Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up on my grandparents’ cattle farm in the Missouri Ozarks. Baptized by springs and copperheads and cow dung and cave mud and family turkey shoots, I loved every minute of it. My family raised Holsteins, hunted bobwhite quail, ate together every Sunday, and basically lived in nature because, well, we had to. We burned wood for heat, had our own well until the county put in a line, and shared a party phone with our neighbors (both of them) until I was 12 or so. Grandma was Granny and made the best cobblers. Grandpa was Gramps or the “The Little Ole’ Feller” who knew his cows and his Alice-Chalmers ’66 harvester by the sounds they made. Mom and Dad worked off the farm but were always available when needed. There wasn’t anything perfect about it, and I live in Phoenix now. A world away from water and hills and those lulling cud munching sounds. Some days, most days, I miss it all.
You Were Gone
There’s the little town. You can see it now. That little town nestled between woods and fields of Holsteins and Black Angus. Between cricks and streams and new-born springs. Spotted with dogwood and lilac flowers and little, waving peonies planted in your grandmother’s backyard; their limp heads drooping under the sun and humidity. Morning glory twists up the lattice that covers the patio. That little town sprouted you in dark trees, chasing a girl whose face is always fifteen; there’s firefly light on her face as you kiss her, and she puts her small, tan hands in your hair. Summer heat held fast to your skin, rolled off you at night in sweat laced with Old Milwaukee and Grandad’s. There’s that little town. Its streets question marks each night. Who’ll be there? Where’s the party? When you coming home? That’s the little town. You can see it just over the hill, just around the next curve, just beyond the horizon line. A nook on the map, tucked under the shallow shadows of low, rocky hills. The gas station that sold pizza. The old mill that needed paint. The grocery where you stole gummy bears for kicks. That little town. But here’s the thing. You were gone. For a long time and things there churned a bit, so when you come over that hill, around that bend, crest that horizon, dig into that nook, you find the gas station worn, the mill spruced up with bright white paint, Main Street decked with iron light posts. Two cop cars. New bricks on the funeral home façade. As if someone has come with a wand or a brush or maybe a charcoal pencil and just wiped it, smudged it, all into something else. Weeds grow up over the house where your best friend lived all through high school.
“I grew up in the 1950s,” you tell people even though you graduated in the mid-90s. “That place was always way behind.”
You pull into a driveway, one you’ve been in before, and hope to find something familiar. There’s your old friend, sitting in his living room, still an athletic fixture. That friend who used to date girl after girl, who used to drink and sometimes smoke, sometimes other things, has found God and quotes the Bible and tells you how the rapture will happen. He stands, waves through the window. Same smile, same haircut, different mind.
On the porch, you sit and talk for a while. He smokes a cigarette; his one vice he says. He keeps asking you about Jesus.
“Christ,” he says, “is the only path we have now. Think about it. There’s nothing else. Everyone is trying to convince everyone that some other way exists. You can save the environment. You can save babies. You can do all that. But without Jesus, none of it matters.”
You listen, nod, hum, wonder where this capsule emerged from.
He leans back in the wooden rocker bought at Cracker Barrel. “I’m preaching now,” he says, sucking on his cigarette for longer than feels right. “Every third Sunday, I’m up there spreading the good word.”
You want to say, You fucked Tanya Wiggins in the school parking lot, right after school. You want to say, You threw a brick through the hardware store window. You want to say, That fight on Alverson Road? Remember that fight? You almost lost a finger. You want to scratch past this new skin in front of you, tear it apart and find the right thing underneath, but you nod and hum and say, “You have a point,” over and over until its late and the sun is almost gone behind the trees.
“You’ve been gone a long time,” he says on his third cigarette.
You want a beer. It’s late, and it’s that time. “Yeah,” you respond, your voice raspy, “it’s been a while.”
“No,” he says, “it’s been a long time. I don’t think you know how long.”
There are people who you went to high school with who are dead now. People who are in prison, in the military, living balding lives as insurance agents and loan officers. One guy, you heard, traipsed off to South America, lived from job to job, slept on people’s couches. The guy has a blog about it. Gonna get himself dragged off into the jungle is what’s going to happen people say about him. But there he is living in sparks of short bursting blog posts with lines like, “So good to meet Maria and Paolo. They have everything they need. Nice to meet their children and their goat, Córneo. That means ‘horny’ in Spanish.”
The dead ones have names. Candiee. Steven. Willy. Samantha. David. Overdose. Overdose. Overdoes. Husband beat her to death. Car wreck. All from your class. You aren’t that old. The twenty-fifth year reunion is coming up; it’s the reason you’re back here in the first place. Someone asked you to help plan. A few more no one has heard from in some time, no one you have any contact with anyway, and those five are gone. Opioids and heroin, a shithead named Matt, and a Dodge Skylark got them. Their funerals flew by while you were gone. Willy you knew pretty well. Hung out fairly often. Played baseball together. He played third base in high school and had life-size poster of Michael Jordan hanging in his bedroom. He told you once, when you were in college and still coming home regularly, how lucky you were to be out in the world, seeing it, living it, and when he told you, there in the bedroom in Jordan’s shadow, the two you smoking some piss-ass weed, you didn’t see the sadness in his eyes or the way his hair was matted to his forehead as if living under his parent’s roof was compressing him into nothing. Two years later, you heard, his father bought him some land to raise cattle on, give him some responsibility. Two years after that, he was dead.
It was Willy you knew. It was Candiee you thought about because she had that fifteen-year-old face full of firefly and moon light. She always had her hands in your hair, with soft brushes, the river’s gulp and spit just beyond the tree line. There in the field behind her father’s house, where he kept a few steers each year, under the bending fescue with the smell of dirt and cow shit, her face so close to yours and you whisper, “Happy birthday, Candiee,” as you pull her down close to your face, and she closes her eyes.
Behind the flower shop, you park your rental car in newly poured gravel. White as sunlight. It has that new crunch under the tires. There are gray stairs leading up to the second level, worn to the color of spring rain clouds, they seem to hover, not attached to the building in any meaningful way. Above the flower shop, there’s a long room where people used to hold meetings and wedding receptions. Now, it’s just a long room with one window and a useless bar and kitchenette. No one uses it anymore. It’s cheap. That’s why you are here for the planning meeting. It’s cheap.
You climb the stairs, open the door with the rattly window pane, and find them already there. Greg. Norma. Billy. Roland. Classmates with older faces but still a sort of there underneath. Greg, the class president. Norma, the smart one who stayed. Billy and Roland, brothers who farmed and were big in FFA. They are seated around a foldable table on metal chairs with thin legs.
“Oh my God!” Norma squeals. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Where you been keeping yourself?” Billy asks.
You laugh. Sit with them. You are back at the lunch table. It’s a cold day in January, and you are listening to Norma tell everyone how her father has cancer and will probably not make it. But he did make it, somehow, and Norma decided to stick around because of him living.
“We have about $200,” Norma says. “It’s $150 to rent this room for a night. Can we get any more from anyone?”
“We’ll need a keg,” one of the brother’s says.
When the door opens, you don’t look up because you’re about to say that you’ll pitch in an extra two hundred because you have a job that allows for such things, a life of luxury as heavy as a splash of soda in a Long Island Iced Tea. You don’t look up because the door’s behind you anyway, and your neck is still a little stiff from the headrests in the rental not raising all the way up.
Where you live, a dusty southern city brimming with confidence and homeless people, there’s a girl there who you see. Some may call it dating, but at your age, dating feels too young for what you do. It’s a dinner here, a movie there, a quickie in the morning before work. It’s more like laundry than dating. The girl has long black hair, straight, and it hangs around her eyes all the time. She’s always moving it around with her forefinger and using it to gesture and making seemingly grand statements about her job in finance while you shove another bite of caprisi chicken in your mouth or cheap steak and fries or bite into a burger that tastes the same as some fast-food places but costs $15. This girl has so much going for her, but she’s not the girl with the fifteen-year-old face, the almond skin, the touch of cool lead. She’s not that girl. No one is, and when Norma squeals out Caaannndiiieee and pulls every syllable as if she’s ripping your lower intestines out with the name, you squirm and want to spin but hold yourself just a moment. She’s dead. Candiee is dead. You saw it on Facebook or in the newspaper your grandmother sent you for a while, or somewhere. Someone told you she overdosed. And they said she died; that’s what they said. You are sure of it until you spin in your weak metal folding chair and see that fifteen-year-old face, worn and sunken, the eyes in pits, right there in the doorway, hugging Norma. You were gone, your friend said after three cigarettes.
There’s the little town, just over the ridge, buried in oak and maple trees. Heavy with good dirt. That town with the stains on it. You left because you felt you must. Fled, some would say; some would be right. When you run, the act itself betrays you because you run from something. Maybe a tan-skinned girl with small, tan hands whose first draw on a joint came in your basement. Maybe a mother who needed support; who you left to fend for herself and eventually die on the kitchen floor from a massive stroke. Maybe a father who hadn’t enough will to swim out of a bottle. Just dove deeper, and maybe people said things about you, too. Like the guy in South America, wandering the jungle, hanging by his neck tangled in the vines. Maybe they called you a coward. A bad son. Maybe those ghosts screamed at you from just beyond the tree line, just under the fescue, just down the crick where their voices rose right out of the water’s gurgle. It sounds like whispers, water over rocks, and you heard in it the seated heat of anger.
There’s the girl with the skin the color of almonds. Across from you now, seated with her arms laced across her chest; her eyes sunken and hollow; her face pocked and aged. As alive as she is, she looks far from health. She nods at everyone. They nod back. She looks at you, gives you a small half smile, something so weak it makes you want to cry. The room feels smaller now, covered in dust. Norma starts talking about pizza and beer. You want to listen, but you can’t take your eyes off Candiee. She’s not really there at all. She’s a whisp of dust, a splinter from the fraying gray steps. She can’t be there.
The planning goes on, and Greg finally says he will pitch in an extra $200 to get all the goodies and necessities. Greg, ever the savior. You stand to leave and start to say something to Candiee. She stands and moves around to you. She reaches up, touches your face, and her hands are suddenly in your hair, moving it back from your forehead, and even though your hairline has receded, even though you have not felt her touch in over twenty years, her hands are so familiar that you can barely catch your breath.
“It’s good to see you,” she breathes. “You’ve been gone so long.”
Back at your best friend’s house, you sit in his dingy living room that smells of sweaty feet and Hot Pockets. He plays Call of Duty, sucks on cigarettes. You want to scream at him. He ducks and bobs on the screen, snipes someone from behind a concrete wall.
“Hell’s yes,” he says. “Take that, mother father.”
You smile and shake your head.
“You could have told me about Candiee,” you say then.
He takes another shot and misses.
“I’m not your fuckin’ secretary,” he says. “You left.”
“You still could’ve told me.”
“Maybe you ought to pray on that,” he says. He leans back. Dies on the screen. At his feet are a few bottles of whiskey in various stages of completion. Another vice, he says. He has many vices.
You decide, there, to go ahead and pray, and you do. Right there with the whiskey and violent game and the smoking, cussing preacher man who had a different girlfriend every month his Junior year because, as he put it, he could. You get down on your knees, and you pray these words: Get me out of here. Outside, you can hear the katydids start to sing in the low dusk. The breeze picks up the curtains on the open window behind your best friend, and the night air, cooler than it has been, comes through. Slowly, out there, moonlight rises over that little town with the new streets, new ways, new pieces put together like a jigsaw puzzle from Goodwill, always missing at least one part. Always one part gone. And behind the painting that is Main Street, up graying stairs pulsating with splinters, in a long room with a useless window sits a girl with almond skin bathed in moonlight, her soft, iron-cool hands on your neck.