Sixteen years ago tonight I was holed up with friends at a second-floor apartment in the old railroad depot which houses Hal & Mal’s. The power had been out for a minute, but it wasn’t hot inside yet, and we were halfheartedly picking at a game of Monopoly as the wind roared outside. It would be days before we really knew what all had happened.
Hydrangeas in the backyard, Polaroid SX-70, 2021
Sometimes I think something is a pattern but it’s really just an echo. I’ve had intense feelings of déjà vu that, on reflection, I can parse out: the light is hitting that building like it did that time in Vicksburg, and the street layout is the same, so . . . .
San Bernandino County, California, Polaroid SX-70 (2021)
Or maybe there’s just ghosts. Maybe there’s just straight-up ghosts and there’s not a pattern or a formula to perceive, there’s the strange, cold hand of something other brushing against the back of my neck. Doesn’t that almost make a type of sense? Don’t you kind of want it to?
Adair County, Oklahoma, on a cold afternoon after Alabama beat Arkansas,1 Polaroid 600 (2020)
Or maybe it’s not just a little pattern I’ve glimpsed, but a larger one. Maybe those times you’re standing in a city you’ve never been with the tingle of I just know I’ve been here before you managed to solve a couple of digits in a cosmic formula.
Not enough to understand the world, or even really decode it, just enough to perceive there’s something larger out there. Like when you begin to see the faces of your friends and family in their children, when you call your niece by your sister’s name because it’s not just that she reminds you of her, it’s that to some unquantifiable amount she is her.
Alligator, Mississippi, Polaroid 600 (2020)
Perhaps pattern is a different way of saying cover song. It’s so life-affirming when you hear the same chord, by different hands, in a different context, yet it retains the essential magical power of the original2 or transforms it in a revelatory way.3
Monroe, Louisiana, Polaroid 600 (ca. 2019)
Maybe time can be bruised. Or rather, in living we can be bruised, and then that sensitivity causes us to flinch or change behavior as we experience life at other points. In the great poet Waxahatchee’s “Fire,” she sings
And I take off driving
Past places been tainted
I put on a good show for you.
And when I turn back around
Will you drain me back out
Will you let me believe that I broke through?
Lord I know there were whole cities I couldn’t visit at times in my life, places so haunted I couldn’t bear them. I’m thankful that those feelings have eased as I’ve grown older and deeper, just as Katie Crutchfield describes in her song.
DIANE’S SPOT, West Memphis, Arkansas, Polaroid SX-70 (2019)
When I was in high school there was a road in Hueytown we believed was haunted. You’d cut left off Warrior River Road right after the hardware store, onto Clark Mountain Road. It was a forlorn stretch of pine-covered asphalt with not one but two cemeteries, abandoned mobile homes with red clay front yards. I don’t know when we decided it was haunted, but we were very sure it was. A friend from a different high school had a haunted road in his neighborhood too, over by what kids in Sandusky and Pratt City called Catholic Hill.
Why did we think places could be haunted? Was it the endless Stephen King we consumed during class, the abandoned cities we roamed after? In It it wasn’t just that some of the houses or bridges or parks or sewers might be haunted, it was all of Derry. Did this become something I thought was real, or just a way to articulate a cosmic formula I can never grasp?
Tennessee, location unrecorded, Polaroid 600 (2020)
I wasn’t scared that night playing Monopoly, sixteen years ago. There were times it was scary, but that’s distinct from the fear that came afterwards, like the bruise from a fall that never quite faded. So I’m a little jittery today looking out the window seeing tree branches jump and shake. The sky is blue and pretty but the texture seems off. I hope that’s just me flinching at the past.
Dawn over Coahoma County in the Summertime, Polaroid SX-70 (2020)
After Hurricane Audrey in 1957—a name now recessed far back into memory for people of my generation, long before Camille and Katrina and Isaac—Bishop Maurice Schexnayder of Lafayette crafted a prayer of protection for the Coast. I read it this morning, surprised to recognize the fears and sensitivity I was writing to you about. It was calming to know I was not alone in having these thoughts, and it brought me some peace to read. Maybe it will you, too.
O God, Master of this passing world,
hear the humble voices of your children.
The Sea of Galilee obeyed Your order and returned to its former quietude.
You are still the Master of land and sea.
We live in the shadow of a danger over which we have no control;
the Gulf, like a provoked and angry giant,
can awake from its seeming lethargy,
overstep its conventional boundaries, invade our land,
and spread chaos and disaster.
During this hurricane season we turn to You, O loving Father.
Spare us from past tragedies whose memories are still so vivid
and whose wounds seem to refuse to heal with passing of time.
O Virgin, Star of the Sea, Our beloved Mother,
we ask you to plead with your Son on our behalf,
so that spared from the calamities common to this area
and animated with a true spirit of gratitude, we will walk in the footsteps of your Divine Son to reach the heavenly Jerusalem, where a stormless eternity awaits us.
AS ALWAYS I am gorjusjxn on Instagram, and you can see more Polaroids at McCartyPolaroids. I want to say a special thanks to my friend Jared Ragland, who was such a wonderful interview subject in last week’s “Always Happy at the Movies.” I wish you peace and safety today and this week.
This game is where I believe the legendary receiver DeVonta Smith locked down his eventual Heisman Trophy win. The Tide and the Razorbacks were hung up 3-3 until Smitty blew it up with a punt return for a touchdown. It’s a spectacular play for anyone, but especially so because returns were just his side gig.
The joy of Stevie Wonder’s version of “We Can Work It Out”!
Prince is a titan, but Sinéad’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” is the ne plus ultra of that song. This parallels exactly Aretha’s elevation of “Respect” to the pantheon of not just “greatest songs,” but greatest art, while Otis’ original remains a pretty good soul jam. And I love Otis Redding! But the song he wrote is just music; Aretha first transmuted notes to marble, then carved a David. See also Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah,” a quantum leap over Cohen’s dour original, or Cash’s “Hurt” (neither of which I listen to, due to their emotional heft, and the hopes of preserving that emotion (the same reason I’ve only ever seen Magnolia once)).