Money, Mississippi, was a picture of decay and we moved on to Route-49 North, for Clarksdale. Clarksdale had been a transport hub—Illinois CentralRailroad and the Greyhound Bus Company had depots there—with a thriving economy in the 1920s-and-30s, a hive of activity where itinerant blues musicians entertained cashed-up audiences. We entered Clarksdale at the intersection with Route-161, the dot on the map where Tommy Johnson made a pact with the Devil, according to his God-fearing brother, a preacher. Back then, it was where Highway 49 met Highway 61, the blues crossroads depicted in the Coen film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Preacher Johnson reckoned Tommy had made the trade for fiendish musical talent but the Vocalion record company fostered the myth that it had been Robert Johnson who sold his soul in exchange for the gift of the Devil’s music.
Meryn and I had driven down Highway 61 from Memphis to Clarksdale in 2005 listening to radio reports of tornadoes swirling menacingly around the area. We weren’t swept up in one of those twisters but thunder boomed from leaden storm clouds and torrential rain put us on our way. So it was good to be back in town and able to complete unfinished business. The desk clerk at the upmarket motel could not honour our voucher, she said, so I turned to leave, “but there’s a special offer … ”—the same deal under another name. That done, the Caliber took us out to Friar’s Point where the Riverside Railroad had provided 1930s blues musicians with another source of entertainment income. Robert Johnson tells us he had a ‘good gal’ out there. Judging by appearances, the modern Friar’s Point woman is a victim of poverty and decay.
The motel room was luxurious by our standards and we’d be there for a couple of nights so I went to buy a bottle of wine but it was Sunday so the liquor store was closed. Yet despite our evening of sobriety Meryn and I felt hung over when we went for the cooked breakfast on the Monday morning. That cloud soon passed, however, when a big black woman easily able to break me in half came out from behind the woodwork to preside over the conduct of the meal. I had spooned out a cereal bowl of porridge and was looking around for milk and honey. She told me I had to warm the biscuit first. I’d been south of the Mason-Disxon often enough to know that she was referring to the scones. By inference, then, it wasn’t porridge but ‘gravy.’ What I had taken to be cooked oatmeal, despite the fact that it looked like grits, was gravy. It looked nothing like the meal that had been served up at Windsor, Ohio, in the summer. There’s nothing like it.
I had no stomach for the fare but the party of African American women who had gathered at the motel for a business seminar on hair products purged Meryn and my collective liver with their uplifting shenanigans. Had we been able to film the breakfast scene with clear audio the resulting episode of whatever sitcom it was passed off as would be a billion dollar classic. The antics and conversation of the high-spirited, excited, optimistic (business?) women—the high point of which was their bawling laughter at the expense of some pathetic male whom one of their number mercilessly ridiculed—was a million dollar experience which Meryn and I still talk about with fondness. And who knows, perhaps one of those fabulous females had driven up from Friar’s Point?
A walk around that part of Clarksdale in the environs of the parsonage where Tennessee Williams grew up in the care of his clergyman grandfather added to our enjoyable start to the week. As we were walking away from the stately mansion that the town’s founder, John Clark, had built in 1859, a man appeared, asked where we were from, took our photo in front of the building, and introduced us to Lois—the woman in charge of the redevelopment of the mansion as a facility for students of the Coahoma County Higher Education Center. Clark’s daughter, Blanche, had had the house rolled on logs to its present site next to the Cutrer mansion where her husband, J W Cutrer, kept his mistress. Tennessee Williams based his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof character, Big Daddy, on that local identity and Cutrer’s wife had served as the model for Blanche Dubois.
Lois, originally from Atlanta, Georgia, invited us to look around, which we did, and then entertained us with wonderful stories such as that passed down through her family to the effect that her great-great-grandfather had freed all of his slaves; that she had had a black student who shared her surname, and that he had told her of a story passed down through his family that his forebears were slaves who had been freed by their master on the principle that slavery was wrong. Snap! It reminded me of all those people who can remember their past lives, none of whose was ever less than world famous. During the days when I believed in the realm of the unfalsifiable, I met Baron von Richthofen’s latest incarnation (a nonentity living in the western suburbs of an Australian capital city) and a former long dead Japanese Emperor reincarnated in Milton Keynes on the outskirts of London. Lois’ story, at least, is falsifiable in principle and is therefore more likely to be true on that account.
Forgetting where we were, I strayed into forbidden territory in mentioning Grant’s Memoirs; Lois blanched, then regained her composure: it wasn’t so much Grant, she admitted upon reflection, as Sherman, she said, and made as if to spit on the ground. “We hope and expect he’s burning forever in hell fires,” she said pouring out the bile of three or four generations of bitterness felt by descendants of those good slave masters lumped in with the bad to be ground down by the boot heel of the blue-uniformed Union soldiers who marched across Georgia. Lois’ father had worked in the Navy and been based in Italy but neither his wife nor child knew until it was all over that he was an operative for the forerunner of the CIA. That’s why he had been a friend of Adolf Eichmann when they lived in Argentina; it had been her dad’s job to keep an eye on the old Nazi, she now understood.