At the foot of Mount Adams, I saw the first internal checkpoint, manned by a sizable number of civilians dressed in street clothes; all carried assault rifles. The militarized feel worried me, and it made me wonder exactly what was inside this place so many liked to call Hell Town.
“If they ask, just say your name is Mary,” Maddy whispered to me as we inched our way to the gate. “No one up here uses two names anymore…Irish Catholics dropped the habit years ago; it’s a southern habit now that will….”
Maddy ended it there, but I could tell what he was getting at.
“I know…draw the wrong attention.”
I’d heard about the large homes that used to line the main road going toward the top of Mount Adams…before it was added to the zone. Now all of them were hostels, split up into apartments, or abandoned. I suspect this transformation happened a long time before the zone was established; it probably happened right after the Crash. But I didn’t say anything as we made our way up farther, nearing the next checkpoint.
The checkpoints were all manned with four to five men armed with assault weapons. I also noticed the barbed-wire fencing that lined the main road. It seemed the wire was everywhere. It looked more like a concentration camp or prison than a section of a city. The fenced-in feeling started to take over my senses; desperation and sadness seeped in. Everything was run down. Makeshift bars dotted about every other block it seemed, and it didn’t look like anyone up here had a real paying job. I was more surprised by the security; it wasn’t yet clear what, if anything, they were guarding. Were they keeping out or keeping in? I couldn’t tell. Passing through, none of the guards asked me for a name and none of them seemed to want to be there.
“What’s at the top?” I asked Maddy. I knew the top used to be one of Cincinnati’s biggest and loudest bar districts, mainly for young locals. Now no one wanted to say exactly what remained at the top. When I asked, several times, I got the same answer: “Nothing worth talking about.”
“Why do you stay inside this awful place?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean…all this rot and anger, and strangers watching every move you make. You don’t have to live like this…with these people. You know that, right? My daddy can help you.”
“You don’t understand, Mary Catherine. They watch all our moves. Those living outside the zone may not have to wear these armbands and go through checkpoints, but we’re all tracked…like animals. And it’s your father’s number-one program. Why would he want to help someone like me…an animal like me?”
“But those outside, north of here…like your parents…have normal lives. They can move around and…be normal. You can live up there.”
“You’re right; I could live up there. But even though they don’t wear the armbands, they carry papers everywhere they go…still watched by Red State regional surveillance. That’s why Ohio is still a blue state and probably always will be, Mary Catherine. According to your side, we need more indoctrination so they can continue to shove the shit down all of our throats without a fight. It’s the same everywhere up here, regardless of where you live. Some of us just get more shit than others.”
“But you don’t have to live in this reform zone,” I pleaded again.
“What can I do on the other side? I’d still need papers to move around. And without the papers to move around, there’s no work.”
“There’s no work for you here either,” I replied.
“There’s plenty of work here in the zone; just nothing of which your daddy would approve.”
“Like what?” My tone told him I didn’t need, nor want, to know about this “work,” but I was thinking a lot more. So…we’ve lost you too. Pretty soon no one will be working in real jobs. We’ll just want nothing, have nothing, and wait for whatever handouts we can get. Is that really what you want?
He must have read my mind because he dodged all of it. “I don’t want to talk about it right now. Let’s talk about something else.”
That something else came quite easily that night. It was my first night in Cincinnati, and I got a glimpse of what to expect right outside our window. I was too wired to sleep and knew how much Maddy loved music. When we heard music start from the corner bar, we sat in our oversized window and watched the entertainment below, a little way from the entrance to Maddy’s apartment building. It appeared to be a local gathering place, a pub or something, but I couldn’t really tell. The large central door and oversized windows were all open, giving a good view of those inside and letting the music pour out onto the street.
It was what I’d call banjo music, and the songs sounded like the country songs popular in the early days…crying and drinking songs. Those who weren’t playing a musical instrument or singing were dancing, at least most of them. They seemed to like the clogging style, kicking their legs up in the air, slapping their sides to the beat, and singing out the songs; some even whistled to the music. Watching all this play out in front of me made me feel like I was now someplace far away from real life, in a completely different time. Jugs full of something were being passed from man to man, as the women, the few who were there, and a few children, sat on the sides and watched. Some laughed, clapped, and yelled out…but most of them stayed quiet.
“What’s that they’re drinking?” I asked Maddy.
“Get out of here! People don’t drink moonshine anymore,” I replied, and then asked the obvious question. “Do people still drink moonshine?”
“They do up here. It’s cheap and distributors aren’t licensed to sell the hard stuff…legally...inside the zone.”
“That’s too bad,” I responded.
“Why? They’re fine with the cheap stuff. No one up here is pretending to expect more. We get by with what we have.”
When I didn’t reply, Maddy added, “And look at those fools down there. Only someone drinking moonshine can dance like that.”
I looked down at the intoxicated men and saw the real rawness. It seemed like life as it was supposed to be, or at least that’s what I thought. And it was life like I supposed typical Southerners used to live before things down south got so complicated. I began to feel better…about that life in general, and before long I was laughing with them.
When Maddy moved away from the window and crawled into bed, I stayed put. I was going to sleep in his bed…him on one side and me on the other, hopefully with two oversized pillows in the middle. This was partly due to my promise to my mother that I would not rush back into things, but also because I had so much to ask him and catch up on. I wondered whether he wanted to ask me questions too…about my time in North Atlanta after he graduated from high school and left, about my rich but few friends, any crushes left unspoken. I knew our time to talk, catch up, would come. I didn’t need to rush it, so I just stayed quiet. When Maddy asked whether I was coming to bed, I told him “in a little bit” and then offered my only reason for the delay. “I want to watch a little longer. They look so happy.”
“Don’t let the music and dance down there fool you, Mary Catherine,” Maddy said as he watched me from his bed. “They may look happy, but that’s because of the moonshine. Tomorrow, you’ll see the real people who live up here. None of it is pretty or fun.”
“I know that, Maddy. You don’t need to talk to me like that. I’m not a little girl.”
“I know you’re not a little girl, but what I’m saying is true. None of what you’re seeing down there is real.”
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