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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
For about a day and a half there around the end of September, Morgan and I were seriously contemplating the possibility of obtaining a little patch of ground for ourselves.
Not in Manhattan, certainly, God no, or even Brooklyn. Not even anywhere in the state of New York, or north of the Mason-Dixon line. No, we were thinking more in terms of picking up a sparse few acres in southern Alabama.
Neither one of us, for the record, has ever stepped foot in Alabama. Not to my knowledge, at least. But so what? we figured, there it was.
The idea was first lodged in my head several weeks earlier. A friend of mine, novelist Tito Perdue, wrote to tell me of an upcoming land auction to be held in a small town near his own. Tito lives on a 100-year-old family homestead located about halfway between Birmingham and Montgomery. To hear him tell it, hes pretty much in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sharecroppers whose lives havent changed much since his family first built the house. In his note, he askedjust idly joking, I assumewhether or not Id like him to pick up some property for me while he was attending the auction.
It should go without saying that Ive never owned a piece of land before. Never wanted to, really. The idea never appealed to me. As a man ages, however, he starts to look at the world in a different way, using different terms. Much to my surprise, this offer of Titos, half-joking or not, suddenly sounded interesting. Morgan thought so too.
Then, of course, other things came up. Disastrous events, pleasant events, a variety of small tasks and responsibilities, and our notions of buying property in Alabama faded from consciousness.
Then early one Thursday morning, I came into work to find the following note from Tito waiting for me.
We plan to attend the land auction next week and we will be pleased to pick up a couple hundred acres for you at about $800/acre. The area is full of deer, raccoons, various kinds of armadillos, insects unknown to science, and escaped hogs that have become quite wild. It is also covered by long-leaf pine that will be very valuable in another ten years. This area has innumerable little dirt roads that turn off from the highway and lead to strange places. One can drive down those roads for miles and then suddenly come upon a lost settlement of black and/or white people who are carrying on autonomous lives and who pay no taxes, read no newspapers, and never vote. In fact I have found that conditions are a great deal like what I had guessed in The New Austerities... (The New Austerities being Perdues second novel.)
"Various kinds of armadillos, insects unknown to science?" I whispered quietly as I sat there in front of the computer. Now there are a couple selling points you dont hear every day!
I buried, for a moment, my intense suspicion toward the natural world and my overwhelming fear of plants. Suddenlyyes, suddenly it didnt seem like such a bad idea after all, this whole "owning some undeveloped property" thing. Morgan read the description and agreed. Though she did have one very good question.
"These lost settlements of black and/or white people who are carrying on autonomous lives and who pay no taxes, read no newspapers, and never vote," she said, "do they happen to be living on the property right now?"
Yes, I realized, that could be a bit of pickle.
The other problem was the cost. Ive since been told that $800 an acre is a very reasonable price. A steal, even. While that may be true, I was still expecting something more along the lines of, oh, I dunno, $40 an acre or so. People laughed at me when I told them that, but I wasnt trying to be funny. As it stood, there was no way in hell we could afford "a couple hundred acres," though we could maybe scrounge together enough for just "a couple." So I wrote Tito and asked if that was possible, if we could maybe just buy, yknow, an acre or two. That would be plenty enough.
Well, no, it turns out, that wasnt exactly possible. The land to be auctioned was being sold off in lots of between 40 and 150 acres.
There was another little downside to all this, too. It seemed that, while the land would belong to us, the trees that grow on that land would belong to a certain lumber concernand once those pines matured, the loggers were going to show up, chop them all down, and cart them away.
Wed be paid for them, Tito assured me, and new trees would be planted in their stead, but stillwed be looking at a few mighty barren years. All those armadillos and raccoons and deer and feral pigs would probably pack up and split, leaving only the insects behind.
So that was that, I guess. We didnt have a spare $32,000 lying around, and the lumber company wouldve taken all the trees away even if we did. With a sigh of regret, I sent Tito another note, thanking him kindly for the offer, but telling him no, that it was okay, he didnt need to worry about picking up some Alabama land for us at the auction. Wed have to take a pass this time.
Still, though"various kinds of armadillos" and "insects unknown to science." Its not something you simply reject out of hand without some serious consideration.
"We probably wouldnt walk two feet onto that property before something attacked us," Morgan said later that afternoon. "Some feral pig or one of those insects unknown to science."
"Theyre probably 3-foot-long centipedes," I offered. "Big black ones. Theyre unknown to science because science doesnt want to know them."
And there was still the question of who, exactly, was living on the property now. Nobody whod be too happy to see us show up in a rented Honda Civic, thats for damn sure.
Still, it had been an idea. Something to toy around with for a while. Joining the landed gentry, mint juleps under the pines, and what have you.
Tito, over these past few months, has been giving me detailed accounts of his life down therethe characters hes been meeting, his coon dogs run-in with a porcupine ("He did not prevail," he told me somberly). He made that world of his, so alien to my own, sound awfully enticing.
"Alabama?" my dad shouted over the phone a few nights later when I mentioned how close we had come. "Do you have any idea how hot it gets in Alabama? Hot and humid."
"Yeah, Dad, I kinda guessed that muchbut stillhe said there were various kinds of armadillos down there. Various kinds!" (I was finding it hard to let go of that idea.)
"Armadillos?" he shouted again, the pitch of his voice soaring. "You cant kill those thingsthey just keep comin at you, again and again."
("Wow," Morgan said later, "it sounds like you dredged up some kind of terrible armadillo experience from his past. Something thats been keeping him up at night.")
To be honest, nobody else seemed quite as excited about the Alabama venture as we had been for that day and a half. Most just made Deliverance jokes. Thing is, I know a couple of peoplegood friendswho, later in life, just picked up stakes and moved to cabins deep in the middle of the woods. They were always very glad they did and seemed much happier for it.
(Course, well see how happy they are when the revnooers finally track them down, but until that happens, everythings peaches and cream.)
Saying goodbye to Alabama wasnt the end of it for us, however. Were still thinking, still doing a little plotting. Still looking around. Maybe one of these days well make a break for Wisconsin. I do miss that place. They have deer there too and raccoons and mosquitoes the size of small automobiles, and more importantly theyve got more armadillos than you can shake a stick at.
At least thats the way I remember it.