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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

We’re Alabammy-Bound!

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, he’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sharecroppers whose lives haven’t changed much since his family first built the house. In his note, he asked–just idly joking, I assume–whether or not I’d like him to pick up some property for me while he was attending the auction.

It should go without saying that I’ve 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 Tito’s, 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 Perdue’s 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 don’t hear every day!

I buried, for a moment, my intense suspicion toward the natural world and my overwhelming fear of plants. Suddenly–yes, suddenly it didn’t 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. I’ve 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 wasn’t 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, y’know, an acre or two. That would be plenty enough.

Well, no, it turns out, that wasn’t 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 concern–and once those pines matured, the loggers were going to show up, chop them all down, and cart them away.

We’d be paid for them, Tito assured me, and new trees would be planted in their stead, but still–we’d 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 didn’t have a spare $32,000 lying around, and the lumber company would’ve 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 didn’t need to worry about picking up some Alabama land for us at the auction. We’d have to take a pass this time.

Still, though–"various kinds of armadillos" and "insects unknown to science." It’s not something you simply reject out of hand without some serious consideration.

"We probably wouldn’t 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."

"They’re probably 3-foot-long centipedes," I offered. "Big black ones. They’re unknown to science because science doesn’t want to know them."

And there was still the question of who, exactly, was living on the property now. Nobody who’d be too happy to see us show up in a rented Honda Civic, that’s 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 there–the characters he’s been meeting, his coon dog’s 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 much–but still–he 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 can’t kill those things–they 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 that’s 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 people–good friends–who, 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, we’ll see how happy they are when the rev’nooers finally track them down, but until that happens, everything’s peaches and cream.)

Saying goodbye to Alabama wasn’t the end of it for us, however. We’re still thinking, still doing a little plotting. Still looking around. Maybe one of these days we’ll 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 they’ve got more armadillos than you can shake a stick at.

At least that’s the way I remember it.