“Vacations end, friendships do not” is all Guigi says louder than necessary while safely depositing me curbside in front of Tocumen International Airport.
“I know but let’s call this an expensive sleep-over” is my whiny reply. Smiling, and shaking her head affirmatively, Guigi giggles as she lifts my carry-on from the back seat, then counters with “your fiancé is in need, and other expensive sleep-overs are on the horizon.” Hefting my wheeled bag out of the trunk and onto the curb while waving “goodbye” I turn, slowly walk-through sliding glass doors, and straight ahead to the flight check-in counter.
“I do not blame her if she is disappointed,” I think as my connecting flight is taxing roughly into Medgar Evers Airport. I cut my vacation short for soon-to-be family obligation. Soon-to-be family because Franklin is my fiancé; obligation because Bill was Franklin’s estranged father; was because Bill died within hours of my landing in Panama. Franklin did not ask or expect me to cut my vacation short.
“Yet … here I am two plane rides later being a stand-up fiancé,” I think while completing a rental car agreement, and patiently waiting on my credit card transaction to verify.
“I am here, and I need to get there” I mumble to myself while tracing the 138-mile route on a flimsy tri-fold rental agency map. My destination, Shuqulak, Noxubee County, Mississippi.A speck on the map that I had never heard of until Franklin’s frantic, middle of the night, transcontinental phone call. I am certain I look foolish to an older gentleman in a rancher’s hat which he tips as he passes. Not wishing to appear rude I bid him “good day.” Smiling more than responding he says, “how’d do city lady,” I smile in return and reply “I ain’t complaining” then slide into the driver’s seat. Opening the sunroof, I sneeze away allergies clamping down like a vice on my sinus cavity, and marvel at fat cotton-candy shaped magnolia blossoms. After many minutes of seat adjusting, I shift the rental into drive and smoothly nose my way into MS-25/I-55 east-bound traffic.
I find the smooth jazz channel on satellite radio, pull down my sunglasses, and mentally invite travel-stress to slowly melt away. Without warning the DJ cues Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn as I drive with the pace of traffic -a steady 65 MPH clip. Nina is on the first refrain of do it slow and I begin to wonder whether a Black woman traveling alone in Mississippi is any safer than one migrating North during the early 20th century. Less than one mile up the road traffic slows to a crawl; two jazz instrumentals later fear thick and profuse like wisteria creeps through my consciousness as I cruise past a charring cross standing in a field of dry stalks of corn. Whispering “there is no such thing as coincidence” I put pedal to metal.
A ding giving me notice of a missed call pulls me out of fearful thoughts of Klansman marauding the expressways. Turning down the radio, I ask Siri® to “play messages” and nearly scream when a voice sounding like a digital replication of my own says “honey, a Black woman traveling in Mississippi is never safe.” I merge onto the shoulder, shift into park, and lean back into the headrest. I sit, mouth dry, heart racing uncontrollably, sweat rolling down my face like a waterfall and clutching the steering wheel tightly.
The blood drains from my hands making them pale, numb, and cold like iced salmon on display at Pike Market. I whisper the 23rd Psalm for comfort and look into the rear-view mirror expecting Lucifer himself. I see nothing! I do not know if it is the buzzing like Africanized honeybees in my ears or tractor trailers whizzing by at warp speed that finally calms me, brings me back from the intense edge I am teetering on. I feel silly and self-conscious. Looking around obsessively like an undiagnosed OCD patient, I chide myself “so much for Five Hour Energy®” then nose back onto the expressway as if nothing ever happened.
Forty-five odd miles of open expressway later and the champaign-colored rental has a reddish hue from iron oxidized dirt and dust blowing or swirling like rabid miniature tornadoes. Thirsty and peevish, I exit the expressway at Mile Marker 128 to stop at Miss Maylene’s General Store—a café/gas-station packed haphazardly with merchandise from floor-to-ceiling like a Moroccan bizarre. Parking the rental in spacing clearly marked city slickers, I get out stretching my arms high overhead.
Eerily the wind begins to howl and kick up layers of bone-dry red dirt. I mentally note that the rental looks like a rolling target at a tomato festival as I stroll towards the door. My spine tingles like tiny zaps from a misfiring pacemaker, and as I cross the threshold a dixie chime announces my arrival. Looking around with wide eyes, I loudly murmur “damn this place has not changed,” before I realize the oddity of my statement. Odd because prior to this day, I had no desire to step foot across the Mason Dixon Line. Nor do I foster hidden desires to step foot into rinky-dink renditions of 7-11® on kick stands!
Every fiber of my core being is suddenly on high alert. The hair on my neck, back, and arms raises slowly.
“Goosebumps,” I whisper more to question than assure myself of their causes: fear, excitement, or cold.
“Fear and excitement,” I say meekly followed by, “and loathing.”
I slowly turn in a full circle to take it all in, an intuitive full view. I know the pickled pig’s feet never belonged to Bo-Jim’s prized sow; the secret ingredient in the key lime pie is buying from Ms. Adi –the Black octogenarian who never used a back door; and a brief walk down the center aisle leads to a tightly sealed root cellar. I also know that the root cellar is intricately carved ten feet into the cool, clay-like earth, lined with concrete to keep the temperature between 32 – 40 degrees; that it was the make-shift Negro Morgue, because Gil McPhee, the only funeral parlor in a three-county radius, was white only.
With melancholy settling far into my consciousness, so far that I could feel it in my bones, I sit in a booth facing the expressway. Staring blankly out the wide grimy windows at tractors lumbering up the road is easier than fighting back unexpected tears. Reasoning with myself is difficult when it should be easy, but not this time. Logically I cannot explain this déjà vu. Its beyond familiarity, it is the creepy intriguing feeling that my body has previously lain in the root cellar.
With sadness emitting from my pores, I sit, and I stare long enough to take my eyes out of focus when Flo a gum-chewing, bleach blonde screams a blood curdling scream. The scream registers, and boomerangs across my eardrums. But before I can fully respond, Flo loudly follows with “by God, Denny! She is the spitting image of Deana Faye Bread. The Negro woman Jeb lynched on Me Maw’s land!”
I am the only customer in sight making is beyond evident: I am the Negro doppelganger interloper. Turning my head slowly, slothfully looking Flo over carefully to convey disgust at lack of tact and her stomach-churning, rotting teeth. With poise and grace, I stand and reply “looking exactly like a dead Negro woman is far better than looking like a what appears to be a female impersonator with poor oral hygiene,” while scratching the base of my neck using my middle screw you finger, and cooling walking out the door.
I sit in the rental with the air conditioner blasting sixty-degrees of condensed air across my face, and glare daggers back into the same wide grimy window. I stare hard, mean and long at rotten-mouth Flo and invisible Denny. I force both to telepathically feel their generic ignorance and shame, and stab both with mental poisonous arrows. I command Siri to “call Franklin,” and watch a dumpster, pock-marked Barney Fife look-a-like slither across the parking lot towards the rental. I crack the window just enough and become nauseous by a wave of putrid smells wafting from the rolls of fat starting at his neck and ending at his ankles.
Franklin’s outgoing voicemail message ends as I shift into reverse. Glancing over my shoulder, backing away slowly I mutter “never have I ever,” then slam the brakes when a clear, crisp soprano whispers “oh yes, sugar, you have—you definitely have.”
Another wave of obsessive looking left to right, then right to left combined with a round of opening and closing the arm rest to rifle through. What am I expecting? I do not know! Perhaps a walkie-talkie; a broken kewpie doll; a very vocal imp? Whatever! Anything! Something to explain sudden auditory illusions. With my face clammy and cooler than the sixty degrees flowing out the vents, and my mouth drying fast, I will my heart to maintain normal sinus rhythm. Within one beat, I put as much distance between the tail end and the door of Miss Maylene’s as possible.
Driving another dusty fifty miles past fields of dying, unidentifiable crops ranging in color from beige to blackish brown. I wonder why anyone lives in this part of the United States. Heat rays create colorful, luminous ribbons on the asphalt in intervals. Birds, horses, and cows appear and disappear in syncopation with the music blaring softly from the radio. I glace briefly at the map lying on the passenger seat, and smile at my reflection casually sitting in my periphery. Tapping the steering wheel in the procession of natural piano notes: C; D; E; F; G; A; B; and silently thanking Mrs. Flavio for blunting suggesting that my long gazelle legs are perfectly suited for the performance arts. “I was a kid --a shy introverted wall flower waiting to bloom,” I say to myself with a sigh.
Driving toward the Easternly sun dotted sky and admiring pink ribbon shaped clouds hovering overhead. I sing “eighteen miles to go,” as Edwin Starr’s 25 Miles plays on the radio. I cannot separate the weight, and heaviness slithering and sunning like a snake, weighing me down mentally and emotionally. I wonder what is behind my feelings: the historical ugliness oozing from the pores of the red oxidized soil; being called a dead woman by a living idiot; or cramps marching defensively like soldiers up my left leg.
Suddenly in dire need of a long, lean full body stretch, I am relieved to notice a handprinted sign reading Fresh Fruits & Veggies Next Exit. Conscious that an idle stop at Miss Maylene’s did not pan out well, and silently thanking the little angel on my shoulder for the reminder that arriving empty handed does not make a good first impression. I gently give the rental a bit of gas and exit the expressway.
The stand is a relic-like white-washed cabin a quarter of a mile down the road. With an open front, and a wrap-around porch decorated nosily with windchimes of every shape and size it feels inviting. The parking lot is completely shaded by a canopy of giant loblolly pine trees. I park the rental, walk through a wide doorframe, and onto a creaky knotty pine wood floor. Each step I take releases a crick, crack or moan like a tuba tuned in the rain. A lazy ceiling fan in need of oil sweeps humid air and plumes of red dust across the room and keeps time with Frank Sinatra broadcasting from wireless speakers.
A sign reading Ring Bell When Ready is taped onto an antique cash register, and the bell is a huge brass cow bell suspended from fishing wire swaying counterclockwise with the ceiling fan. I scout the stand for items to feed a funeral crowd and make a good first impression. Before I ring the bell, a woman who looks strangely familiar, yet unfamiliar warmly greets me, “welcome and how are you?”
In awe, standing stock still as if planted into the floor, I stare. This caramel-colored Black woman has shoulder length center-parted hair, a cameo affixed to a blush tone velvet ribbon smartly tied around her neck, and a white V-neck, puffy short-sleeve Victorian blouse. I stare because this woman feels familiar, yet I am fully aware that we have never met!
Thinking aloud, I ask no one in particular “is it her eyes, which are calming like deep pools of water on a summer afternoon? Is it her voice sounding like dew on blades of grass? Or is it her manner which is motherly and Southern?”
She smiles and telepathically replies “read my lapel,” at the exact same time my eyes and brain register the name Deana Faye Bread embroidered in metallic gold thread.
Dondi Darcy: “As a career Paralegal, I consider myself to be an accomplished, albeit boring professional who writes short stories, poetry, prose, and prose-poetry to remain grounded and in touch with all that is beautiful in the world.”