The Larry Brown Discovery Tour
Oxford, Mississippi's most famous attraction is Rowen Oak. But we didn't come here just to see where Faulkner lived...
Leslie, our daughter, is a Larry Brown aficionado. She’s been in love with his writing since college, and in the six years since she graduated, her enthusiasm has not waned. Rather, it’s infected the family; my husband and I are nearly as caught up in his work as she is. The three of us are listening to a CD of Father and Son, the novel Brown published in 1996. I’ve read Miracle of Catfish, Billy Ray’s Farm, and Dirty Work. Leslie is way ahead of me; she’s been slowly working her way through all his books. She’s read Father and Son, but she’s never listened to it. She wants to hear every word; if Rory or I speak while the CD is playing, she rewinds.
One of Leslie’s English professors, Dr. Jean Cash, has written a biography of Larry Brown. As soon as it became available, Leslie bought a copy. Inside are pictures of Larry’s parents; Larry when he was a little boy; Larry wearing his Marine fatigues; the Brown family; the farm operated by his son; Billy Ray; and his grandchildren. There are pictures of the little house he built in the forest, the pond where he fished, and his gravesite. We won’t be able to visit the grave. Nor can we see the 10 by 12 foot house he planned to use as a writing retreat. Both the grave and the little house are on private, family-owned property.
We’re going to Oxford because we want to walk where Larry Brown walked, drink in the bars where he drank, eat in the restaurants where he ate. Thanks to Leslie’s research, we have the address of the house where he lived. We plan to drive by, take pictures if we can. We’d like to see the farm where his son runs a dairy business, but we have to tread lightly. We can’t intrude.
The Trace is a narrow, national park that extends from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi. From its Tennessee extremity the road winds and twists through farmland and over hills. Herds of bison once moved along this trail, stopping to fill their bellies with grass, to lounge at salt-licks and drink at favorite watering holes. The speed limit on the parkway is never over 55; in places it drops to 40. There are no billboards, gas stations, street lights, or fast-food restaurants.
Tulip poplar and cottonwood trees have begun to turn, though it’s too early for fall color. The drought is to blame. We pass burned-out cornfields and dusty hayfields dotted with round bales of hay. We visit the gravesite of Meriwether Lewis, the famous explorer who died under mysterious circumstances at a place called Grinder’s Inn. We picnic by a stream, read historical markers, take pictures of Indian burial mounds. We watch a tractor move among the Pharr Mounds near Tupelo. It stops to disgorge a round bail, then moves on.
When we pull into Oxford four hours later, Glen Davis, the son in Father and Son, has gotten out of jail, killed two people, robbed a tavern, slept with the mother of his unwanted child, and held a gun to the head of his sleeping father. The temperature outside has hit a hundred.
We’ve booked rooms at the Downtown Oxford Inn, an old hotel just off the square. The TV in the lobby is tuned to Fox News. I consider asking the man behind the counter to switch to CNN or MSNBC, but we’ve only just arrived, and he has the right to be conservative if he wants.
I tell him we’ve come to see the house where Larry Brown lived. We’d like to go to some of the places he frequented, visit the Farmers Market where his son sells milk. He says he’s sorry. He’s never heard of Larry Brown.
He knows about Faulkner. The house where Faulkner lived is called Rowen Oak. He tears a city map off a pad and uses an orange marker to highlight the route.
I’m sorry I can’t help you with this Larry Brown. You say he lived here? In Oxford?
I nod, thank him for the map. We head off to find our hotel suite.
The first place we visit is Square Books, surely the most famous independent bookstore in America. Just inside the door is a stack of Dr. Cash’s book, Larry Brown: A Writer’s Life. A sign tells us she’s coming to sign books in three weeks. Tables and shelves are filled with new releases, many signed by the authors. Robert Olen Butler is scheduled to come in a week. Charles Frazier will visit in October.
Photos of famous writers cover nearly every inch of space not filled with books. On the back wall, opposite the checkout desk, are books by local authors: Barry Hannah, Tom Franklin, Richard Ford, Willie Morris, Howard Bahr, and of course, Larry Brown. In addition to copies of all the Brown books, there’s a DVD called The Rough South of Larry Brown. Leslie snatches it up. She’s been trying to get it on Netflix, she says, but they don’t carry it. Originally released in 2002, the documentary has been re-edited to include Brown’s death in 2004.
We aren’t surprised that Faulkner is missing from this section of Oxford writers. He has his own room upstairs, just beyond the cafe. We could spend hours visiting all the nooks and crannies in the three levels of the store. But the day is winding down, and other places call.
City Grocery, located in a building that was once a livery stable, is both a restaurant and a bar. The two are separate. The restaurant is downstairs, a narrow room with red brick walls and wide floor boards. To enter the restaurant, go in the door farthest from Square Books. To enter the bar, go in the door on the left, climb a steep flight of stairs to a darkened room that smells of whiskey, cigarette smoke, and polished wood.
In the final years of his life, this bar was Larry Brown’s favorite hangout, Leslie tells us. She’s halfway through Dr. Cash’s book, so she’s our expert. And, she has an email from her professor describing the places we should visit, things we should do. City Grocery is at the top of the list.
We order beer, and while we wait for the bartender to fill our glasses, Leslie explores the room. There’s a raised platform at the far end; she goes there to snap a picture.
Do you think he ever sat up here, at one of these tables? she asks.
Maybe. He’d have a view of the whole room. But he might want to be down with the people, not up on a platform.
Leslie snaps another picture, picks up her beer and follows us out to the balcony. It’s filled to overflowing. We manage to find a table and three chairs. Evening has brought some relief from the heat, but not much. The beer smells faintly of almonds and there’s the hint of a breeze. For the three of us sitting in this bar where Larry Brown spent so many nights, life is good.
The balcony overlooks Oxford Square, Lafayette County Courthouse in the center looking like an antebellum mansion complete with white columns and a confederate soldier standing guard in front. Square Books is to our right, Off Square Books on the other side of the intersection, Square Books Jr. behind the courthouse, as is the bronze statue of Faulkner. The University of Mississippi is a few blocks to the west. Faulkner went to school there; Larry Brown took a course in fiction writing. John Grisham earned his Juris Doctor degree at Ole Miss Law School. Locals say there are more lawyers in Oxford than in any comparable city in the south, and that a disproportionately large numbers are also writers - thank you John Grisham. On this summer evening the tables at City Grocery are filled with beer-drinkers from all walks of life: students, lawyers, teachers, writers, shopkeepers, rednecks, farmers, all gathered on that small balcony.
Someone mentions Cormac McCarthy, and I revel in this antidote to the hotel clerk who never heard of Larry Brown. The topic of conversation at another table is fracking. The epicenter of the 5.8 earthquake that hit the east coast is near fracking sites in West Virginia. Geologists wonder if there could be a connection. This past spring state officials in Arkansas forced two energy companies to stop injecting “slick water” into the earth; the plethora of earthquakes that had been plaguing the region suddenly stopped.
We sip our drinks and listen to a conversation between an older woman and a younger man. They’re at different tables, but their chairs are almost touching. She asks his age. 29, he says. He’s an attorney. He’s not married. She takes her iPhone out of her purse and hands it to him. Her daughter is a senior at Ole Miss, she says, and she doesn’t approve of the boy her daughter is dating. Would he be interested in meeting her? He takes the phone and looks at the picture. Sure, he says, and he leans back in his chair and hands the phone to the woman.
It’s that easy, there on the balcony at City Grocery.
We finish our almond-flavored beer and go inside, then down those steep stairs, noticing that the steps near the bottom are slanted toward the restaurant. I wonder how many people have become disoriented by those crooked steps, and how many tumbled to the bottom, and if Larry Brown was one of them.
When John Currence, City Grocery owner and chef, came to Oxford in 1992, one of the first friends he made was Larry Brown. Larry liked the dark, brooding atmosphere of the upstairs bar Currence had created. He let Currence read his work when it was still in manuscript form. There’s a picture of Larry and his wife, Mary Annie, eating dinner at the restaurant in Dr. Cash’s book. We plan to have dinner there.
The restaurant is considered one of the finest in Mississippi. Currence won the James Beard Best Southern Chef Award in 2009. Stories about the restaurant have appeared in Southern Living, The New York Times, and Bon Appetit.
Leslie is a vegetarian. Not vegan, not pescatarian, not macrobiotic. Just vegetarian. Since college she’s avoided all meats and meat products.
The menu at City Grocery is a problem. They offer Catfish, Shrimp and Grits, Pork Tenderloin, Duck, Scallops, Veal, and more Catfish. Ordinarily she’d order a veggie plate and maybe a salad. She might order soup, but she’ll ask first if they use beef or chicken broth in the preparation. She takes pride in being able to eat vegetarian in nearly every restaurant.
She asks for mashed potatoes. The waiter shakes his head. There’s bacon grease in the potatoes, he tells her. Green Beans? No, he sighs. Bacon grease in the beans, too. Mixed veggie casserole? He shuffles. Chicken fat, he says. Soup? He leans against the table behind him. Beef base, he mumbles, and his voice is barely audible. Caesar Salad? Another sigh. Anchovies in the dressing.
Then he brightens. He’ll ask the chef to prepare something special for her. She nods, tells him that will be wonderful. The waiter is happy. Rory and I are happy. That a famous chef would create a special vegetarian dish for our daughter, such a thing could only happen in a truly great restaurant.
I’ll have the same, I tell the waiter. Whatever the chef makes for her, that’s what I’ll have. He practically skips off to the kitchen.
We sip wine and munch on cornbread while we wait. It’s wrapped in a white napkin with just a hint of bread showing. The bread is spicy, the butter sweetened with honey, and it’s a delicious combination.
We wait a long time. The waiter brings more cornbread. We order more wine. He brings progress reports. The chef decided on a pasta dish, but then he abandoned it. He’s working on something else now. It won’t be much longer.
30 minutes later he sets the square plates in front of us. The chef has created a masterpiece: sauteed red peppers, yellow squash and zucchini, baby green salad leaves atop a light, buttery pastry, all drizzled with a cream sauce.
Ratatouille on phyllo, the waiter says, and he steps back from the table, hands clasped in front of him.
It looks lovely, we tell him.
Leslie picks up her fork, takes a tiny bite from the edge. They should put this on the menu, she says. It’s delicious.
Thank you, the waiter says, bowing slightly. I’ll tell the chef.
Rory and I have coffee the next morning in the hotel breakfast room while Leslie works out in the fitness center. He takes a USA Today from the pile, and I pick up The Daily Mississippian, the Ole Miss student newspaper. There’s a recipe from City Grocery on the front page, something called Catfish and Tasso Savory Cheesecake. I’ve never heard of tasso, so I check my Blackberry. It’s a spicy, cured pork made from the shoulder of a pig, Wikipedia informs me.
I read through the list of ingredients. All cheesecake has cream cheese, eggs, and sugar. Many recipes call for cream. But smoked mozzarella? Chopped red peppers? Garlic olive oil? A cup of diced Tasso ham? And most unusual of all, two catfish fillets, baked and chopped.
I lay the paper aside and sip my coffee, wondering about the cornbread we ate last night: if they use bacon grease in their mashed potatoes, do they also put it in their cornbread muffins?
Rory, reading the business section, is not happy. The stock market is down, the coffee is weak, and he’s hungry. The hotel offers pastries and canned fruit. He wants eggs and bacon.
On our way to breakfast, at another restaurant owned by John Currence, we walk past the Fire Department where Larry Brown worked for 17 years. It was here, Leslie tells us, that Brown began his writing career. While his fellow firemen slept, Brown stayed up far into the night, working on his stories. It was a pattern that would persist for the rest of his life.
Big Bad Breakfast, located in a strip mall north of the Fire Station, was named for Brown’s second collection of fiction, Big Bad Love, published in 1990. The film, starring Debra Winger, was not a success. Nor was the collection.
The atmosphere inside the restaurant is rustic. No two light fixtures are alike. There are American flags, mirrors set in window frames, a velvet Elvis. The creamer on the table contains cream from the Brown Family Dairy. If you order cereal, it will come with a pitcher of milk from Billy Ray’s Jersey cows. The eggs are local and cage-free, the bacon organic. The menu features a variety of omelets, grits, biscuits, gravies, and even bruleed grapefruit.
But it’s our waitress who enthralls us. We’ve come to learn about Larry Brown, we tell her.
He was just an old farmer from out in the county, she says. A redneck farmer. I used to work with Mary Annie, his wife, down at the stove factory. He’s been dead... three or four years, she guesses. It’s been seven, but we don’t mention that.
On to the Farmers Market, where Billy Ray sells fresh milk in glass bottles emblazoned with the words, Brown Family Dairy. Larry Brown’s collection of essays, Billy Ray’s Farm, is on my mind. He wrote of this son with such tenderness. When Billy Ray’s cows got in trouble, Larry did what he could, but often it was not enough. They died and their calves died, and Brown wondered why the boy seemed to have such bad luck. He wanted to help. He tried to be there for his son, yet he understood that Billy Ray had to do it on his own.
Now Leslie and I stand in front of the refrigerator at the Farmers Market looking through the frosted glass at the clean white bottles with red lettering. Here is the milk, fresh, sweet, and healthy. Larry would be proud.
It sells for $4.00 a half-gallon, $2.00 a pint. There’s a deposit of $2.00 on each container. On the counter are bars of soap made by Mary Annie: Meme’s Natural Milk Soap, made with milk from the Brown Family Dairy. Each bar is wrapped in chocolate brown paper and tied with twine, Mary Annie’s calling card held in place by the cord.
We put two bars on the counter. We ask about Billy Ray.
He’ll be by later this afternoon, the girl tells us. You’re welcome to go out to his farm. It’s in Tula, about 20 miles south of here. School kids take field trips out there all the time. She writes down his cell number. Call him, she says. He’d love for you to come out.
I make the call, and he seems thrilled that someone would want to see his dairy operation. We set a time: 5:30. That’s when he starts milking. He gives me the address. He’s on speaker phone, and Leslie writes it down. It’s two digits off from the address she found on the Internet. Before dinner last night we drove to Tula, past the house where we believed Larry Brown lived. It’s set back from the road in a grove of trees, and we couldn’t be certain which mailbox belonged to which house. This afternoon we’ll find out. In the meantime, we’ll visit the house where Faulkner lived.
The dust is thick on the path leading to Rowen Oak. We pause at the edge of the circle garden in front of the house. It’s overgrown, unkempt, its symmetry ruined by trees and bushes allowed to take root in places they should never have been allowed to grow. The stones that mark the edges of the beds are sinking into the ground. Some are completely gone, either having sunk beneath the soil or been removed by gardeners. What plants remain are casualties of the unrelenting heat and drought; they are leggy and brown.
Something in me wants this garden restored. If Faulkner were alive, would he want the same? He died in 1962, nearly 50 years ago. The garden has had a long time to slumber.
The brick walkway leading to the house is shaded by cedar trees. This is the view of Rowen Oak you see in pictures and on brochures; white antebellum house, cedar trees lining the path. The bricks, set in a herringbone pattern, are uneven, having suffered the same neglect as the garden.
We step onto the front porch, pull open the screen door, and enter the house. It’s cool inside, a welcome relief from the heat and humidity.
The curator approaches from some interior room and welcomes us to Faulkner’s home. Almost apologetically, he mentions the fee. Five dollars per person. Free admission on Wednesdays, he says. We’ve come a day too early, I tell him, but I take out my wallet and look for a ten and a five. We’ve set aside this afternoon for Oxford’s most famous resident, and $15 seems a small price to pay. He takes my twenty, fishes a five from a jar on the table, hands it to me along with three brochures.
It’s a self-guided tour, he says, and then begins a tour of the downstairs. To the left is the library (Faulkner built the bookshelves himself), on the right the parlor where his daughter Jill was married. He pauses, giving us time to look into the rooms and see the artifacts preserved there. We move on to the office behind the library, a room Faulkner added in 1950. (That’s his typewriter on the desk by the window. Look at the writing on the wall. It’s the outline of A Fable, the novel that won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.)
We step into the room. It is not as I remember it. Rory and I came here years ago, long before I knew of Larry Brown. The desk was by the fireplace then, not beneath the window. There was no bed.
He hurt his back, the curator says, falling off a horse. He couldn’t climb the stairs after that, so he had the bed brought in here.
We go up the divided staircase, on our own now, to see the room where Faulkner slept, his books, his boots. Estelle’s bedroom, in the back of the house, is filled with paintings of birds and flowers. When we’re finished we go down the narrow, back stairway. The curator is eating lunch. He puts his sandwich down, joins us in the hallway. He points out the case that contains Faulkner memorabilia: manuscripts, letters, an empty whiskey bottle, the Faulkner quote, “... the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.”
Jack Daniels was his favorite, the curator says.
Larry Brown’s favorite was Peach Schnapps, I tell the Curator. He liked to chase it with a Budweiser.
They were both pretty good drinkers, he says.
Why, I ask, does Brown not get the respect other Oxford writers get?
He hasn’t been dead long enough. Let another 50 years go by.
If he’d won the Nobel Prize, like Faulkner...
Would you like to see the phone where Faulkner took the call? It’s not on the tour, but I’ll show you. He leads us into the pantry, just outside the kitchen.
It’s a black desk phone set on a corner shelf. The walls around it are covered with phone numbers. Faulkner’s work again. That’s his cousin’s number, a nephew, friends, people who worked for him... Did you know he was only five feet four inches tall? Most people don’t know that. He’s buried in Oxford, St. Peter’s Cemetery. People take whiskey out there, and they drink to him, then leave the bottle on his grave.
Why, I ask, did Larry Brown’s family bury him on private property? Didn’t they realize people might want to see his grave?
The curator shrugs. They’re from out in the county, he says.
He doesn’t call them townies, or kickers, or any of the other names university people give to the locals, but the hint of disdain is there, beneath the surface. Those who live in town or “out in the county” have only a rudimentary education. They build blinds to hunt animals and they eat the animals they kill. They work with their hands and there’s often not enough money to provide for their families. They go to church on Sundays and repent of their sins and on Monday they’re back at it.
These are the people Larry Brown writes about. His characters drink and curse and drive cars whose mufflers have rusted away. They have coolers in the backs of their pickup trucks and the coolers are filled with beer. They struggle with alcoholism and bad marriages. They lurch from one disaster to another, and yet they survive.
Larry Brown’s own life was not unlike that of his characters, as Dr. Cash’s book reveals. He drank too much, was unfaithful to his wife, caused enormous pain to those he loved. Leslie, who is a romantic and an idealist, hated to read about these things, but she understood Dr. Cash was writing a biography, and she had to include them.
A few years ago Larry Brown and his wife came to Nashville, I tell the curator. He’d just published Father and Son; the two of them were onstage at Legislative Plaza, taking part in a Q & A about writing. I remember Mary Annie saying she didn’t read his books, that she was the one who raised the children, he didn’t really help. You could see she was bitter about it.
I remember the look on his face when she said these things. He just sat there, watching her, letting her say whatever she liked. There was a detachment about him, as if no matter what she said, it didn’t affect him. He’d done what he’d done, and he would do what he had to do. He needed that 10 by 12 foot house he planned to build in the woods. He wanted to be able to go there, and write, and be at peace.
Before we left Nashville to come to Oxford, Leslie showed me the picture of the headstone in Dr. Cash’s book, and I thought about Mary Annie on that stage. It seemed as if now that he was gone, she could take him back. She’d reclaimed him from his readers. She’d brought him home from that world where he’d gone. He was finally hers.
The curator nods. He understands. They’re from the county, he says again.
It’s disappointing that we can’t visit the grave, I tell him.
Mom, Leslie says, touching my arm. Enough.
I’ve embarrassed her.
You’ll want to visit the stable, the curator says. Faulkner built it himself. He kept his horses there. And don’t miss the slave quarters out back. Caroline Barr lived there until she died. She was a black woman born into slavery. She practically raised Faulkner. He delivered her eulogy.
Leslie and I step out into the back yard. The grass crunches under under our feet, it’s so dry. Rory hangs back. He wants to ask about another Oxford writer.
He’s such a great writer, I hear my husband say. I’d love to meet him, tell him how much I like his work.
The curator nods sorrowfully, as if he’s been asked that question before, and his answer is not one he wants to give. If you read ‘em, don’t meet ‘em, he says.
Rory looks perplexed.
It’s an old saying. If you met this guy, you’d be disappointed. He thinks he’s living in the 19th century. He wears a cape, and they say he even carries a sword.
He puts his arm around my husband’s shoulders and walks with him to the edge of the porch. Besides, he doesn’t live here anymore. He moved away some time ago.
There’s a hint of relief in his voice, as if he’s glad Oxford no longer has to contend with this particular writer.
At 5:30 we drive down the gravel road that leads to Billy Ray’s farm. At the end of the road, to the right, is the house where we believe Larry Brown lived. To our left, another house. Farther on, several small buildings, none of which looks like a barn. We see calves in a pen behind the house, a hay bailer at the edge of the parking area, Jersey cattle milling in the pasture that stretches to the woods.
I imagine Larry Brown’s “little house” and his pond are somewhere back beyond the trees, but I have no way of knowing for certain. The field is green, the grass high despite the drought. Leslie is looking toward the woods, surely thinking the same thoughts I am.
We could climb the fence and start walking back through the field, I tell her.
If we did, and of course we can’t and we won’t, but if we did, and if we came across his grave, it would be a disappointment. The house he built and the pond where he fished are what we want to see. In those things he lives on, I realize. And in his books.
The sun has dropped low in the sky, and its rays shine through the building that houses the milking parlor. I know about such things. My father had a milking parlor in Pennsylvania. We’ve come to the right place. This is the Brown Family Dairy.
There’s a girl walking across the open area toward the buildings. She’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Her dark hair is caught up in a ponytail. We introduce ourselves. Her name is Paula, and she’s Billy Ray’s wife. She’s about to start milking. You’re welcome to come watch, she tells us. Billy Ray will be along is a while.
It feels strange, being here. We’re come to this place when there’s work to be done, we’ve never met Paula before, she didn’t know we were coming, but she has such an easy way about her that we begin to relax.
The milking parlor at the Brown Family Dairy is, like the path to the Faulkner house, a herringbone design. The cows enter from the west, go into their angled slots, and are secured in place. The operator stands in a pit, and while the cows eat their grain, the operator attaches the electric milkers.
Paula keeps up a running chatter as she scoops grain into the bowls, opens the door that allows the cattle to enter, puts on the milkers, watches until the flow of milk through the hoses slows, removes the milkers, opens the gate that allows the cattle to go out into the pasture.
My dad often complained about the awful cold when he was down in that pit in the wintertime. He bought an electric heater, but winters in Pennsylvania are brutal.
In Oxford, it’s the heat that’s oppressive. There’s a fan, but it offers little relief. The air in the pit is stagnant and heavy. I tell her about my father, and how he hated the cold.
This last winter was awful, Paula says. I never remember it being that cold. The water inside the house actually froze. We couldn’t stay warm. I couldn’t give the kids a bath, couldn’t wash their clothes. We had to move in with my mother-in-law during the worst of it.
Mother-in-law. That would be Mary Annie. I make no comment.
When the first four cows are finished, Paula removes the milkers and opens the gate that releases them from their stalls. Some are reluctant to leave. They look for bits of grain the cow ahead of them may have missed. Paula knows each of them by name. She can tell you where they bought them, how old they are, when they last calved. She knows which ones are docile and which ones will misbehave. She’s not adverse to man-handling them if they balk at leaving the barn.
But she’s afraid of Holsteins, she admits. They had one, once, and it was huge compared to these little Jerseys. She was afraid to go into the barn when the cow was there. Billy Ray, southern gentleman that he is, finally sold her.
Three of the Jerseys have bobbed tails, I notice. They do this in big dairy operations. It keeps the milk cleaner, the owners say. That the tail is used to swish flies when a cow is out in the pasture is not a consideration. The cattle are never allowed outside the barns. They’re milked three times a day instead of twice. This forced production shortens their lives; after three or four years they’re sent to the slaughterhouse.
They were like that when we bought them, Paula says. Billy Ray told the guy he couldn’t have cows like that in his herd. We have school children coming out here all the time to see the dairy, and what would they think?
But he bought them, and they are now part of the Brown herd. They graze with the rest of the cattle, and their lives are happier than they might otherwise have been.
Paula is turning out the last of the Jerseys when Billy Ray finally arrives. He gets out of his truck and lingers, watching the cattle move into the tall grass. You can see the pride in his face. He goes inside to check the cooler, the milking parlor, then joins us by the pasture.
One of the Jerseys with a bobbed tail is grazing by the fence. He looks at her and apologizes. He hates it that this has been done, understands the reason for it but hates it nonetheless. School kids invariably ask why he cut off their tails, and he has to explain.
Look at her, Billy Ray says, nodding at the cow. She’s happy, she’s eating grass, she’s doing what a cow is supposed to do.
He takes off his Farm Bureau cap and runs his hand through his hair and replaces the cap. We’ve started this operation just over two years ago, he tells us, and we’re selling all the milk we can produce. We had six cows back then, and now we’re milking 15. There’s no way we can compete with the big dairies, the ones that milk hundreds of cows, but there’s demand out there for a product that is clean and healthy and we’re trying to fill that demand.
The hat again. Remove it, smooth the hair, replace it. One of the hardest things is getting people to return the bottles. We paid $2.63 for each bottle, and we ordered 2000 when we started. Now one of our biggest problems is getting them back. We’ve actually had to dump milk when we ran out of bottles.
We saw your sign at The Farmers Market, Leslie says. Taped to the refrigerator door, it was a plea for customers to return the bottles. She doesn’t mention that she took a picture of it. Nor that she wanted to buy a pint of milk, take it to the hotel, and drink it that night after dinner. The girl at the counter asked if she knew it was cream. She shook her head. No, she hadn’t known. She put it back in the cooler.
We bottle it and deliver it ourselves, Billy Ray says, and he ticks off the places he sells his milk: Farmers Market, Mid-Town Shopping Center, Taylor’s Market, Big Bad Breakfast, City Grocery. People say it tastes better than milk you buy in a regular store. We cool it down to about 36 degrees — it starts cooling the minute it goes into the tank. It has a shelf life of about 20 days, a lot longer than what you buy somewhere else.
Milk inspectors? They were the bane of my father’s existence, showing up unexpectedly, demanding improvements he couldn’t afford, looking for reasons to shut him down. Billy Ray counts them among his friends. They come out here every week, he says, to make sure we’re doing everything we should be doing. People should know where their food comes from. That’s why I encourage people to come out, see the dairy. We milk at 5:30 am and 5:30 pm every day of the year.
His cows are grass-fed, the milk organic. He uses no antibiotics, no growth hormones. They get very little grain — just a small amount at milking time to encourage them to come into the barn and keep them docile. He wants to keep it a small operation, and he has to keep a close eye on costs if he’s to stay profitable. He has a hundred beef cattle on the back of the property; they help pay the bills. But his heart is in these Jersey cows whose milk is so much better than that of other breeds: higher in protein and butterfat.
He likes no-till farming, points to the cotton field on the other side of Route 334. It’s lush and vividly green in the fading evening light. I mention the chemicals, the long-term effects on the land, the need to use more deadly herbicides. It’s a trade-off, he says, and he lists the merits of no-till: less erosion, reduced labor and fuel costs, less compaction of the soil, more efficient use of water... His voice trails off as he gazes at the cotton field, and I wonder if, deep down, he’s troubled by this method of growing crops that is the antithesis of organic farming.
The lights go on inside the house. It’s time for us to go back to Oxford. Billy Ray walks with us to our car. He asks where we’re from.
Nashville, Rory says, and adds that he’s a songwriter.
Are you serious? A songwriter? I can’t believe it. My father loved music. He absolutely loved music. He’d stay up all night writing, and when it started to get light, he’d go out there into the carport, and he’d crank up his guitar. He’d sit out there for hours, just playing his guitar. God, how he loved music.
We look in the direction he’s indicating, we see the carport, and we know the house to the right of the driveway is the house where Larry Brown lived. In the more than two hours we’ve spent at Billy Ray’s farm, this is the only time anyone mentions Larry Brown. But we are satisfied.
We eat dinner that night at the Ajax Diner on the Square. It’s another award-winning restaurant, but this one has vegetarian options. Leslie and I order black-eyed peas, turnip greens, and mashed potatoes. We talk about our visit to the Brown Family Dairy.
How can he send those Jerseys to the slaughterhouse when they’re members of the family, I ask. If he’s to succeed, that’s what he’ll need to do. The three with the bobbed tails that he bought and turned into his pasture, when their lactating days are done, what then? He’ll need to make hard choices.
The calves wear yellow identification tags in their ears. Heifer calves are given names, bull calves numbers. We don’t want anyone saying... We’re eating little Johnny tonight. That’s him, on the dinner table.
In his spare time, what little he has, he writes poetry. He has a box full of poems in the house.
“He’s mowed yards since he was 12 years old, and worked as a butcher, and hauled hay, and laid sod, and worked on a hog farm. He’s saved his money, and all he’s ever wanted is to be a cattleman. And it always hurt me deep that he has had such bad luck.” That’s what his father wrote of him in his book of essays from a place called Tula.
We’ve gone to Tula and seen a cattleman whose arms-wide-open personality has brought him good luck. Billy Ray Brown is a man who is content with his life.
Taylor, Mississippi, is a dusty village seven miles southwest of Oxford. Dr. Cash, in her email to Leslie, said we shouldn’t miss it. The Taylor Grocery and Restaurant, famous for its Bone-in Catfish and Fried Okra, is owned by one of Larry Brown’s best friends, Lynn Hewlett.
I remember the name from one of the essays. “Lynn Hewlett ... once loaded up a bad bull in a backhoe bucket.” He doesn’t say if the bull was alive or dead.
We drive to Taylor the next day. The town looks abandoned. Nothing stirs in the street, on the sidewalks, in the yards. There are no dogs, no people, nothing but a boiling hot sun, a few cars that look as if they’ve been parked in the same spot for years, and a row of stores that are as deserted as the town.
Taylor’s Grocery and Restaurant, That Catfish Place, is closed. Open only on weekends. Jammed on weekends; We do not seat partial parties, the sign warns us.
The front door is so completely covered with names, I wonder if the Hewletts offer magic markers to patrons. A whiskey bottle, the largest I’ve ever seen, is tied to string which runs through a pulley across the porch to another pulley that is attached to the top of the door. It’s an ingenious system: You pull open the door and the whiskey bottle rises. Enter the building, let go of the door, and the weight of the bottle pulls the door shut.
We look in the windows: tables covered with red and white checkered oilcloths, shelves filled with antique bottles, walls nearly obscured beneath license plates, football memorabilia, and graffiti. Barbara Walters ate here. So did Peyton Manning. Jimmy Buffet left a poem on the wall, but it’s been obliterated by more recent works of literary merit. Elvis wrote his name, but no one knows if it was the real Elvis or an impostor.
Catfish and hush puppies aside, it was worth the trip. We head back to Oxford. It’s time to visit Faulkner’s grave.
He lies beneath a simple marble slab. Beside him, his wife Estelle. The ground is well-trampled. Dead leaves are gathered in the corners of the Faulkner plot. There are a few coins scattered about — quarters and dimes mostly. A whiskey bottle, Maker’s Mark, not Jack Daniels. Atop the marker, a pen. It looks as if it’s been there a long time.
Inscribed on the slab, his name, dates, and the simple inscription: Beloved, Go With God.
Down the hill from the shaded area where we stand are two caretakers. One approaches us. Would you like to see where Faulkner’s maid is buried, he asks. We stare at him.
Callie Barr, his housekeeper. The woman who raised him.
Follow me, he says. He goes back down the hill, jumps onto a yellow Case tractor, and speeds away. We hurry back to our car, get in, and follow.
The black section of St. Peter’s Cemetery is different from the white. The headstones are small, there are fewer trees, the graves are mostly single rather than clustered in family plots. Carolyn Barr is buried just a few rows off the access road that runs through the cemetery.
There she is, he says. We read the inscription:
Callie BarrI turn to the caretaker, who is standing by his tractor. Is she a relative?
Her white children
No, I just like to show people.
We were at Rowen Oaks yesterday, I tell him. We saw the cabin where she lived. Thank you for bringing us here.
He nods, gets on his tractor, and drives away.
We could go back to Faulkner’s grave. Take a picture. Look at some of the other tombstones, members of his family who are buried close by.
But we don’t. It’s time to leave Oxford. The Natchez Trace calls, and Leslie wants to drive. We’ve only heard half the story of Glen Davis and his father, and she’s anxious for us to hear the rest. There are seven CDs left. She knows the ending, but she’s not talking.
With all that’s happened in the story, it doesn’t seem possible there could be redemption for a man so filled with anger, lust, and hatred, yet that’s what we expect from this author.
I think he can do it. Larry Brown is that good a writer. • 23 April 2013
Rita Welty Bourke has published numerous works of fiction and non-fiction in literary magazines, including The North American Review, Cimarron Review, Louisiana Literature, Shenandoah, Witness, and Black Warrior Review. One of her stories, "Gunnison Beach," has been included in the anthology Naked compiled by Susan Zakin. Five have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. For more information visit her website.
Top image courtesy of Rory Bourke. All other photos taken and provided by Leslie Bourke.
This story originally ran in The Chattahoochee Review.