Finding Lewis Nordan
We arrived early and haggard from the drive up through the stone-gray flatscape of the Delta—two pallid swaths, earth and sky, punctuated by occasional water towers and a scatter of townships.
The photographer Chris Fowler drove. His dog, Hazel, kept vigil in the backseat—our very own blacker-than-the-night hellhound, for muscle. Day-old clothes and a fresh shiner over my left eye evidenced nights before in New Orleans and Jackson. It was early spring, cold, and the sun hadn’t been out for days.
Itta Bena, Mississippi. The hometown of Lewis Nordan, one of the best-kept secrets of Southern literature, fiercely loved by the too few who know his work, which comprises three small story collections, four novels, and a memoir. Nordan is often described as a peddler of a sort of hardboiled, Southern-fried magical realism. In his stories, swamp elves rattle through canebrakes, bands of eunuchs rove the countryside to perform Episcopal baptisms, the spirits of murdered boys see the world through shot-out eye sockets. For his part, Nordan preferred the labels “marvelous realist” and “American Gothic.” To friends and family, he was Buddy.
Nordan’s legacy is best approached through his appreciators, a common fate for our most idiosyncratic—and often greatest—artists. Author Hal Crowther writes: “Nordan’s is an inclusive fiction like no other, inhabited by more exotically damaged ‘others’—freaks, as he doesn’t hesitate to call them—than any other literary landscape. He speaks Freak fluently, yet some of his funniest lines unexpectedly betray more sophisticated syntax, and we remember that this is an author with a Ph.D. in English.” Crowther speculates as to why Buddy never achieved mainstream success: “Just a guess, but brotherly love directed at freaks, cripples, perverts, and the most forlorn of Mississippi white trash is way out of synch with the American mainstream, one tough sell to the literary Chamber of Commerce.”
The 1993 novel Wolf Whistle, a fictional retelling of the Emmett Till murder, remains Nordan’s most lasting achievement, periodically appearing on “most underrated” lists. In a review for the Nation, Randall Kenan asserts: “In Nina Simone’s famous and effective civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ she throws off an aside: ‘This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it . . . yet.’ Wolf Whistle could well be that show.”
But Lewis Nordan, who died in 2012, remains a writer’s writer.
Ten years ago, a boy named Sugar Mecklin broke my heart. I was an intern at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill—Nordan’s longtime publisher—where I’d paged through a copy of Music of the Swamp. It was the saddest thing I’d read in my life. Also the strangest and, somehow, the funniest.
Sugar is Nordan’s literary alter ego—a lonely, imaginative, hurting boy at the center of much of the author’s fiction. Nordan mined his own life to create Sugar, and the defining tensions of his own upbringing are reflected in the work—themes he later described as “the tragic limitations of a society defined by racial hatred and alcoholism and geographical isolation.” I would add fatherlessness to this list.
Many of the stories in Music of the Swamp are heartsore dispatches from a dark pseudo-Delta where young Sugar is a stranger in his native land. In one, a long-promised hunting trip with his serially drunken stepfather is postponed when the elder Mecklin injects the local pharmacist with a lethal dose of morphine. But Nordan never strays far from hilarity—in another story, Sugar fishes for chickens in his backyard, landing his stepfather’s prize Andalusian rooster. In another, Sugar pines for his friend Roy Dale Conroy’s older sister, who’s out on a date shooting junkyard rats in a thunderstorm. The family has an inarticulate green parrot that can only make the sound of a cash register. Roy Dale’s four-year-old youngest brother, to their mother’s agony, aspires to be an apple when he grows up. Pressed on this, the boy changes his mind: “I want to grow up to be a dog.”
Sugar introduced me to a world called Arrow Catcher—the name Nordan gave to Itta Bena. It is a twisted place, like his writing, which is full of magic, music, and violence. Arrow Catcher and its environs run wild with elves and mermaids, knife-throwing midgets, the oddity of apple-green skies. Everywhere are drunks, loners, and dangerous men. Hordes of freaks stream into town during perennial carnival fairs.
“In Buddy’s work I often find some balancing of Kafka, Jesus, and Monty Python,” the author Clyde Edgerton recently wrote about his friend. “And reading him I sometimes wish everybody came from where he came from so they might better know firsthand the marvels of his characters’ language.”
The sliver of an idea that had brought us to Mississippi was to play out Edgerton’s notion. Chris, whose soft spot for unsung heroes and fellow degenerates rivals my obsession with Nordan’s literary witchery, suggested we might find out more about Nordan on the ground in Itta Bena, since the author set all of his work there.
This was Nordan’s Yoknapatawpha, where everything begins and ends. We had zero plan, other than to witness the places he wrote about. We had a short list of phone numbers provided by Nordan’s editor Shannon Ravenel—long disconnected—and a stack of his books.
What we found: Lewis Nordan was a slippery pursuit. And Itta Bena is a haunted town.
I am confused about the role of the novelist in our violent world.
Itta Bena sits in the center of the Mississippi Delta, an ancient floodplain two hundred miles long and seventy miles wide. Until not long ago, it was a vast wet wilderness—home to the Choctaw tribe. A sign marks the town limit: WELCOME TO ITTA BENA . . . HOME IN THE WOODS. In his 2000 memoir, Boy with Loaded Gun, Nordan tells of the town’s naming. It’s a misnomer; the Choctaw word it’s derived from is actually a verb, meaning “to build a house of crossed logs.”
The house, really more of a cabin, was erected by the governor of Confederate Mississippi, B. G. Humphrey—supposedly one of the first residences built by a white man in Indian Territory. A patinated bronze plaque in the middle of the town square commemorates Humphrey and the day he was “forcibly removed by carpetbag regime, June, 1868.” Nordan’s mother recalled having seen the cabin, though Nordan never did. Several people around town had ideas about where it had stood, but despite days of searching, we never found the site.
Itta Bena is sixty miles from Clarksdale, one hundred forty miles south of Memphis, and nineteen miles down the road from Money, Mississippi, the town where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. Till was just a few months younger than Buddy at the time of his death, an event that tormented Nordan all his life.
Lewis Nordan spent his infancy in Forest, Mississippi, near Jackson, where he was born in 1939. His biological father, Lemuel Nordan, who was a mail carrier, died when he was a baby, and he was raised by his mother and a deeply alcoholic, disappointing stepfather, a housepainter who took them in. He never filled the hole that was made in Buddy Nordan’s brain by not knowing his real father—not even having a vague recollection of what he looked like, aside from the single photograph that his mother kept. Buddy resented his stepfather for robbing his mother of happiness and drinking himself into a stupor most nights in a grocery store called Shiloh’s that served illegal liquor, as Nordan writes in his memoir, to a clientele of “doctors, mail carriers, plantation owners, grave diggers, men who had not drawn a meaningful breath since catching the winning touchdown pass in the 1940s, as well as the likes of my father.”
Comic books and television provided an outlet for the boy—and served as early literary influences. He loved Superman especially, “for all the usual reasons, looks, strength, ability to fly, magic tricks.” And, Nordan writes, “because of his parents. His father had died when he was a baby, just like mine. We were both raised by step-fathers.” Like Superman, Buddy was an alien.
He also loved to flip through the Sears and Roebuck catalog with his mother, who would invent stories about the girls—pages that suggested “a real world … with lakes and cities and operas and noisy streets and farmlands and neighborhoods.” Buddy spent his early years desperate to get out of Itta Bena.
Blues music mingled with the brisk March air as we approached, windows down. WABG, 960 AM, a white shack on Money Road. Empty cotton fields bristled all around—“skeletons in white dresses.”
We stopped, first, at the brick high school on the edge of town where Nordan’s mother had taught. Chris photographed the desolate football field, flanked by faded-red stainless-steel bleachers. Buddy was equipment manager for the team. In the locker room here, he learned about Emmett Till, “one afternoon in early September,” he later wrote. “I heard several boys on the team talking about a body that had been found in the Tallahatchie River.” The boys said he’d gotten what he deserved. Nordan, who was quiet and shy, remained silent.
In his fiction, the school’s preferred sport is arrow catching—in which competitors launch arrows into the sky for their teammates to catch. The sport also serves as the centerpiece of the fairs that roam into the town of Arrow Catcher. Satire is the only guess I can venture to account for this. We moved on toward the town center. A group of gangly teenagers alighted from bikes, wobbling from a corner store, sodas in hand, and we were there.
The Itta Bena of Nordan’s youth was a small but busy Delta town, healthy with commerce—idyllic, in some ways, but also riddled with alcoholism and racial hatred. The place we drove into was barren. The population is depleted—especially the white population, which, in a pattern endemic to the region, has mostly left for bigger cities. Itta Bena’s police department had been disbanded, and the station sat abandoned on the edge of downtown.
We parked on the west side and crossed the central square. Brick veneers shed layers of paint around us. The businesses that had thrived in Nordan’s books and stories were almost all shuttered. Commerce survived in a handful of plain, flat-front buildings—a Chinese market, an antiques store—but the majority were vacant, windows boarded up or broken. Some structures, including the former Dixie Theater for blacks, had fully collapsed.
Nordan’s earliest stories, first collected in his 1983 debut, Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair, map out the strange town. The last story he wrote for the collection introduces Sugar Mecklin, who appears more frequently in Nordan’s second book, The All-Girl Football Team, and becomes the central character of his third, Music of the Swamp. Through Sugar and Arrow Catcher, Nordan gradually re-created Itta Bena as he saw and understood it. “As I look back over the early stories in those first two collections,” Nordan writes in the foreword for Sugar Among the Freaks, “I see clearly how the town of Arrow Catcher, Mississippi, its geography and its inhabitants—not just the Mecklins but also many others—were slowly taking form and shape and moral dimension, a little like a photograph in a developing tray, appearing first in dim and fuzzy outline and then becoming crisper in the details, sharper at the edges.”
Crossing the town, I thought of Alice, the young schoolteacher protagonist of Wolf Whistle, walking through Arrow Catcher for the first time. She sees a skinny yellow dog dragging a saddlebag of harmonicas down the street in its teeth. The feeling, as she enters the white-trash section of town, called Balance Due, is one of awe and terror:
Filthy, violent men in shirtsleeves sat in doorways. They staggered, they leered, they drank out of sacks, they worked in muddy yards on junker cars with White Knights bumper stickers. Bottle-trees clanked in the breeze. A hundred-year-old voodoo woman wearing a swastika stirred a cauldron above a fire in a yard nearby. A young man tried to convince a woman, a girl really, to let him shoot an apple off her head with a pistol.
As we walked, a group of midday drunks babbled in a white gazebo, dappled with magnolia shade, in the center of the square. They yelled for us to come over and talk. The men didn’t know anyone called Buddy Nordan, but the eldest of the group was able to point, thumb-over-shoulder, to a crucial landmark of Buddy’s youth.
Itta Bena’s eastern border is defined by Roebuck Lake, a thin ribbon of swamp studded with cypresses, bisected by a one-lane bridge and a parallel rail crossing, long since fallen out of use. Normally black due to the tannic acid that leaches into the water from the ancient cypress roots, the swamp that day reflected the gray, still sky.
This murky patch of water is the beating heart of Nordan’s work. It’s a place of solitude and solace for Sugar Mecklin, who retreats to the swamp when he’s scorched by existence. It’s a place where magic exists. His mother swears the swamp is bottomless—and it is, to Sugar, an infinite source of imaginative flight. It’s also where Nordan’s prose really sings, whenever he writes about the swamp, the Delta’s most striking natural feature.
In the title story of Music of the Swamp, young Sugar Mecklin is asleep. Like Buddy Nordan, Sugar lost his father in infancy and lives with his stepfather, Gilbert Mecklin, a drunken housepainter who makes his mother ugly and broken with grief. The story opens on a summer morning, when, in a dream, Sugar sees a mermaid on Roebuck Lake. This envisioning, seeing beyond the surface of things, is axiomatic in Nordan’s work.
Sugar was dreaming that he was standing alone in the shade of tupelo gums and cypress and chinaberry and weeping willow and mimosa and that the water of Roebuck Lake was exactly as it was in real life, slick and opaque as a black mirror, with the trees and high clouds reflected perfectly in the surface. He … saw a beautiful creature of some kind, a mermaid maybe, rise up from the water. Her breasts were bare, and she was singing directly to him as she combed her long hair with a comb the color of bone, and in the other hand held a mirror as dark and fathomless as the mirror-surface of Roebuck Lake.
Sugar awakens to the sound of Elvis on the radio—it’s the first time he’s ever heard Elvis. Sugar walks out to the swamp. There’s a baptism in progress. A gospel choir sings, affirming what he heard Elvis say over the airwaves, and what the mermaid had told him in his sleep: “You’ll be so lonely you could die.” This realization, Sugar Mecklin thinks, is the happiest moment of his life.
The line kills you.
Another boy, Sweet Austin, interrupts the reverie. He takes Sugar into the canebrake, where Sweet has found the corpse of an old man, dead from a heart attack—bloated feet and legs protruding from the water. “If I had a daddy I would know what to do,” Sweet says.
Sugar envisions his daddy “in speckled overalls back at the house, standing on the fourth rung of a stepladder and holding a bucket and brush and smearing paint over the bathroom ceiling.” When the devastated boys return home, Gilbert Mecklin is listening to Bessie Smith, too drunk to comfort them, and what follows is a passage—about fatherhood, inheritance, poverty, and grief—too devastating to appropriate here.
Remember the dead body. It is important.
I kicked a piece of gravel from the railroad into the swamp and watched the sky waver below. Chris captured cypresses from the banks, the click of his shutter faintly echoing. In the fashion of many small Southern towns, railroad tracks cut directly through the center of Itta Bena. Standing on them, out in these bottoms, you can see for what feels like miles, until the tracks bend into a haze of horizon and honeysuckle. Directly across the square, there was a long patch of concrete, once the town’s train depot. Nordan describes it in his memoir: “in the shadow of the water tower, a long gray building with an unflushed toilet and the most elementary of graffiti on its walls: Pussy is good. I like thick dick. And a picture of a single disembodied breast with the word titty above it.”
Sugar Mecklin hops a train here in the story “Train, Train, Coming Round the Bend.” He rides it five miles out of town and returns “transformed by imagination and the possibility of distances.” The next day, he boards the train again, not with the taste of freedom in his heart, but sick with shame over his daddy’s drunkenness and racism—transgressions for which he has punished himself by grabbing onto a wasps’ nest in the rafters of a church. Sugar rides the train again, throbbing with wasps’ poison and the fear that he’s no different from his family, that he’s a “sick and bitter child.” Much of Nordan’s work is infused with this conflict: the fear that he’s just like everyone else—sick and bitter, distorted by his family, by Itta Bena, by the geography itself.
When he gets back home, Sugar finds that his blind grandfather has miraculously regained his sight. His grandfather tells him about a friend of his named Harper and a midget, both violent men. They once doused a dog named Holyghost in gasoline and set it on fire. “Don’t ask me why,” Pap says. Before he went blind with spite, Sugar’s grandfather saw the midget lop off his own hand with a chainsaw. The midget rushed to the doctor, leaving the hand behind.
I got the hand. I brushed the sawdust off. I gave it a firm handshake. I waved bye-bye to Harper with it. I played peep-eye behind it. I sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” I picked my nose with it. . . . I yanked a yellow dog. I shot the bird. I thumbed my nose. I thumbed a ride. I took it to a palm reader. I said, “Read this, sister.”
Pap asks his grandson, “Do you see what I mean?” Sugar responds:
I said, “That’s why you are a bad man?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “And that’s why Daddy is a idiot?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “And what about me?”
He said, “I don’t know.”
The story ends with what sounds like a plea, in something closer to the adult Nordan’s own voice: “I’m still asking the same question, though my father and grandfather are a long time dead: What about me?”
Chris and I began to piece together the town, mapping Arrow Catcher onto present-day Itta Bena. Here were the remains of the Southern Cafe—what Sugar knew as the Delta Cafe, where his grandfather went for coffee every Sunday and played punchboard—an empty shell, marked by a weathered Coca-Cola sign. Here was the American Legion hut, now yellowed and rusted, where Sweet Austin’s mother worked, spreading sawdust on the floor beneath a revolving Miller High Life sign.
The town’s other movie theater—the Strand, which catered to white audiences—stood crumbling, with a red facade, at the corner of Front and Main streets. In “Sugar Among the Chickens,” Sugar Mecklin wins a Zebco fishing pole in a raffle there. We entered Delta Lumber and Hardware next door. A gruff, quiet man behind the counter was less than welcoming. He didn’t shake hands and didn’t know anything about a man named Buddy Nordan.
The Western Auto, where a young Nordan bought bullets for a British pistol he ordered through the mail, was now Club Ray Ray’s, a low-slung brick building with a rumpled tin awning.
A used-car lot sat across the tracks from Ray Ray’s. A burly man named Billy was selling cars and trucks that were three-quarters worn out. Billy said he had lived farther down south for a few years but came back to Leflore County to raise his daughter. He couldn’t tell us anything about Nordan, but he invited us inside the sales office and told us where we could find fried catfish for lunch and the town cemetery. We went through the graveyard row by row looking for Nordan’s mother’s grave—no luck. The ground sank a couple inches with every step: Roebuck Lake underfoot.
As we got back in the car, a man named Carlos stopped us on the street, in front of a vacant Big Star. “You looking for help?” The man had mistaken us for developers. “I’ve got a crew ready to go to work today,” he offered. Carlos said he could do any kind of work that needed to be done: demolition, framing, roofing, plumbing, whatever.
After a day in Itta Bena, we were no closer to finding Lewis Nordan. No one we’d met actually knew him or his work, or even cared much to hear about it. No one recalled any sort of fairs in this part of the state. Using the books as maps led to contradictions and dead ends; names of recognizable sites shift across his stories and novels. Even in his memoir, Nordan changes names and flat out invents things. There are towns that appear in his books that can’t possibly be real—Good Dog Bad Dog; Scratch Ankle. Or at least they didn’t appear on any map we consulted.
A day spent idling around town resurrecting a reimagined past did not bring us any closer to the man behind this singular body of work. But if you spend a lot of time with Lewis Nordan’s writing, there are three key sites—aside from the omnipresent, mothering swamp—that seem to recur again and again. If the books are Nordan’s shelter, there were three pillars on which he built it—the crossed logs of his past. There was the house where the boy grew up, the bridge where he hid a dark secret, and Shiloh’s Store.
Power, of course, is what I possessed least of all, and connections with the outer darkness, as geographies beyond Itta Bena seemed to me, were tenuous indeed.
The next morning, we had our first breakthrough. Marion Barnwell, professor emeritus at Delta State University, called with the address of Buddy’s childhood home, on Main Street. We drove over from the center of town, two blocks—the path his grandfather beat to the Southern Cafe, and on which his stepfather stumbled home drunk at night from Shiloh’s. The house was low and gray with white trim and a shaded concrete porch. A sign on the front read VIOLA PLACE. We knocked, but there was no response.
Images from the writing flittered. The front porch he once used as a diving board, believing he was Superman—his mother had sewed him a cape, which he played in and slept in. Underneath the house, the boy Sugar Mecklin digs up a beautiful duplicate of his mother, in a red velvet dress, perfectly preserved in a glass case.
After about five minutes of loitering and repeated knocking, a woman answered the door. Her name was Anne, she told us. We read her a passage from the memoir, and she laughed.
“That’s beautiful,” she said. “I never knew of anyone like that being from here.” She was amused that we had any interest in her home, her town. Anne worked for Leflore County Schools—a county notable for having the highest rate of child poverty in the United States. She grew up in Itta Bena but moved to Chicago for a brief time after she finished school. She said she hated it there, recalling the coldest winters of her life. During Nordan’s childhood, she told us, she would have lived on the other side of town—literally across the railroad tracks—because of the color of her skin. But of course Itta Bena had changed.
Anne took us through the house. A dried cotton stalk with boll in a vase served as decoration in the front room, or what was the TV room to Nordan. There had been a communal television set at the Scott Petroleum Corporation—which still operates in town today, renovated, as one of the few remaining businesses—that the citizens crowded around to watch. (Nordan rechristens it the Spock Butane Gas Company.) When his family ordered their own television, Buddy, in a fit of joy, believed he could fly.
Many conflicting versions of Buddy Nordan’s and Sugar Mecklin’s lives played out within these walls. Scenes of his stepfather’s drunkenness. The wobbly records he played while he drank—what Sugar called “wrist-cutting music.” Scenes of violence. The time Gilbert Mecklin stabbed himself in the chest with an ice pick; another time in the stomach, twice, with a kitchen knife—both wounds were survived. In the story “The Sears and Roebuck Catalog Game,” Sugar’s mother opens a vein with a razor, in front of her son. The harrowing scene is followed directly by a passage narrated in the voice of what sounds very much like the adult Nordan talking about his own remove from his children—a sudden, discomfiting dip into real life.
Standing in Anne’s living room, it became nearly impossible to separate Sugar from Buddy—to tell what really happened. Even to Nordan, the boundary was unclear. In an essay called “Dangerous Inventions,” published in the inaugural edition of this magazine, Nordan wonders: “Why do I have a hard time distinguishing between what actually happened and what never happened?” And: “these fictions are so much a part of me that I scarcely know which are true and which are not.”
Hal Crowther offers a helpful note on the subject: “Memoir, hell. Lives are only lives.”
Behind the house, there was a cluster of cars. Anne’s son was wiping one down amongst a din of rap music and a chained dog’s howling. “Don’t take any pictures of the yard,” Anne said, suddenly shy. “These trees just ruin the pool—we haven’t had a chance to get it cleaned up.”
A stand of pecan trees littered the yard with husks and winter leavings. “Great, dark pecan trees, their shade so deep and constant that, no matter the weather, the side yard never fully warmed up during the day,” Nordan writes in his memoir, “and though I played there from morning to suppertime beneath those trees, as the sun passed across the blue sky above me, the light that reached me there was forever dim as twilight.” Images like this, from his childhood spent here in this yard, he explains, “though they occur to me only in beauty, are really images of loneliness.” Entering it now, the ground zero of his isolation, Nordan’s pain seemed to solidify for me, real and stark in the gloom.
Anne had been inordinately hospitable, taking two strangers into her house without notice. She introduced us to her son, and even called her husband, who was at work but wanted to meet us later to talk about the writer who used to live in his house. Read a passage about Shiloh’s Store, Anne was unable to place it, but she recognized another landmark—a bridge over Bear Creek—and pointed us that way.
Eventually I tried to kill my father, of course.
One day at the barbershop—a place where two drunken men savaged boys’ heads—twelve-year-old Lewis Nordan saw an ad for a .38 caliber Enfield revolver that was decommissioned from the British RAF. For fifteen dollars the gun was packed in grease and delivered to the train depot in Itta Bena. From the Western Auto downtown, Buddy purchased Federal-brand bullets. He shot at turtles and beer cans, and usually missed.
Sugar Mecklin’s stepfather is a quiet and uncurious man, but not an unkind one. As Sugar tells another character, “Daddy was magic.” He kept a sequined suit, with the words ROCK-N-ROLL MUSIC embroidered on the back. He had webbed feet. He was, at times, “ripe and wonderful with alcohol.” Once, at the American Legion hut, Sugar watched his parents dance and somehow “fell in love with both of them, their despair and their fear and also their strange destructive love for each other,” and the boy “understood, seeing them, why they continued in their mutual misery.”
On Sunday afternoon target-practice trips to Bear Creek, Buddy’s stepfather had taught him: It’s the unloaded gun that can kill you, he said a hundred times. But one night the real, lonely, and powerless boy hid out in the front yard with his Enfield and a dark turn of mind. The lighted window, as Nordan describes it, was a frame, like the screen of a television set. “I looked into the window and saw a drama I had already begun to play upon the stage of my mind,” he writes in Boy with Loaded Gun. The boy pointed his pistol through the window at his stepfather, who was drinking the poison that made his mother unhappy, and pulled the trigger. By some miracle, or mechanical malfunction, the revolver did not fire.
The scene recurs in his fiction. In one story, Sugar’s gun fires but misses—making his stepfather “the town hero for getting shot at.” As he pulls the trigger: “My body and my heart were saying, crying, I want I want I want I want.”
In another, Sugar takes his stepfather’s pistol, and a pack of condoms, from his sock drawer, points the gun at the chair where his stepfather drinks himself into nightly oblivion, and then throws the condoms in the swamp—a brilliant touch of sexualized violence that speaks to the boy’s physical repression. “I wanted out of Itta Bena,” Nordan writes of his young self. “This fact was primary, it lay zero at the bone, deeper than anger, deeper than Freud.” The act that he thought would provide his salvation could only have imprisoned him further, he later realized. “A bullet in my father’s chest . . . would have kept me there in Itta Bena, in the cramped spaces of my limited imagination, forever.”
The road turned to mud a few miles outside of town, beyond the school. We passed through Berclair, unincorporated, quiet fields opening all around. Bear Creek was real. Yet we hadn’t been able to locate it on a map, and we had begun to wonder whether, like other creeks that pop up in Nordan’s stories—one is called Fear God—it existed in actual, geographical terms.
We stopped at a bridge, where a group of men were fishing and smoking blunts. This couldn’t have been the place we were looking for—it was wide, broad, exposed, and public. We asked them what they were fishing for. One man said, “Anything that bites.” Chris asked if it would be all right to photograph his fishing pole, and he reluctantly agreed.
There was another bridge—and then a third. We passed a blue sign that said B. B. King had grown up in a shanty somewhere nearby, though no remnants could confirm exactly where. (Markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail pepper the roadsides in this part of the state.) The mud road got deeper, traffic had cut trenches into the path and soupy water was standing eight or ten inches—and then we came to another, smaller bridge. We got out of the car. There was the deafening silence of vacant natural spaces, and then we registered the sound of the creek, running slow. A heron scattered lonely into the air. Catfish fins riffled in the brown shallows, and mysterious bubbles roiled all around.
Here was the shaded private place where the terrified boy threw the pistol into the water—this was understood. Nordan writes:
I could not have survived killing anyone, because my imagination could not have then continued the search for the crease, the hatch, through which to make my escape.
This is what my heart knew, or something more powerful than a human heart, I can’t say what, that caused a misfire of the Enfield that night. I don’t mean to say I understand more than I do, only this. If Bear Creek still flows with muddy waters through the swamp and into Blue Lake at Berclair, then that black pistol still lies where I dropped it, snakes encircle its barrel, weave themselves through the trigger guard.
We clocked it on the way back—the boy had biked seven miles to get rid of the failed murder tool.
Lewis Nordan’s first brush with writing came in the form of two character sketches—one of his grandmother, another of a preacher who saw visions of angels. The negative local response to his sketch, he said, so shamed him that he joined the Navy. A few years later, at age twenty, he returned to Mississippi to attend Millsaps College in Jackson.
Chris and I had spent the previous day walking around Millsaps, where we found his photograph in the yearbook. We identified his fraternity, where he’d courted his girlfriend, called Elizabeth in Boy with Loaded Gun, before they eloped in a rented Lincoln Town Car—a fantastical decision, in thrall to romance and story, which would lead to much misery. Troubled years followed, full of vodka and continued violence, and the alienation of his own sons.
Nordan studied at Mississippi State and Auburn and acquired a Ph.D. in 1973, writing his dissertation on the poetry of Shakespeare. He wrote little of his own during these years, as his first marriage weathered the death of a infant child in 1969, but began to slowly dissolve in alcoholism and infidelity. In his mid-thirties, while bouncing between teaching jobs, he returned to his stories.
“Fiction has [a] built-in obligation of irony and its riches,” he writes in Boy with Loaded Gun, about his preference for novels and stories over autobiography. He explains:
It circumvents the more obvious conclusions that might easily be drawn from the narrative—that this kid is headed for trouble, for example, that he might be in the early stages of a serious drinking problem, that for the rest of his life once the romance has worn off a new situation, he will have a hard time accepting responsibility for its consequences, that those qualities . . . won’t change much over the years and will come to seem, in a middle-aged man, hideous. We don’t think that someday that child in the hallway will grow up and take all these same wrongheaded notions about life and use them to ruin lives, marriages, or worse. I’m not saying I did those things, made those darker turns, participated in those ruinations; and I’m not saying I didn’t do them either. I’m saying that in life whatever happens, really and truly, is in fiction always transformed, the possibility of grace for its characters is never lost. And I live my life today, as I did then, in the hope of finding real transcendence, after the manner of fictional characters, though I understand the danger of such hope.
Nordan struggled to produce, and didn’t see a way into writing, until he met James Dickey in Georgia, who gave him advice: “Just listen, boy. Just listen to it. You’ll hear it.”
Buddy took this to heart and, as he wrote, “sure enough I began to hear a sound that was to be my writing.” Nordan went through drafts, circling details and phrases that he found interesting in red pen, and then rewriting until red circles covered the page. It’s true that Nordan’s writing, often backed by the rough-hewn cadences of local blues music, has a rare musicality. He says, “It was the sound of cheerleader chants and skip rope chants and preachers on Sunday and poems that I had read and a great many things.”
In the early eighties, he began to place his stories in literary magazines—even landing a few in Harper’s. In the summer of 1981, Sugar Mecklin was born, in a bar in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Nordan ultimately settled in Pittsburgh, newly divorced and finally sober, in 1983, the year Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair came out. The author was forty-five. He describes this more simply, in another interview: “I began to put stories together that made more and more sense after I quit drinking. And that’s the history of Buddy Nordan as a writer.”
For the first time in my life, I walked up the steps and entered the cool darkness of Shiloh’s Store. I was a man.
Shiloh’s grocery was a source of constant resentment for the young Lewis Nordan. The place where his stepfather went at the end of each day and often drank himself into a stupor, having to be carried home by the owner. In a common ritual that would have looked much the same in any Delta town, Buddy’s stepfather and his alcoholic friends “drank together at Shiloh’s Store, standing on the rough unpainted boards of the store among the meager groceries that Mr. Shiloh also had for sale.”
This was his model for love and manhood—a broken man, steeped in Shiloh’s liquor. Chris and I knew we still needed to find the store, or its equivalent, to fully grasp Lewis Nordan, the writer and the man. For clues we turned, once again, to the page.
He describes Shiloh’s in the memoir as “a rude unpainted building with a broad open porch and a tin roof. It sat in the middle of a large graveled lot on the cusp of the white and black sections of town.” The lot served multiple purposes to the citizens of Itta Bena, harboring “the cotton gin, a private home (occupied incidentally by Itta Bena’s grave digger), a service station, and a couple of other business concerns.” We searched the small town for some structure or dilapidation that could have fit this description. No one we talked to remembered any Shiloh’s grocery. And so we looked at the fiction to find what is real. This is the site of truth, for a man like Nordan, for whom the import of stories lies in their telling, not their facticity.
Across his stories and novels, the store takes various guises. In Music of the Swamp, Sugar Mecklin’s white-trash friend Roy Dale lives in sight of a bar called Red’s All Night. (Sugar watches the glow of the sign as he and his friend curl up naked together—taking comfort in a Delta storm.) In Wolf Whistle, Roy Dale’s father, Runt Conroy, is a grave digger. He drinks with Gilbert Mecklin at a place called Red’s Goodlookin Bar and Gro., described as “a bootleg whiskey store that sometimes kept a loaf of bread and a can of Vienna sausages on the shelves,” with a “big front porch,” usually occupied by musicians.
What’s really disorienting here is that in Wolf Whistle, Red’s Goodlookin is where Bobo—the real Emmett Till’s pet name—issues his fatal catcall. Sugar’s stepfather is there when it happens, drinking.
Gilbert Mecklin heard it, the housepainter, just about the time he was helping his blind daddy come back up the steps. Gilbert didn’t have time to pay it no mind, but he heard it. Heard him whistle, too. Wolf whistle, real low.
But the alleged, historical wolf whistle—this occurred in an entirely different grocery, over in Money, Mississippi.
Bryant’s Grocery is now a fallen-down, wisteria-choked wooden structure on the side of Money Road. In the summer of 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, on a dare, supposedly whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, or asked her on a date. Word reached locals J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who kidnapped the boy, mutilated him, and then shot him in the head and threw him in the river, after tying a cotton-gin fan around his neck.
Nordan was fifteen in 1955, and suddenly the whole nation was talking about his home. “I knew the murderers,” he told National Public Radio in 1993. “But I didn’t know that a little white boy growing up in the South who was in some ways even implicated in the guilt just by my whiteness had the right to write such a story, and so I repressed it, I kept it in my heart and in my memory for all these thirty-eight years since the event, but I was obsessed with it.”
It’s nineteen miles from Itta Bena to Money—a stone’s throw in the Delta. Unable to find Shiloh’s, we made the trip through cotton fields to this notorious counterpart.
Two pilgrims were standing out front of Bryant’s Grocery when we arrived. They told us they were professors from a university in San Antonio, and they had spent the weekend at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On their way back to Texas they took a Delta detour, winding around the Tallahatchie River, to revisit sites associated with Till’s life and death. The pilgrims had a black-and-white photograph of the barn where the boy was mutilated. “Third door on the right,” they said. The land was now owned by a dentist with a practice in Greenwood. He’d be glad, they said, to show us around.
Milam and Bryant were acquitted quickly by an all-white jury following the trial. Images of the dead body circulated across a fractured nation. Jesse Jackson called the event the Big Bang of the civil rights movement. At her son’s funeral, Mamie Till placed photographs alongside his open casket because she wanted the world to see what the murderers had done to a child. (One of the pictures displayed alongside Emmett Till’s water-bloated corpse was a photograph that his mother had taken of him with the family television set.) The year after the murder, 1956, the acquitted half brothers sold their confession to Look magazine, which ran the piece under the title “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.”
The young Buddy Nordan was devastated by the murder. “I did indeed feel culpable,” he later wrote. Nordan’s trauma went beyond remorse for the boy; he was surprised and disgusted by the sense of betrayal and defensiveness that he felt for his hometown. “Could those men, with familiar names, with a little country store, have really done what the magazines and newspapers were saying?” he writes. “I knew it to be true, but the truth was unacceptable to me. I began to feel torn apart by my loyalties, to what I knew of right and wrong and to the morality of the only home I had ever known.”
Wolf Whistle was, in no small way, a reckoning with this sense of responsibility. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, called Nordan after the book was published. She offered congratulations and thanked him for writing it. She especially appreciated that the novel, in spite of its painful subject matter, contained humor. They spoke a few more times, and she consoled Nordan for the violent death of his own son, who had committed suicide in 1985—another tragedy for which he tried not to blame himself. When Nordan told his mother about the calls, she said, “Your life has come the full circle.”
In retrospect, Music of the Swamp—really all of his early work—reads as preparation for Wolf Whistle. Race is notably absent from his preceding short stories, almost as if he couldn’t touch the subject. In the first story to feature Sugar Mecklin, “Sugar Among the Freaks,” a black man named Floyd is, for most of the story, invisible to Sugar.
Perhaps the most stunning sequence in any of Nordan’s writing—Clyde Edgerton will tell you—occurs in the ninth chapter of Wolf Whistle, after Bobo is pulled from his bed, murdered, and thrown into the water. The third-person narration then zooms in on the victim:
From the eye that Solon’s bullet had knocked from its socket and that hung now upon the child’s moon-dark cheek in the insistent rain, the dead boy saw the world as if his seeing were accompanied by an eternal music, as living boys, still sleeping, unaware, in their safe beds, might hear singing from unexpected throats one morning when they wake up, the wind in a willow shade, bream bedding in the shallows of a lake, a cottonmouth hissing on a limb, the hymning of beehives, of a bird’s nest, the bray of the ice-man’s mule, the cry of herons or mermaids in the swamp, and rain across wide water. In this music the demon eye saw what Bobo could not see in life, transformations, angels and devils, worlds invisible to him before death.
Nordan continues the chapter from the perspective of the dislodged eye submerged in the swamp.
Recall the dead body from Music of the Swamp that Sugar Mecklin—having just witnessed a mermaid and a baptism, ears ringing with Elvis—and Sweet Austin find in Roebuck Lake. In Wolf Whistle, Nordan revises that scene. It’s not an old man’s corpse that Sugar and Sweet discover. It really never was. It’s Emmett Till—only now, Nordan is able to tell it that way. “I just had the characters in the story misidentify the body as an old man who was fishing and died of a stroke or something like that,” he said in an interview. “But I knew all along whose body that was.”
Finally, Nordan achieves the ultimate catharsis of his fiction, explicitly connecting Till and his avatar. Bobo watches Sugar sleeping “in the dreamy belief that today would turn out to be a special day, unlike any other in his life” and then enters Sugar’s dream. “Bobo called out from his death to Sugar, I am the mermaid that you will love.” Bobo sings to Sugar: “I am the mermaid, I am the lake angel, I am the darkness you have been looking for all your sad lives.”
“I go back to the moment when I was writing those lines, and I remember that I had a picture of Roebuck Lake in my head,” Nordan said. He remembered the dark mirror of the water, “the impenetrable surface holding beneath it death and slavery and human waste and items lost.” The swamp is the fundamental metaphor to Nordan: “All of my worst history is beneath this gleaming surface, and no one can ever really know what it is.”
A postal truck roared into the drive, splashing mud, and the driver asked us if we had been saved. On a laminated map, the pilgrims pointed out where we could find Moses Wright’s church. Wright, Till’s uncle, was the man who bravely pointed to identify Milam and Bryant in court and said, “Thar he”—a scene that, in Nordan’s telling, ends with Dale Conroy’s neon-green parrot alighting from the rafters and landing on the head of one of the accused.
We went looking for the church down another muddy road. A wrong turn—a family, children eyeing us from a string of trailers. We found the churchyard strewn with pine and errant graves—tintypes implanted in the tops of some, Masonic glyphs carved into others. Miscellaneous plastic flowers faded on the wet ground. A family of armadillos—”Delta dumplings”—skittered under the white clapboard church.
The radio was tuned to WABG as we headed back to town. Buzzards were all over the sky, on the lampposts. In Wolf Whistle they’re a tourist attraction, named after various governors of the sovereign state of Mississippi. The birds think, remember, and even pray.
We stopped by a cemetery halfway between Money and Itta Bena. A sign claimed it was the site of Robert Johnson’s true grave. An empty bottle of whiskey rested there, an offering. How could you not?
Back in town, we returned to Delta Lumber and Hardware. A gregarious man named J.D. was behind the counter and wanted to talk. He showed us into the adjacent building—formerly the Strand Theatre—which they used for storage. Lumber was stacked amongst a clutter of discarded seats, beneath the promontory of a projection booth, gray light filtering in through broken windows.
J.D. was the first person we’d encountered in Itta Bena with a connection to Buddy Nordan—his father had been friendly with Nordan’s stepfather. The men used to duck hunt together and sometimes took J.D. along. He was surprisingly casual about all of this, and it felt almost like a non-event, after the days we’d spent trying to find anyone who knew, or knew of, their native author.
J.D. said he’d never heard of Shiloh’s Store, but when I read him the description of the grocery in Boy with Loaded Gun, he knew the place—his father drank there, too. He gave us directions.
The grocery’s proprietor had also accompanied them on hunting trips. “His son is still in town,” J.D. added. “You ought to go talk to him.” J.D. gave us his address, and then cautioned us that he was a private man. J.D. advised, “Be careful what you say.”
We passed the remains of the train depot on the west edge of town again—where Sugar Mecklin plotted his escape, where Buddy Nordan retrieved his mail-order piece. Then an empty single-wide trailer, America-colored. A sign out front read: WILLIE B BOLDEN: #1 CHECKER PLAYER. The town’s two water towers, visible through a stand of trees and brush, cast low shadows—and in the shadow of the water towers, geography started to coalesce. It sat in the middle of a large graveled lot on the cusp of the white and black sections of town.
There was a barren slab of concrete and a few cinderblocks scattered around, empty bottles, gravel, weeds. We had passed the spot many times in the last two days. Here once stood the grocery where Nordan’s stepfather drank himself to death. Hardly any trace of the structure—its wooden porch or tin roof—remained. There was nothing there.
There is one more thing to tell.
This is a constant refrain in Buddy’s stories. A coda that betrays his uncontrollable storytelling impulse. There’s always more—he can never quite seem to end it.
A particularly striking example comes in the story “Porpoises and Romance,” about Sugar’s parents’ ill-fated attempt to revitalize their marriage—a trip to a Gulf beach that turns out to be a sort of wasteland.
“That’s not the end of the story,” Sugar narrates, after concluding the central storyline.
It seems like it could be, since it’s just the kind of thing I’m always hearing myself say these days: If the world were different, I would be different, I would be more in love. But it’s not the end. There is one more thing to tell.
Here, too, there is one more thing to tell.
On the corner J.D. had directed us to, we found an elegant but weathered ranch-style house, white paint peeling from its wooden boards. A mansion by town standards, the house overlooked the chalky swamp.
Proceeding under the advised caution, Chris stayed in the car with Hazel the dog while I climbed the tight front steps and knocked on the glass door. It was dark inside, but someone was there. Led Zeppelin blared vaguely from within.
A lopsided man with uneven gray hair appeared, wearing a dark t-shirt. An extra-long cigarette dangled limply from the corner of his lips. He pulled a key ring from his pocket, unlocked three deadbolts, then set the keys down. With a second set of keys, he unfastened another series of locks. The door swung open.
“What the hell do you want?”
The porch creaked, and a smell of sweet rot blew off the water behind me. He squinted at me. I stammered through my script about Buddy Nordan. He said he didn’t know the man. I told him that Nordan’s daddy drank at his daddy’s grocery store—the one that had been over by the depot. He let me in.
Tawny wood paneling materialized in the dark. An orange shag carpet underfoot, a sailboat moored on a pedestal in the center of the room. In this weird twilight I realized the man was drunk. He lit another cigarette. “Kashmir” gave way improbably to a Sheryl Crow song.
“I need to know where you stand on racial issues,” he said. “White or black?” I hesitated, and he slurred on, with a sodden paranoia that bordered on rage. I wished I had Hazel at my side.
He complained that he’d had other visitors lately—filmmakers, it seemed, who’d been asking questions he didn’t like. He appeared to suspect that I intended to defame his family, or perhaps bring down white people. “There’s other aspects of my name that you don’t probably—or you may know and you may be playing me for a card.” He gave me a vaguely threatening look. “I don’t know what you’re pushing.”
He clearly didn’t like my questions either, and he clearly didn’t want to talk about some writer he’d never heard of. We continued warily, each guarding our own knowledge and intentions. I asked him again to tell me about his dad’s grocery store.
“I’ve got a ledger here,” he said, referring to his father’s business. “He sold whiskey to the city,” the man said, laughing. When I asked to see the ledger he turned defensive, asked who I worked for, and then said he wouldn’t know where to find the ledger, if he cared to look. He had no photographs of the grocery. Drooping, almost stumbling, reaching erratically for unseen handholds, he lilted into a sudden diatribe.
“When I was growing up, we never had white and black,” he said, cryptically. He seemed to be implying something about the demographic changes in Itta Bena—the gradual disappearance of people like him. A thought flashed to my mind, surely crude and reductive: Nothing has changed here because nobody was ever punished. The man paused and looked out the window, over my shoulder. “The moon comes up and shines in that lake. . . . There’s a tree that’s older than this country that shades in my backyard… . The moon will come up and reflect in that lake, and it will look just—” he trailed off.
We went behind the house to look at his prize tree, a gnarled live oak. The man insisted we exchange information and said he would call the next day to talk some more, after he had checked me out. “Sweet Home Alabama” came on the stereo. I stressed again that I was only interested in talking about his father’s grocery store.
“There are parts of my family life that I care not to go into depth on,” he said.
Then Chris walked over from the car and I introduced them.
“Let me make a call before I get too in depth with you,” the man said.
In his open-air garage, we talked again about the author who had grown up in Itta Bena. He fiddled with a washer hanging from a string, flung it toward a hook embedded in a beam. He wrote down Buddy Nordan’s name. He mentioned the filmmakers again and said, “I don’t know where y’all are coming from.”
I sensed the interview had reached an end. “Thanks for your time,” I said.
“Good to meet you,” Chris added.
“Okay, you too,” the man said. “I hope. Only time will tell.”
“We have only the best intentions,” I said.
The man paused at the door and called back: “For you, me, or both of us?”
We left Itta Bena, heading east. The radio was off. Stunned silence. Of course the grocery of Nordan’s childhood wasn’t called Shiloh’s. Its real name had been Milam’s. The man I met was a Milam, and his father ran the store until it closed some decades ago. His uncles murdered Emmett Till and were acquitted in the courthouse in Sumner, thirty miles away.
It made perfect, otherworldly sense. Never had the knotted, rife Delta been more comprehensible—the drunken nephew of two murderers slipping into moony poetry in the middle of a racist aside. This fine crook of the Yazoo, land that Nordan loved, was also, for him, “an enveloping, complex, multitudinous metaphor for grief.”
A line in Buddy’s memoir about Bryant’s Grocery rang with startling clarity: “The store was enough like Mr. Shiloh’s in Itta Bena as to have become merged in my mind as one: big unpainted dungeons with bare-board floors and wide porches and a few groceries.” So, too, did the idea that Nordan the writer had conflated the grocery where his stepfather got drunk with the grocery where Emmett Till received a death sentence.
At the end of Wolf Whistle, Gilbert Mecklin stops going to Red’s Goodlookin—which causes its owner much grief—and starts to attend Don’t Drink Meetings. Mecklin cleans up in several stories, as Buddy did in real life. Lewis Nordan placed his fictional father figure in the room with Bobo as a reckoning with the fatherlessness and the ghost of Emmett Till that chased him through life. Then he made Mecklin repent. These two strands were inextricably linked to—and now defined by—the gray concrete slab by the tracks, the skeleton of “Shiloh’s.”
“Don’t Cry for Me, Itta Bena.” Nordan considered this as a title for Boy with Loaded Gun, but decided that nobody would get the joke. We shouldn’t. The author always maintained that his was at heart a comedic vision—ending in life, not death. Always pulsing at the center of the work is a yearning for love.
In an essay about Wolf Whistle published in this magazine in 1995—and later repurposed as a chapter in the memoir—Nordan admitted “the book I produced was a complete surprise to me.” The draft he wrote in a furious six weeks was not exactly the same story of Emmett Till that had obsessed him for almost his entire life, “but a phantasmagoria based upon history’s broadest outline. It was a fairy tale. Animals spoke, nature wept, dead eyes saw, monsters and angels roamed the Delta flatscape on some other planet.” For some reason, he struck these lines from the memoir.
In life, Nordan could never forgive Milam and Bryant for what they did—he said he’d rather dance on their graves. It was only by transmuting these men into fiction that he could begin to understand, maybe forgive, and perhaps even love them—as it was for his stepfather, as it was for Itta Bena.
After love, Buddy Nordan believed in magic.
CORRECTIONS. An earlier version of this article misstated some elements of Lewis Nordan’s biography: Nordan was born in Jackson, Mississippi, not Forest; while living in Pittsburgh, Nordan was removed from his children, though not estranged; Nordan’s son committed suicide in 1985, not 1990.
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