In a trailer park in an East Tennessee Valley, Scooter Brown and Dewy Cash prepare to dig a hole to hell so they can fight the devil. In a coming-of-age tale punctuated by prayer and country music, Monica Brashears explores ideas of identity, masculinity and race.
The Better Tomorrow Trailer Park sprouts deep in an East Tennessee valley, kneels at the gnarled feet of House Mountain. And in the Better Tomorrow Trailer Park, two eleven-year-olds prepare for their trip to hell. Scooter Brown sits against the butt of a rusted trailer and talks to God in a panic.
Thank you, Lord, for my good
breathing, don’t let the devil win.
I do repent for my sins,
In Jesus’s holy name I pray.
It is morning, before the teens slink into sunlight and work on their tin can trucks. They will blare David Allan Coe, Guns N’ Roses. In the pastel dawn, the only music: distant windchimes. A funereal tune. I do repent for my sins I do I do. The repetitive prayers first infested Scooter’s mind last year, 1997 it was, when his mama and daddy shipped off to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
“You ain’t listening.” Dewy Cash bangs a stick against the trailer. “Goat fucker.”
Scooter knows Dewy only says this because he feels big in his older sister’s absence. Today is the first of the month. Sissy shops in the bowels of IGA. If she had been here, she would lean out the window above their heads, blow out tobacco smoke. She would thump Dewy on the skull with a flyswatter.
“Am too,” Scooter says.
When Sissy and Dewy picked him up, he wanted to ask if he could go somewhere else. But he knew his mama trusted Dewy’s sister. They worked together for a couple of years at K-Mart. He also knew that his mama once warned him that some white people are sensitive to things Black boys do, especially hicks.
“What did I say then?” Dewy asks. He digs in the dirt. A mud-stained wifebeater hangs loose over taut skin. His hair is the color of wet sand. It drapes over his eyes.
“You was saying I need to help,” Scooter says.
When they first awoke, Dewy whispered his plan in a puff of hot morning breath: They will dig a tunnel so deep they can go straight to hell and fight the devil. They crept outside and scooped up buttercup roots with water-spotted teaspoons.
The necks of the spoons crook under pressure. The boys toss them aside and stab the ground with sticks. Stubborn clumps of rock and red clay hurtle. Dewy sings “Daddy Sang Bass” as soil flies.
“Johnny Cash is my daddy,” Dewy says.
“No, he ain’t,” Scooter says.
“We got the same last name.”
Scooter likes when Dewy sings. His eyes get fat. His sugared voice conjures up a want in Scooter. What that want is, he does not know.
The boys hold weapons for their upcoming battle with the devil. Dewy: a pair of kitchen shears. Scooter: a heavy soup ladle. When the hole is big enough to cradle an early baby, Dewy huffs. “I’m tired of all this.” His eyes gloss with tears.
Scooter spits in the shallow grave. “Dewy, he knows,” he whispers. He pounds the hole with a stick. “I hate you and your red butt.”
The boys spit loogies and insults on the devil’s ceiling. They fling their backs on the ground, Scooter careful to avoid little pools of spit and snot the earth refused to swallow. Their breathing pulses shallow.
“Let’s play barbershop,” Dewy says. He slips his fingers through the loops of the kitchen shears.
“Why you get to go first?” Scooter pouts.
“It was my idea. Don’t be a little bitch baby.” Dewy plunges a hand in the back of Scooter’s afro.
Scooter shifts. His mama loves his hair. He loves it, too. It is thick and heavy as a rosebush. “Don’t do too much, now.”
The first clip is hushed—a single strand. The subsequent chops grow thick in sound—a pitch produced only during the butchery of the body. Black tufts float down, down to rest on the nape of Scooter’s neck. He brushes dead coils from the collar of his polo. His hair dips and peaks in jagged intervals: an aerial view of Appalachia.
Lord, please let it grow back quick.
Don’t let my mama get out and see
my hair was cut by a hick. Forgive
my badness & me. In Jesus’s holy name I pray.
The minivan with chipped red paint crunches gravel. Crawls the awkward slope up to the Cash’s trailer. Dewy hovers spread shears over Scooter’s head.
Sissy struggles to get out of the van, her belly full of baby. A stubbed bone of a roll-up burns to ash between her fingers. Her hair: short and dry as barnyard grass. “Your mama is going to whoop my ass.” She crushes the fat ember beneath her flip-flop. “Y’all help me put this stuff up.”
Scooter and Dewy load their arms with plastic bags. Sissy waddles behind. The boys stock Vienna sausages, Spam, instant oats. Sissy takes a champagne flute from a shelf, runs her yellow fingernail along the rim. She wipes the dust on her sagging cargo pants.
Scooter whips his head to the chug-a-lug sound. “Nah.” He frowns.
Sissy sips vinegar.
“Why you doing that?” Scooter shakes his head. “You nasty.”
“I don’t know why I crave what I crave. I don’t know lots of things. Just like I don’t know why you let Dewy touch your head. Your mama is goin’ to kill me dead.”
“We got years for it to grow,” Dewy says.
Sissy leaves the trailer and returns moments later. “Hell if I know why I’m still givin’ y’all goodies.” She thuds two packs of drinks on the table. Big Red. Yoo-hoo. “But y’all can’t have none yet. We got to try to fix this mess. Go to your room, Dewy.”
Sissy shaves Scooter’s head in the bathroom. She wipes away the last clump of hair. Scooter joins Dewy. Dewy’s room smells like handled crayons and frequent bed-wetting. A fist-sized hole yawns in the thin door that won’t shut all the way. Red and purple crayon loops adorn the walls.
Dewy sits with sprawled legs and stacks Legos. He cackles, slaps his thigh. “You look like a bean.”
Scooter strains to fart on Dewy’s plastic tower. It erupts: a flat clap. He grins, triumphant. “Ya mama.”
They eat cubed steak with congealed gravy and instant mashed potatoes for lunch. Dewy gulps the last of his Big Red. Scooter savors his Yoo-hoo. Dewy rises.
“Sit back down,” Sissy says.
“I want to go outside.”
“I’ve been spending time with Miss Mae and all since the cancer. But it’s bad luck having a baby in me and being so close to death like that. Y’all want to act grown with scissors so y’all can do what grown folks do.” She jabs her fork in the air. “Which is talk to people we don’t want to talk to.”
“Hell no,” Dewy says.
Sissy drops her fork. “You want to find a switch?”
“Then do what you’re told. Won’t have to do it for long. She’s old and lonely.”
Dewy sobs in silence.
“Cryin’ won’t make a man out of you.”
They wash their plates and go outside.
“And don’t try no funny business. I’ll be watchin’,” Sissy says.
The boys walk between the Cash’s backyard and Miss Mae’s front yard. White sheets hang from the clothesline, blow like loose Bible pages in the wind. Johnny Lynch works on his truck the next trailer down. His Guns N’ Roses cassette eats up the sound of the windchimes.
“Why’s he lookin’ at us like that?” Dewy asks. He waves. Johnny returns his attention to his truck.
A gust of wind lifts a sheet, and Scooter locks eyes with a Black girl in a wet, red dress. She prances in circles. “Duck, duck, goose,” she says. She giggles. The sheet falls with the death of the breeze. Scooter and Dewy race to the other side.
“Where’d she go?” Scooter asks.
“Why do you want to know? You want to love on her?” Dewy humps the air.
“You play too much,” Scooter says.
The boys go in the direction they think she went.
“Boys,” Sissy hollers.
They return to Miss Mae’s front yard.
“Come in,” Miss Mae croaks.
They creep into her trailer. A fog of Marlboro smoke blankets the living room. The cheap perfume of air freshener beads—sharp, chemical, lilac. Beneath that: the dull, raw meat scent of sick. Hot-glued puzzles of rivers and creeks hang on fake wood wall panels. Miss Mae rests gaunt in a wooly recliner pocked with burn holes. She sucks her cigarette. The red glow of her cherry throbs.
Lord, thank you for my life, I don’t want
to know about death. Don’t ever let me stink
like I’m too ripe. Forgive me and my pride.
In Jesus’s holy name I pray.
“Dewy.” Miss Mae’s throat sounds lodged with bits of hickory bark. “I didn’t know you took kindly to colored folk.” She smiles, toothless.
Scooter has never been called colored and wonders if she means him or herself. Her skin is the color of her cigarette butt, her nose a gentle, round slope. But her hair and eyes match Dewy’s. And what does colored mean? Colored-in, he thinks. An image thick with tinted wax in a flip book. He wants to bolt, suddenly sure she will plant a kiss on his cheek like the old women at his mama’s church. He looks at Dewy and wonders if he wants to run, too.
Dewy tilts his head, eyebrows lifted in confusion.
“Who you saying is colored?” Scooter asks.
She shoos him with her hand, the action veiled by a trail of smoke.
“What’d you youngins bring me? Don’t you see I’m about starved to death?” She lifts her shirt and reveals ribs poking her flesh.
Scooter’s stomach rocks.
“How about your sissy, Dewy? She feedin’ that baby good?”
“She drinks vinegar,” Scooter blurts. Dewy punches his arm.
“She’s brewing that baby bitter.” Miss Mae’s laugh rattles. “Turn on the light.”
When Dewy obliges, Scooter is sure she is Black. The way her roots puff up soft as snake spit.
“Where’s that girl at?” Scooter asks.
“Yeah, we seen her,” Dewy says, “in your yard. Where’d she go?”
“Probably a product of one of the many parents who don’t pay no mind to their littluns,” says Miss Mae.
“I ain’t never seen her around here,” Dewy says.
They describe her—the thick plaits, the wet dress, the little gaps in her smile.
Miss Mae cymbal-smacks the arm of her recliner. “They always said youngins and old folk see them most. Don’t I know it?”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Dewy asks.
“I’m fixing to pass on, all the way on, to greener pastures.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Dewy asks.
Miss Mae scratches her fuzzed chin. “Shit far. What was I saying?”
The boys sink into the sofa.
“Oh! That little girl. That little girl’s my sissy,” Miss Mae says.
“She’s too little to be your sissy,” Scooter says.
“And she was Black,” Dewy says.
“Sugar, I’m Melungeon myself. Never mind all that now, damn it, let me talk.”
Scooter and Dewy sit in silence.
“Her name was Violet. Great Depression was going on. Makin’ us hungry and mad. Me and my brothers and sisters, we’d play games. Our mommy was fixing to bathe us one day, and you don’t get clean now how you used to. Used to, you’d boil water from the well, and it was rightfully hot to kill germs. Our mommy was crazy, she chased me around with a meat cleaver one time but that’s neither here nor there. We was all roughhousing around while Mommy was letting the water cool. Mommy said stop! Mommy said stop that roughhousing! And of course, we all listened, but not little Violet. She fell in the bucket and damn near melted her face off. We took her on to the doctor, but she died a couple a days later. Before she did go on, she was knowing something about the other side, see. She said to Mommy, Mommy bury me in that pretty red dress. And Mommy said, oh baby, you ain’t going to die until you got grandbabies and a house by a river. Our mommy was crazy, but she loved us something fierce. But little Violet died, yes Lord, with water in her lungs and that dress on her back.”
“It don’t surprise me none, y’all seeing what you saw. I been peeking at her myself out the corner of my eye sometimes, but I likened it to my mind. Listen, here. The passed-on folk come for three reasons: someone nearby is dying soon, a new baby’s around somewhere, or you got something going on inside. You better hope it ain’t never the last ‘cause them haints will latch on you like leeches until you figure whatever you’re lying to yourself about. They like to rest in peace and can’t do it if there’s trouble nearby.”
Scooter wants to scrub off the smoke, the sickness, the story, but the idea of a hot bath scares him more than the ghost. But he does find a comfort. He leans into the idea of Violet visiting, leans into the idea of no hell. Leans into the dream of eternal grass-stomping and freeze-tag.
Scooter and Dewy linger in the door as Miss Mae says: “I like you boys coming around. You listen better than Sissy. Ain’t nary a soul who’ll know what I think about. And that makes my skin itch, knowing what I know and nobody to tell it to.”
They return to the Cash’s trailer. Sissy mops. The smell of Pine-Sol and clean heat typically lulls Scooter. Not with Sissy’s sloppy dance. The mop: a dingy prop for a performance. The stereo plays Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody”.
Scooter looks at Dewy. A frenzied understanding passes between them. Sissy shakes her hips. Her swollen ankle bumps the bucket. Grey water sloshes.
“Stop,” the boys holler, “stop, stop, stop.”
Sissy jolts at the sound of their protests and throws the mop to the slick tile. She massages her hips and yells, “Y’all about made me shit my bloomers.” There’s a splash, more wetness on the floor. Sissy’s eyes grow wide as saucers. “I’ll be damned.” She sends the boys to stay with Miss Mae and loads her full-moon belly in the minivan to make the 45-minute trek to the hospital.
Scooter and Dewy spend more time with Miss Mae, even when Sissy brings home the plump ball of flesh. She named her Dawn. Dawn Cash smells like milk breath, the whispered vanilla of baby powder, and sometimes, green shit. She already looks like her mama. Already looks like she can’t believe anything people say. She screams at night.
Scooter and Dewy use this as their excuse for their sleepovers with Miss Mae. They crave her stories. She tells them about a flood up in Kentucky that killed a brother. She tells them about a boyfriend who wanted to be a singer, and how he got ate up by wild hogs. She tells them how dreams can make you psychic. She tells them about the segregation of her blood, how she lives life in this trailer park with a secret. How her blood is like peanut oil and water. How her mommy was light, and her daddy was dark.
On the hottest day, the boys play tag. They run by Johnny working on his truck. He juts out a leg in grease-slick jeans. Scooter trips. He moans. He examines his elbow: raw and bloody, embedded with parched gravel.
“Johnny, why’d you go and do that for?” Dewy asks.
Johnny Lynch is well on his way to living a mean man’s life. The kind of pulled-tight living that does not allow room to swerve for possums on backroads. The kind of living that urges him to go out to town, out to Applebee’s and have his fill of steak, even if he does not have enough to tip. He’s scrawny with moss patches of a beard trying to push through.
“Didn’t mean no harm.” Johnny scratches his butt. “Matter of fact, I wanted to tell yuns a story real quick.” He grins. “Y’all like to bother Miss Mae for stories. I figured I’d share my own.”
“We ain’t no bother to her,” Scooter says.
“She likes us more than she likes you,” Dewy says. “How’d you know she tells us stories?”
“Ain’t no secrets here. Y’all hear about Jasper, Texas? Huh? Y’all hear what they did to the Black man?”
“We don’t care,” Dewy says, “you shut your dumb mouth up.”
“Some boys found a Black man walking down by the road, and by God, they tied him to their truck and drug him all over town. He felt every bit of it,” Johnny says.
“You lying,” Scooter says.
Lord, please don’t let Johnny drag me all the way
down ‘til I’m jammed and jellied on the black tar.
Make him fall & bust teeth, mouth shut, swallow
them in his sinful gut. In Jesus’s holy name I pray.
“Hand on the Bible,” Johnny says.
The boys flee Johnny’s donkey laugh, pound their little feet on up to Miss Mae’s trailer, and vomit words.
“He’s nothing but a sack of sin,” Miss Mae says.
The rest of the week passes without any assault from Johnny. On Saturday, an ambulance with no siren, no lights, carries away Miss Mae. The boys sob. They wrap June bugs in string and walk with them as if they were kites. Scooter feels searing guilt when he controls what God made to fly free.
Thank you, Lord, for the dumb flying
balls of jade, I am sorry to take air for play.
I do repent for my sins & for lying
In Jesus’s holy name I pray.
After lunch, they hike up House Mountain. Kudzu. Sugar maple. Fat squirrels. Dewy cries when his legs hurt. They take slow steps on the way back. When they return, they see it: a rope tied tight to Johnny’s truck. At night, when Dawn cries and Sissy paces and rocks her, Scooter looks out the window by the bed. He sees Miss Mae’s hollowed trailer. The wink of a flame, something being lit. The twin bed is cold despite Dewy’s closeness. Johnny’s pebbled voice fills the quiet park:
Black boy, Black boy, where are you
In this lot, here, waitin’ on you
Black boy, Black boy out now
Scooter cannot sleep. He crawls down from the bed and writes his first poem. He shoves it under the mattress, drifts off. And in his dream, he holds a teaspoon and reaches above his head. He pulls it down: the bowl of the spoon heavy with orange and red and pink sky. Whipped cream clumps of cloud. He awakes before he can taste.
In the bright morning, the boys eye their bodies. Overnight, their muscles and tendons and something else inside them, something unseen but felt, stretched. They have outgrown the twin bed—a tangle of musk, lank.
Sissy nurses Dawn in the living room. She studies their new shape. “That’s a growth spurt if I ever did see one.” She sucks down smoke.
The boys go outside. After a few minutes of kicking rocks, they see Sissy load Dawn into the car seat. The van spurts dust.
Scooter eyes Miss Mae’s trailer. “Did she die?”
They break into the empty trailer. They drink up words from her dusty encyclopedias. They learn about glaciers and coral reefs until their stomachs rumble. They rush back to the Cash’s trailer. The van sits parked and cool.
Dawn sleeps in a swaddle on the couch. Sissy heats kraut and weenies on the stove. “Y’all,” she says. She turns to them, greased spatula in hand. “Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”
“Last time I closed my eyes for you, you put a flower in my mouth,” Scooter says.
Her fierce look forces them to obey. She plops a pocketknife in each palm. “Y’all done grown into men. I know how men treat men.” She stirs the steaming meat. “If I could raise you tender, I would. This ain’t a tender place.”
The sun sets. Eyes droop. The boys tuck themselves into bed. Scooter drifts off with Dewy’s spread hand on his forehead, limp and cool as a sick rag.
A week later, A Mexican man, Gabe, moves into Miss Mae’s old trailer. He invites the neighbors over for a small party. All the young people come, except for Johnny. Scooter and Dewy sip beer when Sissy turns her back.
Everyone crawls back to their trailers at two in the morning. That night, Scooter feels a new heat lying next to Dewy. The heat throbs like the end of a cigarette. He falls asleep afraid of the warmth.
When they wake, the boys notice a swastika spray-painted on Gabe’s front door. Sissy fumes. She marches to the kitchen to fry porkchops for Gabe, a lard-laced offering to the man to try to stick it out, to stay a little longer, if he can bear it. Scooter wonders if her passion is really focused on Gabe’s arms, swollen as a flooded river. He scolds himself.
Dewy bounces the pocketknife between his palms. “I’m going to cut his throat,” he says.
“Nah,” Scooter says, “don’t be dumb.”
“He’s really gonna kill somebody someday. That don’t make me dumb if I want to stop it, does it?”
Scooter shakes his head. “What if we did something else? Something else with the knives?”
They wait for the night. Scooter and Dewy slip into black clothes. They tiptoe in the kitchen and stuff a backpack with campfire food, lighter fluid, matches, and every beer in the fridge. Dewy grips the handle of his knife. Scooter zips the backpack. They creep into moonlight.
Burned roaches damp with spit litter Johnny’s backyard. The boys creep to the window and peer. Johnny sleeps crumpled on the couch, a dead smoke in hand. The DVD Video cube bounces around the screen and soaks him in blue glow. He stirs, readjusts his head, falls back into slumber.
Goddamn, Scooter thinks. They crouch and shuffle to his truck.
Dewy digs his knife in the first tire. “Wish this was your ugly ass face,” he hisses and looks at Johnny’s trailer. He plunges the blade into the second.
Scooter impales the remaining rubber. Goddamn, thinks Scooter. They pretend to stroll through the trailer park. They go beyond the property. When they reach the hem of the mountain, they break into an uphill sprint. “Goddamn,” Scooter laughs. “Goddamn, Goddamn, Goddamn.”
They set camp in a small clearing midway up House Mountain. Scooter starts the fire. The boys eat blackened hotdogs on sticks. They chug the beer, lap at the foam. They munch smores.
The echo of Johnny’s obscenities and the flat crack of a gun split the silence.
“He gonna shoot Gabe,” Scooter says.
Dewy’s tears don’t flow. He palms Scooter’s shoulder. “We got safety here.”
That bullet won’t reach them now, but if he sees the fire, if he finds them, if, if, if.
Lord, please don’t let him find us.
Maybe I’m a sinner, or maybe hell don’t exist
but I have things I got to do:
like touch the smooth skin of a glacier
& grip the hard vertebrae of coral
& write & write & write.
I got to eat the sunset.
Yes, I got to eat the sunset, Scooter thinks. And so he does, and his first kiss is gummed with marshmallow, brined with sweat. Tastes of humid dusk, dewed dawn, and everything in between. The handles of the pocketknives drool plastic in the flames.
Monica Brashears is an Affrilachian writer studying in Syracuse University’s MFA program. She has fiction publications with Split Lip Magazine, Appalachian Review, Nashville Review, among others. Monica is working on her first novel, and she is the winner of her mother’s approval (2021). To find more on Monica, visit monicabrashears.com.