Southern Headlines

Please be aware that this story contains harsh language.

Nothing ever happens here. It seems like that was what the South was made for: Being that hot, quiet land where you don’t have to worry about school shootings, hit-and-runs, contorted Metro stations, or headlines. Moser thought I was crazy for taking the fellowship at that dinky little paper in Georgia. On my last day at the Globe, everyone looked at me like I’d told them I was moving to the North Pole to report on penguins (which is, in fact, something I would never do, because there are no penguins in the northern hemisphere).

But the North Pole might have been a better choice, because it wouldn’t have been so damn hot all of the fucking time. I thought I knew what hot was. I thought that summertime in Boston was hot, but no. Georgia is hot. Maybe that’s why nothing ever happens in Georgia.

That’s what Moser told me on my last day at Globe. But I’d heard that before, and I didn’t believe it for a second. Stories have a way of hiding in the crevices of a place like Georgia, in the woodwork, or in the attics of old southern plantation homes. I had a hunch that they’d even hide right under the unflinching southern sun, in the middle of the tobacco fields. All I would have to do is scrape the sugarcoating away, just a little bit, and those huge fucking southern stories would plaster nationwide papers and bare their ugly hides.

But that didn’t happen. I showed up at the slow, quiet news office in Dublin and fell into reporting on beekeeping, corn crops, and ordinances banning sagging pants. On the surface, it’s what I expected: Nothing happens, nothing is going to happen, and nothing should happen. That’s why people live here.

The other reporters wrote their stories with blinders on, thinking the whole world fit into the Southeast United States, that Tennessee was the North Pole, and Florida was the South Pole.

Hicks asked me why I took the fellowship and left Boston for a tiny place like Dublin.

“Most people move outta here. Most people get the hell outta Georgia fast as they can. What’re you down here for?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer, because he didn’t need to know the truth. I didn’t come to Georgia to make small talk with tunnel-visioned reporters. Instead of telling him that I believed that human nature hides headlines in the cracks of Georgia cornfields, I told him that it was a good opportunity to try something new. Southerners like Hicks grow up with sugarcoated stories hiding in the woodwork of their bedframes and front doors, so it never crosses their minds to do a little bit of digging. I came to Georgia because I knew how to find the truth, and how to make a damn good headline from it.

“That’s nice,” Hicks replied, when I told him. And it was true. “Nice” was the only thing that Georgia was. The dry, cracked asphalt was nice. The dull, warm afternoons were nice. The fact that everyone went home at four-thirty in the afternoon was nice. The way that everyone dressed up so primly and pristinely for church on Sunday morning was nice. I waited, story after story, for something to show me otherwise. To break the story, and plaster Georgia with headlines written in stone.

Briggs assigned me a story about an old farmer, just south of Dublin, who was selling the land that had been in his family since the Civil War.

“It’s not the Civil War, though. Call it ‘The War of Northern Aggression’ when you go visit him. He might not like ‘Civil War’.”

I told him I might not do that, and he told me good luck.

The farmer’s name was Roy Gilmer, which is an absolutely ridiculous name. I tried calling him several times, but Briggs told me that he probably wouldn’t answer phone calls. I asked if he had an email, and Briggs gave me a sarcastic look. So I told Briggs that I was just going to drive out there and hope to catch him at a good time. He told me good luck.

The farm lay bare, nestled in the middle of nowhere, about twelve miles southwest of Dublin. I arrived outside the small white house and parked my car in the dirt lot, beside a rusty pickup. The massive, faded silence that emanated from the open fields swallowed me as I looked around for someone to break the stillness. I walked to the front door, past an old paper sitting on his front porch, and knocked.

An old, wrinkled, sunburnt man answered the door: a perfect image of the man I had pictured to be Gilmer.

“Can I help you?” he said, his words dripping with his Southern accent.

“My name is Susan French, I’m looking for Roy Gilmer.”

“I reckon that’s me.”

“I’m writing for the Tribune, I was hoping to learn a little bit more about your contribution to the farming community in Dublin and Lauren County. Is this a good time?”

Roy meandered through the interview, without ever realizing that it was one. He was a tall, tanned farmer, and had probably never left Georgia in his life, maybe not even Lauren County. He invited me inside and we sat in his dusty living room, where he forced a glass of unethically sweet tea into my hands. He drew his words out slowly, with a deep, experienced Southern twang, but his eyes hid a delicate precision. He didn’t mind my questions; he was just glad to have someone to talk to on a late, lonely afternoon.

He wandered through the history of the farm, blundering through the story of the years of hard work, sweat, and labor. But he remembered details: he knew exactly how many machines they’d been through, important milestones, and crop statistics, year by year. He listed them off, one after another, and I diligently took notes, realizing that there was no headline to be found here.

He shifted, silently, after a long extended rant about farming machinery and new technology. Slowly, he started to peel back stories about his family: his sons who had moved away, his daughter who’d gotten married to a man he didn’t care for, a wife who passed away last year, on a cool morning in April. His voice grew higher, and more fragile, and he let it fade away, until the only noise in the stale living room was the clicking of a clock that informed me I’d spent far too long on this hollow assignment.

“Well, Mr. Gilmer. Thank you. For your time. Your farm is clearly a valuable part of the community.”

I paused, trying to find a better way to shut the conversation down.

“Can I confide something with you?” He asked, his voice still high and fragile.

“Of course,” I said.

“I mean, I don’t want this part published in the interview or the paper or anything. I haven’t talked about it, ever. I just figure it’s water under the bridge by now.”

“Of course,” I said, realizing instantly that I sounded like a broken record.

“You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“No, no, of course not.” I assured him, trying not to sound too interested, as I clicked my audio recorder on.

A stagnant moment ballooned and swelled, until finally, his waveringly high voice started to deflate it.

“Well, I, Ms. French…well, in ’83, I killed someone.”

I paused, and nodded abruptly.

“Oh. I…see. Okay.”

“You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”

“No, no. I mean, no.”

My words tripped over themselves, confused and stunted.

“You’re not angry, are you?”

I took a deep breath, not sure if he was serious, or senile, or just an old man who wanted to tell someone something that he’d never spoken about.

“No, I mean…who? Who was it?”

He wiped his eyes, pre-emptively.

“A farmhand. Tried to touch my wife. I didn’t mean to, I just… it… hit him a little too hard.”

His voice sounded like a wavering cartoon character, squeaky and high. The room fell silent again, except for the ticking clock, and I felt a pressure slowly fade from his sagging shoulders.

“You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”

I stared at the ground for a long, long time, then back at the slow farmer’s sharp eyes.

“No. I won’t.”

Everything that drove me to leave Boston and board that fucking plane for Atlanta joined me and surrounded me in that musty living room. The voice of every person who had told me “Nothing ever happens here in Georgia,” and the icy arctic glare of every reporter at the Globe weighed down on me as I sat across from that wilted old man. I shared his silence, put my hand on his shoulder, and promised that I’d never tell a soul.

As I walked out of the old man’s house, I passed the rolled up newspaper on his front porch and imagined the headline:

“1983 FARMHAND MURDERER FOUND.”

It would be huge news, blasted all across the southeast. A true headline, resting between the cracks of the floorboards in the attic of a small cottage outside of Dublin.

I got into my car and rolled down the window. I pulled out the card from my audio recorder, and threw it out onto the cracked and faded pavement.

Nothing ever happens here. That’s what the South was made for.