I view the surrounds with mixed emotions. They are so, so familiar. And the ugliness of the land holds something of a beautiful nostalgia for me. Heading through the backwoods, over dirt roads, sitting on the armrest in the front seat between my grandparents. Going to see their brothers or sisters in dried up old wooden farmhouses, the farms long since gone. Swinging on wooden swings on slanted porches, swatting away flies, and watching the heat rise off the road. The stench of sweat, always, everywhere. Picking scuppernongs and popping them straight into my mouth. Fingers stained purple from blackberry juice. Homemade peach ice cream and my grandfather’s ‘funny’ coke that I was never supposed to drink.
These are slow roads. I turn the air-conditioning off and roll the window down, hating for a minute the automatic windows and wishing intensely for the old-fashioned crank. This is the way I like best to drive. Window down. Hot air blowing in. Scents changing from pure heat to cow shit and back again.
I detour through my mother’s hometown, past her parents’ house, past the courthouse and the church that my grandfather attended every Sunday without fail, my grandmother’s attendance a little less dedicated. I don’t visit the cemetery, I don’t visit cemeteries, looking at piece of granite will not change the memories or feelings I have for my predecessors, I’d rather remember them this way, on the move. Nor do I drive by great-grandmother’s house, rather, I should say, by where my great-grandmother’s house was since it burned down soon after I finished college. No shock in its burning, really, it was, as they’d say, pure kindling. A hundred years old, frame, dried out by a century in the sun. One spark and it was gone. I’d loved that house. One day, I think, I might try to recreate it. I laugh to myself at the memories of having to trek out to the outhouse when I was a young girl. My great-grandmother had not seen any real reason to get indoor plumbing. She had done just fine without it. Had raised four children without indoor plumbing. Had seen her husband off this mortal coil without indoor plumbing. Had survived alone as a widow for some twenty years without indoor plumbing. In fact, she didn’t crack on the point until she was 85 and she slipped in the back garden when she was trying to kill a rattler and the doctor said she really needed to not be going on out a dodgy foot. Then, and only then, did she give in to my grandmother and my grandmother’s brothers and agree to have a toilet and shower fitted in the house. She thought it was all a bit silly, but the rest of us were really more than a bit relieved to no longer have to check for serpents before taking a seat.
There’s nothing there to see now, though, so I don’t turn that way, just keep south, further into my beginnings.
Truly, there nothing to see around any of here.
The towns, well, some of them are trying. They’ve tried to paint the old main street shops, they’ve tried to recreate the quaint small town times of yore, they’ve tried, they’re trying. Really though it’s apparent to all that these are just a facade, just settings, just decoration, for there are few if any humans to be seen. Sure, there are houses, some of them beautiful, some of them immaculately kept, but humans, no, not really.
Where are they, I wonder? What do they do? How do they survive? Surely the entire economy of a town cannot be based on a Taco Bell and a Wal-Mart. Surely an entire town cannot be employed by a lone Dairy Queen.
There is no one to answer my question, of course. No one in the car. No one on the street. No one, I feel, for miles and miles and miles.
Unless, of course, you count the guy sitting on the front porch of his trailer, under his Stars and Bars, spitting tobacco juice, and staring angrily at a pick up that looks like it cost a year of my salary.
I decide I don’t need to know that badly.
It can wait.
And so it does. The question does wait.
And now my stomach catches because now here it is. What I’ve been dreading and anticipating. The town. The town of my upbringing. The town I loathed for each and every minute I was in it and for most the moments beyond that. The town I blamed for so much of unhappiness. The town I vowed to leave and never look back on.
There is the police jurisdiction sign.
And the old gas station that was never in my memory a gas station but was for a while what the proprietors liked to call Junktique Emporium and then after that was just empty.
And then there is the city limits sign, welcoming me, reminding me to drive safely and have a nice day.
And in a moment of what is clearly pure insanity, I pull into the parking lot of a new chain motel – a reputable chain, luckily – and I check myself in for the night.
The receptionist is a young Black man. He has warm eyes and an inviting smile, so, as he processes the check in, I venture an enquiry about dinner options.
He sizes me up. I know what he’s thinking. I know he’s considering telling me to go to the next town over, 15 miles away, where they actually have a few reasonable chain restaurants, I know he’s thinking I won’t blend in, at all, that I might not be comfortable anywhere here.
“It’s okay”, I tell him. “I used to live here.”
“No way. What? You? Not-uh.”
“Ya-huh.” Amazing how quickly the language comes back. . . . “I did. I grew up here.”
“You sure don’t look like you’re from ‘round here, if you don’t mind my sayin’.”
“I don’t mind your sayin’. But I am. I lived here from the time I was four until I was fourteen. Formative years.” I wink at him. He smiles.
“I grew up in that big house on Main Street. You know the one? Next to the library?”
“Oh, yeah, I know that house. It’s for sale now. You should buy it. Move back home.” He’s laughing. So am I.
“Yeah, maybe. Or maybe not.”
“What are you doin’ down here now? I mean, I know, ain’ none of my business. Sorry. Just that most people who stop here are jus’ doin’ it ‘cause it’s too late to keep drivin’. Nobody from ‘round here stays here.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind. I’m travellin’ through. I haven’t been down this way in a long time. Decided to stop. See how things are. You from here?”
“Yeah. I’m at UAB now, jus’ home for the summer, doing this to earn some money for when I go back.”
“What are you studyin’?”
And it went on like that for a while. He was on a scholarship. Academic. Covered tuition and board. He would have preferred to go right through, but he needed the money he got from his summer job for basic living expenses. Besides, his grandmother liked to see him, and Birmingham was a long way to go, especially when she had to get a ride from someone whenever they happened to be heading that way.
I decided there was no harm in asking, so I did. I told him I wondered if he might know the woman who raised me. I mentioned her name. His whole body lit up, not just his smile or his eyes, everything about him became happy. She had had that effect on people.
“You mean Mama Mabel? Course I know Mama Mabel. Everybody knows Mama Mabel.” He frowned a bit. “I’m sorry if you didn’t know this, but she died a few years ago.” I didn’t know this as fact, but I had guessed it would likely be the case. She had been older than my parents, and not in the best of health ever. Her body run to ground by years of poverty, of being a poor Black woman in the deep South, of bearing ten children because birth control was not a luxury afforded to certain women, of picking cotton for hours on end as a child, of cleaning houses from the time she was a teenager, and, as my guilt regularly reminded me, of raising other people’s children.
“Her people stay up at Davis Street, though.” His continuation of our conversation brought me back ‘round. “You know Davis Street?”
“She used to stay up at Sherman, didn’t she?” The cruel joke of poor towns in the South, corralling their Black residents on streets named after Confederates.
“Yeah, yeah, she did. But once she died they moved over to Davis. You know her kids?”
Indeed I did. And I remembered the house on Sherman. I used to beg her to take me over there when I was a kid and my parents were at work. I would play with her kids and her grandkids. It was so lively, so different from my own quiet house where I wasn’t supposed to touch most of the stuff. Her house was a mess, with kids everywhere – her own children ranged in age from full grown with kids of their own to a year or two younger than me – and people coming and going. Everyone knew her. People from the church who were always asking her to cook something for Sunday; she always did. People who were out of work and were looking for a quick bite; she always had something. People who were on their way to work and wondered if their kids could just stay at hers for a few hours; they always could. It was mad and manic and fabulous compared to my own staid existence. I used to take one of the babies onto the front stoop and sit in a folding chair and watch the world go by. Even then, even before the economies of small towns down here completely dried up, this neighbourhood was poor. Lots of people out of work. Lots of shift work. Lots of odd jobs. There was no time here. People were coming and going at all times. People were just waking and just nodding off all the time. People were walking past or barely rolling past in old cars. Conversations everywhere. “Hey there, girl” the men used to say as they’d open her screen door “you one-a Mama Mabel’s?” they’d chuckle and wink. “Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I am.” “Well, now, I reckon that might be alright. We’ll let her keep ya.” I’d pull the baby to my chest and feel very much at home.
“Ma’am” he looked serious now, a bit sad “I don’t wanna suggest anything. I don’t wanna be offensive, but I wouldn’t go over there after dark if I were you. I mean, don’t take this personally or anything, but you know sometimes people look a certain way” by that, I knew he meant white “well, people look a certain way, they be over there after dark, people think they might be over there for things ain’t so nice. I mean I don’t wanna suggest anything, but, you know, just in case.”
I smiled at him. “It’s okay. I wouldn’t go over there tonight anyway. I haven’t seen any of those people in years – wouldn’t be quite fair to just knock on the door without warning! I’ll see if I can track anybody down and wrangle a proper invite over. Now, I tell you what, maybe check me in for two nights and tell me where I can get some food.”
There’s something I really love about chain hotels. No matter where you go, they’re the same. The anonymity, the consistency, the complete lack of anything personal. The smell of cleaning products. The boil washed white sheets. This hotel was brand new. I mean brand new. It even still smelled new, that sort of new carpet chemical smell. I dropped my bag on the luggage rack and did what I always do on arriving in a rented room: checked the bathroom, the closet (which was not really a closet here, but an open space with a rack and hangars), the drawers, under the bed; I turned down the air-con, went to open the windows, checked to see if they opened (they did not); I kicked my shoes off and sat on the bed, ‘hotel and area guide’ in one hand, television remote in the other.
The guides were thin, unsurprisingly. There was an ice machine at the end of the hall; also a vending machine. There were coin operated washing machines and dryers just off reception. The free breakfast was served in reception from 5am until 9am, please enjoy the food in reception and don’t take it back to your room. There were instructions for what to do in the event of a fire. There was a list of fast-food restaurants and a couple of local places, but I was going to take the advice of my new friend on reception and head to his recommendation.
I checked my watch. It was only four o’clock. Too early even here, down here where dinner was called supper and it was served no later than six p.m. and dishes were cleared and cleaned by seven. Even here four o’clock was a bit early; no early bird specials in this town.
I could, of course, shower. I had been in a hot car all day, much of it with the air-conditioning off and the hot air blowing in. I smelled sweaty and salty and decidedly earthy. But, the smell was a long time ago familiar one that I was rather enjoying if I told the truth, and, besides, what was the point in getting undressed and wet and redressed only to be sweating again by the time I reached the car.
I decided, the time had come for a little walk down memory lane. Or, at least a little drive; not much walking happened around here. Not for me just yet, anyway.
I went through Reception, but my new friend was on the phone. He smiled and waved and I returned the gesture. The heat smacked me in the face as I went out to the car. And the car itself was almost unbearable. Not many trees down here. Not much shade. And the just relatively short time I had been inside had turned the little automobile into an oven. I hot-potatoed the steering wheel and the gear shift and got the windows down as soon as possible and, I admit, cranked the air-con on and just sat there a minute, waiting for the space to be fit for human presence. All such familiar movements, reasons still I cannot manage the sight of an animal locked in an uninhabited car, even in Britain where it rarely gets what I am willing to call hot. I inhaled and exhaled and felt the sweat beads pop out on my forehead while I waited for the steering wheel to be safe to touch, cool enough to manoeuvre.
I carefully pulled onto the road. I needn’t have been too careful, there was no traffic, but, even though it had been years, decades, since I had been here, I knew all too well that a random speeding pick-up truck could appear from nowhere.
Traffic here is slow, I didn’t have to worry about holding anyone up, about being cursed by someone in a rush to somewhere else, there were few places to go and most things could wait. I took my time and crawled along the streets that I had known and hated in my childhood.
I managed to kill enough time to reasonably head for my supper venue. I know the place, the place the guy at reception recommended. I’d never been there; my parents thought it was ‘trashy’, but I know it. It’s where it’s always been, on the state road that heads to Florida. I guess, but it’s a pretty fair guess, that one time, back in the day, it had been a fairly popular stopping off point for people on their way to the Gulf from Birmingham or Nashville or Huntsville or Montgomery. Now, not so much. Now people don’t really stop. Now it’s just locals, and not too many of those, but I’ve been told the food is just as good as always, same old recipes, nothing really changed.
And when I enter, I think this is probably the case, not much has changed. It’s old-fashioned, but not in the isn’t it ironic throwback way that I’m accustomed to seeing in Hackney or Shoreditch. No, this is old-fashioned in the haven’t had the time or the money to update and where would we get new stuff anyway way. The floors are tired linoleum. The tables of the formica wipe clean variety. The booths in a sort of plastic vinyl and, yes, they are split.
There’s a woman standing behind the counter and she looks up and smiles when I come in, “just sit anywhere, baby”.
I gesture toward a booth at the window, clearly designed for four or even six people, not me on my lonesome “this okay?”.
“’Course, baby, you know what you want?” She hasn’t moved from the counter, it’s just us there, her shouting across to me isn’t disturbing anyone.
I, though, feel awkward shouting, feel awkward raising my voice at all. Still, when in Rome . . . “The guy at the motel told me the chicken fried steak and greens are almost as good as his gramma’s.”
“Oh, he so sweet. I do love that boy. You want that? You want a biscuit with it.” This is not a question. “You want sweet tea, baby?”
“No, ma’am, can I have unsweet, please?”
“Sure thing. I get that right over to ya.”
She brings me my tea and lingers long enough to ask “You ain’t from around here, are ya?”
“Actually, I am. But a long, long time ago.”
“Well, I’ll be. You don’t look like you’re from here. Who your people be?”
“It was a long, long time ago. I lived in that house next to the library. Mama Mabel used to take care of me.”
“Oh, Mama Mabel! You that little white girl used to sit outside her house? I ‘member you. You was fat back then, though. You ain’t fat now, are ya? Goodness, girl, nobody would ever guess you was from here.”
I laughed. A genuine laugh. Not the bitter one that I would have struggled through if this had been delivered from some of the other people I had known in my life. But, no, this is real, and she is kind, and, she is laughing too. Laughing at the memory of Mama Mabel, laughing at the memory of the little fat white girl parked outside her house, laughing at a different time. It’s all good. Good memories for her. Good memories for me.
She’s still chuckling when the door opens and the first of the regulars comes in. “Y’all just sit where ever. I’ll get you your tea.”
She leaves me with my tea.
The country fried steak was, well, it was just amazing, as were the greens, veggies far from vegetarian, coated in a substantial layer of bacon fat. The biscuit is probably still with me, even now. Light cooking isn’t really a Southern thing and it’s certainly not a soul food thing – food without fat really has no soul. And this meal had plenty of soul. I was reminded of how I got to be a fat girl. Still, I gave myself a moment to enjoy the little bulge in my tummy.
The place was actually a bit busy, certainly busier than I would have expected. My laughing lady was busy, so I signalled I was ready for the check.
“Oh, baby, you can’t go yet. You ain’t had no pie.”
“I have no room for pie! I can’t go back to being fat, you know!”
“Oh, baby, you got plenty of room ‘fore you’re fat. You gotta have some of this pie. Which one you want: blackberry, chocolate, or egg custard?”
“Oh, what are you doing to me?” I groaned. “Can I take it with me?”
“You promise me you eat it if I let you take it? Wouldn’t hurt you none to get a bitta that fat back on you, girl.”
“I promise I’ll eat it.”
“I’ll get you the egg custard.”
She brought me my pie. And another “take this to the boy up there, ‘kay?”.
I left feeling ways I hadn’t felt in years. Ways I hadn’t felt since those days of snuggling with Mama Mabel when I was very, very young. Full. A part of something bigger than me. Safe.
I drove back to the hotel with two pieces of pie of the seat next to me.
Indeed he was still there when I walked through reception. Off the phone now. Smiling.
“Did you go?”
“I did. I don’t need to eat for a week now. I brought you a present.”
I held up the box. “It’s not from me, though, it’s from the waitress there. She loves you.” I drew it out, laughing and handing him his pie.
He, not more than nineteen or twenty, chuckled like an old man. Chortled. “Heh, heh, heh. She knows I love this pie. She knows my gramma won’t make it anymore since she got diabetes. I’m gonna have this in just a little while. Did you like it, though? Was it good?”
“Oh my god, I haven’t had food like that, well, probably not since Mama Mabel used to take care of me.”
“Good. That’s good. Listen, I know it’s none of my business, but that real estate man came by to drop off some brochures. Seems like a waste of paper to me, but, I guess you never know. Anyway, I asked him if your old house is still for sale. I asked him what the deal was with it. I know it ain’t none of my business, but I thought, well, you know, if you were curious or anything.”
I was. Damn me, I was. I was very, very curious. “And?”
“And, it’s still for sale. Nobody living in it. Been that way a while. He didn’t say anything real specific, but I think he’s gettin’ a bit desperate ‘bout it. Like I said, I know it ain’t none of my business, I thought, you know, if you were curious or anything, you know, I just thought, well, since it’s empty and all that, well, I figure he could show it to you just ‘bout any time. It ain’t like there’s a hoppin’ real estate market ‘round here. Wouldn’t mean he had to do anything but reschedule his golf game. You know. Just like, if you was wondering ‘bout it, if you wanted to see it again or anything.”
“You thought that now, did you.”
“Did you think I might need his telephone number too?”
“I did.” He slid the card across the counter to me.
I took it.
“You working tomorrow?”
“I’ll see you in the morning, then. You have a nice night.”
“Yes, ma’am. You too.”
I was almost out the rear door before I managed to turn around.
“Hey. Thank you. Really. Thank you.”