Down South, by Rachel Kushner

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In June 1997, I boarded an all-night bus from the Port Authority to Asheville, North Carolina, with my friend Cynthia. We had no plan but to live there for the summer, or maybe longer, and something like five hundred dollars between us. Cynthia had been to western North Carolina. I had not. Her description of it as a place teeming with paradisiacal lushness, combined with my fatigue for city life, which I experienced then as constant money woes, provided conviction enough to get on a Greyhound.

In the middle of the night, we stopped in Maryland. Going into the station, I remember thinking that something, the humid air and the way that people moved through it, was already different, closer to whatever we were looking for. Then again, “whatever we were looking for” was what came into our view. All we had to do was assign meaning to it.

My mother and her sisters had spent part of their childhood just over the Great Smoky Mountains from Asheville, first in Oak Ridge, and later in Chattanooga, but because I’m from California, the South for me was cultural imagery that I looked upon, music that I listened to, as an outsider. I’d been to Memphis, to Mississippi, but as a tourist. The South for me was the movie Baby Doll. It was the deadstock hair curlers I’d purchased at the five-and-dime on Beale Street.

In the morning, our bus pulled into Richmond, Virginia, for a breakfast stop. We were trying to be frugal, calculating prices. A fry cook took notice of Cynthia’s powers of enchantment and snuck her a hamburger, furtively passing a plate around the side of the grill. With his slicked hair and acne scars he looked like a killer from paperback noir. Cynthia ducked past the cashier and headed to a table with her free burger. A first glimpse of Southern hospitality! A killer who wanted a nice young lady to eat a square meal.

We got to Asheville at 6 pm. The bus station, in a wooded area at the top of Tunnel Road, was already closed. From a pay phone we called a taxi. I remember the name of the company: Beaver Lake Cab. When the driver arrived, we asked if he could recommend a reasonable motel. He smoked discount cigarettes, GPCs, and had a thick Southern accent and a chunky cough, a cough I came to think of as the Carolina cough, because almost everyone in this tobacco state seemed to smoke. I asked him where he was from. “New Jersey,” he replied.

He dropped us at the Interstate Motel overlooking the 240 freeway downtown. We didn’t realize until we’d checked in and found dinner and were relaxing in our nightgowns with cold beers that this motel was hourly commerce. All night long people pounded on our door. Cynthia laughed about it, but I felt like we had been betrayed. In William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Temple Drake is taken to a brothel by a sinister bootlegger, but our version had no gothic burnish. It was just a cab driver from New Jersey playing a practical joke.

Once while talking to the author Donna Tartt, I mentioned that my mother was from Tennessee. Donna Tartt’s Southernness is palpable, as if Mississippi were the softly glowing backlight to her good looks, her large emerald ring, and the vintage silk bed jacket she was wearing as we spoke. “I didn’t know that,” she said. She treated this information as important. Is it, I wondered? But also, were my people really Southern? My mother and her three sisters grew up in the South, but my grandparents didn’t. They came down there, even if they only “came down there” from Missouri. I have ancestors from colonial Virginia on my grandmother’s side, and there might have been a Confederate soldier or two in that family, but my grandmother’s grandfather was named after the abolitionist Charles Sumner. My grandparents were progressives who founded Unitarian churches and opened their home to civil-rights workers traveling to sit-ins.

But also, Oak Ridge, where they lived just after the war, was then a government town with patrolled gates. Even if my grandfather, a metallurgist, had no graduate degree and was not among the elite, he was part of the waves of Northerners who came South to “modernize.” The poor whites who lived beyond the gates of Oak Ridge regarded the imported population—its scientists and engineers and technicians and their families—with suspicion. It’s understandable. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which dammed rivers and powered Oak Ridge, led to the dispossession of tens of thousands of people and the disinterment of their dead, even as this massive New Deal project prevented flooding, brought electricity, improved farming, and decreased poverty across the region.

Charles J. McCarthy, father of Cormac McCarthy, was lead counsel for the TVA, and he was instrumental in clearing people off their land. I imagine him as something like the character played by Montgomery Clift in Elia Kazan’s Wild River, who goes down to tell the dignified and stubborn grandmother that her island, and generations of her family history, will soon be underwater. Charles was a Northerner with a Yale law degree. McCarthy obsessives debate at length the degree to which his novel Suttree, with its descriptions of ruin from the damming of the Tennessee River, is autobiographical, a prodigal son’s rebuke of his father. Cormac was born in Providence, Rhode Island, but moved to Knoxville, TVA headquarters, at age four. After Suttree, he left the South and reinvented himself as a man of the West.

Do you think of yourself as a Southerner? I recently asked my aunt DeeDee. She starts telling me about attending the “Cotton Ball” in Chattanooga, where my mother and aunts went to high school. This was in 1956, when DeeDee was a senior at Girls Preparatory School. She watched a classmate become a “queen” of the Cotton Ball belles. The belles in their hoopskirts took the arms of boys from Baylor Military Academy, who wore Confederate uniforms. “Were they really Confederate?” I ask DeeDee. “They were gray,” she replies, meaning Confederate enough. The belles bowed under their dates’ gleaming swords, and then everyone sang “Dixie.” It’s deeply understood that my aunt, a media activist and lifelong radical, did not assent to the scene as she took it in. As soon as she and my mother got their driver’s licenses they were heading up to Highlander Folk School, where Rosa Parks was trained, to be in truly mixed company and listen as people debated how to organize the movement for desegregation.

I ask my aunt Fritzi the same question and she texts back one word: Yes. My aunt Betsy sends me a yearbook photo from 1963 of the “Jr. Klan” at Chattanooga High. She has no memory of the Junior Klan. She does remember arguing with a teacher about integration and refusing to stand for “Dixie” at pep rallies. These experiences are relayed to me as hallmarks of Southern childhood. But when I ask my mother whether she thinks of herself as Southern, she says, “I feel I’m from St. Louis.” She went to college in St. Louis and her four grandparents lived there, but the answer is curious, given that she spent most of her childhood in Tennessee, with a brief stint in Cuba. My mother stays in touch regularly with her classmates from Girls Preparatory School, girls with whom she walked the perimeter of the gym in high heels, as practice.

“It dawns on me that I have somehow wandered into the very cradle of Southern womanhood,” Ross McElwee says in his film Sherman’s Marchas he visits a private girls’ school in Charleston, South Carolina. I suspect it’s the very notion of an identifiable cradle to Southern womanhood, beyond the unspoken assumption that Southern womanhood is white (and fiercely protected as such), that makes my mother say she’s not a Southerner. Maybe the baggage of the South and whatever it is I’m trying to get at with this question is my trip, and not hers.

Our first few days in Asheville, Cynthia and I combed classifieds and walked through the heavy humid afternoons to find a place to live. Asheville was so carved up by freeways that parts of it were impossible to navigate as a pedestrian; we would find ourselves on a street two blocks from our destination, but a highway in between would prevent us from getting there. Engineers had cut an enormous gash into a granite mountain to put in a highway leading out of town. Work crews were widening another highway while we lived there. The mania for highways seemed inexplicable except as some kind of graft.

We rented a cheap little house in West Asheville. I found work serving breakfast at an IHOP on Tunnel Road. I befriended the dishwasher, Willy. After his day off I’d say, “How are you, Willy?” and he’d say, “Man, I went to Greenville last night.” It meant: don’t bother me. And: I had a great time and I’m paying the price. Greenville, South Carolina, was a place where Willy, who was black, could relax. There were parts of Greenville that were 80 percent black, while Asheville’s black neighborhoods had been destroyed by so-called urban renewal projects in the Seventies.

I had a second job as a server at a fancy restaurant downtown, where Cynthia also worked. In our free time, we went to thrift stores and the public library. Asheville had a New Age aspect that we disliked and tried to repress because it did not fit with our Southern odyssey. We went to “country karaoke,” thinking it would be people belting Kitty Wells. Country karaoke was white boys doing Tone Loc. We befriended a local hipster who owned a video store specializing in rare oddities. He told us that Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer, came in to rent films. We hung out with our neighbor, Junior, who seemed to live on his porch, where he drank beer and loaded weapons. Junior was so emphatically hillbilly that I sometimes wondered if he was putting us on, but the performance never lapsed.

We followed a mysterious Elvis impersonator all over Asheville. Maybe he wasn’t deliberately an Elvis impersonator. He had dyed black hair and a black leather jacket, a rockabilly swagger. He was on foot, like us. Once, we followed him from West Asheville all the way into town as night fell. He never looked back. He went into a bar downtown called Smokey Tavern. We entered, on his heels. He passed through the bar, smoky as its name promised, and disappeared behind a curtain in the back. We ordered drinks and waited. Finally he reappeared and walked out of the bar. We snuck behind the curtain: What had this person of great mystery been doing back there? There was a vanity mirror and a sink. He’d been combing his pompadour, attending to his appearance—the very thing that made him mysterious. The tautology of our discovery vexed us for days.

With savings from my two jobs, I bought a car in nearby Hendersonville, a 1963 Impala that had been languishing in someone’s apple house.I gave Junior a ride, flooring it to make the rear wheels spin, and he looked at me and said, “You’re ’bout as American as they come.” I believe that what Junior meant by this ridiculous statement was that I was white and behind the wheel of a Chevy, driving too fast and wearing cutoffs. In fact I’m nothing but an American, and yet I wondered whether I was performing a role for Junior, just as Junior probably was for me.

Some locals showed me and Cynthia an abandoned dry cleaner along a part of the Swannanoa River that had flooded years earlier. (Asheville had resisted the TVA, and its two rivers overtop their banks regularly as a result.) The front door hung open. We went in. A thick line of silt traced the walls of every room. There were plastic-sheathed clothes on movable tracks that ran along the ceiling. They still had customer tags stapled to the plastic, dated sometime in the late Seventies. No one had ever come to claim these garments after the flood. I shopped. I took slacks and blouses that had lain clean and protected, embalmed and in plastic, for a couple of decades.

I was wearing something from that dry cleaner, a high-waisted synthetic blouse with a huge collar, as I left Asheville. I drove west in my Impala, intending to sell the car in California and make my way back to New York with the profit. Cynthia stayed behind, at least for a while.

It had been raining heavily that day we went into the abandoned dry cleaner, and as we stood inside, the Swannanoa had rushed beyond the broken windows, high and swift, pushing branches and debris. Thinking now of that sound, the water so close and so loud, I suddenly remember the name of the place: Rainbow Drycleaner.

When I passed through Asheville with my mother the next summer, I showed her the abandoned Rainbow Drycleaner on the Swannanoa. It was almost collapsed. She loved it. “Let’s try to buy this place,” she said in a moment of impractical high spirit. We were on our way to the Smokies, to a family reunion in Cashiers, where my aunt Betsy has a tiny cabin with a gristmill on the Chattooga River—the waterway where Deliverance was filmed, though on a different stretch of it. I introduced my mother to Junior, who was still on his porch. Junior didn’t quite understand that my mother and I weren’t sisters. He bragged to me on the sly that he knew people who were helping to hide Eric Rudolph, the antiabortion terrorist behind several bombings in the South, including the 1996 attack on Atlanta’s Olympic Park.

Junior was not unique in professing sympathy for Rudolph, who was apparently living in caves down in the Nantahala Forest, north of Cashiers, and was much romanticized by locals. Federal agents had descended to find him with no understanding that there are hundreds of caves in the region, and you can’t just blow it all up the way you do to build a highway.

“A child of God much like yourself perhaps,” Cormac McCarthy says of his antihero Lester Ballard, the hillbilly necrophiliac who disappears into the caves of eastern Tennessee, north of where Rudolph hid. Some have speculated that Lester’s killing spree was partly inspired by the murder of a teenaged Chattanooga Valley couple.

After Rudolph was caught, it came out that the survivalist hero had often foraged in McDonald’s dumpsters. He hadn’t moved to Appalachia until he was fifteen. His sister-in-law said he was a stoner who loved Cheech and Chong.

Is Eric Rudolph even a hillbilly?

Am I as American as they come?

Are my people Southern? (Is Cormac Southern?)

The state motto of North Carolina is “to be rather than to seem.” But to seem is also to be, one could argue. I would argue.

And to not seem gives the freedom to not be.

My mother—who fled the segregated South at sixteen, has no Southern accent, and seems downright Yankee in her industriousness and her bearing—does not come across as Southern.

And so, according to her: she isn’t.


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