My father has returned to Oz, his brief time here (this trip) neatly bookended by lunch at Abe’s Bar-Be-Que. Out on the highway, faded signs scattered around the gravel parking lot warn those not eating at Abe’s that they will be towed. Porcine statues mill about outside the entrance and an ancient non-illuminated neon proclaims the place has been here since 1924. The delicious scent of slow-cooked pork hangs thick in the air and inside a buzzing crowd hungrily devour what has come to be called ‘the come-back sauce’. And with good reason. We sit at one of the little brown plastic booths, hemmed-in by more pork-based interior design than one can comprehend. Our server is a large woman worked off her feet by the clamouring crowd, weaving her way between the closely-packed tables in a classic American server’s apron. She’s been putting herself through night-school. Her weary face breaks into a wonderful grin when she sees John – he’s been coming back here for years now – all the way from Downunder for this world famous barbeque. And we have a feast. And boy, that’s good. But then my father and I part ways.
Another evening, the moon high in the indigo sky, walking slightly-unsteadily, beer in hand along the grassy road of the railway; the black bulk of disused rail cars solid in the darkness. We’re crossing the tracks, going to Club 2000 – even new juke joints are slightly out of date here. It’s a squat little place flanked by the dusty grass of vacant blocks. Inside is hot and sweaty, a panting crowd of dancers grooving in the gap between the threadbare pool table and the brightly screaming riffs of the electric guitar. The elderly owner has a strange skin condition, kind of piebald. He smiles a warm and gappy smile as he hands me an immense, ice-cold bottle of beer. The smoke of furtive cigarettes hangs thick in the air, just above our heads and a young woman spins in the centre of the room - her printed cotton dress fanning out around her, her gold teeth gleaming in a joyous smile.
A party by the riverside. It’s getting dark and cold these nights but the blazing camp fire keeps it all at bay. The full moon hangs heavy in the sky, just above the dark bricks of the old warehouse. There’re strangers in town – they’ve rowed all the way down the Mississippi from its font and tomorrow they will continue their journey, eventually out into salty waves of the Gulf of Mexico. So tonight we’re drinking by the riverside in the warm glow of the fire. It’s difficult to make out faces in the firelight but everyone is smiling. The pebbly ground makes soft music underfoot and someone pulls out a banjo and starts singing lonesome love songs.
Another night, another fire – this time in a friend’s backyard. Spent pumpkins litter the space, their Halloween smiles gap-toothed and sagging. A thousand-thousand fairy lights tie the house and the trees together, keep them all from dissolving into the mist; or perhaps we’ve already dissolved and we’re in the sky, amongst the stars. It’s a magical scene. We sit on tiny little chairs, liberated from an abandoned elementary school and talk and laugh. In the morning my clothes smell deliciously of woodsmoke.
A food truck in the bleary Autumn light – a big, shiny red thing at the edge of a cracked and abandoned carpark, outside a cracked and abandoned superstore. A cheap colour photocopy of a sammich represents the extent of their menu and it smells irresistible. I chat to the large trio inside the truck as they shred a juicy haunch of meat for me - they think I should attend their church.