In February 2017, I heard an advertisement for an upcoming podcast by the makers of Serial, the show that introduced me to the podcast form. For those that haven’t heard the now classic true-crime saga, Serial explores the investigation and subsequent imprisonment of a young man named Adnan Sayed. I remember listening weekly to updated episodes, and feeling a deep sense of dismay toward the American justice system. After the first season came to a close, I started to devour true-crime podcasts and mystery stories, eventually branching out towards a fondness for the form that inspired my own production.
Billed as a true-crime podcast, S-Town was promoted as an investigation into an alleged murder in a small town in Alabama. I wondered what to expect, how the show would differ from Adnan’s story. Would this be another thoroughly American tale, something that captured the injustice I found commonplace in the United States? I knew I would listen.
As I began listening to the first episode, I was driving my Volvo station wagon through the rainy farmland between Syracuse and Rochester, New York. Before I left the house, I downloaded the entire S-Town series, a run of only seven episodes produced by Brian Reed. It was early April, right after the program first premiered on March 28, 2017. When I arrived in Syracuse, having finished the first episode, I posted my shock on Facebook, to the group of friends I knew had already listened. Why had no one thought to share with me the main character’s name: John B. McLemore? The same last name as mine.
When my father calls, the ID reader on my landline doesn’t recognize his name. He’s a wireless caller, and every time, I marvel that he has cell service out in the brittle, rural landscape from which he has scratched a life in Southern Oregon.
“Hey there, Darlin’ Dear, what are you up to?”
This is how he always greets me on the phone, with some affectionate naming, calling me his daughter-o, his love bug, his little nugget. I used to think I was the only child in our family who had forgiven him, but I learned as I grew older how far my brothers had come. We’ve all made peace with the person our father is.
“Hello, Daddy-o, I gotta tell you a story.”
This time I’m calling to tell him about Shit Town, otherwise known as S-Town, for the less fecally-inclined. The story centers around one man’s interests, those of John B. McLemore, a horologist (that is, a clock expert) who lives out on fifty acres in Alabama. In the first episode, we learn that John B. has contacted the staff at NPR’s This American Life, hoping they would investigate the murder of a young man in Woodstock, Alabama.
“John B? That name sure sounds familiar. Was his momma Mary?”
“That’s it! That’s the guy!”
“Lives in the country? Real crazy?”
I think to myself, What McLemore isn’t? It seems, though, that Dad knew exactly the crazy McLemore into whose story I found myself falling deeper and deeper.
“He made me think of you, Dad, and how hard it must have been to get out. To get away. To go figure out your own definition of what it meant to be yourself.”
“Hell, honey. Who says I’ve figured that out yet?”
I imagine my father and John B. sitting at a table, a bottle of whisky between them as they talk about women. Talk down about women. Bitch about their crappy Ford trucks and their responsibilities, their dogs eating noisily beneath the table.
My father would be smoking cigarettes while, I imagine, John B. abstains, just waving the smoke out of his face and thinking faster than he can get out his words. With every episode I hear, the story becomes clearer of who John B. is, or at least, what he’s willing to share of himself with Brian Reed, the host of the show.
The more I learn, the more I wonder: do I really know my father for who he is, or who I have painted him to be? Is he a real person or a caricature? I listen to John B. talk about the place he was born, the town in which he still lives, telling Brian in their first conversation from the first episode, “I should have got out of this goddamned fucking shit town in my 20s. I should have done something useful with my life.” Did my father feel like he had escaped his shit town in the South, a New Orleans far removed from the city I visit as an adult? Or has the toil of maintaining an outlaw’s life become the shit town he wished to escape? I imagine my father on his rented property, the pigs I met on my last visit rooting around in the mud at his feet. I see my father’s ashtray overflowing, the way he said the blanket I bought him was too nice for his home. I told him I didn’t mind the dog hair, but he just waved me off.
I took a break from listening to Shit Town after driving home from Syracuse. There was a feeling of ineptitude, that I could never craft a story that would capture people the way that John B. had captured me with some of his choice declarations: when he reveals his chest of tattoos, when he casts a dime in gold for Brian to take with him. I was afraid of losing him, of losing the way his story made me feel closer to my father, like his was a story worth telling. John B. was taking the world by storm, it seemed, with his questioning of the environment and ability to solve any clock problem he faced. My father had been a fairy tale for most of my life, a story I created from ingenuity and yellow snow and a guitar lick that made people dance. If John B. was a man worth seeing, then so should my father be.
A few weeks later, on a blank day of cleaning, I pulled the first episode up again, listened to John B. lecture Brian on what was required by the thirteen dogs he cares for and the labyrinth in his yard. I listened through the series’ seven episodes while weeping over my dishes, my uneven floors.
I looked up John B.’s picture, to see the person described as having red hair, a red goatee, and looking younger than forty-eight. His hair is, indeed, red, and he wears thick, coke bottle glasses in one photo, shirtless and reclining in a lawn chair. I could imagine my father sitting next to him, his dark hair and tan skin so different from John B.’s classic Irish. My dad would tell the joke about how he has “your name” tattooed to his chest, then pointing to the words “your name.” He would tell me that joke every time he saw me, until eventually I remembered and rolled my eyes. John looked to me like the person he wanted to be seen as: a tough as nails redneck who could take on anybody that tried to fuck with him.
After the photos, I read reviews. Some called the show exploitive, stereotypical. Others heralded it as the beginning of a new genre. I thought about Brian Reed, spending years capturing the life of John B., a human who seems so full of life, of brilliance, that it was hard to imagine the dark of his mind. John rarely smiles in photos, but I heard his laugh as I scrolled past his face.
After I hang up on my father, after explaining how to listen to the podcast on his phone, I call my mother to share the news. They’ve long been divorced and I hear her light a cigarette every time I say the word “dad.”
“Honey, don’t you go believing a word from that man. He’s just trying to get you to believe him. Don’t go telling anybody that you’re related to the pod man. It’s just another one of your dad’s stories.”
When did they send him to the hospital? What drugs was he on? I hear in her voice an edge that grows with every call I make related to him, the questions I ask. Why was he depressed? She doesn’t always have an answer, but I piece together a story of my father’s past, something he props up on crutches to carry the weight of his mistakes.
Maybe this is the way my father and John B. are related: there is something inside of them that demands their story be told. John reached out to Brian. My father reached out to me with every call, every letter, every scrap of story. Still, there are only our versions of these men being shared. They don’t get to editorialize their lives; we do. There is no way for them to control how their stories are told, but they grasp at anyone who will pay attention to the story they choose to tell.
Brian Reed used Shit Town to tell the story of how he met and came to adore a man named John B. McLemore, who was a product of his upbringing in the rural South. The place from which he came and the story of the man told are inextricably linked. As I learned John B.’s story, I began to recognize the same stain left by my father’s childhood in poor New Orleans.
My father was able to leave New Orleans, Louisiana, the South at large, putting one Shit Town behind him. But what has he really left behind? How much of who he is as a father, a friend, a person in this world comes from that same place which stifled John B.?
I think back to my father and John B. at the table, tossing cards at each other, or maybe backgammon disks. I wonder what they’d say about Brian and I, those interlopers who shared them with the world. Under their beards, I think, they are smiling.