San Mountain is a liminal home of mine. The fact that it exists in between my two homes is why I consider it my ‘liminal home.’ Sure, I may be living in my car when I am in transit between the Tennessee Valley and the Coosa Valley, but Veteran’s Day has me thinking about the heritage of a fearless people. My grandfather, Willie, was the last person close to me to have served and he did so in World War II while stationed in New Guinea as an Army Air Force bombardier.
I could never get over my fears of dying. I guess the world of cynicism I was born into after Vietnam did not afford me the faith in politicians leading the State apparatus. Many others have served to ensure our American freedoms, but I lacked the courage. To me, serving in the military as a veteran is like taking up serpents to attest to one’s faith. This happens a lot in Dennis Covington’s “Salvation on Sand Mountain.” In his participant observation of a pentecostal snake handler church, Covington takes up some rattlesnakes himself to really listen and learn from this community about what it means to have faith.
I realize how cowardly I must sound about my fear of dying in the military, but it is all the more reason I am appreciative of those that have served in conflicts abroad. They protect us from threats to our nation, and they make it possible for me to be reflective and whole, sometimes at the cost of their own wholeness. Yesterday, I was driving past a church (non-snake handling) with a sign that read, “Fear is unbelief in disguise.” I know this was about the sovereignty of God, but I detached it from the context that it was intended and then I applied it to my citizenship conundrum. Did my fear to serve in the armed forces mean that I did not trust my American government? Was I unbelieving about the word of politicians. Is it not an axiom that politicians usually are bending truth to polish the mirrored realities of their citizens. In the political carnival the bizarro mirrors may make us feel taller than we are, or slimmer, or bigger, but the point is that we are getting distorted images of our America from the people we invest with a sovereignty unique from God’s, but that is God-like.
Unlike journalists, politicians are not only speaking a version of truth, they are affecting what truth is, and sometimes they even co-opt the people that believe in biblical Truth, or the biblicism that only sees God’s word in black and white terms, from a literalist perspective, simply because these people represent large swaths of the voting public, at least in the South.
The story that I want to tell is about citizenship to our neighbors, be they liminal neighbors or actual neighbors…
It all started at a dive bar on top of North Alabama’s Sand Mountain. I met Valerie on OkCupid, but I was no cherub-faced babe. I think she mostly needed a friend. When I met her for the first time she was living in a cleaned-out office in a warehouse owned by her stepfather. Valerie was in her mid thirties and had recently moved to the outskirts of Guntersville because her husband had become addicted to opioids and blown most of their money up his nose. Her stepfather made chicken vaccinations for the poultry house farmers that populated the Sand Mountain plateau. Close proximity breeds disease. I hated the chicken industry on Sand Mountain mostly because I despised getting stuck behind the fowl’s semi trucks, piss and shit squirting onto the roads. I generally stayed a few car lengths behind one because I did not want to look at the inhumane conditions of these poor creatures.
Valerie had a teacup Yorkshire terrier named Mickey. She took the dog anywhere we went whether it was to the Guntersville State Park, or to the Pointe, which was a Guntersville hillbilly karaoke joint styled after the Flora Bama in Orange Beach. Guntersville is a lake town at the foot of Sand Mountain and its chamber of commerce is always trying to fashion itself as a bustling tony town with a twist of redneck charm. Most of their “heads on beds” philosophies involve bringing tourists to town for a bassmaster tournament. The town is far more affluent than Sardis City, Boaz, Douglas, Arab or any other Marshall County township because of the 69,000 acre lake. Huntsville gynecologists, munitions contractors, and Nasa employees abound in fancy bourgeoise Southern Living worthy homes along the rip rapped shorelines. I am fortunate to have known a life along its shores because my great grandfather built a fish camp there when the Tennessee River was flooded by the TVA in the late 1930s. Our dusty cobwebbed cabins are still there, but the former dirt road we lived on when I was growing up in the eighties has been paved to facilitate the construction of million dollar homes along the lakes’ banks. Still, chicken plants, dog food plants, and sawmills contribute to rancorous sounds and a stench that burns my nostrils as I run through the town looking for action.
It became clear that Valerie was not really that into me after I made numerous visits to the bug doctor warehouse without much reciprocity. I speculated that she did not want to have a relationship with me because she wanted a man to build a life worthy of Mickey’s breeding. I accepted this begrudgingly, but being friend zoned was not the end of the world. I had made a friend.
On the night of my birthday, my Aunt Camille took Valerie and me out to dinner. Camille’s son, Hugh, and his Russian girlfriend, Olga, accompanied Valerie and me to a bar called Sandy’s after our meal. Olga was prudent and a bit reserved, and because Hugh was in love with her and eventually would marry her I worried that Sandy’s on Sand Mountain might be too rough a crowd for us. Valerie, for her part, started chatting up a man as soon as we arrived. Bikers in this ramshackle establishment started staring at us as if we were aliens. Roughnecks lined the bar and indigo green tattooed women and men, all wrinkled and weathered turned and glared at us as we walked into their Cheers. Everybody did not know our names. I would call it town and gown, but there were no universities in the area to speak of. Inferiority complexes were piqued and hormones raged as outlaws looked at our clean cut appearances. Olga was a PhD candidate in Russian literature, and she was by far the most out of place. Sensing the leering gazes Hugh stayed close to her side .
I had brought everyone to Sandy’s because I planned to give Valerie the slip on this night. Days before our visit to Sandy’s, a beautiful little twenty-two-year old woman named Brittany had entranced me with her booty shaking prowess at The Pointe. Her gyration was happening inches from my crotch and this vision was seared onto the back of my eyelids when I dreamed of Brittany’s gymnastic stripper-like talents. I followed her around all night until an enormous woman stopped me, and said, “Hey buddy, you need to get them eyebrows waxed.” I was floored by the audacity of this statement. Why did I need to be more clean cut? Others in the bar seemed rough too. Wasn’t this the fucking foothills of Appalachia? We were walking distance to “Meth Mountain” and some enormous woman is telling me that I need to be better groomed.
The giant was Tonia. It was the first thing she ever said to me. She and Brittany worked together at the WalMart on top of the mountain, and I never once had darkened the doors of a Wally World salon. The next day I was bored and decided I would get some trim from Brittany at the style center of Sand Mountain. Brittany, to my dismay, was preoccupied with a woman’s perm when I walked through the glass doors. I was greeted by Tonia. She gave me a cut and then I let her wax my furry brows. I could have waited on Brittany, but something about Tonia’s voice told me she was treating me with proprietary ownership. She reached over and put her big paw on my shoulder, “Sit down, John. Let me get them eyebrows for ya.”
We smoked a cigarette together in the parking lot after my trim and wax. I intimated to her that I had a crush on Brittany and she told me to meet her at Sandy’s that night. Brittany never showed. She and Brittany were feuding because Tonia had cut her step brother’s hair for free several times and Brittany ratted her out to the salon management.
At Sandy’s I kept trying to dance with taken women, and Tonia kept rescuing me from a ruffian beat down in the parking lot. She knew Sandy’s well, and all the regulars were pissed about a newcomer metrosexual dancing with their women. Tonia would tap me on the shoulder and as I turned around bracing for a punch in the face it was always her, “Sit down John before you hurt yourself.” Valerie, by this point, had fallen for Tonia’s stepbrother and they started dating that night.
Olga and Hugh took one look at the filthy toilet and left for our Guntersville fish camp and I caught a ride with them. Months later it was time for another haircut. Tonia was no longer at the Walmart salon. Another stylist told me that she had moved to downtown Boaz and started a salon of her own. Dixie Shears is what she called this crossroad establishment. My next haircut was in Boaz. She had about three girls there not doing much of anything but gabbing about local shit. Dixie Shears lasted about six months before it closed.
The next time I called Tonia for a haircut she had moved to a new Sand Mountain town called Snead Crossroads. This town would not have been considered a town at all if not for a few tractor supply stores and a Piggly Wiggly. I called her to see if I could get an appointment. The Snead barber shop was owned by a man named Steve who was a blind Trump supporter who expressed a lot of dissatisfaction with universities dominated by liberal intellectuals. I guessed that Steve’s beauty school was run by Al Franken types. Steve had been to every Trump rally in Huntsville, and Mobile. He was a hat collector. I thought this pretty ironic that he cut hair, but collected things to cover up his work. I think he did it because he thought a Trump signature would be worth a lot of money. He liked the idea of America returning to prominence too, but it was more about the populist build a wall message. I did not like Steve, and he could smell the City of Gadsden on me. Tonia cut hair here for a brief time before moving to Talladega for a man.
In this part of Alabama there are a few places that appear as semi urban centers, and everywhere else in between. I am unfamiliar with the interstitial space, as I have never really known people well that live here. Sand Mountain is the gray area of nighttime dog fights, rooster fights, and late night taquerias. I travel through hispanic trailer parks near Sardis on my way to Guntersville from Gadsden. I have in my youth frequented a strip joint called Foxy’s lounge, but I have rarely known people well that are from the mountain. I am sheltered from this by our fish camp compound. I live a liminal existence between two north Alabama towns.
The last time I called Tonia she was back from Talladega. I guessed things had not worked out with her new man, but I did not ask. When she answered my call she sounded tired, and she did not recognize my name at first. I said, “Hey Tonia, its John.” She didn’t react to the out of the blue call for a hair cut. When she eventually realized who had called her she said she was willing to cut my hair but needed me to come to her home in Martling on top of Sand Mountain. She sent me an address. I drove for forty five minutes. When I arrived at her home three emaciated mongrels flew out of her door with spine showing and though they were rough pit bulls they were as sweet as Tonia and her family who I later met. She did not invite me in because “the place was a mess and the air conditioner was broken,” she said.
As I sat there awkwardly fiddling under my apron we both searched for things to discuss. I asked her how her son was doing. She asked me if I still talked to Valerie. Valerie was on her fourth boyfriend since Stephen, and they had all generally ascended in wealth. She now lived across the lake from my fish camp on a golfing community called Buck Island. It felt as though we had drifted apart in our friendship as well. I explained this to Tonia. She understood. Stephen had been pretty broken up about Valerie. In this tooth and nail world, hard scrabble as it was, I did not blame Valerie for looking for security in a sixty year-old man. I had called her recently to see if her newest man could find any work for me. I was struggling in my own way with the news that my girlfriend was to have our son in a few months. I spilled all of this to Tonia. She then said you need to meet Reagan, her son. I guess she thought we had a lot in common.
Reagan was twenty and had been working in a chicken plant on the mountain about a year prior to meeting a girl that he fell in love with, and knocked up. The difference between our situation was that Reagan’s girl was married when she got pregnant and had his child. Tonia allowed the girl to move into their small home, and Reagan subsequently got her pregnant. She went back to her husband after the child was born.
I knew how much I loved my unborn child and I knew how hard this situation must have been for Reagan and Tonia. They were in the process of looking for a lawyer to get visitation rights, but they did not have money for the paternity test that would prove it was Reagan’s child. “Reagan!” Tonia screamed into the house. “Come out here and play a song for my friend John.” Reagan was a nice kid. He came out and he was pretty shy about playing a song for a stranger. Tonia explained that she had recently driven Reagan to Muscle Shoals for an American Idol tryout. He had missed the cut, but was not defeated. A producer told him to keep writing songs. He was optimistic but still did not want to play a stranger his song. I told him I would read an article I was getting published if he would play. Our quid pro quo arrangement was enough to elicit the youth to play his guitar and very sad country song. The skinny kid sat on the steps of the porch and played me his dirge about losing his child to the tyranny of a sand mountain situation of low income and hard luck.
I was honored that he played it for me, but I was even more floored when he invited me to go to church with them. Listening to people is one of my strengths, but I felt weak as Samson after Delilah cut his hair when the boy asked me to go to a Sand Mountain Church. I knew Tonia and Reagan were not pentecostal snake handlers, but all of these thoughts washed over me when Reagan asked me to go to church with his family. I failed to listen very well and when he asked all I heard was something that sounded like: “Do you want to come to Mountain church with us?” I stumbled in my utterances that followed the question. I said, “I have always viewed myself as an Episcopalian.” “What’s that?” They both asked.
I explained my credo about faith to them. It was a bizarre scene for me, as I knew Tonia had not graduated high school, and neither had Reagan. I was fortunate that I had, but I was still jobless over fifteen years later trying to do the free lance writer thing. Reagan walked inside after shaking my hand. I credit CS Lewis and my description of faith being a continual turning away from and back to God for the good reaction from Reagan that I received. My relationship to God is a contested ground; it comes and goes like my need for a haircut. I may not get my hair cut but every three months, but when I do I will go to the Sand Mountain salon. Church is where you are, and citizenship happens in all kinds of ways.