Though I’m admittedly a man prone to hyperbole and portent, I can say that the rural areas just east of Memphis, Tennessee, are some of the most unique and even haunting I’ve ever known. This is not to speak of Memphis proper, a conflicted and lovably-decaying ruin on the banks of the country’s most fabled river; that’s a topic for another day. Though my wife works full-time in Midtown Memphis, and though I spent many if not most of my pre-COVID days in the city, we make our home in Hickory Withe, a crossroads of rolling hills, churches, and subdivisions a good thirty minutes east of town.
Our home was selected for a number of reasons. It’s a standard mid-1960s ranch and not terribly exciting to look at, but it sits well back from the road on spacious grounds shaded by towering black oaks, and we’re treated to a postcard-perfect view of the eight-hundred acre dairy farm directly opposite the state highway, A rural home, we reasoned, would allow us the freedom to record, loudly and often, at any time of day or night we please. The house features a large addition that was once a beauty salon, and this seemed an ideal fit for a recording and rehearsal space, even as the rest of the house clearly needed work, and the period touches of massive speckled wall-mirrors and an orange-and-yellow themed kitchen were not exactly to our preference.
The farm across the road proved invaluable in another way – due to its size declaring it a buffer of sorts, it seems we’re the last outpost of Hickory Withe that hasn’t been given over to hideous, treeless voids of suburban cul-de-sac developments, swarming and straining at their borders until their identikit rooflines are visible from the bucolic historic sections of nearby Arlington. If the farmer across the road should pass and his progeny decide to sell the land, we’d be an unclaimed outpost no more, and probably in very short order.
My wife and I moved east from Memphis proper for natural solitude and seclusion, and now find ourselves surrounded by the types of racquet-club jogging-suit families who heard a lone gunshot once from their Cordova McMansion’s backyard and immediately made plans to shove off in this direction. The politics of most of these nearby towns – Oakland, Somerville, Gallway, and Arlington, where the same family general store that once hosted a lynching of a young black man still gaily serves the community – are abhorrent and cruel, leagues upon leagues from the comfortable underdog-progressive stronghold of the city to the west. This is also less than satisfactory.
Arlington itself is one of Tennessee’s fastest growing communities, but Hickory Withe is no longer incorporated, almost all of its former downtown businesses long since demolished and scrapped. Even our addresses are Arlington addresses (until they inevitably become Memphis addresses in the due course of time, as the city’s outer mall-belt devours its way east). A few elderly folks still gather once a month at one of the larger Baptist churches for town meetings (introduced by the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, of course), but the Withe hasn’t seen any serious news in decades. In the nearly four years we’ve spent here, the most talked-about local happening was the opening of a new freeway exit off of I-40 a mile north of our house. The added long-haul truck traffic has been received coolly by this crowd of above-fifty retirees who surely haven’t entered Memphis since Reagan was president. The Bluff City may as well be on the surface of the moon, from here.
Thankfully, our small neighborhood has proven mostly friendly, lots of folks still eeking out an agriculture-based living in tin-roofed shotgun shacks and trailers, many of these cozying up to modern homes worth $400,000 or more, such estates usually flanked by ponds and patches of woods. Pickups with flat tires sit up on cinderblocks, cattle and chickens wander aimlessly through thigh-high timothy grass, brightly-colored plastic childrens’ toys sit marooned in muddy driveways, and all of it surrounded by cotton, so much cotton that in late summer and early fall our windows rattle with the passing of the giant, insectoid machinery of the trade. The new electric sign of the tiny white-frame Baptist church across the road glows benevolently through our bedroom windows as we sleep, and the trucks and tractors rumble past well through early morning, and even now, during a worldwide pandemic that’s killed nearly 700,000 people, not much else of note seems to be going on.
But down the road apiece, the land flattens out around US-64, and this is where the landscape of the region turns barren and spectral. No hills along its four lanes, just long wide stretches of open space with the occasional fledgling strip-mall or garden and supply warehouse easing up to the shoulder, stark trees of uncertain heritage looming over the massive parking lot of the former flea market building, the gas stations and on-ramps for the newest Memphis interstate loop, the occasional crumbling home advertising firewood for sale with heavy equipment abandoned in ditches nearby. Through season after season, beneath the unchanging billboards, pumpkin tents guarded by inflatable jack-o-lanterns turn to Christmas tree tents guarded by inflatable snowmen. In heat-hazed and languid summer, every mile brings the red-and-white-striped stands that announce the sale of fireworks, each one topped with a neat little row of American flags draped lazily in the nothing-breeze. There are also horses everywhere one can look, which likely explains the presence of the Western Tennessee Equine Hospital along 64 in Eads, bearing comically large barn doors for its patients.
In summer, this edge of nowhere can seem unremitting and oppressive, but in winter it takes on a dreamy sort of burned-out beauty, a study in black and brown fields and branches beneath dead overcast skies, hunting rifles for soundtrack and the perpetual wafting phantom of field-burning smells accompanying every frozen step. When snow comes, it’s pitifully meager and rarely hangs around for long, sending a few cars skidding precariously into culverts, making the children rush outside to their dooryards to catch snowflakes on tiny tongues. At night and in frequent tendrils of fog, the used car lots and megachurches and sandstone paving works shine eerily through full-on darkness like wayward beacons signaling for rescue. In very early mornings, the furnace-ember sunrises can move you to awestruck tears. There is good here, an uncomplicated good in spite of the malice, the closed minds. The land is barren and unforgiving, but the people remain true to it, unswerving through generations of devoted tenders, shadowed by leaning silos, forever leaning against something rusted.
I don’t know that this corner of the Mid-South feels like home yet, or ever will. It’s an unusual vague no-place where we linger sometimes, playing with our cats in the yard, tending the berries and cukes in the garden. Our small acreage, yes, that is love I feel, pure affection for the aesthetically-pleasant grass and trees that legally belong to us. But with nearly every friend living in the city, it can feel quite isolated out here, even more so now under quarantine. I imagine we might grow lonely enough, and frustrated enough with all this country simplicity, to eventually move back into town, but for now I’m both entranced by this odd landscape and wary of it, living here but not ‘of’ whatever makes this place what it is. It seems unlikely that one can ever truly become ‘of’ rural eastern Memphis unless you were born here, preferably a scion of a family dating back for generations in these surroundings. This topography is cold and unyielding and accidentally-profound and moving, and for now, I suppose that’s enough. If this pandemic has proven anything, it’s that no one can say with any certainty what the future might bring for this nation, this world. So, if everything’s become a game of ‘wait and see’, I’m at least filled with gratitude to do so in such singular, fascinating environs.