The Hanging Moss Bookstore
With unflinching authenticity and intelligent compassion, Barry W. North has created in Along the Highway a first person narrator we can respect as we recognize she is too fine for the grimy fate that binds her. Even more than the socio-economic and biological determinisms that surround her, she is ironically undone by her own most sympathetic qualities: the love and consequent guilty responsibility she feels for her tragic younger sister. Are we our sisters' keepers? How does a person (and should she) let go of love and responsibility in order to get on with life?
Opening lines of Along the Highway:
My past, like a movie I can't bear to watch but can't figure out how to stop, keeps playing over and over again, inside my head. And worst of all, the ending can never be changed, even if I get down on my knees and pray and beg and bargain with God until I twist myself into a knot, tight with sweat.
I still live beside the same noisy and grimy highway me and my sister grew up next to. But I am about twenty-five miles further west in a whole 'nother parish. Because of all the memories, I try to never go by there. I don't drive myself, and if I go in the truck with my boyfriend, I make him take the back roads to avoid it. My boyfriend tells me the little restaurant where mama use to work burned down to the ground not long ago, and the trailer we use to live in's been replaced by an old metal building that's now a welding shop. It hurts to know it's all gone, and the only thing left is what's in my mind.
Mostly, I just stay in the neighborhood, which is really just a few blocks of rundown shacks and beat-up trailers, next to the highway. But it's a whole world, all to itself. There is a grocery store, where I've worked ever since I first turned eighteen, running the register and stocking the shelves in the cooler. Across the highway is a dollar store everybody around here calls Walmart. Everybody in the neighborhood, like me, is pretty much just getting by. They're the kind of people rich folks and snobs look at, laugh, and shake their heads. The women are mostly on welfare, and even though most of them are not married, they all call their boyfriends their "old men." I still call Billy, "my boyfriend," because I don't want him to think we're permanent. The truth is, he's got enough ideas in that direction on his own. He don't need any help from me.
The men in the neighborhood bring in just enough money to pay the rent, buy groceries, beer, cigarettes, and a little weed. The men and women, both, are all tattooed up. When they're home, the men walk around like grandpas-in old shorts, white undershirts, and crocks. Some of them are so skinny, and so covered with tattoos you can't make out because they all run together, that I swear they look like ballpoint pens all the ink has leaked out of. I don't say that to make fun of them because I know each one of those tattoos means something to them. Besides, I have a tattoo myself. It's my sister's name, Tiera, tattooed in a half-moon, just below my neck, so that it looks like a necklace I'm wearing.