It’s been four months since my last confession, my last reflections on the flaws and flowers that grow here. Now I’m not Catholic; there ain’t many folk of that denomination around these parts anyway. Religion is very apocalyptic here in Central Appalachia, truth be told. But I once attended a Catholic wedding, if that counts, and I know how confession works. You tell somebody what it is you did or thought or assumed wrong, and they give you penance for your trouble, and you say a Hail Mary or two and end up with this discombobulated sense of absolution. I reckon it works for some, but I’ve got to tell you, it ain’t working for me.
Down the road apiece, on a hill beside the route to my home, stands a billboard. It reads, in big red letters on a solid white background: Only What Is Done for Christ Will Last. I had to reflect about that billboard that somebody paid good money for, and I’ve considered what exactly it meant for all of us here in this nowhere little place between the hills and ridges of a forgotten Appalachia.
I got to thinking on the mall, the one that used to be down in Richlands. Oh, the bricks and mortar of it are still there, sure, but the soul of it was laid to rest long ago. No absolution for the ol’ mall, I figure. No, its heyday has come and gone with the rest and best of us.
I was a late-blooming teenager in the first part of the haughty 90s, when teenage angst wasn’t a thing, especially not here in the hills.
“Don’t even look at it,” Granny had said. “It’s the devil’s den. Don’t give it a single look.”
It was the Richlands Mall she spoke of, that devil’s den. Oh, she meant well, my dear Granny. When we drove by the mall I was to turn my head, and turn it quick. She wanted nothing but to protect me from the outside, the other side. But despite her warnings, it was that other side that pulled me in, with Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me trailing out of the Gold Mine game room and its pool tables and laughter and devil’s music, and the IROC Z Camaros and Pontiac Fieros that cruised the parking lot, all bright yellow and Warrant’s Cherry Pie red, and driven by boys with permed mullets and pretty Richlands girls cloaked in the splendor of high-collared jean jackets.
Now I was only sixteen when I took my first cruise around that devil’s den, my hair pompous and high and teased within an inch of its life and held firm with Aqua Net, my hand-me-down yellow outfit on point with a starched collar that met the neon hot pink and dangling earrings that I’d bought with my babysitting money at Rose’s department store. And I’d see all the older girls, the cool ladies of the late 80s and early 90s, the ones with faux frog skin purses and pale blonde and permed Sun In hair and their boyfriends in those bright yellow Fieros. I wanted to be one of them, devil’s den or not.
I recollect the night I bought a Def Leppard cassette tape at that awful mall in the Disc Jockey store. Oh, I was going to Hell, sure as the world. I rode in the back of Daddy’s truck on the way back home with that tape wrapped tightly beneath my shirt. Now I don’t mean in the back seat of Daddy’s truck; I mean the bed of the truck, hair a’ flying and all. Talk about embarrassing, leaving the devil’s den in the back of an old truck, those girls with the frog skin purses looking at you while your daddy made you hunker in the back of his Chevy with your awful Def Leppard tape tucked between the modest swells of your Maidenform. I felt grody and pathetic and so unworthy of the lyrical genius of Joe Elliott and his glorious squalls on that forbidden cassette tape. Axl Rose wouldn’t have looked twice at me. As if. But I dared not complain for fear of being labeled a defiant child and sentenced to my room without my Walkman and earphones.
But a defiant child I was, and still am, going on thirty years after that first defiant act of paying good money for the devil’s music. I got to thinking on Mama and Daddy, and even my dear Granny, and I noticed they weren’t as perfect as they’d wanted me to think. Daddy liked his liquor and Mama liked her bathing suits and her Sun In and had just got herself a frog skin purse in the prettiest teal you ever saw, and Granny would cuss a blue streak at the neighbors when they’d park too close to her begonias. And some nights we’d even go to the devil’s den and eat from the salad bar at the Western Steer Steakhouse. They had the best cheese I’d ever tasted, and that’s the truth, even better than the big blocks of government cheese we used to get when Daddy was laid off from the mines. No, I don’t figure they were any better than those other sinners in those bright yellow Fieros or the boys that shot pool in the Gold Mine. Not at all. Despite my good raising and warnings of looking at that awful Richlands Mall, it was the other side that won me over. Oh yes. It got me good. It got us all, and you know it’s the truth.
By seventeen, I’d gathered a host of fair weather friends and wild notions, being convinced that Mama and Daddy weren’t perfect and how dare they expect me to be. I got me some Sun In and a teal frog purse and fell in love with Axl Rose despite myself. We cruised around that devil’s den several hundred times. We’d have an occasional beer or a stolen cigarette every now and then and listen to Axl’s angsty wails and the riffs of Angus Young, who was surely going to go to Hell with us, and their bedlam became the soundtrack of our youth, our anthem, the echo of our small town defiance.
But soon came the threats from the hometown police, warning us that more than two trips around the mall would garner us a ticket for loitering. We weren’t doing anything wrong, other than being too big for our britches. But, eventually, we all just grew up and refrained, moving on to bigger and better places. The end began when we left.
The Richlands Mall is all but gone now. The Fieros are parked elsewhere, and the cool girls have left the scene. All that’s left now is a hollow structure haunted by the remnants of its heyday. There’s no loitering to be concerned about now, officer. No worries about beer and cigarettes, either. No, sir. Nowadays there are bigger problems here.
After we left, the dope came to town. The pills and the pushers, the destitution and the desertion. Oh, yes. This is the new Appalachia. The devil’s den is closed. Maybe if it wasn’t, we’d still be here. Maybe if we weren’t admonished for being young and big-headed and proud, we’d have been able to stave off the very death of our hometown.
Maybe, just maybe, the fall of Appalachia is their fault. Mama’s and Daddy’s, and Granny’s, too. Maybe if they hadn’t told us not to stay at home and be good and not get above our raising, we’d have prevented the fall of this pristine place.
The remnants of what was is now a true devil’s den. I can’t help but wonder if we could have done something. Anything would be better than this. But alas, for now, this is the new Appalachia. We’re on the nightly news. We’ve made national headlines, and not for the best of reasons. This venerable home of ours is now the dope capital of the world. Nobody wants to come here, much less stay here.
It wasn’t always like this, and you know it’s true. Despite the passing of time, I can still close my eyes and see the yellow Fieros, the lacy and inviting entrance to the Frilly Filly, Beverly’s, and the allure of Joy’s Fashions, even if we couldn’t afford her pretty things then. I faintly detect the scent of burgers and sirloin and the top notes of that delectable cheese coming out of the Western Steer, and the echoes of Def Leppard and Warrant and Axl and the clinking of cue balls, and blue chalk on my fingers and Aqua Net in my hair. But it’s all gone now. Has been for going on two decades.
All that’s left now are banks and lawyers and churches and questions. Why, even some of the lawyers are preaching from pulpits on Sunday, and that’s the solemn truth! Anybody with a lick of sense has to wonder where the devil’s den is nowadays. I can tell you one thing for certain—it ain’t the mall.
No, a considerable handful of us have looked beyond these confines. We’ve seen that other side, the side we were warned not to think on or entertain, lest the devil get hold of us. We still hear the predictions of downfalls and no goods. But, alas, we can see the proverbial light. I do, at least. They were wrong. They didn’t know how wrong they were, bless their hearts.
I don’t ask for absolution. For contrition. For none of that. I’m not Catholic, as I said. And I’m not sixteen anymore. I can’t consult Joe Elliott or Axl or Angus. Alas, they have moved on, too. They’re on that other side somewhere. The side we were warned about. They aren’t here in this devil’s den, not that they ever were.
“Don’t even look at it,” Granny had said. “It’s the devil’s den. Don’t give it a single look.”
Nowadays, the other side says that about us. And it’s too big to fix, you know. Ain’t a Hail Mary strong enough to clean up this mess. If only we could be as bad as they used to think we were. Right?
If I had my own billboard, I’d not waste my money. It would say: SEEKING VINTAGE TEAL FROG SKIN PURSE FROM 1989. WILL PAY MORE IF IT HAS DEF LEPPARD TAPE IN SIDE POCKET. MEET ME AT THE MALL AT 7PM. I’LL BE THE ONE IN THE YELLOW FIERO.
What? Don’t laugh. You know you’d show up, just to see that yellow Fiero cruise the mall again.
Devil’s den or not.
(some images from) Southern and mid-atlantic retail history. (2014). http://skycity2.blogspot.com/2014/05/richlands-mall-richlands-va.html