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Between Fall Leaves and Mountain Streams

By Owen McCall

1. Brevard, North Carolina

Brevard is a town of around 7000 people, 85% of whom are white. Brevard does not have many activities. The mountains stretch high, and Baptist churches dot the landscape like sheep. My father takes me out into the mountain trails and shows me how to find a clean stream to drink from. The trick is to find a stream that originates nearby – the closer the spring, the cleaner the water. Brevard, and to a larger extent, North Carolina, feels clean. It feels blue, sharp, clear, like the cold water in those streams. The air is crisp and the wind brushes past harshly, leaving red noses and ruddy cheeks like you see in the movies. The mountains are tall, but gentle, with sloping curves and lush forests. The gentle atmosphere of Brevard is marred when I meet my uncle and his family – they live in a log house on the side of a hill, fortified with metal edges and a metal roof. They are harsh people, with drawling accents and as many beards as possible. They ask my mom strange questions about “her country” and make remarks about my “shiny hair.” They enter and exit rooms with guns and rifles in their hands, in their bags, across their backs. Their living room is adorned with deer heads and stuffed racoons. As a child, I imagined myself as one of those heads, stuffed and hung above the mantle with glass eyes and dead skin. The gruesome picture stayed with me every time I entered their home, and the air around me turned dark, a little violent. Crisp, still, but malevolent.

I am a little boy with long hair and my grandfather is teaching me how to shoot a rifle. We are standing in the side yard looking up at the hill and I hold the rifle with my small hands. My father comes out of the house to help. He shows me how to brace the gun against my shoulder so it doesn’t hurt me. The scrappy tin cans sitting on the makeshift brick wall stare me in the eye as I lift the gun at them. My grandfather pushes the gun to the left.

“That’s not gonna hit it,” he grumbles.

“Dad, you’ve only got one eye. How you gonna tell where to aim?” my dad says. He regains his country accent when we visit my grandparents.

My grandfather shot his eye out when he was nine, along with three of his right fingers and two of his left. When he grasps my shoulder I think about the chameleon in the book I’m reading. I look down the barrel of the gun and line up the end with the glinting green can in the distance. I think about the hanging heads in my uncle’s home and I feel afraid, singularly and all at once. My finger tightens and nothing happens. I take a breath, ignore the image of the hanging heads, and steel myself against the cold metal of the gun. I squeeze again, harder. I hear a pop and the can is no longer on the brick wall. I feel a rush of giddiness and I can barely breathe.

This is the first time I ever felt like a boy. I wonder what it means that my first experience of boyhood is holding a gun.

“I’m gonna go inside, see if Francis’s cookin’ up anything good,” my grandfather says, and leaves my father and I alone.

Francis was never cooking anything good. I liked visiting their house because there was always a half-eaten box of glazed donuts on the kitchen counter. My grandparents only ever ate glazed or jelly donuts for their daily meals. My dad buys them fresh vegetables, packaged sausage, and ground beef and organizes their fridge. The next time we visit everything is in the same place we left it. Regardless, the creamed corn my grandmother made remained one of my favorite meals as a child. It wasn’t until I was sixteen and my grandmother long gone that I realized she just emptied the can into a bowl and placed it in front of me. My mom told me once that Francis wasn’t a very good homemaker.

“You should be better,” she told me. “You should know how to clean a house and cook a good meal. All women need to know how to do that. Men, they don’t know. It’s just a part of them. They don’t know. You have to learn for them.”

I spent a summer in North Carolina learning how to cook and do laundry. My mom stood next to me chopping carrots or broccoli or potatoes and I stood at the ready, watching her every move in order to learn how to chop my own carrots or broccoli or potatoes and feed my own apparently-helpless husband.

2. Baton Rouge, Louisiana

My father gets a job offer in Baton Rouge, where I spend the next 14 years of my life. We arrive in June of 2005, and Katrina hits that August. I spend my third week of school at home, huddled on the couch, learning to identify the helicopters flying overhead by sound. I learn, eventually, that the traffic in Baton Rouge is new, that the destruction is new, that the world is not populated with fallen trees and flooded swamps and broken doors. I learn, eventually, that the brown leaves and rotted trees are exactly, typically normal for the world I live in.

The trees in Baton Rouge don’t change color. Every autumn, my father told me he was disappointed I’d never know true fall colors. “What true colors?” I’d say. He’d show me pictures of Brevard: bright oranges and vibrant yellows, shades of multitudes contained in one single tree, one single leaf, even. I knew trees to have only two colors: green and brown. I told this to a friend recently, and she pointed to some trees in the distance and protested, “those ones are yellow!” They were a yellowish shade of brown. The trees were dark and shadowy, and their leaves were the same. In the fall, the leaves turn from green to brown in the span of a week. There is no middle color. Baton Rouge is a city of binaries.

Baton Rouge is not dark. Nor is it bright. Baton Rouge is a landscape of beige. On my morning commute in high school, I pass eleven gas stations and twelve grocery stores. My mother has to drive 30 minutes to reach an Asian grocery store where she can buy her spices and sauces. There are no two-story grocery stores, or any two-story stores at all for that matter, a fact which shocks my friends from larger cities. The city spreads, sprawls like a tiger, across the land, reaching its paws almost past the river. There is no need to build up – only out, out as far as possible; turn the fields into JC Penny’s, the ponds into retirement homes, the forest into orthodontists’ offices. Everything in the city feels stagnant, although in reality it’s constantly growing, like a living organism that gradually sweats and groans its way into adulthood. The air itself is stagnant – a stifling sort of wet heat that drowns you in your own prolific boredom.

There is an invisible line drawn almost through the exact center of the city, a little above I-12. North of the line – Black. South of the line – White. There is no middle color. The city is in the top 25 cities in America in terms of racial segregation. My Baton Rouge is not everyone’s Baton Rouge. My Baton Rouge is the white-beige Baton Rouge. I do not know what the Black Baton Rouge holds. Might there be excitement? Might there be brightness? There is nothing unique about my Baton Rouge – the heat, the Shell gas stations, the ever-changing pizza/seafood/italian restaurants, the big chain grocery stores. Every place in my Baton Rouge, you can find in another city. In high school we look at the racial map of the city. I scan for any little flashes of red indicating Asian, and I see none. I see the blue of White and the green of Black, and I look for my house and wonder what I’m classified as. None of my classmates must wonder. I attended high school with no one of my same racial makeup. After eighth grade, the girl with the closest match – half-Japanese, half-white – left to attend public school. My graduating class had approximately 45 students; six were non-white.

In elementary school, the kids used to call me chink and zipperhead, racial slurs I’m positive nine-year-olds shouldn’t know. I’m also positive their parents – the same ones who handed me snacks at carpool and sang at my birthday parties – were the ones to teach them. And I’m sure their parents taught them to push me off benches and throw chairs at the Chinese teacher. I was still in elementary school, or maybe middle school, when I learned zipperhead referred to how, when white people shot Asian people, their heads split open like zippers. I remember imagining my own head splitting open every time I heard the metallic zip of my jacket. I often wondered if I was the only child imagining such things. But even this can be found in other cities.

On my winter break, home from college, I see the only laser tag place in town has closed. “It’s going to be a church,” my friend tells me. I nod, and wonder if they’ll integrate the pews into the laser tag landscape. I think of the church where I spent my childhood Sundays asking God for transformation – small, relatively, and deeply Catholic in design. That is to say – stained glass windows, deep-brown wood pews, an attached Elementary school in which to teach young children the sin of their existence. There is not much to do in Baton Rouge save laser tag and Catholicism. Well, now just Catholicism, I guess. I wonder how many cultural markers of white-beige Baton Rouge will turn into churches by the time I am old. Will the Waffle House on Airline eventually house a crowd of white worshippers? Will the Italian restaurant on Jefferson transform into a Baptist megachurch?

I like to imagine in two hundred, maybe three hundred years, how the concrete city will have changed. I like to imagine the roads, cracked and bleeding, maybe underwater, maybe overgrown. The buildings stretch for miles and miles, beige and a little brown and a little sad. It’s mostly quiet, because it always is.

I’m not sure why I always imagine the city as if it has been deserted.

3. New Orleans, Louisiana

I move to New Orleans in Fall of 2018 for college. I am eighteen years old and I am attending the college last on my list, and I’m upset. New Orleans is not a city I enjoy. Growing up, I visited at least once a year for various reasons – field trips, showing family around, visiting a certain restaurant or museum. New Orleans feels dirty, feels like the color grey, a green-brown sludge of a city. As a child, I walked around the French Quarter with apprehension – I hadn’t yet learned which streets are home to pictures of naked women and flashing lights. My parents walked me past the posters, and I shielded my eyes, filled with a deep sense of New Orleans-colored shame and embarrassment. It is only later I realize I only ever experienced the fake New Orleans, the tourism New Orleans, and I am sure the real New Orleans is colorful and bright. Nonetheless, I think of the city as a trash-filled swamp, and I am angry I didn’t get a scholarship to Emory or Virginia or Chapel Hill. I spend the first year of college in my dorm room, with brick and white stone walls and one window.

My first year roommate spends her time outside the room, in bar bathrooms and frat house backyards and in fields of yellow-brown beer. We don’t speak to each other. The city is new to both of us, but she takes to the environment much better than I. The city is a great big party, constantly moving and yelling and throwing confetti, and I am depressed and tired and never speak. In most of my classes I am the only person of color, in every one the only trans person, and I am pigeonholed into The Other in every class discussion. I dye my hair bright blue, green, pink, trying to distract from everything else about me.

Our dorm room becomes a pit of trash, with clothes flung about and wrappers clinging to the bedsheets. Lila’s side of the room is more frenzied, as if someone has rummaged through the drawers in a hurry, as if someone has tossed schoolbooks aside to make room for drinks and makeup. My side of the room is a sinking, slow mess, with piles of dirty laundry and takeout containers abandoned on the desk. Together we create such a chaotic environment that my friends offer to clean the room for free, just to get us out of the mess. We agree, but the room returns to its tumultuous state within a week.

The second year of college, I live in the honors dorm, which is far cleaner and calmer than the freshman dorm I lived in previously. The walls are a stark white and the floors are carpet, again, but cleaner. I bunk my bed and attach a small TV underneath, in order to play video games. My roommate this year is a clean and quiet boy I know from a club I attend infrequently. Jace and I divide the room into two sections, but his closet is on my side of the room. I attempt to keep my side clean, but eventually I populate my desk with dishes and papers and cups. We have one window that looks out to another building, brick and sidewalk and one single tree. I travel the city only occasionally, heading to locations such as Texas Roadhouse or Barnes and Nobles. Now, the city feels almost like Baton Rouge, beige and grey and boring. I, again, only see the beige-white part of the city.

Half-way through year two of college, I move into my girlfriend’s dorm room, because the pandemic sent everyone home and we’ve been dating for five months. We live in the room for another three months, and afterwards, we move into a house together on Plum Street. The house is kind of ugly, beige-brown and stucco and shaped like a tall box. The street it sits on is messy, with trash cans littering the sidewalks, grass growing through the streets, and tree roots growing through the pavement. The trees stretch over the sidewalk and give a nice shade, mottled and dark. The sidewalks are covered in mud every time it rains, and the gaping pothole in front of the house becomes dangerously filled with water. Regardless, the street feels safe, lively, and friendly, and there’s a house with a rainbow flag across the street. We put up a little rainbow flag in our window to match.

New Orleans becomes a little less beige, after moving into that house on Plum Street. I start testosterone, and I walk back and forth to the university clinic every two weeks to get my shot. I let my hair grow back without bleaching it. We walk to the little deli/grocery store down the street, and there, they have the best fried chicken sandwiches in the world. The Chinese owners smile every time we pick up quick lunches on weekdays, but I still don’t know their names. The snowball stand on the corner fills the street with people, families and children arriving after 3 for a mid-afternoon treat. Me and my friends walk through the streets, noting every colorful house we pass, noting every beautiful door we like. The dog that lives a few blocks down lays in little holes he digs himself in the ground, and he follows us down the block if we don’t pet him. The city feels yellow, a little warm, a little calm. I don’t know most of the city. But mostly, my little world, it feels mine.


Owen McCall (he/him) is a genderqueer trans man living in New Orleans. He enjoys reading and playing TTRPGs. He's planning on attending law school beginning the fall of 2023. He currently works at a preschool, where he has been described as "bad at standing" but "good at snacks."

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