1979, This Thing Called
Drive past where you grew up. This landscape is flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat mud. Rows of trees line the road. Squat houses setback a short distance circling a railroad track, then nothing but more mud, distant trees and clouds blowing in from Arkansas.
Stop for a bit by an old rundown, abandoned, sit in the doorway. Probably inhabitable. Pine on the floor’n walls. Wainscoting warped. Tin roof peeled back, snaps in the shifty breeze. The sun warms smell out of the mud. Wonder what’s grown on this land, what sprayed about, who lived here, who lives here next.
Not more than a mile or two north down the road before I stop here, I pass an old black woman come ‘round the back of an old house so similar to this one I sit at, in much the same shape. Her solid dress stretches across the breasts and the hips then billows at the knees. She bends into what seems to be a barrel of water collecting off the roof, her legs covered with bright red socks. Her home is a shanty just like this one, and the cabin I built up in my own Dad’s woods way north near the water Superior.
That woman makes me think of my own mum, and grandmum raisin’ ‘leven alone after Felix falls off the roof drunk, all on a farm scraped out of cut over. There’s an old photo in my memory that stands out, shows grandmum and the kids posed as they straddle a massive untrimmed trunk lying over. Just two and three generations down the line out there clearing field.
I think of this old black woman and my grandmum walking about in the same dress, same shoes, catching water off the roof. No hiding that the life and work are hard. I’m not dumb enough to think these are parallels, just the empathy carries me in deep.
Here green weeds grow from the ground and in the distance green cover in the few places where mud doesn’t show. The occasional tree sprouts some yellowing spring. A fly buzzes by the railroad tracks. Always the railroad tracks. I follow them south back on the road again. Somewhere off west across this long flat flood plain is the great river, and beyond, the country where you grew up.
Some places the tracks are pulled up and piled like an abandoned line. The white folk who drive by lift a finger in hello like folks up north do in the rural country, communicating that you ore on of us and must be a neighbor. I feel closer to the old woman walking around the shack to get water and the black men that chat on the front stoop or watch the world go by.
I don’t honestly know what they watch. Maybe they say to themselves, look at them fools working their lives away just to fast drive nice vehicles. More’n likely they lookin’ fearful, wondering which way troubles heading now. That’s how I look, to be honest. Maybe that’s me projecting. The black men don’t see me. I raise a finger to them as I pass. I want to be with them, ’cause I don’t fit in to that other world. I can’t honestly see either going well. I want things to not be the way they are.
White folks created some serious mess with their segregation shit, leaving these folks to live in towns full of shacks. In places the hard line in towns transition into dominant Americana. I drive through town after town of black folk and shanties, and I tear. I know I’m just passing by, but to have to live here day in day out for generations.
Fortune knocks once at my door then moves along never retracing the moment. I run after fortune grabbing for that moment, then fall behind thinking that isn’t a moment I really want. Oh I know I sound crazy Darryle, like the no-brain artist they say I am. I wonder if you’re still across the river visiting family or if you’ve moved back to that California coast. ‘This thing called love’ comes on the radio and I miss you.