The Great, 4-Day, Mississippi Wilderness Roadshow, Continued
Part Two: A Deficiency of Klondike Bars
So I arrived at Oxford in the hot, eerie damp of the dark Mississippi night. The brightness of strip malls on the edge of town gave way to older houses in shadowy yards, older buildings of the sort of clean, pretty architecture that said, to me, “This is the south.” Trees of the sort to which I was not used to leaned over pale sidewalks and things felt suddenly slow and easy and safe. I made a wrong turn or two—with Serena patiently “recalculating” (and somehow fitting in an extra syllable whenever she pronounced the word)—and found myself in the Square where the white courthouse stood majestically and where, when I looked left, I saw Square Books where I’d be giving my first reading the next night. The store was dark and the Square was dark and Serena murmured directions quietly and I went on.
Richard Howorth, the owner of Square Books, had graciously offered to let me stay at his grand Victorian home and, as I parked out front, I was never so glad to see a stranger’s home in my life. When I stepped from the car, my glasses fogged and I was awash in sweat. Just. Like. That. The low, electric drone of cicadas, something else strange to me, seemed to signal the approaching heat death of the universe. I cleaned the lenses on my shirt-tail but the heat from my cheeks fogged them over again and Richard, when he met me at the door, looked me up and down, tentatively shook my hand and offered me a Klondike Bar.
In retrospect, I should’ve taken it. I should have taken it because maybe then the whole next day might have gone a little differently. Not better—because it went fine, the reading was good, if sparsely attended, and my nerves vanished as soon as I started—not better, but, maybe, drier. Maybe cooler. But I didn’t. In new situations, I’m often the meekest sort and would no more have dared eating a Klondike Bar in front of a stranger (especially in the jittery, overwarm state I was in that night) than Prufrock would’ve dared a peach.
Just the same, Richard looked at me—dripping in his foyer and squinting through two thumbpad-sized holes in my befogged glasses—and asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want a Klondike Bar? I was just about to have a Klondike Bar.”
I settled on a cool glass of water and passed a pleasant, if warm and damp, evening.
Most of what remains of the next day are scattered images. Scenes from Oxford. It was 80 degrees in the shade by eight in the morning and we walked the half-mile to Square Books where I had A Moment.
Square Books is a corner shop with a window display and there, that morning in Mississippi—which seemed, then, a world-and-a-half away from my home—was my book Wilderness. On display in a store window. I looked for Seal Team Six but they were nowhere about but there was a book on Eudora Welty and others as well but I only had eyes for mine and it looked good, there in the window, and I felt good, standing there sweating on the sidewalk looking at it.
The distance from the front door of Square Books to the front door of Rowan Oak—William Faulkner’s home, and now a Faulkner museum and a destination for literary pilgrims like myself—is about a mile. An easy walk I was told. Richard drew me a map. I set out, squishing, down the sidewalk.
Right away, I saw no one else was walking. Unless it was from an air-conditioned car into an air-conditioned store. I crossed University Avenue, following South Lamar Boulevard as my map instructed and had gone, maybe, a hundred yards before my shirt was soaked through. I went on, down those pale sidewalks through shade that was in no way cool. Mine was not a pretty sweat. Not a sweat to in any way inspire confidence in the manner of, say, a movie action hero. Folks in cars slowed down to look at me then sped away when I looked up. One kind soul paused, rolled down their window, and asked was I all right. The cicadas sang and stilled and sang again after I’d passed. My map became sodden and fell apart. I would’ve paid cash money for a Klondike Bar.
Rowan Oak was about what I’d expected. I felt humbled looking into Faulkner’s office, his parlor and then like an intruder looking into his bedroom and his wife’s, his daughter’s. Another Moment came as I left, when the curator looked up from his concerns (which seemed, that morning, to be manifold) and asked, “Aren’t you Lance Weller? Wilderness, right?” I said yes and yes and, because he was busy and I had had no time to prepare a dry face to face him with, he wished me luck and I wiped my brow and went on.
When I dressed for the reading, it was in a good shirt and decent shoes. A sports jacket. I walked to Square Books—those few, hot blocks hotter still in the fullness of the afternoon. My glasses fogged and unfogged repeatedly. I wondered if I should wear my trousers rolled to cool my ankles down. Thankfully, I wasn’t recognized and this allowed me to slip upstairs and find a place to sit beneath the air conditioner. More than once I was asked if I was all right. A lot of people seemed to be asking me that question as I went, sweatingly, from place to place.
As mentioned, the reading itself went fine and, somewhere along the way, I actually began to enjoy myself. This partly came from just trying to trust in the work and read it as best as I knew how and partly from the sense that I was finally getting it started so I could quit dreading it. That Moment of stepping up in front of people to read from a thing which you have created and worrying about it not being what your heart wanted it to be. And, afterwards, I felt such a sense of relief and of triumph, that if I did sweat (and I’m sure I did) I didn’t notice it.
The next day, I set out south again for Jackson and Lemuria Books where I was to have my second reading. Down through Water Valley following the same route I’d come in on only, now, in the brightened fullness of a September morning. There was no Devil waiting at any crossroads and, much to Serena’s consternation at the amount of “recalculating” she had to do, I took a lot of little side trips off the highway to see the lay of the land.
The roads off the highway were white and ran through exaltations of lush greenery. There was an aching feel of fecundity in the air and some rapacious-looking plant grew everywhere up power poles and out across otherwise neatened yards and over fallen trees and stones and, maybe, old cars parked too long. I’d find out later this was kudzu and that it grew fast and could not be controlled and, somehow, this delighted me.
North of Jackson I stopped at a rest area where a big, heavy Samoan trucker from Winnipeg was trying to read the map posted at the kiosk. He told me he didn’t believe in satellites or Garmins and I wondered how Serena would calculate such a philosophy. He was having trouble with the map because he was sweating so badly he couldn’t see. He told me he’d come down on a run from North Dakota and was late and they’d probably turn him around when he got there and send him on to some other goddamn hot place but fuck them they shouldn’t have even sent him down here anyway where it was so goddamn hot you couldn’t even think straight let alone figure the roads.
“I mean, look at me,” he said, holding out his big, brown arms. They dripped onto the concrete. He ran a palm down his face and flicked his hand of moisture then did it again and ran his thumbtips under his eyes and peered at the map but still couldn’t see it for the way he was sweating. I helped him plan his route because, comparatively, I was crisp and fresh as a fall morning, and then we talked awhile out on the sidewalk in the sun. I told him I was a writer on my first book tour. It felt good to say that. He kept swaying back and forth and wiping his face and shaking the sweat from his hands and arms. He was three hundred pounds if he was an ounce. I asked him if he was all right and the irony of the question was not lost on me.
“It’s so goddamn hot,” he said. “It’s so goddamn hot I can’t get used to it.” He looked at me, squinting to see through the sweat streaming out of his eyebrows. “Writer, huh?” I nodded. “Well, good luck with that,” he said. “But you know what I think?”
I asked him what he thought.
“Fuck the south, that’s what I think.”
I couldn’t really agree with him so I didn’t but I did look at him a moment then lifted my chin. “You know what you ought to do?” I said.
“Next gas station, you ought to get yourself a Klondike Bar.”
He looked at me like I was crazy then we shook hands and wished each other luck and I pulled back onto the interstate. It was still early in the day but was already over 90 degrees with no breeze.
It was in this way I came back to Jackson.