Try To Leave Me If You Can

Katherine Faw Morris, author of Young God, on returning to her impoverished home in Wilkes County, North Carolina.

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I only go home at Christmas and that’s because I feel guilty. It takes an hour to fly from New York to North Carolina. It is a complete shock to the system. I slow down to a tenth of my speed and I still feel like I’m running. No one else seems to be moving at all. When I go into the airport bathroom it is empty and sterile and every toilet flushes.

It takes three hours to drive to where I grew up. Wilkes County is very close to Virginia and Tennessee. It is very far from Asheville. It stinks like chicken shit. It’s a chicken county. There are chicken farmers with chicken houses, and in the middle of town there is a poultry processing plant and the highway is lined with their litter. As soon as you cross the county line, the smell is repulsive. It’s supposed to be fertilizer.

Also it’s a moonshine county. And a car-racing county. Tom Wolfe came in his white suit in 1965 on an Esquire commission to write about it. Sometimes I wonder where Tom Wolfe ate in Wilkes County in 1965 in his white suit. I find it impossible to imagine.

It’s a county of murderers. The fugitive the FBI can’t find who’s been hiding in the woods or maybe living life as a woman. In 1984 he threw a girl off a mountain. There’s Tom Dooley, from the song, who we hanged and then we pardoned. We’ve all decided it wasn’t him: It was the girlfriend who stuffed the other girlfriend’s body into a shallow grave. The guy I knew who stabbed his crack dealer in his crack dealer’s front yard over an ounce. The last time I saw him he was helping me pull a truck out of a ditch, or he was passed out in the front seat of the truck doing the pulling. The crack dealer died all night in his front yard with the ounce still in his front pocket.

I don’t know why I just said “we.”

Last Christmas my brother was renting a house up in the north part of the county. In my book, that’s where everybody lives. I pulled off the highway and in the yard there was a man and a girl. As soon as the girl saw me, she said, “Who’s this chick?”

I went into the house and my brother’s girlfriend said, “That’s who my dad’s talking to or whatever. She’s like, three years younger than me.”

This girl went to school with my little sister. She was completely fucked up. Later she told me that I sure was pretty, and I told her she sure was pretty too, because we look exactly alike. The main thing about both of our faces is squinty eyes like a cat. In Wilkes County there are maybe a dozen possible faces.

The man in the yard was the father. He kept pulling my brother’s girlfriend into the kitchen to talk. She was supposed to clean up better, before I got there. This was all a scene from my book. Almost exactly. I just sat there on the couch watching it.

There was a baby, too. He was trying to get my attention. He picked up the ashtray off the coffee table and flung it out everywhere. I asked him if he was 2 or 3, I used my fingers, and he just put his fingers in his mouth. I don’t think he really talks. When my brother finally showed up it was with Taco Bell for the baby.

My brother was acting pathetic. He was shambling around, looking skinny. He refused to make eye contact with me. I’m aware that some of it’s my fault. That he’s like this. The Christmas before, when they were all in a different house, the baby picked up the couch cushion and there was an Oxy underneath. I grabbed it before my brother could.

“Mine now.”

I do feel bad about it, but not bad enough not to leave five minutes later.

I left for good when I was 18. I showed up in New York two weeks before 9/11.

My best friend’s birthday is nine days after mine. Before we were born, our parents lived together as roommates. When we were 13, my mother took us on a weekend trip to New York, which I think is still the only time she’s been on an airplane.

She owns a house. I always go over there the night before Christmas Eve. We’re always supposed to go out. We hardly ever do. I spend a lot of time watching her get ready. In one of her bathrooms she has a vial of liquid morphine. She has more than one bathroom.

When I left it was a coke county and now everybody’s on pills. She talks about who’s in jail, who’s in detox, who just got out of detox, who just got out of the halfway house, who can’t keep the needle out of their arm, and who this leaves us to party with.

Last Christmas a new place had just opened. One of those half-and-half, combination restaurants. A Red Lobster/Olive Garden.

“Do they share a kitchen?” I really needed to know this.

We decided to order Domino’s, but by the time we called they had closed. On my phone, I showed her the Amazon page for my book.

“Wow.” That’s what I remember her saying, and then turning to look at the tree line again.

We were outside smoking. She had Marlboro Menthols.

“What the fuck?” I said.

“Kools are too expensive,” she said.

I told her how much cigarettes cost in New York. I don’t remember what she said.

Later we were doing those coffee tequila shots. I said “speedball” instead of cheers.

“Everybody here knows what a speedball is now, Katherine.”

I don’t know what I said.

“We just live in different worlds,” she definitely said.

Later still I was wondering what I was still doing there, why I was still talking to her. I had just told her a secret and I was mad at myself, like she didn’t deserve to know.

My best friend now — the one with the other half of the broken-heart necklace that says “Best Bitches” — is a girl in New York. I’ve lived there for 13 years. She has never come to visit, my best friend growing up.

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My sister’s best friend was jealous that my sister was leaving for London to study abroad. She posted something on her Facebook page about not everybody having the same opportunities.

“She’s the one that chose to have a baby,” my sister said.

“Fuck her,” I said.

We were at the Mexican restaurant.

The prior Christmas my best friend growing up and I had gotten shitfaced at the Mexican restaurant. The Mexican restaurant has always been a Mexican restaurant, though its name is never the same. One time when I was 16 I was in the bathroom tripping on acid and I couldn’t figure out how to unlatch the door of the stall. So I got down on my belly and crawled out. I was in the bathroom, shitfaced, and just thinking that made me laugh in the mirror.

After, we went to visit our other best friend. She had a house too, and a 6-year-old daughter. When this girl and I were 6 we would smoke candy cigarettes together and play a game we called “Karen and Derek.” I was always Karen. Later we lost our virginities to the same guy.

I had a panic attack almost as soon as we got there. I went blind. I could hear everything but I couldn’t see. The world was black. I had to dry heave in her backyard. Then it was fine again. This girl was smoking a real cigarette and looking at my feet.

“Where did you get those boots?” she said.

I said, “Your daughter looks exactly like you used to.”

Usually I don’t have a panic attack until I get back to New York. But often in Mexican restaurants. After one Christmas, in the Dos Caminos in Soho, I blacked out two or three times. One time I hit my head on the bathroom doorknob.

I came to with my husband calling my name, saying, “What did you take?”

In New York I don’t own anything. I have lived in the same apartment for 11 years and every year it disintegrates. It crumbles and peels. It is full of dust. In my bathroom there is mold. I throw bleach on it. Every month I pay with a stack of hundreds. I really don’t give a shit about home décor.

I was doing an interview with the Charlotte newspaper and the woman kept asking me if there wasn’t something I liked about where I grew up. “It is beautiful, geographically,” I think that’s what I finally said.

There is a place called Heaven. It’s where you go to drink beer and smoke weed and make out. Junior-high shit. It’s a cliff. At night, when all the stars come out, it’s like you can see the whole galaxy. Just hovering, much lower than the mountaintops, above the town below.

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The guy we lost our virginities to is not the one who stabbed the crack dealer 11 times in the heart and lungs. The last time he called me was three or four years ago. He always calls me at 4 in the morning from a restricted number and that’s how I know it’s him.

How I remember our last conversation:

“Hey,” I said.

“Who’s this?” he said.

“Who’s this?” I said.

“Heather?” he said.

Then I hung up.

He used to live in the house that my best friend bought. One day he kept coming by, like every two hours, asking about me. He always brought with him something different, like a case of beer or his daughter. He was walking. It was summertime and my best friend was scratching her mosquito bites.

“You snorting pills?” he said.

“Katherine hates you,” she said.

The next day he mowed her yard while she was at work, or somebody did. I haven’t heard from him since. I should hate him. He never took me up to Heaven, for one thing. I don’t hate him.

You stop smelling the shit, I should mention that. Almost immediately. You get used to it and it’s like there’s no smell at all. Almost immediately my accent comes back. When I call my husband in New York he sometimes sings the banjo theme from Deliverance.

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My father’s family has lived in Wilkes County since the 1700s. They came over from Switzerland and it reminded them of the Alps maybe. Our last name used to be “Pfau” and in German that means “peacock.” I’ve always been flashy.

In my falling-apart apartment I have a room that is just clothes. I stood in there the entire time I did that phone interview with the woman from the Charlotte Observer. Every Christmas I try to wear a more ridiculous faux-fur coat. The last one had a hood with leopard ears. Everybody just ignores it, like it’s not happening.

Once, when we were teenagers, my best friend said, “You’re just trying to be different.”

“So should you,” that’s what I wanted to scream in her face.

I want her to read this and then I want her to call me and say, “Fuck you for leaving.” I want her to really scream it. Then I will tell her that New York is overrun with boring rich kids and she is cooler than all of them. I don’t know if she has the Internet.

On my publisher’s Twitter, every day they post a poem fragment. I like these. If I ever go and read the whole poem, I’m disappointed. That day’s fragment, when I hung up with the newspaper: “And everywhere was blurring halogen / Love the place that welcomed you. —Rowan Ricardo Phillips.” It basically just pissed me off.

This could go on forever. Wind back for generations. To before any of us lived there when it was Indians. To before any of them lived there when it was animals. Before there were mountains. Before there was an earth. Before there was a universe. Until there was nothing and there was probably never nothing. I don’t know how to end this.

I don’t know if I’m the only person who loves the LaGuardia airport but I really do.

***

Katherine Faw Morris was born in northwest North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two pit bulls.

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