Old National Highway is the next exit past the airport, south of Atlanta, and during rush hour the cars line up in terrible double rows, jamming into the heart of every intersection. They block all lanes and you can see the rage vibrating behind everyone’s eyes, but nobody ever blows their horn. Planes come in low, skating over the edge of the freeway and down onto the tarmac, trailing faint grey smoke. Sitting in the traffic, the sound of bass curls and wisps along the ground. It leaks into any open vehicular orifice along with a pervasive fried smell which permeates the greasy air, thick with jet fuel and asphalt, emanating from the endless fast food restaurants. Red and yellow signs glare while digital readouts note the increasing cost of gasoline. At every bus stop, trash cans overflow into the dirty street and black spray-painted graffiti covers most surfaces. Old women with strollers, young black men with dreadlocks, fat children and their handlers wait in clumps of faceless humanity. A man smokes a tragic cigarette. People with cell phones affixed to the sides of their heads wander in and out of traffic, heedless of the world they’ve made as it screams and veers around them. A man wearing a bowtie and selling folded newspapers asks a driver to buy a copy and is rejected.
Further down Old National, past Wal-Mart and Kroger, past the fifteen gas stations and their bright fluorescent shine, is our neighborhood. We live in an old house with a small yard where a big oak leans its limbs upon the roof. It’s me and my girl and our dog. We’ve been here for ten years, or forever. Here is where we watch the days pass among the housing tracts vacated by a fleeing white middle class in the early eighties, left behind by those seeking gated communities, planned golf course housing developments with signage restrictions, neighborhood covenants, a loyal police force. Now it is populated by strangers uninterested in the idea of a neighborhood, instead only seeking four walls to store their lives. Now this place belongs to no one. Now a sinister feeling pervades each cul-de-sac, each dead end street and indifferent darkened driveway. Now there is a sense of being shackled to the world by a fraying thread.
It has become like a memory of someone else's childhood.
I work nights and come home to this place. I work and when I leave, I say I am going home, but I wonder, sometimes, about that word.
I drive thru the dark streets and catch glimpses of stray cat eyes darting behind bushes. Flickering blue light from flat screens presses against covered window panes. I rub my face and put my blinker on even though nobody is around. I turn down the hill. Across from us is their house, the brown house where Johnny and the grandmother, and all the unknowable children live, the house where the trouble began. Next to us live Mr. Adams and his wife who was a widow up until she met him a few years back. He keeps his yard clean and full of flowers. It is the only place like it on my street. On the other side is Ms. Sue with her endless parade of relatives and church people. I pull up close to the garage and get out. I lock the doors and set the alarm. My girl is waiting. The dog presses her nose up against the screen door. I walk up.
Inside is one of the last bits of sanity anywhere in the world, a place where the lamps aren’t too bright and there is cold water and coffee. A place to read something good, to sit at the typewriter and write, a place where someone can cook a meal, not a big meal, something simple and warm, something quick and easy after a long night of cleaning up other people’s leftovers, other people’s lives. We can argue here too, we can scowl and frown and yell. We can let things go when we need to.
Inside is everything we have left, after so long together.
But out there is the neighborhood, and our little island is no defense against the rising tide of everyday horror. After the sun goes down, if you are quiet and still, the sounds begin to seep into your mind, to crawl into your ears and urge you to madness.
At night a chorus of lonely animals in yards overgrown with weeds begins to sing. An orchestra of barking dogs performs with quick shouts, intermittent howls, choked yelps, a machine gun rapid beat, a low rumble from each individual voice conveying personality and determination, a need to be heard. There are special tones, odd frequencies and strange patterns reverberating between the split level homes, with new phrases echoing in response to the vanishing wave of sound. And then, even louder, the silence in between movements rising like a held breath with all ears waiting, listening, desperate for someone to come into their theatre and relieve them, release them.
But no one ever comes and the College Park symphony drones back into life, every few minutes, every goddamned night.