In the swamps the roads grow even closer, and the shrieks of strange birds deep in the prehistoric mangroves seem like creatures from a thousand years ago. Louisiana beckons from deep within, like a rising from the gut of my animal nature.
We are quiet, watching the primordial from our windows. The darkness of the past seems to crowd close, panting and steaming up the glass.
I-65 becomes the never-ending Interstate 10 south of Mobile, and the salt smell of the sea rides the breeze. Nearly two hours along the toe of Mississippi, then at the border between Alabama and Louisiana near Slidell a wooden pier walks out into the water and signs tell you to watch for the alligators. I see many ominous lumpy logs, with mud-colored scales barely rippling the surface. The water is stained the color of sweet tea, and in towns the sounds of music older than time echo from the voices of the residents and the doors of bars, where zydeco and jazz and laughter have settled into the soil and the laughing eyes of the people there who greet you with a handshake and a smile.
The graves sit stolid above the ever-leaking, crying ground, the damp seeping in and rotting all flesh and trash and once-living things. The dead are on display here, and no one seems to mind that death presides over all with a toothy alligator grin.
In college I rode for hours in a car that smelled of the fetid slippers of a blonde-haired friend and her evil feet, to see the vomit-soaked streets of Mardi Gras and find some memories to haunt us all into our old, boring years. I remember fragmented visions of the weekend – flashing our nascent breasts at old men and Asian guys with SpongeBob beads. The wet breath of a man in my ear as I hid behind my mask, feeling safe with the liquor in my veins, turning around holding the hand of my roommate and noticing the naked crowd around us in this bar above the hordes in the street. Someone was getting a blowjob and others gathered around to smile at them. Another man wore chains and his girlfriend held the whip. I wondered what the normal citizens of the city imagined was happening here, as they sat around dinner tables or watched late-night TV and avoided downtown for the entire week. Something like this scene, probably. At the end of the French Quarter a man picked my back pocket in the shadowed streets, slid his hand down my ass and I didn’t feel a thing. Silly country girl, or nomad girl, whatever I am- here in the city pressed against the masses with their flashing teeth and metallic beads. Another man grabbed him by the back of the shirt and shook him until he released the bills in his wallet, a wad of bills I hadn’t had in the first place. I accepted the extra cash and the man disappeared to pick unsuspecting pockets farther down the avenue.
The gay men kissed for us when we asked them to at the end of the street in the dark, and the rainbow-lit bars there made us feel welcomed and safe. Among family.
So we start in Monticello, then, you and I on this imaginary journey through the way your life traveled. Georgia, where the mud is as red as blood and the sun sinks in a great glowing ball of fire behind the tightly-ranked dark-coated trees that huddle close to the meandering roads and shoulder out the sky. It’s early summertime, perfect for a road trip. I am only a speck of your future, riding along in your cells. Maybe I’ve been there all along.
The thick layers of humidity permeate the walls, awakening the musty smell of swamp and damp wood, and even seem to extend to the slow voices of Southern people and the veiled layers of politeness, straight-faced sarcasm, and backstabbing. “Well, bless your little heart,” they say, and their eyes speak other words. Who let them in here? They say with their mouths closed tight in prim little lines. Here the black and white lines are as deep and permanent as the lines in the farmer’s faces. Here, the music does stop if you walk into the wrong bar and eyes roll at you. Didn’t you know? This place is not for you, white girl. This restaurant is not your kind of place, black boy. There are modern times with a black President, and then there is the South. Mom had a black nanny from the time she was a child, Lucy, who took care of her when her mother was at work, and who finally took care of her mother when she grew old and lived alone with no one near to help. She had a family of her own, somewhere and somehow, but my mother only knew the Lucy who was a staple of her white family.
My only memory of Lucy was being too young to walk into what must have been her church, and she carrying me in, and many black singing faces coming down close to my own, smiling; them passing me around and pinching my cheeks. Lucy told me not to tell Granny, just to keep it to ourselves. I don’t think she believed I knew where I was, being just a toddler. I never forgot, though.
The heat is so oppressive here in the Peach State that even the buzz of cicadas seems sluggish, difficult. Sweat drips down your back and soaks a round spot onto the driver’s seat at the base of your spine. The mosquitoes attack the windows, big as moths and thirsty for blood.
It’s funny how a little outside perspective is all you need sometimes. It confirms thoughts you had, allays doubts, or just gives a little adjustment to a view you’ve held on to that might be all you need to get over a hurdle you’ve put in your own way.
I’m at the point with “Roads” that I felt I needed that outside perspective, and luckily I know a really great editor and writer– and the choice was easy about WHO to work with. I’ve been following Leigh for years after I stumbled across her blog The Future Is Red I believe it’s offline now). It really spoke to me, as it was about the life change she made and how she and her husband just decided the rat race wasn’t for them. They had sold everything and hit the road traveling with an infant. She understood the wandering spirit, and I knew instinctively she’d like the book and have the insights I needed.
I’m super excited. I feel I’ll have a good first draft by the end of this year, and then it’s time to find a publisher. Finally. After a lot more years than I care to think about. I’m finally ready.
Just north of Tucson is the Aravaipa wilderness area, and on the way out along a dirt road is a beautiful, empty little church. I had to stop and take a look, always being drawn into places of worship…
I hadn’t seen him in nearly 15 years. Still trying to seem bigger than he was. Drunk, of course. Overwhelmed by the death of his father, truly the only one left in life who was forced to care for him.
I don’t think he recognized me, back in the crowd snapping pictures. His eyes were too blurred by Bud, the strain of trying to always make himself bigger than he is. His grief, too large.
I felt like I was spying, taking this picture, but also that I had a right.