By Rachel McMullen
When the city started charging for collection, my family started to burn our trash. We didn’t even dig a hole, we just tossed a white plastic bag full of mixed garbage on a grass-less part of the backyard and poured enough gasoline on it to start a fire with a huff. We would watch the flames struggle to dismantle the various materials, melting them down into a colorful liquid that simmered with viscosity. As any child would be, I was curious about this unintended chemistry experiment: like a bonobo probing the earth for a protein reward, I poked the blue of the fire to return the plastic syrup cooking within. I dropped down crossed-legged in the dirt and lifted my prize eye-level, admiring the aquamarine ooze of a what was once a toothpaste tube. Bubbles popped in the muck as huge drops curdled from the end of my stick and fell back onto the edges of the still-burning refuse. Suddenly, my skin sizzled as melted plastic tore through my left leg, breaking down each layer as if it weren’t even there. I remember thinking that tin cans were stronger than my own body. As a knee-jerk, but still delayed reaction, I ripped the now hardened drop of plastic away from my skin faster than a Band-aid, ripped it away with all the now-dead skin underneath, ripped it almost hard enough to not feel the pain before the blood came. And when it did, when it cascaded down my leg and ran toward the fire-torn earth, it drew my blood away toward its dusty innards. I sat in quiet meditation, bleeding but transfixed by the mirrored shape still hot in the palm of my hand: a figure-eight, a bowknot without its tails, infinitely emblazoned in discolored tissue. A symbol of our trash, of my body, burning hot in the backyard.
She was angry about a swing, the swing I was happily swinging on. It was rightfully hers, but in the neighborhood I grew up in, nobody owned anything and everything could be anybody else’s as long as you were willing to fight for it. And so, there we were, yelling at each other in her front yard, the place where her makeshift swing set sat frowning in disrepair, relaying the best lines of verbal abuse we could remember hearing our parents say. Me: “You’re a lazy piece of shit.” Her: “Well, you smell like shit and no one gives a fuck whether you live or die.” Me: “Fuck you, you stupid bitch!” Her: “Fucking whore!” This exchange went on for as long as it could until it inevitably got physical; in my neighborhood, you either put up or shut up, and after all the words we had hurled at each other, we had no choice but to fight. She started it (the excuse I would later tell my mother), grabbing my arm and pulling me violently off the swing to the ground. I quickly stood up and pushed her hard, so hard she fell back over the cracked plastic slide as a small audience was gathering, neighborhood kids and siblings raising the stakes, cheering us on. When she got to her feet, I was already in position: the moment she ran toward me, I punched her square in the nose, knocking her dizzy. Involuntary tears poured from her eyes as blood streamed from her very obviously broken nose and the exuberant crowd reenacted my move with celebratory slapstick. She held her face in her dirty palm and retreated to the backyard in a zigzag as if she was running away from an alligator. Seconds later, she returned, holding an old five-gallon metal gas can, recklessly waving it in the air above her as the flammable liquid audibly sloshed around inside. She began threatening to light me on fire, to burn me like the trash I was. I remember thinking this was funny, but instead of laughing I urged her to prove herself. “I fucking dare you,” I hissed at her. Without a lighter to ignite the fuel, she instead opted to throw the entire can in my direction, catching me off guard and hitting me in the forehead. I was struck senseless in a blackout void, helpless and concussed, and now, the loser in this fight who would need several stitches to bind up the severe wound profusely bleeding just above my left eye. It was my turn to retreat, but this time there would be no immediate rebuttal. I would have to call my mom to come home from work, she would have to take me to the hospital, and then I would be the subject of an argument with her boyfriend about teaching me to “fight like a boy.” On the car ride home, I thought about revenge, about how I could break more than just the girl’s nose, about how her nose would heal and I would be left with a mark of shame, a constant reminder that I was poor white trash growing up in a neighborhood governed by the laws of despondency and desperation.
I was young and drunk, just 16-years-old at my 21-year-old boyfriend’s cookout. An SEC football game was on every TV in the house, and if the right team scored, Budweiser would shoot up into the air like champagne, prompting another round for the thirsty mouths oscillating between long swigs of beer and swift drags of Marlboro Reds. Balancing a fruit-flavored Smirnoff in my faltering hands, I observed the celebration without investment. I walked in crooked lines from one corner of the house to the other, occasionally leaning on walls for stability. I stopped by an old birdcage in the kitchen, yellowed from fry grease and age, and peered thoughtlessly down at the hairless pink fox squirrel who had recently been taken from its nest in the woods to be raised as a pet. Another exaltation erupted from the congealing fans as I broke through them, looking for my boyfriend who I now realized had been missing for a while. The haze of people dizzied me into a panic: I screamed my boyfriend’s name over and over again, disrupting the rhythm of the room until I was firmly directed outside. I fluttered through the front door and scanned the length of the dark front yard, gazing over the gray humps of used tires, misshapen metals, and a dented mailbox. As I stepped out to conduct a more detailed search, I turned too far to the right and lifted the top of my naked knee to the bottom of a rusty charcoal grill. Shocked by the obstruction, I froze as the grill cooked my skin raw, burning without feeling. When my boyfriend finally emerged from the darkness with another bag of charcoal, it was his turn to scream. He wrapped his hands around my waist and pulled me back, quickly kneeling to review the damage. “Damn,” he said breathlessly. A narrow oval stretched across my thigh, pink around the edges but deep red and bloody in the middle. I remember not thinking, passive as the blood collected itself in the folds of my knee. This mark, destined to become a scar, detached from the memory of pain, became molten and then hard again. It defaced my body like the poverty I was brought up in, scraping across both my body and my mind, disfiguring my skin and melting my memory into a dark, angry liquid.
So here I am: a child burning in the dirt, a girl bleeding for her dignity, a teenager searching for a source of relief, and finally, a woman writing about the smoldering remains of what’s left after everything else has gone up in flames. If scars are tattoos with better stories, then I want to rewrite my scars.
Rachel McMullen is an educator, writer, and future librarian living in Chicago, IL. She holds an M.Ed. from the University of South Alabama and is currently earning an MLIS from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her creative work can be found in Deep South Magazine, Bellum, Eunoia Review, Unbroken Journal, and elsewhere. She is the Co-Founder of Random Sample Review (https://randomsamplereview.com/).