Swamp Things

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.

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 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.

Imaginary Road Trip- The South

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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.

Working with an editor- Outside Perspectives

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.

Death, his last goodbye, the errant father

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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.

Roads on Her Face #45: Momma meets daddy

Here is how I imagine this.

 

Her blonde hair is blowing in the wind, a red bandana snapping like a flag, keeping the little wisps out of her face as she’s driving. The cool mountain air, pine-scented and softened at its edges with the warmth from the sun, fills the car like the joy flowing through her veins at being out on her own, finally. There is no one looking over her shoulder, telling her what to do.

 

But she’s lonely, too. She’s discovered that traveling alone without the companionship of her Papa or her recently broken-hearted ex-husband isn’t quite the same. When she exclaims over a pretty bird, or wants to stop to see “The Thing,” after miles of road signs extolling its virtues, there’s no one to turn to over her shoulder, either. She’s decided at some point, to cheer her up, she’s going to up the adventure ante and pick up the next hitchhiker. A good-looking one, of course. And a man, obviously.

 

Having driven through Alpine many times myself, I see her yellow car slowing to the town’s 25 mph speed limit, all her windows down and some local ranchers gawking. She’d feel at home here, all the green grass and tall trees, but still feel the adventure of the wide open blue skies of the West, the absence of black people, all the brown people she’s never seen outside of her trip to Mexico and the last drive through Texas. She’s probably got a little fear-excitement sitting low in her belly, though the years of road trips with Papa have helped her feel safer in unfamiliar locations. Nothing bad has happened. Nothing bad will happen.

 

Mary passes the café with the chainsaw bear sculpture out front, the candy shop with colored flags in the window. She slows at the one stop sign in front of the gas station, where big diesel trucks are pulled up next to the two pumps, their trailers full of hay for the cattle and their drivers spitting tobacco and chatting, leaned up against their doors. Horses come close to the fence, the fields spreading back behind the station into the verdant little valley. She smiles at them, turns right and is already out of town. Just as she starts to accelerate to propel the Bug up the hill, she sees him up ahead, his pack beside him on the ground. There’s my dad. He sticks out his thumb, casually, looking back at her as if willing her to stop. Her fear-excitement jumps from her belly to her throat, and she thinks ,“This is it. “

 

She slows down, the car putt-putting as she puts it into neutral and pulls up beside him. Her upside-down smile peers out the passenger window.

 

“Need a ride?” For a moment he thinks she’s a guy, her hair pulled back and her no-makeup traveling face on. She has that strong jaw, and her prominent nose is more so without her hair framing her face. When he looks closer, he grins.

 

“What are you doing picking up a man by yourself?” I imagine his wheels turning, Ed – always on the prowl.

 

He’d throw his pack in the back, slam the door, and off they drove into my future.

Roads On Her Face #44: People

I imagine it’s like being raised in a commune. Your little network of interactions is so specific and well-known. The outcomes of disagreements are easily predicted; no matter what happens you will stay friends or family, because you have to when your network is only six people deep.

Stepping out into the world of other new and strange people is a different ball game. Relationships are begun, destroyed, fall apart as easily as speaking your mind too bluntly. My second real job was in Glenwood, washing dishes in the institute of a cafe known as the Blue Front (now, sadly closed as many businesses in Glenwood have). I think I was too young to legally work, but the owners’ kids worked there too and besides, nobody cared.  Everyone in town worked here or had worked here in the past. There aren’t a lot of options in a town of 500. Being in the back at first was good for me, since I was shy around people and would often freeze when faced with a question. I talked plenty once you got to know me, though. I had and have a lot of opinions, kinda known for that. I might tell you even if you don’t ask, now, though that’s something I’m trying to work on. I’ve discovered people often don’t want to hear what you think, even if they do ask.

The Blue Front started the granting of my freedom, by providing me with a little bit of money and a small group of mostly ladies that at least pretended to listen to me and maybe felt sorry for me. I credit them with the first lessons in relating to “normal” people who hadn’t lived in cars and buses their entire lives before this town.

I began to learn how to be in one place, what it meant to not always walk away from an issue or something I disliked. I’d never had to learn that before. Before, I’d known that it wouldn’t be long and the problem would be a distant memory.

Roads on Her Face #43: Mom Speaks

I think that, didn’t’ I tell you I met your dad in 78. Then we traveled a little bit and ended up living in Tucson a few months. SO the summer of 79 I just realized is when we went to Alaska, so we talked about that. And that was probably September. We had a little bit of money so I think we backpacked around, we must have ended up somewhere in the southern part of the states, probably southwest because it was warmer.

Did you hitchhike?

Yeah, we did hitchhike some. Took the train, couple of places, Amtrak, I don’t think we ever took the bus. It’s kind of all blurry then but I remember somehow we ended up in Lee Vining, were there for a while with this older couple Blanche and Frank, I forget their last names. And we got hired on in Mammoth Lakes at the Motel 6. And that’s, I was pregnant with you already. So it was just a little village back then, I’m sure it’s grown quite a bit since then, it’s become a big resort town. But it was nice, we had a room and a hot plate we cooked our meals on, I craved hot fudge sundaes. There was a little ice cream bar across the street.

I love ice cream, so it must have been me.

Laughs. There were a couple of nice girls there, one was an Indian girl we became pretty good friends. She was working there too.

Indian from India?

No Native American. And of course that job ended, I got tired easily and I was starting to show by then I think. And I don’t know where we went from there, I have no idea.

Well you ended up in Lake Havasu.

Yeah, and we ended up living in a bus. So I think we probably went to Quartzsite from there, because I think that’s where we acquired the bus.

Had dad been there before, was he circling around to all these places like Quartzsite, or…

I think he had already traveled that route. Course they had big swap meets there in the winter and you can live on nothing.

How did he figure out this lifestyle? It’s not something his dad did so..?

No definitely not. I don’t know he was a drifter when I met him.

And that was after the war, right, Vietnam?

Yeah he just couldn’t, stay in one place for long, couldn’t settle down, things would get a little too tough with responsibilities or schedules and he’d just take off and go somewhere else.