|Jan/Feb 2019 Nonfiction|
As we drive up the main street of town, I see three men sitting on their front porch, shirts off, their longish hair that indeterminate white-yellow color. They see me on the passenger's side, and they wave as if they know me, as if I'm a neighbor or family and not the curious invader I am. For I am on their home ground, and my intentions aren't exactly noble—or even good.
No one else in the car notices them. Jimbo is driving, his partner Michael and my brother Mike in back. Michael's GPS tells us we're right smack-dab in West Blocton, though it can't tell us where to go to find what we're really seeking.
I don't think this way when we pass them, but later, I wonder if those three men—who might be brothers or cousins or just old friends—aren't what I was supposed to find. I bet they never have to call each other to ask if they might drop by. I bet that one drifts over about 4:30 every day, the other following not long after, and they sit and drink Cokes or Milwaukee's Best until supper is ready.
Their image sticks with me, but it's not the only or even the main one on this day—a day when my grief hasn't fully hit me, but instead has set me adrift, left me untethered to anything I might call real or even "home."
I've always assumed people of my region and culture gather for supper every night about six because that's the story of my old friends and me. We had to be at our supper table by six or our mothers would be calling out in the yard for us and then on the phone to each other. Being late to my mother's supper table was what I've always pictured or known as having "hell to pay." I've never tasted food better than hers, and so for all of my life with her, I was rarely late. But my mother died four days ago, and in this car now, if we don't get a move on, I think we'll be late for supper at Jimbo's house. I feel an old anxiety rising even though Jimbo says not to worry, that it'll be fine. Still, because I know there are fresh summer vegetables and a pan of cornbread waiting on us, I hear my mother's voice: "Y'all better come on now. That supper will ruin."
We have other things to worry about, though, as we pass the town center. Michael's GPS isn't commenting on our path any longer because out here there is no service. We might not be lost on this semi-misguided trip, but we sure as hell can't be found.
And the road we're depending on vacated its center and side stripes a mile back.
On the road trips my mother and I used to take—whether to Publix Market, or to downtown Bessemer's finest restaurant, The Bright Star, or to my house back in South Carolina—Mom regularly pointed out the same houses or memory place-markers: "There's Durwood's house," she'd say, or "There's the man with his little horses. They're so cute. You know he used to have emus?"
And on Interstate 20, near Carrollton, Georgia: "There's the place where our car stalled that time we were coming back from visiting you. Your daddy and I had to stay at that Days Inn up there."
Back in Bessemer, she and I would pass rolling hills, pastures of grazing cows, and new subdivisions, usually beyond the city limits so that those citizens wouldn't be bound by Bessemer taxes or city schools. She'd tell me what these developments used to be when she was a girl. There wasn't much for me to say, but after all, it was mainly my ear and my memory she was after.
I never once told her I already knew Durwood's house, had been there with her, and had even gone to junior high with his daughter Janice. I honored her need to repeat these life signs, for this countryside was my mother's lifetime home. It wasn't all she knew, but it was what she knew best.
It was what she loved more deeply than anything else.
She lamented her hometown's deterioration, the abandoned houses, especially the ones that had stood for nearly 100 years. "I wish somebody would just buy that house and fix it up. It's got history and would make such a nice home again." On my next visit, as likely as not, the house would be a pile of rubble, wasted bricks wondering why they had been abandoned or ever fired in the first place.
Bessemer similarly abandoned Arlington Elementary school, which my mother and I both attended. It stood for 100 years, the last ten as a massive crack house. Arlington is a vacant lot now, not even a memory-marker.
My mother loved Bessemer despite its flaws, despite the carcass of its life lying before the world's eyes. She loved driving through town or the rural places on Bessemer's outskirts, soaking in the air as if she were ingesting something curative, palliative.
It's from her that I get so many of my habits, my love of reading and writing, my yearning to drive the back roads near and around my home. Remembering, as if I might one day forget.
So yes, a road trip through the area always seems like a good idea to me, and usually I don't care about establishing a destination, because I know that wherever I ride, I'll find the way back to where I started.
In the week after my mother's death and before her funeral, my childhood friend Jimbo and his husband Michael came to Bessemer to help me grieve. My brother Mike and I met them at Jimbo's parents' house, just over the hill from where my mother lived. We had barely settled over cups of coffee when Jimbo suggested, with that familiar gleam in his eye I recognized as the kind of trouble I wanted to dive into with him, "Let's take a road trip."
"Where do you want to go?"
"Let's see infamous Bessemer, and then let's go to 'S-Town'!"
S-Town is one of the most listened to podcasts in podcast history, produced by Serial and This American Life. Jimbo first alerted me to it, calling me one spring afternoon a year ago: "Buddy, drop whatever you're doing. You have to listen to this now!"
I was grading student essays and needed no coercion. I'm not a great listener; my mind doesn't find easy resting places. So I was drifting at first even though I love a good murder mystery. Drifting until I heard, "The nearest city of any size is Bessemer..." Then I was hooked, even though I knew that if my hometown were involved, the story would be grisly. And it was, especially if your bent is toward random and sketchy tattoo parlors, garden mazes, horology, and sadism, not exactly in that order and not exactly all in Bessemer.
"S-Town" is actually a community in neighboring Bibb County, which, heading southwest, a Bessemer citizen might reach within 15 minutes. The question is, why would you want to reach it? More pointedly, why did Jimbo, or really any of us, want to go there? Since the protagonist of the story, John B. McLemore, is dead, what on earth could we want there? What could we be seeking? Is wanting to go there like driving through the Midwest and wanting to stop in Holcomb, Kansas, just to see where the Clutter family lived? As if doing so might bring enlightenment rather than satisfying some prurient urge?
Exactly what is the matter with us for harboring such desires?
Bibb County holds such "towns" as West Blocton, Johns, Green Pond, and Caffee Junction. The most famous person to emerge from this locale was former New York Yankees announcer Mel Allen, aka Melvin Israel, which means, yes, there were once Jewish people in "S-Town."
The podcast also alerts us to the fact that the KKK has a strong presence in Bibb County, and indeed used to have a "welcome" sign situated on the main county highway leading into West Blocton.
This news isn't exactly startling.
Brian Reed, who wrote and narrated the podcast, is half-Jewish. He got used to the area somehow, though I'm not sure he ever felt welcome or met another Jew. He had his staff with him, though, and I'm sure they had a GPS, but listening to the story's evolution, I don't see how extra company or navigation could be comforting or mooring to this outsider.
I had heard of this area best through my mother who, as an interior designer for a local Bessemer carpet and drapes retailer, used to travel through what we know as "S-Town," giving estimates, measuring houses and trailers for carpet and Astroturf, and hardly ever getting lost on her journey. She never admitted to feeling anxious about entering the houses down there, and she said that everyone treated her nice, though they often couldn't afford the new carpet they wanted.
"Mainly," she'd report, "they just want some of that 'grass.' I feel sort of sorry for them," she'd go on, and yes, her sympathy was aroused in part by their poverty, but likely as not, more so by their "terrible taste."
I'd listen to her stories on the phone or when I returned to Bessemer from college and grad school. I considered her brave for taking on a career in mid-life and traveling to places I surely wouldn't be comfortable entering. These weren't exactly "her people," but her parents had risen from rural stock, and she still had many cousins who lived "out in the sticks." So she knew how to talk to these customers and how to listen to them.
But she was always glad to be home again after encountering them.
How different can Bessemer people be from West Blocton people? Listen to "S-Town," and then we can talk.
While Bessemer is a real city with a population of 25,000-plus, Caffee Junction is just that, a crossroads where you can travel on to Tuscaloosa or to Green Pond. There's a gas station/convenience store at the junction and a barbecue joint. On our "S-Town" journey, even though the hickory smoke pit sorely tempted us, we were saving ourselves for supper. Anyway, my brother had carried a container of Joyce's cheese straws with us, just in case.
And if there is a pond in Green Pond, I've still never seen it. Still, I say, because as we took off for our infamous Bessemer tour on this early August afternoon, and as we made it past and through the sites, our GPS didn't know how to lead us beside this particular still water, or to tell us if such a pond existed at all.
So if you choose to go looking, be warned.
As I think back on all we saw and did that afternoon, the thing that surprises me most is that no music accompanied our trip. Maybe we needed the quiet background so our voices were distinct, so we might be better able to hear the nuances of pain, hilarity, questioning, and disagreement about all we saw and what it meant.
But I didn't think about this lack as we started out. I wanted to give my passengers a taste of Bessemer's darkness.
First, I directed Jimbo to drive up the Super Highway toward Birmingham.
"Now, just as you pass over the bridge, take a right... that way."
We parked in front of a vacant lot, a place I had never noticed before reading about it.
"This was the site of Lorene's Café, a Klan hangout. In fact, this is where the Bessemer Klansmen retreated after they killed Viola Liuzzo down in Selma during the March."
"But this is near Daddy's store," Jimbo said, and indeed, the former site of Mulkin Auto Parts was only two blocks away. Not that the two were associated, but in Bessemer, you were never far enough away from someone or some thing that might get you into trouble, that might demonize your dreams.
"And after they cooled off at Lorene's that night, one of them drove up 19th or 20th Street to Fairfax Avenue, turned left, and came to his own house six blocks later," I continued.
I discovered this fact doing my own research last year for an essay I wrote about Bessemer's Klan in the 1960s. Discovering this residence shocked me partly because the house was in a predominantly Black neighborhood, but more pointedly because those six blocks were the only buffer between this Klansman's house and my family's. I thought about taking us on this leg, but it was too out of the way and we had so much more to see.
And maybe because it pains me to see how rundown my old neighborhood has become.
We got back on the highway toward Birmingham, and as we rode under the first train trestle, I stopped us again. "Over to the right was Moose Park, where the Moose Lodge, formerly known as The Barn, was located." This site, too, was vacant, weeds and Johnson grass owning it as if nothing had ever existed before them.
No one in Bessemer remembers that there was ever a Loyal Order of Moose, much less a lodge or park. The Barn had been a nightclub and perhaps a restaurant, too, but this building and land are most infamously known for hosting a KKK rally back in 1963 that burned three crosses and stopped traffic up and down the highway. Charles Portis, later author of True Grit, reported the rally for The New York Herald Tribune; on this night, some of the assembled Klansmen later journeyed to Birmingham and bombed the AG Gaston Motel where Dr. King was staying. He wasn't in his room at that hour, though, and so escaped his fate for another few years.
"Now just past this second train trestle is where the KKK had their welcome sign," an image I finally saw in Jonathan Bass's recent book, He Calls Me By Lightning, a story of another infamous Bessemer murder.
I don't know if it's possible to believe or disbelieve all that went on in our home town, but as we sat in the car gazing at a memory that wasn't exactly ours, I'm not sure why we thought it would be such fun to dredge up these particular horrors. Is this what the nostalgia resulting from a loved one's death does to you? Makes you want to see something worse than what you already feel? A pain akin, but also disassociated from that hole in your heart that you'll bear forever? Maybe, but I didn't have time for such reflection then.
"Let's go on down to S-Town now," Michael implored, as if being there would provide some kind of answer.
Gonna leave the city, got to get away.
To get to Bibb County, one may choose the expedient way—down I-59—or the fun way, down 4th Avenue, the old Tuscaloosa Highway. The latter is the route my mother would have driven to Green Pond, and it was the choice my dad always made when he took me to football games at the University. In those times, I remember that for long stretches of road, the only sites would be cattle grazing or thick piney woods. Today, it's housing developments everywhere the eye can see.
"I don't even know this place," Jimbo shouted, and I wondered how many times someone like him had yelled about what we'd lost.
We passed Plantation Manor nursing home where my father's mother spent her last days and where I once visited her brother Moe when he was so far gone.
The week before Mom died, when an officious hospice worker told us that in five days we'd have to move my mother either to a nursing home or back to her home, without care, my wife and daughters toured Plantation Manor.
"Just no," they said as one. "Granma can't go there. And we're glad you didn't come with us to see it."
They didn't explain their refusal, and as I found my memories, I knew they didn't have to.
We also passed a building that used to be a nursery where Mom bought more plants than any woman had need or right to buy. It was a pleasant garden owned by the niece of a girl I crushed on in eighth grade.
Now it's a Vape shop.
Our old friend Sarah's house came just after, on the right. We don't know what happened to her, and as we passed, I kept thinking of how each Sunday she and I would compare our respective Sunday lunches: who had the most vegetables, and which mayonnaise we'd use to relish our fresh tomatoes. Hers was Bama, mine Hellman's. We thought these things mattered back then, and they did, because they're indicative of family folkways and of what our mothers taught us. I'm sure Sarah's mother is gone, and I wonder if Sarah ever drives back here to feel all she's missing, to see what's no longer there.
I wondered, too, what Jimbo was thinking now, if he was remembering what I did. He claims to have a poor memory, but I've learned that just a trigger is enough sometimes.
"Your old girlfriend Theresa lived up there," I said as we passed yet another subdivision.
"Yeah, and what about that girl who lured me to her house? She was older than us, and I didn't know any better than to go over there."
I thought for a minute.
And then we cracked up, and I wondered what poor Michael thought about his husband, his past exploits. It can't be easy sitting in back when two old friends get going, when none of their memories seem particularly attractive or even enlightening.
"So Michael," I said as I leaned back toward him, "here's a place you should know about. The Green Lantern."
How do I describe The Green Lantern? An off-white cement block building with a green roof that looks like it was built 90 years ago or last week?
"Now, it's got a bit of history," I said, "though I hear it's cleaned itself up recently."
On a visit home a few years back, I read a story in The Birmingham News about the new owners of The Green Lantern and how they wanted to make the place a draw again for locals and for people from surrounding counties. You know, a place where you could get a hamburger, shoot some pool, throw darts, have a beer or two. I thought plenty of times about trying it out because I like pool and Budweiser.
"That is one place," Michael said, "that no one here is dragging my gay ass into."
"We'll be with you, Michael. What's to worry about?"
But as I thought about my pacifist bent, not to mention my arthritic hands, my brother's bad hip and shoulders, and Jimbo who, while he had once kicked a bullying galoot literally in the ass, had never to my knowledge been in any kind of fight, I wondered whether in the years since that article, the Lantern had reverted to its ignoble past.
"Okay, well, maybe not today," I said, and we cracked up again.
And then we passed over the Bibb County line.
Just exactly where I'm going, I cannot say.
Driving down Highway 11 toward Tuscaloosa, I thought again of the days when my daddy took me to Alabama football games. On those Saturdays, the world consisted of Daddy, me, and a bunch of guys I didn't know wearing Crimson. I loved those games, but as funny as it sounds, I think I loved the rides down and back even more. I could sit in the front seat, and Daddy would describe all that we saw, the places he used to see every week from his bus seat as he traveled from his Birmingham home to college.
I never worried that we would get lost or stuck in a place where we weren't wanted or welcome. My daddy kept me anchored to him.
Now, as I think about my Jewish father taking his little boy through places that harbored both good and bad intentions—"home cooking," rambling shacks with outhouses so similar that it was hard to tell the one from the other, and trailers with rebel flags whose occupants might or might not be related to the infamous KKK Imperial Wizard, Tuscaloosa's own Bobby Shelton—I wonder if Dad was scared, intimidated, or even mildly cautious about what would happen if our Pontiac or Buick were to stall. He never acted worried, which meant I was free to love this experience: this two-lane highway, my Dad, the game to come. And the ride home when we'd listen to the post-game scoreboard.
Before hitting "S-Town," our crew traveled to the Mulkin's farm somewhere out in the county. We inspected the formal gardens Jimbo's mother Jane continuously updated and added to; we watched Jimbo's dad Jim Ed catch another wide-mouth bass from a lake that I best remember as hiding the first water moccasin I ever saw. A man killed that snake with an old oar, and you know it takes a brave SOB to do that.
Jimbo, our friends, and I spent many nights at the farm when we were college-aged. I never feared for my safety out here, so far away from the life I knew. Anyone could have found us and done whatever they wanted. But I guess that could happen in the city, too, at any time.
Soon, after fresh lemonade and more cheese straws, we got back in Jimbo's rented hybrid and headed toward Bibb County.
Michael volunteered to direct us with his I-Phone. I say this as much to add precision to the narrative as to show just how complacent we were, we town boys who figured we were somehow insulated against self-inflicted trouble. "Idiots," my mother might have said of us, even though most of these roads are clearly marked and even though we are grown men. She would have thought that the time for road trips begins early in the day, not when the rural Alabama sun is within two hours of setting.
Michael got us on the county road toward West Blocton without too much trouble. We passed lakes and nice houses displaying the American flag. I don't own an American flag myself, but when I was a kid, I had a Confederate flag pinned to my bedroom wall. It was three by five feet. I never asked for it and I don't know what eventually happened to it.
We passed occasional Alabama Crimson Tide flags, too; if there are any Auburn pennants down here, they're as carefully hidden as Obama signs.
Actually, there were no Trump signs either, a wonder in this reddest of states.
The two-lane road leading toward West Blocton—"toward" because we eventually had to take a left turn to get to "downtown" West Blocton—was pockmarked by two features.
First, the hilly roadside displayed mounds of Alabama's famous red dirt, which as a little boy, Mike called "meat." I don't know if he literally thought the red soil was meat, but I have to agree that when compared to the molded rising rump roasts Mom would buy for Sunday lunch, the two reds did resemble each other, the white fat on top of the meat resembling those washed-out weedy tops of the dirt mounds.
The other central feature was the automobile junkyards we kept passing. I can't say definitively how many there were, but when I started counting, I hit six in a two-mile distance. Is the number one activity/business/pastime of Bibb Countians to pass through mountainous legions of dead cars looking for alternators, carburetors, or precious gilded wheels? Another old friend of mine, Joe, tells me that "Yes, there's big money in old car parts."
If there had been people scouring those lots for anything, I'd understand the demand. But there was no sign in these weedy lots of anyone searching or doing anything at all, including whoever managed them.
This, too, was a sign of something, though as we drove further, I had no idea what, other than that Bessemer, with its abundance of auto parts dealers and "Cash for Gold" palaces, might not be the most desolate, hopeless, or peculiar place I know.
Despite the mystery, or because of it, I grew excited as we neared West Blocton. I love seeing small southern towns because they're full of history and you never know when or where you might find folk art, true antique furniture, former Jewish businesses or residents like Melvin Israel, or the best ribs you've ever eaten.
Or three bare-chested old men sitting on their front porch, toothlessly grinning at everything they saw, including us. One thing for sure, when I was growing up, the only ones who got by with going shirtless were kids like us, but only until we hit 13 and started smelling in that new way.
And I don't mind being smiled at by strange old men. But I don't always trust it, either, especially in S-Town.
Shirts and white hairy chests on reddish torsos. I saw all that, and I even waved. I never saw whether they waved back. I should have looked, but I didn't.
I didn't look back because I understand how people are. I've met more friendly people in Bessemer than unkind ones. Sadly, the unkind seem to scar my memory more deeply than the friendly soothe my heart. Teenaged guys who wanted to beat the snot out of me for wearing long hair; adult family friends who said "Nigger" in front of me as often and regular as they'd say "hamburger," who expected me not to wince when they said it, and if I did, would glare as if I were about to vandalize their precious family car. I was supposed to show them respect no matter what they said, since being an adult demands that automatic deference.
Once, a family friend told me that "the Klan was right," back in the early '60s when they threatened Dr. King, and when their comrade Bull Connor unleashed the fire hoses on black children and then bombed and maimed little girls and old preachers. This man was an attorney. He spoke with Kennedy aides; he went to church with his family every week. He wore saddle oxfords. He spoke these words right to my face on Christmas Eve at my mother's house.
Nice manners and clothes might disguise racism and meanness for a time. But I've learned not to trust such veneers. So when we passed the porch brothers, their semi-nakedness didn't exactly worry me, though they could have been part of S-Town, the part we were looking for and afraid of finding.
The main street of West Blocton looks like that of many other old Southern towns. Except this one is really just a vestige of a time when there was a reason for the downtown. All the buildings are empty. One was an old TV repair shop, another a vacant video retailer. In fact, the only business still operating is the Cahaba Valley Lily store, which could have been a museum shop or a florist, but we didn't stop to find out. We saw a road to a school and a strange crossroads where nothing was perpendicular or even a clear five points. Just a few roads that hardly connected, except in the way that cracked glass always has a starting point though you might not ever agree where it is.
In the "S-Town" podcast, Brian Reed talks mainly about protagonist John B. McLemore, but another figure arises as the chapters unfold. This man, Kaybram Burt, and his two sons run a lumber company in Bibb County, K3 Lumber Company. As Reed says, though there is no hard proof, the K3's could stand for the Klan, a warning or emblem to one and all. We didn't pass the lumber company, though we were on the lookout for it. We could have Googled the address, but if that thought occurred to any of us, no one chose to speak it.
We couldn't find the road to John B's house, either, because it is too obscure to be found easily, and there are many side roads like it through tall weeds that succeeded in warning us past them.
As we leave West Blocton proper, and it's almost impossible to know that you are, everything is trending away from "fine." Michael's GPS directs us toward a shorter route, and soon he yells, "Turn here," which means taking a registered but unlined county road. I suppose it was two-lane, but without lines, one never knows for sure. What we did know for sure is that we are soon encased by tall pines, which though beautifully lazy and even majestic, cut us off from all phone service.
"How long will we be on this road?" Jimbo wonders.
"It's hard to say," Michael says.
"So, the Green Lantern scared you, but these woods are okay?" I ask.
Michael remains quiet.
Jimbo and I begin speaking of other friends we knew, guys named Chuck and Allen Clem and Big Mikey. Where are they now?
This was just talk to mask a feeling I didn't want to indulge.
We pass areas that are being clear-cut, and in one such patch of maimed woods, I see a lone deer standing about 100 yards away, looking right at us, as if wondering what any of us is doing here. No one but me sees the deer, and I wonder later if I really saw it, and if so, what it might have been saying to me and why it exposed itself so starkly in the cleared woods.
I suppose that K3 Lumber is responsible for defacing these woods, but before I can mention it, Jimbo says, "I wish we had gassed up before we started out."
We have just enough time to lose our collective breath when Jimbo starts cackling in that way he used to when he promised to buy me a Coke and returned with Dr. Pepper.
"Not funny Jimbo," Michael says.
Since this is early August, the sun won't be setting until at least 7:30, but when you're in the woods and can't always see the sky, a different sort of darkness seeps into your brain.
"Any service yet?" Mike asks.
"I got a bar. It says we have maybe three or four miles to go, and then we turn left."
"Turn left?" Jimbo says. "Onto what?"
"I don't know that yet. I'll keep checking."
For another five or six miles I keep assuring the car that it feels like we'll be turning soon and hitting a main road. I think about John B wanting to escape his shit town for all those years, and here I am, not making it an hour on a lonely but paved county road before beginning to worry. A Bibb County road.
I also keep thinking that if my friend Joe were with us, he'd have us back to something familiar in no time, for there's no road he's met that he hasn't called his own.
Finally, that left turn appears, and the GPS, which is back to full bars, becomes our friend again.
"We're about 30 minutes from home," Michael says, and just then, we enter Green Pond.
"Should we call your folks and let them know where we are?"
"Nah," Jimbo says. "They'll be okay."
I decide to call Joe, anyway, as much to alert someone that we aren't being held somewhere against our will as to make him understand how much I wish he had been with us.
"Guess where we are... Green Pond!"
"Which road?" he asks, and when I tell him I don't know but that we're passing such and such housing development, he says, "Oh yeah, Highway 22. I know exactly where you are."
I've heard such comforting words before, though not so many since my mother's illness and death.
After I hang up, I turn to Jimbo: "I'll be writing about all this one day."
He laughs, and I hear his relief.
We didn't notice any Black people in the county this day, and despite how lost we felt, no one in our car ever suggested stopping anywhere. Two gay men and two straight but half-Jewish guys—four strangers no matter how white we are—might cause some wonder, and who wants to explain what we're doing here, and why we came? I learn later that K3 Lumber is actually in Green Pond, though as we passed through that community, I didn't see any sign. But by then, the only sign I wanted to see was for I-59 west.
No use of you running or screaming and crying,
But you got a home man, long as I got mine.
It was a relief getting back on a road we vaguely knew. It isn't that I prefer interstates to back roads at all. And I've been to trailers in the woods, too, some of which might have had Confederate flags flying in front. Were these people Klansmen? Pot dealers? Crimson Tide fans?
I am not the same person as I was then, and though I still believe I can get along with most anyone, like my mother did, I know I can't speak for others' intentions or from their perspectives. In situations like this riding day, my imagination wonders what would have happened if we had run out of gas or if our rented hybrid had run over a sudden log or hit one of those country pot holes and we had ended up in a ditch? Would we have been all right asking for help at one of those trailers? Would we have been treated with courtesy and respect?
And would we have deserved it, given our journey was to find out the desperation John B felt in his shit town, the town we had not been invited to but were trespassing through anyway, seeking a thrill or a sighting of crude, desperate evil?
In the end, we didn't find anything in Bibb County except a road through some back woods that despite the clear cutting was still one of those treasures of living remotely. Even now, weeks later, I keep thinking of that deer looking at us like we were the aliens. And we certainly were, though I like to think I was on its side. I wouldn't eradicate its habitat, nor would I hunt it down. That isn't how I was raised, and I'm not judging here. Just stating the way it is and always was.
About hunting, the woods, and the people there.
About what I know and believe.
Last week, I told my therapist about that deer, and he read to me from Animals Speak:
"The deer... reminds us to establish a strong healthy connection with the child before we expose it to many people and other strange energies. It is a reminder that there is a tradition that is natural and suitable for family units and for the health of the young. It is for the child's best interest... it is all the rule of the mother... if the deer has shown up in your life... you have gotten too far away from the role that would be most beneficial for you at this time... Anyone who has a deer as a totem will find increasing ability to detect subtle movements and appearances. They will begin to hear what may not be said directly. When deer show up in your life it is time to be gentle with yourself and others. A new innocence and freshness is about to be awakened or born. There is going to be a gentle, enticing lure of new adventures... an opportunity to express gentle love that will open new doors to adventure for you" (263-4).
Though I heard these words now, in that driving moment, all I saw was a lone creature, and I feared for its safety, which, given our vulnerability, might have been a projection.
And speaking of vulnerability, I also realize that on her trips measuring trailers and cabins and sub-developed homes, my mother relied on the verbal directions given her—you know, things like, "When you get to the sign that says New Bethel Baptist, turn right and go for a good ways, and then you'll see the fence to our property." Surely she had a county map to help, but maps can't keep up with someone's rutting a new road out of Alabama red clay. Way out in this country, there are few clearly marked addresses, yet she always found her destination.
Mom didn't have a phone, either; no one did back then. Sometimes her colleague, Ollie, rode with her, but most of the time she went alone, trusting both her drive and the results would stand her in good stead, give her a needed commission, or at least a story to tell over supper.
She took these chances for my brother and me. In fact, she gave up her dream of owning an antique shop and accepted a retail job—which she hated and which, because of the heavy sample cases she had to load and unload, permanently displaced a disc in her back—because a sales job would earn her more income to help put my brother and me through college. Whether she wanted us to escape this land or not, she hoped we'd make more of ourselves than she ever could. One of the last things she told me was, "My only hope and wish for you and Mike was that you'd get an education and make something of your life. And you did."
Maybe, given the potholes, the narrow winding roads, and the lack of barriers on unlit turns for miles and miles, there's a reason for all those car graveyards in "S-Town." Maybe I should think harder about places we travel through on whims and larks. Maybe I should be grateful my mother, my friends, and I understand to the extent we do the pains and joys of life up in this county, this USA. There is a joy in feeling assured that the road you're on, as lost as you might believe you are, will lead to a place you know and understand.
As we crisscrossed through rough and unfamiliar land, I kept seeing my past self and those who shaped me—particularly my parents—navigating our lives, doing what we loved and what we had to do to go on living well and meaningfully, for ourselves and for each other.
Feeling so unsettled before our journey that day, so adrift in grief, so unmoored from my center... by the journey's end, I realized that this afternoon, especially with my best friend, was a way of finding home in a place I'd known about but never experienced before. For it's the experiences we share, layering the new ones on top of a lifetime of others, that renew our bonds and keep us living through our loss.
It's been two months since my mother passed, and my trips back to Bessemer are numbered. Going back to settle her home, I can't help following her steps: "There's Durwood's house," I say even when I'm alone, and even though someone else likely lives there now since Durwood passed last fall. "And there's the man with those little horses."
Is OCD passed through our genes? Can we breathe it in and get addicted like the lingering of secondhand smoke? A lifelong smoker, my mother quit after they found a spot of cancer in her lung five years ago. It wasn't the lung that got her, though, but her liver. From diagnosis to death in under two weeks.
Summer is fading, and college football's season is five weeks old. I still have a package of summer peas in the freezer, which one day this fall, I'll thaw and cook for my wife and me, and then I'll tell her this story, about what I saw on our road trip. And what I'll never see again.
A deer alone in the clear-cut woods, looking at me, calling my name.