SWCC Student Commons - Brick sculpture by Johnny Hagerman
A World Apart
It wasn’t like Hitchens didn’t know where the highway was. Hell, it ran right below his house at the bottom of the hill. Most nights he heard the trucks heading up the long grade past the bible college, diesels winding out, until he’d finally shut off the TV, or would just fall asleep to the noise of it, drowning out the noise of the climbing trucks, drowning out his sister times when she was home, drowning out the noise of all those other thoughts. He knew where the highway might take him; he could leave any time he wanted. Thing about the highway he didn’t imagine it leading back to where he was–only away. Away might be where he needed to go but was reluctant to start. Even leaving for Grundy had to be an improvement. But something about being perched on this fractured outcrop of rock, in the little clapboard cottage with the solitary redbud tree sprung with lavender in the mists of a week’s spring rain held him there like a dog on a chain.
Some nights he did think about leaving. Mostly at night he just headed down to the tittie bar and nursed a few beers. But then nights when he’d stare into middle space somewhere between the dancer’s breasts and the black light sign with the elaborate gold “S” done gothic style, he would think about leaving. He had seen these girls so many times he could describe all their tattoos along with their moles. He needed a new tittie bar, or a bigger one. Didn’t have to be better looking girls, just different.
His small house on the rock outcropping, where he lived these past few years, was also tied up in the question. Where he still nursed the small vegetable patch. And worked on his cars. Well into the evening on a summer night, he’d look up and see stars and knew it was time to head down to Sam’s for his burger and fries, and afterward go to the tittie bar for a couple beers. Wintertime, he had soup. Canned soup he’d warm up for himself, chunky soup.
He would never put tips in their garters. Sometimes though, he left dollars on the bar.
The thing was, he didn’t want to offend them with his motor greased fingers he never got clean enough. So young, he bet they were still in high school, and it didn’t seem right to touch such smooth young skin with his dirty fingers. He watched other men do it, bolder ones, younger bucks who didn’t care if they were losers, and the girls seemed OK when their flirting got out of hand. The girls would smile and do a little ass shake right in front of them. But he never would. It wasn’t the money, like he was cheap, it was his fingers always being black with grease that never came clean.
Other than his sister, his one living relative was an uncle who had the coal scars across his face. Black freckles where he’d taken a blast of anthracite and rock like a load of buckshot years back when he was a buck himself. More of the stuff tattooed his chest. The blast had sliced the shirt to ribbons and tattooed him like he’d sat for one over in Grundy. Nothing real attractive like an artist’s tattoo, mind, but a tattoo as complete as any Hitchens had seen around these parts. Hitchens had stayed out of the mines. Killed his uncle’s son. Made others go bad on drugs. Good money was no good if it killed you or kept you on pain killers, so you slept nights. His uncle didn’t never seem to hold a grudge against the mining company. Or the rescue team that took its sweet time finding him, and then more time to get him the hell out, only first they had to rip off the rest of his shirt before it got too stuck to his skin, while he howled, and they had to hold him down. His uncle said it had been a four hour drive to hell on that trip to the hospital. Hitchens would have held a grudge. The long, deep lingering kind that bore no one good. Bound to hurt someone in the end, just how he was constructed.
He did hold one grudge—against the guidance counselor at the community college, who had reviewed his aptitude tests and his high school records to see what kind of career—job—he might be suited for. She called them ‘careers’, but they were only jobs. The young guidance counselor carefully explained computers were hot and he should study them. He was fool to believe. He imagined it would be his way out of manual labor and away from the Virginia coal country.
So, Hitchens signed up. And he studied, too. He learned about user names, how to log on, and how to call up files; he even learned networking. And word processing which was like typing only with spell check, something close to a miracle. And PowerPoint for doing presentations to a boss. They even introduced him to spreadsheets which seemed mysterious in how if you set it up proper, entering numbers would populate a whole screen of information based on dates, if-and statements and higher level thinking like that. Took three years all told to complete the classes, and in the end the paper certificate of attendance was about all he took from the community college. That and his grudge against the young guidance counselor. Because once he was done, he found no real paying jobs. Story of his life, arriving a day late to the dance, and the girls had all left. If he’d relocated to Grundy or even to Bristol across the state line, he might have found employment. But it seemed such a long way off spiritually as much as the distance.
Staring into the dying TV set, day by day turning more purple—watching CNN—they said Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to China, then back to the Middle East, and Hitchens fixated on the image. Shuttle diplomacy, the talking head expert would assert, only how they got a shuttle out of one of those jets he couldn’t figure, shuttle being too close to shuffle, or one of those little white badminton things. Times when he would try to picture it, he’d only shake his head. Why would a sane person give themselves up to climb on an airplane, let it carry them away to a place they’d ever been to, speak to people they’d never known, nor even speak the same language? It seemed such an extreme way of life. Stranger than science. When he tried picturing himself doing like that, he would just laugh. No damn way!
Though occasionally he would drive himself over to Grundy - times when he thought the car was running smooth enough. They had opened a brand new Wal-Mart in Grundy, and he would go over there to walk the aisles, buy some Haynes boxers and socks, pick up fresh batteries, and a steak if it was on sale. Didn’t eat it much on account of the price, but when it was on sale he did. He loved steak, but most nights it was hamburger.
Even if he didn’t love Grundy. It wasn’t Clay Pool Hill, and that was the most damning feature of the town, if he was truthful with himself. He’d argue the reason was that the town was greedy, and it sucked the life out a man. That it was controlled by the ‘Powers’—fingers for the quotation marks—the mining company executives, road contractors, developers and real estate agents. Hitchens for sure distrusted real estate agents. They held power over you; because they allowed people with enough money to buy whatever property, house, farm, whatever, like they owned it themselves, even if he knew they didn’t. They still had this power, and the welcome never extended to folk with fewer means.
He didn’t have much good to say about road contractors either. Not since the summer he had worked on a road crew to pay for tuition at the community college, walking behind the paver, smoothing the asphalt, in temperatures that reached way higher than the 100’s even when they did night paving on the Interstate. Night paving seemed like the worst kind of hell. White lights blazing bright until they were blinding, the traffic streaming by the other side of the Jersey barriers, the drivers like ghosts, the continuous roar and the spewing asphalt like hell’s own lava, smoking and stinking up everything, covering everything. In his dreams all that summer, he saw asphalt like a black mold oozing across the entire countryside. He was glad when he quit that job. And ever since he distrusted road contractors.
Everywhere he looked they were blasting rock for new roads, grading rocks tumbling into streams, paving lanes up into the smallest hollers, ribbons of asphalt being laid in and out of Grundy; it seemed like they were never gonna be done. Hitchens could not imagine where people were going, why they needed to be going there or if they ever intended to return. Seemed roadwork was the only full-time job in the county. Which made the grudge he held against the guidance counselor all the more fixed. It probably tinted his view of Grundy, too. He never went back to Grundy to look for work once he’d gotten the college certificate.
His sister and he rented the house above the highway from an old grizzled railway worker. They found the place through a real estate agent who’d showed them the cottage after they’d hauled the railway man off to the hospital to have his foot amputated when his diabetes went crazy. Afterward, the man couldn’t drive, and his pension barely covered the hospital stay, so he was hauled off again, this time to a nursing home in Pounding Mill probably to die—or so Hitchens figured. But pooling his small cash with his sister, the two had raised enough for a security deposit. He moved his small set of belongings and his three cars, and she moved the family furniture such as it was. They set up house together on the bluff overlooking Route 460 and the truckers who made that highway their home.
His sister had stuck it out at the community college to become a nurse’s aide, and she found a decent job working night shifts at the hospital in Princeton. Princeton was an hour or so away. They rarely saw each other. She was always shuffling home bone tired around the time he was getting up for work, groggy and needing coffee, and when he returned from the tittie bar, most evenings she was gone again. Since they’d agreed she was no better a cook than he, they mostly bought frozen dinners, or he would go to Sam’s. She didn’t approve of the tittie bar, but she didn’t make a fuss either. As long as he didn’t come home drunk, Hitchens figured there were worse vices than staring at some little girl’s titties.
She didn’t have his love hate relationship with where she lived, or what she did for a living either. She was matter of fact about those things. So, he kept it to himself. Especially his grudge for the young guidance counselor.
But truly it was fascinating, how this stream of vehicles would pass one way up the valley, while another headed in the opposite direction, like a two-way tide and which was better? Down valley meant heading east toward I-77. Up valley meant getting to the next valley then the next and into Kentucky—beyond Kentucky lay uncharted territory in Hitchens’ mind, like heading into a box holler, where the only way out was the way you came in. But what about the other direction? Once you reached the Interstate and cleared the mountains, which way—north to Beckley or south toward Abingdon? North Carolina lay close enough, and the Tennessee border wasn’t that far south either; even West Virginia wasn’t but a couple counties away. Meanwhile, he lived perched on this outcrop of stone like a bird ready to lift off in whatever direction he chose. Even if he knew he probably wouldn’t, he was free to dream about it. He wondered about the truckers who lived for driving from place to place. He saw truckers as purposeful, always returning homes in the end, or so he figured. But those others where were they going? And why? What was out there they needed to get to, and did they ever return?
They had named Hitchens for his father who had been called Hitchens before him. Now that their one uncle had passed on, in his shack up the holler by the stream that always flooded in the spring, they were a family of two. Once he and his sister buried his uncle, Hitchens never returned to that holler again, though he often thought about that little stream and how pretty the wild dogwoods looked in the springtime.
When their parents were still alive, they’d been a family, though once they passed, he and his sister were more alone than not. Even to each other–no more than ships in the night. Relatives other people had, but not Hitchens and his sister. It made the blood lines simple and their buying Christmas presents for each other hardly worth it. He might pick up a bottle of perfume for his sister, and she find shirts on sale for him, but since they both shopped at Wal-Mart, there was hardly any surprise in it. No one came visiting at Christmas, so it always felt lonesome. When they had first moved in, he’d considered inviting a mechanic he was on talking terms with at the gas station, but he never got around to inviting him. And his sister worked the night shift so whatever socializing she did was probably at work. Nights got quiet in the small house by himself, except for the trucks, and that gave him time to think. About where roads could take a person if he didn’t pay attention. Or where other people went, not coming back. And what should he do about the grudge that poked him like a thorn, a thick, hooking thorn that wouldn’t leave go?
Back in elementary school Hitchens had been a different person. More outgoing, more engaged. His teachers had said he was college material, which had made his mother brag about his smarts, and he had flourished in elementary school. English was something he enjoyed. Diagramming sentences was like doing puzzles, and he did well at spelling. Math even, he did OK back then. But the world was a different place then. Seemed closer, like it wasn’t so disconnected. Couldn’t place a finger on when it changed. Middle school? By the time he started high school, he was more like he was now, a tall, lanky thin-faced kid who’d grown into a taller lanky thin-faced man, withdrawn, less engaged, not too inclined to take part but he was always watching, always thinking.
Virginia coal country was on the sidelines in what the country at large was growing toward. Hitchens saw that. Backwater, that was the term. TV made it seem whatever was happening was doing it somewhere else. Music, movies, computers, the Internet, cell phones, all this racing around, trying to connect folks, and where was it getting to? He couldn’t relate to most of what he saw on TV. The stories were about unreal people—seemed unreal to him. TV comedies starred folk who belonged to another country. The game shows with their excitable contestants and the toothy master of ceremony waving his arms at the audience, and the girls in their little outfits in high heels wriggling across the stage, none of it touched him. Even the nightly news left him disconnected.
For a while, the war in Iraq had held his attention; he’d watched evening news when it started, smart bombs and tanks, fireworks over Baghdad. Teach the bastards to fly planes into our buildings. If they wanted to blow themselves up, the US would oblige. It felt like the country had found its purpose again, united and resolved. Then the Tazewell Guard unit was called up, and men he knew, even women, headed off to war. Hitchens saw them coming back missing limbs, or missing all together, and that sobered up folks. After five years, the nightly news moved on to other issues, like it was done, only the war wasn’t ever going to be done. And the economy was down the toilet, gas prices through the ceiling, and the damn Texan president with his smirk and his twang was a goddamn liar. His colored Secretaries of State hadn’t made one thing better, and his Vice President was flat out evil. Maybe the country hadn’t been attacked again—or maybe it had, and no one was saying—no one loved the US anymore, and in Claypool Hill people kept growing more poor, more depressed and dying before they had grandkids.
They said cars would have to quit running on gasoline or it would soon run out. Or people would have to quit driving altogether, and that worried him on account of fixing cars was how he earned a living. And then what would they do with all those roads Virginia kept building? Ethanol was talked about. Corn prices were going up, but that didn’t mean better paying jobs. Farm owners were making more, so he heard, but you didn’t see no farmers driving Cadillacs in this part of Virginia. Only hearses.
A couple counties over in West Virginia, the tops of mountains were being stripped to get at the coal. Imagine! Take a mountain down with machinery! It seemed like science fiction. It didn’t seem so bad. Better than people going into those black holes, getting peppered with anthracite all over their faces, dying of black lung and emphysema. Though once the mountains were cut down, how’d they ever be put back? Made him want to cry. He wondered what happened to the little hollers—and the scattering of families eking out livings on deer meat up in there. Folk who had perched on their little roadside tracts, feet away from a creek out back, and a few more from the road running by the front, and when the flood came, they scrambled out one way or t’other. Living like he did overlooking the highway had advantages. Unless VDOT widened Route 460 and chewed out the bluff like a coal operation.
Up the road they’d finished building onto the community college. It was a real big project for everyone associated with it. High on the ridge like the new building sat, you could now see it from the highway, sitting proud. The new construction should have meant employment. The pickups drove by in the morning, and returned in the afternoon, but few carried people Hitchens knew. The garage he worked at picked up work. Trucks needing oil changes or repair work, but outside of the tittie bar being a lot busier come Friday paydays, Hitchens didn’t see much difference. He supposed the workers had to live somewhere–but nowhere near, so why was everybody so excited?
He thought about driving up there to look up the guidance counselor, let her know she wasn’t forgotten. She didn’t belong. She’d been so proud about graduating from college, but she didn’t have too good communications skills, and far as he knew, she didn’t know a damn thing about the employment situation in Tazewell County. She got enough attention from the younger faculty members, he recalled—she was cute enough, but with one of those tiny little voices that made her sound like she was twelve. Not any older than Hitchens. Which really galled him. She was no smarter, nor more ambitious, just lucky she was cute. Just a case of being separated by chance and circumstance.
Hitchens had seriously considered the ads for laborers posted for the community college construction, debating with himself whether a higher paycheck for a year or two while they built the Learning Resource Center would be worthwhile. The Community Center the college had constructed ten years earlier, he’d missed out on that. He was still attending middle school, taking odd jobs after school. He’d been living with his father since their mother died and his sister started college. Nights of silence together, only interrupted by TV comedies over takeout dinners. Even school take-homes back then seemed like a decent distraction. He would study until his father’s snoring grew so loud it rattled around the small living room and then retreat into the last small bedroom. When that house got too expensive to afford, his father found the trailer. The one they rented wasn’t a new one, and the septic tank was broke, which meant the creek, so instead when he could he did his business at school. At least they had electricity. Waiting for the second coming, so his father said, or its avoidance one. By comparison, his living now by the highway was living large.
Hitchens had indeed considered ‘dropping out’ as the poster so ominously warned him not to. When he did the math, he calculated it would take five years and three months to recoup the wages lost by staying with the program. Provided he could trade on his newly learned technology skills. He had finally found the garage job because he knew how to type. The garage manager was an old fart who could barely write, let alone type. He hired Hitchens to fill in the inspection reports going back to Richmond. Meantime Hitchens helped the chief mechanic who was as lost in that endeavor as Hitchens was in figuring out a better vocation than asking passing motorists, “Do you want that oil checked, ma’am?”
It had been four years since he’d driven up to the community college, sitting on its hill, but today it felt little different. The winding road leading up past the community center that looked empty, up to the ridge where the main campus was.
Hitchens ambled toward the new building. He had to admit it impressed him with the modern brick and glass façade, hung off the side of the hill like it did. It even had a nice looking commons space overlooking the courtyard.
He found the testing center easily enough downstairs, and he asked politely for the guidance counselor’s office. He was directed down the hall. As he stepped back into the two story student commons, he studied the masonry sculpture of the mountain lion and the Indian. It impressed him how they could do that with bricks. The lion looked like it was descending a rock outcrop, eyes focused somewhere ahead of him. It was a sharp looking representation. The Indian looked to be dressed out in full Indian uniform, and the long gun he held was authentic. He wasn’t smiling, but then, why should he be? His kind were long gone, and now he was only a symbol.
He saw her name on the office door and opened it—maybe he shoulda knocked. Too late. She looked up from the desk. Her glasses made her look serious, but her expression was puzzlement. “Can I help you?” more irritated than welcoming.
When Hitchens didn’t reply, she set her pen down. Then he did, “You told me theys lots of jobs out there, only they ain’t.”
When she pushed the chair away from the desk, Hitchens’ eyes widened; she was pregnant, near due from the size of her. That surprised him for sure. He’d pictured her as he remembered her, a young, bubbly girl in a page boy haircut. She’d let her hair grow out longer, too, and it made her softer looking; at the same time she looked older. Then she took the reading glasses off, and he saw the crows' feet at her eyes.
“You told me theys lots of jobs,” Hitchens repeated. He remembered; she was his same age, even the same birthday month. But they were worlds apart.
The young guidance counselor frowned, biting her lip. She was too young to be having a baby. She seemed nervous with him standing like that in the doorway. “I don’t think I know you–,“ and then she did.
Hitchens advanced into the small office, and she seemed to shrink back into the chair. Instinctively she brought an arm across her large belly. “Did you ask for an appointment?” she searched her calendar. “I don’t think I have one for you,” turning a page.
“Nah,” he replied.
She remembered how taciturn he’d seemed when he attended college, or that was what she wanted to think of his silent ways. But this was different.
“So, can I help you?” She wasn’t going to press the point about an appointment. Did she need to call someone?
“I passed all those courses you said to take.”
“Only, theys no jobs out there.”
“Did you look in Grundy?”
“Nah,” he didn’t explain why. She wouldn’t understand.
“Well, I can ask around for you, if you want.”
“Nah.” Hitchens saw genuine fear in her eyes, which was curious.
When he reached her desk, she grabbed the phone. He lifted the travel brochure from the desk.
She continued to bite her lip. Trapped in the office by this gaunt faced country boy!
Hitchens stared at the cover photograph. The title said “Come see! Venice! A world apart!” It surely was. The photo was of a grand canal, walled both sides by buildings looking so old fashioned they could be at Disney World. And the smiling gondolier with his neckerchief and the smiling couple riding the gondola, front and center.
Hitchens’s gaze returned to the guidance counselor. She held the phone in her hand, staring at him, like he was a foreign creature. Maybe he was at that.
He looked back at the photograph of the smiling American and his wife. The man wore his sweater draped over his shoulders, like a trophy. Wasn’t Venice in Italy where it was warm? His wife wore a trendy dress, like she was another trophy.
“Look, I’m happy to make calls for you—Hitchens, right?”
He was surprised she remembered. Surprised and warmed at the same time. He smiled. But he knew it was no use. He looked down at his hands with his black fingernails. “Nah, ain’t no need, but I thank you.”
They were worlds apart. And Hitchens understood that wasn’t going to change.
When he wandered into the corridor again, Hitchens passed the mountain lion then the Indian for a second time and paused. Studying the Indian, he looked more sad than stern, less wise than resigned. Weren’t Indian warriors supposed to be fierce? But this one was forever staring solemn, watching them teach holler folk like Hitchens how to integrate into this new world. The Indians were gone. Hitchens’ own ancestors had vanquished them. So they went and made a statue to remember them by. Must have been strong folk, his ancestors.
But now it seemed his own people were vanquished. Pockets of them everywhere but thinning out fast. Hiding in their hollers, only coming down when they had to, like his uncle, and the rest had all moved away. Was that how his people would end up? Maybe somebody should make a statue to remember them before they all died off. Maybe he should volunteer to pose for it. People would come and stand in front of his statue and think about vanquished folk. Had to be some use for him, didn’t there? Hitchens smiled wistfully.