Culture is a valuable commodity, apparently. Some are willing to pay for it.
“It ain’t gon’ hurt y’all to get some culture,” said Uncle Forney to a small handful of unwashed nephews one Saturday afternoon.
Thus, the day before, Forney had forked out eight dollars at a self-service kiosk put up at the Piggly-Wiggly for four two dollar tickets to a matinee performance of a touring ballet troupe claiming to have at least one authentic Russian in their mix. He had been told that this was culture, and that culture was a good thing, and by golly he would have some for these young nephews of his even though the Russian in the troupe was likely a communist spy, sent to extract valuable secrets from gap-toothed, cow-licked country boys. He had stuffed the tickets into the right front inside pocket of his favorite hunting coat, which was now laying on the bed.
Aunt Agnes checked for dirt behind the ears of each nephew as they piled in the back of Forney’s ancient jet-black Chrysler Imperial. “Y’all keep your feet off the seat,” she admonished while briefly snatching young Arliss back, taking her apron and wiping behind one of his ears as he struggled to break free from her grasp. He always thought she smelled of horse linament and mothballs. She waved bye to the boys all grinning at her through the back window, saying softly, “Y’all all behave,” in a skeptically prayerful manner.
Arriving five minutes late for the 3:00pm matinee, the one and only show in their town, Uncle Forney shooed all four boys out of the car and reached for the four tickets in his pocket. Of course, being an adult he did not need culture, thus he would not attend the show himself, serving in the magnanimous role of financier and chauffeur for four boys who had no idea what ballet was. He fumbled around for the tickets. The tickets. The tickets. The pocket! The tickets. The pocket. The coat! The bed!! Showtime. No more time. No tickets. No ballet. Go back home.
“I reckon y’all won’t get any culture today,” said Forney in disgust, though a bit more disgusted for the waste of eight dollars than for any lack of culture now thrust upon hungry young minds. “Let’s go and get some ice cream.”
There was an eruption of cheers and applause from the back seat at the mention of ice cream in lieu of ballet. Ice cream was a part of their culture they admired; ballet was not. “Damn a bunch of ballette,” sort of whispered eight-year-old Arliss to Squeak, his seven-year old cousin, but sort of loud enough for Forney to hear which he pretended he didn’t, thinking of Agnes and how she would have spent the entire afternoon washing the boy’s mouth out with Octagon soap.
“Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn,” all four boys began to chant loudly in unison, jumping up and down on the vinyl covered backseat, sometimes breaking into an inadvertent harmony, families being what they are.
Now cut that out!” shouted Forney at the boys who subsided a few miles later.
“Them boys sure need a little culture,” Forney thought to himself as he whipped the Imperial onto the gravel driveway.
It’s true. When I was little, culture was something you went out and got. It was never considered to be something you already had. Culture was stuffy art museums with artwork that did not resemble anything one might recognize as art, stuffier community theatres with amateur actors in paper mache scenes tripping over lines in the dity-sock-smelling gymnasium performances of the latest Broadway hits, or a helmeted fat lady in the smallest of bankrupt opera companies in full viking regalia, rolling her eyes about while singing in Eye-talian to a stage full of dead folks right before plunging the knife into her own breast.
“Cultured people don’t say ‘breast’” a frowning Agnes said to Forney. “They say ‘bosom'”
“I’ll have a fried chicken bosom, then,” said Forney. Agnes slugged him a good one.
Culture was refined. Egalitarian. Lofty. Inaccessible to the common man. A pearl of great price. Sophisticated. the scantiest portion available to the plebeian for a mere two dollars if they could stand to go and sit still for it. Ballet dancing on a Saturday afternoon was culture; honky-tonk dancing at The Le Belle Drive-Inn Tavern on a Saturday night was not. The vicar at the Tupelo First Presbyterian Church of Perpetual Mediation was culture, which helped to explain the vicar’s once waxing poetic from the pulpit of the magnificent athleticism and grace of Russian ballet dancers. The preacher at the Okolona Seventh-Day Free-Will Apostolic and Pentecostal Holiness Church was not, which might somewhat explain the preacher equating dancing with lakes of perpetual fire and brimstone. It was important to know the distinctions, which were sometimes too subtly sophisticated for the uncultured.
“It’s just as well,” Forney thought to himself of the forgotten tickets. “Those boys are too unrefined to sit still long enough to get anything out of a ballet. Good culture is wasted on the little heathens,” he mused, thinking, perhaps, he’d not benefit either, having never been to a ballet. “But I did buy tickets for the boys,” he said out loud, congratulating himself for his own cultured refinement at being willing to help the heathen’s rise to culture.
The boys, now dusty and barefooted, had settled outside post-ice cream and started a game of Country Jake which was as deeply embedded in their culture as fried chicken and cornbread.
Everyone has a culture, I suppose, but not everyone is cultured. The boys were as unaware of the former as they were the latter. There was one thing they were sure of, though; when confronted, deep in the torpor of an August afternoon in Mississippi, as the sun’s elongating rays start to shift towards red, the hottest part of the day. . . they’d rather have the ice cream, containing in its cool decadence all the secrets of a life well lived.
©2020 Mississippi Chris Sharp