I met an American boy on the Internet and married him shortly after. There were no formal invitations, there was not time. Afterwards we took the bus to the pub.
He played me songs by a local band, the Drive-By Truckers, and by the time I went to visit his home state, it was already as familiar to me as a well-worn Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.
George Michael Kangelos Jnr, my husband, is a Southerner. Born in Mariette, Georgia and raised in Anniston, Alabama. Just like me he had moved to the nearest big city as soon as he was old enough. Although, Atlanta is not much like London.
The interstate highway (Route 20) runs in a straight line from Atlanta, Georgia to Birmingham, Alabama. A little more than midway between the two is Anniston. Originally known as Annies-town, Anniston consists of two historical streets featuring saloon type bars and a rotting art deco cinema, plus an awful lot of retail parks and strip malls. In Anniston, Annie has lost her crown to Wal-Mart.
The air conditioned stores in the retail parks are the same bland chains as everywhere else in Nowheresville, USA, but step outside the ice cool boxes of Walgreen’s or Waffle House or the Piggly Wiggly and into the parking lot and Alabama hits you like a wall of heat. The asphalt is sticky and the sky such an intense shade of blue it could be from a graphic designers chart. The dirt is loose. The red dust leaves a stain on your now sweating skin, flaking from the hills and fields and coating you with the colour of hell. No wonder there is a church on every corner.
If you cast your eye around the lot, minimising your movements to prevent excess perspiration, you will see that 90% of the vehicles are open backed trucks. Their paintwork is immaculate and they shine like jewels in the sunshine, Here, the truck is worshipped. They are revered objects, and life without them might be meaningless. Many have personalised licence plates, proudly flashing images of the Confederate flag. Here, Southern pride is as proliferate as the trucks themselves. Alabama bristles with anger, but outside the Pearl City Mall, one thing is clear, here, they really do believe that the South will rise again.
There is not much pride in evidence at Bobby’s house though. Bobby Mc Dowell’s property looks as thought the red dirt is trying to suffocate it, to collapse it and bury it, to reclaim it for the earth itself. It is the kind of house that children are afraid of. The worst house in a bad neighbourhood. It looks like its been there forever, but it has barely been 20 years since its pre fabricated structure was bolted together and it was hauled to the lot. These houses are not built with forever in mind. No one seems to buy property in Alabama. They do not exactly inherit it either; rather it is gifted to them. Inheritance would be too grand a term for the acquisition of a trailer (a dollar and a deed is all you need) to park up on your folks’ land. Often, youngsters just move into houses with older generations, Great Aunt Lola doesn’t take up much space on the back porch after all and when she finally dies from her two pack-a-day, vodka and milk habit y’all are guaranteed to be first in line for the house. Until then, the sheet-rock groans under the pressure. The whole neighbourhood is resembles a Walker Evans photograph, fashioned from 100% injection moulded plastic.
If houses are in short supply, land is not. Jacqueline Mc Dowell lives on 50 acres of timber logging land, next to a small creek, utilised for fishing. This small body of water, full of frogs and catfish and surrounded by poison ivy, also acts as a magnet for tornados. Jacqueline still mourns her striped awning, swept away by ferocious winds 10 years previously. Her cupboard is stocked with tinned foods and lamp oil, stacked beside the Avon goods that this tiny woman sells from the back of her huge red Chevy truck. Goods that allow you to hide away the telltale signs of living in a place like Anniston. The fact that the hot Alabama sun makes a woman look as though she has been fashioned from leather cannot be argued with, but back-combed hair a foot high and thick black eyelashes sure can distract the eye. Jacqueline’s hair is a triumph of engineering. It is the first thing she does everyday, even if her plans are to clear the Alabama knotweed from the yard or to scrub the propane tank.
Her evidential pride in her overdone hairdo is reminiscent to me the grand pavilions on the hilltops. There aren’t so many here in Alabama. More survive over the state line in Georgia. These plantation mansions are truly beautiful, but fashioned from exploitation and shame, like the goods in Wal-Mart. These houses possess a rigid defiance, and their good looks make you feel quite uncomfortable. Their jaunty misplaced pride is disguised by the sense of theme park wonder and magic that they are now dressed in, “See our oldest private residence!” But I do not want to look, they are like the waitresses in Waffle House, aging beauties, but do not look too closely or you notice the rotting teeth.
Jacqueline and her 4th husband, Bobby Lane, are keen to show us what they think we want to see in the Southern states, so we cross the state line into Tennessee to visit Ruby Falls, with its novelty shaped stalactites and underground waterfalls. It is a little like a school trip I once suffered to the Peak District, although the regional accents are decidedly different. The Ruby Falls Guide is telling us the history of tourism in the caves in the stretched out, elongated sounds of the Southern drawl. It seems as stretched as the laboured facts. We edge through the tight spaces, viewing the stalactites that supposedly look like donkeys, fish or tobacco leaves. It is cold in the caves, damp and slippery, but we all edge towards the end, the climax. It is nearly total darkness and now that the Tour Guide is quiet, you can hear the thunder of the underground waterfall. We are so still and quiet that you can smell the air, feel the tiny droplets of water on our skin…
Then, boom! Flashing lights and loud, pulsing muzak. The Peak District was never like this.
And that is the problem; the difference between the Peak District and Tennessee is as insurmountable as the difference between Little Debbie and Mr Kipling, St. Albans and Anniston. Mike does not even know what Blue Peter is. When that neon light bursts on in the dark cave of Ruby Falls, it’s an epiphany, It’s suddenly clear that this marriage will never work. There is no point in seeing the rest of what the South has to offer, I should throw myself off Lookout Mountain, but instead, we plough on towards the aquarium.
And it is here, by accident, that I acquire a real taste of Tennessee. Moored behind the newly built, glossy, polished tourism of the Chattanooga Sea World, surrounded by the muddy waters of the Mississippi River, is the Delta Queen. She is the last of the her species in these waters, the only remaining wooden paddle steamer now that health and safety concerns demand all ships to be constructed of metal. She herself is poised on death row, protected only by a temporary stay. Nonetheless, she awaits her fate with quiet pride and stoicism. The Delta Queen is sedate, nothing much has changed for her, she feels like a moment in time, a stillness. She is frozen, as if a photograph. I rush to her side, like a tiny plastic bride beside her huge wooden wedding cake. The always-stifling heat makes her, and her river, stink – but it is too late, she has taken my heart already and I refuse to acknowledge her terrible odour. Her Cincinnati passengers have disembarked for the Chattanooga stopover, halfway down the river towards Louisiana and what is left of New Orleans, and The Delta queen seems lonely, perhaps she knows she will never see her other half, The Delta King again. He is awaiting his own scrap yard fate out in California. Her crew are here beside her though, young, black, sweating on the riverbank, taking a hurried break with a Lucky Strike.
My marriage ends. My Southern dream is over, but a friend of a friend, living in Cincinnati comes to London for the tattoo convention. We have never met, but still he brings a gift for me. A scale model of the Delta Queen on a small wooden plinth, this model is no more destined for the Mississippi River than I am for Alabama. One of her flags has broken off in transit, she is wounded but ok, perhaps a little less stars and stripes is good for her.
Just like me.
And even If Sweet Alabama is no longer my home, I still have the Drive-By Truckers.