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 In fact, he looked a little bit younger, but he had on an old man’s eyeglasses, square, real out of date seeming, with wire rims and a bifocal part at the bottom.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.