Wildebeest. Photo by Hartwig HKD. https://tinyurl.com/ytra87mt

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Not from These Parts

I was born in Buffalo but raised in Tuscaloosa, where all I ever heard was, “not from these parts, are ya?” At eighteen I took the hint and left, only to learn the state of Massachusetts found my Southern accent hilarious. From there I moved north and south, east and west, in search of belonging, until a monster truck called the Critter Getter healed the schism inside me with a gas-guzzling, mechanical laying of hands.

It was a year after Hurricane Katrina, two months after I’d moved to New Orleans, when the Alabama party girl grim reaper called. We’d been invited to party with a Mississippi millionaire, she said, and I had to come.

The spirit beckoned, but the liver recoiled. When Anne-marie arrived with her crook and shot glass, the wake of next morning followed. I might as well buy the Popeye’s and Goody’s powder now and assume the fetal position.

“Can’t,” I said. “It’s my father’s seventieth birthday lunch tomorrow. In Tuscaloosa.”

“You can sleep over on the way. There’s no avoiding Mississippi.”

“It’s past ten now.”

“No buts. It’s going to be amaaaaaaaaaaaazing.”

The way Anne-marie said “amazing” was its own art form. Where my family was Yankee to the core, hers was the stuff of Faulkner and Welty—crumbling houses, tragic relatives, ghosts, buried silver, and a secret gumbo recipe. I’d moved to New Orleans—no job, no family, no other friends, no reason—because she asked. This was my chance to live the South as an insider.

Then again, I could see tomorrow morning: the Queen Anne dining room table set with china, pot roast, green peas, and judgment. The windup clocks would tick and tock. The silverware would clink and clank.

Mom: “So, New Orleans. Interesting choice.”

Dad: “Grumble, grumble.”

My parents weren’t wrong. I was an underemployed, thirty-nine-year-old with multiple rusting liberal arts degrees. But then I heard a rap, rap, rapping, gently tapping, at my door.

Anne-marie handed me a to-go cup packed with ice, bourbon, and Coke.

* * *

The gulf air was warm and alive as we rolled out of New Orleans, our parking tickets fluttering away like parade graffiti. Anne-marie’s boyfriend, Jay, drove ahead in his truck with cronies Bryan and Bradley. The three worked in politics and had met our host, Walter Boasso, while running his campaign for governor. Once in a while, Jay would call Boasso to see “what’s up?” meaning, “Can we come get hosed at your big ass ranch?” and the party was on. Louisiana had passed a law that day making it legal to ride in the truck bed. Bryan and Bradley moved to christen this decision with a case of Pabst.

Wooooooo! The guys yelled into the night.

Hooooooo! Answered fellow riders in other truck beds.

So, I thought, this was the fun all the cool kids were having while I was home watching The Love Boat.

Past Slidell, bayou country morphed into the red clay, pine-treed landscape of my childhood. Midnight struck at the Mississippi state line. As my Camry rattled down country roads, threatening to bust an axle, doubt crept in—wait, what had I agreed to, exactly? After multiple turnarounds, we dead-ended at a sprawling, rough-hewn lumber lodge on a lake, a toddler’s Lincoln Log dream come to life. The bugs welcomed us to the jungle. Oh-WEE-oo. Ugga-ugga-ugga. Oh-WEE-oo.

Walter Boasso lumbered out and extended his paw. He was textbook All the King’s Men material—jowly, large, and loud—the embodiment of his campaign slogan: “The Big Guy for the Little Man.” Boasso had grown up poor working the docks of St. Bernard Parish. At nineteen, he had the idea of scrubbing out shipping containers for cash. The legend went that he’d built his empire with a “rubber hose and a box of Tide.”

The men glad-handed and woofed. For one glorious moment, Boasso shined all his millionaire energy on me.

“Where you from?” he asked, meaning my momma and them.

“I grew up in Tuscaloosa.”

But my accent revealed not from these parts.

Inside the lodge, an enormous wood table bisected the great hall. The mounted heads of African animals circled the room in taxidermy wallpaper. Bryan threw down what was left of the Pabst suitcase. Time for the warriors to drink, receive gifts of their lord, and boast in heroic couplets.

The men and Anne-marie gossiped politics and mourned Boasso’s loss of the governor’s race. As the dead safari and I held staring contests, I could feel a party poop coming on. I was about to make my Irish goodbye when Boasso leaned back and placed his two massive hands on the table.

“Enough party talk. Y’all wanna take a ride?”

“Hells to the yeah, Boasso,” Bryan said.

Anne-marie shot me her you-better-not-go-to-bed look, and I complied. We walked out to a giant hanger that housed a parade of motorized vehicles: jet skis, motorcycles, golf carts, SUVs, ATVs, motorboats, bass fishing boats, and the de rigueur airplane. Mightiest of all was the king of mechanical beasts rising above the pride—an honest-to-god monster truck.

“This one heah’s the Critter Getter,” said the Big Man.

Indeed, a fiery font emblazoned those same words across the side. Boasso unfolded a ladder, and the guys loaded ice-filled coolers of beer, Coke, and whisky with military precision. I climbed up with less grace, grunting more than once. The inside was the size of my studio apartment, outfitted with bench seating and a stripper pole, which Bryan proceeded to work like a pro.

Loaded in every sense, the Critter Getter rumbled out of the hanger, our bodies bouncing like Lotto balls. My neck cooled and the bugs were vanquished. Boasso cranked up Tom Petty and the party vibe kicked into full gear. This was the adult version of the Jungle Cruise, except in Cajun Disneyworld you don’t fasten your seatbelt or keep your limbs in the vehicle, plus there’s a ton of booze. We squealed and screamed with delight as we bumbled over hills and tore through puddles, the shrubbery tickling our bodies as it whipped by.

Anne-marie poked me in the ribs. Okay, I had to admit it: amaaaaaaazing.

I figured burning a gallon of gas per minute was the point, but then the Critter Getter stopped, engine idling at low earthquake. Boasso turned a searchlight into the woods.

“Come out, come out, now,” the dudes chanted into the night.

All I saw was woods. Katrina had stripped the lower branches, creating pine tree sticks with Dr. Seuss tops. This made me think of how my dad used to read me Dr. Seuss, and that I should start drinking water and—

“There!” Bryan yelled.

A hundred silver wildebeests galloped by, their glossy muscular bodies united in motion. This was every episode of Wild Kingdom I’d watched as a kid, except real. Or was it? Because in a flash the wildebeests were gone.

If the animals weren’t real, then this was a collective hallucination. Boasso continued, showing us elk, okapi, gazelles, big-horned sheep, and other living versions of the taxidermy collection I’d seen earlier.

“I lost most of ’em to Katrina,” Boasso said. “But they’re rebuilding.”

My guess was PETA didn’t know about this. Alright, so the Critter Getter wasn’t for stripping and wildlife viewing but stripping and loading up the dead. Later, I would learn that Boasso had a side business where people could hunt the animals like in a video game.

After a while, I could sense the show was over, but then the Critter Getter stopped again, idling for what felt like forever. The heat set in and the bugs returned to feast. Word came back that the road had flooded and clearance was in question—even monster trucks have their limits. I stood up and saw a brown lake. There was no way to turn around, and walking didn’t feel like much of a choice, but I didn’t see another option.

The thing is, millionaires don’t become millionaires without beaucoup hubris.

Boasso gunned the gas and the Critter Getter roared to life. We lurched, and I grabbed the stripper pole. We’d yipped and yelped our way through the water features before, but this time we were silent in our moment of collective prayer.

The Critter Getter parted the water in neat waves like a ’70s hairstyle, and everything was groovy—until it wasn’t. We hit something, something big. The left side of the Critter Getter levitated. Our drinks dumped out in a waterfall, and the coolers slid to the side. Bradley, who’d been riding shotgun, would have been ejected if Boasso hadn’t reached out with his giant hand to nab him. For the two longest seconds of my life, the Critter Getter hovered between gravitational pulls, suspended in balance, Bradley half out the window, nothing to do but hope—not here, not now.

The sound of galloping hooves closed in.

As I clung to the stripper pole, I couldn’t help but think we deserved to die, crushed by a monster truck and trampled by African animals not from these parts, getting bitten by the wrong bugs, breathing the wrong air, and hunted by the wrong animals. This wasn’t Cajun Disneyworld but Jurrasic Park, and nature had found a way, or someone called Jordan Peele, because there was some kind of colonialist horror story here.

But then a creak, and a slight tip to the left. The truck regained balance and landed with a rubbery thud. We made it through to the other side, and the herd of whatever it was ran past before the engine cut.

Oh-WEE-oo. Ugga-ugga-ugga. Oh-WEE-oo.

Bryan cracked open a beer.

After a few worrisome cranks, the Critter Getter started, and we bumbled back to the ranch, guided by the pink glow of sunrise. For the finale, Boasso showed us his three new zebras grazing listlessly in their corrals.

“Now zebra, those’ll cost ya,” he said.

* * *

Two hours later, I woke up in one of the ranch’s fifty bedrooms feeling as if wildebeests had trampled me before dying and rotting in my mouth. I downed a fistful of ibuprofen and crawled to my car. After stopping and asking various people, who gave me directions like “hang a right where Jimmy and them live,” I made it back to the interstate and cell service.

I rolled up to my father’s seventieth birthday lunch in last night’s party dress, oozing Jim Beam and Walker Percy’s malaise. No amount of Visine could fix this. Of course, I was running late. Everyone was already seated around the Queen Anne dining room table, silver-plated knives and forks clinking.

As I took my seat, the roast beef came around on the flowered serving platter, and honestly, only a Yankee can overcook meat in a Crockpot.

Even more than usual, I wanted to fill the awkwardness. Against better judgment, I started relating my Critter Getter adventure, but I’d barely described the okapi heads when I caught a whiff of myself—Eau de Frat Party. There was a reason I thought telling this story to my family was good idea: I was still drunk.

One Christmas, about ten years ago, I’d gone to war against family holidays that felt more like penance than celebration. With Grade A prime rib, I would show everyone why gravy from a packet was a crime, a world beyond Stove Top stuffing. But all I did was put everyone on edge: my food was too weird; I made a huge mess; and the meal took forever. Eventually, the prime rib was cooked enough to eat, but only to a temp of rare, while everyone in my family eats their meat at a minimum of medium well. Everyone, one by one, got up to sear the meat off in a pan.

Around now, everyone at Boasso’s ranch would be stretching their arms. There’d be a pitcher of Bloody Marys, followed by a Southern breakfast of cured meats, grits, biscuits, and gravy, all made from scratch. For a moment, I wished I was there so I could share the company of other people prone to questionable decisions. If anything made me Southern, it was that quality.

Except those weren’t my people either: if the gas emissions were a basic level of not okay, then those okapi heads were beyond not okay.

Fact was I didn’t belong to either place because I’d never be one or the other. Northern or Southern. Practical or impractical. Born in October, I would always be the ultimate Libra hanging from the stripper pole when I wasn’t even a stripper.

I quit my Critter Getter story mid-sentence. No one asked me to continue. The conversation drifted to jobs with benefits, and I excused myself to find the Tony Chachere’s I’d stashed behind the dusty marjoram.

A year later, I would move to Ohio.