She wandered through the dusty town, which should have been abandoned if not for the people there. Sitting on peeling white porches staring out, sometimes down, at where their lawns met the road, perhaps wondering why there were no sidewalks. Not the older folks, though, who stared, but didn’t wonder. They remembered when they were promised sidewalks by the mayor back in ‘48, and even then they knew that was nothing more than the pipe dream of a small town with big-city aspirations. Aspirations of the young, the ones who’d end up leaving. So you’d think. The town had become even smaller since then, until it seemed to barely exist at all. A town without sidewalks. They’d always gotten along perfectly well without them, after all, and sure didn’t need no fancy newfangled concrete squares to protect their precious penny loafers from the good old American blacktop. It was bad enough they’d put up traffic lights on Main street. What was the country coming to.
She drifted from the reference point of her parked car, assuming she remembered where she’d left it, assuming that the town was too small to get lost in. Sure, there were no signs- not for useful things like street names or land marks or directions or anything, not that she saw. But there were signs aplenty dotting the tiny landscape, old signs, antiquated signs, signs painted with paint that has probably since been banned for lead content on wood from trees now extinct from the weevil plague of ’26. She wandered through mystic henges of billboards advertising the latest fizzy drink which, were she to drink one today, would not taste the same as it did in those days, as later FDA sanctions had ‘encouraged’ the manufacturer to drastically decrease the narcotic content. Cherubic kewpie kids vacantly smiled their endorsement of tobacco products, while an Indian caricature (feather not dot) deemed apparently offensive to no one glowered from its package. Perhaps Chief Speaks With a Voice Box disapproved of the White Man building a Village of the Damned on his ancestor’s bones. She reminded herself that racism isn’t funny, unless you’re not racist, then it’s kind of okay. The air was somehow humid and dry, like being in a swamp in the desert, and everything was cracking, or rusting, or broken. The Spanish moss hung somberly from the trees like the slender, dejected fingers of a broken-souled piano player. A dog ran by without a leash, unperturbed by the old Cadillac turning the corner, the only car on the road, the only sign of movement. Her eyes followed it past the white chapel, the only building that looked like it had received a fresh coat of paint in the last fifty years. The name ‘Jesus’ was in her periphery. The bird-less quiet whispered transient prayers and desperate muted harmonies. She was in the American South.
Driving along a twisting stretch of unmarked highway, she had wanted to stop somewhere for a coffee but, aside from the occasional mud flapped truck, the countryside was deserted. It was so lonely that she entertained the thought of whoever was erecting those ‘Jesus Saves’ signs everywhere for company, hoping that she’d spot the culprit, finally getting a chance to use the joke she’d been saving for just such an occasion (which involved Jesus being appointed her Personal Banker). One particular rotting old billboard missing most of its paint long since gone with the wind had a fresh looking red heart drawn on it. She reflected on that. Maybe she was too caustic when it came to Christ. Maybe she was too ready to pigeonhole believers as backwoods rednecks. Maybe there was a real love there, a love that would inspire someone to travel out onto a dusty highway in the middle of nowhere just to prove it with a little red paint. It was almost romantic.
She had gazed out at the hillside, distracted, too distracted, she reasoned, to drive. She ought to stop, find some refreshment. A strange wanderlust was clouding her senses. A glance at the map revealed no towns, and her passive-aggressive GPS was no help at all. She simply couldn’t face the prospect of an endless drive into an indeterminate asphalt vanishing point without a Gatorade at the very least. On a whim, she turned off onto a small, nearly invisible unidentified road that was missing from her map. It was as if the asphalt had been drawn into the landscape by a giant whose hand had slipped, leaving an accidental trail disappearing into the woods. Her GPS politely reminded her that she was going the wrong way, but that it was the bigger person for selflessly re-calculating based on her flawed little human stunts. She didn’t know why she’d thought that this road would lead her concentration to the break it needed, but at the very least, it would be a diversion.
She wasn’t sure exactly when man-made structures began to appear along the road. An abandoned car here, a disused outhouse there, nothing dating past the ’50’s. White crosses. Jesus’ name. She spotted the occasional dirt trail leading off into the woods, where preachers and hillbillies enjoyed banjo-dueling and witch-burning with their moonshine. Where was that from? Relics of forgotten moments hovered near her awareness as she rolled past the prehistoric artefacts of old Five and Dimes with Pepsi signs and a full-service gas pump, unaffected by rates in the real world, attended to, no doubt, by the ghost of the station’s owner back it was still serviceable. Then she realized; it was still serviceable. As the road intersected with another at what she supposed must be the center of town (with traffic lights and everything), she realized that the ancient overgrown structures peeking out from between ivy vines were in fact inhabited, and by certain unfathomable standards, functional.
Now on foot, she headed toward the corner store for a Coca Cola in one of those curvy little glass bottles out of the icebox with the built-in bottle opener that you had to smack the bottle against to open. She decided to walk around for a bit, stretch her legs, explore this hidden outpost she’d discovered.
Some kind of rustling hum filled the silence, pierced by electronic insect cries, what she supposed were cicadas. She took the flickering neon sign in the window of a bar as a sign of activity, and followed its dim buzzing. The bug zapper out front had ceased working long ago, and the piles of dead flesh inside would have transformed it into a handy bird-feeder were there any birds around, besides the taloned carrion feeders she’d spotted over the highway. An old man with grime in his wrinkles sat drinking Thunderbird on the porch, smoking a pipe filled with tobacco both dirtier and less toxic smelling than the cigarettes she was used to. A decaying old spittoon sat in the corner, growing some mutated form of moss or mold. She absently wondered if its spores contained hallucinogenic qualities. The heat was affecting her. She opened the door and, despite the absence of air conditioning, felt an immediate coolness from the interior prickle her skin.
The bar was dark but not entirely unpopulated. There was a silent jukebox, a couple at a table in a corner, a cow’s skull hung on a far wall, a couple of yokels loitering at the pool table, a dart board no one used, a gentleman in a cowboy hat sitting at the bar with downcast eyes, and a bartender. She sat at the bar and looked at the bottles of Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey before asking for a vodka tonic which he didn’t understand, and so she turned to the beer.
The bar unironically served Pabst Blue Ribbon, the hipster beer of choice, which she never understood, figuring it was all one big Blue Velvet reference or something. They also offered Budweiser and something called Armadillo. With a when-in-Rome shrug, she ordered a bottle, ignoring the little bits floating in it, wisely guessing she was better off ignorant.
‘Where’re you from,’ the barkeep asked, uninterested, just doing his job.
‘Toronto,’ she answered.
‘That in Ohio?’
‘No. It’s in Ontario.'
‘They got them dog sleds up there, huh?’
‘Um… yeah. Sure.’
She looked around, wondering if cockroaches were only an urban animal. A girl in gingham (she named her ‘Sadie’) came in to collect her daddy. He was the guy at the table near the back door that she hadn’t noticed until now, the kind of guy you’d expect to see in plaid, except that he didn’t own any. Flannel, after all, is a Canadian thing.
She laid out her journey in her head, not considering whether she was talking out loud. She was driving through the States to meet her friend for a sunshine-filled Florida vacation. She chose to drive since she was able to score a few days more off work than her friend, because it gave her an excuse to visit her New York cousin and her aunt in South Carolina on the way, and because it justified her owning a car. She was planning to visit D.C. on her way back, since she’d never seen it, and was trying to come up with questions to ask Abraham Lincoln. She was travelling alone. Her friends all claimed to be adventurous enough for a spontaneous road trip, but, as is the Canadian way, they were more talk than action. She was out to cross some spots off her list. Especially the ones that weren’t on her list. The unexpected discoveries. The oddities scattered along the edges of this lost country, seen only in the mist between rain and sunshine, when the devil is kissing his wife. The buried way-stations on the route from nowhere to somewhere else, the mythical America that time forgot.
‘What’s the name of this place?’ She asked.
‘Can’t you see the sign?”
She drank her beer, enjoying the relative coolness of the bar but not the dankness of the atmosphere. On the wall there was a picture of a farmhouse, naked without the farmer and his wife out front with only a pitchfork between them. She was dimly aware of someone barbecuing out back. She’d seen a diner with its lights off earlier, but she wasn’t hungry. She only looked at the people, none of whom looked back.
She paid her bill with a couple of those weird green notes with the magic eye floating above the pyramid, and ventured out into what she was surprised to find was dusk.
A pickup truck (she was pretty sure she could pick out the owner from the patrons inside) was parked out front, adorned with a fish on the back. She could think of a few devout Atheists who would have gleefully drawn feet on it. No one sat on the porch now. She was alone. She thought she saw someone on a tree swing down the road, and when she looked closer, she saw that the specter held no instrument, which was strange, because, for a moment, she thought she heard music.
A vague intoxication obscured her senses, which she assumed was from the drink, far stronger that she’d previously given American beer credit for. Opting to walk it off, she headed in the opposite direction from where she believed her car was, a belief unsubstantiated by evidence, but everyone has to believe in something. She walked down the street into where she hadn’t been yet, away from the crossroads, which seemed to be the entire town, knowing that somehow she’d get turned around back in the right direction anyway.
She passed an old house with an unkempt overgrown yard and a mailbox standing to like a soldier, or a beggar on the street. The flag which hung above the porch waved like a ghost in the breeze, casting a skeletal shadow, its stars and stripes no longer gallant and bright, now solemn, reaching, almost spiteful. The molding edged along the terrace and windowpanes was cut like Chantilly lace, and within one window she spotted a Confederate banner. General Custer died here, she thought, nonsensically, since she didn’t know where he died, and in fact did not have the strongest impression of who he actually was. As she walked she passed a wooden figure. A lawn jockey. She’d never seen one.
She waved the flies from her face and looked up the hill. A sign proclaimed, ‘He who walks alone walks in Purgatory,’ and then, ‘He who walks with Christ is welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven,’ although she couldn’t make out that second part so well.
On the opposite side of the street were trees, which may have hidden another old house, one in which she liked the think the local children believed lived a real live witch. If there were any children. Another sign. It read: Hazel.
She was not sure if that was the name of the road, the town, or the owner of the property. In any case, she mused on its appropriateness as a name for a dog were she ever to acquire one, and walked on.
In a clearing of dimming twilight, she noticed a path. The ground was smooth and the wildflowers far more inviting than the gravel road and spooky houses which were accompanying her journey so far. As she followed the path, it became less of one, until she was essentially wading her way through tall grass. Night was falling, she could no longer see anything but nature, it was dead silent, and she was alone. Here she encountered a wooden structure. Stables, perhaps, but not quite. They were as old as anything in the town, and in fact older, but not worn, unused, almost still new. Except for some marks here and there, stains from whatever its purpose once was. The ground here was patchy dirt. She considered outdoor changing rooms, although there was no nearby swimming hole, or possibly outhouse stalls, for the big Southern houses sprinkled here and there among old plantations. This didn’t make much sense. The willow trees whispered, and the Spanish moss danced tauntingly in the moonlight. Sometimes, she thought she saw something in their creaking branches, a long lost kite, a wind chime, strange fruit. There was a smell, a faint smell, like sulphur, or rot, underneath the scent of magnolia. A burning, too, mixed with the leaves, someone’s faraway wood stove. A coldness emanated from the soil, an oppressiveness from the wood. A spider was spinning its web among the chains hanging from the walls, and she doubted that she knew what a black widow looked like. More chains in the corners, a rare pot or piece of debris, although the place was mostly clean. Aside from the hooks in the ceiling, the dead, agonized air.
The breeze picked up, pinpricked her skin, chilled her, made her feel out of place and utterly alone. She was lost. As lost as a soul in limbo, and as damned as ground built on ancient bones and tainted with dark blood. She imagined she heard rattlesnakes, drums, distant gunshots and tribal incantations, louder, louder still to drown out the silent screams echoing through time in her mind. She averted her eyes from the spirits of this place and bent down her head, lowering her gaze to the ground on which she stood. She saw something in the dirt. It was a severed chicken’s foot.
She turned back and hurried to her car, hoping she’d find it, praying it would take her away from this place, not looking back. She started the engine and drove without breathing until she saw highway lights, not bothering to mark the place on the map for future avoidance, knowing that, even if she tried, even if she came back, she’d never find it.