Heat by Dempsey Miles
Heat. The kind of heat that makes wiggly little lines appears before your eyes as you walk. The kind of heat that makes walking barefoot in hot gravel rocks a feat for only the brave or the unfortunate. This is the heat you miss in the winter and dread in the last faltering days of spring. This is the heat of Starkville, Mississippi, my home town. Starkville is not a famous place to anybody unless you are from Mississippi. For those of us who live there it is either the greatest place ever or the armpit of west hell. Opinions do vary and either could be right on any given day. Perspective is everything. Being born in July I have a love for summer time Mississippi. Who could blame me? The Fourth of July, summer break from school and my birthday. That list is only my personal highlights. When you consider the framework for these events you cannot help but be drawn to the “great state”.
Summer time in Mississippi is the time of the year when our cousins who escaped the state’s gravitational pull are shipped back down across the Mason-Dixon Line to reacquaint with family. It usually consists of some Yankee bred cousin being soaked in a moss filled pool or screaming in terror from the cicada that somehow “landed” on their shoulder. As I recall there were always tears involved and a fair amount of running and screaming. And laughter; at least until we had to explain the circumstances that now required the aforementioned cousin to be coaxed from the bathroom or closet. Innocence. “I was just showin’ em how catch bugs mama! It’s just a bug!” (Spoken with eyes open wide and eyelashes a flutter). Yep. That’s how we rolled in the Ville.
“Summertime…and the living is easy ~ Porgy & Bess Gershwin & Hayward”
A rite of passage for a young man in summertime Starkville was the building of the bicycle you would ride through the heat of the city. The undertaking was quite necessary as transportation was needed to traverse the distances between Westside and McKee parks, Wal-Mart on highway 12 (before they became super-sized), and the campus of Mississippi State University. While it was true the distances could be managed on foot, who wanted to walk when you could ride knifing through the warm breezes like a clipper ship slicing the Atlantic tides. The more affluent among us could purchase a brand new bike from Wal-Mart, Fred’s or Western Auto, but the true aficionados built their bikes from the remains of last year’s makeshift model adding pieces that were refurbished, scavenged, traded, or “found”. We all felt our self-tooled bikes were faster, better than anything pre-made by Schwinn or Huffy. Some kids used copious amounts of Krylon spray paint to personalize their swift beauties; I preferred the mismatched, roughhewed look not painting my bike allowed. If someone was foolish enough to challenge me to a race they would have to contend with the Jedi-mind screw of my post-apocalyptic, 20” wheeled nightmare cycle’s visage. A hell bike for the hellish heat of central Mississippi…or something like that. We rode a lot of miles in that unrelenting summer heat.
“End of the spring and here she comes back ~ Hot Fun in the Summertime; Sly and The Family Stone”
She stood there at the top of the lane. She wore braided pigtails, a salmon colored spaghetti strapped top, cutoff blue jean shorts with the tips of the front pockets peeping below the frayed denim and red five and dime flip-flops. I had known Linda Denise Brown ever since I was six years old and she was always a pretty girl, but standing here in the fullness of her pre-teen years she was the most beautiful girl in the world. As far as my thirteen years old world was concerned anyway. I in the awkward bravado that comes with early teens approached her with my coolest Richard Roundtree strut praying I did not trip on a lose stone along the way. She stood there, buffered from the August heat by the elms, dogwood and sycamore trees that were nestled among the thick kudzu that lined both sides of the lane. Her hands casually behind her back, her almond shaped caramel brown eyes locked on me and me alone. I could see the start of smile playing across her full, naturally pink lips. The closer I came the more the silk smoothness of unblemished, honey brown skin came into focus. One thing I learned in that moment and confirmed in my world travels as an adult is that there is nothing in all the world as fine as a girl raised in the south. The lane had to be a full 10 degrees cooler than the black asphalt on either side of it but the subtle temperature drop was of little use in cooling the heat that started in the pit of my stomach and radiated throughout my gawky teenage frame. “Hey Linda Brown”, “Hey Lil Demp” we greeted each one another. At her acknowledgement I tried not to grin like a village idiot; had to play it cool like Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington on Welcome Back Kotter. Our conversation was as inconsequential as expired breath; content irrelevant, context immeasurable. I hung onto and played off every word that passed between her beautiful lips. Each syllable had been dipped in the thick batter of her hypnotic southern drawl, deep fried and served to me in savory morsels; I ate it like grand momma’s ambrosia. At the time I did not know that this and several more conversations would lead to our lives being entwined forever, but you can never tell what will happen in the southern heat.
“It’s like a heatwave burning in my heart ~ Heatwave; Martha and the Vandellas”
I was raised to be a good Baptist, but I was born into that all inclusive southern religion of SEC Football. Being born in Starkville my team choice was easy, Them Dawgs, baby, the Mississippi State Bulldogs. I was ringing a cowbell before ringing cowbells was cool. Loyalty to the dawgs is an implied thing. No one will tell you per se that you have to be a bulldog fan. I mean Mississippi has quite a few teams to choose from, but I’m from Starkville, the university is walking distance from my house. Any other choice is sacrilege. Although I grew up in Starkville I couldn’t afford the price of admission to a game but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t find my way to one. A couple times a football season my church youth group operated a concession stand on game day to make money for our activities. I always volunteered to walk the stadium aisles and hawk foot long hotdogs, roasted peanuts, 30 ounce Cokes and Sprites. The trays were heavy, the people were rude, the tips were sparse but I got to see my bulldogs play live! The heat during a day game could exceed 100 degrees; night games in August and September weren’t much better. But to see my dawgs in their home jerseys clash against our rivals was always an experience. The Ole Miss Rebels were the worst. I absolutely hated everything about the Oxford team from their mascot, the Colonel, to the Confederate battle flags they brazenly waved at each game. I disliked no opponent more…until the Alabama Crimson Tide came to town. Bama’s Tide was the spawn of Satan and had to be defeated in the Egg Bowl every year no matter if we didn’t win another game. The heat served to broil the players and the fans in the stands to the right temperature bringing Scott Field to the brink of eruption; every game, win, lose or draw. Days after the game you had to go to Starkville Café, Petty Barbeque, the Lil Dooey restaurant or Fleming Barber shop and parse the wisdom of Coach Emory Bellard in leading his team, our team. The dawgs didn’t always win, but they always played hard in the stifling humidity and omnipresent heat that was as much a sentient presence as any living person in my Starkville, Mississippi.