Southern Legitimacy Statement: Born and raised in East Texas, I’ve lived in the bogs of southern culture my entire life. From a town with a Baptist church so big it transmits sermons to New Orleans, to college in Baton Rouge, and political ramblings in Texas and Louisiana – I’ve experienced hurricanes and heatwaves, Mardi Gras and quinceaneras, queso and crab dip.
People used to always ask me how big Texarkana was, and I think they meant how many people lived there. That answer is something around eighty thousand in the surrounding areas, maybe more, but the real answer is that it wouldn’t look out of place if a four-wheeler were driving through a major intersection.
I haven’t been back much lately – when you’re thirty-two in the south, weddings, the good ones at least, are long gone – but I’d imagine there’s one street legal dirt bike to every Tesla up there. In saying that, I know I’m probably underestimating my hometown. It was a place, secluded by a two-hour drive to any major city, where the cop that pulls you over might’ve been your middle school DARE officer, and where you knew someone every time you went to Target. Inside the boundaries of the singular zip code sat an ecosystem of rich, poor, middle class, and the bourgeoise of the American rubber tire, chicken, and trucking industries. I remember going to a Y2K party and the house had a rundown tennis court with a tattered net hanging by a nylon string – trucking family.
It was an easy place to grow up, but an inexplicitly difficult place to leave despite recently developed accessibility to the two interstates. I have a tolerance, bordering on admiration, for the place’s limits.
Something happened to Texarkana kids around the puberty line – they’d go through the normal rigmarole of maturation, but the boys, mostly, would grow deeper voices and a palpable twang. As for me, I attempted to ditch any accent during my senior year when I went for a college visit and everyone was laughing at a kid from Dallas – a kid I thought sounded more like Frasier Crane than Beverly Hillbilly. In south Louisiana, where the kaleidoscope of drawls, hitches, and slurs spin anyone into a real headache, the slow but sharp punch of an east Texas-southern Arkansas accent was too much for the locals. I’ve come to define it by the way you choose to pronounce “y’all” – if you add a “w” behind the “a” and stretch the word for two seconds, you’re in the ballpark. If you’re ever yelling it across a packed Texas Roadhouse dining room when you see a friend walk in the double doors, feet crunching the peanut shells – you’re there.
With the thicker accent came other customary accoutrement: more convincing camo hanging in the closet, larger tires on the truck (which you should park at the edge of the driveway for clear visibility), fishing gear, and a circular impression of minty mouth tobacco carved into your blue jeans. I wasn’t destined for any of these sacred rights: I went hunting three times before high school, all with my dad, who enjoyed sitting around the fire, encircled by friends and camper trailers, more than the actual hunt itself. I fell in some icy water the first time, the time my MaMere told me she’d pray we didn’t shoot any ducks on account of their beauty and how poorly they were cooked “up here.” She was from New Orleans and never stifled a giggle any time my north Louisiana dad put something on the table. I stayed on the four-wheeler that day and cried; my hand-me-down waiters filled with not-quite-hypothermic inducing water. Another time I shot an eight-point buck and enjoyed a rare high-five from my dad. Then the last I sat alone, pretending to enjoy a book before doing something I’d rather not mention – I never fired the actual gun that time. The shaking stand surely warded off any deer. I haven’t been since the invention of cell phones, but I’d imagine shooting both to be more accessible.
Besides hunting, I had a used Japanese brand SUV that I didn’t think tires would look great on, fishing was fun but not as much as not fishing, and I watched as six of my friends tried dip for the first time in ninth grade in a poorly lit backyard – all of them puking about fifteen minutes later. I wimped out there.
Others avoided it, too. My friend Edward casually deflected any tobacco offers, drove a mid-sized sedan, and, since his parents were from Houston, had the air of the big city around him, which meant he listened and knew about rap. It wasn’t until years later I learned Edward went to the only private school in town until seventh grade. I didn’t find out he’d gone there, but that it was private.
Edward’s little brother Clayton Hill really ran with the changes. First, my dad took him hunting a few times to show him the ropes. Then Clay got a truck, a drawl, and a particular brand of spit tobacco.
Home from law school years later, my dad took me around our yard to kill fire ant beds. He yelled at me from across the lawn to stop messing with them and just “kick the shit out of ‘em!” That was the best way to do it – just run up and kick the pile, scattering their tunnels and entire way of life across layers of pine needles and gravel driveways. When we got done, he told me Clay died – a gun accident in his College Station apartment.
A few, a brave few, commemorated the event by getting guns tattooed on their chests or arms. Rifles on biceps, machine guns with his initials down the barrel on chests. One got it on his back.
That one was Tyler.
Tyler had other tattoos (most notably Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Budweiser-sponsored red number eight across his left butt cheek, which he had to modify to include a green eight once “Junior,” as Tyler called him, changed his sponsor to Mountain Dew and his number to eighty-eight). A rail-thin, tan kid with stringy brown hair, Tyler personified the puberty shuffle inundating our group of friends. Once focused on sports – a team picture from our refrigerator comes to mind with Tyler, a shaved-headed ten-year-old with a wild look in his eyes kneeling in front of a soccer ball, blue jersey stretched around his small but sturdy frame, his hand clenching his boney kneecap – he moved into high school and onto other vices.
Any part of Tyler that didn’t scream redneck was most likely some window into his upbringing, a hint that his family had quite a bit of Bow Flex stock and sold it around the time it meant something to sell quite a bit of Bow Flex stock. His parents divorced when we were young, and his mom married the country club’s golf pro a few years after. His dad did something I didn’t and still don’t quite understand, but he owned a hunting camp on the side, one with zebras and buffaloes somewhere in east Texas, where we met people like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. I met the lead singer of a band called the Eagles there once. I’d just tried my first joint, masturbated in a bathroom with deer antlers hanging over the mirror and holding the toilet paper, and walked out to shake hands with Don Henley. I watched a documentary about The Eagles a few years back with my dad. He’d met Henley once and remarked about how rude he was during the process. I told my dad about my experience with him, and we laughed – we couldn’t bond over hunting, but we both hated the Eagles.
Another thing that came along with hunting, fishing, dip, and the Texarkana speech impediment was drinking. We mainly did it at a friend’s house, grabbing what we could when we could. One night, I grabbed an old bottle of champagne and ran to my Japanese SUV, speeding off down the road. We pulled swigs until the label was clear, and I could see it was definitely from my parents’ wedding night in 1979. Tyler drove me home that night in his American brand truck.
Tyler is the type of person I’ve always been infatuated with – someone who has accomplished almost nothing but could have accomplished almost anything. For a while, his greatest claim to fame was the only kid to ever win student body president from ISS. (In School Suspension). No campaign posters, no empty promises – just the image of Tyler raking donuts with his truck tires before a football game to sway the vote. We’d drank before the first game of our senior year, painted our faces, and sprayed enough body spray down our shirts to give an elephant an asthma attack – asking the smell of alcohol with scents like Masculine Musk, Provocation, and Wild Instinct. Tyler took his truck, did a few donuts in the stadium parking lot until our DARE officer and assistant principal caught him. He had a thirty-pack of beer in his truck bed, which looking back on it, makes me wonder why they’re sold in such high quantity. He won in a landslide but ruled the meetings via notes he scribbled from the corner of the white cinderblock classroom at the back of the Annex building.
I served two short stints in ISS that year, once with the class treasurer and vice president, which, with me as the class secretary, made the entire governing body of Pleasant Grove’s Senior High out to lunch that day.
When his dad learned about the beer, ISS, and drunk donuts, he took Tyler to the federal prison up the road to show him what life was like inside. His dad’s friend, the warden, took Tyler to meet two men that had recently bound and gagged the local Outback’s wait staff before robbing and murdering them. Tyler claims he cried but judging by the ample other drunk donuts I’ve seen him pull, I can’t say it worked. Now that I have a son with what I’d call an almost predisposed inclination for chugging Capri Sun in less than a second, I’ve re-opened the dialogue on this experiment.
I don’t remember anyone ever saying no to Tyler. He graduated in the middle of our 120-person class with no college aspirations despite the grades and money to try. He attended the local community college for two weeks before joining the volunteer firefighters and renting a house in the middle of the tennis court trucking magnate’s cornfield. I would visit him when I came home from college and even felt obliged to introduce him to my wife one weekend. He walked out with an AK-47 and a new pit bull with a white coat – its blank red eyes stared us down, and I thought, well, she’s from Shreveport, so maybe she’s seen something like this before. She was quiet on the ride home as I tried to explain why it was a good idea to buy silver from him – What Tyler does just has a way of working out, honey.
Once on a visit home from college, we took my dad’s Hummer around town. My dad always had two Hummers at our house – one to drive and one to maintain until the driving Hummer crapped out. So he was the first person I called when LeBron James debuted a new Hummer during the 2022 Super Bowl.
I let Tyler drive, and, with an ice chest full of beer, we got pulled over two miles down the road. I was nervous. Not only had I come home with a 1.8 my first semester, but add a MIP to the list, and I might as well sign up for the volunteer fire department too. The officer was round and slow and had the shaved head of a policeman that looked more serious than I’d like.
He stared at us for a second before asking what was in the ice chest. I didn’t know what to say. I’d go to law school after college, but even now, I still don’t know the correct answer.
Tyler looked at me, shrugged, and turned back to the officer. “What do you want it to be?”
The offer laughed, and I remember him switching his radio off. “Oh, I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind if it were a cold beer.”
“Well,” said Tyler, “that’s exactly what’s in there. Well, I don’t know how cold they are.” I slumped in the heated leather seat – the Hummer’s interior was built for combat and comfort.
“Shit!” the cop said, “Lemme take a look at what y’all got then.”
Tyler hopped down, clumsily bouncing off the running boards before shuffling to the back, grabbing his jeans, and adjusting a shiny gold belt buckle as big as a bike hubcap. I froze in time as he opened the hatch, and I could hear the waving rattle of ice shifting in the chest. “See,” he said, “just some beer.”
The cop started shining his light around the back and into the rearview mirror. Our eyes met for a second, and he asked Tyler to shut the trunk. I glanced back a few times. Tyler would be smoking a cigarette some of the time, laughing others. Before long, they were both back at the driver’s side door – the cop studying a small piece of paper.
“Casey,” the cop said, not looking up, “Casey, right?”
“Casey, this is your dad’s car. Correct?”
“Oh, yeah. Yes, sir.”
He was still studying the small white note. “Alright, well, y’all have a good night. Slow down, ya know? And I’ll be seein’ you, Tyler.”
Tyler shut the door and shifted it down to drive. A cigarette still dangling on one lip, he rolled the window down and started to laugh, shooting me a smile out of his right eye. “You were nervous, boy!” he yelped.
“Of course, I was,” I said. “What were y’all talking about?”
“Oh, he pulled me over on Ryan’s go-kart two weeks ago on Kings Highway, so he knows me. And it sounds like they need a new copier at their office or something. I don’t know. I gave him my card.”
“You have a card? What the hell are you going to do about a copier?”
“I’m going to sell him one! I’ll find one. And, of course, I have a card. You don’t?”
“No. I’m in college,” I said.
“What’s the holdup?” Tyler said.
I don’t talk to Tyler much these days, not from fear of being pulled back into something – there’s nothing to be pulled back into, which I mean in the most innocuous way possible. Texarkana is not the setting of an early 90s movie about getting out and making something of yourself. A man from Texarkana ran for president, dammit (as an independent, but still)! Ragtime music was popularized by another man from Texarkana. Hell – the Texas Chainsaw Massacre was loosely based on a series of murders in the town. It’s not some down-on-its-luck succubus holding hostage any inkling of talent. There are a few porn stars under our high school’s Wikipedia’s “Notable Alumni” section. There’s a Chic-Fil-A. There’s a burger place that was on Oprah. This reminds me – my mom was on Oprah. We picked up the camera crew from the Ross Perot Airport, took them by TLC (the burger place from the show), and showed them how well our dogs could sit and fetch.
Oprah’s people were very impressed, but they should’ve gone to the Road Runner gas station off the highway, where the best burgers get made.
No, I don’t call Tyler because I’d be sucked back into anything Texarkana-related. I just know nothing’s changed – or hope it hasn’t.
Tyler met me at my house when I came in for Christmas a couple of years after college. My mom was happy to see him, and they talked about a going away party they had planned for a friend going to the Air Force. Tyler was part of a few going away parties.
Sitting around our kitchen table, he held my parents and brother in a story I’ll never forget – I haven’t seen my dad that captivated by a non-WWII documentary in my entire life.
“You know,” he said without warning, “I helped catch Trace a couple of months back.”
Trace? I went through our graduating class. We’d been through kindergarten through the senior year together, so I would know a Trace. “Trace McMichael,” he said, probably sensing my confusion. My mom gasped, and my dad stopped shoveling ice into his milk glass.
Trace McMichael was on our little league baseball team, but he went to a different high school, so he might as well have been in another country for me.
I asked why Trace required catching. He’d shot and killed a police officer with her own gun while she was transporting him to his cell, then stolen her keys and run off in the prisoner transport van.
“Oh,” I said.
Alone in the cornfield house, Tyler had his state-issued police scanner on full blast (he was now an officer of some kind in the volunteer fire department and claimed this was a necessary gadget). Soon after hearing the radio announcement, he remembered Trace’s grandmother lived up the road and behind a grove of pine trees.
At this point in the story, Tyler reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.
“They let me record the entire police interview.”
“You have a recorded police interview on your phone?” I said.
“I do. Is that okay?”
I was in my second year of law school. I had no idea if that’s okay.
“So, yeah. They called me in, and, well, and I’ll just play it for y’all. The audio is okay, I guess.”
The four of us hovered above an early-model iPhone on my mom’s tiled kitchen countertops. The tiles had little crawfish, pelicans, or shrimp painted every fourth or fifth one and reflected the buzzing lights of the kitchen right into your eye each morning.
Muffled voices scratched through the speakers when he hit play.
“Okay, okay,” Tyler’s voice said, “I’m going to record, so this is on the up and up.” I immediately began to laugh at the show. It was very much like Tyler to be so openly honest and hostile.
“So, you turn on your scanner and hear what?“
“That’s one of the guys interviewing me,” Tyler told us before my dad waved him off.
“I hear Trace McMichael is on the run and just killed some lady!” There was a long pause before I heard Tyler exhaling. “Can I smoke in here? So, then I knew he would be coming to see his grandmother because she basically raised him, and I know he doesn’t have enough sense not to come to the exact place where everyone knows he’s going, and I know he doesn’t usually take the right way. He goes behind my house and up by the creek, but what he should do is go in front of my house. The way he usually goes is dangerous as hell.”
“Why is it dangerous?” someone in the room asks.
“Because there’s no lights, and there’s a creek. And,” he paused again, another exhale, “I figured he’d be in some kind of hurry. So, I grabbed my gun – you guys have been to my house, and I think I showed you my guns, and they’re all registered – so, I grab my AK, load it, then I called y’all and said he was probably headed this way.”
“And why the AK?“
“Because it shoots fast, and it’s loud, I’d just traded my other machine gun for that school bus out front, and I didn’t know what Trace had.“
Around this time I looked over to see my mom, mouth open, both hands gripping Tyler’s. Clutching them up by her chin like he was in peril, staring at the phone in disbelief.
“Enough with the interruptions,” Tyler’s voice sounded irritated. “Like I said, I grabbed my AK, and I have an extensive security system around the house. And I have Bo.” Bo was the white pitbull. Bodacious, Bo for short, named after a BBQ place in town. Bo attacked my dog, a white Labrador retriever I named Paul Revere after a Beastie Boys song, a couple of months before this incident, so my ears perked up at Bo’s mention, but I was also transfixed on Tyler’s voice. He was confident in the tape like he knew he’d be playing it to parents and friends around an oddly painted kitchen counter. And what did he have to be so confident about – me, a second-year law student with an apartment in the big city and a girlfriend from another sorta big city, had been shouted down by a campus security guard a week before for parking on the stripe – so where did he get this from?
“So, I’ve got cameras everywhere. Everywhere. I turned on the floodlights and hunkered down behind the front door. It wasn’t long before here he comes, and, my house, y’all have been to my house, but my house is – what’s the right word – it’s on blocks. That makes it sound shitty, but it isn’t. It’s a nice house, but it’s on blocks.”
“Pier and beam, Tyler,” my dad says, laughing a sort of high-pitched giggle that he usually reserves for the comedic icebreaker in a western.
“Since it’s on blocks, you can hear someone walking inside from outside the house. So, like, if I ran to the back of the house, he’d hear me if he was close enough. So, I decided to use the intercom system. I yelled at him, I yelled through it, ‘Trace! Get up to the front, man!’ and he curled around my yard, the mowed part, around the bus and that tractor they keep out there, then he starts looking in my truck, so I said hell Nah and went outside on the front porch.”
I felt my brother pacing around the kitchen counter, both hands on his head like he’d run wind sprints.
“I went out, kept Bo inside because he’s really a big baby, and I said, ‘Trace – man – I know what happened, and you need to get outta here and get away from me and my truck. I’m serious, man.’ And I’m holding the gun up now, and he can see me, and he says, ‘Are you going to shoot me, Tyler?’ in that kinda slow mumble that he’s got, and I said, ‘Go to your grandma’s, and I’ll leave it alone. I did call the cops, though, so there’s that.’ And then he starts crying. He was crying for a second, then he asked me what he was gonna do. He said, ‘I didn’t mean to,’ and he takes a step towards me, and I dunno. I just shot. I aimed at his feet, but I don’t know how many times y’all’ve heard an AK-47, a real AK-47, not that Academy Sports shit, a real AK-47. Well, I shot it at his feet, and he was out of there. I could see him running through the corn, falling a few times, but I knew he’d go and try to steal his grandma’s car or something like that. Sure enough, the cops, maybe one of you, got there right after and caught him.”
Tyler reached out and tapped his phone screen. The raspy wine of the recording stopped, and he looked around, a knowing grin across his face.
“Tyler,” my mom said, shaking her head with what looked like exhaustion, “Tyler, I don’t know what to say.”
I must’ve made him play it for me ten times that night. I couldn’t get over the smoking. He was in a police interview, talking about his house on blocks and shooting at a future death row inmate, all with the bravado of Wyatt Earp.
Three years after the kitchen conversation, around 2014, he invited me to the country club to play golf before his stepbrother Ryan, the one with the go-kart, left for college on a full golf scholarship.
The summer before this, Ryan had been invited to the Under-18 World Invitational Tournament in South Africa. He spent most of his time at Tyler’s cornfield house smoking pot but was one of thirty kids in the world invited to this event. We didn’t watch the tournament, but we watched the televised welcome dinner, where they filmed each kid as they announced their entrance to the dining hall. The dining room on the TV was bright and had golden rods hanging white curtains and drapes about the room. The camera, positioned at the front of the room, tracked each contestant down a narrow hallway after their name was called. We’d see an awkward but usually tall, thin kid bumble around the corner, up the green carpeted hallway, and enter the dining room to applause. Tyler narrated each catwalk. “This is the kid that won the tournament. He sat at Ryan’s table.”
“Casey, man, you notice what every kid is wearing?” Tyler said, pointing to a short blond boy skipping down the hallway. “Each one of ’em.”
“A tux? A cummerbund?”
“Man,” Tyler said, teetering on the edge of a brown, roach colored couch – it’s slip cover salted with Bo’s hair – with one of those smiles so big it starts in your eyes. “Ryan doesn’t have a tux. Or if he does, he didn’t pack it. Ho-lee chit! You’re at a nice dinner, I told him, there’s people there from Antarctica probably, I warned him. You flew thousands of miles to be there, et cetera, et cetera…” He said this last part miming a symphony conduction – then fell back into the couch still smiling – an exuberant, exhausted Bernstein from Bowie County. “You might want to dress up a little bit, right? Wait ’til you see old boy here in a second.”
A few moments later, Ryan’s name was called, and in almost the perfect sequence, he came from around a different corner than the rest, and he was in a polo shirt, khaki pants, and flip-flops. And he didn’t stop in the clearly formed line at the end of the hallway, instead strolling around and taking his seat off camera. All the social cues in the world, but he couldn’t be bothered.
Tyler was howling and rewinding to the moment Ryan came into view. He spent the rest of the night cussing Bo for jumping on the couch, wrestling him to the ground, both biting the other’s ear.
Back on the course in 2014, we tinkered around the greens, kicking our ball up hills and betting on who could keep it on the fairway. With his cigarette and NASCAR golf bag, Tyler showed me how far a 158-pound man could hit a 1.62-ounce ball, and we talked about what was next – a trip out of the country, degrees, and women.
I realized we only talked about me.
My family were country club members, and I’d spent most summers there splashing around the pool or ordering extra cheese on my burgers – it was a big summer when they got the Choco-Taco in stock. Still, Tyler paraded me around the course like it was my first time, showing me nooks and crannies I didn’t know existed, like a pine needle-covered hole off the fourteenth green where he hid the weed he’d sell to the doctors and lawyers on the course. I’d graduated from law school and definitely knew this was probably not allowed under state or federal law – one of them, surely. The image of Tyler’s golf bag, its checkerboard font scrolled down the sides, mixed with the Callaway, Srixon, and Nike bags outside the drenched concrete kart wash, didn’t seem out of place. Tiger Woods had played here, and there was a picture of him in the clubhouse to prove it, but the highlighter yellow racing caution flag on the ball carrier side of his bag, that Tyler used for beer, fit. And I still don’t know why.
I always thought east Texas, or at least Texarkana, lacked any real definable characteristic. Most regions have a food staple or culture that stands out on the map somewhere – we had the highest-grossing Applebee’s two years in a row.
There’s a spot at the post office where you can stand in two places at once, but I recently found out that you can do that at the Hoover Dam, and there’s some monument in Arizona where you can stand in four states at once. What else was left for us without this novelty on the sediment outskirts of the Dallas suburbs? We’d always have Oprah, I assumed.
But when I look back now, I think about the definable characteristics of the people that make that area. Many of us crawling, fighting, biting, clawing to get out of it and run – falling over one another to make it to Dallas, Houston, Austin, or Little Rock, and to leave something we or I never really understood, like fire ants racing over a bare foot straddled in the pine needles. Others biting down hard, clamping onto the fleshy way of life, scrambling back down the interstates to get home, not retreating from success or failure but the satisfying feeling of things that will always be there and people that don’t need to change. Flip flops at a dinner in South Africa and Tyler.
A friend asked me what my relationship with Tyler was like now – and there isn’t one, I told her. Or, at least, it’s been a while. I see him at Clay’s memorial golf tournament when I’m able to make it, knowing full well he’ll be front row for the Beach Boys cover band they rent each year. I’ve moved on, I tell myself, and so has he, but if I saw Tyler tomorrow, he’d know me better than anyone in the room. Does he know about my inner desires or a recent bout with hemorrhoids, as well as my wife? Probably not.
I don’t resent him for tolerating such a simple life, but I do hate him for it sometimes. Ambition doesn’t always run uphill.