Southern Legitimacy Statement: In reference to my hometown in southeastern Illinois, my cousin used to say, “The South begins about five miles south of here.” I still cannot agree. You could see the South from a ladder and it wasn’t always south.
The landscape changed dramatically from the central Illinois prairie. More clay and hills. Things grown up in profusion. Baroque and southern. I’ve always felt on the edge of some south. Just over a decade ago, a friend, my wife, and I were on our way to meet a writer in Oxford for lunch. As we left Tennessee, the discussion turned to where Jerry Lee Lewis now lived, apparently a Memphis suburb just over the border in Mississippi.
“Maybe we should stop at his house? Invite him along?”
“Maybe we should kidnap him?”
The whole thing had the ring to it of when your aging father sits down across the kitchen table from you. Only one bulb out of four burns in the light fixture hanging down. He tells you, “You know, my one regret in life is that I never…”
It sidetracks your life. It always unhinges your place of origin. It smacks of love. Sometimes it involves a pistol. Occasionally, a New Orleans elevator or side street is part of the map that unfolds in his telling. The car grew silent as we studied the horizon, hung with the smoke of fields being burned off. There are parts of me that have never left Mississippi.
“I’m telling you Chicago is just one long goddamned suburb of Mississippi,” the Killer hissed into the back of the driver’s seat. “Are you intending to drive all of it in a single day?” I wasn’t sure. Riding shotgun, Chalk nodded vacantly and left his mouth open like he’d reasked the Killer’s question. Chalk was a poet; that left him to fits of dreaming behind the wheel. He’d be useless as a driver. I’d have to do it all on my own. I shrugged and checked the rearview mirror. Leaning back, the Killer grunted. “I thought about as much,” he said. 2 We had lured the Killer into the car by diving around and around his suburban neighborhood with the radio blasting. The sun was barely up. Chalk claimed to have a number and we got ahold of his wife. “What do you want with him?” she’d asked, the just-buttered toast in her hands. Chalk tried to explain, but she hung up quick. We had no choice but to climb the front gate with its scrawly quarter notes. Chalk wrapped his hands to his mouth and hollered. The Killer’s wife emerged from the front door in her robe. “I’m only gonna say this once and then I’m gonna call the police...” But the Killer’d come running from the bank of weedy stuff overgrown at the house’s side. Chalk beat me back over the fence to the driver’s seat. “I’ll be back later, darlin’.” The Killer tumbled into the opened back door. “Let’s take the bypass, boys. I know the way. You’re gonna turn left down at the end of the lane...” He hadn’t produced the pistol until a good two hours later. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It ain’t loaded.” 3 The Killer always wanted to drive. That was all that we knew of him—other than he had a belief that Chalk was going to take down the dictation of the Killer’s “definitive autobiography,” which, he said, simply told the sad, sad tale of American music. That. And it had to be written on the road to Chicago. That every note had popped from his head, like a raw map sketched across the Creator’s hard skull. We tried to keep him in the backseat. Chalk had told him that we were working from a peculiar book of maps—one that only we could read. “You don’t need a goddamned poet to know which way. Let me take the wheel.” The Killer reached up and across the seat and pulled down on the wheel hard so that the car brushed roughly against the shoulder gravel. “That ain’t gonna happen,” I said. “You don’t need to take this road. We can get there by going west across the river.” “This is the shortest way,” he sulked. As if there could be no more than one road to the same place. 4 I turned on the radio, expecting to hear that the Killer’d been kidnapped, but no one seemed panicked as yet. It took us awhile to get out of the city. Two high school boys stood on the corner in the Memphis rain, hoods pulled up over their heads and staring down into their opened palms. “They’re praying on the street corners now?” Chalk asked. “They’re looking at their phones,” I said. “See the earplugs, dummy.” The Killer tapped his knuckle against the window in disgust. “What music they got in their heads now?” 5 We orbited Memphis that first morning, barely gaining enough momentum to break loose. The geographies were hard. Not the Trace to Natchez or west into Arkansas. Which was the quickest way north? The Killer had stricken east from the map. He’d plucked the page out of the atlas and ate it before our eyes. “No reason to go there,” he said, calmly chewing up Nashville. Would Missouri be north enough? We took the great square roads out of the delta, first this way, then that—each trace holding its horizon, west then north. I’d always believed that the south was held together by an old piano and a knockoff portrait of Robert E Lee. But the Killer’s voice’d posed a new energy, one that sang back to us across the radio. Chalk tapped uselessly on his map. 6 “We’ve got to make the whole drive,” I said, the miles falling into a comfortable rhythm. “Naw,” the Killer said from the backseat. “All you got to do is get to the crossroads. You’re only left with two choices in the end.” “No, three,” Chalk said. “Maybe four. You can always go back where you came from.” The Killer looked doubtful. I tried to complicate things. “Like when I was playing chess with the Old Man. I hate fucking chess. What kind of a game is it that pretends there’s a fucken winner, Killer? You ever hear of Yoko Ono’s chessboard? It’s backwards. Black on white and white on black. You can’t make a first move.” We passed a young woman thumbing a ride along the highway. The Killer thumbed his window switch. “Pick her up!” he fumed. “Why don’t this fucking thing work?” “Window controls are up front,” I said as we passed the woman. He rapped on the glass, screaming, “I ain’t wearing underpants, darlin’.” 7 Chalk was trying to match the fields to the map spilled out in his lap. “We are definitely lost.” 8 Two teenage boys stood on the edge of a burned field. The Killer slapped the back of my seat. “Pull over here. Pull over. I want to ask those boys something.” The boys’ lower faces were wrapped tight in kerchiefs. They couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen. Thin wisps of smoke rose from the blackened field. In front of an old pick up with a big plastic water tank loaded in back, a string of a half-dozen men leaned against shovels. Some stems poked up as gray-green ash in the midst of the fires. I clicked down the Killer’s window. The boys moved hesitantly towards us. “What are you fellas doing?” the Killer asked. “We’re supposed to stay here until this field stops smoking,” one, apparently the older boy, said. “That’s a mighty big field. You boys are going to be here a long time, then.” “We got a cooler of water for the afternoon—” “Yeah. We’re supposed to stamp out any flames we see along the edges,” the other boy jumped in. The Killer nodded. “You boys think you’re going to get rid of all that kudzu?” “No,” the older boy said. “But we’re getting paid for it.” “Be careful, boys,” Chalk hollered—much too loud inside the car. “We’re trying. They ain’t paying us that much.” I rolled up the window and pulled slowly away from the ditch. The Killer softly whistled the hymn tune between his teeth. 9 We finally gave in and let him direct us. The Killer leaned his forehead against the cold glass and mumbled directions—Turn left here; take this ten miles or so. Somewhere north of Memphis, we stopped along a backroad. The Killer got out to piss. “I believe he is taking us nowhere,” Chalk whispered. Zipping up, the Killer got back into the car. “He’ll set your fields on fire, boys. He’ll set your fields on fire.” The Killer slammed the door. “When you going to write my biography, poet? Take my dictation.” Chalk stiffened in the seat. “I ain’t your goddamned scribe.” The Killer ran his hands along the tops of the front seats, grand piano style. With a flourish, he pinched me hard on the back of the neck. I squealed. “I don’t know, gentlemen. It’s all sexography now.” The Killer was vamping with his left hand on the back of the driver’s seat. “Look at him. He wants at it. He wants to write me down. I don’t blame him. A man’s story is his story.” He clicked the pistol at passing signs. 10 We recrossed the river. The Killer had fallen into reminiscence. “I know there was a racetrack around here somewhere when I was a boy…” It turned out to be two fat men thumbing wads of money along a fence. “There’ll be a race around here somewhere this afternoon. At least, there usually is.” We sat in the car for ten or fifteen minutes before a shirtless teenager in jeans and riding boots appeared out of the barn and hopped onto the back of one of the horses. The Killer opened his door. “What’s that horse’s name?” he asked. “What you want it to be, mister?” the boy asked back. He turned the reins in his hands like he had never got beyond Shiloh. 11 Miles and miles and two hours of Arkansas night. Passing semis and the sound of brakes going just short of bad. Chalk mumbling in his sleep: Along the road. Into the road. Upon the road. Against the road. And then he’d start over again. In the parking lot of a Qikmart north of Blytheville, we thought we glimpsed the young woman who been hitchhiking. “This is where the underworld begins, boys. I’ll get the coffee.” The Killer stared hard into the store’s fluorescents. “We can’t let him go in there,” Chalk whispered. “This is not his world. Only Christ knows what he’ll do.” But the Killer was already to the door, set into a leaning amble like he was taking the stage. We joined him, stumbling in like a bunch of goddamned kings looking for a yuletide gift from the overheated, greasy spools in the middle of the night. The queasy business of overcooked breakfast. The Killer had already surmised that is was not the same young woman. We sat down to eat. “Is love worth dying for? I don’t know.” The Killer poked at the styrofoam bowl with his plastic fork. “These hash browns are cold...” 12 “I woke up last week and there was a shadow of palm tree on my bedroom wall,” the Killer said, hint of alarm sudden in his voice. Was he really awake? “Why are you dreaming about Florida?” Chalk asked. “Not Florida. Some other south. One that’s moving.” The Killer stared out at the running Mississippi floodplain. “What are you doing now, poet?” “Writing a book of poems. On kudzu,” Chalk answered. “You’re not a poet.” “I am the poet of the kudzu, the poet of the red clay and the black river.” “You might know a few words, but that doesn’t make you a poet.” The Killer looked out his window. “Who handles a sentence better than me?” Chalk lifted his hand to the dash. The Killer slapped Chalk’s headrest. “Make some lyrics to this music, poet!” I worried that he would pinch me again, but his hands moved lightly along the interior. His face glowed in the speedometer’s light. Then he kicked the back of the seat. “Sing us a song, Killer,” Chalk sang. “I ain’t a fucken jukebox.”