Prose: Mattie Quesenberry Smith
I cried my first tear on the same map coordinate where Audie Murphy crashed and burned, on a chain of ragged mountain peaks in Catawba, Virginia, nestled in the flesh of Dragon’s Tooth and the celebrated burning brush of Brushy Mountain—that’s what I was tempted to say when you told me I needed to learn to accept my place.
You put me in my place that day, sure enough, catapulted me to Catawba, to the one room shack with a twisted, rusted roof in The Cut, a tiny gravel quarry just across the road from the house where my mother was born. Straight slate walls punctuated three sides of the yard and climbed eighteen feet to a cow pasture. If you ran out the back door of the house couched in The Cut, you’d get cut off, and then what? After all, my biggest problem with that place was that it was infested with fleas, and Daddy had to carry water. We used a bucket for a potty and a clothes basket for my bed.
Yes, I was birthed where Audie Murphy crashed and burned one foggy night. It was Drew Tucker who told me that Audie Murphy, some kind of a war hero, was dead. Drew Tucker used to tell me stories about Audie Murphy on the school bus. Drew was always bringing things to school in jars. One time he brought a black and golden garden spider onto the bus: it wagged and spread its spindly legs, swollen abdomen looking as thick as my fat thumb. After the crash, Drew and his daddy climbed up the mountain to poke around the site, and they found a finger bone. They kept that in a jar, too.
Drew Tucker had it bad; his father ran down to the country store one day and picked up some prostitute. Now, Drew is off somewhere in Baltimore, homeless: he found his place.
You’re a televangelist’s daughter, so you caught me off guard that day by the columbarium. You had worked yourself up to some fact about my plight. I knew you were planning to lay some wisdom on me, because that was your appointed roll in the Church of Jubilee—plus, for you, it was a family thing. To your credit, Sister, I know you meant to give me the peace, and lecturing suited you, but I hadn’t confused our places: There’s something in the scriptures warning against that and the vice versa.
I should have persevered that day, however, to tell you something, but I stopped short and stood there thinking about the ivy (let it creep) and the bagworms (let them eat) by the columbarium. It was the bagworms that most fascinated me; they gathered bits of browning foliage and stuck them to their protective bags, eating all the while undisclosed on the dogwood. I mean: they were decimating that dogwood by the columbarium. You had to have an eye for dogwoods to notice.
You stuck me back in a place, Sister, a place that I had bolted past, like overgrown cress, crooked and canted to spread seeds far and wide. Dare I say chosen for fertile ground? I had lived beyond that place all my life, had even been called “some kind of genetic miracle” by one of my boyfriends’ mothers.
He had tried to keep his mother from discovering me at all, but she had different plans: she drove out to the house when she had promised him better. The house—scaffolding and junk piled in the yard, bicycle trails pressed through the great green grass, and a flat circle of dirt worn around the doghouse—the house made her exclaim to him: “She must be some kind of genetic miracle.”
Afterwards, he took me to his house for dinner, because his mom had invited me with grace and hospitality. We ate meatloaf, tasteless and faulted so it fell directly in half, and I considered the fact that the interior of the home was white; everything was white, even the furniture and the poodle dog. They didn’t look up from their plates, and they didn’t talk to me, no, never spoke.
You caught me by the columbarium, and I was caught sure enough, caught just like that—overreaching—I imagine you would say. You put a choke hold on me just as his mom did on dinner day. I wish, sure enough, that I had “chosen not to associate” as my mother would have said.
“You need to choose not to associate,” she would say each time I mentioned a new friend, “People in town are rich, so you need to choose not to associate with them.”
“It’s wrong to live beyond your means,” she would say.
Since my mother (and his mother, for that matter) had already laid the groundwork, I was inclined to believe you: I said inclined. What I did do was decide not to tell you the truth. I’ll sum it up for you: two women, you and I, let something rear up at the Church of Jubilee—you with your hubris and I with my offense—we let it get away by the columbarium; it had been a matter of life and death. Together, we could have cinched it; we could have avoided calamity.
When he touched that girl, I knew it was a setup from the beginning, but everyone else blamed Satan, and they gathered in the sanctuary and wailed. You and your entourage hired him knowing that he had a past, but he told you he had been healed, and Jubilee was a place for second chances. A little birdie told me that later, Sister, but at the time (by the columbarium) I was left with my good old discernment—I’m calling it my own charisma.
I didn’t know he had a history. All I knew was that he tumbled into church on Sunday costumed in bib overalls and no shirt! He let out this guffaw, and he pretended to trip. The kids were going wild with laughter over his foolishness. He put Audie Murphy and me to shame. I thought about being outright offended, but I knew better; instead, I asked: Why does he work so hard to get everybody’s guard down? Do we laugh about hayseed rednecks in church? Everyone else said he was charismatic.
Then it was the day I witnessed him chasing someone’s daughter through the basement corridor: thank God nothing came of that—he had a witness, you know. I should have told you by the columbarium. Telling your father the televangelist, two of your hand-picked vestry members, and the senior warden that he was unfit had not worked for me—I was on a handout, and handouts are only supposed to go one way. In fact, your father said, “If you don’t like what we’re doing with the youth program here at Jubilee, you can find another church.”
You put me and my discernment in my place—Catawba—at the foot of Dragon’s Tooth, in a shack, under your feet, but that’s a good place to learn about bagworms: you learn to pick them off the dogwood trees and crush their stubby bodies with your bare fingers. They pop like grapes when you squeeze them, but it’s bagworms or dogwoods, Sister. Take your pick.