On my worst days, when I belong nowhere, I take to the woods like a rabid ghost. A bizarre astral projection in the black hollows of my homeland, begging for solutions to problems earned by blood and purchased in vows. I dig through clover and dark soil and red clay, I tear my clothes in the brambles, and I come up empty-handed.
But on certain summer evenings, it gets too hot to move or drive or cook and the trees encircling my house sag under the weight of impossible humidity. So I sit in the backyard in shorts and a ratty tank top. Forearms streaked with red clay where I’ve been weeding the garden, hands choked around the neck of a half-full wine bottle, silently hoping it hasn’t vinegared.
I turn the dogs loose across the rusted metal stripping of the threshold. They run the border of my yard, noses to the northeast, and sniff in the blackberry brambles while mockingbirds flee the privet. It gets all thick and still, nothing but the crickets screaming through the Mackey Branch creek bottom while the woods simmer with the wind riding the heels of the thunderheads stacked and bruised over the oak tops, greener than usual.
The air kicks through the grass, scoops the heat off my small concrete patio, and balloons through my shirt. When it’s like this, I cross my legs in a patch of clover and white flowers wind through my toes. I uncork the bottle and as I sip straight from the smooth, cold lip, and as the red blend that has seen better days hits my tongue, the first rumble collapses across this tuft of land, folding everything into its patch of time, vibrating off the ridge before descending into the hollow. It is in every space.
Summer storms in the American Southeast seem to be one of the few guarantees in life. As sure as the Utah desert I’d grown to love would suck every particle of moisture from me, so the all-consuming rains of Tennessee would fill every corner. I receive messages from my parents in Memphis, my grandparents in Johnson City, my in-laws across the street. They alert me to the weather, ask when it’s supposed to hit us, remind me to move my car from under the towering oaks in front of my house, caution me not to get knocked into next week by the hail. The warnings and concerns are less sincere and more for good measure. We’ve all gone this long weathering the storms—what damage could one more do?
So, on the days the storms come and flood the trails over, and I cannot take to the woods, I am supposed to be here in my backyard. Dirty and ready and a little buzzed, a bit smug for remembering the wine before it was too far gone, I choke on a giggle, as I imagine the squatters in the surrounding woods, their meth fires being snuffed out one fat raindrop at a time. Their muddy, twitching rage.
The squatters had likely been there for weeks—just at the end of a rutted-out road that the rightful landowner never seemed to bother with—before anyone knew something was amiss. By the time the police showed to bust up their operation, the landowner had already come through with an excavator and tore through their trailer, leaving foam mattress remnants and odd bits of piping and plastic storage bins scattered in the woods.
I suppose having meth heads camping in the woods is no laughing matter. It’s the pitch black irony of their odd proximity, the swamped wasteland dividing us, and the woods we share. The neighborhood hysteria concerning addicts roaming in the undergrowth along Mackey Branch, juxtaposed with no trace of admonishment for the ones living in nice homes and driving nice cars. Keep it secret, keep it safe, this can’t be us, therefore it isn’t. It’s wrong to think this way. But it’s easy to fall back into our southern shadows, to languish in the shade of the dark hugs that raised us. Forgetting what the world has taught us goes down smooth as 140 proof apple pie, to slip over the slick glass edge of that Kerr jar and convince ourselves we’re without fault.
My husband said he would have excavated the meth camp, too. He once told me a story about a friend in prison who would make a game of setting traps for the addicts and watching them scramble. Said they were like mice, never really knowing what was going on. So as my clothesline snaps in the breeze and the wine continues its journey, tingling behind my jaw just beneath my earlobes, I think about how the creek will rise and I envision ten or so mice scurrying through the woods, fleeing as the water moccasins and mud seep through their nest just a short distance from my house. Where would they go? I see my husband driving an excavator through the creek bottom, only to recognize his own face in one of the terrified mice— but it’s too late.
My husband is collared and clean-cut, somewhere on the other side of the railroad negotiating a soggy field in his old truck, checking traps. Only a modicum of things truly separates him from the mice in the woods: a quarter mile, a different tax bracket, and an underlying privilege that he has trouble understanding. A different sort of shell cursed with old stories and hurt as real and dense as the soggy clay that swells around the foundations of our home with every soaking storm.
I wish I could replace the recliner he’d taken to sleeping in with a camp chair by a fire in the belly of the San Rafael Swell, exchange the darkened spots beneath his eyes for a sunburn sprouting on his face from a day spent among the red rocks. I wish I could excavate his medicine cabinet to make more room for living.
I wish I could talk about the secret chemical evils that render life fragile. I’ve come so far, I’ve cocooned the torn muscles of emotional labor in bourbon and setting fire to piles of cardboard in my backyard. Now there is no belle in me, barefoot and smoke-smudged, a 9mm in my left hand as branches snap in the woods under smooth coyote paws or someone setting up camp.
I wish I could call out and discover who they are. Tell them the mosquitoes aren’t as bad in the clearing of our yard, that I made too much chicken soup and if they’d wait just a few minutes the bread would be out of the oven. But I hear people trying to protect me. “Carry the gun. Lock the doors.” Yet they walk across my threshold day in, day out, wearing the faces of people I love, and I open the door and I hand them a beer and my dogs know them by ear scratches and Wes knows them as childhood friends, and I know it all as a sadness I can’t fix.
I wish I was some harbinger of change. Maybe I could be if not so devoted to my own pain. Instead, I take flasks into the forest and hike drunk past old TNT bunkers when the sun is out. I sit itching in my backyard, waiting for a rainstorm with a bottle pressed to my lips, sweat beading in the crease behind my bent knees and anger hollowing out space just beneath my clavicle like worms in a perfectly good pecan.
I look at my life, and what it is despite my curated attempts to shape-shift. To polish my story away from the stereotype of what it means to be from the South. Caked in the fear of being stuck, every effort like swimming through molasses. My accent was abandoned long ago, and my culinary prowess ventures well beyond the breaded and fried. My middle-class upbringing was in my favor and somehow I still became the collateral damage of redneck jokes made real. Simmering chicken stock in cast iron, canning apricots while pretending the people around me weren’t wasting away from pills or loneliness or inherited rage.
All I can do is grip broken secrets—their shame or pain becoming mine, hushing the person who learned to be open under a wide expanse of red and sagebrush. The one who got help, started asking for what she needed, and found life in the struggle for oxygen on high peaks. I can go west all I want, change how I eat, adjust my worldview, find God, lose him again, cut my hair. But I’m undone by the borders of my home, and crawl back to the secrets, once more convinced that my worth lies in protecting the people I love from themselves. I can work the job and wear the lipstick and live in the desert but my magnetics work too well. They will always draw on the girl who likes a reason to stagnate with her problems, blaming the mosquitoes for biting when she made the choice to stand in still water. Nothing to write home about, but something to write something about.
I shake off the stale patterns around me by creating my own. When the storms blow over I become unsettled, chasing the cold and the shade of the old trees, kicking through rot and undergrowth all dead leaves pressed into the earth, the wet smell wicking upwards. In my movement, everything I resent becomes recognizable—something I can work with and shape and bend, the illusion of action. If I can move with the secrets and the systems and “how it’s always been,” if I can take them to the woods and empty them into the rock outcroppings and root systems, if I can feel the wind scrubbing it from my shoulders on the high balds, if I can dump it all from the peak into the valley below, and let the summer storms hold them in thrall, they become stronger, easier, a little less heartbreaking.
Liv Tipton graduated from UTC with a Bachelor’s in English. She now lives in a camper in Heber City, UT with her husband and two dogs. Between questioning her decision to live in a camper and being a snowboarding instructor, she can be found consuming quantities of coffee that do not bode well for her anxiety, and hiking with her dogs along the Provo River.