Excerpt from The Lost Country
There were days when Edgewater’s desire to be home was near manic, when he pushed himself with ferocity and recalled, with self-loathing, money he had in times past thrown so carelessly away. There was idle time to repent, but he repented small things, a guitar pawned and not redeemed, drinks bought for buddies, for whores with only first names. Greyhound buses passed him, the blue smell of diesel fiercely nostalgic, faces looming down strange as if they inhabited some other world. Then it was gone and the land it moved across was as green and flat as a pool table.
These days all the demons of deeds done and deeds imagined seemed to coalesce into one, some gaunt outrider of the fates whose footfalls coincided with his, who while he lay in troubled sleep pressed on untired, came implacably on with a vague and timeless inevitability: then it would seem that the family he moved toward were no better, surcease had flown when he did. Death had enlisted them in its cause and scattered them wherever its winds decreed them, left them with seeds of their own to sow, small plagues of their own to spread. He did not know what drew him on. The girl was no more than a name and a packet of abandoned letters, a ring a shyster jeweler had unloaded on him in San Diego, a face he could no longer call to mind even in half-sleep.
He moved across country of dreary sameness, he wished for mountains, hills, anything that would break the featureless monotony of flatlands. On a map he picked up at a service station Highway 70 lay like a spoke in a wheel that had Nashville as its hub. Another spoke led away east to Chattanooga. There were rides to be had in Nashville. It loomed like a goal on the horizon he moved toward.
There were few rides here. He rode in rattletrap pickups with wizened old men and he crouched in the cabs of flatbed trucks trapped in small malignant whirlwinds of bits of straw, dust, fertilizer. Country moved away and there was yet more of the same, as if he were lost, they were all lost, going in circles. It was as if they moved through some area where the process of creation had been set in motion long ago, and, demented, it continued to produce a country new and yet eternally the same.
The newlooking cars with out-of-state tags would not stop for him and he came to believe that no one was going anywhere. Just down the road is all. To the grocery store, to town on Saturday. Town was never far away. Sunday there were carloads of people bound for church, stiff and straight in old highbacked cars lacquered with dust. Little girls like cut flowers. Boys with grim visages who turned to stare at him with envy down this dusty roadway.
Edgewater riding with a talkative sewing machine salesman. The car the salesman drove was comfortable and the flat country had slipped away with deceptive ease. The salesman was generous with his cigarettes and he was glad of an audience for his tales and it did not bother him that Edgewater mostly rode in silence. His tales all seemed to concern his various escapades with housewives. Most of them had him with clothing in hand escaping from windows, back doors, or hiding under beds and in closets. His narrow escapes were many and his virility had entered into female folklore, and under the cumulative weight of all his evidence Edgewater was forced to conclude that sewing and machine were the two most powerful words in the English language and that when combined they produced an aphrodisiac of irresistible and unreckonable potency.
For a time he was torn between the comfort of the upholstery and the tedium of these tales and the indecision was his undoing. By the time he disembarked he was as far north as you can go in Tennessee without wading into the Mississippi River and he was far off any major highway that led east.
There were cotton fields unimaginable, cotton fields that seemed to go on as far as the eye could see, look out the window it was cotton, look out the door it was cotton, he imagined they must see cotton in their sleep. There were little gray clapboard shacks that seemed to be receding back into the earth and the cottonfields came up to their very porches, there were paths wending to the road. As if whoever owned these lands demanded that every foot of it be employed to productive purpose.
He passed these shanties and here and there a country store owned by the selfsame man who owned the land and who paid his hands on Friday and took it back on Saturday for overpriced groceries, as if he had pulled money from his left pocket and placed it in the right, money which had marvelously reproduced itself, the ultimate alchemist. He passed shanties with naked children playing in the dirt and shanties with wilted flowers growing in dissected car casings and Maxwell House coffee cans and once in a while a woman came and threw dishwater into the yard and leant a minute and watched him go.
The people he saw looked to him like survivors of some great natural cataclysm, had not yet come to terms with the way their world had changed. But most of the shanties were empty, choppers were in the field strung out like foraging birds. They moved across the field in a great staggered line and their hoes rose and fell in some vast unconcerted motion that ultimately took on a rhythm of its own.