1979, This Thing Called

 

Drive past where you grew up. This landscape is flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat mud. Rows of trees line the road. Squat houses setback a short distance circling a railroad track, then nothing but more mud, distant trees and clouds blowing in from Arkansas.

 

Stop for a bit by an old rundown, abandoned, sit in the doorway. Probably inhabitable. Pine on the floor’n walls. Wainscoting warped. Tin roof peeled back, snaps in the shifty breeze. The sun warms smell out of the mud. Wonder what’s grown on this land, what sprayed about, who lived here, who lives here next.

 

Not more than a mile or two north down the road before I stop here, I pass an old black woman come ‘round the back of an old house so similar to this one I sit at, in much the same shape. Her solid dress stretches across the breasts and the hips then billows at the knees. She bends into what seems to be a barrel of water collecting off the roof, her legs covered with bright red socks. Her home is a shanty just like this one, and the cabin I built up in my own Dad’s woods way north near the water Superior.

 

That woman makes me think of my own mum, and grandmum raisin’ ‘leven alone after Felix falls off the roof drunk, all on a farm scraped out of cut over. There’s an old photo in my memory that stands out, shows grandmum and the kids posed as they straddle a massive untrimmed trunk lying over. Just two and three generations down the line out there clearing field.

I think of this old black woman and my grandmum walking about in the same dress, same shoes, catching water off the roof. No hiding that the life and work are hard. I’m not dumb enough to think these are parallels, just the empathy carries me in deep.

 

Here green weeds grow from the ground and in the distance green cover in the few places where mud doesn’t show. The occasional tree sprouts some yellowing spring. A fly buzzes by the railroad tracks. Always the railroad tracks. I follow them south back on the road again. Somewhere off west across this long flat flood plain is the great river, and beyond, the country where you grew up.

 

Some places the tracks are pulled up and piled like an abandoned line. The white folk who drive by lift a finger in hello like folks up north do in the rural country, communicating that you ore on of us and must be a neighbor. I feel closer to the old woman walking around the shack to get water and the black men that chat on the front stoop or watch the world go by.

 

I don’t honestly know what they watch. Maybe they say to themselves, look at them fools working their lives away just to fast drive nice vehicles. More’n likely they lookin’ fearful, wondering which way troubles heading now. That’s how I look, to be honest. Maybe that’s me projecting.  The black men don’t see me. I raise a finger to them as I pass. I want to be with them, ’cause I don’t fit in to that other world. I can’t honestly see either going well. I want things to not be the way they are.

White folks created some serious mess with their segregation shit, leaving these folks to live in towns full of shacks. In places the hard line in towns transition into dominant Americana. I drive through town after town of black folk and shanties, and I tear. I know I’m just passing by, but to have to live here day in day out for generations.

 

Fortune knocks once at my door then moves along never retracing the moment. I run after fortune grabbing for that moment, then fall behind thinking that isn’t a moment I really want. Oh I know I sound crazy Darryle, like the no-brain artist they say I am. I wonder if you’re still across the river visiting family or if you’ve moved back to that California coast. ‘This thing called love’ comes on the radio and I miss you.

 

9 Comments

  1. sara lippmann

    Hi John, You’ve done such a spectacular job of anchoring us in time and place with keen observations and details. I’m struck by the unfolding of this piece, how it finds its voice and its legs, moving from second person to first and then to the direct address, Darryle at the end (I must admit I read the first “you” as the narrator addressing themself and did not realize until the end they were addressing an actual person, Darryle) — and the last two sentences are beautifully swerving, which I was unprepared for and surprised me in a good way.

    Throughout, the writing is penetrative and striking. There are so many lines and images that pop “wainscoting warped” — the way the woman “bends into a barrel” the bright red socks

    I’m not dumb enough to think these are parallels — yes! this is important.

    And all of this is gorgeous, precise, aching — masterfully controlled:

    The occasional tree sprouts some yellowing spring. A fly buzzes by the railroad tracks. Always the railroad tracks. I follow them south back on the road again. Somewhere off west across this long flat flood plain is the great river, and beyond, the country where you grew up.
    Some places the tracks are pulled up and piled like an abandoned line. The white folk who drive by lift a finger….

    In short: You have so much material here, and there are so many ways to go. While I appreciate the meandering quality, and while I do understand that much of the point, there is another, deeper point about race and belonging and privilege and inequity that perhaps could be crystallized a bit more. The voice feels inconsistent at times — I’m shouldering a bias here, and I know Dorothy Allison would disagree with me (she has a whole Tin House talk on this, which I can look up for you, if you’re interested) but sometimes there is more twang and sometimes less, and maybe it has to do with this voice finding its legs, finding its story, but I wanted to point that out. (I tend to vote for less twang, and more trust that we can hear the region in the word choice.)

    And then, of course, there’s Darryle. I’m curious about context and backstory. It’s not that I want more — in fact, I could have less — but I kind of crave a brief concreteness of context. And maybe that comes sooner in the story. Again, as I’ve talked about, the balance between withholding and delivering up front. Always a question. A choice.

    Thanks. Can’t wait to see what you do with this!

  2. Melanie Haws

    There’s a haunting elegiac quality to this paragraph:
    “Stop for a bit by an old rundown, abandoned, sit in the doorway. Probably inhabitable. Pine on the floor’n walls. Wainscoting warped. Tin roof peeled back, snaps in the shifty breeze. The sun warms smell out of the mud. Wonder what’s grown on this land, what sprayed about, who lived here, who lives here next.”
    Like the tin roof “snap” and the speaker wondering about the past and future of the land.

    • John Steines

      Thank you Sara. I adapted an old unsent letter fragment, trying to avoid the subject of missing/longing/loss. The rapid turnaround is tough for me. The similarity of hardscrabble and use of twang feel deep in both habitats, though of different origin. The deeper issue feels unavoidable. Things I might tighten or eliminate to shorten, unify… I worried about crossing some unwritten lines. Being internal, it feels one can wander then pull back. Witness – associate – self moderate….

  3. Al Kratz

    I was in for this too John and like Sara mentioned the use of the different POVs was effective and intriguing in a way where the form of that meshed with the story itself, the same tone of mystery if that makes sense.

    I also could sense the tension of walking the difficult lines. That’s really hard to do.

    I agree with the challenges of rapid turnaround and like your approach to adapting work for it. It’s a great way to discover things about existing works as much as creating new ones.

  4. Laurie Marshall

    So many great details here. And even if I were not an Arkansan who has driven through the delta I believe I’d still be able to “see” all these details clearly. Loved this line: “Tin roof peeled back, snaps in the shifty breeze. The sun warms smell out of the mud. Wonder what’s grown on this land, what sprayed about, who lived here, who lives here next.”

    I agree with Sara’s comment about the language that fades in and out. I’m especially conflicted with colloquial spelling combined with the inequity of the Black experience. It can come off as being performative, I believe. But obviously this story is rooted in your reality, and you should write it the way it needs to be written.

    That ache in the last paragraph is so visceral. I hope you’ll weave more of that into the piece. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  5. Constance Malloy

    John, a big ditto to all the comments already given to you. Liked the changing POV, and that the reader finally meets the narrator’s “you” in the last paragraph. You so completely root us in the place that I believe if you decided to forego colloquial spellings, the reader would put that voicing into the narrator themselves. I hope you keep working this one.

  6. John Steines

    Thanks all for the encouragement and truths. My use of colloquial English comes from rural N Wisc, not Mississippi. I wasn’t trying to copy an unknown local dialect yet I see how that is confusing. Good points all.

  7. Meg Tuite

    John,
    Luminous movement through time! So filled with detail and introspection : ” I’m not dumb enough to think these are parallels, just the empathy carries me in deep.” This is deep waters and gorgeous! LOVE!

  8. Patricia Bidar

    Hi Jihn,

    The lost-ness of the narrator is so palpable here. The unbelonging. I found the mysterious “you” to be a pull and appreciated the name–Darryle–and the emotion being named in the end.

    Some phrases that jumped out at me:

    Squat houses … circling a railroad track, then nothing but more mud, distant trees and clouds blowing in from Arkansas
    Tin roof peeled back, snaps in the shifty breeze. The sun warms smell out of the mud. .
    She bends into what seems to be a barrel of water collecting off the roof, her legs covered with bright red socks.
    catching water off the roof
    Somewhere off west across this long flat flood plain is the great river, and beyond, the country where you grew up.
    …wondering which way troubles heading now. That’s how I look, to be honest.
    I run after fortune grabbing for that moment, then fall behind thinking that isn’t a moment I really want. Oh I know I sound crazy Darryle…

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