Chapter One: Job Interview
Kentuckians have a long tradition of going west for a new life and winding up homesick instead. Some went nuts, some got depressed, and some made do. I did a little of all three, then got lucky. I finagled an interview for a teaching position at the only four-year university in the hills. It was more of a high school with ashtrays than a genuine college. I should know. Twenty years ago I graduated from there.
Morehead State University began as a Normal School to produce teachers for the Appalachian region, then progressed to college status. During the 1960s it became a full-fledged university, but natives still referred to it as "the college." Very few local people attended MSU. I had gone to grade school, high school, and college within a ten-mile radius. It wasn't until much later that I understood how unusual this was, particularly in such a rural environment.
As a theater and art student I supported myself by working part-time for the MSU Maintenance Department. Few of my fellow workers had finished high school and none had gone to college. According to hill culture, you were a sinner or an outlaw, a nice girl or a slut, lived with your folks or got married, worked at maintenance or went to college. This either/or mentality is a product of geography. Land here is either slanted or not, and you lived on a ridge or in a hollow. That I was simultaneously engaged in both attending college and working at maintenance astonished my coworkers and faculty alike.
I worked on the painting crew specializing in the outdoor jobs no one else wanted. Many times I painted a curb yellow in the morning, then stepped over it on my way to class that afternoon. Teachers ignored me when I wore my work clothes. My maintenance buddies felt uncomfortable if they saw me going to class, and I developed the habit of eating alone to conceal the book in my lunch bucket. Now I was back to interview for a job as an English teacher.
Before the interview I borrowed a tie from Clyde James, a man who'd been my neighbor and baby-sitter when I was four years old. He now ran the MSU student center. Clyde was something of a clothes horse, and rumor had it that his closets were carefully organized so that he didn't wear the same outfit twice per year. My lack of a tie was no surprise to Clyde, who was delighted to assist me. After narrowing his choices to three, he picked a tie that vaguely matched my slick clothes -- dark pants, light shirt, tan jacket. I'd bought a brown belt for the occasion, my single concession to formal dress. Clyde thought brown shoes would have been better than black, but I could pass. He deftly tied a half-Windsor knot, looped it beneath my collar, and adjusted it to a snug fit. The material was blue and gray silk, with a touch of red -- perfectly conservative. He smoothed my collar and sent me out, calling me "Prof Offutt."
As I left the building, two maintenance men emerged from a basement door of the student center. Flecks of dry paint spattered their clothes. They leaned against the wall and lit cigarettes just as I had done twenty years before. The basement door was partially concealed by a wall that rose five feet to street level. It was the ideal hidey-hole, a bunker from which you could spy a boss in plenty of time to return to work.
"Hey boys," I said. "Working hard?"
"Hidy, Chris," the younger man said. "Ain't seen you in a while."
"Is that Awful Offutt?" the other said. "By God he's growed, ain't he. Want a cigarette?"
I shook my head. Men of the hills don't have the custom of shaking hands or hugging or cheek-kissing. We either beat on each other or look away and mumble. I had known the younger man all my life. Otis was from Haldeman, my home hill of two hundred people.
"How's your mom and dad?" he said.
"They're all right. And yours?"
"Same. I see your mom in town, but your daddy don't hardly leave the house, does he."
"Not much," I said.
"What's he do?"
"You'll have to ask him."
The older man was named Billy. We worked together twenty years before, and he had mistakenly believed that I sought the salaried maintenance position he coveted. Billy was my age but looked fifteen years older. His palms were the most heavily callused I'd ever seen.
"Kenny still boss?" I said.
"He died," Billy said.
"How about that Johnson?"
"From up Christy Creek," I said. "Used to drink a half-pint before lunch."
"Oh, him. He's in the state pen."
"Well, ain't there nobody still yet there?"
"You must be the boss man now."
"Naw," Billy said. His voice took on the angry tone I remembered. "They gave it to somebody else. What are you doing back? Going to court?"
He lifted his chin in a gesture toward my tie.
"You're dressed for it."
"These are my job-hunting clothes."
Otis grinned at me. Within the contours of his face I saw the child I recalled from our shared time playing in the woods. We knew the secrets of each other's scars.
"You coming back?" he said.
"Trying to. I got an interview today."
"They're hiring," Otis said. "I don't know if you can get on with the painters, but they need movers. You go in there and talk to Amos Riddle. You know any Riddles? They live up on Redbird."
"It's not for maintenance, Otis."
"No," I said. "It's for teaching. You know, to be a teacher."
Otis and Billy erupted with laughter, bellowing as if their lives lacked mirth and they were grateful for the joke. When the sound trailed away, they looked at me and I knew they were waiting for the truth.
"I swear, boys," I said. "I took it up out west."
"Awful Offutt ain't changed a bit, has he," Billy said as he laughed again.
"You should have heard him when he was little," Otis said. "He told us there was a whale under the grade school."
"I didn't know any better."
"What I want to know," Billy said, "is who told you they were hiring maintenance men to teach college?"
They began to laugh again, their breath coming hard before shifting to smokers' rasping. They calmed themselves, glanced at each other, and began to giggle.
"Hey," Otis said. "Maybe you can put in a word for me. I'd like to be the boss of a girls' dorm. One of them live-ins."
"All right," I said. "How about you, Billy?"
"I'll take president. Then I can fire you for lying."
"I ain't lying, boys."
"The truth has got to be in him," Otis said. "Because it ain't never come out yet."
"What time is it," I said. "I got that interview at nine o'clock."
"Now I know you're lying," he said. "It's five after."
He showed me his watch, and I hurried away, their laughter hanging in the air like pollen. I understood Billy and Otis's consternation at my being a teacher. As a student in the seventies, I was usually stoned on marijuana. My work strategy had been to complete my task at a furious speed, then rest until quitting time. Neither Otis nor Billy had any reason to believe I had changed. That any maintenance worker, particularly one with my habits, could become a teacher confirmed all their fears and suspicions about the university. B.A. stood for "Big Asshole," B.S. stood for "Bull Shit," and Ph.D. stood for "Piled High and Deep." At MSU the wisest people worked for maintenance and the stupidest had the most letters after their name.
College teachers were rich, snobby, and dumber in the head than a hog is in the ass. The good one was rare, yet untrustworthy, like a dog that licked your hand but had a history of biting. The administrators were worse -- bigwigs and muckety-mucks who possessed more money than God and were utterly corrupt. They served as further evidence that education was for fools. Part of my coming home was meant to contradict this hill-bred belief.
I crossed the street to the Combs building, a small structure that housed the Departments of English, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, and Theater. The curbs were faded yellow and needed a fresh coat. I faced the reflective glass of the door and adjusted the tie around my neck. No matter how I tried, it wasn't as good as when Clyde tied it for me and I looked like what I was -- a curb painter in a monkey suit.
Inside, I met the head of the search committee moving in that rapid way professors have, legs propelling her forward, one hand digging in a briefcase, the other hand trying to catch a pencil as it fell from behind her ear.
"Sorry I'm late," she said. "These things never start on time."
"No problem," I said. "I was just, you know."
"Yes, it must be kind of..."
"It sure is."
She led me along the hall. A part of me wanted to run away, but this was where I'd run to. The interview was conducted in the same classroom where I'd taken freshman literature twenty years earlier. The floor was now carpeted but the walls were still concrete block. Six people sat in spongy chairs surrounding two wooden tables. I looked at the men in brown jackets and sport shirts, the women in pantsuits, and understood that I was sitting before a table of career academics who found themselves at a lousy school. They lived in an Appalachian town of six thousand with no airport, no bookstore, no deli, no record store, one bar, and forty churches. Everyone but me had a Ph.D. Unlike them, I truly wanted to work at MSU.
My main desire was an opportunity to give back to the community. I knew the difficulties that young people in the hills faced in realizing their ambition of education. My goal was to teach writing in a region where thirty percent of the people were functionally illiterate.
I sat at the table and answered the questions while looking through the window at the basement hidey-hole of Otis and Billy. They had risen to the ranks of salaried maintenance men with intimate knowledge of how to appear industrious -- the equivalent of academic tenure. I suddenly wished I was interviewing to work with them. This astounded me to the point of tears, and I heard my voice stop talking. My my eyes blinked and the faculty faces blurred. The interview ended slowly, like batteries running down in a mechanical toy. The head of the search committee led me out.
"Good job," she said. "You clinched it when you got choked up. We're not used to seeing someone care about teaching that much."
I followed her to brief meetings with various administrators. MSU has a lovely setting with high hills as a backdrop to the buildings. Spring's pastel trees were patched dark where the sun hit. I remembered hours throwing Frisbees here. We wore shabby clothes, protested disco music, and mourned Lynyrd Skynyrd. My wallet contained rolling papers instead of money. We felt free. Now I felt like an impostor, the butt of a colossal group joke. Any minute someone would say: "Just kidding, Chris. We don't hire locals or ex-curb painters. Now get the hell out of here."
Walking the length of campus took ten minutes, and I headed back along Main Street, looking at the hills silhouetted against the sky. These woods were the cradle of my personal civilization, my own promised land. I grew up walking the same dirt for sixteen years, then began driving it. Town was where the groceries were, the doctor and the drugstore. Town was special. Town was exciting. Town was a half hour's drive on a narrow road that followed a creek. I recalled each incarnation of a restaurant now converted to apartments. Stores were gone, but their sites were forever known to locals as "where Allen's used to be," or "Parney's old place." Directions to newcomers were disastrous -- "Drive up Main past the old post office and turn where Bishop's was, I don't know the name of the street, then head down to where they've got that new stuff going on. Park by the old Big Store." Directions in the hills were just as confusing -- "Go out sixty past the wide place, go left at the creek, go three hollers up and make a right. If you hit Sharkey, you've gone about twenty miles too far, but there's no sign for it. You'll just know."
A car slowed beside me. The smiling driver was a wild friend from college, now transformed into a straitlaced pillar of the community. She had not only quit her outlaw ways, but she now behaved as if her past belonged to someone else. She drove me ten miles out of town to see a house. I asked Vondelle about various mutual friends, some dead, some vanished, most reformed. A few still lived as we had, managing to maintain a dope and whiskey lifestyle while pursuing careers and having families, although the "plumb wald" times were relegated to weekend parties, where cops hid on old dirt lanes waiting to arrest people as they left. Knowing the backroads was still crucial to living here.
"I spent all these years away dreaming of coming home," I said.
"I spent the same years thinking about leaving."
"It's easy to leave."
"Not for me," Vondelle said. "This is where I went to. Nobody in my family finished high school. I came here for college."
She had married the most exotic man available, an artist from off, which meant beyond the county line. He had no people. No one knew his history. He dropped into the hills fully formed and self-contained, like trailers on a ridge. Without a past, he had no enemies, no fears, no obligations. Vondelle had been a hippie artist from a tough county, full of confidence and glee at living in Morehead, eastern Kentucky's den of iniquity. She liked to laugh, and party hardy. She had been resplendent with the enthusiasm of youth, determined to leave her mark. These days Vondelle and her husband no longer made art.
Vondelle turned onto a side road and began driving uphill, taking two turns past a large pond that shimmered in the sun. A duck skidded to a halt beside a cluster of cattails. Birds made a symphony in the trees. She drove slowly up a steep road to a large house. The property included two outbuildings and a section of a wooded hill. We walked along the front slope covered with butterweed and larkspur swaying below white oaks.
I told her I wanted to be alone and she nodded. Redbud blossoms hazed the hills, specked in spots by dogwood. My mouth felt dry and my heart beat fast. For the first time in five years I stepped into the woods. The smell of fresh earth was instantly calming. A pair of sparrows chased a jay. Everything was familiar -- the scent, the sight, the light, the dirt.
I walked into the woods and sat on a wind-felled tree a few feet off the ground, a massive hickory rotten through the guts. A pileated woodpecker swam the air, a black and white swirl that landed on a dead maple. It scaled ten feet of trunk in three-step hops, probing the bark for food. I tipped my head to watch and my weight shifted and I fell backward. I gripped the bark tightly but could not fully regain stability. The strength in my arms began to wane beneath the inexorable pull of the earth. The bark scraped my sleeves as I eased my head to the ground, feet aimed at the sky. After five minutes in the woods, I was upside down.
I began to laugh, which caused me to tip until my legs crashed into the undergrowth. I curled instinctively to an infant's posture of the womb, my eyes inches from last year's leaves. My laughter subsided to a ragged breathing. I surrendered to the years of stifled yearning, weeping with relief at lying alone in the woods of home.
Time seemed to bend as if pressing a nail to a sheet of plastic until it punctured and I entered the intervening space. I had always lain here. I had never abandoned Kentucky. There was no pattern of departure and return, only the seasonal cycle of death and life. Yesterday I had left winter in the west and traveled to spring, a time of hope and portent. The hills flourished with energy. I could smell the moldering decay and the fresh buds twining in one scent. Beside my face an acorn's slender tendril aimed toward the sky, a thin root tethering it to earth. A sense of contentment passed through me like the hint of summer rain. I had no mind, no thought.
Eventually the chill of the earth revived me and I sat, feeling as if I had fallen into my heart. Beneath a leaf I found a morel, pale as a minnow. It needed a week of sun and rain to draw it through the leaves. In a month it would be rotted black. I looked about the woods and vowed to return before the mushroom died. As if in answer, a breeze slid along the lower boughs.
I walked out of the woods to the car, where Vondelle sat. "I'm buying this place," I said.
There was a sadness to her expression, as if she wished she were emerging from the woods with a tear-streaked face and a sense of certainty. She had two sons, the same as me, but hers were a decade older. This was a house for young boys to grow up in, not teenagers to leave. I understood that she brought me to the house precisely because she couldn't have it, as if her knowledge of its availability was a welcoming gift. Vondelle dropped me in Morehead near the realtor's office.
Town culture is taciturn and guarded while giving the impression of being open and friendly. Lives are ruined by a chance encounter in a grocery store parking lot, during which one person didn't notice a neighbor, who felt hurt by the slight. People driving by gave me the Morehead Stare -- a long sideways gaze. Originally a response to being part of a small town, where you looked at everyone carefully to see if you should wave or not, the Morehead Stare had blossomed into tradition. The best response was to wave at everyone.
The realtor and I spent a few minutes asking each other about our families. I told him about the house and wrote a check for earnest money. The realtor was surprised that I could buy a house without stepping inside. He said that his wife would never let him do that. I told him we had rented our last four houses over the phone. Each time we arrived with our fingers crossed in a rental truck. He shook his head in an incredulous fashion. He'd lived all his life in Morehead, worked in the family business, and was engaged in politics. As a child I had envied the privilege of his family, and now he envied my travels. Our lives had arced into equality -- we were both Rowan Countians of the age when men accumulate power, forge alliances, and run towns. We were educated locals, a scarce commodity in the hills.
I stepped outside and spoke briefly to a man I remembered from high school. I vaguely recalled something bad about him, but I could not trust the memory because Morehead thrived on innuendo, scuttlebutt, and outright lies. When I was a kid Rowan County had telephone party lines that included two to eight families. No conversation was private. The telephone functioned primarily as a method of disseminating information to all the eavesdroppers along the ridge. Gossip was the mortar that held small communities together. Everyone lived downstream of rumor.
I entered the bank through doors I'd opened a thousand times -- first with my mother, then later on my own. Thirty years ago I began a savings account here, depositing a dollar a week until I bought a bicycle. Now I sat in a fake vinyl chair and smiled politely at the employees. Out west I was one of the perpetual faces with no history, a drifter, a stranger, a man from the east. Here everyone knew my entire line -- root, branch, and fork.
Wearing blue jeans in the bank meant I was a local. The gray in my hair meant I'd been away. My very presence meant I sought money. By the end of the day, word of my impending return would spread throughout the county. Some stories would have me moving in with my folks because one of them was very sick. Another had me purchasing my old grade school and converting it to an art colony. I was living in a houseboat on Cave Run Lake. I had AIDS and came home to die. My wife had left me and I was back to hunt another. One story said it wasn't Chris Offutt but his younger brother who was investing in the new mall. When the truth finally outed, everyone knew I was not living where I grew up in Haldeman, but had bought the old Jackson place, which meant I must be doing well for myself because they were asking a pretty penny for it. On top of that, somebody else said I was teaching at the college, but no one believed the college would ever allow that.
My high school baseball coach came into the bank. Twenty-five years ago we placed second in the State Tournament. I attended every game as team statistician.
"Hello, Coach," I said.
"Why, Chris Offutt. I thought you died in Vietnam."
"I'm too young."
"How's your mom and dad?"
r"They're doing good, Coach."
"Looks to me like you growed some."
"About six inches."
"I've got a videotape of when we won the regional tournament. One old boy frog-jumped right over you. Just put his hands on your head and pole-vaulted. You should come and see it."
"I'd like that," I said.
We grinned at each other, unsure what to say next. He doubled as the driver's education teacher and I wanted to tell him I still drove safely. That sounded like something a moron would say, so I remained silent. In high school I never shut up and the coach seemed puzzled by this change.
The vice president of MSU Personnel, whom I'd met earlier that day, walked into the bank. I was afraid he'd suspect that I was negotiating a house loan before getting the job. An official offer still had to clear his office, and he could put the kibosh on my plans as easily as brushing away a fly. Terrified that he would see me, I walked quickly away, stepped into a narrow hall, and peered around the corner into the main part of the bank. The vice president was thumbing through his checkbook. Beyond him the coach stared after me as if I were a video he was trying to replay.
I hurried to the bathroom and locked myself in a stall. The door opened and someone entered. I climbed onto the toilet so no one could recognize my shoes. I crouched to prevent my head from appearing above the partition. In a small town you see the same faces several times a day. The by-product of such familiarity is secrecy and paranoia, and I was already beginning to fit in.
Eventually I became embarrassed and stepped boldly into the bank. The coast was clear of university muckety-mucks and high school teachers. The loan officer led me into a large office, where we talked for twenty minutes. I told her that MSU had already offered me a job. I told her that the salary was double what I actually expected. I told her that I had journalism work coming out of my ears, foreign rights sold in countries as obscure as Tasmania, and movie deals pending left and right. Everything I said seemed to please her and the more pleased she became, the more the lies flowed from my mouth. She gave me some financial forms that I filled out rapidly. Her family had owned the corner drugstore where I read comic books on Saturday. She recalled having sold me Cokes for a nickel. Her brother was fine; our parents were fine; our spouses were fine. She said the loan was fine.
I walked to the corner drugstore to celebrate with a Coke, but the space had been transformed into a pet store that reeked of urine. The Trail Theatre was closed and the post office had been converted into the police station. I had just bought a house without a job, based on crying in the woods. The hills surrounded me like the dome walls of a snow globe that you shake. Everything in my life was turned over and I was waiting for the flurries to settle. Home, I told myself. I've come home.
I drove to a hotel on the interstate where the desk clerk was a friend of my sister's and the waitress was an old high school teacher. Screwed to the wall of my room was a framed print of a barn with a fading mural that said "Chew Mail Pouch." I unpacked and stared at the ceiling. I needed to call my parents, who still lived in the family home ten miles away. If I failed to call, they'd be upset, but if I did call, I'd have to explain my preference for a hotel room over their house.
I dialed the number that I knew by memory all my life. My parents each listened on an extension. I told them that MSU was paying for the hotel room, and before they had a chance to respond I said I'd found a house. My father asked where the house was. I told him it was off 32 going toward Fleming County, and he said too bad it wasn't closer to their house. My mother said it was closer than Montana at least. That's true, my father agreed, and they began talking with each other, a phone habit that was only truly bothersome if you were calling long distance and didn't feel like paying for them to communicate from different floors of the house.
After a few minutes of listening to them discuss a leak in the roof, I told them I was leaving in the morning but I'd be back in a few weeks.
"Give my love to the boys," my mother said.
"And Rita," I said. "Don't forget Rita."
"Rita, too," my mother said.
"And Rita," my father said. "You can't tell from the drip where the leak comes in."
"That's right," my mother said. "It could be anywhere."
"The chimney," my father said, "that metal part at the shingles."
"Flashing," my mother said. "It's called flashing."
I hung up the phone gently so as not to disturb their conversation. I called Rita and the busy signal throbbed in my head. In the past year I'd suffered my most severe bout of homesickness, a gradual descent of misery to the embarrassing trough of crying over a recipe in an Appalachian cookbook. My sobs awakened Rita who joined me in the living room. She had never seen such grief in me, and assumed it could only be the result of a phone call bearing terrible news. In a tender voice she asked who died. I didn't have the heart to tell her I was mourning my own loss, that a part of me had died the day I left the hills. I was like an amputee feeling perpetual pain in my phantom limb.
The Rowan County phone book consisted of seventy pages and I searched unsuccessfully for a house inspector. I read the white pages for an hour repeating the last names like reciting a prayer. I knew the family histories -- where they lived and what ridge or hollow they came from. I had dated them and hated them, fought them and sided with them. I knew their parents, brothers and sisters, first and second cousins. Soon enough I'd know their children. The addresses flowed through my mind. I'd walked the dirt and driven the roads and gotten lost a hundred times. The names were the sounds of home, the language of the land.
Buffalo and Bearskin
Big Perry and Little Perry
Hogtown and Hogge Street
Grassy Lick, Clay Lick, Pond Lick, and Pattie's Lick
Rice Loop and Sharkey
Dry Creek and Dry Branch
Hays Branch and Brushy
Rock Fork, Bull Fork, Open Fork
Reading these made me feel like a solitary immigrant who'd found a fellow countryman and could finally talk the native tongue. I slipped the phone book beneath my pillow and went to sleep with the rhythms of home coursing through my head like a freight train.
In June, Rita and I packed a truck in the Rocky Mountains and began a three-day trek to the Appalachian Mountains. We had moved every year for a decade and believed that this was the last stop. I was delirious with the prospect of living in Kentucky. My mother always said a map of the state looked like a typewriter turned sideways, and I repeated this to my sons. Sam looked at me with a puzzled expression and said, "What's a typewriter?"
At ages eight and five, Sam and James were too young to remember past visits, but they had heard me talk of Kentucky all their lives. It was the promised land of milk and honey. There were no bullies in paradise, no burglars, bad guys, or bums. Everyone loved children. The boys could walk barefoot, have pets, go fishing, explore the woods. They were, as Sam said, "totally psyched" to live there.
Twenty years ago I'd left on foot with a backpack and was now returning in a moving truck full of furniture. I also arranged for the transport of a 1968 Malibu -- red with a black interior -- that I had bought from two men who co-owned it in a Montana trailer park. It had a shifter kit, short pipes, a 327-cubic-inch engine, three moonie hubcaps, and a double-pump carburetor. Like me, the body was beat to pieces, but it could reach a hundred miles per hour in less than eight seconds, the perfect rig for the hills.
The mathematics of time is as arbitrary as it is precise. Depending on how you counted, I'd been gone five years since my last visit; ten years since getting married and living a few months on my home hill; or twenty years since I'd hitchhiked into America. To my neighbors I'd never left, but merely been visiting away for a spell. Until the Haldeman post office had closed, I still received mail there. I had left Kentucky several times forever. Now I was going back for good.
On the third day of travel we reached I-64, the last leg of America's interstate system, built while I was a kid. It was the widest road in the county and we called it "the four-laner," a verbal habit I had to break after leaving the hills and learning that four lanes was not all that big.
We crossed the dark and twisty Licking River into my home county. Early buds dappled the slopes with a gauze of green in the morning mist. Looming above the river was the Pottsdale Escarpment, a geographic formation that marked the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. The escarpment rose from the land like a forbidding wall, a river of earth, a stone hieroglyph. Beyond it lay my past and future.
Rita loved the house, the private bath, the view of the woods. Never before had each boy had his own bedroom. The kitchen was big, the appliances new. We had a guest room, two bathrooms, a large garage, and a balcony overlooking a pond. The finished basement held a separate room that was ideal for writing.
The first night we ate pizza and went to bed early. James stirred in his bed, half asleep. I moved him crossways on the mattress and smoothed the old quilt. It was frayed and falling apart, but he insisted on sleeping with it despite the heat. A year before he asked why we owned such a ratty blanket, and I was embarrassed by the truth -- it was all we could afford. Instead I told him it was my blanket as a child. Our family had no actual heirlooms, and this secondhand quilt was all he knew of an imagined past. Kentucky would give him history.
In two months I would turn forty years old. I felt fortunate to have everything I wanted -- a family, a career, a house in the woods of home. The world at large called me a Kentuckian, but in the state, I was from Rowan County. Within that realm I was a Haldeman boy, and to the people there I was from the first hill above the school.
During the next few weeks Rita and the boys explored morehead and visited my parents at the other end of the county. We unpacked slowly. I had never felt so happy, so enthusiastic for life. I intended to grow old here. I would be buried among the trees. Wildflowers would grow on my grave. Until then, I would help young people understand themselves, and provide an example of the potential for life beyond the hills. I had come home to give as much as possible. Eventually I might move into politics. As an insider, I knew more than anyone what the hills needed. Just as important, I knew what we didn't need -- no more sympathy, no more mindless federal programs, no more assistance by outsiders.
Morehead State University was a poor school in a poor state. Forty percent of people didn't finish high school, a low number compared to the surrounding area. Eastern Kentucky offers no models for success, no paths for ambitious people to follow, no tangible life beyond the county line. Doing well is a betrayal of mountain culture. Gaining money means you have screwed somebody over and going on vacation implies you don't like living here. Most glaringly absent from eastern Kentucky is a sense of pride. I hoped to fix that.
A month after our arrival, Rita's parents visited. They emigrated from Poland in 1946 and have lived in New York ever since. The first time I met them was on my birthday when Rita and I were dating in Manhattan. Her parents joined us at a restaurant. They were nearly seventy and still working twelve-hour days. Arthur was a chief draftsman for an architectural firm in the World Trade Center. Irene counseled terminal cancer patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital. Over supper, Arthur mentioned that his brother had the same birthday as mine.
"He must be a great guy," I said.
Everyone stared at their plates. A palpable tension filled the air. I didn't know what had happened until Irene spoke.
"He was," she said. "He was a nice boy. He died in the camps. So sad."
"Yes," I said. "I'm sorry."
Just as rapidly the discomfort faded and the meal progressed with renewed cheer. I cursed myself for having forgotten that both her parents were Holocaust survivors. Everyone else in their family had been murdered by the Nazis. Arthur's brother simply disappeared, leaving Arthur with the wisp of hope that his brother was still living.
Arthur drives German cars. He shops as if he's still in Europe, with stops at the bakery, the deli, the fruit and vegetable stand. He chats with the shopkeepers like they are close friends. He and Irene seldom disagree, but when they do, they speak Polish. They enjoy giving presents. They never laugh.
Mirrors line the walls of their duplex. The bathroom has three mirrors, and one entire wall of the dining room is paneled in reflective glass. I wondered if this lent the illusion of space or reminded Arthur and Irene of their own existence. Their youth was spent in deprivation wearing rags. Now they are always impeccably dressed and groomed, hair combed, nails clipped, necks scented with cologne. I have never seen Arthur without his shirt tucked into freshly pressed pants held in place by a shiny belt. Irene's hair invariably appears beauty shop perfect. Her clothes fit well, are tasteful and stylish.
Arthur and Irene have drawn a line through time -- before the war and after the war. Neither he nor Irene desire a return to Europe. For fifty years they lived under the protection of the Statue of Liberty. In Kentucky, they each agreed to tell me their story. I went to town and bought a microcassette recorder. I began to listen.
Copyright © 2002 by Chris Offutt