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By Cody Maxwell:
It was raining and fog rolled up from the river. Under awnings and concrete eaves on 11th Street people hid away in pairs, alone sometimes, and watched the rain fall down on the empty downtown streets. They talked quietly and smoked cigarettes. Some of them drank from brown paper bags and looked up at the sky … I went on a little ways and walked up the front steps of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen …
It was just after dinner and in a back corner a small crowd had gathered around two men playing checkers. This crowd was huddled over the two checker players clapping their hands and acting up like they were watching a chicken fight in somebody’s back yard … I watched the checker game for a minute then asked one of the men if he’d ever heard of Haywood Patterson.
“Haywood Patterson … He was one of the Scottsboro Boys,” I tried to explain.
This is a story about art. Not big city museum art or coffee shop hipster art. Not even Grandma Moses. Those things are either admired or laughed at as each of us sees fit. This pile of words concerns roadside things that occasionally appear along backroads and in old beat-up places. Behind churches and by-the-week motel yards. Carved tree trunks and concrete Jesuses—stupid things. It’s a strange story.
Let’s go to this dirt hill in Columbine, Colorado, by way of explanation. This dirt hill is the same as a lot of dirt hills around here. Rebel Hill, it’s called—we can relate to that…
Reed Road is the first street on the left past the high school. It winds out of Dalton through a few miles of those tall, old Georgia pine trees and past empty fields with old gray barns falling down. At night, some wild animal might run through your headlights. It’s one of those roads you drive on when you have no idea where you’re going. You just want to go.
If you’re not careful, you’ll pass a gray cinderblock building with a gravel parking lot. It’s on the left, on the corner of Reed Road and some smaller, nameless road. On Saturday nights, a woman will be smoking a cigarette under the dim light above the door. It’s quiet out there. It’s the night and landscape that inspired the best and most lonesome Hank Williams songs. Crickets chirp and whippoorwills cry. A stray dog might be traveling through the field across the street or an old possum might be crawling through the ditch. Soon the woman will flip her cigarette away and open the door. A bright light will spill out when she opens it.
In Chattanooga, early in the first week of March 1867, rains came, and did not stop for four days. People watched as the streets turned to mud and crops were destroyed. The small streams and rivulets that ran off the sides of the mountains turned to raging rivers and, most troubling, the Tennessee River was rising. Those who had the means made for higher ground and those that did not held on.