Charles J. Shields has generously given this exclusive never before read piece to The Writers Porch ! We Are Honored To Be The First To Read It !
" LET'S GET LOST"
It happened somewhere as we were driving along Route 7 between Grenada and Greenwood, Mississippi.“You feel it?” I said to my wife. She nodded, smiling, and closed her eyes.
We were taking off, disappearing into the morning sunlight and the miles of cotton fields on either side of us. The road was just a flat ribbon of asphalt, a seam of black then and now. Time receded in the rear view mirror, too exhausted to keep up with us. We were feeling the thrill of answering the invitation that jazz trumpet player Chet Baker used to put to audiences, “Let’s get lost.”
“Lost” in the real sense wasn’t it exactly. We could find our place on the map if we needed to. But this back road that stubbornly turned away from the interstate was leading us to a place I’d been looking for, but couldn’t find. Maybe I’d been looking too hard for it.
People in the audiences I’d been speaking to on my book tour were looking for it, too. After I’d finish talking about my biography of Harper Lee, often someone would shyly approach me. If they weren’t holding a copy of my book, I could usually guess what they were going to ask.
“Have you been to where Harper Lee grew up?”
“Sure, several times.”
“Well, is it like she says it is in her novel? I’ve read it so many times! You know, old-fashioned— the real South?”
I knew they want me to say, yes, it’s the way you’re imagining it. Or better, it’s still the how Scout described it: “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
But it isn’t that way any longer. “No,” I’d say, “The town has changed. Everything has since then.”
My disappointed listener would nod in agreement. “Thanks. I didn’t think so.”
What they wanted wasn’t a glimpse of old, desperate South under the heel of the Great Depression, of course. It was a feeling. I had wanted it too as I drove through the South in pursuit of the spirit of To Kill a Mockingbird.
It had been so elusive. Always beckoning from an abandoned road I didn’t have time to explore, or suggested in the faded letters on a rusted sign.
But something was happening on Route 7 where the cotton fields were like green, inland seas. We were driving into it. You had to wait for it. It was just stillness.
“Look!” I said, as we slowed and crept into Greenwood. It was early, and the streets were deserted. A few young men were scratching with rakes at the grass in from of the city hall, but all else was quiet. The brick buildings, many more than a century old, were half in shadows.
We came to a stop and lowered the windows. “You know,” I whispered, not knowing why, “if you never wanted to be found, you could come here.”
She drew a breath. “Why, who would have thought…”
She pointed to the storefront we’d stopped beside. The Mockingbird Café.
Charles J. Shields, lives in Barboursville, Virginia and is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt, $25), a New York Times Best Seller.