How dark were those woods?
How cold and uninviting?
How lonely they must have seemed
In twilight’s macabre lighting?
How cold was that river
As you lay naked
Hogtied inside it?
While your bodies ran dry of
Blood, I wonder if your killer
I was born with one of you,
The other two beside us.
We could not yet grow facial hair
When the demon crept inside us.
Were you their killer,
The Boogeyman of Memphis?
Sometimes I’m not so convinced
When you proclaim your innocence.
-Joshua A. Woodard
She can’t speak in words,
But I know what she wants.
The day has grown long.
Little feet yearn for rest.
But she can’t sleep yet.
She needs to find her friend.
“Daddy will help you,”
I say as I get up.
“She must be somewhere.
Let me see where she went.”
We look in her toys.
We look under the chair.
Finally I see her,
laying with the laundry,
A light brown stuffed dog,
Lady without the Tramp,
My daughter’s true love
Joshua A. Woodard
It’s always late afternoon when we visit her. The sun’s journey is almost complete. The evening sky is orange and there are long shadows on the ground. The last rays of the fading sun reflect off my wife’s auburn hair as a passing breeze sends it into a muss. We approach from the south on a two-lane road that once served as a highway. I assume that was before Eisenhower’s interstate system made the scenic route less desirable. One of the highways that Eisenhower commissioned is less than a mile to my left. I can hear the cars whizzing by behind a small arborous area containing a white water tower emblazoned in purple with the words, “Portland Panthers, 2001 3-A State Football Champions”. As we approach, there is a cemetery on the right that only contains grave markers, no tombstones. At the far end of the cemetery is a mausoleum with a white granite statue of Jesus standing in front, his arms outstretched and welcoming. Behind Jesus and his mausoleum is a hedge.
Just behind the hedge, sitting slightly off the road in a well-manicured lawn next to a long pavement driveway is a white sign trimmed in blue, with a blue arrow pointing down the drive that reads, “Star Wars IV: A New Hope – PG/The Wizard of Oz – G”. The drive is filled with cars of all makes and models. The cars curve out of the driveway and onto the roadside curb where the line continues. Even though we are an hour early, we still have to take our place in the already packed line. Across the street from the entrance sign is a small black and white house with a sign in the yard reading, “Cat Daddy’s Pay Lake”. Behind the house is a small, man-made pond with water erupting from a fountain in its center. The water flies up in the air, folds away from itself and cascades back into the pond.
There is a line of cars on the other side of the road as well. With no curb to pull onto, the vehicle’s drivers turn their blinkers on and wait. The travelers who aren’t going to the drive-in theater pull around them while trying their best not to veer off the road. We wait in the drumming heat of a late July afternoon with our windows down. There is no point in turning on the air conditioner yet. There will be plenty of time for that later if the night remains hot. We are submissive to the summer’s thermostat. While we are waiting, we listen to our radios a little too loud. A passerby can hear music from all genres represented. The excitement is intoxicating and the waiting will soon be done.
When the gates open, we slowly start to inch forward. Turning into the driveway, there are two lines formed. Each of them are full of cars heading towards a small white box office with blue trim. To the right of the driveway is the hedge where Jesus stands welcoming on the other side. To the left is an 8 foot white fence. Over the fence is a parking lot that is starting to fill with all vehicles facing a large, outdoor movie screen. We pull up to the box office and pay the $15 admission. On the front of the box office a sign reads, “Please turn your car radio to 91.5 FM”. The attendant hands us a black trash back to throw our concessions waste away and a paid ticket stub, the kind you would get in a raffle.
As we pull into the parking lot, we can hear the crackle of gravel under the tires of our car. The road is paved, but it’s paving happened in 1969, so a lot of the parking lot is covered with macadam now. Throughout the parking lot, there are white poles marking which sections of asphalt are for parking and which are for driving. When I was young, these poles housed speakers that would hang on each car’s driver side window so that the passengers could hear the movie. That changed years ago. Like the sign on the box office said, we listen to 91.5 FM now.
We pull into a parking space, backing up and pulling forward only to back up again until we are in just the right spot to see the movie screen. Then we shut the car off and get out. We stretch. Our bones pop and our muscles ache because of the long wait. We have procured our very own piece of movie watching land. The summer heat continues to beat down on us as we walk to the concession stand. I’ve waited all week to veg out and watch movies. The concession stand is filled with greasy, fatty foods. Juicy burgers covered in melting cheese. Starchy, crisp potato wedges. Cold, frothy soft drinks.
We go into the white, wooden concession building and take our place in line. Along the walls are posters for movies that will be shown later in the summer. Waist high stanchions lined with metal chains establish a line for the patrons. We wait in line and it moves quickly. Most people know exactly what they are here for. Waiting is a pleasant experience. The concession stand has two wall unit air conditioners pointing towards the serving area at all times. The cool kiss of the frigid air sends a shiver down my spine and goose pimples down my arms. The cold is a wonderful contrast to the heat and humidity of southern summers. We grab a cardboard product box and fill it with our edible treasures before surrendering again to nature’s blistering wrath.
The sun’s cycle is almost complete as we head back to our car. We sit and talk as we enjoy our snacks. Children play under the movie screen. The boys are throwing footballs while the girls play with glo-sticks. Under the screen you can also see the 31-W traffic pass. Going to and from, they occasionally honk their horns. I don’t know when this tradition started, but I have witnessed it my entire life. The honking isn’t an insult. It’s a gesture, a way of saying, “I wish I was there with you.”
Our bellies are full as night settles in. There is a flickering of light on the movie screen then a commercial comes up telling us that, “This drive-in is radioactive!” The next advertisement is a dancing hotdog who invites us, “Let’s all go to the lobby to have ourselves a snack!” There is a cool breeze in the air circulating through our windows breaking up the monotony of the summer heat. The movie is about to begin.
Portland, Tennessee is set in its ways. The citizens of Portland go to church on Sundays and Wednesdays. Sunday and Wednesday are also the days the two Portland newspapers come out, The Portland Leader and Portland Progressive. This is very convenient for the God-fearing citizens of Portland as it enables them to gossip while they praise. In Portland, perception is reality. If one of the newspapers make an assertion about a citizen, then it must be true. If a person is in church every Sunday and Wednesday, they must be a, “good Christian”. The people of Portland never look beyond the obvious to arrive at any conclusion. The way things are is the way they have always been. Although the entrance sign marking Portland’s city limits says, “Proud, Progressive Portland”, Portland is anything but progressive and the citizens are only proud of their superstitions. Their head’s are always turned, looking back at the road they’ve traveled. They never face forward.
Being a youth in Portland is an exercise in boredom. Outside of the Friday night football games and the Franklin Drive-in during the summer, Portland offers very little in terms of entertainment for young adults. The majority of kids, many coming from poor families, begin working at local fast food restaurants so that they can have the money to drive to Madison or Bowling Green on their days off. Both Madison and Bowling Green offer a wealth of leisure activities aimed at young people. It was no surprise when I found myself working at Portland’s Burger King during the summer of 2000. I had just turned 16 and my grandparents had bought me my first car. My mom didn’t protest the car, but she did set two rules: I had to pay my own car insurance and I had to buy my own gas.
I already knew several people who worked at Burger King from school, so it was a no brainer to put in a BK application. I was familiar with two of the girls who worked at Burger King through various associations. The first girl, named Tiffany, was a very pretty young lady. Essentially every man who came into the BK would comment on her posterior when they thought she couldn’t hear them. I would laugh along, but I really wasn’t interested in Tiffany. The main reason for my lack of interest was because Tiffany was dating one of my longtime best friends, Edward. Edward had dropped out of school when he turned 16, got his GED and began working for a local air conditioner company installing and maintaining central air and heat units. Edward and Tiffany still lived with Edward’s dad, a delightful old curmudgeon everyone called, “Pops”, and Edward’s job paid very well, so they had quite a bit of disposable funds. As a result Edward and Tiffany were both driving brand new cars and always wearing very nice clothes. I enjoyed working with Tiffany because most of the nights that she worked; Edward would come in and shoot the shit if we weren’t busy.
Tiffany and I worked with another girl from school named Rita. Rita was the polar opposite of Tiffany. Her family was obviously near poverty level. She was dropped off for each shift by her father who drove a decrepit Ford van that had so many mix-matched paint patterns on it that it was anybody’s guess as to what it’s original color was. Rita would always volunteer to take extra shifts. If anyone wanted a day off and was scheduled on a day Rita wasn’t, there was no question she would take their shift. Rita was socially awkward. She didn’t have the best hygiene and sometimes the hair on her legs or under her arms was excessively long. The unsightly hair didn’t stop her from wearing short sleeves or dresses though. Rita was dating a guy that everyone called “Nasty” Nate. I have no idea how Nate received the nickname, “Nasty”, but I always assumed that it had to do with a character of the same name in the movie Half Baked which had came out only a year or so before.
Rita and “Nasty” Nate were sitting together during a pep rally in our freshmen year when a teacher abruptly jerked them up and demanded they leave the gym. The teacher, a known asshole, was not remotely subtle about calling out Rita and Nate. Naturally, the collective student body began rubbernecking. When Rita stood up, she used the back of her hand to wipe her mouth with the sleeve of her shirt. When Nate stood up, he zipped his pants. Everyone went crazy. Portland Senior High School’s social scene was abuzz with what we perceived to have been Rita giving Nate a blowjob during a pep rally. Rita and Nate were suspended for a short time and that confirmed the suspicions of the student body.
When Rita and Nate returned, they were both bombarded with questions. Even though both of them denied that a blowjob occurred, this was Portland and the public had already formed an opinion, so it stuck. Several months later, when Rita and I were working at the BK, I asked her about the blowjob incident. I told her what I saw from my seat across the gym and how it looked to me. She said that she understood how I could jump to that conclusion, but that she was only making out with Nate. The reason she wiped her mouth was because Nate, a bad kisser, had slobbered all over her mouth. She didn’t know why he zipped his pants, but agreed that it was poor timing. I believed her.
One night Tiffany, Rita and I were all working together. When it was time to close the restaurant, the manager said that we couldn’t leave. Apparently several hundred dollars was missing from Rita’s drawer at the drive thru. Rita counted and recounted her money before telling the manager. The manager then counted and recounted her money. Eventually the branch manager and Portland’s finest came stumbling in. The police had every employee who had worked that night take everything out of their pockets and patted us down. We were all underage, but that didn’t seem to matter. Rita’s dad showed up around the time we should have been leaving and walked in to see what was going on. The branch manager admonished the shift manager for not locking the door before locking it himself. I had been watching Rita for quite some time and could tell that she was having trouble holding in her emotions. When her dad walked in, she collapsed into his arms and started crying. Even though we had all been checked multiple times, the money was never found. The branch manager fired Rita on the spot in front of her dad. She left in tears and the rest of us were dismissed.
Several weeks after Rita was fired, Tiffany’s drawer count was short and she was fired as well. I wonder how many car payments Burger King had made by that time.