The House of Joy
By J.E. Sumerau
I went to Chattanooga once.
It was an accident.
It was a favor.
Lauren showed up at work on a Monday twenty years ago. We were friends, but mostly co-workers. She was upset about a fight with her parents. We were folding men’s polo shirts made by Ivy Crew. She was dating a guy named James. Her parents did not approve. We worked with James at the Goody’s in Belvedere, South Carolina. She said she’d been disowned.
Lauren was foreign to me in some ways.
She was heterosexual, a strange condition I’ve never quite understood. She was Black, a contrast to the pale skin James and I both wore. She was in college at University of South Carolina Aiken. I had no plans for college beyond a relative who thought I might be able to get into technical school. She was a young woman, though I always spent most of my time with the girls. She was also dating James, a past time I’m not sure anyone else ever considered.
We were folding men’s Duckhead pants in the left corner of the store when she mentioned her grandmother. Her grandmother lived in Tennessee. I had been to Tennessee one time. I was maybe six years old. It was a family vacation to Dolly Wood where I convinced myself I met Dolly in a restaurant.
It was a blonde waitress.
I had almost completely forgotten the whole situation when Lauren showed up at work that Friday. She was meeting with Katie. Katie was giving her money. She was looking for a companion, someone to share the drive to Tennessee. She was not a fan of cars. She avoided them as much as possible. She took back roads and an extra thirty minutes to get from work to school and back again. She didn’t want to drive to Chattanooga alone.
I don’t know why. I could say I wanted to help a friend who was more like a co-worker. I might argue Tennessee held some particular fascination for me. It’s possible I wanted to impress Katie. I probably just wanted to get out of town. That’s probably closest to the truth.
James couldn’t go with her.
He would come later. That was the plan. He was on deadline. It was a test or assignment or whatever college kids did with their time. I don’t know if he ever made it to Tennessee. I don’t know if he ever really planned to go.
What I do know is that Lauren and I sped out of Carolina Saturday morning.
“It’s not supposed to be this way,” Lauren said outside of Atlanta. “It’s all my fault and I wish I could die somehow, you know, make it go away. I hate them and I hate me for hating them. I don’t even know how to live anywhere else.” She tapped the window of the gray, somewhat ugly, Toyota sedan. It was her car. My beat up truck was back at the Goody’s. “I could be happy in Tennessee. It’ll be a fresh start, an adventure.”
I didn’t say much.
I just drove the Toyota that might have been reported stolen at any moment.
“James will come after, he’s just got to finish the chemistry thing. He says his parents will help us get set up, I’m sure they will.” She continues tapping the window. A Counting Crows song follows a Jodeci song on the mixtape she made for the trip. “I guess I’m a college dropout now, I don’t know how I feel about that.”
We arrived in Chattanooga in the early afternoon.
The rest of the day comes in flashes.
I remember kids skateboarding in the tunnels. The tunnels were cut into the mountain, sloping up and down like a rollercoaster built to spite insurance salesmen. The kids were flying down one such slope, just beside our four cylinder rust bucket. They were yelling. We were staring. Three days later, I wondered if they survived.
I also remember arriving at the house. It was a rectangular, one-story cinderblock. The exterior was gray. The grass out front felt more like occasional stains in the dirt than a lawn. A sign on the concrete front stoop said, “Welcome to the House of Joy.” There were two vehicles, a black truck missing a tailgate and a red sedan from the early 1990’s.
We parked behind the latter.
Uncle Eddie greeted us at the door. He was a slender, middle aged, Black man with skin that smelled like bourbon and a laugh reminiscent of childhood. He was on the way to the convenience store at the end of the block. He told me we had to celebrate. “It’s not every day we have a white kid in our house.” He asked if we needed anything. Lauren said no. I said cigarettes. He was gone for three hours.
Big Mama was next. She was waiting in the kitchen. She pulled Lauren into her not all that big body before Lauren could choke out the first tear-tinted word. “My baby, come on in here, my baby,” she said somehow holding Lauren and taking up a skillet of cornbread at the same time. “Your daddy was always something, but I would have expected better from my girl.” We took seats around a table. Cornbread was served. I didn’t know you could put cheese and greens in it until that day. I didn’t know I, as Big Mama put it, “Didn’t act white.” I’m still not sure what that means. It feels like a compliment.
Lauren was crying less after only a few hours. She was coming back to life. James wasn’t answering his phone. That didn’t seem as important at the House of Joy as it had on the drive through Georgia.
Uncle Eddie was asleep on the couch when I left for the bus station.
I departed Chattanooga hours after I arrived.
Maybe I’ll go back some day.
J.E. Sumerau is a social psychologist and the director of applied sociology at the University of Tampa. They are also the author of 6 novels published with academic presses, and two of these novels, Homecoming Queens and Palmetto Rose, were finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
They have also published short stories in the Sandhills Literary Magazine, The So Fi Zine, and The Sociological Review. For more information, please visit www.jsumerau.com, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.