24 March 2006

Where You From?

In 2000 I move to Mississippi from Irvine, California to attend graduate school. I’m instantly greeted with two things I didn’t really expect—the suffocating humidity and the fact that for the last twenty two years I’ve been pronouncing the state name wrong. It’s Miss-ippi. What other syllable? What are you talking about? You sound like a Yankee. I write my old history professor, the one who was so elated that I’d accepted my post at Ole Miss. I demand he use the proper name at once so he won’t taint any more young minds with falsities concerning Missippi.
When I complain about the humidity, the sweat stains spreading on every shirt I own, I’m told there’s an actual product a woman can rub all over her body to keep her from sweating. It’s for pageants and weddings and stuff. You know, when you don’t want to sweat.

I’m amazed by the number of batters on the shelves at the grocery store. I count them: fifteen varieties of Fish-Fry, ten for hushpuppies, another twelve for shrimp boil. Regular, Hot, Spicy, Mild, Cajun. I think I’ve simply not noticed this at home. I call Mom. “What the hell are you talking about?” she asks. “What’s ‘Soul Food Seasoning’? Is that anything like ‘Mexican Seasoning’? I bet it is.”
By late fall I decide that the number of Fish-Frys is somehow cosmically connected to the way people identify themselves here, by county. They won’t come out and tell you what town they’re from; they hint around at it. I’m from Yalobusha County, Lee County, Pontotoc County. It’s even on the license plates. I get so frustrated I stop asking for directions and just buy a county map. I’m sick of hearing things like, “Well, just take a right where the old Ice House used to be till you come to the old theater that was tore down in eighty-nine in Desoto County. What you’re looking for is about four miles north of there, just outside before you hit Tippah County.”
I never told anyone I lived in Orange County. Where you from? Santa Ana, Newport, Irvine. As if to prove me wrong, Aaron Spelling comes out with a new TV show, “The O.C.”

I’m afraid of being alone at the Nativity Play and take the plunge to date someone from around here. He thinks it’s funny I don’t say y’all or supper. He takes me to his parents’ for dinner and shows me off like I’m a snow globe, shaking me at my shoulders and spinning me around the room and saying, “She’s really from California.” They’re Southern Baptists. Perfect, since I have one foot in Atheism and the other in Gnosticism.
I make the mistake of not only overdressing, but also wearing jeans with holes in the knees. “You done worn out the knees of those pants prayin’ to Jesus haven’t ya?” his grandfather asks. In a conversation concerning the current situation in the Middle East, I hear someone say about Saddam Hussein, “His cornbread ain’t cooked.”
When I return to my apartment I’ve got a stack of Christmas cards waiting in the mail. One is from my bank. In the same envelope is a recipe card from Teller Number 37: Meatless Meatloaf Bake. Who is Teller Number 37, and how does First National know I’m a vegetarian?

I can’t help wondering why so many students, most of them sorority girls, drive SUVs. I’m told these vehicles are the dowry of the twenty-first century and since spring is rapidly approaching every father within a ten mile radius is out to prove his daughter is ready for marriage. This bothers me for two reasons: One, I own a compact car. Two, is the girl who drives the Toyota actually worth less than the one driving the Lexus?
In order to make sense of this new world, I catalogue the bugs the way I do these students—big wings, Lexus, small wings, Toyota. It’s not hard. At first I let them land on my notebook and snap it closed. I have pages of tiny flattened carcasses I’ve teased apart to measure. I then divide them according to color. The down side is, I think some of them are the same bug at different stages in life. Once I start letting them bite me I can begin to truly identify them. There’s a small one that looks like a baby mosquito. It can make my elbow swell to the size of a turnip. I keep this in mind as I watch girls driving around in their Suburbans.

Mom comes to visit just when the pollen is coating everything with a yellow fur. We’re both sneezing and I take her to the grocery store on Sunday to prove they don’t, in fact, have a liquor aisle. “See,” I say, walking her next to the potato chips, “it should be right here and it’s not.”
“But you’ve got beer. Here’s let’s get something. It’ll cure these allergies.”
“It’s Sunday,” I explain.
“So.” She takes a six pack of Berry Mountain Coolers to the checkout.
“Oh,” sighs the checker, “I can’t sell that to you, it’s the Sabbath.”
“See,” I say.
“It’s okay,” Mom tells her. She takes out her wallet and flashes her driver’s license. “I’m from California.”
Instead of drinking we end up frying okra in my kitchen. “Do you think I could smuggle some of this on the plane?” Mom asks, examining the small nuggets as if they are gold.
Once she’s safely tucked back into her Southern California living room, Mom tells me she’s not coming to visit again. “I got a rash,” she complains. “And I think you have mold.”
“It’s not mold,” I tell her, looking up at the black stain on the ceiling. “It’s mildew. There’s a difference.”

Why is it that my neighbors refuse to buy a trashcan, throwing their garbage onto their lawn for the stray cats who’ve multiplied since last summer? It’s now Friday and why hasn’t the guy who’s supposed to paint my front door not been back since he started the job on Monday? Why does my boyfriend act like I’m an alien from another planet every time I ask why Jeopardy comes on at noon?
My one girlfriend says, “Things get done a little slower here. You’ll just have to slow down. Do you think this animosity has anything to do with the fact that you’re not married yet, that what your boyfriend gave you for Christmas was that deep fryer and not an engagement ring?” I dump the friend, buy a paintbrush, and finish the door myself.

Friends from my college days visit in May. They’re getting married and I just know they’re going to ask me to be a bride’s maid. We spend the first night of their stay crouched in the sports bra section of Wal-Mart convinced we’re going to be swept away by the impending tornado, sirens going off in the parking lot. I try to soothe them by saying, “This has never happened to me before, really. There hasn’t been a single tornado since I moved here.” By the time it’s all over, I’ve got hail dents on the hood of my car and I’ve been reduced to the person in charge of the guest book.

Because the grilling season has begun, my boyfriend’s parents want to make a Drunk Chicken. This is where you stick a half can of beer up a chicken’s ass and set it out on the grill. They live in a dry county. Not only that, he’s a church Deacon. So there won’t be a scandal, I’ve been elected to buy the beer. What I want to say is, “Gee, thanks. It’s such an honor to buy you both your first beer. When I’m done here, do you mind if your son and I fuck in the bathroom?”

On Labor Day I meet a member of my boyfriend’s family who rattles off who the last five quarterbacks have been for the State college and where they now play professionally. He also tells me the number of rushing plays versus passing plays the University coach is planning to run in the coming year. He’s five. He’s got his allowance on Bama.
I’m trying to explain to some of his cousins that where I come from we pronounce a word spelled Y-O-C-O-N-A as Yo-cone-a, not Yawknee. Likewise, Tu pelo means your hair, not the birthplace of Elvis. “Say it again, say it again,” they say. They won’t stop laughing at me.
It’s true, chivalry is dead. I break up with my southern boyfriend the next day because he didn’t defend me. All he says is, “You’re afraid of my faith. You can’t handle that I’m heaven bound and you’re not.”
I say, “Geez, you’re right. That’s been eating away at me ever since I conceded to letting you fuck me in the bed of your pickup on the Fourth of July.” I can tell he feels some remorse, like he should stay and offer to take me to a cotillion. I throw the deep fryer onto the front porch so he knows it’s over. And for the first time in a year I feel like I belong here.

hey guys
this is in NO WAY a jibe at the south...i don't hate the south, i don't hate the south!...i'm trying to perfect a series of non-fiction pieces and this one is giving me the most trouble...is it coherent? does the "narrator" make sense...is the way it's organized confusing? i guess, more importantly, does it make you laugh at all?

any advice is most helpful


Blogger The Damned said...

There are definitely funny moments here which you probably heighten with timing and white space, even though it doesn't show up on this posting.

Here are some phrasing suggestions:

First sentence: transpose Mississippi and Irvine: "from Irvine, CA to MS where..."

Every time I see the word batters, I think of baseball players: fry-batters, maybe?

“identify themselves here: by county.” Use a colon and maybe even italicize county?

Omit “outside” and keep “before you hit Tippah county.”

Should the where you from stuff (as well as the MS and county stuff in the first paragraphs) be in unattributed dialogue?

Y’all and supper should be in italics—as well as any other words you’re using as words

Should it be: “What I want to know is,” before we get “Who is Teller 37”…?

Use colons again: “big wings: Lexus, small wings: Toyota”

White space after your mom says, “I’m from California.” Gives timing to the punch line, encourages us to laugh before continuing.

Shouldn’t you insert 'mom calls' into: “Southern Cal living room to tell me…”

Insert "Just" before “so there won’t be a scandal….”

Take out “who have been the last five quarterbacks” and make it “rattles off the last five quarterbacks at the State College.” Change “He’s five,” to “The kid is…” whatever age—I doubt five myself, but I would believe ten. White space after a quoted or italicized “Bama.”

Get rid of that damn cotillion. Make it a hoe-down or a square-dance or not even a dance since they're baptists and, as Robert Duvall says in Apocalypse Now, "Baptists don't dance!" What Baptists do do--and you've set it up with the drunken chicken--is gorge themselves in the name of the Lord, thank you Jesus. So maybe have him not even offer her a Wednesday Night Supper, or something like that.

I like this, although I think it is condescending and disparaging (am I wrong?) of southerners. I don't yet get the feeling by the end of the essay that you think this is your problem rather than theirs, which is what I think you're going for. And, sorry, but I'm not sure how you can go about doing that, except maybe working around to Quentin's famous dialouge, which you might include somehow along with your previous southern experiences in Texas. Any ideas?

6:41 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

I keep leaving these anonymous comments. Sorry.

6:42 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

thanks for the comments...my fear is that i seem to be condescending, but i don't want to be...i think i've noticed these things about the south because i was new to it...i'm sure we have backward people in CA--all over for that matter--but i wasn't trying to portray stereotypes (the SUVs are supposed to show southern wealth and modernity)...i think when you move somewhere new, you pay closer attention to things than you did wherever you grew up (ie the "batters" on the shelves)...i wanted the make it seem like after a year in this place i felt at home (at home enough to have appliances in the yard like my neighbors)...any suggestions about how i could improve on getting these ideas into the piece without losing the momentum or tone?

8:35 AM  
Blogger Jean Louis said...


The only line edit I'd disagree with Adam on is "batters." I don't think of baseball. Of course, I so rarely, rarely think of baseball.

As for condescension, well, a bit--but not exactly. What I sense in this narrator is a genuine effort to come to terms with the south. However, it seems like she only focuses on what Adam called their problem, not her own. What keeps it from being stereotypical are the original details (no liquor aisle, fry batters, SUVs as dowry (that's Louis, right?), etc.).

Honestly, here's what I don't like about it: the ending. I don't like the break-up, if only because it seems to hinge upon what is perhaps the story's one glaring stereotype: the self-righteous, holier-than-thou southerner. I would assume, if the narrator liked this guy and the guy liked her, then he wouldn't say something so ass-judgmental. Add to this the fact that it kind of reduces your narrator to a stereotype, too: the liberated chick from California who doesn't need a man in the midst of a patriarchal culture to feel good about herself.

Maybe to offset the one-sidedness of it all there needs to be something GOOD right in the middle, some nice, lovely descriptive passage of something the narrator finds great about the south (there's gotta be something, right?). Or, actually, it could be in the small details, as are the oddities.

But break-ups are kind of like deaths, aren't they? Easy ways to wrap up a piece? If you want to earn the break-up, you've got to make the boyfriend more of a jerk--or, at least, give us a glimpse at his judgmental side? The fact that he gives her a deep fryer is counter to what you're going for; it's very endearing, actually.


P.S. It's very funny.

8:53 AM  

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