In Which There Are Absolutely No Substitutes

photograph by jerry siegel

Notes on Changing Direction

by LAUREN CIERZAN

When I was young, magnolia trees were synonymous with South. Even though one dove over the driveway of our Wisconsin yard in a frozen, fat-blossomed wave, shedding petals as thick as tongues onto the concrete, the books I read pinned magnolia trees to plantations, weeping Spanish moss, the hot air sick with their perfume. They shaded dust-choked cotton fields and country roads parched by a year-long July, a world thick with grotesques — deaf-mutes, Boo Radleys — and manic preachers, dark secrets and surges of strange violence.

At some point of middle school desperation, I fell hard for Southern Gothic. Stories that moved and unsettled me, writing that, in all its gloriously creepy thematic splendor, was a teething ring for teen angst. I read Wise Blood on the bus. A frenzy of Capote, Jackson, and McCullers that ended shell-shocked over The Heart is A Lonely Hunter in the school library. Through them, the South was slicked with a cartoon glaze, its whimsy grim enough to make depression seem cozy. I considered it an anti-Disneyland, real enough to claim a spot on the map yet doused in a thin magic you willed yourself to believe. The dry facts were skimmed over in history class. Fiction alone informed my understanding of life across an invisible line, the ghost of the Mason Dixon.

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I was thirteen the summer my parents unfurled their plans for a proper family expedition. Not five hours tracing the shoreline towards Canada for a sunburnt week in a cabin. Not us, not this time. We were going to drive to South Carolina, our van pinballing its way through landmark cities in the process. Thrill and dread unspooled in my chest. I anticipated a modern version of what I knew South to mean — drawls and Civil War monuments, miscellaneous macabre activities — only now swimming in plenty of asphalt and fast food chains. I wasn’t entirely wrong. In memories, most of these exist dimly, spectators that circle a disaster unfolding in slow-motion.

The Trip, and it more than earned its capital letters, will forever exist in fragments. When strung together, these excerpts read like a script, or more specifically, National Lampoon’s Vacation as ghostwritten by Flannery O’Connor and directed by David Lynch. It opens at dawn on Family Vacation, Day One. My sister begins retching before our tires touch the street. A flu bug bends her in half, head buried in the bathroom trash can pinched between her knees. Miles pass at a hitching rate, a few hours going, a few hours stopped to sight-see and breath clean air, her misery more infectious than any stomach virus. In the Appalachians, we swelter in stand-still traffic that lasts through an afternoon. Car doors splay open like wings and people wander along the side of the road, queasy from the altitude.

photograph by jerry siegel

Following dinner at a local restaurant, food poisoning strikes with a vengeance. My mother and I twist in sweaty knots on the bathroom tiles of our hotel. A rooming mistake in Charleston lands us in a party-torn suite, its broken lamp leaning dejectedly in the corner. We eye the mysterious hubcap-sized stain on the carpet and elect to sleep on top of the beds. Bad luck edges into darker territory.

While touring the Biltmore Estate, my mother goes momentarily blind. What she blames on the sun is, in actuality, a small stroke. Relief requires too much effort by the time we finally touch the ocean. Perched on a sweeping beach, the resort is peaceful, its rooms tidy and smelling sweetly marine. We loosen our shoulders and pick along the sand, hoping to swim, as thunderheads roil merrily behind us. The next three days are a solid unbroken rain. On the fourth, we turn home under a suddenly clearing sky. Fade to black. The End.

There is a particular strangeness to experiencing what you have only read about. Words written and moments lived merge like bodies in a crowd, milling together into indistinguishable details. I remember very little of our surroundings during those two weeks. There are exceptions; Charleston’s slicing heat, the view from an Appalachian road, but the rest recedes into shadows skirting my family’s immediate chaos. In our time there and afterwards, my impression of the South dissolved further, into something more like a dream. It was the backdrop of a story rehashed at Christmas dinners, it lived in the novels I fell in the love with and surfaced occasionally on the television screen, but otherwise escaped my awareness as anything tangible. A blank plain yawned below the Illinois border, a sketch erased and waiting to be reshaped.

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In the lull of this past winter, my boyfriend and I deliberated where to relocate after his graduation in June. It could have been anywhere, but our individual preferences were clear. I missed Chicago. He lobbied for Nashville. We were both surprised when I agreed.

After years circling Lake Michigan, an attempt to settle elsewhere seemed to steady my restlessness. The decision felt like an accident, not in the way of regret but in arriving of its accord. I tried to imagine what a day there would be, the light striping my face as I woke to an strange ceiling, and I realized again how little I knew outside Midwestern life.

Twice in the spring, we drove to Nashville to scout for housing and visit friends. I tried to shake free of the vacation haze of time off work and nights curled, drunk and satisfied, on an air mattress and make note of this new place, allowing its features to ease slowly into focus. What I saw, what I still see, is a city decidedly in-between. True middle ground, pinned towards the center of the country’s chest. Its sprawl spills into the foothills, the simmer between flatlands and the mountains’ rolling boil, a landscape that oscillates between marshy groves and sloping rock.

The population is wildly outsourced, natives swallowed by a widening stream of transplants. Music hopefuls and artists, immigrants, entrepreneurs, form a tributary that eddies an indeterminate local culture. I wonder at the result — a pidgin of national identity fed by American’s full spectrum, with certain regional distinctions rising more deliberately to the surface. Northern and Southern sensibilities meet and muddle. Tradition keeps anchor in a tide of new ideals. I warmed to the idea of ‘Yes, here,’ charmed by its confusion, the erratic beating of its heart.

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The differences are subtler than expected. It’s the heat mostly. All the finer details stem from its heavy pulse. I keep track regardless, slipping every nuance into a mental pocket. The crazed plant life is a marked change, unfamiliar vines and shrubs and low-bowing trees clambering all over each other, made ruthless by the warm damp. Thick boughs muscle their way onto sidewalks and claw desperately towards the curb. A snaking bush ripped our back gate clean off its hinges.

The insect world breeds with the same deranged abandon. Spiders, fat and round as robin’s eggs, dangle above doorways on legs substantial enough to be small fingers. If garden variety spiders spin lace, these ogres weave like looms, stretching thick yellow swathes across stray branches. Paper wasps the length of my finger Houdini their way into our apartment. Likewise with tiny ant battalions and enough flies to work a saint into a blind rage. To them, RAID is an adorable joke. I’ve learned to read the cicadas in the way I once glanced at a thermometer. There isn’t a word existing that bottles their sound, the way it swells with each rising degree. Keening comes close. A drone, a grinding of teeth with no teeth to speak of. In the end, it’s too alien. I’m spooked by the noise despite small efforts at acceptance. What I hear is a warning, inescapably ominous, like the whisper of something coming. Menacing, simply because it’s anonymous.

I slip my fingers through the blinds and peer out at the air cooking above the empty street or the house next door with its own drawn shades to prove to my knotting shoulders that there’s no threat at all. Windows are almost always covered here, as if everyone feels under the same siege. In a way, they are. Curtains bunched tight, sheets haphazardly hung and shivering from some unseen fan, anything imaginable to block out the sun. The indoors is sacred ground, blessedly air-conditioned. Outside, even in shade, humidity is as merciless as a wool glove. Porches gape sulkily, empty of anything but a few jilted chairs, a crouching table with a coffee pot glowering at a closed front door. Every house keeps its secrets until sundown. Afternoon cools to evening and windows fly open like eyelids, lit rooms lively with shadows as dinner is made. Figures bathed in porch-lights’ murky gold tangle voices and flash the glint of raised bottles. Night feels thicker. Moonbeams clot in the dark air, palpable enough to cup in open palms.

photograph by jerry siegel

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It is hard to see the truth of a place through the coating of assumptions. The presupposed smears vision like a dirty pane, enough for me to doubt my observations. Are they honest or influenced by words I clung to more than a decade ago? Down the street, a house built into the hillside stands on a broad, well-kept lawn. Someone has mown the word HOPE into the manicured grass, each letter arching 12 feet long. I stare each time I pass by and fend off a conviction that is this somehow significant. Yards in the city’s satellite neighborhoods often dwarf the homes they belong to. The buildings themselves squat low to the ground and bob at the edge of their private expanses like rowboats in a bay, the disproportion a truce with the undergrowth snarling along property lines.

I speculate about these things. I imagine. I swear to myself that the light here is more yellow, that there is a certain weight of mystery that belongs to this climate, this region that has a shared yet separate history to the states that I know well, and then remember that all of it is only unfamiliar. I’ve romanticized the South with a potency that lingers. It will be winter soon and I wonder how that sense will shift with the seasons. An urge to venture downward and deeper — weekends in Baton Rouge, wandering to Little Rock, Savannah — stirs quietly in me, an emboldening and a need for experience uncolored by outside opinion. First impressions are their own brand of fiction. Stories are held captive on shelves for good reason.

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Nowhere is without lacking. I miss the lakeshore, the waves and the wind’s cool stroke. Rhubarb and lightly sweetened tea. Wine is no longer bought with groceries; liquor laws confine it to specialty stores that are few and far between. While there are no substitutes, fresh discoveries fill those gaps, things that will become new longings when I leave here. A month has come and gone and I sit motionless in our living room, listening. Underneath the cicadas’ whine, I am beginning to hear a song.

Lauren Cierzan is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about claustrogoraphobia. She is a writer living in Nashville. She tumbls here.

“Saturday Come Slow” – Massive Attack ft. Damon Albarn (mp3)

“Paradise Circus” – Massive Attack ft. Hope Sandoval (mp3)

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