Excerpt from the novel Native Trees a finalist in Still: The Journal's 2019 Fiction Contest
We drive like we did when we were teenagers, his rusty truck bouncing over potholes, which are plenty on this shitty two-lane road. We say nothing for a long while, just drive, his truck loud when he shifts gears. He turns on the AC full-blast, but it just pushes out hot air.
It feels like it’s been years since I’ve since him. It has, but it feels like yesterday, too, which is strange. When I look at him, I smile so that it embarrasses me. Quietly, I shake my head, rolling my eyes at myself.
“What?” he says, turning the air off. “Damn thing don’t help. It’s too hot out.” He looks at me again, ignoring the road a minute. Light uneasiness barely touches down on me.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” He chuckles, shaking his head. He knows. Just like I do. We’re still pretty much the same—about each other anyway. I can see it in his smile, or at least, I think so.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” I say, turning my head to look out at the trees as we speed down the holler, hoping he doesn’t notice just how nervous I am. He still drives too fast, almost on the center line.
“Do you really wanna go to that concert?” he asks, his eyes on the road.
He knows I’d rather not. He’s counting on me being just the same. I changed a lot, but now, being beside him, I feel like I’m sixteen again.
I don’t answer. I’m not sure what to say. I’m a little embarrassed because I reckon it’s obvious I’m here to see him and listen to him, not some band. I think I’m crazy for feeling how I do.
Maybe he’ll think I’m crazy if I admit that I just want to talk all night long exactly how we used to, that really I want to see if he’s still who he used to be, maybe see if I am, too. I’d like to see if he’s still funny, find out something, about him, about me. Not exactly sure what.
I think I want to know why I still care after twenty-one years, maybe prove to myself it’s not real so I can let it go. I’ll spend a little time with him, and I’ll see we don’t have a thing to talk about. Having a crush on a boy in the first grade is supposed to stay just a crush in the first grade, not turn into anything but a cute story to laugh at high-school reunions.
“Honeybee?” he says.
I can’t look at him. It’s like if I do, I’ll tell on myself, and right now, I’d be a lot more comfortable keeping these thoughts private.
“This place is still pretty as ever here, huh, even with all the drug addicts walking around like The Walking Dead,” I comment lazily when my mind is so full.
“I reckon,” he says, not impressed by the comment. “You all right, Honeybee? Somethin’ the matter?”
When he asks this, I can hear the way he really means it. You know how sometimes people ask you that because really, they’re just worried about themselves, about if you’re mad at them or not, not really about you and if you’re fine or not. But when we was in high school, he was that way.
He cared if the people around him were fine or not. That’s what I remember the most: him caring about everybody more than himself. Well, I remember that and his dark eyes that have so many words, even when he doesn’t.
“I’m fine,” I say, still watching the green fly by, the trees and bushes and vines. Two of the last good things here are most noticeable when I’m in a car but not the one driving: mountains and clean air that smells like weeds and flowers and dirt as it whips through my hair from the half-open window.
This place might be poor, but boy, the air ain’t this clean nowhere else. The mountains are as vivid as I remember them in high school, and the sky is so blue, the purest blue, the kind of blue Maggie wears, almost aqua. The color looks fake. It’s so clear and plain, so plainly what it is and nothing but that.
There’s a freedom, like something opens in me, in my chest, when I look at the sky here. Even in high school when the drear culture of this place—the mean kids, the shitty adults—even then, the sky and mountains were my comfort.
“I tell you what,” he starts. Every time he talks, I notice the thickness of his accent that I don’t hear in mine unless I’m around people in the city.
“How about we stop over and say hi to Meat?”
I don’t know what my face says.
“Come on, you always liked ol’ Meat! He’s got somethin’ cool I can show you.”
“It’s not a bent bicycle rim, is it?” I say, trying to be funny. He may not have heard the last Barter and Trade on the radio where Meat was trying to sell a rusty, bent-up bicycle rim.
He laughs. “No, it’s not. But I imagine he’s got some of ‘em if you want to see.”
It takes us about twenty minutes to get over the mountain to Meat’s house. I half expect to be taken to a rowdy get-together of Meat’s and Jeremiah’s shared-childhood friends, people I probably knew but surely have forgotten like how I forgot Mary Beth Stanton, a girl who’d spent each day with my sister for two years when I was in junior high. But that isn’t what’s at Meat’s house. It’s not a party at all.
We pull up outside of the white two-story, what I remember as being his aunt’s when we were kids. I also remember the house looking much nicer. The paint is peeling a little on the porch. Empty dog bowls, maybe four, are scattered on the wood porch, and all the junk he collects is all over the yard. Everything from a lone large section of chain-link fence to empty steel barrels, a pair of roller-skates, several bodies of bicycles—adult and kid sizes—and one rocking horse that I recognize as one I had as a kid in the 80s.
Meat answers the door in his Budweiser shirt, his fat rolls sticking out the bottom, which he pulls down to cover. Same old Meat.
“Is that you, Honeybee?” Meat asks. I’m startled he recognizes me without prompting. He motions for me to come closer and opens his arm. I hug him.
“It’s been a long time. Last time I saw you, you was talkin’ about how much you hate it here and want to go off somewhere better,” he says in that childlike but grown-man deep voice.
“I’m sure I did say that. It’s good to see ya, Meat.” I feel my accent thicken when I say his name. Hell, when I speak to anybody around here, my accent comes back more. I don’t care really, but when I talk to Meat and he smiles how he always has, it feels good to be home.
“Oh, hey!” He gets overexcited, throwing his hands up. Jeremiah smiles, looking at me sort of sideways, chuckles.
“I got the best idea!” he says, way too loud to be talking to people right in front of him.
“Well, why don’t we sit down, and you can tell us all about it,” Jeremiah says, polite and patient how he always was.
Meat invites us in, and I notice an odor of used cat litter. The house is a mess, as expected, but there’s holes in the walls, just everywhere, like somebody has been punching straight through the drywall.
Then, I notice Meat’s knuckles are a bit scuffed up. He’s always been rough and too big, too loud, too stupid, oh, just too much. Poor Meat. How my heart swells with love for his inability to see evil or ugly in absolutely anything or anyone. He’s like a child, only funnier, bigger, and stronger.
People were so mean to Meat when we was growing up. People was mean to all three of us. Now that I’m back here, I look at things differently than I did before. I hated it here. I hated being home. It wasn’t home, but some shithole I couldn’t wait to escape. It was a dirty old well to fall down and get lodged, squeezed to death in the dark.
It was some muddy old mountainside to tumble down and break your damn neck while outsiders talked about how pretty the fucking mountain was. It was a hellhole. But now, I feel different, like I’m part of this place but not. I know before I left I never paid attention to the things I notice now: the light in the trees in the morning or the smell of the wind. But then there’s the ugly shit I didn’t pay much attention to, too, like fly strips, the ones hanging in Meat’s kitchen. They’re yellowed with fuzzy-looking fly corpses hanging off them, one or two still buzzing, struggling, which makes you almost feel sorry for them but disgusted by them mostly. I think to myself we treat bugs that get into our house like oh, you poor things crying so quietly, but you’re so ugly, fuck you, get out of my kitchen. It’s how I feel about this entire place. Oh, Buffalo Creek, your dying beauty, dying people flailing in the dark, doing it to flourish before, but now?
Now just to survive a few more minutes dangling pathetically on the fly strip, outsiders standing by to gaze with pity and disgust. How does so much beauty live side-by-side with so much ugly, death, grease, rust, and rot? How do we feel a part of beauty and a shame and hate for this place at the same time?
We sit on Meat’s broken-down sofa, sagging in the middle, that same fucking sofa every single person in the south owned in the 1980s—the orange and brown one with the hideous, oddly-shaped flower patterns. Everything in here is from that period.
All night long Meat and Jeremiah keep me laughing. We drink beer—Budweiser, what else? And we laugh our beer-stink laughs, those guffaws you can’t hold back although even while drunk you realize they are way, way too loud for the halfway-funny comment or observation. But God, how we laugh, how Meat remembers every little thing about me. He tells me stories about myself and Jeremiah that even I don’t remember.
Meat starts every sentence with, “Hey, hey, Honeybee, hey,” as if he just ran into me in the hall at school, as if we haven’t been sitting and talking for the last three hours since midnight. So, this is how we stayed up all night in high school. God, I remember this ridiculous freedom and humor, this different kind that people not from here don’t get.
I love Meat. I love him so much. I missed him and had no idea. I missed this entire place. Or am I just drunk? Sometimes I love so much when I’m drunk that I don’t even know where to start and tears come to my eyes. Alcohol, I reckon.
“Honeybee, you remember that time you and Jeremiah got dared to kiss and you did? Then that time at another Truth-or-Dare game Jason Browning dared you to lay over top of him with your boobies in his face but not touching his face and then…” Meat’s sentences are so badly constructed but so easy to understand and follow for me. It’s like he speaks a different language that nobody understands but me and Jeremiah—well, and his cousin Tommy who died in that car accident senior year. He understood, too.
“And—and you, you was real surprised, because then Jason opened his eyes and rubbed his face in your boobies, and it was so funny! It was so funny, Honeybee! Ha ha! I thought it was so funny. Everybody else did too, Jeremiah especially! You didn’t even have big boobies, though. Nobody thought you did. But I didn’t say nothin’ because it isn’t nice to talk about girls’ boobies. I never did talk about yours. I didn’t. I swear.”
He goes on to name every person that was there that night and every detail about who laughed at what joke and who fell off the porch because they were too drunk to walk. Why we thought shit like that was funny, I don’t know. I can’t remember why we were such little assholes. But it didn’t feel like we were. I thought we were just having fun.
I felt like not being a cheerleader and not being a jock or a prep was what was cool. We called them posers. We called all the preps who tried to say they liked our music posers. That’s so ridiculous to me now. And our music is what we called metal back then. Ours. As if nobody else could appreciate it, not like us. The crazy things we did, though, ain’t nothing like the shit kids do now. A crazy night to us was a few beers and maybe jumping off the trestle at midnight or throwing a friend into a green pool in October. That shit really was funny. Gross, but funny.
As we leave, Jeremiah puts his hand on the small of my back like he’s guiding me out of the house, like maybe I need his help. He’s never done that before. Not ever. It’s like he’s protecting me. How can I be romantic about such a small gesture?
Here we are, drunk and hanging around in a falling-down house with dead flies and beer cans stacked up, nasty floors, and sweat-smell. God, the smell. But here we are, and here he is. And it’s home whether I like all the details or not. He’s safe. He touches me with more care than I’ve ever shown myself, with a surety of my permission. He knows he doesn’t have to ask, just like I know what he means by it. I know he’s safe, and I’m safe, and he wouldn’t hurt me for the world, not ever.
We stand on the steps in the chill and moonlight, saying goodbye to Meat. He leans down, which is pretty far since I’m not very tall and he’s so giant, and he wraps his thick arms around me, pressing his sweaty face into my shoulder, nearly knocking me off the porch.
“Careful, Meat, you’re ‘bout to knock her down.” Jeremiah pats Meat’s shoulder with a hand, the other one still gripping the neck of a beer bottle.
Meat giggles. His stubble scratches my face, and I laugh, patting him hard on his back. I think I have to be rough with him so he’d feel a hug around his big neck, because my hands and hugs seem so small and ineffectual embracing his thick figure. I had no idea how much he meant to me. I’d forgotten Meat, Patron Saint of the Innocent, the Sweet, the Gentle.
Meat reminds me of what I love so much about home. They know me here, really know me. If I'm home, there's no backstory I have to explain. There's no need to try to convince anyone of anything. There's no pressure to have utility in other people’s lives. Here, people like being around you because they think you're funny or they like your smile or your voice, or maybe they know your mama and want to talk about her and how she made all the women that worked in the cafeteria cackle when she was still alive.
Or maybe they don't want to talk about anything at all, so you stand on their porch and have a forty-five-minute conversation about Christmas decorations, when you were only there to begin with to deliver their newspaper. Or, you end up with an in-depth talk about the neighborhood stray cats being in heat and how you think maybe somebody ought to call the pound.
Or cake, and how to get it to be fluffier like Missy's are down there at the Baptist Church at all the fundraisers. Or who wrecked her car last week or who cheated on her husband or who flunked out of night school or who had a baby by somebody that they wasn't supposed to be with in the first place.
I can hear it now: “I ain't one to talk about nobody ... but she's a mess. Lord, bless her heart.” And, by the way, sometimes we say bless her heart and mean it. And sometimes it means what a dumbass. God love her, cause nobody else does.
I chuckle, thinking of all the times I’ve said that or had it said to me, and how, each time, I’ve known exactly which way folks meant it depending on their tone and their eyes—mostly their eyes. I feel at home, right in the center of myself, and all the love everybody here ever had for me. I catch myself happier than I’ve been in years.
When we get into the truck, I’m lighter—my body, my mind, both calm and soft. I know part of it is liquor, that one shot we did of whiskey on top of the few beers—it warmed up my toes until they curled up into my spine.
But this isn’t comfort and warmth from just some Jack. I know this is Jeremiah’s effect on me. I don’t recall any other time in my life feeling this easy and complete, this comfortable, happy. And we didn’t do nothing special, just sat around talking to Meat.