Monday, April 2, 2012

The mountains in me


It's the mountains in me that made me run outside my office building to hunt your car down when you came to pick me up from work.

Your frantic call said there was road work keeping you from getting here; you were one block away but traffic wasn't moving. It was making you mad.

Someone urbane, someone from here, would have had a cell phone. Or would have stayed put by my office phone, knowing it's ridiculous to go hunt a car down.

But in a weird act of atavism, when you called in distress, I was up and running, into the elevator, down the street, flustered and graceless. It's not like stalking a mountain lion or a deer, or a rabbit or a squirrel (yes, I have relatives who eat those). On the gridlocked street, the tops of cars glared in the sun, a river of metal.

When you called again and I wasn't by the phone, you left messages. ("What, are you fucking retarded? Why aren't you at your phone!")

My people come from sad purple hills, where there's a well-known spot to leave money for moonshiners, where some people still have goats instead of lawn-mowers, where one guy even has a mule instead of a car. Their "r"s are harsh and curdled, and they talk like a parody, and my grandmother's favorite apron is the one that says "Hee-Haw" all over it. It's not exactly the South, like "Gone with the Wind" and "Steel Magnolias," but you see faded Confederate flags on pick-up trucks and shacks and tattoos.

In the mountains, my people ("kinfolk," they'd say) got up to hillbilly hijinks. My granny once grabbed a possum by the tail, swung it round and round over her head, then heaved it from the yard like it was an Olympic sport, to keep it away from her kids. Once, when my dad was little, his parents were fighting, and my grandmother brought him to her mama's house, high up on a mountain, with stepping stones so steep you almost climb them vertically. My grandfather followed them there, and my dad's parents played tug-of-war with his arms as they yelled. My grandmother's mama appeared on the porch with her rifle. She was not afraid to use it. "Get off my land," she told my grandfather. He left.

My people get things done. They do it simply.

If the car is outside stuck in traffic, you run out to it. You don't wait by the phone then arrange a rendezvous at the organic grocery store's parking garage across the street then calmly cross the crosswalk to meet the person there. No, you run out of the building like a crazy hillbilly, and the yuppies in the cars all stare at you.

I was in high school before I realized "naked" isn't said like "nekkid." In our image-conscious, nouveau-riche neighborhood, my dad sat barefoot on the front porch and played his banjo. When I was little I sat out there cross-legged and listened happily. Then I got older and wished he would stop.

The mountains in me make me over-polite, saying "Sorry!" all the time, even when it's not my fault. That's just what you do, absorb the blame to make other people feel better. But at school and work, everyone says that's wrong. To them, it's all about polishing your image, your personal PR campaign for you, and so you try to talk more and louder than anyone, and you one-up and elbow people out of the way. You don't let people into your lane. You don't hold the door behind you when you enter a store.

No, it's not at all like "Steel Magnolias" with the refinement and the etiquette classes and the fine heirloom china, saying "sugar" like "shugah." It's "You Might Be a Redneck If..." and NASCAR, speaking in tongues and burning your "secular" CDs during an all-night revival at a Pentecostal church; it’s my mom having pet pigs that she named and then ate as bacon later.

My friends with city parents thought it was funny that I didn't know how to hold my knife and fork when cutting steak, that I was in my twenties before I was on a plane, that my relatives live near a place called Buckeye Hollow that is pronounced like "holler" (I thought that was funny, too). At work, everyone's from the Northeast, they went to liberal-arts schools, they know about all the painters and French New Wave films they're supposed to, they make witty comments filled with obscure literary references. At my house, my dad makes donkey sounds and runs around a tree and it's high comedy.

My mom was so afraid up here, when my parents moved north to the city before I was born, away from the mountains, that she stayed in the house and didn't get her driver's license. She peeked out the windows, from the side of the curtains, and ate Little Debbie snack cakes and fried Spam as her children played in the yard. She avoided the neighbors, who had a knack for making her feel crude and stupid. When the snotty neighbor ladies weren't out walking their bichon frise dogs and gossiping about who was behind on mowing their grass, my mom would kneel in the mulch, barefoot, and plant rows of pansies and potted geraniums and roses that climbed our fence.

At his job, people say my dad sounds like Forrest Gump. He's too nice and trusting so he gets pushed around, even though he's smarter than most of them are.

It was the mountains in me that made me fix your belt. You'd had a bad day, one thing wrong after another, and then the buckle broke loose from the rest of your belt, and that was it. You stormed out into the night, and I followed but couldn't find you. I returned to the apartment to wait for you. But I didn't sit there and cry. I got up to look for glue, and I Super-glued it back together. It's something my people would do, like using duct tape to fix a satellite dish or putting a garbage bag over where a car window is busted out. It's not fancy, but it does the trick, and you don't have to feel useless. The women in my family save their aluminum foil and Saran wrap, balling it up for later use instead of throwing it away. Hillbilly spunk, hillbilly ingenuity. One time my granny pulled some dandelions from our front yard and said she was going to make soup with them. I thought it was a joke.

After my mom finally got her license, my dad bought her a car (white with a burgundy roof, on Valentine's Day). She had a rule that she wouldn't drive in the rain, and she didn't go far beyond our neighborhood. One day my dad locked his keys in the car at work in the city, and my mom had to pick him up. She loaded the kids into the car, and the whole way there--rush hour, Woodrow Wilson Bridge, DC's famous traffic--she cried out loud and told us all to pray for her.

Your people are from the mountains, too, and it's the mountains in you that make you hate it up here. Yesterday in the car, after you finally found me on the street, you said you wished everyone up here would die. People were rude to you in traffic; the congestion was killing you and you longed for the soft green hills of your hometown. At a restaurant in your town where we ate barbecue, a waitress wearing too much make-up who would get laughed at up here called everyone "sweetie" and meant it.

I went to college in those sad mountains, and I hated driving back to school after a visit home, those limp purple humps slowly swallowing me up. They made me think of alcoholic great-uncles and pregnant-teenager second-cousins, of all the people stuck in the mountains like drowned bodies in the ocean.

And now sometimes you say you want to go back, but it will be the mountains in me that make me stand on my porch with a rifle that I won't be afraid to use. If you push me too hard, I will use it.

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