By Clay McLeod Chapman
Published by Hyperion
February 2003; 0786867388; 230 pages
Read, for this is my body. Take the distance between Virginia and Florida - a long-sprawling spine of states connected by I-95 - and then you have the backbone to me. Each town long the way serves as its own vertebra, notch for notch, winding down the coastal road with the weight of five states upon my shoulders. Think of every back road that breaks off from my highway as a rib, curving out into the countryside, protecting every vital city within its grip - giving support to the South. What puts meat onto these streets are the people who drive through, their commute the very marrow of my bones. My lifeblood is made up of road trips, my heartbeat founded upon family vacations, Greyhound buses, joyrides. I'm alive for as long as you're driving. So come on down, honey. Pay me a visit, please.
That road map of me has been in your glove compartment for years now, hasn't it? That snapshot was taken ages ago. I used to be the pinup girl of this country. Miss Southern States. Every tourist in America has that centerfold hiding in their car, somewhere - either crumpled up underneath their seat or stuffed in between the cushions. Whoever's stuck navigating will pull that picture out, ogling over my body for miles, simply searching for the right road to steer for - only to fold me up the wrong way once they're done, creasing my image until I look more wrinkled than I already am. You can't even recognize me there, lying right alongside the Atlantic - my body bending slightly at the hip, my left leg stretched out, my foot dipping into the water. I've grown older since then. Developed in different places. There are pit stops that've cropped up along my body that will never make their way onto a road map, ever - while other blemishes have been bulldozed away for good. A little nip and tuck to save face for the tourists. Give them something to come back for next summer.
Once you hit North Carolina, take a glance out through the window of your car for me. You'll find miles worth of forest there, a wooded flesh lush enough to wrap you up inside (if you were to pull over). That's where my skin's the smoothest - where you could walk on for hours and never find a break in these trees, getting lost along the way. In me. There are paths hidden within that're barely walked on by anyone. Not anymore, at least. Whenever someone hikes through, it's such a caress across untouched territory, it tingles. Even tickles me. It feels as if a hand is passing down my lower back, a single finger gliding along the arch of my spine - gently dipping into that ditch where my hips begin and the hills take over. The number of times I'm touched there is so rare, these backwoods empty and numb of anyone nowadays, that I'm left alone, yearning for somebody to just walk through me.
I've had to reduce myself to roller coasters, you know - just to tempt these vacationers into visiting me. I've been forced into putting on a pair of mouse ears, having my picture taken with obnoxious children all day - when I used to be so much more than this. These people simply buy their T-shirt of me and head home again, snap off a few photos to prove to their neighbors that they'd made the trek.
Well, let me save you the trouble of nosing around. Dig your hands into me and they're going to come back black, I promise. The ground down here has roasted over into coal, making life a slow burn for me. Centuries. I flirt with the tourists, just to pass the time. After coughing on their car's discharge all day, I have to admit, the fumes I've inhaled are habit forming. These mufflers have become an iron lung for me, smoking a pack and a half of exhaust pipes every day. My cigarette's lit with a flick of the ignition - these husbands slipping me a wink with their turn signal just before they head back onto the highway.
Toodi-loo. Come back soon, sweetheart.
Still hiding some charm, somewhere.
So I'm growing older. So I'm not what I used to be, fine. Don't think for an instant I don't know my hips are being whisked off into the ocean after every high tide. No surprise, there. The waves have been whipping at my waist for so long now, my hips have given up - my shoreline slipping away from the rest of me, widening my thighs. But when I was in my prime, I spurred more men into red jealousy than any other lady around. Wars were fought over me. That's how beautiful I used to be. (Let's not forget our history, now. All right?) Boys would take a bullet into their hearts for me, valiantly ushering in their own death - because they believed their heart would break if they were to lose my love. They would rather die for me than let their land go. And I loved them for it. I made them proud. I soaked up the blood of hundreds into my skin and it left me young. Ravishing. I wore their bodies like jewelry - a necklace of dead confederates at my chest, a ring of corpses wrapped around every finger. My honor was upheld by enough suitors to send every state into envy, pure yellow-eyed envy - all of these other girls just jealous of the pride imparted upon me. Because I was the embodiment of one's love for their country, I was patriotism at its purest.
I was the lay of a nation - and don't you forget it.
From sea to shining sea.
Not much blood's shed for me now. The soldier boys have all been drained, the bullet holes tapped dry - leaving my cheeks pale and deprived. I barely doll myself up anymore. Nobody would notice, even if I did.
I've had to hock my wares, just to get by. All these treasure-hunters keep coming through, digging up whatever artifacts of my past they can find. Robbing me blind of my history. People even want to take my states away. If I overhear one more tourist jabber on about how Virginia isn't really a part of the South, I swear I'll cause an earthquake. They call it the heart of the Confederacy for a reason, people. There's a pulse beneath your feet, radiating through the rest of this country. More bodies have been buried into me than anywhere else, weighing me down with the heft of humanity. So many men, I'm surprised I haven't fallen off into the ocean yet. Just broke off from the rest of the country and drowned.
But I've survived. I've outlasted everything that's been built upon me, watching the whole country crumble - like an unfortunate mother who outlives her own children. I'll be here long after you're gone, you can bet on that. Tell me: When it's finally time for you to lay down your life, and they bury you - just where do you think it is that you'll be going?
Right here. Right into me.
Motherhood's been reversed for me. God's given me the graves of men, impregnating me with the dead - a sward of bodies swimming through this soil; all of them tunneling toward the core of me, searching for their fertile purchase. None of them ever make it. They all give up after six feet.
We keep trying though, me and Him - and we're going to get it right, one of these days. We're at it all the time. I barely even stand up anymore. I just stay here, lying on my back. Waiting for Him. That man's a fountain for funerals - that's for sure. Showers me with a downpour of corpses every day. My belly's overflowing with dead bodies. I can feel them inside, their warmth fading within me fast - that tiny trickle slipping down my leg, pudding up into swampland. All it's going to take is for just one of them to reach in deep enough, burrow down into the ground until they tap at the very center of me. I'll take over from there.
wait and see how swollen South Carolina becomes in a couple months. Highways
will shift. Asphalt will crack. These mountains are going to overflow
with milk, once I start lactating. The lakes will surge up, cupping their
water like a navel cradling sweat - dribbling down the side of my stomach
in a flood. You wait and see what becomes of this country. I'm going to
give birth to a new continent, baptized in the Atlantic. It'll be a girl.
A beautiful baby daughter that I can spoil rotten. She'll grow up to be
everything that I couldn't. That I can't. And she'll have blue eyes, two
pale ponds of water that will always look toward me with love.
Reprinted with permission.
"In a slow, simmering style that melds Southern folklore with a gothic sensibility . . . suspenseful and moving." --Publishers Weekly
A hugely imaginative first novel that traces the raucous road trips of two complete strangers on a dramatic collision course with fate, from the author of the razor-sharp short story collection Rest Area.
Will has just returned home from sea to find his wife lying dead on the kitchen floor. Four states away, Phil has been waiting for his son to return home, only to discover his body decomposing at the bottom of a nearby swamp. Will's wife always wanted a highway-bound honeymoon. Phil's son always wanted to see the country. In an attempt to pick up the pieces of their lives, both Will and Phil load up their cars and hit the road -- unknowingly traveling toward a collision -- their destinies literally crashing together on I-95.
From the moment their keys slip into the ignition, to the second their fenders clasp, every person with whom Will and Phil come in contact weaves a tapestry of narratives that gives a singular, vivid voice to the Deep South.
"Clay McLeod Chapman is like Stephen King transmogrified into a post-punk preacher poet. He writes -- and performs with voracious energy character monologues that are American-Gothic tall tales of the psyche." --Donald Hutera, The Scotsman(back to top)
Clay McLeod Chapman is a playwright and storyteller and has seen his short fiction transposed to the stage for over the last ten years, produced in such various venues as Romania, Scotland, Ireland and here in the United States. Originator of the rigorous story-performance group, the Pumpkin Pie Show, Chapman has taken his writing to the 1997 Sibiu International Festival of Theatre, the New York International Fringe Festival (1997 and 1999), the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Coney Island Fun Park.
Educated at North Carolina School of the Arts for Drama, the Burren College of Art, and Sarah Lawrence College, he now divides his time between Richmond, Virginia, and Brooklyn, New York.