This Modern Writer: Where We Are by Brian Oliu

After the tornadoes that affected Tuscaloosa, Alabama on April 27th, 2011, I decided to assemble an eBook of Tuscaloosa writers writing about Tuscaloosa. The works in this anthology are attempts (essays, Montaigne would call them) to capture what it is we love about this city and what it means to us to repair and rebuild our home. The quality of the people of Tuscaloosa is only matched by the quality of their writing. Here, we have some amazing work from amazing people—all with our city on our minds and in our hearts. Some of the work has been written long before late April, other pieces written shortly after the storm.

After the success of the eBook, I was approached a few months ago by Bob Weatherly, the owner of our local bar about potentially removing the “e” from the “eBook” and making it a tangible object. We are selling the anthology for $12 (plus shipping & handling) and after recouping our printing costs, the funds will go towards the continuing relief effort here in Tuscaloosa. As I was re-reading and reassembling the pieces in preparation for the print edition, I wrote a
‘reintroduction’ to the collection, which is below. I hope you enjoy reading and I hope you consider purchasing Tuscaloosa Runs This.

I could tell you where I was:  on the floor in a dark hallway with all of the doors shut, a blanket over my head like I was a child—that a combination of cotton and comfort could keep the roof from caving in, would cause the tree to simply bounce off of my head and roll away with an exhale.

I could tell you where I was:  on a futon in my living room as a soccer player an ocean away froze mid-slide when the cable glitched and spat colored boxes and line where grass once was—all blades perfectly cut and uniform, perhaps left a little long to cut down on the speed of the ball, to slow things down, to see things for what they were.

I could tell you where I was:  on a futon with a spoon in my hand, a bowl of soup reheated, a stale piece of bread for dipping—a meal that reminded me of my grandfather who would eat soup before every supper with a spoon almost too big for the bowl, and how he hunched over the table, bald-headed with sunspots, how he sopped up the broth and brought the bread back to life, and how I, sitting up on the edge of the futon so as not to spill the soup on my lap, being careful with stains even though I did not know that the power would be out, that I would have no clean clothes for days, that I would feel guilty in wearing clean clothes, in taking showers, in wearing cologne, in living my life as it has been lived in the past. The bars creaked as I moved forward, perched on the edge, spoon in hand, eyes on something that I needed to see.

Before that, let me tell you about ways in. The doorways in Tuscaloosa are small, smaller than anywhere I’ve ever lived, small to the point that my shoulders brush against them if I am not careful enough, small like the sides of a metal detector at the airport, small to the point where every doorway reminds me of leaving. When do I stand between the doorjambs? The tricks of disaster escape me:  bathtubs? lie on the floor? get in a closet? As I spill soup, as I watch lights flash in a stadium where it is after dark, I watch it on the futon—a mess of metal wires and lacquered wood, like sitting on a knocked down fence, a taupe pillow on top that has thinned out from sitting here, day after day typing, eating, watching football, pressing buttons to swing our sword. The futon is here because it was the only thing that fit through the doorways:  entering in a cardboard box, the result of my mother haggling with a Skyland Wal-Mart employee over an improperly listed price, the teenager sliding the thin box into the back of my car.

A confession:  I do not know where this is going. This is supposed to be about beginnings—re-beginnings, re-assembling. My grandfather would finish his soup and finish his meal and ask us if we would all like coffee. He would have repeated this over and over and over again if we weren’t there to tell him that he had already eaten, that he did not need another bowl, that the loop would continue until he could not live at home anymore, that he needed care beyond what we could provide for him. My roommate’s first full day in Alabama was spent assembling that futon with nothing but a hex key and nothing better to do. The futon was broken—it was broken before the storm and did not survive long after, but it held us:  the weight of our bodies after picking branches from what used to be bedrooms, from hauling bags of donated clothes. We would take turns sitting:  the back of the futon would creak and go horizontal, inviting us to fall, but it would never tilt, even though we would expect it to spill us out into the floor. It is where we lamented the death of things:  relationships, friends, family, our city, and it is what kept us from the floor. It is where I assembled the first edition of Tuscaloosa Runs This—where I took the beautifully broken words of a broken city and tried to assemble something greater than what we were, as that is what we had hoped for:  to be a part of something larger than who we are, if only for a few moments, because those days when we were not hauling or cooking or answering phones were so goddamn lonely that we wondered if we would ever make it through.

A confession:  we made it through. The futon finally broke, not from our weight of sorrows but from dancing on top of it one night, late into the summer as the days welcomingly got colder and the streetlights were put back up on 15th Street and we started hearing about rebuilding:  about parks and restaurants and coming back. Always coming back. We came back to, and came back too:  being able to write about love and food, making films and packing bags and drinking a beer because the Tide were winning or the Tide were losing that we could laugh because the team that saved us were nicknamed the Cyclones that we would toast to all of that or we were dancing or because, dammit, we wanted to and not because we needed to. We re-assembled what we could and built new from where we could not:  sometimes the roof was rebuilt and other times we put the dogs in crates and moved into new houses.

A confession:  I bought a new couch. I measured the door, I measured the base at its skinniest point, and it was shuffled through the house with a scraped knuckle or two and that is where I am now, reassembling.

A confession:  The stories you read back in May were a secret way to keep us up, to let the world know that we are here and to let ourselves know that we are here, and while we have not made it yet, we have made something. Upon rereading, or, for some of you who are reading these words for the first time, they are an invitation—to let you know that we are here, we have not forgotten, and that we will tell you about everything the best that we can—that the loop has been broken, the soup bowl is empty, and we are ready for the next course to start.

I can tell you where I was:  looking up ways to fix a futon, looking up replacement frames, looking up soldering, looking through trash, looking at pieces of plywood to support our heavy bodies, looking for a way around throwing away what kept us upright, from throwing away what had always been there, the thing that we allowed ourselves to sink into, the thing that we needed a hand with a firm grip to help us up and into the world. I can tell you that we dragged the metal, piece by piece, out the backdoor where it scraped the sides of the wood, that we put it on the curb:  base, then frame, then mattress. We set it up facing the street, as if to invite anyone in.