Our town has really good schools, which is odd, considering it is also one of the most visually depressing, economically desolate, tank-pocked landscapes a Wal-Mart has ever had the misfortune to plunder. Wal-Mart is actually one of its more attractive features. However, should you need to die in Bremen, the funeral home isn’t bad.
I’d been flirting with the clerk at a video game store nearby. He was a 24 year-old Iraq war vet, and after he’d told me about a few of his tours, I guess I thought his world-weariness and my Bremen-weariness meant we had something in common. We stood outside the store while he smoked a cigarette.
“So, what do you think of Bremen?” I asked, sweeping my hand in the direction of I-20 and the Cracker Barrel.
“I love this place,” he said, and I was taken aback by his tone. It left an indelible impression that someone could feel about this town the same way I felt about my screensaver of the Fiji islands. “I would never want to live anywhere else.”
“Nope. Love it.”
Conversations like that always made me feel weirder than I already was. Didn’t he ever have that gnawing suspicion that there was something better out there, something a little more wow and a little less Captain D’s?
The first year my kids went to school in Bremen, I asked a mother in my daughter’s class for her email address. The woman wrote it down on the paper I offered, but continued talking to her close friend, the way a besieged celebrity might obligingly sign an autograph. I thanked her but she didn’t respond. Pan-handling for play dates, I thought, is so much fun. I looked down at her handwriting and hated it; I also now hated her and her stupid kid. What I was experiencing was the unwritten law of the Bremen female: stay with who you know from high school. Travel ball, church or cheerleading are also accepted interaction zones. If your life doesn’t fall into any of those categories, you probably should just stay home.
I looked round the room, wondering if everyone here was that way. Maybe this was just a human being thing, and not necessarily a southern being thing.
At my sons’ kindergarten orientation, the middle-aged teacher had a smile like a mask. It was like her skin had been molded into a smile by scientists and then preserved in saccharin. She invited us, a room full public school parents, to come worship at her church home. I stared directly ahead in obedient silence, trying to file away this cheerful warning. I focused on the pink laminated construction paper cut-outs, the whitewashed cinderblock wall, but nothing could shut the cabinet door in my mind. I ran my finger along my son’s name where it was taped to his desk, and felt so deeply sorry for him. I hoped he was too young to realize where we were. Maybe by the time he did, we would be somewhere else. Somewhere far far away. Somewhere less here.
“My granddaddy owned this whole town,” another mother told me that first year. She was standing outside my minivan, talking through my car window in a church parking lot. Her hard-edged country manner had the air of a slightly upgraded tax bracket. Her daughter had come over to play with mine that day, and I was now doing as the Romans do, dropping the girls off at Wednesday night church. This mother didn’t yet know me, or the fact that I’d whisper-screamed “don’t believe anything they tell you!” in my daughter’s ear before she’d run inside to eat God’s free spaghetti.
The woman tried to size me up.
“People come to this town,” she was saying, “and buy these mansions and cain’t pay half their dang mortgage. But our house? Paid in full. Same with the cars.”
“Yeah, where are these mansions exactly?” I asked, as if we were suddenly best friends. “I’ve always heard there’s money in Bremen but this place is so—“(DON’T SAY DEPRESSING) “depressing.”
Her face stayed blank.
“I mean, the strip malls look like,” (DON’T SAY IT) “third world ghettos for white people.”
She looked at me strangely. I figured, if I just kept talking, she’d understand. Or laugh. At least titter. I could go with titter. An intake or exhale of breath would be good. But her understanding of me was shriveling like road kill on time elapse. I had become a bundle of disorganized cells in the general shape of a human.
“I mean, the Piggly Wiggly on 78?” I kept on, hitting her with some verbal defib. “It’s like…post apocalyptic.” I waited. “It’s where groceries go to die.”
“Where are you from again?” she asked vaguely, as if she was passing my cage at the pound and couldn’t reckon my breed.
“Carrollton but,” I answered, watching. “But I’m from…up north…”
“Oh,” she said, meaning, I lived seven minutes too far to be worthy of her well known family name and fully paid family mortgages.
I still have her number in my cell phone, but she never spoke to or returned my phone calls ever again. It could’ve been that conversation. Also, it could’ve been the fact that during that playdate her seven year-old caught me uploading a picture of her grandmama’s minivan onto Facebook.
“That’s my Nana’s car!” the little girl had cried out from behind me, ejecting me out of my chair.
“Oh you scared me,” I said, my right hand breaking the sound barrier to switch off the screen. “You guys want some Lucky Charms? Some cash?”
I didn’t know it was her grandmama’s van. In all honesty, I don’t think I believed the owner of that minivan was an actual person. It was plastered with so many racist anti-Obama Tea Party bumper stickers that you couldn’t even see out the back window. I’d seen it in the school pick-up line but never had the guts or the camera readiness to idle beside it long enough to angle my shutter. In the scheme of my life, actually getting close enough to capture the font on those bumper stickers was like, I don’t know. Shooting a lion on safari. It was way up there.
Sometimes Facebook friends are better than real friends, said no one ever. Except me. I say that a lot.
At the school conferences that first year, I ran into a woman I actually knew. Our kids had gone to the same preschool together years earlier. She was an insider, a tried and true local who could brandish her last name like a frequent flyer card. She was a pro at doing the southern mom thing, dedicating her life to ensuring that she and her son were at the terrifying social center of any sporting event.
My mama hates you, she’d once told me.
Wait, what? I had only met her elderly mother once, at a kids’ swim party.
Yeah, (laughter) Mama thinks you’re a communist lesbian from the pit of hell.
Back then, I had short pink hair and was always breastfeeding in a long Indian print maternity skirt. So yeah, I guess she had a point. But Christ, at least my granddaddy wasn’t a Klansmen.
“Come meet my friends,” she said, and took my arm. It was a month after I’d arrived in Bremen, and I hadn’t talked to her in years. Her warmth was uncharacteristic. Maybe she was excited that I had long hair now, and pants. Maybe she just wanted to establish her territory, to point out the invisible yellow lines of friendship that I would never be invited to cross. She steered me toward two of her fellow Junior Leaguers whom I imagined had terminator-style readouts scrolling behind their vision. Something about their demeanor struck fear into my heart.
“Nice to meet you,” I smiled at them. “I’m Dawn.”
Despite everything, it was kind of a relief being introduced to someone, somewhere. She could’ve introduced me to a stop sign and I would’ve been fucking elated.
Hi! I exist!
“I keep telling Dawn she needs to come to Church with us,” my friend said.
“Really?” I turned to her, incredulous. “C’mon. You know I don’t do Jesus.”
As the words do Jesus reverberated through the cafeterias of hell, the smiles of her friends turned into the shells of smiles –the replicas of what smiles would look like had smiles still been alive today. Smile memorials. Smiles encased in sliding plates of Batmobile armor. I knew how uncouth it sounded to rebuke Jesus, as if he was just some nobody; I knew, and my friend knew too, which was maybe why she’d paraded me out here in the first place and thrown the bait. Maybe she was just bored. But I enjoyed holding ladylikeness by its neck under warm bath water, the little air bubbles popping at my wrists until the flailing stops. I enjoyed provoking their awkward silences, because the expectation that I was supposed to give a certain kind of fuck about their church was directly proportional to the many fucks I didn’t give. I even enjoyed the loneliness that welled up in me in the wake of these brief but mutual cullings. And then, as I drove home, past the endless sweeping vistas of Bremen’s bankrupt strip malls and its thrift stores packed with destitution, I didn’t much enjoy anything at all.
“I read your book,” my Junior Leaguer friend told me later. “My husband and I both did, and you know what he said to me afterward?”
“What?” I asked, hopeful. Dreadful.
“He said, it was just really sad. We both just felt so sorry for you.”
Because that’s what insiders do. They feel sorry for outsiders, but not because they’re actually sorry; because living outside the pack is their greatest fear. A pack’s directive is to peck its members into submission so together they can kill the big, beautiful, solo-flying targets. That is all Bremen has to offer humans; that is all humans have to offer the world. Endlessly boring groupthink variations of “kill.”
Bright spots in Bremen are strangers like Cody, the gay kid who works behind the counter at Sally Beauty Supply. He inspires me because a) he is gay in Bremen and b) he is gay in Bremen. Cody taught me things about curling irons I didn’t even know I didn’t know. He knew about conditioners. He knew about ceramic and tourmaline. Amidst the soulless flesh-hulls of middle aged cashiers who were unable to provide a single original answer to any nuanced question other than AH DOUGHNT RILLY KNOUUGH, Cody was a fresh-faced champion who drank from the fount of hair-knowledge. I looked at him, and thought, If Cody can do it here, godammit so can I. I can survive here for one more year.
I went into Sally’s to see him, but instead of Cody I found a meek long-haired woman behind the register, talking in hushed gossipy tones with a customer.
Customer: “And so this is what they said. At the school graduation we are NOT allowed to have a prayer!”
Customer: “Can you believe that?
Cashier: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
I wished theirs, like every other conversation I am privy to but never included in, was a private conversation. I wished like hell they could just all fly to heaven and talk there, but no matter where I walked in the store I could hear them. I picked up a plastic-wrapped comb, any comb. I wanted to browse the shelves and read the labels but I found myself highly agitated, not caring which kind or what price or where I was. I heard myself make a little whimper. I realized my heart was suddenly racing. Oh shit.
Customer: “They said because prayer at a public school event is disrespectful to people of different beliefs.”
Cashier: “Oh please! It has always been held in the church!”
Customer: “And that is exactly right. So there was an absolute uproar.”
Cashier: “Well good!”
Bottle of toner. T11? T28? I fingered the swaths of doll hair, unable to compare any of the colors. I walked robotically up to the register and stood paralyzed, awaiting my turn. My chest was hurting. I kept a safe and pained distance, leaning slightly toward the other side of the world.
Customer: “And so we told them, that is how we’ve always done it in this town. We are NOT going to change it. And if there are parents here who don’t like it, they can just stay home!”
And then, at that exact moment, both women turned around to look at me with their expectant am I right faces. It was weird. Almost ike we were in some kind of cosmic vignette, and it was my cue to say the next line. So I did.
“Well that’s not very Christian of you,” I laughed, though nothing was funny. My skull felt like all the bone had been replaced with cotton. “Because I’m one of those parents.”
I wasn’t really. I wasn’t even 100% sure what the fuck they were talking about. Even still, I was reasonably certain that they comprised the sum total of everything that made Jesus weep.
The customer immediately turned her back to me.
“And so they changed it,” she continued, exulting in the mootness of my point. “In the end they allowed the prayer.”
“Well,” said the cashier. It was perhaps her second day on the job, and my upstage presence was unnoticed. Oh, how I missed Cody. Cody and his wonderful gay gayness.
“So, anyhow, it was good seeing you,” waved the customer, heading forth into her sunny life of neatly defined morality. Then, not to me: “Have a good day hon.”
“You too,” said the cashier. I stepped forward to put my comb and my little box on the counter. She angled her head down to not look at me.
“’If you don’t like it, just stay home,’” I repeated to myself, as if the conversation was still in play. “How Christian is that.”
“Do you have a club card?” she asked.
I handed her my key ring.
“I mean, it’s always amazing to me,” I continued, “how Christians don’t understand the tenets of their own religion.”
“That’ll be $5.82.”
I handed her a twenty, and watched as she painstakingly made change, talking quietly to the bills. Because even dollars are safer than sinners.
I walked out with my bag, the plastic trembling between my fingertips. What was the point of that, exactly? To get myself all sick and dizzy? Why couldn’t I just shut up? To pray is human, to go quiet is divine. Let them have their world out in the open. You can keep yours behind closed doors. You know, at home. Where non-praying people should just stay.
I caught my reflection in the glass door, wondering what I looked like to people here. Maybe they didn’t even see me at all. Maybe I existed in a parallel dimension that intersected this town but did not fully join with it. Maybe that was the literal definition of hell. It certainly explained why I found joy in avoiding any and all eye contact. And though my social failures are many, they pale in comparison to the pile of used mattresses and busted appliances that are dumped in the abandoned development behind the new school. Maybe that’s what happens when you don’t have a church home; you spend a lot of time taking pictures of piles of tires and shacks with sheets for windows. They speak to me more than humans, more than four year-old Blighton’s little league or Derpina-Grace’s dance recital. Looking in from the outside for so long, listening in on all these countless overheard conversations, I’m reasonably sure that somewhere Jesus Christ is stabbing himself in the ears with two giant Jesus-sized pencils. What if he doesn’t give two shits about your church or your daddy’s daddy or your mama’s mama or your needlessly insecure graduation prayer? If he did care, why do all the buildings in your town look like tombs? Why does the land look like it’s been withering on a cross for half a century? Why are some of your best Christians the most cliquish and inhospitable people? Maybe Jesus already checked in here, looked around, and decided He too was better off just staying home.
The last time I ever took my daughter to Wednesday night church here, an older woman approached her as she was getting in the car. She leaned down to her in a stern and quiet voice.
“Make sure you ask your mother to bring you to church here on Sunday morning.”
I held my hand up and waved slightly. I was standing right there. Right in front of her. She could ask me herself if she wanted to, because I was like, you know, two feet away. In the interdimensional rift.
My daughter nodded, squirming.
“How was it?” I asked her, once the car door was safely shut. “Did they try and teach you anything about the Bible, because –“
“No, Mama. We just colored and stuff.”
“Oh that’s good.”
“And we ate cookies and played tag.”
“Oh, and this boy? He called me the B word.”
“He what?” I took my foot off the gas and the car jerked.
“He told me I was fat and called me the B word. But I pinned him to the ground and made it so he couldn’t breathe.”
“So I told the teacher and they told him next week he has to just stay home.”
“Just stay home, huh.”
And then I understood. Just stay home was how Christians said “fuck off.”
“How about next week,” I asked her in the rearview. “You wanna just stay home too?”
“Okay,” she said, yawning. “Cuz I don’t really like it anymore.”
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016