Based on my second novel Crash, Bang, Burn, and featuring me playing all my own characters, Crossland Season One is like social commentary wrapped inside a trailerfire. A dog pill dipped in peanut butter. Catch all six episodes and subscribe. Intended for mature audiences.
While doing research for my book deep in the trailerrific bowels of Carroll County, I interviewed Cross, Braylee and Edie to discuss important issues at the heart of rural life: love, family and that cheatin ass bitch. Now for the first time, here is the never-before-seen footage of the drama that went down behind the drama. It’s nuggets.
This Valentines Day marks two years dick free. A dick free diet – it’s kinda like gluten free, only it’s cheaper and doesn’t smell like wet dog in your toaster. Yep, you heard me. I’m sober in all ways: sex, alcohol, dates, aka getting fucked up, knocked up, fucked over, played out or thrown under. While I’ve sat restrained in zen restraint, restraining against my restraints, divorcees have remarried and refucked their exes – and their replacement exes – in laps around me. They are like Olympic ex-making champions. And I am, well, in the bath.
At first, the rate of reup around me was a bit . . . . bewildering.
#ilovemynewhusband? Really, facebook, tell me more
But since we’re coming up on the day of Heart-Shaped Corporate Woe, let me extoll upon you what the Gentle Lady Dickfree will be doing summa cum Sunday.
First, let me briefly luxuriate in the hallmarks of modern datingdom that I do not miss. Let’s just call them the Shady Tindersexts, et al. The “you’re so important to me/what’s your name again” department. Ahhhh that shit can fly full free bird: away. Because, like Lynyrd bragged, that bird will never change. Until it gets AIDS and its dick falls off. And even then it will be a dickless free-flying douchebird. To all y’alls out there still trading shares on the digital floor of the Relationship Exchange, searching for “the one” while you’re still embroiled with the last two:
how’s that working for you.
I know, not everyone has a bad time in love.
Yeah they do. Yeah, it totally fucking blows.
The occasional sex is like a fun-sized Twix bar in a bowl fulla stale five pound Tootsie rolls, but you keep chewing because you gotta find The One, amiright? The one, the one THE ONE. OH MY GOD where is THE ONE. Are you the one? How about you? It’s all about the ONE who will love YOU for YOU. The one who, like Justin Bieber insists, will miss more than just your bodeee. Eeee. ee.
I gots yer ONE right here bbgurl
See, the thing is, if I see a hot man nowadays, my instincts are True and Good.
Step one, hit the deck.
Step two, scramble for cover.
Step three, watch him at a safe distance from behind a parked car or a clothes rack.
Because when you see someone hot in Carroll County, the only sensible thing to do is sprint like a superhero back to your crystal jet. Alone.
Netflix…must get…to Netflix…
A hot 30 or 40 something dude around here never means anything good. And while they are so nice to look at, they are ALL taken. Even when they’re single, they’re taken because their minds are like an overflowing baggage carousel at Not Over My Divorce Airlines. And honey those claims won’t be sorted out for another four to ten years.
But people cannot stay single for long. It is absofuckinglutely infuckingtolerable. It’s right up there with carcinoma. Whats that, you say? You’re not sexually or emotionally entangled with a human placeholder? Quick, grab some Tindersext for that deplorable sense of freedom eating away your gut. In fact, I should start a new charity, something like Relay For Misery. Everyone quick, PAIR THE FUCK UP, grab someone with a pulse and a rack /dick who acts nice to your kids (for now) and stuff him/her in all your empty holes on the double because your EX is watching on Facebook and you want to appear to be HAPPY and TOGETHER, don’t you? YOU’RE HAPPYANDTOGETHER and NOTALONE, RIGHT?
Did somebody say PAIN? Oh me me pick ME
Because being alone would be terrible, for economic reasons. It’s smarter to be less miserable together, because two shitty incomes are certainly better than one. Don’t forget the Illusion of Family that you can lord over the church set, until you realize that he’s just not that into your kids, or his own, or you. But college sports? Those are fucking fascinating! Try a little harder to like them too. Get more sports related-bumper stickers for your truck and team jerseys for your tits and endear yourself to him and his friends. Then on your way to the store to get some cheese dip be sure and pick up a headstone so you can bury your hopes and dreams.
…and on this one, God hand-drills the cross as a final Fuck You
But there’s this thing, and this was my original point. It’s the antidote to settling for half-baked togetherness. It really is. It’s called a tub party. Tub Parties never cheat on you, tub parties don’t sniff out a sidefuck. Tub Parties don’t even have a phone!
See, you draw a bath, just a little hotter than you can stand it, and deep. You light candles. You get a jar of gooey salt scrub. Maybe a loofah strap that you can drag across your back, your thighs, between your toes, your buttcrack, wherever you wanna feel loved roughly, and just writhe in it, do floating yoga poses, do whatever the fuck you want. Have a glass of cold water nearby, and a pile of towels to dry your hands on so you can scroll through music on your phone, and set aside a whole fucking hour.
just think of all the disappointment you’re missing at a bar right now
Then, when you’re done, you crawl into your warm bed with the cool sheets, where you have arranged all your favorite cocks: the elastomer prototypes, the hands-free ones, the bluetooth inflatables that have Robert Aguirre’s voice asking about your day. You make sure they are all charged and freshly batteried. And then, at last, you fuck yourself. You go to town girl. You give yourself that goddamn motherfucking happy ending that real life never could. You do that shit. You go.
It’s rainin’ men! (available in gel or polyisoprene)
I know it doesn’t sound as exciting as trying not to wonder why he doesn’t text you, or having your computer accost you with HOT SINGLES IN YOUR AREA. But it really really grows on you. It is highly sustainable. And it gets to a point where, not a lot can top Tub Party date night with yourself.
So, happy Schmalentine’s day, fuckers. May you all get some D in your V, and not a VD, and not from an exbf who DNGAF. Because trust me, there are some shea butter-scented rubber alternatives that really have much more promising ROI.
The last time I saw Jonathan, she said, was visiting hours. We were playing cards and by accident, he put his hands in his lap. So they strip searched him and threw him in solitary.
I am driving the spine of Lookout Mountain,
just me and the blinking cell towers;
my radio picks up static,
and signals from space,
and her voice:
He was 16 with a 30 year sentence. He didn’t know what that meant at first,
but after 4 weeks alone he did. And when the guards changed shifts
he hung himself.
I miss my turn. The GPS is possessed
the gold trees look grim, the road eerie, the engine hot.
Maybe my car is about to flame out. Will this be the last thing I see before I die? No? How about this?
I park and ascend the ridge on foot
as if I’m being timed or watched or pursued.
Great Eastern Trail, the sign says. Cherokee Falls.
Statute numbers warn the Stupid not to pass.
Once, the Cherokee slipped on dangerous rocks to their hearts content
made love in the pools illegally
and were sent packing to the barbwire.
I pass a church group, then a cereal box family
A white couple takes a selfie by the overlook did you get it?…take another
I close my eyes, wondering if he knows how much she hates him.
I leave their conversations far behind
Make way for me, winner of the Great Eastern Spitting Contest,
I am a coal furnace
that might explode
They slide the iron gates across the road at 10 pm
barring entry or exit.
I like this so much, I would extend the quarantine for a week
or the rest of my life if I could.
All around me, you gather in groups by your roaring fires;
Mine glows and dies, glows and dies, like a fever,
like a lone cell tower on the brink.
Searching the grass for more kindling, I find only spider eyes
reflecting light into prisms.
I talk to them like pets.
What does death feel like
when the steppers step on you?
When the trespassers bash their stupid heads
when they march you to Oklahoma
when they seal the penitentiary
and you cinch off your own neck but don’t die —
how bad does it get
before it gets better?
It’s bad, it’s a life of solitary confinement compressed into 7 seconds; I know because I punched through and got free of this place and found
that needing you is a lie I tell myself even on the other side.
I toss all night, I am cold, my eyes ache.
Orion makes his way across my zipper.
I dream that teenage boys undress me in my tent.
I dream that Jonathan is visiting from prison,
and as a courtesy would I please fuck him one last time,
before he transfers to maximum security.
I dream that I have just returned from Afghanistan
and strangers leave me fruit baskets,
my mother tells me she’s proud –
of course. I’m a glorious fighter, after all
though I can’t recall any combat.
I drive home
through the arid and ugly Georgia lowlands
an expanse of solitude and sadness.
A green Malibu with Chattooga plates pulls alongside
and I stare at Jonathan and me.
We are cat-eyed gorgeous drunks; we are redneck crazy;
better in still life than in real.
The DOT sign says, Historic Trail of Tears.
that must be it;
It must be pain that saturates the ground here
growing rich crops of cotton,
and meth heads,
and my love for you.
The radio is a nonstop corporate playlist. But I stay
because not even prayers rise here.
Here in the ruralburbs of west Georgia, I’ve tried to practice meaningful human interaction with the nice people in my neighborhood, though after many years they are still highly unfamiliar. Once, back in 2011, I smiled and waved. I think they knew how hard that was for an idiot like me, because they have stayed away ever since. Nice people prefer to build intimacy with more familiar objects like beer, or Friends From Church, or spacecraft-sized LED UHDTVs.
I prefer idiots. People who – whether by poverty or poetry – brazenly and unapologetically display their failures to the world. The only other idiot on my street is a single mom like me, named Billie. The first time I met her, directly following hi nice to meet you, she immediately came clean about the cysts on her ovaries, her two babydaddies in jail for drugs, and how she had gotten fired for slapping her boss in the face (because she was a fat bitch and she deserved it). After years of failing with the nice people, here at last was someone who didn’t mind if I mowed the shrapnel of our Happy Meal toys into her yard or used hamster cages as end tables. Plus, our kids liked to do the same things, like ride my office chair backwards down the middle of the street. In drag.
“What on earth are you wearing!” she screamed as her 10 year-old son Jake zoomed past, pointing a plastic gun at her head.
“Oh sorry,” I said, waving my hand over the scene.
I’m never sure why I compulsively apologize, maybe because I exist, or she does. And niceness dictates that idiots, like ticking time bombs, should generally be defused whenever possible.
“Y’know,” Billie nudged me with an elbow, “Jake’s been playing dress-up since he was two. He used to wear my hot pink panties and his grandma’s bra. He called my panties ‘plan-plans.’ He used to be like, ‘Me girl, me wear plan-plans’ and I’d tell him, ‘you’ve got a pecker godammit and don’t forget it, ya little titty baby.’ His granddaddy woulda done shit a brick.”
“I dressed like that because I ain’t got no daddy!” Jake called, overhearing.
“Ain’t my fault!” Billie hollered back. ”Now SHUT YER FRICKIN MOUTH OR I WILL BUST IT.”
Where I come from in Whitepeopleton, Connecticut, mothers don’t take pride in the public verbal abuse of their children. Instead, they abuse onlookers with their PhD in gloaty parenting. Does Petra want a pomegranate? they ask their trendy, Merrell-laden tot in Whole Foods. I’m so proud of you for making a healthy choice!
“Pray for us,” Billie sighed.
“My Sunday school teacher pinches me on the butt if I pray too long!” Jake added, flashing me a grin full of rotten teeth.
I feel triumphant of course, because my kids’ fillings were paid for with a Walmart credit card.
Sometimes I overreach though. I get uppity and take my Walmart credit card to the Walmart portrait studio so I can assault nice people with photo packages of my precious children. Only problem is I can’t afford photo packages – I have to bootleg them at the Kodak bootlegging machine in the film department. Nice people don’t understand this discrepancy.
“’Scuse me, “ said associate Wendy. “ Do you have a copyright waiver for those photos?”
I stared back at her. I stared back with my bed-head, my sweatpants and my stained TJ Maxx purse, which contained two parts chewed Tootsie pop, and one part food stamp. She awaited my answer. She wanted to hear me admit that I wasn’t very nice, even though neither of us were paid enough to care.
Do I look like I have a copyright waiver? I said.
Actually what I said was oh sorry! Then I packed up, backed away and marinated in shame.
But why? Why was I feeling guilty in a store that enjoys exploiting the fleet of 88-year-old underinsured hospice patients they call cashiers. Copyright infringement should make me feel like Robin Hood.
The fact is, nice people are terrifying. And the most terrifying among them are women who wear scrubs while collecting your billing information.
“Hi,” I said to Rhonda through the little glory-hole in the glass window. “I don’t have insurance. Can I have a discount since I’m paying cash?”
It seemed like a reasonable request, something that could be laughingly blamed on Obama like most nice people problems, while we enjoyed fondling our mutual bootstraps because hey, it takes a village to raise my idiots.
“Ma’am?” She asked, as only southerners can — stretching it into a three syllable word and also an instrument of death. Ma’am? always precedes what is traditionally known as the Trucker Bar Throw-down Stance. Her penciled-on eyebrows issued a two-pronged attack, explaining something about $137.50, and how 100% of 50 minus getajob was office policy, tapping her finger on the fine print in my paperwork specifying No Handouts for lazy Freedom-haters.
This time, instead of immediately tucking into an oh sorry, I said: you can’t treat me like that! What happened next was, she continued to treat me precisely like that. Then I bent over while she swiped my maxed out Walmart card through the slot in my dignity. On the way home, the nice person driving in front of me braked cautiously at every green light until my head exploded.
But the worst thing about nice people is when they are nice to you and you don’t even know who they are. For them, every day is a beautiful day for a neighbor, even if that neighbor responds by galloping in circles, spanking her own ass or diving into the shrubs.
“Would you look at that,” said the woman next to me in the Food Depot. She grabbed the jumbo-sized bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch off the shelf and held it up to my unseeing eyes. I withdrew deep inside my own puckered anus.
“My husband can eat an entire half a bottle of one of these,” she explained. “On one salad!”
“Oh I know!” I said, rattling a bottle of pills as decoy.
“Amber always makes these eyeballs out of white chocolate for Halloween!”
Who the fuck was Amber. Who the fuck was this lady.
“You mix peanut butter with confectioner sugar, and then dip them in it, with little Life Savers in the center.”
“Dip them in what?” I am too ashamed to make eye contact. The Greatest Love of All is happening to me, and it’s a little like a prison shower.
“For Hallelujah night at my church, silly!” she said, clutching more non-perishables to her bosom. “Do you have kids! There are so many kids at Hallelujah night!”
I knew this church; I’d passed the sign a million times, the one with the cross impregnating planet earth from behind, and a heart drawn at the base like a big sack of balls. In an act of physiological mutiny my hands began slowly wheeling my car away, where I disappeared behind the horizon of a Fruity Cheerios endcap and imploded like a dying star.
“Oh sorry!” I whisper-screamed, careening to the shining solitude of the dairy aisle where I could find a good three-foot buffer between my cart and the rest of mankind.
Until I arrived in the express lane. Behind a woman whose purse was roughly the size of an adult diaper, and whose entire life had existed for this one, shining check-out. Did electronic transactions threaten? Why then she would soak up the evil with a wallet more absorbent than a maxi pad from 1952, complete with straps, snaps, flaps and a special zipper for her check writing pen.
The cashier announced the total, and lo, her pen was removed from its holster. The check register was carefully studied, balanced and deeply enjoyed; the date was subsequently addressed and then the time, the latitude, longitude, temperature and a full description of the products — Pepsi, pork chops, mega-tub of butter spread – all recorded in cursive at the rate of one metonic cycle per loop. Then the cashier hit 130 keys, jotted down ten lines of personal info, fed the check through 25 different printers, rebooted the computer and summoned an act of God – just in time for the dawn of the third millennium. Then the cash drawer began its slow migration toward opening, and we hovered over the face of the void as she folded her receipt into thirds, unsnapped the flaps, closed the zippers, the caps, the gaps, the straps and JUST! USE! A FUCKING VISA! GODAMMIT! I screamed, vigorously swiping my card through a slot in both their skulls.
No what I actually said was, oh, sorry because my produce had accidentally touched her produce. I gently backed it up on the conveyor belt with a dopey little laugh.
Life is better this way, with preemptive apologies. Because scribbling all over the rules that nice people follow does not build self-confidence or alleviate existential pain; Neither does it reverse idiocy or cure cancer. It does however, strongly indicate that one is not getting laid.
“Have a blessed day,” the cashier called to the check writer, as a hint. Somewhere at this very moment, she is still packing up that rolling suitcase of a wallet, because even blessings must wait on nice people and their checks.
The cashier turned to me. She looked tired, her white arms were massive and puffy.
“Long day,” she said to me, sighing. I arranged my items, salivating. It was MY turn now. MY turn.
“It’s my chemo,” she went on. “It’s got me so wore out.”
“Here’s my coupon,” I said with what I hoped was saintly concern.
“At least I’m doing better than my aunt,” she went on. “She drowned in her own fluids.”
I stared at her and she stared back, and suddenly nobody else existed but the two of us.
“How,” I asked gently. “How did she…drown?”
As the cashier explained the suffocating nature of bodily liquids – thoughtfully caressing my box of Kashi cereal, teasing the scanner but never fully crossing the threshold of checking me out – all my tension drained away, all my hurrying ceased, and the lady behind me waited and waited and seethed and longed to ram my 12 bottles of Pamplemousse Perrier straight up my pretentious ass.
On the drive over, I came upon two dogs humping in the road. Their retinas reflected my headlights, refusing to move aside. The last time I’d driven to a man’s house for sex, I’d passed a dog that had gotten run over on the double yellow lines. So maybe this was a step in the right direction. Or at least that was slightly less dead.
Don’t be shy, he’d texted me, twenty minutes before. You may get a kiss at the door.
A kiss at the door, huh. Cue the release of adrenaline-laced butterflies, just south of the border.
He was from the Epocch of Suches – such a face, such a body – physical attributes that incite saliva and blood and elicit cell memory and blot out the decision-making sun. Those things had left such a fissure behind, dragging across the landscape like a melting glacier. The Epoch of Suches. Almost grown in now, filled in with shrubs and weeds, and soon: one black minivan.
I’d only seen him once before – supple lips and saturated forearms and silence, eyes shaded under a ballcap, all the trappings of the instinctive and careless, hot southern boy.
At the stoplight I checked the dials in my dashboard: all read-outs steady. The clock said 11:30. Meanwhile the ones on the inside were looping round and round, losing altitude. His texts had come in hot and heavy all afternoon, driving me to distraction, eventually driving me to his door, leaving every important task undone. Not just undone, completely invisible. Lust was like that, your very own internally manufactured nicotine and dopamine and ephedrine supply. My charged electrons were bumping into his, equally excited and equally opposed, unable to power anything.
In a few minutes he was going to undo everything, he was going to get up on the inside, I was going to touch whatever I wanted, orally fixate to my heart’s content, and in the process lose my groove, my composure, my self-respect, strewn out my open car window like paper as I politely excused myself down into the ditch.
Oh but it was all so new! And also, the same as always.
Most days weren’t like this. Most days, young men were a thing of the past. Most days consisted of plastic bags and car keys and my hair like an old scratchy blanket. The choking smell from the plastic factory nearby. The dead cement depot overhead, on the hilltop by the railroad tracks. The trains always heaving forward, always leaving, then coming right back. They were so identically plain that I completely forgot: I was young too.
It’s not that I didn’t notice men. Men outside the pawn shop awning, smoking and staring. Men laying concrete, men driving trucks, men loading equipment, men with their girlfriends at the store. I deflected eye contact; I only did doubletakes from behind the safety glass of my minivan.
“Almost there,” I texted.
Hmm, he replied, lighting up my screen. Can’t wait.
In his driveway, I stared long and hard at his pickup, an extension of his naked body. A porch light came on, casting a cold light. His unfamiliar form appeared in the opened screen door.
“I saw these dogs…in the road,” I mumbled, nonsensically, climbing the cement steps.
“Yeah,” his voice was so gravelly, like the air in his throat was dragged down a dirt road too. “I was worried it would be hard for you to find.”
The initial arrows of conversation had each missed their mark. There was no kiss. Inside, a mud room with an old washing machine.
“Hi,” I said finally, and cracked a joke about something, anything.
He said nothing.
“I’m keeping the light off, it’s a mess,” he said, and turned his back to lead me through a cold, pitch black room. I soaked him up from top to bottom, t-shirt, and a muscly, narrow ass in soft sweatpants. Sleeping clothes. Taller than before. His hand reached back for mine, to lead me through the dark. Startled by the gesture, I reached forward and took it, shockwaves rippling up my arm. All the prior digital sex, the robotic syntax and exposed pictures, all of it safe and non-tactile, nothing approximating a held hand. It immediately flooded my circuits. Everything I really wanted, previously on lockdown, was suddenly set loose in my system.
The darkness gave way to a tiny warm bedroom and a glowing space heater. Gray light from a murmuring TV flashed from an adjoining room. His sheets were pulled back, his phone near his pillow, waiting on my texts. And whoever else’s probably.
I froze, not knowing what to do. He maybe said something then, something obtuse and dumb, but all I heard was the gritty growl. My purse and my clothes, where to put them? Where to stand, what to do. I could barely see his face and body it was so dim, I needed more light to see. I slipped off my boots and sat on the edge of his bed as if it was the deep end. He sat next to me, and after one long awful awkward silent moment, there was one little kiss ,then another.
It felt like nothing at first, like kissing a wall. But only because of the delay while serotonin and dopamine dumped hard, polluting the bloodstream with fog and bliss. My god, it was so good to sweep pastthe boundaries of appropriate distance, erode the mile high walls with a fingertip. I slid back on the bed and watched him undress, the shadows hiding behind the ridges of his bare chest. He had a good body, but so what, big fucking deal. But I stared hard, memorizing.
I shed mine too, and slithered up on top of him, eye to eye, skin on skin, ready for the intake, the uptake, the all-consuming meld. He reached his fingertip and tucked back a loose strand of my hair. I froze, still as a mouse, letting him. What was that supposed to be, exactly? Tenderness? Some mutation therein? A bomb went barreling down to the core, burrowing below the magma. It registered a direct hit to my fortress, but I covered it up with my teeth, slipped it under my tongue, overrode it with purring, writhing hips.
He was getting it in now, and I was awash in the body buzz that comes from being roughed up, hollering out a year of pent up days. But all the sound and fury was predictable novelty really, stuff worthy of an omg in a forgettable email. But his fingertip on that lock of hair, imitating love. His hand holding mine, as if he cared — these tiny insignificant variables were the ones you had to watch out for. These were tricky.
And then it was over. Thirty minutes, maybe? Forty-five? Somehow, I had actually believed it would go on forever. Or at least an hour.
I laid with his arm under my neck, chest heaving, blood in my ears, breathing long and deep. I wanted to curl into the heat of his right flank, to cool into a pretty mess and light down on a placid lake of Twilight-grade togetherness. For a minute I skimmed this ridiculous yearning, gliding face to face above it, longing to rest fully on his sprawled body, and sleep. But my mouth was dry, so instead I swallowed. It was the loudest sound in the room. He stirred, and I lifted my head and sat up, looking around, wondering what to do. I did not belong here. I wanted to belong here. I was rendered into a statue, hovering slightly outside my body.
“You can stay if you want,” he said. And I grabbed with both hands at this chance to get my cool back.
I stood up beside the bed and began picking up my clothes, readying to leave, watching him watch me.
Only when I was fully dressed did he flick the bedside light. Strange. I could see his smile for the first time, white teeth in the warm yellow light. Stupid hot boy. An effortless checkmate. I kissed him at the door. He didn’t kiss back.
He never came back for more. I was so sure he would. I was so sure that my splendidly ecstatic nude form had created a disturbance in his force. But no, not even a smallish one. He’d finished the race while I tumbled off the track. It took a full week to get the outstretched hand out of my system, the feel of an actual arm under my neck, his mouth taking me down.
“I know him,” my hair dresser told me a few weeks later. I’d forgotten the cardinal rule of small towns: they are very fucking small. “Only wants one thing, okay. When he gets it, he’s gone.”
I guess I’d known that. But what about me being the exception. What about me being sexually exceptional. What about me and my sex-ceptional self.
“Trust me,” she said, reading my face. “It’s not just you. He did the same thing to me. And one of my friends.”
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 muchfun. 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.”
I take pictures of pretty clouds because it’s easier than photographing what’s at eye level. I don’t want to put a camera in that woman’s face. She isn’t me, so she wouldn’t understand that sometimes I feel like I am her.
I parked my minivan in the Wal-Mart parking lot and stepped out, the hot wind rippling through my black sundress. It was really pretty – the dress, I mean – cut like a long sari with gold embroidery and feathered white panels. Sometimes a $30 dress can inoculate you to all the problems of the world, even with clashing plaid platform flip-flops, at least for three minutes or so.
I strode toward the bakery entrance; I was here to purchase light bulbs for a fish tank, and maybe a bag of oranges because I’d been fighting the flu. As I watched me and my flowing shadow pass over the oil stains like a low-lying cloud, I brushed too close to a car I thought was empty – a tiny gray coupe in the worst shape possible, something driven out of a nightmare or a junk lot, half its pieces missing and broken. It was double parked on the diagonal yellow stripes.
I didn’t know it was full of people until I was already upon it. Above the busted headlight I glimpsed the driver and realized she’d been watching me and my self-satisfied amble for quite a few car lengths. I diverted to give respectful distance to the nub of her rearview, but I was close enough to smell the stale upholstery, to touch duct tape holding her door together, the rust and the gashes and the mismatched paint. The engine was turned off, and the back window was closed. The glass reflected the passing orb of my T.J. Maxx purse, and also the faces of three babies inside – one sleeping in a hot car seat, two curly headed toddlers squirming in the sun beside her, an older one in the passenger seat. So many little bodies, like a pile of kittens nesting in trash, so trusting of the shitty world that apparently gave them life and nothing else.
The woman’s dark ponytail was gathered like a sheave of burned wheat. Maybe there was meth in her wiry arms, or desperation, how else could she let them all sit there in the baking sun, not going in the store but not leaving it either, not seeking shade or relief, just stalled out over a black puddle, hanging by a thread because death had not yet showed up. I didn’t just walk by her; I walked through her. I could feel her what the fuck, her must be nice, bitch and I entered the automatic doors of Wal-Mart still clinging to the squalor of those babies like a right hook in the gut. I slowed, as if to go back, but my heel wouldn’t turn.
What do you need? I would ask her.But I couldn’t ask her that.
It was this dress, my dress made it all wrong. It wasn’t the uniform of a fellow warrior, it was the beacon of naiveté, of free time and hobbies, of a non-addicted white girl who just paid $45 to have her oil changed AND her interior vacuumed.
Do you need any help? said the imaginary me, leaning in her car window with a sack of McDoubles and a mesh bag of Florida oranges. Here ya go, this should solve all your problems.
Who were they waiting for anyway, and would he kill me if I interceded into his demise? Maybe he’d follow me and rob me for drug money? Maybe she’d spit at me for daring to assume they were doing anything but being just fine, thank you.
But couldn’t I do something? I had $20 in cash.My minivan was clean and the AC worked and I had newish tires and a full tank. She could sleep in my bed and I could fill up the bath for her babies, I could pour their favorite cereal in the kitchen and make them feel what I sometimes felt when everybody was clean and fed and I had a quiet space to stir my tea: It’s all going to be alright.
But I kept walking straight, because it wasn’t going to be alright. I let her snap off behind me like a slingshot, out into the dusty broken-down distance, to a place I wouldn’t ever have to see or live in, because for some unknowable reason I was born here and she was born there, and that was a fact not made better by unwanted charity or free cheeseburgers. I bought a bag of oranges for myself instead and peeled one as I drove home. They smelled sweet and fresh, like forgiveness from a beautiful dying world.
At home, I hung up my dress, screwed the bulb in my daughter’s aquarium lid and watched her fish swim indifferently around in their dirty tank, their world now a much brighter shade of decay. I flipped the TV channels, pausing to watch a mother run to hug her small children, her edited happiness somehow coercing my tears– how good that must feel. I’ll take a happy feeling wherever I can get it, even a canned version. My life is full of dirty creature comforts, but my arms are well accustomed to a sterile kind of emptiness. A mother separated from her children is the cruelest kind of pain; a mother with no money to care for them is just as bad. A careless and cruel man well, he’s just par for the course. I’ve lived the former and grazed the latter, and my scarred up heart has a hair trigger response to the sound of a crying child, to a woman whose eyes tell you she is teetering at the end. I haunt the trenches where she is taking fire.
On a different evening, another young woman stood outside a different Wal-mart. I noticed her because her baby looked like my son— those fat little legs trying to stand, tiny hands grasping the edge of the cart like a captain on a sinking ship, it reminded me of those days back then, how hard it was. This was just a passing thought, and then I was onto the next thing.
But an hour and a half later, as I wheeled my weary bags back out the automatic doors, there she was. She was still there. Still there.
I slowed to do a double take. How could she still be here? It was almost 11:00 at night. The baby was wailing on her hip, poor tired thing. She was screaming into her cell phone, pacing, crying, while onlookers withdrew and whispered. In her cart was a new car seat wrapped in plastic. It was one thing to see an irate woman; another to see one so obviously desperate and struggling with a baby. Her distended stretch-marked belly hung over her jeans and drew my heart like a shield; the wounds of her birth were fresh and no one was protecting her, no one caring for her. I found myself staring at these bystanders, at their complete apathy and judgment, their pale unmoved faces like sacks of flesh in the sallow light, and suddenly it was just a microcosm of the entire earth, of humans who pick their teeth in amusement while a woman slides down the edge of a knife.
“Can I give you a ride?” I asked, pulling my cart alongside hers. My voice was submissive, offering no more than a sister in crime.
“No ma’am,” she sniffed.
She was so young. Not more than 19.
“You sure? I have a car seat. I have two.”
“Yes ma’am, no thank you. I just had to go and buy one.”
So I turned my back reluctantly, and retreated.
“Ma’am?” I glanced back to see her catching up with me, and my relief was palpable. “Actually, if you don’t mind?”
While she dried her tears we loaded my van and I cleared the junk off the passenger seat. I cooed to her son, though he would have none of me.
We drove in silence for a while, and she explained that her boyfriend took off with the groceries and the car, leaving her and the baby with nothing, and no way home.
“Why would he do that?” I asked.
“I went in the dressing room to try on some pants,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “And he said I went in there to cheat on him.”
“What, with the baby?” I scoffed.
“I know right?” she laughed. “I love him, but he can be so…”
“Yeah, well,” I sighed, or growled, and then tried to soften it to a whisper. “Just so you know, he’s abusing you. Leaving you and the baby like that with no ride? That’s abuse.”
She said nothing, and I hoped it sunk into her arm like a needle. I pulled into the Best Western like she asked me to, and waited outside with the baby while she dragged the car seat into the lobby. I bounced him in my arms, trying to calm his crying. But he strained away from me, reaching his arms to the door where his mother’s shape had disappeared. He wanted her, only her. Only his mommy.
Sometimes I have a rabid need to to save every mother, to soothe her baby for her, to fix what can’t be fixed, to make right what can never be made right; I am besieged. But the babies don’t need my arms, they need hers, and her battle isn’t mine to fight. The only thing I can really do is see for her, to bear witness to every black stain underfoot in a Wal-mart parking lot, because each one is a mother’s leaking lifeline. I am beholden to her pain, but can only illuminate it from a distance. All I can do is know what it’s like. And in knowing, understand that I’ll never know how hard it really is.
I had to get the van repaired. I was attracting too many men. Nothing says love to a redneck like a dirty, smashed up minivan full of sticky children. While in the shop, I got me a candy apple red Chevy Impala. The plastic walnut trim just screamed Made In America. I liked the way my rental smelled. Reminded me of vacations. Whereas my van reminded me of rotten, lint-covered raisins. I asked the autobody dude if he could roll new carfloor carpeting into the estimate. Or possibly, a new car. He said he’d see what he could do.