Less than a day after arriving in Canada we cross the US border and drive through the night to reach Charlotte. The furniture salesman’s mother is dying. We pass into the northern part of the southern states, an entirely new world to me. My companion pounds giant bottles of Mountain Dew to push through his grief and exhaustion. As we head further south, the caffeine-rich soft drink starts to be advertised as ‘soda’ and is casually displayed on gas station shelves next to whisky and beer. We wind through the black forests of Virginia in the pre-dawn light. The next time we stop I hear a truck driver joking with an attendant, and the twang in his voice suddenly transports me to Australia. Then my brain makes a shift and I recognise the drawl as ‘Southern’. Toto, we’re not in Oz anymore.
After a ten hour drive that should have taken twelve we arrive in Charlotte. It’s the first time I’ve met his family. His parents live in a sprawling, comfortable home inside a forest. It’s exactly how I imagine a successful American family in the furniture-making business would live. A huge family portrait over a massive stone fireplace. Oversized furniture. Overstuffed pantry. In my jet-lagged, exiled state it feels like I’ve drifted into a Disney movie of the week.
They are all so happy to meet me. His mother’s hands and smile are soft. Her voice is gentle, and fuzzy with morphine. His father is gracious and welcoming even through his grief. Prayers pepper the daily conversation. His sister is fiercely protective of her little brother. I feel her sizing me up with sharp, evaluative glances. His brother is a survivalist. He has wire-rimmed Lenin-glasses and a ginger beard that reaches the middle of his chest. On our second day we visit his home. He invites me into his basement and proudly shows me his cache of food and weapons. I hear the piping voice of his tow-headed daughter float above us in the backyard. That afternoon the brothers take me hunting on the family compound. They only manage to bring down a squirrel. They skin and barbecue it, a modest contribution to the evening’s family feast. I force myself to watch the entire process of skinning, cleaning and preparing the tiny body. It’s the first kill I’ve seen.
His mother has risen from her sickbed for the occasion. There is a mountain of soft white dinner rolls, a huge jug of red Kool Aid, a pyramid of corn on the cob doused with margarine. The survivalist has confided to me that he is convinced the food dye and margarine are what gave his mother cancer. He flinches when they are placed on the table.
The squirrel takes pride of place. Its tiny, naked limbs seem even smaller, severed and presented on an oversized white platter. The meat is easier to swallow when I tell myself it tastes like lamb. Sister shrieks “Give her the best bit! Give her the best bit!” They chuckle with shared anticipation. My long-haired companion offers me a plate. On it is a single Salada cracker. On the cracker is the squirrel’s brain. The smiles on their faces all match. His mother has forgotten her pain. His sister’s eyes glitter. I know this is a test. I lift the cracker, open my mouth, put it on my tongue, close my lips. Make my jaw go up and down. Feel saliva come to my aid. Chew and swallow. Exhale. Lift the corners of my mouth in a smile. They erupt in laughter and applause.