Many of the stories I write take place in an area of Appalachia similar to where I grew up, where there are few jobs and high levels of opiate and meth use and hydraulic fracturing has poisoned the water. This is where the story takes place, but that’s just the husk. When I began writing this piece, I wanted to explore how people love and how people survive. And the more I explored this, the more I was sure I wanted to write about how people hate too, at how vital hatred can be for survival….
Christa Romanosky, Contributor Note
The title says it all: This is not a feel-good story.
On first read, I thought it was surprising that this wasn’t in the “unlikeable characters” group of stories, but instead in “immersion.” But now I get it. Tiff is not likeable, but she is not unlikeable in the sense, as Roxane Gay put it in her great article, “Not Here to Make Friends,” one of those characters who “aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not…. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.” Tiff isn’t asserting her independence or marching to the beat of her own drum; she’s angry, the kind of deep-down angry that comes from being on the losing side of life for a long time. She doesn’t accept the consequences of her choices because she doesn’t see them as choices as much as last resorts.
We get some indication that there was abuse of some kind in her younger years, abuse overlooked by her parents, followed by cutting episodes. Then came her husband, who recently died of an overdose. So she, and her son Bucky, are staying with her parents, trying to survive. How she chooses to survive is questionable, but given the environment, it may well be her choices are pretty slim.
The hillside was eroding, shale crackled like mangy dog skin, road cut out and rocky, but between two ravines about a half a mile back, Grubber John turned off the engine. Below the heavy ridge of rock and clay, a pit entrance, shaded by crab-apple trees, sumac, milkweed, thistle. “Here we are,” Grubber John said, handing her a flashlight. “We are the forgotten people, owner of the forgotten things. And this is my humble abode.”
She has to rely on second-hand favors of friends of her husband, favors from people who aren’t particularly worried about making sure Don’s lady gets a fair shake. Grubber John’s favor includes something like a job that involves drugs and sex. Some Bitch, her name for another Friend of Don who gives her a ride, rips her off when she isn’t looking. This is not a feel-good story about the disadvantaged pulling together. It’s about the rage that forms when there’s no one on your side.
Except maybe Bucky, her toddler.
At home she shut a window, slammed a door. Turned on the radio, the AC. When Bucky finally woke up crying, she cuddled him to her chest. “I got you, baby,” she said, rocking him. “Something woke you up, huh? Something scared you.” He smelled like mint and vinegar, baby powder. Her mouth emitted the heat of her sore bottom teeth, and she inhaled him like a fugue.
One of the things Romanosky mentions in her Contributor Note is how trauma is passed on through generations. Who knows what Tiff’s parents went through, but now she wakes up her baby just to feel protective. Is this minor, the down-and-out version of waking up your baby just to see him smile? Or is it another adult depending on a child, instead of the other way around?
The final sentence is one of those “oh” things, a thought that sends shivers down the spine.
Tonight Bucky smelled like mint, old sweet milk. She pressed her mouth to his lip, as though he held the source to the only oxygen in the room. And when Bucky finally stirred, she said, “You having a bad dream, baby?” But he slept on, oblivious to how much Tiff loved him. Enough to consume him, she thought. What a funny way to feel about a thing you love.
And this is the problem, isn’t it. Love as consumption rather than nourishment. If love can’t be trusted, what is left but, as Romanosky clearly states, hate. This isn’t a case of pushing people away until you learn to trust them; there’s no one to trust here. It’s about coming at everyone with a machete before they come at you. And if your baby is the sole source of nourishment for you, then someday he, too, will distrust love.
We all love stories about the plucky character who manages to survive under incredible stresses: she talks her way into a terrible job and hangs on until she meets someone who gives her a better job, or finds Mr. Right who sees beyond the poverty and lack of education to her pure soul. But this isn’t Pretty Woman; it’s more akin to the original script where Vivian was drug addict and ended up thrown out on the street instead of being whisked away by the Knight in Shining Armor. It’s not a great date movie, but it’s probably more real. And may God, or whoever is watching, help Bucky.