Varsha 2023 Stories - Dennis Vannatta


The Princess of Belzoni

By Dennis Vannatta


Yazoo City was only a few miles behind them when the highway sign warned that US 49 was about to do something unaccountable. It was too much for Carla, who fumbled with the road atlas and wailed, “How can a north-south highway suddenly go east and west? What do we do?”

“Calm down,” her husband, Jason, said. “Didn’t it say take 49 west for Belzoni? I don’t get the east-west thing, either, but I know I want to go to Belzoni.” Then Jason slapped the steering wheel and barked out a laugh. “Ha! There’s a sentence I never dreamed I’d be saying: ‘I know I want to go to Belzoni.’”

Then he laughed again, and that’s when Carla began to cry.


He’d been expecting it for some time now, the tears. He thought of Carla as “fragile,” even described her that way sometimes to others. Afterwards, he’d feel guilty because it sounded like he was apologizing for her when there wasn’t anything to apologize for. She’d overcome so much, after all. And it wasn’t like she cried easily. He couldn’t remember, in fact, her crying at all except when her parents died, two months apart, in Memphis, only a few years ago.

Still, he couldn’t get over the feeling of that fragility, as if she were always about to shatter, one wrong step and . . . there’d she’d go. It was something he felt he had to protect her from—even though he hadn’t yet discovered what “it” was—had felt that way from the day, seventeen years ago, she came to interview for the nursing position in the private practice he was setting up. The possibility that that vulnerability was what had attracted him to her in the first place would make him angry—at himself for entertaining the notion and anyone else he suspected of sharing it.

Chief among them was his mother, who, after he worked up the courage to bring Carla home and introduce her as his fiancée, took him aside and said that pity wasn’t a good foundation for a relationship, much less a marriage. They hadn’t spoken for two months afterward and made up only when “the queen” deigned to descend from the big three-story house in Webster Groves and attend the wedding.

That was sixteen years ago, the wedding. And he was still waiting for “it.”


He’d had the feeling this was the day for it—the shattering, the collapse—ever since Mobile where, instead of following I-65 north to connect up with the other interstates that would take them back to St. Louis after their week on the gulf coast, he’d turned off onto US 98.

“What are you doing? Where are you taking us?”

“I’m just giving you what you wanted. You said on the way down that you had a hankering to see the old stomping grounds.”

She was furious.

“I never said hankering! And I’ve certainly never said stomping grounds in my entire life.”

“Sorry,” he said. Carla had grown up poor in “the boonies” of Mississippi and was still sensitive about her grammar and diction. She did all right, mostly, except for an occasional subject-verb agreement error, which he found endearing.

Jason’s “sorry” was undercut, though, by his chuckling as he said it. Truthfully, he was proud of the fact that he could joke now, make quips. In his younger days he wasn’t known for a sense of humor, and he’d had trouble making friends. Then he’d met Carla.

She sat with her arms crossed over her chest. Then she seemed to realize that it was what he’d said rather than the way he’d said it that was the real issue.
“I was joking when I said I’d like to see my old home again, Jason. Well, not joking but, you know, not serious.”

“Hey, whatever my wife wants, my wife gets. And if you want to take a sentimental journey . . .”

“Sweetheart, I appreciate that, I really do. But come on, not now, not today. We have a long enough drive ahead of us as it is.”

“I’ve looked at the map. It may not be interstate the whole way, but this is much more direct.”

“Oh, but Jason, don’t be silly. Not today.”

But Jason continued on through the endless stoplight-infested suburbs of Mobile northwest into Mississippi, Carla not napping as she usually did on long drives but sitting rigidly, leaning forward slightly as if scanning the highway for landmines.

At Hattiesburg where they left 98 and continued northwest on US 49, she tried again—not today, not this day—but Jason said it was too late now, there was no place to go but on to Jackson.

“We’ll drop by that last place you lived in Jackson, give it a look. Then on to Yazoo City, look for your old house there. Then Belzoni, find your birthplace.”
Carla couldn’t even reply, just sat frozen with a look on her face like it was all a bad dream.

But then she turned to him and put her hand on his arm.

“Wait, Jason, wait. We can’t go through Jackson. Don’t you remember we saw it on the news just a week or so ago? A big tornado hit Jackson and really tore stuff up.”

That’s when Jason’s sense of humor bubbled up again.

“A tornado hit Jackson? But how could they tell?”

Carla turned away, and Jason cursed himself for saying it and hurting her, felt almost a stab of panic at this resurrection of the old Jason who never knew what to say, or said the wrong thing, or, most often, because he didn’t know what to say and it’d probably be wrong anyway, said nothing.

“Sorry,” he said. He had a lot of practice saying that.


After lunch at Wendy’s on the south edge of Jackson, Carla seemed reluctant to get back into the car.

“I don’t even know if can find our house,” she said.

“Of course you can. You should do it. You should see it one more time,” Jason said like one might tell a person suffering from PTSD it’d do her good to revisit the scene of the catastrophe.

They got off the interstate when Carla said “Maybe here” and drove through a neighborhood or two, got back on the interstate and then off at the next exit and drove here and there, looking, until Jason suspected that Carla was just giving him the run-around.

But then she said, “There it is,” pointing.

Jason pulled up to the curb, and they sat peering out at the little brick house, large enough for two bedrooms, maybe. The bushes flanking the tiny concrete front porch needed trimming, and a tricycle on its side and other children’s toys cluttered the lawn, but, it was better than Jason had expected, not the urban slum he’d imagined.

As if reading his thoughts, Carla murmured, “When we moved here, I thought we’d made the big time. A brick house.”

They sat a while longer, and then a black woman with a baby perched on her hip came to the door and glared out at them. Jason started up and they found US 49 and headed north again, toward Yazoo City.


“Hold the map of Mississippi up. Closer. Put your finger on Yazoo City. Closer.”

Jason took his eyes off the road long enough to see where Carla was pointing.

“I’m confused,” he said. “We’re a long way from Vicksburg. I could have sworn, though, that when I was watching something on TV about the Battle of Vicksburg, there was something about Grant doing something at Yazoo City. Wait. Now that I think of it that was the Yazoo River, not Yazoo City. I think Grant tried to dig a channel or something so boats could bypass Vicksburg. They failed, though.”

“I’ll take your word for it. I’m not a big fan of the Civil War.”

“You mean the War of Northern Aggression?”

Carla didn’t take the bait. They drove on.

Then Jason said, “Grant won in the end, though.”

“So I heard.”

“He lived for quite a while in St. Louis, you know.”

“I do know. You took me to Grant’s Farm, remember? Why this sudden interest in Grant, anyway?”

“Just making conversation,” he said.

They drove on and in a short while were coming in to Yazoo City.

My God, he thought.

This was more like what he’d expected to see in Jackson, not urban slum, not that bad, but the increasingly overcast sky made the gray little town even more depressing. He didn’t say anything, though. Better to keep his mouth shut.

It was Carla who spoke up: “When we moved here—what was I, eight, I think—it seemed like a big city after Belzoni. It was Yazoo City, you understand.”
They had no trouble finding her former home—or at least where her home had been.

“Right there. It was right there,” Carla said, pointing.

She was turned away from him, looking out her window, and he couldn’t see her expression or tell from her tone what she was feeling.

“It looks like government-subsidized housing or something,” Jason said, looking at the two long, low brick structures sitting parallel to each other, the greensward in between mostly worn down to bare dirt.

“It was right there,” Carla said again. “Just a little ol’ clapboard house.”

They got back on the highway and in a couple of miles 49 split into east and west, and Carla started to cry.


It took her only a moment to stop, but he sensed her tension increasing as they drew ever nearer to Belzoni. And why shouldn’t she dread it? She hadn’t told him a lot about her childhood, but it was enough, like something out of Tobacco Road. The salads her mom made out of wild onions picked from their yard, cooking-grease drippings for a dressing, which Carla, pathetically, remembered as being delicious. The squirrels and rabbits her dad would bag with his bolt-action .22 when they couldn’t afford to buy meat, and didn’t they think two or three of them made a feast? He had a hard time believing her dresses were really sewn from flour sacks, not in this day and age even in Mississippi. But the details—worn so long and washed so often the yellow Sunshine Flour logo would begin to come up green through the blue dye—convinced him.

Getting her nursing degree from prestigious Barnes Hospital had been a great accomplishment for her, but that new cap could only do so much to disguise the Mississippi in her. There were her teeth, for one thing—awful. She’d never been to a dentist as a child, and one of her goals, she told him with charming candor in her job interview, was to earn enough money to get them fixed. And that accent. In fact, he thought it was cute like you’d think an ugly puppy was cute, but obviously Carla didn’t think so. She’d try to mimic the St. Louis accent with comic results, and he’d catch her studying a grammar text on her breaks at the office. Even today, though, after all these years, she’d sometimes lapse and say, “He don’t” and “She don’t.” And, after all these years, there were still times she seemed frightened by St. Louis. He wouldn’t make fun of her, though. No, he’d comfort her. He’d be her gallant.


They were only a few miles from Belzoni when Jason felt the car begin to pull a little to the right, and then: thump thump thump.

“Are you kidding me? Really? I think we have a flat!”

The shoulder was wide enough for him to pull the SUV off the road.

The spare tire and jack were accessed under the mat in the rear. Piled on top of the mat, unfortunately, were suitcases, boxes, a beach umbrella, and other gear they’d taken for their stay in the condo in Gulf Shores.

“We’ll have to unload all this crap,” Jason said.

They did. Then Carla read instructions from the manual as Jason tried to figure out the jack handle, which had to be assembled.

“I’ve changed flats plenty of times and never seen a mess like this,” Jason said to Carla defensively, as if she’d accused him of ineptitude.

Finally, he thought he had it.

“You have to loosen the lug nuts before you jack the car up,” he explained to her.

“Uh huh.”

But he couldn’t loosen the lug nuts. There were five of them, and he couldn’t get even one loosened.

“They put them on with power wrenches, and then they expect you to get them off with this piece of shit,” he said, punctuatings hit by flinging the jack into the ditch.

“What are we going to do?” Carla said.

“Sit here until we die and then be buried in Belzoni.”

Carla sat down on the largest suitcase and put her face in her hands.

Jason retrieved the jack handle from the ditch, fidgeted with it a moment, then said, “I’m sorry. It was stupid of me to bring you here. I don’t know what I was thinking. After all you suffered here, all you did to escape this place and then I go and . . . What’s the matter with me? I should have protected you from this.”
Carla lowered her hands and looked at him, bewildered.

“Protect me? From what?”

“What do you mean, from what? From Belzoni.”

“But Jason, I loved Belzoni. Our neighbors had a grape vine in their back yard, and they’d let me pick all the grapes I wanted. I remember like yesterday how warm and sweet they’d taste when the summer sun was on them. And butterflies. I remember butterflies. And Momma and Daddy, I was their princess.”
“But St. Louis, all that work you did to get a scholarship to a prestigious place like Barnes, then get a job . . .”

“Yes, but I didn’t intend to stay there. I was only going to work long enough to pay off my student loans and get my teeth fixed. Then I was going to come back to Mississippi. St. Louis? I hate St. Louis.”

It was as if they both suddenly held their breaths, shocked at what she’d said.

Jason was the first to speak, timidly, diffidently: “You stayed for me.”

She nodded.

“You seemed so lonely,” she said.“I thought you needed me more than I needed Belzoni.”

He sank down on a cardboard box stuffed with beach towels and, because Carla didn’t trust the bedding in those condos, sheets and pillows and blankets. He held on to the sides of the box as if it were flotsam from some wrecked vessel, all that was keeping him afloat in the storm.

She would leave him now. She would leave him alone forever and return to Belzoni, a princess among butterflies and grapevines.

“I don’t understand why it bothered you so much to come back this way, then—if you loved it so much,” he said.

“Because I knew how much it would hurt me to leave it again.”

So there it was: she would leave Belzoni, not him. He didn’t know if it was love, or pity, or something else, but she would not leave him.

She sat slumped on the suitcase, her back bowed, staring at the ground.

“Don’t worry. Somebody is bound to come along in a minute. They’ll stop and help us,” he said.

Someone would stop and help him change the tire, and then he and Carla would load back up and drive straight through Belzoni, following those narrow blacktops westward until they hit US 61, then north to Memphis and in a couple of hours more, home. Then he remembered: US 61, the Blues Highway. He’d been a fan of the blues in his younger days.

He looked at Carla, still slumped on the suitcase. He’d sing her blues songs because the blues, despite their name, brought comfort to a person. He wouldn’t sing “St. Louis Blues,” though. No—ha!—he wouldn’t press his luck with that one. Truly, he was a lucky man. Lucky in love.

He just wasn’t quite so sure his wife felt the same way.


Dennis Vannatta from U.S. is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with essays and stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including October Hill, Your Impossible Voice, River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was published by Et Alia Press.


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