Lake Monsters

I hadn’t cleared the Governor’s School Audition and my parents couldn’t afford a fancy performing arts program. I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t find a job walking distance from the house. And so, I accepted an exile to Virginia the summer before senior year, where instead of traditional teenage things, I loitered around the antique shop reading Faulkner novels, eating Twizzlers, and smoking right out in the open because Nana wanted someone to smoke with.  My social coterie consisted of elderly customers at the shop who wondered aloud if I knew how important it was to bring good gloves and my own silver to college. A silver pattern can say a lot about a girl’s moral character. Pick the wrong one and you could end up married to a horse man from Maryland and you know what that means. I didn’t, but I made sure to include it in the long letters I wrote to my friends like  that new Fugazi record is rad as fuck and Nana’s friend Eleanor is worried I’m going to end up with a centaur from Baltimore if I don’t wear gloves.  Sidenote: should I join the D.A.R. and write a ‘zine about it?  They sent postcards back recounting awkward hook-ups with skateboarding Mathletes and illicit “Unweeded Garden” themed weed parties with the “Hamlet” cast at Governor’s School and hey did you hear that Wonderland got a job at the mall record store back in Asheville? How do you figure she managed that?  I acted like I wasn’t jealous. I was jealous. Not just of Governor’s School and “Unweeded Garden” parties and Wonderland’s improbable record store job, but of the people I knew with dumb summer jobs back home, spending nights cruising around town, smoking at the Waffle House, figuring out elaborate new schemes to see bands play in Athens or Atlanta or Chapel Hill with or without parental consent.

I doubt Nana observed any unhappiness on my part, but my aunt and uncle were a generation closer to my age. They also might have  also been concerned I ‘d suffer permanent lung damage from hotboxing Virginia Slims Ultra Lights in an unventilated house (Nana believed fresh air caused disease and sunlight would damage her oriental rugs, or vice-versa). Or maybe they were worried I’d find myself betrothed to some grand dame’s grand-nephew Randolph Randolph Taliaferro IV–“Nabs” for short–who’d been expelled from Hampden-Sydney College for dueling with a crossbow.  Whatever the case, my Aunt suggested I come with them to the lake for a day of swimming, waterskiing and riding around on their friends’ boat. Their friends were fun, she promised. “And wouldn’t it be nice to get out of the house for a day?”

It would. I hadn’t spent much time outside in a bathing suit, despite it being a cool 90 in the shade and Nana’s house being a block from the neighborhood pool.  Nana was cautious around water, nervous even at the shallowest of shallow ends. She’d nearly drowned as a young woman, and also believed that wet hair would both give you pneumonia and other people the wrong impression . Only marginal characters had wet hair—criminals, trashy women, the sort of girls that end up shacked up with centaurs in Fell’s Point.

“Here’s the thing, though” said my aunt. “Maybe don’t tell Nana you’re getting in the lake.”

***

The lake didn’t used to be a lake.

In my part of the world, we don’t really have natural lakes. Not the kind you’re imagining anyway.  Those that do exist are easterly and tend to be indistinguishable from swamp. Th big freshwater bodies of water tend to be manmade.  Smith Mountain Lake, the lake my aunt and uncle would take me to, is a hydroelectric lake, stretching over part of three counties, created from the damming of the Roanoke and Blackwater Rivers in the early 1960s. The developer, Appalachian Power, began buying up land as early as the 1920s. The county was poor, then, had been poor, would continue to be poor, even outside the Depression years. The time was ripe to convince landowners to offload land, especially low-lying acres at the river’s edge. The dam broke ground until 1961. They started filling lake a couple years later, in September of 1963

Power lakes transformed the south.  New dams electrified rural communities and smoothed the topography by obliterating everything under the waterline. It’s hard for me to grieve for a thing I can’t imagine, but Nana knew the underneath of Smith Mountain Lake when it wasn’t underneath,  the  houses, churches, graveyards, a whole part of the world before they flooded it. Part of her family’s farm was under the water. Her people had owned  land  on both sides of the road in that that part of Franklin County, since some apocryphal 18th century ride as far as you can in a day and between the stakes is  yours grant. Then those people married the rest of her people. They planted tobacco. They built a big house. The bought slaves. The war came. Twin brothers, Saunie and Sammy, went off to fight. Great-great great Uncle Francis buried the silver in the tall grass down by the Blackwater River when he heard the Yankees were coming. They lost one of the twin brothers, the big house, the fortune, even the map to the silver. Everything save the land itself. This was understandable and justifiable. War is hell. Wrong side of history. Wrong side of morality. And these days, I’m not sure there was ever as much as they claimed.[1]. And by  the time, Nana entered the world, the farm was no longer profitable. Her own father had long-since decamped west into the mountains to find better and more reliable employment as a coal miner. He probably would have stayed at it too had a mine collapse not broken his back and sent him home to try and feed his growing family with tobacco farm left fallow in the years he collected a regular paycheck.

I don’t know whether my great-grandfather got any money for the land under the lake or whether his slightly-better-off cousins did. I suspect Nana associates that lake with loss, even if it is loss a thing she never really had. I remember when they flooded the valley, she’d say. And I have this image of her, still a young woman, her dark curls billowing in some cinematic big fan breeze, standing on the rise above the farmhouse, beside the rusting skeleton of the old Model T my great-grandfather called the jalopy, watching the valley beyond slowly disappear under the turgid confluence of two rivers, under a matte twilight.

I can’t recall exactly what portion of that scene Nana described, and what my imagination filled. But it absolutely didn’t play out like that in real life. For one thing, it took a long time—three years–to flood the valley. For another, even if Nana had been standing there on top (perhaps skirt hem, not hair, rippling in the wind because her hair was already permed, set, and shellacked into her queenly bubble by then), she wouldn’t have been able to see anything, save more farm, a dark scrim of trees, the parallel gash of tractor tires in red clay dead-ended at the edge of what an small-scale tobacco farmer, crippled from a mine accident, could hope to maintain at sixty years old.  There was no view of the lake. Had there been a lake view the land might have been worth something.

Nana described the  flooding of the valley and the loss of the landscape over dinner the night before I went with my Aunt and Uncle and implored me to  please don’t get in the lake, honey. There are things underneath. Promise me you won’t get in the lake. 

I had never visited the lake. I hadn’t even seen it until a few years before when  I visited my great-grandmother at the farm for the last time before she died. I’d been so confused by talk of the lake—how big it was, how close it was, how heavily it bore on the family consciousness. I couldn’t even visualize it; my mother drove me down there on the way back to Nana’s. The lake was half a mile, maybe less, down the country road, past old barns and single wides and tidy ranch houses with plaster statuary, past the Methodist Church. The road dead ended at a boat ramp into a shiny green-black surface that reflected the overcast sky and the gabled roofline of massive lakeside A-frame on the hill across the cove. I remember thinking, I’ve been to New York. I’ve been to London. And yet, it takes this long for someone to show me this stupid lake just down from the farm.

***

My aunt and uncle waited in the driveway the morning we went to the lake, allowing me to slip out of the house before Nana had a chance to scoff at my purple high tops (then scrawled with boys’ names, song lyrics, and that  most cliché of Oscar Wilde quotes) or remind me that a heavier girl, such as myself, should avoid shorts, especially denim cut-offs, which, like eating while standing, smoking while walking, and wearing pretty much any shade of frosted lipstick, broadcast to the world that you were almost certainly a prostitute.

I’d spent the night dreaming of monumental drowned kingdoms, more Xanadu than Franklin County, inhabited by pale, barnacled wraiths, grasping at me as I tried to surface. I tried to shake off the chill by making eyes at my one-year-old cousin in the backseat beside me. He babbled happily, and I wigged my fingers over his golden head and tried, like a good witch in a fairy tale, to endow him with all the qualities I thought he’d need to be a success at life. Be crazy smart and funny. Be good at something cool, like skateboarding. Don’t be weird around girls. Don’t be mean to people. Have decent taste in music.[2]

My aunt and uncle’s friends’ place was in a leafy cove at the end of a gravel road. They’d bought the lot and marked their property with a fancy, multi-tiered boat dock, with diving platforms and boat storage and charcoal grill. The matching house, with multi-tiered porches would come sometime later. For now, we toted coolers and baby paraphernalia down the muddy hillside, the same carnal red as the earth under Granny’s farm, which I was really trying hard not to think about. My aunt noticed my hesitation, the way I stared down at the ground, and complimented my shoes. I’d love to wear shoes like that , but I’m too old, she said. I found that both perplexing and sad, but it took my mind off the drowned world.

We gathered on of the top deck, warm and new enough that you could smell the stain, spread out towels and let the July temperatures slowly work us toward the dark water beneath. It moved, but barely,  from the distant wakes of motorboats. Dragonflies hovered on the surface, alighting on my bare arm, already sunburned by the time I finished lunch.

The rest of the crowd splashed off the pier with inner tubes and pool noodles. I dangled my feet in the water. You should dive in, they said. I could jump in, maybe, if I worked myself up to it, but certainly not headfirst. What if my cheek grazes a headstone? What if I impale myself on the spire of an old church? What if something tried to pull me back in?

I didn’t say any of this. I knew how it would sound. And the only thing scarier than being afraid is other people knowing what you’re afraid of, because that means they know how to scare you, or worse, humiliate you. I wasn’t afraid of ghosts. I didn’t believe in ghosts, at least ghosts of  the literal, ethereal, hollow-eyed sense, but I was—I am– a southerner, and I knew for a fact that places have memory. And what sort of memory might find me under the surface?

I was hot, though. So, when my uncle told me to come in, the water feels great, I stripped off my shorts and leapt in. The water stung my thighs and as I plunged feet first. I felt the shocking chill under the sun warmed surface. I kept my eyes closed until I emerged. I laughed, gasping. “Feels great,” I said, because it did, and because it kept me from squealing when something bony stroked the water-treading sole of my foot.

***

I grew up on a lake. It didn’t used to be a lake either, but a bit of low-lying scrub around the edge of a creek, dammed in the 1920s to anchor a housing development, where it spent ten years as a popular swimming site before so many people drowned that the city shut down the beach and made swimming there illegal. People still did.  Swim, I mean. At night, as a child,  I’d sleep upstairs with the windows open and listen as police bullhorned Get out of the lake and tinny-voiced swimmers called back Come get us at on crickety summer nights. The water was foul and the bed so littered with trash and debris that illicit swimmers got caught in downed trees or on rusty car doors and died. I remember catching the school bus to elementary school on late August mornings at the bottom of the hill, riding past police vehicles, ambulances, and for hours, listening to the drone of a boat motor while they dragged the lake for whatever missing teenager had jumped in and never surfaced.

My mother loved living on the lake, but she was overprotective. She worried about me getting too near, getting in, walking the dam, hanging out on the rocks under the bridge at the spillway, where she believed dangerous men lurked in the crags and might steal me away.

We weren’t lake people. Like most people that live inland, we vacationed on the coast, at the edge of the continent, in less claustrophobic waters. Our one big lake trip had been  a trip arranged by my father’s company that found us at a muddy power lake, just down from the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, in a cluster of moldy, bug-infested guest houses my parents famously referred to as The Last Resort.  I was really young on that trip. What I mostly remember were giant furry spiders in the bathtub and the passel of shirtless men with droopy mustaches and Farrah Fawcett hair in the house next door who built bonfires and rebel-yelled into the night.

I never told anyone I was afraid of those men. I never told anyone that I worried they were the ones my mother believed would come grabbing at me under the bridge, that they might set everything on fire so I would have to take my chances with the lake.

***

When my aunt and uncle brought me home, I was sunburned and damp. Nana clucked at the cut-offs. You know what people will think if you wear shorts like that?  She asked if I had a good time. I said yes, because I had. The lake was beautiful, by the time we took the boat out, I’d almost forgotten the underneath. I’d fully surrendered to the simple pleasure of feeling the wind get handsy me as I sped over the water. We caught air on unexpected wakes.  I giggled like the dumb teenager I was. I didn’t look down.

Nana didn’t ask if I got in the water, though she certainly would have noticed that my hair was wet, like a marginal person or someone who’d crossed her fingers when I promised not to get in the lake. She chose to believe I hadn’t.  That’s her way, a stubborn insistence to stay buoyant, to keep from getting dragged beneath.

Whatever you have to do to stay above water, I guess.

***

Some years after my aunt and uncle took me to the lake, my mother would marry a man with a love of lakes and motor boats. We would start spending summers on various regional lakes that didn’t used to be lakes. My favorite was a remote gem of a power lake in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina, a few gasps from both the Georgia line and a fairy tale of an old-growth forest. I was dazzled by waterfalls that came tumbling down lush mountainsides at the terminus of each cove as I sat on the prow of my stepfather’s boat, letting Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot soundtrack the violet hour through discman headphones. I thought might write a story, maybe even a long one, about a woman trying to suss out some dark secret sunk deep beneath the surface of the water of a remote power lake. I spent a summer at the library looking at old maps and plans for dams and historical photos of lakebed clearances, which were, it should be noted, clearances.

On some intellectual level, I guess I knew that the houses and towns and graveyards and churches had been moved before the water came, that stubborn landowners didn’t sit down for a last meal as some river water tidal wave smashed through the kitchen, that real life didn’t play out like the end of O Brother Where Art Thou, that Nana really and truly did not literally stand on a hill, silhouetted against the sunset as if god were her witness and she’d never be hungry again, and watch her family history disappear under the lake. But imagination is a tricky thing, almost as precarious as memory. Were there really white men with droopy mustaches that rebel-yelled throughout the night, while three-year-old me shivered in moth-clogged sheets in  their reflected firelight at The Last Resort? Probably not, as it happens. But I still dream about them.

***

There’s a term for when the lake achieves full lake-ness. Full pond. It sounds so innocuous, so gentle. As if a park bench and a willow tree materialize on a bank perhaps with some cattails, a lily pad and a mallard or two and you saunter down to the edge with a canvas hat and a fishing pole. I’ve gone full pond. Full pond doesn’t evoke elemental transformation. It doesn’t suggest irrevocable loss. Full pond describes a series of black and white photos of a clear-cut tract of land and a puddle slowly growing in the center. Nothing to be afraid of.

A few weeks ago, I read that UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted that temperatures were on are on track to rise a devastating 3 degrees Fahrenheit possibly over the next eleven years and almost certainly by 2040. And with that comes catastrophic storms, droughts, fire, famine, extinctions, heat waves and, of course, floods. Homes will be lost. Communities will disappear. Cities will be inundated. Entire counties could disappear from the map, lost under a rising sea, still not yet at full pond. The houses, churches, graveyards will be Miami, Venice, whole islands, most of Bangladesh . . .

I dreamed about the lake that night. I dreamed about the cove down the road from Granny’s farm, but it was dark, and teeming with men on flaming skiffs like Viking funeral barges. The water was rising. My ankles had already disappeared into the murky depths, and as my clothes filled, I turned my back to the lake and my eyes to the sky. I let myself fall with grim resignation, back onto the surface, into the depths. The hands beneath came out of the water, but instead of pulling me down, they lifted me to the surface, to still my thrashing, to keep me steady until I relaxed and just floated.

 

 

______________

[1] So many white southerners claim ownership of some improbable prelapsarian abundance before the war, it would seem that the antebellum south was entirely composed of white people living in baronial splendor  with their contented slaves. Suffice to say, this doesn’t exactly jibe with the historical record.

[2] I don’t want to brag, but this totally worked.

 

 

 

 

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Martyrs

At the beginning of my junior year of high school, we started leaving school after play practice—me and the Countess and the Dryad—to drive around town. I had a car, a piece of shit Honda, the color of old mayonnaise, without functional defrosters or radio. The passenger seat held a boombox, and usually the Countess holding the boombox and sometimes a collection of wasted D batteries used to power said boombox. I had just started smoking, actually smoking, not just holding a cigarette between my fingers like a woman in an old movie and pretending to puff at it.

The driving around was a real deal and critical. I’m not sure if you grew up somewhere civilized and walkable, with honest-to-Christ public transportation that I can convey to you the open-windowed, Springsteenian joys of being sixteen and barreling around your hometown under the cover of darkness, playing music loud enough to contain all your teenage feelings as you speed toward oblivion or adulthood, which might be the same thing. We liked the bendy twists and gothic black of the river roads, the lowest point in our mountainous town, and in those days a wasteland of blackened warehouses and the graffiti palimpsests all the way to the monumental ruin of the old railroad roundhouse with the shattered windows. We rode with the windows open because the cigarettes and the prickling cold of autumn made us feel kind of high. We switched records to match the mood. I liked “Disintegration” for driving. The Countess liked Cocteau Twins, but the easy favorite that fall was Tori Amos’ “Little Earthquakes,” courtesy of the Dryad.

I remember flying downhill on Craven St, while we shivered collectively to the minor-keyed, arpeggiated evocations of trauma and suffering. And it felt real and visceral as hell. And  it probably would have even if I had not been a girl that played piano and tried to transform myself into both a singer-songwriter and an unnatural redhead.. I was new on my musical education, barely begun to explore the seemingly infinite world of art about female pain. I  still struggled  with Kate Bush and Sylvia Plath. I was a couple seasons away from Liz Phair and Carson McCullers, a year before Kathy Acker and PJ Harvey and Riot Grrrrl (and the four-month period of time when this was my favorite song[1] in the world). I’d eventually I start to fetishize fury and wear my ironic distance like it was part of the dress code.  At sixteen, though, listening to Tori Amos recount worst thing that could happen, acapella, past the ghostly loading docks of the river district, I thought, this is amazing, this is the kind of thing that people have to hear, this is this kind of thing that could change the world.

 I know.

Hilarious, right?

***

I haven’t really listened to Tori Amos since the turn of the millennia. Sometime along the line, her lyrics got once too oblique and too earnest kind of at exactly the same time. The music started to sound too much like the guy doing pop covers on the piano by the escalators at Nordstrom. For a while, I wrote it off as a problem of the new stuff. Then, I started hearing all I didn’t like in the old stuff too. There were a handful of songs I could sit through without squirming. There are a couple of her songs I haven’t deleted off the hard drive.

Tori wasn’t the only artist I adored as a teenager  and fell out with as an adult. She aged a bit better than JD Salinger, slightly worse than Donna Tartt, and about the same than the entire subgenre of mostly Northern California-based, melodic punk rock (and its attached “scene”) to which I professed an embarrassingly devotional, cross-continental attachment for a few years. She is, however the only one whose songs, oblique and over-earnest as they may be, have continually re-upped on the brain over the weekend.

I probably don’t have to tell you that my life over the past few days/weeks/ months) both online and IRL, have been a constant broadcast of what women have suffered at the hands of men.   It feels like we’re bleeding out all over the public square to force a reckoning, and yet the crowd mutters on, disinterested, inured, convinced it is mere spectacle, a tale of sound and fury told by hysterics for the advancement of a political agenda.

And here’s the thing: those voices, that chorus? It may be louder now. Everything sounds like an arena hit when amplified by strangers on social media. It’s not new, though. The days we drove  too fast on the River Road wondering aloud why we crucified ourselves, every-y-day? That was about a year after Anita Hill bared her soul on Capitol Hill, was excoriated for it, and despite all she endured another shitty man assumed a shitty man assumed one of the highest judicial seats in the land. On the radio, as we drove, were  the allegations of women accusing then-candidate Bill Clinton for various acts of sexual misconduct. During the day, we listened in the bathrooms and hallways and we learned things.  We learned which teachers got handsy. We learned which boys thought they were entitled to it. We learned which parties to avoid. We didn’t learn those things because we were smarter or safer or less reckless than the other girls. We learned them  because some other girl had already faced whatever trauma,  pulled one of us aside and said, I need you to know what kind of boy he is. I want you to understand what sort of world we live in. And I need someone to know what happened to me, to believe I am telling the truth.

 And despite that, despite our efforts, at least one of us in the car had her own chapter to add to the great pain compendium by the end of semester, as horrifying as the rest, almost more horrifying because it almost sounded mundane by then, like I’d heard it before. Because had heard it before. I ‘d heard it a hundred times and it always ends the same way and I don’t know how many more  times we should be expected to endure it before someone fucking pays attention.  

***

I don’t have a solution. Destroy The Patriarchy sounds pretty good. Not exactly reasonable. Maybe not practical. Certainly not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.

I am tired though. I am tired of talking about this. I’m tired of the same old shit. I’m tired of women (and men and non-binary people) opening their wounds time and time again to a bunch of old, white dudes who insist they see nothing. Like what in the world did half the population in the world do to deserve the Prometheus treatment? Is this really still about a goddamn apple?

I want to believe that there is a turning point. That this is a turning point. That all this suffering serves some function. I tell you my story, so you maybe won’t have to suffer as I did, even if that’s not how it works. That’s never how it works. I know my history. I know it backwards and in high heels.  I don’t like the feeling that these experiences, these testimonies, these stories, the painful recountings are just part of the landscape, an acceptable, normalized level of horror and suffering that is nothing more than a burden of womanhood, no different than puberty, from childbirth, from menopause. Did you get your period? Have you started wearing a bra? Do you have your #metoo yet?

I have friends with daughters that are about the same age I was when I hung out with the Countess and the Dryad. More than anything  I wish things had changed more since 1992 than they have. I wish people listened–actually listened– to women. I wish were trusted, without qualification, to report our actual experience, not just to each other.  I wish that a woman being hurt, harassed, assaulted (and threatened with violence should she ever report it) were seen as being as much of a tragedy as a man not getting a job. And since we’re in real beggars on horses territory, imagine a world in which men were held accountable for their actions. Imagine a world in which children were raised to know better by parents, authority figures and communities that did not accept sexual assault as a normal expression of boys being boys. 

I don’t live in that world, no matter how hard I try to pretend I do. You don’t either. We live in the one still clamorous with horrors survived and endured and endured again with each retelling all the way to oblivion or adulthood or Capitol Hill, whichever comes first.

Maybe it’s time for a different kind of song.

____________

[1] If I’m honest, still one of my favorites

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Collaborators

the boys I mean are not refined.

The lowercase still felt a bit revolutionary; the content more so, they go with girls that buck and bite. We thought we were, the girls that would buck and bite. Not prudes or prims or pearlclutchers, but tough girls, brave girls. The kind of girl that could handle herself. The kind of girl who could hang with men. You aren’t like the other girls. We took it as a compliment. A badge of honor.

We scoffed at the dainty and banished the delicate. We slipped into leather jackets and believed they gave us thicker skins. We exchanged anger for sadness. We mimicked the way they talked, the way they swaggered, the way they spoke over each other, the way they sulked, the way they bragged and tried to shock. We argued. We stirred the shit. We traded licks We didn’t apologize for offending, because offending was the point. What are you? Some kind of pussy? We tried to write like we weren’t women. Present tense. First person. Block letters. All verbs and pointy adjectives. Lots of synonyms for brutal. Lots of opinion. Don’t like it? You’re stupid. Not my problem.

We valued honesty. No matter how it was delivered. We valued loyalty above all things. You don’t pull your punches, but you don’t rat someone out. Even if they do something wrong. Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes people misinterpret. Sometimes people overreact. You sure you remember it right? You sure you weren’t too drunk? We weren’t sure. And so we brushed off the slurs. We tolerated the rape jokes. We maybe told a few ourselves. The other girls were oversensitive. They were bitches. They were sluts. Not you, you’re not like other girls. They respected us. They valued our opinions. They would always have our back. They would probably always have our back. They didn’t entirely disrespect us. So long as we didn’t talk shit. So long as we didn’t get too uptight. So long as we didn’t make demands. So long as we didn’t accuse. You’re so chill I forget you’re a girl. You’re so chill I can feel okay taking a shit in your house. They would definitely take a shit in our house.

The first time a thing happened, we didn’t say anything but she didn’t exactly keep quiet. They said whatever.  Dude, that’s really fucked up. But they couldn’t really imagine it happening, because it probably wouldn’t happen to them and seriously, that guy? And when she left the room, they’d say she asked for it, she made it up, she was just looking for attention. Because they knew the guy, and like, no way would that guy, that guy’s awesome, that guy’s my hero. They figured we agreed. We wouldn’t believe some bullshit just because a girl, a girl like that, was having her period or whatever. We agreed. We forgot she was one of us. Loyalty is the most important thing. You have to earn loyalty, we guessed. She shouldn’t have said anything. It’s not like he raped her.

We weren’t the girls they dated, but sometimes they’d sleep with us. We didn’t say no if it happened because maybe we wanted it, or wanted to be among them enough that we wouldn’t risk it by making them feel embarrassed. Wanting it made you desperate. Not wanting it made you a tease. C’mon, don’t be a drag. It was usually a mistake even if they were pretty cute or good kissers or sweet when no one else was looking. They never meant for it to happen.  It was on us if it got complicated. Just like a girl, they’d say. Freaking out and getting all weird. We knew what they meant. She wasn’t one of us. We were different. We were rational. We were not like other girls.

You never knew when you’d finally have enough. Maybe a particular joke. Maybe that one awful story. Maybe the first time you hear them say things they always say but this time about your sister, your mentor, your best friend. Maybe it will be the last time they jokingly grab your tit and call you toots, but like, ironically, while you go fetch them another round of beer, and you realize you’ve been fetching beer for how long now? for a bunch of nearly-grown men who think it’s hilarious to grope you and maybe what makes you not like the other girls is that they respect you even less. But probably, probably, it is the moment when they slag off another girl– as being hysterical, weak, an attention whore– and you realize the words they use to discredit her are your own. It will have been something you said offhand that one time trying to be cool,  and the girl they turn it around on will be someone just like you or maybe, just maybe, someone that is you.

the boys I mean are not refined, even when may go to school in coats and ties and know how to turn the right phase to open the right door and assume the refined success to which they were entitled . Some of us still hang with them, still making excuses, still staying silent, as we clatter down corridors of power in uncomfortable shoes helping them ruin other women because we we are not like other girls. Because we still think those boys respect us. Because they would never do that to us. Not unless we deserved it. Because they believe in loyalty and they will be loyal and they will always trust us and believe in us and have our backs because of how much they respect us and how very, very much we mean to them.

A speck?

A smidge?

Nothing at all?

 

 

 

 

 

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Fashion Victim

In the summer of my thirteenth year, in the waning, anxious, chlorinated days between pirate camp and the eighth grade, I had a sleepover with Sunshine and we went to see “Dead Poets Society” at a pre-multiplex, twin theatre in a shopping center on the far western edged of my hometown. I loved it. I thought it was the greatest movie I’d ever seen, or at least the greatest movie I’d seen since “Say Anything,”[1]  at the very beginning of the summer.  Sunshine and I came out of the theatre with a crush on every boy, in spite or maybe because of the way their  square haircuts and over-enunciation and trembly Adam’s Apples were different from the slurring curtain-fringed skateboarders we largely went for in those days. We sat pining, on her parents’ gone-feral tennis court, chucking half-rotten small green apples at the backboard, and feeling what I thought were very grown-up feelings about young Ethan Hawke.

The zingy hormonal muddle of thirteen makes the business of desire extra-complicated, even if you aren’t the sort of girl that tends to confuse wanting someone for wanting to be like someone. And I think that’s why, when I went back to school shopping with my mother, I wanted blazers and buttoned up blouses, maybe even a tie—was I the kind of girl that could pull off a tie?[2] Mom thought all of this was ridiculous and that I was on a dangerous path toward fashion victim. Hadn’t I spent the previous years in shoulder pads and layered slouch socks with oversized bows in my over-sized, spiral-permed hair? Didn’t I know that I went to a public high school, where the only dress code was basically, shirt and shoes required, but if your shirt says Nazi Punks Fuck Off on it, you will have to turn it inside out? Hadn’t I noticed the popular kids just wore soccer shorts and Grateful Dead shirts every day? Wasn’t I inviting abuse?

Sure. But I managed to convince my grandmother to prep me out at a Benetton in Virginia. I started eighth grade with a wool blazer with a crest on the pocket, which I would instantly regret, as my unairconditioned junior high school exhibited both the metaphorical and physical attributes of actual Hell. I left my jacket in the library when I went  to cry in the bathroom after a popular stink-eye disinvited me to her Bat Mitzvah and the blazer immediately and irrevocably disappeared in much the same way as my new backpack a couple of days later. I realized that context matters. I could not will myself into being involved with Ethan Hawke any more than I could transcend space and time and gender to be Ethan Hawke. And it would be a while—about eighteen months to be exact—before I worked out that the thing I maybe, actually wanted most of all was residency in some misty, green idyll, where teenagers geeked out about poetry and Shakespeare in attractive duffel coats.

I was not alone, as it turned out. A not-small number of self-identified teenaged non-conformists saw “Dead Poets Society” in the Aquanet twilight of the hair bands and, in some collective delusion and utter misunderstanding of the film, yearned for minimum security, scenic incarceration at institutions full of students with Christian names that sounded like neighborhoods I could never afford to live in. And after a lot of negotiating and drama and process, I managed to matriculate as a day student at the local version, which surprisingly ended up being just behind a furry scrim of pines, across the street from the shopping center twin theatre on the far western side of my hometown.

The days before classes started, in between field hockey practice and “Sassy” magazine, I studied the student handbook and the particulars of the dress code with mounting alarm. The boys’ dress code was clear—coats and ties, square haircuts– much the same as it had been since time immemorial. The girls’ dress code? It seemed, and in fact turned out to be, a vague, arbitrary work in progress, slapdashed into place when the school went coed and never really codified since.[3]

I was at a loss. It had been a while since I’d considered wearing anything other than some combination of footless tights and  faded black, so I could sit at lunch with whatever subculture would have me, without necessarily having to declare my allegiance to one in particular. The only blazer I owned was a red velvet one, purloined from the community theatre’s costume department (sorry), during the week and a half I entertained the notion that I might be a goth.

I dug through the mail for a J Crew catalog and went through dog-earing pages. In theory, I was dressing myself, but in actually I was dressing this impossible version of myself, some thin, lithe, lightly freckled, girl with long strawberry blonde hair and a straight-up Kennedy smile. The sort of girl that might cling to a sailboat rope, skin golden tanned against a navy miniskirt (Midnight, Cotton Twill, $79) and a slim fit button-down Oxford (100% Cotton, $62) in the same unblemished, WASPy white as her perfect teeth. When I presented the pages to my mother, she sort of rolled her eyes, like, you are way over budget, my friend which helpfully distracted me from the fact that J Crew didn’t make flattering, slim- fit, button down Oxford shirts for pudgy, pimply, pre-growth spurt adolescents, with the pumpkin colored remains of a drug store dye job and an unflattering too short haircut self-administered about six weeks previous that Mom’s hairdresser Donella had recently tried to shape into something cute and feminine ala Demi Moore in “Ghost” but it had, due to a preponderance of cowlicks and the innate cruelty of the universe, come out looking somewhat more like  Ethan Hawke  in “Dead Poet’s Society,” had Ethan Hawke been a fifteen old girl inclined toward novelty earrings and black tent dresses.

I wore the only new outfit I liked. A white blouse with buttons. A rose-colored skirt. I filed into convocation in the mumbling herd of boys in blue blazers and girls in floral prints and seersucker, secretly sure I was the fattest, ugliest, most grotesque creature among them, but at least outwardly confident that my clothes might pass muster. The Dean of Students made eye-contact with me. I smiled, weakly. And she pulled me out of the line, cited for a blouse with a wrinkled collar, and told me I’d have to change clothes before I could go to class.

I didn’t have any close friends on campus yet–I had no friends anywhere that wore my size–so I was quarantined to the silent, empty infirmary to wait for my mother to leave work, drive home and then back across town with something more appropriate to wear.  Mom brought me an old jumper of mine from middle school,  red tartan flannel worn to nubs and three years out of style. It made me look like a sad child.

The next day,  I tried a more conservative blouse. A longer skirt. Again, at convocation, I was pulled from the line by the Dean. She made a fuss, told me my hem was askew, I looked like a slob, awarded me detention, and told me  I’d have to change clothes.

I returned to the infirmary. My mother got there about an hour and a half later. I missed almost two class periods. She was annoyed with me and annoyed with the school. She brought me some of her own clothes. In those days Mom was about seven inches taller than I was, so her red dress hung to my ankles, making me look a bit like a sassy Mennonite or a Handmaid with shoulder pads. We have to figure this out. She said,  I can’t do this every day.

 By day three, I wore the closest thing I had to a sack. I passed inspection barely, but was cited for dress code almost every other day of the first week. I was even pulled aside at the Square Dance on Friday night. The Dean looked at my blouse– plaid, oversized, literally the same one worn by six other girls–and said, that shirt looks like a rag. It’s see-thru, unwrinkled. I’m only letting this slide because this is not a classroom dress day. 

 I walked away ashamed, infuriated like, just give me a fucking uniform. I’d rather wear a goddamn uniform than have to deal with your bullshit and somehow ended up on the sidelines with the congenial Swiss student I sat beside in convocation because our last names were alphabetical. He asked how my classes were going. I shied away because I already felt like a shabby, ignorant yokel with the wrong clothes and the wrong hair and the wrong everything and I knew talking to a European, even a sweet, sort of goofy European would just make it worse.

I went home angry with the Dean and annoyed with myself for having the unearned audacity to imagine that I might ever belong at the misty green idyll full of clever students with names like fancy neighborhoods. I clearly wasn’t rich enough or attractive enough or smart enough.. I was coming home to a three-bedroom rancher in a middle-class neighborhood and a single mom who could not afford to back to school shop for me out of the J Crew catalog even if they carried my size, which they didn’t so whatever.  I was doomed by my physiology and genetics and social class to appear some trashy, disgraced louche even at my most buttoned-up, which was ironic because I was still mostly flat-chested at fifteen, without even the curves that would make tidy cardigans and button ups look trashy in an appealingly slutty way. I stared at my bedroom mirror and saw some horrific sexless thing composed entirely of zits and chins. I thought, I should drop out. I thought, maybe I should just go back to public school and become a goth.

 I called Irish Name, my oldest and closest remaining friend at public school, and listened to her talk about plans for football games and parties with people who didn’t like me. She talked about who was rushing the sorority and who had maybe crossed third base over in the parking lot of the Community College across the street from the high school. She asked me how I was, and I wanted to say something like, remember how simple it was when I only felt inferior because I was fat and unpopular? Well now I feel inferior because I’m fat and unpopular and also unpolished and maybe stupid and my clothes are all wrong, and did I mention that I’ve also discovered class rage? Because holy shit, that’s a real deal. I mean, for-fucking-serious.

But I didn’t say that because, among other things, Irish Name had taken a shine to youth group and Mission Trips and had lost her appetite for cursing, so I told her the new school was awesome and I was awesome. I don’t think she believed me, but she was nice enough to let it go.

I had a new blouse to wear on Monday. I went down to the basement and I ironed it. I tucked it in to a plaid pencil skirt that made me look like a Sunday School Teacher. I wore it with a stiff black blazer that still smelled like fabric sizing and the clearance rack at TJ Maxx.

At convocation, a senior announced an opportunity for actors to do Shakespeare for a local fundraiser. Interested parties should meet afterward in the courtyard. It was the kind of thing I would never do in my old life. I almost turned to the Swiss guy and said, that’s the kind of thing I would have never done at my old school. I turned it over in my head over and over again and suddenly I was thirteen and watching “Dead Poets Society” and like, wasn’t this kind of thing the reason I’d gone to this place to begin with?

I didn’t give myself too long to think about it. I slid out the exit door between students. I passed the dean. She caught my eye and pursed her lips. I could feel it coming. I tried to will away Seriously? Again?  and the sting of embarrassing tears, because how many times? How many fucking times? How could I not fit in? And here was this thing I was actually on my way to go do. I was actually going to go and do a thing. A thing I really wanted to do. I braced myself. I swallowed. I stood up straight.

The dean’s gaze, for once, focused on some other violation, some other girl with a wrinkled collar, some other girl with a ratty hem. She sighed and raised her hand.

She let me go.

___________

[1] 1989 was a great year to be a thirteen-year-old going to the movies, even if  either of those films has entirely held up. I’d be hard-pressed to say which one I like better as an adult (my gut says “Say Anything” because Lili Taylor and The Replacements).

[2] No.

[3] That deliberate vagueness ended up being a real boon, so long as you figured out how to work the angles. My angle ended up being vintage dress with thrift store sweater and black tights, and that would form the basis of my non-summer wardrobe with minimal adjustment up until and including roughly now. But that was really more of a product of senior year, by which time there was a new dean.

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Relics

Nana had a pink and green velvet brocade wingback chair in the back corner of her antique shop. It never sold, probably because it looked like something that would be in an illustration in a children’s book. Some curved and tuffeted throne, the color of blush peonies and spring moss, Ugly Stepsister style overkill, where Cinderella might have raised her dingy, work-sore foot, likely calloused by clogs and still blistered from a night spent dancing in shoes made of glass, to a princes with a magic slipper (and possibly a foot fetish). I loved it. Poppy, my grandfather, called it Alison’s office, because I’d sit there all day and read.  The chair was situated in front of a Ficus, which was situated in front of a louvered door that contained the shop furnace, blocking the unsightly present so the customers could be lulled into the opulent artifice of two-hundred-year-old inlaid mahogany tables, viney sterling candelabras, delicate chests shaped like ovals and beans, and floors softened by thick Persian rugs in gem-like colors. The idea was that maybe they  not notice they were in an ersatz log cabin, a model home for a never-built Daniel Boone themed development that never materialized,  alongside a divided highway in Southwest Virginia, across the road from a tattoo parlor, just down the block from a gun shop, next door to an exterminator with a upside down Volkswagen Beatle out front, impaled by a giant arrow printed with the company tagline we kill bugs dead.           

They usually didn’t.

I spent a bit of most summers, aged ten to seventeen, with Nana. I went to work with her daily at the shop. In the beginning, before my grandfather, Poppy, died, I had no chores save feather dusting and plant watering. Mostly I drew paper dolls and read stacks of Young Adult novels I was already growing out of because I read them too fast. Later came actual work. I waxed table tops. I polished silver. I made sales. I chatted up ladies with Tidewater accents and Christian names like Hyacinth and Glovinia while they made out checks to my grandmother with diamond-burdened hands. Nana would smile and slide the money into the drawer. I’d attach a SOLD tag to a Rare Library Desk, Walnut, Leather Topped, English Cabinetmaker, after Chippendale, 1780.

Before Poppy died, he added lamp repair to an already-extensive list of Things He Could Do with the notion that he could spend his post-retirement days refurbishing old lamps and creating new ones as sideline to the antique business. He bought a diamond drill, a piece of equipment he bragged about, and with which he could create lamps out of otherwise rare and valuable objects. Nana fitted out his workshop, as well as two display rooms for fluted silk shades of various sizes and pastel hues, carved rosewood bases, racks of harps and tiered racks of fancy finials that resembled fancy candies.

Antique stores, especially antique stories on the side of a highway in Southwest Virginia are often  a muddle of junk, a small step above flea market, where you might find a  primitive pie-safe painted distressed red or a couple of pieces of Depression glass amidst kitsch figurines, porcelain dolls, confederate money, and old Esso signs. This was not Nana’s  shop, which confused and sometimes frustrated the occasional hirsute good-old-boy looking for old guns and fetish collectibles of dubious reputation . Nana was snobbish about her inventory.  She operated out of the particular type of general and uncompromising elitism common (heh)  to those that come from nothing to speak of and nowhere to celebrate.   She didn’t care if customers found her haughty or high-handed( she probably took it as a compliment). She’d say, this is a George II highboy, once owned by a colonial governor of Maryland. It’s in impeccable condition. I outbid two museums to get it at auction. It is a magnificent piece. She wouldn’t say, do you think someone with this George II highboy would ever condescend to handling something so distasteful as a WWII German army helmet or a teapot shaped like a mammy doll?

Which is not to say I couldn’t find the occasional piece of kitsch or niche item tucked amid the glittering detritus of the ruling class. She sold her manicurist’s cranberry-scented potpourri for a while, which smelled exactly like the cosmetics department at Lord & Taylor hopped up on Sea Breezes. And for a while, in an ancient iron and wooden barrel by the door she had a couple of swords mixed in with her umbrella. She claimed she didn’t know where they came from, but I didn’t believe her. When I was about fifteen, I spent an hour or so alone in the store while Nana having hair set, trying in vain to unsheathe the sword in one graceful swoop, like a proper swashbuckler.

All antique dealers are some combination of con artist and curator. They acquire old things and try to convince customers they have great value, often based on some  sideways association or ineffable quality. Their level of success often depends on how sincerely they believed their own stories. Nana whole-heartedly believed in the magical and transformative properties of things. She defined herself by them, which perhaps made her appear selfish, petty, unnecessarily materialist. But I always thought it was something else. She was an acolyte of fancy objects. I sometimes think it was a shame she came up a coal miner’s daughter, in a rural corner of the state, raised in a faith without icons, totems, reliquaries, and shrines, exquisite doo-dads and mysterious whatsits that she could have worshipped without apology. As it is, she created her own peculiar belief system and invited us to revere the  Imari charger, tend to the Regency tea service, and contemplate the unknowable before this grand, three-century-old Phoenix-festooned mirror.

***

Poppy spent his professional life doing the financials for a big lumber company that had worked on a couple of historic renovations. His time there left reserves of knowledge, a sense of how to date a thing by the quality of the wood, a whole glossary of terms—joints, bevels, escutcheons, cut-nails.  How some cabinetmakers would insert a pine peg into a cherry joint because they liked the colors. How others would inlay images as signatures. This is a Philadelphia piece. You can tell by the halfmoons. It came from Mr. So and So’s workshop. The way things were slatted together with wooden nails.  He could always find the secret compartments. The hidden latches. You can date a chest by looking at its drawers. 

There’s a particular charm to the tactile business of antiques. The tiny imperfections. The gully where the blacksmith hit too hard.  The dribble of extra paint on the porcelain. The slightly misshapen filigree on the silver pitcher. A real person made those. I would close my eyes and the moment of creation—the infernal heat of the forge, the delicate brushes in morning light, the precise tools to create the veins in that copper leaf. And then you think about who it was for? A commission? A gift? A little extra artistry on something practical? What harm in making this chair beautiful?  Or sometimes what harm was caused by making this chair beautiful?

I  grew up around old things.  I fidgeted on the crewelwork cushions of Rococo chairs. I pretended orb-topped andirons were robots and talked to them. I hid under gate-leg tables. I trundled along with Nana in the back of her old  red buying van to dusty shops, estate sales, old barns and stately homes throughout Virginia and the Carolinas (and later to England). While she haggled with cash-strapped and feckless heirs who didn’t know or care what they had, I chased animals through formal dining rooms and dusty attics and peculiar outbuildings. I poked around fancy drapes in hopes of shaking out a ghost.  I had plenty of questions, like, how do you pee in a hoop skirt or did George Washington have really bad breath or seriously you guys never had a single, solitary reservation about slavery? Sometimes I’d find a taxidermied pheasant looking eternally surprised to be living under a bubble of glass. Sometimes I’d find a lily clogged gold fish pond or a feral peacock on a rust-stained yellow woven chaise on a weedy terrace just down the road and over the hill from Monticello.

The only thing that ever really upset me was a pentimento, discovered after Nana bought this painting, a 19th century landscape, some sub-Hudson River School type thing, but painted on a reused canvas over a hunting party with men and dogs and a ghostly galleon of a forest moon. Slowly that scene beneath—all its dogs and rifles and torches—was, with time, emerging from the under the innocuous, alpine pastoral dawn, becoming more visible, first as shadows, then as limbs scratching to the surface, a past that could not be painted over, some hungry, bloodthirsty history that could not be painted over into blue skies and peaceful valleys, that would not stay quiet beneath the surface, that lived on under a thin coat of paint. Years later, a therapist asked if I had any recurrent nightmares. I mentioned the pentimento. And she was like, what a metaphor. And I was like, goddamn, the south. And she was like, goddamn, America. And we sat there on the verge of goddamning the whole world but we stopped because she had other clients and I was on the clock.

I suspect places have memories. I don’t mean this in some woo-woo way.  Maybe I do. After all,  I grew up in the South and went abroad when I was still young enough to speak to stones in ruined castles and imagine they might respond if I asked politely. As recently as two weeks ago, I turned off a mossy, lowcountry highway down a tunnel-treed gravel drive on John’s Island in South Carolina and was like, shush your talking, because the past felt so clamorous.  So it stands to reason things have a touch of memory too. I’ve yet to hear a lowboy whisper to me, but that might be because I wasn’t listening hard enough.

***

I spent most of the  summer of my seventeenth year, the last summer I would spend with Nana for weeks at a time, tending to the store, going to the funerals of aging relatives I’d never met until the open casket, and reading Faulkner novels, one after another, like an adventure series, while I sat in that pink and green chair. I wallowed in the filthy past, surrounded by the perfect sparkle and  polish of Nana’s version of history and thought, maybe not for the first time, that I might be genetically predisposed to hang on to things long past their usefulness, and maybe that’s not always a mark in the asset column.

I live in a small house. I have limited space. The things I cherish are the things I cherish for my own reasons. Some may be worth something.  Most have little value at all save to me. Sometimes something kinda priceless shatters at a party and we move on. Sometimes I lose a pebble I slipped in my pocket on Palatine Hill in Rome and worry over it for days.  I’m pretty good at getting rid of things if I need to. I take decent care of the things I have.

There are fewer stores like Nana’s now. We’re all obsessed with the new or at least the retro version of new.  My friends’ houses are full of mid-century modern furniture, some vintage, mostly ersatz. Nana sniffed at reproduction, though she had friends that made it, who hand built solid wood Windsor Chairs and butler’s tables and such with loving precision and original tools. She’d put a few in her shop.  Because you’re not actually going to put your television on a real-deal Jacobean chest, dig?  I can’t imagine how Nana would view a midcentury reproduction. I’d call and ask, but she can’t figure out Skype and it’s hard to convey an eyeroll over the phone.

We were in a shop, not unlike hers, a few years  back, when she was still had the ability to wander through rooms at length and negotiate a better deal on a reticulated Rose Medallion bowl (Qing Dynasty, c. 1850). The store’s owners had  filled their downstairs with straight-up 1955.  Nana made a career of treating anything newer than 1850 as not really an antique and she was befuddled by the Eames chairs, the space age clocks, the chrome lamps, the Formica kitchen table why would you carry this here? At an antique shop? The owner shrugged, no one’s buying the old stuff anymore. Young people with money. This is what they want. Nana was horrified. I tried to be all, you know, styles change. But she would have none of it. She had spent most of her adult life banishing its like from her home, erasing the cheap, the common, the JC Penney easy chairs, the dime store glasses, the mass produced and practical, with the fragile, gilded vestiges of an aristocratic lineage that was not her own. Why would anyone want to evoke Levittown when they could have a little piece of Versailles?

Why indeed?

I mean, I live in an old mill house, not a chateau. My ceilings aren’t high enough for chandeliers. I have my old thrift store furniture, alongside the stuff from Nana, alongside cheap, particle board bookshelves and discount “oriental-style” rugs I bought at box stores.  The old stuff is hard to take care of. It’s not terribly comfortable. You look at those gorgeous, spindly ballroom chairs and think, that might have balanced a tiny duchess in 1780, even a tiny duchess weighted down by wigs and whalebone and preposterously wide skirts. But it can only endure so many of us portly, 21st century plebs in athleisure, with our wide backsides and habit of flopping into any chair like it’s a bean bag in a basement rec room. No one wants to be the one that breaks the relic. No one is even entire sure how it could be fixed, or if it could be fixed, or if it would even be worth it to fix it.  Thus, the chairs get stacked against the wall, in the room you’re not really supposed to go into, look don’t touch, beside the secretary with the damaged back and the chipped crystal and sterling and china engineered to be hand-washed by a legion of servants in a house with a name and two stairways.

Sometimes its simpler to love a thing when it’s too young to have any complicated history.

 I don’t know what happened to the pink and green chair when Nana sold the shop. I probably would have taken it, had it been on offer,  even though it didn’t go with anything in my life at the time, and would have been devastated by pets, parties, and the various destructive amusements of my twenties and early thirties. It didn’t come to me, though. Maybe it went to an auction or estate sale. Maybe someone reupholstered it in  tasteful grayscale linen to make it a better fit in for a modern living room. But perhaps it is much the same, still lulling  some other small person into believing that history is an gorgeous, anodyne proposition, as she reads her swashbuckly novels and settles into the down cushion for a sweet dream of another age no truer than the tale a canny antique dealer is trying to sell you at a 200% mark-up, but, in the moment, almost wholly convincing.

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Burn Out

My father’s father’s family, from whom I derive both my last and middle names, came from a speck on the map in the Mississippi Delta called Anguilla. The Fields of yore lived in a large brick house there and grew untold acres of cotton and both initiated and endured at least some of the Delta’s most shameful history and/or hoariest clichés and endured the malarial torpor of the Deep South, pre-air-conditioning. Generations of Fields, up to and including my great-grandfather, would live out the summer alone in the big house, to see to the fields and the gin (and, given genetics, probably also the Gin, black market or bootleg thought it may have been in the 20s) and survive the various floods and storms  and get up to whatever trouble they got up to there in verdant nowhere at peak sultry.

I’ve visited and lived in the lowland south for enough of my life now to understand why summer heat is both character and plot point in many pieces of southern literature. And I think I have some handle on it. I used to stand in the record store (which did not have functional air conditioning) in a couple inches of water (which appeared whenever it rained harder than a sprinkle) and think of my great- grandfather (who I never met, who died during the Depression) standing at the house in Anguilla in the dead smother of August heat, waiting to see if the storm-swelled tributaries of the Mississippi would breach the levees and flood the fields, the lawn, the first floor of the house. I used to think, What is it about Fieldses and their inexorable attraction toward hot, wet places? Is this a congenital thing? Were we into pain or martyrdom or just some kind of stiff-lipped determination to spite nature by making it work in a place where nature was like, you people should have stayed in the North of England. Could I trace this all the way back three centuries to the first Fields who stepped off a ship from England and stared down July in Tidewater Virginia all bring it, New World, I’m staying. And, in fact, my descendants will one day go somewhere even wetter and hotter and further south. So I’d Wet Vac the store and sweat through gallons of water and raise my eyebrows at the pitiful constitution of customers that complained about the heat and the water, just as I’d indulged relocated friends. I’d think, this is not so bad. Wait until a hurricane knocks out power for a week in August. That’ll toughen you right up.

So, look, it humbles me to tell you that I listened with tears in my eyes when my HVAC repairman told me it could be another few days before I have my AC back in my house in Carrboro, after a lightning strike last Thursday took out the motherboard. And, guys, I can’t. Not when there are any other options. Not when the high today is 92. Not when the interior temperature of my house last night at midnight was 86. So I’m packing up to drive into the mountains of Western North Carolina, to my mother’s house, on the outskirts of Asheville, near the French Broad River, where I can write at a desk, still dry and unpuddled by my own sweat.

I suppose I should feel better, recalling that Mamaw, my great-grandmother, the most formidable woman I’ve ever known, a woman who pulled her family through the Depression, who rebuilt a local economy because one family can never really thrive if the rest of the community fails, a woman who weathered an epic catalog of life-altering storms (both real and figurative) before she was forty and famously told my mother Fields women never cry on her wedding night. That woman? She packed up her four children as soon as the icebox-chilled bed sheets stopped warding off the drowning heat of the nighttime and took the train northeast to the mountains of Western North Carolina, to the outskirts of Asheville, where her own parents ran an inn on the Swannanoa River, and she (and her children) could while away the days in a cool green idyll of a season that didn’t feel weaponized.

I have to remind myself that it’s rational to seek relief, that life is thick with opportunities to experience unmitigated, unavoidable discomfort, that I don’t win extra points for melting into my sheets at night because I’m too stubborn and too ashamed to seek out a cooler place to lay my head, and even that big house in Mississippi has, by now, had air conditioning for decades. And still no one really wants to live there.

Heat: 1
Alison: 0

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Dog Days

In August of 1991, my father woke on a Saturday morning and decided to make beignets from a Café Du Monde-branded mix from the supermarket. The idea was relive the charms of dreamy springtime mornings in the Vieux Carre, to serve my little sister some sugared, pillow-shaped lagniappe on hot, dry morning 700 or so miles northeast of Jackson Square.

Dad wasn’t much a of a cook. Food at his house was always a tricky proposition. Items purchased at the grocery store were likely to stay in his cupboard or refrigerator until eaten. If ever eaten. Everything turned into a philosophical debate about permanence in Dad’s pantry. There was a can of red clam sauce that spent the better part of two decades perched like a sentry on the top shelf. I wondered whether Dad bought it as food or as set piece in  some esoteric still life, alongside dusty piles of Communication Arts Magazine, Sunday NYTs for the recycle bin, a novelty relief mug of Popeye the Sailor Man with a cloudy bunch of ancient dried lavender exploding out of the top of his cap

Heating implements proved similarly challenging.  Stovetops and ovens  required observation to see that they did not overheat. Evidence suggests my father had the temperature set too high on for deep frying. Fire erupted from the pot, catching  the cabinets. Dad, in a moment of panic, seized the flaming skillet and chucked if off into the overgrowth under his third-floor balcony. He received several third-degree burns for his efforts. It is a miracle that the entire building, the entire mountainside, perhaps all of North Asheville did not go up in flame. His pet bird, a speckled, inquisitive finch named Atticus, caged throughoug on the sunny end of the dining room table, lived to tweet on for another day, though he would spend the rest of his life smokier shade of gray.

My little sister, at the first sign of trouble, followed the instructions she learned in elementary school. She stopped, dropped and rolled out of the apartment, went calmly and quietly down the stairs, and sat on the curb on the far side of the parking lot to await the arrival of the fire truck. Some neighbor smelled smoke and actually called the fire department. Shortly thereafter, a red truck howled into the parking lot, followed in short order by my mother (who lived about a mile away), an ambulance, Dad’s girlfriend and her two children. My sister went home with my mother. My father was spirited off to the hospital, where he was given some painkillers, wrapped in gauze and left to contemplate his doughnut-adjacent near-death experience

           ##

I was not around the morning of the fire because I was standing beside a girl with a boy’s name at the far end of the hockey field. Despite the fact that she was a year younger than I and also a new student, everyone already knew her except for me, which was not unusual. Everything about field hockey preseason, so far, was  an except for me proposition, including, but not limited to: knowing how to play the game, having actual athletic ability, being able to run a mile without passing out, enjoying the spirit of competition, fitting comfortably in the uniform, having appropriate equipment, having any desire to play a sport ever, understanding the first thing about boarding school culture, private school culture, and if you believed the locker room gossip, having gotten to at least third base with a boy over summer break, and not actively wishing for death because death must be better than drills.

I could feel a flood of sweat drenching my face, stinging my eyes with salt. I just watched the girl with the boy’s name trace the lettering on her t-shirt. 7 Seconds printed seven times. I asked her what kind of band 7 seconds was and she rolled her eyes. This last day of pre-season would be our last day without practice uniforms, dreaded things with sleeveless tops and see-through white shorts. Why do the teenage boys get baggy blue shorts and the teenage girls get tight white shorts when we’re the ones that bleed once a month? I watched the center forward sprint across the field in a Grateful Dead shirt and thought it was weird that all the hippies played offense.

The girl with the boy’s name removed her sunglasses after being reprimanded for the fourth time and said something about how field hockey coaches are such complete cunts.”

The coach blew the whistle, indicating that we should start running.

I looked above me, briefly. The hazy blue August sky began to melt around the sun and the color swirled away. I felt a wave of nausea. I thought I might pass out. I think I might pass out, I said to the girl with the boy’s name.

She gave me a look of withering contempt, observing the fat rolls clearly visible under my off-brand soccer shorts, my Shakespeare printed EXPRESSO YOURSELF! T-shirt, my grape juice colored Chuck Taylors. Everyone else already had cleats. Don’t be a baby. You’ll be fine.

 She was right. I was just out of shape. I was just a whiner. I’ll be fine. I thought. I should totally get over myself. And I fell backward hard onto the grass.

It would not be the only or even the most infamous time I lost consciousness during my sophomore year of high school, but it would be the first time I woke up surrounded by a huddle of girls I barely knew at my new school, with a tiny blonde coach forcing a water bottle out me and asking how many fingers she was holding up. I drank the whole bottle and imagined the luxury of spending the next few hours napping in the cool dim of the infirmary. I thought the world looked a little different. The light brighter, the grass blades knife-edged. Did passing out change the world?  But once after the coach was convinced I didn’t have a concussion, she told me she thought I’d passed out because of the heat and the dehydration. So, go and do a couple of laps around the field as penalty for getting too hot and not asking for a water break.  I clambered up, dusting off grass stain and heaved into a run.

Until field hockey preseason, my only recent athletic training consisted of whatever happened at public junior high school PE, where our stereotypically mulleted gym teacher had long since given up trying to build up our endurance or engage us in sport after all but one of the twenty-seven members of  first period class failed the pull-up section of The President’s Physical Fitness Test. When the gym teach announced she’d be flunking us all, thee class collectively shrugged. I kind of freaked out. I’d never flunked anything in my life. I went to the gym teacher’s office and asked if it would be possible for me to do an extra credit project. Could I write a paper? Or maybe do a presentation? I could probably put together a report about the President. Or maybe someone who does sports things, like Andre Agassi or Jane Fonda? She looked up at me for a good while, blinking, likely trying to figure out how in hell I ended up in first period gym, because the rest of the nerds didn’t come in until at least fourth period, [1] by which point she could adequately caffienate. Then she told me I’d probably die of a heart attack if I didn’t get into shape and to get out of her office.

We spent the rest of that semester doing a unit on “Social Dancing,” which was basically variations on the electric slide, and then they renovated the girl’s  gym, so we spent the rest of the year in the weight room, a carpeted basement cell that liked like a gulag and smelled like death. The gym teacher locked us in and I’d spend the hour sprawled on mildewed wrestling mats, listening to weird hospital stories from a childhood friend who’d recently returned to school after brain surgery. The rest of my classmates argued about boys, listened to LL Cool J and played increasingly heated matches a card game we called Egyptian Rat Fuck.

I’d  since left my fellow degenerates from first period gym at the public high school at the end of ninth grade and enrolled in boarding school, where there appeared to be no expectant mothers and no impressive surgical scars and no one that looked like they couldn’t pass the President’s Physical Fitness Test with flying colors, save me. The athletic fields were rolling green lawns surrounded by English garden cottages with climbing roses and half-timbered Tudor classroom buildings. It seemed several time zones and maybe a couple of centuries removed from my vaguely Brutalist Junior High that always smelled like dirty socks and fish sticks, though, in reality it was about five miles across town.

My dad had gone to boarding school in Virginia, but I’d only been tangentially aware that places like The School existed until the eighth grade, when some combination of Holden Caulfield, “Dead Poet’s Society” and the girls with the best hair at my summer camp suggested another world might exist. I imagined chilly, Gothic passageways thick with  angular, intellectual teenagers in dark wool, imprisoned by parental expectation and WASP orthodoxy, sexually repressed, bullied by wealthy degenerates,  brimming with class resentment and was like, that’s my jam.

But alongside dress codes and behavioral standards and academic achievement (all of which I’d willingly signed on for), the  School also required students to play competitive sports. I was neither fast, nor strong. I lacked both depth perception and hand eye coordination. My instinct, at realizing a projectile of any kind might be headed toward me, was to run away as fast as possible, and then take to rest with a novel and a hot tea to soothe my rattled nerves. I couldn’t figure out why it mattered who won. I didn’t like wearing shorts.

There were two sports at the school you could play in a skirt: tennis and Field Hockey. I knew for a fact that I couldn’t play tennis. I didn’t know I couldn’t play field hockey. I merely knew I hadn’t. Also, the blue tartan kilts were adorable.

Pre-season was engineered to prepare us for team try-outs. But that was all theater, because when everyone is required to play a sport, the coach can’t really prevent anyone from making the team. The coach, however, ran practice  as if our very lives depended[2] on winning the game. Practices were an all-day affair, at the very hottest time of the  year. The coach howled. She screamed. She raged. She belittled. She delivered her best impression of a banshee impersonating a drill sergeant. She recognized me immediately for what I was—a season-long benchwarmer, a lost cause, an apt-to-pass out drain on team morale, who kept trying to use the excuse of kilts to discuss the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots and the subsequent disappointments of the Stuart dynasty.

We’d broke for a late lunch the day of my fainting and walked up from the gym to eat buffet-style on white tablecloths under chandeliers in the vaulted Arts & Crafts dining hall. I watched boys saunter in. There were so many boys.  The School was only a decade and some change into being coed. Girls were still a slight minority. I considered for the first time how it might be possible to be boy crazy. To be so enamored of the boys and their inherent boy-ness that you could end up a victim of constant, arbitrary desire, turned on by a  haircut, an Adam’s Apple, the awkward  limbs of a still fresh growth spurt, the smell of laundry detergent and inexpertly applied Old Spice. The nervous starry sky electricity that came at realizing you’d been touched, even accidentally, by a boy you didn’t even know you were attracted to. It was a heady feeling and I already felt sort of light-headed, like, I wonder if I actually sustained injury from that fall. Like hitting that grass too hard had triggered the last bit of my late-blooming adolescence. Like I might have lost a few brain cells, but I was suddenly sure that I was mostly heterosexual.    

I wandered back to practice past the pink stone folly of a chapel, what-ifing. After a week of practice, I hadn’t really made any friends. I worried, what if I can’t find the Smiths fans? What if no one here is actually into poetry? The end of pre-season meant the beginning of the semester. It meant classes. It meant that would have to prove myself in all the things I actually cared about. It meant that I would have to walk into convocation on the first day and try to act like it wasn’t the slightest bit weird to see hundred and twenty-five teenaged boys in coats and ties. I would have to sell people on the fact that something so graceless and unlovely and ordinary as me belonged among smart, beautiful rich people at a place that looked objectively like a fairytale.

I had misgivings. Maybe the devil you know. I didn’t tell anyone. I wouldn’t have dreamed. Going to The School had been my choice and toward the end, my exhausting negotiation. Second thoughts were the sort of thing you kept quiet unless you wanted to hear an earful from your as a former public school teacher, I have a lot of issues with private school as a concept mother. Second thoughts were best not aired unless you wanted your father to take back your tuition money and use it buy himself a new set of golf clubs or a couple weeks at Outward Bound.

I was on the field on that last day, after lunch, when I saw the nurse jog down the hill, white uniform startling against the freshly barbered, late August green. Sunstruck, I watched, aware that I should be watching the game I was theoretically playing, the ball I was theoretically charged with keeping from goal, and I saw she was saw she was muttering and as she got closer I thought I heard How does it feel, how does it feel, how does it feel, how does it feel. And I was about to say, hot. Or maybe not like I thought it would. But as she neared, I saw she was saying a name, not howdoesitfeel but alisonfields. And that was me. Alison Fields, Alison Fields.

 The coach blew the whistle. I shuddered, because I felt her eyes on me. She sighed and pointed me toward the nurse. I jogged off the field. Several girls walked behind me.

The nurse took a breath, your father is in the hospital. There was a fire at his house. Your mom wanted you to know he’s okay and your sister is okay. I gawped. I wanted to know how or why. The nurse said, your Mom said he was trying to make beignets.

 One of the other girls laughed. It was funny. I asked if I could go call my mother. The nurse said, Fine. But the coach said, if he’s not dying it can wait until after the scrimmage.

 The girl with the boy’s name clapped her arm across my shoulder. Too bad about your dad, man. And then quieter, what the fuck is a beignet?

### 

The last night of pre-season, I got a ride from a teammate to my dad’s girlfriend’s house and ventured inside to see my father, his arms mummied in gauze. I sat on the stool beside him and scooted the field hockey stick about the carpet. I poured him a ginger ale into a Snoopy glass and hoped he might ask about my day, so I’d have the opportunity to make something up and make myself believe it. He didn’t.

He sat there, staring at the television, and it was a good long while before I realized he’d dozed off.

I walked outside to wait for my mother.  Dad’s girlfriend came out to stand with me. He’s on a lot of painkillers, she said. The doctor thinks he may still be in shock.

I nodded. I thought about Dad’s apartment I’d never (as it turned out) return to, because he’d move out days later. I thought about fire. I thought I burned every bridge I had in order to get a new life.  I thought what if I was wrong?

Dad’s squeezed my hand, though I’d said nothing, just sullenly gazed at my own shadow against the driveway through clammy late summer mist  in off the lake. I felt guilty for letting her believe my quiet was because I was worried about dad.

You know, I said, I passed out today. At practice. When I woke up, I thought that everything had changed.

 Dad’s girlfriend nodded, and said, that’s you wanted, right? change? but Mom’s headlights flashed against the driveway. I didn’t have a chance to answer. I never told her that I wasn’t sure what was scarier—that idea everything had changed and would continue to change, inexorably, permanently or that maybe nothing ever really would.

I got in the car with Mom. She asked me how my dad was and how my day had been. I said fine. I said long. I said I can’t wait for classes to start.

 And after a second or two, I couldn’t even remember whether I was lying.

_____________________

[1] I was just about the only kid in my junior high on the Gifted track that wasn’t also in marching band. This confused everyone, but I tried to explain that the only thing worse than wearing a cheap, polyester, sweat-stinking uniform and being forced to play sports on a field in inclement weather would be to wear an even uglier, cheap, polyester, sweat-stinking uniform and force-marched around people playing sports on a field in inclement weather while playing “Title theme from ‘Top Gun’ ”  and “God Bless America.”

[2] Field hockey arms teenage girls with blunt sticks and compels them to drive a hard, plastic ball into a goal at the other end of field thick with other teenager girls carrying heavy wooden sticks. Save shin and mouth guards, there’s precious little in the way of protective gear. Injuries get ugly. The coach put me on the field as a sweeper, and that’s the position where I stayed. I told one of my team mates I was afraid of someone hitting my face with a stick. She was like, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Play your cards right and you might be able to score a nose job or get your jaw wired shut. My cousin dropped three dress sizes that way.

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