(Photo: Brandon Reese for The Tennessean)
Tuesday. The smoke choked us. Slithering from distant fires, from North Carolina, down south eighty-one and twenty-six, engulfing that massive American flag outside the grocery store whose broad stripes and bright stars had been at perpetual half-mast in some silent protest to an unknown enemy, covering rich and poor, swallowing trees whose long-dried and dead leafs blew into the streets with a scrape and a crunch.
Rumors, too, spitting fast as flames licked backs of window panes. Overheard this one at a gas station: all these mountain fires were an organized plot by the Klu Klux Klan. Klaverns, naturally, long hidden from sight, exploited these crisp mountains of drought, and, after gathering at long-forgotten family plots, saluted their paltry Confederate dead with a seething prayer and a flaming cross to bring these hills ablaze. All just relics of their dead heritage—forgotten honor mingling bitterness. Just a plan to terrorize America to greatness again.
When California catches fire, there is constant coverage of multi-million dollar homes collapsing into the inferno. Newscasters lean into the wind as hurricanes make landfall. But, nobody noticed these mountain fires for months. After all, nobody on the teevee sounds like us. Nobody in the newspapers writes about us. Nothing is familiar out there to us poor white trash—other than seeing daily, hourly, a flaunted world always denied us. These mountains were on fire for a long time and nobody gave a damn.
Then, Gatlinburg. The New York Times, though, described Gatlinburg as seemingly the only bright spot in a sea of poverty. They were not aware, perhaps, that it lies between Knoxville and Asheville—you know, those hoveled mountain towns. NPR introduced their coverage with, “the Smoky Mountains just got a lot smokier,” as if the dead and missing were worth a shitty pun. They all left a few days later, right around when the rains came, seemingly saying who cares if disaster befalls the lot of climate-change-denying-Trump-supporters. At least we have Dolly.
Tuesday. The smoke choked us on election day. Lining round the block, all covered mouths, they cast ballots upon waters hoping return.
Weeks before, after a fifty minute line, I voted early. There was no smoke then. The citizens behind me said they didn’t care so much who all these people voted for, but they were just glad to see so many voting. I think they were Trump supporters. They had sly, private smiles and kept glancing towards the doorway as if some enemy was at the gate. I, myself, was an ardent Bernie man. Disappointed with my options, I finally said that very day: fuck it and voted Clinton. It was an anti-Trump vote.
All of us were played, I suspect. By whom? I do not know. Originally, I thought Trump worked for the RNC to give Bush, Cruz and Rubio polishing time. I was wrong. When they fell by the wayside—please clap—I thought, then, surely Trump works for Clinton. What with the weddings and all that. What easier victory than a choreographed opponent? I was so wrong.
The feeling of being played remains. NSA and CIA and FBI all say it’s them Russians, them Russians, them mad Russians playin us. Or is it just gold ole fashioned American big business? Tiller, et. al and all that. A mix of both, perhaps? Them Russians and them Capitalists and Trump. Who the hooker and which the pimp?
I can’t shake it: Trump is just smoke. This frustrates me. A writer’s job is to clarify unclarity with them words, them words, them mad words. I should be able to find my way to truth, to find the real cause of all this anger, all this hate, to give voice to all the confused, to everyone struggling as much as I, to command water flowing from the right side of the temple to quench these flames, these choking, smoking mountains. Vidi aquam, Deus meus; my tongue, thine instrument!
I can’t find them, though, the words. They’re nowhere. They might be buried, all those right words, under the smoke of fake news. It, too, swirls around me, confuses me, making opaque what should be clear. I cough. I gag. Where is the fire?
Where is my fire? These faith-ending days reveal I am just smoke, too, driving from fires set long ago. I am the echo of screams from generations past, screams of girls throwing themselves from a burning building, screams of miners under Army bombs bursting in midair, screams of deported Socialists, screams of strikers. Their echo, a relic of a dead heritage—just forgotten honor mingling bitterness, a dark satanic mill screeching by a lost river.
How can smoke fight smoke? Does smoke put out a fire? I do not know.
I, who once wrote the enemies of LGBT rights were “just fucking themselves in the ass” doesn’t know. I, whose picture was on the front page of the paper when protesting, don’t know. Have I just been fucking myself in the ass this entire time? Have I played myself? How big is the target on my back? Last night, a friend of mine was called a queer and denied service at a local restaurant. How long until I lose my job? How long until some false charge be brought against me? I did become a very vocal activist locally in the last year. I assumed nobody noticed.
I’m paranoid. Trump isn’t literally Hitler. LGBT rights aren’t going away. Maybe it’s just all this fake news clogging my brain, those scary stories supposed to frighten us to Clinton. Is this just vestigial campaign hysteria? Who knows? Who knows? What do you yell into an inferno to make it stop? At smoke to make it make coherent? I disgust myself. All these gifts for such a time as this. Sad!
They all came and went—Trump, Clinton, the newspeople who don’t write about us—talking emails and pussies and Mexicans and queers and jobs and walls and threaten each other’s lives and my liberties. Who would be king/queen/god emperor of a charred, desolate mountain? The hero of this election is a nameless staffer who, days after the election, screamed at DNC chair Donna Brazile, “You and your friends will die of old age and I’m going to die from climate change. You and your friends let this happen.” God bless you, sir. Never once did Mr. Trump have to answer Climate Change.
Usually, my corner of northeast Tennessee gets more precipitation than Seattle. Unlike tornado alley storms of my youth, it’s more likely to drizzle in the Blue Ridges for three days. But no rainy fog this autumn, no mist hanging low on hollars. Just dry light and dead trees and burnt grass and fires and weariness to our bones. These mountains were on fire weeks before anybody noticed. These mountains were on fire for a long time and nobody gave a damn. Climate change turned these mountains into tinderbox, ready to blow.
Man made climate and man made fire. Like many of the twenty-sixteen Appalachian wildfires, the match that lit Gatlinburg was arson. Two boys, fifteen and seventeen, played with matches as they walked the Chimney Top trail. I’d like to think they were so terrified by their own actions that they didn’t report the small fire they started. But, it grew and grew. I’d also like to think, contra my gas station conspirist, they were just being stupid, stupid boys. Now they have blood on their hands. Unwittingly, they terrorized us with their stupidity.
Living is a serious responsibility. Awake, awake, awake! Do not squander your life when mountains and the whole world of four winds is dried powderkeg. Any old match will do. When waltzing in this smoky apocalypse, it’s the unintended consequences that will kill us all.
Tuesday. The smoke chokes. I bite a branch by my teeth. This branch. This one holding me above a fifty-foot drop, dangling me off the side of a mountain. I try not to cough. This branch is my salvation above certain death.
At the bottom of this cliff, they’re all there: the alt-right Neo-Nazis, the queer bashers, the stocky boy who rolls coal down Roan Street every Saturday, several exes are there, too, and fake news makers from Russia, the pollsters, the broken molar in an L shape from a few years ago throbbing like hell, an Episcopal priest or two with the ministers from the Baptist church where I grew up. All them mock me.
“What’s your degenerate fag life worth?” they scream.
If I answer, if I mumble something about art and music and writing, then I lose the branch from my mouth and fall. If I keep silent, clamped on the branch, what kind of courage is this? I must answer. My life is worth living. The smoke from the mountain fires is thick here. They are an unseen enemy but I hear them. Don’t cough!
There it is. I feel it. I feel at my feet. I feel it spreading through my hair. Finally, we found fire in the land of the free and the home of the brave. It burns.