Thievery: Tennessee Stop
One Thursday per month, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their stories. Here’s one from the dreamy, pixie-esqie Helen McClory.
‘Tennessee Stop’ was published online at 3AM Magazine.
Astral had missed the name of the city, or the town. One run-down area of the country had bled into another. Was she in the South yet? Plants here wanted to grow through concrete, cracked it apart with their pale fingers. The sun too had split the earth to help draw the flimsy weeds up tall. Glass shone painfully bright in the windows of the bus station. This is not the end of the world, this is a temporary extension of the end.
Back in 2011 I was living in New York City, walking dogs for a living and trying to write a novel with a name that kept wriggling away from me. I knew I wanted the book to be set partially in New Mexico – a place I’d heard a bit about from D, my husband, and his dad, who’d lived in Albuquerque a while. In my mind, Albuquerque was a place that Bugs Bunny always said he shoulda turned left at, and that was about it. About New Mexico, I knew there was a lot of desert and art. Sand in a variety of pleasant pastel colours and good light. I checked out some paintings, the state flag and the names of a few of the national parks on Google, but at heart I knew that any novel I wrote would be title-less and flimsy if I didn’t get myself out there for some real life research.
I had a main protagonist, variously shifting of name as well. I knew she was an artist, English and trying to be an American, failing, miserably, like I was. I knew she wanted to get away from New York, and that she didn’t have much money. So I sent her to New Mexico by Greyhound, and followed her the same way, with D in tow. It’s a two thousand mile bus journey, two and a half days with the bare minimum of stops to change buses and drivers. I knew it would be a slog. But ‘slog’ is just a word. I didn’t really know anything. Travelling by Greyhound bus is the cheapest way to get where the planes don’t always go, and the journey exposed me to a poverty and a lounging, broken down sorrow that I didn’t think existed in the land of McMansions and malls, cornfields and oil, the land I thought was out there beyond the borders of the Empire State.
Most of the actions which happened in ‘Tennessee Stop’ didn’t take place in Tennessee at all, but we stopped there so often – the route on the first day runs the length of the state – that I felt I got good enough grip on the style and clientele of the stations. In some places the buildings were new, glassy palaces to industrial hygiene, in others, relics from the fifties and sixties, with old tiling and signs in gorgeous white and blue. In almost all cases the stops were to be found on the wrong side of the tracks of any township or city they were in. I thought we’d be able to buy hot food regularly. No such luck. Water was rare – only coke, and sometimes working water fountains. Outside there was often waste ground. Or buildings, but with dusty windows, nothing that looked like it had anything to comfort or sustain a traveller blowing through. Some folk were going to the next town: they looked clean, calm. Others were going much further, and had a haunted look. In Pittsburg, there was an NRA conference being held – banner adverts pasted up by the station showing that year’s hottest guns styled with the cheesy hubris of a WWF poster. It was there two teens got on who were later arrested at a Cleveland stop with an unregistered rifle wrapped in towels, carried off by police. That incident made it almost directly into the novel.
So too did the released convicts chatting about the people they beat up in jail (something D overheard while I was trying to be elsewhere), the child that cried without ceasing for hours, and the wide, shifting landscapes of America that took my gaze and held it safe all that time. Some things that happened, I altered. In ‘Tennessee Stop’, the protagonist goes to wash up in a bathroom, where she is first begged for money, then, after she gives too little, is violently spat upon. A cop comes into the toilets to use them, and the victim says nothing, slinks back to the bus, making herself as small as possible in this world she doesn’t understand. You can guess, something like this happened to me. But as I mentioned before, it wasn’t in Tennessee. It happened in St Louis, Missouri. The second day of travel. I was a wreck, puffy, dirty, hungry for meals that come on plates rather than in compressed bar form. D was waiting by the bus, I went into the toilets to wash my face. The woman came up to me, stood between me and the door. Aggressively she asked me for money, and, being tired and afraid, I gave her five dollars. It wasn’t enough, and she said exactly everything I had her say later. I promised I’d go and see if I my husband had more. There was no spitting, but the woman was angry. Angry, poor, desperate. I didn’t understand her and I did, after everything I’d seen those last two days. I left, and as I was leaving, the cop came in – and I said nothing.
I wrote it down later, an exorcism, a retread that somehow undid and yet replayed my inaction, the lack of definite edges to the incident. New Mexico was a dream after the weary miles, grander and more colourful than google lets on. And the book I wrote, filtered through not only my inadequacies and America’s, but all that wonder, that pink dust, and vivid, vicious living too.
Read ‘Tennessee Stop’ here.