean, I—”

She rushed over to him, clasped his head between her hands, and kissed him, hard, Then abruptly, she turned to leave.

“So the car’ll be downstairs at 6:30, if that’s okay.” She paused at the door.

“Oh, I’ll walk.”

“You’re gonna walk?” She turned back with a worried look. Her concern snapped her right out of the awkwardness of parting.

“Sure! I walk that far to the subway every morning.”

“Well, if you say so.”

“It’s fine.” He reached to open the door for her.

“Hope the coast is clear,” she giggled.

He kissed her one more time and ran a finger down her spine.

“You are so bad!” she swatted him and slipped out.

She slipped through a door right across the hall, and her heels echoed in the stairwell.

Hm. Room’s right by the stairs. Pretty convenient. Jesus, did she plan that far in advance?

Where the hell’s my razor. Must’ve fallen out. There.

I mean, obviously she’d INTENDED to sleep with me. Not like I had to plant and water the idea. Wouldn’t’ve even occurred to me to try. With someone like her. No complaints though. Damn. Whole new horizon opening up. Women who aren’t skinny little kids. Like Cortez coming out of the jungle and seeing the Pacific. Cortez? Balboa?

Wow. Quite a luxury not having to run it ten minutes for it to get hot.

Work so hard for all these young girls. Their minds are all over the place. Like birds. Finally sleep with them and you can tell they haven’t learned to enjoy it. Different story with Mary Margaret. I mean, I WISH I were a great lover, but I’m no…whoever …James Bond. She was just into it. Ready to enjoy herself.

Bright bulbs. Nice to be able to see my face for a change. Probably always miss that spot.

Kind of weird though to think she has this in mind enough ahead of time to put me in this room. Took some thought.

Ow! Should’ve gotten new blades. Shit.

Guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. Early indications if I’d bothered to notice. Calling all the time to make sure I’m okay with this or that. Doting over me, really. Why consult me about whether the panel discussion should be in the morning or afternoon? Kept expecting her to call about green M&Ms. And then she always kept me on the phone. Everything I said was SO interesting. Felt rude for ever having to hang up. Just figured she was being typically Southern. The usual unnecessary friendliness. And, I mean, she’s Frank’s fucking wife. I wasn’t exactly looking to see if she was seducing me.

Also just figured she was inexperienced. Knew when the honorarium check came in the mail she didn’t know the ropes. Figured I’d have to harass them for it.

But her intending to sleep with me explains more. Occam’s Razor. Whatever theory explains the most.

Still bleeding, damn it. Stuck pig.

Also explains the limo. Wouldn’t’ve thought there were any limos in Lobutcha. It’s so obvious now. Hindsight.

All right! Figured the water pressure’d be intense. This’ll be like a massage.

Maybe she and Frank are having troubles. Caught him cheating. Some drunk sorority girl calls the house. “I love him! He’s not happy with you!” He claims she just threw herself at him. “Honey, it was just a moment of weakness. She has emotional problems. I told her to get therapy.” After he fucked her. Just balance things out sleeping with me. An outsider. Won’t have to deal with me at every department symposium for the next twenty years. Whiskey in one hand. Squeezing her tit with the other. Slobbering.

Jesus, I hope she slept with me just so she could secretly ponder it in her heart. Just to know that the accounts are settled. Never know how these faculty things go. They all love drama. Lives so boring otherwise. Run around the yard naked on Saturday night then discuss modifications to the qualifying exam on Monday. Total disaster if she wants to make a public thing out of it. “So you think I didn’t know about that little slut graduate assistant? Well, guess who I just fucked?”

Weird soap. What is that? Gardenia? Need to learn about flowers.

God. That would suck. Big ugly scene on the quad in front of Jackson Hall. Not like I could bail either. Probably have to have a working credit card to change my flight. Have to pay back the honorarium now that it’s long gone. Right when Tiger Temps changed the rule on overtime. Would just have to grin and bear it. “Please, distinguished colleagues, don’t mind my slurred speech from my busted lip as I express my opinion about Welty’s emotional layers.”

Damn. Who’d ever call this tiny rag a towel? Oh, here. That’s more like it. Manner to which I’ve grown accustomed. In the last half hour.

I don’t know. It’s all too weird. She did seem sort of sincere about all that “delicate balance” stuff. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong.

Where is it? Side pocket. Almost didn’t bring it. That’d be funny. “Does anybody have a copy of my own book so I can read it to you?”

Maybe I’m being too modest. Picture’s not too bad. I look handsome enough. A little too rugged. Too much stubble but that was Jürgen’s idea. Closet case. It’s not totally out of the question she could’ve developed an elaborate fantasy about this dark brooding writer.

Something Freudian about the fact that I brought a copy of the novel without really thinking. Just tossed it in the bag. Unconscious desire. Hope springs eternal. Can’t relinquish the hope for some tiny crumb of recognition. Ridiculous. Absurd. Agonize for years over a novel. A Work of Art. Fuck up your life for it. Render yourself professionally useless just to have time to write because of all your dumbass ideals about literature. Culture. By the time you realize that whatever it was that Swift or Flaubert or Tolstoy was doing has dwindled into a society of classist eunuchs clinging to creative writing programs like driftwood in a sea of shit…by the time you realize how much it all sucks, you have no options. Not like I’m gonna go to law school now. Get an MBA. You realize you’re gonna spend the rest of your life proofreading corporate documents. The rest of your life. So miserable that the prospect of reading your little chapter to ten or fifteen people in some creaky old classroom excites you.

Humiliating to feel these stupid butterflies in my stomach. Raped by the hope that something big will happen. Maybe some agent is driving through Mississippi on her way back to New York. Car breaks down. Has to kill time. “Oh, look at that poster for the Southern Writer’s Festival. Hey! Some utter nobody is reading from his NOVEL. Wow. I must check THAT out. Could be the next Larry Brown.”

At least I got laid.

Descending the hill on Yazoo Street, he recalled having tried to mythologize the walk to campus in a short story. Sitting in a diner on Broadway and 104th Street, he was writing from memory.

In his short story, the protagonist has to fight gravity to keep from running down the slope. But it didn’t seem all that steep walking down it now. His memory of the cemetery had been more accurate: “A pair of algae-capped headstones peeped through the branches of an elm tree that grew up from down below by the street.” Unfortunately, the gate was locked, so he couldn’t wind through the gravestones to Main Street. He followed the chain-link fence, clustered thick with honeysuckle vines, and turned up Greenville Street.

Writing that day in the diner he remembered this block very distinctly, but he couldn’t think how to render it. The problem, of course, was that a row of similar houses with similar yards on a small town street is just not very description-worthy. But he couldn’t see that at the time because he was blinded by narcissism. What on earth had made him think anyone would want to read a short story about his walk to campus? Nothing happened in the story. A car didn’t crash into a tree. He didn’t meet a girl. He didn’t hear a gunshot in one of the houses. The story was nothing more than a very observant, deeply feeling southern boy taking note of his surroundings. Wasn’t Faulkner full of such passages, with characters going from one place to another, looking at houses, rivers, fields and skies that are colored with a “palpable, ineluctable insistence” or some such? Sure you could work backwards from the idea that Faulkner is a great and distinguished author to find some justification teachable to all those sorority girls majoring in English. But, really, these portentous and pointless descriptions were just narcissistic babble.

At least that’s how he meant to put it, in the scholarly remarks he’d prepared.

He stopped on the bridge. The evening train was clattering beneath, its open cars full of vibrating wood chips on their way out to the paper plant. Here was the ground zero of his own narcissism. If anything on his walk had an “ineluctable insistence,” it was this slow-moving train. Back in the diner he’d struggled over this image trying to figure out how to render it. He couldn’t see that it wasn’t worth rendering. Trains passed under bridges all over the world, and the dense kudzu covering the banks by the rails was, in point of fact, not unique to the South.

Across the quad, he recognized Jackson Hall. The foyer’s chandelier was blazing behind the glass façade.

Big crowd. Free cocktails probably.

Music was throbbing inside. As someone opened the door and emerged, Buddy Guy was screeching, “Oh baby, please. Oh baby, please. Oh baby, please don’t…” The door closed on the rest of the line.

In the day’s last light, Abraham Lincoln strode out on the front steps. The tall figure made an exaggerated display of shading his eyes and leaning forward to look out into the dark. Then shouted:

“Is that Mr. Robert Harris?”

“Yes, do I know…”

“Guess what this is?” the man pointed a bony finger at a glass in his other hand, jutted out his long beard and waited for an answer.

Do you have to answer a riddle to enter the building?

“Uh, looks like bourbon, I sup…”

“Not just any bourbon.”

“No?”

The beard moved soberly from side to side.

“It is the ONLY bourbon!”

“Jack Daniels?”

The man made a face like a Greek comic mask and wheezed an asthmatic laugh.

“Jack Daniels! That’s a good one! No, no, Mr. Harris, this is your preacher’s drink.”

“Oh, George Dickel?”

“That’s right! George Dickel whiskey.”

“Okay!” Robert answered with feigned enthusiasm.

“Alan Birch!” The tall man shot out his hand. “I teach technical writing here at good ole Yazoo College.”

Dr. Birch relished another sip from his glass, then emitted a windy “Ah!”

“I tell you! Smooth! I understand why your preacher is so fond of this stuff.”

“Well, I do hope you enjoyed my book.”

“I’ll tell you, as a technical writer, I especially appreciate your concision.”

“Thanks.”

“You sustain an elegant swiftness that makes the book go down smooth like…” He gave an exaggeratedly furtive glance to his glass.

“Like George Dickel whiskey?” Robert injected, and the two of them had a good laugh.

“Are you on the panel tonight?”

Birch exploded in another raspy laugh.

“Yeah! Right!”

Wonder why that’s funny.

“Well, I better see if there’s any of that stuff left in there.”

“Go for it! Go for it!” Birch raised a thumbs-up to his own glass.

Robert slipped into the crowded foyer and made a desperate beeline for the bar. B.B. King was screaming: “I gave you seven children, and now you wanna give ’em back!” A much younger version of his afternoon companion was bartending. She was shouting a complicated story over the music to a tall boy with tortoise-shell glasses. The latter made a terrified face when he noticed Robert.

“Hiiieee!” the girl sang as she jerked around smiling. “I greese shore eeyora Jackison?”

“What?”

“I guess you’re here for your Jack Dickinson.”

“Actually, I’d rather have some of that Absolute poured over three or four ice cubes.”

“So no Jack…”

“George.”

“No George…”

“Dickel.”

“Dickel!” She looked up at the ceiling and mouthed the name. “So, no George Dickel?”

“Not tonight.”

“Looka there!” someone screamed, as a strong hand fell on his shoulder. “We were startin’ to worry!”

Robert wrestled against a thicket of shoulders to turn around. Twenty years hadn’t dimmed Frank’s boyish grin, and his grip was so firm that Robert wondered if Mary Margaret had already spilled the beans.

“Damn man, you LOOK like a Yankee!” Frank gave him a little shove.

“I’ll take that as a compliment coming from a redneck like you,” Robert pushed back.

Frank bellowed with laughter and stepped back to let his wife squeeze into their circle.

I had sex with you.

“Mary Margaret says you ate that gumbo til you were ’bout to bust.”

“Oh yeah.” Robert cried, “I licked the bowl like a dog.”

To this, Frank positively roared and asked Mary Margaret, “Did he really?” She nodded, seriously.

“I was so full I had to rush up to my room and pass out.”

“I bet you did.” Frank was red in the face with more laughter. “Boy, I tell YOU!”

After recovering himself with a hearty cough, he said, “Listen, Robert! I can’t tell you how honored I am that you’re reading tonight!”

“No problem.”

“Now, now, Mary Margaret straightened me out about things, and I’m just real sorry we didn’t communicate better. I just got carried away thinking about what it’d mean to everbody to have you read.”

“I just hope I don’t bore them all to death.”

Frank and Mary Margaret looked at each other with big eyes. Then, again, more laughter.

“Well, hell.” Frank shouted. “I better go get things started. Maybe you can work your way up to the rostrum in a minute.”

“Can I take my drink?”

“You’re a Southern Writer, ain’t you?”

“If you say so.”

“Can’t wait, man.” He gave Robert another little shove as he wove his stocky frame into the crowd.

“How was your walk?” Mary Margaret asked, her breast brushing his drinking hand as she moved closer.

Let’s just go back to the hotel.

“Nice!” he answered, “I’m surprised by how little has changed.”

“No, we’re not big on change round here.”

“Sounds a little dull.”

She smiled up at him and said, “We manage to find our distractions.”

Now. Let’s go now.

“I was sorry to see Mrs. Little’s azaleas were gone.”

“Naw, Mrs. Little passed away about ten years ago and, I tell you, this art professor moved in with his ‘friend'”—she made the quotes in the air with her fingers—”and they re-landscaped everything. They put a little rock garden with all this white gravel surrounding some old spiky fern-like things right where the azaleas had been. And you know what? They moved away a year later!”

The music stopped.

“Hello? Hello?”

A voice boomed from the public address system in the next room, followed by the inevitable squall of feedback.

“Woe, hey, I guess it’s on. All Right, Hello. So let’s get this thing rolling.”

Robert and Mary Margaret flowed with the crowd toward a pair of doors.

Almost feel like I should offer my arm.

They squeezed into the cacophonous auditorium, packed with bespectacled professors and hyperactive students. Robert recalled the involuntary hope he used to feel back in college when he’d come here to some required event. The hope that it would be something big and glamorous. He’d emerge from that cinderblock prison of a dorm room into the spring dusk and ache for all the girls moving about in the crepuscular blue. Back then the Stonewall Jackson auditorium resonated with the same creaking floor, the same bang of wooden seats unfolding and the same chorus of so many drawling voices.

“Memories,” he sang.

“I bet!” she gave his arm a squeeze.

They stood together against the back wall as bodies continued to ooze in.

Jeez. Quite a crowd. I wonder who they scored for the keynote? Barry Hannah maybe? Richard Ford. Not John Grisham. That’s all anybody’d be talking about. Who cares? It’ll be less embarrassing when I have to read. Probably shouldn’t read the WHOLE chapter though. Keep it short.

Oh, maybe that’s him. Who is he? Walker Percy would be that old, but, shit, I guess he’s been dead for a long while. Time is a blur.

Shit! No! That’s Professor Williams. Christ!

God, I’m old. He was my age now when I was an undergrad. Damn. Fucking bastard. Still hurts. Twenty years and my heart still breaks thinking about sitting with Lucy on the library steps. Chain on the flagpole faintly clanking. Aching blue of the dying sky. Aching boner. Hadn’t learned to separate lust and love yet. Just wanted her. Liquid heart. Brown eyes. Too young and stupid to ignore her references to a steady boyfriend. No: her FIANCÉ. Twenty-year old junior and she has a fiancé. Like an idiot I romanced the idea that she was “off limits.” Then find out Williams was banging her all semester. Guess that qualifies as a coming-of-age experience.

Glad to see life has its own built-in punishment. Turns you into a useless old bag of bones at some shit-hole college.

Look at him swagger like he’s fucking Huey Long or something. Scraggly beard looks terrible.

And why the fuck is Frank waving me down. I don’t see the other distinguished panelists rushing up there with their tongues out. Pretend I don’t see him. I’m not gonna be the only eager beaver up there looking like a pathetic asshole while Richard Ford or whoever keeps flirting with some other Mary Margaret.

Shit. Knows I see him. All right, all right.

“Here we go.” Robert said to Mary Margaret.

“I can’t wait!” she called after him.

As he ascended the few steps leading up to the stage, the bustle died down sharply.

What happened? I guess they all think I’m Barry Hannah. Or whoever. Sorry. It’s just me. I should go take a piss first. Oh, guess I can’t.

Grinning wider than ever, Frank was waving him toward a chair. The stage was so wide that it took an eternity to cross it, his steps ringing through the newly quiet hall.

Frank turned to the microphone.

“I’d like to welcome y’all to the fifth annual Southern Writer’s Festival and the first year it’s being held here at Yazoo College! All Right!”

Applause.

“As you all know, our focus this year is on the new southern writer, or, really, the NEW new southern writer.” He tilted up a stack of index cards. The casual patter disappeared from his voice as he continued. “Now inhabiting a world so technologically advanced that we could call it futuristic, the new new southern writer has raw material radically different from that which Mr. Faulkner distilled into Yoknapatawpha County. We have all learned to believe that the turbulent struggle over civil rights is ancient history. As an independent country, for indeed that is what the South really is, we have been globalized. So it might be time to ask: does the Southern Writer even exist anymore? If so, do we need him? Or her?”

Frank preached in this vein for several long minutes.

You mean this is it? Frank yammering away, then Williams and me? God, how lame. Ford or Hannah or whoever must’ve cancelled. That would explain all the awkwardness about asking me to read. Bumping me up last minute. Make me read to this disappointed throng.

Frank took an overly dramatic pause, then: “Tonight we have the good fortune of hearing a voice that might just be stripping the matter down to a single, raw truth: that the southern writer will only be obsolete when literature itself closes shop.”

Okay. Here it comes. “Unfortunately, Barry Hannah called last-minute to say…”

“But now, I’m going to give the floor to my distinguished colleague and mentor and let him do the honors of giving our guest a proper, Southern introduction, although I know, as they say, he needs no introduction. Shelby Williams!”

Applause erupted as Williams swaggered up to the podium.

Amazing he’s sober enough to walk. Should’ve freshened-up mine.

Williams propped an elbow on the podium and leaned into the microphone as though he were about to tell a racist joke to the boys at the café on the square.

“I’m goan tell y’all somethin,” he croaked, “I know it ain’t the thing you’re supposed to say so recently after that dark day at the dawn of this new century, but I’m goan tell y’all anyway. Just ‘tween us, I hate New York. There is no amount of money you could pay me to live in the finest Park Avenue apartment waited on hand and foot. I’d rather have the commonest biscuit out in some shack on Highway 51 than the best bagel they make up there.”

The audience responded with polite chuckles and some feigned jingoistic hoots.

Fucking ham.

“And another thing. God made it perfectly clear with the Tower of Babel episode that mankind was not meant to live and work up in the clouds.”

Healthy applause.

“That bein said, we in the literature business have to acknowledge one overwhelming truth: New York MAKES writers.”

And DESTROYS even more. God forbid they let me talk about THAT.

“The fundamental paradox of modern Irish literature is that its greatest work was created by a writer in exile. Well, we have with us tonight a paradox of the same proportion. The destiny of Southern literature has not only been determined but forged anew by a Mississippi boy who bravely exiled himself to that godforsaken hell on earth we call New York City.”

What the hell?

“Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Robert Harris.”

The crowd jumped to its feet, clapping, cheering and whistling. There were even some flashbulbs firing.

oh my god oh my jesus fuck dizzy fuck what the oh my fuck what the…

The blast was like a gust of wind. He made it to the podium and gripped it to steady himself.

The ovation continued for an eternity. Even as the storm began to subside, a large portion of the crowd kept clapping and hooting which in turn revived the rest of the audience.

Robert stared down at his book on the podium and waited.

oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my…

Gradually, silence fell.

“Thanks,” Robert said dryly, sounding as though someone had casually offered him a light. A tidal wave of laughter swept through the blur of faces.

“I had planned to say a bunch of stuff about this Southern Writer person, but Mrs. Bryant asked me if I wouldn’t mind reading a little something from LIKE MOSS IN THE SWAMP.”

I’m drawling. Why am I drawling?

“I told her I didn’t mind one little bit.”

More enthusiastic clapping, whistling and hooting.

It all makes sense now. God.

He flipped the stiff pages of his fresh copy of the novel to Chapter Four. In the restored silence, the microphone amplified the resistant cracks of the virgin spine as he spread the pages wide.

The limo. The sex. The Dickel. It all makes sense.

“Anything’ll burn…” he read, “…if ya git it hot enough.”

A salvo of laughter greeted this opening line.

Yes. It all makes sense. I’m a star.

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