“Hannibal ain’t the quaint place they wan’ you ta think it is,” he said, smirking. “I’ve lived here muh whole life, and it ain’t nothin’ but a dumpy little town.”
He and the rest of his company—a handful of roughed and toughed individuals—were scattered among the steps of an underground bar, the Down Under Lounge. Locals, they were. Ones with opinions and habits, with ponytailed hair and brown bottles that were rhythmically nursed.
“Ain’t nothin’ here!” he half-shouted, cackling alongside his mates. They sipped, they drank. Pointed at each other and spoke in drawling curses.
We ferried ourselves past the group and into the bar, into the one hundred-year-old basement. The vaulted brick ceiling arched over us, netting must and sweat, liquor and cigarettes. We were the tourists, the young’ins, and we were stared at for but a moment. After we seated ourselves, the bartender—a middle-aged, blonde-haired woman—approached us.
“What’ll it be?” she asked.
I smiled at her. For me, she was one of those “real nice, real friendly” Midwestern women about whom the ancient farmers and aged veterans of my hometown rave.
As she gathered our drinks, I imagined her as someone else. Someone a little harder. Someone a little more weathered. Jaded, maybe. Perhaps a chain-smoking southern doll, one who’d wait for that no-good-irresponsible-unpredictable-but-so-damn-fucking-good-in-bed boyfriend of hers. She’d be working, always working, always waiting for him. And finally he’d saunter in, cocky and thirsty, and he’d settle himself next to the tap, arms crossed.
“Hey, baby,” he’d say without even the most casual of glances.
She’d sigh, like always. And then she’d lean forward, elbows on the counter, as always. And he’d stare, like always, as ten miles of cleavage stretched before him.
“What’ll it be?”
I shook the thoughts from my head. Ceased to daydream and stereotype. I wasn’t sure what to make of Hannibal, but I knew it was its own juxtaposition. The old part of town, the historic buildings near the river, were catered to tourists. Antique stores and ice cream parlors, souvenirs and Mark Twain memorabilia. Everything—from the storefronts to the snack items to the books to the ice cream flavors to the specials and sales—were named for Twain or his characters. It was almost repugnant, kitschy. A sell-out. Or what was left to be a sell-out, that is. Just two blocks from the tourist epicenter were abandoned buildings. Empty, ancient brick buildings with history, with stories. Where had the businesses gone? Where were the people? Where was everything? Row after row of vacant storefronts and boarded-up windows. I could only assume that profits had moved inland, away from the river, behind the hills. The chain restaurants, the Walmart. The suburbs. I shook my head again, this time in the name of “progress.”
I couldn’t judge te town; not after the first visit. And so, I made a list. A list of all the things that I would need to do the next time I stayed. A list of the places I needed to visit, the things I needed to see. The localities I needed to explore. I made a list.
And I made plans. Come October, I’ll be visiting again.
Of course, the memories I’ll acquire this fall will vary from the ones I already made. The company will differ. The atmosphere will differ. But the town? Hannibal itself? Maybe I’ll get to know it a little better. Shape an opinion from new and old vignettes: the taste of huckleberry ice cream in the sultry weather, drops of water spotting the sidewalk. The ice cream on my dad’s chin, in his mustache, melting, melting, down down down. Walking the levee and watching the storm move in from the river. Watching it sweep across the water and onto the streets, washing us away. Nearly drowning a vehicle. Barefoot and soaked and laughing, watching wind and water, muttering to ourselves, “Now this is a story!” Strolling the steep brick streets, pointing out paint colors—teal, purple, yellow, mauve—and architectural features. A loss of electrical power. A patrolling of the museums. Hearing my dad yell, “Dare you to race up in 30 seconds!” as I mount, two at a time, the stairs to the lighthouse. Tasting wines and taking pictures. Glaring at the few rowdy teens and bratty children who accompanied us on our tour of the Mark Twain Cave system. Spying on a bald eagle while devouring the greasiest of tenderloins. Being the only three people in the theatre to watch the Mark Twain impersonator. He made us laugh, picked on us, talked to us and allowed us to ask questions. It was never awkward, though it was a bit odd to have us—me, dad, Hans—lined in the first row, our eyes up, our ears open, our mouths twisted with grins. The views—from the cemetery, from the shore, from the hills. The river. It was always the blue, wide, Mississippi. The river that spawned this town, that spawned history, that spawned a homemade cheese store, and an ice cream store with awkward 1980s Dover coloring books. (“Wait, they have a Titanic coloring book? What color would you color frozen people?”) Quaint buildings and peach-colored brick. Peeling murals and shiny statues of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Bit and pieces—the dive bar, the bed and breakfast, the visitor’s center, the greasy spoon.