It’s been a strange week. I’m in a restaurant waiting to be fed in this region of the United States known as the Deep South. In the corner of the room is a baby grand piano where a cocktail pianist is sitting, hunched over the keys, innocently murdering timeless classics from the Great American Songbook. I’ve been haunted by a gospel song about this town for years and thankfully the pianist has not yet attempted to kill it. Nina Simone sang it once and when she did, she sang it right from her bones. It’s the reason I’m here.
The guesthouse where I stay is right out of the Amityville Horror and the owner wears the sinister smile of the Halloween pumpkin. This morning he actually banged on my door, waking me up at 8 o’clock to get me to help him shift a heavy leather sofa from one side of a room to the other. The day before that, it was a large bathroom cabinet. He tells me he lives here with his wife and two small children but I haven’t seen them once. You’d have thought I might’ve at least heard a squeal of laughter or a raised voice, but no. Very odd. Then last night a couple moved into the room next door to mine and unfortunately for me the woman has the worst orgasm voice I think I’ve ever heard. I can hear her right through the wooden slats of the wafer thin walls. I don’t think I’ve ever been further from an orgasm yet in such close proximity to one in my entire life.
The town itself is a bit of a tart really, with her preened park squares, her gentle fountains and her sunshine filled gardens where the Spanish moss tumbles down from the branches of old oaks like tears. Everybody is pleased to see everybody else and they all dress up for dinner. But just beneath that postcard-pretty surface, well, I’m not so sure. A novel was once written based upon a murder which took place here many years ago. It was – and remains to this day – the longest-standing New York Times bestseller. I haven’t read it, but people tell me I must. I don’t know. It’s all a bit too much to read a novel about a place while I’m actually sitting in it. But one thing is for sure. I just can’t find a copy of it anywhere. I’ve learned that if the local people ever discuss it, they never mention the title. Or the real-life eccentricities of it. The man who walks his invisible dog. The practice of voodoo in the cemetery. The downfall of the pillar of the community: a wealthy antique dealer on trial for the murder of his rent-boy lover. A story that has woven itself into the fabric of a town which the locals call simply The Book. A town of hearsay, gossip and ghosts.
The evenings here, I suppose, could be spent at home anesthetizing the brains with endless lashings of reality television, sugary game-shows or reports from news channels of the smoke-and-mirror variety: mainly right-wing, of course, and never, ever offering the viewer an opportunity to explore unafraid the forbidden avenues of independent thought. In the bars of this postcard-pretty, chocolate box town, the locals fight their way up to the microphone of the karaoke podium to sing Eighties songs originally sung by men with mullets. Drunk patrons devour pitchers of beer and baskets of junk food while encouraging the keen-to-sing with mainly one-handed applause (one hand holds the beer, the other slaps the table) and they regard such evenings as a bit of a treat. The woman serving behind the bar speaks at me for ten long minutes of her undying love for the first wife of the Prince of Wales and of how much she despises his second. I stare into my beer with glazed eyes, close to weeping. Yes. Weeping. While these people might mourn a dead Princess from another land on the basis of her ‘unending compassion’, they talk with great hatred of the ‘Muslims’, the ‘faggots’, the ‘mixed race marriages’ and they passionately oppose Obamacare, the affordable healthcare bill structured so the poorest of America can access the most basic of medical attention. It is the Land of the Free but in this part of America these people are not free. They regurgitate the thoughts of the people around them. They are conditioned to think and feel in perhaps the most suspicious way. Fear is their imprisonment.
It’s a strange place and I think the residents know it. Part of me thinks they might enjoy it. About thirty minutes drive out of town, down a dirt track off the main drag, lives an off-grid community of farmland, trailers and ranch houses. The people down here warn all the visitors off heading up there, speaking of half-human and half-animal creatures who would shoot to kill without thinking. They speak of children born from incestuous sex and of dwarfs with stunted limbs. As they point the finger, I wonder how much it actually says about them. Whether these rumours are true or not, they are laced with an air of haughtiness which is, I think, very revealing. Yet I suppose a town with a reputation for oddities, secrets and strange happenings must be somewhat grateful to have an even stranger community to look down upon.
So as I sit here waiting for my food while the cocktail pianist crucifies that beautiful Louis Armstrong song What a Wonderful World – sadly one of my favourites – I think of these people who this coming Sunday will be climbing out of vulgar cars and into the pews of the churches in their finest clothes, pleased as ever to see everybody else before singing the music of an all-seeing, all-hearing, all-judging God. And while they’re singing those hymns and flashing wholesome pleased-to-see-you good-to-meet-you aren’t-we-wonderful smiles at each other, I shall be sitting on a train out of here. Good.
With thanks to Matt Roper for the text and imagery.
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings - a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
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