New South Hymnal [Flash Nonfiction]

by Martha Park

(lyrics by Three 6 Mafia)

There’s some cowards in the South

July in Memphis, the air is liquefied and heavy. Cameron blasts the speakers, windows down, and drives. I slump down in the seat with my legs out the window, trying to keep my skin off the hot leather. I watch the streetlights pass—one lit, the next two burnt and fizzling. Taking Poplar to Tillman we find summer is dead serious. Everybody’s in the street, speakers blaring the same old Three 6 we are.

It’s gettin’ late and I’m ballin’ down Elvis street

When I was a kid, I asked my mother why music hurt my face. In church, when the choir sang, I curled up on the pew with my hands over my ears, trying to separate myself from the sound, trying to hear the songs as if under water. I said, “I can feel the big notes like a lemon in my cheeks.” Mom told me sometimes music made her emotional, too. Those years, the Elvis parade started at Graceland and marched through my grandmother’s neighborhood—a long line of wigged impersonators, hundreds of baying hound dogs, and me, barely four years old, cheering from the curb. Now, I couldn’t say which house was hers.

Act like you know me

Cameron and I come upon North Memphis at night, its factories rising like apocalyptic castles on every block. Cameron’s car is trembling with bass and we know all the words, but we don’t belong here—two white kids in his daddy’s ancient Jaguar. The passenger side door is broken, so I slide in and out through the window, scraping the backs of my legs.

In love with the songs, we claim them. We know all the words, learn more about the city through the lyrics. That summer, we charted our course and tried to understand: though we lived in the city, we knewinner city never meant us, no matter how inner we went.

When you walk through the wilderness

We run across the bridge over the Mississippi. The trucks are flying past us, whipping my hair wildly around my head. We lift the trap door, climb down the narrow ladder. Under the bridge, from the maintenance platform, we watch the city’s reflection spill out over the water. Cameron steps out onto the cat walk suspended under the bridge. It’s just a six-inch metal beam between Cameron and a long free-fall into the river, and I’m screaming at him to come back. Above us the trucks are rumbling, the sound so loud I feel it in my teeth. Below us is the black river, its mass of hidden tangled undertows, a commanding wildness. My voice is swallowed in the vast expanse.

I get full of that Holy Ghost

In August we go with our church to repair houses in West Virginia, in a town the locals call the end of the world. Cameron and I are sent to a white and yellow house at the end of a winding country road. It was painted with a fifteen-dollar bucket of highway paint that’s near-impossible to scrape off. The elderly woman who lives there wants the kitchen ceiling propped up and the house painted a dark crimson. The plumbing dumps from a pipe directly into the creek behind her house. We’re not here to fix that. Cameron and I perch on the roof, peeling and painting the upstairs section of siding. Cameron runs his paintbrush over a wasp. It wriggles and dies as the paint dries over it.

Act like you know me

Our last day, the old woman makes everyone ham sandwiches on white bread. After we eat, she blesses us, going up to each person with a half-empty bottle of canola oil. She pours a dollop of oil onto her fingers and smears it onto our foreheads. She is anointing us, praying for our safe return home. At the touch of her warm, slick finger on my forehead, I swallow back tears.

In this moment I understand, for the first time, that there are different kinds of South, that this South is not mine, not the South I’ve known without being able to name. This South is Appalachia, and the word stumbles on my tongue like I’m not sure where to put each syllable. With its houses swallowed in mountain kudzu, its ink-black nights, its stars bursting across the sky like buckshot, Appalachia casts my own South into stark contrast.

Although I can see, suddenly, how distinctly different parts of the South can be, there is little I know how to say about home, to define it or characterize it. I don’t know what I could say about high school, that massive cinderblock compound where I shuffle through the hours and years, the bathroom stalls with no locks, the police officers in every hallway. I don’t know what I could say about the metal detector’s constant hum, or the way I felt my body penetrated by machines, or the way the school smelled of batter and bleach in the mornings.

Moon full of blood

I could tell of the potholed streets Cameron and I drove at night, and the stereo’s vibrations coursing through our skin.

After being anointed by the old woman, as we pile into the truck, Cameron leans close to me and sings a line we both know: watch out for the voodoo cultures. I laugh, because that’s what he wants, because these are the whispered moments we own, if nothing else.

The most known unknowns

Back in Memphis, at church, Cameron and I leave our parents and sit together on our own pew. From the balcony, the congregation is a crowd of neatly curled clouds of hair, white gelled comb-overs, babies staring in all the wrong directions. Cameron and I share a worn, read hymnal. We read along with the songs, but we do not sing. We are waiting for a hymn of our own, something we can claim.

 

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Martha Park is a writer and illustrator from Memphis, Tennessee. She is a graduate student at Hollins University’s Jackson Center for Creative Writing, where she writes essays and works as the Assistant Editor of the Hollins Critic.