It all begins with Elvis.
Or rather, the thing stolen.
It all begins in a cotton field
150 years ago with six million
black folk. Swing low, sweet
chariot, coming forth to carry.
Wait a minute. Look at that
white man shaking his hips
like it ain't no little thing.
At fifteen I do not speak
Spanish but listen every day
to Christina Aguilera’s
Mi Reflejo, butchering
Ven conmigo, ven conmigo, baby.
At twenty I fancy myself
a connoisseur, telling
the hot English professor I want
so badly to love me —
All the other undergrads go on
and on about The Beatles,
but my deepest held conviction
is that Pet Sounds is the finest
pop album ever made.
Fuck me. In their twenties my brothers
love AC/DC and Black Sabbath
as my sister and I listen
to Billy Joel’s Storm Night,
especially its lead single
“We Didn’t Start The Fire,”
the song years later my freshman
civics teacher will have me
rewrite as a poem. Write your history,
she said to my impossible fifteen
year-old-self, the one with a (mostly
irrational) fear of school shootings
and adoration of Britney Spears
(jealous for her relationship
with Justin Timberlake). Or rather,
it all begins with my mother,
June Carter, a crackled twang
and strict household prohibition.
It all begins with my father, Johnny,
the poor farmer’s child, a whiskey
bottle in the third drawer
of his tool bench. It all begins
with them humming together —
We got married in a fever, hotter
than a pepper sprout, We've been talkin'
‘bout Jackson, ever since the fire
went out — even though we only drove
to Sears and Wal-Mart, maybe.
Or at best, a town or two over.
But never to the places the radio buzzed
on about. Not Jackson. Not Nashville.
Not the Austin City Limits. We never
fell into a New York state of mind.
Sister Mary Chainsaw
This always happens. I give her
a poem. I say, Sister Mary Chainsaw,
here is a poem. What do you think
of it? She powers up her Craftsman
42cc Chainsaw with its 18” blade
and two-year limited warranty, the tool
she always carries beneath her black robe.
The poem was about my brother,
how he failed me like my boyfriend
fails me. How they both like fishing,
an activity full of vivid language
and apt metaphor. I read the poem
aloud and Sister rolls her eyes.
She says, Goddamnit, son, ripping
the poem right out of my hands
and revving up a cloud of kerosene
exhaust. She hands the poem back
and it is just one line, reconfigured:
I love fucking,
At seventeen, I let a man blow me
in the steam room at the Pat Jones
YMCA. For a year I buy OraQuick!
(home HIV test, $49.99) with every paycheck.
from The Gap. At nineteen, I quit The Gap.
Buy blow for the skinny boy I'm fucking
and keep my mother's wedding ring
next to the bible in my nightstand.
At twenty my boyfriend calls me
Doubting Thomas. Traces my skin
with a red Bic pen and highlights
passages from Acts of the Apostles.
At thirteen, my father plays Johnny
Cash's "Boy Named Sue" in his blue
Dodge Dakota pickup. At twenty-nine
a condom breaks. On the retrovirals
every nightmare's the same: me dead
and lain out on a sawdusty bar, "Ring
of Fire" on the jukebox (and my dad
eating unsalted peanuts). At twenty-five
I headache from poppers. At thirty
I am celibate. At twenty-four, -six,
and -two, I masturbate. I am fifteen
again: retrograde in Ralph Lauren
Sport and never getting laid. At thirty-two,
I smell it on a boy riding the subway.
At twenty-seven piss play is child's play
and at sixteen I pray: Lord, let me have
some fun. At twenty-nine my doctor asks
for my sexual history so I open my palm:
the lord answers prayer.
At seven, the first album I buy: Amy Grant’s Heart in Motion.
It was 1991, heaven on earth, five weeks of allowance saved
for an endless loop of “Baby, Baby” in my sister’s Geo Tracker.
Rumors fired about Amy’s affair with Vince Gill. She was hot shit
& the Church livid with Amy the smoldering pop star, Magdalene
in crushed wine velvet & gold chains. This was pop glam: the best-
selling Christian album of all time gone main stream. Of the album,
Wikipedia says, Another song with an overtly Christian themes
was "You're Not Alone" which referenced a greater power despite
edgy features like whipcracks and a screaming guitar solo. I was seven
in my sister’s Geo Tracker, every heart beat & taken with the notion
to love these women with the sweetest of devotion. OMG, Jason says,
my mother had ALL the Amy Grant tapes. Practically a breeding ground
for homosexuals with ambiguous religious beliefs. Yes, it was 1991
& I was seven, in heaven watching my sister tease her hair in the rearview
mirror as her boyfriend Terry got us Diet Cokes at the Sonic Drive-In.
It was 1991. The Catholic hospital told Uncle Dennis, We do not treat
the disease of sin, so our parents drove to Houston & picked him up.
Which is why I was in Missouri (heaven) with my sister listening to Amy
Grant in the Geo Tracker: Jesus hated whores & homos, but we loved
them. I was seven & baby, I realize there’s just no getting over.
D. Gilson is the author of I Will Say This Exactly One Time: Essays (Sibling Rivalry, 2015); Crush (Punctum Books, 2014), with Will Stockton; Brit Lit (Sibling Rivalry, 2013); and Catch & Release (2012), winner of the Robin Becker Prize. He is a PhD candidate in American literature & cultural studies at The George Washington University, and his work has appeared in PANK, The Indiana Review, and The Rumpus, and as a notable essay in Best American Essays.