Heat (and Living with It in Mississippi)
Jennifer M. Smith
Willie Morris said, “Let us begin with the land,” and I don’t want argue with Willie, but if I’m going to talk about Mississippi, I say “Let us begin with the heat.” There are many different types of heat here in Mississippi: sweltering heat, packing heat, and heat of the moment. These types of heat have been longtime themes of our Magnolia State.
Heat has often been the alleged culprit behind many unfortunate local occurrences. I often wonder, if, in a court of law, the jury shouldn’t consider a variable for our state’s heat. For instance, should a man who commits a crime in the sweltering heat of July or August be given some extra consideration? This all comes from my own personal theory that the high temperatures in Mississippi are partly responsible for our feverish tempers. I think you could bring the most even keeled northerner down here in the middle of our summer and he or she will at some point learn the proper procedure for the Southern “hissy fit.”
Packing heat is not limited to the Mississippi Mafia or deer hunters. My grandmother packed heat. To people of her generation, it was as natural as breathing. Bonnie Pearl was number thirteen of fourteen brothers and sisters that came from a poor Irish farm family. She eloped with my grandfather, Elby, when she was sixteen and he was on leave from the Army. By the time I was born, my grandfather was known to everyone as Billy. I asked him one day if the name on his driver’s license was a mistake and he said, “No, my real name is Elby Walter, but your Maw Maw likes to call me Billy, and I ain’t arguing with her about it.” Nobody liked to get into a heated discussion with Bonnie Pearl. She was the sweetest, meanest, holiest, foul mouth woman you would ever love or hate. She would say a fifteen-minute tearful halleluiah blessing before Thanksgiving dinner, and cuss you like a sailor with a Pall Mall hanging off her lip if you crossed the line with her. Now don’t get the idea that she was some rogue; she was all woman. She never left the house without her bright pink lipstick on, her bright red curls teased and tamed, her big black sunglasses, and a pistol in the purse that matched her shoes. Ever since I remember, Bonnie Pearl always packed heat in her purse, but in her later years she mellowed out a little and traded it in for a switch blade that Rambo would have envied. She never carried these things for her protection. They were for people who harmed or attempted to harm her loved ones, and if you don’t believe it, just ask the first boy who ever broke my heart.
With the heat of outdoor weather comes the pleasure of gardening and absorbing praise for our manicured lawns. For some communities, the Yard of the Month award and Yard of the Year award (the grand, overall award) is an extremely coveted accolade. On fear of suffering, torture, and dismemberment, I will NOT reveal the names of the persons in the heated account I am about to share with you or the time period in which it took place. This is an actual deathbed revelation. We will call the ladies in this hand-me-down tale Betty and Sue.
Betty won the Yard of the Month award more than anyone, and she won the Yard of the Year award every year. Sue worked and worked in her yard, hell-bent on winning, but Betty had much more leisure time than Sue, since Betty did not have to work and her children were grown.
Year after year, Betty added trophies and medallions to her mounting collection until it just became a tradition to hand her an award. Sue thought this was unfair, telling anyone who would listen that her yard was twice as fine as Betty’s. Sue was also infuriated by the fact that Betty’s best friend was the president of the gardening club and one of the most feared women in the social circle of their small town.
One year in particular, Sue was tied with Betty on Yard of the Month awards, and there was one monthly award left for the year. If either of them won, she would win the Yard of the Year award.
Betty was not nervous or concerned, as she won every year anyway, and left early on the morning of the judging to go shopping in Biloxi with her sister. She left just before daylight, admiring her yard in her rearview mirror, and set off to meet her sister for a day of leisure. Looking forward to it, she had reported the plans for her outing to her friends at the garden club meeting the night before.
After the judges pulled into her drive, they were so shocked at the display before them that they refused to get out of the car. Littered along the sidewalk that led to the house were dozens of dog turds. They were scattered throughout the lawn, in the flower beds, and on the lip of the angel fountain displayed majestically in the middle of the yard. The turds were all placed creatively, as if a pack of dogs had wanted to leave their mark on every floral and stone display that made up the award winning lawn.
No matter her influence, the president of the gardening club could not defend her best friend on this judging. Some of the turds had started to turn white and the neglect was obvious. For the first time in years, someone other than Betty took home the yard of the year trophy. Sue displayed it with great pride on the mantle in her living room. What she did not display however, was the card of congratulations that she received from a relative in a nearby town. The relative applauded Sue on her great coup, and thanked her for overseeing the cleaning of the stalls at his dog kennel while he was on vacation.
On her deathbed, Sue said it was a decision made of desperation in the heat of the moment.
I believe that it is because of the heat that we Southerners are such creative and adaptable people. For one to survive in our high Mississippi temperatures, one would need to possess both of these qualities, and for every quality we lack we can blame it on the heat.
Jennifer Smith spends her days teaching junior high English, but she spends her evenings the same way she did when she was a little girl: making up stories.
Jennifer M. Smith