My Travels in Mississippi

by Azure James

1

Houses on the Hill: 1935

(from http://www.shorpy.com/node/2609)

*

My lady left me, and I have nowhere to go.

No parents, no friends to run to.

Just a beat-up guitar and the pair of shoes on my feet.

I walked away from her doorstep, stalling as much as I could manage. The bright lemon-colored Mississippi light bathed the ground, and the sun’s rays permeated just about everything. The air was dense and cloudy. I went out towards the town for a quick visit before I left and headed South. The store had some faded, rusty signs on it. In the window was an assortment of trinkets and odds-and-ends. Murray was the owner of the store. He was about sixty years old, and wasn’t the friendliest person around. But, there was always a chance he’d be nice enough to give me a gift for my journey.

“Murray, how do you do?”

“Just fine. The heat’s been unbearable, hasn’t it? What are you doing outside?”

“I am taking a little walk around. Do you have anything that might help me for a overnight trip?”

Murray scoffed. He shook his head slightly, but I saw a little twinkle in his eye.

“You know, I ain’t got much of nothin’ for you. Your folk don’ usually carry money around, anyways.”

I was used to insults. I had heard them my entire life. He was right this time, though.

“I don’t reckon I’m carrying any money around, either. This would be out of your own free will.”

Murray was indecisive. I could tell the odds would be small he would give me anything valuable.

“You know, I might give you this old junky guitar, just because I have nothing else to do with it. Make sure you do NOT tell anyone about it, though. I don’t want the whole town knowin’ I gave a colored a guitar.”

“Thank you very much, sir.” I replied.

Murray turned around and pulled his guitar out of a pile of garbage. It was missing a string.

“Now, you won’t be able to play it. It has only five strings.” said Murray, trying to rush me out.

“That’s fine. Five strings is better.”

Murray was confused. He didn’t know where I was coming from. He probably didn’t even know I played the guitar.

“Thank you kindly, sir. I will be leavin’ now.” I said.

“Goodbye” replied Murray.

"Mississippi Town Negro Quarter"

(from http://www.thecityreview.com/wevans.htm)

*

2

I put the guitar on a sling on my back. The heat was so blistering that sweat would have hit my brow instantly, if I wasn’t wearing a straw hat. I stumbled out of Blackwater, into the country beyond.

The sky stretched out so far that it made me dizzy. Many puffy white clouds dotted the sky. I knew it would rain before too long. Every once in a while, the clouds would get in the way of the sun, which would cast a dark, shadowy look on the land.

I passed by an old house, which looked more decrepit than most I’d seen in ol’ Mississippi. The house leaned to the side, looking like it could fall over any day. It had an abundance of plants and vines creeping up the sides. I hoped to Jesus no one lived there.

After I passed by, I happened to take a quick look back. In the doorway was a small child, staring at me accusingly. I nodded to him, but I felt a bit out of place. He didn’t move an inch.

Awkwardly, I kept walking away from the boy. It would take almost an hour before that old house would be out of sight.

On the horizon were some storm clouds. They were black and menacing, and fast on their way to where I was. The wind started to blow and whistle, disrupting the peaceful calm. Dust was kicked up by the dirt road, and I had to cover my eyes with my hand.

I hurried a little, stepping at a pace that made me look like I was going somewhere. Even though I wasn’t.

The dirt road went on and on, until it disappeared into a blurred mirage. I looked at the sky again. The storm clouds were almost overhead, probably about five minutes away. I sighed.

Be It Ever So Humble: 1938

(from http://www.shorpy.com/node/12372)

*

3

I decided it wouldn’t actually be that bad if my hat got soaked. Anyways, it was so hot out that the rain might feel nice on my head. Up ahead of me was a break in the barbed-wire fence. There was a long driveway, with an automobile parked alongside the house. The house was in better shape than most of the others I had recently seen. Still, the paint was flaking off the walls, and there were cracks in the windows. An old white man sat on the porch and stared at me warily. I saw nobody else on the property.

I trudged on.

Shortly, the rain started to fall. It began as a light drizzle, and intensified a bit more. It was going to soak through in about ten minutes. It felt nice, seeing that there was no other shelter from the midday heat. I saw the grass absorb the rain and start to recover from the pounding of the sun. It turned greener by the minute.

Suddenly, my hat brim started to droop down on my forehead. I tried to move it back up, but it drooped again in a matter of seconds. I was dismayed.

There was hardly a house in sight, except a few rotting barns that had been overtaken by nature. That never changes in Mississippi. Boundless cotton and sugarcane plantations filled up the space. There was still land left over, though, which had nothing but knee-high grass and wildflowers in it.

My hat was now so soaked through that I took it off and looked over it. It was more flimsy than a wet dumplin’ from my great grandma Haddy’s chicken stew. I had nowhere to put it, so I laid it down by the side of the road, and went on bareheaded.

Up ahead was a property with a few black people working in the cotton field and one sitting on the porch. I waved over to the man on the porch. He waved back, so I walked up the drive to the front of the house.

“How do y’ do?” I asked the man.

“Fine. What brings you he’ah?”

“Headed South to the ocean, maybe.”

“Funny. You ain’t got nothin’ wit you. You lookin’ fo’  work?” he asked.

“If I kin’ find a meal, I’ll try my hand. Mah’ stomach is a rumblin’. What’s yo’ name?”

“Mah’ name’s Old Ben. Well, talk to Mister Jones inside if you wanna work.” the man replied.

“How long were y’ on the job for?” I asked.

“I been workin’ since sunup, got a little break raht’ now. Just enough time to finish a glass of sweet tea. Gon’ back to the field in half hou’ah.”

“I got this here guitar an’ I’ll play y’all a tune caus’ I got nothin’ better to do now.”

“Well, you kin work with me once I get outta mah’ break. Fo’ now, I’ll listen to you play that guitar.”

I thought for a minute. I didn’t have a slide. Luckily, an empty glass Coke bottle was sitting on the porch. I took the bottle and walked back to the driveway.

I found a rock and broke the body of the bottle away from the neck. Than, I took the neck back to the porch. Taking my guitar off my back, I messed around, playing a few random chords for a second. Then, I started playing a song I wrote.

She told me last night

“That I ain’t never buyed

Her a ring, no shiny thing”

For all her life

*

I got up today 

An’ headed out into the town

I go to the store and he asks me:

“You wanna buy some shiny thing?” 

And I say no sweet Jesus

I don’t need no fancy things

Cause I got dis’ old guitar 

And that’s enough for me

*

I head out of town 

about noon time

An’ I keep walkin,’ just keep walkin’

Until I find

Until I find some shiny thing

Somethin’ that means somethin’ to me

Cause I ain’t got no shiny things

Nothin’ that belongs to me

*

And when I find some shiny thing

Maybe I’ll find the key 

Find the key to the house

To the house of the good life

Sweet Jesus, that man can play the guitar! That’s a damned fine job.” said Old Ben. He shook my hand. I heard a voice from inside the house, yelling for the old man to get to work back in the fields.

“I should get out there with you if he says it’s okay. I don’ need no pay, just dinnah'”

I went in the house and had a quick talk with Mister Jones. After I told him I had done field work before, he accepted my offer to help him for the rest of the day. He also told me he would give me a dime, which could buy me two bottles of Coke.  I got outside with Old Ben, and got to work picking the endless sea of white cotton.

4

Cotton picking

(from http://us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/lectures/lecture02.html)

Almost twenty people showed up for the dinner of ham hocks and gravy, grits, black eyed peas, and collard greens. With a deliciously hearty meal in my stomach and a dime in my pocket, I said goodbye to Mister Jones and Old Ben. They waved me out, and I hiked southward.

The wind hummed gently. It was a slightly less hot than it was when I had started my trip, and I liked the coolness more. The time was probably around six-o’-clock. In the sky, the sun was beginning to sink lower to the ground, and I could tell the sunset would be there before I knew it.

Even though it started as a simple line in the horizon, I eventually noticed that State Road #10 was ahead. The road had plenty of traffic, compared to the dirt roads I had been travelling that had rarely seen an automobile.

In about twenty minutes, I reached the big highway.

Cars rolled past at about thirty miles per hour. I had only gone that fast once, when a horse I rode spooked and galloped like his hooves were on fire. I was always astounded at the speeds these machines could reach. It seemed to be faster every year.

I waited for a break in the traffic, which took about half a minute. When that came, I crossed the State Road #10 and stared ahead into the country beyond. I had heard that this road was only a few miles away from the ocean, and I wanted to see with my own eyes.

There were groves of beautiful pink magnolia trees in full blossom. The humid air from the sea made me want to take a swim, but I would have to wait a while before that could be possible. 

My stomach fluttered a bit for the next hour of travel. I knew I was reaching the end of my journey, because I wasn’t a great swimmer and there wasn’t any more down South to go to. Still, it was real exciting.

I saw more and more sugarcane plantations, and the amount of cotton dwindled. But after a while, there weren’t too many sugarcane plantations either, because they were getting replaced by expensive houses. I knew I was getting close to the ocean.

I was finally on the last road before the beach. Many fancy homes lined the street, and I knew I could never see any on the inside. That was too bad, but I would be seeing the water, at least.

Looking for a few seconds, I noticed there weren’t any entrances to the beach from the road. It only took a second for me to forget the idea of using a regular entrance. I ran right on the dividing line between two people’s property, and kept going until I reached the end of their yards.

My feet dug into the white sand. I heard the sound of gulls in the late afternoon air. The sun was beginning to turn orange and set. A nice warm wind drifted up from the Gulf.

I sat on the ground, tired from all the walking I had done during the day. I relaxed, happy I didn’t have anything better to do.

After a few minutes, I got up again and walked into the water. I splashed around and got my clothes all wet. I didn’t care, since I was the only person in sight on the beach.

I watched the sun get lower and lower, until it looked a bit like a red tomato hugging the horizon. It felt just perfect.

There was a sound behind me. I started to worry that someone would ask me to leave, so I turned around. A black man stood behind me, wearing a small fedora. He tipped his hat to me.

“How do y’ do?” I asked. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Robert. Robert Johnson.” replied the man.

“What brings you down here?”

“I drift this way n’ that. I felt lahk’ seein’ this beach sometime, so I came here.”

I nodded my head in agreement. Robert continued.

“Can I see that there guitar of yours?”

“That’s fine with me” I replied.

Robert took my guitar and slide, and started playing and singing. He poured his whole soul into that music. I can’t think of anything better I’ve heard in my whole life. As I watched the sunset and listened to Robert Johnson, I thought about the song I had sung earlier that day. Maybe I finally found that fancy, shiny thing on that Mississippi beach.

THE END

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4 thoughts on “My Travels in Mississippi

  1. Love this story so far–very vivid–and takes you back to another time and place…looking forward to the next part…

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