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On the Road to Yazoo City

by William H. Coles

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Yazoo City  

My life at twenty-one was never in tune–like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold–and I’m walking up this two lane side road about ten miles West of Canton and North of Jackson where I have just come from.  Haven’t seen a car in maybe an hour, the straps of my pack digging into my shoulders, the sun burning my eyes because I lost my shades leaning over a riverbank to fill my water jug, and dragging the guitar case cause it’s just too heavy to lift off the ground.  Pure shit.  But I got to make it work.  I’m flat broke.

About half a mile down the road I see this man on a bike peddling like to die and holding straight on the faded centerline.  I flag him down and drop my backpack.  He stops the bike, straddling the bar and breathing hard.

“Mister!” I say. “You point me to Yazoo city?” 

He points to his mouth and pulls out a little broken piece of slate and a piece of chalk from his pocket. 

“Why?” he writes in block letters on the slate.

 I guess it is a Mississippi kind of question.  Someone asks you something.  You ask them back something different.  Then you spend a lot time being sure you don’t tell them what you know they want to know.

“Gig,” I say.  I’m not about to give him the scoop.  Truth is I was feeling so bad about this sweet girl–damn near a virgin–in Biloxi, I got drunk and missed a whole week of gigs with a band I’d been working with for two months.  Manager left a note in the F-hole of my archtop acoustic.  “No job.  No more.  Try Yazoo.”

The guy’s eyes light up when I say “gig,” as if he dreams of being me someday.  He points straight ahead, smiling, and he draws an X on his slate and circles the right upper branch.

“Yazoo City?” I ask again to be sure.

He grins a grin-with-gaps and gives me a thumb up.  Before I get my stuff mounted again, he’s back on the road, peddling like mad now.

I  plod toward the crossroads, about to drop.  In Jackson, I’d missed the once-a-week bus to Yazoo City, then I’d spent my last money on a meal of crackers and Coke out of the vending machines.  A woman who mops the toilets told me I could walk the distance in few hours.  There’s some good information for you.  I’m close to six hours walking now, and I ain’t seen nothing, much less Yazoo City.

Sun’s about half way down on the afternoon.  Up ahead I see a crossroad; I imagine this is what the mute guy had been drawing because there’s a paved road going off to the right.

I go about half a mile, and this little girl comes out of this cabin that’s got a washing machine on the porch and a rusted Ford pickup–vintage mid forties–jacked up on concrete blocks in the yard.  She runs out to me.

“You want some gum?” she says taking a wad out of her mouth.

“Pass on that one, baby,” I say.

“Where you going?”

She’s got a way of asking the tough questions up front.  “I ain’t sure,”

I say, thinking in the broad sense.  I have a direction, but no purpose.

“What’s in that?” she says, pointing to the guitar.

“Guitar.  You know what a guitar is?”

She nodded once.  “Play.”

I’m zonked, so I put things down and stretch out on the roadside gravel.  “Two strings busted baby.  Don’t play good.”  But I dig an “A” harp from my back pocket.  “I play you a tune, you like?”  She doesn’t say anything, but I play her a tune, “Oh, Susanna.”  She doesn’t look real excited, so I play her “The Saints Go Marching In.”

“You like it?”

She shrugs, which, in my state, I take as a real downer.

“Look, here’s another.”  I sing with this one.  “Empty Bed Blues.”  And I’m about to cry, thinking about my woman.  When I’m finished, her eyes seem to have a little more interest.

“My gal left me,” I explain to her.  “She was a waitress in Biloxi.  Madeline’s her name.  Dear God, I love that girl.  And I thought we would be together forever because she said ‘I love you, too.’  But two weeks later, she said my life was ‘unstable,’ that’s exactly the word she used, and then she went to Atlanta to ‘sort things out’ at her mother’s house.  Unstable!  Can you imagine that?”  The girl is still just staring at me.

“Me blow that thing?” she asks.

 I’m thinking I don’t want the spit or nothing.  But she looks about to cry so I explain.  “Sorry, honey.  You got gum and these harps is really personal.  It’s like a toothbrush.”  Well, that was something I hadn’t had in a few days, and I don’t think she’d  seen one for a while either.

I’m thinking about just putting my head back and sleeping a while, maybe the night, by the side of the road.  It’s not like traffic’s a problem keeping me awake.

She grabs the harmonica and starts running like the wind.  It’s my Big River, twenty-four bucks new, and I take out after her.  She runs into the house and I run in right behind her, mad as hell but admiring that she’s willing to go for what she wants.

Inside, the shack is a big room with a stove and a refrigerator with the door open.  Stuff inside the fridge looks hot.  I hear moaning, and the little girl pokes her head out the door of the room off to the right and stares at me.

Now there’s a yelling.  I go into the room.

Goddamn.  There’s a woman on the bed, on a bare mattress, with a pillow behind her head, and she’s got her dress up and her knees up and I’m looking straight into her private parts that are bulging.  I see this little football of hair, and then she stops yelling and the hair goes back in.

She’s breathing hard, and all of sudden I am too.  She whispers, “Get me some water in a bucket.  Bring me the blanket from the couch.”  And the kid walks out, calm, like this happens every day.  I’m ready to get back to my guitar and backpack, and get moving.

She begins a moan, and then stops.  “Excuse me, Ma’am,” I say, thinking I might tell her her daughter, at least this girl, stole my harmonica.

Then she moans short and starts screaming, and I back to the door.  I see the football of hair growing larger.  I wonder where the water is.  But I’m not knowing at all what to do with it.  At least the blanket seems like a good idea, to wrap the kid in if it gets here.

“It’s coming,” she screams.

It’s damn obvious it’s coming, and I am scared shitless.

“It’s coming,” she screams again. 

And I’m looking at this woman’s parts and thinking about all the times I dreamed about being down in there and believing I’ll never be thinking that again.

“It’s coming,” she screams, and damn if it doesn’t come in a flush of piss and blood and shit.  It’s half out, and she’s trying to sit up like a crunch and help it, but she falls back.  I step up and try to grab its head, but it’s slippery as snot, so I get it by the shoulders trying to figure out a way for a pull, and here it comes itself, sliding down the bed and if I don’t stop the little devil, it goes right on into the iron pipe cross the foot of the bed.  The first thing I see is it’s a boy–a soul brother–and I feel a little better about knowing it and I touch him on the head.

I seen enough TV to know you hold him up, and I take one hand on each leg.  I think I have to whack him on the bottom, but I don’t have a free hand.  Thank the dear Lord he just cries on his own.  I look down, and the woman is crying and smiling and mumbling, “Thank you, Jesus,” over and over, and she’s bleeding now so blood is running off the end of the bed in a little stream.  The cord is still dangling, and she tells me to hand her the little guy.

The girl comes in and puts the blanket on the woman’s crotch, and after the woman’s got the little boy, I’m thinking about how to get out of there.

“Get me the knife, Pearl,” the woman says.

Out goes the kid.  “Ain’t here,” she yells back.

The woman sits and just chews on the cord until the end drops.  Then she makes a little tie like ribbon candy. 

She moans again.  But not for long.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am.”

She don’t say nothing.

“It was like an accident.”

She’s still silent.

“I was just walking by.  On the road to Yazoo City.”

“This ain’t the road to Yazoo City,” she manages to whisper.

She moans again.  “Could you sit a spell?”

I don’t answer, and after a minute I pull up the only chair in the room.  The baby is cradled on her chest, stuff like wax all over it with flecks of blood on his closed eyes.  But he seems content.

The afterbirth comes after a mild moan.  Then the blood pretty much stops.  The little girl plops the water bucket down, but I don’t move.  The woman holds out her hand and I take it, her fingers soft and tired feeling. 

 “What about your husband?” I ask.

“He don’t cotton to birthing,” she whispers.

I sit there maybe five minutes.

“You got a sweetheart?” she asks.

“Had one,” I say. “She left me.  I ain’t felling too good about women right now,” I say.

“Man needs a good woman,” she whispers.

I close my eyes and feel the woman’s fingers weave into mine, holding tight.  I’m  afraid to let go, afraid she might drift off somewhere like a dandelion seed, and I’d be alone.  After another five minutes or so, I let go.  The feel of her hand lingers on my skin in a way that I won’t forget it. 

“You get the doctor,” she says.

“I don’t know the doctor.”

“Phone at the store.  Mile past the crossroads.”

“Back up the road?’

“Yeah, take the fork to Canton.”

“Okay,” I say.

I walk out to the big room.  On the sink is another piece of broken slate with some smudged writing on it.  I go to pick it up thinking it might have some information about the doctor but the little girl grabs it. 

“I gotta find the doctor,” I said pointing to the slate.

She looks at me with a blank stare.  She ain’t the best communicator.  I’m wondering about the harp.  Getting it back.  But then I think what the hell, maybe it’ll do her more good than it did me. 

“Let the good times roll,” I say to her and give her a little wave.  She doesn’t move and her stare is still fixed on me. 

I get back to the roadside, look around a little, but my backpack and guitar are gone.  Every last thing I have in the world. 

Jesus, I think, angry as hell, maybe I should track down the thief.  That guitar is big bucks.  I’d beat the hell out of him.  Then I’m thinking about my promise about the doctor–I can’t go back on a promise–so I start moving again.  After a while I’m surprised.  Walking is a lot easier without lugging that damn guitar.  I’m trying to be positive.  I’m feeling lighter, like a balloon that broke away from being tied down.  I’m thinking this is a sign.  A new direction.  Screw the gigs.  Maybe I could try a career in fast food.

Just as I’m about to make the turn toward the phone place, the guy on the bike peddles up and whips out his slate.  He writes a question mark.  He’s got more schooling than I thought.  He’s wearing my Chicago Cubs baseball cap, too, the one I had in my pack.  He points up the road the way I come.  He’s grinning at me like he just slipped an ace into a losing hand of poker.

“It’s a boy,” I say.  He jumps up and down a couple times, still straddling the bike, and waves his arms over his head.

“Good looking, too,” I say.

He wipes the slate with the heel of his hand.  I see he’s wearing two of my fingerpicks.  Damn!  For a second, I want to strangle him.

“OK?” he writes.  He cups his hands in front of his chest like breasts, I guess as a sign to tell me he’s asking about the woman.

“You got to get the doctor,” I tell him, but he starts shaking his head, pointing to his mouth.

“Okay,” I say, “Okay!”

He wipes the slate clean again and writes, “U OK?”

I’m feeling light on possessions and I need to find some money for a burger and fries.  I know I could sell my metronome that I still got in my pocket.  Maybe sweet-talk a loan for a couple days.

“I’m cool,” I say.

He puts the slate back in his pocket and slaps me on the shoulder like I’m his best friend.  He makes the peace sign with his hand, and looks worried.  That’s too much my-buddy stuff for a guy that just ripped off my guitar.  I have the thought to mangle him on the spot.  But I can’t stop seeing in my mind his woman and my Madeline, all at once.  Maybe he’s doing it for his family.  So I slap him on the back, friendly.

“I like your groove,” I say, with more meaning than I thought I had in me.

He gets ready to crank up his bike.

“Hey, my man,” I say pointing down the road.  “Is that the way to Atlanta?”

He writes another question mark on his slate with “Yazoo” after it.

“My woman in Atlanta,” I say.

He points the other way toward Atlanta.  His grin is so wide I can see where his back teeth are missing.

Join the discussion on Facebook:

I recently posted a story about using first person POV in literary fiction. Many interesting comments resulted, many along the idea that first person limits the narration. But it's not all bad. Sometimes, remaining in a single point of view can be a boost for story meaning. It certainly adds impetus through focus on the character's enlightenment. The sample story is "On the Road to Yazoo City." The story, dedicated to action, never leaves the protagonist, a musician with busted guitar strings is on his last leg looking for work. He finds a Mississippi family with a voiceless father, a shrewd daughter, and a caring pregnant mother, all existing in poverty but with a strange inner spirit positive for life.

When a character is the only source of story information, there is always a question of credibility and reliability. There is nothing to reflect the character's moral compass. And believable characters strengthen characterization and theme substance. To keep first person characters credible and believable motivations have to be clear with detail and logic that the reader doesn't questions to be drawn in to experience of the story and accept character change, usually enlightenment. In this story the protagonist sees characters out of the ordinary who change him from purposeless drifting to finding the girl that will give him purpose. It's a short story. See if you agree it works with the 1st person POV. Is there any other POV where this action and character shift in thinking would be enhanced?

· "On the Road to Yazoo City"

Commissioned illustration by Peter Healy
I would welcome more illustrations for this story from artists. I'll buy acceptable work that grasps, through an image, the emotional and intellectual activity entwined in the plot of the story and relates to theme.
... Read MoreShow Less

Posted 6 months ago

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Dotsy Maher, Ian Graham and 23 others like this

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Andrew BroderickHow is it hard to guage their moral compass? It's easier then ever in 1st person, since you're privy to their innermost thoughts.

6 months ago   ·  4

1 Reply

Story in Literary FictionAndrew. Thanks for comment. Here's one way to look at this. When exclusively in 1st person POV, worldview, and persona, the reader does not know story truth or lies, only what the 1st person character tells. Authors sometimes solve this partially by using narrator supplied information from the 1st person character at an older age. This gives a more a objective perspective. Even with this duel narration, readers can never be sure and the perception of 1st person truth is up in the air. For an example of importance: let's say your protagonist in a short story is Bernie Madoff, the world's most notorious convicted investment crook. Whatever Bernie says or thinks may or may not be true in the story world about his honesty, about his moral vision. Now thicken the plot. His elder son commits suicide and leaves no clues as to why; and as author you may want readers, and maybe other characters, to feel a certain way--sympathy, or pity, or rage. Whether Bernie had been telling the truth in the story will affect how successful you are as author in developing emotional responses to the suicide, to Bernie, and to the story. If Bernie has had any responsibility in his son's suicide, it's hard to feel sympathy for Bernie. If the son committed suicide because of shame at his father's actions, and Bernie's crimes are really his, rage for Bernie comes more easily. Now if the story has other points of view, they are usually accepted as more credible and add to story interpretation and acceptance. There are many other ways 1st person character reliability or lack of it affects storytelling. It's okay if all this makes no sense to you; not many fiction writers even care about narrative perspective, POV, credibility, and reliability, and they are published and read. Still, for the writer seeking recognition for literary story as art, mastery of narration is a valuable tool. All the best.

6 months ago   ·  4

Austin LockeI wrote all of my books in first person because I felt like I got into the character more when I did. Nobody complained about it except one person and he likes to write in third person omniscient.

6 months ago

2 Replies

Alexander ConvardI've been writing a story for a long time in a diary style format, and one of the things I have to keep reminding my readers is that everything they're getting is filtered through the protagonists perspective and they they may not be right in their perceptions or understand everything that's going on. It's one of the more fun parts of writing a story that way.

6 months ago

1 Reply

Emry Isaac DinmanThe two best cases for first person is probably just the formal diction available (sometimes I sounds better than he/she) and the very fact that its limited. Sometimes a story is about the fallability of its protagonist, and the available modes of discourse on that are more limited in even a free-indirect sort of omnisience

6 months ago   ·  1

1 Reply

Keith Gordon HarvilleIve been writing a book but stuck on how im gonna end it it's about a year in a life of a "emo" teenager dealing with bullying

6 months ago

1 Reply

Story in Literary FictionKeith, Sounds like solid material with interesting characters. Stories start and usually a conflict established. Then things happen. And then the story ends with resolution of the conflict--the bully experiences justice, the victim suffers, a character sees a new way to live to solve problems, etc. It can be much more subtle, but in every story something happens and there is a resolution. That's how stories have entertained and enlightened from the beginning of human exchange. Stories are often written describing events that have happened and characters that have existed where the conflict is unclear (your conflict seems very clear), motivations not identified, and a lack of change in the characters or a resolution of barriers that prevent life and happiness not presented in the telling and story never achieves acceptance. Again, frequently these core story elements can be very subtle and yet very effective. In the end, there has to be logical change in plot, and in literary stories, characters. And for best story success, the reader experiences satisfaction in reading story and often discovers new ways of thinking about things, or at least is stimulated to think about life and humanity in new ways! I suspect you have all this in your writing. It might help to clarify conflicts then figure away to present resolutions, if you haven't done that already. Success requires practice for most of us. I'd imagine a number of endings and chose the best. Thanks for comment and all the best in writing. WHC

6 months ago

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One comment on “On the Road to Yazoo City

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    Tim Chambers

    I have a problem with this one because, while vivid and extremely well told, everything seems to happen to him because of his good nature, not as a result of his own flawed choices. In the end he doesn’t even get the woman (who offers herself to him) in exchange for his stolen goods. He ends up “cu le pache nel’ aqua” as the Neapolitans say, passively accepting his situation and unable to do anything to ameliorate it. He’s a cypher.

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