I’ve lived in North Carolina since I was five years old. When we moved into our cookie-cutter neighborhood (where my parents still live today) there were cows grazing on a hill over the backroad of Strickland. A rusted gas-station awning tipped on its axis and this is how I saw the world. There were Texaco pumps still bleeding red and blue dumped in the weeds near the entrance. Someone had cracked the door so the darkness lied. My brother claims to have tried to explore it once, peeked in the windows on a late night scavenger hunt. He told me condensed milk cans still sat on the shelf, their white wrap peeling. Light still filtered in and saw dust covered the torn floor. It would have been great for some photographer to come around and show the world Carolina in the rust. Our house has always been two hours to the closest beach and two to the closest mountain. You can cough and hear country music. Boys look straight-faced at the girls in the seat next to them, smell the flowers on their neck, speed up for the thrill. Girls scream, brush the wisps of their hair from their face, from sticking to their date-pink lip gloss. Couples eat custard and spill barbecue.
One of my goals for this year was to read more Carolina literature. Whether it be the Southern or Northern State, I wanted to read more about my hometown. This month I read, Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash, and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. Nothing Gold Can Stay is a short story collection about Appalachia and it switches between the past and the present. I bought it because I listened to Ron Rash on Weekend Edition. He made this amazing comment to the host about how he finds inspiration for his stories.
SIMON: How does a short story idea come into you?
RASH: Very often, they’re not ideas at all. I actually start sometimes with a voice, usually an image, an image that won’t leave me alone and I have to find out where that image will lead me.
SIMON: Can you give us a for instance?
RASH: Well, in “The Trustee,” the first story in the book, I had an image of a trustee, a prisoner, in the 19 – it was early 20th century, who was walking down the road with a bucket in his hand. I didn’t know where he was going or who he would meet but I knew I wanted to follow him.
The Trustee is a member of a chain gang who frees himself with a pail of water. I loved the way that Rash played with the idea of trust. This man was trusted by the guards to walk miles to find a water spout on the neighboring farms, but too trusting when it comes to the outside world. It’s this great balance between honesty and fear. I think as human beings we’re constantly on this pendulum between the two things. Earlier, I had a conversation with a good friend who said, “A guy will smile at a girl and think, she’s pretty, I should smile. A girl will see a boy smile and plan their whole life together in a minute.” This is so true and so true of the Southern girl mentality. We live the fantasy. How perfect would he look in a tie, will he carry our child on his shoulders, how great will his arm hair look in the sun with a tan. It’s this disgusting little ritual we’ve concocted in our mind. My good friend was in the process of composing a facebook message to her crush that was witty and adorable, but obsessive. She’s living the balance of being honest and true to herself, but having to deal with the fear of the boy not loving that truth. Oh, relationships, will we ever understand you?
Ron Rash plays a lot with this idea of honesty and fear. Do we be golden, shine true, or do we give pieces of ourselves? Obviously, the only person who is going to know the whole you is you. No one is ever going to know you like you. The characters in Rash’s stories really understand this and play with the idea of bringing their wholeness to the world. What if instead of thinking of throwing a drink, I just threw one? It’s fun to make your characters live out things that you were too scared to do in your own life. My favorite story in this book was about a woman who found herself behind the safety glass of a radio booth. Known as the Night Hawk she would play music for the sleepless, the all-nighters, the college students hunched over their chemistry textbooks, the drunks on late-night donut runs, the women unable to sleep over their pillow of worries, and those that just want to listen in the dark because they can’t listen in the day. It’s one of the most beautiful and intricate stories out there.
In Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison just lets her characters go for it. Ruth Anne, nicknamed Bone, lives on the edge of being another crazy Boatwright woman, and being herself. It’s the same honesty and fear question. Do I live with the strength of my mother and grandmother or do I falter into my own shyness? Do I scream or not scream? Do I give my heart to the dry hands of another or hoard it for myself? It tells the story of a world that sometimes isn’t able to look at its own darkness. I thought for sure by the end that Bone had experienced all the hurt she was going to experience by thirteen and in the last twenty pages, I got eaten alive. It was painful and incredibly slow-moving. It’s like watching something that you know is happening very quickly, a car crash maybe, and yet you watch the glass crack, split, fly. Bone is every girl who’s ever been scraped clean by a man, and so are her aunts and her mother. She bares the question, do we make the same mistakes that our mother’s made and our grandmother’s before our mothers? Do we carry on the traditions that are beautiful and the traditions that burn? I’m not sure at this point in my life, but I rely heavily on the strength that the women in my life carried throughout their trauma and tell myself that’s the legacy I’ll carry through. My daughter won’t be called pretty, she’ll be called brave.
Both of these books were slow, but slow in the Southern way. If you’ve ever been to a grocery store in the South, you know we ponder, we make lists, we huddle, we stop and chat. There ain’t no Southern lady on this planet who doesn’t spend an extra ten minutes in church just to hear the gossip. Preacher’s outside shaking hands and women are leaning over pews, touching bonnets in conversation. This is the South, this is my home.
It’s my Three Year Bloggiversary and in honor of that, I wanted to share some of my own writing about the South. I hardly ever, if ever (this may be the first time) share my outside writing on my blog and so I thought it might be nice for just this once to share that little piece of myself. Honest and fear, people, honesty and fear. Before I do though, A Small Press Life is doing a bi-weekly blog called [R]evolving Incarnations: A Questionnaire for Passionate Readers and I am the reader this week, so go over and check that out here. Her blog is wonderful and timeless. Here goes nothing…
“He carried eggs in a basket to the house next door. Had polished them with a wet hankerchief before delivering them to the doorstep. His mother put a stained wash cloth over the top to keep them warm after boil. They didn’t crack on the way. They huddled together like live chicks would in the cold. His scarf was caught in the wind and as he tightened it, it only flew more. A runaway kite of neck scarf. The eyes of the sky were out, it was early morning and the birds were slightly twinkling, cooing in the stiff air, watching frost crush green.
She was sitting like widows do with everything resting on their elbow. The glass was warming, her breath creating fog circles in the panels. He placed the basket on the top step, stared at the door and stuck his hands in his jean pockets. She saw his hands, rosy with cold before he shoved them in, stepped back, and stared at the knocker, breathing smoke like almost-words.”