By Francine Mathews
I woke up this morning in New Orleans.
The first time I saw this city, I was twenty years younger. My husband and I had been driving for weeks, heading steadily south through the summer heat from Washington, D.C.,where we had packed up our lives that June. Mark had quit his job in environmental enforcement at Justice. I’d quit mine in analysis at the CIA. An outsider named Ross Perot had recently lost his bid for the Presidency on an anti-bureaucrat ticket. We occasionally tried to explain to people we met that WE were the bureaucrats he was attacking–a nice, young married couple who’d done their best at their respective government agencies–but mostly people shook their heads and congratulated us on fleeing The System. We drove through Appalachia and the Great Smokies, through dry counties in Tennessee tenanted mostly by triple Baptist crosses. In Asheville, North Carolina, an older gentleman asked me worriedly if I was injured, as I sat stretching in a park before my morning run. He’d never seen a woman grimacing on the ground without a good reason. He was smoking a cigarette as he asked. I thanked him politely, explained that I was exercising, and he moved on–flummoxed.
We were free as birds, all responsibility behind us and the rest of our lives ahead. We had no children. Good friends had taken our dog, Clementine, to be shipped to Colorado–our ultimate destination–whenever she could get off the tarmac during the weather holds in August. We would never be quite this free again, although at the time we did not know that.
We had two primers to guide us: ROAD FOOD, by Jane and Michael Stern–a bound precursor to the sort of restaurant world later explored in “Diners, Dives, and Drive-ins”–and a list of Civil War battlefields we needed to see. We’re Civil War bugs. Mark had never been so deep in Confederate territory.
|The Battle of Shiloh
If you’ve lived in Washington, as we had, you’d seen Bull Run and Spotsylvania and The Wilderness and The Bloody Lane. You’d made the pilgrimages to Antietam and Appomattox and Gettysurg multiple times. You had carried James McPherson’s BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM around that small town in Pennsylvania and carefully reconstructed three days of chaos, in the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den and among the last men of the 20th Maine standing on Little Roundtop. You had walked in the footsteps of Pickett’s Charge, an endless mile-long march under raking rifle fire.
But on this trip, Mark and I were haunted by the ghosts of the twilight dead at Shiloh in Mississippi, the most spiritual empty field I have ever known. We examined the foxholes of Vicksburg, where Grant slowly starved a city to submission. We touched the silent cannon on the heights of Chickamauga.
And then we ate: Insanely grilled steaks at Doe’s Eats in Greenville, Mississippi, where neighbors stood talking in slow clouds of midges at the kitchen’s back door, and children ran with sticks and balls through the dusty alleyways. We had ham and biscuits at The Loveless Cafe in Nashville, expecting Elvis to walk through the door. We listened to ancient Elvis songs as we drove, appreciating his oeuvre as we never had before, in the setting that gave birth to it.
We ate endless servings of coconut cream pie and slept in highway motels with rattling air conditioners at night. In Natchez we checked into a plantation house filled with priceless antiques and learned what a tester–pronounced “teester”–bed was. We walked the Natchez Trace and stood where Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, shot himself to death a few years after his return from the wilderness.
And as I stood there, wondering how I had never known about this Federal-era suicide, I thought: There’s a book in this.
I had recently found a literary agent to represent my first novel. I had quit my job on the strength and hope of it, my fingers crossed that I’d be allowed to write for a living. Mark was starting a new life, too, as a private sector lawyer in Denver. This was well before the time of cellphones or voicemail or even email, as it happens–so I traveled those weeks on the road in happy ignorance of my agent’s efforts on my behalf. I could not be reached, and preferred it that way.
And by the time we hit New Orleans, where French and Southern cultures mingle, the Mississippi River was cresting in one of the epic floods of the last century. We raced ahead of the waters as they rose all along our route, discovering in Witchita that even land-locked Kansas can be subsumed. We made it through Little Rock and Lake of the Ozarks and a town called Hope, and eventually, not far from the Kansas-Colorado border, in a pay phone outside of a Stuckey’s restaurant, I finally checked in with my agent.
He had negotiated a two-book, hard-soft deal with William Morrow and Avon, with an editor named Marjorie Bramen, and yes–I would be able to write for a living.
The road between then and now was much longer, of course, than that simple statement suggests. I was orphaned by William Morrow and Marjorie Bramen but found other editors to love. I have written twenty-six books, raised two sons, and buried generations of dogs–Clementine being the first to cross the Rainbow Bridge. Rafe is still my agent.
And as I ate beignets this morning with my cafe au lait, in my preferred New Orleans fashion, I realized that I had not yet written that book about Meriwether Lewis. I still may, however. The story is out there on the Trace, waiting for me. The road moves on, but sometimes it comes full circle.
What roads and stories, what battlefields and dives, call to your hearts, Readers?
Laissez les bons temps roulent —