The Weather Watcher (Excerpt)
Up in the blue oak tree, I had some maps tucked down into an old squirrel hole, protected by a piece of window plastic and a fair-sized stone. Even in the worst storms, they stayed dry. The maps were there to help me figure out my future. Last summer, I plotted my path to New York City. Some days I got there fine and went on to become a famous dancer, but other days I got caught in one trap or another.
I planned to get a red and white '57 Chevy convertible off the "Rides" board at the college where you can sometimes find people moving to New York City or somewhere who want you to drive their car. I'd head that Chevy out Ahloso Road to the Y where the road splits. If you follow Highway 99 you end up in Texas, but if you veer southeast on Highway 3 you're bound for Arkansas and points east. Most people going to New York City would drive north to Interstate 40 and take that route, but an interstate can be flat and straight and put you to sleep.
I stop for a chocolate milkshake at a Dairy Queen just before the Arkansas border. The bleached blonde behind the ordering window is just a few years older than me. She scoops ice cream into the metal mixing canister, asks me where I'm headed, and tells me how she's saving to move to Las Vegas. While the shake is churning, she talks about a tornado that tore down the stoplight that used to hang across the highway; they never put it up again, which resulted in more accidents but fewer customers.
She shakes her head, slow as an old woman, and pushes the shake out the window. Sweat beads along her temples, like condensation on the side of my paper cup. She takes my money, then stares at me like she's waiting for something more. I sip the shake. It's good, thick and not too chocolaty. "Mmmm," I say.
She smiles, pleased. I know she'll never leave.
In Arkansas, I switch to Highway 70, drive through all the "D" towns: DeQueen, Dierks, and Daisy, into the Oachita Mountains and Hot Springs National Park. I travel this way down the back roads, eating at the Dairy Queens and small cafes, having conversations, sleeping out under the stars. I cross Tennessee, up through the Cumberlands, the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge of Virginia, before spilling out of the hills and forests down to the lowlands along the east coast where the cities are laid out just right, each one getting bigger as you drive north. Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. It's just about a perfect trip by the time I'm driving up 95 toward New York City, my body full of memories, changing the radio from Loretta Lynn to Bob Dylan.
Or it could go another way. I could be in the Tennessee mountains visiting Davy Crockett's birthplace, driving north along 23 through the Cumberlands where Tennessee and Virginia and Kentucky all come together. I could be feeling good and full of stories and American history and then, right when I'm driving through Big Stone Gap into Kentucky, it could start to change.
The first town I come to is named Lynch, and I start to feel uneasy. The little mountain towns I drive through are hidden in the forests off the road, so I can't see much but the name whispered on an ivy-covered, shotgun-pocked road sign. Delphia, Ulvah, Happy, Viper, Lookout, Virgie, Louellen, Dwarf, Roxana, Sassafras, Hazard. I can't help thinking about how girls' names are mixed up with danger.
I drive across a wooden bridge into one of these towns, across Crooked Creek into Grethel, population 75. I park on the only street, which runs parallel to the creek. It looks all sad and neglected; the blacktop's cracked and the one cafe has a door with a screen that's curling out of its staples. An old man is sitting under a tree by the gas station. Across the street is a general store but it's closed. I walk on down the road past some shacky houses, and I'm just about to turn back, buy a soda from the old man and drive away, when I spot a house with a front porch and a swing. A girl about my age is singing a song I used to know in grade school, except she's only singing the refrain that goes:
Get along home, Cindy Cindy
Get along home, Cindy Cindy
Get along home, Cindy Cindy
I'll marry you some day
She's skinny and small boned, and wears a summer dress. Her pale, washed-out hair doesn't hide the welts across her arms. The swing creaks as she rocks it forward and back. I turn to go.
"You smell like the world," she says.
I'm caught off guard. "Thank you."
"If you don't stay here with me, I'm gonna go crazy and they'll have to take me to the state hospital where Mama died."
I'm about to explain to her that I'm just passing through, when her daddy comes out on the porch in his undershirt, almost as skinny as she is and with a face that's hungry-looking as a wolf's.
"Who're you talking to, girl?" He gives me the evil eye. "Get on inside," he tells her.
I watch the doorway she walks through, dark as the forest behind the house. He just stands there staring till I walk back to my car. On the far side of the bridge I stop on the side of the highway, staring back at the woods that have swallowed the entire town. I drive off, but by nightfall I've circled back and watch that girl's house, waiting for I don't know what. Finally, around midnight, she comes outside and squats down in the yard to pee. I wait until she's done, then say, "I've come back to help you leave."
"I can't never leave," she says. Her pointing finger traces a vein down my arm to the tip of my fingernail and away, like she's following a path that disappears into thin air. I grab her wrist and she slaps her free hand onto mine, pushing her whole little scrawny miserable self into my hand, until I almost cry with the pain. When she goes back inside, I find a rain puddle in the yard and bury my hand in the bottom mud to take away the burn.
Or I wait for the next time her daddy's beating her, and I bust through the back door. I plow into him, and knock him into a big cupboard loaded with dishes and antique stuff on top. The whole thing comes crashing down, and an anvil hits him in the head and kills him. The girl and I bury him in the woods and nobody in the town says anything, but now I can't leave either because of the horrible secret.
That's one version of how I got stuck in the woods. Last summer, the stories kept changing but every time there was a girl who needed me to get her out and the woods that wanted to swallow us both.
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