I go out to the porch to watch the sunset. Or what little bit I can with a busted eye that’s already near-sighted as hell.
My little sister, Della-Rose, leans against a pasture fence, smoking. Her nails are orange and manicured. Her dress has pearl beads near the collar. She came back up the mountain, when Grandma Mercy phoned her up and said “You betta come home. Someone nearly killed yer big brother.”
“Since when did my kid sister start smokin’?” I ask.
“Since ’bout the time you started drinking.”
“I’ve got the best opening line for your memoir,” my little sister says.
“Y’know, after I’ve retired from the Boston Braves and I am federal judge or maybe after I’m a Supreme Court judge.” I say in return.
She laughs. We do this bit, her and I. It started when we were kids, when we started going to the high school down in Elizabethton. Mama’d whine about how we were gettin’ ‘bove our raisin’. So we got to talking about how rich and famous we’d be. Us, two kids from East Tennessee.
“It’ll say, ‘I was born in a log cabin in Tennessee with two rooms and nine other bodies. My folks had no electricity and no indoor plumbing and no hope.’”
“It’ll make me sound like Abraham Lincoln.”
“Your fans will think you’re some sorta Johnny Appleseed type.” She smiles and takes another long drag on her cigarette.
But you wanna know the best part of it? It’ll be the God’s honest truth.
The day I turned seven, there were 10 of us in the house. Grandma Mercy was in charge. Then it was Esther– my mama– me and my little sister– Della-Rose – and my daddy. My Uncles– Auggie-Hunt and Zekie. Zekie’s wife– Peg and their kids– Hanna-Beth and Zechariah, Jr. The Uncles took me to their hideout in the grove of chinkapin oaks. “Arthur Lee, we can’t give you nothin’ worth anythin’. But we can give you our mountain. Your legacy. You got that?” said Uncle Auggie-Hunt. He let me try some of his moonshine. I vomited all over Uncle Zekie’s boots. Auggie-Hunt spit his moonshine out he laughed so hard.
My mama never liked me to go with them nor did Auntie Peg. They still don’t.
“Women’re fussy,” my daddy said on my 7th birthday. My daddy only got me one thing that day: a used baseball glove. “Your mama’s fussy ‘cause of the baby. You oughta do somethin’ that ain’t just runnin’ ‘round here with them Mountain Folk, though.” That baseball glove, for record, became my ticket off the Mountain.
The Uncles are my mama’s brothers. They sway under the weight of their booze like the birches under the wind. They have broad smiles and freckled-smeared faces with whiskers like I’ve got now. When I come home for a spell and they see what happened to my face, from when I got licked, they jump up with guns. Talkin’ ’bout shootin’ the bastard. Huh. It’s funny, really. How big their hearts are. The Uncles ask me for give the guy’s name. They’ve got their fist tightened. My little brother, Noble, looks worried. He’s in high school now, taller than an ash tree. Us Wades all remind people of the mountains, and I think it scares them. Us Wades might be mountain trash, but we’re good folk.
“It was a misunderstanding,” I laugh. “Probably, just mistook me for…” I trail off. I’m lying. They know I’m lying. It’s a moment of prima facie.
My lawyer training has taught me to use the right words. Be precise with the language, chose the Latin and Greek roots over the Anglo-Saxon cusses. Seeing as they are moonshiners, the Uncles don’t like that I am becoming a lawyer. Trick of the language down here: the words “lawyer” and “liar” are what’s known as homophones. Sound twins. Something that bring Uncle Auggie-Hunt endless joy.
When I came home from school, my mama said I had got high headed.
Grandma Mercy shushed my mother. “We did right by him. This boy won’t end up Mountain Folk. He’s a college man, Esther.” She winked at me.
My mama couldn’t look at me, but I heard the tears in her voice. “You want him to leave me. Just like his daddy did. He’ll forget who he is.”
Della-Rose is telling me about her job in Bristol. “My apartment’s on the Tennessee side, so’s my job, but my boss’s in the Virginia side. He said he is going to recommend me for an executive secretary come next spring.” She looks down at her nice dress and her nice shoes and her nice nails, and I can hear that old Wade sadness creep into her next question. “What’s college like?”
“The law library is covered in leather books, stacked up in piles and piles and piles; they come down in a hail of words. “
“You hadn’t seen that many books before you went up north?”
There’s a library here at home. It’s a house half sagging somewhere up the mountain, with books crammed into corners and crevices, turning to dust with age. And I didn’t get to visit the nice library when I went down to Nashville with Auggie Hunt to drop off some moonshine. And isn’t that what Grandma Mercy bled for and sweated for and cried for and starved for? So you could spend an afternoon reading law books instead running moonshine and working the train line?
It was Grandma Mercy who made sure I didn’t drop out to work for the “Tweetsie” Railroad like Zekie, Auggie-Hunt, and Zechariah, Jr. did. It was Grandma Mercy who begged my mama to let me start school in Elizabethton. It was Grandma Mercy who sold off family land so we could get a Model-A Fordor to drive to the city schools. It was Grandma Mercy who pawned her own wedding band to make sure I had the train ticket to head up North to start college. “Arthur Lee,” she said, “I need you and your brother and sister to get off the Mountain and stay off the Mountain.”
“Do you remember daddy?” Della-Rose asks.
“Huh. I mean sure. Snippets and snatches. Like the way I remember some hillbilly tunes on the guitar,” I say. I don’t remember him properly, only little pieces scattered across the haze of childhood. His hands were gnarled with work, dirty with the weathering of years. His eyes were bright blue. His voice rolled across the house like thunder. I would cower under Grandma Mercy’s settee. “Arthur Lee! You get over here now!” I’d hear the hobnails on his boots knock against the wooden floors. I’d see the soles and then my memory falters in his passing shadow… He was gone before my 8th birthday.
“You remember the old barn by the holler?” I ask Della-Rose.
“On the sold land? Sure, I guess. What about it?”
“He’d get drunk and take me out there and hit me. It was far enough away, Grandma couldn’t hear me crying.”
Della-Rose huffs and nods her head back toward the house. “And what about her?”
“I asked Mama for help. Begged her a couple times. She protected him. She said if I told the Uncles or Grandma, Daddy would disappear, so I kept quiet. Funny thing is she was right, y’know.”
She digests my words. “Did he ever beat me?”
“Only once,” I say.
She presses for more.
“I saw him take you to the barn by the holler,” I say. “Mama was putting Noble down for a nap. I was hiding from him in the loft of the near barn, so he grabbed you instead.” I point to the tree line. “Soon as he disappeared past the trees, I ran down to the cellar to find Grandma Mercy. Showed her my welts. Told her that he took you up to the barn. Next thing I know, the Uncles are running up to the holler with pistols. Surprised they didn’t kill him. Mama begged them to leave Daddy alone. He left that night.”
Della-Rose’s quiet for a few minutes and then says, “It’s not your fault, you know.”
“Your daddy was Day 1 trouble,” Grandma Mercy would say. “Not like you, honey. Arthur Lee, you were Day 1 goodness.” She would hug me and hand me a some maple sugar from her apron pocket. “Now, this is our secret, ‘kay? Don’t tell your mama about the maple sugars.” She’d wink. I’d sneak away into the woods to the moonshine grove.
When I’m at school, I’m that guy. Baseball star. President of my fraternity. Political Science major. “Arthur, you are gonna be a great lawyer someday,” my roommate tells me, “If you’re not playing for Boston Braves by then.” I got a fabulous record collection, so I’m the favorite at parties. And no old-time music or hillbilly music, either. I go to a nice Catholic church. Shit, I barely even have an accent, and to them, it’s endearing and genteel. I got a sweet Yankee girl, even.
But there was this one day, down at the law library studying with my classmate, Nellie. I was shooting the breeze, asking her about her family, when she turned on me suddenly.
“What about you then, Arthur?”
Cold ran through my veins. “What about me?”
“What about your family, first off?”
“My family runs business together,” I said quickly.
“Oh, a law practice?”
I thought of Auggie Hunt and Zechariah, Jr running a law firm and laughter escapes me in echoes. “Oh no! My uncle hates that I want to be a lawyer.”
“What do your parents think?”
My mama thinks I’m uppity. My daddy doesn’t even know I’m alive.
I shrugged at her. “I suppose it’s fine with them. As long as I find something respectable to do. Say… how about after you’re done studying, I get you some ice cream from King’s Kones? It’s the least I can do for interrupting your day.”
I went to grab my pack of Chesterfields from my pocket to light one up.
“You’re very charming, Arthur.”
“Thank you!” My smile grew as wide as a ravine.
“That’s not a compliment.” I felt my stomach sink to the floor. “There’s a lot of charming boys in the world. Ton of them here at school. Dozens back home in Connecticut. They were awful nice and charming and sweet and pleasant. They said all the right words. They sang in church choir. They played sports. They were charming. Unless you were different. If you had a funny accent. Or you were a Jew. Or you were a negro. Or if you were one of the men who had shell shock from the first war. Then they’d chase you around. Throw rocks at you. Punch your goddamn mouth. Camp outside your house all night. Call you every slur they could think. But no one cared. Cause they were charming. So excuse me if I don’t have the patience for your type. Charm is bullshit.”
I felt a hand reach into my chest and crush my ribcage. My smile faltered a second. I knew the type quite well. “Well, Nellie, for your sake I hope you never make it down to Carter County, Tennessee. I’m the nicest one of the bunch.”
She folded her arms. “Look I don’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
I scoffed. “That? Oh no… I’ve heard much worse from much meaner people than you. That’s for sure!”
Now looking out over my mountain, I feel where the bruising is spongy and where by jaw won’t close quite right and catches, and I think, yeah, there are so many charmers in the world.
My little sister is staring into my good eye with such intensity that I finally have to stare back.
“What you want?” I ask her.
“I’m trying to figure you out,” she says. She pulls out a second cigarette. “You come up back home for a little bit, knowing full well that Grandma Mercy’ll kill you and the Uncles if she knew why you’re home.”
“S’Never simple, little sister. You got a pearl collared dress and a Buick and your own place in the city and everything. And sure, I got my law school prospects and baseball and a nice, good woman and all of the trappings of refinement. But we’re just high-headed sumbitches from a one room shack at the end of the day. We got to survive,”
“Arthur Lee, your jaw’s clenched.” I can feel the pain building behind my ears. “Why won’t you tell the Uncles who beat you?”
I just shrug. Truth be told, the difference it would make is nil. There are people on the Mountain who hate us for who we are and there are people on the Mountain who hate us for what we do. Y’know I don’t blame the latter, but it’s the former that I see all around me. People who don’t like us cause we’re Mountain folk. I look down at my knuckles, swollen, and I can feel the contusions in the face and hands but other places I’d been beat before.“Do your folks in Bristol know?” I ask.
“About this.” I gesture to the tiny cabin and the hills and the horse and the everything that we are made of. “Do they know this Della-Rose?”
“There’s only one Della-Rose. She is all of this. She lives in Bristol, knows shorthand, but she also can shoot a polecat from a one-hundred yards away and told her high school principal to kiss her ass. She drives a Buick and lived off corn pone. She lacquers her nails, and her daddy ran off when she was four. It’s all true. It’s all me.”
I laugh and ruffle her curls. She bats me away and gives me a hug.
But when I’m at school, back up North, I’m not this me.
That other me from the mountains in Carter County, Tennessee. That me I hide. The me that’s got a broad smile and a freckle-smeared face like my uncles do. The me who walks the rivers to finding his last hiding spot. The one who spent so many goddamn tarrying services and tent revivals at the Pentecostal church, waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up. The me who is at college on a baseball scholarship, because I’m poor Mountain Folk. The me who almost dropped out of fourth grade to work so we could eat. The one who shared a two room shack with an outhouse with 9 people my whole life. Who was called white trash every day in high school. Who carries a pistol. Who has an old buckskin horse I ride to get around. Who can play any Jimmie Rodgers song you could think of. Who spends summers with the Uncles, moonshining .