Jonathan McDaniel

The Time I Left the South

  The bumpy highways and bland wheat fields of rural Arkansas beg me to slip into sweet unconsciousness. The driver�s seat of my �97 Grand Cherokee has transformed into one of those Sharper Image massage chairs I�d always sit in but could never afford. After sleeping three hours over the past two nights, I�ve never wanted to sleep so badly.
  Stay awake. Slap yourself. Windows down. Smoke a cigarette. Another. Blast the A/C. Turn up the music. Belt every word. Another cigarette. Only eight hours to go.
  Everything I own is in front of and behind me. Clothes, electronics, guitars, framed pictures and relics from my 22 years in Memphis pile high in the back of my Jeep, eclipsing the view of the review window. My girlfriend is no doubt asleep in the truck in front of me, as her father tows the 5x8 U-Haul jam-packed with mattresses, end tables, books, desks, and one particularly large sofa-chair.
  Yet somehow, although the woman I love and all of my possessions are safely tucked away somewhere in the folds of this caravan, I can�t help but think of what I�ve left behind. The often flawed, crime-ridden, and still racially-divided city of Memphis is where I called home my entire life. But the flaws make Memphis what it is. The imperfections demand an attitude of grit and determination from its blue-collar citizens.

  Twenty miles outside Osceola, Arkansas, I hear a faint beeping muffled by the rattling of my car speakers. I see a message on the screen behind the gear shifter: �Check Battery.� The battery voltage gauge on the dashboard is tilted to the left as far as it will go.
  Not here. Not now. Not again.
  I�ve already emptied half of my savings replacing the radiator and, allegedly, fixing the battery in my Jeep just the week before I moved. From the moment I started the engine early this morning, I�ve been talking to my Jeep. Coercing it. Comforting it. �Just get me to Chicago. Just get me to Chicago, and you can die.�
  It didn�t listen.
  I call my girlfriend, tell her the situation, and we pull off the interstate, heading towards Osceola down Highway 61. After a battery test at Autozone, the servicewoman directs me to a local mechanic called Hawk�s to get my alternator replaced. �It�s the best shop in town,� she tells me.
  We drive deeper into rural Arkansas, passing antique shops with mounted deer heads and dream catchers in the windows. Abandoned carpet dealers and hardware stores line the desolate streets.
  This is how horror movies begin.
  We pull into the pothole ridden gravel lot in front of Hawk�s. It seems everyone in eyeshot scans me with squinted eyes and snarled mouths as I walk to the office. I imagine they�re thinking something like, �Well now, we got ourselves a city boy here, ain�t we? Long way from home, ain�tcha? What�s ya business here, boy?� But that�s probably just me perpetuating the stereotype in my head of rural Arkansas. The same, horror movie stereotype that assumes in the basement of this rusty, tin shack there�s a leatherfaced man hanging people from hooks and making sofa cushions out of their skin.
  I walk into the waiting area, a tiny room with wood-paneled walls and a concrete floor, dimly lit by pale fluorescence. A heavy-set woman behind the desk looks up at me with a sweet, Southern grin.
  �What can we do for you today?�
  It seems, rather than ending up on someone�s mantle by the end of the day, I may be experiencing the last example of quaint, Southern charm for quite some time. That genuine, honest effort to make someone�s day a little easier, whether friend or foe, native or stranger. The heavy-set woman doesn�t know it, but she�s taken my mind off my shitcan of a vehicle, the daunting drive ahead of me, and the fear and anxiety boiling deep within me of moving my life 500 miles away, if for only a few seconds.
  Thirty minutes and a modest 130 dollars later, we�re back on the road. It doesn�t take long for the fatigue to set in once again.
  Stay awake. Slap yourself. Windows down. Smoke a cigarette. Another. Blast the A/C. Turn up the music. Belt every word. Another cigarette. Only seven hours to go.

  I keep reminding myself that I won�t be making the long trip back to Memphis this time�or at least anytime soon. I�ve taken trips to Chicago once a year since I was sixteen with my friends. I know the roads well; I know the monotony of cornfield after cornfield, desolate towns and gas station coffee, the humming of the engine after my friends have fallen asleep with their headphones in. I know most of all that the journey was always worth the reward�that first glimpse of the skyline glistening on a Midwest sunset, lights flickering intermittently as darkness creeps over Lake Michigan. The contrasting, colossal buildings are the embodiment, in my mind at least, of what Chicago is that Memphis isn�t. They are the elegance, the charm, the symmetry, the sex; they are the euphoria, the rush, the sensuality, the bliss. They beckon me to taste and see, to explore and get lost.
  Until now, I�d have to absorb all of this in a few days, and then make the 600-mile drive I�m on now, only on the other side of the highway. I�ve longed for Chicago for six years now; I called it my home when I hadn�t ever lived there. I have a tattoo of its flag on my arm. But now that I�m moving my life to Chicago, it�s becoming increasingly clear that Memphis will always be my home, even if I never return. And the thought of never returning breeds a fierce apprehension in my mind, a nagging thing that whispers, you haven�t really said goodbye. But I argue with it. I did say goodbye. I stood at the top of the stairs in FedEx Forum after the last Memphis Basketball game I�d witness as a student. I spent five years in that arena losing my voice, jumping in elation, collapsing in defeat, watching twenty-year-old kids alter the beating of my heart with an ankle-breaking crossover or a game-tying three. And on that day, after everyone had left, I stood there and bid my goodbyes. I blew a kiss to the court and walked out. I ate dry-rub pork ribs from Central Barbecue one last time. I had drinks at the immutable Midtown dives with my few remaining friends that hadn�t moved away. I drove through the disarrayed slums of Getwell Road, with its coin-op Laundromats and Mexican meat markets, out to the suburbs to say goodbye to my roommate�s parents who treated me like one of their kids after my parents moved away.
  The nagging thing in my mind shits on my goodbyes. That�s not enough, it tells me. Maybe it�s true. I didn�t catch a show at the sweaty, cramped living room of the Smithseven House where I spent my teenage years strumming the bass in punk bands. I didn�t smoke a cigar on the bluffs overlooking the stalwart Mississippi, rippling peacefully under the blazing lights of the Memphis Bridge. I didn�t see my best friend�the friend who I�ve known since I was five, who made me a groomsman in his wedding, with whom I spent a month traveling Turkey�because our schedules didn�t line up in the days before I left.
  I don�t know when I�ll see him again. I don�t know when I�ll see my home again. I�m the captain of a sinking ship, and I�m steering it 600 miles, eight hours, and three states away.

  I cross the I-57 bridge over the Mississippi river that connects Missouri and Illinois. Blankets of gray water wrinkle and wind through the trees and I think about how I could hop on a raft like Tom Sawyer and drift down to the rolling bluffs of Memphis. My sleeplessness is clouding my thoughts, convincing me that leaving my home is a mistake, that city life isn�t for me. In reality, I�ve always preferred the city. I don�t care to be in the great outdoors for more than a few days. And rafting down the Mississippi? I lived next to her long enough to know it�s a wonder Twain�s novel didn�t end prematurely with Tom and Huck being sucked into the muddy depths by a rip current and swallowed whole by prehistoric catfish.
  My phone�s ringtone interrupts my mindless thoughts about alternate endings to famous Southern novels. My girlfriend says we�re stopping for lunch. We pull off the interstate and arrive at a gargantuan truck stop restaurant. Cars pack the parking lot of what must be the last place to eat for two thousand miles. Overweight families of five file out of their SUVs and waddle into the barn-themed restaurant. The sliding doors reveal dozens of children running around or playing arcade games while their parents browse rows of t-shirts and knick-knacks. A variety of wild game are mounted to the walls or arranged to make it seem like they�re alive, like a cougar whose snarled mouth is aimed at a pitiful, terrified beaver. I wonder if cougars even eat beavers.
  We get in the high school cafeteria line complete with wrinkly black women in hairnets behind the glass countertops. My girlfriend and her dad squint up at the chalkboard menu above the dessert case. All three of us order the Friday Special: three pieces of fried catfish with mashed potatoes, green beans, and a buttered roll. A jovial woman with missing teeth spoons these last few morsels of my southern heritage onto a Styrofoam plate. I�m sure I�ll be able to find this salty comfort food somewhere in Chicago, but I guarantee myself there will be no cafeteria barn stretching a full city block in the downtown loop.
  We each stare at our phones through zombie eyes as we take the occasional bite of food. There isn�t much conversation, but honestly, what�s to be talked about? �Did you see that field of wind turbines a few miles back?� �Yeah, that was really something.� Sure, we could talk about the excitement and anxiety of moving our lives to a massive metropolis. But we had those conversations weeks ago. Right now we�re just drones behind dashboards traversing hundreds of miles of asphalt, hoping our mechanical minds don�t fry up and send us into a ditch.
  We stock up on soda and coffee before hitting the road. I buy a few of those 5 Hour Energy shots hoping they�ll keep me awake, though I�ve never tried them before. I�ve never needed a gimmick to work as advertised as much as I do now. I�m not trying to catch another wave of energy to analyze spreadsheets at the office; I�m trying to not die. I imagine what a PR disaster it would be for 5 Hour Energy when the image on the front page of tomorrow�s paper is my lifeless, mangled body on the side of the highway with those empty little caffeine tubes strewn about.
  But for me to end up dead on I-57 I have to get there first, a task that my trusty, faithful Jeep refuses to let happen smoothly.
  It starts up just fine. However, when I put it in gear and press on the gas the engine revs loudly and we go nowhere, like the engine forgot to tell the wheels it�s time to go. All of a sudden, the transmission kicks in and the car takes off, and my head jerks back against the seat. When I stop at the gas station exit to wait for traffic to clear, the engine whimpers pitifully, stutters, and dies.
  You�ve got to be kidding me.
  I shove the gear shifter back to park with enough force to send it through the dashboard and out into the engine, breaking off hoses and ripping through metal. I remove my glasses to rub my tired eyes. I take a deep, long breath and watch my girlfriend and her father moving further and further away, unaware of my predicament. I think for a second about leaving my car and all my belongings in that gas station parking lot and paying for a $500 cab back to Memphis. Vagabonds and passersby can take their pick of my Tigers t-shirts and Xbox controllers, and I�ll leave a note on the windshield that says:
  For the love of God, burn this car.
  A honk from the car behind me snaps me out of my daydream. I take another breath, press my head to the steering wheel and turn the key. Ignition.
  Just get me to Chicago. Just get me to Chicago.
  And then you can die.

  Three hours outside Chicago, I call my mother to tell her how the trip is going, and really, just to talk to someone other than myself. She�s concerned for me and the state of my vehicle; I can hear it in her voice just as I heard it when she left Memphis to move to Atlanta. She hated that she couldn�t be there for me then, and she hates it even more now, as the distance between us has doubled once again. She says we�ll figure out something regarding my car, and tells me to stay awake and call as soon as we get to Chicago. �I love you,� she says.
  The music coming from my speakers no longer sounds like music. It�s an array of jumbled notes and beats being played by what I imagine are instruments, as some faceless voice moans incoherently. I switch to the radio and scan the airwaves, hoping to find some kind of talk show. Any talk show will do; I�m open to learn about anything from cupcake recipes to what Congress plans to do about the debt crisis. A man�s voice catches my ear and I stop scanning.
  �Here�s the 1-2 to Castro, and this one�s low and away. Ball two.�
  It�s the Chicago Cubs radio broadcast. Baseball isn�t my favorite sport, though I�ve followed the Cubs for several years now. In any other situation, baseball play-by-play and ERA and RBI statistics would put me to sleep behind the wheel. But now I�m simply relieved to hear someone talking. I�m drawn to the excitement and the uncertain future of the game. The cornfields are a blur; they are the same as they were hour ago, as they were 20 years ago. But this game? This game has the capacity to change! Balls will be pitched, double plays will be made, runs will be scored, and there will be a winner and a loser!
  Unsurprisingly, the Cubs are down 6-2 to the Pirates in the bottom of the 8th.

  Forty miles out, the sky closes up and a heavy rain falls. My outdated windshield wipers struggle to keep the water off the glass. I slow to 45mph and follow the blurry taillights of Autumn�s dad�s truck. My late grandfather�s blue recliner sits upturned and uncovered in the truckbed. I hope it�s not ruined, only for the sake of having one more possession to remember the life I�m leaving behind, one extra lifeless detail of the past I can still grasp with living hands.

  The rain slows to a sprinkle and the late-afternoon sun peers through the clouds. I stare at the blue recliner, hoping the wind will dry its damp fabric. Billboards along I-90 appear more frequently, advertising Chicago restaurants and radio stations. We pass through the South Side neighborhoods, many of which I�ve convinced myself I�ll never visit because of news reports and crime statistics I read on the Internet.
  Still several miles out, I come around a bend and see the skyline over the horizon. From here, the city is a unit, a confluence of steel and shadow. Each building is like a wing to some contemporary castle, its citizens barreling through mud and mire to fortify the walls and keep the gears moving.
  We pull onto Lakeshore Drive just in time for rush hour traffic. Every time my Jeep comes to a stop, it dies. I�ve gotten used to the routine of shifting the gear to park, turning the key to lock, starting the engine, and pulling away before Chicago motorists have a chance to honk at me. I�ve come to terms with the state of my vehicle. I realize it�s probably beyond repair, or at least not worth repair, and I�ll probably have to sell it for scrap. It got me to Chicago�holding up its end of the bargain�and now I�ll hold up mine and allow it to die.
  The thump of bass rattles my windows as we pass Grant Park. I roll down the window and realize the annual Lollapalooza music festival has kicked off. The air is cool on my skin, something I haven�t experienced for months in Memphis. I tilt my head out the window and gaze at the buildings, now singular and unique, each casting its own image on the backdrop of a fuchsia sky. To my right, Lake Michigan stretches as far as I can see, and I watch sailboats bob in those endless, tranquil waters, miles and miles from shore. I feel a calmness pass over me as I navigate this artery between the water and the city, this stretch of road between nature and industry. Flashbacks to the past appear in my mind, memories of driving down Riverside Drive in Memphis with the windows down, the Mississippi down the bluffs to my left and the city to my right. Somehow, the air always seemed cool on those evenings, like it is now in Chicago. When I�d visit Chicago, these moments seemed better�more special�than they were in Memphis, likely because the buildings are bigger, the water is vaster, and the air is cooler. Now, I�m not so sure. I think I know Chicago, but this city is, in so many ways, an entirely new, entirely mysterious terrain. It will have to prove its worth to me now that I�m calling it home. It�s a lot for Chicago to live up to, because I�ve only ever called one place home.
  In my new apartment, bare walls tower over a dozen half-empty boxes strewn about the living room floor. I gaze out the open window at the endless, unfamiliar streets of Chicago as my grandfather�s recliner sits safely in the corner of the room, its damp fibers slowly drying from navy to light-blue.

Jonathan McDaniel

JONATHAN MCDANIEL is from Memphis, TN, and is currently an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago, where he also teaches Writing and Rhetoric. He lives with his girlfriend and roommate and spends way too much time watching basketball.

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