Three belated short non fiction pieces for Fourth of July

Amtrak with my baby

Washington. New baby in arms. The Capitol, Smithsonian; half smoke hot dogs in the park. We caught the New Orleans train and I remember the baby, lying on his back with his arms held up high, as the view liner train went through the night and on into Virgina. I woke early and saw that we were in Georgia and that the earth, just by the track, was red. The baby was still asleep, the train rocking him; my husband beginning to stir on the bunk above mine. He raised his head: ‘We in Georgia yet?’ I had had a restless night; I was full of wonder, as I always am, at being on the move, but we were home, six months after 9/11 and home felt different. The previous afternoon I had seen The Pentagon, under repair; I saw it before on television, back in Britain, in the first footage: I was heavily pregnant and worried what world my first born would enter. I worried during the night, but the train rocked us and lulled us and its sonorous horn was the sound I had heard in dreams or reveries late at night: it was the sound of frontiers, of distance, of aspiration – and hope.

In the dining car early in the morning there was  a shower of ma’ams and y’alls and a shower of hands for the baby. We had grits and eggs and crisp bacon, with Crystal hot sauce. There was scalding coffee to further wake us. The creepers and the red earth gave way to the suburbs of Atlanta and we were almost there. I’d always enjoyed the hoardings of the city as we approached it from Hartsfield airport: Free at Last Bail Bonds! Chicken Breast Strips Meal only $2! Here, from the train, I saw just flashes of garden, then creek, then more red earth. Still the kitchen staff dandled the baby while others poured us endless coffee and we were content. I remember that my husband told me to get ready. I hadn’t combed my hair but I put on some lipstick because I wanted my steel magnolia to think well of me when we arrived. Silly, really, what with the baby being the show, not me. I remember that he was dressed in a bright red all in one we called the ‘firework suit.’ We were there. Bright red baby; rich red earth of home. And momma said, ‘Hey.’ And everything had changed but everything had not because the earth was the earth and we were loved and the train bade us goodbye and surged on.

The house in Flatrock, North Carolina

The house was really a wooden cottage; in another setting it might have been made out of gingerbread. It had window boxes full of red impatiens, still a thick fall of leaves on the ground from last autumn and the sound of a creek below it. Inside, the finds and hauls of a family over almost thirty years. A family escaping the city or sheltering from the storm with books and jigsaws and a making things drawer and a small radio. That night they drifted off to the sound of a small North Carolina radio station playing Cousin James (McMurtry) and were proud in half-sleep. It was early summer and there was a storm. Earlier, he had told her the storms in the South come in with a faint whooshing sound, a whisper at first. A shift in the tenor of the air. She woke to it. And felt its warmth before the explosion of thunder and lightning. They were sleeping in the loft of the house and they felt themselves being shaken by the storm outside and she wondered if one of the tall trees all around would fall. The children crawled into bed with them, shaking and sobbing a little: ‘I’m frightened.’

Morning found the house still, intact and the air clear. The children ran in pyjamas to the creek, burying their toes in the mud and slipping over the wet rocks. A small and sleepy snake reared its head from the shallows, gave a half-hearted hiss, showed its fangs briefly and nestled back into the mud. Strangely, no-one said anything. Inside, coffee was brewing and the radio station was on again. Mom was up and doing, immaculate as always, and making bagels with cream cheese to eat on the screened porch. The children’s father was still asleep, a half smile playing at his lips. Their mother would sit on the swing seat to eat breakfast; she would not wake him yet. Simple really, but there it is.

Johnny Cash, in a lift, in Dallas, Texas

 “I was told that when Bob Dylan met John – I think it was at the Newport Folk Festival – he circled John, bent slightly forward and smiling up at him with pure admiration.”1

When he was ten, my husband happened to be in an elevator in a hotel in Dallas, Texas. In walked a tall man; the boy looked at the man’s shoes. From there, it was a long way up, but look he did. The boy saw that it was Johnny Cash. No, he must be wrong. But hang on, Johnny Cash must have had to ride in an elevator sometime, so he looked again. He nudged his little brother: ‘Hey Curtis, I think it’s Johnny Cash.’
Maybe the man heard him; maybe not, but he smiled and grinned a broad grin and nodded, ‘Hellllllllo boys.’ A low, slow, warm voice. The youth was starstruck and cannot remember if he said hello back; little brother was possibly unmoved, being too young to understand that, maybe, Johnny Cash was not to be seen riding in an elevator with you any day of the week. Upstairs, or maybe it was on another occasion, he learned that his mother had gone into labour with him (in Georgia) while watching Johnny Cash on a television show. Now, these little links; they kind of went in deep. Plus Cash was, like him, a Southern man. As an adult, he would listen and feel at home.Cash was flawed, both powerful and weak. He had struggled with addiction and insecurity, gone on a journey from the cotton fields of Arkansas to a meeting with a luminary – maybe the the President. He had faith that was both angry and beautiful and music that haunted. So why not share? Well, that’s what our grown up boy from the elevator in Dallas did. Best of all, he shared American Recordings, which was played again and again in the house and, for a quiet moment when no-one knew what to do  – while he suspected that Johnny Cash would have shrugged off the fact of their doing this – ‘Down there by the train.’ Now, there was a song that could still a room or a nervy individual with its invocation to meet him if you had, ‘taken the low road’; if you had, ‘done the same.’ ‘There’s a place I know’, sang Cash – a place where he saw ‘Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth.’
So, if you dear reader, especially you dear British reader, have not taken a look or a listen, may I suggest you go back and listen again and get to know him a bit?  Not that I’m putting him on a pedestal, or nothing.’ *************************************** Notes: American Recordings. Genius. 1. The Man Called Cash by Steve Turner (London, Bloomsbury, 2006). This was the first authorised biography. Quotation from the foreword by Kris Kristofferson, p. ix.

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