Under the hill

We spent a shiftless afternoon in a hot, slow city: Natchez. For most of the day there was no shade where I could leave Ripley in the parked car, so we drove around, went for walks here and there. I sat on the patio of a coffee shop. There was shade out front for the dog, but no wireless at the cafe, so I tried to read a book but found myself listening more to the people at the table next to me. It was one of those horrible places where you ask about the internet and the barista suggests that instead you try a “conversation.” Anyways, somebody told a story about a pair of “gay hairdressers from up north” — Horace and his husband, very sweet people — who lived on a lake somewhere nearby.

When Horace and his husband were out, a neighbor caught somebody sneaking into their yard and fishing off their dock. Being hairdressers, the couple had access to mannequins, so they fixed a couple up and arranged them by the boathouse, tying them to their chairs so they wouldn’t blow away, to ward off intruders, like plastic owls on fenceposts. Now the old people boating along the lake see them and wave.

Above the bar at the Under-the-Hill Saloon was a wooden model of the Delta Queen — the boat my dad used to work on, which docked across the street on the shore of the Mississippi River. The street is one-sided: restaurants and shops and bars, and then on the other side a little park and a boat ramp that leads straight down to the river, where barges passed. The Under-the-Hill district has the kind of sordid past befitting a river town — gamblers, loose women, whatever “highwaymen” actually are. “For the size of it,” observed one visitor in 1810, “there is not, perhaps in the world, a more dissipated spot.” This was in fact the original Natchez. Natchez over-the-hill developed later. I texted my dad to tell him I was at the saloon and he wrote back, “Oh yah, been there many times.”

A guy at the bar told me that Under-the-Hill — the neighborhood is at the bottom of a bluff; the downtown is at the top — used to stretch six blocks wider, out into where the river is now. I think he was talking about the Giles Bend Cutoff, an Army Corps-engineered project in the 1930s that cut out a westerly meander and straightened the main channel of the river, which presumably widened at the point we were looking out over from our seats at the bar. I’ve searched around a little online but haven’t yet found evidence of the underwater town my friend was referring to. Another history blames general erosion, and not specifically the Giles Bend Cutoff, and doesn’t suggest much in the way of some disappeared, drowned infrastructure. But it’s unsettling not to know whether there is a ghost town at the bottom of the river, across the street from the Under-the-Hill Saloon, or not.

The Delta Queen has been out of service since 2008. I went onboard the boat maybe 25 years ago, when I was a little kid, and saw it last a few years back in Chattanooga, where we were passing through, and where the boat was docked and functioning as a kind of floating hotel. To get it sailing again requires a congressionally granted exemption to a law mandating that certain passenger vessels be made of fire-retardant materials, whereas the Delta Queen is largely wooden. The U.S. Senate OK’ed such an exemption in early April, which the bartender mentioned in the Under-the-Hill Saloon; if the House follows suit and the president affirms it, the boat will be back in business.

Tonight, after diversions in New Orleans and northern Alabama and Mississippi: Paducah, Kentucky. It’s where rivers flow into one another. Upstream, the Cumberland River joins the Tennessee. At Paducah, the Tennessee flows into the Ohio. Downstream and just west of here, the Ohio meets the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. And down the Mississippi from there, the town of New Madrid, which some 200 years ago experienced a series of earthquakes so powerful that they reversed the flow of the river, and made bells ring as far away as Charleston, South Carolina.