Location: 33° 12′ 24″ N, 87° 32′ 5″ W
Start: close your eyes.
Wander with lazy footsteps back to the nights when you were still small, back to when your eyes were so much larger than your words. Remember how cool the earth felt under the porch, how you would crawl there and become a secret under the feet of your elders. Their stories would fall through the spaces between the floorboards and cover you, a lullaby blanket. Stay there until June, until the night is thick with honeysuckle and the crooning of toads. They perform along the creek that runs behind the house and you ache to run barefoot among their Sam Cooke melodies, to feel the warmth of the water against your ankles. “Better not, Doll”, your grandmother says as she fills your stomach with pie and your head with precaution. Summer breeds water moccasins and copperheads. So you stay on the porch with the older bones, sleepy headed and content. In the darkness you watch the fireflies flicker on and off like tiny lighthouses. You want one for your room, a friend to keep your nightstand company from the belly of a mason jar. As your grandfather carries you inside he tells you that nothing beautiful can be caught. The best you can do is to remember.
Turn off by the white church.
Leave your car in the parking lot and walk quietly. The light from the flashlight bounces gracelessly above their whispers. “I heard they did lobotomies there. Just stuck a screwdriver or whatnot up some poor bastard’s nose and poked around until he was sane”, says Jake. “Well I heard they chained them to the wall. Freaky shit. Angelina and Billy Bob level freaky”, adds Chris. You, in your low ponytail and tennis sweatshirt, are skeptical. What you do know is that they buried the poorest patients standing up; their bodies rolled in a burlap cocoon and then planted by the Black Warrior. Mythology aside, the asylum is sobering. It stands alone and abandoned in the darkness. Someone has written Welcome to Hell across the front steps. The whitewash of the paint is chipping away and your footsteps sound too loud for your body as you enter. Everyone is chilled by the dirty mattresses that line the floor, the smell of filth and rats. Ghosts you were prepared for but not this. On the third floor you stand looking out the window. All is quiet and you can hear the rustling of the cornfields under you. You are the first to see the cars snaking up the dirt road and then the swivel of lights, red and blue.
Turn onto the street where supposedly it all went down. Older now, you believe in folklore more. He talks in rapid sentences and the word enjambment dances through your mind. Your own voice sounds thin, nervous. You both listen to the moaning of the train as it cuts through your words and fades into the river. He stops suddenly and grabs your hand, points towards an ordinary looking house. “There’, he says ‘that’s where Barry Hannah shot the arrow”. You stare at the house, at the front door and try to hear the heartbeat of the arrow puncturing the wood. “Why do you think he did it?” you ask. He shrugs and grins at you. “Just trying to get a girl to notice him”. Look down at your boots. Smile. Tell him you noticed.
Detour back to your grandmother’s house after the funeral. Everyone looks thinner. Exhausted. The kitchen counters have been invaded by casseroles and the pastel colored saran wrap that tarps them give the dishes a jellyfish appearance. Your body feels hollow with hurt. Outside the toads sing for you once again but it sounds distant, as if the music is being salvaged from the warped grooves of a record. It’s the crickets that reach you now, the way they violin their legs into something constant. Pain isn’t just something that recedes. Your mother hugs you and then your father walks into it. Your brother. Your grandmother. Uncles and aunts and cousins, until one by one the ones he loved most are holding each other up. This is the architecture of survivors.
Separate into strands of hair, eyelashes, pennies. Try to imagine the men that must have come in the night, their hands digging into the soil and leaving behind the oaks. How there was always a river and then someone constructed a boat. How the library that tucked you away on rainy afternoons and introduced you to Steinbeck wasn’t always there. How everything that has vanished will be remembered, will be carried by thought and other hands.
Open your eyes.
Know your city breathes.
Lauren Gail is a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She believes her city is most beautiful at 5: 30 a.m., when the sunrise bruises pink over the Black Warrior River. She understands that sometimes the most honest biography you can provide is to simply tell people the location you call home.
Pic courtesy of Google Maps