Belated road-trip post #2: Faulkner’s resting spot to Memphis BBQ spot

Even if you haven’t seen that 1960’s comedy “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium,” the film’s premise is obvious: too much travel over too few days. On our Deep-South road trip, Sara, Anna, and I lived that experience. By late Wednesday, two and a half days after leaving Richmond, The Tisdale Three had driven east-to-west across Virginia, north-to-south across Tennessee, and down Alabama to Birmingham. Then it was west to Tuscaloosa (and the first Starbucks sighting since Richmond despite several SIRI-instigated exits) and into Mississippi to Starkville, and then Nowheresville (actual name, Prairie) where we unloaded Anna’s cargo at her country home for the next three months, and Sara said hello to Anna’s next-door neighbor: a bull. En route north to Oxford, we’d driven through Okolona, motto: The Little Town That Does Big Things Not Much in Evidence. (I added the not-much part.) And we’d seen Oxford, Ole Miss, and Faulkner’s home and grave.

Tradition has it that someone always leaves an empty fifth of Jack Daniels at Faulkner’s grave to honor the man. But as a spirit, I would think he could handle a full bottle of spirits.

Now we were bearing down on our final destination, Memphis, and … hold on, I didn’t tell you about our visit to Faulkner’s grave, did I? There’s a reason why (that didn’t just occur to me, honest): How to explain the strange event we witnessed there.

(Have your interest now, don’t I? What I just did is a writer’s trick called “the hook.” We think of you, the reader, as a fish to reel in. To play along, pick a species of fish to be.)

After driving in circles in the older part of the cemetery searching for the grave, we asked a groundskeeper who consulted another groundskeeper who said, “See those two big trees yonder? Below them, on the opposite side.” We found the entrance, turned in, and there on the rising slope behind those trees was Faulkner’s grave – and supine atop it, a young woman in shorts, T-shirt and athletic shoes.

That’s the first half of the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain story. The other half, on the back of that marker, I guess I’ll never know.

“Look at that woman lying on his grave,” I said, because I often like to say the obvious out loud (a harmless trait except in a darkened, crowded movie theatre where it draws comment). I turned in and slowed to a stop. The woman stood and walked away. Or did she float? No, hah-ha, she walked. She did. I have floaters (laser retina surgery, both eyes, won’t bore you) and one of those floating blobs in just the right light becomes the very figure of a women. And in running attire, too, which is strange, I’ll admit.

Anna didn’t think the woman had been on Faulkner’s grave, but lying beside it. All I can say is I saw what I saw (through my repaired eyeballs). And if I had to guess (and may be about to), that young woman was communing with the spirit of The Great Writer himself, not a runner taking five.

The wolves at the Memphis Zoo didn’t share our excitement about meeting them for the first time.

There was one other possibility besides a solo seance: the mysterious woman was low on cash. Scattered coins adorned the marble slab of Faulkner’s grave. I wanted to read some significance into this, but just as many coins were on his wife’s slab as well as the ground. I tossed a penny – and just like that the explanation for the scattered coins came to me. A good number of them had been tossed by inept throwers like me also trying to land theirs on Faulkner’s slab. (There’s a reason I’ve never won a stuffed animal at the fair.) As for why the coins were left in the first place, we never found out.

Where was I? (By the way, if you’re a reader who might engage me for a writing project, please know that I can stay on topic when paid to do so.) Right, entering downtown Memphis and driving by the city’s shining landmark, the Pyramid Arena. Vacant. Considered a white elephant. But imposing, very imposing. (Advice to Memphis city planners: Do what Richmond did with “The 6th Street Marketplace” on Broad Street: Tear the thing down and move on.) Speaking of plans, ours were to see the Memphis Zoo, take in Beale Street the home of the Blues, do a guiltless drive-by of Elvis’s home, Graceland, and a guilt-enducing drive-by of the National Civil Rights Museum. And all of these activities we did do thanks to our chauffeur, retired Fedex pilot and college classmate Rich Lykins. To impose on Rich for your Memphis trip, shoot me an email.

Maria, Sara, and Anna often tease me about getting food on my face. At other times (as here, at Corky’s BBQ), one of them likes to take a photo. Worse, in this shot the harsh overhead lighting makes it appear that I have little hair.

Some highlights worth sharing? In the zoo’s tropical birdhouse, a Laughing Kookaburra told us his opinion of our presence. Wolves slumbered in their enclosure next to Elks in theirs, the former no doubt dreaming about how to gain entry into the latter’s enclosure. A swimming polar bear did a head-bobbing dance for us. (The “Good lord!” in the audio is your humble correspondent.) And in Corky’s BBQ, voted the best barbecue joint in Memphis, the nicest waitress in the world cajoled me into a combination platter, then a dessert of banana pudding I had no room for half a rack of ribs ago. Corky’s ships worldwide. I could eat those ribs again in a heartbeat.


4 Replies

Belated road-trip post: Visiting the home of William Faulkner (and its lizard friends)

Ex-English major and English grad student to be Sara conversed with William as if she'd known him for ages.

I’m a writer. I’ve never been to Oxford, Mississippi. I’m in Oxford, Mississippi. A visit to Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, is a must do. And so daughters Sara and Anna and I did.

I learned surprising things at Rowan Oak and in Oxford. How William Faulkner planned the story arc of A Fable. How at home Eastern Fence Lizards are on the Faulkner property. How at nearby Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, female undergrads all wear the same thing, and for a good reason.

First was a visit to the Oxford town square for photos with the great man himself. Faulkner graciously consented to shot after shot, never once showing a hint of impatience. But he was quiet to a fault, forcing us to do all the talking. Sara went on and on. We tried luring her away with promises of old, independent bookstore delights to come, then a friendly cat on the sidewalk ahead (a known weakness of hers). When these didn’t work, we resorted to the magic words “handmade jewelry” and were soon on our way. It wasn’t to Rowan Oak. Taking in Oxford’s charming downtown square and side streets, and their many shops with interesting stuff we didn’t need but felt the traveler’s urge to buy, left us tuckered out.

Pipe tobacco and ashtray, book to waste time in, broken lamp, trusty typewriter - everything the diligent writer needs.

(Long ago, the noun form of “tucker” meant lace or linen worn in or around the top of a bodice or as an insert at the front of a low-cut dress, an historical tidbit I knew you’d want to know ever since I discovered it [moments ago].)

Late the next morning, we went to Rowan Oak, a grand home with all the characteristics one would associate with a great Southern writer. Tree-lined approach. White clapboard siding. Stacked front porches with tall columns. And a variety of dependencies. (That’s Southern for “outbuildings.”) From all appearances, Rowan Oak is virtually unchanged from Faulkner’s time. Not surprising, really; no one’s lived in the place for decades. As such, Rowan Oak is both museum-like and a tad depressing. Maybe two tads.

But even so, here was the front parlor where William Faulkner wrote such novels as Absalom, Absalom!, Go Down, Moses, and Intruder in the Dust; the black rotary phone in a dining room-to-kitchen passageway where he received the news that he’d won The Nobel Prize for Literature 1949; the writing room he had added to the house when (and because) his wife was traveling in Hawaii; the living room where he laid in state.

Another Oxford discovery was that Taylor Grocery & Restaurant, famous for its catfish dinners, isn't in Oxford. It's eight miles away. And it's closed on Wednesday, and the least prepossessing restaurant I've ever laid eyes on.

Faulkner’s writing room held the most interest for me. He wrote at a small desk, a simple desk lamp his only illumination. (At least when the lamp wasn’t broken as it is now.) On three walls was a handwritten, day-to-day timeline of A Fable, the novel that won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 1954. Faulkner also used a metal plant stand for a desk when he wrote outside. Where was it? In the attic, the guide said.

Where had Anna gone? I found her outside leaning over a fence, looking down at a rotten stump, transfixed. The stump’s center, collapsed in, was teeming with termites. Hopping in and out of this woody caldera was one small lizard after another gorging itself on the all-you-can-eat termite buffet. “Just how do you know these are Eastern Fence Lizards?” I said to the family biologist. Anna held up her iPhone, proving that the insane amount of money we pay Verizon each month was worth it for on-the-spot field research.

As for those Ole Miss female students, Sara and Anna noticed how all of them had on the same attire: short gym shorts so short that an oversized T-shirt drew into question their presence. We stopped a student and asked her why. “It gets pretty hot here in Mississippi,” she said.

On her blog, Anna wrote, "But what caught our attention the most on campus was not the buildings, greenery, or monuments. It was the outfits that almost every single caucasian girl was wearing: Nike shorts and a large tee."






10 Replies