A handful of friends have asked me to post a glimpse of the novel I’ve been working on for the past year and a half. I aim to oblige. This is the introduction to the unedited and unrevised portion of the beginning of it. Just go with me, will you? It’s a work in editing progress. As we all are, really.
My search for elusive Heaven and convincing answers has lead me to a winding holler in the dusty recesses of McDowell County, West Virginia, a place that God obviously forgot about long ago. The address I was looking for brought me right outside of Jolo, a place I’d heard of since my youth but had never set foot or fancy on.
Vast arrays of tales came out of Jolo, those regarding unearthly church services where God fearing people hoot and bellow in religious tongues and roll in the church floors with rattlesnakes and mountain vipers to prove their faith in the Almighty. Other stories have leaked out of that arcane place, those of the more specter variety. There were devil worshipers running amok in the shadowy eclipse of the unwelcoming hills, ready and waiting to sacrifice you or your dog or your firstborn. That’s what we had heard, anyhow. I didn’t buy any of that cryptic nonsense. I would wager that any poor soul still living back in these woods wouldn’t know how to read or write, much less have the gumption to slaughter anything (or anybody) in the name of the devil.
People are afraid of Hell here.
Appalachia is full of pulpits and preachers warning of fire and brimstone and eternal damnation. Here in the sticks, church is scarier than Satan ever endeavored to be. I know; I am an Appalachian girl myself. I’m not afraid of Hell these days, and haven’t been for quite some time. To be honest, I figure I’m not afraid of very much these days at all. I’ve seen too much, I suppose. All the lies and the secrets. There was a time in my young mind when I thought my own daddy was the devil. He’d have given the bastard a run for his money, and that’s for sure. Regardless, I have to admit that Jolo would have put a spook in the veins of anybody from civilized society. Even me.
I’d stopped at the Jolo post office to ask about the address I had: Route 635, Box 36, Jolo, West Virginia, 24850.
“Who you looking for, ma’am?” the gauntly thin older woman behind the counter had asked me in a blatantly suspicious tone. She knew everybody in town, no doubt.
There I stood in my unassuming crisp white Petite Sophisticate summer blouse and denim capris, a Coach bag over my shoulder, my mop of too long hair smoothed into a loose bun so my neck could breathe. I suppose it was obvious to this scraggly little woman that I was more than likely just passing through. Or lost.
“I’m not sure who I’m looking for,” I told her. I made sure to smile all sweet and friendly, hoping she would lower her natural backwoods defenses and tell me how to find the address.
“You don’t know who you’re looking for?” she repeated slowly. I don’t think she believed me, sweet smile or not. “That’s the weirdest thing I ever heard,” she said, the obvious hints of curiosity lingering on her slow words and beaming from her penetrating glare. I recognized her distrust. I was prepared to deal with it.
“I grew up over there and we moved away when I was little,” I lied. I was prepared for rogue questions. I’d prepared half cocked explanations most of my life to save face and feelings. I’d gotten quite good at it. I looked her square in the slits where her eyes were hiding, hoping that would give her a gesture of sincerity. I forced a little more twang in my words and pulled my vowels long and deep like she did. It was easy. I just had to play up the Appalachian dialect I already had. I was pure Southwest Virginia tongued, Petite Sophisticate ensemble and Coach purse or not.
“I’ve got good memories of that old place and I’d just like to see it again. I figured if the folks living there now were nice and all, they might let me look around and relive my childhood for a little while.”
Her glare softened a bit. “Well, ain’t that nice. Too many folks forget where they come from, sweetheart.” Satisfied, she obligingly wrote down the information I needed to find the place.
“Those folks up there ain’t real friendly to strangers, just so you know,” she warned me with a wink.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m not making friends today.” My response left her silent, and her eyes turned into slits again.
I had that effect on people occasionally. My Daddy had the same semblance about him, a way with words that often just shut people up. It was the Nicewander in me, an affectation that the lot of us had come to terms with. Seems like my whole family had always been fed from a mixed plate of curses and blessings. I was on my way to break one of those old curses myself. I’d do it if it I had to go to the farthest reaches of mapless nowhere and redneck limbo to do it. Jolo didn’t seem too far away from neither.
I followed the directions that the spindly woman at the post office wrote down, and they took me deeper into the vacuum of an ancient holler just this side of oblivion. I looked for road signs. There weren’t any. It was The Middle of Nowhere, I figured. It was a real place, right outside of godforsaken Jolo, West Virginia.
The pavement ended a mile or so back, leaving my Jeep to drudge over fractures and pits on the narrowing road. Surely to God nobody was crazy enough to live up in this void, I thought. A few mobile homes dotted the landscape to my left. Trailers, run down and seedy Urban Cowboy models and their cinder block porches, with little blue plastic swimming pools and barking dogs adorning the yards. I watched the mailboxes, when there were mailboxes to be seen. I’d passed a Box 34 just moments ago; it had a small caliber bullet hole through it and a We Love Jesus sticker plastered on its side. Box 36 had to be close. But out there, close could mean a day’s hike. My cell phone gave off a sudden alarming tone, letting me know I no longer had service. I couldn’t even call 911. I wasn’t too concerned. My trusty Jeep would get me out and away when I was ready to go. And if it for some reason did not, I had my faithful .357 magnum in my pretty Coach purse. Locked and loaded.
I didn’t have to drive much further. I passed box 35 just around the next curve in the road. Another trailer. A camper, more like it, with a rebel flag for curtains on the front door. It momentarily crossed my mind that if I indeed find the place I’m looking for, I might never see Pittsburgh again. I’d been an unwilling Yankee for the past fifteen years. It had grown on me, the access to restaurants and any kind of food I took a hankering for, the sights and sounds and scents of things going on and the nameless people that made the city hum and echo with the peacock proud goulash of cultures. Legions of Polish and Italian folks are packed like sardines throughout Western Pennsylvania, with surnames like Matyus and Pajak and Sperandio and Russo.
I’d never heard names like that back in Virginia. I was only a scattering of blood relatives away from being a Smyth or an Adkins or a Shelton. The name on mailbox 35 had read, in peeling gold letters, Keen. There were more than a few Keens in Richlands. But that wasn’t the familiar last name I was looking for. I was hoping box 36 would have her name on it. I’d envisioned it in my mind on more occasions than I could reminisce in the last few weeks. Things never seem to turn out how they are conjured in the mind; I’m aware of that. Most of the time, the coveted and painted pictures in our heads are dull comparisons to the reality awaiting us. Despite the tales of vipers and devil worshipers, that reality is what spooks me today, and is the very thing that tainted the picture of finding that damned box 36 in my vengeful mind.
My heart caught in my throat. In the clear distance, by the stump of a rotted tree, stood another lone mailbox. That had to be it. The scenery beyond me was lushly wooded and the noonday shine glared mercilessly off my windshield. My cell phone beeped again. No service, I knew. The mailbox came into view thanks to the momentary shade of an overhanging cedar, and there it was, just as I had imagined. I was pleasantly shocked. Karma, just goods, comeuppance, whatever forces that be out there in the mystic were with me, I was sure of it. It was perfect.
Dixon, Box 36 it read, just as pretty as you please.
I took the narrow gravel driveway by that mailbox and it brought me to a shoddy farm house behind an overgrowth of wild rhododendron and a well tended garden of tomatoes and green bell peppers. Somebody lived there, obviously. I hoped it was the somebody I was looking for. The somebody I’d pictured in my wildest visions for as long as I could recollect. I hoped she was in there, in that old and neglected house that loomed in my wake and cast cool shadows over my windshield.
Two boys played on the front porch with makeshift swords of whittled wood, both of them ten or twelve years-old, shirtless and skinny and glistening like little greased pigs. They were identical twins, right down to their sweaty auburn cowlicks and crooked noses. I could see them behind the unpainted lattice that had been nailed up around the porch. For privacy from strangers like me, no doubt.
They noticed me immediately and stood in silent tandem, eyeballing me up and down, silent as the grave and mouths agape.
I stepped out of my truck, Coach bag and thirty-seven years’ worth of resentment over my shoulder, and I approached the steps of the porch and those two matching young fellows. I produced the same motherly tone and subtlety of warmth that I used with my own children.
“My goodness, boys, ain’t ya’ll burning up out here?” I said with a grin. The boys looked at each other and snickered. They didn’t answer me. I kept talking anyway. I know how to deal with rotten little boys.
“Is Pearl here?” I finally asked. It was, after all, the question I really had, my very reason for being there in the godforsaken sticks of Jolo.
“You one of the church ladies?” one of them asked.
I hadn’t set foot in church since I’d left Richlands.
“Yes, I am,” I said.
“She’s in the house,” one of the boys said. “Granny, another church lady here to see you,” he hollered through the screen door. With that, they bolted past me in a blur of wooden swords and sweat, and sent me an immodest wolf whistle from where they hid and peeked out at me from the corner of the house.
I ignored the fledgling amorous banter from those rotten boys and stepped up onto the porch. I knocked on the screen door. There I stood, on the precipice of my own history, not knowing, not truly giving a damn, what I would find inside that musty smelling house.
“Come in,” a faint voice called from inside.
Is that her? I wondered. She sounded old. Feeble. Give out. The door groaned an echoing creak, as if it sensed an unwelcome presence.
Old houses sometimes do that. They seem to know when dread is at the door. And that house knew. I could feel it, too, that dread. That an age old destiny was coming home. It knew me, that house. It knew that I was there to bring down a fate that was many decades a coming.