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. Burrow in to “Psalms of Charred Summer” below.
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.
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.”