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This month, the Feminist Press released Since I Laid My Burden Down, a novel by Brontez Purnell. Told with puckish irreverence, the novel follows one young man’s riotous coming of age in 1980s Alabama.
From the publisher:
DeShawn lives a high, creative, and promiscuous life in San Francisco. But when he’s called back to his cramped Alabama hometown for his uncle’s funeral, he’s hit by flashbacks of handsome, doomed neighbors and sweltering Sunday services. Amidst prickly reminders of his childhood, DeShawn ponders family, church, and the men in his life, prompting the question: Who deserves love?
A raw, funny, and uninhibited stumble down memory lane, Brontez Purnell’s debut novel explores how one man’s early sexual and artistic escapades grow into a life.
Before DeShawn left for Alabama and before his uncle’s death, others had gone. For instance, Arnold was dead. Dead, dead, dead as Latin. He sunk with the Titanic. He flew the coop. That monkey had gone to heaven. It seemed that all the wild men around him were dying faster than he could keep track. Arnold was not the first, but he was of note.
DeShawn received the message on the morning train, on the way to classes in Oakland, and he hopped on the next train back to nowhere. There was nowhere to mourn the dead boy. Arnold had not lived in any one place for long, and had pulled so much shit that no one really loved him that much anymore. Or maybe they were waiting to love him again after he climbed out of the hole he had dug himself. Like he would appear out of thin air, a magician’s assistant with a tiara and a sash that said “Healed” or something. The dead boy died before completing that magic trick. He would be that type of memory: one to forget. Three days of crying ensued and then a phone call. Arnold’s final roommate called DeShawn and asked very sweetly if he would clean the dead boy’s room. DeShawn said yes.
This would be his last favor to Arnold. He had loved Arnold. No one knew they were fucking, and from outward appearances it probably seemed like a casual camaraderie. Fucked-up boy loves even more fucked-up boy. It was rainy, and DeShawn showed up with supplies to clean the dead boy’s room.
There were old clothes, new needles, crack pipes, Lorca poetry, and books by Bukowski. The dead boy was gentle-featured and very, very handsome. He had tried to get clean this last time, couldn’t, and then stepped in front of a car.
DeShawn’s mind shifted to his faraway youth, a certain redneck boss with permed and teased hair, smoking and sharing her thoughts on suicide. She said, “If you are brave enough to jump off a building or shoot yourself in the head then you are BRAVE. ENOUGH. TO. LIVE.”
He took it as truth because an adult had said it. And he had believed it, up until the point that he knew someone who stepped in front of a car. Up until the point he stepped in front of that car, Arnold had not been a brave person. He was fatigued, and he had made a choice. DeShawn stood over an unopened jigsaw puzzle. He wondered what Arnold felt the moment that car struck him. Had he regretted it? DeShawn believed in energy, and he believed in the other side. He lit candles, paid respect to the eight corners, and prayed—that is, hoped—that the gentle, handsome departed boy was resting in power. He asked whatever god was listening to hear him on this. He set up Arnold’s altar—a white candle and a glass of water—on the highest point in his room.
There were, of course, people around town who liked to talk. They called the handsome dead boy a junkie, and after that they called him a thief. This was true. “He was also a loved child of God,” offered Arnold’s mother. Maybe this was also true.
Away from the talkers and gossipers was Arnold and DeShawn’s criminally minded and largely harmless inner circle. It is a beautiful thing to surround oneself with people who have pulled too much sketchy shit to ever judge anyone. The type of people you could fuck over, as long as you prove it wasn’t anything personal. Everything around Arnold went missing—rent money, LPs, stamp collections. Naturally, there was some resentment. But then again, everyone saw in Arnold a brother who was in deep pain. Which made his trespasses not forgettable, but forgivable. Somewhere, Arnold had his wings.
But there was still the matter of cleaning the room. DeShawn knew he couldn’t clean it all at once. It would take days, and that was fine. There wasn’t the dead boy’s laughter to hear on the phone anymore. There wouldn’t be his physical presence in the room, by the window strumming a guitar or smoking, or standing naked, with the most beautiful erection you could imagine. The place where Arnold’s life made a rude exit was now a black hole, a deterioration in the film loop. This void meant there was time. Cleaning up a mess takes time. DeShawn knew that in order to clean up the dead boy’s room, like, to really clean it, he would have to put on the armor of detachment. Detachment was a beautiful thing. You needed detachment to be nonjudgmental. He didn’t want to say that Arnold was a selfish piece of shit for dying. He wanted to feel noble about it. He stayed neutral and nonjudgmental as a strategy to keep moving, a bargaining tool to keep the darker thoughts at bay. But people make judgments. It’s the first thing people do.
DeShawn had loved about a hundred tragic motherfuckers, and this boy was no exception. Loving this type of man meant not having opinions, judgments, or expectations. It meant being practiced in just letting things “be.” DeShawn internalized all of the boys, their fears, hopes, and mistakes. He studied them so hard he didn’t see them anymore, he only saw himself. This was either a beautiful thing or the same mistake all deep empaths make. Judging any of the tragic boys he loved would mean judging himself. It already seemed exhausting. That said, he wanted to channel the dead boy’s feelings, the adrenaline pumping through him. What had he felt like when he walked in front of that car? The second he moved forward, had he regretted it? Or did he feel some form of relief?
People tend to navigate from experience. DeShawn himself had never thought of suicide, but he could understand ennui, that feeling of life as perpetual and epic but mostly for no big reason. On those really hard days DeShawn felt like a single sperm swimming around in some gay dude’s butthole, searching frantically for an egg that just wasn’t there. But suicide? Never. Homicide? Yes. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck yes, he thought. The thought of killing some rude, deserving asshole was so orgasmic it gave him a boner. But, of course, this was just a thought. Killing someone felt like a really complicated math equation. There were time variables, x’s and y’s, and where would you dispose of a body these days? A killer had to be self-sufficient and clean up his tracks. A suicide victim leaves a mess for someone else to clean up. He wondered if the EMT worker who cleaned Arnold’s body from the highway had felt a certain way about it, or if he just saw a job as a job. It’s surely never pleasant to see a body obliterated six ways to Sunday, but after the hundredth time, certainly something had to change. As a rule, as time passes all trauma has the potential to cool off in one’s mind.
Under a pile of exhausted art supplies, DeShawn found Arnold’s Nirvana shirt. It smelled like hell and sparked more memories than he cared for. Besides being one of Arnold’s favorite bands and one of his favorite shirts, there was the historical baggage loading it down. DeShawn remembered April 4, 1994. He was in sixth grade. He remembered a cold and windy pre-spring day, and his hatred of the school bus that dropped him off at home. He remembered turning on MTV and fucking losing it. Kurt Loder was on the screen; Kurt Cobain had killed himself. Shot himself right in the head.
In seventh grade, DeShawn ditched Sunday school and Bible study and started running with his middle school’s premiere group of headbanger girls, Margret Lopez, Amelia Andrews, R’ella Bollers, and one girl whose name he couldn’t remember. A year to the date of Kurt’s death the crew held a Satanic séance under the stairs by the drama room—a very, very failed effort to raise the spirit of Kurt Cobain. DeShawn didn’t care about the séance being not so successful; he was just happy that these girls had invited him in and stamped his cool card. They wore all black, smoked weed, were sort of sexually active (Margret was rumored to have been fingered the summer before), and they practiced Satanism. How fucking cool was that?
It was a rather poor séance. The coven ducked under the stairwell in as much of a circle as the space would allow. Margret lit a black candle and laid a picture of Kurt on the ground. Everyone (except DeShawn) was wearing black lipstick. They all held hands and believed together.
It became apparent to DeShawn (after two minutes) that he had no fucking clue as to what “sign” they were waiting for to tell them that Cobain had indeed intercepted their message in the spiritual realm. All he knew was that after another minute of believing, the bell rang and they were tardy to class and certainly facing detention.
They had left the stairwell feeling defeated. Why hadn’t Kurt answered them?
Now, in all small towns people talk. One of DeShawn’s bitch-ass Christian cousins ratted to his mom that he was hanging out with white girls who worshipped Satan. His mother, furious per usual, showed up to his room that night with a belt, foaming at the mouth. “ARE YOU A HEADBANGER?! DO YOU BE AT SCHOOL BANGING YOUR HEAD?!” She had said headbanger with the salty peculiarity of a woman saying, with active disdain, a word she never knew existed. She beat his ass, took all his Nirvana records, and left to spend the night at her boyfriend’s house.
The little hero inside DeShawn stood post–ass beating, all rage, his body covered in red welts. He was trying hard to catch his breath. “MY MOM IS SUUUUUUUUCH A BITCH!” In one statement, a whole new life began. In a plot twist that he would figure out when he was older, DeShawn experienced an epiphany. He didn’t like Nirvana because he knew what the fuck Kurt was talking about. He liked Nirvana because it pissed off his bitch-ass mom. Hell, hell, rock and roll. The devil’s music was still doing its job, still prompting kids to leave a nowhere life. The night of getting his ass beat by his mom would crescendo into a body of work, community, purpose.
Now those kinky banger girls from middle school were posting pictures of kids on the computer screen, a view into their normal lives. They lived in places like Texas and Kansas. They had houses now, and families. DeShawn looked up and all he knew were musicians. Every boy he had ever loved had been either a musician or a drug addict. Usually both. It was a yucky realization. But it kept to certain themes in his life, of stubbornness, of going longer, harder, of always being the last to leave the party.
“I want off this ride,” he said, really, really meaning it this time.