George often wondered how many people in the city realize how much the life of the great city meant to him and countless others like him; how, long ago in little towns down South, there in the barren passages of night, they listened to the wheel, the whistle, and the bell; how, there in the dark South, there on the Piedmont, in the hills, there by the slow, dark rivers, there in coastal plains, something was always burning in their heart at night – the image of the shining city and the North.
– Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock, 1938
It was those spring mornings that did it.
The sun creeping in around those heavy blankets now drapes. The breeze, before it would become that breeze of June that was just filled with the smell of cotton and the heat of a thousand summers. The buzz of a lawnmower, a block over. The birds. The noticeable lack of schoolday traffic across the street.
Mornings in which the air in certain shaded areas above dirt patches could be downright chilly. Where my cast iron bed was cold to the touch. Mornings after nothing. No small town Friday night football games. No harvest festivals and no Kiddie Carnivals. Too soon for wet bags to come back from the river filled with clothes that smell like snakes and the Elk.
Halfway between equinox, a pregnant moment.
The feeling that this is the day to become someone and to do something. To rise up, out of the dreary post slumbered haze and scream and to wildly paint. To rip down those curtains and use them as brushes. To have a canvas the size of a city block. That canvas alone could contain my talent, and nothing more. No! To skate! To grab a board from tortured youth and to ollie over the elementary school. To become airborne. To only come back down when the atmosphere became too thin for meaningful amounts of oxygen. To dance! To open the closet and to find the cast of Newsies and to have the lights they use in the movies and to have that smell of the old house, that smell of worn antiquity and small boys and that smell of Alabama grit, upstaged by a Glade plug-in.
You, my brother, are a gem. A star shining so bright this town can’t hold you here. Civic government would fail were they to try. You, boy, are just what will put this speck of a town on the map. Here’s a key to the city. Here’s a lifetime supply of Kreme Delight soft serve. Here’s a free library card, we’ve waived the late fees. Let us never forget that we the fortune of knowing you. Hurrah!
It was that spring morning.
The one where an influential casting agent or patent lawyer came to town. Happened upon me and saw exactly what I felt: untapped potential and an itch and a packed bag ready to move onward! Upward! To big cities of the North and into social circles I’d only dreamed of! To lands where labor was unionized and educated (but homely) girls were looking for conversation in salons! Wampanoag > Cherokee! Where roads were paved for the luxury of rollerblades and cars alike! Gleaming shopping malls! Extended curfews! Places to explore! Temperate summer breezes! Cul-de-sacs!
The phone would ring. Shake me from my brain. I’d put on my Winn-Dixie shirt. Ride down for a ten to six shift at four & a quarter per hour. Work away another weekend. Meet up at the BP to smoke a Camel and drink a SunDrop and spit and talk about going up to Nashville. Or about that guy who was the son of the science teacher and was now an underwear model in California or New York, doesn’t matter which one, cause you can see him on the underwear box at the mall.
Seventeen years later, I wake up on that same spring morning. Wife by my side, nip in the air. A pot of coffee on and a lawnmower buzzing a block over. In the North. The cradle of the American Revolution. Blindingly fast free wifi and reformative petitions and salt box houses and ivy walls but no family and no syrupy sweet drawls and no magnolia trees and no one talking about going to Nashville.
Kids pass by and I don’t know who their momma is or where they live or how they got there or if they’re going to stay. I don’t see my buddies driving around town. I don’t raise a finger from my steering wheel to greet strangers. I don’t have Jefferson Pilot.
And I dream about heading back.