In Martinsville (2021)

Digital Photography

Chanlee Luu

a church on nearly every block: Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Evangelical. She doesn’t know the difference; what she does remember is the Bible quotes insertedediting fonts in yearbook pages. What she does know is stained glass windows, Jesus on a cross, the pearly gates of heaven, the burning pits of hell, and all that talk about sinning.

a giant paperclip of concrete. The Speedway. The hum of cars in circles. The gold seablares of the high school band playing The National Anthem. The crowd of boisterous fans that makes their triannual migration like a flock of ducks, except no one shoots down the former. The night sky, tar black against the blinding lightemittingdiodes of after-prom. Going on a behind-the-scenes tour of NASCAR because she’s “one of the guys.” Or she’s the yearbook editor and it’s Spirit Day? Locals so pumped to tailgate, betting on their favorite driver to wintheir dollar bills sticky with the stain of saturated sweet iced tea. The occasional Confederate Flag flapping in the wind. For them, it’s “Southern Pride.” For her, it’s a sign to leave that house for another Census enumerator. Knocking on the doors of strangers is scary enough. 

a cotillion for the rich white kids who (mostly) live on one street. The parents who take a Laissez-faire approach because they’re “cool,” because their kids will never get in trouble. That one old lady at school with an unspecified job title, her dyed platinum bob framing her frowned face when she says in a hushed tone, “the student body didn’t used to be like this.” The observant student hears everything. She thinks the lady is too greedyher jewelry hangs heavy on her saggy neck. Her Botox injections are failing, just like her time travel wish. Martinsville High School was built to integrate the communitystudents from the white school, now the middle school, and the Black school, Albert Harris on Fayette St. would end segregation after Massive Resistance. This was 1968. This was not so long ago.

a hotel, restaurant, dance club, and barbershop all in one. Paradise Inn. Legends like Tina Turner, James Brown, and Ray Charles would all migrate down to Fayette St. like a raft of ducks, rolling down a mighty stream. In the 1940s and 50s, buildings like these were so full of soul; now they sit empty and envious. Now, the young adults migrate north, like butterflies searching for warmer climates, after their degreesbrain drain. She returns because she has been burned. Out. Fight. Flight. Brain freeze. Freeze tag. Tag you’re it! It is just the touch of the hand that changes everythingfrom the cold unknowing to the warm embrace of a new beginning. If only these travelers knew that northern Virginia was just farmland when their hometown boomed. That hands built this city brick by brick. If only they knew that the defense industries that boomed during the Cold War now prey and profit on teens that didn’t have the same opportunities as them…that hands can be cold and clawed too.

military recruiters in every school. They play games like “Simon Says” in P.E. and give out prizes in ubiquitous camouflage print. She loves itbetter than doing drills or running the mile. Nothing was off-limits to reel in a desperate teen, looking for money, for a decent job. Before NAFTA, there was a blooming economy. Furniture and textile factoriesthe “sweatshirt capital of the world” lost its jobs to sweatshops in Asia and Mexico. Her parents were lucky, but so many workers lost their livelihoods, their way of feeding their families. Nothing was done to help them transition. Their anger towards the government was not misplacedtheir wrath righteous. 

a fair population of Vietnamese immigrants, who knew little English. Knew how to work hard. Some lived in trailers. Some prayed to Buddha to bless their children. Elsewhere, the Catholic community congregated on Sundays to read the Bible with their strange incantations she never understood. What she did understand was the sin of homosexuality so clearly spelled out in a pamphlet. What she could not understand was why this scared her so much. Still, she joined the other clueless children and bounced on trampolines. On the swing set, the others flew so high and jumped off with no fear, landing safely on the concrete pavement. She did not have their wings. The children feigned God by creating and killing their Sims. In that gluttonous destruction, she felt community. When the word still didn’t exist in the books she read in her second language. She didn’t need representation because her world was full of mirrors and windows that showed her how to love. But glass becomes stained with dirt when there is nobody there to clean it.

an opioid epidemic. The ghost of their hometown too much to bear. Drugs. Meth. Opioids. Anything. Hunger. Fast-food lasted longer, quicker, cheaper than a home-cooked meal. The kids in school can’t see the point sometimes. A small ‘infraction’ led to in-school-suspension. The kids turn into teens. The teens turn to gangs. The gangs turn to shootings. Those were few; most gang activity came in the form of crass graffiti. In one instance, this was borrowing a pair of scissors from a small, unsuspecting student, to cut an MS-13 logo in art class. (She was so naïve about all of this.) The teens just wanted to have fun, to play basketball with paper balls, carefully constructed with scotch tape and recycled scraps. The teens were no slothsthe viscosity of time in their environment was too thickflowing like honey in winter air.

lust. So much that the high school considered building an in-school nursery. The teens quoted Twilight, their own star-crossed love a tragedy. Every day a Shakespearean actshe was merely the audience, an ear to the many ill-fated tales of her peers. Where there was lust, there was also insecurity. Cat fightshair, nails, and earrings displaced. Fisticuffs after the insult, “pussy,” thrown. Pushing to get out of harm’s way. Standing on top of cafeteria tables to get a better look. This combo was not good, but it got better. A rotating door of principals settled into one. Black leadershiplocal and familiarinstalled. Brick by brick, helping hands cleaned up the cracks. Accreditation finally. No nursery was built.


the Martinsville Seven. Before Emmett Till, before Rosa Parks’ protest in 1955, there was the execution of seven young Black men convicted of raping a white woman in 1951. There was an all-white jury. There was a biased judge. Who knows if these men committed a sin? What we do know is that the prosecution didtheir pride, greed, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth, and lust forced seven families to suffer. Seventy years later, they were finally pardoned. Just months earlier, the death penalty was abolished in Virginia.

a blue dot in a sea of red; just like most of Virginia, the city voted Democratic, the county Republican. The race’s final breath was exhaled on “education.” BUT. Medicaid was expanded. Marijuana legalized. The minimum wage raised. Hundreds of voting rights restored. The Equal Rights Amendment finally ratified. But none of it was talked about. 

The girl sifts through dirt
Finds a copper coin, seven
sinsthe way to Hell. 

Chanlee Luu is a Vietnamese-Chinese American writer from Southern Virginia. She received her MFA in creative writing from Hollins University, and BS in chemical engineering from UVA. She is the inaugural poet laureate at Virginia Western Community College, where she is pursuing a certificate in biotechnology. She can be found on Twitter @ChanleeLuu, and her work in Snowflake Magazine, the gamut mag, Cutbow Quarterly, Tint Journal, Honey Lit, The Offing, and diaCRITICS, all at She is the winner of the 2024 Jean Feldman Poetry Award from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House; her debut collection is forthcoming in October.

Artwork: “October Brook Abstract 3.5” by Kelly DuMar

Digital Photography

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