It’s the middle of nowhere and the hour is nothing, a sliver of time dutifully noted by the alarm clock’s efficient blue glow. It’s surprisingly cold here in Pearlington, and the volunteers burrow more deeply into their bunks, grateful for the woolen blankets that stave off the chill. In the darkness, shadows rise and fall, punctuated by soft groans as worn bedsprings do what they can to help tired shoulders. This isn’t the Four Seasons, but as far as volunteer camps go, this wooden bunkhouse is luxury accommodations, a home away from home. The scrape of clay-caked Timberlands on the bunkhouse floor announces the latest arrivals – a father-son team from Dansville, N.Y., here to spend a week building houses with Locklin’s group. Next week, fresh volunteers will arrive, some armed with little more than goodwill.
White pauses for a moment as he passes the spot where the library still stands. With a distant look in his eyes, he softly admits that he hasn’t had a raise or vacation in three years. But, for him, it isn’t about the money. He says it’s about the little things, like making a child smile or giving a ride to an elderly resident to spare her the grueling walk down streets still laden with debris. There are moments like last week, when a frantic mother called from her job to say her 8-year-old son had found a gun in the woods.
Conversation dips and swells to the soaring lilt of the “1812 Overture,” as restaurant patrons chat amiably while waiting to be seated. French phrases swirl through clipped New York consonants and Louisiana drawls as flannel-shirted men and Chanel-suited women hunch over steaming bowls of gumbo. This could be 1940s Paris or modern-day Manhattan. These could be paupers or princes. Time and truth have a way of getting lost here, weaving an ambiance that still enchants, even in a post-Katrina world.
The chicken and I are just two of the 79,813 participants in the sixth annual National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo, for short – a self-directed, kamikaze approach to writing that embraces quantity over quality. The premise, dreamed up by San Francisco writer Chris Baty, is simple. Everyone says they’ll write a book one day. What if each person wrote a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, setting aside fears and making a mad dash for the impossible? It’s a beautifully insane scheme that appeals to insomniacs, masochists, and – apparently – the would-be writer in thousands of us.
Ruby Jane Smith is perched on a shaggy floor pillow in the middle of her sky-blue bedroom, suede-booted feet crossed, head tilted, and brows furrowed as she tries to remember the night she forgot what city she was in during a performance. It’s understandable if the past three years seem a blur. Between winning her first fiddle competition after only six lessons, taking the Mississippi State Fiddler title, and performing at the Grand Ole Opry, life’s kind of busy these days. Particularly when you’re only 11 and there’s a disco birthday party to plan and Lemony Snicket to read.
Tall reeds line the banks of the Alabama River, swaying lazily in the dark water’s eddies as the wild tenor of crickets and cicadas dips and soars through the October stillness. Fat water moccasins sun themselves on cracked red clay as long-legged egrets snatch greedily from a school of water beetles skimming the surface. A fish jumps once, then twice. A man laughs once, then again as he joins a handful of people boarding the ferry. All God’s creatures are free in Gee’s Bend.