June 18, 2012 § 4 Comments

At Cumberland Gap National Park, I hike with a group to the Pinnacle. I have been here before years ago, with my dad. He was not the athletic type, but once, at least I can only remember one time, we went here, just above his hometown and looked out. You can see three states: Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, the towns neatly divided like pie slices. Middlesboro, KY is to the right. From the Pinnacle, then and now, I see the town, the airport, and the small peak behind the airstrip. It is not wooded with green trees like the other mountains. It looks as though strips have been peeled off to reveal rust colored dirt inside. That is exactly what has happened. The mountain has been stripped away, the coal removed, and the earth exposed. I realize that I need to visit my grandparents in the cemetery down below.

I drive to the cemetery behind the Wal-Mart, next to the radio station and a car repair shop, looking for their graves. A man in a huge dually truck has his engine running, and he’s blocking the one lane road that winds up and down the hills full of tombstones. The newer ones have photos affixed to them; one has a cartoon image of a teddy bear. The old ones have beautifully carved writing, some small stones have tiny lambs resting on top. I can hear the radio the man is listening to talking about the weather. I wait. Finally, I get out and walk. I figure he may be emotional, there to visit his wife or something, and I don’t want to interrupt him.

Middlesboro, it turns out, is an astrobleme, which means it sits completely in the depression made by a meteor ages ago. Just like the craters on the moon. Maybe that’s why there’s the Cumberland Gap, which Daniel Boone and many others used to travel across the mountains. It boasts a wide main street, Cumberland Avenue, where I can still find my grandmother’s house. I have already done that, as one of the rituals on my list for this weekend visit to the mountains. Now, I want to talk to her.

I can’t find her grave, even though I look at every stone, and I know she will be pissed if I don’t leave the flowers I bought at the Kroger on the way over. I see other family names I know. I’m looking too for my Dad’s parents, but the only Wagner stone I find belongs to another William Wagner I might have been related to, but who died half a century before my birth. I ask my grandmother for help. I believe she is listening, and that she’s a little disappointed that I have lost my way.

The man with the truck gets out and waves me over. “I didn’t see you,” he says, “ I was eating my Frosty and I didn’t have a straw.” He is over seventy, the caretaker, with beautiful white hair combed back in a style he might have worn in the fifties. I tell him the names. “No, I don’t know where they are,” he says. “You sure they’re not down the hill at the other cemetery?” I tell him I am sure this is the place. My grandmother loved Frosties so much, she would buy them for her beloved Pomeranian, Sugar.

I remember the hillsides from every funeral I ever attended in this town. I know I am close. My heels sank into the mud and I always had to be helped down, someone’s hand held for balance. I remember my dad slipping on the Astroturf at my grandfather’s funeral and having to catch himself on the coffin.

Finally, I see it: Martin-Farmer with a little curlycue etched under the names. I wipe dead grass left by the mower off of the footstones for my Gigi, my Grandaddy Charlie, his mother Ruby, and his grandmother Maranda. I split the bouquet and give them each a rose. I give my grandmother a few more flowers because she is the only one I actually knew.

I can’t find my other Granddaddy and my Nana, so I lay two roses at the base of a tree. I don’t want any of them to disappear, and I want the man in the truck to know they are loved the next time he mows. I don’t want my family to be stripped away like the mountains.


My Short Stint as Executioner, or Soup Beans Part 2

June 8, 2012 § 4 Comments

My steps echoed down the long white tiled hallway, even though I wore my new Nikes. The school was new, modern, all geometry and bright colored walls. The teacher, Mrs. Alexander, and the accused, Chris Cash, walked ahead of me. I was always a dawdler, but this time, I was extra slow. I had never been to the principal’s office before. I was one of those girls who thrived on being good, who was in the running at least for teacher’s pet, though maybe just a little too quiet to win that title. I was shy.

Chris Cash was anything but shy. He was loud and would do anything to get the whole class’s attention. He took extra pleasure in embarrassing me. My mom, who did not have a shy bone in her body, told me this meant boys liked you. I couldn’t imagine how this was true. If he liked me, which was a brand new idea to me in the sixth grade, why would he taunt me?

We had soup beans at lunch. Since my mom had grabbed a bite of my soup beans in third grade, Chris had been making a scene at the lunch table every time they were served. “Mmmm, Soup Beans!” he’d beam, mocking my mother.  This day, I had had enough. I could make fun of my mother, of soup beans, but he could not. I turned my back to him, nibbled on the corn bread that came with the meal, talked maybe to Kim Copeland about ballet, or how to make ribbon barrettes, or I don’t know, fractions? There was quick movement at the table, shocked faces across from me, and a warm, wet feeling on the crown of my head. I whipped around to face him, soup beans flew out of my hair. He was bright red and laughing. He had never been happier. I loathed him.

By now, Mrs. Alexander had Chris by the wrist and was pulling him out of the lunchroom. I was crying. “Come on, Stephanie,” she said. “You’re coming too.”  I wanted him to be punished, but I didn’t want to have to testify.

We sat outside Mr. Pope’s office. Mrs. Alexander went back to class. Chris made faces at me. His smile was gone. This was not his first trip to the office. Mr. Pope took Chris in first, then called me in to join them. “Do you want me to paddle him?” Mr. Pope said, looking at me through his thick, square framed plastic glasses. Tears had not stopped rolling down my cheeks, mostly because I was scared.

“Well, um,” I almost whispered. This was Kentucky, 1980, corporal punishment was alive and well in the public schools.  I wanted Chris to suffer, I was humiliated, but I had never been given this kind of power before. I was a budding pacifist, I guess.“He put soup beans in my hair!” I said. Mrs. Alexander had stopped by the girls’ bathroom with me and helped me clean the pot liquor and remaining mushed beans out of my hair at the sink. Now, it was just wet. “So, what kind of punishment should I give him?” Mr. Pope asked. His black hair was slicked back as usual. He wore his tan leisure suit this time. His polyester shirt had a brown and white tree print. My heart was about to explode.“Do you want me to paddle him, or give him in-school detention?” The responsibility was horrible. Of course, a part of me wanted Mr. Pope to beat the shit out of Chris. Part of me still does. Chris looked at me, huge brown eyes pleading. I have always been a sucker for big brown eyes.  “Detention,” I said.

Chris broke into a grin. He taunted me the whole way back to class; I quickened my pace to keep ahead of him. But still, I understood that my one word had saved him. Imagine  thousands of them.


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