Sweet Home Mississippi by Eddie J. Girdner
Chapter One: Descent into Hell
Ted Grover peered through the windshield of his aging Volvo down the long straight road ahead. He had been driving the old car since six thirty in the morning and his eyes were growing somewhat weary as he neared the approach to the California desert. It was a long way to Weaselville, Mississippi, which he would reach on the fourth day of his trip and he dreaded the descent into the moist heat, the super steamed cauldron of the bug infested, chemically saturated, toxic Mississippi Delta. Meanwhile he would enjoy the cool, clear, mountain air for the next couple of days until the inevitable steam bath would overtake and drag him under. His lungs would begin to burn before he reached his destination. Better to travel than to arrive, the sage said. That’s no shit when it comes to Mississippi. Especially if the destination was the Delta.
The market solves everything. Sure, even if it put him in the grave, making a living. That would solve everything for him.
It would be his second year of University teaching, having done a one-year haul at the University of South Carolina. Given the market, a man took what he could get, grasping at every straw, and that was what had come his way, after pounding the pavement for teaching jobs since winding up his doctorate in California. It had taken two years to land that first full time job, although it was only a one year instructor position. Meanwhile, he pieced together an income working in the registrar’s office at the university, when there was a need, and teaching a one quarter course in Democratic Theory when the visiting instructor from back east fell ill and canceled out. Then the break came at the end of the summer. The phone rang in late afternoon and he was offered a one year job. The department in South Carolina had been left in the lurch when one of their staff decided to not return from a leave of absence, late in the summer. He was hired to fill the position, which was his first lucky break. While there was a couple of nibbles from Arizona and other schools, with an interview at a restaurant in LA, this was the only solid offer and he grabbed it straight away. It even put a little strut in his stride thinking he would have a real teaching position and he scrambled to get the courses together. His first real chance of being a professor.
It had been a good year in South Carolina, but not a fun one. He had lived in supreme austerity, neither a radio nor TV in his Spartan apartment and spending most of his time preparing lectures and reading exams. Horny as hell, but no time for chasing women. It was difficult, leaving the family in California, but he had no choice. During the year, the position opened as a tenure track job. But his views were too left-wing to land the position in the department in South Carolina and he predictably lost out to a right-winger. That son-of-a-bitch who was chairman of the selection committee had all those Republican Bush stickers plastered all over his door. Not a snow-ball’s chance in hell of getting in. During the year he had interviews at Ithaca College in upstate New York, and Ball State, but neither one panned out, even though the first place was full of left-wingers. For one reason or another he came up empty handed every fucking time.
Back in California for the summer, it was like a return to paradise. If he could only stay and there was a job. Nothing doing. The money was running out quickly and he found it difficult to make it through the summer, having split the modest income between two households during the previous year. Applying for unemployment pay, extras were being signed up for an HBO film being shot in Santa Barbara. He signed on and worked for four days. That was just petty cash. After that he wrote abstracts of academic articles for an abstracting company. It put some food on the table, bought a little gasoline.
But he was largely losing touch with the family. He suspected his marriage was going on the rocks. Not possible to keep it together being strung out this way.
At a rest stop just west of Needles, an oasis in the desert, he stopped to stretch his muscles. He needed a cup of coffee but that would have to wait until the next pit stop, another 40 miles. A van pulled up next to him full of Japanese tourists. They were loaded with cameras taking pictures of the desert flowers.
At McDonalds in Needles a bus load of Chinese arrived, crazy for American French fries. Back on the road, the only available radio stations had degenerated to country music and Christian proselytism. Pile on the guilt. Tell the sons of bitches that if they don’t have a job that it’s their own damned fault. God is punishing you. So send me some bucks and pray and wait for God to work the miracle. That seven times seven business. For every seven bucks you send me, God is going to give you seven times seven. What a racket. If that was the case, that guy on the radio would be sending his bucks off to a preacher instead of bending your ears for cash. He would better entertain himself with his thoughts.
On to Arizona, where the rest stops were hard to find and far between, he made Flagstaff by five. At Williams, he tried for a motel. At the first, two Indian girls were behind the counter. They told him fifty dollars for a single. Too much. The Gujaratis seemed to have a monopoly on the motels near the Grand Canyon and so he headed on to Winslow. Fewer tourists. By seven, he was in the Mayfair Motel, a crummy place also run by Patels, but not a bad deal for twenty bucks. Broken door, par for the course, but he would get by.
He flicked on the tube. At the Republican National Convention a former POW was making a speech. The bastards think they have the corner on patriotism, the flag, family, God and apple pie, he thought. He looked for another channel. No luck. Now Ronald Reagan was reading a speech and flubbed his line. “Facts are stupid things.” The blathering idiot meant to say “Facts are stubborn things,” but, no shit, facts are stupid things for Republicans, for all politicians, as far as that goes. It doesn’t take a fucking political scientist to know that. If they do know it. Most of them don’t have a clue, he thought, poisoning their minds with those shit-eating screeds he was forced to read in graduate school. Nelson Polsby, my ass. All that polling and polling, adding up all those lies that people told them and calling it political science. “Pohleeticle Sighuns,” as the southerner had said when he told him what he taught.
He tried to get the LA times at Needles, but the machine just stole his quarter and refused to open, so he missed the last chance for something to read. Not a big loss. Most of it was shit corporate lies anyhow.
Out early the next day, he made Gallup by ten in the morning for breakfast at McDonalds on the big strip. It was cheap. Cheap poison and a free pisser. That’s about all one could say. He recalled other times when he had stopped there with his family. Now he was forced to truck the long distance alone. Albuquerque by one. Gassing up at a dollar a gallon. Gas still dirt cheap by world standards, if one did not include the billions to the military and Halliburton it took to keep stealing the oil from the Arabs. Near Moriarty, hitting some heavy rain, he pulled into a truck stop for some rest. The rain looked heavy up ahead. Shit. Opening his brief case, the aroma of Indian incense filled the air, reminding him of California, Delhi bazaars, rickshaws, Punjab. He would rather be in a rickshaw heading for a cold Golden Eagle beer and some Punjabi chicken. He trucked on through spots of heavy rain.
He rested beneath the small pink stone shelters at a rest stop in Eastern New Mexico. The sky had mostly cleared, with white fleecy clouds, the dark rain clouds receding in the west. He broke out some Indian Jelabi sweets he had brought from California and some Indian hot mix. His mouth burned with hot pepper. He soothed it with a cold Budweiser. Better get wiser, get ready for standing in front of those dummies. By five he made Tucumcari for coffee and a salad at a Mickey D’s. Where else, on his fucking budget? He hated that shit, but slipped in and out. Do what you have to do. He was depressed by the southern accent he picked up from the local customers. One guy talking about his Holly Carburetor. “I just put me one a them there hollies six hundreds on there. The motherfucker hauls ass.” The spillover from Texas.
On toward Amarillo. “Foot-long hot dogs”. “Stukeys” His eyes were starting to get tired at seven, but he was still thirty miles from the Texas border. The land was flat now, prairie grassland. No more outcropping rocks or mesas. Texas cattle flat lands, but the still high altitude afforded cool breezes. Tomorrow, he would be sinking deeper and deeper into the hot superheated air of the cowshit lowlands. Deeper shit.
At nine, he wound up the long day in the Coach Light Motel in Amarillo. A Gujarati Patel Motel again. Aren’t they all now? Sure as shit. Except for the American ruling class, business class, that gets the big corporate owned plush five-star outfits. The cream for the business class. No classless society for them.
Nigel, the clerk is a nice gentle guy and he gets a room for a twenty. He knew just how his wimpy hand would feel if he shook it, that Indian handshake, warm and limp, and lingering, that always made him feel somewhat uncomfortable. At least no bones would be crushed. He remembered that pipe smoking farmer from Iowa in the Peace Corps office that always crushed your bones with his earnest grip as he grinned and showed you his large teeth. The son of a bitch.
Pat Robertson was speaking at the Republican National Convention in fascistic tones. That shit-eating grin. High whinny voice. How many times had his parents tortured him with that charlatan, forcing him to listen to his bible thumping drivel. Deliver me. Keep those sons of bitches away from me. Done enough damage to my mind already. Kills brain cells by the billions. Even worse than student papers, and that’s bad, real bad. Still trying to exorcise himself from his early years in Sunday school classes, revival meetings, altar calls, and warnings of hell-fire for all eternity. Jerry Falwell was being interviewed. He felt sick at his stomach as the fat goofy face gushed inanities. J. Danforth Quayle, to be Bush’s Vice Presidential Candidate. The rich spoiled Republican twerp. A Bush Quayle Ticket. A quail in the Bush. The GOP. A bunch of Greedy Old People, so called, greedy men and women. The so-called party of the corporate class. Or the executive committee of the business class. Lenin had it about right.
In the Patel motel, the chain was off the flush handle. The dead toilet would not flush. The door chain had broken some one hundred customers ago. Hungry for profits, they weren’t going to spring for maintenance. The wallpaper was peeling off the wall. Looked fine on the outside but crummy inside. Just as well be in Gujarat. Better, in fact.
The third day, he made Elk City by ten and breakfast with Ronald Muckfucking Donald. Insulting. These corporate games. It was hot at the rest stop after Oklahoma City, heading on to Ft. Smith. Just a slight whiff of refreshing cool air from time to time, mixed with the smell of cowshit, soon to be snuffed out in the steam bath and crop chemicals. Protect the crops and kill the people. Another one of those neat market solutions.
He passed Salisaw a little after three. A blue haze was hanging across the horizon, clinging to the red ground. He braced himself for the worst. He was descending into hell.
At Ozark over in Arkansas he stopped at a pleasant rest stop on a grassy hill above a lake. The heavy rain had subsided, now a gentle sprinkle. Green fields with parallel ridges. He rested beneath the large pine trees, resting his eyes and body. Contemplating. Here the air was sweet, soft, gentle, mild. Movement made one perspire. Embracing the body. He recalled coming to Arkansas to visit his grandparents when he was a kid. The small quaint working class house in the small town of Paris. The cherry trees behind the house. The old wooden outhouse. His Irish grandfather, a coal miner chewing tobacco. And the funeral when his Grandmother died. Staying in the motel in town. The heavenly smell and taste of the cheeseburgers his father brought back. That was when they made real hamburgers on the spot, not the industrial crap they rolled out nowadays in fast food joints. He would come to love travel. Feeling tired after the third day on the road. He needed to stretch his muscles.
Signs with brutal force across the country mirrored the local mindset. He was angered by “Don’t mess with Texas.” In Oklahoma, “Buckle up. It’s the law.” “Watch your speed. We are.” Yes, big brother! You fucking fascists! Leave me the fuck alone, you bastards! I am on my way to hell.