When I get back from Jackson, I’m a little sad. Not because it wasn’t a perfect trip, because it was amazingly, surprisingly, perfect, but because the Parlor Market and the Mayflower Café are in Jackson, and I am in Tuscaloosa, and three hours stretches the limits of how far you can drive for a meal. The two restaurants are in the same block, and just a short walk from the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, where we stayed. They couldn’t be more different, and yet they are both the authentic item, each marvelous in its own way. On a long-planned and finally achieved literary pilgrimage to Eudora Welty’s house (in spring in Alabama, as in spring in England, people still long to go on pilgrimages), we ate at the Parlor Market in the evening. In honor of the pilgrimage, I ordered a “Eudora” cocktail, made of Hendricks Gin and celery soda. It sounds weird but is delicious. Our waiter brought us each a tiny sweet potato biscuit with sorghum butter to put on it, then a tiny amuse bouche of Brie, apple, pecan, basil, mint, and maybe some other inspired ingredient. I had fresh gazpacho, rabbit meatballs, and grouper, and left happy. The next day, after a wonderful tour of the Eudora Welty house and gardens (our guide, Kim Cooper, told us afterwards it was her first tour, which was hard to believe, she did so well and knew so much), we decided we had time to eat at the Mayflower Café before leaving town. Where the Parlor Market is low lighting and dark wood and cozy tables, local and organic and inventive southern food and extremely well-informed staff, the Mayflower beckons with green and red neon, the classic diner layout of booths down one wall, tables in the middle, and a soda fountain on the other side, with the counter up front. There’s a slightly faded poster of the Beatles on the wall, and it feels, happily, as though nothing has changed in seventy years. We both went for varieties of crab salad and saved room for pie, the best lemon icebox I’ve ever had. Our waitress (I know, server, but for this place waitress seems right) promised it was the best, and though the coconut and chocolate were surely exemplary, I think we chose right.
My dad’s birthday and Father’s Day were on the horizon, so I decided to drive home to Little Rock for a visit. My default route takes me all the way across Mississippi on Highway 82; I cross the river at Greenville on the new bridge that looks from a distance like a huge four-masted sailing ship, then head up 65 across southeast Arkansas. Driving, I think of my friend Gene Dobson, who grew up in Watson, Arkansas, and attended Henderson College with my mother; I met him and his daughter, Rachel, who’s my age, when I moved to Tuscaloosa. Gene died a few years ago, but he’s always in my thoughts as I pass the Watson turn-off. For years I’ve driven past the Varner and Cummins prisons thinking about Damien Echols, one of the so-called West Memphis Three, imprisoned there; this time I drove past knowing he’d been released on a plea deal (the complicated details are explained here: http://wm3.org/). When we’d drive on that road when I was a child, I always shivered at the signs that said “Penitentiary Area: Beware of Hitchhikers,” as though a bogey man was about to jump from the side of the road at any minute as we sailed by in the big yellow Lincoln.
I’ve just finished Jo McDougall’s fine memoir Daddy’s Money, about growing up on the “Grand Prairie” of southeast Arkansas on a rice farm, about how past and present mingle and speak to one another, not always graciously, and how memories, though nourishing in their own way, are not enough to live on: we must make our peace with it and move forward. I thought of Jo McDougall, her prose and poetry, as I drove past Dumas.
I get a little bored with the same route over and over again and had thought to try a Little Rock-Memphis-Winona-Tuscaloosa route on the way home so as to have more interstate than highway travel. Something kept telling me to go the old way, though, and even though I don’t understand intuition I try to pay attention to it. Lo and behold, I had car trouble heading home, just past Lake Village, ten or fifteen miles from that beautiful bridge. The car had a kind of spell, losing power and sending out warning signals, so I stopped at a defunct gas station in the Y where the road goes south and east toward Mississippi, or directly south toward Eudora, Arkansas (and yes, I’ve always wondered about that name). Here’s a neat link about, surprise, Eudora’s early Jewish community.
Sitting in the old gas station, plate glass broken out of its building, the pumps long gone, studying the car manual to decipher its codes, I suddenly remembered that this was the meeting point when my parents would bring me to visit with my best friend Kelly Holland, whose family had moved to Mississippi, Clinton I believe, after fourth grade. I don’t know how long this went on, a few years I think, but we visited back and forth at each other’s homes, always meeting at that gas station, our halfway spot. Kelly’s mother had beautiful long hair that she brushed out at night and put up in a bun in the morning, and I remember watching “Brian’s Song” with Kelly and trying not to cry. I thought about what understanding and accommodating parents we had, helping us to remain friends as long as we needed to.
Past and present, layering and mingling.