One of those small towns where the roads all run into each other and one hill turns into the next without you even noticing and the river twists graffiti-like through all our lives and the wind carries the rancid perfume of the chicken processing plant up the highway.
One of those small towns where everyone is nailed to some cross or another.
This is the town where I grew up. It's hard to tell a story with no hero.
His name might have been Dale, one of those older kids from eighth grade art class who had been held back at some point, all stubble and arm muscle while the rest of us were skinny boys dreaming of manhood. The fight was between first and second period outside one of the trailers set up for social studies classes because our school was overpopulated—no one had seen the town's growth coming. I saw some of the fight on my way to earth science. They said Dale pulled a switchblade. Said he got suspended. Said maybe he cut the other kid. No one knew what started the fight.
No one ever knew why we were all so angry. So twitchy in our own skin. So restless.
Senior year, I kept a butterfly knife under the floor mat of my Honda Civic, as if I might accidentally drive onto the set of The Outsiders. When I showed it to a friend, he said, "Maybe you should carry a baseball bat. Something with more reach. Something less, like, deadly."
The whole decade was dangerous metal: ninja stars and nunchucks and music that carried the promise of an eternity in hell.
Microsoft Word tries to tell me "nunchucks" isn't a word, is misspelled somehow. But surely I remember it correctly.
I stuck my fingers in the blades of an old fan the other day. The wounds are not so much cuts as ruptures. Blunt-force openings. You'd think I'd have known better. It was mostly a matter of not paying attention to what I was doing. It hurts to type.
Skin is a kind of prayer: slippery, shifting barrier against the world's corners and edges.
The problem is you think it's building to something, this narrative. The problem is, you think it's a narrative.
A river is not a narrative. A river does not mean. A river simply is.
This river ends at the gulf. Perhaps they all do.
A boy's first pocketknife is a rite of passage. I write this sentence as a test. To see whether it tastes true in my mouth. It does not. Yet I remember my jackknife fondly. It was brown, dull. It said "BARLOW" in straightforward all-caps. I used it to scrape bark off twigs.
Language is a way of giving form to the formless. In the right hands, a good knife serves the same purpose.
Have you watched a skilled butcher break down a side of beef? Such precision, such devastation, the way the final product is not recognizably related to the slab of meat we started with—this teaches us something important about art. About hunger.
Eventually, the only desire: skin seeking other skin. Not to damage but to heal.
What I mean is: You wake up one day and think, "Too many knives, not enough sex."
Dale appeared in a television commercial for a strip club, sitting at a table in the background, underage and almost unrecognizable against the wood-paneled walls, blurry behind the woman in a bikini inviting us to try the lunch buffet. It made him a minor celebrity all over again though he no longer went to our school. Wasn't that the kid who got in that fight? The one with the knife?
We had so many schemes. So many ideas never brought to life. Such faith that our stitches would hold.
Remember? Scissored together on all those twin beds in 1989, dripping down each other's thighs, each twisting our own private pains into the other's flesh. A decade slipping away from us, our youth, our innocence. We never had claim on any of it.
Skin is roughly the thickness of a dime, except on the bottoms of our feet and any place on the body where scar tissue develops.
I heard Dale died. Gulf, fishing boat, storm, a failed search.
Maybe it wasn't Dale I heard this story about. Maybe it was someone else from my hometown. Maybe I've made it up.
We're all from somewhere. This is the kind of truth we forget everyone else is also carrying around.
Every town has a dull edge and a sharp edge. It takes so long to see which does the most harm.
Eventually, it's all scar tissue.