birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Do All Roads Lead Home?

The empty highway stretches out in front of me, dark beyond my headlights, but I know from memory that it’s straight, flat, and goes on forever. Splitting tall pine forests for miles, the only sign of life I typically see here is a wayward deer, dumbfounded, acting as if “go toward the light” was good advice. I lay heavier on the gas pedal, half giddy with excitement to be home and half delirious with exhaustion after driving six hours. Only twenty miles left. I’m making good time until a firework of blue lights explodes behind me, ricocheting off the pine corridor and making my heart bounce around in my chest. 

“Shit. Shit shit,” I mumble, pulling over in the tall grass of the shoulder.  

As the deputy approaches the back of my car, I can see him making note of my license plate, probably grinning that he got one from out of state. His stiff hat and the blue strobe make a crazy silhouette in my rear-view mirror. Caution: objects seem larger than they appear. I click the button to roll down my window, left hand shaking as I offer my license. All I can see is his dark brown uniform at the waist, when his husky voice grabs my attention. A large black hand reaches over to grab my license, the admonition beginning on autopilot.

“You know you were going 85 back there.”

I peer up at the uniform, hoping to appease with some sense of respect by using the officer’s name. I find the shiny tag that reads “Brockington.”

“Brockington? Brockington!” I laugh, sticking my head out the window to find his face in the dark. “You’ve got to be kidding me! You’re a cop?!”

He leans down, his familiar face now flooded with the sharp rays from his headlights behind me. Flash back to high school, where he played on the basketball team with my brother. His younger brother was in my class, supposedly now in the not-so-secret group that runs rampant over the county, dealing drugs. Which is why I’m outwardly shocked as my brain struggles to connect the dots. 

“Burner...that you?” he gambles with a smirk, guessing from the driver’s license picture. My new address must be throwing him off. 

“It’s been fifteen years! How the hell are you? No way you’re a cop!” I rattle off, absentmindedly grabbing my license back and hitting him on the shoulder at the same time. “I’m home for turkey and all that jazz. How’s your brother? Tell him I said hi!”

And before I knew what I was doing, running on those small town informalities, I was running off. I just drove off, rolling up my window, laughing at the mini reunion. Half a mile down the road, I realized I just left him standing there, holding the ticket clipboard. 

That’s what you get when you call a small Southern crossroads your hometown. Or rather, what you don’t get: tickets. You also get bored on Friday nights, since the only thing to do is cruise laps from the church to the Dairy Queen, staring at passing cars and park at the courthouse when gas money runs low. You also get easy credit at the drug store and the dime store, just penciling in your name. The price you actually pay is that everyone who is anyone will know your business. You can’t escape the spiderweb of all-knowingness even when folks don’t know your name, as I found out from an elderly man easily fifty years my senior, stopping me on the sidewalk one day. 

“Hey there, little miss. Excuse me,” he interjected, stopping my friend and me from our dash into the dime store for stickers and glitter. “You absolutely must be Mary’s child, Catherine’s granddaughter.”

“Uhhh, yessir.” I say, wondering how the heck he knew that, not knowing I was the identical twin of the two at age seven, probably standing on the same sidewalk and framed by the same storefronts from decades before. 

People with Southern hometowns are notorious for knowing family history, calling out names of possible relations, dialing into some synaptic-fired database fueled by desire to make a connection. My boss, a friendly-enough fellow from New York (see the difference? I don’t know the town), once told me it’s a curious thing only Southerners do. 

“Three guys can be sitting in a bar in Manhattan. Most will talk about sports on the TV, or not talk at all. You throw a Southerner in there and within minutes he will ask people next to him where they’re from. If it is any Southern state, whether they are from Kentucky and he’s from Mississippi, they’ll be fast friends in minutes and figure out they know someone or something in common.” He stated, proud of this anthropological study. “No other part of the country does that. New Yorkers certainly don’t.”

I suppose there’s some truth to it. I can only imagine what one person from San Diego would say to another, having met at a conference or on a plane, if they even get to that fact. And how does where someone is from from factor in so easily as a tag, always the next blank after filling out “Hello, my name is ______.”

Lucky enough to get a spot on The Price is Right? Contestants give a shout out. Twirling in sequins or a swimsuit in front of pageant judges on national TV? The announcer will say the name of the hometown, sometimes answered with a whoop from the audience. Even a mugshot in the news is accompanied by the city and state considered home. Perhaps we are accustomed to — or desperate to — make an instant identification of what someone must be like, simply based on where they get the mail. But a “Ship to:” address is nothing compared to the place we call our hometown. Perhaps people from large cities or those who move about a lot don’t see it the same way. But for those of us with a hometown in the South, it’s a pin dropped squarely into a readable roadmap of our history, overlapping into intersections and guiding our way

A Bit of Americana

A Brat Ponders