Return to Vicksburg
Three of us traveled to Vicksburg. We talk excitedly about the memories this trip has stirred up, and we stories from when we were at the boarding school in Vicksburg. We are riding in my sister’s minivan. The ride is bumpy but the stereo is good. I have recorded a mix of songs from the 70’s to put us in the mood for this reunion.
We check in at the hotel, asking for messages left by our old classmates. Most people are coming to this reunion from other places. Arthur has left us a message saying he’ll be in town close to 6:30. It is only 3:00. The three of us decide to drive around our old town and reminisce. We tumble back into the van. How many times have we ridden down the streets of Vicksburg in a minivan? We laugh at ourselves because we are cruising the old familiar streets once again, in a van once again, just like we did in high school. Oh, those familiar taxi-vans of Vicksburg!
We travel by all the sites we knew so well so many years ago as teenagers in this town. The cobblestone streets near the river rumble beneath us in that percussive complaint, too blurred to be staccato, too sharp to be piano.
We find ourselves on Clay Street, beyond the motels that used to be the Ramada and Holiday Inns. Even Maxwell’s elegant table linens have been replaced by something seedier in a fast food venue. There are Wendy’s and Shoney’s, and we drive past the Old Southern Tea Room with its peanut brittle and its pralines that melted in our mouths into a gooey, gluey sweetness so rich we could eat only one.
The fountain! Remember the fountain, and its clouds of detergent rising then floating down to the street? It was not the river of suds we imagined when we planned the prank, but with our help a puff or two did indeed hesitantly tumble down the cobblestones toward the Mississippi River. It was a story better in the telling than in the living.
We turn left from Clay onto Washington Street. The Cathedral! It is not as imposing as we remembered, but stark in its purpose as the real place for Episcopalian worship. Our campus chapel was pitifully small and quaint in comparison, but so much more beautiful with its shafts of light through stained glass windows during afternoon assemblies. There were stained glass windodws, weren’t there?
That community center – wasn’t that the place where the dance was held every year? What was it called? We remember sneaking out of the building to smoke with friends who did not have permission to kill themselves with tobacco. We remember creeping through a side exit as though it actually offered a refuge for our desperate teenage gropes and sloppy kisses. Mr. Hooper, who taught chemistry and owned the adult novelty store near Wendy’s, would saunter through the same door to chat with us about things we thought were cool but, at that moment, inconvenient.
As we near the old Mississippi River bridge, we despair to see it is closed and that a detour directs westerly travelers to the new I-20 span. Can we find PJ’s liquor store from there? What about Goldie’s barbeque?
The Magnolia Inn! We stayed at “the Mag” the night before my junior year began, and Susan and I met up with Hartley Clay and my erstwhile boyfriend Don Scott. The four of us crossed Washington Street, skulking behind a monument to some Yankee infantry to smoke something illegal. When the policeman approached to question us, Don in his alpha male persona strode out to meet the officer. “Son, what’s your name?” inquired the cop. Don offered that his name was Scott. “Scott, what is your last name?” Behind the monument we exchanged panicked looks. Would Don be able to come up with something? We need not have worried. Just uninhibited enough, Don declared, “Humphrey!”and still in hiding we girls smothered our giggles, understanding that Don was telling us not to Bogard the joint we were passing among ourselves. Hartley hid the evidence in her bra and we emerged from our hiding place. We admitted we were staying at the motel across the street with our parents and we agreed to go back to our rooms. Our snickers were not disguised well.
Today we dutifully follows the detour and we find ourselves not on I-20 but on the access road. We used to buy rice rolling papers and sometimes beer at that Eckerd’s. And there’s the theater where we saw Animal House! Remember how the bus dropped off about thirty of us in front of the theater that night? We howled our approval as the Deltas dared oppose authority and damn the repercussions! We dreamed that we, too, would overcome our minority and fearlessly practice anarchy under the dorm counselor’s malevolent stare and Father Dickson’s curled sneer. People who do not like children should not work with them. Twice we went in cars to that theater without permission to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We marveled at our own daring.
To our dismay the Confederate Mall is boarded up and run down. Long live the mall! Taco Casa is gone; the coupons we have saved for twenty years are useless. The grand department store with its living models and its ready acceptance of our parents’ BankAmeriCards has disappeared without a trace. We imagine the Things Remembered kiosk, where we bought our fifteen-year-old lovers their engraved cigarette lighters for Christmas, abandoned in the dark.
We walked the mile from the school to this derelict Mecca each and every Saturday for three years, then drove there the fourth. Walking was actually better than driving, because to get to the mall we walked through the historic battlefield where nature was allowed her profusion ten feet behind the marble and granite monuments. Canny students found real refuge within her living walls. Our bowers were just out of sight of curving Confederate Boulevard, and within their protection we reveled in nature’s gift to our expanded minds. Several Saturdays we sucked the strychnine from squares of paper just before our fourth period class, and by the time we reached the woods we were fully prepared to appreciate nature’s beauty and wonder.
One Saturday my friend Vicki did not realize it was going to rain and we would be imprisoned on campus. Several of us took turns containing her. I walked into her room just in time to hear her moan to her room mate, “Lorraine, I just can’t get high enough!” My room mate Paige looked at me worriedly, and I took upon myself the task of entertaining our dorm counselor to prevent her from patrolling the south end of the second floor for the duration of Vicki’s trip. That evening we hustled her onto the All Saints bus to freedom at the bowling alley, where odd behavior was the norm. She spent most of the evening crying and laughing her chemically induced hysterics.
Our van respectfully navigates the empty parking lots and we ride up the steep hill toward Halls Ferry Road and Mission 66. Where Halls Ferry and Confederate Boulevard meet, we are glad to see that Toot’s Grocery is still open for business. The same old sign announces its availability for All Saints students, both O’s an eye giving the proprietors’ name an astonished look as the students probably still pass beneath it to cash their checks from home, hiding their true wealth from the prying supervision of the school. In tenth grade Peter Harmon somehow discovered the bookie there, and knowing his brother in the Marines would approve he placed bets religiously.
There’s the mechanic’s shade tree, in front of that white house. Paige and I had walked past it one day, leading Frank as though he were blind, speaking encouraging words to him. “See?” remarked the older black fellow from under the hood, “Whenever you think you have it bad, there’s always someone who has it worse.” “You ain’t lying,” agreed his younger companion, the one we had feared. We had heard that during the summer a gang of Vicksburg youth known as the “BBB” (Bad Black Boys) decided its initiation rites would include the rape of a white girl. Throughout the fall no All Saints girls could leave campus without a male companion.
We are now on I-20, traveling west from the easternmost edge of Vicksburg toward our school. We fly down the freeway at the speed of light. We are relieved to exit and find ourselves safely in the battlefield.
We pull into the All Saints driveway and we find ourselves walking behind Green Hall and Johnson Hall, on the high side of the Dell. Ahead of us lies the chapel, but its bell tower is gone. Inside rows of interconnecting chairs have replaced the hard wooden pews we sat on two decades before. And the windows! We are told that the chapel can no longer be used as a place of worship, and that it will be closed. “What about the stained glass windows?” we ask. “They will be removed,” we are told. We argue that the chapel can still be of use, that students need a place to gather, that the seating is adequate and already there, so why must it be closed down? We do not get an answer.
In St. Catherine’s dormitory, where I lived for four years, the halls are dim and silent. Asbestos floor tiles lie broken and unswept. I hear only ghosts of sounds of the thirty-two girls who lived there each year. Our blow dryers and stereos, shrieks, laughter, and arguments have faded into the past. Thirty-two girls were made sisters for a school year, but no blood sisters resided in any of the dorms. My sister lived in St. Anne’s, which my freshman year had housed the younger boys. Hartley lived in St. Mary’s and her sister Carol was in St. Anne’s. Stacy, Jan and JoAlice Buckler shared a father, but Stacy’s mother was not Jan’s nor JoAlice’s. Nevertheless, sharp-faced Jan was in St. Catherine’s, blonde Stacy was in St. Mary’s, and plump, awkward JoAlice was in St. Anne’s. There were three Mize sisters as well: tall, soft-spoken Amy, ordinary Alison, and pretty Adrienne. They were thrown together by birth but separated by the wisdom of All Saints. What God has placed together, All Saints School would indeed put asunder.
Later that evening, we meet our friends at the antebellum restaurant near the river. We remember that there is something odd about the bathrooms here, but we don’t recall exactly what. I have to go, though, so I volunteer to find out first.
The wooden stairs lead down to a room empty except for tables and chairs awaiting patrons and an armoire on the back wall. The armoire, I now remember, contains the old toilet. I open its door and seen a worn wooden trough. I remember that once this served as the latrine, but it obviously is no longer used. I let the door slam shut in disgust. To my right is a line of people, male and female. Above them a sign points through a door with the symbols for restrooms. I join the queue.
Once in the modern bathrooms, we are able to finish our business quickly. I leave the restroom just as I hear my sister, who was in line behind me, ask if there is any toilet paper in the next stall.
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