It's summer and--as usual--I'm working on about ten projects at once, and thinking about five or six others. But--I'm getting things done!
From Burnt House--just out!
“Your granddad is the most impatient man I ever knew,” she said.
I said, “Well….”
“It’s true! I’ve known him almost sixty years!”
“Yeah?” I sat back, waiting for a story. That was always the best part of being home, waiting for a story. “Kline—well, your grandma, Alma.” Bess was still talking out the service window, bent over a table in the back room looking at me. “You remember how hard she worked, right?”
“Sure,” I said. “She was always doing something.”
“Okay, well, they used to keep chickens—everybody did, then, a long time ago. And Kline, he’s greedy as well as he’s impatient, and he always wanted more—more chickens, more eggs. Of course, it was Alma had to do most of the work, or the girls when they got big enough. But Kline would do one thing with those chickens by himself, and he didn’t trust anyone else to do it. He’d go out there to the hen house with an awl or a nail or a pocketknife and chip away at those eggs, pick the shells off so the baby chicks would be born a day or two early and start growing quicker. He didn’t trust nature. He couldn’t ever wait for nature.”
“Oh, he’d go out in the garden and flick dirt off the bean sprouts when they were coming up, so they’d grow faster.”
I laughed at that one.
“You laugh, now, but that man can be terrible,” Bess said. “He did the same thing when your Aunt Irene was born.”
Bess stepped back from the window and went around and came out into the waiting room.
“It’s true,” she said. “Alma went into labor, or thought she did, and old Kline got in his truck and drove to Alum Bridge—that’s where the paved road from Weston ended in those days, at Alum Bridge, it was just mud between here and there. And Kline got his car out of the garage he kept it in and drove on into Weston on the paved road and he got the doctor.” Bess caught her breath, a gasp. “And so then he drove the doctor back to Alum Bridge, and they got in his truck and they drove back through the mud to Burnt House. And when they got here, Alma wasn’t in labor anymore.” Bess looked at me and nodded. So there!
After a moment, I asked, “And….”
“And so Kline told that doctor, he said, I’m not bringing you all the way out here a second time. He said, you need to get in there and get me that baby right now. Right now. And the doctor did it—brought out that baby two or three days early, a week early, I don’t know.”
I thought of poor Grammaw Talbot. Back in one of those bedrooms, pregnant, sick and miserable. Alone, I guessed. Full of a baby. And how did that doctor get Irene out? Some drug? Did he cut the baby out of her? Pull it? Did he hook the baby to a chain and winch it out not really ready to live and leave poor Grammaw all ripped apart and bloody? Ah, wow. Disgusting. I almost felt a cramp myself. I never wanted kids. I touched my belly. Sick.
I said, “Jeeze.”
1. The Mispunctuated Town
Cox’s Mills is a tiny place, even for West Virginia, with a population of maybe 75, two stores, a post office, a closed schoolhouse, and a church that holds services one Sunday a month. It lies stretched out along Rt. 47, following Pike Fork between Horn Creek and Hog Run. Cox’s Mills is “five miles from everywhere,” my grandfather used to say, if everywhere is defined as the surrounding communities of Burnt House, Auburn, Troy, and Alice. Alice is a ghost town anymore, but Cox’s Mills is not too different from the surviving other three, a small community, insulated and static, growing gently shabbier as the years pass.
On the map and in the postal directory the town’s name is spelled Coxs Mills, no apostrophe, apparently because map makers and zip code cipherers don’t like apostrophes. I’ve always spelled it Cox’s Mills, anyway, because I do like apostrophes and I like things to make sense. I’ve never heard anyone else offer an opinion about the spelling of the town’s name, and since I go there now only in memory I probably never will.
2. Millstones and the Bridge Pool
My mother told me that the millstones for Cox’s mills had been just upstream from the bridge where Rt. 47 crossed Horn Creek and I tried several times over the years to find them, wading up the shallow part of the creek under a dark canopy of sycamores and willows, under a water gap and on up. I never found the millstones, and my guess is that they must have been buried under the silt and fine gravel washing off the hills, buried and lost like so much else. Below the bridge there was a large, deep pool where Pike Fork flowed into Horn Creek, and I did my first fishing there, catching smallmouth bass and bluegills. Sometimes I would fish off the bridge abutment, cringing when log trucks or well service trucks from Dowell or Halliburton raced by. In the lot next to the pool was an olive-painted corrugated metal building, an old gauging station for Eureka Pipeline that my grandfather had worked in. One damp December day a truck came and loaded up the building and hauled it off somewhere. In later years weeds grew around the old concrete foundation and multiflora rose snaked around a rusted old steam engine whose original purpose no one could tell me.
3. Hunting under the Hickories
I have been told that before the chestnut blight hit the eastern hardwood forests, chestnut trees were where you went to look for squirrels. It wasn’t unusual to see as many as thirty squirrels working in one tree. But the chestnuts are long gone, the remaining dead hulks chopped down and used for fence posts, long enough ago now that even the fence posts are gone, even though chestnut made the best and longest-lasting fence posts. Now the squirrels in our part of the country gather mostly around hickory trees. The leaves of the hickories turn bright yellow in the fall and stand out between the reds and browns of maples and oaks, and when I went hunting I would sit beneath the trees, quietly, beneath the soft falling leaves and hard falling green nuts. Squirrel season was the best time of year: the days were cool and usually sunny, and the woods were silent but for the falling leaves and the rustlings of small animals. One time I heard fallen leaves crackling—something moving—and instead of a squirrel a grey fox came over the edge of the hill. He trotted right toward me until, when he was six or seven feet away, I said, “Hello, little fox.” The fox stopped and regarded me for a few moments before angling off, circling around my hickory tree but still heading to wherever he was heading. I told my grandfather about the fox and he said, “I’d a-shot the son-of-a-bitch.”
4. Apple Trees
Below the house, along the creek, we had two immense apple trees. In a good year the trees would be utterly loaded, groaning under the weight of the apples. My grandmother would literally spend all day in the kitchen during apple time, canning apples, making applesauce or apple butter, the kitchen windows dripping with steam. The ground beneath the trees was pocked with holes and tunnels of ground squirrels that ate fallen apples, and beyond the fence, under the rocks, there were snakes, copperheads and blacksnakes, that ate the squirrels. At night deer would come down off the hill and eat apples, and we could sit in the porch and hear them chewing and sometimes choking. In the summer of 1988 the trees finally died, and the people who were renting the house cut them down, leaving the stumps standing high enough to run a clothesline from one to the other. After the trees died I lost interest in the place.
5. Farming the Hills
The hills there in that part of West Virginia are hills, not mountains, but they rise so steeply away from the road, away from the creek, that they hem in the sky and induce a sense of confinement if not claustrophobia. I remember my mother telling about her first trip away from home, to Iowa to visit relatives, and how sick the prairie landscape made her: All that space! There was nothing around to hold up the sky! No doubt flatlanders would get sick in Cox’s Mills, and feel trapped and nervous. In the days of my grandfather’s youth, the hills were still covered in virgin timber. His family—and the other pioneer families over along Rocky Fork and Old Field Fork—would work their way through the woods, uphill and down, cutting down the trees, selling the solid old timber, burning the rest, rooting up the stumps with mules, planting wheat the first year, corn the second, then grass for cattle, working on and on through the woods. He said the hills were so steep they had to plant the seed corn with shotguns—just stand back and fire it into the hillsides. But all that ended. Farming was difficult at any time in that country, a crazy idea, really, and impossible after the topsoil washed away, and so the farms died out and the trees came back, slowly, thin young forests that have grown more robust over the years. Still, my grandfather would say, “By God, when the Russians take over, they’ll have people out working on those hills again.”
6. My Palm Prints in Concrete
Sometime in late 1962 my grandfather poured concrete for a new walkway that led around the front of the house, from the front door to the East Porch. We were down that weekend and he had me put my hands in the cement to make a mark. I remember the icky texture of the cement—it was cold, and sticky, and I didn’t like it. My father took a nail and wrote my name and the date beneath the palm prints, and I guess it’s all still there. At least, it was when I finally sold the house. The concrete had buckled, bulged up by the roots of a maple tree, but my prints endured, faint and shallow but legible.
7. Our Hill
When I was very young my grandfather ran cattle on the front of the hill, the side that faced the house, and the cattle grazed the hillside down to short grass, dirt and a few blackberry vines. After he got rid of the cattle the hill began to regrow. Brush—filth, we called it—took over, mostly thorny multiflora rose and more blackberries, then a few trees began to poke through, sycamores at first and then maples and oaks. The top of the hill had been left wooded and was very dark and shady, and you would pass through those first woods and come out on a flat, more or less open area that had once been a planted field. Rocks had been pulled out to let the plow through, and were piled at the upper end. We had peach trees up there (peaches down below by the creek would not bear fruit), short lived trees that were all but dead by the time I began exploring the woods. The dead trees stood for years like skeletons until they began to rot and collapse into the brush. From the top of the hill you could see miles of land that was empty, used very hard in the past and now all but unsettled.
8. The Hay Barn and the Meadow
Directly across the creek from the house was a small hay meadow and an old barn. We used to get two cuttings a year off that land until people started running fewer and fewer cattle and no one bothered to come by and cut it. The grass would grow and fall over, pushed down by rain or pulled down by gravity, and there would be wide trails through it where deer would pass to get to the apples. The old barn where the hay was stored grew more and more decrepit over the years and became a home for yellow jackets and snakes. When she was dying, my grandmother would look out the window at the meadow, the wasted hay, and one time she said, “It makes me sad looking out there at that. You know some old cow’ll be wanting that hay this winter.”
9. Pike Fork
On the maps the upper part of the creek is called Coxcamp Fork, but I never heard anyone call it that. The local name was Pike Fork, but I never heard anyone use that, either, at least on regular basis. It was just “the creek.” It ran through our property, separating us from the hill. As a child there in the summers I usually spent all day down in the creek looking for fossils, catching crayfish or trapping minnows. It never occurred to me to be lonely. I would be down at the creek all day, and then in the evenings I would go back up to the house. At night fog would drift down from the hills, and I always sat out on the porch and listened to the creek run, and I could hear crickets and frogs and other animals, and I could hear owls hoot, and deer stomp around by the apple trees, I could hear all the thick dark night noises, and once I saw a snake crossing the road in the headlights of an oncoming car.
10. High Water
In high water people upstream would throw trash into the river, sometimes plain garbage but more often large chunks of wood that were too expensive or impractical to haul off, like rotten lumber or trimmed tree branches or brush. As a very young child the junk in the high water always excited me—I imagined the old logs and boards as naval vessels, battleships—a fleet attacking the minnows! In very high water the creek would stretch clear across the meadow to lap at the base of the apple trees, and though our house was high enough up on the hillside that it never got flooded we could feel the rumble of the muddy brown water as it pushed downstream.
11. The Langford House
The Langford house was across the road and down a bit. The Langford family was long gone, died out or moved away, and the house was rented out occasionally to very poor families, until at last it grew too dilapidated and run down to rent to anyone. One night, after it had been vacant for a several years, my grandmother claimed she saw the house all lit up—glowing in the dark. My grandfather dismissed her, said she was probably dreaming, but I suspected ghosts. By that time I was living away from Cox’s Mills, and I was familiar with ghosts—not just the ordinary spirits that might take over a property, but ghosts that got inside your head, ghosts not only of the dead, but of the living, too, ghosts of family and ghosts of place, ghosts that can follow a person around and bother them with guilt and shame and regret that cannot be exorcised.
12. The Tree that Didn’t Fall Until Later
It was late when I arrived home for Christmas in 1981, driving in from Texas, and I was very tired, and I was hungry, and I wanted to sit around and decompress, but my grandfather was all agitated and he was saying “Where’d you park? Out by the barn? Well, you get out there and move your goddamn truck, there’s a tree a-going to fall on it.” He followed me out into the dark and pointed across the road into the night. He said there was a big tree over there that had been struck by lightning and might fall any moment. So I moved my pickup. The next day I could see a big oak that been indeed struck by lightning—there was a pale vertical stripe running the length of the tree where the bark had split away. But the tree didn’t fall—not then, at least. Years later when I sold the house I came by to take one last look around, and the new owner was walking me out to where I was parked. He was a nice man, retired and living alone, and he said he would take good care of the house. “I know all your family’s memories are wrapped up here,” he said. By that time everyone was dead and I didn’t really care, or thought I didn’t. I didn’t say anything. Then I looked up across the road—and the lightning struck tree wasn’t there! It had finally fallen, not down the hill but across it—but, still, the damn tree had finally rotted and keeled over, and for some reason I just didn’t know what to make of it. I stood there for a while, staring dumbly at the hillside, and then I got in my truck and drove on back to the new home I was trying to make in Texas.
(Originally published in You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography, Summer 2008)
NOTE: I decided to republish this little West Virginia essay as part of the run-up to the release of my West Virginia book, Burnt House.
BUY IT NOW!
So--what happens in Burnt House, anyway?
Burnt House is the story of what Jackie Stalnaker learns about the town and her own reaction to her increasing knowledge, a loose narrative whose arc spans a decade and contains a cheating father, a snooping daughter, divorce, general family dysfunction, the knowing of things, an angry child, tire-stabbing, old-movie watching, a skewered rat, a car wreck, trauma, a perv bi-sexual peeper, a pecker on a string, unprotected gay sex, a resentful child, a clueless guilting mother, an open-air suicide, grave-digging, gossip, a forced birth, eggshell-cracking, guilt, old bones, a first funeral, a poisoned tree, a poisoned dog, a mysterious pregnancy, a non-growing bad baby, an angry old man, dropsy and heart trouble, familial cruelty, a fistfight, a Vietnam casualty, Johnny Carson-watching, a drugged old man, semi-protected hetero sex, more gossip, dead bear heads, dope-dealing, bad families, more dope-dealing, a submerged granny skull, a freakout, doped driving, poor self-image, a deliberately unplanned possible pregnancy, several ghosts, a long wait for death, the smell of cancer, centerfold arson, a child voyeur, church arson, tooth-selling, murder by mattock, grave-robbing, snake panic, bad manners, death by radio, bat-shooting, used-truck buying, beer-drinking, pool-playing, a one-armed ass-kicking, another car wreck, a heart attack, Type II diabetes, chicken-frying, a dark fond memory, many lies, another divorce, a clueless father, a sad son, senile dementia and the horror of aging, jigsaw puzzles, Christmas lights, divorce, family futility, granny cruelty, floating puppies, a deeply regretted non-abortion, some forgotten kin, unmarked baby graves, Psalm 111:3, feral jonquils, a dope-smoking baby, a dope-smoking poodle, another dope-smoking baby, a mysterious memory of snow—and more. Think of The House on Mango Street as if it were written by Flannery O’Connor.
Buy BURNT HOUSE now!
This was taken at the Mick Family Reunion on Rocky Fork in about 1920 or so. Got a bunch of kinfolk here! The narrator of Burnt House spends some time looking at similar photos....
In another photo they are standing out in front of the house, and the house itself is surrounded by a throng—all the living children and grandchildren and greats and all their husbands and wives—a vast army of family. I thought, I share genes with all these dead people. These long-forgotten dead people.
Some of these people I knew, some of them I know by reputation--by stories!--and some of them are unknown....When I die, almost all of them will be lost forever....
More or less. I'm using an image of the old Mick house on the cover of Burnt House. Literature is immortal....
Busy closing out the semester and working on classes and grading and Normal School and Burnt House and about a jillion other important crucial worthwhile projects...and my students drew pictures of American Eagles....
I've been making a few final corrections on Burnt House, which is [UPDATED] NOW OUT.
It's good--you're going to want to read it! To convince you to read it, here's one of the shorter chapters....
Baby Never Grew
Vesta Talbot was my grandfather’s older sister. I knew her when I was little—knew her, loved her, my favorite aunt, a nice old lady who always dressed in green, who made a skimpy living giving piano lessons at her big gloomy house in Weston, a lady who made me fudge, who read me stories and talked about books. Vesta wasn’t all sweet, of course—she was a real person. She could be bad. I remember them talking about how she killed her neighbor’s tree, a sycamore that dropped leaves in the yard of her gloomy house, and the leaves made her mad, so she went out one night and poured vinegar and salt water all around the roots of the tree and killed it. So I knew Vesta was ornery. But still—she made me fudge! She read me stories! She always talked to me when no one else would. She took me seriously.
When she died suddenly of a stroke I cried and cried. But even though I was just a kid—a sad kid, at my first funeral—I noticed through my tears that no one else was crying. Nobody else even seemed sad. Pap and Uncle Rence, her brothers, sat stony-faced and grim in their good black clothes, and my mom sat in the back with some ladies, talking and laughing about something. Irene, my mom’s sister, my aunt, didn’t even come in for the funeral. There were only six or seven people at the funeral home—only six or seven people, and she’d lived in Lewis County all her life, eighty years or more—and not one of those six or seven was crying except me, and I cried and I cried until Grammaw Talbot grabbed me by the arm and jerked me outside and sat me down hard in the car and told me to be quiet. To stop acting up! To stop embarrassing everyone! Then she went back inside and I sat blubbering in the hot car by myself.
Years later, one summer when I was in high school I was out with Pap Talbot on the porch and Pap was talking about growing up over on Rocky Fork. The people who lived there then were all dead now, I never knew them, they were nothing but names to me, but of course I always liked hearing him talk. I was in the swing reading Catch-22, which I didn’t like too much then. Didn’t dislike it enough to stop reading, but it wasn’t as funny as the blurbs on the cover said it was supposed to be. I didn’t get it. I kept on reading with mounting irritation I didn’t understand. Old Pap kept talking about dead people—Ramseys, Sleeths, Frosts. Hennens. Renners. Fishers. All just names. He was talking to himself more than he was talking to me. Remembering. Then he said something about Aunt Vesta. How Vesta sure thought she loved that Fisher boy. How then she went and poisoned his dog.
Poisoned his dog.
I thought, What?
“Huh?” I asked.
“What?” Pap asked back.
“Somebody poisoned a dog? Vesta poisoned a dog?”
“Oh,” Pap said. He leaned forward and tapped out his pipe. “Goddamn Vesta thought she loved that Fisher boy—that Matt Fisher. He was one of those Fishers that lived up above Sand Fork. But he wouldn’t have her, so she poisoned his dog.”
I leaned up on my elbow and looked at the old man. “What?”
“Your Aunt Vesta, she always thought she was better than everybody else,” Pap said. “You know that. She was always acting so big. She was always talking about how she went to college and studied music, how she played the piano, how she wanted to go off to New York and be in an orchestra. Well, shit—me and Rence went to college, too, and you never saw us acting big like that.”
“But about the dog.” Killing a tree was one sad thing—but killing a dog.
“I guess there’s some things you don’t need to know.” Pap filled his pipe and lit it, put the red Prince Albert can back in his shirt pocket. Puffed a couple of times. I just lay there in the swing, twisted around, watching him. I didn’t need to know but I knew he was going to tell me anyway. “Vesta thought she loved that Matt Fisher, but he turned her down, so she poisoned his dog.” Puffed. Always a wet sticky sound when he puffed that pipe, I’d been hearing it all my life. “This was after she had that baby that wouldn’t grow.”
“A baby.” I stared at him but he didn’t say anything. A baby that wouldn’t grow. Vesta’s baby. I asked, “Vesta had a baby? That Matt Fisher’s baby?”
“I guess,” Pap said. “She never would say who the father was.”
“She wasn’t married.”
He said, “No.”
I thought for a minute. Tried to do some math in my head. This would have been—the 1910s? The teens, probably. Maybe the 1920s. Not later than that. Maybe earlier. Unmarried and pregnant would have been a big deal, then, in those days, a very big deal. Shameful. Shame for the whole family.
I asked, “So, what happened to the baby?”
Pap shook his head. “Well, that baby wouldn’t grow.”
“What do you mean?”
“It wouldn’t grow….”
“Well, later,” Pap said. “But the little son of a bitch never would grow. It just lay there in that crib and it wouldn’t grow.”
That didn’t make any sense. The old man made it sound like the baby didn’t want to grow.
Like it was a bad baby.
I asked, “Why didn’t it grow?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Pap said. “It just didn’t.”
“Didn’t they take it to the doctor?”
Pap laughed. “Nobody went to the doctor in those days.”
“Didn’t they feed it?”
“Of course they fed it!” he said. “Jesus Christ!”
There was a glint there. Pap was getting pissed at me. About what? He was the one who brought poor Vesta’s dead baby up.
I asked, “But why didn’t it grow?”
“I don’t know, goddamn it,” the old man said. “I told you—it just didn’t grow and it later died.”
“But—” I said. I was—I don’t know—shocked. I had this mental picture of a tiny monster bad baby. “But—that’s terrible.”
“Now, why the hell are you a-wanting to know about that dead baby?” Pap asked. Now he was really mad.
“I don’t know!” I said. I was really mad, too. “Why’d you start talking about it?”
Pap didn’t say anything. He just sat there puffing his pipe.
I opened the book and stared at the pages.
The words made no sense.
An earlier version was published in Chagrin River Review.
Scholars: read it and note the revisions. You can thank me later.
Everyone: you can buy BURNT HOUSE and read the whole darn thing.
Spring break. I've been mostly resting and recovering from strep, but I've also been doing a few W&E things....
Still modestly productive, still moderately exhausted.
Had a minor disaster when Word swallowed about 450 new words I added to Normal School but I will replace it all from memory. Had successes with reading events and classes. Dave Oliphant’s terrific new book is almost complete. Young Scholars are brilliant. Sharks have erratic impulses. I enjoy new books by friends….
My next book, Burnt House, will be coming out June 20 or thereabouts. It's a novel-in-stories set in a small town in central West Virginia.
What's it about?
“Tragedies," principal narrator Jackie Stalnaker says. “Screw-ups. Cruelties. Bad, bad, sad things that nobody ever forgot, things people never talked about openly but only sometimes related in whispered hinting half-stories after dark."
Get ready to do some reading.