Delores Gilmore used to have a dream.
The 44-year-old overnight prison guard grew up on the south side of Lake Providence, the crescent moon-shaped body of water that generally divides the haves from have-nots here in the northeast corner of Louisiana. It's a place where the air is so soupy-hot your shins sweat; where bugs are such a looping, whirring presence that it can feel like you're trapped in hell's version of a snow globe; and where the level of income inequality, as persistent as the bugs and humidity, is higher than any other parish or county in America.
It's not a place where dreams live long.
Not south of the lake, at least.
North of Lake Providence, on a side of town Gilmore rarely sees, there are tennis courts and ski boats, swimming pools and manicured estates. The lake is less than a mile wide, but the north side might as well be a world away from Gilmore, who earns $8.50 per hour working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and still is two months behind on some of her bills.
"The first of the month, I pay the rent," she said. "The next check, I pay my light bills. Sometimes I won't pay my rent and I pay the light bill from last month -- if they cut if it off. Then I pay the rent the end of the month. ...
"I get it done. By the grace of God, I get it done."
A dozen or so family members rely on her for financial support. Her daughter, who has three children, lives across the street in a trailer so leaky that, despite her efforts to tar the roof to prevent rain from seeping through, it has mushrooms growing from the ceiling, like something out of "Alice in Wonderland." Stray dogs hound her door.
Gilmore's life is consumed with the needs of her family.
"I'm not fooling anybody," she told me. "I don't have any friends. And that's sad. ... I go to work, come home, take them where they gotta go, if they gotta go somewhere, come back home, lay down, go to work.
"That's what I do. All day, that's what I do."
In her recurring dream, though, Gilmore got a peek at another life.
She was in a big house -- a nice house, nicer than any she'd ever seen.
"It was beautiful," she said. "It had upstairs, downstairs. Four bedrooms upstairs, four bedrooms downstairs. It had a guesthouse in the back. It had four bathrooms. There was a living room and a sitting room. It was just beautiful."
Gilmore, a stern but funny lady who answers the door saying, "What now?!" and carries a switch to church in case her kids act up, never wore shoes in the imagined house, only socks. Her real living room floor is made of splintered plywood. But the floors in the dream home were smooth as a skating rink. In the dream, Gilmore ran through the halls and slid across the floor in her socks -- just like Tom Cruise in "Risky Business."
In that moment, she felt free.
Gilmore told me about her dream while we were driving along the south side of Lake Providence in her 2005 maroon Ford Taurus, a pair of fuzzy dice and four air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror. Cypress trees zipped by the car. The rich side of the lake was blurry as we drove parallel to the southern shore, but I knew it was there. I'd already met some of the wealthier northsiders and seen their lakefront homes. I'd also looked at the statistics: This place has a wider gap between rich and poor than Manhattan, with its Bentleys and billionaires -- or than any country on Earth.
I'd learned that, whatever we tell ourselves about America being the land of opportunity, our country's rules are designed to make it likely Gilmore will stay here on the south side of the lake, in the modest white trailer where she raised eight kids, including a stepson and a nephew whom, she said, her sister abandoned on a street corner in town.
Personal choice, including her decision to have so many children, plays a role in it, of course, but the choices in front of her are limited by a host of factors, including an income that won't support her family.
She doesn't blame anyone for that -- doesn't bemoan the wealth here.
She absolutely loves her job.
But, to use a popular metaphor, the middle rungs of the economic ladder have vanished in Lake Providence. There's almost no middle class.
How could a person climb up?
As I listened to Gilmore recount her dream, however, anything seemed possible.
Pirates and Providence