Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
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by JONATHAN SNYDER
It’s an unusually warm day in October, and I’m standing in Jefferson Davis’s front doorway. He’s not home at the moment; in his place is a rotund, middle-aged man who guards the door and lets people come in and not touch things. Like any tour guide (he’s a tour guide, by the way; not that there’s anywhere to guide people in this one-room, multi-partitioned house with no doors), he’s probably afraid of people breaking Mr. Davis’s personal household belongings. As I later learn, however, nothing in the house actually belonged to Davis. Everything in the house (furniture, appliances, unnecessarily large piano) is a replica of its original counterpart, with one exception: a creepy, demonic-looking doll that belonged to one of Davis’ daughters, and may currently contain her soul. I want to ask the tour guide about the supernatural properties of the doll, but he’s already suspicious of me, perhaps because of my lack of a Southern accent, so I don’t want to push my luck by mocking the only item in the house that has actually been preserved through the years.
The house is called Beauvoir, the final home of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his family, now one of Biloxi’s notable historical landmarks. So notable I missed it the first time I drove past, and almost missed it again when I drove by a second time. I suppose it’s your typical historical landmark, preserved from the time of Davis’ death by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The tour guide waxes poetic about the restoration efforts that the organization has made to preserve the house exactly as it was when Davis lived in it. “Do you see the color of the paint on the walls?” he says, a tear in his eye. “For years, we were painting the walls a darker color, but then we found out the color we thought was correct was actually just dirt. Now, we know the correct color.” I want to give him a high-five and tell him “great job,” but I don’t.
I’m part of a small tour group with six other people: an older couple, toting matching fanny packs; a man in his forties and his hot younger wife, who is Brazilian, or possibly Italian (Spanish?); and a man in his thirties and his mom. We didn’t come here together, we just all got here around the same time and got lumped into the same group. I’m the only one by myself (I didn’t know you could bring your mom), and the other members of the group seem wary of me standing all alone behind them as if I’m about to steal their wallets. They side-step their way around me to get a better view of the house, keep at least an arm’s length between us, and carefully angle their cameras so I’m not in any of the pictures.
The tour guide points out all the major features of the house: the floor, the ceiling, the paint on the door that makes the door look like oak even though it isn’t really oak because that’s how good the painter is. As I said, he’s more interested in how the house has been restored, especially post-Katrina, than anything that actually went on here. I’m waiting for him to tell our tour group about how the ghosts of Jefferson Davis and his children still wander through the rooms on cold, dark nights, their house protected by the vigilant spirits of fallen rebel soldiers clinging to the faded dreams of a broken utopia. He doesn’t. I wish he would. I’m beginning to think there’s nothing for me here.
* * *
It’s three hours earlier, and I’m driving south on Interstate 49 toward Biloxi. I’ve never been to Biloxi. I was born there, but I’ve never been there. My parents moved there, had me, then moved away before I was a year old (they took me with them, of course). Coming to Hattiesburg a month or so before I started school, it wasn’t lost on me that I would be closer to my birthplace than I had ever been since we left twenty-plus years ago. Because I was an infant then, I have no memory of my very first home. Until now, Biloxi had never been more than a mild curiosity, or a piece of trivia that I could share with a new friend to keep conversation going: “Well, I mostly grew up in New Mexico, but I was actually born in Mississippi. Biloxi, to be exact.” And they’ll nod and ask how I got from Mississippi to New Mexico, with a stop in Montana along the way. “My dad was military,” I’ll tell them, “Air Force.” And they’ll make an “of course, I should’ve guessed” hand gesture, and that will be the end of it.
But now that I’m so close, I figure I kind of have to make the trip. Who wouldn’t, right? It’s not any sort of inconvenience: it’s the Friday of Fall Break at Southern Miss, halfway through the semester. I’m pausing the shaping of my future in order to explore my origins. It’s all very profound.
Driving down 49, I lower the window to feel a Southern breeze blowing through my hair, forgetting that I’m wearing a hat. There are trees along the way; you don’t get that in New Mexico. I can’t smell the ocean yet. The sea. The gulf. Whatever the water is here. I’ve only been living in Mississippi for three months, so it’s all still so unfamiliar to me. It’s hot here, and humid. It’s hot in New Mexico, too, but it’s a dry heat. I thought it might get cooler the closer I got to the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s only getting warmer.
It’s essentially a straight shot from Hattiesburg down to Biloxi (with one left turn at Gulfport), which is good, because once I get to town, I’m not sure where to go. That’s not entirely true: I know what I’m looking for, but I want to see Biloxi itself first. The major landmark in Biloxi is the Lighthouse, so that’s what I try to find first. It isn’t hard to find, standing on a median in the middle of the road. It’s the middle of the day, so I don’t know if the lighthouse actually works. I assume that once night falls the lighthouse serves to keep cars from driving into the Gulf, or whatever lighthouses do when they’re standing in the middle of a street instead of out in the water. It’s also standing just outside the Biloxi Visitors Center, which is convenient, since I’m a visitor. I figure I might as well go inside and see if they can’t give me some sense of where to go and what’s worth seeing. If there’s anything for me in Biloxi, the Visitors Center could make it easier to find.
Plus, I have to pee.
* * *
Most of Jefferson Davis’ house is off limits to tourists, with strategically-placed metal railings allowing us to see all the rooms in the house without letting us inside. Our little group is stuck in the main parlor of the house, crowding together into doorways and pressing up against the railings while the tour guide shows us bedrooms, dining rooms, and a bathtub that is about the size and shape of a urinal. I’m the last one to squeeze into the small tourist space in one of the daughters’ bedrooms, and I try to push in close to the others to make room for the tour guide and his stomach to get through the door. Apparently, I’m still in the way, because the tour guide presses his hand against my back and asks me to step to the side a little more. The Brazilian/Italian lady glances at me out of the corner of her eye, then shuffles closer to her husband. Relax, lady, I think. If anything, I’m keeping the fat tour guide from wheezing down the front of your shirt.
The tour guide points out all of the important features of this room, then walks us across the parlor to a sitting room. He gives us as much background information as he feels is relevant, telling us about how the Davis family lived and how the house has been restored over the years, but I’m not really listening anymore. I keep telling myself that somebody important lived here. Jefferson Davis used to walk across this very floor, eat at this very table, sit in this very chair. He spent the last years of his life wandering around this house, reflecting on the failure of the Confederacy, wondering if he would have succeeded had he done things differently, perhaps thanking God that it had all come to an end. Davis may not have done anything historically significant here, but he made this place his home, made it a part of his identity, his legacy, and that’s why it’s important. That’s why it’s worth remembering.
I can’t make myself care.
I think it’s neat that such an important figure lived here, and I think it’s great that an organization is working to preserve the house and its memories, but I’m a stranger here. It’s not my house. It’s not anybody’s house; it’s just an elaborate model. The walls are fake, the paint designed to deceive. There’s a large museum under construction behind the house, and a trailer out front that sells Civil War books and other memorabilia. I thought I’d find something significant here, but I’m starting to think I was wrong.
Nobody important ever lived in this house.
* * *
It’s two hours earlier, and I’m standing on the second floor of the Visitors Center, which is mostly a bust. I found the bathroom easily enough, but the rest of the building is pretty disappointing. It doubles as a sparsely-filled museum of Biloxi, with paintings that depict various historical eras, a replica of the Biloxi Lighthouse, and a window through which you can see the actual lighthouse. There isn’t much to see, and the people who work here aren’t all that interested in welcoming me to their lovely town. The most interesting attraction is probably the souvenir shop, with its Biloxi T-shirts, Biloxi mugs, and replicas of the Biloxi Lighthouse Replica. Do I want a souvenir? I ask myself. Hell, I was born here. I am a souvenir. My parents went to Biloxi and all they got was this lousy child. I suppose a Biloxi shirt isn’t really what I’m looking for, so I leave the Visitors Center empty-handed, with no sense of direction. The lighthouse outside looks just like the replica that’s inside.
I cross the street, walking back to my truck, but then keep walking toward the beach. There’s a long pier that stretches far out into the Gulf. Visitors can walk down the pier and off the edge of the world. At the end of the pier are a couple of benches, and a dozen fishing poles, manned by two or three grizzled fisherman. I put my elbows up on the railing that keeps tourists from walking off the pier, and gaze across the water. There’s nothing out there. I’m not sure why I’m here; I suppose it makes as much sense as anything else I’ve done so far today.
There are other tourists on the pier, including three middle-aged women taking a picture of themselves with the water in the background. I’m waiting for one of them to notice me and ask me to take a picture of them, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, they slide over to the left to make sure I’m not in their picture. There’s also a little child running around, skipping back and forth while her mother reads a sign warning fishermen not to clean their fish on the benches. I’m waiting for the little girl to get so distracted that she trips over my feet or slams into my legs, but she doesn’t. Nobody really pays any attention to me. Sometimes I wonder if my interactions with people would be more interesting if I was the author of my life..
At this point, I’m just wasting time. There’s nothing out on the water, and when I turn around all I see across the street are nameless buildings that hold no value for me. I’ve been here thirty minutes, and I’m already almost out of meaningful destinations. There’s nothing else jumping out at me that I feel I need to see, so I figure it’s time to do what I actually came to Biloxi to do.
I want to find the house my family lived in when I was born.
I was born in a hospital on Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. Since I don’t have the proper vehicle ID stickers on my truck, I can’t get on base to see the hospital. Fortunately, the house my family lived in is off base, which means I can find it and see what it looks like. Once I’ve found it, I can say I’ve come full circle; I’ve come back to the place where it all began. Me. Where I all began. It’s quite poetic, when you think about it.
Of course, I have to find it first. As I said, I was not even a year old when we left Biloxi, so I don’t know my way around town, or where in the city we lived. Hell, I don’t even know where Biloxi ends and Gulfport begins. The good news is, my dad remembers where we lived. He remembers the address, at least. I called him a couple of days before I came to Biloxi, and mentioned I was going to visit. He told me we lived near a golf course, and he was pretty sure the address was 306 North Shore Drive. It’s been over twenty years, he reminds me. It’s probably changed a lot since we lived there. Not that that would make any difference to me: I’ve only ever seen it in a photograph, and that was years ago. But I feel I have to go see it. I don’t know if I’ll find anything meaningful, but it’s just too symbolic an experience to ignore. I may not have grown up here, but I was born here. It’s a small part of my identity. It’s got to mean something.
So. 306 North Shore Drive. Now I’ve got somewhere to go.
* * *
There is no 306 North Shore Drive.
Once, when I was a little kid, I cried to my mother because I had never seen Biloxi, and I wanted to go home. I did this because I was a crybaby when I was a kid. As a child, I felt I was missing something important by not remembering anything about my birthplace. My mother convinced me it was kind of pointless to cry about a place I’d never seen, but I still determined that someday I would go back to Biloxi and try to gain some sort of insight into my origins.
Now I’m here. And it doesn’t exist.
I’ve driven up and down North Shore Drive twice. The house addresses are all in the 800s and 900s. None of the houses look like the one in the photograph I saw years ago, an image I barely remember anyway. It has to be one of these, doesn’t it? They didn’t rename all the streets while I was gone. Or did they? Maybe they just changed all the address numbers. That’s not unheard of, right? As I begin my third trip up the street, I know I need to figure things out quickly: the neighbors are probably starting to get suspicious of this random truck with New Mexico plates driving slowly up and down the street in broad daylight, the driver glaring at each house as if he was choosing one to rob.
Before I decide to give it all up and drive back to Hattiesburg, I remember that my dad told me something else about the house when I called him the other day. He said the house was on a corner of the street, near a small lake. I saw the lake the last time I drove up the street. The street ends in a cul-de-sac before it reaches the lake, so there is no corner of the street at that end. Before the cul-de-sac, however, there is another street that branches off of North Shore Drive in a different direction. There is a house at the corner of this intersection: a single-story, red-brick house with blue-shuttered windows, a half-circle driveway leading up to the front door, and a wooden fence surrounding the back yard. I find the house and park across the narrow street.
This might be it.
There does not appear to be anyone at home, which is good because I’m about to start taking pictures. From across the street, I roll down my window, and in front of God and the entire neighborhood, pull out my camera. I don’t recall seeing any signs for a Neighborhood Watch, but if there is one, the command center probably just exploded with activity. All I want, though, is a couple of pictures. I don’t want to see the inside of the house, or ask if I can try to guess which room was mine; this is as close as I’m going to get. If this is the right house, then I’m probably close enough.
When I’m done, I sit still for a few moments, staring at the house, waiting for something else to happen. Nothing happens. It’s the middle of the day, and the street is dead: nobody coming home for lunch; nobody doing yard work; nobody going out to see what the crazy guy in the white truck with New Mexico license plates is doing taking pictures of the house across the street. Not a soul to be seen. There aren’t any people, and even if there were, I wouldn’t know any of them. My parents lived here for two years, and had me for one of those years. They weren’t forming any lasting relationships at that point.
I’m out of pictures to take, and out of reasons to be here. With one final glance at the house, and one final look to see if any cops are sneaking toward my truck, I drive out of the neighborhood. As I drive across the bridge over Lake Mullet (yes, that’s what it’s called), I wonder if the trip was worth it. On the one hand, I drove all the way down here in order to spend all of five minutes sitting outside a house I may or may not have ever lived in. On the other hand, I just drove over Lake Mullet. There’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you.
Driving back toward the highway, I pass the lighthouse again, wondering if that’s the only interesting thing here in this town. There are supposed to be casinos and swanky hotels and all that noise, but what the hell am I going to find there? I could probably lose a lot of money there, which would be fun, but I’m not feeling it right now. But I don’t want to leave just yet. I drove all the way down here; there’s got to be something else worth seeing.
As this thought runs through my mind, I pass a souvenir store shaped like a giant alligator. It’s tempting, but this store doesn’t really say “Biloxi” to me. Actually, it does say Biloxi on the side of the store, but that’s not what I mean.
A short way past the alligator shop, however, is a more significant landmark: Jefferson Davis’ ancestral home. This grabs my attention, mostly because I’m surprised I didn’t see it the first time I drove past. I look at the clock on the dashboard: it’s still early afternoon. I’ve got all the time in the world. With a shrug, I turn in to Beauvoir’s gravel parking lot. I might as well. I’m interested in history and historical sites, and this certainly qualifies. Maybe it will be interesting. Maybe I’ll find something memorable. Something significant. Something that matters.
* * *
It’s two months later and I’m at my parents’ house in New Mexico, home for the holidays. I’ve been waiting to show them the pictures I took of the house in Biloxi, and now I have the chance. I suppose I could have emailed it to them, but I’m not sure they know what email is. They’re kind of stuck in the pre-technology era of human existence. So I bring my laptop into their bedroom and set it down in front of them, wondering if they’ll recognize the house in the picture.
My dad leans in towards the screen, then leans back, squints, and leans in again. Finally, he shakes his head. “No,” he says, looking at me, “I don’t think that’s it.”
Mom nods in agreement. “Our house didn’t have that half-circle driveway in front.”
So there it is. I drove all the way to Biloxi to take pictures of the wrong house. I’m not upset, not surprised, not disappointed. I guess I expected this. Before I had even finished taking pictures, I began to question why I was so interested in the house, and what difference it would make if this was the correct place. I couldn’t go inside the house. I hadn’t left anything behind in that house. There was no new life waiting for me there. Whether or not we lived in it, it was just a house. It still is just a house.
I look at my Mom, who shrugs. “Oh, well,” I say to her, returning the gesture. “I had to try.”
Dad, however, is still looking at the photo. “Hold on,” he says, pointing to one side of the picture, “I remember this fence.”
Mom is suddenly interested in the picture again, and leans down to see where Dad is pointing. “The garage was on the side of the house,” she says, looking back up at me as if she wants me to confirm that I saw the same thing.
“Yeah,” I answer, pressing a button that brings up a picture of the house from the side, “the garage was on the side.”
“You said the house was on the corner?” my dad asks.
I tell him exactly where it was, both on the street and in relation to the lake.
Dad looks at the picture for another moment, then turns to Mom. “They could have added that driveway in front sometime after we left.” I have to stifle a laugh, not only because this is an incredibly obvious statement that none of us considered, but also because it brings to mind the probability that anything and everything else could have been changed in the twenty-plus years since we left.
Mom nods. “You know, now that I think about it,” she says, “I vaguely remember something about the city changing the address numbers or wanting to change the address numbers while we lived there. That could explain why the house is 900-something, instead of 306.” Again, I have to keep myself from laughing. That’s a convenient memory. I don’t say this aloud, though. Her memory is her memory, and who am I to lecture her on the unreliability of memory?
Finally, my dad makes the pronouncement I knew was coming. He chuckles and says, “Well, I guess that is the house we lived in.” He looks up at me. “Great detective work. You’re quite the investigator.”
The tone of this is so unintentionally condescending that I feel like I’m ten years old and Dad is telling me how proud he is after I told him that I made a basket on an eight-foot-tall basketball hoop. It hits me then that Mom and Dad don’t have any more of an attachment to this house than I do. They lived there for a couple of years, left it behind, and didn’t look back. They probably remember more about the picture in front of them than they remember about living in Biloxi. I smile and nod and go back to my room, while they go back to reading their books.
So it turns out I got the correct house, after all. I can officially say that I’ve come full circle, gone back to the exact place where my life began. If this were a movie, I would probably be excited. Something meaningful would have happened. But nothing happened. I’m not excited. The house in the picture is just another piece of personal trivia I can tell my friends, who will react in the same way my parents did. “That’s neat, Jon. Good for you.” But that’s the extent of its significance. My parents and I can’t make ourselves care about the house in the picture.
None of us lived there.
* * *
The Beauvoir tour guide is standing in front of the back door, his hand on the doorknob. The tour is over. It didn’t last ten minutes. He gives us some more random historical trivia about the house and about Jefferson Davis, thanks us all so very, very much for coming to visit, and ushers us out the door.
I stand on the back porch, watching the rest of the tour group wander back towards their cars. This is the second time in as many hours I’ve stood outside a house that was supposed to matter, but didn’t. Jefferson Davis never lived in this house. This house is a glorified stand-in for what used to be. I’m trying to read the other tourists to see if they got anything out of this experience, but I don’t get much. The Brazilian/Italian woman and her husband are walking toward a sign that says “Do Not Pass This Point.” The tour guide mentioned a cemetery out beyond the house, and this couple is wondering if they’re allowed to go see it. The older couple is looking through other glass doors on the porch, observing the other rooms in the house that aren’t open to visitors. They whisper to each other, point to different parts of the rooms, and giggle every now and then. The thirty-year-old and his mother are already out of sight, no doubt already back in their car. They’ve got the right idea.
Walking back toward the parking lot, I can’t help but stop before the statue of Jefferson Davis holding the hands of two small children. There’s nothing to explain where this statue came from or what it signifies, so I’m left to my own interpretation. I’m probably supposed to view him as a Christ-figure, a savior, a Jesus-like being who bids the little children come to him. Instead, I immediately think he kidnapped those children.
I smile as this thought enters my mind, but looking around I realize there’s nobody else to tell. What I really need is a traveling companion. Traveling isn’t as interesting when you’re alone, even if you’re going back to the place where you were born. Travelers need other travelers. Hell, that one guy brought his mom. Even if their trip ends up disappointing, they can be disappointed together.
All right, I’m done here. It’s time to go home.
Well, back to Hattiesburg, at least.
* * *
An hour later, I’m driving back up Interstate 49. Leaving Biloxi again. It means as much to me now as it did the year I left, which is to say, not at all. Twenty years ago I was conscious of nothing; now I’m conscious of the speed limit. I don’t even look in the rearview mirror to watch Biloxi fading away behind me. I probably should, to play up the sentimentality of this journey, but none of it matters to me anymore. As soon as I left town, Biloxi ceased to be real to me. Once again, it’s just a point on a map, a small piece of a past I don’t remember.
I’m glad I made the trip, if for no other reason than I can say that I did it. I can say I went back to see where I came from, instead of just staying in Hattiesburg, wondering what, if anything, waited for me in Biloxi. I know the answer now, and it’s somewhat disappointing, but at least I know.
Still, I can’t help wishing something interesting had happened. I wish my parents had made friends that were still in Biloxi today. People who could tell me about my first days on the planet. People who could tell me what my parents were like twenty-plus years ago. People who could make this place mean something to me. But as I drive away from Biloxi, it’s still just Biloxi, and there’s nothing for me there.
As I drive into the city limits of Hattiesburg, I realize I haven’t eaten anything all day. Starving, I pull into Checkers, the wannabe-Sonic restaurant across from the USM campus. They don’t have this restaurant in New Mexico, so I like the fact that it’s something unique, even though it’s just burgers and fries, like any other fast-food restaurant. Still, I’ve been here a few times, and I know what I want without needing to consult the menu. As I start talking to the drive-thru intercom, I know at least here they’ll have something for me.
“Can I get a number five with a Coke, and then also a chili dog?”
“We’re out of hot dogs.”
Of course they are.
Jonathan Snyder received his BA and MA in English from Abilene Christian University, in Abilene, TX. He currently studies literature at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he delights his colleagues with exotic tales of his foreign homeland (New Mexico).