Fred Smith, of Choctaw Books, July 2014
Polaroid 600 // Impossible Project B&W
Archive for the ‘In Mississippi’ Category
In July of 1954, a person named Dewey Phillips was playing records and broadcasting live on the radio from the Hotel Chisca in downtown Memphis. People were still playing music like they always had, but they’d figured out how to contain the vibrations in the air made when fingers plucked metal strings, wooden sticks hit drum, a larynx warbled. They captured the sounds and carved them into a flat piece of sturdy circular plastic. This was called a record. You could play a record by running a tiny piece of metal over it at a certain speed. When you did that, you could hear the music etched into the record, even if it had been sung five months ago or fifty or a hundred miles away. It was magic.
You could also let other people hear the record if you had the ability to transmit signals. There were machines that could modulate electromagnetic waves, the kind that vibrate lower than you can see with your eyes, the kind that maybe people on Mars can see, but not us, not yet. You would play the record on an electrical-type machine that would make the air move in a certain way, and it would spit the shaped air out in a way that other people could listen to it, if they had machines that could taste the spit right. People that played records for other people were called disc jockeys, or DJs. Dewey Phillips was a DJ. He spit music into the night. This was also magic.
That summer night in 1954 the DJ spit a song sung by a nineteen year old. The teenager didn’t write the song. He was from somewhere nobody cared about. He wore shirts that were dyed bright colors and had lace cuffs and liked to put a cosmetic device on his eyelashes called mascara. In another city named the same as the city the teenager lived in, people would mix a powdered copper rock with honey and smear it around their eyes to ward off evil and protect their souls. Maybe the teenager did it for the same reason. This, too, is a type of magic.
People in Memphis who had air-spit machines loved the song the teenager sang. The DJ ended up spitting it fourteen times into the smoldering night. People will go just crazy for a song that they like. It makes them feel good and they want more of it. There is a juice in human bodies called serotonin. It is like a radio that only spits out your favorite songs. Music can induce feelings of euphoria, possibly through triggering higher discharges of serotonin. This is most certainly magic.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, scientists spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get human bodies to make more spit like this, or not to get rid of it as fast if their bodies could actually made it in the first place. The scientists tried to determine how to replicate the spit in the same way that records could play back a song. This was a holy mission in search of the rarest of magics.
The concern some expressed at the time is that there is never enough of this spit. There was only the first time that Dewey Phillips played the record by the teenager; and certainly by the fourteenth time it felt differently. There was only the one time where you kissed your first kiss ever in the back of your best friend’s dad’s Buick. There was only the one time you stood at the wall of the teenager’s house and pressed your hand onto the sharp-edged rock. There was only the one time you held hands in the back of a cab on a January night when it felt like nineteen degrees outside. There was only the one time when you pressed your face to the cold brick of the Hotel Chisca, ruined and empty. There was only the one time when you buried your face in your hands on the banks of the Mississippi River. Not all records can be played twice.
That’s all right. That is the magic of life.
Jackson, Mississippi // Impossible Project Film for Polaroid 600 // November 2013
This is a Polaroid from HALF HOURS ON EARTH, a photography exhibition hosted by Light + Glass Studio. There will be two dozen of my Polaroids on display and for sale, with work spanning 2007-2014. The gallery is also showing work by Ashley Gates and Roy Adkins.
Half Hours on Earth
February 20, 2014, 7:00 p.m.
Light + Glass Studio
523 Commerce Street
Jackson, Mississippi 39201
Let me tell you a story.
It’s not the one about when you said my hair was ridiculously long and I said fine, cut it, and you called my bluff. I ended up on my knees leaning over the tub, giggling so hard I lost my breath, balancing a half-full aviation in my right hand while you jammed the clippers against my neck. You kept yelling THAR SHE BLOWS in like a Popeye voice, and hair kept getting in my cocktail, but of course I drank it anyway. We woke up with hair all over the pillows and I looked like I’d gotten in a fight with a bobcat.
It’s not the one where we met your childhood sweetheart on the side of the road outside Alligator. He’d texted and said he was back home, which meant he was sober, or at least off coke for a little while, and that he had a present for you, did we want to meet him, he was on his way down to deer camp. I wasn’t jealous because I always loved all your old boyfriends, I’d even been a little fond of your husband. I remember he bought me a shot when I saw him at W.C. Don’s one night after he finished that long slide from the bedroom to the couch to his buddy’s couch and back up Highway 61.
So when we made the drive down I didn’t mind and he was like all the rest, puffy in the face and carrying too much belly for somebody barely thirty but with a kind smile and lines around his eyes, just like me. We sat and talked about Ole Miss and how they were really going to suck this year, maybe even worse than last year, and after a little while he pulled the tarp back in the back of his Dodge and there was a case of Maker’s Mark, gleaming in the sun. There were two bottles gone—he said he took one, just in case he ever needed a little help, and he said the other one had gotten busted up when he got it from his buddy.
The case was made out of strips of thin white pine and the bourbon from the busted bottle had gotten all soaked up into the raw wood. We slid it into the back of the Tahoe and swear to God I thought we were gonna pass out from the fumes, until you said the only way to fight fire was with fire, and a few shots of Maker’s later we finally made it back to the house. You said you were going out with the girls and I said fine but there was no way I could hack it, and you kicked at me laying there on the bed, telling me to take off my shoes, and I threw them at you, trying to quote something Willie Morris said once about Mississippi women, but you were already gone, and I couldn’t remember it right anyway.
It wasn’t about the time we were at your momma’s house that Thanksgiving and I had the flu so bad I was shaking and you kept a cold compress on my head and read all the obituaries in the Commercial-Appeal to me in a funny voice, and made me a hot toddy, the smell of lemon sharp in my nose. Maybe it should be, maybe it should be. That might have been the sweetest you ever were to me, rubbing my hands down to the fingertips because you knew it made me sleepy, murmuring in my ear. It might have been the sweetest anyone has ever been to me.
It could have been the one about the wedding we went to that was somewhere outside of someplace, maybe Leland. I never got all the dang names and places straight. I mean I can get up and down the highways but I was always getting startled by beautiful names like Falcon and Darling and telling you we were going to move up there, buy a plantation in Minter City, we’d live off the credit cards until they were all cut off. Because we were going to a wedding we were in a fight, I had already gotten too drunk and you were fake mad that I was, and then I guess you talked yourself into getting real mad, and lit into me about how slow I was going. I told you we could pull the car over right then and live out of it, just shut it down right now, stake out a homestead, use the wheels as sinks and pull the backseat out for a couch. You finally smiled and rubbed your nose and sniffed and stared out the window. You reached over and poked me in the leg, patted my thigh until I placed my hand on yours. You said you’d rather die than live in Leflore County, mashed the button that slid back the sunroof, turned up the stereo, and croaked out “I kept fallin’ like a Rolling Stones song,” and squeezed my hand so tight it tingled.
It definitely wasn’t the time when we were headed to the condo in Florida and stopped in Mobile to get dinner, and I told you not to get the crab because it looked weird and gray, and you flipped me off and got the crab, and you threw up all night long so bad you couldn’t even sip down Gatorade, and we ended up staying the night in a Holiday Inn. In the morning you were still so mad at me for lording it over about you about the crab that you slapped the keys out of my hand and kicked at me like you some kind of feral child raised up by wolves, and got in the driver’s seat. When I told you we were going the wrong way you told me to shut up for once in my life, for Christ’s sake, and we headed right back up 98.
Let me tell you a story, I said.
I’d been to Jackson before but never lingered; it always had the impression of being closed down, like rolling into the drive-thru of a McDonald’s at ten thirty and seeing the slow nod of the man at the fryer, drawing his finger across this throat like a knife.
I was twenty-four and traveled from Starkville down Highway 25 for a job interview. My roommate drove us—he’d gotten me the interview and knew the fellow who was doing the hiring for the Attorney General. It wasn’t the first interview ever had but it was the first where I wore a suit. It was utility wear—black, pinstripe, wearable to both weddings and funerals. I wore the same red tie speckled with yellow that I’d worn to my sister’s wedding, picked out and slid around my neck by a Catholic girl from Ohio.
Most of the other jobs I’d ever had involved me using my arms, my shoulders, my legs to get by. This one needed me to sit in a chair in a converted hotel and type. All the man did was shake my hand and tell me I was hired. It was anti-climatic, but in a good way.
I hopped in a turquoise Saturn with my roommate, who was also my best friend, so he could drive me around town. I didn’t know anybody there. It was early Spring, but already warm; the Legislature was in town, and so we went to this real sixties style hotel where everybody stayed because it was across the street from the Capital. The sign our front looked like they got it right off the Vegas strip, an outtake from Ocean’s 11: a floating golden triangle split with a chrome boomerang and Mondrian rectangles. Some nights in college we’d sit around and listen to Martin Denny and sip Aviators and this place looked like how that sounded and tasted.
It was open on the inside, as best I recall, with the rooms all opening out onto a courtyard. We were going to see a friend of my pal’s who was a Legislator from the Coast. His name was all alliteration, with a French twist on the end, something-or-other ending in an “eaux.” As we tread up the stairs to the second level you could hear tvs and radios echoing out of the rooms. Folks had their doors open and were just walking from room to room visiting and talking.
We made it up to the Coast man’s room and I was surprised to see that he didn’t seem much older than me. In fact, he looked a little bit younger, but he had on an old man’s eyeglasses, square, real out of date seeming, with wire rims and a bifocal part at the bottom. It had a dizzying effect of him seeming like a character out of play who looked the part from the audience, but up close you guessed was just somebody’s cousin who had a flair for Arthur Miller who they needed to fill out a scene.
He was wearing suitpants, like we all were, but had taken off his shirt and carefully laid it over the back of a chair, the jacket hanging in the closet. He was in what folks would call his shirt sleeves, what I call just wearing an old undershirt. There was an open suitcase on the bed, filled with back-pocked-sized bottles of Jack Daniel’s and Taaka vodka. He offered us a pull and we graciously accepted. We set and talked about the Governor and what all was going on with the Democrats in the House. He made us promise that when we moved to Jackson we would get real active in the Party and sign up to be officers in the Young Democrats because they needed new blood. We promised about as hard as we could because that was why we had gone to school in the first place, although of course we both ended up going to law school because all that other is real hard work.
We didn’t stay long, and to be honest I don’t remember a whole lot of it. I was tired from the drive down and fuzzy with whiskey and pride and some real fear about moving to a new place and whether I’d be able to make it. The sun was down and it was cooling off as our feet crunched on gravel out to the car. We weren’t talking about anything at all when the guns started going off.
I didn’t know what to do—the only shots I’d ever heard were out in the woods, with men I knew shooting them, or aimed at beer bottles out at the old baseball park where my dad played softball for Sandusky Baptist. I went face down in my only suit into a mud puddle, hugging the ground, gravel on the side of my cheek.
An old man in a blue jacket came running out of the lobby. He was wearing what looked like a badge. A car screeched around the corner just like it was carrying a group of toughs from a Magnum, P.I. episode. It was almost completely dark outside the 1960s glow of the hotel. He helped me and my buddy to our feet. “Dang kids,” he mumbled. “Always going around shooting off they guns, trying to scare folks.”
I moved to Jackson a month later.
I can’t stop from overhearing the couple in the booth next to me. I just want some fettuccine Alfredo, and it’s murderous here—like, can’t reheat it, there’s so much butter, it’s amazing. If you put it into the microwave the next day it just turns to pretty swirling yellow grease, and the cheese clumps up. It’s never worth it, but nobody could eat the whole thing, plus bread. I can’t, anyway. And this is after years of fettuccine being basically the only thing on the menu somebody that avoids pig and cow and chicken can get a hold of. Al dente noodles and a creamy sauce, what else do you want.
Anyway, this woman with tired eyes and brown bangs is telling her friend about how she got a new phone number after her ex got crazy jealous and threatened to kill her German shepherd, which I agree is super aggro behavior, I’m not sure what self-help manual she’s reading but “How to Kill Her Dog to Get Yr Girlfriend Back” is probably not a real reputable title even at the worst strip mall Barnes & Noble. So she gets a new phone number, and apparently it belonged to somebody who owes everybody in the world money, plus has a friend with a deer camp or something in East Arkansas. So there’s a dozen Citibanks and Sallie Maes and Imperial Credit Companies calling every hour, plus some goon texting her night-vision pictures of deer with glowing green eyes and “BOOM BOOM” as the caption.
The server brings me by another Diet Coke in a tiny green bottle. I have no idea how much they cost and don’t really care. She starts to set down a little water glass stuffed with blurry cubes, her hand shaking a bit, and I wave it off. The pleasure of a carbonated beverage in a real bottle with a thick lip on it is not to be missed, and certainly not to be avoided altogether, and then blunted by pouring that fizzy fake sugar drink over Jackson ice. A Caprice thumps by outside playing a Big K.R.I.T. song, the one with Ludacris doing the verse at the beginning, that was on like everybody’s mixtapes a couple summers back.
“So I get tired of fighting with all these folks and telling them I’m not the person who had the number before,” she goes on. “I try that for like a month, but it’s a nightmare. I’d end up in all this conversations with CSRs and they are just plain crazy, they always wanted to know my Social and when I wouldn’t give it to them they’d say that proved it was really me—I mean, that I was really the person who used to have the number.” She took a long pull off her sweet tea. “Kafka.”
She tilts the screen towards her friend. It’s a contact with a dozen dollar signs as the name. “So I just started threading all them numbers into this one thing, like alternate numbers for my mom or something, and then when I see a dollar sign come up I know to go on and mute it.” Her friend pushes around some mystery fish on her plate. “Nobody worth anything is calling me with any money anyway,” says brown bangs. I drain the rest of the bottle; the thing must only hold like five swigs.
“Deer camp, her I texted with for a while. I figure there’s a deer camp, might be fun to go out there one weekend, a few cases of Miller Lite in a refrigerator. But she couldn’t spell at all and Lord knows I can’t abide misspelling.” My fettuccine finally wanders back from the kitchen, hot white curls on porcelain.
She used to like to go to the Wal-Mart down at the end of the highway in the middle of the night. I’d run into her sometimes when I was getting off my shift. She’d be standing out in the lobby, plunking quarters into Big Klaw 1000, a ripped up red flannel shirt knotted around her waist.
“What are you winning, Winnie,” I’d say. “Fabulous prizes, fabulous prizes” she would chant softly, kind of with a lisp, just a little bit on the zees. I’d ask her if she wanted to go get a beer and she’d laugh. She never said yes, never said no. Just laughed.
We were going to work on a zine; we talked about it a million times. I could never find the time. You texted me saying “Get it together McCarty.” It was 2011. I tried to get it together, Dear Listener. I tried. I thought it was arrogant; presumptuous! (You’d tell me if those were actually synonyms.) But I appreciated it. Nobody ever pushed me to create, nobody seemed to care like you did. I never told you but it meant the world.
Last night I saw a lady
feeding a possum
off Fortification Street.
I most certainly did.
She was all lit up in neon
from the Shell sign, the one
where that guy got shot.
It was almost certainly a possum.
Maybe it’s a ferret, you’re
saying, I hear you but I was there
I’m the one almost wrecked his
car slowing down to see.
Once I found the gently rusting carcass
of a ‘66 Pontiac behind some old
storage units. Listen now:
I’m sure it was a possum.
I wanted to roll down the window
and holler out hey! Possums aren’t
pets! Or a good slogan like that.
Maybe there’s even a law on it.
Turns out there’s no possum laws
as far as I can tell. And any time
the Supreme Court talks about
possums, it’s when something went bad wrong.
The state offered evidence proving that the deceased, Roberta McBride, came to her death as the result of shotgun wounds in the side of her face.
Well, a possum didn’t shoot
Roberta McBride in 1933
it was Eddie Smith, her boyfriend.
It’s always the Eddies.
As a witness in his own behalf, the appellant admitted that he killed the deceased with a shotgun, but claimed that he killed her in self-defense.
Okay Eddie, you are in
quite a bit of trouble now, why
don’t you try and hep yoself
out. Splain Eddie, splain.
He testified that during periods of time that the husband of the deceased, Roberta McBride, was away from home, he became intimate with her.
Yes, that’s generally how it works
in my experience. I mean, not my
personal experience, you know.
“Git to the possums,” you say.
[T]hat finally having become fearful of the wrath of the husband, he sought to sever these illicit relations, but Roberta objected and upbraided him on account of his attentions to another woman.
Eddie. Eddie Eddie
Eddie. You are just lying now,
Eddie. You are just a plain old
liar, Eddie Smith.
[T]that when he quit his work about 5:30 o’clock on the day before the killing, he borrowed a shotgun for the purpose of going ‘possum hunting that night, without dogs; that he purchased shells for the gun, and started on the hunt about 6 or half past 6 o’clock.
Son you in Leflore County now.
We know you ain’t gone huntin’ for
no possums without no dogs. What were you
doing, Eddie. What were you doing.
He further testified that when he started hunting, he met Roberta, and thereupon abandoned his hunt and remained with her until 9 o’clock, when he kissed her good night, and she went to her home, and he to his; that about 2 o’clock a.m. she knocked on his door and he let her in.
Oh Eddie, don’t open that door.
Lying about going possum hunting is
one thing, but if you open that door
it’s all gonna fall apart.
Roberta had a pistol which she laid on a shelf in his room; that she continuously quarreled with him from that time until 5 o’clock, when it was time for him to go to work; that he then got up and dressed, and they left the house together, he carrying the shotgun which he had borrowed, and Roberta carrying the pistol which she had brought to his room.
Greewood LeFlore. The
great green woods of Le Fleur. Son of
Rebecca and Louis, our Flowers.
Beloved itibapishi toba.
They proceeded toward Roberta’s home, she continued to quarrel with him about the other woman, and finally said: “Stop, I ain’t joking about what I told you, if I catch you over there. If you don’t believe it, I will do it to you now.”
Eddie, just bear with me, but
I am a time traveler. A ghost.
Boy, even if you are telling the truth, you
need to get out of there right now.
And thereupon she snapped the pistol at him
Son I am saying you need to git on right now
and he turned and shot her, believing that it was necessary to do so to save his own life.
Oh Greenwood don’t do it.
Chief don’t go to Dancing Rabbit.
Don’t talk to that Sharp old Knife.
Chief stay out of Noxubee.
A witness for the state testified that about 6 o’clock of the evening before the killing, Eddie came to his home and sought to borrow or buy about two shotgun shells; that he asked the appellant if he was going hunting, and he laughed and replied: “No, not exactly.”
Eddie, this is the ghost again.
Dang it Eddie, I am just a phantom, a
stranger, but don’t laugh about it.
It was a hundred years since the river people
walked out of Mississippi.
The Chief stayed. He stood on the floor of the House,
spoke Choctaw, eschewed Latin.
In the circuit court of Leflore county,
the appellant was convicted of murder,
and was sentenced to the state penitentiary for life.
You shouldn’t have laughed, Eddie.
Last night I dreamed I saw a
lady feeding a possum
off Fortification Street.
The side of her face was all torn up.
O! Roberta I am just a ghost.
I’m a sorry one, clanking my chains,
worrying about where this long walk
is going to take us.
He died at Parchman Farm, Roberta.
He was pulling up a bunch of onions in
1966. I watched him hunch over and
slump to his knees. Bad heart.
But you already knew that, didn’t
you, Roberta. Sixteen gauge
in the face. It was you got hunt
that night, you know about bad hearts.
O! I am just a lonely ghost,
I live in a box of haints. Good-by
to the river people, good-by
to Roberta, bonnes gens, bon ville.
SOURCES: Polaroid 600 film (1996); Smith v. State, 167 Miss. 85, 147 So. 482 (Miss. 1933), authored by Justice Cook; that old Bonneville that used to be back out of the storage place J.S. Losset had off High; a splash of the former Roberta Joan Anderson, of Saskatchewan, as always, and of course.