Take the interstate exit and follow the pavement to the rural route. Go past the fields of autumnal cotton, past the lopsided trailer homes sitting in fields of blond stubble, past the abandoned filling station, and soon you will find the little town.
You’ll see the hi-welcome-to-our-city-sign, covered with smatterings of tin badges for the Lion’s Club, Kiwanis, Rotary, and the all-you-can-eat catfish joint. You’ll see the feed and seed, the vacant downtown storefronts Walmart killed, and finally you’ll see the little white dog trot house.
Well, at least it used to be white. Today it’s more mildew colored.
In the overgrown yard are the remains of ancient outdoor Playskool toys that predate the Carter administration, and the bones of a rusted swing set that went to be with Jesus a long time ago.
Elderly Martha was standing on her porch waiting for me when I pulled up. Martha is not her real name, but it will have to do.
She speaks with an accent that’s thicker than pancake batter. She raised her family here. She retired here.
“I used to work at mill,” she told me. “I was the nurse lady who bandaged people who got hurt.”
She poured two mugs of coffee. Weak coffee. The brew was the color of iced tea. It was the kind of coffee many old-timers often drink. I once asked an elderly guy why old people made their coffee so weak. The returning answer was: “So we can drink it all day long.”
The woman sat at her kitchen table, staring into her mug of brown water, and told the inexperienced writer across from her the story that brought him here.
Her story took place in the winter. She remembers it vividly. The tree branches were naked, the sun was setting. She was leaving the mill after a very long workday.
“My mama lived with us at the time,” she said. “Mama was dying, me and my sister was taking care of her, swapping shifts.”
The woman pointed to the back bedroom. The room was now filled with mile-high stacks of old newspapers and empty glass bottles. The word “hoarder” came to mind.
“Mama lived right back there,” she said.
That evening, long ago, Martha had a little free time after work. Her sister was caring for her mother that day, so Martha headed for the nearest big-city mall to return a new dress she bought. She’d purchased the dress to wear at a friend’s wedding, but it was too small.
“I always did have big hips,” Martha added.
She was driving on a vacant highway, listening to the radio, when she saw a young girl walking on the shoulder. The girl was barefoot.
Call it the mother in her; call it the unquenchable Methodist instinct, Martha pulled over.
The young woman was dressed in a ragged floral print dress and looked as though she’d fallen on hard times. Martha knew all about hard times.
“I asked if she needed a ride.”
The girl hopped in. Soon, they were driving through cotton fields and rows of soybeans when the young woman looked at Martha and, without preamble, said in a monotone voice:
“You’d better get home, Martha.”
Martha just looked at her.
“Your mother,” the girl went on, “she doesn’t have long. You’d better get home soon.”
Martha stared at her young passenger and almost slammed the brakes. There was something in the way the young woman said these words. Something in her voice.
In a few moments, the girl pointed through the windshield and asked to be let out.
Martha pulled onto the shoulder. The young woman spoke for the final time.
“Go home to your mother. She needs you.”
Martha’s skin became gooseflesh. She aimed her car toward home and when she pulled into her driveway she was greeted by her sister who was standing in the front yard, waving her hands in the glow of the high beams.
“Mama can’t breathe,” shouted her sister. “I think it’s happening. I think she’s dying.”
Martha raced inside, jogging past the lopsided swingset and faded Playskool toys. And the night that followed was a long one. It was an evening spent sitting in a chair, perched beside her mother’s bed.
Her mother was gone by morning.
Martha believes she would have missed her mother’s final few moments of consciousness had it not been for that strange girl.
“I never saw that girl before,” Martha told me, topping off my translucent coffee. “I asked ever’body about her, but ain’t nobody believe me. That’s why I don’t tell nobody this story no more, ‘cause they all look at me like I’m crazy. But you don’t think I’m crazy, do you?”
I smiled at her.
Crazy, no. A chronic hoarder, most certainly.
After our interview, I drove out of town, past the feed and seed, past the abandoned storefronts, the one-room insurance office buildings, past the quintessential American water tower. And I tried to envision a young woman walking barefoot along the highway. I could swear I almost saw her.
But then again, that might just be the coffee talking.