Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania, tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be time,
But you must not speak its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
- Robert Penn Warren
Last week we lost Julia Reed, one of my favorite southern writers. I knew she had been ill, because Miississippians/New Orleanians (she and I are both) all know each other. I know a woman whose daughter worked at the New Orleans Ogden Museum of Art, where Julia Reed was on the board. So I knew that Julia had battled cancer for a while. It felt like she might have been out of the woods, so the announcement - which came just minutes after the unexpected death of Chadwick Boseman - was like a kick in the gut to me, but I can't say I was surprised by it.
When I posted about how sad I was, my friend Shelley, my best friend in high school who now lives in Holland, sent me an Audible recording of Julia's South Toward Home - a collection of her Garden & Gun essays read by the author herself. I can't think of a more fitting or appropriate gift.
The quote above from author Robert Penn Warren is in the opening dedication of the book. While I loved All the King's Men - finding it especially relatable since I moved to Louisiana - I clearly haven't read nearly enough Warren, as this quote would be equally apt as my senior yearbook quote (which my high school didn't offer) or on my headstone.
Julia's essays have also enlightened me to the fact that I haven't read nearly enough Walker Percy, another great southern writer who made his home in the same town of Covington, Louisiana, that I do.
I love Julia because I have always found her stories to be personal and funny. Jon Meacham (another favorite author we share, although Julia had the advantage of having worked with him professionally) called her stories a "deep delight, with her distinctive voice, sense of humor and of humanity." Julia is everything I aspire to be as a writer.
Listening to her tell her stories, I started remembering my own Mississippi stories, nearly all of which involve Shelley, who sent me the book. Julia's wholly southern anecdotes of road trips, under-age drinking, Cajun food, parties on the river (or the beach, in the case of Shelley and me), New Orleans restaurants and chefs, blues music, inclusive cultures and Mardi Gras are pretty much the narrative of the years when Shelley and I were joined at the hip.
Shelley's family relocated to Mississippi one generation before mine did. The trips to New Orleans, the Saints fanship, the jambalaya and etouffee were all introduced to me by Shelley and her mom. Shelley taught me how to peel and eat a shrimp without leaving half of it inside the tail.
Shelley was always more adventurous than I was. She was the leader and I was the follower. But I loved the adventures she dragged me on and we never failed to have a fun time - even though many of those experiences seem pretty dangerous and stupid in the hindsight of middle age.
Shelley and I actually had to go all the way to Mexico to become friends. Okay, that sounds a lot more wild and crazy than it was. It was actually a high school choir trip my junior, and Shelley's sophomore, year. We were not initially roommates on the trip, but she had issues with the other sophomores in her room (including one of them stealing her jewelry) and I invited her to move into our room since we only had three. One of the things Shelley and I immediately had in common was that we both had dropped out of band that year and found ourselves ostracized by the friends we'd loved in junior high.
Shelley had a 1970 VW Beetle, and used to pick up some of her fellow bandmates for school, but now found herself driving in alone. I did not have a car, or cool friends, so I was still riding the school bus. When we discovered how close we lived to one another, it was decided that Shelley would start picking me up for school. That was the beginning of a legendary, life-long friendship.
Little did I know how much of that friendship would take place in the car.
If you grew up in a small southern town - or maybe even a small mid-western town - you might understand the practice of weekend "cruising." In my coastal hometown of Long Beach, Mississippi, we had a main street (still called, much to my chagrin, Jeff Davis Avenue) that ran from the beachfront to the railroad tracks, which ran parallel to the beach about a mile north of it.
Long Beach didn't have many fast food places, but we had a Sonic drive-in at the railroad end of Jeff Davis and a K&B Pharmacy at the beach end, so that set the racecourse. Given the lack of anything else to do in such a small town, everyone in high school cruised Jeff Davis. It would take you close to an hour to make that one-mile ride between the tracks and the beach. What is a nightmare for a person of my age meant hours of riding around waving and talking to your friends at 17.
Shelley taught me to drive a stick shift in her VW in the football stadium parking lot. The real test came cruising Jeff Davis. Turns out when your idling down Main Street your foot never really comes all the way off the clutch.
After I graduated in 1984, my dad co-signed for me on a 1979 Plymouth Horizon. What looked like a cute little hatchback to me, turned out to be a nightmare for car owners and mechanics. The gas gauge didn't work, it had a tendency to overheat, and the entire engine was installed sideways. But it had an automatic transmission and air conditioning, so it seemed like the perfect car for our road trips.
When Julia talks about road trips, she describes leaving her boarding school in Northern Virginia for some crazy party in the Mississippi Delta. Road trips to Shelley and me, in our sleepy coastal Mississippi of the early 80s, was more about adventuring out while staying in bounds. We would get in my car, pop a Billy Squire tape into the cassette player, roll down the windows and head out.
Our strategy was this: head northwest into Hancock County, around the Kiln, home of Brett Favre. In 1984-85, he would've been an undergrad at Hancock North Central High School, but no doubt still the starting quarterback. Shelley and I would just head out on the country highways with the intent of getting lost. We would drive around, smoke weed and listen to music. When it came time to return home, we'd use the sun to determine which way was south and just head toward the beach. The tactic never failed us.
I kinda want to head out on one of those drives, playing Julia Reed on my iPhone this time.