i drove a hearse to mississippi
Later that day, after we make some good time, I’m itching to get behind the wheel. We’re rolling down the road, and Dad finally relents. He hands over the reins and lets me drive a short stretch on a side road to test my motoring skills, I guess. Or my mettle on the pedal, maybe.
“Thatta boy! Good job, you’re doing great, keep ‘er steady as she goes, son.”
I’m thrilled to be in charge now, navigating along this back country road, winding our lonely way along spooky swamps and moss-draped oaks. Being barely sixteen, I’d never found myself so far away from home, I don’t think; well, maybe that one trip to Cincinnati on my own counts for something, when Mom let me board a bus to see the Reds and Cards at the brand spanking new Riverfront Stadium; and, well, come to think of it, what about all those trips by myself up to Chicago on the Greyhound to spend partial summers with Mom’s brother, Gizzepp? Well, anyhoo, here I am now, leaving the cornfields of Tecumseh County behind, driving a friggin’ hearse all the way to Mississippi, can you believe it?
We take turns driving the rest of the day and because Dad wants to save money, instead of shelling out for a motel, we pull into a rest stop for a few hours of, as Dad calls it, shut-eye. I’m half-asleep when I hear the Hearsemobile roar up and take off in the still of night. Eerie fog drapes over the land, and I can see that Dad can hardly see out the windshield. But that doesn’t stop him.
Soon, I’m wide awake and things have cleared up and the sun’s shining down on all of creation and it’s so beautiful I could cry. Dad looks like he’s flagging a bit from all the tough nighttime driving, and I can tell he’s looking for a place to pull over, and finally he spots a sign and exits the highway to fill up, check the oil and clean the windshield at a gas station like out of the 40’s.
“Time to test your skills on the new Interstate Highway, son.”
He offers up the oversized driver’s seat with its gigantic steering wheel and floor pedals so far down I can hardly reach them and have to stretch my legs out and scoot the seat up as close to the steering wheel as possible.
“Now, be careful, make sure you’re wide awake, son. I trust you,” Dad says, handing over the big ol’ clanky key. I insert it, drop the gear down into Drive and - we’re off ‘n runnin’!
Fancy cars are whooshing by at a hundred miles an hour, it seems, and menacing big rigs are right up on my tail, suddenly lurching around to pass with loud blaring horns announcing their supremacy, and big burly men at the helm with butts dangling out of their mouths sitting way high up in their cabs waving and jeering. Steady as she goes, son.
After seeing I’m capably handling things on the new Interstate Highway, Dad feels comfortable enough to doze off and catch a bit more shut-eye after his tough four-hour graveyard shift getting us into the unfamiliar territory of what seems like the “Deep South”.
Despite Dad’s admonition — “no fiddling with the radio while you’re behind the wheel, got that” — I ignore it because he seems to have fallen into some sort of deep sleep coma. I find a country station playing — if only I could stomp my foot! — Hank Williams and Dave Dudley honky-tonk that I just know Dad would approve of. Though I have a sharp, watchful eye on the insanely busy road, and keeping ‘er steady at 55 MPH, I occasionally sneak a side-long glance over at Dad.
He seems a pathetic figure, slouched in the seat, bony knees crumpled up to his stubbly chin, slightly twitching and issuing breathy snorts every so often followed by cryptic, melancholy sleep talk. Questions, questions, questions flood my brain: What foreign tongue is possessing him? What dreams are haunting his sleep? What demons come to torment him? I look over at Dad and realize yes, I mean, no, I don’t really know him at all. Here he is, a guy, only fifty-one or something, probably, and he seems so old and worn out to me, like some forlorn lost stranger on a bus station bench.
Well, anyway, you can imagine, can’t you, how pretty proud I’m feeling of myself, actually, if I may say so, to be “manning” the wheel of such a singular vehicle, such an ungainly road hog as the Hearsemobile, being just a kid and all, and barely in possession of my license. But I must be doing a pretty damn decent job because otherwise Dad would never in a hundred years allow me to keep driving the beast, now would he, especially if he’s sleeping, right. And well, you know I’m giving it my best to be his one and only good son, his trusty sidekick, his Number Two at the helm of Uncle Scoop’s big-ass, ugly Hearsemobile.
I’m toolin’ down a long straightaway stretch now, the traffic calmed down a bit, and lapse into a lull of near unconscious navigation, pure cruise control! I’m thinking about so much, my mind is overwhelmed with random thoughts of everything and nothing. I soon find myself reflecting on Dad, the man, the person: thinking what a pretty cool and decent guy he actually is, now that he’s sober and regaining his self-respect and dignity and really trying, I figure, to be a DAD to me after never having given a flying fuck for as long as I can remember. I figure, okay, shit, why not, maybe we are getting to know one another better, on this unexpected road trip. Is a little bonding too much to hope for? Am I ready for it? I better be, ’cause it’s happening here and now! And maybe Mom was right when she’d said as we were leaving, shoving a picnic basket in my hands (along with the emergency twenty bucks!) and kissing me on the cheek, “Now you be good, and be careful, those highways can be dangerous. There’s lots of nuts out there. And remember, your father loves you, so try to keep that in mind and don’t dwell on the past. Make it a trip worth remembering. I look forward to hearing all about it. And try to call me once you arrive.”
I fiddle with the radio some more, losing the honky-tonk for tinny sounds of heartrending fiddles and nostalgic train whistles and unrequited broken heart love songs emanating from some big antenna station out of Lubbock. I get sentimental and look over at Dad. He’s smiling, such is his love of country music, even though he’s still snoozing. Just in case, though, I turn the radio off and drive along without speaking or even thinking about anything now, lost in thoughts and my imagination running wild, every so often turning my attention out the window to admire the bucolic landscape of green riotous vegetation and exotic moss-draped trees, one blurry scene after another of ramshackle towns, overgrown graveyards with toppled headstones, weather-beaten churches with crooked crosses and funny welcome messages (Be an organ donor — give your heart to Jesus), vacant billboards, wayside houses flying Confederate flags, and endless fluffy cotton fields, dirt poor farmsteads, and clusters of broken down buildings in boarded up strips in nowhere little towns.
Welcome to Mississippi a sign announces.
But where in the heck is the Mississippi River? We’d gotten a glimpse of it in Memphis, and that’s it. Having recently read Tom Sawyer, I start thinking about how he and his best friend Huck Finn experienced their own life-altering journey navigating a “raftmobile” to Mississippi when they were probably just sixteen, too, lazily floating down that big Old Man River on the adventure of their lifetimes packed with indelible intrigue and mystery and excitement.
“There warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft,” figured Huck in a famous soliloquy.
Which gets me to thinkin’: Heck, they warn’t runnin’ toward somethin’, they were runnin’ away from somethin’ . . . warn’t they? Which way was it? And what, exactly, is it that I’m doin’.
Now, coming from where I grew up in a pretty white bread wealthy county, Itawamba County, Mississippi seems exotic and shabby all at once. It’s my first peek into our own Third World, but of course, being just sixteen, I don’t really have a clue about any of this, really, but at the same time, some little part of me senses a world of poverty and misery and racial inequality and miscarriages of justice that never make the news. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s gnawing at my conscience, though, or manage quite yet to get my budding intellect or unformulated political perspective around things of this nature.
In the spacious cab of the Hearsemobile, I feel safe and insular from the strange world out there, wondering why Mississippi seems like such a backwater hellhole kind of place. It may be impoverished for sure, I try to reason and rationalize, but how unfair to think such denigrating thoughts. After all, what makes stupid, conservative Indiana any better, just because it’s whiter and wealthier?
Stay tuned for CHAPTER FOUR!