Delta Delusions: Reflections at Cutrer: A Ghost from the Past

The Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

The Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

By POOR WILLIAM

CLARKSDALE, Mississippi

NOTE: The following fictional story was the winner in the 2008 Delta Writer’s Association’s Tennessee Williams Festival Writing Contest. It was published in the Clarksdale Press Register in October 2008.

What is it about familiar spirits—a Judeo-Christian concept, which holds that evil spirits can and do present themselves to select members of humanity in the guise of departed ones we knew, would like to have known, or want to see?  Maybe Cutrer Mansion would hold the key to better develop my own understanding of things “beyond the pale.”

I had never been in the mansion.  Maybe I had ventured in to use the restroom as a child during the yearly St. Elizabeth’s Fair held on the mansion’s grounds every fall, but I doubt it, bladders are much stronger in our youth.

I did not know it was reported to be haunted, but hardly was I surprised when told this.  Cutrer is a mansion, and it does have a history—both requiems for a haunting.  When given a tour of the empty upstairs and the once lived in attic, long ago occupied by a self-sequestered priest, my imagination galloped rampantly as my short hairs bristled with static.

I was regaled by the curator with stories of wispy, soulless women and a little girl ethereally gliding about the building and grounds—seen by few, but perhaps felt by many.  There were contemporary, extant tales of sounds unexplained, doors opening and closing without obvious motive or corporeal instruction, lights flickering without known cause, and alarms blaring in the middle of the night without catalysts.

I had watched too many horror movies as a child to remain unaffected by the recollections shared and the dubious air of mystery certain.  My skin was kinetic, hair follicles erect, and I was pleased to finally be back on ground level, even though there was daylight left to burn—The Ghost and Mr. Chicken!

I have always been sensitive to the “scary,” possessing my own ideology regarding phantoms, ghosts, and the unseen and unexplained.  As do most, I rather enjoy being safely and vicariously frightened, but what was to come was, in a word, revealing.
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I was inexplicably drawn as a moth to the flame to the white-facaded villa, sheltered by its red, beveled roof.  I found myself on my evening walks drawing closer to the front door, carousing the grounds, often averting my eyes from the upstairs windows, in fear of spying an unexplained specter.

If I gazed too long, I primordially knew that I would, in fact, see or imagine seeing a face staring back at me, or through me.  Yet, the siren’s call grew stronger as the days grew shorter.

My coming home after twenty-plus years out West has been a blessing, but not void of dealing with my own “what-ifs” and ghosts of the past.  Questions bombard me daily, though diminishing with time, such as:  “What if I had stayed?  What if I had married her instead?  What if I had moved back prior to my divorce—family still intact?  Or even more macabre than the prior, what if I never really left?”  So much looks and feels the same as before; maybe my sojourn out West never existed, but was a translucent vapor on a sweltering tarmac.

I live just down the street and drive and walk by the mansion on a daily basis.  If there is a street in the Mississippi Delta that could house more possible hauntings than Clark St., with its old, two-plus story homes nestled inside heavy vegetation, then I am unaware of its existence.  The eerie, though well-kept edifices, are primarily located on the north side of the street—hillside, and are spacious, verdant, full of glass, and seeming to hide alcoves of potential mystery, yea, even silent terror.

Fall was now snuggling in, loaded with its bag full of melancholy, portending the beginning ebb of life.  The skies were “graying,” leaves were swaying, at the time when middle-aged men begin the psychological, yet inevitable journey toward “home.”  I could hear the melody and lyrics to “Time to Remember” from the play, The Fantastiks, playing a continuous loop inside my head.

It was a Friday night, and the streets of Northeast Clarksdale were as void of life as the stands surrounding the local gridirons were full of it.  Yet, in both locales, expectancy was in the air—electricity humming and expectations high.  For some reason I had to know, tonight!  Did I have the gumption and intestinal fortitude to face my fears tête-à-tête?

It was not so much of a dark, stormy night, as it was a grayish-green, balmy, early evening, void of any flicker of motion on Clark Street, except for a feline or two, with incandescent eyes hugging the brush line.  I did hear the ubiquitous, high-oak hoot owl, making his nightly presence known.  I just hoped that he was not calling my name—not a good omen in Native American lore.

I had finished bartending early, as the restaurant crowd was elsewhere, and I decided tonight would be the night that I would face my phantoms and fears.  I parked my cycle at home, poured myself a strong libation in a “to go” cup, and began my slow saunter toward Cutrer.

Each step down the opposite side of the street brought with it a realization that my trepidation was not fleeting.  What in the world was I doing?  I knew that I would see something, there, tonight, with these alienated, yet fertile conditions.

Would I see Blanche Clark Cutrer, or even Blanche DuBois sauntering solo in their “shimmering chiffon,” eager to escape whatever force held them captive within the grounds?

Would I see the little girl spoken about who has been seen in one of the upstairs rooms, forlornly seeing nothing?  Or would the bard himself, Tennessee Williams, make his presence known?  My “tell-tale” heart began to beat harder, faster, and louder, to the degree that I wondered if I was hearing the percussion section from one of the local high school bands across town.

I could turn back.  What did I have to prove?  Why in the hell was I doing this anyway?  But, still I pressed on.  I startled at a rustle in the leaves of one of the pecan trees lining the sidewalk.  Was it an omen, or merely a squirrel or night bird shaking its tail feathers?  I knew as surely as day was to come that I would go forth and that I would be reckoned with.

I thought about calling my best friend John to see if he would go with me, but I would do my gender a grievous injustice.  This was my fated trip, and reinforcement could not be mustered on my behalf!  So, I pressed on, actually tiptoeing, so as not to awaken any apparitions guarding the grounds.

I came to the white columns–silent sentinels, no longer holding a gate, but acting as scribes to my trespassing and trespasses.  I knew as I crossed my Rubicon that I was guilty of something, and would be held accountable—this very night!

I tread lightly—a sensei upon rice paper, laterally, back and forth, not actually taking any ground in my impending conquest.  Face it, I was afraid to go forward.  I was at the third spreading magnolia from the gate.  I just realized that the foyer light was not on; it was always on.

The entire mansion was shrouded in black.  Lights were still turned on down Yazoo Street.  This was not good.  I had an out.  Should I take it?  Propelled  forward by faint determination, inertia temporarily defeated, I pressed on.  I reached the magnolia tree, the one closest to the alcove, and gingerly stepped out from behind it, vulnerable now.  My eyes were forced to the vacant, second story, windowed-room on my right.  I blinked, nothing; I blinked again, still nothing.  My eyes adjusted to the distance.  I sighed, looked down at my feet, and furiously shot another glance at the row of windows in the vacant room—still nothing.

Feeling more emboldened, I picked my way, out in the open, down the sidewalk, angling toward the front door.  I did not look above knee-level, using only my honed senses and peripheral vision to guide me, and to assess any presence or danger.

Ears tingling, palms clammy, knees weak, I approached within five feet of the mostly glass front door, still not willing to look deep within.  There was so much glass on the Italian Renaissance villa that virtually every inch of the large front room was crisp and visible.

It was time to overcome my final stage of inertia.  I leapt forward, landing less than two feet from the door.  I was on the offensive.  I would tremble no more.  I was beyond intrepid.

My eyes were blazing, fixed straight ahead. Walt Whitman’s primal “yawp” was being emitted non-volitionally from deep within the recesses of my generous diaphragm.

I came to a standstill with my knees slightly bent, muscles taut, veins throbbing, and air still rushing through my larynx.  I found myself staring into the face of a mad man, a ghost from the past, a relic of my own antiquity, a familiar spirit indeed—my own sick, manic reflection in the glass.  I had indeed seen a ghost!

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Comments

  1. Alex Lundy says:

    My late uncle, L.A. Gilliam, Jr. who never had a cavity or told a lie in his life and lived in Clarksdale all his life once told a dinner story that I overheard about how once back in the early days Blanche Cutrer decided one night to take one of her famous “shimmering” parties literally world-wide and, no shit, ended up in some South American destination travelling around en entourage with as many boxes of liquor that her husband could get his hands on at the time and damn near started an international controversy and complaints within the government with all their raucous and loud drunken carrying’s on. Whenever I remember this now I smile. It’s make me proud to be a Clarksdalian.

  2. I adored your late uncle, also my cuz as are you! I sit on the front left pew at St. G’s and never fail to think of him ( and your mom and your grandmother)! What an excellent story. I want to mainline Blanche Cutrer!!! What a lovely memory to share, Alex. Thank you! I, too, and proud to be a Clarksdalian….finally.

  3. I really enjoyed reading that Billy. For some insight to John Cutrer: Miss Alida Heidelberg, his niece, once told me that William Faulkner described John as, “the most dangerous man I’ve ever known.” They knew the Faulkners well, and she couldn’t understand why he would describe her uncle that way. Maybe because he once shot a reporter. You may remember that and walk softly next time.

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