Eden Brent sidles up next to me at my plastic chair in Doe’s Eat Place. Her boogaloo voice makes even the red and white squares on the checkered tablecloth come alive with music.
“I bet you wanted to sit next to a good lookin’ guy!” she chortles, loud and confident. “Well, I’ll tell you what: you got a good lookin’ girl instead.” Eden tilts her head back when she laughs and fills the whole room. Other diners pause with their forks halfway to their mouths or a knife in the air and stare. We don’t care. Our table is the length of the entire room and we are squished knee to knee to have a good time, to reconnect.
I met the loud, musical Brent family by accident, or trail magic, or just dumb luck. Everything is connected. In August 2013 I rode my bicycle down the Mississippi River Trail to collect stories from people I met along the way. I made a brief detour to Clarksdale, Mississippi at the suggestion of a librarian I met on the plane to Memphis.
“You won’t regret going to Clarksdale, honey,” she told me over the roar of takeoff, offering me a piece of minty gum. “It’s a must-go place. And plus, there’s a blues festival this weekend.” Sure enough there was music. And water. Lord, do I love water.
I ended up dehydrated in a farmer’s supply shop in Clarksdale after an unsuccessful attempt at finding my new friend Marc Taylor’s place on Old Highway 61. The two brothers who owned the place thought the sight of me with a loaded bicycle was a hoot.
“You’re all alone? And what does your mama think?”
The brothers handed me three bottles of icy water and we got to talking while sitting on lawn chairs inside the shop. Between sips of cool water––there’s nothing sweeter on a dry throat––I asked: “How does a combine work?”
It’s the questions that get me places.
As it turns out, one of the brothers lectures on agriculture at Delta State. My combine question sparked a two-hour detour in his white truck during which I learned about the difference between soybeans and milo and peanuts and the sticky, hexagonal bloom of a cotton flower. Seemingly anything could grow under the fertile umbrella of a delta sky––market prices drive which crops are planted, though. At the end of our trip the sun was arcing low and the brothers graciously dropped me off at my friend’s bright blue shack.
“Go see John Ruskey,” the youngest added, munching a toothpick between his teeth. “You’ll love Quapaw.”
“That place on Sunflower?” I asked, remembering a colorful, hand-painted sign I had passed earlier in the day. It looked closed.
“Just walk down by the river. You’ll find them there.”
Sure enough I did. John Ruskey a.k.a. Driftwood welcomed me into his basement-level office at the Quapaw Canoe Co. filled with life jackets and river maps and fossilized coral. His daughter, Emma, flitted about while strumming a mini guitar.
“I found a fish!” she exclaimed, running off to fetch its small body that she has preserved in salt. “It’s a bit stinky, but not too bad. Stinky, stinky, stinky!”
Driftwood rolled out a brightly colored map he had drawn of the Mississippi. The lines of the river have a dance of their own, arching smooth. The system is fed by fingers that reach into the east and west.
“You can stay upstairs at the International Youth Hostel if you’d like,” Driftwood said when it was time to go to the festival.
“How much does it cost?”
“Oh, you can stay for free.”
The Youth Hostel is a converted bar. Shellacked turtle shells and petrified mud and driftwood chandeliers beautify the space. There’s a perma-layer of rivermud on the floor that only adds to the hostel’s charm. I ducked in to drop off my panniers next to my bed for the night: a platform with a mattress on top that is suspended by fist-thick rope from a metal bar on the ceiling. It is fondly referred to as “The Floating Bed.”
While unpacking my sleeping bag I met the brilliant Chris Staudinger. Chris, a New Orleans native, was working at Quapaw for a jaunt after graduating from Boston College. We connected instantly.
“There are no straight lines in riverspeak,” Chris told me over a cup of sun tea spiked with lemon.
We went out dancing and bonded over the bliss that is pecan beer while questioning the gendered expectations of asking someone to dance. Meeting Chris set off a chain reaction of southern hospitality that followed me all the way down the river.
“Where do you go next?” he asked.
“Rosedale.” And so Chris texted his buddy David in Oxford whose parents, Becky and Bill, are from Rosedale. Can you take on a girl biking the river trail by herself? They said yes.
After a four-hour ride in the August sun, I was grateful for a big mattress to sprawl out on. Becky and Bill fed me toast and scrambled eggs spiced with homegrown jalapeños. I counted my lucky stars.
The next day was Sunday. Becky and Bill asked if I wanted to go to church and I said yes. Why not?
Before paying homage to God we paid homage to the river with an early-morning jaunt on a motorboat. Later that evening Bill showed me his Cabinet of Curiosities full of mastodon teeth and river glass and vertebrae, along with a bowling pin and unidentified metal bits he has collected from the river’s churning stomach.
Back on land, the pastor began her sermon by asking: “Now who needs praying for today?”
One woman’s mother was suffering from a malignant form of brain cancer. We sent prayers her way. I pictured my silent words soaring up above the pulpit and out one of the stained glass windows, over the soybean fields to find this woman in her bedroom. Every little bit helps.
Becky stood up next to me in the pew. “I just wanna say that I have this here girl here staying the night with me and she is riding her bicycle down the Mississippi River all the way to Venice. Do any of ya’ll know someone in Greenville she can stay with so that she doesn’t have to sleep on the side of the road? Bless her heart.”
Anne Martin popped up instantly. “I do! I do!” Anne waved both her hands as she spoke. I knew I had found a new friend. Anne worked for twenty years as an anchor at the local TV station in Greenville and knew most everyone in the town. Later on when we walked together in the Kroger grocery, people would stop her to ask if she was really the woman from TV. She always smiles and says politely, “Well yes I am. That was years ago, though.”
“We’ll have to introduce her to the Brents.”
Anne worked her magic and made a few phone calls. By sunrise I had a set of directions in my hand and instructions to call Jessica Brent once I passed the Winterville Mounds going south on the Mississippi Number One. “You can’t miss the mounds. It’s the only hill aside from the levee for miles.”
Jessica met me just outside the criss-crossed gate that marks her yard. When I pulled off the highway and into her driveway, Jessica took one look at me and said: “Girl, where are your lights?! Don’t you know people ‘round here drive drunk?” The next day she came back from Walmart with an orange reflective vest, a pair of red and white flashing lights, and reflective stickers, which we stapled all over the vest. I’m sure these safety measures saved my life. Farther down the road, I met truckers who had passed me miles before on their way to the grain elevators: “You were blinkin’, honey. Blinkin’ and blinkin’ and I could see you comin’ from far away.”
Jessica and I stayed in touch. I wrote her a postcard and she came to visit Boston in mid-October. We took the elevators to the observatory deck at the roof of the Science Center where you can see the brick of Harvard Square laid out like legos. A thick layer of fog obscured the Boston skyline, but I gestured to where it would be, the contours of the Charles River hidden beyond tall buildings.
One year later: we’re all around a table again, laughing like no time has passed. Doe’s has no menu. Jessica reaches across the table to explain. “You want a salad? You have to try the salad.”
Her father Howard jumps in with his hand on my shoulder, “Baby, you like shrimp, right? Now you want it broiled or fried?” Howard squeezes “baby” into every sentence like it is liquid gold, instant belonging.
I wish I could have met his wife, Carol. She brought music to the family, and it reverberates still.
Jessica orders two-dozen hot tamales and three T-bone steaks for the table for good measure.
The food comes and it smells beautiful. All of it. Even the French fries.
I tend to lose consciousness of my body when I’m engaged full-on in the act of listening, but at the sight and smell of the large platters, the hunger that had laid dormant in my stomach stands up to dance. The dipping sauce for the shrimp is garlicky and divine. I didn’t know I liked shrimp until I rode down to the Gulf and said yes to a fresh catch. Everything changes in proximity to the sea.
“Here honey, this is chocolate––” Eden says, feeding me a bite-sized piece of steak she has carefully selected. “––chocolate from a cow’s ass!”
The meat melts into my body. I can’t remember the last time I ate red meat. Good god.
Bronwynne, the third Brent sister, is seated at the far side of table outside of talking distance––there are boyfriends and family friends scattered in between us. I make sure to tell her that I love her music before I leave, how it sustained me through many a long afternoon of senior thesis writing last summer.
On my last night in Greenville last summer, the Brents called a party together at Hank Burdine’s place. We cooked red beans and rice and after the meal, the guitar came out, passed from hand to hand.
“I just think we needed a reason to celebrate,” Jessica told me in between glasses of wine. “And here you are.”