by Howard Hull
I went back home last week. It was time. I had waited over a year. She died in April, and it is now August. He had stayed there by himself all of that time. I didn't really want to go, but I wanted to see him, to see how he was. It's a miserable place much of the time, hot and humid in the summer, and frigid in the winter.
The drive up the long stretch of Interstate between Knoxville and Bristol was routine. Since my CB radio was broken, I rode the back door of an "eighteen wheeler" with the words HAGERSTOWN FURNITURE printed on the sides. He never got below sixty-five.
I turned off at the Abingdon exit, and started up Highway 19 to Bluefield. It is typical foothills country with bald knobs speckled with a tree here and there. Most of the low hills except for a few grazing sheep and a house or two look as if they had been swept clean with a giant broom. They are old hills but have a timeless look about them. I stopped in Lebanon and had lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant. It had changed since the last time I had eaten there. It's now cafeteria style, and the food is not as good.
By two o'clock in the afternoon I had reached Bluefield, and begun the tedious trip down Route 52, the last leg of the journey. It is winding and narrow, too narrow, as if the state begrudged every inch of asphalt added to it three years ago in an effort to make it tolerate the large trucks hauling coal up and down the mountains.
It is no more than thirty-five miles from Bluefield to the homeplace near Welch, but it never fails to require at least an hour of driving time to get there. It is almost maddening. Each time I return, I find myself being washed in a shower of fine black mist rising from the surface of the dusty road, or worse yet, driving behind a native wearing a baseball style cap two sizes too large, cocked to one side as he chews and spits tobacco juice. He has never driven over forty miles per hour in his entire life, and never will.
Down through Elkhorn, Kyle, Maitland, Big Four, Keystone, Kimball, Superior, Welch, and Junior Poca. Each beginning where the other leaves off, all with posted speed limits of twenty-five miles per hour.
When I was growing up I never thought anything about a place being called Junior Poca, but now, it strikes me as being a very odd name for a town.
Even in summer, the drive through McDowell County is not a pleasant one anymore. Although the hills and the valleys are green, they are covered with rows of neglected nondescript coal company houses with an occasional mobile home surrounded by assorted dead automobiles. The few streams that run though the valley towns are still sluggish with coal dust. Low hanging tree limbs serve as flagpoles for paper and rags washed up when the streams were swollen by spring rains. It is a depressing sight.
By three o'clock in the afternoon, I was almost there. As I left the two-lane highway, to drive up the dirt road that I had walked so many years ago, I looked toward the house, almost hidden by trees. I wondered if he would be on the porch. He was, but the place where my mother used to stand was empty.
As I stepped from the shiny new
car, I felt out of place. It was tobacco road, moved to West Virginia.
Growing up, I had not loved it or hated it or anything else. I had
just lived there because I didn't live anywhere else. Now it was
different. I had lived somewhere else for thirty years. I had
come to realize that I had grown up materially poor, but not spiritually
or morally, and I guess that is what is important after all.
As I walked up the weather-beaten steps he smiled and said, "Slipped up on me--got here quicker than I thought."
I followed him inside and we sat awhile and made small talk about the rest of the family, and what they were doing. He never mentioned Mama, not then anyway. I was glad.
Later, we watched television until it seemed cool enough to go to bed. It had been a very hot day. Over the years the vegetation had crept ever closer to the house, giving one the feeling of being in a jungle. That made it hotter.
"Nobody to keep it cut now," he
I remembered when the hillsides had been gardens and cleared land, when the valley below was filled with sounds of children. Now they were gone--to places like Chicago, Washington, and Cincinnati.
We slept with only a screen door separating us from the sounds of the night., It was pitch black. I could hear the crickets and other insects as they congregated in the small back yard where a copperhead had been killed recently. When I arose the next morning, I kept a watchful eye toward the ground as I slipped outside to urinate behind a large oak tree. Old habits are hard to break.
When I went back inside, breakfast was already on the table--a box of cereal and a cup of instant coffee, where once there had been ham, eggs, homemade jam, and enough hot biscuits to feed seven children.
As I ate, I looked around me at the two small rooms. They seemed even smaller now. It was so quiet I could almost feel the past--the girls getting ready for school, a baby crying, or the old washing machine that only functioned on Mondays.
"The silence bothers me," he said, as if he could read my mind. I never said anything.
The walls are covered with many
layers of paper. The current version still has a flower pattern,
like all the others before. I can't remember the colors, but I'm
certain that you could make a rainbow if you had them all.
The old wood cook stove is gone, but the cabinet by the window is standing where it has always been. It still leans backwards. In the open space below where the glasses were kept, there is a row of square cans with faded lettering on the front. Coffee, flour, sugar, and salt march uphill in order of size. A cookie jar, empty, is still there, along with a breadbox, and a radio that doesn't sing anymore.
On a wall by the doorway is a recipe for a happy home. It calls for:
4 cups of loveI would add to that list toughness, pride, independence, humility, hand-me-down clothes and a Sears Catalog.
2 cups of loyalty
3 cups of forgiveness
1 cup of friendship
5 tablespoons of hope
4 tablespoons of faith
2 teaspoons of tenderness
1 barrel of laughter
In the living room there are pictures of children and grandchildren in every available space, a harvest of happiness and hard times hung proudly for all who visit to see.
There is a cat asleep on a piano, bought after the kids grew up. It is covered with hymn books. Other religious literature is scattered about the house. It did not go unread.
This house, this place of remembrance that has withstood the ravages of time and weather is on the side of a mountain where the sun arrives late and leaves early, where valley fog is cold and hangs on until noon, where a dirt road turns to mud in the winter and dust in the summer. This house where pure water had to be carried from a well a hundred yards away--and straight up--was home and I guess it will always be. That's why he stays, with a pear shaped dog, a black and white cat, and memories.
I stayed that day and the night, and we talked some more, about the weather and times past, Uncle Howard and Aunt Minnie, and a book that he had read.
As I turned to leave the next morning, he said again, "It's the silence. It bothers me so much."
"I know, " I said, "It bothers me too."