Browse More Essays


Storytelling in Mississippi is legend across our nation, from the pages of classic Faulkner to the contemporary writers whose works are chronicled by the Oxford American. I had traveled to Columbus, south of Memphis and east of the Delta, to meet with Carl Butler and his wife, Dixie. I was eager to see their collection and to take Carl up on the promise of an introduction to others who shared the Butlers’ enthusiasm for the fine and decorative arts collected in the Mississippi South. The tour was sublime. Beyond their home, we went to the octagon-shaped Waverly Mansion, met there by its owner who opened every door. We also walked through the doors of other houses left unlocked or used hidden keys as if it were the most natural thing in the world. In Carl’s world, I think it was.

At the close of that long September day, I was invited to join the small group assembled under the Butlers’ side porch on the first floor, picnic tables set on patterned bricks and dinner served family style. I was not sure that the party marked a true occasion, but was warmly welcomed and made to feel that the convivial gathering was one of friends simply come together to enjoy a meal. What was enjoyed most—the near empty glasses of tea being the only remaining evidence of the meal—were the stories. This was Carl’s world. The retiring high school history teacher knew his Mississippi and he shared it that evening. And I listened intently, in the full understanding that his people were my people, too. My family moved west—Hicklins and Hortons uprooted when the Carolina soil played out to raise the cotton they knew so well (or, as Bill Dunlap would claim, one step ahead of the law). I shared surnames with no one I met that night, but, my goodness, we had a lot in common.

The most memorable of the tales told was of a neighbor that everyone seemed to know of, though no one could say they knew; he was quiet to the point of being a recluse. Those assembled repeated the name when Carl called it and exchanged knowing glances, nodding in the direction of his home, certain that whatever story it was Carl would tell would be the best of the night and perhaps signal the end of the evening. All convened recounted sightings of that soul who seldom ventured out, always in long sleeves to protect against the sun and wearing a hat to serve as a screen to shift between himself and recognition. The various recollections seemed par for this particular course and did little to shed new light on the subject. It was generally agreed that everyone knew as much about this fellow as he might allow, though I knew him not at all.

As the fire of first-hand knowledge began to cool, Carl proffered something new; it would seem that those with stale stories had set up his presentation perfectly, as all opening acts should. That night, the true power of Mississippi narrative was burned into my memory, accompanied, as always, by a lesson to be learned. Carl’s story centered on the cloistered neighbor having some need for a small amount of money—perhaps to pay a repairman, I just don’t remember. With no funds in the cookie jar, this lonely soul determined to cash a check, despite the fact that it was after business hours and this neighborhood in Columbus was without much in the way of commercial enterprise anyway. With no automobile to wander far, the man made the walk to a nearby convenience store, blank check in hand. Like most everyone else in town, the cashier had never seen the man and would not honor the check, all fifteen dollars of it, though the printed address was just a few blocks distant.

Now, Paul was a loveable mutt of a dog, familiar to and cared for by all, even the man behind the cash register. As the neighbor unknown made his way back through the door and out to a tail-wagging Paul for the walk back home, the purveyor of milk, ice, and beer crossed the counter and bridged the door. He called after the man who wanted to cash the check with the simple question, “Is Paul your dog?” “Yes,” came the reply and with that the merchant said, “I’ll cash your check.”

I was there that fabled evening by dint of the complex credibility earned through years on the road, my automobile packed with paintings to suit the itinerary. Carl had called a few folks who knew of me either by his reference or were maybe just curious, folks who wanted to know if the scenes of my South pulled from that trunk were also scenes of their South. It turned out that Carl was ill that evening and then was no longer with us on my next visit to Columbus, leaving Dixie and their wonderful collection in that period house, home to so many tales. In the hours spent together that day—our one and only meeting—Carl shared an important life lesson that I am wise to be in mind of regularly.

Credibility is a fragile thing. I don’t believe the shopkeeper would have cashed my check.

Thomason, Eugene H. (1895-1972)
Pointer Dog ()
Oil on canvas
36 x 48 inches
Signature Details: Lower left
Owner: The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
Get Our Email Newsletter
Created by . Easy site updating through Backstage CMS.