I just discovered the writer Lewis Nordan. I should have been aware of him long ago, but I wasn’t. And then I saw an excerpt from The Sharpshooter Blues in Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader , which I recently wrote about for this blog. I hardly got started on the opening scene from The Sharpshooter Blues when I came across this:
“When he saw them, all dressed in black like they was, girl and a boy like they was, he thought. Well I declare. What are them two doing in Arrow Catcher, Mississippi?”
The dialect and that town name, they got me. I immediately put the book down and went to Google to see if there really is such a town as Arrow Catcher, Mississippi. There isn’t. And then I picked the book up again and finished reading Nordan’s story.
The Wikipedia entry on Nordan started out with:
“Lewis Nordan was an American writer. Nordan was born to Lemuel and Sara Bayles in Forest, Mississippi, grew up in Itta Bena, Mississippi.”
Wow! Forest, Mississippi. Does that place ever hold special memories for me. My big sister Mimi lived nearly all of her adult life in Forest, and her oldest son, Willie Ray Parish, , was the relative closest to me in age―not counting kissing cousin Kitty, but that’s another story. By-the-way, Itta Bena is a real town.
Forest is a little town of a bit more than five thousand people. Back when I used to spend most of my summers there, it was probably much smaller than that. Mimi’s husband worked in the poultry industry like just about everybody in and around Forest. I never knew nor particularly cared what his exact job was, but I know he did a lot of driving to lots of chicken farms and hatcheries and supply stores in Central Mississippi. Every year in Forest, they threw a gigantic barbecue on the football field. The end zone and I reckon a whole big swath of the sidelines were filled with big barbecue pits, and they barbecued hundreds and hundreds of chickens to feed all the folks that came from everywhere. There was entertainment and a beauty pageant. There were two high school girls that lived across the street from my sister. I was pretty much in love with both of them, but they were much too old for me. They were both in the beauty pageant. They also had little girls in the pageant. Elementary school age. My nieces Caroline and Kent were in it, and so was my cousin Pam, kissing cousin Kitty’s little sister.
Every summer throughout high school I spent a week or two visiting with Mimi and having all kinds of adventures with Willie Ray. We didn’t call him that then. Just Ray. There wasn’t much for us kids to do in Forest, but we somehow managed to have fun. Everything was within walking distance of their house. We went to the swimming school most afternoons and sometimes to a matinee at the movie house in town. I remember one time we were watching some movie, and Skipper Warren was seated by me, and right about the time of some particularly tense moment in the movie, Skipper stood up and shouted, “Somethin’s fissin’ to happen!” I thought that was the funniest thing ever. Years later, Skipper became the principal of Forest High School, where my nephew Ray had played football. He was good enough to get a scholarship to Ole Miss, where he majored in art. He quit football but after one season, but he never quit making art.
I had a girlfriend in Forest. We went steady for most of one summer. Or, well, for most of a week or two at any rate. We mostly went swimming together in the town pool. I noticed one day while looking at her in her bathing suit that she was flat chested. That didn’t much matter to me, even though it was a time when every male in America was enamored of big breasted babes like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield and Amy Van Doren, I was just like the rest of them. It just surprised me that I hadn’t noticed before. Something else surprised me. She told me that her little brother was playing underneath their house one day, and he struck a match, and there was a gas leak under the house, and the house exploded. The explosion destroyed the house and killed her little brother. He was only the second kid I had ever heard of that died. They other one was the older brother of a good friend in Tupelo. He died of what they said was natural causes when he was fifteen. He had a paper route. My twin brother and I took over his paper route after he died.
Our family holds a reunion in Forest every year. I was there this past summer. The reunion is held in the community center, which is on the spot where the swimming pool used to be. As it happened in many Southern towns, the town closed the swimming pool and filled it with concrete during the civil rights struggles of the sixties rather than be forced to integrate the pool, afraid the black might wash off, I guess. A week after our reunion, I saw on the news that ICE agents raided food processing plants in the area and arrested people believed to be in the country illegally. Many of their children were left without a mother or father and had nowhere to go. Six hundred and eighty people were arrested. Local people stepped up to help, and the children were provided shelter until their parents were freed. One of the places they were sheltered was the community center where we had our reunion.
At that reunion, I asked Willie Ray, if he remembered about the house exploding and killing my old girlfriend’s little brother. He remembered it. He was about thirteen years old at the time. He said he was halfway across town riding his bike when it happened, and the force of the explosion knocked him off his bike.
It’s amazing how a story can stir up memories that send you on mental journeys down roads you never expected to travel. Lewis Nordan’s story from The Sharpshooter Blues sent me journeying to Forest, Mississippi in about 1958 and then back to the same location in the summer of 2019. His story was about “Hydro the big headed lover of peach pie” who was working at a convenience store when a couple of small-time Bonnie and Clydes decided to rob the store. I can’t recall any other story as being such a lyrical blend of Southern gothic and magic realism. It is a shockingly funny and cataclysmic tale. I’m really amazed that I never before heard of Lewis Nordan, but you can bet your bottom dollar I’m going to read anything else of his I can get my hands on.