Averyell A. Kessler
There was no hint of sunlight when Mama and I climbed into WG’s new Lincoln Continental and settled in for the long drive ahead. We’d spent the night at an Alamo Plaza on the outskirts of Memphis so we could hit the road early and reach French Lick Indiana before dark. As the sky brightened, we breezed through Nashville easily; but when we turned north toward Louisville, things got complicated. As we approached the first signs of the Smokey Mountains, the road narrowed to two lanes. Double S turns replaced our steady path. Soon, a full bloom sun bore down on the windshield like a spotlight from hell and caused WG’s air conditioner vents to spit mist and drip. He was furious.
“Gimme your sunglasses, Paula,” WG said. “I can’t a damn thing.” My mother handed over a pair of pink cat eye sunglasses trimmed in rhinestones. He put them on without a word, then opened a pack of Beemon’s clove gum and popped a stick into his mouth. We kept going but slowed when the hills grew steeper and we passed small mountain hamlets without names. After an unexpectedly sharp curve, we fell in behind a line of ancient black Cadillacs, most with rusty bumpers, semi-deflated tires, and dark windows.
“Must be a funeral,” WG growled.
“I don’t know,” Mama answered. “Look at the last car. What’s that hanging out of its windows?”
“Can’t tell,” WG said. “It’s got a Michigan license plate too.“
We drove closer. Withing minutes, we realized we were following a gypsy caravan moving like oozing molasses. A collection of black iron skillets and cooking pots dangled from the last car’s windows, as well as a tin washtub the size of a baby elephant. It’s bulging trunk was secured by knotted hemp rope.
“We’re in trouble,” WG said. “I gotta pass them.”
“On this road?” Mama asked. For the last ten miles, the road had been dotted with treacherous, teeth rattling potholes. Roadside signs advertising wild animal exhibits, raw honey, and Burma Shave were replaced by deep gullies and bottomless ravines. We saw no evidence of human life.
“I’ll go around them one car at a time,” WG answered.
When we passed a mileage sign, the skillet car slowed. WG stepped on the gas. The Lincoln’s powerful engine roared, and we shot around it. A man in the back seat waived a pistol as we threaded our way into the middle of the caravan.
Ahead of us, the next car’s roof was covered with wooden cages filled with chickens. A whirlwind of white feathers floated against our windshield, some sticking to the glass. “Damnation,” WG hissed. In the backseat, we saw two red bone hounds and more children than we could count. Somehow, we passed them too, this time squeezing behind an aged limo hearse. The gypsy driver waved a sawed-off shotgun as we raced by. WG bit off the tip of a fresh cigar, lit it, and mumbled a few choice words. “Now I gotta deal with a dead body! Dadgummit!”
“Did you see the shotgun?” Mama shrieked.
“Ignore it,” WG said.
Suddenly, flashing red lights bounced off the clouds and sirens whooped louder than thunder. The gypsy cars slowed to stop. We did too. A cadre of sheriff’s deputies had barricaded the road with sawhorses and fencing wire. We were caught! WG rolled down his window as a deputy approached our car.
“I can’t let ya drive through my county,” the deputy announced. “You gypsies been causin’ trouble near here. Turn around and take your pots and pans back to Michigan. Chickens too. And whatever SOB ya got in that hearse.”
“I’m not a gypsy,” WG raged. “And I’m from Mississippi, not Michigan!” He forgot that he was wearing Mama’s pink jeweled sunglasses.
“You sure look like a gypsy with them fancy glasses,” the deputy said.
“I borrowed my daughter’s sunglasses because the sun was blinding me.” WG answered. Mama leaned forward and smiled at the deputy. He was unconvinced.
“You look mighty suspicious to me. Get outta the car and show me your license.”
After the deputy rifled through WG’s wallet, he was still leery. “You say you’re from Mississippi. How do I know you ain’t lying?”
“Look at my tag,” WG answered. “It says Hinds County, Mississippi.”
“You mighta stole that,” the deputy said. “I know all your gypsy tricks.” The deputy lifted his hat and raked back thin strands of oily brown hair. “Best you turn around. Now!”
“I’ve got to get to Indiana today,” WG insisted. “I have hotel reservations in French Lick.”
“Oh ho,” the deputy sneered. “I wouldn’t be talking like that in polite company sir. I could arrest you right now for public indecency. You got a woman in your car, too. I see her clear as day.”
Just as WG was about to give up and turn back, Mama and I climbed out the car. She’d had enough. “Mr. Avery is my father, sir,” she said. “We’re not gypsies. We’re going to Indiana for a vacation, and my father was just trying to pass them.” She smiled sweetly while holding my hand tight enough to cause pain. “This is his granddaughter.” I smiled too.
“Mississippi, huh?” the Deputy asked, looking directly at me. “You live in Mississippi little girl?”
“Yes, sir,” I nodded.
“Spell it,” he ordered.
My Power School training kicked in and I sang, “ M-I-crooked letter – crooked letter-I crooked letter-crooked letter -I- humpback-humpback – I” I followed with a verse of “It’s a treat to beat your feet in the Mississippi mud.”
“OK, folks,” the deputy said. “I get it. Be on your way.”
We left the gypsies in a cloud of dust and arrived in French Lick in time for supper. I sang all the way.