The broke South and mean stories
I’m sitting in a hotel room in Oxford, Mississippi, drinking green-label Evan Williams out of a Styrofoam cup, with an ashtray beside me because smoking rooms are apparently still a thing. I just ate dinner from a place called Rebel Barn, and their barbeque might’ve given me the heretical thought that Mississippi does it better than Alabama. But I didn’t say that. I might’ve thought it for a moment until I realized they don’t serve it with the option of white sauce.
Tomorrow, as it goes, I’ll be elbow deep in the horological swarming continuum of William Faulkner and his implacable verisimilitude. Well, I’ll be listening to other graduate students talk about all that, while I plan on reading an overwrought and under-supported argument about his second most anthologized short story. Nobody ever accused me of intellectual hubris.
The thing is simple, but it won’t come out that way. I’ll try to say it as plain and un-paradoxical as possible. I’ll try to make you understand the sheer, unadulterated comfort I felt driving up I-55 North away from New Orleans, across miles of nothing but two-lane asphalt, Hackberries, Pines, mounds of red clay dirt between barren fields and untended pastures. How I grinned while my shit car suffered up the inclines of the road that it hasn’t had to face in months. I want you to understand why I was able to make five new best buddies in a sticky warehouse-remodeled bar last night in Jackson, Mississippi, even though I can’t remember their names for the life of me when I haven’t made a single authentic connection living in New Orleans for a year. It won’t be easy to articulate why I so genuinely, deeply love the rural South, because I haven’t been able to properly nuance it myself.
I was born in Alabama, in the top northwest corner deemed ostensibly to be God-blessed and Indian-cursed, in a sleepy corrupt virtuous antique football town called Russellville. I learned to bitch before I learned to read. We had a Walmart, about five decent restaurants, a dozen pharmacies, and a jumbotron at our football stadium. Each year we celebrated watermelons in a town-wide two or three-day festival, and goddammit we went to church on Sunday. And I grew up dreaming about New York City like I was a prophet receiving the Lord’s call.
To say I didn’t fit in Franklin County, Alabama would be a euphemism of galactic proportions. The most vivid memories I have from being a kid are the shouting matches I got in at the 4th-grade lunch tables, the tables that folded out with the stools attached under them over the carpet that smelled like vomit, shouting about how George W. Bush was the antichrist over my corn nuggets. I remember my “coming out” to a close friend, terrified of what she’d think when I whispered out loud for the first time that I didn’t believe in God. I remember losing friends because I said, y’all are racist fucking bigots. The Klan did a rally at the courthouse when I was a child—well, I remember they were planning on doing it, or somebody at school said they had at one point. Whether they actually did I can’t recall, but does it matter?
Despite all that, I also think about sitting on my great grandmother’s front porch while she fought with my grandmother because they were too similar, all while my grandfather spit out chewing tobacco in a Peach Nehi can. Unfortunately, I loved that sweet-nectar-of-the-gods beverage as a child, which resulted in accidentally and horrifically taking a sip of childhood trauma I’ll never recover from. All the memories of not fitting, feeling so insecure in my own skin that it came out as bitter scathing rage toward everyone around me, seem to disappear as I get older and are replaced with the sweetness. The time my great-grandmother told me that if you hang a dead snake up in a tree it’ll surely bring rain, and the tremoring joy that would overtake my cherubic cheeks when daddy said we’d go to Oh!Bryan’s Steakhouse down in Hamilton to celebrate my report card. Even the possums that roamed the attic, or jumped out of a hamper in the outdoor laundry room of the house we lived in after ours burned down, don’t diminish what Alabama was for me. It doesn’t diminish how unsettling it was to actually escape.
I got away in 2008, right in time for my ninth grade awkward decade, and the national treasure we clearly didn’t as a people deserve that was Barack Obama. And I didn’t just move to a city, I ended up in the bougiest high school situation possible. Leaving Nowhere, Alabama at fifteen for the “big city” left some radioactive fallout I’m still working through, but more than that, it forced me to look at the broad and deep consciousness differences between rural and not. More significantly, it made me rectify for myself what Patterson Hood screamed about—the pride and shame of simply being born where your mama broke water.
In high school, I told stories about where I grew up and looked on the faces of my wealthy, mostly white, mostly conservative classmates in covert indulgence as I learned to successfully make rich white people feel persecuted. All that lead to was an English degree and God awful blank verses. And it led to me sitting here in this rode-hard hotel room, trying to make a career out of stories and arguments. This is my attempt to rectify the hundred and fifty-year tension between progress and pastoral. This is both my defense of Methodist cooking and condemnation of the cursed, broken or fractured Southern irreconcilability with the Other. This is me failing to tell a ghost story like Quentin, to paint the South or home or country as different, or to have a breakdown as eloquent as Quentin ultimately did up North:
“Our country was not like this country. There was something about just walking through it. A kind of still and violent fecundity that satisfied even bread-hunger like. Flowing around you, not brooding and nursing every niggard stone. Like it were put to makeshift for enough green to go around among the tree and even the blue of distance not that rich chimaera” (The Sound and the Fury 129)
I’m not here to apologize, blame, romanticize, defend, or metonymize the South. I just want to tell stories, and help myself make peace with the fact that I feel irrevocably comfortable in this Oxford, Mississippi hotel room, where my narrative or drawl or Waylon don’t need an explanation.
So when I’m here, even when I’m not here, but maybe sitting in my apartment in a city that hasn’t felt like the South since I got there, I hope you’ll hear my stories and share some of yours, too. If we know one thing for sure it’s that we know just how long we can sit on a porch trading stories until the mosquitoes get too intolerable. It’s because we know how to tell it better and when to correctly punctuate with Roll Tide.