There was a cardinal in the dogwood tree, just six feet away from where I was sitting in my rocker. The bird was blinded to me by the mosquito-mesh wall of the veranda. I didn’t move a muscle. Against the flurry of white petals, the cardinal’s crimson feathers were like a holy wounding, a splash of fresh blood on a laundered sheet. Its head swivelled to exhibit its horned crest, combed and oiled to a fine point. A skirl of wind rattled the map of Guntersville on my knee, the chains of the rocker creaked in their ring-bolts – and the cardinal rocketed out of the blossom in a flaming streak of red.

Things happened fast in this town; a lot faster than they happened in Manhattan. I’d crossed the bridge to Guntersville, Alabama, a little after ten in the morning; by four in the afternoon I had assembled the materials of a complete new life. I was a resident of Polecat Hollow, with a two-bedroom cinder-block cabin in the woods at the edge of the water. My telephone was connected. I had a box number at the post office; I had engaged a once-a-week maid, stacked the Frigidaire with a sackful of groceries, ordered a typewriter so that I could be a useful and productive citizen.

That freedom to move – the hallmark of being an American – entailed a corresponding freedom to settle. My demand for instant membership of the community was met without a glimmer of surprise. Footslogging around the realtors, I picked up the low-down on the local bars and restaurants, accumulated a deck of business cards with people’s home numbers scribbled at the top (‘Just call any time’), was invited to a party and was introduced to the elaborate network of cousinship in which a few related families appeared to have the town’s affairs sewn up. Posted from uncle to wife’s brother-in-law, to father, to nephew, to wife’s mother and on to wife’s mother’s sister-in-law, I felt I’d strayed into some great tribal house on the Arabian Gulf. The Lusks, Neelys, Alreds, Smiths and Willises had coagulated into something like the Al-Thanis or the Al-Makhtoums. Walking past the hilly, well-tended graveyard on O’Brig Avenue, I noticed that the names on the tombstones of a hundred years ago still worked as a reasonably efficient business directory for Guntersville in 1989, and that even the longest-dead were still honoured with tributes of cut flowers.

New World (Part One)