As I cruise toward the bend of Highway 78 where, three nights ago, my bluesman boyfriend threw out $150 of homegrown marijuana I didn’t even realize he’d brought into my car, I think: Goddamn Tupelo.
The town may have given us Elvis Presley and Johnnie’s Drive In, but Tupelo is trouble. Tupelo is where a bank freezes your debit card at 2 a.m. as you try to get four hundred dollars in cash to bail out a friend with a DUI charge. Tupelo is a dab of honey on a witch’s tit. Two nights ago, Tupelo was the site of a checkpoint where flashing lights gave warning five miles in every direction on a dark night.
“Slow down!” my boyfriend hissed. “Shit! Shit! Slow down!” He fished a brown paper bag out of his pocket, and out the window it sailed, glass pipe and all. He’s been sulking ever since.
In today’s late afternoon sun, perhaps I can spy the bag in the grass if I look hard enough. But it’ll probably be mush after the hard rain. Instead, I set my cruise control five miles faster and put on Howlin’ Wolf.
I’m not supposed to be making this drive alone today. The bluesman is supposed to be in the seat next to me, tapping his fingers to distract himself from an urge to smoke, wearing his Superman T-shirt and paint-spattered jeans that are ripped out at the knees. But yesterday, I had a quick one-day gig in Birmingham, a reading at a private high school, and although they had covered a hotel room, the bluesman stayed in Oxford.
“Comfy bed,” I’d said, trying to tempt him along. “We’d have privacy.”
That was the wrong thing to say. A reminder: You owe me. On Saturday, my boyfriend had said we should go to his buddy’s place in Tupelo; the homemade wine was ready to drink. I was game to drive the fifty miles, but he was in charge of making sure we had a bed to sleep in that night. I didn’t want to be driving back to Oxford at 2 a.m. So we trekked out. We toasted glasses of an overly fruity, funky Riesling poured from a label-less bottle and sat outside as my boyfriend played his guitar and his buddy kept a lazy rhythm on bongo.
That house’s kitchen was the portrait of a man raising three boys on his own: still life with pizza crumbs. Readying to fix dinner, I opened a cabinet in search of olive oil, salt, pepper. I found only a dented can of white truffle oil with a three-buck price tag. I unpacked the bags of groceries I’d bought, spooled out half a roll of aluminum foil in lieu of clean cutting boards, and wondered how to trim pork loin without a serrated knife.
It wasn’t until we sat down in the living room with our plates—our host on the floor, his youngest son sunken into the recliner, and a confusion of bare-breasted women on the television courtesy of an HBO period drama—that I turned to the bluesman and asked, “Hon, where is the guest bedroom?”
“Well, uh,” he said. He gestured to the couch. “I guess I’ll take the recliner.”
He’s slept in a hundred recliners. He knows I’ve crashed on a hundred couches. But, as I whispered icily before going downstairs to see the basement—the wine fermentation tubs, a dartboard—this couch had better not be one of them.
So that was how we came to be on the road from Tupelo to Pontotoc at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. My bluesman called around and found a sweet groupie, a skinny blonde girl I’d danced with at one of his shows, to ask if she could put us up for the night. “Come on over,” she told him. She was house-sitting at her sister’s three-bedroom place.
We didn’t know yet that we’d find her in a Xanaxed huddle on the couch, watching a Halloween movie marathon. We didn’t know yet that while there were multiple beds, she wanted us—all three of us—to use only one of them, the one in the chilly basement. I didn’t know that to be on that road at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night is to be cop bait in Mississippi. And I certainly didn’t know that the next morning I’d say to my boyfriend, in a flat voice, “If you want to go look for your weed, take your car.”
Now, as I drive past Tupelo on my way back from Birmingham, I know that waiting for me in Oxford is a relationship that will not survive. Despite the charm of a man who plays like B. B. King, despite hours of conversation nursed over Red Stripes, despite his endearing insistence on morning cartoons and midnight Squidbillies, this love has the kind of fracture that always cracks wide open in the end. If I can’t trust a man to secure a pillow and a mattress to put under me for one night, I can’t trust him for anything.
I asked her for water, Howlin’ Wolf sings. She brought me gasoline.
This is when I notice that the pickup I’ve been following for three miles on the two-lane Highway 78 has started to drift left—into oncoming traffic. In front of him is a truck with a massive flatbed loaded with tree trunks. Is he trying to pass? Stupid, but not illegal on the two-lane highways down here.
No. He continues meandering. To the left, to the right, to the left again.
Goddamn Tupelo. At 4 p.m., this guy may already have a beer buzz going. Dropping ten miles under the speed limit so that I’m not in his immediate wake, I dig my phone out of my purse and call the bluesman.
“Hey,” he says, his voice wary.
“I’m on the road, watching the strangest thing,” I say.
“What’s up, sweetie?” His voice tenses. This is a man who has seen a lot of stupid-ass driving in the Delta. As I describe the truck’s trajectory, a particularly harsh swerve forces an oncoming minivan onto the gravel berm to avoid a collision.
“I have to go,” I tell him. “Something is seriously wrong.”
I dial the 911 dispatcher, who tries to pinpoint my location—“I think maybe we passed a turnoff for Route 9,” I fumble, “or we’re about to pass it”—as one of the truck’s tires loses the lip of the pavement and ruts in the dirt.
“I’m not from here,” I say to the dispatcher. “I’m sorry.” I want to say, We’re right close to wherever you guys had that police checkpoint on Saturday.
“What’s the make and model?” she asks. Every few seconds, I can hear her turn away from our conversation to repeat my words to someone else.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t want to get close enough to see. Ford? Toyota? It’s white. It’s a pickup. This could be a medical emergency.”
That’s when the truck veers to the right and keeps going. Off the road. Over the grass. Into a gulley that has opened its yawning mouth. The truck bounces, once, as if rearing its head. Then it vanishes from sight.
“Oh, God,” I say. “Send someone.”
I pull over to the edge of the gulley, which is about thirty feet deep and blanketed in kudzu. Below, the truck has rolled on its side. Another car parks behind me, and a middle-aged woman steps out wearing blue hospital scrubs. We stare at the silent vehicle.
“Ma’am, they are on their way,” says the dispatcher, her voice tinny in the phone I’m still clutching to my ear. “Can you see the driver?”
All I see is undercarriage, muffler, wheels. From a house up a nearby hill, a man runs toward us, then spots the truck and freezes. The three of us stare down, then at each other, then down again. The truck is a cocoon, and we’re waiting to see if it hatches.
There’s a flutter, then a flash of shirt, as the driver starts to wriggle out of the driver-side window. He waves weakly, then disappears from sight again.
“He’s conscious,” I say to 911. “Thank God.”
To him, I shout, “Help is coming. Please don’t try to move.”
Then he pops his head out. “I just want to find my I.D. badge from work,” he yells up, almost chipper.
“Possible concussion,” I report into the phone.
The homeowner takes a half-step into the brush, stops, takes another step, stops. “There’s snakes,” he says. “I gotta get my waders.”
The other woman shifts restlessly on her feet, and I tell her I’ll stay so she can go on. By the time the man returns in his rubber hip-high waders, two police cars and the paramedics have found us. Our newly shod host guides the police down the hillside, and they hook their hands under the guy’s armpits as he tries to stand free of the truck.
He’s just a boy, really, younger than me, in a white T-shirt and with a dishevelment of dark hair. He insists on going back to grab his baseball cap. The crotch of his jeans is dark where he wet himself. With help, he staggers up out of the gulley and into the back of the waiting ambulance.
A policeman is coming over with his clipboard to take my report.
“Is he okay?” I ask.
“Seems to be. Says he worked a long shift and fell asleep at the wheel. You the one who called it in?”
He takes my name. His pen hovers over the first line for an address, which I recite.
“W-I-S . . . ,” he repeats back and pauses as if unsure how to proceed.
“C,” I say. “O. N. You know, like the state? Wisconsin Avenue. Northwest.”
“Yeah, ok,” he says, then waits to be fed the next line.
He gives me a look. It’s the same look I got at the checkpoint on Saturday night, though that look was paired with the blunt question: “Did you get lost, Miss?”
“I’m on book tour,” I say weakly.
As he walks back to his patrol car, I think, I am on infinite book tour. I travel from reading to reading, school to school—in particular, along this Southern belt of states that connects D.C., where I keep my groceries, to Mississippi, where I keep my heart.
I thought I’d spend these years doing what friends are doing: getting married, buying a house, having children. I’d been on that path, living with a man I’d loved since we met a decade earlier in college. That path had stretched ahead of us, easy and good.
Then I upset the apple cart. I told him it was over. I moved out. I took up with one Mississippi man, then another. I went dancing in fields and sipped moonshine that burned my throat. I trusted only what could bruise me. If it could break me, I trusted it more. Now, I am in goddamn Tupelo. By tonight, I’ll be in Oxford. By Wednesday afternoon, Jackson. By Thursday, Greenwood. Town after town after town, and with each one, I twist the prism to flash a different light, trying to figure out what it means to be this woman in this body.
I look up the driveway to where the ambulance is parked. I can finally see the boy’s feet, which are scraped bloody. He stares down at them as he answers a paramedic’s questions. Maybe the toxicology screen will show something, maybe not.
There’s nothing more I can do here. I will never learn his name. I take one last look at the wreckage of his afternoon, and then I do what I’ve gotten very good at doing. I get back in my car. I keep driving.