You See the Strangest Things in the Mississippi Delta

Flat, flat, flat. This could well describe one of my past girlfriends. My future wife ran her off some fifty plus years ago and still throws her looks up to me from time to time. “She was so mousy.” I am not entirely certain what mousy means and I am not about to ask. Of course, I am glad the so called mousy girl left my life because next in the dating line of succession was my beautiful wife.

Paul Simon sings in the song “You Can Call Me Al”: He ducked back down the alley, With some roly-poly little bat faced girl.

I like that song. Not sure about the roly-poly little bat faced girl though. Poor darling. I shudder to picture her. Don’t blame me for Mr. Simon’s ugly shaming. Or maybe the girl was some sort of vampire. I don’t know. I’m just glad my wife decided to settle on mousy for my former lady friend. In comparison I can live down a mousy girl. I would never recover from a roly-poly little bat faced girl. That would haunt me.

Romance always has two sides to the story. My version differs. She says she had to pursue me for months before I asked her out. I say I was playing hard to get. She says she gave hints. I say I thought she was dating someone else. She says she flirted with me. I say I had no idea. She says I only wrote her one lousy letter when I went off to be a summer camp counselor. I say I was pretty busy and anyway I was in the Sick Bay and was able to set aside the time to write the said one lousy letter. That’s my story and I would not tell it that way unless it was 100% true – mostly.

Ah, back to flat, flat, flat. We were riding through the Mississippi Delta this week coming back from an appointment in Jackson. We took a back road going to Greenwood in order see the countryside and to eat at a wonderful restaurant, The Crystal Grill. It is a gem. More on that later.

Cotton, cotton, and more cotton

The Delta is a contradiction. Monetary wealth. Grinding poverty. The fella driving into town in his old pick up may be a millionaire, so don’t be quick to judge. Desperation on the faces of some people. Spirit and spiritually in the eyes of others. Dried up dusty picked cotton rows. The pure beauty of a deer crossing from one field to the next, ears alert as if his life depends on it, and it does. We are originally from the Mississippi Gulf Coast where by comparison life is lived in the fast lane. The beach, casinos, hurricanes, traffic – fast, fast, everything so fast. But, here, the big river rolls on and the pace of life in the Delta mirrors the ancient stream. Slow and seasonal. What is next has been and will be again. Somehow the people feel it.

Driving on back roads is an intriguing experience. From the interstate you do not participate in the grit and life of the people of the Delta. They are not living at the pace of other people. They cannot. The roads are long and monotonous until you slow down and come to a little town or crossing. A small church out in nowhere is not uncommon. Otherwise there are soybeans and cotton fields. Old black men on porches will wave to you if you wave to them. Your curiosity makes you think what their lives are like. You wonder if their grandchildren have moved away, if their friends are still alive, if the awful heat of an August in Mississippi can be survived another year. But drive on you do.

We passed the most interesting political sign. A gentleman was running for Sheriff of some county I forget now. His name was Head. “Sheriff Head”. More and more Head signs appeared as we barreled down the ribbon of semi even pavement. “Elect Head Sheriff”, one enormous sign read. I, no, I couldn’t have seen that, could I?

“GIVE HEAD A CHANCE” it read.

Now that is a slogan worth remembering. I wanted to stop and take a picture of it. “You are not stopping”, my wife told me.

“But, honey, I have to have a image of that marquee. No one would believe me.” Oh, what a joy to be on this guy’s campaign staff. TV ads saying, “Head to the Polls”, “He’s way a HEAD in the polls.” What is Mr. Head’s day job? Could he – forgive me – run a Head Shop? The possibilities while not endless are exciting and risqué.

“You just drive on. I’m hungry,” she offered. She gave me the look. She has a Masters Degree in Education and taught the public school children of our state for twenty four years before she had to medically retire. I know the look. I respect the look. I do not lightly disregard the look. Her mother taught for forty three years – mostly third grade. She had the look too. Her dad taught for thirty six years and was a high school principal. He had the look also. I thought I was going to experience it when I asked for my wife’s hand in marriage. He took pity and spared me the look.

When I am subjected to the look there is a line clearly delineated. You want to cross that line, you need to cross that line, you think about crossing that line. The look is a power much like The Force. You buck up your courage to try to cross that line.

“Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” Yoda.

I pause. Yoda, fool you never had to live with a woman. What the heck do you know?

I drove on.

It was either an extraordinary disregard of common sense to have as a campaign slogan “GIVE HEAD A CHANCE” or – and this is the riveting part – an exercise in political courage. I cannot figure out which. But, you know what, I’d dang sure vote to GIVE HEAD A CHANCE. Come on, what self respecting mature and somewhat fun loving person wouldn’t GIVE HEAD A CHANCE, in the political sense, of course! I mean really.

In Greenwood there is a business we drove by called Kum N Go. Yeah, it made me pause too. What possibly could they sell there? Is it some sort of exotic sex store out in the middle of the Mississippi Delta? The Bible Belt? Say it ain’t so. A seedy escort service where the ladies arrive by pickup truck and not taxi? Is there a companion store called the Easy Kum N Easy Go? The mind boggles.

“Myrna, I’m stopping this car. I’m going in the Kum N Go. I have to see what the heck they are selling in there.” (There is such an establishment. I am not making it up.) I speculated, could they be supporters of GIVE HEAD A CHANCE? What a coincidence. Meteors crash more often in the middle of a prime time televised SEC football game. This must be fate. You cannot stop fate.

“We’re not stopping. I’m hungry.” There it was, the look.

I drove on.

Ah, the Crystal Grill. Our destination. It sits in downtown Greenwood. Our car bumped over the railroad tracks and right there on a corner is what looks to be a block long old, old brick building which seems to slump. Greenwood was once a thriving north Mississippi community. It’s population has been on a steady tailspin. Except for growing cotton there are no jobs to be found. All the young people move away. Fast. There is the feeling of being in another time and place. The father of our friend Katherine was the mayor years ago. He ate at the Crystal every day according to her. I can see why. Today, the mayor is a woman. What would he think about that?

We enter. The place coined the word quaint. The floors are laid in an ancient tile pattern. You can buy a Crystal Grill T shirt advertising the place is air conditioned. That must have been a novelty when it opened those many years ago. Underneath our table some of the tile was broken. I couldn’t care less and would have eaten on the floor. There is a room in the back where I suppose local business clubs must meet. A wonderful African American lady was our waitress.

I said I’d try the scallops.

“Un uh.” She said. “You don’t want that”.

“Well, what about the chicken?” I asked.

“Nope. You don’t want that neither.”

This was a singularly unique experience having a server telling me what I didn’t like. The last time was my mama telling me what to eat. I know the server was trying to be helpful and I appreciated her. She kinda had the look too. I bet she swatted her children when they were bad and hugged them the rest of the time. She had a heart. She was a real person and you could tell she enjoyed her customers. How the heck do all these people get the look?

“Ok. Can I have the fried oysters?” I willed her to say yes.

“Uh huh. You want that.” She affirmed. I sighed in relief.

“Creamed corn?” I looked up for guidance.

“Un huh.” She endorsed.

“Sweet tea?” Please say yes.

“Uh huh.”

My wife ate fried shrimp and loved them. My oysters were perfect. For desert we had the best coconut ever with meringue at least four inches high on top. How did they do that? Oh, yeah, why didn’t the waitress didn’t tell her what she could eat?

Coconut pie a la Crystal

There is in the small Delta town North Carrollton, Mississippi (trust me the community hardly seems capable of having a North and a South Carrollton, but it does) a most marvelous establishment called the Rayburn Trading Center. Run by Mike Rayburn. He sells antiques. Not like the fancy antique stores in some expensive building with exorbitant price tags. Mike smiles. It is a sincere smile on a white bearded face. He is a genuinely nice man. You can tell. He describes how he used to be a Boy Scout. So was I. He played baseball. So did I. He tells me about his open heart surgery so I hike up my shirt and expose the long zipper like scar running down my chest from a triple bypass. The Zipper Club we call it. Zipper Club members are required by our bylaws to discuss our medications. Membership dues are simple. Develop arteriosclerosis and/or have a heart attack. I choose the heart attack entry fee. We bond.

His shop contains unique objects. He has no fancy building. The entire staff is him. No sales pressure technique. You can look all day if you want. And, my wife would if I didn’t start acting antsy. We love this place and we have purchased several pieces of furniture from him and innumerable small objects. Go there if you get a chance.

P.S. Mike will bargain with you.

I have touched only a tiny fraction of Delta culture. There is much, much more. I still wonder about Mr. Head. I hope he wins. And, I don’t care what my wife says. I’m going in the Kum N Go next time we pass that way.

Wes Teel

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