Saturday, September 30, 2023

Chen's Passage At Millsaps

 The first play of Millsaps’ Player’s one-hundredth season, the second season with Sam Sparks as the professor of theater, and the second season after Millsaps brought Theater out of abeyance is Christopher Chen’s “Passage.”  Chen is a young (under 50) professor of Theater at the University of California at Berkley.  He lists his race as “East Asian,” which I normally wouldn’t mention, but Passage is a play about race, even though it never mentions race.  I’ll talk more about that later.

Passage is an interpretation of EM Forster’s 1924 novel, “A Passage To India.”  I originally read the novel Passage in the summer before I entered Millsaps College.  I read it because David Lean was producing a film version of the play, written in 1960, which I’ve never read.  I read the book because David Lean was not only one of the most remarkable English directors working, he was one of the most remarkable directors in the English language, having directed Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Oliver Twist (‘48), and A Bridge Of The River Kwai.  The film was announced with Sir Alec Guinness in a major supporting role.  Guinness is a major part of nearly every one of Lean’s films, and, of course, he had also recently been Obi-Wan Kinobe.  

“A Passage To India” is often included in lists of fifty or one hundred of the “most important” books in the English language.  When I first read it, I was spending time socially with an older woman (25!) who had just begun teaching English in the Jackson Public Schools.  She described it as an English version of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”  Even though “Passage To India” was written some thirty years before Mockingbird, she was right in that it dealt with many of the same themes and developed them in similar ways.

The theme of both books is a divided society, where the division is tragically uneven.  In Passage, it’s between the English and the Indians.  In Mockingbird, it’s Whites and Blacks.  Historically, what happens when you have one of these divided societies is a sort of calm skin or detente forms over the daily injustices.  It happens because you can’t live in a constant state of revolution.  Look at what it was like trying to live in Mississippi in the sixties.  In our society, people sometimes ask, “Why didn’t you rise up and fight the oppression?” the answer is they did, but you can’t live in peace and have a revolution, and for many generations before the revolution, people chose to live in peace, even though it was an unjust peace before their revolution.  The same thing happened in India.  The novel is written about the period leading up to India’s struggle for independence.  

In a divided society, there develops an uneven, unjust detente and balance of cultural powers that leads to its own kind of struggles, and a lot of people have written about that.  When Eudora Welty writes about race, this is what she sees.  Forster and Harper Lee realize that to really expose this thing for what it is, there has to be an act that pierces the thin skin of civility that grows over a divided society.   They create in their stories an unjust, false accusation of a crime; in Mockingbird, Mayella Ewell accuses Tom Robinson, and in Passage to India, Adela Quested accuses Dr. Aziz Ahmed.

In both of these stories, it’s the trials where the author gets to investigate and develop the themes they’re interested in.  Sometimes modern critics make a point of the author’s own racism in that Forster’s character of an educated, young, white Englishwoman eventually comes to her senses and saves the day, whereas, in India, in the ‘20s, that most likely would not have been the case.  Likewise, Harper Lee is often criticized for setting up Atticus Finch as the great white savior so that her readers in white society can feel better about the situation they created in the first place.  Toward the end of her life, we learned that Lee originally had different ideas, but the god-like, near-perfect version of Finch was what her publisher preferred.  

In “Passage,” Christopher Chen chooses to take the words “English” and “Indian” out of the play’s vocabulary and replaces them with “Country X” and “Country Y.”  He does it to bring out some of the universal themes in the story, and it works, but if you’re familiar with India’s history at all, the Indianess of the story still comes through.  

The novel, the original play, and the movie all focus on the trial part of the story.  Even though there are scores of plays that are exciting courtroom dramas, Chen chooses to focus instead on the events and attitudes leading up to the trial and barely covers it at all.

Chen changes the script so that it focuses more on the Indian perspective than the English, sort of a reversal of what you see in the movie and the novel.  He’s written it so that many of the parts don’t specify race or gender.  He does that, I think, to illustrate how both race and gender are constructs we impose on ourselves.  Later critics of the film were uncomfortable with Alec Guinness playing a Hindu character.   In Chen’s script, he mentions Hindu and Muslim ideas but really leaves these religious differences behind so that you can focus more on human and character differences instead.

Settling into our new space, Sam and his team are learning more about what our new equipment can do.  The design of the play is dominated by the painted floor, which incorporates both Muslim and Hindu shapes.  Alumni Shawn Barrick graciously donated her time to apply the multiple layers in this presentation.  The rest of the set is simple shapes and movable set pieces that fill out the impressionistic style of the design.

Millsaps is in a fairly unique position in that it can produce plays no other organization in Jackson can.  Both Belhaven and Mississippi College are limited in the thematic elements they can present in plays, severely limiting the number of modern and contemporary plays they can produce.  New Stage and area little theaters all have to produce works that appeal to little theater and regional theater audiences.  Millsaps can, and is, produce works that are more intellectually challenging and deal with themes that some of the other educational theaters can’t touch.  

Anytime you deal with an undergraduate theater company, there are limits to what you can do with the age of your cast.  Everybody you can find is around twenty, which can be frustrating because many of the plays you want to do focus on characters who are around forty; Passage is one of those.  I think our cast handles that issue pretty well, though.  Most of our kids tend to be more mature and serious-minded than what you get at some other companies.  They clearly understood the material they were working with and represented their characters well, even if it’s really hard to portray gravitas when you’re twenty.  

Some of the speeches are long and complicated.  I was really impressed by our actors' ability to handle the line load, particularly Lizzie, who plays Aziz in this, although his name is never given.

I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but there was a moment when one of the actors went up on their lines.  That’s an actor's nightmare.  It feels like you’re rocking along, doing your thing, and suddenly, the floor falls away, and you’re walking on a tightrope and really cannot remember what you’re supposed to say next.  She handled it like a champ, though, and in just a moment, she centered herself back into the beat of the scene and picked back up where she left off.  I was really proud of her.   

A couple of things are different that we’re trying this season.  One is that Shawn Barrick and her friend Fernanda Coppollaro  were offering complimentary wine, soft drinks, and coffee leading into the show.  Originally, we were going to do a cash bar, but it ended up being complicated with regards to getting a liquor license and insurance.  

You might also find it best to enter the campus by Webster Street (by the cemetery) rather than using Park Avenue, which goes behind the library.  Park Avenue is one of the city’s shortest streets and is in dire need of maintenance.  Webster Street, behind the dorms and the Christian Center, was resurfaced by the College just this Summer and is perfectly smooth.  It may be time to stop using Park Avenue to enter the school altogether.  The fewer entrances there are, the more our security team can monitor them, which increases the overall safety and security of the campus.  Changing the flow of traffic through campus has been changing every so often since I was a boy.  It’s just part of the deal.  

There are two more performances of Passages, tonight and Sunday Afternoon.  It’s with the trip to see what our cast can do with the material.  If you’ve seen the movie, it’s very different from that, but what Chen came up with is very interesting, and the way Sam and the Millsaps Players present it is a really thought-provoking hour and twenty minutes.  

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

John Kennedy Reads Dirty Books

Last night, I saw a video of Louisiana Senator Kennedy reading just the sexual bits from the book All Boys Aren't Blue in a Senate hearing on book banning in schools.  The way he read it really put me off my lunch.  I'm pretty sure that was his plan.  

On the Forbes YouTube channel, they have this listed as SHOCKING MOMENT: John Kennedy Reads Graphic Quotes From Childrens' (sic) Books At Senate Hearing.  All Boys Aren't Blue is listed as "Young Adult" reading level and is a collection of autobiographical essays from the author about his life when he was a teenager.  Saying the book is for children, I would say, is inaccurate.  Young Adult means young adult, i.e., teenagers.   It's a book about gay teenagers written by a man who was a gay teenager.

The witnesses in the hearing were teachers, librarians, parents, and students.  The issue was: How do Public School Libraries choose their books, and should parents have a hand in removing books they find objectionable.  This process is often called "Book Banning" or "Book Burning," although none of these groups have yet moved to try and make these books entirely unavailable, just entirely unavailable in schools.  

When I was younger, I heard Ray Bradbury speak on what motivated him to write Fahrenheit 451, and I had several opportunities to ask him questions.  This is the sort of thing that motivated him to write the book.  I don't know how far we have to go from Republican Parents making banned book lists to firemen burning books instead of putting out fires, but he felt, and I feel, that we're on the way.

When I was in High School, most of my free reading was science fiction, so I didn't really need that much help contextualizing what I was reading, but for the books I had assigned in class, Candide, The Red Badge of Courage, All's Quiet On The Western Front, Of Mice and Men, Dr. Zhivago, Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, did, at times, have passages, particularly violent or emotionally brutal passages, where I'm glad I had really good teachers to help me contextualize what I was reading.  

None of the books I read had much sexual context.  Candide had a lot of sexual subtext, but that's a different story.  I'll be honest with you, though: at sixteen and seventeen, I was having a great deal of sex, both with my steady girlfriend and a couple others along the way.  Besides that, my Biology Teacher, Dan Rose, taught the whole class pretty extensively about birth control and then went on a side venture to describe how people in New Guinea take care of feminine hygiene needs that left quite an impression.  I don't think I grew into a degenerate, and even if I had, I don't think you can blame Dan Rose or some freckle-faced girl.  

They say that teenagers are less sexualized now than they were when I was sixteen, and that may be true, but they also have the internet on their telephone, so I'm pretty sure they know a whole hell of a lot more about it than I did when I was sixteen.  Teenagers are making sexual decisions and learning much more about sex than we can ever control.  That's what people like Sen. Kennedy are afraid of, but I don't think that's what's going on here.  

I haven't read "All Boys Don't Wear Blue."  I probably won't unless this controversy gets much bigger.  I have read the reviews and the ratings on it, though, and this is clearly a major work, and it's won several awards.  For teenagers who are gay and black and looking for books that include people like themselves, this might be an important book for them.

I'm assuming that what Senator Kennedy read aloud was the most graphic passage in the entire book.  The part of this you don't see is all the staff members frantically reading books with a young adult rating for lascivious passages the Senator can berate his witnesses about.  

If that paragraph is the most troubling thing in the entire book, then I really don't think the Senator has much of a case.  If conservative parents consider their being able to control the school's library collection, I recommend private schools for them.  

A public school Librarian has an obligation to select books that speak to as many of the students as possible and not to obfuscate the perspective of any student because of their sexuality.  Honestly, if you can get a student to read the entire book just to get to that one-hundred-word passage, then I'd say that was a win. 

There are books written just to be pornographic, but there are also really significant books that include sexual issues to tell the whole story in the same way that other authors use violence or other extreme or private human events.  It takes a lot of work to become a librarian.  Their job is to figure out which books are just using sexual experiences to make money and which books use sexual experiences to say something important about the human condition.  I heard the testimony of the librarian in these hearings, and I have to say, I agree with her; despite Kennedy's every effort to discredit her and her position.

In her opening statement, Emily Knox, professor of information science (formerly known as library sciences), said, "When the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom released its data for book challenges in 2022, the headlines were glaring. “A record 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship, a 38% increase from the 1,858 unique titles targeted for censorship in 2021.” Almost all of the books can be categorized as “diverse” or books by and about “LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities." 

What Knox, and the American Library Association are alleging (if not outright stating) is that this rapidly growing movement to limit access to books is based on bigotry.  If the numbers gathered by the American Library Association are correct, then their conclusion might also be correct.  I fear it is.  All of the passes Senator Kennedy read, with a face like he was walking through sewage, were from books about the experiences of gay men.

This entire movement to limit library books is the result of certain conservative forces spreading the idea that schools are unacceptably liberal and using their position as educators to indoctrinate your children.  It's openly a fear tactic.  I've known hundreds of professional educators, maybe even a thousand.  I was married to one, and I grew up supplying their material classroom needs.  From my experience and a lifetime of working with these people, I can say without hesitation that there is no organized effort to indoctrinate your children.  You are being told a lie to help gain your political obedience.  

Ray Bradbury said that Joseph McCarthy stoked the fires that led to his fears about books.  Hitler and Stalin too, but having this happen in America was particularly disturbing to him.  Bradbury wrote the novel in the basement of the UCLA Powell Library because, in the basement, they had typewriters that you could rent by inserting a dime into a slot every thirty minutes.  When he was trying to figure out what to write next, he would wander the aisles and let the books' physical presence infect and inspire him.  

Several years ago, I learned that electronic books were easier for me to read than physical books, I had a collection of books that had grown massive, and I didn't want to take them with me to my new home, so I gave most of my books to St. Andrews.  If your child at St. Andrews ever brings home a play or a book on film from the St. Andrews library, there's a chance it came from my collection.  Most of my reading I now do on my tablet or on my phone.  I take some comfort in knowing that nearly my entire library goes with me most of the day, nestled safely in my breast pocket in my cellphone.  Just knowing that books exist and I can access them means something.

Like nearly all of the social issues of the day, I believe that these things should be left up to the professionals, not some jaybird in Washington.  It's a lot of work to become a librarian, and there's fierce competition for good ones.  In 1987, when both Millsaps and The University of Mississippi applied for a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the reason Millsaps won and Ole Miss didn't was because the review board thought we had the better library.  Libraries are important, even at the high school level.  Parents who are concerned about what their children might read should focus more on communicating their values to their children than trying to put limits on how librarians do their job.  

I'm starting to have trouble trusting some of the conservative elements in our country.  If their goal is to limit the amount of homosexuality or limit the visibility of homosexuals in our schools, then I wish they'd be upfront about it and not hide in an effort to control library books.  Let people decide the issue on its own face, without trying to accomplish your goals by fighting through other issues by proxy.  Librarians are not responsible for children becoming homosexual, and their providing books for students who are homosexual isn't part of some political agenda.  

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Sensitive Artists

 People make much from this notion of artists being emotionally sensitive; even other artists make fun of it sometimes.  The phenomenon is genuine.  You can create art without emotion, but many question whether you should, and once an artist opens themselves up to the emotions related to what they’re trying to create, it can be difficult to shake them once the artist is no longer in the studio.

There’s a fairly famous story that came out of filming “Marathon Man” where the younger Dustin Hoffman kept himself awake for two and three days without sleep and lost a great deal of weight to create in himself the sort of emotions his character might feel for when filming began.  The story goes that during the setup for a particular shot, Hoffman complained about the preparations he went through (which he is somewhat famous for doing,) and his costar, Lawrence Olivier, said, “My dear boy, why don't you just try acting?”

I once wrote a paper for Brent Lefavor on the history of acting teachers.  I tried to find it before working on this, but I think I named it something funky and can’t find the file.  My point was that we discussed all the branches that grew off the seed Stanislavski planted but didn’t discuss much about what went on before that.

Before Stanislavski’s ideas about using memory and emotion in acting, most actors were trained in a type of pantomime where they used gestures to portray emotion, where holding your hands and feet in a certain position displayed this emotion, and changing how you hold your hands represents another emotion.  If you look at early silent films, this type of acting is pretty evident.  The Gish sisters were famous for using the same few gestures over and over again, but they were among the most famous actors of their time, so maybe they were on to something.

Olivier studied acting in London in the twenties.  He would have been the right age to study under Stanislavski but did not.  There may have been a language barrier.  Most of Olivier’s acting training came from working.  He does not use much of the pantomime method, even in his earliest films.  Olivier was one of a few actors who, early on, discovered on his own how to act for the camera.  He was a master of the medium shot and closeup,  which is very different from acting on the proscenium stage.  

Hoffman studied under Lee Strasberg.  Hoffman might be his most famous pupil.  Of all the “method acting” teachers, Strasberg might have been the most extreme.  If you look at who the Strasberg school produced, it’s easy to think maybe he was onto something.  Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Jane Fonda, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Geraldine Page and Eli Wallach, and Elia Kazan were all students of Strasberg.  Even Marilyn Monroe took under Strasberg because she was tired of people saying she could only work as an actor because of her body.  You could see her work improving under Strasberg’s tutelage, but Hollywood, then and now, isn’t very interested in a Pinup girl once she hits her 30s.

My wife played piano.  She was also a devoted fan of other people who played the piano.  She set great store in the idea of pianists playing with emotion, as much of it as they could muster.  I always thought that was fascinating.  Of all musical instruments, the piano is possibly the most mathematical.  The pianist strikes a key that pushes a lever that makes a hammer strike a taught strong, and the vibrations of that string make a sound.  Then, the pianist strikes another key.  The pianist controls three things.  He controls the intensity he uses to strike the key, which translates to the intensity of the hammer hitting the string.  He controls the pedals, which change the duration of the string’s vibrations, and he controls the amount of time between notes, which is supposed to be consistent with what’s written on the page, so you’re talking about fractions of a second where he can portray anything like an emotion.  

All of that sounds very mechanical, and indeed, you can build a robot that plays any piece ever written for piano, but a robot playing will never really move you like the way a human pianist can.  It doesn’t look like there’s any room in the formula for playing piano for emotion, but there is. That propensity to express emotion by striking keys separates pianists from robots.  

Psychologically and biologically, we don’t really know where emotion comes from or how it fits in with evolutionary development.  It seems to come from the communication centers of the brain.  Some animals, like dogs, cats, and monkeys, clearly show that they also feel emotions.  Dogs and cats communicate a great deal.  When I would close the door so my cat Buddy wouldn’t come into the room with me, he would sing an opera with all the emotion of La Boheme until I opened the door for him.  While he might have used it to manipulate me, he clearly felt and expressed emotion.

Sometimes, who we communicate with changes how much we express and feel emotion.  When I was in college, one of my fraternity brothers died in an automobile accident.   The visitation and funeral at Wright and Ferguson downtown was packed with really very young people who, just a few days before, considered such an event impossible.  As an officer in my fraternity and the Chi Omega Owlman, I thought it my duty to be as much like a rock during this as I could.  Even though I’d known this boy since we were little, there would be a great deal of emotion and considerable fear that day, and everyone would be looking for signs of stability in a world that suddenly seemed very unstable.  I decided that should be me as much as possible.  

At least a thousand young people came through that day—most from Millsaps, but many from the other organizations he was involved in.  We had sort of a system set up where a KA officer stood at several points in the line to sort of greet people and basically do whatever had to be done.  My position was close to the door to greet people as they entered.  

This was very difficult for me.  There were an awful lot of young people that I cared a great deal about coming through who were very emotional and already crying.  Cotton handkerchiefs are pretty cheap, so I buy them by the box.  I kept about six in each coat pocket in case a lady needed one.  As the line wore through, I was running out of handkerchiefs, but I kept my resolve.  Even though I felt great emotion about what was happening that day, I kept it to myself as a matter of obligation.  That worked as scores of people I knew came by until…

Nearly everyone I expected at the funeral had come through, but then, through the window, I could see her get out of her car.  For people who went to Millsaps in the eighties, CS’s was part of the landscape, and at CS’s, there was a woman who not only cooked our food and served our bee, but she also took care of us and told us when we’d had enough, and sometimes when we were spending too much time with her and needed to go study.  Just seeing her made the emotions I successfully tamped down inside of me start to rumble.  

“Hey baby,” Inez said, reaching out her arm to hug my neck.  

My conscious mind still wanted to be in control, but my subconscious mind said, “She’s here now; you can let go.”  and I felt a great trembling, first in my fingertips, as this great wave of emotion worked its way through my body to my face, and I wept like a lost child.  

I regained my composure and finished the visitation and the funeral, and everyone moved on to the place of internment, where we stood in the sun while a family buried their son.  For some reason, everyone I knew had Ray-Ban sunglasses that year.  I wore mine and stood as straight as I could and stood between two of my Chi Omega girls, Maria and Mary Carol.  My goal was to be as strong as I could for them, but they were there for me.  Feeling another wave of emotion coming on, I clenched my fist as hard as I could to keep it out, and a tiny, french-manicured hand touched my arm. Water silently but freely flowed from my eyes while I fought back the shudder I felt in my legs.  My Celtic roots wanted to let out a piercing, deafening, keen of lament, but I kept it to myself.

Part of my technique in writing a memoir is opening myself up as much as possible to feel what I felt when whatever I’m writing about happened.  I did it just now, writing about the funeral.  In theory, this helps me choose words and choose formations of sentences that are more interesting to read.  I’m told it’s successful.  It’s interesting writing for this particular audience because there’s almost always someone reading who remembers the same events.

Most of the time, I’m very much in control of the process.  It can be really very cathartic, even exhilarating, as I’m convinced I’m actually feeling what Socrates and Plato meant when they talked about fear and pity and hopefully express that on paper, which is the whole point of the exercise.  It can have a very cleansing effect.  Most of the time, that’s what happens, but sometimes, things go off the rails.  

A few weeks ago, I was working on a piece (I still haven’t finished) that connects my conversations with Mitch Myers and Dan Rose with my Grandfather's conversations with Dr. Kirby Walker about how and why the schools in Jackson separated after Brown V Board of Education.  I should finish that this week if I get my head back in the game.  Working on that, I had a thought about a memory and decided to spend an hour or two writing about that as a procrastination from what I wanted to write about.  

I published that piece on the blog and had pretty good responses.  It was very emotional, and I felt like I could communicate what I wanted very well.  It was something of a pandora’s box, though, and opening it led to many other memories, and those memories knocked me off track for a couple of weeks, where I struggled to have any productivity at all other than to scribble about those memories.  I got stuck in a loop of fear and pity and regret that wrecked me for a while because it made me question what’s the use of really trying to create when that’s the result.  

I think a lot of writers go through this.  It probably explains why they drink so much.  Writing Naked Lunch, the friends of William S. Burroughs became very concerned about his well-being as the things he wrote about had a clear impact on the rest of his life, and he was becoming obsessed with his thoughts and feelings about the novel.  

When I talk to young people about acting or some other art, I tend to tell them that emotion is just another color you paint with, and on some levels, that’s true, but that’s really not a very complete description of what happens, and I probably should be more honest about it.  Art without emotion isn’t very filling.  That’s how I feel about most AI art, which is the thought that inspired me to write this entire piece.  

Art produced by artificial intelligence might be interesting, but so far, I haven’t seen any of it that was moving.   So far, I don’t think Michelangelo has anything to worry about.  Once we get to the point where computers feel emotion, we’ll have an awful lot more to worry about than just what AI does to the job market for artists, and without emotion, what they produce may still be art, but it’s art that’s missing the most important component.  

I spent this weekend working to get my head back in the game.  Trying to work as a serious artist can have pitfalls and tiger traps, and I fell into one.  I’m actually very pleased with the work I produced in that confused state, but I don’t think I can ever really show anybody.  I don’t mind opening my life up for people to read about, but I don’t feel right about opening somebody else’s life up for inspection.  That seems like a real violation of trust to me.  

What I’m trying to do isn’t always going to be easy or comfortable.  That’s ok, though.  I still feel like it’s worth it, and honestly, I’m pretty sure accounting and marketing have their ups and downs too.  

David Bowie was hired to write a song for the big-budget remake of Cat People, with really very little direction about what to write other than to write a hit, which he did.  While the name of the song is “Cat People,” the sentiment of the song is a repeated line where he says, “And I've been putting out fire with gasoline.”  Sometimes, to create anything, you have to turn up the heat as much as you can and work through the flames.  I’m not afraid of that, but I do need to get better at dealing with the aftermath.  

Monday, September 18, 2023

A Man Named Jed

Did I ever tell you the story of a man named Jed Clampett?  Jed was dirt poor, living in the hills of Arkansas.  He had no education and no job, but he had a little piece of swampy bottomland left to him by his father.  Jed always wanted to drain the swamp so he could farm his little piece of land, but he never had the wherewithal to do it.  

Sometimes, when what little money he had ran out, the only way for Jed to feed his family was by hunting.  Deer, squirrel, boar, it didn’t matter.  He’d kill it, and they’d eat for a few days before he had to hunt again.  

One day, Jed was hunting a boar when he noticed a big black spot bubbling up in the swamp water on his land.  Not recognizing this ooze, Jed collected a bit of it in a bottle and brought it to the county extension agent, Frank Kimball, to examine.  Kimball didn’t recognize it either, so he sent it off to the Arkansas State Geologist.  

A few days later, a man named Brewster came to see Jed.  Brewster worked for a large oil exploration company out of California, and he had great news.  What bubbled up from the swamp on Jed Clampett’s land was West Texas Crude, and if Jed allowed his geologist to run some tests, he’d like to buy that swamp land.  

Jed was against the idea, but his cousin, Pearl, encouraged it.  Pearl had been a widow for many years, and her opportunities were running low and this Mr. Brewster was single, so she talked Jed into letting him and his geologist friends have a look.  Within a few days, Brewster made Clampett an offer on the land.  He was willing to pay twenty-five million dollars in cash for a spot of land Jed and everybody in the county thought was worthless.  At first, Jed was dubious about the deal because he wasn’t entirely sure how much a million was, but Cousin Pearl again talked him into it.  

Suddenly richer than anyone ever imagined, Pearl convinced Jed that he should move away from their mountain holler.  He should go where rich folks go to expand the horizons for his twenty-one-year-old daughter and take Pearl’s twenty-year-old son with him.  Pearl’s son, Jethro, exceeded every possible educational opportunity in the entire county when he passed the sixth grade, and Pearl worried the holler couldn’t keep up with his vast potential at chiperhing and such.   

Brewster set Jed up with an account at the Beverly Hills Commerce Bank with Milburn Drysdale as his banker.  Drysdale found a house where their now largest depositor could live on the same street as his own house.  Jed, his daughter Ellie, Jethro, and Jed’s mother-in-law, Daisy, whom everyone called Granny, loaded up Jethro’s Oldsmobile Model 37 truck and drove from Arkansas to Beverly Hills.

That part of the story everybody knows.  These hillbillies trying to fit in Beverly Hills were the subject of constant gossip back in the early sixties.  Some of the neighbors hated them, but in some circles, they were celebrated for their unique views on life.  The world moved on, though, and Jed and his peculiar kin were soon forgotten.  I didn’t forget them, though.  Jed liked me, even though none of my business ideas ever panned out.  I was the one who brokered the deal for Jed to buy Mammoth Studios, which looked like a disaster at first, but eventually made a fair amount of money when we sold it to Universal so they could expand their theme park.

I think, at first, there was some thought that I’d be a suitor for Ellie May.  Don’t get me wrong, Ellie was one of the most beautiful women I ever saw.  Tall and strong, she was incredibly athletic.  Someone taught her how to play tennis once, and she spent the next twenty years beating all the men at the Beverly Hills Tennis Center.  One, she wore a silver lame dress to a studio function, and my friend Bolt Upright coined the phrase “Arkansas Titanium Torpedos” with reference to her bosom.  His real name was Barry Taylor, but nobody named Barry was going to make it as an actor in the sixties, so he changed it to Bolt.

Ellie was beautiful, and she had a heart of gold, especially when it came to animals.  After her father died, Ellie began opening animal shelters all over southern California, and she started a television campaign for people to spay and neuter their pets.  Ellie would have been the perfect woman, except for one thing.  Ellie was probably the dumbest person I ever met.  Her innocent, wide-eyed act wasn’t an act.  She lived with the mind of a twelve-year-old for the rest of her life.  

Her banker, Mr. Drysdale, had an assistant named Jane Hathaway, who was brilliant, financially and in every other way.  Although she was mostly a lesbian, Hathaway would sometimes drink herself into trying to seduce Jethro.  Hathaway took it as her life’s mission to take care of Ellie and Jethrow, advising them financially and helping them navigate the complexities of living in Southern California.  Ellie never married but spent the rest of her life living in the house her father bought when he moved to California, with Hathaway having her own suite of rooms.  

Jane Hathaway devoted her life to protecting Ellie from suitors with an eye on her father’s money.  She was successful too, but there are ways to rob a girl of her treasures without touching her bank account.  A young Freddie De Cordova, who went on to become the mastermind of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, had a contract to produce a picture starring a certain blue-eyed singer from Mississippi who was as famous for his hips as he was for his songs.  With filming set in Hollywood and New Orleans, De Cordova rented space at Clampett’s Mammoth studio to shoot the riverboat scenes in his picture, Frankie and Johnny.  

Visiting the set one day, everyone was only too happy to introduce Ellie to the movie’s young star, Elvis Presley.  The two Southerners stuck up a fast friendship and spent many hours talking in Presley’s trailer.  Ellie had never really been taken with a man before, but she swooned for Elvis.  For Presley, Ellie was just one of many, though, and soon the stars fell from her eyes.  Heartbroken, Ellie moved back to Arkansas by herself for almost a year before returning to California.

Ellie had little interest in the company of men after this.  She died childless but the loving benefactor of thousands of stray dogs and cats in California and Arkansas.  Her cousin Jethro would take many wives, but Ellie May decided she’d seen enough of menfolk.

Daisy, whom everybody called Granny, was in her seventies when she moved to California.  Of the entire family, Granny would be the least changed by the move.  In times of need, Granny knew how to distill liquor from corn and got quite good at it.  The family didn’t really understand the purpose of a swimming pool when they moved in.  Ellie kept trying to fish in it.  Eventually, she figured out it was for swimming only.  Granny took over the pool house, and that was where she kept her still.  Making your own whiskey was just as illegal in California as it was in Arkansas, but in California, Granny’s tonic developed quite a reputation for those wanting to try something a little different.  Granny became les causes célèbres, and everyone who wanted to test their limits loved her tonic.  Granny loved music and died on a trip to New York to see the musical Pippin with Ben Vareen.  She had a heart attack in the audience.  Out of her mountain clothes, everybody said she looked no older than sixty-five.  

The intellectual prowess that Jethro’s mother believed he had turned out to be fairly real.  Jethro was a brilliant businessperson.  Taken with the movies, Jethro became the executive producer for several successful films, including a romantic version of the popular song “Ode To Billy Joe,” which he shot in Mississippi.  Jethro loved Los Vegas.  With his allowance from Uncle Jed, Jethro bought an Alpha Romero and spent many afternoons driving out into the desert headed for Vegas.  

Jethro eventually got his hands on an interest in a smaller casino.  Noting how successful casino buffets were, Jethro had the idea of a buffet with a country theme that served grits and greens, chicken and dumplings, biscuits and gravy, and every other country delicacy he could think of, and he called it “Granny’s Kitchen.”  Granny’s Kitchen was so successful he began branching out and building restaurants all over the South East.  They were designed after Sam Drucker’s store back home and had cracker barrels and checkerboards to try and give suburbanites the feeling of living in the country.

Jethro’s mother, Pearl, borrowed a little money from Jed and bought the old Shady Rest Hotel back home.  An old boarding house next to a narrow gauge railroad, the hotel had seen better days.  Pearl died shortly after, but Jethro’s sister, Jethrine, had a head for business.  Jethrine had the idea she could sell weekends at an authentic country hotel, with home-cooked meals to people leading the accelerated lives of the sixties and seventies.   

Oliver and Lisa Douglass decided they were sick of living in Manhattan (or at least he was) and purchased a farm not far from the Shady Rest Hotel.  Douglass wasn’t much of a farmer, but he was a hell of a lawyer, and clients sought him out, even living in the country.  His wife Lisa maintained social ties in Manhattan, and her connections soon translated into guests for the Shady Rest as weekends in Hooterville became a popular vacation for the metropolitan set.

Jed Clampett had almost no business acumen.  Much to the chagrin of his banker, Milburn Drysdale, Clampett agreed to meet with anyone looking for investors.  Clampet invested his money based on how much he liked the people he was doing business with, not the prospects of their venture.  Normally, a man like this would soon be left without a penny, but the gods of finance smiled on Jed Clampet, and nearly everything he invested in paid off, even if it took a while.  By 1978, Jed’s original twenty-five million dollar fortune was worth nearly sixty.  

Around 1968, Jed’s young cousin Roy came to see him with an idea for Jed to invest in a television program.  Roy’s idea was a show similar to the Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In, but to replace the liberal politics with country music and replace the psychedelic design theme with a barnyard.   Jed didn’t know much about business or television, but he knew an awful lot about country music, so Roy’s idea fascinated him.  The show didn’t have a name yet, but most of their ideas about barn-this or country-that had all been used by radio programs.  When Jed saw design sketches for a cartoon mascot of a mule in a straw hat, he suggested they might name the show after the sound a mule makes.  Hee Haw ran for a record twenty-five seasons.  If Jed weren’t already a millionaire, he would be from this investment alone.   Before Hee Haw, Cousin Roy made a living playing “anything with strings,” including guitars, bass guitars, banjos, and fiddles. He could play classical as well as country, and for twenty-five years, Roy Clark was the host of Hee Haw, thanks to his cousin Jed.

The legend of the Hillbillies of Beverly Hills lived on well into the twenty-first century.  Jethro, Jethrine, and Ellie May all remained childless, so their vast fortunes were left to charities.  Animal shelters for Ellie May and scholarships for wayward girls trying to get into modeling schools for Jethro. Their palatial home, considered gaudy and ostentatious, even by Beverly Hills standards, remained on the market for many years and was eventually purchased by a family of Arabs who also found oil on land most considered worthless.

In the end, Jethro was all that was left.  Living in the penthouse apartment of his Los Vegas casino, you can still find him driving around the desert in an imported convertible, looking for pretty girls or a good meal.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Poison For Me

 I pretended I couldn’t remember the night that broke me for a lifetime.  I pretended because most of the world has their own problems and pains, and there’s nothing they could do to take mine away, so I pretended it never happened because, in a world full of hurt, my story isn't very important.

I do remember, though.  I remember the moment and the place.  I remember the smell of the night air and the moonlight through her hair.  I remember the sounds of traffic and insects singing to each other.  Even now, at this very moment, I remember it all.

I knew my friend would be tired and at the end of her patience from a challenging day.  I thought a pointless gesture might make her smile, so I bought a chocolate muffin at the donut store in Fondren.  The donuts were stale, but the muffins were fresh.  It smelled of chocolate and butter, and its top bloomed over the edges of its paper cup like they put in too much batter before baking it.  I held it in a little bag and waited by her car while she finished her meeting.

I didn’t have to do any of this.  She didn’t know it, but my labors on her behalf were over.  Now, all I had to do was wait for them to bear fruit.  I easily could have drifted away and let her think some other girl had captured my attention.  I think, in my heart, I wondered if maybe there was a chance for a happy ending for both of us, not just the one—and if we met, just once more, in the moonlight, everything might fall into place, so I said to look for me after her meeting, and I’d say goodnight.  

We had very different perspectives on the universe.  She believed that good things will happen to you if you do good things.  I believe that if you do good things, then the world gets a little better, but that doesn’t mean anything good will happen to you.  I mentioned how Emily Dickinson wrote all these beautiful poems that brightened so many lives all over the world, but her own life was fear, isolation, and deep depression.  Dickinson did so many good things, but good things did not come back to her.  She made the world a little better, but not for her own benefit.  A few months later, my friend gave me a note on my birthday about lifting feinting robins unto their nest again.  She remembered the poem, but she missed my point.

For many years after this, I would keep track of my friend in ways she’d never known I was.  We’d spoken about what she thought her happy ending might look like, and I wanted to ensure it happened.  I wanted to know that all this wasn’t for nothing.  She had her ups and downs like everyone, but, in the end, she did get her happy ending, at least as long as I was still checking.  I don’t know what happened in the years after I stopped.

Endings have to happen.  There’s not much you can do to stop them.  Sometimes, endings are a process of many steps.  I knew this would be like that.  The process couldn’t end if I didn’t start it, and to start it, I would rather let go than have anything pulled from me.  This was the night I let go.  I wouldn’t say I was letting go.  I wouldn’t say anything.  I would smell chocolate muffin, perfume, and night air, pretend for one last moment that what I was doing would make me happy, and then say good night.  This was the night when I would let go.  All the months where I held on so tightly were over because my task was finished, and now I had to let go.

If you have poison for me, I will drink it.  I know you do not love me.  Love’s contract means that my arm is for your benefit; no part of it promises me happiness.  That night, my contract was fulfilled.  Nothing was promised in return, so no return would come.  I didn’t die.  I lived on an entire lifetime after that night.  What died was the youthful belief that I might have happy endings, too.  

Of the two world views, mine was right.  Doing good things doesn’t bring good things to you.  I’m not sure what does, actually.  Maybe all you need to bring good things to you is to ask for them.  I was never very good at that.  

Moonlight in the fall and the night air still bring me back to that moment.  Childhood delusions of what sort of life I might lead died that night.  Goodness, sacrifice, and effort for another’s behalf doesn’t bring happiness.  I never learned what did, but maybe I wasn’t supposed to.  

Monday, September 4, 2023

The Pornographic Ring of Hell

 When Lance Goss held auditions for a new play, it was his custom to tell the story of the play briefly for the students wishing to audition so they would know what their characters were up to.  When he held auditions for the Williams play “Orpheus Descending,” he told both the story of the play and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, on which the play is based.  

“The myth of Orpheus,” he said, “was one of galloping romance.”  Lance liked adjectives with a flair.  In studying the Williams play, the myth, and the plays and poems that tell the story of the myth, I learned that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was what Joseph Campbell called a monomyth, or Jung’s archetypal unimyth.  It was a story repeated in several different and divergent cultures and might have meaning deeper than what the bare facts of the story might suggest.  

To my way of thinking, you could explain why this story appeared in so many different cultures because when someone they care about is in jeopardy, young men often feel compelled to travel into the jaws of peril and rescue their lady fair.  The story of Orpheus became the blueprint for many tales of the knight-errant and a model for generations of young men with a feeling for galloping romance.

When I was young but still a man, some friends called me le Dauphin–the heir apparent.  I’m sure my behavior warranted it.  Because of my father’s place in society and my physical size, I felt like I could talk to grown men in any way I wanted, as long as I was polite and telling the truth.  When I was just nineteen, this led me to ask well-known educators why they built a school with nothing but white kids in it.  As long as I was doing it for the right reasons, I felt like I could talk to anyone like an equal because, at the end of the day, I could easily hold them over my head and throw them a ways.   I was pretty much a jerk.

There came a time when I found myself looking for ways to help a guy who I didn’t know very well because I had promised his child that I would.  That’s really about the extent of it.  Not really knowing how to help him, I cast a wide net, hoping to catch ideas.  One of the fish I caught in my net was a man named Dewey Edwards.  Edwards traveled regularly in the circles I needed help from.  He also knew the man I was trying to help.  Not knowing where else to turn, I decided he was elected, and I called him asking for a meeting.

I had a card up my sleeve where Dewey Edwards was concerned.  Whatever he had done with his life since then, Dewey Edwards was in my father’s class at Central High School.  In Junior High, my father talked Edwards into getting baptized and even attending a few Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings.  Whatever Edwards got up to before or since, my father once made an effort to save his soul, and even though it didn’t seem to take, Edwards remembered it.

In Mississippi, pornography, prostitution, methamphetamines, topless dancing, motorcycles, and gambling all functioned on the same level of society.  Originally, bootleg alcohol occupied the space where methamphetamines eventually went, but booze was legal now, and these guys had to figure out a way to make a living, so meth became a thing.  

Dewey Edwards was the king of pornography in Mississippi.  In the days before the internet, pornography was a physical product, like a hat or a chair.  You had to go somewhere to purchase it.  Edwards owned three adult “book stores” in Jackson and a pornographic distributorship that supplied all the pornographic retailers in the state, mainly on the Gulf Coast.  Edwards was a pretty good businessman and built an absolute empire out of this.  

His “bookstores” sold a lot more than books.  They had paperbacks with filthy storylines and racks and racks of dirty magazines wrapped in plastic, so you couldn’t get a peek without buying first. He also had racks and racks of what they called “marital aids” to avoid trouble with the censors, but were really sex toys, shelves and racks of sex toys of every description, all that traveled through his warehouse in the southwest part of downtown Jackson.  He also dabbled in what some people called “head-gear,” which was pipes, bongs, papers, and things associated with the smoking of marijuana. Still, his bread and butter was good old American pornography (made in Sweden.)    

This was in the late eighties.  By the end of the eighties, an engineer at Compuserve developed what he called the “gif.” Graphics Interchange Format was an algorithm that allowed your computer to store and display graphic images.  The first ones were limited to sixteen colors, but the format grew and grew.  A few years after my encounter with Edwards, I spent a great deal of time with a girl named Sue Ellen, who sat with me as I scrolled through the exciting new GIF forum on Compuserve and looked at the names of all the different GIF images you could download.  One Of these files had a particularly salacious name.  Sue Ellen said, “What is that!?” with a giggle.  

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Let’s find out.” and I clicked it.  After fifteen minutes of downloading, we had a small, black-and-white, but very clearly pornographic image on my computer screen. Sue Ellen laughed loudly.  We didn’t know it, but we witnessed what would soon drive guys like Dewey Edwards out of business or into another business altogether.  Getting pornography at home, silently and privately, meant nobody would ever again have to travel downtown to a seedy bookstore with questionable hygiene to purchase pornography.  

The City of Jackson and the State of Mississippi made a couple of attempts at running Dewey Edwards out of business.  There was no shortage of money in what Edwards did for a living, so he hired the best lawyers he could find–that would have him for a client.  In this case, that meant Sebastian Moore and a young Bobby DeLaughter in the Magnum PI Moustache phase of his life.  For a while, Bobby was a personal hero of mine.  For a while, the whole world saw him that way–and then he screwed that up.  Ultimately, Edwards always found a way to make the First Amendment protect his livelihood, and DeLaughter got his name in the papers for the first of many times.  

When I called to ask Mr. Edwards for a meeting, I led with, “You might know my father.”  I didn’t know where he currently stood with baptism and Methodism, but I gambled that he’d remember my father’s efforts and receive me kindly.  It worked.  He invited me to his office, in the same building as his wholesale operation, in a part of downtown I didn’t visit very often.

I parked my Ford LTD next to an enormous, copper-colored Caddilac.  I assumed it was his.  I laughed to myself, “Boy, you’re about to walk into a whole warehouse full of dildos.” and so I was.  

I hoped to enter quietly and, exit quietly and finish my entire business in less than twenty minutes.  Dewey Edwards had other ideas.  I don’t know how often he had visitors from my side of town, but he seemed really pleased to have the son of the man who tried to baptize him walking into his kingdom, and he was intent on showing me the entire thing—starting with the warehouse.  

Right off the bat, we passed an entire palette of plastic phalluses with a belt attached.  I assume the idea was to wear the belt around your waist and the phallus where they would normally go, but I wasn’t having any of that.  It might be funny if you wore it on your head like a unicorn, though.

An old black man was resting on a metal stool in this dimly lit pornographic dungeon.  We were introduced, and he shook my hand, saying, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Cameron.”  “Call me Boyd.” I insisted.  It was traditional in Mississippi for black men his age to call white men my age “Mr. Last Name” and sometimes “Mr. Fist Name,” but I really wanted to be just “Boyd” and leave it at that.  Also, there was the issue of Africans of a certain age in Mississippi who heard my name as “Campbell” but pronounced it as “Cameron.”  I’ve never devised a workable theory as to why this happened.  I’m sure there was a world of cultural clues and takes on our twisted history in it, but I never understood it.

Mr. Edwards continued the tour, showing me boxes and boxes of dirty magazines in antiseptic plastic bags and three different types of blow-up dolls, with their plastic faces visible through cellophane windows cut into their display box.  

There was a showroom of sorts, with a display of perhaps twenty plastic devices designed to be inserted into the human body.  Some were designed to look like human organs, others with more abstract designs, some with whimsical faces on one end.  He also had racks of his latest big money maker, pornographic VHS video tapes.  He planned to turn two of his stores into a video rental business featuring both pornographic and regular video tapes.  He was in a race to open the first video rental place in Mississippi.  Video Library, in the Deville shopping center, beat him by just a few weeks.  

In his office, he told me stories about going to Central High School and how great Jackson used to be.  All of the air-conditioned rooms in his building were covered in cheap seventies woodgrain plywood.  I felt like I wasn’t making any progress at all on the issue I’d made the meeting for, and I was pretty anxious to get out of there.  I was polite enough to act like I was very impressed with his warehouse full of dildos, but, in reality, I knew I was where I shouldn’t be and was anxious to go home.  I’d traveled into the pornographic layer of hell and even met with Hades himself but found nothing there to help Eurydice.  My mission was a failure.

Driving home, I looked back to see if anyone had followed me to the mouth of Hell, but I was alone.  I never saw Dewey Edwards again.  We didn’t travel much in the same circles.  My boldness gained me nothing, but I’d seen things I never thought I would, so maybe that was the point.  

Friday, September 1, 2023

Fox In A Trap

When I was a boy, I heard the story of the fox who chewed his own leg off when it was caught in a trap.  I have no idea if this ever actually happens, but the story was applied to many things, particularly stories about girls you didn't mean to get with and guys who played football for Mississippi State and kept chewing off the wrong leg.  

In my second year in college, I became entangled with a girl from the Mississippi Delta.  She was descended from Washington County royalty and knew it.  She could, and often did, out-shoot and out-drink me.  Our time together nearly got both of us kicked out of college.  After that, she left Millsaps for Mississippi State to get sober and marry a boy who wanted to be a dentist, but never made it out of dental school.

After that, I figured keeping one special girl was asking for trouble, so I avoided it and adopted them all, mostly Chi-Omegas, but I married a Kappa Delta.  

There was, of course, one special girl, but apart from a few wanton glances and moments of electric passion when we touched in ways we weren't planning to, we never discussed it.  Not discussing it didn't keep me from getting written up several times for staying too late in her dorm.  There were more than a few nights when Ken Ranager and I would together seek an escape route without getting caught.  He was really very good about it and about as willing to go out a window into the limbs of an adjacent live oak tree as I was.  Trees and climbing things were intricate parts of my college experience.  

After college, I tried again to make one girl more special than the others.  A lot of my friends were doing it.  She turned out to be a pretty neutral experience.  Lots of fun and not much drama.  I wasn't the only boy on her dance card, but she wasn't the only one on mine either.  After about a year, it was pretty clear this wasn't going anywhere, even though she talked me to sleep on the telephone nearly every night.

After that, there was this girl who was going to be a sophomore at Millsaps.  She wasn't really my type at all, but she kept talking to me and asking about my day, what I did with my life, and what happened to that girl who called all the time.  She was very pretty, and she was absolutely determined to be a part of my day if not part of my life, even though we had absolutely nothing in common.  

Her hair was a mass of blonde curls, enormous and rigid, like a light helmet, but attractive if you didn't try to touch it.  Bid day was coming up, and she labored mightily all Summer for Phi Mu to make sure they had a great year.  There supposedly was a boyfriend somewhere in her life, but he was in-again and out-again, and on bid day, he was out-again, so I told her I'd take her to dinner, and then we could go to the KA house and CS's to see her pledges running around.

Taking her to dinner at the Mayflower, she began to cry as we passed the courthouse.  I pulled over and held her hand while she got her cry out.  Asking her what was wrong was fruitless.  "A bad day" was all she said.  I assumed it had something to do with Mr. out-again, who was at Mississippi State.  Even though she lived here, she'd never been to the Mayflower before.  After dinner, we went to the KA house to watch the madness, where I pointed out to her and the active members where we planned to put the addition with the concrete room and the fancy patio behind.  I would spend the next two years raising money for that and getting it built, even though the architect seems to have screwed us over on some aspects of it.

At about two in the morning, I took her to where she parked her car by the library under the Academic Complex.  For a little over an hour, I leaned against my car and held her as tight as I could.  Lightly kissing and lightly talking, it seemed really important to her that I hold her and keep holding her as the night hours slipped by.  "It really must have been a bad day," I thought.  This was a wounded creature hiding in my arms in the night air.  I'd experienced that before.

About a week later, a mutual friend asked if I was going to see this girl again.  "I dunno.  Maybe." I said.

"I just feel so bad about what's happening with her daddy."  My friend said.  This was the first I heard anything about this.  Maybe this is what was behind her "bad day."  Her father, it seemed, was in a federal prison in Texas, having been sentenced at the courthouse we passed on the way to the Mayflower.  

In high school, my steady girlfriend's father shot himself, and I found the body. I spent two years unsuccessfully trying to fill the hole he left in her life.  Now God sent me another broken bird with a missing father.  I didn't mean for this to be something I did with my life.  It wasn't fair, though, for me to have more than I needed when some people didn't have enough.  

I called for another date.  This time to Scrooges.  In the parking lot, before we got out of the car, I held her hand and said, "I know what you've been going through, and I just wanted you to know that I'm your friend."  

I'm sure she intended to tell me sometime, but she wasn't ready for me to know without her telling me.  There's some embarrassment in people knowing your daddy is in prison, on top of all the devastating emotional losses that come from him losing his liberty; all of these feelings were crashing over her like a flooded creek in a rainstorm while she gripped my hands for her very life and did her best to push out the pain by grinding her back teeth together, lest she scream.

Fortunately, she didn't wear much makeup, despite the elaborate engineering that went into her hair, so it didn't take much effort to repair her face in my rearview mirror when the tears stopped and we went inside.  This was during the era when Scrooges had a different quiche every day, despite the popularity of the book "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche."  I had that, and she had a chicken sandwich, and we talked.  We talked in the sort of way that people who no longer have secrets talk.  Even though it hadn't happened yet, we talked in the way that people who had seen each other naked in the stark reality of daylight talked.  

"If Daddy doesn't come home, I don't know if I'm gonna make it.  If my life doesn't get better, I don't know what I'll do."  She said.  "I'm doing the best I can, but some days, I just can't."  She said.  Was that a threat?  Was she saying she might do something if her father didn't come home?  Would something happen if he didn't?  Would she break?  Why was this happening in the path of my life?  Was I supposed to do something?

I let her talk.  I wanted to hear all of what she was thinking and what her plans were.  Forever after that, I became something of an expert at gauging her emotional health by the words she used and the way she moved her face and hands.  

After dinner, taking her back to her car, which was outside my apartment at Pebble Creek, I again leaned against my car with her deep in my arms for an unnaturally long time.  "Look," I said.  "I'm only twenty-three, and I've never done this before, and I really don't know what I'm doing--but I'm going to do my best to get your daddy home.  You're not going to make it the end of his sentence."

She pushed her face deep into my chest.  Soon my shirt was wet with her tears and then my skin underneath as her nearly silent sobs floated out into the night air.  I wasn't really that interested in this girl, but she was in a great deal of pain, so I committed myself.  No one should feel that much pain.

Over the next year, I talked with lawyers and judges.  Sometimes as a personal favor, sometimes for a fee.  I educated myself on the consequences of federal drug charges and the parole system.  I knew something about parole from my brother's experience, so I wasn't starting from scratch.  It didn't look good.  He had prior convictions, which was part of why his sentence was the way it was.  From what I could tell, it looked to me like he was covering for somebody else.  I knew about some of his associates, and they were pretty unpleasant guys.  

That next Spring, she told me she might not be able to go back to Millsaps the next Fall.  Something had gone wrong with her student loans, and she didn't know what she was going to do.  I called Jack Woodward and asked if I could buy him lunch.  He said he was gonna eat at home but to come by his office.  In his office, we discussed the situation, and he was able to find some more money.  What shortfall was left, I'd give him a check for, and he'd put it in one of his many spent-out scholarship funds and award it to her without her ever knowing I was involved.  We'd made that deal before.

With her junior year at Millsaps assured, I moved on to work on her father's upcoming parole hearing.  It didn't look good, even though he'd been a model prisoner.  What happened next, I can't really talk about.  There were other people working on his parole hearing for very different reasons from mine.  We were able to come to an understanding.  There were no guarantees, but the outcome looked much better than it did before.  

The next time I saw the friend who had originally told me this girl's father was in prison, I told her that I thought there might be a chance he'd be home before Christmas.  Then I said, "If this happens, then I'm going to separate myself from this girl as much as I possibly can.  I've gotten in way over my head, and it's not going to end well no matter what I do, but if I end it now, then it won't be that bad."  I'd developed feelings I never intended to have.  I developed them by spending a year trying to pull this girl's oxcart out of the ditch she found herself in, and now I was stuck.

Going into exams for the Fall semester, I met with her to say that in a few days, she would hear the outcome of her father's parole hearing, and I was praying for them both.  I gave her an envelope with two one-hundred dollar bills in it, with instructions to use it to visit her dad in Texas before Christmas to help restore her mental health.  Within a few days, she received word that he was paroled.  She and her mother and little brother used the money I gave her to go pick up her father so the family could be home together for Christmas.  

In my mind, my part in this story was over.  I'd stuck with it long enough to see happen what I said I wanted to happen.  My own well-being was in jeopardy, so I formulated an escape plan.  I went to Albrittons and got a drop with an opal surrounded by diamonds and amethyst.  These parting gifts were a pretty silly ritual I'd adopted to end relationships.  After New Year's, I arranged to meet her at The University Club for dinner.

One of the reasons The University Club didn't make it was because they were never very full.  By the end of dinner, we were the only people in the restaurant, but the bar was pretty lively.  I ordered a cigar from the girl with the cart, lit it, and pushed the gift box in white paper toward my friend.

I explained that we'd accomplished what we had set out for.  I fulfilled my promise, and it was time for me to go.  She began to cry.  She didn't understand.  "Look, I can't have feelings for you when you don't have feelings for me.  That's a disaster that can only get worse.  You have to let me go.  Your life is pretty good now.  That guy from Mississippi State wants to talk again.  Your daddy's home.  It's time for me to go."

"No." She said.  "There has to be another way."

"Look," I said, "I'm not going to hang around like some sort of mascot.  There's probably somebody out there who wants to be as devoted to me as I was to you.  If you don't let me go, I won't ever find them."  That part wasn't true.  The future didn't hold anyone who had that kind of devotion for me.  At twenty-four, I thought, surely that's how the world works.  I'd put myself in harm's way enough times that surely there would be somebody who just wanted me to be comfortable and was devoted to that.  I believed that if you gave life enough time, accounts would balance out, and life would be fair.  That wasn't the case.    

For months this woman tried to talk to me, to hug me, to ask about what was happening in my life.  Eventually, it started to really bother me that she wouldn't just let me go.  I felt like I'd been really fair with her and really done my best for her.  I deserved to have enough space to get over all this and move on to whatever was next in my life.  She didn't understand that.  Slowly, I started to really resent it.  I started saying really hateful things when she tried to talk to me.

One day, she said, "Sometimes, when you look at me, it looks like you hate me!"  

"I don't hate anyone," I said.

She threw her arms around me and wept.  She wept with the same passion and resignation she had that night we went to the Mayflower.  She was back with the boy from Mississippi State again full-time.  She knew that I knew that.  Soon she'd be showing everyone the ring he got her.  

Through her tears, she said, "I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry."  Still crying, she pulled away and said, "But I understand."  And I didn't speak to her again for five years.


When my father died, a great mass of people came to the reception at the funeral home.  I stood in line for most of the day, shaking hands and receiving well wishes.  Most of it wasn't really very emotional to me, mainly because of the sheer volume of people coming through.  Although my friends came too, there would be what seemed like hundreds of my dad's friends between them.  I was holding up pretty well.

Toward the back of the line, near the staircase, I caught a glimpse of blonde curls.  "I really hope that's not her."  I thought.  I didn't look back again.  Soon, I could feel her presence.  I focused on the people in front of me so as not to betray my emotions.  Suddenly, she was the face before me.  I froze.  The muscles in my back began to twitch.  I could smell her.  

She reached up and threw her arms around my neck.  We both began to weep.  The line stopped, and then, realizing we were in a moment, they began to move around us.

"I'm sorry,"  I said.  "I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  I didn't mean any of those things I said.  I said some really hateful things to make you go away.  I didn't mean them."  I said.

She held my face with a trembling hand and kissed me one last time.  "I believe you."  She said.  "I understand.  Please be happy."  She said, and pulled me tight, and held me for what seemed like hours.  Then she turned and walked away, and I never saw her again.

From other people, I would learn that her father returned to prison and would die there.  Her marriage turned out pretty well.  Her sometimes boyfriend decided to be full-time.  Some people thought my story was really sweet.  Some people thought I was a fool.  To me, she told me she didn't think she would make it if her life didn't get better.  Her life did get better, and she did make it.  Whatever part I had to play in that didn't really matter because I wanted to make sure she made it.  It was her life, not mine.  What I got out of it was the story.  I can't say that a story is as good as somebody who loves you and takes care of you forever, but it's not bad.  She was never my type anyway.  

Official Ted Lasso