Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m southern in the stepson way. I glean from trips and family and stories– and I understand the pieces, if not the whole picture. I know just enough about anything to be seemingly proficient in conversation. It’s the dirt road he lived on, in little overalls and a mop of platinum hair. Running around with no shoes. It’s the way my uncle’s twang bends and flows through Brooklyn consonants. It’s the BBQ place “too far north to be this good,” the one the Tennessee boy I love takes his mom to. It’s the bluegrass he introduces me to, the blending of familiar and not. It’s a po boy shop off one road in Mississippi, with all the fixins that I still dream about. It’s the easiest city driving I’ve ever seen, as long as you’re out of Atlanta, and it’s the fish market my aunt’s father spoke French in. It’s her voice ringing “oh my word” in my head, and maintaining that she doesn’t have an accent. “Neither do I,” I tell her, while our eyes gleam with almost-laughter. She’s dubbed me an honorary Cajun for eating barbeque shrimp with the tail on. I’ll take it.
Telling Stories/Immaculate Sadness
“I’d do it,” I said. “No matter what, if you needed me, I’d be there.”
This was going to be one of those purposeful memories. Sometimes a brain latched onto inconsequential details and called it a memory, and sometimes a person wills so hard to make it a moment- wills it with their whole entire being to be immersed in the moment even as it passes- that it sticks.
That night was a small conciliatory gift of a brain who for months couldn’t remember a thing. Brain had stayed in the house for almost a month straight, waiting for someone who wasn’t coming back. Waiting for Him to come home- a fool’s errand. Brain ran out of fresh food and survived on canned soups and beans. Because if they left, they would miss Him. They needed to Wait for Him to come back. And they let things happen, despite telling themselves that they were done with that. Brain let themselves leave the house for the first time to go and sit for a while at their aunt’s house.
“A while” ending up being five straight days. The same outfit for five days. They did what they could to feel like they were doing something- going out to eat, going to Walmart and the dollar store for kicks, and watching tv till they fell asleep. There was not a lot of effort in Brain to do more than that. Luckily, Aunt didn’t have much energy either.
Dinner together, or just dinner with another person, was the perfect storm. Brain sat quietly eating across from the person who had just moved up the list in People Who Knew Most. And Aunt was good at telling stories.
“Tell me-a story, tell me a-story…” Brain would sing. It was an old tune passed down to them.
“Ah, I don’t have any stories,” Aunt would say, the way an adult tells a child that McDonald’s is closed when they’re open all day. “You tell me a story.”
This wasn’t a pointed question, like it would be with… anyone else it seemed like. Stories about Him, stories that Brain couldn’t even remember- not because it hurt too much, that would come later. Brain was just good enough at not falling apart that there was nothing left in them to do the remembering.
“Ok,” Brain said, because this is how it always started. Story was a give-and-take kind of art. Once the juices started flowing, there was enough for hours of back and forth. “Do you remember the first year I started going with you to set up for your birthday?”
“No,” which was inconsequential. This was the art of a lackluster setup.
“Well, the whole reason I did it was to get away from Marissa for a few hours.”
“Ha! Really,” her eyes moved far away for a moment. “When she came with us that one time, I got so tired of hearing her talk. Just the pitch she has is so grating. I was glad that you liked to sing to the radio, it gave me a break.”
“She was why. And after the first year, I was locked into helping you.”
“Oh, no you fucking weren’t. I managed all by myself well before you were even born. You stuck around cause you liked going to the beach.”
“Yeah, but I liked going to the beach with you.”
That sat in the air, the meaning acknowledged. Theirs was a patchwork relationship- Aunt had never had a granddaughter and Brain had lost the only grandmother they had. Something about the way they were both alone made them fit well together even before He left.
“It’s you and me against the world, kid,” Aunt agreed. That wasn’t entirely true, there were others, but it felt true every time she said it. Brain would have her back like Aunt had theirs. Always.
“Anyway,” Brain glanced at their plate for a reprieve, “when are you going to the doctor?”
“I ain’t going.”
“How are you supposed to get better if you don’t see a doctor?”
“All he’s gonna do is tell me I’m fat and to lose weight,” she dug in her heels. “I ain’t going.”
“What if your stomach falls out your ass?”
Aunt cracked up. Maybe it was the way Brain said “ass,” but when Brain swore like that it always took Aunt by surprise. She laughed for a good long time.
“Well-” Aunt huffed between bursts, “well, if it falls out you’re gonna help me pick it up!”
“Me? I don’t wanna be carting around your loose anything.”
“Especially if it falls out my ass!” Aunt continued, and Brain laughed with her.
In the quiet that came this time, more out of the need to catch their breath, was when Brain decided. The feel of the night, humid and somehow impossibly cold from the shitty forced air vent. The spots missing on the kitchen table’s finish. The shirt Aunt was wearing and how she sat in her chair. There was no way Brain was going to forget this.
“It’s your turn,” Brain said.
“Oh alright,” hard on the T, to show that she was put out.
“Tell me about the time you and Cousin Carmine went to that wedding.”
“Which one? We went to a lot of weddings together.”
“The one where you fought the bridesmaid for the bouquet.”.
“Oh, I was so drunk that night I couldn’t remember my name. What did Carmine tell you that story was?”
“I don’t remember most of it, just that you and this girl both grabbed for it and you fought with her under a table.”
“Oh,” Aunt said slowly, “ I remember the table. Did he say I won?”
“Yeah,” Brain smiled.
“Yeah I did. I won. I remember the dress I wore. A reddish-pinkish thing with flowers.”
“How many more weddings did you and Carmine go to?”
“Oh, all of them. We were each others’ backup dates, if we both weren’t seeing anybody. Your Aunt Rosalie was always trying to get me to set him up with one of my friends.”
“I can see it, she asks every time I see her if I have a boyfriend,” they muttered.
“You gotta understand she came from a different time. Girls needed boyfriends. Today it’s not like that.” Aunt was saying something underneath the thing she was saying. Brain heard it. They took a deep breath, before plunging into the deep unspoken chasm.
“I never even had any guy friends ‘cause I was afraid of Dad knowing.”
“I know. I was like that with my father. Aunt Joanne, she just paraded boyfriend after boyfriend in front of him. She must’ve been living in a different house than I was. I never wanted my father to know I had a boyfriend.”
“Was it because you didn’t want him to treat you different? Or because you didn’t want to disappoint him,” Brain was somewhere else for a moment, remembering.
“A little bit of both, I think,” Aunt said after a while, to let some of the harder feelings pass.