A Northern Writer Writes a Southern Story

“A double-wide what?”
—Marginal comment by a New York editor in a manuscript of Lee Smith’s

Billy-Bob and Bubba were out on the veranda of our double-wide drinking a forty of mint juleps and looking out over the golden fields of tall, waving cotton. As I walked up the dirt track from the streetcar stop I could see Ma through the French windows boiling up barbecue for supper. Pa was hard at work at his moonshine-still turning cotton into cotton gin. Grandpa was reading the paper. The paper was also Southern.

“You-all! Emma-Sue is back from the bank!” Everyone gathered around the bottle-tree, which was in full bloom. I told the bad news, that the bank was going to take the farm if we couldn’t pay in non-Confederate money. “We’ll just have to pray for a good cotton ball harvest.”

Pa rubbed his neck, which was red. “If the frost is anything like as bad as last year, we’ll lose every ball.”

“That’ll be the least of our troubles with the whole world switching over to Rayon.”

“Oh! The Jonquils! The Jonquils!” cried Mother, who was always worrying about keeping up with our neighbors, the Jonquils.

Grandpa pulled at his beard. Grandpa had a beard like Spanish moss—it was stringy, green, and full of chiggers. When they stung he would slap at his face like the sound of snapping a crisp, fresh-baked biscuit. “The papers said that escaped lunatic, The Mysterious Stranger, just shot up a meth lab two towns over. Must’ve been making a lot of money with an operation like that.”

“I don’t approve of the meth business,” Ma said. “It sounds too much like Meth-odist, and I ain’t raising no heathens in this household.”

“Or we could try winning some money playing cards,” said Billy-Bob.

“Haven’t you and Bubba lost enough already to those riverboat gamblers? Why, they took the very shirts off your backs.”

“That was only Bubba. Mine got et by a gator out on the arroyo.”

“What if Emma-Sue got a job of her own?” Grandpa pulled at his mustache. Grandpa had a mustache like a catfish—slimy and covered in breadcrumbs.

I had always dreamed of making a name for myself in music. The last thing I wanted was to end up an old spinster sleeping with a carpetbagger Yankee corpse, which would barely be better than one that was alive. But Ma wouldn’t allow so much as a banjo bow in the house, and everyone had their own plans for me.

“Why don’t you go live down at the P.O.?” said Pa. “There’s an opening since the postmaster got shot by The Mysterious Stranger.”

“That’s no good. She’d be paid by the letter, and who bothers with letters anymore?”

“Except French letters, and Preacher Jeb down at the cathedral says those are a sin, like whistling or shaking hands with a Yankee.”

“It’s singing that’s a sin, not whistling,” Ma said, knowingly, “Whistling’s all right, as long as it’s Dixie.” So that was my fate settled.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door. I opened it wide to reveal a mysterious stranger in a shiny black seersucker suit. With the Smokey Mountains on one side and the Okeefenokee Swamp on the other, there wasn’t any place he could have snuck up from. He was carrying a carpet bag.

“Who’s that?” asked Bubba.

“What if it’s that escaped lunatic from the papers?” said Billy-Bob.

“You’re not a Rayon salesman, are you?” growled Pa, taking his shotgun from his breast pocket and loading six magazines into the cylinder.

“Come now!” said Ma. “Be civil, like the War. Would you like a glass of my famous sweet tea?” Ma reached for the kettle. “Can I peel you a watermelon? How about some grits?”

“Just the one grit, thank you. I’m a traveling record producer, from Memphis.”

“The one in Egypt?”

“No, the other one.”

“Please excuse our Billy-Bob and Bubba. Bubba’s shirt got et by a gator, and Billy-Bob’s et cetera. And we just don’t have the cotton to spare to knit them new ones.”

I’d gone down to the basement of the double-wide to fetch some canned corn to make into cornbread and now came back upstairs, whistling Dixie. As soon as he heard the whistling, the producer’s eyebrows shot up like that meth lab two towns over.

“You haven’t by any chance sold your soul to the devil in exchange for supernatural musical talent, have you?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“Excellent, so it’s still available.” He rummaged around in his carpet bag and pulled out a record contract. “How would you like to make millions singing with Ramona Ray and Her Rayon Girls?”

“But singing is a sin!” Ma swooned. “Think of Preacher Jeb at the temple!”

“Rayon?!” boomed Pa. “I’ll be the laughingstock of the whole province!”

“And what will the Jonquils think?”

“Frankly, my dears,” said Old Joe Jonquil as he floated past the window on the Swanee River, “I don’t give a fuck.”

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