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Harrison Scott Key| Longreads | December 6, 2023 | 17 minutes (4,850 words)
I have enjoyed many happy Christmases and plenty of disappointing ones, like the one I spent eating alone at a Waffle House due to an ice storm, or the Christmas my father accused all the unmarried relatives of being gay. But of all the sad Yuletides of my life, the one I spent guarding $100,000 worth of explosives on the surface of the moon tops the list. The year was 1996. I was 21 years old and, in a way, quite homeless. Home is one of the enduring themes of Christmas, the joy of being in its midst and the thundering melancholy of longing for it, wondering if you can ever really get that feeling of belonging back—if you ever had it in the first place.
At the time, I was a college student in Jackson, Mississippi, and rarely went home. I would only fight with Pop about why I stopped going to church or entertain questions from Mom about my sudden hair loss and what this did or did not mean about radon poisoning. I did love my family, or at least the idea of them, and took great pride in our being rednecks who lived far off in the Piney Woods, a lawless land where nobody would deliver a pizza. So many of my college friends came from civilized places with public parks and museums. When somebody asked where I was from, I would pull out the atlas to poke my finger at the unmarked point on a map of Mississippi, between Brandon and a subatomic little village called Puckett. “Traveling circuses wintered there,” I’d say, a detail I learned from the Rankin County News as a boy.
It was a nonplace, really. The boonies. The sort of place you only went if you were searching for an escaped convict or a coonskin cap. It did not feel like home. Nowhere did. Mom was from the Delta, Pop from the Hill Country up near Coldwater. “Mama and thems,” he called it, in a county where all the cemeteries had tombstones full of Scotts and Keys, which are two of my names. It felt nice to be in a place where so many of my family members had been embalmed.
As a young man, my father declined an offer to take over the family farm and split for Memphis to seek his fortune like a character in an old country song, though he never found it there. Memphis is where I was born. Was that my home? When I was nine, Pop’s work brought us down to the Piney Woods near Puckett, some three hours south, where we had no kin. In a place like Mississippi, where kin matters, we might as well have moved to Tierre del Fuego. But I had my first kiss here, and hit my first homerun. Maybe this was home.
It was, I suppose, until a week before Thanksgiving in my senior year of college. I’d come back to do a little laundry when Pop strode into the kitchen and gravely informed me that they were selling the house and moving again, due to a land dispute with a choleric farmer up the road who hated everyone but his cows.
“Where are you moving?” I asked.
“Up to town,” Pop said.
He meant the Ross Barnett Reservoir, an artificial lake with weedy marinas surrounded by forgettable subdivisions, which would allow my father to carry on his illicit affair with the largemouth bass. It was hardly 30 minutes away, but the people up there were all new.
“You coming up to mama and thems to hunt?” Pop asked as I folded laundry.
I didn’t want to spend Christmas with my family at a farm that never would feel like home, staring backward into a past that only made you sad. I wanted to stare forward. I wanted something new. I needed money, for one. My parents sure didn’t have any. “You have to come,” Mom said. “It’s Christmas.”
“Maybe,” I said, walking out of my last childhood home for the last time. I would never come back to this place. We had no people here. Why would I come back? Where would I stay?
I hadn’t been to church in years but still read my Bible often, with all those horrid battles and beasts and skin diseases that reminded me so much of my Mississippi childhood. The elusiveness of home is one of the Bible’s great themes. God himself was mostly homeless. “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests,” he says, “but the Son of Man hath nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus says, a little passive-aggressively.
God doesn’t seem to care too much about where you’re from, and when you’re from a place, he likes making you go somewhere else, usually worse. The whole book is a fever dream of exile and real estate development, beginning in a garden and ending 1,200 chapters later in something even better than New York in autumn, a hermit’s grand hallucination of a city almost impossible in its beauty and cleanliness and tax revenue.
I remembered my Bible, and all those hymns, too, so many songs about looking for a home you can’t quite put your hands on. In “We’re Marching to Zion,” we sang about the “beautiful city” that awaited us, reached via “The Gloryland Way,” a spiritual highway leading into a metaphorical Canaan’s Land where there exists a habitation on a hilltop for peoples of every nation with no war or passport requirements. Until then, we slouched through arid and inhospitable lands, filled with stumps and snakes. The message was clear: you could find a home—you just have to die first.
I drove through woods and up into town toward Jackson, wondering if God had a home for me out there, somewhere. He’d led the Israelites to theirs with a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night, but driving back to campus in the dark, I saw no burning signs pointing the way. All I saw was a great big billboard off the interstate, bathed in spotlight. In a blaze of fluorescent fire, the sign shouted with holy ghost power: fireworks!
And I got to thinking.
There are places that matter, sites of consecration and meaning, both natural and human, that possess, through the alchemy of time and memory, a holiness: very old churches, ancient baseball stadiums, certain groves of trees on certain campuses. The Romans called it genius loci, the spirit that inhabits the earth and air of a place.
There are places and there are also nonplaces, forgotten or ignored or transformed by human progress into blind spots of experience where nobody wants to be, like the landscaping in front of a Burger King. The expansive lot with the fireworks billboard off the interstate was a nonplace, which is perhaps why I felt so irresistibly drawn to it.
The billboard stood high on a pole, just off I-55, alongside US Highway 80. Once known as the Dixie Overland Highway, it stretched from the briny waters of the Atlantic near Savannah, Georgia, to the raging tempests of the Pacific near San Diego, California, and through a now-forgettable piece of Jackson over the brown sad water of the Pearl River. As I drove by this nonplace, I beheld a magnificent wasteland below the billboard, once a truckstop, now a field of gravel featuring the sort of tattered sheet metal structures where they chain hostages to the floor.
The fireworks sign stayed up all year, because every June and December, a capacious candy-striped circus tent filled with all manner of fiery delights materialized in this post-industrial apocalypse as if by some strange wood-elf magic. It seemed like the perfect place for a boy from nowhere to spend the upcoming holiday. I don’t know what prompted me to call the telephone company and find the phone number of the company that operated this fireworks tent, but that’s exactly what I did.
“Absolutely not,” Mom said, when I explained over the phone that I’d found holiday employment with Boom City, LLC, a subsidiary of The Hunan Group, Inc., managing Central Mississippi’s largest fireworks tent on a dark patch of highway just over the river from the Murder Capital of the New South. Death was rampant in the area: stabbings, execution-style shootings at the river or the strip clubs just over the hill.
“You’ll be robbed,” Mom said. “What kind of company hires a child to sell explosives?”
Something possessed me, a hunger to escape, to hurry up and exile myself and get it over with. Missing Christmas would be a hard stop, a clean death for the past.
A few days later, during finals week, my father made a rare appearance on campus. Most of the students were gone already.
“I brought you some things,” Pop said, opening the trunk of the car to reveal gun cases, ammo, and a machete wrapped in an army blanket.
“Your momma’s worried, son. The machete will make her feel better. I sharpened it,” he said, thumbing the blade.
Pop had brought along my old 12-gauge pump, my .30-.06 rifle, and three preloaded clips with 220-grain shot, in case the fireworks tent was attacked by a team of bison.
“And some pistols,” he said, handing me a bag of pistols.
“Thanks, Pop,” I said, transferring the arsenal to my trunk, a few parking spaces over.
Sometimes, when I think about my life, I think about the quiet moments that may have shaped me more than I could’ve known, like the time my father handed me a sack of guns in a dormitory parking lot because he didn’t want me to die.
I reported for duty on Wednesday, December 18, 1996. I brought long johns, a hunting coat, bedroll, cookstove, radio, books, and the weapons; along with sufficient foodstuffs for the long dark winter: boxes of ramen, several gallons of Dinty Moore Beef Stew—enough survival gear to stage a delicious, hearty coup.
The lot was hemmed in on two sides by interstate overpasses and a vast junkyard to the rear. In between the tent and the interstate sat a midcentury motor lodge for travelers using this highway, back when travelers used this highway. The place was still open, rot be damned. A sign announced: telephone in every room. Presumably, so you could call and say goodbye to your loved ones as you bled out on the floor.
The enormous circus tent had gone up overnight. A tractor-trailer the color of dry mustard backed up to one corner, but otherwise, the site was empty—a moonscape. Here I was to meet a man called Donny, who’d show me where the execution-style murders would take place.
Donny was maybe 30 years old with a .44 Magnum on his hip and ran all the Boom City tents in this part of the state. Orientation began in the tent proper, big enough for a church revival, strings of naked bulbs draped across the expanse of it. He opened the trailer, the merchandise stacked to the ceiling.
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“It’s a hundred grand worth of fireworks,” he said. “I hope you got a gun.”
“I have enough guns to start a new government,” I said.
Behind the trailer, tucked away in the back, were my sleeping quarters, a tiny trailer the color and shape of a Grade B egg.
“There’s a hot plate in there,” he said. “But don’t use it.”
“You get caught leaving, you’ll be fired,” he said.
He looked around the empty tent and went to a dark place inside himself.
“People will want to steal everything,” he said. “But don’t go calling the cops just because. Don’t be jumpy like the last dude.”
“What happened to the last dude?” I said.
“He got jumpy.”
“What if I need to shower?”
“Use the motel,” he said, of the sex workers’ encampment across the lot. “They’ll give you a shower for five dollars.”
“Have you ever been inside it?” I asked.
“Hell no,” he said.
Donny had me sign papers that relieved Boom City of any liability in the event of my dismemberment and said he’d see me in a week to empty the cash box and bury my remains.
Alone now on the surface of this godless asteroid, I tossed my bag and bedding into the egg. I’d brought a single sheet and a pair of heavy, careworn quilts made by my great-grandmother, Mama Bessie—my mother’s mother’s mother—tough as old boot leather and the size of an emaciated gnome. Mama Bessie raised six children alone and came from a time when men were men and women were also men, due to all the men dying. She made her home near Possumneck, another nonplace, east of West and west of Ethel. I could not shake the strangeness of life—how one day, you’re a boy, hoping Santa Claus answers your letters, and the next, you’re living inside a fiberglass egg with a loaded rifle and a pair of heirloom quilts from a village that Santa will never again visit, for it no longer exists.
I worked myself ragged that first day, through the early sunset and into the blue-black chill of night. My overnight security would be arriving sometime before midnight. Donny had let me hire my own night watchman, and I’d selected my big brother, Bird, the only human I knew— besides my father—who seemed capable of manslaughter. He was in town for a few days and sleeping at the new house over at the reservoir, the one I hadn’t even been to yet.
When Bird finally showed up, my body was already covered in a fine layer of gunpowder.
“What’s the new house like?” I said.
“It’s a house,” he said.
“I’m going to bed,” I said.
“What do you want me to do all night?” he said, surveying the ridiculous tent.
“Keep us both alive.” I handed him one of the pistols.
“I brought my own.”
“If something bad happens, wake me up,” I said.
“Just come out if you hear shooting,” Bird said.
That first morning, my big brother woke me with a vigorous rap on the door of the egg. I unfolded myself, thanked him, and he drove away, to return 16 hours later, as he would every night that holiday. Even when it turned steely cold, I found the solitary work hypnotic and absorbing, a way to vanquish the dread regime of time. For 18 hours, I unboxed and priced Roman candles, M-60s, Black Cats, Saturn missiles, my body covered in combustible dirt. At sunset, I walked the lot with a price gun in one hand and a pistol in the other. I warmed a bowl of Dinty Moore on the forbidden hot plate and watched holiday programming on a small TV on the counter.
When the weather turned cold and unexpected flurries began, I donned a woolen poncho and took my smoke breaks mere steps from the explosives, using the tractor-trailer as a windbreak. I must have looked a sight to the customers and dealers who came and went with some frequency from the Sex Lodge. Sometimes I read Shakespeare. I had a Complete Works the shape and size of a Bible, tiny print on cigarette paper. I had given some thought to becoming an actor, traveling the countryside with a troupe. Who needs a home when you’ve got a stage?
A hundred yards behind the tent, out in the scrubby desert of disemboweled cars, sat a cinderblock shed where a man with a wispy white mullet lived, sexton of the junkyard. I saw him only once a day when he tootled around the lot on a small dune buggy. One day after lunch, I walked across the gravel to introduce myself. Nobody answered and I walked away. Then a voice rang out.
I turned and there he was, in overalls and T-shirt, waving me back.
“I’m Otto,” he said.
“I’m working the tent,” I said.
“I do like a sparkler from time to time,” he said, his mind wandering to a happier youth.
“I’ve seen you out here on your dune buggy,” I said.
“That ain’t me,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, though it was obviously him.
“That’s the other Otto.”
I wanted to ask him what it was like to live with dissociative identity disorder and which Otto would be slitting my throat later. But this Otto seemed pleasant.
Customers were scarce—a few truck drivers, attorneys who drove over the bridge from downtown. One afternoon, a local TV reporter stopped by and asked to interview me for a segment on fireworks safety and I made up some important facts about fireworks safety. I must have looked like something dragged out of a bog, the scruffy character in the holiday movie who teaches life lessons.
I called Mom from the landline that ran into the tent from a nearby pole, to give her the number and offer proof of life.
“Could you come to the farm Christmas day, at least?” she said.
“I can’t,” I said.
“I left you a turkey breast, if you get a chance to go to the house,” she said.
“I can’t, I’m not allowed to leave.”
“I just hate this,” she said. “It’s Christmas.”
Isolation works a number on you. I almost wanted criminals to stop by. In the long stretch of dark between sundown and the arrival of my brother, I took to dragging a chair out in the middle of the lot, beyond the glow of the tent, under the great black ceiling of stars, staring up into the cold. I felt like Abraham when God told him to leave home and go find another one and that his family would grow as many as the stars above. I felt like Jacob, his grandson, who sleeps on the ground at night and demands a blessing and God puts him in a scissor hold and gives him a hip injury that lasts all his days. It always seemed odd to me that God would appear to Jacob and all Jacob wanted to do was wrestle. But after a week out on the moonscape, I understood. If God had shown up, I’d have wanted to wrestle, too.
The night of Christmas Eve, I sat out in front of the tent looking at the stars, the faint wash of interstate traffic a distant waterfall. Where were all the people going? Back home or madly away? My school friends were spread across the country. Other friends were over beyond the gelid swamp rot at Martin’s, a seedy downtown lounge always lively in the homecoming days before Christmas, filled with a neon haze of cigarette smoke and the beautiful stench of whisky and ash. The thought of all that happiness made me sad. I didn’t want to be sad but you can’t help what you think about. All those people, at least the ones I knew, had homes to go back to, right there in town, warm childhood beds in leafy neighborhoods where they’d grown up and could probably keep coming back to for the rest of their lives, if they wanted.
The idea of having a place to go back to—a house, a village, where you would know people and they would know you—seemed a priceless luxury beyond imagination. Pop had a place like that, at the Coldwater farm. He was there now, asleep next to Mom in a bed in his parents’ house, on the land he called home and always would. I had an egg on wheels.
When Bird showed up that night to let me sleep, I’d made up my mind.
“I’m going to the new house,” I said.
“Thought you wasn’t supposed to leave,” he said.
“If Donny shows up, tell him I’m over at the motel.”
I careened through better parts of town, everything closed for Christmas Eve but shop windows gleaming yet with light. I wanted a shower. It would be a gift to myself, a small luxury, a humanizing act, a blessing to wrest from the grip of God. I pulled into the neighborhood, tucked away on a forgettable street among a series of forgettable subdivisions, each with its own forgettable boat ramp. The design of the homes was derivative at best, another subdivision without history, all those Frankenstein facades, a Victorian gable here, a Tudor chimney there, shallow porches, hollow columns. The new house was dark, just another brick ranch with shutters that wouldn’t close.
As soon as I saw it, I laughed aloud: I’d once gone out with a girl who lived here, two or three years before. Uncanny. The girl, Libby, was so pretty, so kind, so tall, so blond—like a captain for the Finnish national volleyball team—and I remember feeling envy that she lived here, in a house, in a place where you could get pizza delivered right to your door. Life is weird.
Pop’s boat was backed into the open carport. Through the window, I caught the unmistakable glow of our lighted Christmas tree, though the house was empty. I found the key Pop had handed me a month before and tried the side door, but it didn’t work, and neither did any other key, and neither would the windows budge nor the locks be jimmied with a credit card. I kicked the shrubberies. I cursed the name of God. I whispered fuck very loudly.
I climbed up into the bass boat, into the only good seat available, and smoked.
Libby! Where had her family gone? The brass knocker on the front door still had her family’s surname on it. She’d lived here all her life, she said. Why’d they leave? Divorce? Promotion? A sudden turn of ill fortune? Where did she sleep now and was she sad about that?
I guess it was in that moment that I must have first begun to see, through a glass, darkly, that all of us lose home eventually. Otto hadn’t been born in that cinderblock shed. Mom had no family farm. She had nothing but us, her children. No wonder she called the fireworks tent every night. When I took this ridiculous job and then hired her firstborn to risk his life so that I might sleep a little, I’d done more than cancel my own Christmas. I’d canceled everybody else’s, too.
I threw my head back and exhaled a cloud of breath and smoke and overhead saw a perfect square cut into the carport ceiling. Maybe Christmas didn’t have to be annulled. Maybe I could climb through the ceiling and sit by the tree and just enjoy it, for an hour or two.
I found a ladder in the garage and climbed into the attic, crawling on hands and knees across ceiling joists with a lighter to show me the way. I would take a shower and make a delicious turkey sandwich. It would make Mom so happy to know she’d fed me. Maybe I would make a fire, sit by the tree, and watch It’s a Wonderful Life, remembering happier Christmases. Maybe even pray for a few more, down the road. I would make Bird a sandwich, too.
Up in the rafters now, above what I reasoned was the kitchen, I kicked at every hole in the ceiling that looked like it might be an attic door, but nothing would give. I kicked and cursed like a failed St. Nick, with no gifts and no magic and no way into a house that would never be a home. No room in this inn. Not tonight.
I climbed out and drove back to the emptiness on US 80, where I half-expected to find Bird dead, all the money and fireworks gone, but he sat there, perfectly unharmed, a rifle across his lap, watching a snowy feed on the television.
Later, Bird and I sat there together in the dark beyond the light of the tent and smoked. From the interstate, the warm red light of the striped canvas must have looked inviting in the blackness. The Bible says Jesus is just like that, a tent you can crawl inside. “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God,” writes John in the Book of Revelation.
“Merry Fucking Christmas, little brother,” Bird said.
“So merry,” I said, fingering the safety of my rifle.
We looked at the stars and told stories. I did not want to leave him alone and I think he did not want me to go to sleep. Whatever sadness I felt was as much my fault as anybody’s. I’d made my choices. Home was out there, somewhere. All the hymns said so. Maybe it would be a city or maybe it would be a church or a wife and children or a house on a beautiful street, or maybe it would just be peace in the invisible tabernacle that was Jesus. Who could know.
A few days later, the world descended upon the house of explosives and bought almost everything. Nobody died, I saw no drug deals gone wrong, nobody shot anybody, and Otto didn’t show himself again and neither did the other Otto. I hired a few friends to help out on New Year’s Eve, and it was nice to have company.
After midnight, when the crowd finally thinned and the traffic slowed, out beyond the glow of the tent, my friends fired off bottle rockets and multi-shot aerials, which burst in bright bouquets of color and light over the junkyard and far across the darkness of the river, and it was fun to see them having fun, but my mind was already down the road, toward some new future where I might never have to be alone again at the most wonderful time of the year. A family. A wife. A place to sleep without wheels. My last night on the lot, in the trailer shaped like an egg, I felt ready to hatch and fly toward some new home.
These days, I don’t know what to tell people when they ask where I’m from. I have lived in Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Illinois, North Carolina, and Wyoming, and I’ve lived in Savannah, Georgia, now for 17 years—longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. My mother lives here and my father is buried here, under soft green grass five minutes from my house. I have a wife, too, who moved as a child even more than I did. We have three girls. One will be off to college next fall and the other two after that. I like the idea of staying here so that our children can be from somewhere, even when they leave. It’s nice to know where you’re from.
When people ask where I’m from, I still say “Mississippi.”
And people say, “Whereabouts?”
Sometimes I say, “The Piney Woods.”
Sometimes, “Brandon,” where I had my first kiss.
Or “Star,” where I went to high school.
Or “Puckett,” where I hit that homerun.
Mostly I just say “You haven’t heard of it. I haven’t even heard of it.”
I still think about that big circus tent. Strangely enough, I now live mere blocks from the very origins of the old Dixie Overland Highway, US 80. They call it Victory Drive here in Savannah, Georgia, but it’s the very same road that runs right by the tent where I worked that December, some 600 miles to the east. I ride my bike across this road to go to work. Crossing that road is like fording a river of time that runs back through the weird history of my little life and all the places I’ve lived and left. Sometimes I think the only home any of us have is in the tabernacle of memory, though I do own a pretty brick house on a leafy street, which feels as close to paradise as I’ll ever get, at least on this side of the Gloryland Way.
The year after I worked the tent, I heard that my successor had been robbed of all his money in the middle of the night and stripped naked, gagged, and bound to a pole. Discovered hours later he was believed to be dead but was only asleep. They say he was fine. I still drive over that piece of interstate every few years when I come back to Mississippi, and I always look off toward the moonscape with fondness; that desolation where I spent the loneliest Christmas of my life. The motel is still there, and so is Otto’s cottage. I don’t know if the tent goes up anymore. In place of the large fireworks sign is a great big banner promising romantic adventures. I have often considered stopping, to have a closer look and stand there amid the wasteland and feel the sweet pang of lost youth, but having no weapon, I drive on.
Harrison Scott Key is the author of three nonfiction books, including How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told, Congratulations Who Are You Again, and The World’s Largest Man. He lives in Savannah, Georgia.