When I first began trying to get students to keep “memory” journals — diaries that record only facts, no emotions, in the hope that I could prove to them that active, tangible descriptions convey emotion — I would usually use an example of a day in March 1982 when I went snake-hunting with Butch Hefflefinger. It was for a story at the Waco Tribune-Herald, my first gig in journalism. The rattle snake round-up was a kind of perennial, and often given to Yankees. I spent the day in Bosque County, hunting snakes with Butch and his friend, whose name is lost to my sieve-like memory, although I can see his face. We caught 17 snakes on that warm spring day. I wore a peach-and-blue checked shirt, part of a wardrobe of Joseph A. Banks clothing that my parents had purchased for me in hopes that I would look more professional when I joined the working world. When I got home that evening, I stood on my front porch at 509 W. 23rd Street and watched the sun set. It was a curious fact of Waco geography that the grid was completely off, so one could stand on W. 23rd Street, look straight ahead and see the setting sun off to the right. I nibbled a Stoned Wheat Thin. I don’t know what that scene conveys to anyone else, but I was happy and filled with anticipation. I had spent a day watching — and, in one instance, sort of helping — two men catch 17 rattlesnakes. Life seemed full of possibility. Within the month, I fell in love-ish.
And now here’s my Saturday at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home. The curator, a friend of friends, agreed to meet us at 5 p.m. to give us an after-hours tour. Three tourists wandered onto the grounds and they were invited to join us. We walked down the lane of cedars. Jack Pendarvis told me they had been planted to ward off airborne . . . “Yankees?” I suggested, when he groped for the word. Actually, it was yellow fever. I had been inside Rowan Oak before, but this time we were allowed to step around Plexiglass barricades and even touch things. My husband plinked one key on Faulkner’s typewriter, a J, he later told me. The curator insisted that the Coen brothers tried to steal Faulkner’s typewriter. He also said that, although they deny it, the Coen brothers have included a Faulkner reference in every film except Blood Simple. I asked about The Big Lebowski and he cited the cowboy, played by Sam Shepard, who says, “They abide.” (Also, his name is Faulknerian.) I asked about Miller’s Crossing, and was told that the name of the bar, the Halstead, appears in Sanctuary. (May be mangling that. If I were Nicholson Baker, I would come back later in a footnote and address all these issues.) I found Faulkner’s slender phone book, hanging from a string, and looked him up; he was listed under the proper spelling, Falkner, which he never formally changed. Many of the stories we heard centered on Faulkner’s formidable ego, an ego so large that I later wondered if there was some irony to it. When we told the curator that Faulkner’s burial wishes — in the ground in 24 hours, plain pine box, no embalming fluid — sounded very Jewish, he told us a story about a virulently anti-Semitic comment Faulkner made about his original publishers. The lucky tourists who had crashed our private tour left early, to everyone’s amazement. By the time we left, it was so dark that we needed a flashlight to make our way down the long lane of cedars. Much later, about midnight, after a dinner of fried catfish and gumbo and Ro-tel fries and BYOB wine, we made a pilgrimage to Faulkner’s grave. “Hey, Mr. Faulkner,” my SO said, “a black man is president.”
Sunday afternoon, driving back to Jackson to catch a plane, the SO and I began listing all the graves we have visited. Elmore James, that very afternoon. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin. Yeats. Poe, of course. The various “celebrities” of Arlington Cemetery. Lindbergh. Harold Plessy. Faulkner and James in the same weekend seemed particularly apt.