by Jesse Millner
On our way to the family reunion we take Route 49 from Jackson to Hattiesburg, past D’lo, Touchstone, Magee, Mize, Mt. Olive, Ora, Hot Coffee, Dry Creek, and Sanitorium. There’s a water park at Dry Creek, and nothing much at all in D’lo. There’s an ancient woman in Hot Coffee who remembers General Grant, how his mule-skinner boots were thick with red clay as he aimed his blue hammer toward Vicksburg. Sanitorium is named after the mental hospital that was built during the Great Depression where broken-down farmers were shipped for processing, stripped of their chewing tobacco-stained bibs and forced into white pajamas. On moonlit nights the townsfolk would watch the crazies dance behind barred windows covered by yellow blinds. In Ora the locals grow a lot of okra, season it with fatback and then bathe their innards with grease. Touchstone is named for the blue rock that fell from the heavens in 1927. Most thought it signaled the Second Coming, so even the Methodist Church was full the following Sunday. There’s a watermelon festival every summer in Magee, and pretty girls fight to be the next Miss Melon. Last year’s winner married the only used car salesman in Mize; they live now in a tiny brick house in Belzoni, fighting a lot, their marriage as shaky as the foundation of their house, which rides a shifting bed of Yazoo clay.
We arrive at my wife’s family’s reunion in Hebron, where a multitude of Baptists gather to honor God and family, to drink Dr. Peppers and 7up, to eat fried chicken, pork roast, baked ham, snaps, butter beans, crowder peas, black eyed peas, potato salad, pasta salad, Jell-O salad, cornbread, rolls, biscuits, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, chocolate pie, lemon custard pie, sweet potato pie, chess pie, apple pie, banana pudding, strawberry cake, brownies, oatmeal cookies, chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies and German Chocolate cake, listed last because it is my favorite, and because near its three layer majesty is where I listed last.
After two helpings I venture across the highway to the BP station-convenience store looking for Pepto Bismal and a welcoming bathroom where I might sit and think. I wander toward a dark area in the back, seeking relief, finding instead row after row of adult videos. I retreat with alacrity, ask the teenage cashier about a restroom. “It’s out of order,” she says, so I buy the pink liquid and drink it down as I cross the hot highway that leads back to the reunion.
Where the Baptist aunts are singing karaoke.
After hearing “Stop in the Name of Love” destroyed by white-haired Betty, we climb into the car and retreat to the Comfort Inn and search each other’s bodies for ticks in air-conditioned comfort. My wife had told me earlier, on the drive down, about learning how to swim in the Strong River at some kind of summer church camp when she was little. And as she checks my groin for intruders, I think of her young body finding the current, her blonde hair plastered down her face as she discovered the strength of movement, how powerful the thrust of arms and legs can be, how fluid the girl treading towards the pine-lined bank.
Later we eat sweet peaches and watch TV Land, The Andy Griffith Show with a very young Opie shadowing Aunt Bea, waiting for Andy to come home from the sheriff’s office. We are naked and tick free and lost in that old world of black and white where good always triumphed and Earnest T. Bass and his brothers were the biggest threat to peace. Mayberry throws it arms around us as just past our afternoon window, Mississippi greens and shimmers in the August heat.
And now, back in Florida, back in the thunderstorm capital of the world, right now the setting sun is turning big raindrops silver as clouds move in from the east. There’s a sea breeze off the Gulf that keeps the storm inland, while at the same time providing the lift to the gaining nimbus.
But I’m thinking about looking for ticks, the way I examined my wife in that motel in Mississippi, the way I admired every inch of her body. Let me offer a grateful prayer to the Lord for ticks, and how they provide reasons for nakedness and close inspection, especially in those sacred places of our bodies where the roots of all our desires lie. Because I am fourteen years older than my wife, I’m sure the ticks like her better, and because I’m so much older, I’m also grateful for all the ways in which she is not old, and I’m most happy for the memory of her earlier, swimming in that childhood river. This is not because I’m a pervert, this is because I imagine her free and happy in that beautiful grace that comes from being young, being alive to the currents of the cool water.
And that’s what’s most strange: as selfish as I’ve become in late middle-age, I know what it’s like to value someone else’s happiness over your own. To pray for her life and mean it. So, thank you dear Mississippi god, god of Baptists and pies, god of June bug and summer river, god of watermelon and falling meteorite, god of karaoke and Andy of Mayberry, god of the blessed ticks, god of the naked trance we fell into after making love after not finding ticks. God of the quiet that comes to the late afternoon when the heart is light and heavy like a cloud bursting with the purest rain.
And here’s something I just remembered: We stopped at a fruit stand outside of Jackson and I bought sweet peaches and a big watermelon. A teenage girl took my money and said, “Thanks, Jesse.” For a moment the world trembled beneath my feet: was this some long lost child from a long-forgotten romantic encounter back in the 70s when I drank a lot and did too many drugs? Or, was this child clairvoyant, some kind of female wizard who could peer right into my brain? I figured out there was no magic; I still had on my reunion nametag.
Aren’t those the moments we live for? When just for a second we’re freed from this tired world of cause and effect, when the Age of Miracles returns, and we’re able to imagine ghosts and angels and maybe even, a life after this one?
About the author
Jesse Millner’s poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in the Florida Review, upstreet, Conte, River Styx, Pearl, The Prose Poem Project, Tinge, The New Poet, Cider Press Review, Real South, The Best American Poetry 2013 and numerous other literary magazines. He has published six poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, most recently Dispatches from the Department of Supernatural Explanation (Kitsune Books, 2012). Jesse teaches writing courses at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida.