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.
Friday night’s game allows residents a chance to get away, but no one forgets. Approximately 236 people died in Mississippi, 95 in Harrison County. Seventeen of those people were pulled from the muddy waters of this field, where the Pirates are now battling Poplarville. Rather than being sacrilegious, it seems appropriate – football is a fiercely loved pastime here, and there’s never been a better place to be, even before Katrina made the Pirates the only show in town.
I’ve never been one to turn down a hot story, and Centralia is smoking – literally. A Pennsylvania coal mining town that’s been on fire 44 years; 11 stubborn old-timers who refuse to leave; fiery sidewalks that melt the soles off your shoes. How could I resist? An abandoned strip mine caught fire in 1962, igniting an underground coal seam that has burned under Centralia ever since. Experts say it could burn another 250 years. I imagined an eerie, smoke-laden atmosphere, sun streaming across a barren landscape, miles of scorched Earth. Why would people live in such a Godforsaken place?
From her perch high atop the factory floor, she pulls red and white stripes through her hands over and over, being careful to keep the seams neat and tidy. Always a perfectionist, she is even more prudent here. This isn’t just any flag – it’s Old Glory. And this isn’t just any version – it’s an interment flag to drape a veteran’s coffin, one last embrace from a grateful country.
Silently, the veterans of the USS Oriskany, a Korean War-era aircraft carrier, huddled together, collars turned up against the wind, hats drawn low to hide tears as they stood on the decks of some 400 charter and pleasure boats dotting the Gulf of Mexico in a loose semicircle Wednesday morning. This was her moment, her final battle, and they were determined to do it right. Thirty-seven minutes later, she was gone, a puff of grey in an azure sky – scuttled 24 miles off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., in a 212-foot deep watery grave, where it will serve another function for a nation, as an artificial reef.
Contrails of sweat arc through the air as a football player slams his opponent into the wall, the momentum carrying him over the four-foot barrier and nearly into the nacho-laden laps of a family of four. Fans leap to their feet and pump their fists to a chorus of “Who let the dogs out? Woof! Woof!” With a triumphant grin, the airborne player vaults over the wall and plants his feet firmly back on the green Astroturf as a parade of silver-clad women shimmies into the end zone. Football is the main event on this Friday night, though religion is a definite subtext – with a Bible giveaway, a Christian concert, and, controversially, football players wearing jerseys with biblical references.
The smell of fried catfish wafts across the wide front porch, up to the beadboard ceiling and then down, past the white clapboard walls and out beyond the cracked sidewalk to 30th Street. At the edge of the porch sits a gaggle of girls, swinging their feet in rhythm with the steady buzz — 15-year-old Ken Davis is getting a haircut, and on a Sunday afternoon with nothing better to do, this is the height of entertainment.
If you weren’t looking for Panola, you’d never find it. It’s like a thousand other small towns across the South – an accidental detour on the way to somewhere else. Seventeen miles from a Snickers bar or a Coca-Cola, Panola is beyond rural – it’s practically forgotten. Things might still be that way if it hadn’t been for the church fires – 10 in eight days last month across five different Alabama counties. Three Birmingham college students were arrested in connection with nine of the fires last Wednesday, but healing will take a long time in Panola, where Galilee Baptist Church was one of the last to burn, completely destroyed on Feb. 7.