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Kelly Baldridge I Am Well Trained
I am often asked if I have kids, to which I always reply, “No, I have cats.”
Jack and Xanadu, my two black cats, are the proud owners of a 34-year-old woman—me. Being owned by cats isn’t too bad. They do keep me on a short leash, but the perks are great. I never have to worry about an alarm clock because, as they say, a hungry cat has no snooze button. I know where I will be every evening about 7 p.m.—in the kitchen for dinner preparation.
My cats are a constant source of stability. I know when they hear me pull in the driveway, they will go to the window and watch as I come to the door. Once I’m inside the songs of meows begin as if they are telling me about their adventures since they last saw me. I know this sounds crazy but it is as if they pause, cock their heads to the side, almost in unison, as if to say, “Well, how was your day?” They are loyal to a fault and never discriminate. They possess a kindness that does not waver and a love seemingly unconditional. Though I provide them with the most basic of provisions, I am asked no questions, given complete trust and treated with the greatest respect. My past transgressions or achievements are not considered. And in the true spirit of a cat or a child, if they are told “NO,” pouting occurs and grudges are held, and that’s just part of it.
Somehow animals have a way of understanding human emotion. I can count on Xanadu to lend a friendly paw when I am down or Jack to run and slide through the hall to make me laugh. When I am feeling lonely or sleepy (I think they get these confused), I will always have a furry friend to keep me company. A wet nose against my hand, a purring rub against my leg, or a snoozing kitty in my lap: cats effectively communicate what is important without verbal language.
I sometimes wonder which would be easier: cats or kids. Most mornings, after giving insulin shots and cleaning litter boxes, I am not sure. My kids are getting old and my heart breaks daily as I watch them: once agile, graceful creatures now, clumsy, awkward and tired. Jack is my oldest, plagued by arthritis and gum disease; he reminds me of a grumpy old man. He is 18 years old, 17 of those years he has spent with me. Xanadu, named after an Olivia Newton John song and who also answers to “Sissy,” is 14. I have had the privilege of caring for her since she was about four weeks old. She is now an arthritic diabetic who still has the sweetest brown eyes on the planet. Both were rescue cats, and I thank them daily for allowing me to be their loyal servant. I believe, as the saying goes, my cats are not spoiled; I am well trained.
Kelly Baldridge, of Prestonsburg, is a BSCTC student. She plans to earn her bachelor’s degree in Human Services.
Janie Beverley No More Babies
Appalachian Days Writing Contest
There wasn’t much Andi wouldn’t do to get a smile from her mother. It wasn’t that her mother didn’t smile; it was more likely that she didn’t smile at Andi. Andi pressed close to her mother as she loaded jeans into the wringer washer. She could smell Noxzema on her mother’s freshly scrubbed skin and the faintest hint of her mother’s second cup of morning coffee. Andi tried to get closer. There was nothing more comforting to her than the smell and presence of her mother, but her mother slid her body along the rim of the enamel tub to the farthest point of the semi-circle between them, reminding Andi of the half-moon she had prayed to the night before. “Please let my mother love me,” she prayed. Andi saw the outline of her mother’s baby-filled body as she moved toward the sunlit door leading outside to the yard where the clothes line stretched over the pink peonies her sister Gail had planted in rows around their rented white frame house. Andi stepped off the river stone step into the noon day sun and asked if her mother needed help with hanging the heavy jeans that Andi remembered could stand alone as if someone were in them when she helped her mother carry the frozen denim legs inside to thaw and dry during the cold winter months. She wished her mother had a clothes dryer, especially with another baby on the way. She wondered if her mother would love this baby.
"Andi,” her mother yelled. “Go get your sister,’’ and then holding her abdomen, she dropped to the grass just missing the clothes line pole that held the sagging row of wet, heavy denim.
Andi ran to the porch where her sister was rocking her baby brother. “Mama needs help. Come on. Mama’s sick. I think the baby’s comin.”
Andi’s older sister Gail jumped up and ran with her baby brother clutching her shoulder with his hands and her waist with his tiny fat legs in an attempt to stay connected to his jolting, wobbly sister running without shoes toward her mother who had collapsed.
Blood soaked her mother’s pants, and she lay lifeless as flies landed on the beads of sweat across her forehead. Gail handed her baby brother off to Andi and started yelling at her mother to wake up, to speak to them, and then she started to sob when she couldn’t get her mother to answer. Andi looked at Gail and asked, “Is she dead? Is Mama dead?” Gail felt with her freckled hand for her mother’s pulse.
“I am afraid she isn’t going to make it, Joe. She’s lost way too much blood.” The doctor pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with an arthritic hand that had delivered all but two of the babies in Willow Cove, and those two babies had come into the world faster than Doc Silver’s horse Madam could run. Andi’s father walked the floor in front of the window that led to the porch where Andi and Gail sat crying and peering in every so often to check the status of their mother’s health.
“I think the baby can make it though, if we go ahead and take her now,” Doc Silver said in a sad low tone barely audible to his window audience. Andi announced to her sister whose eyes were swollen and red from the steady tears of a girl about to lose her mother what she had just heard from pressing her ear so hard against the glass that it cracked the seal around the pane. “She will be my baby,” Andi announced to Gail. “I will take care of her and love her and she will know she is loved. She will have a chance, Gailie. Don’t you see. Mama didn’t want her, but I do and I am gonna make sure she knows it, too. I am gonna take good care of her and when she grows up she is gonna leave here and she won’t have to have babies she doesn’t want.”
About the time Andi’s sister realized what her sister had just declared, Doc Silver asked if they wanted to see their baby sister. Andi tiptoed across the wooden floor and peered into the cradle at the wrinkled face of someone she called “Marcy” after a lady she had read about in the Ladies Journal who sold grapes for making wine from her own vineyard up North.
Andi lifted her baby sister up and pressed her soft baby face to her own cheek. “I love you, Marcy,” whispered. “I will always love you. From this point on, you belong to me, and I will take care of you always.” She turned and looked at her mother’s lifeless body and felt nothing but relief for her. “No more babies, Mama,” she said as she touched her mother’s icy hand. The ebony mantle clock struck three, and at that moment Andi thought she saw her mother floating out of the room in a long flowing red gown dancing like a little girl set free.
Janie Beverley is presently the director of Office for Disability Support Services at BSCTC. She continues to work on her first book, In Silent Protest: Stories from a Quiet Revolution, a compilation recounting her days as a domestic violence advocate during the late 70s and early 80s.
Sheldon Compton All Full Up
His last address was easy to remember. But in a year living on the outskirts of downtown Eatonville, Ben still confused Front Street with Back Street about every other time. Maybe that’s what happened with his last letter.
Confusion was a state he’d yet to master. At eighty-six years of age, Ben Walker could remember what was in his lunch box the day the Number 2 tipple burned on Shelby Creek, but he couldn’t remember Front from Back to save Daddy’s life.
As the post office lady pulled to his mailbox, he got up from his porch swing and started toward her. She cradled a large box in her arms. Written on the side were flowery words reading Thirty-One.
Not for him, no sir.
When he sent the contents of his chest to his daughter in Indiana, Ben half expected Kristy to send them back. That’s what family on the outs did these days. He figured it was a show of good faith on his part. Figured he’d been getting them back in no time. Knowing now, three weeks later, that Kristy might take a notion to keep them, he was seriously regretting sending the love letters he had written Susan, tucked at the bottom of the chest.
Before Ben could make it to the edge of his yard, the lady shook her head and hunched her shoulders. She then hopped into her truck and zoomed off, late for real packages to everyone in the hollow but him probably.
There wasn’t much in the chest, not like you’d expect from a package sent to a daughter from a father who was barely there most of the time. One would expect a whole spread of things trying to make up for lost time. But Ben knew that wasn’t possible. And there was nothing of any real value in the chest. All the same, three weeks and no response. He had to have mixed up Front and Back again. It was the only thing that made sense. It happened the last time he sent Kristy a card for her wedding anniversary. She told him so when he finally got her on the phone a couple months later.
When Kristy was ten they sent her to stay for a month with Susan’s brother in Indiana. Ben was never sure what happened there, but something did. She came back different. Susan’s brother, Paul, drove cross-country delivering RVs, hauling his Chevy along and driving it back from every state you could think of and some you couldn’t.
Ben was against it, but Susan said it would do her good to visit family and get her nose out of books, play like a normal girl, quit worrying about skinning her knees and get a little dirty. It had a lot to do with Ben not taken to Paul from the start. He drank, played cards with drunks, fought with his wife, Nora, night and day. Paul and Nora had three daughters. Striped snakes were more kind, easier to get along with on account that their parents mostly left them alone. Kids left alone and bored were going to find the time to head in bad directions.
Paul’s girls – Melanie, Sara and Brit – were all older than Kristy. This added to Ben’s worries, which he kept to himself and thought about all the possibilities after Susan slept easily two feet away from him in bed. Those hours, watching shadows of branches cast from the moonglow appear and disappear along the walls of the bedroom. In those black forms he saw Kristy being bullied, shunned, yelled at, ignored, lonely with no books, no solitude. For others, maybe not a big problem. For his Kristy, it was a straightjacket, a metal pan slopped with a fist-sized chuck of wadded meat and no yard time, no sunlight, no hope.
Susan snored. Ben could not imagine what she dreamed of, a smile clear even in the gloom.
Turned out Susan thought the trip would toughen Kristy up. Instead she came back telling of how she woke each morning and watched deer scatter across the yard and sprint toward the pond at the back of the house. She cried the way an adult would cry, no expression, just tears dropping every few seconds from the corners of her eyes, saying how one morning a big dog, a German Shepherd maybe, chased one down and killed it on the spot. She remembered how the steam lifted off the torn apart flaps of the deer belly.
The trip was a failure, on all levels, and the weeks and months and years that followed were picked apart like silk by voiceless crows to remove the husks and leave everything inside bare and useless, picked to the core.
Ben woke early as usual the next morning and went to the porch with his coffee. Post lady would be here in an hour or so. He watched the sun coming up and searched for whatever sort of inspiration or glory people seemed to find there, but all he ever saw was that color of bright washed pink, like a nosebleed from a cloud. That sort of bitterness ate at him most days now. It was a new feeling, and one he didn’t welcome. Keep moving along, bitterness. We’re all full up here.
He sipped his coffee, already cooled from the milk he added, and fought off those old bedtime thoughts, fought at them until he heard the rumble of the post lady. He watched her place a letter in his box, struggle to close the latch and then finally leave it hanging. She waved and he waved back. When she marched to the truck, she stopped and slapped her thigh, bent and grabbed a chest, his chest. Turning, she held it up and smiled at him. Ben didn’t move from the swing. He motioned for her to sit it down outside the fence, and she did. The sun was bleeding yellow now, the color of ripe corn.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of the collection, The Same Terrible Storm, recently nominated for the Chaffin Award. His work has been published widely and been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, as well. He was a judge’s selection winner in 2012 for the Still: Journal Fiction Award. He survives in eastern Kentucky. To find out more, visit him online at sheldonleecompton.net.
Jarrid Deaton Haze
It was a four-wheeler that took out Hasil Adkins in Boone County, West Virginia. Of all the death-dealing things in the world, all of the alcohol poured down his throat, the depression, the raw meat for meals, it was a kid on a machine that brought an end to the Haze.
Just like D-Ray White’s tapping still bounces off the mountains if the right person is listening, Hasil’s hoots and howls are trapped in record wax like a blood-drunk mosquito in amber. The boy who hit Hasil knows this. He knows that sound keeps Hasil around. Somewhere, somebody is spinning one of Hasil’s records, and the manic singing drifts for miles on the West Virginia wind, insane phrases and energy breaking apart but maintaining the course straight for the boy’s ears. Hasil’s voice and the banging of his drum and guitar burrows deep, something more than music, and fills the boy’s brain with dreams of living commodity meat stalking him through the woods, severed heads nailed to walls, hot dogs fired like missiles, and he can’t run in the dream world of Hasil’s music, he can’t get away, because his feet get caught in the four-wheeler tracks he made, deep groves filled with blood and mud. Every night, he’s trapped, and he knows that nothing ever really goes away in Boone County.
Jarrid Deaton lives on the Pike/Letcher line with his wife, April. His fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.
Lisa Jones Show Me Your Heart
Appalachian Days Writing Contest
Katura Ann Jonas drove the backroads home. It was the long and difficult way around. It had been awhile since she had traveled the familiar, winding, crooked as a snake’s hindleg entrance to her family’s mountain place. Two months and 37 days, her mamaw frequently reminded her. Too long. Maybe not long enough. In her new life, away at college, Katura Ann became Kat, the cool writer from down Eastern Kentucky way. Kat would have to shed her citified airs before she made a rather late appearance to the unexpected wake of her Papaw Diamond.
The news of his passing was still too hurtful to think about. The drive, three and a half hours, gave Katura too much time to remember. She was determined to hold up, especially in front of the women folk. Crying was not in her nature, at least not in public. But Papaw Diamond was no ordinary man and no ordinary grandfather. He was a father of 10, grandfather of 22 and by his own admission father of “many lost young’uns who cain’t find their way in this devil’s world.”
As a small child Katura worshipped him as much as any Greek sees Hercules as a power unmatched, undefeatable, ageless.
When Katura’s mother left her with her grandparents, she was only seven. Her mother, strung out on the dregs of life and the ways of the devil, left only a patchwork remembrance of the bond.
Their relationship was a quilt made of old rags and hand-me-down memories, threadbare and coming apart. Katura’s only clear recollection of the departure was the movement of her mother’s white-laced peasant skirt swishing across the worn porch planks while Papaw Diamond’s booming preacher-voice demanded she give her family their due. She peeked between Papaw Diamond’s legs and watched the white skirt swishing back and forth as her mother paced along with flowing words that boiled down to the fact she couldn’t raise this child and had to go. The skirt stopped once and paused and then Katura watched it flow down the worn wooden steps, out past the creek-rock sidewalk, her mother’s steps calm, focused and on a clear path into eternity. There was never a face with the skirt except in pictures, faded, obscured. Never face to face. That was the first and only time Katura saw Papaw Diamond cry. His large leathered hands, stained from years of tobacco and coal, shook as he scooped her up in his powerful arms and covered her face from the scene of a mother leaving a child. He raised himself to his full measure, 6’5 and 250 pounds and delivered the ancient curse through a mixture of anger and sorrow: “The feet of them who buried your husband will carry you out!”
Two days later she was found dead at the head of a holler near the base of Black Mountain.
Mamaw Etta had predicted it. She felt the cold chills that morning and awakened to see a raven, building a nest on the porch. “O death is coming. Yes, Lord. Have mercy on this house. Put a candle in the window and do it right quick.” Mamaw Etta always said such things with that shake in her voice that meant devotion to God. She used the same tone to let Katura know that she was “gettin’ above her raisin” since she’d put on airs from that city school so far away. Katura never saw a likeness of herself in her own grandmother. Often she wondered if Mamaw Etta was a reflection of who her mother would have been, had she lived long enough to be holy and “covered by the blood.”
Papaw Diamond was a coal miner, part-time tobacco farmer and full-time preacher. Katura thought all men and preachers smelled like sweat, coal dust, Old Spice and gasoline. Even now she could see him on a hazy summer evening, walking in from a long day busting coal and hoeing acres of burley. He was a silhouette against a star-flung mountain sky, singing “I’ll Fly Away” to the hoot owls and an eight year old in bare feet with lightning bugs in a mason jar. His overlarge hands could move thousand-year-old minerals and turn delicate as a fairy’s wing, able to tie loose ribbons on a fly-away ponytail. They said he was something else in his younger days. He proclaimed he was “more of something else” in his old days. Katura often heard the old men gathered at the feed mill joking that Papaw Diamond could lay track for the rail faster than any man alive, carrying two rails at a time on his back, along with the maul and the makings for 100 gallons of corn mash.
When Papaw was old, two of the Melungeon boys tried to break into the homeplace at the dark of the moon. Most old timers kept their cash money in a flour sack or tobacco tin for safekeeping and this was generally in the kitchen above the corn meal grinder. The two boys slowly raised the ancient windowsills, white paint flaking with each movement and eased down to the yellow and white linoleum floor determined to find at least a hundred dollars. Papaw pretended he was swinging the backer knife at two cut worms but it was only his bare hands against teenaged angst and reckless choice. Half-grown boys sound much like hands of burley when they fall, Papaw said.
When the two awoke the next morning, their first image was of Mamaw Etta stirring sawmill gravy and pouring jet black coffee for the man at the table whittling two brand new hoe handles. The boys found themselves tied at the legs with old leg irons that Papaw sometimes used as props in church for explaining our redemption from slavery and sin. And the morning and the evening was their first day of enlightenment. The boys hoed two acres of tobacco, tied together while Papaw supplied them with sweet tea and water and his best sermons delivered while punctuating the air between the rows with his favorite verses about the evils of riches and “where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be son!” Between those tobacco rows, endless rows of waving green like the riches of a beckoning world, Papaw preached on:
“Amen, glory…Hallelujah to Jesus!” My treasure is in heaven, son. You’ve got to give your heart to someone, might as well give it to Him! Praise God! Give it all to Him now.. blessed Lord. Show me your heart, son. . . . Show me your heart.”
They say one of those boys went on to become a lawyer and still stops by to see Papaw when he comes to the old homeplace. The other one died in a getaway car from a deal gone bad. Papaw said his chains are real now.
Katura felt his absence as she pulled up to the house. No wood shavings scattered the porch. No workboots removed at the door. The tobacco knife stood forlornly by the swing. She could see the covered mirror through the screen door and candles were lit in the windows. Neighbors were bringing food and Mamaw Etta was standing at the old screen door waving her in and cooling herself with a wood-handled fan from the funeral home.
“They found him on top of the mountain at Lookout Rock,” Mamaw said. “Strange thing is when they found him, he was clutching this.” Mamaw Etta handed over a silver chain with a small coin cut in half and an inscription on one side.
“I think that’s a bible verse, honey. He was always thinking about his Lord. Someone in town thought they heard him hollering last night across the way to Old man Turner’s place. You know his old Mamaw got the dementia right before she died, too.”
Katura read the partial inscription faded and rubbed almost bare in places, “The Lord watch between me …” The other half was missing.
“The coin looks old, Katura, as if it were cut in half on the tracks as teenagers are wont to do. I never did see it in all my 60 years with your Papaw. He must have traded one of his hen and roosters for it.”
Katura ran her hands over the soft metal and tried not to feel the anger of loss. Papaw said he prayed for her every day and she felt the absence of those prayers now, even if she wasn’t sure she believed.
What good is it to love someone. It never lasts. Someone always leaves.
The funeral home was nearly empty. Katura sat on the front row waiting for the signal that six men she barely knew would take away the only person who made her feel loved. She closed her eyes and heard him singing:
Everybody I met seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad not a friend could I see
They knew not my name And I knew not their faces
I found they were all rank strangers to me
She was the rank stranger now.
From the back, a slight woman, wearing her white hair in a long braid down her back made her way slowly to the casket. She had been beautiful once and graceful. Now she was frail and as she closed in on Papaw Diamond’s face she pulled a white lace handkerchief from her watchband. Folded neatly inside was a silver chain with half an old worn coin and an inscription that said “and thee when we are absent one from another.” The old woman gently wound it around those ancient clasped hands and kissed them, wiping tears away with her braid. Katura saw the glint of the metal, saw the heaving sobs trying to escape, saw her turn and face her with the pain of love. Katura’s doubts on love and the Almighty began to die, burning off like spring fog on a Kentucky mountain. The problem was not that love didn’t last. The problem was… that it did. To her astonishment she saw a reflection of herself in the eyes of the old woman. And then, the woman looked her in the eyes and spoke: “Show me your heart.”
Lisa Jones, Director of Educational Technology at Berea College, and former English Instructor at BSCTC, writes, “I love the Appalachian people, the old way of life that is rapidly disappearing and the rich tradition of storytelling, handed down through generations. I hope to write more on the stories I have heard all my life from family and community members.”
William J. Loftus The Last Time An Angel Visited Me
Many years ago when I lived in the country, a stray, black, beautiful dog came to live in our out-building. He seemed just to wander around a lot by himself and caused no one any problems, so we gave him a box and a blanket and fed him, figuring that eventually his master would come looking for him. He continued to stay with us and was soon named Been, not Ben, but Been, because he had “been” around our home for some time.
He loved his box and blanket and each of us, as we fell in love with him. Been never wanted to come inside the house; he liked living in the out-building in the box with his blanket. As time passed, we noticed that he had developed some sores around in his underbelly, so we took him to the vet who removed what she called the larvae of wolf worms. These, she said, could have come from sleeping on a garbage pile. The larvae would have continued to grow and eventually would have burrowed out of Been to continue their life cycle.
When Been was brought home, he was weak and tired, and only stayed in his box with his blanket. We visited him and tried to comfort him by just talking about anything and everything. Been loved to listen and he loved to be petted on. It was after these interactions that he began to tap his front paw, which we came to know as “yes.” As Been repaired and grew stronger, he started talking with his paw more and more. He would come to the back door, bark and then tap his front paw once – answering “yes” when we would ask if he wanted to take a walk. He soon began tapping his paw twice, which came to be understood as “walk.” If you asked “walk?” just to be sure, he would tap his paw once to indicate “yes.” And so he healed and we continued our walks with him. He enjoyed the exercise and all the many conversations. We knew that he was fully healed when he added the third paw tap, which meant “run.” As we would walk with Been at our side, he would stop, and I would tap one foot to signal “yes?” and he would tap his paw three times in response.
His run was such a wondrous thing to see. He would begin with a slow, lopping stride and then run faster and faster, until he seemed to go into an over-drive. It was perfection in motion. One night, something magical seemed to take over him during his run. He literally vanished into thin air, with only his breath and a whooshing sound being heard – here and there, and then in the distance and then right next to us. The magic continued, and sometimes he would reappear out of thin air, slowing down so gracefully until he was again walking right beside us. These walk-runs became a daily event.
It was a Thursday when he came to the door and tapped once again for a walk. Off we went. Somewhere along the walk, I tapped “yes” and he tapped once, then twice, and then a third time, and then looking right into my eyes, he seemed to smile and tapped a fourth time. I smiled back and tapped my foot softly once.Tears began to roll down my cheeks. I knew that four times was meant as a “goodbye.” I reached down and petted Been for what I knew was the last time. He turned and began his magical flight until I thought I saw his wings lift him up toward heaven. It was then that I knew for sure that he was not a black dog named Been, but an angel that needed his strength returned for his wings to work again. We were simply the family that he found to help him in this recovery. We were so fortunate to have been given the gift of Been, and to this day, I have never “been” taught so much by a dog.
We still talk of Been every now and then, knowing that we were blessed with his friendship. After a bad day, I often find myself lifting my foot and tapping three times, and I find that my troubles seem to fly away, as it is on Earth, as it is in Heaven.
William Loftus is Professor of Psychology at Big Sandy Community & Technical College.
Aleisha W. McCarty Problem Solved
My uncle, he’s like a second father to me. He picks on me and jokes with me but always makes sure I’m safe and happy. He is a tall man with a beer gut, reeking of Bud Light and Marlboro cigarettes. His bald head and rusty red beard are his trademarks – along with his face full of freckles and a smile that warms your heart. He always wears overalls on top of a red or blue plaid button-up, and when we hear a four-wheeler pulling up, you can bet twenty dollars it’s him. His name is Jeff, and I would take a bullet for him, but what life shows us is that people are not always as they may seem. Back in June of 2010, Jeff let his true character show. I always saw him as a friendly man, someone who would never cause harm to anyone or anything. A man who would take up for someone when need be but never in a rude or hurtful manner. Needless to say, I was more than shocked by his actions that June. I always knew that he would do anything for his sisters, but I never knew he could take it that far.
Let me take you back to when this situation began, when my aunt Brenda was furious with a woman named Wilma. The reason behind her fury is still to this day unknown. We were all aware of this ongoing argument between the two; Brenda made no effort to conceal it. My normally quiet, reserved aunt was going around with hatred in her eyes, and rage in her voice. The worst part of it all is that Wilma had to come up our hollow every day to feed the chickens my other aunt Dora was housing for her. Of course, Brenda became extremely agitated as soon as Wilma’s 1998 navy-blue Chevy Silverado came up the road. Jeff finally decided he could no longer see his sister in this condition, so he took action.
That warm June day began like any other; we all woke up and did our morning routines. I made my way down the road to Dora’s house where things seemed perfectly normal. We were sitting on the porch drinking iced tea when Jeff pulled into the driveway. A serious expression was on his face; however, I ignored it. He started on his way out toward the garden, with just a mere “hello” as he passed by. That’s when I knew something was wrong. Jeff isn’t the type of person to give you a simple one word greeting; he’s quite the talker. That very moment is when I knew that the day was not going to have a joyful ending.
Fifteen minutes passed by before we saw Jeff again. The front door swung open and I nearly jumped off the couch. The only thing he said was “Can I have a trash bag?” Dora handed him two and the door slammed shut as quickly as you could blink. We all knew he was up to something, but we went about our day. Dora assumed it was another one of the quirky projects he takes on. I knew it was much more than that. Jeff is never so secretive or hasty in the things he does. I was ready and waiting for the drama to hit, and sure enough, it did.
Come to find out, when Jeff was supposed to be in the garden, he was at the barn. The barn is where Wilma’s ten chickens were staying for the time being. Jeff decided to take matters into his own hands and get Wilma off the hollow for good, hoping it would help solve Brenda’s new-found anger issues. He wrung the neck of each one of her chickens! Then he stuffed them all into the garbage bag and loaded them onto his four-wheeler. Not only did he kill them, he had the nerve to take them to Wilma’s house, knock on her door, and say “Here’s ya chickens.” After that was over he came back up the hollow, stopped at Brenda’s house and said with a nod “Problem solved.”
“He killed my chickens, they’re dead!” Wilma cried. She called Dora as soon as Jeff pulled out of her driveway. Dora and I sat speechless on the couch listening to Wilma tell us details of the evening. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; my uncle had become a cold-blooded chicken murderer! Wilma was frightened at the time. She sobbed to us for what seemed like two hours, when suddenly there was a quick knock at the door. A very distinct knock, one used only by Brenda. Dora rushed off the phone and said with a sweet tone “Come in.” Brenda waltzed in with a smile. All to say, Wilma has never returned to the hollow.
This situation changed every opinion I ever had of Jeff. He was no longer the friendly man who could do no harm; he was rude and cruel. How could someone I thought I knew really be hiding who he truly was? But as time passes I find more humor than hurt in this story, but it really goes to show, you don’t always know people the way you think you do.
Aleisha Williams McCarty, 19, was born and raised in Salyersville. Recently she became a mother to a handsome baby boy. She aspires to be a registered nurse.
Thomas Matijasic Watch Tower Ministries
Appalachian Days Writing Contest
The church was impressive. Watch Tower Ministries was housed in what must have been one of the most impressive buildings in Nike, Ohio during the 1970s. Two decades earlier, Nike’s tire factories were a place of economic refuge for thousands of Appalachian residents who fled the coal fields looking for work. They received something less than the warm welcome they had anticipated. Often belittled as “hillbillies” or “rednecks,” they crowded into neighborhoods on the east side of the city as earlier groups departed for the suburbs. Often homesick and sometimes a bit alienated, they searched for the familiar. Country music bars and weekend journeys back home help ease the transition for some, but others needed more. A spiritual longing remained, and the Reverend Mr. Alvin D. Prophecy rose up to fill the void.
Born on a hard-scrapple farm in Beriah County, Kentucky, Prophecy’s parents had eked out a living as best they could tilling the earth, harvesting the timber in the forest, and running a small country store. He never much liked his birth name of Manfred Lockney. What kind of name is Manfred for a boy anyway? He always told his friends to call him Manny. Even though his folks never had much, the Lockney family had it better than most along Badseed Creek and Manny knew it. Manny also knew he was made for more important things than scrapping along running a country store or trying to go under the earth to dig out black gold with a continuous miner. He did well at sports in high school and managed to keep a respectable grade point average in the process. He had only two reliable windows to the outside world – talking with family who had returned from the North to visit and listening to the radio.
The radio was magical. It literally brought the sounds of the world to you. He heard music in church. The sounds of the congregation singing the standard Baptist hymns had always given him comfort and security. Family gatherings were also enlivened by amateur musicians playing and singing what outsiders called Bluegrass music. But on the radio, Manny could hear new “country” tunes recorded in Nashville and the pounding rhythms of rock-and-roll on WZZK in Cincinnati. He liked rock-and-roll, especially after stealing and drinking a few beers from the cooler that his father kept in the storeroom in the back. He wasn’t supposed to know about the cooler, but he did. When he had a little alcohol and turned up Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnny Cash on the radio, it was like his brain had been set on fire. It made him want to dance. It made him want to fight. It made him want to do immoral things with his sweetheart. Truth be known, it made him want to do all of those things at the same time and he didn’t know why.
But he knew those feelings were wrong.
He also liked listening to the radio preachers. They weren’t like his pastor. They had fire in their bellies and the spirit moved them to eloquence. Manny could picture them in his mind’s eye as they moved about exhorting their congregations. God’s message was not one to be delivered in a monotone by good men who lacked inspiration. It was a message that needed to reach a man’s soul by grabbing his imagination and focusing his attention on salvation and the possibility of damnation. So Manny turned away from the temptations of beer and rock-and-roll, and he turned his attention to the future, his future and that of all mankind. He would be a preacher, a radio preacher, who would send out the word over these magical waves to the lonely and the desperate and anyone else who would listen. But he knew that he could never be a famous radio preacher if he continued to live along Badseed Creek, so after graduating high school, he followed his Uncle Jake to Nike and took a job at National Tire.
Manny read his Bible every night and took classes at the Holiness Bible College on Saturdays in order to prepare himself for the ministry, but his Uncle Sam had other plans for him. An induction notice, a physical examination, and some basic training prepared him to be a soldier, slogging through the rice paddies and swamps of Vietnam. As a boy, he had been washed in the blood of the Lamb. As a young man, he would experience a different type of baptism – one much more frightening and transformative. If he survived – if he survived the mined footpaths and bullets of the Viet Cong, if he survived the Saigon prostitutes and the foul water – he would take up his cross and fulfill his destiny.
He returned from his tour of duty a man with the wisdom of the eternal, a man people could believe in, a man who could not be denied. Watch Tower Church started in a small storefront in a depressed neighborhood. Manny ministered to the most humble of God’s people. After a year in the vineyard, he received his first radio contract from a small A.M. country-music station in Nike. They would broadcast his Sunday morning service, but the station manager suggested a more appealing name for the young pastor. “You’re an exciting preacher, Manny, but a name like Manfred Lockney isn’t going to attract many followers. They’ve got to turn on to our station before you can reach them.” Several possible names were discussed, but they finally settled on Alvin Divine Prophecy. It proved to be a winner and what started as a Sunday morning broadcast soon became a syndicated two-hour-long program of worship and prayer heard in 31 states and five foreign nations. I had to see and listen to this divine prophet for myself.
The interior of the church was very modern and unconventional for the day. The seats were arranged in layers of semicircles, with the “stage” at the lowest level of the church. On the stage was a simple glass podium and above it, suspended from the ceiling, was an enormous cross. A radio microphone was attached to the front on the podium. The assembled congregation numbered about a thousand people, each wearing the best clothing a J.C. Penny’s sale had to offer. When the Reverend Prophecy entered from behind a curtain at the rear of the stage, the audience fell silent.
“Let us be in prayer,” intoned the husky voice of the minister. “Let us not ask God to give us what we want but help to guide us in doing His will.”
A few hearty “amens” were spontaneously vocalized by the faithful.
“Brothers and sisters in Christ, as I look upon you, I don’t see a group of sinners and saints gathered together because we are all sinners who through the grace of God have the potential to become saints.” Several people nodded their heads in agreement. “I don’t see a gulf, a divide between the richest of us and the poorest because that divide does not exist in heaven. I don’t see men who are black or white because God is color blind and He gave His only son to save us all!”
“Then what do I see?” Pointing to his left he shouted, “Over there, I see a woman grieving for the loss of her only child and she wants to know why he was taken from her.” Pointing to his right he whispered, “And over there is a man who was just laid off from his job and he has a wife and three children to feed.” Gesturing toward the center of the church, he calmly reported, “And there sits a brave soul, quietly battling cancer, death staring her in the face and wondering if she is going to make it through this ordeal.”
“I don’t know why bad things happen to good people or why seemingly bad people have good fortune here on earth. No man was meant to have such knowledge. And I am just a man, as wretched as the poorest beggar in the streets. But I can tell you this: God has a plan for each and every one of us. You might feel abandoned, but you are not abandoned. You may feel as if you are being crushed by the weight of the world, but He will give you strength. You may feel as if you do not have a friend left in this world, but I can assure you that you do have one friend left. He is a friend that will never leave you. He is a friend who voluntarily suffered to save you. He is a friend who died so that you might have eternal life in heaven. Be open to Him and He will open the door for you.”
For those in the Watch Tower and for the hundreds listening at home, Brother Alvin’s words were like the cool waters of an oasis to a people walking through a desert.
Thomas D. Matijasic is a native of Youngstown, Ohio. He earned a B.A. from Youngstown State University, a M.A. from Kent State University, and a Ph.D. in History from Miami University. He has taught at Big Sandy Community & Technical College since January 1, 1983. Dr. Matijasic has received four BSCTC Great Teacher Awards, five NISOD awards for teaching excellence, and the 2006 Acorn Award. He served as President of the Kentucky Association of Teachers of History (1994) and served three terms on the Kentucky Heritage Council (1994-2006). Dr. Matijasic has published more than 20 articles and 30 book reviews, the most recent entitled, “It’s Personal: Nixon, Liberia and the Development of U.S. African Policy (1957-1974),” WHITE HOUSE STUDIES (2011).
Steve Minix The Creek Bank
The small creek that ran by my childhood home was where I experienced many of life’s first lessons. When I was younger, around the age of six, I frequently spent most of my time there – learning to fish, catching crawdads, and sometimes even riding my bicycle into it. The creek was rather small and about three feet deep in spots. Sharp jagged white stones were common, peeking out above the cool clear water almost looking like a large white glacier of ice. Least, that’s what it seemed to me as a young boy. I remember going to the creek to reach and grab crawdads before they would scamper off under the heavier stones I could not lift. At the age I was, finding small crawdads were like spotting Bigfoot or the ever elusive Loch Ness Monster. My grandfather taught me how to fish in that stream and after I caught my first fish I was spending almost every day on that creek bank, which was full of lush grass. How often I sat there hoping to catch Moby Dick!
I was at the age when a young child learns to ride a bicycle and remember riding my small bicycle through the stream – the water splashing up from my toes to my knees.
My family always knew where to find me. One evening, I recall, my grandfather had to come retrieve me from the bank to take me home as it was growing close to dark.
As I have grown older, the creek has also grown with me, so to speak. The gentle rolling banks have gone due to construction on a new bridge, the banks are now covered with rock, and it is significantly deeper to more than five feet. While I have grown from a child, I still recall the creek bank, how it was, for me, a calm spot to get away to and disappear.
Steven R. Minix, of Salyersville, is a BSCTC student. He plans to major in English.
Shawn Porter I Believe in the Microwave
I believe the microwave is an underappreciated tool in modern day society, and I couldn’t survive without mine. Could mankind live without it? We can live without a breath mint, but remember how pleasant your last conversation with someone who really needed one was? It’s said that dog is man’s best friend. Not to take anything away from my beloved pooch, but he has never melted my cheese to be enjoyed with some chips or saved me from another cold bowl of cereal.
I survived the first month of living thanks to the microwave. The first meal I had was none other than an iconic TV dinner. My traditional cooking skills were nonexistent. There was no mother to fix food for me, and I didn’t have the cash for a pizza delivery every day. Hot grilled chicken, mashed potatoes and carrots were a far better sounding choice than an unfulfilling cold bologna sandwich. In fact, my first grocery store trip alone included several microwavable dinners and pop. Every store I’ve been in that sells food has aisles of frozen dinners, seemingly begging to be taken home to pay homage to the nourishment-enhancing “nuke” box. There’s almost no food now that you can’t pull out of a box, poke a few holes in the plastic and enjoy in minutes. The instructions always start with microwave and then the oven, as if, especially for me, it’s just an option.
Kids with parents who can’t cook are especially thankful that a meal can be prepared with a few presses of a button. My father is the only person I know with cooking skills possibly worse than mine – the man can barely boil water. If not for the microwave making me those delicious fish stick meals, dinner time would have been a sad thing indeed. They even came with desert! One day when my kids are old enough to know the difference, I’m sure they will say a little thank you to the microwave after they attempt to eat one of my cooking disasters. Whether you’re too busy to fix a traditional meal, you’re in a hurry or want something warm at three in the morning while cramming for a psychology midterm, turn to the microwave. Almost like parent of the year, it always warms our food, never asks for anything in return and doesn’t care what time it is. So when you’re hungry remember, you can always “nuke it.”
Shawn Porter, 29, is a nontraditional BSCTC student. He writes, “When others say you’re too old, not smart enough or waited too long to achieve your dreams, push harder.”
Phyllis Puffer Senior Love
.............................................Zimbabwe, Summer 2012
A large portion of white cloth, clearly clothing, and similar patch of black showed through the landscaping of the beautiful house set in beautiful gardens. The gardener perhaps?
The gate in the wall around the house was open, showing a clearly upper class dwelling in this upper class suburb of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. The research institute, where I was working for the summer, was located in the neighborhood, and I was on the prowl.
The quest was for wealth to photograph to balance the scenes of poverty, war, and destitution which form the world’s image of African countries. The poverty, war, and destitution are certainly true, but not everywhere, and this was one part of the “not everywhere.”
The walkway, the house and a large area in front of the one story, red-tile roofed house were of brick. A sign over a paved open area across from the house said, “Visitor Parking.” I looked around for a sign saying, “Visitors please report to the principal’s office.” It seemed that the establishment might be a private pre-school or day care center.
A large man came slowly down the brick path. He was not a gardener. He was an Indian Muslim, of which there were many in this city. He wore the long white robe and long black vest common among men in that community as well as a flat-topped, round cap. His middle had expanded with age and prosperity. His brown beard was long and curly.
“Good morning. I would like to take a photograph of your beautiful house and garden.”
“I’m just here for the wedding of my niece. I’ve just come up from Durban.”
Durban is in South Africa on the coast by the ocean and quite a distance away. I had seen before that the ties between the Zimbabwean and South African Muslim communities were close.
“Let’s go ask my sister. She’s having her hair colored.”
Sister was sitting on a straight-back, wooden chair outside in the midst of yet more beautifully landscaped garden. A young black African girl was there, clearly the beautician, but she left almost immediately. A half- grown, grey and white striped cat sat in front of the scene, but it walked quietly away when I bent down to pet it.
Sister also was middle aged. She was wearing a long gown, covered with a beauty parlor shoulder cape, her long, wavy, black hair extending wetly down her back. She was a calm person, rather detached, and apparently unconcerned that a beauty secret was revealed.
Sister readily gave her consent to photograph the house. She didn’t seem impressed, flattered, or even interested. Both of them forbade me to photograph the people. I was embarrassed to have asked. I had temporarily forgotten that many Muslims do not permit photographs or paintings of humans as being too close to the practice of idolatry.
I photographed busily around the establishment accompanied by the brother/uncle who commented at length on the plants and house and life’s events. He showed me a word painted on the wall of the house above the house number. He said it meant, “Welcome,” in Arabic.
“My niece married a man from London.”
Another example of a close-knit yet far flung community.
“I was married 41 years. My wife died suddenly from a heart attack.”
We had gotten to the gate and I started to photograph the landscaping outside the wall.
The brother/uncle showed me the sign on the gate, “Honey Cinnamon Garden.”
“My sister is a wonderful cook. She can cook anything.”
The sign had not made any sense to me before and only a little more now but it explained the visitor’s parking and might partly explain the extraordinary quality of the gardens as an asset to a catering company.
“I was in plastics manufacturing, but I don’t do that anymore.”
I thought that might mean that he was retired.
“My son is in pots and pans. He has _____.”
I don’t remember the name of the son’s company but the father became very enthusiastic as he explained the science behind the superiority of his son’s products. There was something about different layers of metal put together making the pots heat slowly with need for only a little cooking oil. Food doesn’t burn. He emphasized that this was healthy cooking. Whoever thought anyone would be passionate about cookware. I found myself becoming interested.
He stopped himself and returned to his personal life.
“My wife died. I was so sad all the time. They said at the mosque, ‘You are always crying.
You need another wife.’”
“We’ve been married three years. I married a widow. She was married 21 years. She never had children. My children love her. My grandchildren love her. She loves the grandchildren.
Married 21 years and no children. We’ve been married three years. She wanted a religious man. No smoking.”
The way the man spoke about his marriage belied to an outsider the complicated, exciting and deadly serious processes which would have been put in motion within the community to bring about this union. The men, and probably even more so the women, would have been mobilized in match making. The man’s own mosque community would have activated personal contacts with other mosque communities in Durban, with other mosques in South Africa, and even Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, on farther north and east to the edges of the African continent and the Middle East. Also to Europe, Asia, the Americas. A man would have a cousin here, whose wife or sister would know an eligible woman. Another man would have an uncle there whose wife or sister or mother could verify character. There would have been much discussion of age, interests, personalities, backgrounds, and yes, money, also compatibilities of culture, language, temperament, education, and on and on and on. How excited the community would have been. After a short time, or a long time, or somewhere in between, the contacts would have been made. There would have been introductions and discussions. Then, great joy, a wedding. A relationship would begin. Love would develop and grow.
The sharp, strong, African morning sun made tiny points of light on the little curls in my friend’s dark brown beard. Here was a happy man.
Phyllis Puffer received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University, all in sociology. She has traveled in over 40 countries, mostly in the Third World.
Steve Russo Sitting Here in a hotel room in Louisville, KY
Sitting here in a hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky, I find it is hard to get my thoughts together. I was at the State Fair yesterday afternoon, when one of my staff sent me a text saying that Neil Armstrong had died. The rest of the day, and maybe even the rest of my life, changed. The tears began to flow.
Those of us in the planetarium field knew him personally, even though most of us never met him. But weekly, and sometimes daily, we spoke about the Moon landings, and Neil Armstrong. Even those planetarians who were not born until after the Apollo 11 mission still knew him. But for those of us old timers, who were born before the Mercury missions lifted off, we grew up with the space program and all the Astronauts that made history.
I always felt somewhat sad that most of the teachers over the years to whom I taught astronomy never saw the Moon landing when it happened. They were all in their mid twenties or so, and to them, Neil Armstrong was just a page in a history book, like Christopher Columbus and George Washington. But to me, he was real and a “personal friend,” even though I never met the man.
The public and all of us in the planetarium field “elevated” him to hero status. Neil never looked at himself that way. He was always the first to say that landing on the Moon was done by over 500,000 people and that the credit went to all of them and not him.
Yesterday at the Kentucky State Fair, there was an exhibition of things made with balloons – the Wright Flyer, Curiosity, the Space Shuttle, and a few other objects related to aviation.
But the one that caught my eye was the Lunar Lander and Neil Armstrong coming down the ladder. A few minutes later, I was informed that Neil Armstrong had died.
Most people at the fair didn’t know, and the few people that I told seemed to be shocked.
We all get old and die; not a pleasant thought, but I think that Neil seemed to be immortal, kind of like a super hero, and I thought he would be here forever. Well, he can be. It is up to us planetarians to keep his memory alive in our teachings. We can never let the generations of students and teachers who come to our domes forget the mission of Apollo 11 and how it changed the World forever.
I remember it like it was yesterday: July 20th, 1969. I was 14 at the time, sitting in front of the TV set, with my Revell Saturn V rocket and LM, “acting out” everything that was happening on the screen. Then there was Walter Cronkite saying: “Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the Moon.” Then the words that we all remember from Neil: “That’s one small step for [a] man. One giant leap for mankind.”
The world and my life was changed forever. Although since the age of five, I wanted to work in the planetarium field, seeing Armstrong on the Moon solidified that quest for the career that
I have had for the past four decades. And today, upon hearing about the passing of this true American Hero, the world and my life has been changed again.
Like Tom Hanks said in the movie Apollo 13: “From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon.” And now unfortunately, from now on we live in a world, where the first man on the Moon is no longer with us.
Rest in peace, Neil Armstrong.
Steve Russo is the Director of the East Kentucky Science Center and Planetarium at BSCTC. He has 39 years of teaching experience in the subject area of Astronomy and Space Science. He also spent 15 years as a broadcast Meteorologist on TV and Radio in the Finger Lakes Region of New York state. A native of Brooklyn, Steve and his wife, Jan, reside in Prestonsburg.
Michaela Stepp I Believe in Getting a Little Dirty Sometimes
Since the beginning of life, depending on your beliefs, dirt has always been there. As a Christian I believe that we were made of the earth and clay, like it says in the Book of Genesis. It’s second nature to us, it’s older than us, and it’s one of the very first things we discovered as a baby. Dirt is good for the soul. No matter where you go, dirt will always be there. As an only child growing up, I discovered that the dirt was my best friend. Making mud pies and rabbit stew were my favorite things to do. I bonded with nature and nature was a comforting presence to me. It allowed me to think and have an open mind about everything with which I was faced. Should I dig with a big spoon or small spoon to dig? Ultimately, I chose both. As a child I didn’t believe in computers or video games because everything that was fun happened outside with the dirt. That’s where Fancy takes flight. Although imagination can take place anywhere and at any time you want it to, it happened to me the most when I was outside. The little twigs and branches resembled flags for a fort and rocks served as a moat so that the evil squirrels couldn’t take over.
For an adult, a little bit of dirt can resemble a hard day of work, and for a hyper child it can resemble a hard day of play. I remember as a child seeing my father walk through the doorway with dirt on his clothes and thinking to myself, Why is he having this much fun without me? Only later to find out, that yard work isn’t at all what I expected it to be. However, the majority of my life was spent outdoors either helping my father with yard work or burying marbles in the dirt for me to look for 10 years later. To this day, I’ve found three of the seven marbles I buried. It’s as if I’ve given myself a scavenger hunt, but I already know what I’m looking for. As I grow older and the days pass by, I still find myself returning to the back yard where at one point in time my imagination went wild. Now, it’s more of a relaxing place where I go to think and occasionally dig in the dirt again. After all, once our lives on this earth are over, we are going to be buried in the ground with the dirt as our final resting place. I know that I’ll be comfortable there since I’m going back to that from which I was made. I believe in the power of dirt.
Michaela Stepp, 18, has a love for writing. She plans on pursuing her passion for meteorology in Oklahoma where she will continue her education along with chasing storms.
Troy Williamson Go Your Own Way
I believe in the flow of the universe and that we each have our own place within it. I believe that we as human beings are all connected in a sense deeper than what we know or understand. We are constantly crossing streams and exchanging pieces of ourselves with everyone around us. We often hold on to the pieces that are sent to us and at this moment they help define who we are: a mix of individuality and everyone we have ever met. It is when we realize this that we can begin to search for our stream, our identity.
Most of our childhoods are spent in mimicry. We learn how to walk, talk and live by watching the world through innocent eyes. Most of us grow up with a “monkey see, monkey do” attitude. It is these moments of influence that partially define who we are to become. We do not see ourselves as individuals until our lives are seasoned with experiences. Even then, we do not always accept our individuality. I believe that part of discovering our place in life is coming to terms with it. However, the moment that we do, our lives truly begin.
For me, this moment was the old near death cliché. The front end of my car decided to have an intimate relationship with a concrete wall. It wasn’t until the airbags had temporarily deafened me that I realized how ungrateful I was with the world. I found my place in this silence. The universe had given me the gift of music, but I had placed it in the backseat alongside shattered pieces of what once was my windshield. The sign was clear. Music was the fish that flowed in my stream; I was just the fisherman.
The journey to find ourselves is one that lasts a lifetime. People are constantly growing and changing into who we’re meant to be. The universe presents us with a path; I believe it is our job to follow it. There may be forks in the road, but there are plenty of signs along the way.I believe in who I am.
Troy Williamson is a full-time student at Big Sandy’s Prestonsburg campus. As well, he is an avid touring musician. “The world is my metronome, and I breathe to its beat,” he writes.
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Sheldon Compton The Bottom Field
At the end of Garden Road stood a garage. A block building with a set of double wooden doors swinging out for cars or chairs, depending on whether work needed to be done or sitting and drinking and getting high were the only tasks at hand. Strangely, Sunday was the day most of the work took place here, at the end of Garden Road. Other days, the doors were closed, tight as a nun’s knees. These days traffic sped down North Front Street that leads to the garage and to the trailer beside the old structure, gravel and dirt flying like split barrel ash, a dark thing flying through clean air. This is where folks from Calvary to Teller County would swing in to meet with Bill.
Bill’s brother, Stan, has been working on a 1998 Ford Ranger for more than four months at the garage, mostly Sundays, because the traffic to his brother’s trailer is too much for him or anybody to handle, really. He’s screamed away a few buyers, but mostly he had to walk back the quarter mile to his house and leave it alone. His brother helped locals with needs, but all Stan wanted was to get that Ranger running. Younger brothers and giving in and allowances kept his progress at a slow gate, a shoulder-slumped walk across the bottom that crosses Garden Road and led to Stan’s house across Route 122. From the front porch he can still keep an eye on the Ranger and how it tilts like a tired old man, the bumper at rest and easy going against the cherry picker.
Stan shuffled his feet across the porch. His pant legs were stuffed inside the work boots. Grease coated the hard steel tips and sides. Up, he stretched from habit and eased into the living room. His wife, a stick woman he calls Eve but whose real name was Henry because she had a strange daddy, held the phone out like a dead cat.
“Evan Meeks. Good company to keep, Dipshit.”
Stan called her Eve after the third date and she called him Dipshit, more often shortened to simply Dip, and it all worked just fine. Stan took the phone, pushed his boots off at the door and fell into the kitchen chair situated where the phone is attached to the wall. He pulled the tangles out of the cord.
“Yeah?” It’s more breathing outwardly than a greeting.
“Kevin been comin' over there to your brother’s?”
He’d seen Kevin Meeks come in and out a few times in the last few months. Young boy with a broken mama and Evan for an uncle. It made sense to Stan.
“I’ve seen him come by some. What can a person do? He’s got a car now, Evan.”
Stan waited with the phone hooked into his shoulder, putting bread in the toaster. A jar of apple butter sat in the middle of the table.
Stan closed his eyes then opened them. Eve watched from the doorway. She seemed punier than yesterday. Everything did.
“I’d figure so, yeah. Bill don’t run a card game and he sure as shit don’t have a book club.”
The receiver went dead in his ear. Stan didn’t wait for the upcoming dial tone but handed the phone back to Eve.
“That what I think it’s about?” she asked. “That nephew of his. Kevin?”
She moved though the kitchen, her still nice body making a path behind her, hips and legs, the ivory arms bare from her pushed up sleeves, all weaving the air as she walked. She sat down at the table and opened the apple butter. Her hair was always sunshine, even in the most swallowing darkness. She pushed the jar to Stan. Her eyes watched him, that caring affection she hid so well held in check, but she pushed her hand across the table and he took it.
He didn’t answer her question about Kevin. He buttered the toast and walked to the window. Four cars were in Bill’s driveway, best he could tell. Two more were parked out in the bottom where the old man and woman once farmed, a long stretch that ran with the river’s edge and the train tracks beyond. No sign of Kevin’s Dodge Aspen. He’d check in a half hour or so for Evan walking up Garden Road. Until then, he’d check his shotgun, give it a good cleaning, make sure he had at two shells left from last season. Man needed to be prepared.
The broken sounds of Stan sleeping on the couch put Eve in a restless mood. She made some calls to her folks, worked to fix the porch swing, fed the dogs. But she was still restless. At last, she sat in the recliner and watched her husband sleep. He was a tall man and his socked feet lopped over the end of the couch arm. His pants, two sizes too big, were rolled at the cuffs.
Parts of his pallid shin were visible on one leg. The fall jacket she’d bought him two years ago was still zipped to the stubble of his double chin. He snorted, full and loudly, just as she was about to recall the jawline of his youth. She turned on the television, turned it off.
Cars and trucks kept coming to and from Bill’s trailer across the way, shifting up that gravel dust and banging shut the trailer door behind them. Ten minutes or so each one and then gravel and dust again and another crew. Eve put on her windbreaker, left the living room and sat on the swing, tested it for a few seconds, and then lit off down the porch steps. Crossing the bottom field she spotted two cars at one end of Bill’s then another when she rounded the corner to the porch. She knocked on the door and a stranger answered, shirtless and leaning. The stranger’s stomach was large and tight and shined full and round in the sunlight.
“Ain’t you a sight,” she said. “Where’s Bill?”
The stranger smacked his lips and stepped back from the doorway. “Bill!”
Eve flinched, but hid it well. She pulled her windbreaker around her and thrust her chin out.
The stranger turned left into the dimness of the trailer and soon her brother-in-law came through the living room.
He had always been smaller made than Stan. Narrow shoulders, tiny hands and short fingers.
When he was standing in the doorway, he scratched at one of two receding hair lines. “Hey, Hen. What’s wrong?”
“Stan’s up there sleeping with a gun tucked in his arm,” she said. “Think that’s got anything to do with you, Bill? I’m just saying. Do you think?”
“What the hell? What’s he doing that for?”
Eve straightened her back, tiptoed into Bill’s face. “Somebody’s coming to see you soon. Probably more than just this guy Stan’s watching for.”
“Hush it! She leaned back, looked away from Bill and his hurt face, out across the bottom field. That field hadn’t seen a tractor in twenty years. “You need to talk to your brother. I ain’t waking him up.”
Without giving Bill time to answer, Eve popped down the three small steps of the porch and turned the corner of the trailer so the bottom field was stretched out in front of her, a flat track of land and history leading away.
“I told him.”
“You what?” Stan tugged at the sleeve of his shirt.
“And I told him he needed to talk to you. That you two need to talk.”
He tugged the other sleeve and paced the kitchen. Midday warmed the field and the front porch. The frost from the morning was gone now. Stan looked to Bill’s trailer and then across the way to the garage and his Ranger.
“It’s warm enough now for me to get some work done on the truck without freezing my ass off,” he said. “I’ll deal with him at some point. Or he’ll deal with me. Or Evan Meeks will.”
Eve pulled him back into the kitchen as he was opening the door to leave out to the garage. Her fingers pushed into the muscles at the bend of his arm, her face a blank slab of wood. She pointed out the kitchen window.
A Dodge Aspen slid past the garage and kicked gravel as it maneuvered into a parked position. Kevin Meeks stepped out wearing a camouflage jacket, sweat pants and a baseball cap eased just over the top of his brow.
Eve said nothing. Stan left the kitchen and returned with the shotgun. He knew Eve would pull at him again, and he’d let her stop him. The gun wasn’t for Kevin, after all. And when she did, he allowed her to take it and, holding it in her hands like a newborn, she placed it on the counter. He pulled his jacket together and stepped onto the porch.
The Aspen was a pile of junk metal, he thought, walking across the field. Out of habit, he side-stepped around Lafe Hill’s patch of garden. The only life left in the bottom field was Lafe’s sprinkle of lettuce and greens. Lafe and his wife picked about once a week, hunkered over without talking. Just picking and placing and then gone. The two of them were in better shape than the Aspen.
Kevin Meeks’ beat down Dodge was parked more or less sideways about four feet from Bill’s front porch. The motor ticked loudly. Stan tried to remember to mention that some oil should be added or changed. That ticking sound was no good. Even the Meeks deserved some advice on cars from time to time. He sucked in a deep breath and knocked on the door. When Kevin answered, Stan pointed back at the Aspen.
“You’re gonna need to add some oil or have it changed,” he said and watched the young man’s eyes grow just a bit wider, pupils pinpoints. Just a baby, really. Hardly one-fifty soaking wet after Thanksgiving dinner. “Just tell Bill I’m working on the Ranger if he needs me.”
Stan had been trying to get a rebuilt motor dropped in the Ranger the past couple weeks. The hoist rocked above him while he pushed against the body of the motor. The thin, metal legs swayed and bent to breaking. Stan let a grunt gush out of him and stood back, took a chunk of cut wood and wedged it hard into a space just in front of the radiator. The truck rocked from his pushing, but nothing gave way. From the corner of his eye, he ignored the fact that Bill and Kevin stood on the front porch watching.
He dropped back into the plastic lawn chair at the mouth of the garage and rubbed his hands. The pressure had left dents in the palms of his hands and he thought of Manny, the dog he and Bill had when they were young. Hauling it out to the tree line beside the river at the far end of the field, he and Bill both had those same kinds of dents afterwards. They had cradled the bloated Lab in a potato sack, each of them holding a wrung up end until it seemed that rough cloth was going to push straight on through the skin and hit bone from the weight. Bill dropped his end three or four times and the scent of that bloat and death would come up at them and they’d gag and complain until the old man would yell in from the field and tell them to keep it moving.
Once to the tree line, both dropped the Lab, really a mixed breed mutt more than anything, and those dents from where the cloth had bitten into the skin were pink and deep on both their hands. Bill forgot the shovel and voted to toss the dog over the embankment instead of doing through all the burying, saying his hands hurt. What Stan thought about sitting in the plastic lawn chair and watching him talk shoulder to shoulder with Kevin Meeks was how he walked back that morning to get the shovel and had buried the old Lab himself. It got his ass out of the chair, and the motor was soon rocking again, shifting the Ranger around like a strong wind. He wore himself out and had just sat down for a second time when the corner of his eye watched Kevin go back into his brother’s trailer. Bill stood for half a beat on the porch and then started over to Stan.
When he was few feet out, he stopped.
“So Evan Meeks gonna show up today, huh?” Bill said. He looked back to his trailer and then again at Stan. “Hen said I should talk to you. Not sure she meant about that, but I figured as much. She’s the one told me about Evan, and said you had your shotgun shelled up and ready earlier. There’s some trouble coming you think.”
Stan opened the driver’s door on the Ranger and took a seat, glanced at the wobbling hoist and then got out and shut the door easily. The latch went into place with hardly a sound. He backed away slowly. His eyes were glazed, mouth slack. “There’s not much I can do about who comes here. They come or they don’t. I know you don’t agree, but it’s the damn truth.”
Having Bill cuss at him didn’t hit Stan’s ear just right. “That boy over there ain’t just started driving. He’s sixteen and got a uncle that’ll blow a hole through everything in the southern end of the county, including Garden Road. Most especially Garden Road.”
Stan imagined Kevin slanted on the couch in Bill’s living room or tilted against the wall in the kitchen. Wasn’t a soul in the county didn’t know how close Evan Meeks held his nephew to his torn heart. Evan came back from Michigan about a decade ago after two years working at a factory there. He showed up twenty pounds lighter and older in the face after he told folks two men mugged and beat him into the hospital. Few knew for sure, but Evan talked around town about how he got rolled for drug money up in Michigan and how druggies and dealers should burn. More than once Stan himself was in the diner when Evan would proclaim how more than half the county should probably burn.
Bill shrugged it off when Stan reminded him, the same way he had disregarded it before. The same way he disregarded most everything since being hooked became being a supplier. Blindfolded and high. Might as well be dead already.
“Boy could be in there with his eyes rolled back in head or foaming at the mouth right now and you’d be a world of shit,” Stan said. He had started back on rocking the motor from side to side. He quit and took the piece of cut wood again and began wiggling it into a place for some leverage.
Before Bill answered, a state cruiser pulled into the driveway. The driveway was a turnabout drive and troopers had been down and made a U-turn a few times in the past couple of months but nothing else. Bill turned and gave the cruiser a wave that seemed to say he care if they wanted to turn in his driveway, he could care less, have a nice day. But instead of turning, the cruiser parked beside the Aspen. A state boy Bill didn’t recognize, a young man likely fresh from academy, stepped out, nodded, and went to the Aspen’s license plate. He bent just a little, checked a small slip of paper in his hand. Adjusting his hat, he turned and started toward the garage.
“Hellfire,” Bill whispered.
“Gentlemen,” the state boy said and gave his hat a goofy tip. “This car belong to Kevin Meeks?”
Stan sat back in the chair and stared harder than he might should have to Bill. The state boy kept his eyes on Bill. Smiling, Bill stood up and stretched, scratched his bald spot and sifted his fingers through the tufts along the sides of his head.
“I guess it must be, officer,” Bill said. “You need to see him? Showed up here out of the blue about a half hour ago. I can get him for you.”
The trooper smiled fake and wide, all teeth and screw you. “I’ll just have a look.”
“Not without a warrant, officer,” Bill shot back evenly.
Stan stood up and walked to the trooper, stuck out his hand. “I’m Stan Hall, officer. This is my garage here and my old trap of a Ranger. I’ll get the boy if you’d like.”
Stan tried to hide that he was holding his breath and waited.
The officer looked to the trailer and then back to Bill, squinted his eyes, and then removed his hat. “I suppose there’s no harm in going about it that way, guys. I’ve just got a few questions for him. Get him out here and I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Fine and good. Fine and good,” Stan said. “Bill, see if you can get anywhere on scotching the legs on that cherry picker and I’ll be right back.”
Bill cocked his head to the right, the way a dog might when confused, snorted once and went to the front of the truck. Stan started to the trailer and the trooper followed behind him. He was worried the fresh state boy was going to follow him in anyway but he stopped at the front of his cruiser and adjusted the butt of his service pistol just an inch or two then leaned against the fender.
The trailer was little more than a storage building. What furniture there existed sat more in piles than any other arrangement. A metal folding chair was discarded across the couch and in one corner of the living room were boxes, mostly opened, but some duct-taped closed. The only thing that gave the place a feeling that a human had been there recently was a new flat-screen television situated somehow on the wall. Stan pinched his nose shut through the kitchen and found Kevin in the first bedroom on the left down the long hallway.
The boy lay across a mattress in the floor. Beside him was a dinner plate with pill powder still stuck to sections, covering part of one petal from the design of hearts and roses. It was one of their mother’s plates. Many suppers off that plate and now this. The thought of it ran over Stan and he charged the bed and shook the boy by the shoulders, his head whipping back and then forward, powder flying from his nostrils as he came to and opened his eyes.
He mumbled awake and Stan took no time trying to decipher any of it as it hardly mattered. He also felt no need to warn Kevin Meeks that the leather backseat of a state cruiser would be the next thing he smelled once they made it back through the kitchen. He simply took him under the arms and lifted to a standing position and made his way back through the trailer, stopping at the front door long enough to shake him some more so the boy could stand on his own.
The state boy was still leaning against the fender when the he guided Kevin onto the porch then came out himself, side-stepping around him and down the steps. Kevin was wobbling in the weak sunlight, a limp version of Evan Meeks’ nephew, confused and tired. The trooper moved toward the porch.
“That’s private property there, officer.” It was Bill. He had at some point left the garage and stood behind the cruiser. “From the looks of it, he’ll fall right on down to you if you stand just about where you are.”
Stan hushed him with a glare and took the boy’s elbow, asking the trooper to step back until he could make his way down. As soon as they were both on the ground, the trooper stepped close to Kevin. He leaned in close and must have spotted the powder around the boy’s nose because he spun him quickly and popped handcuffs from his belt in one fluid motion. Kevin was arrested between gusts of fast wind, it happened so quickly. The trooper loaded him into the back of the cruiser without a word, tipped his round brim again in Stan’s direction and left, easing out of the gravel driveway, slower than necessary.
Stan and Eve lived in the old home place. The rooms were few but large. Black and white photographs framed in ornate wood hanged from the walls. Stan studied the photograph outside the bathroom of his parents. It was taken when corn still stood tall and tomatoes and lettuce made green and red the field. In the photograph, it’s easy to see the wind is blowing with the tree branches bent westward, his mother caught in mid-stride some five feet or so behind his father, staring away from the camera, and his father fully facing the camera. Stan leaned close and noticed again how it seemed his old man’s mouth was twisted just enough to be able to tell he was saying something, his leather arm sweeping out as if telling whoever was taking the photograph to move along, get away, nothing to see here. His face was severe. His mother’s face was regal, chin tilted, the look of a sharecropper hanging onto pride with every bit of energy she could muster.
Eve stepped behind him and placed a hand at his elbow. “I always liked that picture, Dip.”
“Yeah. Me, too.” He kept his eyes on the photograph.
“See you got the shotgun again.”
The over-under shotgun leaned against the wall in front of Stan. Two shells slept inside the chambers. He picked the gun up and, touching Eve lightly than he had in years, walked slowly down the hall and into the kitchen. Scents of breakfast nearly pulled him out of the place he’d fallen since Kevin Meeks had been arrested less than an hour ago, but is passed and he went to the window. From here he could see the turn off from Route 122 onto Garden Road and the entirety of that road until it ended at the block garage and his pitiful Ranger still tilting from the weight of the immovable engine stuck half in and half out of its body.
Then he saw him. Evan Meeks, always walking from always being hammered drunk, staggered down the incline of road. He had already turned onto Garden Road and moved faster than Stan would have expected. He didn’t see a gun on him, but then he probably wouldn’t. It’d be a pistol tucked away in his pants or in the armpit of his jacket. It was there, no doubt about it. A .38 maybe or, best case, a .22.
Just as Stan readied the gun, still looking from the window, keeping his eyes on Evan Meeks, he saw him duck into Terry Kimper’s house at the turn in the road. Stan scanned the stretch of land from his house to Bill’s trailer and Lafe Hill caught his eye, bent over his patch of lettuce, white hair bobbing in the middle of all that green like a swinging light bulb. Stan hated to put Lafe in the middle of something, but he didn’t tell him to go pick late season lettuce today.
“Don’t, Dipshit.” Eve didn’t look as puny now as before. It was her eyes, on fire and full of that gamey way she had about her when the world was still young for both of them. But everything was still good old Eve – arms crossed, hair pulled into a eyebrow-pulled ponytail, thin lips set firm.
Stan kissed her full in the lips and they didn’t move against his. He lingered on her bottom lip, holding his kiss there for longer than he had in many years. The over-under was cold in his hand, heavy and ready. He stepped out the door and Eve said nothing more. When he was off the porch and about to start across the bottom field, Stan looked back once and saw her in the window. Her arms were not crossed like before. One arm was now dangling at her side and the other was raised, a hand with fingers extended along the side of her face. He waved once and started toward Bill’s trailer.
He meant to pass by Lafe with nothing more than a nod. Lafe was good people and wouldn’t think much about the shotgun, but old man stopped him, pulling up from his stooped position and smiled.
“It’s a fine batch, right. Look at that?”
A door slammed down the road, Terry Kimper’s door. Evan dropped back onto the road, headed faster than before toward Bill’s trailer.
The over-under felt heavier now. Lafe was brushing his hand across the leaves of lettuce. “Let me know if you and Hen want some. I’ll pick extra. Man can only eat so much. No use in wasting, right?”
Stan’s eyes didn’t move from Evan, and Bill was likely back inside asleep or stoned. Lafe came up beside him. Stan saw he was watching Evan, too. “No use in wasting, but I could use some help here, Stan.”
A chain link fence ran along the side of Lafe’s patch, a lot where a single-wide once sat years before. He leaned the shotgun against the fence with care and took Lafe by the shoulder, squeezed it gently.
“What can I do? Where do you want me?”
Lafe smiled again and pointed to a section where the lettuce was thickest, near the middle, and Stan moved to the spot. Lafe’s hands working beside him could have been his old man’s, tending the crops even when he could hardly bend his fingers to button his shirt.
Stan didn’t notice when Evan Meeks passed them and disappeared around the corner of the trailer. He asked Lafe about his old man, and his father’s old friend told a story from years ago when all the land was ripe with crops and Stan allowed history to swallow up the present, working what was left from that time quietly.
Sheldon Compton is the author of the forthcoming collections The Same Terrible Storm and Where Alligators Sleep (Foxhead Books, 2012). His work has also appeared in several print and online journals including BLIP (formerly Mississippi Review Online), Thunderclap Magazine, Emprise Review, Keyhole Magazine, Kudzu, and the Appalachian anthology Degrees of Elevation (Bottom Dog Press, 2011). He survives in eastern Kentucky. To learn more, visit www.bentcountry.blogspot.com.
Mikka Gamble Baccer Stick
Daddy swung the tobacco stick, and I listened closely as it splintered against my brother. His face rough and confused with each crack thrown his way. Rays of light breaking through his shadow with each rapid movement he made. We did not cry, neither Jonny nor myself.
Instead we cheered our father on, begging him not to stop. “Again Daddy, again!” I chanted.
The old porch was worn with chipped and faded paint, the boards warped and tattered from age and weather, the nails rusted with a dull metallic. I sat on the rough swing that was as old as the porch itself. This was where I spent my summer days, floating back and forth through the muggy air, lost in a book with only sounds of the swing chain as it jingled and swayed.
“If you keep read’n like that, you’re gonna go blind,” Jonny said. I looked up at the screen of the porch’s side door. “But I like it,” I said and folded the corner of my page.
“You should be out there play’n, not sit’n here with ya nose in a book. School’s over fer now, ya know.” The door hinges squeaked. I watched the fluent movement of his legs walking toward me, and felt his weight level the swing. He reached over and tapped lightly on my leg.
“We’re all play’n ball this sevening. I’ll take you with me,” Jonny said. I pulled my book close.
“But Mommy said I can’t play with you boys any more. She says you all are gonna end up hurt’n me.”
My brother scoffed. “Awe, they ain’t gonna hurt ya. Hell, they’d be too afraid of the ass woopen they’d get.” He smacked my bare legs once more. “Go on and getcha shoes, Little Bit.” I knew my mother was right. The neighborhood boys played far too rough for a little girl, but I loved it. The girls my age were too prissy for my liking. They were too worried about getting dirty or staining their pretty sundresses.
My brother was only a few years older than me, and his friends did try to take it easy whenever I was around, but my mother was right, an eight year old didn’t need to be around a bunch of spitting, cussing boys. I ignored the thought of my mother screaming, “Laney Beth, I’ll bust your bare hide,” and went to fetch my shoes.
I laid my book down in the space between Jonny and me and scooted to the edge of the swing. That was another reason my mother didn’t like me playing with older kids. I was extremely small for my age. My hair hung long, curling at its ends, and my arms and legs were dangly, but I was strong thanks to the rough housing with my brother. Scrapes covered my knees and elbows, some scabbed and some new. I lowered my feet towards the porch, but stopped short. My gaze landed near the corner of the house.
I could see Cole staggering towards us. His arms searching for the outside walls of our home, to press his weight against. His feet moved slow and unsteady. He made little attempt to regain his balance. I sat very still, hoping I would be ignored though I should have known better.
The sickening scent that was him danced along with the wind towards our place on the swing. Cole’s eyes were a deep bloodshot red, and his face a sad shade of pale. I felt my tiny hands grip the wood beneath me. “Shit. He’s drunk again,” Jonny whispered. He placed his hand in the small of my back and urged me forward. “Go on in the house. I’ll go out into the baccer bed and get Dad.” Jonny said. I nodded my understanding and moved on.
Cole continued to stagger. I perched myself behind the screen door, believing that it would serve all the protection I would need. Cole was the oldest of my six siblings and the only one who seemed to become another person after a few drinks. It was as though he transformed, like the cartoon that came on every Saturday morning. He was Dr. Jekyll becoming his evil creation. I stood behind the netting and waited.
“Cole, you need to sit down a while. Don’t ya think?” Jonny asked. I was terrified of Cole, though I guess it comes naturally to fear a person who’s pulled your hair as many times as he had pulled mine, but I hated hiding inside while Jonny faced him alone.
Cole processed his words. He wore his intoxication all over his face. “What did you say?” I watched Jonny’s face change from bravery to fear. “I, I just meant that you didn’t look so good, that’s all.”
My drunk brother moved his hand along the grain of the house. His eyes drifted, unable to hold focus. Jonny stood waiting for a time to move, to run inside the house and join me. But Cole was too close now, and he knew what was coming. He knew how his brother was when the alcohol had gotten the best of him. Jonny shifted his eyes to me. “Go get Daddy.” My eyes widened, and my heart soared in size.
“What did you say, little man?” I looked once more at each of my brothers. Tears began blurring my vision. I nodded to Jonny, pushed myself off the facing of the door and ran. I zigzagged my way through the kitchen. I moved quickly around the table, not stopping to pick up one of my mother’s chairs. I ran through the living room passing the old tarnished coal burning stove and out the front door. The steps were steep, and my wobbly legs were weak, but still I ran. I knew Cole would hurt Jonny if I stopped. I knew that if I didn’t get Daddy Jonny would take a beating. So I ran. I ran around the edge of the house and up the small bank that led out to the opposite porch. The porch I left my brother on. I ran hard and fast, but I was too late. I heard Jonny cry out, and my big brother never cried. Never. It was at that time that I began to cry, too. But my legs were still moving.
Cole’s hands were around Jonny’s small neck, holding him high against the wall of the house. I fell to my knees. “Stop it, please.” I searched for something, anything that I could throw.
Jonny’s face was wrinkled with pain, his eyes staring at me. His feet scrapped at the porch straining to press his weight. “Go tell Daddy, is that what you said?” Cole asked in a slurred raspy voice. “Let him go!” I screamed again. “Daddy’s not here, is he?” Cole said. Still I searched for something.
I saw my brother cry and my heart ached. I didn’t have time to get help; he was going to choke him to death. I reached for the book I left on the swing. It was thick and hard bound. I grabbed it and swung with all my might. “Get off him. Get off him!” I held on to the book, placing the edge to the center of his lower back, hitting him over and over. He swayed with the intoxication and the pain from the hard cover.
“I said stop it!” I screamed. Jonny slid down the length of the wall, his feet catching his fall. I moved quickly off the low end of the porch. Cole staggered toward me. I ran onto the grass. My oldest brother stood in a slow manner. Jonny reached for his neck and rubbed.
“I’ll beat your ass, little girl.” My tears were gone. I knew I could out run him. I knew that my father was only half an acre away.
“Then do it,” I said. “I’m not scared of you.” He stood, and I prepared myself to run. I stood there waiting for his attack. His eyes were angry, but if I ran before he regained his stance he would go back to Jonny. I stepped closer, stood above him and smiled. He looked up at me, his eyes cloudy and glazed. I gathered all the spit in my mouth, drained it from my cheeks.
When I was satisfied with the pool on my tongue, I spat it at his face. The warmth plopped lightly between his eyes. I knew it was time. I saw how his muscles twitched. “I’m telling Daddy,” I said. He sprang upward, grabbing at me at the same time. I began running. I turned my head to focus on the ground in front of me, and pushed forward.
I heard Cole fall just as quick as he stood. Once his feet had planted on the boards beneath him, they were kicked away. His face bounced from the hard wood below as he landed, smacking with all his weight. My body, too, slammed against something hard. The breath rushed from my chest. I fell back, stopping short of the ground.
I looked upward and a rush of relief settled within. There was Daddy, his eyes burning bright with anger. “Daddy, I was coming for you. I was, I was a running…” My words lacked air. He leaned down and kissed the top of my. “Sissy girl,” he said. “I want you to go on in the house, and rest up a bit before supper.” I knew he wanted me inside because something was about to be said or done that I wasn’t meant to see.
“Bub, you alright?” Daddy asked Jonny, though his eyes rested on Cole. Jonny moved his hand from his throat and nodded. “Go on inside then. You and the baby get yourselves a snack.” I stepped over Cole, still lying on porch and knelt down to Jonny. “Come on, Bubby.” I reached him my hand, and we did as our father said. Daddy cleared his throat and walked over near the porch. “Cole, come on over here.”
Cole smirked, allowing a low laugh to escape. My other brother and I watched from the window in sheer joy. It wasn’t until then that I noticed the narrow piece of wood in my father’s hand.
“Boy, you’re already get’n the beat’n of your life, don’t make it any worse by cause’n me to repeat myself,” Daddy said. “Damn shame, a grown man hurt’n two youngens that can’t defend themselves.” He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “I’ll bet, though, after today you’ll think twice about drink’n.”
Daddy swung the tobacco stick, and I listened close as it splintered against my brother.
Cole’s face rough and confused with each crack thrown his way. Rays of light breaking through his shadow with each rapid movement he made. We did not cry, neither Jonny nor myself. Instead we cheered our father on, begging him not to stop. “Again, Daddy, again!” I chanted.
Years later I stood in the weeded yard, gazing at the place in the sky where the hilltops met.
The house still remained, along with the memories. But Daddy was gone and Mommy wasn’t doing well. My brothers and I still came around, along with the rest of the kids, and I still liked to read on that old splintered swing. I remembered that times were always tough in that house, that lessons were learned but never the easy way. But somehow that swing brought comfort. Here I was, that little girl with her Daddy always there to save her.
Mikka Gamble, of Salyersville, is a BSCTC student.
James B. Goode In the Moment
I think Mamaw’s brain has turned into a DVD of her life. She lies in her bed in the nursing home and randomly pushes the invisible buttons. The shiny wheel spins and locates a particular time, a particular place, with particular people. It is filled with people who were there.
“Go on up to the house and eat before you go home,” she says as she raises her head from the cloud-like pillow, craning her neck to watch us disappear into the cavernous hallway.
A few weeks ago, Dr. Cornett told us to do exercises with Mamaw to stimulate and exercise her brain.
Her brain is getting plenty of exercise, I thought. The wheels are spinning and the gears are grinding constantly. But I am always open to suggestion. So, I bring a picture of her three sons standing under the Walnut tree at the home place. I show her the picture in the silver frame.
“Who are these people?” I ask.
She holds the frame tightly in her blue-veined, waxy hands. Her eyes tighten as she stares at the image.
“They know who they are!” she blurts out suddenly.
This takes me aback. There is no argument here. They do know who they are. Maybe she recalls. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe who they are has slipped away and is lost somewhere on a shiny disk and the laser light can’t locate it. Maybe she will happen upon it and divulge it at some unexpected moment – that’s Ivan on the left, then Eddie in the middle . . . Danny is the baby, he’s next to the tree, she’ll say.
The nurse tells us to rub lotion on Mamaw’s skin.
“Her skin will dry out. Old people get these pressure sores from lying around,” she explains.
“Take this Jergen’s and massage her arms and hands, her face, her legs and feet . . .”
I come in one morning. “Good morning sweet Mamaw, how’s my Ma-maw today?” I ask.
She looks at me as if I am some rank stranger. It is a hollow look, as if she only knows that I am male, but doesn’t know my name or how I fit in this family.
“Do you want me to rub lotion on your hands today?” I ask.
A smile slowly moves across her thin lips – some memory appears on the screen – maybe a montage of memories. The image fades to black . . . another image . . . a dissolve to another, then disappears. In her eyes are clouds flying under the sun.
“Others have been there before,” she says, her eyes suddenly warm and focusing on my face.
I am her lover . . . come calling . . . I caress her hand as if we are sitting on the front porch courting in the swing. The silver disc keeps spinning and spinning.
“Others have been there before,” she repeats. I do not want to hear this. Some things you do not want to hear from your 80-year-old Mamaw.
Mamaw is trying to die. She weighs 65 pounds. She looks like leather stretched over sticks and rocks. When she starts to slip away, the people in white rush into the room with their gurney and whisk her away to the hospital.
They hook her up to IVs of glucose and other mysterious liquids. The pink begins to chase away the ashen gray. She emerges from the fog—electricity restored after the storm.
“Honey, Honey, Honey . . . ain’t you got fat since I seen you last?” She says to me. At first, my feelings are hurt, but I have learned to be in Mamaw’s reality. Wherever Mamaw is, that’s where I am.
The nurse’s aides tell me stories about when Mamaw first came to the nursing home. Their favorite story is about her trying to court Mr. Turner who has a room across the way and down the hall. They tell of them walking up and down the corridors day-after-day holding hands and whispering in the shadows. They catch heads turned and exchange two-arm hugs and even kisses. Once they were even caught in bed together. This came as no surprise to me. Mamaw likes men. She always has. Every time one comes in the room, she lights up like a Christmas tree. Her eyes never leave them. They follow the men as they move about her room. She flirts with her eyes and mouth. She ignores any women who are in the room. They might as well be fence posts.
They tell about her going down to see Mr. Turner one Sunday morning. When she came to the doorway, his wife, Ellen, was sitting in a chair next to his bed. She eyed Mamaw, forming a sneer by raising the left side of her upper lip. Mamaw froze in place. Mrs. Turner looked at Elijah and said, “Well, who is this Mr. Turner?”
He opened the drawer of the nightstand, removed his black plastic rimmed glasses and cocked them on his crooked nose.
“I’ve never seen her before in my life!” he exclaimed.
This morning the phone rings. It’s the nursing supervisor at the nursing home. They want me to come right away. I know what has happened. I tell them I will be there as soon as I can get dressed. Outside, the trees are beginning to turn. The wind scatters the dancing leaves across the yard. One tiny bird flicks and flutters in the swirl. I take my time getting dressed. I will go into the nursing home and do as I have done for the last twelve years. I will be in Mamaw’s moment.
James B. Goode, creative writer, essayist, photographer, and Appalachian scholar, has written about the Appalachian region since undergraduate school in the 1960s. He has authored four books of poetry and two technical books on coal mining, produced and directed two documentary films, published short stories in two major anthologies and several national magazines, published over 500 poems in national and international magazines, and written over two hundred columns for the Lexington Herald-Leader, Harlan Daily Enterprise, Coal County Extra and various other newspapers and magazines. His work has appeared in the Kentucky Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Encyclopedia of the Midwest, and anthologies such as Robert Higgs and Ambrose Manning’s Appalachia: Inside Out, The Blair Mountain Anthology, God’s Plenty: Modern Kentucky Writers, Old Wounds, New Words, The Kentucky Book, Yearbook of Modern Poetry, and Forever Bear.
Nathan Hall Faustian Bargain
“Good evening, world. This is Samantha Renalds with U.S.C.E News. Last week we brought you a special piece on Mr. Robert Day, who has recently beat the record for longest living person–reaching an amazing 124 years of age. He has asked me back to his home for a one-on-one interview, which he promises will be far from anything we’ve covered before, and I, for one, am looking forward to it.” With that, the cheery blonde moved the microphone away from her face and the robot machine that was with her rolled in as well. “How did that sound, Mr. Day?”
“Perfectly fine. I just thank you for coming here to listen to me today.”
“It’s not a problem. It may be my big break after all.” She looked around his living room, small, mostly empty. “I don’t see how you live in this small place. No offense.”
“I’ma have to cut you off there, Mr. Day. Commercials are about over.” Her machine moved in closer, casting a bright light over his apartment, dark and poorly kept. She gave a thumbs up and a red light lit up on the contraption. She pulled some papers out of her bag and looked at the old man.
“So, Mr. Day, I have to say I’m really curious as to what you’ve got to say. Let’s start. When were you born? How has the world changed?”
“I was born in 1978, before we went in debt to China. The world itself has changed a lot. Technology wise, anyway. The robot you have traveling with you, back in my day, we were just figuring out how to make those things. It’s astounding, really.”
“Do you think that has something to do with why you have no ‘bots serving you?”
“That, well, that is for different reasons. But many other things have changed as well. When I was growing up, Steve Rogers wore red, white, and blue, not red and yellow. He kept the stars and dropped the stripes. Another thing, back then it was the U.S.A, United States of America --not U.S.C.E, United States of the Chinese Empire. Really, the debt we put ourselves in was pathetic. I could go on, but my world views are not what I wish to pass on here. That’s for the youth to decide.”
“Okay, so why don’t you begin telling us about it.”
“Well, it all started in 2001. I was a stupid 22 year old. Like anyone my age then, I was listening to music with my friends and ignoring the road while I was driving. But things played out different than what the other people our age were used to. I wrapped my poor car right around an old oak tree.”
“An oak tree? You must have gone pretty far out of the way to hit one of those.”
“No, trees were a normal sight on roadsides back then. . . .Where was I? Oh, yes, I wrapped my car right around that old oak tree. My two buddies didn’t pull through. I barely did.”
“It was. Ended up on life support for a few months. But the biggest change of my life occurred due to that. I saw Heaven.”
“Not common knowledge now? It was glorious, something beyond words.”
“Nothing is beyond words, Mr. Day.”
“Says your day and age who believes themselves to know everything. I could attempt to speak of it. But no matter the description I used, it would fall so short of the actual scene.”
“We will hear more after the break. I’m sure people have had their interest peaked.” The red light flashed again and the machine flipped the other off. Miss Renalds sighed and tilted her head back. “Is this how the whole thing is going to go? Mr. Day, it’s really not what I came here for. I wanted a look back through history, not the ramblings of a senile old man.”
“Senile? If that’s what you want to think of me, Miss Renalds, go ahead. But I called you here to get my story out and off my chest.”
“No offense, Mr. Day, but this seems a bit bizarre.”
“Think of it this way, Miss Renalds: If my story is a success, you are. If it flops and everyone thinks I am crazy, well, you interviewed a crazy old man. This can do you no harm, and you are already here.”
She considered this. “Fine. Commercial’s almost over. So be quiet and wait for my cue.”
Robert nodded. The light flipped on, forcing him to blink his eyes. “Hello, everyone, and welcome back. Mr. Day, please continue.”
“As I was saying, I saw Heaven.”
“Which you stated was something beyond words?”
“Far beyond. But it was a sad realization when I came to.”
“Well, you see, I was out for quite some time. Missed most the year lying in bed. I was over sedated and barely breathing. But the sad part was waking up from that vision.”
“No, it was a vision. But waking up from that to find my two friends didn’t make it. That, and also knowing I was so far off achieving the gift of going to Heaven.”
“So this Heaven is a reward for?”
“Heaven is the ultimate reward you achieve by following the teachings of a book called the Bible, but I didn’t follow the teachings, nor did the world as a whole. I didn’t think I could redeem myself. I then remembered as a boy hearing a story about a man who sold his soul to Satan–”
“An angel who fell from Heaven, depicted as the ultimate evil. Imprisoned in hell?”
“Oh, I remember childhood stories of him and God.”
“More than likely your parents were reading you the Bible. But anyway, these pacts dated back to old stories. I always wondered about it, and I had decided what I wanted to do. I wanted to sell my soul to get to Heaven.”
“Okay, to make sure I remember right–your soul is what goes to Heaven or Hell after death?”
“Yes, I thought you didn’t know of Heaven.”
“I knew of it. But it hadn’t crossed my mind you would mean the place in those old stories.”
“Okay, then. May I continue?”
“In a few moments, let’s take another break.” The lights flicked off after the red light died.
Samantha stood up and stretched. Robert eased himself onto his cane and started toward the kitchen.
“Want anything, Miss Renalds?”
“I’ll take some bottled water.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have any. Will tap do?”
“I’ll pass. I don’t want to be poisoned. You do know tap water will rush you to your grave.”
“I’m 124. Rushing isn’t a problem.” He ran a glass of the dark filth before making his way back to his seat.
“If you don’t mind me asking, where are your kids?”
“It’s simple. They are all dead.”
“Never had any.”
“So you drink tap water, live in this dump, no offense, and have no family. How do you make it?”
“I have no choice.”
“Unresolved goals or ambitions?”
“Nope, just can’t make it to the grave.”
“What’s that sup--oh sorry, we need to go back on air. Wait on the qu-”
“I remember.” Lights, red light, and they were back for the billions worldwide to see.
“Before the break, Mr. Day was beginning to tell us what happened after he left the hospital. Please, Robert, it’s okay if I call you Robert, isn’t it? Please continue.”
“As I was saying, it was after I got out of the hospital: I was wrapped up in an old flannel jacket to keep warm and on my way to the nearest crossroads. It was a stupid idea, but I was young and reckless. I knew the potential consequences. But I didn’t care. It was my best shot. I arrived and saw nothing. I kept thinking to myself, how do I do this? What will let Satan greet me with his presence?
It was a very awkward thought and the fact the passing cars and the sight of my own breath were all that was there to entertain me didn’t help. But moments later a voice called out for me, and from behind a coal truck sat a man on a highway sign, waving me over. He was in a very fine suit, wearing sun glasses, and had a chain around his ankle, right before his shined shoes that ran straight into the ground and seemed to disappear.
“Robert James Day, 22. Birthdate, May 3rd, 1978. All-time favorite band, Smashing Pumpkins.”
“Lucifer, or Satan, as you’d apparently like to call me.”
“How did you know I was waiting for you?”
“Some computers are harder to crack than the human mind. It’s sad. Not to mention I can sense temptation a mile away.”
“Before we discuss business, let me look you over first. Black Tee, ripped jeans, commoner’s shoes. With the way I see things going, I may need to dress like you in the future. Stir up some trouble.” He looked me over. I felt awkward, a bit frightened. But not as much as I figured I should be. My parents had always said he was the most beautiful angel. I’d be lying if I didn’t say he was far better looking than myself. Or anyone else for that matter.
“Can we get this over with?” I asked.
“Ah! The eager type, are you? So what do you want? Money? Power? Inhuman strength? A couple of extra inches? To be the true master of something? What about all medical knowledge? To play guitar or violin amazingly? You look like a violin man. Come on, let me hear it, boy.”
“I want a guaranteed passage into Heaven.”
“You want what? This is a new one. I, I like the way you think. You’ve tossed me a nice little curveball.”
“Can you do it?”
“Hey, don’t doubt me. If humans can make their way there, I can give you a way there. Only problem is, what do I get? Normally a deal with me costs some souls.”
“Tell me the cost. Let me hear what my choices are.”
“Impatient, are you, Robby.”
“It’s my afterlife we are discussing here. I think I have a right to be impatient.”
“Sure you don’t want super powers?”
“A pet turtle?”
“Lucifer, you know what I want! Stop playing around!” Some people would call yelling like that at the embodiment of evil stupid. At the time, I wasn’t thinking. Too many thoughts were swamping my mind.
“Fine, here is the deal. You, Robert Day, have my word that in death you will have passage into Heaven. But, in return, as you live out the rest of your days, I’ll keep your soul in hell with me, like a trophy to show off to the other idiots who made deals with me.”
“Yes, I want to show off. All those souls I’ve had pass through my fingers. Then there is you.
The guy who had the perfect request. I want to show them just how greedy and dumb they really are. That’s right! Keep smiling. You know, throughout this whole thing, you’ll be conscious and able to live. Nothing will change except the outcome.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“I let the blacksmith go, didn’t I?”
“Never heard the story? Here is the Master over all Masters? No? Well, let’s put it this way. It was your idea; you sought me out. Don’t second guess yourself. Don’t back down to the Devil.”
“Fine, I’ll do it.” Then right before my eyes fire came from his hand. An old-looking piece of paper formed. On it were the details of my deal in red ink. The bottom had some weird symbols that I assumed was his signature. All that was needed was mine, and I signed away quickly.
“Miss Renalds, after the signing of my Faustian bargain, I felt so alive. Like I could live without regret free of the burden of the afterlife. But like I said, I was young and dumb.” Miss Renalds was now leaning forward, listening.
“So you sold your soul to the devil? That’s interesting. Bizarre but interesting. Do go on.”
“There isn’t much to tell about our meeting after that. Once my name was signed, he jumped off the sign and walked away.”
“But he was chained. How did he manage that?”
“The chain moved with him, still going into the dirt. But no matter how far he walked, it didn’t pull him back or so much as move the very dirt it went into.”
“Sounds like magic.”
“Miss Renalds, he is Satan after all.”
“I guess so. Well, what happened next?”
“I went home and my life began.”
“You mean that’s all to your story?”
“All I wish to share.” With that he stood up. Her ‘bot’s camera continued to follow him. He hobbled into the next room. He could hear some mumbling outside the door, which he took as her wrapping up. Moments later, a knock.
“Mr. Day, I decided to call it quits for today. But now you have me interested, and I’m sure many more want to hear more about you. Personally, I think you are crazy. But just like sex... crazy sells. Well. So how about I call you to set up another taping?”
“I have nothing more to tell.”
“You are 124, Mr. Day. People will want to know more. You just told us you sold your soul to the devil. Yet you say you have nothing more to share?”
“What more do you want to hear?”
“We should receive some calls. That will give me all the questions I need to ask. You rest up.” With that, he watched her and the robot leave. He longed for rest, but he wouldn’t fall asleep for good. He wished he could, but all these years waiting and suffering and it had yet to happen. Why hold his breath?
Next day, a new appointment was scheduled. He had three days to stare at the grey walls, and stare he did.
Robert let her in and the machine rolled in beside her. She looked around, disappointed.
“Mr. Day, I thought I asked you to clean up?”
“I’m 124, Miss Renalds. What did you expect to do? Get on my hands and knees to clean? Lying in the floor till someone visited me to help me up? You must be senile.” She scoffed and pulled up a chair.
“Let’s get started then. We had many callers to ask questions.”
“Yes. Mostly, they wanted to know what you were taking back then.”
“They believe you to have been on drugs, Mr. Day. But let’s have the light come on. Wait for my cue.”
Then the red light appeared, and again, he was live. “Good Evening, world. This is News Reporter Samantha Renalds from U.S.C.E here to bring you part two of Robert Day’s life story. Now last week we heard a tale of a car crash and visions of Heaven and a meeting fit for hell. Due to the unbelievable things mentioned, we left it up to you, the viewers, to decide if we should return. Despite the ridicule, the majority vote was yes–we are interested. So Robert, how do you feel about answering some questions for our viewers this time around?”
“Well, they heard me out, so I guess I owe them that much.”
“Thank you. First question, since, as you say, you have a free pass into Heaven, did you ever act out?”
“Now, Mr. Day, I think the people at home would like to hear a bit about it. Not just a simple yes or no.”
“Fine. It was that summer when I realized what I had done. June 30th, I believe. It had just settled in. I could do no wrong in regards to affecting my afterlife. At the time if things got bad, suicide was always an option. During this time I’d become a pill head. It wasn’t so casual back then as it is now. Trust me. But I’d started shoplifting. Mostly, I stayed intoxicated. Drinking with people, sleeping in the streets. Really living.”
“Being homeless? That’s really living?”
“Being free, I was on my own. No payments to hold me down. Stolen goods to eat on or trade for alcohol and pills when I got the ole itch. I was rolling with the punches.”
“You were homeless.”
“Miss Renalds, you believe it to be homeless. I think of it as freedom. It was harmony.”
“Okay, next question, this had a lot of call ins. Who was your wife? How did you meet? What happened to her.”
“I was dreading this.”
“It’s an intriguing question. Seeing as how marriage now is looked down upon and hardly ever permanent. People find hope in things like this.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay. Where to start? November 2002. I was still sleeping in the streets, buying in to this small group of angst teens protesting against Bush and Iraq. They made sense. Oil, oil, oil. But that isn’t where I met her. One of the boys had a job so he bought some cheap beer from the gas station where he worked. The other traded pills, or handed them out so we could all have a great time. Little did I care, but mixing pills and beer was an incredibly bad idea. I somehow found myself wandering out from under the old bridge and onto the streets to a bench where I overdosed. Between the phasing in and out, I could see the brunette with thick-rimmed glasses and a coat with a fur hood standing over me. She had found me on a bench, called 911, and then sat in the waiting room until I was able to speak. At the time I looked almost as bad as when I wrecked, tubes running in and out of my arms. Laid up in a bed in a big white room with humming fluorescent lights. I felt awful.
Then she came in. It wasn’t any of the slow motion walk-ins you’d see in movies. More like a worried, angry march. Come to think of it, her reaction to a total stranger in such a warm and scary manner was part of her appeal.
“Who are you?”
“How do I know you?”
“Am I dead?”
“You would be if I hadn’t walked past you.”
“Yesterday, you were lying on a bench stoned out of your mind and barely alive.”
“I was not.”
“Yes, you were, not to mention your arm was bleeding.”
“Never mind. What’s your name? Who are your parents? The nurses need to know. Because at the moment I’m responsible for you.”
“No, I am responsible for me.”
“Which is exactly why you ended up nearly dead on a bench with a bottle of Jack Daniels in your hand.”
I later discovered Gretchen had stayed there overnight. She was one of the most innocent people I had ever met. I eventually came to and stopped sounding like an idiot. Gave her my parents’ names but explained that they were both dead. When Gretchen found this out, she had no choice, she said, but to come back to make sure I was okay.”
“You get out in three more days, James.”
“It’s Robert, not James.”
“I prefer calling you by your middle name. I saved your life so you can get over it.”
“Why are you even still coming here?”
“Because someone has to show up, and since your parents are gone, you have no siblings, and obviously you can’t take care of yourself, I promised the doctors when you get out, I’ll give you a place to sleep.”
“You know what, Miss Ross?”
“I’ve never seen a girl look so good with thick-rimmed glasses before.”
“You are not allowed to flirt, James. You’re a charity case.”
“Miss Renalds, Gretchen ended up stuck with me. After a few months I was clean and living in her home, sleeping on the couch. She wouldn’t have admitted it, but she liked my company. I had picked her to mend me, which her good nature wouldn’t allow her to decline.” “It’s sort of sweet when you put it like that. She fell in love with her charity work. What happened to her?”
“We went on to have three children. Autumn Day, Rainy Jane Day, and Gabriel Day. We were married before they came along. Gretchen, sadly, died in a car crash. She wrecked nearly in the same spot my friends and I did. She took Gabriel and Autumn with her. Rainy was all I had left. This was September 2009.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What became of your daughter Rainy?”
“At the time of her mother’s death, she was a month and three days old. Later on, she was relatively normal, opinionated, and rebellious, although in political ways, without the drug and alcohol influence. She ended up married at 18 to the high school boyfriend. She was going to change the world and have him by her side. But he ended up killing her four years later during a argument about his drug abuse. She left behind a son, who the father took after his charges were dropped by some twist of fate. My grandson killed himself at age 18.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Mr. Day, let me ask, have you ever attempted suicide to claim your reward?”
“Yes, I have. After Rainy died and that bastard husband of hers got off and kept the kid, I figured to hell with the world; it was already there. So I tried. I tried to hang myself. I ended up breaking my neck and surviving. I crawled to the phone to call 911, something the paramedics say I shouldn’t have been able to do. Later I cut my wrist, but the bleeding on my arm was no blood at all. It was my contract. Anytime I was supposed to die, it bled through my arm.”
“The one you signed for your deal with Satan. Correct?”
“Yep, watch.” Her eyes widened. She watched the blade run over his wrist. The letters began to form as the blood dripped from his wrist. Her mouth dropped.
“This, it–it raises so many questions. Oh, Robert, stop.”
“Miss Renalds, it’s simple. I am Satan’s example to the world that he always wins. I thought I had tricked the devil. But he just laughed and now shows me off as a prize. That, or this is God’s way of saying I was a flower that cheated to bloom and not worth picking. So I get to wither here.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“I think we’re out of time, Miss Renalds.”
“Yes, thank you. We are out of time.” With that the light flickered off and she stood quick. “I want to thank you for the story and your time, Mr. Day.”
“It’s fine, Miss Renalds.” Soon she was moving, toward the door, her ‘Bot following her out.
This interview was over. Later, Robert sat alone in his grey living room. “How much longer do I have to suffer?” he asked aloud, right before a familiar figure stepped out of the kitchen, dressed in an old flannel jacket, a black tee shirt and old tattered shoes, chains clanging against linoleum.
“That’s simple, James, until the End.”
Nathan Hall, 19, of Jackscreek, is a BSCTC student. He said his story “Faustian Bargain” was inspired by the music of his three favorite bands.
Thomas Matijasic Raising a Regrettable Past
August 11, 1977
They’re tearing down the old house. It doesn’t look like much in the light of a quarter moon.
Three stories of darkness and a storm is on the way. It’s probably for the best. The upper two floors have been unoccupied for years and the floor on the first level is beginning to give way. I hope I can get this cigarette re-lit before the clouds cover the moonlight again. Too bad I can’t relight it with a moon beam.
It was already over ninety years old when Grandpa bought it back in 1924. My mother’s people told me that every afternoon after he got off work, Grandpa would crank up the Model T and ride into the countryside looking for land that reminded him of his childhood in the foothills of the Tetra Mountains. When he found this piece of property, he bought it. People on the surrounding farms were none too happy, and the Klan was near its peak. They didn’t like Catholics or foreigners and Grandpa was both. He was in this house for less than a month when a hooded mob burned a cross in his front yard. Ignorance saved him. He mistook their action for a local welcoming custom and invited the Klansmen into his house. Grandma fed them pastries and Grandpa served them some of his homemade hard cider. They all got roaring drunk and left. They never bothered Grandpa again, and he even hired some of them later in the year to help harvest his crops.
Grandpa was a hard worker with his job at the mill and a two-hundred acre farm to run. He had a lot of mouths to feed and not much time to mess around. I guess he didn’t like to paint because he covered the house with shingles from top to bottom. He worked himself to death and Grandma buried him in a plot next to his first wife because the plot was paid for and she needed to save money. Some say she was none too sorry when he passed because she still had the farm and a peck of sons and daughters to help her work it. Too bad for Grandma that her kids didn’t want to be farmers. The boys went off to war and some of them never came back. The girls went to town to find work and husbands. They helped when they could, but Grandma did the planting and the milking herself and with whatever seasonal labor she could find.
Grandma had kind of an odd world view -- not odd for where she came from, but odd for here. There were some wild grapevines on the left side of the house and a swing with supports was constructed among them. She would sit on the swing and we would sit on a blanket in front of her and listen to her stories of the Old Country. The chores all had to be done first, so it was usually early evening when the grand kids would participate in this treat.
There was a common theme to Grandma’s stories – they usually had the devil in them. Now it’s not what you think. She was a God-fearing woman, a regular churchgoer. She was no Satan worshiper. The devil was no monstrous looking thing, and he wouldn’t show up unless you called him. Even then, you could send him away. Grandma’s stories had to do with choices and the consequences of making the wrong choices. We all make wrong choices from time to time. If we didn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting out here smoking a cigarette and staring at an abandon house in the middle of the night.
Her stories would usually start with some young man or woman who was ambitious and restless. They would call on the devil and bargain with him to gain wealth or fame or a rich spouse, whatever it was that they wanted. But to gain what they wanted they would have to pay the devil’s price. They were never satisfied. If they asked for a million dollars and got it, they would then begin to desire a second million. If they gained success as an actress in Prague, they would want success on a larger stage in Vienna. Eventually they would bargain away their souls and even though they achieved things beyond their wildest dreams, they never found happiness and the devil never forgave a debt. If these stories sound like variations of the tale of Dr. Faust, it is because they probably were. Tales of Faust predate Goethe by two centuries and probably originated in the folk legends of central Europe where Germans and Jews, Magyars and Slavs mixed together and their tales became a single cloth made of several threads. But this was America, where ambitious is rewarded and the devil runs rough-shot over the weak and the lame.
Thomas D. Matijasic is a native of Youngstown, Ohio. He earned a B.A. from Youngstown State University, a M.A. from Kent State University, and a Ph.D. in History from Miami University. He has taught at Big Sandy Community & Technical College since January 1, 1983. Dr. Matijasic has received four BSCTC Great Teacher Awards, five NISOD awards for teaching excellence, and the 2006 Acorn Award. He served as President of the Kentucky Association of Teachers of History (1994) and served three terms on the Kentucky Heritage Council (1994-2006). Dr. Matijasic has published more than 20 articles and 30 book reviews, the most recent entitled, “It’s Personal: Nixon, Liberia and the Development of U.S. African Policy (1957-1974),” WHITE HOUSE STUDIES (2011).
Kayla Price Beauty Is the Beast
I’d never given much thought to what would be prevalent in my personal history. Most people could say their grandma or an exciting basketball game, but none of that would fit into an account of my life. I have lived an average life in Eastern Kentucky with a similar story to most 19 year olds of this day and age. I was born and raised by a mom and dad. I have struggled with the awkward years that have only recently begun to fade. I learned to drive an automatic in an emerald green, Chevy S-10. I learned to drive a cable-clutch standard in my dad’s candy-apple red, 1946 Jeep Willys. I graduated high school – Johnson Central High School, to be exact. I moved out of the nest and into an apartment, but only endured a year, and now I live in the nest anyway. I have no idea what or where I’m going to be in 20 years. I have a list of dreams – sure. I want to devote time to the Peace Corps. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail. I want someday to write an award-winning piece of fiction. Still, these average happenings and yet-to-happen dreams can’t be held accountable for the person I am today. If there is one thing that has remained persistent from my childhood until present though, it is that I have always saved a hefty space in my heart for animals.
My love for animals goes beyond an unhealthy obsession for dressing small dogs in cute outfits or only getting my hamster out of the cage when I was bored. My earliest memories as a child are of my neighbor and me walking a short distance from my house to the Staffordsville Flea Market – better known as the stock yard. Every Saturday, we would walk to the stock yard with five dollars and every Saturday we would pilfer through everything from video games that could only be used on game systems that we didn’t have to pirated VHS tapes – one dollar a piece. We would sift through junk for about an hour and then would make our way across Highway 172 and onto the “dog lot.” There was no pavement or gravel.
There was only dirt, mud, animals, and guns. Every Saturday, I would walk laps around that lot until I found the animal that needed the most help. Every Saturday, I would come home with a new pet. I would take animals of all sorts under my wing – ducklings, chickens, kittens or dogs. In my eyes, I could provide a home for each one. Animals were orphans that I could legally tend to – so that is exactly what I did. Just because I brought them home, though, doesn’t mean they were life-long pets. Like the all-too-familiar childhood pet story, I had a beagle that ran away. I found more fitting homes for an entire litter of calico kittens. Once, a stray died of parvo within a week of residing on Blanton Drive. Nonetheless, a few animals have come into my life and not only played a significant role but also were truly my best friends.
There are always pictures of children during major events in their lives – first days of school, birthdays, that without pictures, you wouldn’t remember, sleepovers. I am no different, except that my childhood pictures may include an extra body – Dusty. He was the baby of the house before I came along on July 19, 1990. Some would probably describe him as a beast – 150 pounds and three times the size of an average six year old. I will always describe him as a gentle giant – a pit bull. Memories aren’t as abundant with Dusty as they are with later pets, but some are unforgettable. Every time I let off fireworks for the Fourth of July, for example, I think of having sparklers as a kid and moving one through the air like a person might move her finger across the glass of a fish tank, and Dusty would watch. Things like dogs following my sparkler around made me laugh, and as a kid I was always looking for something to make me laugh. Dusty was my sidekick in cops and robbers. He may not have realized that he was part of the game, but he ran beside me anyway to be sure that the good guys would prevail. Being that I was an only child, it was vital that he functioned as a playmate and comrade. To this day, I am sure that no other could have provided me with more childhood affection.
It wasn’t all laughing the day away, though. Dusty was my sleep partner if I had a bad dream. He guarded the foot of the bed and held down the fort under the covers. With a flashlight and a superb guard dog, I knew no monster could prevail. It would be defeated in only minutes and my bed would remain the symbol of safety, security, and shelter. I’ll flash the light three times if I hear something. I recall that line being common on stormy nights or creepy hours after the scary movie had gone off. Simple things were important then, and that is what Dusty provided me – simple smiles and laughs all throughout the day and comfort when I needed it most. But, hey, isn’t that what best friends are for?
In 1998, my parents and I and Dusty lived in Point View Trailer Court while our new house was being built. In February 1999, Dusty became ill with old age and died a few weeks shy of seeing the new house with his family. If I was looking at this with a strict time-line in my mind, I would just say, “Next we found Mary.” Instead, I’m going to say that as Dusty passed, the option of taking Mary into our lives became a better and better choice. Mary is a full stock Boston terrier – hair lipped and no papers – but full stock. Like any other animal in my personal history, she was rescued. A Boston terrier breeder lived in the same trailer court as we did. At first, I knew Mary as the mean dog next door. She would chase my friends and me. She would snap at our ankles if we came too close to her. She was the definition of an aggressive dog. I just didn’t understand that dogs could be bad, so I inched a little closer to her every day. My observations of the tiny dog continued for days. I learned that the breeder kept her outside and alone. She had characteristics that made her undesirable for profit-breeding, so they treated her as if she did not matter. I swooped in. My mom and I waited until the night was quiet, took a package of Oscar Mayer bologna from the refrigerator and headed to Mary’s box on the dark end of the porch. That night we led her to our home with pieces of sandwich meat. Of course, we didn’t just leave the breeders in the dark about it. We sugar coated the truth and said that she had “wandered” onto our porch. They seemed to accept the story, but I believe indifference was the main factor. Without much thought, they gave us the dog that we had already stolen.
Although I had lived in that neighborhood my whole life (we built a house across the street from where the trailer used to set), it seemed as though all the adventures started over. I was older now. I wanted to go out further on my own. I never had any brothers or sisters, and cousins and distant relatives never lived very close so I was thankful – and I’ll admit, amazed – that Mary could play hide-n-seek. I could hide anywhere in the house and sing, Mary! Come find me! She would search the house, behind doors, under beds – she would even scratch at closet doors until she triumphed. If I wanted to take a walk, I knew Mary would want to walk, too. When I decided to become a runner in high school, Mary ran right along beside me. She practiced with me every day until I ran well enough to place in the top five of the Cross Country Regionals my freshman year. If I was going to have a slice of pre-wrapped cheese, well, I never did that alone either.
Instead of being a comforter, Mary was an adventurer – young and full of life – like me. She’s old and gray now. I tell people that she thinks she’s human because she reminds you of a grandmother. She has a favorite chair, a designated nap time and special, softer food (she’s missing most of her teeth now). Every time I look at her, though, I see her as that young pup. I see her as Mary, the crusader of the wilderness. I see her as Mary, the swimmer of Paintsville Lake. I see her as Mary, the fetcher of anything you could think to throw. It’s hard for me to see her as anything else.
When I was 18, I moved out of the nest – kissed Mom and Dad (and Mary) good-bye. I decided apartment living was the kind of living that I wanted. I had roommates – at one point, I had five – but something still seemed to be missing. Then it hit me – I was missing a dog! I didn’t want a dog in an apartment. I knew there wouldn’t be much space, but when a stranger told me, “If we don’t get rid of them, we’re going to set them off,” I didn’t have a choice.
I am a rescuer – always have been, always will be. And so came Doc. He had a couple of different names before I settled on that one, but Doc is definitely the most fitting. Short, uncomplicated and undemanding. As a pup, he was all paws and no brain – a clumsy Black Lab. I think of Doc as my liberation. He is my partner, my cohort, my travel buddy. If you asked me five years ago if I ever thought I would drive a Toyota Matrix from Eastern Kentucky to Maine with nobody but an oversized dog named Doc, I would have laughed. However, that is exactly what I did. I had five days off work from a local gas station. It was summer break from school. I didn’t have anything else to do except drive across nine states with my best friend. Maybe it’s cliché, but I learn a lot about myself from Doc. With Doc, I never have a doubt that I can swim across any river, climb any mountain or walk any trail. Doc has brought me closer to nature than I ever conceived possible. Taking care of him has made me more confident as a provider.
Each of these animals has played a role in providing me with a companion all throughout my years. I am indebted and appreciative. With them, I learned to love and care for life at a young age. I learned that stereotypes aren’t true. I learned that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Finally, I learned that dogs can’t help you find interstates, so you better pay attention on your own.
Kayla Price, of Paintsville, is a second-year BSCTC student.
Phyllis Puffer My Afternoon with the President of Guatemala
"The President is going to play ball with us! The President is going to play ball with us!"
The word went excitedly through the small group of US students. We were at a weekend picnic organized by our summer program at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City.
I looked carefully at the President of Guatemala, General Ydigoras Fuentes. I didn't think he was very impressive. He walked slowly and rather hesitantly toward us. I expected a general and president of a country, no less, to be more commanding and sure of himself. He wore a dark brown army uniform, even including the hat, which made him look hot, uncomfortable and out of place at a picnic on the tropical sea coast. He was a little larger than the other soldiers, who remained spread out behind him facing us. Even though he was large, he had thin limbs, making him look like a square block with arms, legs, and head.
It wasn't clear what kind of ball game we were going to play. The way people were standing made it look as if we would be playing volley ball. But the ball was not a volley ball. It was more like a soft ball. In contrast to the earlier enthusiasm of the announcement of this event, everybody appeared notably lethargic now. Not one person seemed to be alert and ready to engage in competitive physical activity.
The President held the ball tentatively in his hand. He languidly threw it toward one of the students. The student caught it and threw it back in a similarly dull manner. The President slowly threw it again to another student. The student held it as if wondering where to throw it next. Finally, he threw it back to the President who held it gingerly and looked around vaguely. He threw it again and turned away before it could be returned. Nobody seemed interested in the game. The students dispersed.
I saw the President again sometime later. The scene was much more interesting but one I still don't understand.
I had wandered away from the picnic and was taking a little walk through the woods. The trees were not set very closely together and it was pleasant to walk among them. Suddenly I came upon them.
A luxurious, polished, black car was parked in a little clearing. The President of Guatemala in his brown uniform was in the right rear seat. The driver was not at his place behind the wheel, but some soldiers could be seen here and there in the woods, clearly on watch. The interesting thing was the woman. She was small and dark. She wore the Indian women's costume of skirt and blouse made of colorful, heavy, hand-woven cotton. The skirt was a long, wide, wrap-around, reaching to her ankles. The dominant pattern was stripes but a small design was woven into some of the stripes. The color scheme of the skirt was blue but of the blouse was red. Her glossy black hair was pulled back in a bun.
The Indian woman was leaning against the car right where the President sat. They were only inches apart. Her entire left side was plastered against the car while her right hand rested on the sill of the open car window. Her face was turned away from the President, and she was looking down, past her right hand to the ground. This hand had held a paper tightly folded into a small square perhaps two inches by three inches. The paper looked a little worn, as if she had been carrying it for some time. She was slowly, gently, persistently, and quietly tapping the paper against the car's windowsill. She was also talking. She talked continually in a very low, soft voice. No one would be able to hear what she was saying only a few feet away.
The President was inches from the woman as he sat leaning toward her against the inside wall of the car. He did not look at her. He said nothing. He looked ahead and slightly down. He appeared to be completely relaxed, not even thinking about important government matters. It was if she were not there.
Was the woman asking him for a favor? Did she want something for her village? A school or clinic perhaps. Maybe her son had gotten involved in political activity. He might be in jail and in serious trouble. At any rate, evidently she was not considered a threat or the soldiers would never have allowed her so near their leader. The soldiers didn't pay attention to me either as I came and then left.
I never saw either of them again. It was 1962, and the general was out of office the following year. Was there perhaps a connection? No. I don't think so. But you never know.
Phyllis Puffer received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University, all in sociology. She has traveled in over 40 countries, mostly in the Third World.
Phyllis Puffer Trust Me
The Women’s Army Corps basic training unit was marching to class at Ft. McClellan in Alabama. We had been in training for a few weeks already so our own fellow students, instead of “real” army personnel, were leading the march, and a student was calling the commands.
As a person of medium height, I was in the middle of the formation, with increasingly taller uniformed bodies ahead of me, similar sized uniforms around me and smaller uniformed women behind me.
We were pretty good marchers at this point. We were all in step and kept our lines pretty straight. We marched along the paved road in the rhythm of centuries.
The leader called, “Column left, march!” Obediently, row by row, we marched forward, came to the designated spot, pivoted left and continued marching.
I was a relatively oblivious recruit and back then much better at following directions than I am now. On top of it, I couldn’t see anything at the moment but other recruits. I followed the others in the pattern set by those ahead of me without a second thought. Then without paying too much attention to what was going on, I was vaguely aware that we had left the pavement and were going through grass and down a slope. Then immediately we were going upward rather steeply, and then forward on flat land. Our leader eventually called, “Company, halt!” We halted and were allowed to relax and look around.
Our two, “real” platoon leaders were jumping up and down, smiling, laughing, and shouting. It turned out that unknowingly we had performed magnificently as soldiers. We had blindly followed orders even though they were stupid. Thankfully in this case there was no harm.
The road we marched along several times a day was separated from the classroom building by a ditch. Getting from the road to the building required going over a bridge. It turned out that our student leader had called the turn command too soon. We had completely missed the bridge.
Our company of recruits, following the orders given to us, had marched straight down into the ditch separating the road from the classroom. Then we had marched straight up out of it without turning a hair. At the time, no water lay in that ditch, but if there had been, we would have gone right through it.
Now, whenever somebody says, “Trust me,” I think of the time I was marched into a ditch.
Phyllis Puffer received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University, all in sociology. She has traveled in over 40 countries, mostly in the Third World.
Marvin Rowland I Believe in the Coffee Can
I believe in that old familiar coffee can, with its wonderful glory, sitting upon a dusty shelf, begging to be used. Sometimes it’s full or maybe half-full, begging, pleading, wanting to be noticed. I await the day, the last moment, the final second when all the wonders of the coffee can are displayed before me. What will those glorious wonders be? What will be bestowed unto me?
Yes, oh yes, I believe in the coffee can. But no, not what you’re thinking, not the coffee that was contained inside its metallic walls: Not the hot, bitter taste that the contents provided.
That short, tubular container, no top or lid …well, maybe a plastic lid, that vessel that once held two pounds of a brown, roughly ground powder, that old metallic repository is what I seek. I believe the life of a coffee can extends beyond the coffee. I believe that life exists further past a point of flavor, possibly to a point of rust and decay. I believe in all the treasures I may find when I am peering into an old beaten coffee can, way up, high, higher yet, unseen for years, atop that old shelf. Yes, here in this priceless receptacle is history, a time lost – items sorted and stored for later use.
Recounting all the years as a child, exploring my grandfather’s workshop, my grandmother’s storage room, or even the shelves in my dad’s garage brings back to my mind all the items found but forgotten in all those coffee cans: Buttons, nuts and bolts, canning lids, fencing parts, spark plugs, hair ribbons and bows, corn seed, bean seed, sunflower seed, wire, phone cord, lamp parts, sewing machine bobbins, or any other item that needed storage.
I recall many times in my life when a coffee can came to my rescue. Once I couldn’t find a gas can, so I grabbed an empty coffee can to do the job. I even kept lawnmower gas in a coffee can for a while. Hoping to give aid in starting a bonfire, I stored old, used oil in a coffee can. Recently I discovered an old red coffee can sitting on a shelf in the home I now live in. As I reached to grasp the can, raising it from its perch, I discovered, surprisingly, the bottom had rusted away. I was showered with a large assortment of nuts and bolts. I set the topless, bottomless sleeve aside, in a place to be seen as a reminder of what was and can no longer be… for, you see, the metal coffee can has been replaced by plastic in a plastic world.
I believe in the coffee can, and for all the coffee cans that remain: May they hold history;
May they hold hope; May they be there when needed.
Born on the day before Thanksgiving in 1957, Marvin Rowland was raised in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, in a community called Beavercreek. While growing up he spent a lot of time in Johnson County, at his grandparents' farm, learning the way of life in eastern Kentucky. He has three children and three grandchildren, all of whom he adores.
Joshua Logan Slone The Mountain Letters
My Dearest Sara,
I just arrived to the mountain after a 26-day trek across the land. I find I miss you more and more with each passing day, and were it possible, miss Jacob even more than that. You can be relieved, my love, in knowing that I am in good health. The same cannot be said for my guides to this mountain. One passed away on the journey; the other two succumbed to illness as soon as we reached the small outpost below the mountain. I feel for them and their families but will admit to being grateful that I did not go in their place.
The trip was well worth it. This mountain is a spectacular place. An abundance of trees, streams, snow, animals, and everything else culminate in a peaceful utopia that no human has touched. Mr. Edwards will truly be thrilled to construct a mansion in this area. I hope that I have found a good enough locale for him to increase my payment for this journey. The hundred dollars he has promised would be more than enough to fulfill our dreams, but a little extra has never hurt. We will be able to build our dream at the least, Sara, and live out the rest of our days in it.
Tonight will be my first night in this area. I have been granted stay in a cabin built many years ago by a former resident of the town. I will admit that some of the townspeople seemed quite frightened with talk of the area. I am not sure why, and when I inquired, they would not give a straightforward answer. Perhaps it was overreacting to a long and somewhat traumatic journey. I do not think anything could possibly go wrong in this place, so like the Garden of Eden must have been.
I will mail this letter on the 28th of December. Please, my Sara, include the date in your letter so I may see how long our correspondences take in travel. I will write many letters in that passing time and will yearn for that first response from you.
Until then, send Jacob my love. I would say the same for you, but you know you will always have it.
It has been six days now since I have written you a letter. In this time I have been exploring the mountain and trying to find a flaw to report. So far I have found none.
The mountain extends far into the heavens and is picturesque as far as the eye can see. I have climbed high enough on its terrain to feel myself struggling to breathe, and even then, it was one of the most beautiful sights to witness. The snow stays crisp, regardless of temperature. I must confess that even with its frigid appearance, I have yet to feel frostbitten or even cold. It is an enduring mystery. As I said before, it is indeed a special place.
I had a strange experience yesterday, however. While chopping down a tree to use as firewood (for light, since as I said, the temperature seems comfortable throughout even the night), I saw a fox appear, just thirteen or so feet away from me. It was a stunningly beautiful creature and seemed oddly confused by me. I began to study it, and quite suddenly it locked eyes with me. Or, at least, it seemed so at first. I was puzzled. I had never seen a wild animal behave so calmly and human in my time back home or during any of my other travels. It occurred to me after several minutes of this staring, however, that the fox was peering over my shoulder.
I surveyed the area but could not find a hint of anything else around. By the time I turned back to the fox (perhaps a matter of seven seconds), it had gone. I could not spot it anywhere. I stayed in the area for some time, trying to surmise what the fox may have seen or where it had gone. I was shocked to discover that it had left no paw prints. None. Though he was a light animal and the snow is somewhat firm, I expected to find some trace of this quick visit from it. I did not.
I hope he visits me again soon, my Sara, though not as much as I long to be in your embrace again. I find I miss you and Jacob more every minute, nay, every second. I have been considering a plan, but I will not mention the details yet. I must mull it over and come to a decision.
My candle is quick running out. I shall have to retrieve another while visiting the country store. For now, it is time to rest and dream of our life to come.
It has been another six days since I have written. My longing to see your reply grows. I know that it will be at least 30-40 days before I do, however, accounting for my 26-day trek here. I assume the post shall run slightly quicker than our journey, not being burdened with expedition supplies.
I found a perfect stream for fresh water just by my cabin. I have been here nearly two weeks, yet I somehow missed it in my initial searches. The strangest happening, since it was only yesterday I had been pondering searching for a new water source. The last one was amongst a tangle of weeds and overgrowth (though even those remained a pleasure to view) and was becoming tiresome to trek to every other day. I daresay with a stream this close, I could run piping into the cabin.
I had mentioned before a plan I had been pondering. Sadly, it will not work out. I had meant to find from the local courthouse the price of this cabin, with an idea of moving you and Jacob to it. I received the same odd behavior when I inquired about this with the local officials. They seemed unwilling to speak of it. When I mentioned purchasing the land, they seemed almost panicked by this notion. I asked them who I must speak to in order to complete the purchase of the deed, and they seemed to drift into a fit of chaos. The desk man simply started repeating that there was no one to speak to, that the property belonged to no one. When I asked to buy the property from their county, they assured me the county did not own it either.
I then proceeded to ask where I may submit the paperwork to take claim for land (an odd procedure, since I was unaware that there was land left unclaimed this side of the Mississippi) and the officials refused even that. They said the land must remain without owner. Suffice to say, I left the courthouse in a bit of a rage.
It matters not, though, for with this bad news, I also send good news. I wired a message to Mr. Edwards about what I had found. He assured me that if this place is as good as described, he will up my pay to three hundred dollars! Three hundred dollars, my love! We could retire to a country side, farming and living out our lives together. I hope he is as impressed as I with this land. I truly do not see how he couldn’t be.
I love you dearly,
It has been another six days since I last wrote. I have explored the mountain five miles in all directions now and can say I have never beheld such an amazing location.
I have also built a piping system into the cabin, allowing for drinking water at any time using the stream’s own pressure. I must say, I am impressed with my creation. It runs efficiently and has allowed me more leisure time throughout the days. If only I could make the fire wood chop itself as well!
I came about my fox friend again, or, at the least, one who appeared the same as he. It was in the area where I gathered wood before. The fox trudged towards me, to the same distance as before, stopped, and gave that same peering look over my shoulder. I was unsure of what to think, to see a wild animal behaving in such a pattern. I watched the creature intently this time and saw as it grew more and more frightful. It was to the point of shaking when, I admit, fear overcame me, and I turned to find nothing once again. The fox had again disappeared when I turned around. Once again, no sign it had ever appeared.
This time, I decided to inspect closer the area into which it had been staring. I made a quick pass and began expanding outwards. I did this for nearly two hours when, in the very direction that the fox had been staring, I discovered a rectangular stone in the ground. It was perhaps two feet by one, far too smoothly molded to have been done by weather. I can only assume it to be a land marker or perhaps a grave marker. I have pondered this and considered the idea that perhaps this fox was a spirit. A spirit who simply wished to let me know it was here among me and to wish me well. While that would be a wonderful happening, I do not believe it to be true.
Perhaps the time on the mountain alone has made me believe in coincidences being more than what they are.
I hope you and Jacob are doing well, and I will continue to look forward to our reunion.
Farewell, my love,
It has been only two days since I mailed out my last letter, but I felt it urgent to write to you and free my mind of a terrible dream. The images were truly haunting and have been my only bad experience in this Garden.
The dream seemed at the time to be as real as my every waking moment. I was staring out from the cabin across the grounds, taking in some of the fresh water I had pumped into my home. It was then that I noticed a shadow, nay, a blur of a figure out among the tree line. I was not sure what to make of it at first, so I stared more intently.
I was overcome by a feeling of dread at this point and an extreme need to look away. Though it took several minutes (in real time or dream time, I am not sure), I finally managed to take my gaze from the object at the tree line.
It was then that I awoke, covered in sweat and quivering in fear. I have no idea what caused such a dream to occur to me, but it shook me to my core. I immediately reminded myself of your warm embrace and of Jacob’s playful smile to fill myself with happiness and comfort once again. I pray to Him that I never have such a dream again, my love.
I think today I shall explore the tree line and try to surmise what could have made me have such a vision. I pray that it was simply all in my imagination.
It has been four days now since my last correspondence, and I have had yet another terrible dream. I worry that my isolation has been playing tricks on my mind. I pray that I have not gotten ill, or worse, lost my grasp on reality.
After surveying the area of my dream, I noticed that the snow was mustered up in that area, dusky being the best word to describe its appearance. This could have been caused by a number of things. I was careful not to connect the two, though found it an odd coincidence.
Then last night the dream reappeared in my mind. This time, however, it was not a shadowy figure or outline. It was a man, standing at the edge of the tree line. He did not seem concerned with me, yet I was filled with fear and dread. He was not looking towards me, nay, he was staring at the snowy ground. He was perhaps six and a half feet in height. He wore a black overcoat, black pants, and a blue button-up shirt. His face was obscured by a hat, much like the Amish in our area wear, but he had no beard. His hair was shoulder length and scraggly. His arms hung at his sides, with his shoulders slightly slouched. He was truly the most frightening figure I have ever witnessed.
I once again forced myself to look away and awoke. I was covered in sweat again, and took considerably more time to calm myself. I did not go and check the window, for I feared that he would be there, my love, there waiting for me, to do with me as he pleased.
When I checked the next day, I found footprints in the general area but could not be sure if they were mine or not. I have trekked the area so much these past weeks that it is impossible to tell at this point. I can only pray that my mind clears of these terrible thoughts soon.
Love to you both,
He returned to my dreams again last night. I am so fearful now that I am losing a grip on reality. I have visited a local doctor and he says I am physically fine. I told him of the recurring dreams and he told me not to worry. When he asked where he could reach me later, I told him of my residence on the mountain. I saw a panic pass over him, and he exited the room without another word. I think I saw that. At this point I am not entirely sure if I can even trust my own thoughts.
Mr. Edwards assured me he will be here in the coming weeks to survey the place himself. He sent word by wire that he was leaving just two days ago. I must admit this former place of beauty has me worried for my safety. I will look forward to leaving it behind.
The dream was similar to the rest, only this time he had moved in from the tree line to the area similar to a yard. I still could not see his face, but I know it is horrible. I can feel it.
Please, pray for me.
I found the fox dead outside the cabin. I am not sure what killed it, but I did not see any signs of physical trauma whatsoever. It filled me with loss and regret and sadness to find the poor animal in that state. I only wish I knew what happened to him. Perhaps I will take it to a doctor and find out the answer, if I can find the time.
Thankfully the dreams have ceased the past week. I pray they are gone forever and the shadowy figure does not come back for me.
He returned to me last night, in the most horrifying way I have witnessed yet. He was closer now, closer to my window. I could feel his menace from that distance . . . and to my horror, he began moving. Moving towards me with slow, painstaking steps; each one filled my heart with more anxiety. He was right at my window, not three feet from me, when I witnessed the worst sight of my life. He raised his face to me, Sara, raised it and looked at me. I would call him human, but I do not think humans can possess such qualities. He stared at me with cold, black eyes. He was emotionless, but projected every sense of wanting to harm me. I do not know why he is doing this to me. We were locked in gaze for minutes, and much to my fright, he turned and headed toward my door.
As soon as he left my view, I awoke. The fear was overwhelming, and I was sure that my heart was reaching its final beat. At this point, I pray that I am losing my mind, my love, for if something like that is real, I do not wish to continued living.
Edwards says he shall be here very soon, perhaps in the next few days. I will hold out until then and come to you with the money he has promised, hopefully making this all worthwhile. For now I just pray my mind will stay together long enough for that to happen.
. . . over soon
I do fear my grip has been lost. The postman came about me yesterday in town while on a supply run and asked me why I had sent two letters in the same day. I assured him that I had only sent the one and that he must be mistaken. He said a second letter had been dropped off to the building and he had just seen it on his way out. He put it in his outgoing bag for the postman to retrieve. I wonder if he has been reading my letters, my love, and is now trying to play on my sense of reality. The townsfolk have not seemed warm to my presence since I arrived. Even during the conversation the man kept peering over my shoulder, as if waiting for something to be there.
Mr. Edwards met with delay and will now be six days before arriving. The dreams have not came back to me as of yet. I pray they have passed. Soon we will be reunited, and I will hug and kiss you and play with our son. That day keeps me warm at night in a place that has suddenly become very cold.
I love you,
I am packing up and leaving the day after this letter will be mailed. Whether I have my mind or not, I do not know. What I do know is that this place is not fit for man to be in. I have sent wire to Edwards telling him to turn around and not come to this area. No one should be here, no man or creature. Something is very wrong about this mountain. At first, I believed it special. Now I believe it evil.
He was outside my door last night, my love. He was. Whether it was a dream or real, I do not know, but it was a sign that I should be gone. I am writing this to you in case I do not survive the trip back, so you will know to warn others of what this place is. God help me, Sara. I will need Him.
I should have left sooner, my love, but I will be leaving soon.
I love you,
In my time on this mountain, I have experienced many things: feelings of happiness, of hope, of despair, of fright, and of madness. One thing throughout has remained constant: this is a special place. I knew it the first day that I laid eyes upon it. I knew it the day I drank its water. I knew it the day I used its lumber for warmth. I knew it the first day I felt its ground and its embrace. I have always known it, and I will continue to know it.
No one must inhabit this place, except me, Sara. I know that as if it were a part of my being. I leave this letter in hopes that it will be found by a search party. I am leaving it on this desk, where all the letters before it were written. I am also leaving your address with it, Sara, with instructions for it to be mailed to you after being read.
No one else must come here, Sara. This letter is a warning to everyone in this world that “He” created. No one must come here.
Your husband was correct.
He should have left sooner.
Joshua Logan Slone, of Wayland, is a BSCTC student.
Tommy Slone Ethic of Reciprocity
I’m gonna be honest: I don’t actively believe in many things, really. My mind meanders too often; I don’t subscribe to too many ideologies for too long. I’ve always held onto a pretty simple, timeless philosophy, though: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The “Golden Rule.” The ethic of reciprocity, they call it. Everyone knows it but few bother with it.
A little kindness can get you a long way in this world. Life is both a blessing and a burden–it’s an ongoing struggle for everyone who takes part. Sometimes a little common decency is all a person needs to feel better about his entire situation. I believe in being nice to people because I remember so many incidents when people were, shall we say, less-than-angelic, to me. I remember how those times made me feel, and I’ve never been keen to make someone else go through that. It seems so pointless. In fact, I believe in doing just the opposite. I like to make people feel good about life. No matter who they are–with the likely exception of, say, someone who would just punch me for trying–I like to make things better for people, if I can. Here’s an example: I was searching for a school friend on MySpace a few years ago. I found someone else–same first name, same town, and a bizarrely similar face –and, thinking she was the kid I knew, I went to her profile. It wasn’t who I thought but that stopped mattering to me the moment I noticed how sad she came across in her profile updates. Even though she didn’t know me, I added her–again, I like being nice to people!–and began talking to her about her problems. We ultimately became great friends. A few months later, I found that that simple gesture of mine, extending a hand of friendship to somebody who seemed a bit down on her luck, had really helped her out. She’d been so depressed that she was seriously considering suicide but having someone to listen–such a little thing that most of us take for granted in our lives – had not only stopped her from doing it but also kept her from wanting to altogether. Like I said: a little kindness goes a long way. You never know what impact your words or actions may have on those around you. After I realized that and began to embrace it as a personal philosophy, I’ve been more content with life. I believe in treating people with as much respect as you would like to receive in turn because nobody deserves anything less than that.
Tommy Slone is a first-year BSCTC student.
Catherine Smith The Best Laid Plans
I’ve always been a “dog person,” not a “cat person.” It’s a genetic thing. For three generations, there have been no cats in my family. My father raised Labrador retrievers when I was a child; my mother had two very spoiled terrier mixes; my grandparents had various kid-friendly mutt-dogs. I bought with me three Spaniels and a Border collie mix when my two young daughters and I moved into our new house in the “hollers” of eastern Kentucky.
The house had stood vacant for almost two years before I bought it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite empty. Not long after we moved in, I discovered that we had “uninvited house guests” of the four-legged, rodent variety.
I had never dealt with mice. I tend to be soft-hearted (some might say soft-headed) when it comes to critters. I couldn’t face the thoughts of buying a snap-trap and waking up some morning to mouse guts splattered across the walls. So I decided to do the “humane” thing and buy a sticky-trap. That way, when I caught the mouse, I could just roll it up, freeze it, dispose of it in the trash, and all would be well.
I laid out the stick-traps that evening. Next morning, I discovered I had caught mouse fur. No mouse, just its fur. My daughters were fascinated. “Look! Mouse fur!” they marveled. I decided sticky-traps were useless as pest-control devices and made a mental note to throw them away. Of course, this was during the moving-in chaos, so I promptly forgot.
The next morning, I was sound asleep. Giselle, my eight-year-old daughter, woke up early and did a bee-line to the kitchen to check the sticky-trap I forgot to throw away. I awoke to excited shouts of “A Mouse! A Mouse!” I bolted out of bed, ran to the kitchen, and sure enough, there was a small brown mouse stuck to the sticky-trap.
“What are you going to do with it?” my daughter asked.
“Well,” I explained in my most patient mom-voice, “I’m going to free it, so it will die relatively painlessly, and then I’m going to throw it away.”
“NOOOO!! You can’t kill our mouse!” she wailed. Our mouse? It’s not a pet; it’s a rodent. They carry diseases. I’m going to free it, throw it away, and go on with my day. I gingerly picked up the mouse-cum-sticky-pad and deposited it in a metal bowl to put in the freezer. Giselle went berserk, grabbed the bowl, and took off running with the mouse. I wearily decided that if I am going to battle my daughter to the death-of-a-mouse, I’d better be properly dressed.
By the time I got my clothes on and my eyes opened, my daughter decided to name her new pet “Fluffy” and has recruited her five-year-old sister, Arabella, to the cause. I attempt to do the “Mom” thing, and calmly explained to them that I will kill the cute, fuzzy mouse with the big, button eyes. This tactic is a total failure. I decided I am on a losing streak and grabbed the phone to call my husband, Victor, for back-up.
Victor is six-foot-two, a truck driver, and, unlike me, is not afraid of mice. I explained the situation to him. He started laughing so hard he actually had to pull over to the side of the highway because he couldn’t see to drive. Once he caught his breath, he told me to put on my big-girl panties and deal with the situation.
“Take something, whack the mouse over the head, end of problem,” he advised.
What does one use to whack a mouse? I rummaged through the moving boxes stacked in the kitchen and decided on a metal spatula. At this point, Giselle (still dressed in her nightgown) bolted out the front door with the mouse (still in its bowl) and took off running down the hill toward our creek. I bolted after her, with the spatula in one hand and the phone in the other.
Halfway down the hill, her long hair caught on the sticky-trap along with the mouse. She dropped the bowl in panic and began running in circles around the back field, hair flying, the sticky-trap firmly attached to her hair, and the mouse dangling by one leg from the sticky-trap. As she ran, she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Don’t kill Fluffy! Don’t kill Fluffy!” Arabella had joined us in the yard by this time and had turned on the tears, sobbing, “Mommy is going to kill Fluffy!” I vainly tried to catch Giselle, all the while waving a spatula in one hand and the phone in the other hand. Victor was no help; he was still on the phone, but he was laughing so hard listening to us, he couldn’t speak.
Right about then, my next-door neighbor stepped out on his back porch to smoke his morning cigarette.
The one thing I was so anxious to do was to make a good impression on the neighbors. My new house was his original family house, hand-built by his father in the 1930’s. I didn’t want him to think, “There goes the neighborhood,” when we moved in. Yet, here we were, tearing around the back field at daybreak, yelling, crying, brandishing kitchen utensils, with mouse waving in the morning breeze.
I redoubled my efforts to catch Giselle. I dropped the spatula and the phone and grabbed her as she tore past me. I removed the sticky-tray (and mouse) from her hair, retrieved the metal bowl from the lawn, returned the mouse to the bowl and tried to coax the girls back into the house. They wouldn’t budge.
It took almost five minutes of tense negotiations, in the yard, with the neighbor listening bemusedly the whole time, to get my daughters to agree to let me dispose of the mouse. We finally agreed upon the following terms:
The first term was that Fluffy-the-mouse got a state funeral down by the creek. The second was that I was to get rid of all the mouse traps. But the last agreed-upon term was one that made me swallow the hardest and grit my teeth: They demanded that I buy each one of them a kitten.
Arabella named her kitten “Fluffy.”
Catherine Smith, of Paintsville, is a BSCTC student.
Matthew Smith The Peasant Girl in the Tower
Do you remember the fairy tale you heard as a child about the peasant girl in the tower? To briefly sum up the story, there was a beautiful peasant girl who was held captive in a tower by an enraged queen. The queen held her captive because her husband, the king, coveted the young maiden and spoke of her daily. This caused the queen to become angry and exile the young girl to a lonely castle tower where she was forced to reside alone for the rest of her days.
The only view of the outside world came from a tiny window within the small tower chamber.
The young peasant could only imagine what the outside world was like. It seemed unrealistic to consider any of her dreams of the outside world a reality, considering she was confined and controlled by her surroundings. This is the point in which I wish to make the story a bit more imaginative. What if the young maiden actually possessed a key in the pocket of her dress that would unlock the tower door? She never would have known this because her mind was consumed with dreaming about the world outside. She was also faced with the impossibilities of a different life due to the confinement the queen had created. The reality, in fact, is that the key was there the entire time – the young girl just never searched her pockets.
Many individuals find themselves locked away like the beautiful peasant girl. They are confined to a safe, mundane reality. The lustful king acts as an enticing, but temporary fix to the search for substance, while the jealous queen exemplifies local surroundings that seem to be inescapable. The queen also echoes the familiar expression that suggests that “this is all there is to life.”
“You need to finish law school!”
“Why aren’t you more like your brother?” and the ever so popular… “What will the neighbors think?”
These demands and questions all serve the purpose of forcing the free, thinking individual into a position of conformity. The dreadful reality is that most humans die in this state of being, never knowing that they possessed the key the entire time! So what does the key unlock?
This is the million dollar question. The key unlocks different doors for all of us. We walk through doors of adventure, doors of empowerment, doors of danger, and doors of regret. Love can be found behind some doors… peace of mind behind others. Some doors lead to Colorado while others lead to central China. Some doors lead to flat tires in the desert … One door leads to incomprehensible laughter.
So you’re reaching in your pocket and you cannot find the key. You become convinced it isn’t there. Don’t be discouraged because the key you’re looking for is the mind… and like with the peasant girl, the key has been there the entire time, and you just didn’t know it. Sure, you use your brain to solve day-to-day problems, converse with friends and family, and make decisions about what to have for dinner. But the mind is something of a higher priority and when you learn to utilize its many facets it will work as a universal key that opens every door. Then you will be able to say with confidence “to hell with what the neighbors think.”
Do not remain in the tower any longer. Do not live with unresolved questions about the direction your life could have taken. If you want to be something, do not let anyone tell you it is impossible. If you want to go somewhere, figure out how to do it and go. If you love someone tell him or her. If you need to say you’re sorry, make sure you say it. Find the key and use it. Discover your potential. Leave comfort behind. Rise to the occasion. Laugh and experience the insanity of yourself before you die.
The tower is cold. The tower is sometimes lonely. Looking out the tower window raises a lot of questions about “what could be out there.” But in the tower, you are fed… you have a place to sleep… you’re aware of what the following day will hold. The comfort and security of the tower is enough for most…
Matthew Smith received his B.S. and M.A. from East Tennessee State University. He teaches Sociology and serves as Coordinator of the Honors Program at BSCTC.
Derek Whisman The Gas Masque
Another school year was already flying by when my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Staples, announced our class would be taking a field trip to Samsford Park the following day. I was immediately looking forward to chatting with my friends and playing sports at the park for a change instead of doing spelling words and math problems in a classroom.
I arrived early the next morning, eager to get a good seat on the bus. Unfortunately, my best friend, Jack, had made alternative plans. The moment he found me in the hall, he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the bathroom. That alone was pretty weird – usually one guy doesn’t pull another guy into the potty – but it got even weirder when he slammed a black lunchbox onto the sink.
“Kind of a weird place for lunch, ain’t it?” I said with a laugh.
Jack shook his head and pulled a tall thermos out of the box.
“Sorry, I didn’t bring any food,” he replied. “But I’ve got something here that will really spice up the afternoon. See what you think about this!”
He untwisted the cap and I was immediately overwhelmed by the powerful odor of gasoline.
The scent burned my nostrils with every breath I took.
“What’d you need this for?” I said, trying hard not to choke on the fumes as he held the container under my nose. “Afraid the bus will run out on the way or something?”
Jack’s smile turned serious. He replaced the lid on the thermos. “C’mon, Evan. You’re not that dumb, are you?”
Before I could say anything in return, three of our classmates rushed into the bathroom. I expected Jack would try to hide the evidence of his plans, but instead he held up the container as if he were hoisting a trophy into the air. Instead of being surprised, the others cheered and high-fived one another. Apparently I was the last one to know of this plan.
“So Evan,” John said. He playfully gave me a nudge. “You in or what?”
“You didn’t tell him yet?” Andy screamed and shoved Jack. “Do I gotta do everything myself around here?”
Andy was the biggest of us all. In fact, you could say he towered above us. Typically, although Jack was the brains for the group, Andy usually was the one who gave the orders.
And everybody listened.
“Alright, look Evan,” he said with a slight smirk, “we’re gonna sneak this here lunchbox onto the bus and when the teachers aren’t looking, we’re gonna get wasted!”
I felt my eyebrows shoot up my forehead like they were trying to escape to the other side of my hairline. Their plan sounded ridiculous to me. Anytime my parents filled up the car, the smell of gasoline through the windows made me sick. Now these guys wanted me to breathe it in on purpose? How did that make sense?
All eyes were on me. The gang waited to hear my approval of the plan.
“Well?” Andy leaned forward.
I searched the deepest recesses of my brain for an exit strategy. I had always considered myself quite resourceful, but now I found my sharp mind failing me when I needed it the most.
I began to stammer. “I, uh…well…”
“All aboard who’s going aboard!” Mr. Staples’ voice boomed in the hallway. “We’re leaving in five minutes!”
Jack panicked and began trying to zip up the lunchbox, afraid Mr. Staples would enter the bathroom at any moment in an effort to round up his class. I turned and followed Andy quickly into the hallway, thankful to have temporarily avoided making any stupid decisions.
As a privilege, the fifth graders were given the right to sit in the very back section of the bus. A cooler was snugly positioned between the last two seats, allowing seven people to ride next to each other. Jack and I found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the cooler seat with Andy and Roger sitting on either side of us.
The trip had just begun when Jack opened the thermos. I watched as he placed his nose and mouth inside of the container and began to take deep, slow breaths. His eyes widened and glazed over. He pulled his head back and passed the tube across my lap to Andy.
“That was wicked,” Jack said, leaning his head back against the window. He motioned for Roger to turn up the volume on the boom box.
“Come on, Evan!” Jack said in a daze. The container was passed back to him. “You haven’t had a turn yet.”
The group nodded its agreement. I had no intention of “huffing” gas, but I didn’t want to seem like a loser either.
“No thanks, man,” I said. “I don’t wanna walk around smelling like gas all day. It’ll scare off the ladies!”
“Come on ya big sissy!” Andy teased. “Why don’t you show us your dress while you’re at it?”
I felt the cold stares of my chemically altered friends fix upon my face. To make matters worse, the small group of four had now transformed into a much larger audience. For
whatever reason, the other fifth graders viewed these guys as “cool” and anyone who dared tread against them was most likely shunned. In a small school where the same classmates were always together, reputation was everything. Before long, more kids were turning around in their seats asking if they could take a hit.
“Take it, Evan,” Jack said, nudging me with the thermos. “Go on before it’s all used up.” As my hands reached out to grasp the fuel container, a thought shot through my mind. Was I really going to do this? My fingers began to tighten around the thermos as I caught the attention of what felt like the entire fifth grade class. They were actually encouraging me! My hand took control of the canister and Jack slowly began to unscrew the cap. It was all I could do just to give off the appearance of remaining calm.
In what felt like a flash, the lid was open and the fumes hit my nostrils. I’m not quite sure if it was the fumes that made me dizzy or the fear that gripped me, but it wasn’t long before my head was pounding and my stomach began to twist into knots. I had to think of something fast.
I could either take my chances with the gasoline or with the mob of my peers watching anxiously to see if I was cool enough to hang out with them. It was then that I made a decision. I could just pretend to breathe in while really holding my breath. That would have to work! I began slowly lowering my head towards the dreaded fumes.
“We’re here!” Mr. Staples interrupted. The bus pulled to a stop. Jack jerked the thermos from my hand, sealing it and tucking it away in his lunchbox. In that moment, I made it a point to thank God for small miracles. At least, for now I was off the hook.
The four companions stumbled off the bus and ran towards the picnic area, screaming hysterically. That’s when I realized that no real miracle had occurred. Sure, I had escaped the crowd’s gaze for now. But meanwhile, all I had to do was look at my classmates to feel something terrible was happening.
Their feeble attempt at playing baseball was particularly disheartening. One person would stand on the mound and throw the ball towards the outfield, while the batter swung at the air and claimed he had just hit a homerun. For a moment it felt as though I were watching some strange Indian tribal ritual unfold before my very eyes. The difference being instead of inhaling a peace pipe’s smoke, they were actually breathing in the same harmful fumes that fueled my father’s car. The sight of their actions was enough to convince me that I wanted no part in their “fun.”
I didn’t know a lot about the effects gasoline fumes could have on the human body, but then again I didn’t need to in order to realize something was wrong with my classmates. Thus another struggle began in my mind. Should I remain loyal to my friends, or betray them for their own safety?
I knew well what I should do. I should find Mr. Staples and have him stop them before it was too late. But, sadly, I knew this was impossible. My friends would never let me forget that I had destroyed their trust. I decided, instead, to wait the trip out.
I must have really been lost in my dilemma because in what felt like an instant, our field trip was over. I had barely moved from my hiding spot behind the picnic tables all afternoon. Hoping the worst of it was over, I hurried back to the bus.
“Where have you been, man?” Jack stumbled into the seat beside me clutching his lunchbox.
“You know me,” I said. “Carrie Thompson asked me to hang out with her behind the picnic tables so I couldn’t refuse.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Jack tried pathetically to high-five me. But every time he tried to make contact with my hand, he somehow managed to miss. He and the others had obviously continued their huffing party throughout the day.
I continued to hold out hope that perhaps the gasoline had been used up already. Or maybe, just maybe, they would be too high to remember I had yet to take a huff. Unfortunately, my luck never quite held out that way. Within ten minutes of being back on the road, Andy began to nudge me with the gas container.
“No thanks, man,” I tried.
“Would you just take it already?” Andy said while handing me the thermos, more forcefully this time. I felt all eyes from the group on me.
“Look guys, I don’t really wanna--”
“Wanna what?” Andy cut me off. “You wanna wuss out? Alright, have it your way then, you big baby.”
He jerked the opened thermos from my hands so suddenly that my arm jerked forward along with it. The result was that the thermos dropped out into the aisle, coating the floor with the remaining contents. Before anyone could even process what had just happened, the scent of gasoline reached the bus driver’s nose.
“Does someone have gas on this bus?” the driver screamed. He slammed on his brakes. Jack quickly picked up the thermos, shoved it into his lunch-box, and then tossed it all out the open window.
“Must be a gas leak!” Jack said.
Suddenly, our driver pulled opened the doors. “This bus runs on diesel. I know the smell.” He sprang to his feet and ran into the street behind us. When he returned, he carried in his hands the black box bearing Jack’s name.
It was at that very moment that I realized something: my clothes were soiled with the smell of gasoline! Jack and Andy had passed the thermos back and forth across my lap several times during the trip. The gas must have slowly dripped onto my clothes.
Mr. Staples immediately snatched the bottle from the driver’s hands and approached the five of us sitting in the back row. He observed each student as he passed, looking for signs that he, too, had partaken in the huff fest. My eyes began to widen as he came closer and closer to us.
Never in a million years would he believe that I was innocent. And why would he? My clothes smelled of gas, and I was surrounded by the very ones who had carried the container onto the bus in the first place. When finally he hovered over me, the look on his face told me I was done for.
Waiting in the principal’s office that evening was particularly disheartening. My parents had never been called to the school before, and I knew they wouldn’t take the call too pleasantly.
My mother slammed through the doors (my father was still at work, thank God), her face seeming to disappear behind fully open eyes. I had seen this look only once before in my life – the time I dropped Dad’s hammer on my toe and accidentally muttered a curse word. This time, however, the look was even worse.
“Evan Nathaniel!” she said. “What in God’s name has gotten into you!” If her face hadn’t already tipped me off, the fact that she used both my first and middle name clued me into the full extent of her anger. She pulled me aside from the group and then seemed composed, at least, for the moment.
“I didn’t do anything, Mom!” I said. “I swear!”
She took a long, hard look at me before tilting her head sideways. Wrapping her hands around both of my shoulder blades, she pulled me close to her and began sniffing my clothes. From the moment I sensed her take the first whiff, I knew my testimony was worthless. She tightened her grip on my shoulders and pushed me to a clear glaring distance.
“What is all over your clothes?” she said. “You’re covered in the stench!”
“They spilt it on me! When they were passing it back and forth!”
She leaned in and tried to smell for fumes on my breath. After a moment, she pulled away from me and stood up. “You wait right here, young man,” she said. “I’ve got to go speak with your principal.” Terrific. Those had to be the worst eight words a kid could ever hear – right behind
“You’re grounded” or “We ran out of candy.”
After what felt like an eternity, my mother emerged from the office with the principal at her side. I immediately felt a bit of relief because I recognized that look on her face. While it still displayed disappointment, it most certainly was not the “I’m going to kill you” look from earlier.
Thankfully, Jack had told the truth: that I had nothing to do with the huffing. While the principal had decided not to suspend me along with the others, he did say that my actions of not reporting their behavior could have jeopardized the lives of everyone on board the bus.
One simple spark could have set in motion a fiery disaster. So I wasn’t too terribly upset when he sentenced me to a month of after school detention and a 20-page paper on the dangers of drugs.
I learned two things that day: 1) that my friends were morons – I already suspected this from years of hanging out with them, but this trip certainly confirmed it – and, 2) that I should always trust my instincts. I knew something bad could have happened, but I ignored it so that my friends would think I was cool. But ultimately, who cares what they think? They’re morons!
Derek Whisman, of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, is a former Instructor of English at BSCTC who currently teaches at Mountain Empire Community College.