Nonfiction by Katelyn Moorman
The people of Lincoln, Arkansas, don’t have the rumbling, Southern drawls of country singers. They have clipped accents, every syllable either painfully enunciated or neglected entirely. They talk rapidly about nothing, saying in one long breath, “Da-odder-day-I-done-wen’-down-tah-dah-crick-tah-cayach-me-ah-fiysh-bud-den-a-’coon-done-snuck-owd-da-woods-’n-nabbed-muh-luhre.” They pause in conversation only to pack more Copenhagen into their bottom lips, every man proud to have a circular dent in the back pocket of his Levi’s. Preachers try to imitate the melodic drawl of the more sophisticated parts of the South, wanting to differentiate themselves from the redneck dialect of their congregations. No matter how hard they try, they always revert to the chaotic, strung-together cadence of their native tongues in times of spiritual passion. No matter how hard anyone tries to remove themselves from the mold of Lincoln, they always return to it.
My family moved to Lincoln when I was nine. I can remember sitting on my grandma’s porch, my feet lazily swinging off the edge as the booming voices of my adult relatives resonated from inside. My grandma sat in a plastic deck chair, slowly breathing in the same air she’d breathed her entire life and expelling it in long puffs, as if she were smoking it. Between long, contented silences, she tried to explain our lineage to me. She pulled out a piece of paper and drew thick, arching lines. Then she started writing names.
“Your Papa Roy’s brother, Bobby-Joe, had twelve young’uns,” she said, pointing her wrinkly finger down a name that branched off into twelve. “There’s Sue-Mae, Oleta, Charlie…”
She listed off Bobby-Joe’s kids, then she listed off his grandkids, and then his great-grandkids. I tried to pay attention, but it only overwhelmed me. I was starting to comprehend that I was related to people I didn’t know—strangers—and they all lived in Lincoln. I asked hopefully, “So those are all the cousins I don’t know yet? No one else?”
Gammy laughed. “That’s only Papa’s oldest brother, dear. He’s got nine more.”
After four years of living in Lincoln, I only learned who a few of these people were. But a town full of strangers called me by name in the grocery store and commented on my grades at the Dollar General. It seemed that my relatives were everywhere, lurking around corners and observing from afar. I constantly thought that someone was watching me, that between the Indian grass and the cattails, a cousin’s cousin was cataloguing my every move. I could hear them whisper to each other in between the crickets’ chirping and the June bugs’ buzzing, their laughter hidden behind the distant howling of a coyote. Without much of a warning, paranoia threaded itself into my consciousness.
I went to middle school in the same building that housed the high school. The classrooms had brick walls with white paint chipping off them, and pencils stuck in the corners of the ceilings. The concrete floors were unlevel due to an unstable foundation, creating an incline in the main hallway. Windows and doors stayed propped open during the hotter months, the AC breaking whenever the outside temperature was over seventy-five degrees. The humid air smelled of sweat, manure, and the occasional contraband can of chew.
It was in this building that I had my first panic attack.
I had been walking in the hallway, as I did every day, when I suddenly couldn’t remember which direction my class was in. I stopped walking to think. People shouldered past me and muttered obscenities underneath their breath, so I started walking again. My brain yelled at me: You’re going in the wrong direction! I stopped walking, turned around, hesitated, turned around again, stopped, took a few steps forward, stopped again—this process repeated itself over and over until my panic made me gasp for breath and I slumped, violently shaking, against the wall. I vaguely registered someone kneeling next to me, but I couldn’t speak. Air was ripping my throat raw as my chest heaved, and the world was tinted black at the edges of my vision. My thoughts were a jumbled mess, something like: they’re looking, they know, they see, they know—talking, whispering, pointing, looking! The more I thought people could see my panic, the more I panicked and the more I spiraled hopelessly out of control.
One of the teachers ran to get my mom, who worked in the cafeteria. She managed to get me into an empty classroom, where she held me until I was able to speak. She swept her thumb across my cheek and asked, “Katelyn, honey, what’s wrong?”
If I had known then that my constant state of panic and paranoia wasn’t normal, I might have mentioned it. At the time, all I could say was, “I couldn’t remember the way to class.”
My mom frowned deeply. “You can tell me. It’ll be okay.”
“I couldn’t remember the way to class,” I said again, my voice a quiet deadpan.
“You can tell me the truth,” my mother said, still adamant that there was some underlying cause of my meltdown. “I won’t be mad.”
Looking into my mother’s eyes, I was struck by a strange urge to comfort her. An explanation, I realized, would comfort her. So I lied. “I’m just upset about the fight I had with my friends last week.”
My mother, relieved at finding something that she could blame, pulled me against her chest and murmured into my hair, “It’ll be alright, sweet pea.”
We sat in that empty classroom for a long time, my mother rocking me in her arms as I stared blankly at the crumbling brick wall in front of me. It felt good to have nothing but my mother’s murmurs in my mind. Her words didn’t calm me; the rhythm of her voice and the texture of her Southern accent did. With its smooth Oklahoman undertone, it was different from the accents of my native-born Arkansan family members, which were rushed and disorderly, like my anxiety. My mother was someone who I knew didn’t talk about or secretly watch me. I could trust her to mutter saccharine Southern idioms into my ear until my nerves calmed and my body felt like my own again.
I fear that sometimes, I’m sinking back into the rut my middle-school self was in. I catch myself breathing heavier when I don’t recognize where I’m going, my heartbeat increasing until I pull out my phone and check myself on Google Maps. I have to dig my fingernails into the palm of my hand to force myself not to run across campus when I feel that I’m going to be late for class, even though I know, logically, that I will not. I stress over assignments that aren’t due for months, and I once vomited before a test thinking that I hadn’t studied enough.
Every once in a while, I find a trace of the old paranoia that had threaded itself through my veins all those years ago, like a loose string stuck to my sleeve that I’ve only just noticed. I try to mitigate this by compulsively evaluating everything I think and say, checking my tone and searching for the sources of my opinions to make sure I’m not quoting a distant relative. I carefully construct pauses between my words and focus on the phonetic pronunciation of my vocabulary. I listen intently for the sound of Lincoln in my voice.