By: Emily Powers Ender
Smith College, Massachusetts, USA (alum)
Imagine that you are driving down a road in rural Tennessee. The baby sleeps feverishly in the back seat, but that’s no matter – you’ll be home before she wakes. You wind down the mountain and emerge in farm country, the slim fingers of the Cumberlands hedged around you. You know that you must have passed into northern Alabama at some point, but no sign welcomed you; this winding country road did not merit the effort. The late-afternoon September sun peeks through heavy trees, and the ever-present mountains follow alongside you at a distance.
You’d think that it would be beautiful, but it isn’t. It’s just road. Mile after mile with nowhere to turn around, no driveway, no intersection, just road. And it goes on. From nowhere to nowhere, with nothing in between. The dust clings to the windshield, and through it you notice that the fields look tired—beaten down, perhaps, by the heat. The mountains rise like pimples out of the earth. You cross the bridge over a small river named after some venomous snake. It smells. You pick up a railroad track running parallel to the highway and believe that you would give your eye teeth for a gravel driveway to turn around in.
You find the town that you were hoping for – a settlement large enough to have merited a place on the signpost thirty miles back in Tennessee. Or so you thought. It consists of one main street and no lights; its only noticeable intersection is at the railroad, where cars are lined up four deep; the train has caught up to you. Where did those cars come from, and where might they be going? Not here. The obligatory “antique” (that is, junk) shop and beauty salon are closed for the day. Only the bar is open, Confederate battle flags adorning its windows, its walls weathered in a way that resembles, you imagine, the faces of its clientele.
Can this be America?
Can this be the same country that is home to one of the world’s largest cities, where, in any given neighborhood, you might hear two dozen languages spoken—including the native tongue of your grandfather, whose immigrant parents knew no English but saw that their son went to law school? Where a beneficent deity presides over a sprawling metropolis and begs to be sent your poor, your tired, your huddled masses?
Would she welcome the poor and tired masses who dwell in defiant ruin here? This place could not be farther from that other, with its immigrant dreams, its museums and theaters, its reams of educated people. Even the harshest realities seem worlds apart from where you sit. In your progressive little soul (bless your heart), you will believe that you have died and gone to Hell.
Your heart sinks as you realize that neither Google nor Siri can quickly recognize where you are, but can you blame them? You scarcely know yourself. At last, your iPhone informs you that the quickest way home is back the way you came, back across the stagnant river, back past the tired farms and pustule-shaped hills, over the endless road.
The only way out is back.
What America did you have, Walt Whitman? There is no resolution to the cognitive dissonance; this place cannot be the same country that you know. You never left your car; crossed one small, stinking river by way of a natural landmark; met no one; traversed no border that you could perceive, yet you entered a foreign land. You are now a stranger in hostile territory, which is still, somehow, your native country.
Your palms sweat as you grip the wheel and realize that your head has hurt for the entirety of this drive; the baby stirs, fusses, goes back to sleep. You cross over the Tennessee border – Tennessee is more generous with its signage – and at the quarry are met with a confusion of white dust and shifting mounds, rusty elevators and railroad tracks. From this side, you can see how the road continues back up into the mountains. From the other side, coming at it level and amid the farms, you had slammed on your brakes in a panic, believing that you had reached the end of the road.
Time did not change the land in your absence. You’d thought that it would be beautiful, but it isn’t. Your sojourn into the wilderness has left you puzzled and drained – drained like this land, with its tired fields and blemishes for hills, its huddled masses who want nothing to do with you or that other America.
Yet you can’t quite bring yourself to see the strangers who inhabit this place as beasts of a breed far different from your own; you have nothing in common—you scarcely speak the same language, and it seems that there is more that divides than unites you—but the divorce is not yet final and there is peace in the thought. Your heart and vehicle begin to ascend; you have reached the mountain road shaded by a wealth of trees blocking out everything around you but the rising pavement—the beautiful, winding road that leads to civilization, to home, to somewhere.
Then it comes to you. The source of the peace. Perhaps it was the bend in the road but, in any case, you know now how the contradiction is to be resolved. You smile at its simplicity, its sheer impossibility. The baby stirs, opening her wide, refreshed eyes to meet yours in the rear-view mirror. All shall be well:
You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.