by Kristin Steele
I remember a time when all I wanted to be was Trash.
Trash like the kind you see on TV, no concern for a future, no concern for a legacy, no concern for a healthy life.
Where I come from, our parents tell us to never forget where we come from, to never “get above your raisin’,” but I wanted to get beneath mine. Down. Underneath. Underground. Sit among the people no one knows how to help because they don’t seem to try to help themselves. I wanted to try to be the other kind of Appalachian, the kind of people my parents warned me about. The kind you see on television skipping church and drinking Bud Light on their porch at two in the afternoon. The kind who chomp on our crunchy Appalachian words as hard as they can, speaking our English underneath the world’s English subtitles. The kind who live hard and don’t fear hell because they figure it couldn’t be much worse than the lives and the places and the ideas they were born into. The kind my 12th grade English teacher said I might become if I didn’t learn to ease up on myself and relax a little, that person inside me I denied but that she could see bubbling in the places I didn’t want to look. I once told her, hovering over her desk, not yet understanding her beauty or that cliché-yet-true wisdom that comes with age and knowledge, that she was wrong, even though one day she’d be so right.
Where I come from, it’s always that dichotomy, the world already set up for us; one or the other. Black or white. Blue or red. Good or bad. In or out. Here or out there — way, way out there. Rich or poor. City or country. Northern or southern. Real Appalachian or not Appalachian enough. This isn’t reality, even though some people want that simple division, need that clear line to be real. I didn’t know any better back then, that that line didn’t have to be there; back then, I still wanted to see it. I was interested in the other side, the ones so many Appalachians said needed Jesus. I hope they find Jesus one day. I hope they find peace, they’d say. But I never understood what that meant because all the people I knew who said they actually had Jesus in their heart seemed anything but peaceful. I never understood what that meant because one thing I know for sure is Appalachian people need a hell of a lot more than faith. So all I could figure out, in this you-with-us-or-you-ain’t place, was to try to be both, lean on the sense of fatalism that ties our Appalachian people together. Me, but more interesting. Me, but dirtier. Me, but less Reba and more Tanya Tucker, my favorite country singer as a child, who my dad used to say seemed like “a rough woman.” But I loved her.
I think it began when I was eighteen, and I’d just left home, midday, packing all I could into the Honda Civic my dad owned so I could leave for good while my Clean Christian parents were out of town. It wasn’t the best way to leave, but that’s exactly what I did. I went to my sister’s and lived with Sissy and her then-husband for as long as I could deal with his Husbandness. It wasn’t even a true break because I still needed the people I left behind, though I tried to convince myself I didn’t. I would eventually understand I was running from and to the wrong things.
I wanted nothing more than to know what it felt like to be Trash. It’s all I could think about even though I hid my obsession well for a while. I now know that what I really wanted was to not matter. Back then, all I knew was that I wanted people to stop expecting me to do something great. I didn’t want to hide depression or anxiety or panic attacks or thoughts of ending it all. I wanted to not be exceptional; I wanted the anonymity of average. I didn’t want anyone to look up to me anymore, and I didn’t want to be responsible for the respectability of my family’s name or my own. I didn’t want to honor a God I didn’t much feel or believe anymore. My family, they were good-Appalachian — a large body of religious teetotalers, all-or-nothing kind of people. I never felt like I was really one of them. But I understood who they were, and they were mostly good.
I wanted to try to be Trash, or at least dip my toes into its muck.
Becoming Trash is pretty easy, no matter how far out from it you start, especially if you’re alright with staying up way too late and pushing way too many liquids through your body as though your body were a Brita pitcher that filters out the bad at night, waiting inside your fridge, so you can wake up to the good in the morning. I used to try to make myself feel better about slipping into this way of life by picturing my body as a Brita.
Mmmmmmm refreshing, replenishing, revival. I am a new woman. I am clean, baptized by the coal flecks in that filter.
I used to think little black things in a Brita pitcher were coal, but it turns out they aren’t. I remember when I’d take a bath in my best friend’s bathtub in East Lynn, West Virginia, sometime in middle school, and the well water would be yellowish and thick, with black specks. I loved the oil of it. I felt sanctified, bathing in what I thought was freckled with coal, tiny bits of what so many believe is West Virginia gold. Looking back, it makes me think about all the people, too, who believe coal will save them because of all the lies that some rich men told them and tells them and will keep telling them. Believing in coal — in false promises of prosperity, in false prophets — is convenient. Sometimes we put all our faith in what’s hopeless and most fulfilling in the moment, even if we know it’s gonna kill us in the end.
The absence of coal sounds like a faucet turned on without a liquid to fill and feel. Coal is not just an object; it is a mindset, a way of life. Both concrete and abstract. It is sacred in a place where not much is sacred anymore; we see that pain in each others’ faces. Behind our faces are our fathers’ faces and their fathers’ faces and the faces of all the women who waited on them to come home. There is a picture of my Papaw Steele standing on an old swinging bridge in East Lynn, not far from where I’d take those oil-baptism-baths decades later, with his face covered in coal dust. In it, he smiles, eternal. I imagine my mamaw waiting on him to come home, cold cloth in hand: Wipe it away, Dad. Take a bath. Dinner is cold. He was a husband to a wife who called him “Dad,” to a wife he called “Mom,” who was a mother of sixteen, who was a mother to my father, number thirteen, who is my humble and hardened and loving father who has been shaped by the years of coal, of farming, of trucking, of timbering, of preaching that my grandfather took on to give him and my family life, even if it’s a life most of their many children will want to leave.
We can wash away that coal dust, empty that coal sludge, deny our past all we want, but it’s still in our veins, in our blood, in the water that flows in creeks and makes up most of our bodies. They don’t tell you until it’s too late that that trash in the water, those toxins, build up over time. But we drink it anyway. We take what we can get. We put it through a filter. We put it through our bodies. Then we can’t see it. For we live by faith, not by sight; I still can hear my Papaw say it.
Science is one thing, but if you have faith and faith in “the unknown,” in the powers above you, with enough coal sediment, or whatever the shit you put in your Brita pitcher, you can cleanse your body of whatever you did to it, whatever they’ve done to it, right? According to that logic, it doesn’t matter how much shit you pump into the air and the water and the ground and our heads; we can find a filter to clean us up.
Let’s Make America Great Again.
Brita. Brita. Brita.
Coal. Coal. Coal.
Consume. Consume. Consume.
Say it three times, and a savior will come to us, I guess. Clean us, wash our dirty faces and wash away our sins, take out the trash in our yards and in our minds. Take out what we do to ourselves, let us be. Here we are for your depictions of American stupidity, your portraits of American Trash, your warning call of what not to do to your life — you, who are on the outside of this. Watch us living in the space of what you’ve done to us and what we’ve done to ourselves. Drink up.
We are not Brita filters. We cannot fix what’s been given to us, and we cannot filter out what we’ve given to ourselves. And I cannot change all the things I’ve done to myself or the things that have been done to me, but I could tell you how I tore my life in half to find the Trash inside me, to get it out, to empty myself, to give it a good look, and decide how much I wanted to keep.
I could tell you about the times I didn’t bathe for days, telling people I didn’t sweat and that I heard plenty of people in Europe don’t shower every day, anyway.
I could tell you about the times, at 21 or so, that I stayed up all night drinking Captain out of the dirty orange backpack of a boy I loved, straight from the bottle, or another time out of a rinsed-out coffee mug, passing it back and forth with my roommate, later feeling proud I had aced a current events test I didn’t even study for while still drunk and stupid at 9:30 a.m.
I could tell you about the times Old Men in this town, this West Virginia town — in every town, really — saw my need to be Trash, if only for one night, and made sure I didn’t remember the things they did, the things that make you feel like someone stuffed your body into a black plastic bag to be carried out and forgotten the next day.
I could tell you about the times I stood in the shower and threw my razor out the curtain because I was afraid I’d cut right above my pretty little vagina, so deep, to make sure I knew I still had feeling there or anywhere.
I could tell you about the time I drank too much and was arrested in my driveway when I drove home six blocks because that felt safer to me than walking under train tracks alone. And, of course, I deserved the consequences, maybe even the consequences that meant I left jail with a black eye, bruised arms, and dagger anger, maybe because the cops didn’t know what a real panic attack, one coming from the well of a childhood (a “childhood”), actually looked like.
I could tell you about the time the charges were dropped because the cop who took me in didn’t show up to court, maybe because of those bruises or maybe because punishing me wasn’t worth his time. I could tell you this and how I felt so guilty because I wanted that punishment.
I wanted to be Trash, still. I wanted to be hurt even more because I thought I deserved it. So stupid to be such a disgrace to a good family. So smart to break the mold. So nothing to not care, to not care about what it was I could become.
I could tell you about months of people asking questions, telling my sister or my parents or people who thought they knew me, Oh, I’ll pray for her. They thought it so sad. They looked at my mugshot and texted it all around town and said, But she was such a good girl. But they never knew who I was to begin with, even if they knew my father and mother and their fathers and mothers and all the sisters and brothers, too.
What does it mean to be good, anyway?
I figured I had no choice but to be Trash after eighteen hours in a jail cell on suicide watch, after those bruises, after I was honest when some woman asked, “Have you thought about killing yourself in the past five years?”
They put me in a green tarp, worn by other Trash, after I stripped naked in the bathroom. The woman asked me to remove my tampon. She watched me take it out of my vagina. She watched me bleed down my leg when I tossed it in the toilet. She watched me cry. She watched me know I deserved the humiliation but somehow believe I didn’t deserve it at the same time.
I was just there.
They put me in a cell with another woman.
What you in for? she asked.
She had long, blonde, fuzzy hair that looked dirty. The skin on her cheeks and forehead looked pinched and pulled in places, and I wondered if her face hurt too.
I was arrested for a DUI in my driveway.
You still drunk? she asked.
No, I don’t think so. I never really felt drunk. Just upset.
I really wanted to talk to her, but I thought if I did, I would in some way get too comfortable on that concrete floor. Remain there. Belong there. They gave us mats, but I didn’t want to lie down, either. I wouldn’t let myself sleep. I shifted this way and that to try to hold my body so nothing but the back of my ass and thighs touched that green vest.
I’m in for making meth. But I didn’t do it, she said. I try to keep telling these fuckers I never touched it.
She explained to me that her boyfriend was involved in meth making, and that she’d had no idea until the cops came. She said she had made a comment about “blowing her brains out” in passing, and that’s why she, too, was naked under that green vest.
You won’t be in here long, honey. Ain’t no big deal what you did.
But it was a big deal. I’d never come back from this. Everyone would see me differently. Broken.
Sad. A disappointment. But at the same time, I knew I couldn’t be quality Trash without getting into some trouble. I’d craved something to make me not just performed Trash, but real Trash, for so long. And now I had the bragging rights. I finally got what I wanted. I finally felt like I fit in somewhere, but just as soon as I’d found it, I realized that wasn’t a place I wanted to be. I finally thought maybe Trash as defined by me, Trash as defined by you, Trash as defined by itself, doesn’t mean the thing we think it does; Trash, instead, is just a mindset we reach when we relent.
Trash is just some fucking garbage. All the shit we want out of our house. All the shit we don’t want near us and that we hope someone will take away and forget and we don’t give two shits who or what it affects after it’s gone.
Trash is just some worthless human. The one we don’t want to look at too long because we feel guilty for whatever it is that’s become of their life. The one who has been called Trash so long that they eventually believe it, own it, are it. I felt guilty that I was not born into Trash — I was the other kind of Appalachian, the “good kind” — the privileged, even though what’s privileged to me may look poor to you. But I was never hungry. I was told my worth, reminded of my worth, my ability to get out of Appalachia because I was smart. But I knew deep down it was mostly just dumb luck that I wasn’t one of the kids who had been called Trash even long before they’d been fucked into their mama’s belly. I needed to know those people around me, the ones I was told to stay away from, so much that I dug deep enough until I found someone like them living inside me.
White Trash is a poor white person. The term is used to keep them in their place, among all the other white people who’d be much better off if they knew someone different than them, went to a place that’s different than what surrounds them. But they don’t. They relent. They stay put. They only watch themselves and each other. They don’t question the White in their Trash. They become a person who has no aspirations, who has no drive, who doesn’t take care of their property or themselves. White Trash is a person who doesn’t even know how lucky they are to be white anyway because it’s difficult to consider yourself lucky when you’re brought into the world merely to survive until you die. White Trash is a person who deserves empathy, who deserves help, who probably won’t take any meaningful help because they don’t trust anyone; help can be so condescending. White Trash is a life that’s handed to you, that seems hopeless, that some choose, that some try, that some have no choice but to join, that some leave behind, that some feel they can never wash away.
Kristin Janae Steele’s creative nonfiction most recently appeared in Still: The Journal, where she was selected by Jason Howard as the 2014 Creative Nonfiction Contest Winner. A native of central Appalachia, she currently lives in Huntington, West Virginia and is a faculty member in the English Department at Marshall University where she teaches courses in creative writing, Appalachian literature, and composition. She received her MFA in creative writing from The New School in New York City. She currently is working on memoir about living with scoliosis. Her current soundtrack for writing is Tyler Childer’s album “Purgatory.”
Headshot image courtesy of Most Exalted.
Featured image courtesy of Thomas Bresson.