Start at early summer dawn on the Georgia coast, behind the Sea Islands, and drive toward Memphis. Take secondary roads and look around as you pass through towns that seem to vary in time placement, back and forth over the past six decades, depending on how close to real cities they are and whether the developers have gotten to them yet.
Go into the hill country that threatens to throw the sticky, red clay embankments beside the road over your car and keep you there forever, stuck in 1966 under a crude, peeling billboard beckoning you to the salvation from inoculation and integration promised by an equally crude and peeling church that is an exclamation mark for the gray, gray area where Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee meet. The steeple etches itself onto your rearview mirror, and you see it, or its catechismal twins, there as you’re roughly tracing the Alabama/Tennessee border until you stop near Red Sulphur Springs at a stucco and rust hotel for the night. Your dreams center around diesel and urine.
Stick to the back roads the next day on those back roads, tracing the Mississippi/Tennessee border, with all those Biblical town names. After you cross the Mississippi, the hills diminish in size and hue. Stop for the second night in a flat land where the dusty sky blurs into sere fields, where it’s the sort of dusk that blurs the separation of firm and firmament.
You’re close now, close to Hell, but that name was already taken, so the Biblical town names give way to warnings, “Dry” this, that “Gulch, and a lot of Native American tags that give those same warnings. No one has ever wanted to live here, so the inhabitants, thrown here by bad tribal treaties, broken Conestoga axles, dead mules, bankruptcies and criminal warrants, do something that looks like living only from a distance; an upwind distance. It’s a guerrilla war with Life, and it’s the sort of war in which the enemies of their enemies are their friends, except that they don’t have any friends.
At sundown, summon your fortitude and curiosity and pull into the encampment marked by flickering lights in all the colors not associated with anything you’d call a holiday. The largest of the poorly disguised trailers is the whorehouse, the closest thing to a town hall in this foul parody of a town. Mix yourself a vodka and Pepto-Bismol and drink it fast in your car before walking up those rotten, splintery steps. Go to the bar and order something in a bottle. Wipe the neck off before you start on it, and observe.
In keeping with their doing something other than living, the whorehouse people do something other than prostitution, which does, after all, include elements of joy and pleasure to some. Here, there are sad, hopeless, bitter and self-destructive pimps strung out on bad combinations of pills stolen from the glove compartments of truckers passing through. When they pee in their sleep, the dogs just move to the other side of the bed, and the women move just a little and go back to sleep, That’s what happens there.
Even here, in this worst and most horrible of hells, there is no such thing as complete hopelessness. Once in awhile, one of the women sees a different woman, a living woman, in the mirror on a truck, and she promises anything for a ride back to Life. They are rarely convincing, because there is nothing here to teach or remind them to offer anything or to have any chance. Rarely, but sometimes.
Your bartender struggles, crutching, to bring you a second beer. Your first has gone quickly, because you’ve wrapped your lips around the neck and inhaled the first one to keep from inhaling the scent of the room. Her eyepatch is homemade, fashioned from a shoelace and faded gingham, crusty at the corner.
She’d been one of the exceptions, you see. She’d wanted out, believed she could have a life, and convinced a traveler to take her away, but he was the sort of traveler who would stop at that place more than once. He’d checked into an old tin can Airstream for the night and waited for her, planning to hit the road with her in the morning. While she packed and tried to explain to other women there that she was leaving, and why she was leaving, and that they could also leave, the traveler drank.
Being the sort of traveler who would stop at that place intentionally, more than once, he began to break things while he waited. Lamps, dishes, anything that would break, he threw at the door of the trailer, sitting on that dank, thin mattress on a cot in the corner. When she came in, she slipped in the glass, lost an eye and severed a hamstring, and that is why she does not have to be a whore having a terrible parody of a life in that place anymore.
Hear that story, take your vodka and despair-boiling insides outside, get back in your car and drive all night, finding a lit, real highway as soon as you can. At the stoplight before the highway entrance ramp, which marks your exit from that world, roll down your window to air yourself and the car out. Look in the rearview mirror at that etched steeple that’s been with you on this exodus. Do you hear the preacher inside, telling you that God works in mysterious ways?