Southern Character

Story Slim Smith

It has been 30 Decembers since Homer got run over by a tractor-trailer out on Highway 78.

I was busy not going to class at Mississippi State at the time of his death, but I can’t say I was surprised.

Mama was a tenderhearted soul, the sort who would weep when reading the newspaper obituaries of people she didn’t know. So when the word of Homer’s passing got out, she called to tearfully tell me the news:

“Poor Homer,” she said. “They said in the newspaper that the poor truck driver said Homer seemed to be trying to grab the door of the truck and got caught up underneath all them wheels. You remember Sandy Spicer, don’t you? Her husband was the highway patrolman that went out there when it happened. He said it was the awfullest mess you ever saw.”

Poor Homer, indeed.

One thing that makes the South the South is “characters.”

In other parts of the country, those who do not fit within the constraints of conventional society may be called vagrants or eccentrics or even street people. But here, they are called “characters,” and somehow that makes them benign and even cherished figures. 

I never did know much of anything about Homer, not even his last name. Like “Cher” or “Bono,” Homer was recognizable by first name alone. 

What we did know is that he lived with his ancient mother in the housing projects in town. Someone said that he had been “shell-shocked” in the Korean War and that was believed to be the cause of his odd behavior, which manifested itself in just one way: Homer loved to ride in cars, which was problematic since neither he nor his mother owned a car.

Aside from a bird dog we once owned, there has never been a living being that loved car rides as much as Homer.

This passion would have been considered unremarkable had Homer followed convention and simply hitchhiked around town. But Homer did not stand on the corner with his thumb stuck out as cars approached. I suppose he considered this a needless formality.

What Homer would do was wait at the corner for a car. When it slowed down or stopped, he would simply pile in beside the driver.

Most of the men didn’t seem to mind Homer’s company. He was just along for the ride. He just sat there grinning at the scenery as it swept past him. For most of the women, it was a different story. Having Homer jump into the car was a little unnerving. Women would lock their car doors at the sight of Homer standing on the corner. I figure he was personally responsible for all the locked car doors in east Tupelo for 20 years or more.

That was his life, really. Homer waited on the corner and stole car rides. Anywhere but the South, Homer probably would have been arrested for carjacking.

Now it’s been 30 years. As is the custom everywhere, the buildings in Tupelo are adorned with names. In Tupelo, you can’t sling a cat without hitting an Elvis Presley something or other. But aside from Elvis, most of those names on buildings belong to people who are strangers now. They were once revered for their achievements. Now, they are forgotten.

People still remember Homer, though. People come and go, I have learned. Characters live forever.

There is something deliciously Southern about that.