People love bad news. They’ll rip it from its delicate wrapping like some sweet confection and devour it like they haven’t eaten in weeks. And they’ll gladly save you a piece, hoping you’ll take a bite big enough to choke on. But they never want to eat their own candy, of course. Bad news is only good if it comes out of somebody else’s cupboard. And some folks can eat and gorge and stuff themselves all day long and get good and fat, but never full.
Around these parts, we’ve got bad news aplenty. If you take it upon yourself to assume that nothing racy happens in a small mountain town, you ain’t been around enough blocks or bends in the dirt road yet. I won’t be the one to shove a piece of sugar-coated gossip down your gullet. Lord no. But I’ll do my solemn best to tell you how it is.
Here in Richlands, a speck of nowhere on a Virginia map, a place that can only be found by accident or circumstance of birth, the bad news abounds. And I’m not dredging up talk of extramarital affairs or gay folks in the closet or who met who at the Timberline Lodge last night. We’ve got enough of such talk, but the decent and intelligent among us don’t bother with such trivial things. Those are simple little morsels. Table scraps, at best.
I’ve always preferred the main course.
This proud little place once boomed and echoed throughout the mountains of Central Appalachia and into the waiting world, with abounding coal and its grim black dust that settled in the lungs of our fathers and grandfathers, rendering them old men by the time they were fifty. The worst escape and remedy out there in those vibrant days was a little pot or a Quaalude left over in the glove box of Uncle Jimmy’s ’77 Chevy Van. We didn’t run dry like a prohibited still; all that coal still lies deep in the ground like buried treasure, as plenty as it ever was, but new ways of thinking have bound it up, locked it away with other nefarious things deemed not good for us. With no industry comes no work, and with no work comes despair, and with despair comes the dope. It’s a perfect circle made of fool’s gold, like a band on the finger of some unfaithful storybook lover. It goes on and on, ‘round and ‘round, long after the sweetness of trivial gossip has worn off.
You can’t get good and fat off that bad news. And there are no second helpings, no salve to soothe the longing for the return of the bright and booming days. They are buried right up there deep in the mountain with Papaw and the others lost to the black dust. And those days did not die proud like a worn out coal miner. Not in the least. Their demise was calculated. The powers that be have set out to clean us up, and have all but murdered us for our trouble. And now we are more unclean than ever, thanks to those powers and watchful eyes that be, eyes that have never seen a sunset from the top of House and Barn Mountain or heard the direful echo of a lone guitar from a front porch and beyond one of our high and lonesome ridges.
And the churches, they have cropped up everywhere in this town and others like it, and another springs up just about every week, passing around collection plates and letting poor folks know without saying so that it’s better to invest in the next life than this one. They buy prayers instead of supper, and they go to bed hungry for good news.
I’ve heard songs on the country radio say the South will rise again. Well I’m here to tell you that it certainly will not. The South of Rhett and Scarlett, those romantic antebellum days, are gone with that fair wind they still pine over.
But we are not Southerners. We are caught in this heirloom place, situated between the veils of what was and what is. Time itself slows in its tracks here, and it is often difficult to discern the past from the present, and the living from the departed. We are the children of Appalachia, the blood borne sisters and brothers of the mother mountains. We are not to be found in a historical romance novel on a shelf at the grocery store. Nobody tells sweeping epic tales about us; we are not the fairytale types. We tell our own tales and create our own endings. We always have. Always.
But just like the South, we will not rise again. We cannot, for we never fell.
While Atlanta was a burnin’, the grandmothers of our grandmothers were living high on the hog in the splendor of these mountains, unsung and unseen, save for the embers glowing in the night from the moonshine stills up and down the hills and into the cryptic hollers. Granny never had the need to flaunt her good manners or attend some formal debutante ball. There was work to be done, and nobody but her to do it. She didn’t own dark skinned folks like they did in the good and gone South, and would have been too proud and too prudent to partake in such a disgrace. But don’t let Granny fool you none; she can rip a rug on the front porch and stomp the flatfoot at the hint of sweet smelling fiddle rosin.
And while Atlanta was a burnin’, ol’ Granny was up in the highlands picking all that good pokeweed and the dandelion greens and the pleurisy root. She never asked a soul for a dime or a pardon, and she didn’t own a couch to faint on; she didn’t have time for such a notion. And if she ever promised to shoot you, it was best to heed her words; Granny wouldn’t waste her breath, her advice, or her last bullet on a warning shot.
While Atlanta was a burnin’, they were all up in here in the abundance beyond the cliffs and crags, building an empire in the oldest mountains on this continent. We’ve been afforded an odd and complicated legacy, we descendants of ingénues and miracle workers and storytellers. And yet still we love that bad news, and love to tell it and retell it and add our own bits of seasoning to the narrative.
But we’ve always chosen how our tales would end. We’ll not go away anytime soon. We’ll not burn out and let that southerly wind carry us away into some forgotten novel.
We are not storybook lovers. We are the real thing.
And we’re due for a feast. Not sweet confections or scraps from someone else’s table. We’ll pick ourselves up from this fall. And that’s all it is, a stumble off the constant path, the one that we’ve been traveling for as long as the path itself has existed. And it’s been here a mighty long time.
There’s work to be done, and nobody but us to do it, as always. We will not rise again. But we will stand. We will dig our way out, just as the menfolk have done for ages. Granny would shoot us if we didn’t. You know it’s the truth.
In the meantime, supper is on. Don’t be choking down too many of those sweet confections. They’ll just broaden your hips instead of your thinking. Save yourself some room for Granny’s ‘shine; you’ll be deserving it when your work is done.
And don’t be fretting too much about poor ol’ Atlanta. I hear they, too, are doing just fine.