“Oh!” my mother-in-law says when she sees me shuffling out of the Greyhound station. It’s how she always greets me — I am always a surprise. It’s what she said when her son brought me home, when I graduated college, when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, when I got my Master’s, when I had a baby, when I said I hate the smell of lavender. It’s economical and perfect, so of course I ripped it off immediately — I try to remember to greet everyone this way. “Oh!”
A nice guy I met on the bus walks beside me. When we get to my mother-in-law’s Lexus, he tosses my backpack into her open hatch. “I’m sorry,” my mother-in-law says. “I don’t really have any change or anything.”
He helps me fold my walker into the back and we hug goodbye. I watch him in the rearview mirror as we drive away.
“My goodness,” my mother-in-law says. “Don’t you get scared?”
In 1984 I’m living in a townhouse with my mom and her current boyfriend, both poker dealers, both working graveyard shifts at, respectively, the Riviera (which is still around) and the El Rancho (long gone). This is Las Vegas. I know I’m supposed to sleep clean through the night so I won’t know they’re leaving me all alone (this has been explained to me) but I wake up while they’re gone: I have to pee, or one of the cats barfs extra-loud, or it just gets too quiet with no one around. Something. Scared, I go downstairs to watch TV.
I know how to use the coffeemaker in the kitchen, too, because it’s my job to make and bring my mother a cup of coffee each night just when she wakes up and starts getting ready for work I set my alarm clock for exactly 14 minutes earlier than hers so that I will be ready at her bedside, cup in hand, the second her eyes open — I’ve done timed drills and everything, just to get it perfect, because I take pride in my work. I want you to know that. Anyway, I make myself a small pot and go to the living room to watch TV. Because of my mother’s boyfriend, we get the Playboy channel — it was her Christmas gift to him last year. I put it on because doing so makes me feel less scared, which is only logical: I’m doing something I’m not allowed to do, therefore I must be brave, and if I’m brave, I’ve got no reason to be scared being alone in the house at night. Logic.
The pornography itself turns out to be incredibly soothing: soft focus, tinkling piano music, two women in gauzy white dresses, leaning against a tree and licking honey off each other’s nipples. The women are wearing flower crowns with satin ribbon tendrils that escape at odd moments as they hold hands and skip and nipple-lick. At one point, they skip past a playground and a bench with a man too tired or drunk to pay them any attention — they must have been in a public park somewhere, at least for the skipping parts.
The coffee I make for myself has more sugar and cream than coffee in it — useless for keeping me up. I fall back to sleep with the TV still on and wake the next morning to my mother standing over the couch, scolding me for being such a nasty little girl. In this memory, I am five years old.
It’s adorable, how we meet. This kid sitting a row ahead of me gets up with grim determination to use the bus toilet and, on his way back to his seat, his phone rings. His ringtone is a song I love, and as he continues down the aisle without answering, I begin singing along under my breath “Way back, when I had the red and black lumberjack, with the hat to match.” He hears me as he passes my seat and we begin singing lines together, becoming more stupidly gleeful with each verse (“Time to get paid! Blow up like the World Trade!”). He ignores whoever’s calling so that we can finish, him twisted around to face me, me leaning over the empty seat next to him.
“You tell me how you know that song,” he says.
“How do you?” I say. “You can’t be twenty years old.”
“Twenty-two!” he says, with only mild offense. A baby.
I’m 14 or 15, mid-1990s. Now we’re living in Mississippi, because my mother is insane. We live in the poorest part of Jackson. White Flight, nearly total, meant the only white people left in our side of town were 80 year old holdouts and the roughest trash, like us — parolees and dealers, fences, etc. My neighbors are black, cashiers in the grocery store are black, everyone is black. I go to an arts magnet school, and all my teachers are black. Besides Mom, I’d go a day or two without seeing a white person in the flesh, easy.
The state legislature, always hip, is publicly debating whether indigent AIDS patients should be eligible for Medicaid and other public health programs. AIDS patients, having brought their disease on themselves by being needle-sharing homos who infuriate God, seem undeserving of tax dollars that could be better spent on cancer and teaching our young girls to stop being such whores. This view is considered moderate; reporters use the word “sodomite” with a straight face. I, obnoxious little do-gooder that I am, write a letter to the editor of the Clarion-Ledger in support of AIDS patients and tolerance and mercy and whatever else I can cram in under the word limit.
Most of my teachers are Black Panther Party members, and everybody was in the movement. I know you can’t just sit back when your brothers and sisters are being oppressed but must instead rise up to demand recognition of our common humanity and also we get extra credit if we write a letter to the editor, which is good because I’m failing Civics because Mrs. Walker’s a total bitch. I send my letter off on Tuesday.
On Thursday, people begin calling my house with death threats — that’s how I find out my letter got published.
Terell wears an ankle monitor. It keeps getting snagged on odd corners of the footrest and he interrupts himself regularly to curse at it and shift his legs into a more comfortable position. Lots of guys have them – Houston is a major hub for parolees from Huntsville, Ellis, Ferguson, Lewis, Estelle, and Eastham, not to mention county.
Terell’s keeps getting snagged because he keeps shifting his legs, because they are long and he is tall, even seated – too big for his seat in both length and breadth, he slouches to rest his chin on the seatback between us while we talk. I make a guess about playing sports in high school and he laughs.
“Nah, I can’t receive shit. My brother, though…”
Joy shivers off of him like banana-colored light. I ask who’s meeting him at the station and he shakes his head. “Everybody got to work,” he says. “But my boy stays real close. I’m just walking over there and he’ll give me a ride out to my mom’s. What about you? You need a ride?”
White Trash Rites of Passage #11: Finding a nudie Polaroid in the street. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a detective (or a wizard, either/or) so I was always looking for clues in the street and sidewalk. There were no gutters to speak of — Vegas — but if there were I would have searched them, too. Leave no stone unturned, no job half-done, no man behind. Crimes are solved through diligence, it’s the only way. Mr. T taught me that.
My first nudie Polaroid — the first I can remember, at least — is a blowjob pic, though I don’t realize that at first. All I can see is the soft swell of a white man’s hairy belly and a woman’s big brown eyes, ringed with flakes of blue liner. The whole thing looks washed-out and unflattering in a way I associate, even at seven, with criminality — clearly, this woman has been kidnapped, she is being held hostage, she needs my help. I watch Unsolved Mysteries, even though the music gives me nightmares — I know all about it.
I had found somebody’s Last Known Photo, but you can’t even see her face, so what was I to do? I decide to go door to door, knocking as hard as I could, intending to ask if anyone recognized this woman, but it was the middle of a weekday and nobody answered. I peeped in every open window and every open gate until somebody’s Rottweiler chases me two blocks to the Circle K. I’m near panic when I take the picture home to show my mom, whose initially cryptic “She’s sucking him off” soon coheres into a mental image so gross and ridiculous that I can only screech “But, that’s where they PEE!”
“My husband’s mother’s picking me up,” I tell Terell. “She’ll take me right to campus.”
“You like it?” he asks, meaning teaching (I do) and writing (I don’t) and reading (which varies according to who assigned it, whether we’ll be allowed to have our own opinions of it or not). I’m 35, far too old to still be going to school. Before my body stared falling apart, I always took the most physically demanding jobs that would have me: furniture delivery, warehouse foreman, yard work. The more you can handle, the better you’re paid, and seeking ever more dangerous work is part of growing up, a sign that you’re mature enough to put a decent paycheck ahead of your health, your life. Going to school — even if it’s free, even with a TAship — feels shriekingly self-indulgent. I fought it as long as I could, until I couldn’t stop falling and I had too many bruises to laugh off and nobody wanted me moving their nice things anymore. I’m 35, and sometimes the shame of not being able to work a real job no matter how hard I’m willing to try chokes me breathless.”I’m knee deep in pussy, son,” I say, and Terell shakes his head, laughing.
In 7th grade, we are assigned to write our very first research papers. We have free reign on subject matter, as long as it is deemed academically valuable and researchable. “Nothing on some dumb hippity hop band,” we are told by our English teacher, a large ancient woman who smokes Swisher Sweets whenever outdoors (before class, during football games…). “So don’t even waste my time asking. Please don’t.”
I choose to write about sexual assault because it is A Very Important Issue and there is a Planned Parenthood a quarter mile from my house. I can ride my bike there, which is good for the environment, not that anybody around here seems to give a shit. I cannot believe how uncaring people can be, but I know that all it takes is one brave person to stand up for a what’s right. A strong, attractive, charismatic leader to champion justice, to get people energized for good. A hero with excellent bone structure. I call PP and arrange an interview with a very sweet volunteer, a college girl, younger than I am now, far younger. She’s great. She answers every one of my stuttery questions with aplomb and humors my naked need to be thought smart and sophisticated — a need that, when satisfied, feels much like being loved. I rode my bike in and now, finished with my first real interview, ride it home, one-handed, armed with a fistful of Very Important Pamphlets. A car follows me, stopping briefly in front of my house when I dismount in the driveway. Later that day, a strange man calls to tell my mother that I am a whore, that I had gone to the Godless abortionists up the street to kill my baby and then biked home, laughing like a child.
There is a comic in the ’90s,The Maxx, made briefly famous by being turned into a cartoon for MTV. When the cartoon ran, the comic itself faced scrutiny from Mississippi’s leading assholes. An issue,“The Origin of Mr. Gone”, comes out, and adults go crazy; the issue deals frankly with child molestation and its devastating psychic fallout, a subject deemed far too adult for a children to read about. That it’s also far too adult for children to actually experience — that this might, in fact, be a more pressing problem to address — goes unremarked upon.
The issue includes a section in the back for fans to advertise for pen pals and my own sad little pen pal ad is there, including my full address. When the issue comes out, the crew from a local news channel descends upon my house. My mother comes to my room, breathless with excitement.” There’s a reporter on the porch who wants to talk to you. What have you done?”
I emerge onto the porch and am barraged with questions I do my best to answer without stammering: “Do you think this is appropriate material for children?” “Did the clerk ask for a parent’s permission before he sold it to you?” “Do you feel corrupted by this material? Would you even know if you were?” I can think only of my blotched and ugly face on the 10 o’clock news. My mother refuses to appear on camera, but gleefully signs a permission slip for them to use my image, which they do. When the segment airs that night, I have to leave the room to vomit. From the kitchen sink I hear “There was another local minor whose address appeared in the comic book, but her parents declined our request for an interview.” I think, probably because they love her.
I don’t start really hustling until middle school, and then I’m everywhere: I shoplift pencils and candy and slap bracelets and sell them at school; I enroll in CD and book clubs under false names, have the boxes sent to vacant houses, sneak over after dark to retrieve them, and sell the contents at school; I make and sell pornography. It’s easy. I shoplift blank VHS tapes and then, after my mother leaves to go to work at night, I scan the newspaper television listings for hot movies on cable and set my alarm for when the first one comes on, usually around 2. I record on EP and I record only the sex scenes so that, by the time it’s finished, each tape is 6 full hours of Joan Severance or that chick who’s with Gene Simmons or some blonde nobody writhing against a dumpy man, furiously humping. The men are always ugly, which makes no sense to me at the time. I sell the tapes for ten bucks a pop, a bargain.
I write pornography, too. My stories, insanely popular as gifts at only $5 each, are not just dirty, not just FILTHY, but aggressively and deliberately perverted. The most popular one I can remember sells four copies. We’re all permanent suspects and desperately poor, so I have no access to a printer or a copier — my stories are hand written and hand copied, occasionally even hand illustrated by my best friend, if he likes the plot and feels like contributing “a good cockshot or two.” I sign my name as large as I can, right on the cover.I simply cannot wait to get caught and deliver a stirring speech about artistic freedom and open-mindedness. “Yes,” I rehearse in the bathroom mirror, “I wrote Semen of the Damned and I’m glad I wrote it.” But I am never caught.
The story involves a teenage boy in an insane asylum being anally raped by a guard while he flashes back to what got him committed in the first place: he’d killed his parents and then dug up their corpses so that he could saw off their heads and have sex with them. His crimes had gone unnoticed by police — the only reason he got caught was because a little girl was selling candy door to door and saw him fucking the heads through his open window.
The city council, again: Several movies, none recent, are suddenly banned within city limits. This action is precipitated, somehow, by the theatrical release of Showgirls. None of the movie’s many dubious aesthetic choices are at issue, nor is its copious nudity, but the fact that it includes a steamy interracial romance enrages people.The movie also includes a horrific scene of a white man raping a black woman, but, as one spittle-choked man yells at a reporter covering the local premier, “We aren’t concerned with that.” Threats and violent protests have not kept this movie out of town, so the council, as a consolation prize to the enflamed, bans a bunch of other morally corrupting movies, mostly unpopular foreign and art films that only the most pretentious nerds would check out from Blockbuster. I have one of the banned movies,The Tin Drum,checked out when the law goes into effect. Local law enforcement, starved for excitement ever since the passage of that pesky Civil Rights Act, obtain a list of all current renters of now-illegal movies and decide to visit each renter immediately to take possession of their contraband.When asked later, by the same dogged reporter who covered the Showgirls beat, why they didn’t simply wait until the rented movies were returned to the store to confiscate them, the chief of police smirks and says, “The law’s the law.”
Four cops, in full riot gear, come to my home to seize The Tin Drum. I have been closely following the Showgirls’ reporter’s nightly stories so I know that showing the movie is now illegal and that the police would be coming soon. I make sure to put the tape in the living room VCR and hit “Play” when I see two cop cars pull into our driveway. This feels brave at 17. The police, however, have never seen The Tin Drum, so they have no idea what the weird German movie playing on the television is, or why the lumpy teenaged girl who opened the door to them is now standing with both arms held defiantly in front of her, waiting to be cuffed and arrested.
My mother emerges from her bedroom in a white satin smoking jacket that she has ordered from QVC in anticipation of just this sort of event. It has been years since anyone was last allowed inside our home, but, in the wake of my comic book celebrity, my mother has become convinced that random hordes of people will now force their way in at any time, and she wants to look respectable whenever they do. Without speaking to any of us, she walks to the VCR, ejects the tape, and hands it to the oldest-looking officer. He checks the label, thanks her, and leaves with it and his men. My mother, still unspeaking, returns to her bedroom and shuts the door. I put my arms down, finally. Aside from the moment I let the cops in, no one has even looked at me.
There’s a million kids in our neighborhood, a fact I use to justify to my husband the lurid excess of my holiday decorations. He’s a kind man by nature and requires no persuasion, really, but I feel guilty because he’s the one who will have to put it all up and take it all down again after, while I sit and just try to stay out of the way, useless. At least I can give out candy at Halloween. I hold the bucket out and let them grab as much as they want, so they won’t be frightened by my clumsy shaking hands.
Last Halloween, we had a cheap RC rat hidden in the dark of the porch — as the Trick-or-Treaters came up to the door, we would send it scurrying towards them and they would shriek, delighted. It was a huge hit until one tiny little girl, dressed up as a tiny mom, with a tiny pink bathrobe and tiny curlers in her hair, bursts into tears when the rat runs out in front of her. We apologize profusely as the girl’s mother comforts her. I scoot down from my lawn chair. My husband picks the rat up and turns it over to show her the wheels and the hard plastic underside.
“Mami, see,” the girl’s mother says. “It’s not real. Don’t be scared, it can’t hurt you. It’s not real.” She puts her daughter’s hand gently on the battery housing. She strokes it, considering.
“I won’t be scared because it’s not real,” she says firmly. “It can’t hurt me.” Sitting cross-legged on the grass, I am only a little bit taller than her; she looks up at me for confirmation. Her eyes are wet, but steady.
“That’s right, sweetheart,” I say. “Exactly right.”
Terell watches me sit and says “Oh, I see you ain’t ever scared,” and now it’s my turn to laugh.
“You are reckless with your life,” my neurologist said once, a line I love because it’s just so dramatic, makes me sound so much more exciting than I really am.
It’s a few years ago, while I’m at UT getting my Master’s degree, that I get to run my first creative writing workshop. I decide to begin class the first day by telling my students, “Write about whatever you want. I mean it. No hair off my ass.” The students, far sweeter and better than I was at 18 — or at 22 when I got married, or at 30 when I punched a police horse in the face, or at breakfast this morning — are shy at first, but encouraged by the congenial atmosphere and my gravy-stained Cyprus Chill t-shirt. I ask them to do a short writing exercise and then read the results out loud. When one girl nervously reads, “My favorite movie is Willy Wonka? Cause it’s fun to watch when you’re stoned? But one thing I don’t like about it? Is that my friend said you could sync it up with Dark Side of the Moon? You totally can’t,” I say, “Try it with Meddle next time. It doesn’t really sync up, either, but it’s a great album to get high to.”
The students’ eagerness to please quickly dovetails into an ongoing competition to see who can write the most outlandish story each week. I get stories about: Jesus, abortion, aborting Jesus, drinking, becoming a werewolf, becoming a werewolf who finds Jesus, and, of course, so many stories about pot. Smoking pot, selling pot, growing pot. One story is from the perspective of a joint “Put me in your mouth and suck. What do you get? HIGH, BITCHES!” Also, many, many stories about sex.
On the last day of classes, a sweet, blond, skinny boy, very young and obviously stoned, volunteers to read his final story aloud to the class. His story is about a woman on the bus who wasn’t wearing underwear. “You told us to write from the heart,” he says, but starts giggling too hard to finish. He holds up a hand for mercy.
“Take your time,” I say. “Feelings are hard.”
“You-told-us-to-write-from-the-heart,” he gasps, doubled over. “And women who don’t wear underwear come right from my heart.” The classroom thunderclaps laughter and he straightens, beaming.
He reads his story. When he’s finished, as is the custom of the class, he solicits comments from his fellow students. They are all quite complimentary, as well they should be — the kid’s a good writer, not just an unapologetic pussyhound. When everyone has quieted down, just as I’m about to start us on the last class activity, a girl speaks up, saying, “That was a really good metaphor.”
This is a girl who never talked in class. She’s shy, a little chubby, very straightlaced.I brought coffee for the class one night, and she spent 10 minutes apologizing for not being able to drink “any mind-altering substance.” I’m shocked to hear her voice, and thrilled. “That’s a great comment, Deirdre,” I say, hoping to encourage her. “Which metaphor were you impressed by?” A few kids snicker.She blushes and I figure she’s just going to go quiet, but then she swallows and takes a deep breath and says, “When the woman bends over, the narrator says ‘Was her pink eye winking at me?” and pinkeye, the disease, I mean, is really contagious, and so, when I read that, I thought ‘Uh oh, she has an STD,’ and, at the end, we find out she does. It just struck me as really good.” A few more students snicker, but the author does not. The author, who, as far as I’d seen, had never even looked at this girl before, looks at her now and says, simply, honestly, “Thank you.”
When we get to Houston, Terell helps me get my walker out from the underbus luggage carriage. I stumble trying to put my backpack on and he takes it from me gently.
“It’s too heavy,” I protest. It weighs twenty seven pounds. I know because I weighed it. I weighed everything inside it. I can’t afford to carry an ounce more than what’s absolutely necessary. My writing, my scholarly pursuits, whether I get to brush my hair or eat today — all decisions are made based on weight. They have to be. If I try to carry too much, I will fall. If I fall in the wrong place — crossing a busy street, negotiating a steep incline — I’m dead.
“It’s nothing,” he says, holding the front doors open for me.
My goodness, don’t you get scared?
When we get to my mother-in-law’s Lexus, he tosses my backpack into her open hatch. I watch him in the rearview mirror as we drive away.