The Folklore Project
By Chelyen Davis
I am at my old high school’s football game, the season opener, in the town on the Virginia-West Virginia line where I grew up. Here in the mountains at the end of August, the end of summer, a chill hint of fall air creeps under the bright stadium lights. I see familiar faces in the stands and recognize surnames on the team roster. The marching band plays songs I know, the air smells like cold turf and concession-stand food, and it becomes hard, sitting there, to believe that anything has changed.
Even though I come home often, I haven’t actually lived in this town for 20 years. But sometimes those years feel more real than any time I have spent away, as if maybe I only dreamed I left.
I knew the cracks of the sidewalks here. I learned to walk and read and drive here, had my first kiss here, drove through the summer nights with the windows down, giddy with new freedom and wind in my hair. I know the back roads, the shortcuts. The bank downtown looks the same as it did when I was a kid. The town hall is gone, but the Dairy Queen is the same. The kids still go to the same schools I did. I could walk into the elementary school and find my first grade classroom. The post office, a New Deal project that boasts a large mural about coal mining, hasn’t changed. The neighborhood is the same one I roamed as a kid, hilly and old above the river that runs through town. There is comfort in a place that stays so familiar. There may be a Walmart and a Taco Bell now out by the four-lane, development where there used to be farmland, but in the neighborhood of my childhood, the old things remain.
I come home and sleep in the room that has been mine since I was 12, in the house that has been ours since before I could walk. My parents came from deeper in the mountains but adopted this place as their own. This house is as old as the town. My mother and I hung the wallpaper in my bedroom, scraping down a hundred years of old paper, faded roses crumbling to dust. My old books and dolls are in this room, my box of special things. I read Stephen King’s “It,” lying on the carpet under the window of this room, the summer I was 13. The carpet is still the same. My father died in this house, and we kept living here, burying him in the town cemetery. My mother has a plot beside him. One day, I’ll probably be buried there, too.
In school, I was a nerd and a band geek, and nerds and geeks in small towns probably always feel like misfits. Now, I live in a city where my interests aren’t weird but my accent is. Still, I come home and hear the old cadences, the familiar ways of speaking, like hearing an old song you loved but had almost forgotten, until you hear it again.
I’m watching the people more than I am the game. I see faces I have known since they were full-cheeked and unlined, when we were all soft and unformed, gangly and awkward. There is something indelibly home about a place where you see faces you saw at age 5, and 10, and 18. There are people here who came to my father’s funeral. I was in classes and on stages with these people, had crushes on a few of them, played dolls with them, rode bikes with them, stood awkwardly near them at school dances. I can make other friends, but there are a finite number of people in the world who were in Mrs. Smith’s first-grade class production of “How the Elephant Got Its Trunk.”
Only these people, here in this town, share these growing-up memories. Home is where your ghosts live.
I’m sitting with my mother and her friends near the marching band. I was a member of that band all four years of high school, a flute and piccolo player. I went to every football game with the band. I remember the smell of lime lining the field, the nip of the fall evenings as we stood out there under the lights, ready to perform. We had tightly choreographed moves, rolling our feet as we slid in a curving line right, then left, front and back, weaving in and out among other lines, other sections of instruments. We worked hard for that show. A week of band camp, night after night of band practice outside the high school, hours and days of sweat and tears and pushups and tempers and bonding to get a field show right. We were proud of ourselves, standing tall out under the bright lights, our parents in the stands clapping.
I watch people march by between the stands and the field, a neverending stream. Like the Dairy Queen and the bank building, nothing has changed. The present feels thin, like the fragile skin of an onion layered over the past. The wannabe goths still huddle in a small, pale group. Little kids run by in packs. The coltish teen girls still circle, round after round, seeing boys and being seen. Shirtless boys with their torsos painted in school colors still take a large school flag and run with it, back and forth at the bottom of the stands, after a touchdown. Everything is the same. The band still has the same uniforms, unflattering white overalls under polyester jackets. They still play the same drum riffs, dancing in the same unison moves we perfected.
Surely, we are here somewhere.
Everything is the same. It feels as if, under it all, the real world is still 1992 and the years since then are just that onion skin, flaking away. As if somewhere beneath this layer of old faces with new wrinkles we are still here, fresh-faced and coltish ourselves, protected from the choices and estrangements, the griefs large and small, of adulthood. As if this is still a world where I have French braids and a polyester band uniform and a piccolo in my hands, standing proudly on a football field under bright lights, young and at home forever.