“The Love ‘Tween Our Brothers and Sisters Will Last” by Terry Barr

“You know Buddy, right? He says he knows you from junior high.”

I played along with Jo Beth, not wanting her to know that I had no idea who this “Buddy” was. I knew my Buddy’s. I was a Buddy. In any town, one Buddy always keeps up with the others.

Jo Beth had arranged a date for me: a 19 year-old divorcee whom her boyfriend knew. Jo Beth’s boyfriend was 25 or 26. Jo Beth and I were 17, high school seniors, moving so fast.

“Buddy wants us to come over before we go to the bar. He’s dressing for the show. It’s his first time, you know.”

So now I had to go see Buddy; I had to prove to someone that I did not remember Buddy. But would anyone be convinced that we had never met, that we’d never be able to pick each other out of a crowded club or recognize each other on one of Birmingham’s increasingly lonely streets?

“Steve will get me, we’ll come get you, then we’ll grab Denise and head over to Buddy’s.”

It was all set.

Denise was attractive and kind of reserved. She and I kept thinking “divorcee, divorcee” as Steve drove us to Southside, the hills leading up to Red Mountain.

The four of us walked up to Buddy’s door, and before we could knock, someone else opened it. Someone tall and raging.

“Buddy’s still getting ready,” he said. “You know how long it takes!”

With a heavy eye roll, he stood aside and let us into the apartment corridor. We could see down the hall to one closed door, the light beneath it heralding orange, a glow I couldn’t place.

“Sit down,” our host offered as he waved to the “living room,” an area the size of a good pantry. Then he passed us a joint, pungent and expertly rolled in that way some have of showing you just who’s boss.

It was good stuff and a good thing because it soaked up the minutes that turned into almost two hours as we listened to some distant beat. I couldn’t place where the stereo was, but I assumed in Buddy’s room. It was early 1974. Jo Beth and I would graduate in four months, but right now, the Supremes were singing “Stoned Love,” followed by Freda Payne’s “Deeper and Deeper.”

Finally, “Buddy” emerged, smiling, as he managed the hard-wood corridor, his spiked heels causing him to wobble now and then.

In a shimmering gold dress complementing the long black hair that waved down his back, and with a thin silver bracelet dangling from his extended hand, he more than met my eyes.

“You can call me Trina,” he said.

We followed Trina and her friends downtown to a place on 23rd Street whose neon marquee announced “Chances R.”

My previous bar experience had been limited to sneaking into The Crazy Horse on Morris Avenue–the street designated as “Underground Birmingham,” mainly because traffic crossed it north and south via several bridged overpasses. Morris had cobbled streets, sewer smells, and The Crazy Horse whose house band might have been The Rockin’ Rebellions, though maybe I’m confusing that with shows I heard advertised on WSGN at the Oporto Armory.

“What’s the Chances R,” I asked, not realizing the convolutions I had entered.

“Oh, it’s a show bar,” Jo Beth said. “This is Buddy’s first time.”

I wanted to ask: “First time for what,” but I didn’t want to disappoint Denise who, if anything, looked even more puzzled than I was. Our places in the back of Steve’s car weren’t exactly precarious. But we did feel the pressure.

By now it was almost 10:30. A Friday night, so my parents wouldn’t expect me till one. The bar was jammed like I had never seen. Of course, I had never seen.

“I’ll find us a table,” Steve said. And he did. Right in the middle of a room the size of the interior of my parents’ house, 2000 square feet. The lights were up and we were all revealed.

“Could only get two chairs, though,” Steve apologized. So with Jo Beth on his lap, and Denise on mine, we sat. And waited.

Steve ordered us beers. I kept looking around the room, trying not to be obvious. I knew of gay bars. I just didn’t know why we were in one.

All over the club, very effeminate men were enjoying each other. This was the gay world I had heard about from certain other friends and from my high school drama club adviser.

Looking backwards now, I keep wondering how and why I got to this place, this bar, this side of life. I never took chances. Though I had longish hair, I smoked dope only occasionally; in fact, I had just started the past summer. I was in the National Honor Society and earned a safe driver’s discount from our insurance company because of my good grades. But right now, in a place I had never heard of five minutes prior to being there, a 19 year-old divorcee was sitting on my lap; a boy named Trina who thought he knew me from some former world was sitting at the table to my left, awkwardly adjusting his panty hose; and right before my eyes, a show was starting.

I don’t know how many performers took the stage that night, lip-synching show tunes and torch songs, and the occasional R&B oldie. I know I thought it would be funny if some of the macho guys from my school’s football team—guys who intimidated me, blackballed me from social clubs, and called me “sissy” or worse behind my back—could meet one of these show queens. They wouldn’t know. They couldn’t guess. But they’d be amazed and all over themselves to “get some.”

At some point, maybe after the 3rd or 4th number, Denise and I looked at each other, and I don’t know if it was the beer, the pot, the flamboyance of the night, or some strange chemistry filling our air, but we locked up in an embrace that I think qualified for some Olympic sport. I’ve always enjoyed kissing with passion. Maybe it dated from that night.

When we did take breaths to enjoy more of the show, I got a little confused. I couldn’t speak my confusion even after exchanging all I had with Denise. But looking at the stage, at the crowd, I started wondering things like: are the effeminate men attracted to the Queens? Do the Queens want to be women, and if so, which men in here would they want? Which ones do they want now? Are those women over there gay too, and if so, are they attracted to the Queens, Jo Beth and Denise, or each other? And what about that guy who just performed? Keith, his name was, who sang that love ballad on acoustic guitar. He really sang, and his voice was a low alto. He even had a faint, wispy mustache. Who was he? What did he prefer? Was he anyone’s Buddy?

In all of this confusion I kept feeling Denise holding me tighter and tighter. Deeper and….

Just past midnight, we left The Chances R. Jo Beth and I lived in Bessemer, a good thirty-minute drive from there. We, at least, had a curfew.

On the drive home, Denise sat far from me, which I didn’t understand. Something had passed between us, I thought, but I didn’t know what or why. We didn’t talk the whole way back. But as Steve pulled up at my house, she moved over very quickly and gave me one more moment of herself.

But she didn’t give me her number, and after they drove off, I never saw her again.

Or Buddy, for that matter.

Not even Trina.

And neither Jo Beth nor I ever mentioned them again even after she broke up with Steve. Even after we got closer on another night when the love just wouldn’t last.

Photo Terry BarrTerry Barr’s recent essays have appeared in Iron Gall Review, Turk’s Head Review, Sport Literate, and Construction, among other journals. He is a regular contributor to culturemass.com, writing about the music of his life. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters, and teaches Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College.

“Altar Call” by Rori Leigh Hoatlin

Every Sunday for the first ten years of my life, I went to church. In all that time, I missed the part in the Bible where it told me that I was in charge of letting Jesus into my heart. So, two weeks before my eleventh birthday, at Rez Life, during the altar call, I asked Jesus to come into my heart.

Afterward, when I got home, my mother told me that the invitation wasn’t necessary.

“Jesus doesn’t need to be asked, Sweetie, he already knows your heart.” My mother patted my shoulder before turning back to the cake she was baking.

But her phrasing on the matter troubled me. She had said, He knows my heart, but that left me wondering: did he live there? Even then I knew there was a difference between knowing and living.

For example, I knew about Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was the biggest city near our house, it was where we went for the auto show or for fancy Sunday brunch, it had a few tall buildings and brick-road side streets. But Grand Rapids was a temporary spot and when we got tired, we went home to where we lived, Hudsonville.

Hudsonville was a small suburb twenty minutes from Grand Rapids. Hudsonville was Salad Bowl City. Hudsonville was muck fields and the smell of onions blowing into the open windows of our classroom in the spring. Hudsonville was the wooden Dutch shoes on my mother’s mantle. Hudsonville was scratchy white dresses on Sunday morning and Spaghetti-Os on Sunday night. And Hudsonville was the sledding hill at Charlie’s Dump, where I rode on my purple Lion King saucers up and down the hill so much that the stars started to look like bleary fire balls streaming across the sky.

I asked Jesus to come into my heart and even if that act, as my mother said, “wasn’t necessary,” I fixated on the idea that if I ever slipped up and forgot that Jesus was living there, he would leave, he needed my permission; the reason I didn’t feel him in my heart, was because I wasn’t doing enough to keep him there.

Attending Rez Life had been an accident on my part. Our church girls group, the GEMS, had been invited. It was supposed to be a sort of meet and greet. A “Hey girls age 8-14! Meet other local Christian girls, who are just like you!!!” And I guess that’s why we went. If the leaders of GEMS had known that it was going to end in an altar call, they would have never taken us there. As my mother told me later, we didn’t really believe in altar calls, in the asking of Jesus into ones heart.

Rez Life was a mega-church, the complete opposite of my home church, Cornerstone. Rez Life was a monstrosity in my eyes. There was no steeple, no pews, no baptismal font, instead of these traditional church accoutrements, their sanctuary was comprised of a large stage, stadium-style seating, and a musicians pit under the stage for a full band. Didn’t they know that the organ was God’s preferred way of receiving praise?

I rolled my eyes when I saw a woman dressed as Mary, wrapped in blue linen with a tuft of her teased blonde hair peeking out. A skit of Christ’s birth, no doubt. A skit portraying the manger baby. A lamb and a barn. I was impatient, I’d seen this so many times, but I was a child and did as I was told. I took my seat and waited for the show to begin.

As a little girl, I liked the simplicity of Christianity. If you followed the rules, you got to go to Heaven; I was good at following rules. I attended both services every Sunday. I was polite to my elders. Teachers remarked that I was amicable and well behaved.

The minister would remind us at Sunday service that we weren’t allowed to judge who got to go to Heaven because you can never truly know someone’s heart, but I knew that wasn’t true; I knew I was going to go to Heaven.

But spurs of sin nagged at my subconscious.

I never did personal devotions. My mother asked me every morning at breakfast, “What were your devotions about last night?”


“Peer pressure.”

“Faith in hard times.”

My mother bought me devotionals and prayer journals, but never read them. I stuffed them under the pink skirt of my bed; I’d do it someday.

When my mother asked me if I prayed, I lied and quoted the Bible, “I never cease to pray.” I believed that saying the words was as good as believing the words.

But more than my failure to do devotions, there was a more pressing event that nagged at my faith. One night, I’d flipped the channel to a terrifying movie: A woman, an alien from another planet, was seducing a slow-witted man in a hot tub. To take over his flesh, she’d taken off her top. I gripped the remote in surprise; this was the first bare-chested woman that I’d ever seen in a sexual context. I was supposed to change the channel, this was naughty, God didn’t like this sort of thing. But I kept watching. There was a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, as though I were being tickled from the inside. Sin was supposed to hurt, supposed to feel bad. I would stop watching, if I stared feeling bad.

When the scene was over, I hurriedly turned off the T.V. and went to bed. I thought about asking for forgiveness, but I didn’t want to talk to God yet, I didn’t want him to see the residual image in my mind. When I called on him, I knew he would see what I saw, and I didn’t want God inside my head.

The auditorium darkened as our Mary figure entered a single spotlight on the stage.

She held her hands palm up reflecting the light off her white skin and began to tell us about her walk with God. How he saved her from a life of evil and torment. I zoned out. I was tired of hearing testimonies, they were all the same. They always uplifted me and simultaneously emptied me out. Those giving testimony were always so hopeful. After the agony and pain of life, the notes of their voice took on a cheery lilt. Jesus is the Way and the Truth, and the Life. Just follow. Just believe. I would walk away from these stories determined that I would feel this way about my relationship with God. But with each step away from their tales, I found that hope eked out of me from some mysterious puncture under my skin. I was clearly broken. Or maybe I didn’t think I was broken. Maybe I thought I was just waiting for God to form a special bond with me. I was waiting for him to make move.

My eyes refocused on the stage and the woman. The pale yellow light she was shrouded in was deepening to red. There were dark shadows moving about behind her and I began to realize that this wasn’t the manager scene, this was the crucifixion.

A bass guitar had been playing during her testimony, but as the scene unfolded more instruments were added, a keyboard, and a thudding drum beat reverberated in the floor.

A cross rose behind the woman and light shifted to it.

A young girl, around my age of ten, dressed in similar linen as Mary, came forward to the stage. The spotlight was still on the cross, but she was lit up by some residual light in the musicians pit so that I could see her. I thought she looked scared. A horrifying thought crossed my mind: They were going to crucify this girl.

The girl neared the woman, who put her hands on the girl’s shoulders and turned her towards us. “Now hear THIS,” the woman shouted above her microphone, “If you have not accepted Jesus into your heart, DO NOT DELAY.”

It was strange, but at that moment, I realized this was how I imagined Heaven to be. God, with his hands on my shoulders, turning me to face the crowd. On a mega screen behind me would flash every sin I’d ever committed. The crowd would watch. Would participate in God’s judgment.

“Believe in Jesus TODAY. And you will be SAVED. ASK. REPENT. BELIEVE.”

The crowd in the front, who were in on this production, began to chant the last portion, “Ask. Repent. Believe. Ask. Repent. Believe.”

I gulped. There is a clash of symbols as the woman and the girl move to their positions at the cross. The woman raised her hands over her head, palms out again. The girl kneeled at the base. I breathed a sigh of relief, no crucifixion for her. But as happy as I was for her, I couldn’t help but feel a growing pang of disappointment. Not at the fact that we weren’t witnessing a human sacrifice, but that all responsibility regarding my faith had perceptibly shifted from God’s responsibility to mine.

It was my fault that Jesus wasn’t in my heart. A clash of symbols interrupted this realization. Around me everyone had their eyes closed. They were praying. Should I pray? Hadn’t I been all along? No. It was clear. I had not been praying. This religion I had found so accessible, multiplied tenfold in complexity in one fell swoop. Here was a new Truth: God couldn’t choose me unless I chose him. Was that the answer? Was I supposed to keep Jesus and God locked in my heart at all the times? But what about when I didn’t want them there? He would go away because of me. What about the moments of my life that were dripping in sin? He would go away because of my sins.

Out of fear, I finally closed my eyes, bowed my head, and did the thing that I was being asked to do. Dear Jesus, Please come into my heart. Forgive my sins. Let me live a life that is pleasing to you.

I opened my eyes. I knew for certain. Asking God into my heart was no different than any other lie I would tell. As much as I wanted to feel God, the fact was that I didn’t feel the thing that everyone around me was talking about. God was an abstraction inaccessible to me. I would fake a relationship with this figment for the next fifteen years. My God was fake, but the guilt I felt for not being able to make myself believe was real. This guilt has scorched into my soul so deep, no amount of penance can repay.

Rori Leigh Hoatlin is a third-year graduate student and a second-year Teaching Fellow at Georgia College and State University in the MFA program. She was a 2012 Agnes Scott Finalist and is a member of the editorial staff for GCSU’s Arts and Letters. Her work has previously appeared in Young Scholars in Writing and Prick of the Spindle.

“Southern Separation Anxiety” by M. David Hornbuckle

The press materials for Michael Farris Smith’s upcoming novel Rivers compare it to The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning journey through post-apocalyptic Appalachia. The comparison is obvious from a marketing perspective, though it may be a blessing as well as a curse. Many readers may write it off unfairly as an imitation. James Braziel’s 2008 novel, Birmingham, 35 Miles, also suffered from this unfortunate comparison. However, when one looks deeper, the similarities and differences between these three novels point to some interesting patterns in contemporary Southern literature. It isn’t just that all three involve some end-of-the-world scenario. All three are written by Southern writers, and all three express an inherited anxiety that has existed in Southern writing for more than a century.

To understand this anxiety, we can look first to the father of Southern literature, William Faulkner. Throughout his work, Faulkner paints the South as a ruined place, cursed as a result of its own bad morals. An equal but somewhat opposing tension arises in a more conservative branch of Southern writers of the 1930s, who denigrated Northern industrialism as morally and fiscally inferior to the ancient “agrarian” lifestyle that celebrated community, hard work, and family. For better or for worse, an anxiety over this tension continues today in a great deal of literature coming out of the South. This anxiety sees the North and South in continual opposition, and it is often expressed in the form of a hard separation between the two. As a result of the conflict, the South is eventually left abandoned and in ruins. Still, many choose to stay and make the best of it rather than make their way to a Northern oasis in which they do not really believe, either physically or ideologically.

Both Rivers and Birmingham, 35 Miles implicate climate change as the primary factor that separates the North and South. In The Road, the cause of mass destruction is nuclear war. One could argue that both climate change and the possibility of nuclear holocaust come about as the result of industrialism and, in a way, just another form of “Northern aggression.” Though none of these three novels make that argument overtly, it comes through in the anxiety of the South being separated from the rest of the country, orphaned and left to die.

In Birmingham, 35 Miles, much of the South has turned into a desert. A few communities exist throughout Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi where people mine for rocks, essentially busy work assigned by the northern powers. The government has given up on them. Birmingham is the Southernmost refuge of what Braziel calls “the Saved World.” Birmingham is also an industrial city, a city founded for the steel industry and named after the steel center of England. Birmingham represents the encroachment of industrial values on Southern land. It didn’t even exist during the Civil War. It took railroads and refineries to make Birmingham a city. The symbolism of the old agrarianism/industrialism dichotomy is strong here. The protagonist Mathew has a wife who has left for Chicago, deeper into the Saved World, deeper into the heart of industrialism even than Birmingham. Though his wife has left, he has so far refused to leave.

The ecological disaster in Rivers is almost the opposite. Instead of a desert, the South is now nothing but floodlands. It’s as if the destruction of Hurricane Katrina went on for years and years, relentlessly, one hurricane after another. Eventually, the government draws “the Line,” and those who choose to stay below the Line do so at their own risk. Cohen chooses to stay, keeps reinforcing his home against the rising tide, holing himself up with memories of his dead wife and the unborn child that was inside her. Meanwhile, roving armed bandits are looting and searching for buried casino money, and the Line keeps shifting farther north, leaving more and more of the South under water.

In The Road, the main character and his young son are travelling southward through the Appalachians in order to reach warmer climates before they are overtaken by either the cold of winter, road agents, or cannibals. Because they are not seeking asylum in a mythical northern oasis, its expression of what I’m calling Southern separation anxiety is not as obvious as in the two more recent novels. However, I would argue that the north/south dichotomy is still there and still plays into the same kind of tensions. The north is cold and deadly; both the land and its inhabitants eat people. To the south, there is warmth and hope for a future.

Stylistically, all three of these novels are quite different from one another, and it is not my intention to pass judgment about one being better or more successful than the other two. The Road is written in abstracted language that reads almost as much like an epic poem as a novel, heavy on imagery and moral certitude, and it has almost no moments of humor. The other two novels are more character-driven, provide more concrete information about the events during which they take place, and also more sentimentality toward the land the protagonists have always called home.

Since Rivers is the newest of these books, and therefore the least known, I will say a little more about what makes it unique. Its characters speak in a somewhat stylized fashion, with cautious curses like “gosh-damned,” which gradually build in intensity as the drama of the story rises toward the end. Cohen, the hero of the novel, has decidedly Christ-like qualities, even leaving a note for the people who robbed him, who think he is dead, which says, “To whom it may concern – he is not dead he is risen.” He takes refuge in a church where he uses scavenged choir robes for warmth, and then he leaves the church enrobed and on horseback. Flannery O’Connor called the South “Christ haunted.” Christ-hauntedness and an (often misguided) obsession with courtly romance traditions are also endemic in the literature of the South, and at times Smith’s use of them comes with a wink and a nod. He writes, “A gold cross decorated the back of the robe and Cohen had the appearance of a medieval crusader scouring a godless land in the name of the Almighty.”

Far from criticizing Smith’s reliance on these conventions, I would argue that this novel’s greatest strength is in Smith’s deep understanding the traditions from which his inspiration springs and his ability to transform familiar tropes into something new. Like most good literature, Rivers uses these traditions and conventions in new ways that carve out new spaces and new possibilities.

M. David Hornbuckle is the author of the novel Zen, Mississippi. His work has been published in a bunch of places. He is also the editor of this here place. In the spirit of transparency, he would like to say that he knows both Michael Smith and Jim Braziel personally. He does not know Cormac McCarthy, but if someone would introduce him, that would be cool.

“The Real Thing: My Life in Coke” by Deborah Gold

When I was ten, I would sit on the floor in front of the television, winking at the door-length mirror angled towards me. Wearing periwinkle Danskin elastic-waist shorts and a striped sleeveless top, I hugged my bare knees to my chest, tilted my head like Agent 99, and watched myself kiss my kneecaps–chewily, the way the stewardesses of Love, American Style kissed their weekly dates. This was done to the harmonies of “I’d Like to Teach the Word to Sing”–the infamous Coke anthem, in which gauze-smocked hippies from around the small world stood circled atop a sunset hill, singing, swaying, and tipping icy, dark bottles to their lips. It was a jingle that evolved into a real song, somehow, and was the only piano number, besides the intro to “Mrs. Robinson,” that I regularly practiced.

I kissed and re-tilted, one eye squinting up to analyze my style in the mirror, even though this destroyed the illusion of the kissee: the orange-haired Ned Van Meter, who could burp like a bullfrog and was nerdy enough to be my first real romantic possibility. Unlike the softball players with their monkey-headed buzz cuts, or the feverishly pink-cheeked Edwin, long-lashed and fragile, Ned was the class science brain, but he could also be as silly and giddy as me. If Monty Python had existed then, we’d have been swapping dead-parrot jokes, but instead I was charmed simply by his deep-throated ribbets. And when his Toad-style glasses were replaced with thin gold frames, he dazzled with his hair and freckles and ability to focus a microscope to reveal the scooting one-celled paramecia our class had grown in jars of water-soaked straw.

I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.

The sun glowed on that TV hilltop–it was obvious even in black and white. The teenagers swooned and swayed, passing Coke bottles down the line. “I’m going to marry you, Ned,” I declared. This was sacred: he was only the second boy I’d sworn that to after my dog.

They called it “The Hilltop Commercial,” and it went down in advertising history, although for years, I had no idea anyone else treasured it besides a few other ‘70s piano/organ students and me. Coke might as well have been a martini for all I was allowed to drink it at that age, but I was hooked on the dream of communal love, and, somewhere down the line, world peace.

My balloon popped a month later, upon seeing Ned curled up in tears, the glasses punched from his face. He was lying on the floor, hands clamped between the knees of his black shorts, the buzz-cut boys having kicked him in the crotch, a cruel fact of male life previously unknown to me. His halo of desirability–and my compassion–fizzled. The paramecia jar in his hand had slipped and shattered, stinking up the room with a brackish smell that lasted weeks.

Before long, my girlfriends and I started kissing pillows for group critique and stretching shirts over our knees to see how we’d look as giant-boobed Playboy Bunnies. But for those private nights in front of the mirror, the Real Thing was all golden promise. Only later, when I could sneak a cup at a birthday party or temple Oneg Shabbat, would the actual Coke turn out to have a rusty tang, sinus-stinging fizz, and a taste only sickly-sweet.

Like Fritos, Barbies, Christmas caroling, marshmallow-topped desserts, straight hair, training bras, Ouija boards, navy windbreakers, clackers (which actually could knock someone’s brain out), spray shampoo, and Wonder Bread…like all those all-American things, for me Coke remained out of reach. With my mother a late-1950s British emigre and my father a third-generation Jewish New Yorker, we didn’t fit anywhere, much less in the not-quite-New South of the 1970s, but the real drag was that my parents would not even let us try. While they celebrated their triumph in breaking a restrictive covenant barring Jews from the cul-de-sac, the real magic spells of assimilation–the miracle of stacked Pringles or Easter eggs with mallow whites, the enchanted promise of vanity sets and Dressy Tressy dolls, and later the casual hook of a bra, the snap of a pair of velveteen Viceroys, and the aerosol spray of deodorant in gym class–were necessities invisible to my parents, if not scorned outright. Yet all I needed was the right combination of power objects to spark my alchemical change into someone who belonged: if Plastigoop could be transmuted into something as delightful as Incredible Edibles, then surely so could I.

So when my dad began offering me two quarters for the temple Coke machine, pre-teen Hebrew School became a little more worthwhile. Especially since I had no choice about going.

They weren’t messing around when they put a Coke machine in the synagogue’s Hebrew School hallways. Someone knew that it would take more than the Lord our God, parents, and a nonexistent thirst for spiritual knowledge to keep kids coming back–and while we weren’t allowed to use it around Saturday youth services, so weighted with their relevance, halting guitar, and Beatles songs (“see, the Fool on the Hill is actually Moses…” and nobody was even stoned), the machine was fair game for Sundays and Hebrew School on Tuesday-Thursday afternoons.

Ani holaich al bet ha-safer–I go to school/the house of the book–is the only thing I still remember, along with Sheket bevakashah!–be quiet–the number one Hebrew school phrase since the time of the sages. Bar/Bat Mitzvah class began after regular Sunday School was done: in the sanctuary upstairs, the eternal light beamed on and the cushioned chairs were all flipped shut; the classroom wing was dark and empty, lit only by the promising glare of the Coke machine, which shook the floor tiles with its hum. I sat near the back of the classroom full of 12-year-olds on the brink of “manhood” and “young womanhood,” terms intoned in vain as the folded paper footballs and kippah frisbees flew. Those too slack to learn the dot-notes to sing their Bar Mitzvah haftorah portions carried cassette recordings of the Hebrew School principal singing them, or even worse, stumbled through English trans-literations; between debating the lifeboat dilemmas of our “Still, Small Voice” textbook, we listened endlessly to these chanted recitations. The classroom itself smelled of wax polish and rust, and somehow the smell became the taste, making the machine Coke brought back from break time always disappointingly flat and sour. But given my two quarters, each week I hoped for the best.

We’d moved across the county since joining this synagogue, and naturally the burden of driving fell to my mother, the non-believer, and only occasionally to my dad, who always made us so late that the reproving glares were not worth the insistence that he drive us. By the year Bar Mitzvah class came around, though, there was a kid, Zack Goldstein, from my own junior high to carpool with, and on this particular rainy morning, I’d ridden with Zack and his dad. A curly-haired wise guy, Zack was short and gremlin-like, with a perpetual Alfred E. Neuman grin. I was even further down the real school popularity scale, so outside of these car rides, we pretended not to know each other.

A hard March rain was falling and the Goldsteins’ cramped car had been steaming. Sunday School had been routinely tedious, full of “modern” Hebrew practice dialogues about movies, bus stops, and television, meant to assure us that life in the Promised Land was every bit as convenient as it was here, aside from having a few thousand trees to plant and wars to fight with unpredictable regularity. And, hey, Eretz Israel might be a desert, but it was groovy enough to have 608_large too. Kosher for Passover, but still the real thing.

Halfway through hearing everyone’s haftorah portions chanted even more haltingly than the week before, the defeated Bar Mitzvah coach declared a break, and we funneled out into the hallway. I bought a sweating, lukewarm Coke, looking away as Zack tried to feed the popped-off bottlecaps back through the coin slot. (The real “hoodlums,” as the Junior Congregation rabbi called them, were able to stick their arms up the dispenser at the bottom and pull the bottles loose, like a vet delivering a breached calf.)

At least we were allowed to wear pants to Sunday classes, although girls still could not wear jeans. I was wearing a pair of brick-pink, elastic-waisted pants I’d struggled over in Home Ec, sewing and re-sewing the bunched seams, which were still not straight. I had to wear them somewhere, though, and their discomfort matched perfectly this gray day of sheet rain. I drank the disappointing Coke, so different from the glory I continued to imagine–like every other object in this synagogue, it seemed flatly devoid of mystery. From the licorice taste of the Hadassah sponge cake fingers, to the playground’s wonky swings, to the locked Sukkot filled with dead leaves, where was the power? Where was the God who would swoop down to write on the wall, or demand our parents sacrifice us? The Eternal Light’s glow in a darkened sanctuary could inspire a little shiver, but that was about it.

A grinding sound came from the Coke machine, and before I could get in trouble for being a witness to Zack’s coin-slot destruction, I escaped into the restroom. There, in the yellow light of the stall, I saw the stain on my brick-pink pants and, with a cold, sinking feeling, knew what it was. My first period. The real thing. And I didn’t even have a bra yet.

The ladies’ room smelled of wet paper towels, and the light was too jaundiced to let me really see. The stain looked more like an inkblot than anything: how miserably perfect that it should happen here, I thought, where I’d spent so many unwilling hours. Now my years of Sunday School would always culminate in this absurd memory.

I had no purse, nor a pair of the dime-holding loafers our Scout leader had told us to wear for just this emergency–nor was there even was a machine with a predictably broken coin crank and picture of a calm, poised nurse. So I stalled, prayed for invisibility, and inched back to the classroom, where the fact that no one batted an eye meant the teacher and unofficial minyan of twelve-year-olds had surely guessed my horribly private business.

Through the long ride home with the Goldsteins, I perched on the edge of the vinyl seat, sick from stale cigar fumes and the aftertaste of cola syrup, trying to think of the words I’d need to break this to my mother. The windows steamed up as the gray rain poured on; my arms chafed inside a hot raincoat I knew I could not take off. If I’d never stepped out into that hallway, I suspected, and never bought that sub-standard Coke, and never been aggravated by Zack’s antics and the adenoidal droning of my classmates, things could have gone better and this unwelcome initiation might well have held off.

From the golden Hilltop to Olympic Moments to American Idol and even a Bachelor finale, it’s clear the masterminds at Coca-Cola want us to associate their product (God forbid it be called a “drink”) with the peaks–those utterly un-complex, photographable moments that chart the highest points on the graph of your life…as if such pure and plottable points even exist. Certainly Coke bubbled through my own Wonder Years, yet from that first high point on the Hilltop, as I practiced my movie-star kiss, the trajectory descended, with each new Coke marking an ever deeper plunge into the murky adolescent abyss.

My third life-jarring romance with Coke was actually Tab–the original, saccharine formula, dark as prune juice, that came in pebbled bottles with cryptic yellow print. This was almost a year before the tired-tasting pink cans appeared, in our state, at least. (Canned Fresca, flavored with equal parts grapefruit and shampoo, had reigned long already as the drink of babysitters.) Decades before Diet Coke, Tab was a forcibly acquired taste–that is, acquired in the way a naive teen might force herself to like Wild Turkey at a driveway party. The flavor was awful enough to convince American gals that the poison was doing its work, and the carbonation felt harsh enough to be slenderizing all by itself. And if the bottles were chilled almost down to freezing, the taste wasn’t so obvious.

That first Tab was handed to me by the unlikeliest of girls: Rachel was counterculture to the max, far beyond caring about bras, hobbit feet, or the glassy, knowing red of her eyes. And, yet she was the most successfully seductive of all us nubiles–the drama teacher’s word–as it turned out. In her paisley smock and white painter’s pants that showed skin through a frayed square, Rachel tossed me one of the bottles she’d ripped off from our school machine. “Say, ‘we’re going on a diet,’” she proclaimed, like it was just one more lark–just the way she’d declared that everyone would drop acid April 24 or have a hitchhiking race to the National Mall and back. Rachel was easy to idolize because she was so vividly in-the-moment, as we all aspired to be. Be here now, we commanded each other, half-joking, but she was here now, and now, with a vengeance. Rachel was appetite itself, so when she declared a diet, it seemed unlikely, yet a gesture of friendship easier for me to share than a hash joint or a trip to the urban clinic where the girls all got their IUDs.

For Rachel, a diet meant drinking Tab (or mixing rum and Tab on the smoking court), eating chips without the usual roast beef sub, and smoking more pot, which somehow killed her appetite as it jacked up everyone else’s. With her cascading kinky hair, she was what I longed to be, despite her blackened feet, upturned nose, and the doughy waist she liked to pinch over the top of her jeans. At home she could get laid and even smoke pot with a bong made from a vacuum cleaner pipe, right upstairs from her tiny, grandmother-ish mother, who, with her cat-eye glasses, resembled a timid Flannery O’Connor. Rachel’s father was divorced and a callous creep by reputation, long before such dads were commonplace in the suburbs. She hated to visit but sometimes ran into him at a neighborhood bar, where he’d bum money in exchange for buying her machine cigarettes.

Rachel spoke in a self-conscious slide whistle of a style that simultaneously savored words and made fun of them–everything was pronounced in quotes, and she began most sentences with the word “say,” as in “say, ‘my car is a junk pit,’” the way a mom might speak for a baby and wave its arm. Rarely did Rachel say anything straight, except once, months later, when I asked her if she’d been seeing Duane, the guy I’d hoped was my boyfriend and she answered simply, “I thought you knew that.” I jolted to earth then, but like everything else, this barely seemed to faze her.

Rachel wasn’t an earth mother–our hippie high school had several–but she was fearlessly, unbeautifully sexual, in a way you’d never see on TV. She’d sit in the hallway with her best friend on her lap, finger-combing the girl’s flame-red hair where it spilled from her bandana, blabbering about blowjobs and payback; she wore out-of-character wire frame glasses and a serious expression only when she drove herself.

In any case, hedonist Rachel was the last girl in the world you’d expect to propose a diet, but she did as we sat out on the straw-yellow grass, toasting the notion with the bottles of warm Tab she’d stolen for both us. In hindsight, that might have been when she’d started screwing Duane, whom I’d adored since February, but whatever the inspiration, we basked on the school’s ragged spring lawn, breathing in the first hints of humidity and honeysuckle, and throwing back medicinal shots of Tab together.

That was the first step, and from there our paths split. Rachel worked off two pounds by having sex, she said, letting me think she meant with her best friend’s brother. Her “lust life” sounded easy, while my heart thumped sickly every time the phone would ring, and I filled the time between rare Friday evening summons from Duane with weighing and measuring foods according to my father’s neglected diet-and-calorie guide. Worried by my determination, my mother banned the few diet foods I could scrounge up, just as she had the old longed-for junk food–first my hidden stash of Ayds was forbidden, then the bread made with wood shavings, and finally fake diabetic chocolate ice cream the color of Quick Tan. But I lost 46 pounds in the next six months, through counting calories down to fractions, marching miles around the block in sizzling heat, and straining to learn ballet with elementary school girls.

I got dumped by Duane and told the truth by Rachel after she’d abandoned the diet in favorite of actual cocaine, the real real thing, which for her did the weight-loss trick with much less trouble and also helped her waitress double-shifts in a seafood house where the smell of deep-fried shrimp infused her hair and spilled sweet tea granulated her skin. With my palms yellowed by carrots, I turned full-on anorexic with grief. If Duane couldn’t find me beautiful like this, well, at least he’d have to pay attention, I wrongly thought, and finally get “worried,” like the rest of our crew. Instead, he moved away to Alabama.

Tab became my lifeblood but was banned from my house, and outside, people frowned when I drank it after I sank below 100 pounds. Despite the taste, I drank my Tab warm when I could get it, as the slightest chill would freeze me. Every afternoon I crashed and huddled on the sunlit couch in a wrap-around patchwork sweater, clutching my clavicles, scribbling Joni Mitchell imitations, and conjuring the memory of Duane’s every tobacco-flavored kiss and weary monosyllable. I turned into such a skeleton that even my bone-loving ballet teacher chided me; Rachel became a star waitress who worked so much I could never see her, and from a party, in the middle of an Allman Brothers riff, Duane took off for the Heart of Dixie without so much as a glance back at me.

I remember few Tab commercials–just a bottle sucking its sides into an hourglass silhouette–but it didn’t take perfect harmonies for Tab to sell itself to girls like me. Alone at 89 pounds, caged in my perfect, graspable skeleton of grief, a year from U-turning to gain back every pound, what stuck in my head was not a jingle or slogan, but the spring fever pact we’d made that afternoon in the grass: my too-real passion bubbling up through pebbled glass, Rachel’s lilting laugh, and the first enchanted, syrupy dose of that most artificial of all drinks.

Now, as a mid-life adult free to let my cravings rage as high as 300 or more liters of Diet Coke a year, it’s finally becoming the pause that depresses–the choice between enduring another morning headache without it or succumbing and setting off another mini-bout of guilt. My friends and I still scarf down the diet drinks, stocking up during Dollar Days at Walgreens, but Diet Coke too has joined the ranks of virtuous foods gone bad: the dentist says it has acid-washed my tooth enamel and must be quit; the doctor scolds that there’s as much caffeine in a Diet Coke as a cup of coffee, which doesn’t feel any more true than it did the first time he said it; and the women’s magazines, having earned maximum mileage from assuring that diet drinks don’t cause cancer, now feature colorful call-outs of the newest research showing that artificial sweeteners overtax the kidneys and lead to early failure and, perhaps worse, somehow counteract efforts at weight loss by convincing your brain to consume the calories that ought to match the drinks’ sweetness level. At best, according to the insufferable Dr. Oz, diet soda makes the body crave sweet things all the more. Perhaps this explains the credo every dieter knows–that the perfect pairing with brownies is always Diet Coke.

Water is the best drink! is every professional’s bubbly advice. And no, sadly, they don’t even mean water made palatable by so much as a tincture of Crystal Lite. So some days I strain to get my bubble fix from plain seltzer; while other, weaker days I’m left pondering the mystery of why a 32-ounce bottle of soda can cost 99 cents on special, but the 16-ounce bottles at the grocery checkout never dip below $1.49. Of course the Coke moguls have that one all figured out, knowing that while we might chug from a 2-liter soda bottle at home, no grocery-bearing woman desperate for her fix wants to be seen doing that in her car, or in front of her kids, or having to use her clenched knees as a cupholder. Although it can be done, let me be the first to tell you.

Apple trees, honey bees, harmony, company, and the snow-white polar bears of love
Even today, is it possible to watch a Coke commercial and not be filled with longing–for memories that don’t even exist? Real or aspartame, with the Real Thing, is there even any difference?

Deborah Gold is the pseudonym of a writer, teacher, and foster parent.

“Tobacco Road Revisited” by Rita Welty Bourke

What must my father have felt when he came into the house at the end of the day, and his five-year-old daughter held her arms up to him, and her breasts were nearly as large as those of a grown woman? I imagine he patted her on the head and murmured some endearment. Then he would have turned to my mother. There was no need for words. She would understand, and gather Annie Catherine up in her arms and set her at the kitchen table. Somehow, they had to move beyond that uneasy moment.

My father surely wondered, when he turned away from those outstretched arms, what lay in store for this child, and what other troubles might be visited upon him. In his mid-forties, he’d already spent years working a hardscrabble farm, and there were hard years yet to spool out in front of him. He’d watched his two daughters change from cooing babies into pencil-thin little girls, needy children at a time when all things were in short supply: shoes, food, clothing. When Annie Catherine’s breasts began to swell, he must have felt despair. This was his first-born child, and she was his favorite. How could he pick her up, hug her, stroke her hair as he’d done before this happened?

A year later Annie Catherine began elementary school. My mother wrapped strips of cloth around her breasts to hide what was happening. On the day of the first snowfall Annie came home with a stain on the back of her dress.

They took her to the family doctor.

“It’s her menses,” the doctor said. “She’s gone into early puberty. Precocious puberty, it’s called. Not much you can do about it. Keep an eye on her. Bring her back to see me in a year.”

“She’s entered womanhood?” my mother asked.

“It appears so,” the doctor said.

My father cupped his hands over his face, drew in a deep breath, and exhaled.

They left the doctor’s office and went home to a silent house. It would remain silent for a long time. Through no fault of her own, Annie Catherine had done something nearly unforgivable. In a way that no one could fully explain or even comprehend, she had brought shame on the family.

My parents watched to see if this malfunction of the endocrine system might be visited on their other daughter. It was not. Rosemary, who was two years younger than Annie Catherine, was normal in every way.

Then my brother was born, and my father was pleased. Finally, he had a son who would carry on the family name, a boy who would help him in the fields and one day inherit the farm.

Marta came next, a beautiful child with curly blonde hair, and she brought joy into the house. Here was a child my father could toss into the air, bounce on his knees, smother with kisses. Annie Catherine was older now, and there was no longer a need for the wraps. Her classmates had caught up with her. The silence had lifted.

You were a blue baby, my mother told me. She’d wanted to make sure the house was clean before her confinement. There was food to be prepared, dishes washed, beds made. When my mother was finished with these tasks she went outside, filled a bucket from the well, carried it to the house and washed the kitchen floor. All the while she kept her knees pressed tight together. The pain came in waves, and at times she had to stop until it let up. Then she would resume her chores.

The doctor scolded her for not calling him, for not taking to her bed and pushing against the pain. “You should know better,” he said. “You could have killed this child.”

My skin was blue from lack of oxygen, my limbs cold and stiff. Annie Catherine remembers seeing me lying next to my mother. She was horrified by the blood on my forehead, the color of my skin. Years later she shuddered when she recounted how still I lay on that stained sheet, how weak my cry when it finally came.

My father visited the room where my mother lay, but he wanted no part of this fragile, unhealthy child. Annie Catherine took care of me until my mother recovered.

Years later, when I was in my teens, Annie told me the story of how I came to be. In the district where we lived, the government was drafting married men who had four children. The younger ones had been called up early on. The Irvin boy had volunteered and been sent to the Pacific; his family had not heard from him for nearly a year. Uncle Cramer, who served in the infantry under General George S. Patton, died during the assault on Sicily.

The D-day invasion and the slog through France brought thousands of casualties, and there was no end in sight. When the countryside was stripped of its single men, the draft board called up married men, then married men with one child, then two, then three, now four. Every day brought news of someone else who had been ordered to report for duty. My father was nearly 50, and he was needed on the farm, but in Adams County, Pennsylvania, those things no longer mattered. There was a quota that had to be filled.

My parents sat in the car outside church one Sunday morning and talked about what was sure to happen. Annie Catherine, Rosemary, Robbie, and Marta were in the back seat, waiting for the conversation to end so they could go home. Annie Catherine may have been the only one who understood the significance of what they were discussing. She knew the Irvin boy, had seen him in his uniform before he’d shipped out, had thought him unbearably handsome.

“Cannon fodder,” my father said. “They’re wanting cannon fodder.”

Annie Catherine remembered that expression, though at the time she had only a vague idea of what it meant.

“Surely they won’t draft you,” my mother said. “Surely it won’t come to that.”

“They say we lost ten thousand men at Normandy. We’re losing hundreds more every single day.”

“I don’t know what I’d do if something ever happened to you,” my mother said. “I couldn’t go on without you.”

They dreaded going to the mailbox in the morning, afraid of what they might find.

“Another child will keep me safe,” my father said. “What do you say, Christine? Shall we try?”

When she turned eighteen, Annie headed to the city and a job at The Baltimore Sun. On weekends she rode the bus home, and I learned that career girls shave their legs. “Why are you doing that?” I asked one Sunday afternoon. She was using my father’s electric razor.

She stood and lifted the hem of her skirt to her knees. “Which one looks better?”

“That one,” I said, pointing to the shaved leg. She nodded, brushed her hand across my cheek.

She cut her hair short, wore pretty clothes, and tweezed her eyebrows so her face had a look of perpetual surprise.

One day I’ll go out into the world like Annie, I told myself. I’ll buy clothes as pretty as hers. I’ll wear makeup. I’ll be my own person.

Annie had been in the city for six months when she met a sailor just back from the Mediterranean. They fell in love and married. He was a good husband, though he never gave up his wandering ways.

Rosemary was the next to leave. On a Saturday night when she was seventeen, her boyfriend got up from the sofa and took Rosie by the hand. “We’re getting married,” he said, pulling Rosie close to him.

“Whoopee,” my father said.

It was an exclamation he would regret for the rest of his life. He hadn’t meant it, not in the way they took it. What he wanted to say was that it was a big step. They had no idea how big. Rosie was so young and needy. She’d been crippled by polio when she was fourteen. She spent weeks in the hospital in Gettysburg, then at a special facility in York. Every night the family gathered in the kitchen to pray for her.

In the midst of all this, Rosie trying to recover, bills mounting, prayers offered up, a car stopped in front of our house. Three men got out and walked up the cement path. The townspeople had taken up a collection to help with Rosie’s expenses, the spokesman said. It amounted to $50.00.

My father shook his head. “I thank you all the same,” he said, “but we’ll get by. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but there are others who need it worse. Rosie is going to walk again.” It would take years to pay the hospitals, doctors, and physical therapists.

That single word my father had uttered, that callous exclamation, could not be recalled. Rosie and her boyfriend were out the door. More than a year would pass before Rosie came home again. When she did, she brought her husband and baby son. She’d dressed the little boy in a denim jumpsuit and he stared at my father, then lifted a hand and began to trace the wrinkles in my father’s face. Rosie looked on, and she seemed content.

Then Marta married, a hastily-arranged ceremony to a neighbor boy whose sexual prowess was legendary. She told my parents she was pregnant. It wasn’t true, but Marta was used to having things her way.

My father hung his head, disappointed by yet another daughter.

Five years later my father nearly killed this man who had married his daughter. They’d had an argument, Marta and her husband, and he’d pinned her against the wall, his hands around her neck. She brought her knee up into his groin. He let her go, and when he was able, he went to their bedroom, took his pistol from the top drawer of his nightstand, and came back. The shot he fired at Marta parted her hair but miraculously drew little blood. The bullet lodged in the wall.

At some point Marta called for help. I remember my father running a stop sign in his haste to get there, overturned kitchen chairs, Marta crying, her husband waving his pistol. He was a large man, red-faced in his fury.

My father tackled him. Somehow, he was able to back Marta’s husband up against the basement door. The door splintered, and the two men bounced down the basement stairs, my father managing to stay on top, riding Marta’s husband like a sled. They hit the floor and the gun skittered across the concrete. Marta’s husband was still conscious, but barely.

“Let’s kill him while we have the chance,” my father said to my brother, who was by then halfway down the stairs.

Later, he said he was glad he hadn’t done it. “I’d have regretted it all my life,” he said.

Marta came home with her two little boys and began divorce proceedings. We’d shared a bedroom all the years we were growing up. We did again, for a month. Then I went off to college.

My mother’s gift to my future in-laws on the occasion of their first meeting was a loaf of homemade bread. “I baked it this morning,” she said, smoothing the Saran Wrap around the loaf and holding it out to Mrs. Macklin. “It’s still warm.”

A moment passed, a beat too long. Then Mrs. Macklin reached out and took the loaf from my mother’s hand.

“It’s whole wheat,” my mother said. “I grind it myself. The wheat, I mean. We grow it here on the farm, so it’s as fresh as can be. I have a grinder in the basement. I hope you like it. The bread, I mean. I thought you might enjoy it, something homemade, different from what you get in the city.”

It was a long speech for my mother. I could hear the nervousness in her voice, the hesitation, the slight tremor.

Mrs. Macklin waited until my mother was finished. “I’m sure it’s wonderful,” she said. Her voice was deep, her words precise.

My father stood next to my mother, his arm around her waist.

Mr. Macklin stepped forward and grasped my father’s hand. “We’ll be heading back to St. Louis in the morning,” he said, “but it was nice to meet you. I’m glad we had this chance to get together.” He nodded to my mother.

“And your lovely daughter,” he said, glancing at me. Then they were gone.

My father did not let go of my mother until the Macklin car was out of sight. I could see he was troubled. The meeting had not gone well.

He hadn’t known what to say to this couple who came into his house, this man and woman so smartly dressed it put my father to shame. The Macklins had sat on the edge of their chairs as if afraid they might be contaminated.

The young man I’d chosen to marry was not like us. His father was an advertising executive from St. Louis, Missouri. The family belonged to a country club. The Macklin children had grown up swimming in the club pool, lunching in the club restaurant, caddying for the club golfers, dancing at club balls. How would I fit into a world so different from anything I’d ever known?

My father had never traveled more than a hundred miles from the place where he was born. Now his youngest daughter was leaving home, heading halfway across the country. Would he ever see her again?

Inside the car that pulled away from our house that night, I learned later, things were far worse. “You can’t marry this girl,” my fiancé’s father told his son. “Her family is no better than a bunch of Georgia crackers. That place is like Tobacco Road.”

It was a book I’d never read. I had a degree in English. The book was an American classic, but it had escaped me. I’d read Faulkner, Hemingway, Welty, O’Connor, but not Caldwell.

“Tobacco Road” meant poverty, I assumed, but my father had prospered in the last ten years. Our car was only a year or two older than the Macklin car.

Tobacco was something they grew down south. We grew corn, wheat, and alfalfa. We had a herd of registered Holstein cattle. My father took pride in the food he produced, often pointing out things in the grocery store that might have come from our farm: milk, ice cream, flour, breakfast cereal, bread, butter, cheese.

The next day I set out for the local library to check out Erskine Caldwell’s book. I drove through a flock of birds fighting over something in the weeds beside the road. The birds were pecking at it, fighting over it, the victors flying off with great hunks of it.

I was halfway to town before I realized they were eating my mother’s homemade bread.

The Lesters were poor sharecroppers, I learned that afternoon. When they came into money they went to town and bought a car. In a wild, exuberant ride, Dude circled round and round the dusty yard in front of their shack. Granny Lester ran out to join the festivities. She slipped and fell under the wheels.

Crushed and bleeding, she managed to roll onto her stomach. She began inching toward the house.

“Is she dead yet?” Ada asked her husband Jeeter. “I don’t reckon she could stay alive with her face all mashed like that.”

Jeeter touched her with the toe of his shoe. “She ain’t stiff yet,” he said, “but I don’t reckon she’ll live. You help me tote her out in the field and I’ll dig a ditch to put her in.”

They carried the body by the hands and feet, and they put it down in the broom-sedge.

I closed the book and sat for a long time, thinking of what my fiance’s father had said. I’d thought “Tobacco Road” referred to the dirt road leading from the highway to our farm. This was far worse. He’d seen my father as no better than Jeeter Lester who put his mother in the grave without knowing if she was dead.

We were married a month later in a private ceremony with only my parents, my siblings, and a few close friends present. When the service was over my husband held out his arms to me, and I went to him. This was where I belonged. The chasm with his family would heal or it would not. In the meantime, we would form a new family.

When our children were small we visited my parents in Gettysburg at least once a year. My father taught them to feed the newborn calves, pick vegetables from the garden, drive a tractor when they were old enough.

My husband’s parents moved to Florida. I think they came to regret the things they said, but I don’t know for certain. We never spoke of it.

They never met again, my husband’s parents and mine. They exchanged notes for a time. Then even that small bit of contact was allowed to wither.

Of our four parents, only my mother is left. My father has been gone for eight years, my husband’s parents ten.

My mother grieves for my father. “It’s awfully hard when you lose your mate,” she says. It’s been eight years, and still she grieves.

My parents visited Nashville the year before my father died. He drove the seven hundred miles from his farm in Pennsylvania to our house in Tennessee, navigating the super highways, learning about inner belts and outer belts, seeing a part of the country he never expected to see.

He wondered if he might learn to play the guitar and write love songs like my husband did. It seemed a good profession. We tried to teach him a “C” chord, but his fingers were too arthritic, too work-hardened, too calloused.

He loved magnolia trees, Jack Daniels whiskey, and the mince pie I baked for him.

I showed him the room where I work, my computer, printer, copier, my books and research materials. He marveled at the new technologies: internet, email, instant messaging.

He recalled a prayer his mother had taught him. Would I type it into my word processor and make a copy for him?

I remember a line: Assist us in this hour of our necessities. He said he’d prayed that prayer the day I left home. He’d asked God to watch over me. He was sorry he’d had so little time to be a father. His life had been full of necessities, he said. One necessity after another. But there was joy, too.

My husband keeps a picture of me in his wallet. It was taken when I was a teenager living on my parents’ farm. There’s a larger, framed copy on the pie crust table in our living room. It sits among photographs taken of our three children.

It’s hard to believe I once looked like that.

The girl in the picture is lovely. She wears a touch of lip color. Her brows are lifted, as if in expectation. Simple pearl earrings are her only adornment. There’s an adventuresome quality in the tilt of her head, a measure of self-confidence I didn’t know I had.

RitaRita Welty Bourke’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines, most recently in The Chattahoochee Review. You can find more information about her and her work at www.ritaweltybourke.com.

“Separate, But…” by Terry Barr

Secrets are opened in moments like this:

“Daddy, why are you and Mommy sleeping in different bedrooms?”

The befuddled Daddy stares at his six-year old son, a boy not old enough to understand that he wasn’t supposed to ask this question, though he feels the disruption to the natural order of his life.

I watched this boy’s face wonder and wonder, and I felt all of his confusion.

I felt his age.

However, this was only a movie about a madman threatening to “pick the little kiddies off one by one” as they rode their daily school bus. If the madman is a zodiac, then what sign hovers over separate bedders?

What’s wrong with us? We tolerate brutal violence in our media on a regular basis, but one day we decide that we can no longer tolerate someone we’ve lived with longer than we’ve lived with anyone else. All the years that we loved: where do they go?

I remember the day I first heard Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” a song that had about as much popularity as I did back when I was fourteen.

Most of my friends blasted Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, or the Stones. Fourteen year-olds flee intimacy and inner truth as passionately as they plot to sneak out of houses on late summer nights. Intimacy drew me, however, in the same way that I had to look more closely at the objects stacked in a certain order on the top shelf of my father’s closet. When I first heard Carly’ song, I moved up in my seat, leaned toward the car radio, and turned it up. My mother was driving us to the mall where I would meet my friends and hang out somewhere between Musicland and Expressions, an actual head shop with black-light Mr. Natural posters and coke snuff. At first, it was Carly’s voice I heard, eclipsing the story she was revealing. It was one of those songs that like any other ballad should have caused me to look down, look away, look anywhere but at the car radio, the person driving, or in the eyes of anyone who might understand and agree. I should have pushed the button on the dial to the next station down the kilohertz path, seeking “Honky Tonk Women” or even “Smiling Faces.”

But I didn’t push a button on the day I first heard that song. I listened on in part because I trusted the DJ’s on WSGN (“The Big 610”). And in part because a girl who could sing like that was somebody I wanted to love.

The song wasn’t in “heavy rotation,” so I didn’t get to hear it often, and even when I did, I probably pushed my preset WAQY or WVOK buttons because my buddies Jeff or Jon might have been riding with me and of course Carly wasn’t boy-cool. Of course, I couldn’t show them that I had any room in my adolescent life for someone else’s pain.

I remember, though, listening to it late at night, on the hand-me-down Magnavox AM radio sitting on my night table. I remember sinking deeper into the covers of my bed as Carly sang about the house she had to call home.

Life, and songs, force even fourteen year-olds into a consciousness outside themselves. On another summer day I’m riding in a green Volkswagen with a young woman seven or eight years older than me—someone I’m supposed to trust. She sings in locally-produced musicals and loves Streisand, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King.

And Carly, whose song, after the weather update, soothes its way into our conversation. She turns the radio up and sings knowingly:

“My father sits at night with no light on
His cigarette glows in the dark…
I tip-toe past the master bedroom where
My mother reads her magazines.
I hear her call ‘Sweet Dreams,’
But I forget how to dream.”

I hadn’t thought about it until then, until I heard the twin voices: separate bedrooms. That’s what the song whispers—a secret that the singer is admitting, sharing. A secret that, as I look at the woman by me who’s lost in her own reality, isn’t such a secret anymore.

Picturing the images and scenes that the story conjures: that’s my generation’s experience with pop music. My parents never got this. Periodically, withstanding as much of my radio tunes as he could, my father would complain: “They forget about melody and harmony, because all they want to do is tell a story.”

That was my Big Band era father, a jewelry salesman, a man who thought I studied English because I loved the finer points of grammar.

“He’ll never understand Carly or James or Neil,” I thought. Back then, I didn’t completely understand their stories either. But they all felt true.

They felt true because the young woman in the green Volkswagen started having affairs with boys my age, and her husband, I assume, followed suit. For a while they stayed together in their little house with the screened-in porch where I once went to a party and drank too much Canadian Mist. But there wasn’t enough mist to prevent me from seeing clearly their two bedrooms.

And from remembering all I had seen before.

Through adolescence I often spent the night with Dickie, one of my best friends. His family lived outside of town on a remote stretch of road in the country where they had built their own house. They had a private lake and a swimming pool that even in the middle of our sauna Alabama summers would turn a hearty person blue at the mere toe-touch of water.

Dickie was an only child and so staying with him meant that we had uninterrupted hours of playing board games, wandering in the woods with his white German Shepherd, and staging desperate but orderly car races with his Hot Wheels set.

At night, things were so quiet at his place that, even though we slept in bunk beds and Dickie let me have the top, I often got scared and homesick and begged to be driven home. Their house had been burgled before, but Dickie’s mother reassured me that everything would be all right. That we were safe. And as much as I continued to worry, she was right: everything was all right. For me at least.

Dickie’s Dad was a musician in his spare hours, playing Shriners Club affairs and wherever else Big Band music was desired. He loved Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, just as my own Dad did. But unlike my Dad, Dickie’s wasn’t always around at night.

Also unlike my father, when he was there with us, Dickie’s Dad wore silk robes, ascots, and while my Dad didn’t smoke at all, not only did Dickie’s father smoke, he also used a cigarette holder for his Carltons. He was also the first person I knew to drive a Porsche.

Still, my friend’s father was always nice to me, just a bit formal, stand-offish. My own mother described him as having a “quick temper,” but I don’t remember ever seeing it displayed.

Dickie’s mother, though sweet, was rather plain looking: short, somewhat bow-legged, with the thinnest hair of any woman I knew. She was the first woman I knew, too, to buy a wig. I suppose it made her feel prettier.

But it must not have helped, not where it really counted. After all, the evidence was right in front of me.

We were eleven or twelve then, and on the morning after one of our sleepovers, I walked down the extended hallway to Dickie’s room to get something for one of our games. Passing by the “guest bedroom” on the left—where my grandmother had slept on the one occasion she came with me in order to paint the beauty of the woods and lake around Dickie’s house—I noticed that the bed had been recently used.

I looked across the hall at Dickie’s parents’ bedroom, and that bed had been slept in too. That’s where Dickie found me, stuck between two former lovers: “Uh, Dickie, don’t your parents sleep together anymore?”

“I guess not, not for a while anyway.”


And that’s all. What else was there for us to say? We returned to our Hot Wheels double-elimination tournament with our diecast-metal and painted Firebirds and Mustangs and Deoras.

But every time I had to go to the bathroom at the far end of that long hallway, I passed those facing bedrooms and considered again and again what it all meant.

Despite my absorption in pre-adolescent games, the secret world kept finding me. My sixth grade teacher was a very young woman, straight out of grad school, who formerly belonged to a clique of high school girls who sunbathed with our next-door neighbor, Nancy. I used to watch them from my bedroom window in the room next to my parents’ bedroom whose own window faced a different side of the house, the back end. From their double bed, you could see pecan trees, and in the distance the brown stone South Highland Baptist Church. But from my window, all I saw was a white stone patio and several teenaged girls in two-piece swimsuits. Sometimes Nancy, and Beth, my future teacher, waved at me. I was just this six-year old boy looking out a window at four or five or even six high school beauties.

I thought of this scene as Beth, now Mrs. Thames, explained to our class the intricacies and beauty of pop culture: the complexity of “Sgt. Pepper” and her favorite song, “She’s Leaving Home.” And the romantic pathos of her favorite new film, The Graduate. She especially loved the ending when Ben and Elaine take that bus to nowhere. From her words, I fell in love with the film, too, though it took another twenty-five years before I finally saw it on a home VCR.

However, it kept its real secret from me for an even longer time.

My profession today allows me to teach a course on Film and American Culture, and in it, I invariably assign The Graduate as essential 1960’s viewing. What better example of American culture than plastics, age-inappropriate adultery, and the aimlessness of privileged college grads!

This last semester, one of my students wrote her major essay on the film, and in her excellent analysis she discussed the scene where Mrs. Robinson confesses to Benjamin that she and Mr. Robinson have been sleeping in separate beds for some years.

I discovered then that there are some secrets that I’ve forgotten I remember.

So in the privacy of my office, I re-watch that scene.

In Benjamin’s face I see the flickering of other scenes, other memories, and maybe a dawning truth. I wonder what my sixth-grade teacher thought when she saw that scene—if it spoke to her too? But as I gaze at the empty spaces this time, I do something that I can’t believe now that I never did before: I begin adding up all the separate beds in my past.

When I tell my wife about my hauntings and countings, she tells me that my reaction to separate beds has always been dramatic: “One night apart, and you’re OK. But let it go onto the second night and you get anxious and have to remind me that you don’t want to end up like your parents!”

“Yeah, it’s definitely one of my primal fears, up near the top with ‘angry white men,’ pictures of open hearts, and the Book of Revelation.”

She laughs at this and so do I. But these fears are just the ones I’m telling.

We don’t sleep apart often, but the reality is that I’m a very light sleeper, and my wife has trouble breathing through her nose. So on occasion, one of us hits the couch or, now that they live away from us, one of our daughter’s beds. But I find that sleeping apart doesn’t really help me sleep.

It’s just a different kind of wakefulness—a state that finds me wondering why I’ve chosen to sleep separately from the woman I love. So I return, for nothing feels quite as good as slipping back into our hand-crafted bed and listening to her breathe, even though she may be doing so in very irregular rhythms.

Sleeping apart doesn’t necessarily mean your love has died, and I know ours hasn’t. But as my friend “George” puts it, “It doesn’t help,” intimacy either. So despite knowing how sound we are and that we don’t live in a separate or secret world, on those fitful mornings after, I worry.

“The couples cling and claw, and drown in love’s debris.”

I believe that I was intimate with Carly’s words before I ever heard them.

Shortly after we were married, my wife and I were visiting my parents. When we got there, I saw that my mother had redecorated my old teenage bedroom—the one I moved into after my grandmother died–with Civil War battle prints, Confederate swords mounted over my former bed, and the faces of Lee and Jackson staring at me from my past-life dresser. I wondered if I had ever occupied this room. Where was my deep-orange suede trunk, my old stereo that sat on it, and all those vinyl LP’s that used to collect dust in the corner of the room?

And that radio?

“I’m sleeping in here now,” my mother said, her voice taking on the accusatory tone that had now become its default position.

“When my elbow was operated on,” she continued, “I had to wear a cast, and I was just too uncomfortable to sleep in that double bed with your Daddy. So I started sleeping in here until the cast was removed. But your Daddy never said a word to me about coming back, that he missed me, kiss my foot, or anything. So I just decided to stay in here. Do you like it?”

Figuring that the “it” meant the décor, I said “Yeah” with as much enthusiasm as one normally finds in that word. Besides, Nouveaux-Confederate just doesn’t grab me.

Knowing, too, that the “it” was probably not an invitation for me to comment on my parents’ sleeping arrangement—although how can I be sure that she wasn’t asking for sympathy, or agreeable outrage on her behalf?—I tried to mask my feelings of horror. I tried to recall all my visions of my parents sleeping side by side and let them overwhelm this new and indifferent reality.

I envisioned those years when my childhood bedroom adjoined theirs. When I’d pass through it some early mornings on the way to the bathroom, sometimes I’d see them lying with their arms around each other. Getting back in my bed then I felt warm and safe. Comforted.

Once, long ago, I thought they were so happy.

I knew that hadn’t been true for some time, but I still had this illusion, this comforting image: this illusion that their marriage wasn’t an illusion. This illusion that at night, despite a day full of disagreement that kept them emotionally apart, they would end the evening together.

In the same bed.

Staring at a room, at a configuration that I no longer recognized, I began thinking of all those TV sitcoms from the 50’s where married couples slept in twin beds. I couldn’t understand it then: why didn’t they sleep in the same bed like my parents did? Weren’t they in love and happy?

I thought my parents were the standard, that the marriage bed wasn’t merely symbolic. That a home was a home, and everyone kept to the script of his and her assigned places, just as we did at the supper table. Just as we did with all of our closets, our dressers, our bathroom towel racks, our seats in front of the TV.
And, of course, with the bedrooms that separated us all, equally.

When I think of these revealed secrets, the separate realities that I’ve put together, I envy the innocence of the little boy in Zodiac because without any understanding of why, he could invent reasons, could convince himself that his parents’ sleeping arrangement was only a temporary reality, that it didn’t mean anything, that nothing was truly wrong, and that the reason for this uncovered secret might be as simple as that one of his parents had hurt an elbow; that one of them was snoring too loudly.

He might not understand completely, but he might just go about his business then, and if a spend-the-night friend asked about his parents’ bedrooms, he would simply shrug and explain that it had been going on for a while, that it was nothing big, and then go back to his Hot Wheels or Carly Simon records hoping that this horrible reality would fade.

And it will fade with time, as we get used to the arrangements we’ve made. Or the ones others have made for us as if we have no concern in the matter, no feelings, no voice. As if we can make a lasting peace with the secret world that found us on the radio dial, in the theater, or in the form of a woman sitting too close to us in a cramped Volkswagen car.

As if we can make peace with the reality that we’ve forgotten how to love or why we ever did so in the first place.

That we can sleep peacefully through the night in removed spaces, waking up refreshed and with a newfound sense of purpose.

That, though there may be another person in the house, we aren’t clearly and utterly alone.

Since being published in Steel Toe last spring, Terry Barr has also had essays published in The Museum of Americana, The Montreal Review, Orange Quarterly, and Scissors and Spackle. He is also a regular contributor to the web-zine, culturemass.com, where he writes on pop music and memory.

“The Squidbillies: Continuing a Tradition of Othering Rural Americans” by William Matthew McCarter

In 1994, filmmaker John Waters wrote “in six months, no one will say white trash…it is the last racist thing you can say and get away with it” (cited in McCarter, 2005). Waters prophecy has still not come to pass; instead, race specific and class specific terms like redneck, white trash, hillbilly, peckerwood, and cracker are arguably more often used in contemporary discourse than they were in 1994. David Willis and Jim Fortier continue this rhetorical and literary tradition of othering rural Americans through their animated television series Squidbillies. This series features the Cuylers, anthropomorphic hillbilly squids, living in abject poverty in the mountains of North Georgia. Featured as part of the Adult Swim programming block on Cartoon Network, the series joins other adult oriented cartoons like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Several of the animated series on Adult Swim often deal with dark subjects and employ morbid and surreal humor. What is interesting about these other shows is that few if any of them have any real basis in reality. While the same can be said for Squidbillies in the sense that the Cuylers are anthropomorphic squids, if we look deeper into the series, we can see that the discourse used to “other” the Cuylers would still work even if they weren’t. The only reason why the representation of these hillbillies as squids (or less than human) works is because a discourse of hillbillies (or rednecks or white trash or other epithet used to describe poor rural whites) already exists and it already illustrates how poor rural whites are less than human.

The adult oriented cartoons found on Adult Swim are largely a 21st-century phenomenon, conceived, in part, to capitalize off of its wildly popular and commercially successful predecessors: The Simpsons and South Park. While Squidbillies is a contemporary adult cartoon that utilizes a very contemporary medium, the message—a discourse of othering rural Americans—is older than America itself. Americans can trace this discourse genealogically throughout American history. The Cuylers are the 21st-century Clampetts from the wildly popular 1960s syndicated television show, The Beverly Hillbillies. In addition, we can find the antecedents of the Cuylers in the films featuring Ma and Pa Kettle. Prior to the widespread proliferation of television, during the golden age of radio, listeners experienced the discourse of rural othering through popular programs like Lum and Abner. In the print media, this same discourse was proliferated in the books like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and in comic strips like Lil Abner and Snuffy Smith. Even in the 19th century, this same discourse manifests itself in the works of Mark Twain and in Southern Frontier Humor. However, probably the first representation of this discourse of rural othering can be found in Colonial American Literature.

William Byrd II’s History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina is the primogenitor of Adult Swim’s Squidbillies. Byrd’s depictions of North Carolina’s “lubbers” demonstrates how the Tidewater aristocracy, what was later referred to as the First Families of Virginia, must have felt about those rural whites living out on the frontier. Although the text was written in a comical tone, Byrd’s descriptions have had rather serious effects on the shared perception of poor whites that followed and serve as the earliest representation of a discourse of exclusion designed to “racialize” and “other” poor rural whites. Byrd borrowed the term “lubbers” from English culture. For the English, lubberland was known as an imaginary place of plenty without labor, a land of laziness where inhabitants lollygagged around.

By calling those who live out on the frontier “lubbers,” Byrd was implying that the inhabitants of these out of the way places were not just different from other colonial settlers, but were also morally, culturally, and socially inferior. To describe an individual or social group as “idle’ or “lazy” was to simultaneously express moral condemnation and the highest degree of contempt. This perception, the structure of feeling, was deeply imbedded in the core of British imperialism and it was made manifest through the empire. As Anne McClintock (1995) has noted, since at least the 16th century, the British had associated slothfulness with corruption and poverty. In the years that followed, Puritanism had articulated an elaborate set of moral, political, and cultural traits based on sharply delineated conceptions of industrialness vs. idleness. In calling the rural whites “lubbers,” Byrd was racializing their whiteness.

In “Surviving Race: Establishing Boundaries of Colonial American Whiteness,” John Miller explains that much of the scholarship on Byrd’s work has been misinterpreted. According to Miller, “Byrd’s scathing descriptions of the white settlers he encounters on his Mid-Atlantic surveying mission tend to be uniformly read by critics as scorn by the panel Virginia authors for his North Carolina neighbors.” For Miller, however, “there is a larger racial project occurring in The Histories, one that involves more than just Native American figures, and offers a more thorough explanation for Byrd’s disdain for his fellow Caucasian colonists. The aristocratic author and political leader of Virginia is racializing whiteness, creating a white other in order to affirm his own elite social position and justify his claims to vast new territories in America” (McCarter 2005).

If we look carefully at the claims that Byrd makes in his work, we can see the constitutive components of this racialized discourse. Not only are these components used to other rural Americans over more than two centuries, it is also the same discourse that is often used to other people from different races, ethnicities, and cultures. For example, one component of this racialized discourse can be found in physiognomy or assessing a person’s character based on their physical appearance. Byrd claims that the North Carolinians “devour so much swine’s flesh” that “fills them with gross humours” and causes “all the symptoms of syphilis” (Byrd, 22). By claiming that the living and dietary arrangements of these “lubbers” affected them biologically, Byrd is illustrating how moral or behavior characteristics are manifested in the body. Thus, we have a biological difference between Byrd and the “lubbers.” Biological differences and physiognomy are common tropes used in racialized discourses. In the case of the Squidbillies in particular, the creators use hyperbole to exaggerate the biological difference. Not only are the characters depicted as the stereotypical buck toothed hillbillies but their bodies are squids.

After demonstrating how the dietary practices of the “lubbers” constitute a biological difference which, in part, makes them inferior to aristocratic Virginians like William Byrd, he moves on to the clothes that these poor redneck savages wear by pointing out how the women mix cotton and wool for their clothing and how this “kind of manufacture is open and sleazy.” Byrd goes on to explain how the “lubbers” are too lazy to cultivate flax (Byrd, 22). Surely, using a discourse of exclusion based on dietary practices, physiognomy, and morality, would be enough to illustrate that these rural Carolinians are not only different but are inferior to Byrd and his group, but Byrd does not stop there. He goes on to describe the geography in order to illustrate the geographic differences between he and his fellow Virginians and those who live in North Carolina. Byrd claims that “not even a turkey buzzard” would fly over Carolina and compares it to “Sodom and Gomorrah” (Byrd, 22). Geography is also a common trope used in racially charged discourses. In The Squidbillies, the geography is rural Georgia and the only substantial difference between this geographic other and those from other races and ethnicities is that The Squidbillies are just simply a whiter shade of pale beyond the pale.

John Miller writes: “Not only does Byrd’s book describe the marking of the border between Virginia and North Carolina colonies; it also depicts the defining of boundaries in white America along economic, political and social lines” (1). While the geographical distinctions of Byrd’s Dividing Line really don’t work in contemporary society, if one looks beyond the geographical constraints of Byrd’s work, one can see that Byrd is referring to “lubberland” as being a state of mind and not North Carolina as a State in the Union. Miller writes, “By establishing this prototype for ‘white trash’, Byrd emerges in comparison as the true savior and leader of the young colonies” (McCarter 2005). In summary, Byrd uses dietary practices, physiognomy, morality, geography, and even religion to illustrate how Carolinians are substantially different (or other) than those from Virginia.

In Cartoon Network’s series Squidbillies, these same discursive formations are used to “other” those white trash folks who live in rural America. In the scene that opens every Squidbillies episode, viewers see Early, the main character, twisting the knob on a car radio with one of his tentacles. The legendary white trash honky tonk hero himself, Billy Joe Shaver, begins singing the theme music as Early grabs a tentacle full of Red Man chewing tobacco. After that, Early loads his shotgun and then puts it in the gun rack of the pickup truck. At this point, the viewer sees Early’s squid face and a ball cap with the words “Booty Hunter” written on it. As the camera fades out, the viewer notices that the pickup truck is up on blocks in the middle of a yard that looks like a garbage dump.

From the very beginning of the show, the creators are, essentially, explicitly racializing the whiteness of the Squidbillies (and hillbillies and rednecks implicitly) by using what appears to be a discourse of class to “other” them. Just as their predecessor, William Byrd II, showed that the “lubbers” of North Carolina were very different than the more respectable people from Virginia (especially the wealthy), Willis and Fortier illustrate how the Squidbillies are different from our contemporary white middle class American society. The opening scene sets up this difference by using visual representations of rural culture to create a binary between that culture and the middle class. The chewing tobacco, loaded firearms, and “Booty Hunter” ball cap are designed to show the viewer that “these people are not us.” All of these stereotypical representations take place in the opening scene of the series before the show actually even starts.

While we could argue that these discursive formations seem to be explicitly referring to social class in America, there is, in fact, a larger racial project going on here. In Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray’s anthology, White Trash: Race and Class in America, social theorist, Allan Berube speaks to this racialized discourse in his essay, “Sunset Trailer Park.” Berube writes: “other whites who looked down on us because of where we lived could call my whiteness into question. Ashamed, I kept these and other social injuries to myself, channeling them into desires to learn about how to act and look more white, and to find other ways to move up and out of this life that more and more felt like a trap I had to escape” (33). In addition, one of the editors of the anthology, Annalee Newitz, reinforces this idea of a racialized whiteness when she writes “when middle-class whites encounter lower-class whites, we find that often their class differences are represented as the difference between civilized folks and primitive ones. Lower class whites get racialized, and demeaned, because they fit into the primitive/civilized binary as primitives” (134).

The creators of the series use this same binary between the white middle class and the rural poor in the opening frame of the episode titled “School Days, Fool Days.” This scene shows Early and his son Rusty standing along what appears to be a sideline with a soccer ball in the background. This appears to be a direct contrast between Early and the more traditional middle class soccer mom. Early gives Rusty a motivational speech, puts his tentacle on Rusty’s and says “on three.” Instead of counting to three and saying “Let’s go” or something else that one might expect when watching one of these sports pep talks, Early gets stuck on the number one and can’t count to three. At this point, Rusty says, “I ain’t never played no soccer, daddy.” Early replies “And you ain’t a never gonna get to. Now get in there and fight like a cock,” as he kicks the soccer ball out of the way and throws Rusty into a cockfighting ring. Early then goes over to a betting window and puts money down on the “eight legged chicken to lose.” Finally, the cock fight is broken up by the local sheriff (It is interesting to note that only the family of “Squidbillies” are squids. Everyone else in the animated television program is human).

In addition to the biological, geographical, spiritual, and moral differences between poor rural whites and the more respectable classes of people (like Byrd’s Tidewater aristocracy or contemporary America’s middle class), poor rural whites are also often portrayed as being stupid. While, on the surface, this may seem like Willis and Fortier’s attempt at making a cultural critique of the rural poor’s anti-intellectualism, this could also be seen as yet another example of the American hegemony “blaming the victim.” Rural schools often have the same issues in terms of public education that urban schools do. In fact, much of rural America has a per capita income substantially similar to that of the average urban poor community. Because of the romanticized image of America’s pastoral landscapes, the “purple mountain majesties” of places like Appalachia and the Ozarks do not conjure the same images of poverty that are often associated with Flint, Michigan or Detroit. However, the per capita income and rates of unemployment and poverty are substantially similar. There are just fewer people and the poverty is spread out more. By using the trope of being stupid and perpetually blaming the victim, the American hegemony can justify not investing in rural America.

Nearly all of the white trash stereotypes are simply too tempting for Willis and Fortier to avoid throughout the series. For example, when the sheriff brings Rusty back home to the shack where the Squidbillies live, the first “family member” he encounters is Granny Squid. She is holding on to a walker and smoking a cigarette. After fixating on the image of the “Granny” character, the focus shifts to Early. He is now wearing a ball cap that says “I Love Cockfighting.” Soon, Early is joined by his wife, a squid with thick eye shadow, red lipstick, and an obnoxious blonde hairdo. She looks like a cross between Dolly Parton and an octopus. Quickly, Early puts Granny on a scooter, pushes her down the drive and says “now get back to the nursing home where you belong.” Finally, he turns to the sheriff and says, “What can I do for you?” In this scene, Willis and Fortier continue showing how these “squidbillies” are different than “normal” white middle class families. Granny is an elderly woman who needs a walker and yet, still smokes cigarettes (something that is obviously bad for one’s health but is also a trademark of white trash culture). In addition, Early continues his monstrous behavior toward his family in that he not only entered his child into a cockfighting contest (and bet against him) but he also shipped his mother off to a nursing home (something that is likely a source of older white middle class anxiety).

The sheriff responds to Early’s question by saying “your boy needs to be in school.” Immediately, Early becomes defensive and says “School…ain’t that the place where they got all the damned…uh… they fold out…covered in scribbles…wrote up all over.” Finally, the sheriff says “books” and Early replies by saying “No, they square like a magazine” before flashing back to his own school days where he can’t recite the “ABCs” and winds up burning the schoolhouse to the ground. The sheriff suggests that Rusty and the other squidbillies are “other” when he says “we can’t send him to the county school” and makes an allusion to segregation. This allusion is especially important in terms of the invisibility of this racialized discourse in that if it had been directed at someone of another race, ethnicity, or religion, there is no way that could air on national television. The public outcry would be enormous. However, because these are hillbillies…I mean, uhm, squidbillies, then it is acceptable. Early replies “you ain’t enseminating that I keep him here are you?” Finally, the sheriff recommends that Early home school him and Early replies “what the hell is in it for me?” The sheriff tells Early that he will get paid for homeschooling Rusty so…Rusty goes to school. This entire scene reinforces the stereotype that poor rural whites are stupid and uneducable and also continues developing the idea that Early is completely self serving and doesn’t really care about his family. Willis and Fortier are also able to take a pot shot at the home schooling movement, further developing the idea that poor rural whites are rednecks who “cling to their guns and religion.”

The episode goes on to show Rusty’s home school education. Early and Rusty are standing in the woods, Early takes attendance, and then says “On to history. Now, what just happened?” When Rusty replies “I don’t know,” Early says “Hell, I don’t know either. Must be a repossessed memory,” then he pulls out a can of paint thinner and says “Damn you party liquor” making an inference to the recent documentary film, White Lightening, that chronicles the life of West Virginia mountain dancer Jessico White and his addiction to inhalants. The scene then changes to a service station bathroom where Early says, “Rusty, read from the assigned text.” Rusty responds from inside the bathroom stall saying “They paint these walls to hide my pen/ But the shithouse poet strikes again.” Here it is not clear whether Willis and Fortier are taking a shot at rednecks or academics when Early asks, “What did the shithouse poet mean by that?” Rusty then surprises the audience by saying “maybe he feels oppressed by an Orwellian overlord so he lashes out with guerilla style poetry and what not.”

The scene continues when Early ignores Rusty’s analysis of the shithouse poet’s work and says “go ahead with the text.” Rusty, again reading from inside the bathroom stall says “For a good B.J. call 555-0169.” Immediately, Early grabs an old giant 1980s mobile phone and says “repeat the last stanza” and dials the number. The old toothless granny answers the phone and asks “are you calling about the B.J.?” At this point, Willis and Fortier feel the need to back off just a little bit because they are getting way beyond the realms of good taste. It turns out that the B.J. that was advertised on the bathroom stall was not fellatio but was instead, Boysenberry Jam. However, it is odd that the creators of the series and the executive producers of the Cartoon Network would feel that all of the stereotypes of rural people that the series perpetuates and exaggerates are somehow acceptable but that Granny fellatio was somehow in too bad a taste for the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

The scene ends with Early telling Rusty “get your stuff son, we got a field trip.” In the following scene the audience finds Early and Rusty out in nature. Early says “this here is a field and you is gonna take a trip” and then pushes Rusty down a well. He looks into the well and says “If you get out, you passed” and then returns to his shack out in the country. Early is joined by his wife who asks, “did you throw his ass down the well” and then says “I hope he gets out cause tonight’s the prom.” Rusty gets out for the prom and Early tells him “Rusty, now you got finals tomorrow. After that, you’re future is only limited by damn foreigners who come in here & took up all the damn jobs and you can’t shoot ‘em cause then you the one at fault.” Meanwhile, in the middle of Early’s jingoistic speech (which by the way, is the longest sentence that Early has said throughout the entire episode), the granny and the step mom get in a knife fight over who is going to dance with Rusty and then start making out with each other. In this scene, Willis and Fortier add xenophobia and sexual promiscuity to the litany of ways that poor rural whites are racialized and othered.

In the final scene, the audience gets to see Rusty’s final exam. Rusty is standing alone on the railroad tracks and Early tells the onlookers that if Rusty is smart enough to move out of the way when the train comes, then he passes. Rusty moves out of the way and then says “I am a high school congradulate.” If one were to look at all of these examples of how poor rural whites are depicted in the animated series Squidbillies, one would assume that the series was a short film or a half hour situation comedy like The Family Guy or South Park. However, this particular episode of Squidbillies was only eleven minutes long. In only eleven minutes, Willis and Fortier are able to reinforce and extend a discourse of exclusion that “others” poor rural whites that has been in existence since colonial America. The visual rhetoric and speech acts that make up this discourse help to reinforce the values of the ruling class—specifically, the merits of capitalism. In other words, poor rural whites don’t have to be indolent, lazy, xenophobic redneck crackers—they choose to be. The dominant class can say the same thing about poor rural whites that it has said about those from other races, ethnicities, and cultures: “If they will just learn to act more white then they wouldn’t have as many problems.” And if the rednecks can’t learn to act more white? Well then let them eat SPAM because they probably already do anyway.

Works Cited
Byrd, William. History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. New York: Dover, 1967.
McCarter, William Matthew. “Homo Redneckus: Redefining White Trash in America.” http://www.americanpopularculture.com. 1 1, 2005. http://www.americanpopularculture.com/archive/style/homo_redneckus.htm (accessed 1 18, 2011).
Wray, Matt and Newitz, Annalee. White Trash: Race and Class in America. Routledge. New York. 1997.

William Matthew McCarter is college professor from Southeast Missouri. He recently published academic work in The Atrium: A Journal of Academic Voices and Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice and Fastcapitalism. He has also published critical work in The Ascentos Review and in The Steel Toe Review. He has also published fiction and book reviews. His first academic book, Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America will be published in 2012.