by M Shelly Conner
Small Southern Spaces
The truth about any subject only comes when all the sides of the story are put together.
–Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens
Small southern towns change slowly. Perhaps it’s just the natural pace of southern spaces unencumbered by city-slick speed. It’s best represented by the southern drawl, like golden honey dripped onto biscuits. Larger northern cities are au jus, but small southern towns are thick sausage gravy. Everything is thicker in the South. The air is thickened by the blossoms of various trees. Speech is thick on the tongues of its inhabitants. Thick-hipped women embrace their curves in the South. And southern men boast of other thicknesses. The South is syrup, and small southern towns are sorghum molasses, the long ee pronunciation of pee-can, and restaurants with sweet tea on their menus. It’s the birthplace of the blues, the music that became its soundtrack, and the deep-wood shacks that played it on juke machines or, better still, with in-house bands. Language meanders like the Mississippi River, and y’all is directed at both singular and plural subjects.
The South cultivated its reputation for being dirty in a bad-means-good sort of way. The dirty South breeds excess and private debauchery behind the closed doors of southern sensibilities. Its dry counties and refusal to sell liquor on Sundays belied by moonshine stills and Saturday night jukes.
Small southern towns don’t embrace change. Ideal, Georgia, noted only two major ones—when the Railroad married it and when the Railroad divorced it. Ideal preferred age over distinction and still boldly declared itself to be “the only ideal city in Georgia,” as a painted slogan beckoning from the town’s water tower proclaimed. There was a police station, a small windowless brick building with a front door on one side of the façade and a garage on the other. Next to it was a small storefront post office. Three churches—a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Church of God in Christ—flanked one gun store. Located in the curve of the Bible Belt, Ideal was protected by God and guns—often the latter before the former.
Of the two schools, the one high on the hill overlooking the town served the minority white population. Down the hill and around the bend, hidden in the hindquarters of Ideal, a small brick structure held the responsibility of educating Black youths. Still, Ideal was one of those towns where children seemed to be rare, and eventually small-town self-segregation would disappear. Time would bring the decaying of the “Black school” just as it had crept into the bones of the train depot once the Railroad ceased to stop there.
By 1972 most of the town’s residents could recite only the conclusion of its name-story: that the Atlanta, Birmingham, and Atlantic Railroad had deemed their 1.2-square-mile patch of land as being “an ideal place.” Adding nuance to the meaning of Ideal were the various pronunciations of the word as it was transformed through the southern dialect of the majority African American township. Ideal became “I-deal,” as in to distribute, manage, or handle; “Idle,” as in inactive or at leisure; “Idea,” as in a thought; and sometimes “I’da,” the bastardized contraction of “I would have.”
The AB&A’s name stuck even though the Railroad did not. The tracks remained. The 1907 Victorian depot—complete with turret, clapboard siding, and portico—remained. And the trains continued to ride the rails, but in 1972 they no longer stopped in Ideal; rather, they rushed past it on their way to places that had become “more ideal”—cities that were large enough to be called by their names instead of lumped into one collective county. Ideal had lost its trains and much of its identity. Residents traveling outside its borders told people they were from Macon County, Georgia—as did the citizens of the other two small towns that constituted the county. Two years later, the brown Victorian depot would be painted blue and donated to the town as a community center.
And so in the autumn of 1972, Eve Mann did not arrive in Ideal by rail but, rather, bumbled across the Georgia clay in a Greyhound bus that deposited her at a shared station for Macon County—if the two-pump filling station with an unevenly laid wooden-plank walkway could be classified as a bus station. It was little more than the city bus stops Eve was accustomed to from Chicago, which would have also appeared as portals to nowhere without the thriving metropolis enfolding them.
Ideal was a small town like all others. It once had big-city dreams, but its growth had been equally nurtured and stunted by the Railroad. A Quick Mart was attached to the filling station. It advertised the sale of “package goods,” the broad term given to alcoholic beverages.
Other than its five hundred residents, those who set foot in Ideal were usually taking a restroom break at its sole filling station, grabbing a few snacks, and reboarding the Greyhound. For that reason, when anything more than exhaust and dust remained after the bus’s departure, news spread quickly. It usually started with the chess club. The Ideal Chess Club wasn’t an official club, meaning that none of its members actually played chess. They were a group of retired men who congregated outside the Quick Mart to watch the sparse daily activities of the town. There was, however, a chess board, as well as several mismatched chess pieces that had been placed next to their collection of rickety chairs and milk-crate seats against the building. But they were only props inspired by the town’s long-standing joke of calling them the Ideal Chess Club. Occasionally, someone would drop off a chess piece they had found from some long-forgotten set, saying, “Hey, I found this here bishop piece. Y’all ain’t got enough of them, do you?” The pieces were collected and dutifully added to the board more or less in their proper positions. The chess club wives, bearing the clichéd moniker of the Ideal Sewing Circle, actually did sew and were stitching club baseball caps.
Disembarking from the bus, Eve shrugged out of her corduroy jacket. It may have been autumn in Chicago, but Macon County was still very much in the heat of summer. Her white canvas sneakers were immediately covered in red clay dust as she began to move toward the bus’s exterior cargo compartment. Eve had been ready to welcome the fresh Georgia air and sunshine after being cramped on the bus for so long with the lingering odor of things once pleasantly classified as aromas at the start of the journey. Fried chicken, perfume, and freshly washed clothing and bodies had all become stale with time and distance by their arrival in Macon County over twelve hours later.
Beyond looking up Ideal in her aunt’s Rand McNally road atlas, Eve hadn’t had much of a plan for her trip. But Ideal was incredibly small, smaller than her South Side neighborhood. So she had packed a week’s worth of clothing in one of her aunt’s green leather suitcases and jotted down the addresses of the two places that could help her the most—the public library and a motel. There was only one of each. Like all small southern towns, Ideal had one grocery, one package store, and a funeral home run by the same family for generations—with its requisite only son who had forsaken the family business. There was a diner and a service station with a mechanic who wore denim overalls every day and had perpetually grease-stained fingernails. Outsiders called the town quaint as they drove through to more appealing cities. In case of emergency stops, they cursed it as hell, unable to imagine being happily stuck there.
Eve imagined that it looked the same as it had over twenty years ago when her mother left. She made her way toward the Quick Mart. Her suitcase pulled her heavily to one side as a map fluttered from its folds in her other hand. Although several passengers were behind her, Eve was the only one toting luggage. The rest were simply making a pit stop on their way to other destinations. The line at the register was long, so Eve decided to wait until the other passengers reboarded the bus. She dropped her suitcase next to the ice cooler against the building and sagged down beside it to consult her map.
Deuce leaned over from his seat a few feet away. “Fresh off the bus and already lost? T’aint the best start, little missy.”
Eve glanced up at the kind-looking old man. Wrinkles waved across his brown face in accordance with the humor in his eyes and smile. He wore both suspenders and a belt beneath his ever-present sport coat. The shine on his shoes defied the Georgian dust.
“Nobody needs a map in Ideal.” He pronounced the city I-dear. “It’s smaller than an ant’s ass.” He laughed, and the wrinkles smoothed, allowing Eve a glimpse of the handsome youth beneath the old man’s years.
The town consisted of three main parallel roads and various smaller streets veining out into the few neighborhoods. Main Street ran through its center and connected it to the sister county towns of Oglethorpe and Montezuma. The main road, Front Street, weaved through the white residential area while Back Street sliced through the Black neighborhood.
Eve joined in the laughter. “I’m looking for some people. I don’t even really know who they are, or if they’re still alive or living here.”
Deuce smiled. “Hell, gal, you don’t need no lie-berry. I’m eighty years old and been living here all my life. I’m John Johnston, but most folk call me . . .”
“Let me guess,” Eve interrupted. “J. J.”
Deuce laughed. “Nawl, but you got the right i-dear. Deuce . . . on account of the double Js.” The nickname, typical of southern logic, required an extra step. They hadn’t gone for the ease of J. J. but had continued on to think of two Js as a deuce.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Johnston. I’m Eve.” She extended her hand. “Eve Mann.”
Deuce’s hand froze in the handshake, and his smile faltered. Her face had been familiar to him in the haziness of one who has seen too many faces over many years. Now Eve’s face and name coalesced in Deuce’s mind. “Mann, you say?”
Eve, slightly unnerved by his piercing gaze, nodded. “With two n’s.”
“And who you say you lookin’ for?” But even before she had dug out the picture, Deuce knew.
Eve handed it to him. “Any of these people or information about them.”
Deuce stared at the picture, his eyes never leaving the face of Cornelius Gaines as Eve pointed, reintroducing faces he hadn’t seen in years.
“This is my mother . . . Mercy. She died in childbirth having me. . . .” Eve plowed through her descriptions with a speed that did not take into account the weight of the information.
Deuce had often wondered what had become of Mercy, yet he scarcely had time to register her death before Eve had moved on in her account.
“This is my aunt Ann. She raised me. This is my grandmother Gertrude. Never met her. And I think this man is my grandfather, but he’s got a different last name, and my aunt never talked about him.”
Deuce silently handed the photograph back to Eve. “I ’spect you staying at the inn down yonder?”
“I can give you a lift in my truck. Let you get settled in, and maybe you come round the house this evening for dinner? The missus loves company. Always going on about what she seen on the television or read in the magazines. I’ont half pay that stuff no mind, really, but she’d love to have a city gal to chat with.”
Eve smiled, uncertain. “That’s awfully nice of you, Mr. Johnston, but . . .”
“I can tell you ’bout your kin.”
Eve paused. The lure of revelations quelled her protest. She’d spent most of her twenty-two years inquiring about her family, mostly from Mama Ann, her aunt and childhood guardian. She couldn’t believe her good fortune at arriving in her family’s hometown for the first time and immediately finding someone with the information she’d been craving her entire life. She hadn’t known what to expect, but this was definitely a pleasant surprise.
“You know these people?”
Deuce sighed. “I knew ’em. When they was alive.” He slowly rose and rubbed his leg. “Whew. This getting up shole is harder than it was when I was your age.”
He insisted on carrying her suitcase as they walked toward his truck. He dropped Eve off half a mile down a barely paved road at Johnita’s Inn. Before driving away, he said, “Lemme see that map of yourn.” Deuce tapped the tip of a pencil to his tongue and circled an area on the map. “Now you know how to find me once you get settled in.”
Johnita’s Inn was a large two-story Georgian with an impressive wraparound porch on the first floor and a balcony on the second. Like Deuce, it was weathered but showed hints of youthful times beneath its exterior. The wooden sign bearing its name was repainted every five years or so, and its former name—Johnita’s Place—was no longer visible beneath the colorful coats. The stairs creaked as Eve ascended toward the screen door but remained firm under her weight.
The interior revealed a parlor room with two faded wingback chairs and a sofa arranged around a small but capable-looking fireplace. A small stand-alone bar had been converted into a reception desk manned by a tall, slender woman in her sixties with smooth dark skin, save for a few long strands of curly gray chin hair. The comparatively black hair on her head had been straightened and brushed back into a severe bun atop her head.
As Eve made her way to the desk, she was greeted by the same intense stare she had gotten from Deuce.
“I’d like a room, please.” Eve smiled despite the strange look she was receiving.
“Name?” the woman asked.
“Eve Mann,” she said. “With two n’s.”
The woman exhaled slowly and nodded as if resigned to some fate. “Eve Mann, then,” she stated more than questioned. “Hmph.”
Eve cocked her head in confusion. “Yeah. Um, yes ma’am. Do you know me?”
The woman plowed through her greeting, “I’m Ms. Johnita, sole proprietor of Johnita’s Historic Inn. We’ve got you settled on the second floor in room three. Follow me.”
Eve could barely keep up as Johnita whisked from behind the desk and strode through the parlor to the stairs. She paused at a row of framed photographs on the wall. “This is B. B. King!” she exclaimed and added, “And Lucille, his guitar!” pointing at a picture of the bluesman with his guitar slung at his side and one arm draped casually across the shoulders of a younger Johnita.
“Yes, she didn’t have a name back then,” Johnita allowed a chuckle to penetrate her stoic demeanor. “Neither of ’em did back in . . .” she hesitated to place the date and sighed, then said, “Shit, 1940?” It was more question than statement.
Then, casually waving her hand across the photo array, she rattled off names, “They all came through here, mostly to stay. We were listed in that Green Book directory for years. But once they stayed, they’d always end up playing a bit. Back then, this place was more juke than inn.”
A photograph of a fair-skinned woman standing, mouth agape, in front of a microphone caught Eve’s attention. A band consisting of a guitarist, drummer, and saxophone player flanked behind the woman but seemed diminutive in comparison.
“Is that . . .” Eve began before Johnita interrupted.
Eve’s face slowly crinkled in confused disbelief. “But you didn’t know who I was going to say.”
“Everyone—well . . .”—Johnita smirked—“everyone who wasn’t alive or was just nursing their mama’s milk think that’s Billie Holiday. But she ain’t . . . She wasn’t.”
Eve nodded. “She’s beautiful. She looks like she sang well.”
Johnita stared at the photo, eyes unblinking. Her voice softened and sounded to Eve as that of an entirely different woman. “Claude definitely had a voice.”
“Claudette,” Johnita supplied. “My best good friend.”
Johnita abruptly turned on her heels and continued up the staircase, leaving Eve to quickly gather her suitcase and stumble to catch up. In her quick departure, her shoulder bumped a photograph. The black-and-white image of Hezekiah Mann seated between Johnita and a fair-skinned woman at a small table shifted slightly in Eve’s wake. She hadn’t noticed, but on Johnita’s return to the front parlor, she automatically corrected the tilted photo with absentminded resolve. The frames always seemed to get jostled about, even when there were no guests. Frequent vacancies had been the norm since the closing of the train depot. And Ideal, along with Johnita’s Place—as it was known in its juke joint heyday—withered like leaves on a dead vine.
Once checked into her small room, Eve was as exhausted as she was elated. As much as she wanted to follow the map directly to Deuce’s home, she needed to wash away the Greyhound journey and sleep horizontally in a bed. Three complimentary “Welcome to Georgia, y’all” postcards caught her attention on the small desk. As she glanced deeper into the images, Eve realized that the building on the three identical postcards was a younger-looking Johnita’s Inn. If she had to put her finger on a more acute description, she’d say that it looked more vibrant.
Eve scribbled identical “Made it to Macon County” messages on two of the postcards and carefully addressed them. One to Professor LeRoi and the other to her best friend, Nelle. She began to write the third to her aunt but got no further than the “Dear Mama Ann” salutation before her pen faltered, unsure of what more to add to the small blank space.
It was as if the white space perfectly illustrated the unknowingness she’d felt her entire life, and sending a blank card to the person responsible for it seemed appropriate to her. Eve pressed a hand to her temple, took a deep breath, and wrote the same message she had on the previous two and added “I love you” before pushing them all to the corner of the small desk.
Too tired to shower, she lay on the bed, closed her eyes, and fell into sleepful memories of her journey from Chicago.
From everyman by M Shelly Conner. Used with the permission of the publisher, Blackstone Publishing. Copyright ©2021 by M Shelly Conner.
M Shelly Conner is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. Her multi-genre writings examine culture through a dapperqueer womanist lens and include publications in Crisis Magazine, the A.V. Club, and the Grio. Her debut novel, everyman, was published in July 2021. Shelly is repped by Beth Marshea at Ladderbird Agency.