rural appalachian tour of homes
BY LUCAS CHURCH
There is a framed picture in my mother’s house, an old black and white photo of nine of my ancestors and three hangers-on standing in front of a modest shack, the family’s old hillside house. My grandmother is two in the photo, and she looks directly at the camera. A great-great-uncle shows off his banjo. On the far right, two of the three strangers hold their revolvers almost gingerly and with obvious pride. The photo is showing not only the family and friends, but what they had: children, hand-made musical instruments, and guns.
The house is on a steep slope of a mountain called Bonehead, named because of the human skulls my great-grandfather found while digging the foundation.
Other named places I know: Clingman’s Dome, after an obscure Civil War general; Mount Mitchell, after Elisha Mitchell, the first man to measure its height and the only to die re-measuring, obsessed with making sure he had it right.
When I was a child, my father would drive me to hollars that no tourist would visit: Meat Camp, Deep Gap, Blackberry, Pottertown. The purpose of each trip was to visit some cousin or a family friend from long ago, and we would travel the dirt roads until it felt as if we had gone down so far we had past the depth of the ocean floor. In those deep recesses would be houses like in the photograph, sided with pine boards, yard overgrown with thistles and long grasses I do not know the name of. Inside the houses would be ancient people, and to me they seemed impossibly old, frail and sexless, but they also were the keepers of memory, the historians and storytellers of the people who chose to dig into this earth to build their homes, sometimes far down enough to hit bone.
Behind where Walmart is now
Only for a few months: A trailer I have seen in a single photo. The walls are wood panel, cheap and bowed; my mother holds me while she sits on a sofa, not looking at the camera. It’s a Polaroid, overlit and the figures caught gauzy. My mother claims it’s haunted by the great-aunt from whom the trailer was purchased—I could feel someone so close, while I was in bed, that I could feel their breath, she tells me years later, and at night I could hear her walking down the hallway towards the bedroom—and here will originate an oft-repeated story of me sickly as an infant, sleeping in a dresser drawer next to my parents’ bed. Raspy breath, an October baby, I sweat fevers while winds shake the thin metal walls.
Just off 105
Small woodstick construction in town, close to the school where I would go to kindergarten, close to the places my mother grew up, close to where my cousins still live. We still rent, my mother scraping by as a realtor’s assistant and my stepfather working construction. Is it normal to grab onto a single, simple thing to explain an entire life? Here are two: a beloved Batman t-shirt (60s-era logo, soft and pregnant looking), and stepfather’s dentures (often unguarded, easy pickings). Here, the heating grate is big as I am. I lie on top of it to warm on the icy mountain mornings. That means I am, I think, learning the hunger for some kind of heat, where the familiar might be found, where sense can be made in the body of forced air.
All the nights I sleep in the same bed as my grandmother, she mutters long, winding prayers to Jesus, whom she never speaks of in daylight. She lives with her brother, John, known as Pedro, pronounced with a long “e.” She has rented her whole life. This place is in town, an apartment with a canary yellow paintjob, nestled between a tire store and a fried chicken place. Cold cement tile floors, drop ceilings, and they smoke inside. The air is a blue haze. Simon, the neighbor kid, a few years younger than me, will be the first black person I ever meet. We will become best friends, then Granny will move.
Years later I will see him again while at a store with my mother. I won’t recognize him at first, and even after my mother points him out to me, I will decline to say hello because of something that’s in kids to keep quiet when they don’t yet know how to pass empty pleasantries.
When we move in, the grass will be as high as my chin, imprinting itself into my subconscious, spilling out into dreams. The house is plain, but ours. Brown shag, three small bedrooms, and enough yard to get into trouble with.
There’s a thing about familiarity, that it blinds you to everything except routine. You stop seeing the interiors. You stop seeing the exteriors, too. Only questions remain.
Such as: How do you recontextualize a living room where you watch your stepfather die, forcing you to remember forever that double-cheeseburger pizza was his last meal? What television can you watch that makes up for that?
How is that an okay last meal for anyone?
How do you make small talk when you grow up with a woodstove for heat, potbellied and black, when such a thing means you are not fit for parties with small talk?
How to reconcile the violence of your forebears? My mother says when I was a kid I would hear stories that Grandpa Charlie killed a man, cut him up, for doing something with his wife. I also heard that Charlie scratched one of his wives with his toenail while they were in bed and her leg became infected and she died.
How many cousins are in jail again? And how many did they kill?
Grandmother’s trailer, back yard
We keep the taillights on it, even though after the movers drop it in place at the far back of our yard, it will never move again. It’s still there, rotating out siblings and cousins until my mother retires; her plan is to while away the hours plugging up the gaps and chasing away mice, ghosts, other cousins looking for free digs. The funny thing about the mice: though we’re in the mountains and it’s cold and dry, we are backed up next to a swamp, man-made, making things wet and mostly humid, the result of a fake pond put in by wealthy neighbors whom, after their son accidentally killed his girlfriend in their living room, we forgave the inconvenience.
Granny lives here with Pedro until they die. Stale Little Debbies, broken hips, trainee hospice nurses who allowed themselves to go further than the Hippocratic Oath dared dream: my grandmother lived as a mean-spirited saint, my great-uncle as a deeply flawed man pretending to be a bad one. They keep the heater on in the summer and tell me horrible things from when they were children, of girls born with their mouths located between ear and dimple and great-aunts who froze to death in the snow as babies. Though, at their ends, I end up wiping their crusty eyes, Vasolining septums where their oxygen tubes rubbed them raw, changing their bedpans (their eyes refusing to meet mine while in the act), they were still the ancients, adults since before time began, birthed in an era I only knew from story, a reality I’d never be able to comprehend, really, because it was so terribly different than my own. What is the word for when love becomes so abstracted by time it turns into awe?
It had built-in furniture; plywood boxes covered in carpet with cushions, that was the couch.
My first apartment is with three other dudes. It’s in a complex that overlooks a trailer park, the one I lived in as an infant, but I do not know this at the time. Focusing on what could possibly happen next, I do not go to college and instead work at a frozen yogurt franchise in a town that dips to the single digits in winter. I will be fired for not mopping the floors enough, not being Christian enough, and never washing my hands unless under surveillance by management. The apartment is small, and I share a room with a future youth group leader who goes to bed clothed and wakes up naked, consistently. Everyone smokes. I am terrified always, even though I’m only miles from home.
When I move out, I mop the nicotine off the walls for the security deposit.
HUD complex, out in the county
I realize I lack context, never being outside of it. The carpet is always damp, though the water stopped working at Thanksgiving. Outside, the only tree boasts long bean-like pods—I later find out it was a catalpa, a beautiful word for what looks like a mass of green, sleeping fingers—that the little kids next door pile up on our front stoop. I oversleep, late to the funeral of an elderly neighbor, and run outside in the rain to find a used condom stuck beneath my windshield wiper.
This place is out in the sticks, four apartments in a single building and we hear every one of each other’s’ breaths; the water still isn’t working by Christmas, and we’ve left messages; friends come by and stay for weeks on the couch, while I fake adulthood eating frozen pasta and chicken like I’ve seen people do in commercials.
The apartment itself is notable as it’s the first place I’ve ever lived with stairs on the inside. Everything about it is brown. The carpet, the walls, the vinyl floor in the kitchen. I’ve moved out of town, near the local tire shops and consignment stores, where the real county people live.
The tubs are fiberglass and, sometime later after I hustle my shit out, the neighbor we shared a wall with tries to cook meth in the bath, burning everything down like everyone thought he eventually would.
Winters, after the snow is melted, are gray and endless. The trees bare, the roads awash in salt. The heat is in central to one room, a space heater, and my roommate and I huddle there listening to the neighbors, a young couple, fight about a videogame. Thin walls, I can hear the Mama’s Family theme play every morning when I’m hitting the bed, back from my night job.
My friends, we all do the same thing: work nights, drink, coast. My friends, we hold the sharp tang of men living as unwashed boys.
But outside, out in the places that you don’t go unless you live there, lie my family’s roots. I’m in the center, and they always haunt me. Like I should be doing more than just nothing.
By way of Jersey
During my final visit to my father’s house, located on his then-wife’s cranberry farm, my uncle Ray told me a story. He and I rode together, me at the wheel, following my father in his pick-up along the narrow dirt road that separated one bog from another. Ray had come to ride, to get away from the house. The house was small and old, the kind of house you would send away for from a catalog back in the Thirties, and my uncle was bored. It was hot.
In the story my father is eight and my uncle nearly fifteen.
Ray said he’d taken my father to the woods, far away from their house, two mountains over from my birthplace. This was around 1966. Ray remembered it was a clear day, no clouds, bright sun. They got out of the car and walked for a bit, sweating from the unusually hot day, and met a woman. She waited for them in a clearing. Her face was a web of wrinkles, and she smoked a cigarette. Her eyes were dark with mascara. She said nothing my uncle could remember and turned away from the boys.
They walked until they came to a small building, a one-room cabin. My father and uncle were hot and thirsty. The woman sat on a tree stump and crossed her legs. Ray motioned for my father to go in the cabin. My grandfather, their father, was inside and was dying, and Ray explained to my father that he needed to say goodbye to Daddy. My father went inside. Ray said the woman, whom he knew his father had left the family for, continued to smoke.
We did not trade words, he said.
What did Dad say? I asked.
He never told me. I asked him on the drive home, but he didn’t seem to want to say.
Did you go in?
Ray nodded. He looked like a dying old man, that’s for sure. Sad, sad old dying man.
My uncle looked out the window. I thought maybe he regretted bringing up the story, having this memory return to him.
What did you say? I asked.
Ray thought for a moment. I told him, he said, that he’d done a lot of wrong to us, and that I couldn’t forgive him right then, but maybe once I got older I could.
I saw my father stop his truck in front of us. I slowed down and threw the parking brake. He got out, went to a nearby bog and waded in till his boots were covered in water, looking for whatever obstructed the complex system of dams and culverts that filled and drained the network of bogs. He slipped and I heard him cuss.
My father has never told me this story, and I have never broached the topic with him. I am unsure if it is a sensitive subject, but after his divorce from my stepmother and his move from New Jersey, where the cranberry farm still runs, we do not speak of the past very often. If you pressed me, I would say whatever he said to his dying father were the exact words I need to hear to understand him.
This is about the time I visit other places, other countries, and people I meet abroad take great pleasure in telling me I don’t sound like I’m from Appalachia, the South, anywhere.
I joke that it’s because I was raised by television.
There is the talk of leaving, the desire to run as far away as the road can take us. I need to finish school first I say. The idea being, everything will be fine. The future is blank, anywhere other than here is better; the mountains are now officially on notice.
The rent is too high, and the landlords clearly homeschool. My classes and job(s) distract me from my relationship, which is crumbling, and the fact that I’ve never once considered that I’m still strangely terrified of leaving this place.
Naturally, our next crashpad is her mother’s house. Naturally, I propose.
Ex-fiancee’s childhood room
What is home but a place that distracts you from the larger world? I make some pretty wonderful mistakes and get my heart busted. The lengths we go to make our own situations appear, contextually, more bearable. I did manage to fall in love right after with a good person, saving me.
Here is where I meet my wife, finish school, learn to start thinking. It’s also where Bonehead once was, now an old ranch-style neighborhood on the mountain behind the university. My last home here is where my people started more than a century before.
Still, though, all the same things: cigarette butts, inborn altitude sickness, a numbness to the mountain cold. The hills are ancient, and they will always, as you know them, be there.
My roommate, a millionaire and hoarder, owns the house. Twenty garbage bags greet you at the front door. I’m tired all the time. My friend and I, we’ve known each other for too long; our relationship nothing but sandpaper against skin and all we have are two things: a history that lingers and a location that never changes.
My future wife helps me find my way out. I graduate, fill my car with books and clothes and go.
Before I leave the county, I pull off the Blue Ridge Parkway and roll down my windows, even though it’s late December and the air is a bitter, familiar cold. The mountains lay before me, undulating and blue, and they look, even though I’m in the thick of them, remote and alien, like something I’ve only seen in photographs. I don’t know them at all.
These mountains will always hold more than I can contain, the soft rolling ridges a reminder of everything that will always follow me: the creation of my own mythology; the particular flavor of loneliness aggravated by lifelong friendships; the hard-to-decline invitation to stasis; the gift of being from a place like this, a kind of place that takes just as much as it gives.