Stark Avenue in Columbus, Ga., is widely-known for two reasons. It is part of the historic district and home of one of region's most notable writers, Carson McCullers, and it is on this very same street that a woman was strangled to death by Columbus' most notorious killer, Carlton Gary, the Stocking Strangler.
The director of Columbus State University's Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians graciously invited me to be a guest. Black-and-white photos of McCullers hang throughout the house where she spent much of her childhood. McCullers has been identified as one of the nation's most popular novelists. Her best known work is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. You probably read it in your high school lit class, that's if you grew up in the South as I did. If you grew up in Oregon, you probably read something by William Stafford. What people read is just one of the things that distinguish one region of the country from another. The Bible is still a bestseller in Georgia.
Like me, Carson McCullers grew up in Columbus. Unlike me, she didn't regard her hometown very highly.
"When I go back South, I always get into arguments, so a visit to Columbus, Georgia is a stirring up of love and antagonism," McCullers once wrote in Esquire magazine.
My mama and siblings live in Washington, so there's really no one around for me to argue with here, which might explain why I consider my hometown such an ideal place.
McCullers left Georgia as a girl of 17 to pursue a creative writing degree at Columbia University. I left Georgia at age 18. I didn't have a clue what I was going to study. I was more worried about getting grown up than I was about what I'd do once I got there.
I know my former English teacher, Ms. Drury, is shocked as anyone that I became a writer. She probably figured I'd end up in prison one day.
Since relocating to the Great Northwest, I've grown accustomed to not asking for sweet tea or turnip greens when I order dinner. I don't cruise Interstate 85 searching for the Hot Boiled Peanuts stand. And I've grudgingly accepted the fact that in our neck of the wheat fields people wear blue jeans to church, instead of hats and patent leathers. Shoot, since Oregon has earned the reputation as the most unchurched state in the nation, I'm just thankful people go to Sunday services at all. Who cares how they dress?
I've been away so long, it's easy for me to romanticize life in Georgia. Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard out of Carolina, once told me, "You have to move away from the South in order to grow nostalgic about it."
I reckon Allison is right about that.
I opened a drawer the other day, searching for a phone book, and there was an inch-long cockroach, flat on its back, its spindly legs poking straight up at me. Now I shake out all my clothes before getting dressed and check my shoes before slipping them on.
If cockroaches aren't enough, there's mosquitoes. The neighbor, Mr. Posey, told me he used to own Wynnton Hardware, where they still sell the best hot boiled peanuts in town. But for the past year or so, he's been tending to Mrs. Posey, who has taken ill with West Nile virus.
"She got it right here in this neighborhood, we think," he said.
The virus has rendered her lame and blind.
I don't go outside without long sleeves and long pants on.
Concerned about my welfare, several people have felt inclined to share the unauthorized history of the house.
"You know that place is haunted, don't cha? That house idn't safe for you to stay there all alone."
I tried to get my best childhood pal to stay with me one evening, but she wasn't here ten minutes before she grabbed me by the hand and said, "C'mon, let's go to my house. This place gives me the heebie-jeebies."
Another soul informed me that the last person to stay in the McCullers' home had a nervous breakdown.
But I ain't worried. As long as they keep serving sweet tea, turnip greens, and that gracious Southern comfort, there isn't a living ghost or dead cockroach that can keep me away.
Karen Spears Zacharias is a freelance columnist who lives in Hermiston. She can be reached by phone at 379-8572 or by e-mail at www.heromama.org.