I’m outside playing. She doesn’t expect me back till dinner. She doesn’t want me back till dinner. She wants peace. She needs tranquility and there’s plenty of it: one hundred acres of woods, caves, and mysteries of nature at our disposal. While I savor this adventure, she rejects it, losing and closing herself in the noisy blather and corner of her own mind, like winding dirt roads that disappear into obscure, overgrown, and unfamiliar territories, she does not want and fails to roam, lost in the clamor. She sits and stares at them.
Those hills with flat black eyes that wither and wallow in shades and shadows of green?
Does her pain, misery, and denial hide there? Is she unable and unwilling to confront them? Those make-believe monsters that live and lurk in the dark corners of all our minds that we find in and around us at every breath waiting for us to fail? The fear of the unknowns haunting us? Does that confrontation stagger her and leave her with a resignation? A capitulation? A stagnation that derives from not even trying? Are our minds alike, hers and mine?
Am I going to suffer the same fate?
I hear her, the little girl I reside, fearing that fate, watching her mother suffer hers. The little girl inevitably accepts her circumstances and charges through. While her mother shrinks from and rejects it, I recognize and appreciate it for what it is I have and need and what will help me survive. To confront this, to push past, to find a way through to the other side and continue the battle even if it means that eventually I’ll lose this war.
Around me, time moves spinning actively in place towards another moment, to another room of the many. I watch the scene like a rapidly building construct as Dad, a grade school dropout and welder by trade, builds five small houses in a row with a neat narrow long green lawn in front; white siding trimmed in black, unfinished and unlocked, filled with unknowns and fettered dreams.
The sight and smell of sawdust and insulation hang in the sunbeams while insects crawl broken across dirty floors. All of this intensifies dad’s need to expand, to be and do something more: that entrepreneurial drive forced into us from birth—value and property equal worth.
He tries and fails.
The white male privilege proves mediocrity for us lesser mortals in our more unequal world; the white trash world where failures become barriers to success and collapse inward around a family humbling and breaking them for generations all the while pledging fealty to a broken class system and incurable social diseases; the rich man winning while the poor collapse under the weight of poverty.
Are there second chances for the poor? And what about the others? Those not given even the briefest and barest of even the first of chances?
I stand looking out over this hill seeing it with old eyes and greater understanding.
Those five houses, proverbially named numbers one through five, arrive and the sad trailer toted off to parts unknown.
My mother, Sheridan, sits absently in her guarded corners hating this hill. She loathes these paltry houses and the move from the tiny trailer to number one of the tiny houses. She aches from the want of a big house with a large front and back porch overlooking the valley instead of the pocket-sized shanties hastily put together with sub-par materials, amateur craftsmanship, and abject fantasies of the petite-bourgeoisie.
Or is it proletariat? Perhaps lumpenproletariat? Plebs? Or is it the more common refrain: white trash or hillbilly folks?
She detests the mud that comes with the torrential West Virginia rains that run rapid off the hill, like her dreams. The four-wheel drives that slowly ascend leaving behind ruts that one can fall into and disappear, like those inescapable cavities of despair.
Unlike her, I love this hill; it is my mystery and muse; my liberator and my salvation; it is my path to the cosmos. I disappear from dawn till dusk only to be dragged into the confines of the small house and stuffed into a shower, all the while sassing the woman that is burdened by my existence.
I neither judge nor blame her; she bares this burden.
The misery she emits hits me like waves as I revisit watching these lives unfold.
This is her prison and I, her young captor.
Nature is all around me. The trees wrap around our house sheltering us like iron bracelets. Acorns drop from branches peppering the roof like popcorn. On occasions, it scares me; on another, it comforts me. Those acorns crunch underfoot with the shed of bark and branch mixed in with the thickness of mud.
Shallow mud holes with umber colored water litter the road and become my pools of fun and flight. Consistently barefoot, I dance and wade while wearing nothing but cheap white cotton panties, until she forces me into homemade dresses and shoes.
I shed those costumes like masks; they pull from my skin like dried glue.
There are many mysteries to this mountain: buried treasures, hidden weapons caches, and bodies—lots of dead buried bodies. Myths told and passed on, especially after the incident.
There are people near. The closest neighbor is over a mile away through woods and way at the bottom. The unknowns—strangers we pass, who glare with long cautious stares and bitter judgments. Occasionally, a cousin comes to stay. Family fear the pull of corruption and crime then leave when they find out they don’t have the guts or principles to stay. There are the occasional renters. Solo strays and broken families. None that remain. Misbegotten souls hide behind curtains only to realize later that they’re keeping company with the devil and his brood.
What was once thought a simple muddy mountain has become the gates of hell.
I laugh at the absurdity as it tickles my conscious.
Here, I’m on my own; I like it like that. I thrive in my independence. I escape from the want of knowing what happens when and if I don’t. I create paths through the heavy woods winding my way through brush and briars delicately bending branches moving to the bus stop a mile downhill near those neighbors—the strangers with smiles of casual disregards.
I emerge near a cemetery.
Old grey weathered stones poke out of the earth like bony arthritic fingers, reaching toward the cloudy sky, pebbled through thick green slopes of grass. A pair of grizzled oak trees sleep unsettled in the center; their long cocoa black limbs stretch outwards crooked and crazy like snoozing elderly custodians. A deep valley rolls to the left; the agent of many neighborhood sled rides. A long field ends at the driveway of a TV repair shop where the school bus picks and drops me off to and from school.
The neighborhood is traditional and old; of the lowest middle-class income. Poverty lurks around every cashed check.
Dirty white houses press against the hill beside the twisted narrow roads ascending midway to the section below ours. A large vegetable garden sits in between it all oddly out of place. A donkey barn leans creeping to the side; the rotted broken fence around it ignored by the old grey mule loitering within. An unusual garage apartment sits alone unattached to any house and unawares or of little concern that clutter overflows into the surrounding areas.
White country folk that mind their own business and keep out of the way, especially those Marlows back up on the hill.
Neighbors have come and gone. Acquaintances long forgotten and replaced with the new and unsuspecting.
An abrupt shift and their faces spin forward into a gyration of colors.
Rolling mountains like waves of forest green, thickets of growth burn into nature, an uneven bloom through a fix of blades as they break and shift with a wind that rarely arrives in late summer. That air sits apathetic, clammy and stale, except when peaks explode in deliberate abuse, draining the earth of resource and redemption. The roads, twist and ascend, loop and plunge, travel between lonely dusty ghost towns stifled and tattered, resigned to loss. Rows of trees erased and eventual rains flood the streams feeding the creeks, rivers, and valleys below decimating towns barely surviving. Coal holes filled with black stagnate runoff pollute the groundwater, streams and soil. Villagers, unlearned and unknowing, surrender unwillingly an oblivious hope to the venal and voracious as their homes erode around them.
The reprieve dwells in doses for peace and hope, yet, finds none.
Have you ever been stuck in mud? Mud so deep it hurts? Thick mud, unyielding, consuming with the pressure and viscosity of the most formidable concrete?
Here, the mud is impervious. It grips the toes, sucks in at the ankles through to the soul, and rarely lets go; so fierce that your mind is held captive longing to escape the confines of a bleakness that never goes away.
As I pass slowly by, I see the mud in their eyes, drowning in discouragement and dullness of life, pulsating from them in ripples of desperation, perforating the soul.
Was it always like this, I wonder, as I watch them carry on with their tragic and helpless lives? Or is it only what I see? The blunt tool of an unkind past? Through a veil of cynicism and bad history?
There’s anger here too. The clenched jaw of shame; the resentful frown burrowed into their forehead like a hole they refuse to or cannot liberate themselves; the trigger of pain and animus locked and loaded ready to blast away at any rational prospects or hope? Emotionally soaked and frantic? Mostly it’s pride and fear emanating from them behind the wall of denial and destruction they shelter themselves.
Or is it desperation misplaced and frustration denied?
How can you help someone that willfully and obtusely refuses to help themselves? That spits on an unfolding journey of transformation? The dogmatic refusal to open their minds to allow anything past those emphatic walls of perfection?
I wonder how it is to be so omniscient, so absolute, so unimpeachable?
Oh, to be so unmindful.
My shame clouds my empathy. Like those broken and blasted mountains, I’ve unearthed the bare ugliness of bias underneath. I carry on displaying my defects for all to see. I render the picture to link two halves whole—there is no me without them.
There are corners here; edges that cut you. Like this unbending town, its citizens carve their souls into the earth, like roots anchored to the planetary core. They challenge outsiders, not with fake smiles and bogus proverbs, but with hard gospels and incomplete perspectives. You must work for that smile, that affability; you must earn it through tribalism, blood and zealotry, short memories and endless arrogance of truisms learned from the forged inflexible landscapes of forefathers—those white forefathers that forgot about all us others.
The weariness erases easy angles. The clothes they wear creased with austere wrinkles and slight with threadbare earnings; fueled by self-preservation and little hope, they are like the buildings borne of fatigue that line the narrow crater-filled streets.
Once you have those qualities though, you’re gold, cold hard cash, a solid meal, a full tank; a safe, if not, leaky roof over your head—maybe.
Rarely that happens.
I have very few happy memories of this place.
In May of 1960, Kennedy, while campaigning in the democratic primary, drove through after his plane was grounded in Charleston due to inclement weather. I’m told this is where my aunt Kennedy, my mom’s youngest sister, gets her name. Grandma Lexi was so enamored with the charming Catholic boy, she named her youngest child after him even if he’s Catholic.
She said Catholic like it left a nasty taste in her mouth—like when she says Black, but she doesn’t really say Black.
A year later, he was assassinated in Dallas.
The Alanis-Morissette-type-irony was lost on her that two of her children were named Dallas and Kennedy.
I hear tales of street fairs with parades of pointy white hoods and white men with shotguns at the end of the old iron bridge barring Black People from entering town. Those Black People never returned and if they did, they were never heard from again.
This I’m gleefully told with a chuckle and sigh, like a ghoulish fairy tale.
There is no reaching out to the police. Corruption litters the local government and law enforcement. Payoffs made in daylight and full view of onlookers. Voters are given fifths of whiskey and money for votes and if that doesn’t work, they’re cornered and beaten. Intimidation and coercion happen at every level. Domestic violence and rape victims dismissed and silenced beaten back into submission. Gay people make themselves invisible in fear of the hate and shame and beatings. Women told to mind their place.
Adapting is self-preservation—assimilation more so.
Resisters and rebels? Certain ostracism and the brutality of abuse dispensed by those in power: the rich, the authorities, and those bullies that prey on those they feel do not equal them.
The 1970s proved to be the peak of Charleston, Clendenin and surrounding West Virginia Appalachian towns where the abundance of capitalism and gluttony of coal saturated their culture leaving little room to grow. Forced into oppressive conditions from the feudal coal overlords through often violent and coercive methods, they resigned themselves to fate and refused to move past their own obstruction and destruction of their livelihood and earthly home even as the damage revealed all; groomed and perpetuated by unchangeable politicians funded by greed and corruption driven by self-interest.
At the heart of all this lives the white patriarchy and nationalist ideologies that refute progress and the fight for a better class system for them and their Black and Brown brothers and sisters that live on the other side of the same coin. Flip a coin in either side of town and it’ll come up heads—rich white male heads of multinational corporations where nepotism and mediocrity thrive amongst corruption and exploitation of the poor. This mindless nationalism overcomes democracy and progress time and time again. This reaction impedes their own children and leaves generations in a dead and derelict swamp of their own ignorance—oftentimes by false choices.
There are many we salute and applaud that stand alone fighting bravely in incrementally minuscule acts that move in what feels like light years— the ‘slow boring of hard boards’ as Max Weber aptly stated. One wonders if that phrase framed, often abused, builds on his other more pernicious philosophical phrase ‘work ethic’ that tends to find ground in these areas as a tool for cruelty and corruption to suppress progress and bolster exploitation.
Having given over my own panoramic history in a sweeping perspective to my cerebral posse—of which I am shamefully bent, having left before the fascism sprouted like giant hogweed—I bounce back to the year leading to my exit from this time; the desolation of a small town no longer thriving, drowned literally by their own incapacity to embrace and proceed both naturally, pragmatically, and humanely. Thousand year rains flood the area from the remade and fabricated peaks of destruction and elimination. This—repeatedly told to them by scientists they chose or forced to ignore—is what is left and what is left no longer remains.
Houses boarded up and condemned. Businesses washed away never to return.
The river will rise again and people will die until nothing is left. This fact cannot be changed. The process will be a slowly emerging decay.
They will rot along with it.
A bone cold numbness and bleakness that cannot push through to find hope because maybe there is none?
It’s a dark room with no light; it’s a long tunnel crawling on your belly never reaching the end; it’s being buried alive; it’s climbing and never reaching the top; it’s a bottomless black pit; it’s an irony lost only to hindsight, and not even then.
I cannot help giving an unforgiving thanks to these people. In their endurance, their conflict, and apathy of those less than—of those bodies they felt did not equal their own—I went in search of compassion, empathy, and knowledge that I found lacking within their white ones.
That compassion and empathy and knowledge? That power resonates. That power I found in my Black and Brown and my Gay and Transgender and Muslim brothers and sisters. In the steadfast resolve of my Humanist, Atheist, and Agnostic connections.
Even in my Progressive Christian ones.
I look over the mountain I once knew. In the valley, opposite where five little white houses once stood, sits a double-wide trailer camouflaged in a dark corner. The new owners post a no trespassing sign where dad’s wooden board and iron gate used to hang: Violators will be shot.
I’m not deterred. My pretty white dumb-blonde girl privilege gives me sway in this area.
There it is.
I wonder if they know the Marlow name? I wonder what stories they’ve heard now myths that turned a good ole boy into a fallen felon and the incident into murder and corruption that tentacled into over a millenia?
Like the town, little remains. The rocks are smaller and hold less appeal and more sadness. The cracks have closed with a sedentary erosion and dead weeds replace live ones. The air, as stale and searing as ever, does not stir.
I turn and leave.
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins