It starts with fried cheese.
He’s a little hick boy, you think. Fat America at its finest.
Where does any life start?
What is the tone of your life story? Where would they stock it in the bookstore? What is your elevator pitch for not dying today?
The county fair. Mötley Crüe mirrors and acid wash jeans. Power lines running everywhere, through puddles of September rain. The barnyardy stink of the…barnyard.
Fried cheese on a stick.
Even for a fat kid, this was an excess, a once annual indulgence of the most nightmarish kind: a baseball-sized glob of mozzarella cheese, breaded, deep-fried, and served with room-temperature marinara. Oh, holy Hell.
It pisses me off now that foodies crowdfund food tours to “discover” fried cheese. It pisses me off now that some health nut could eat fried cheese ironically on Instagram for money.
This is the food of my people: this is the food of poverty rebranded as success. This is the food of those poor hicks who grow your food. This is food that will stay on the stick when you dramatically gesture at the monster truck.
Or it’s the big wooden sign pointing to the not very good “fancy” Italian restaurant by your first lover’s house. That’s by the fairground, too. God, where’d that come from?
And where did those crayons go? Those sparkly ones you left behind in your first-grade classroom. Your old teacher looked a little embarrassed for you when you went and asked about them the first day of school the next year.
No, no, no, I’m not doing that you can’t make me. Don’t make me think about that, I will not think about the doctor touching me.
My left hand absentmindedly plays “The Old Rugged Cross” on the violin, with my thumb as the fingerboard. I once tried to find my hometown on Google Maps in VR, but I kept landing in a Walmart distribution center several miles west. My childhood cat was named Grease (for her speed), and nobody told me when she died while I was away at college.
The clothesline was downed before I ever remember it being used. My sister and I held onto the slack line and swung ourselves around. There used to be a pool back there, but now it is a garden. Now it is dirt.
The road wasn’t paved when I was growing up. That involved a controversial millage. (I almost left that part out. It seemed too on the nose.)
It’s difficult to contemplate growing up because yours isn’t the only lens. What I mean: there are stories you don’t write because their referents are still extant, which is to say living. Great big buckets of roses of phrases gone to pot because they might offend. Because they might be awkward, and because they might be true.
The grease pencil registers in strong, true cyan. The music box one can’t quite hear. Or was it a bell?..
Little men with their little muskets march all around the walls, God knows where. Are they bad men, probably, I wonder. Or whose side are they on.
Rhubarb grows in the middles of the old truck tires. An ancient tin can you can tell someone here bought new and used every day until it was old, and then just kept right on using it.
Big flakes of minerals in the well water. It looks like paint chips and tastes like water should. You are proud to note this. You are proud to note that you grew up picking blackberries from the looming, whelming trees in the yard, and that you even ate barbecued squirrel, can you even imagine.
Buckets of rusty nails. They indulged you. Like swinging around by a loose corner of the clothesline on a day when the sky is cartoonishly saturated and dotted with ageless, motionless clouds, like uncanny scoops of real-vanilla-bean ice cream in the sky. There are some things that will be perfect forever, like your grandpa’s old hunting dog. Like salt on an ice-cold radish.
She was blonde even, my sister was, and not unnoticed by our neighbor the pervert. That is how I remember him – am I allowed to write it?
It is not all uncompromised or good. Seeing big wooden phone lines and thinking about your old astronomy books and radiotelescopes, Houdini in shackles, faded hot pink and the shapes of galaxies. Why are they frightening? Why do they turn my guts right side out? Why can’t I lay on my back and look up at the stars?
It’s an older, taller child with more pocket money that you’ll never catch up with. Rubbing your smooth chin and wondering when it will be rough. Feeling like you’ll always be sick when they fall in love without you.
The fairgrounds spend most of the year being nothing. A specter, an echo, a dusty reminder. The longest dash in an imaginary number, a place to hold place when it falls into existence. I’ve had fried cheese before, but no part of me is eating it now. Unless imagination is bigger than this pen cap. Unless this great hall is filled with puzzles and peanuts, and country music can take a picture of your heart.