BASS 2019: Julia Elliott, “Hellion” from The Georgia Review, Summer 2018

TGR art

TGR art

In a bloated early draft of my novel, The New And Improved Romie Fudge, I got sidetracked by a digression about Romie’s first erotic experience, a blissful romp with a rural third cousin during which the two prepubescent kids smear molten tar all over each other, a transcendent moment followed by a brutal reckoning….Recalling badass girl cousins from my own youth, so-called tomboys who could hold their own among hellion boys, the kind of girls who could drive go-carts one-handed while taking cool puffs from stolen cigarette butts, I realized that Butter’s perspective on this incident would be far more interesting than Romie’s. When I took the cutting from my novel and switched the point of view, my story “Hellion” bloomed from the corpse of that killed darling.

Julia Elliott, Contributor Note

My view of this story evolved over several days. My first take was consumption, food, eating, but that expanded to a celebration of the the primeval. Then I flipped open the book and saw the title: Hellion. Oh, ok: hell. Not the Christian hell of punishment, but more of a Classical-era Underworld. No, back to the primeval, maybe the primordial. Then I read Jake Weber’s post and thought, not for the first time, that I should quit doing this since he does it so much better. But I still get “primordial ooze” and “this is the forest primeval” running through my head when I think about this story, so I’ll go with that.

The whole consumption theme comes in early with a thirteen-year-old protagonist named Butter (her real name is Elizabeth Ann, but she was so small at birth, her parents nicknamed her Butterbean, and it stuck) who feeds her captive alligator chicken innards, and chases away the neighborhood boys who try to feed it Atomic Fireballs so they can watch it fart fire, and leaves Slim Jims for the Swamp Ape (who, she explains, may be a deformed man, or a voluntarily-regressed Rousseauian man, or a Bigfoot mutant of some sort, or something else entirely).

It’s a Stranger-Comes-to-Town story. Alex, Butter’s third cousin from the city (where they have a mall and a nuclear reactor) comes to stay with his Aunt Edna while his new premie brother emerges towards, hopefully, life, and his mom recovers from childbirth. Butter may be a badass girl, but the local boys are a different level of badass – hellions – so Edna asks her to help out with Alex.

“Butter,” she said. “You got to promise me you’ll watch out for Alex, the boys around here being mostly hellions.”
“I’m a hellion, too, Miss Edna.”
“No, Butter, not like the rest. You’re my great-niece, after all.”
She drew me close so she could whisper, suffocating me with her White Shoulders perfume.
“Alex’s mama just had a premature baby boy. Know what that means?”
“Came out before he was cooked.”
“That’s right. A poor three-pound thing struggling to breathe in an oxygen tank. Alex, being tenderhearted, is taking it right hard. So, you got to keep that in mind and be gentle with him. You can be a lady when you want to.”
Ladies sat still and tormented themselves with stiff dresses and torture-chamber shoes. Ladies held their tongues when men walked among them and fixed them food and drinks. As my mama, who worked the night shift at Clarendon Memorial, said, “I don’t have time to be a lady.”
“I won’t never be a lady,” I said. “But I won’t let the boys mess with Alex.”

Complete story available online at Georgia Review

Even the idea that a premature birth happens before the baby is cooked evokes consumption. And here’s Alex, stranded among the hellions. Butter – who is caught midway between primeval and lady, as well as between child and adult – gives him a coping strategy: pretend that living in that city with that nuclear plant has “endowed you with a Hulk-like condition…. You could mind-read, tell futures, and levitate.” Since she has some inside info on the locals, she points out the boys’ weak spots, like one’s mother’s webbed toes. “We got to keep up the mystery…. Think about it like a video game. Get to the next level.” She primes the ground, warning the boys there’s more to the city kid than they think.

There’s another really interesting consumption-related detail here: as Butter is telling him this, Alex “went bluish-pale like skim milk.” Butter is made from the cream removed from skim milk. Alex + Butter = whole milk? Two halves make a whole? In The Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes put forth a theory that humans originally had four arms and four legs and two faces, and Zeus split them apart into separate people; humans since have spent their lives looking for their soulmates, the other half that was separated. Most readings consider this satire of simplistic origin tales, not the least because it was put in the mouth of Aristophanes, who satirized Socrates like nobody’s business. It’s kind of sealed shut for me when Butter later teaches Alex frog-language, The Frogs being one of Aristophanes’ classic satires. They merge into the primeval.

Butter takes Alex to meet Dragon, her alligator, but things go awry during feeding and she gets “snagged by a tooth—a jagged red rip right through the meat of my lower thumb.” And again, consumption: the primeval is trying to consume Butter, starting with the meat of her thumb.

She takes some remarkably responsible (and non-primeval) first-aid steps – peroxide, antibiotic cream, gauze – but doesn’t think more about it and takes Alex go-cart racing next. The hellion boys, ignoring Butter’s warning about Alex’s superpowers, come after him while they’re all riding, the twentieth-century version of jousting. Alex turns out to be a quick learner vis-à-vis the superpower tip:

Though it almost killed him, Alex loosened his grip on the side rail, keeping up a half-assed appearance of cool. The boys went crazy strutting their stuff…. I realized how stoked they were to blow this city-boy away. They finished their daredevilry, circled us twice, and then stood idling, staring at Alex, half-hoping my tales were real—that the boy would float up out of his seat. Instead, Alex staggered from the cart, fell to his knees, and wallowed on the ground like a bass gasping for water.
“Aw, shit,” I said. “Looks like he’s about to turn.”
Clutching his head, Alex stood up.
“I can-not al-low it to hap-pen a-gain,” he said. “Too ma-ny in-no-cents slaugh-tered.”
Alex twitched as though shaking a winged demon from his back. He tottered like an exhausted old man and then stared up at the sky, croaked out gibberish, pausing between bouts as though taking dictation from God.
“Your mother has mermaid blood.” He pointed at Mitch and Butch. “Hence her webbed toes. She swims in Lake Marion on full-moon nights.”
The brothers’ jaws dropped at the exact same time, and I pictured them creeping around their den at night, their mama crashed on the couch, her feet freed from the Reeboks she wore to waitress, toes moist and pale in the spooky light of their television.

Keeping up the mystery, indeed. They are both in this midland between primeval and civilized. And Butter is smitten in the way only a thirteen-year-old girl can be. My heart started to sink; don’t tell me this is going to be a tender coming-of-age tale. It is, but it’s a lot more interesting than the My Girl variety.

Butter has a thing for the smell of pitch – it smells of open roads and amusement parks – and her nose leads her to a barrel of the stuff, still melted. So she and Alex have a tar fight. Yep, that’s like a food fight, except with tar. What could evoke the depths of the primeval better than being covered in still-warm tar? It’s a descent into the dark side, experimenting with hell itself. Dangerous stuff.

And they pay the price when they emerge. Edna scrubs the tar off them, which should be punishment enough, but wait, there’s more: Alex gets the switch, and Butter… oh, poor Butter: her parents see the wound on her thumb, Dad gets the shotgun and heads for the alligator.

It was almost dusk, light tipping toward pink. I was in the swamp, bawling my miseries to the throb of frogs—my baby gator dead, Alex shamed and switched on my account, my house a tomb of silent wrath, vampire and ogre cramming it roof to cellar with what Miss Ruby called bad vibes. I was a hellion, for sure, who deserved to slip back into the swamp from which the first land creatures crawled: those fish with legs, skinks or whatever, primitive pining things….
I was lost, doomed to attend Central Carolina Tech, master some bleak medical procedure, and turn into a vampire like my mama…. Alex had said he wanted to build rockets, and I pictured him zipping off into the twinkling black of space, leaving the likes of me to rot on our ruined planet. I imagined humans crammed cheek to jowl, mutated by nukes, resorting to cannibalism after they ’d devoured every last animal alive. I saw plant life stamped out by solid blacktop, the globe turned to a ball of tar.
Alex, fated to zoom through universes unknown, was right to keep his distance from both me and planet Earth, a thought that made me bawl the harder.

Yeah, consumption, the primeval, and the modern nukes, right there side by side on a ball of tar, and Butter, stuck in it. I’m not exactly sure what this is, but it’s way beyond My Girl.

But don’t despair, the My Girl denouement is at hand. It’s ok; the story earned it, and gives the reader an after-dinner mint, as Butter – and Alex’s premie brother – emerges from the primeval, and resolves childish mystery with adult reality on a summer night bittersweet for a couple of soulmates.

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