I have this idea in my head that to be “well read” I should read William Faulkner. Not that I want to, but that I need to. There’s a difference. The truth is I don’t particularly want to at all. In fact I would rather spend a day in the chair of a near-sighted dentist. I say this because I have tried Faulkner several times, and I have gone down in flames every time. Reading Faulkner has been, for me, like quitting smoking. Try and fail. Try again and fail. Repeat if necessary. At least I can say that there finally came a day when I successfully quit cigarettes.
I will stipulate for the record that William Faulkner was a literary genius. Enough people have said it over the years that it must be true. So the fact that I don’t get him at all could be entirely my fault. On the other hand, it has also been said, and this is where I find some comfort, that despite having written several masterpieces, Mr. Faulkner also wrote volumes of incomprehensible crap. He once wrote a single sentence that covered forty pages and contained 6000 words. That’s three times the entire word output of this piece. (You’re welcome.) Apparently it’s the crap I’ve been borrowing from my library. I’m still on the lookout for a masterpiece.
Faulkner makes me think of Mississippi, where in the northeast part of that state you will find the city of Tupelo. Several years ago I was driving to Birmingham, Alabama ahead of a hurricane that had not yet made landfall, and my route took me through Tupelo. When I arrived at the outskirts of town at twilight, I noted with concern that the parking lots of even the cheapest motels were packed with the cars of hurricane refugees. It was an ominous sign, because I had no hotel reservation of my own for the night.
I drove into town and found a Courtyard hotel of the Marriott brand. Two young women were on duty behind the registration desk. I strode across lobby with the smug confidence of a man who carried a Marriott Platinum Elite membership card in his back pocket and asked if there was a room available. I treated the question like it was an inside joke between the three of us, a wink and a nod formality to be politely dispensed with. One of the young ladies flashed a toothy smile and said, no, there was not. The fact that she said it with a Southern accent as sweet as a Magnolia blossom lessened the sting not one bit. Her tone was pleasant but slightly condescending, like I was a five year old who had asked if he could play with the power tools. I was instantly deflated, like I’d been hit with a body shot to the kidneys. But I recovered quickly, and rather than throw a Platinum Tantrum I accepted the situation and shifted strategies. I asked if she knew of another hotel in town that might have a room and she again said no, but I could probably get a cot at the evacuation center over at the National Guard Armory. As appealing as that sounded, it was not something I was ready to commit to right away. Fortunately for me a third woman was working at the hotel, and she had heard our conversation from the business office. She emerged and asked if the Bed & Breakfast down the street still had the room they had called about earlier, and we all agreed it was worth a phone call to find out. I have always heard that God takes care of drunks and fools, so he must have been watching over me that night, because the B&B did have a room left, very likely the last room available in the entire city of Tupelo. Needless to say I took it. I never even asked the price.
When I awoke in the morning rain from the outer bands of the hurricane was falling on Tupelo from a gray sky. I ate a leisurely breakfast with a half-dozen fellow travelers, most of whom talked of the approaching storm. There was a nervous charge in the air. When I mentioned that I would be driving into the fangs of the gale a woman smiled and asked, in a tone much like the hotel clerk had used the night before, if I thought that was a good idea. I assured her I was prepared for whatever may happen, but the truth was I hadn’t a clue what the conditions were going to be like. I considered whether it would be wiser to wait a few hours, but then I realized that in the short time I had been in Tupelo two people had already spoken to me like I was the village idiot, and I could sense a pattern developing. So I decided to cut my losses and hit the road for Birmingham, hurricane be damned.
But first I had a stop to make.
The sky was dark with swirling clouds and but there was a break in the rain when I pulled into the parking lot of Tupelo’s number-one tourist attraction, the birthplace of Elvis Aaron Presley. Mine was the only car in the lot and I was surprised to find the place open on such a dismal day. The birthplace is a Mississippi State Historic Site, but to be honest there’s not a lot to see there. The house is a simple wood-frame house. It has only two rooms. Elvis’ father Vernon built it with the help of his father and brother. He paid $180 for the materials. A small Assembly of God Church, where Elvis was first exposed to gospel music, was moved to the site for reasons I could not find explained. There is also a bronze statue of a thirteen year old Elvis, which begged the question – why? And that was about it.
Afterwards I was glad I took the detour, but as was the case when I saw Mt. Rushmore, I was also glad I didn’t plan a vacation around it. Back on the road to Birmingham, the rain had picked up again, and the wind was raising quite a ruckus. I drove with the radio off and reminisced about Elvis and the impressions he made on me over the course of my life. It started when I was very young, maybe five or six years old, and I had a 45 rpm of Hound Dog in my record collection. (My favorite record at the time was Doggie in the Window by Patti Page, but that’s another story.) I also have a memory of seeing Elvis from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan Show, but I don’t know if that is a real memory or a manufactured one because I was only three at the time. I also know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news he had died. I can only say that about one or two other people.
In September of 1976 Elvis performed at the new convention center in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, my hometown. He was “Fat Elvis” by then, and it was to be the final full year of his life. He was pale and paunchy and prone to perspire, which he did heavily that night, wiping sweat from his brow with baby blue scarves that he tossed to clamoring women in the audience who fought over them viciously. He moistened a lot of silk during that show, and at times he looked winded and tired. A police officer in his escort detail said later that Elvis was not well. But he soldiered through it, and the crowd adored him. His voice was the one thing that never failed him, even toward the end, and when he hit the final note of My Way that night, so piercing, so pure and so loud, I prayed the cables that bound the speakers and lights to the ceiling of the arena would hold, sparing scores below from being crushed in a horrible death. They did. Otherwise you probably would have heard about it.
If you’ve hung around this long you may be wondering how I fared against the hurricane. Well, the wind howled and the rain blew sideways, power lines arced and limbs fell from trees, and all in all, it was a harrowing drive. To say it felt apocalyptic would be a bit of a stretch, but at one point I swear I saw goats walking on their hind legs in a pasture. The interstate was deserted except for a few big trucks, proving that most people with any brains stayed home. Driving into Birmingham the rain lashed my car with such violence I couldn’t see, so I pulled off the road and hung out in the lobby of a Hampton Inn until it let up, and eventually I got to where I needed to go. Et vous l’avez.