I told her I didn’t doubt it. “Each town has at least one or two stories behind it, right?”
“Well, I suppose that’s true,” she replied. “But most of them are never heard, you know? It’s the same ones that get told over and over.”
I told her I’d never really looked at it quite that way before.
Jesi had a way of doing that. It seemed she was constantly causing, or encouraging me to see things from a different perspective.
That’s what immediately attracted me to her: She was unlike anyone I had ever dated, and that was good. She was, in fact, unlike just about anyone I’d ever known. Then again, she was the first person from West Virginia with whom I’d enjoyed a more than casual acquaintance. We worked for the same law firm downtown in the bureaucratic honeycomb of the nation’s capital, though we had taken divergent paths to arrive there. Indeed, our respective backgrounds could not have been more dissimilar. She had risen above the austere conditions of borderline poverty and indifference, the youngest, by many years, of four children. She had never known her mother, who’d passed away shortly after bringing her into the world, at which time her father’s brother—a Baptist minister and chronic drunk who’d never married—moved in as what was supposed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
As for myself, I had always been an underachiever of sorts—a late bloomer as my mother optimistically referred to me whenever her friends inquired about her youngest son—and I would have been remiss to overlook the influence my father exerted in facilitating my somewhat coveted position at the firm.
Jesi was the first one in her family to attend college, and from what she expressed to me, financial support was not the only form of assistance she had lacked. Upon graduating, she had also been the first—and only—member of her family to leave West Virginia. Neither her father—whom, based upon her habit of referring to him in the past tense, I presumed was also deceased—nor her siblings had ever ventured outside a thirty-mile radius of their hometown of Philippi. In the time I’d spent with her, she’d been equally prone to castigate and endorse her birthplace with an almost admirable passion.
One’s hometown, it seems, is not unlike one’s family in this regard: fair game for comment or critique, provided it’s supplied by the individual who’s invested the experience and bears the scars. Similar sentiment, no matter how salient, from anyone else—an outsider—is seldom acceptable, and subject for reprisal.
Although I consider myself open to adventure and novel experiences, it was with some circumspection that I found myself accepting the invitation to accompany her at her ten-year high-school reunion.
Having grown up in the subdivided sprawl of northern Virginia, less than thirty miles from where the President lived, I had never really had the occasion, or inclination, to venture west—to the other state. It never actually occurred to me, until meeting Jesi, how tenuous and even discounted were the ties that bound our state to the silent one beside us that shared our name.
She had remarked that West Virginians—if they allowed themselves to think about it in the first place—tended to regard my state with the type of jaded envy a younger sister might harbor toward the older sibling who received an unjust proportion of attention and opportunity. Ours was the one, it seemed, that had collected the dowry.
More so than any other state, West Virginia retains an insular, even inaccessible history and functionality. There is an aura that seems to entrench all of Appalachia which renders it detached, and excluded from the imperative for itinerancy—that ever-present air of possibility, however illusory—which seems always to have informed the sensibility of our perennially rootless nation.
I recalled these things as we entered Philippi, a town that was not unlike every sentimental movie maker’s depiction of a venerable place, long ago lost to time and memory.
“It isn’t really a one-horse town,” I offered facetiously. “It’s more like a half-horse town!”
The quick glance this remark generated did not indicate anger so much as a wary exasperation.
“This is it,” she exclaimed, looking around with excitement undercut by apprehension.
I gazed at the white sign she was pointing to, with its worn wording informing unenlightened passersby like myself that the first land battle of the Civil War had been fought on this still-verdant soil. Immediately, I recollected that many of the prominent highways where I came from were named after the illustrious—and still exalted—Southern generals of that contentious campaign, and that it had never seemed especially anomalous to drive by a carefully preserved battlefield, surrounded on all sides by rows of new townhouses—unlikely armaments of brick and painted wood.
“This is what your state used to look like,” she said, gesturing to the dense patches of trees that remained undiminished by the unobtrusive houses. Indeed, the paved roads seemed an almost inappropriate presence amidst the rounded, uneven hills and unrepaired fences splattered with mud and the impervious emblem of time.
“You’ll notice that almost every front yard has its own satellite dish,” she remarked, shaking her head, as we drove further out from the cohesive centrality of the town. “Most of these folks don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, but they sure as hell have their television sets.”
She drove us alongside the river, over an increasingly narrow road that appeared to have at some point been in the process of being paved, and then abandoned long before the project was near completion.
“I can’t believe this place is still around,” she said, pointing with an expression of surprise and approval at a long, white trailer that seemed to have taken root in the damp dirt. It was windowless and unadorned, except for the one word etched in broad black letters above the entrance.
“That’s a bar?” I asked. “Is it for real?”
“Oh yes, it’s real. My brothers used to go there all the time to get drunk and shoot pool.”
“The place doesn’t even seem big enough to have a pool table…it doesn’t even look like it has electricity.”
“I know…there aren’t any kegs or anything, there isn’t even an actual bar—just a bunch of stools and an old pool table. They serve beer by the can, or they used to, anyway…”
“Have you ever been inside?”
She gave me a funny look. “Of course not.”
“Really? Well do you want to go check it out?”
She told me it wasn’t a good idea. “You wouldn’t be very welcome in there,” she said.
“Are you kidding?”
She wasn’t. “The way you’re dressed, you look…no, that wouldn’t go over very well, at all.”
I was somewhat taken aback. “Well if that’s the case, it sounds like I’m not going to go over very well this evening…”
She smiled. “No, you’ll be fine. Most of the people who will be there tonight have at least been exposed to other things. They’ve actually been outside the town here.”
I found that, despite my disappointment, I was nevertheless intrigued. The random possibilities I imagined occurring inside that peculiar bar at once fascinated and offended me.
“Well, we can check into the motel now, unless you want to drive around some more…”
I told her that I wouldn’t object to some more sightseeing. This seemed to be the answer she was hoping for, and I was relieved. It was, after all, her weekend. Her town.
“Do you want to go see the coal mine, the one you always tell me about?”
“Sure, we can go there I guess,” she said, unenthusiastically. “But there’s someplace else I’d actually like to see first.”
After a few minutes we crossed a one-lane, covered bridge and turned off on a packed road which was like a dirt island, bordered by large mud puddles on either side. The sun’s light, which had been seasonably warm, was all but obfuscated by the sunken shade of the brooding trees.
Eventually, this cavernous trail gave way to an immense, open field, and Jesi parked at the bottom of a hill strewn with jaundiced grass.
“It’s up there,” she said, pointing at the sloping maze of bushes and green clusters that sprang out from the tufts and mounds of scorched brown earth.
“You mean we have to walk through all that?”
“Of course we do, don’t be such a baby,” she laughed, marching into the thick of waist-high overgrowth.
At the crest of the hill, in the center of a clearing, there stood a decayed, one-room building that was, or at one time had been a place of worship. The chipped white paint was badly cracking, and the front door either had fallen off or been removed by vandals. There was a circle of small, unadorned gray tombstones that surrounded the structure like a melancholy halo.
“This is my church,” she said matter-of-factly.
I told her it looked as though it had been quite some time since anyone had celebrated mass here.
“I know, it’s probably been ten years, maybe more.”
Despite its neglect, the edifice retained a uniquely sanctified aura, occupying as it did all the solitude and silence of a forgotten place.
Approaching the creaking altar, I was surprised to observe the large, wind-beaten bible still secure in its proper place at the pulpit, as though the final service had taken place and then become suspended in time. I felt her walk up behind me and press against my back, gently grabbing my arm. “I want you to do something for me,” she said softly, as if she were fearful of being overheard by an invisible assembly that might have been congregated before us.
“Sure, what is it?”
She told me.
I turned around abruptly. “Are you serious?”
“I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life,” she said, putting her hands on me and closing her eyes.
It was as though we were at once insulated from any undesired detection and yet, there was an almost palpable presence I was unable to disregard. Somehow, it seemed to me that our impulsive act had served to awaken all the eyes and ears that had ever gathered in the now dusty and disheveled pews.
Jesi seemed not only to sense something of this herself, but to be actively and eagerly seeking to engage these strange, silent spectators.
She was loud. She spoke, and said things which made no sense, or that held no meaning to me: rehashed conversation and names of people who may have at one point belonged to this disbanded parish. It was difficult for me to concentrate, even with my eyes shut, because it was increasingly apparent that she was scarcely noticing my participation as she went about confronting, or defying the history of this church, and whatever significance it held to her.
The reunion was being held at the volunteer fire department, which had a modest banquet hall that obviously served as an all-purpose locale for the town’s functions, ranging from wedding receptions to church bingo, to special occasions—like tonight. There were neither windows nor air conditioning, so the room retained a cozy, if slightly claustrophobic feel. Enough cigarettes, cigars and pipes had been enjoyed within its confines over the many years to leave the walls indelibly stained; the cinderblocks looked as if they might begin emitting smoke at any moment. There were fold-up chairs and collapsible tables spread out in one of the corners. In short, it was exactly as I imagined it might be.
My own ten year reunion was scheduled to take place later that year, and there had been over five hundred students in my graduating class. At this event, including dates, there couldn’t have been more than fifty people in attendance.
Jesi had warned me that it would not be unlikely, or out-of-keeping with the prevailing practice of the town that this function would be sans alcohol, so it was to my considerable relief—and I presume just about everyone else’s—that a keg of beer had been tapped before we arrived.
We walked in, and she was immediately recognized by several people.
I turned to her. “Jezebel?”
“Nobody’s called me that in years,” she said, with the slightest look of consternation.
“That’s interesting,” I mused. “I guess I’d just always assumed it was Jessica…”
“Yes, well, I changed it…I changed a lot of things when I left here.”
I was intrigued by this remark, as well as the ambiguous manner with which it was expressed. Before I had a chance to comment further, the man who had called out to her from across the room had made his way through the small crowd and now stood in front of us.
“Hi there! Long time no see,” she smiled, embracing him warmly.
There was a buffet-style dinner, served in silver chafing dishes, which caused me to wonder exactly how many celebratory affairs and formal functions had taken place in this room over the years.
There was music, dancing, and loud, animated conversation. And there was much drinking. With a few exceptions—there were a handful of couples who still lived in town and saw one another regularly, and were content to leave before the event officially concluded—most of the people in attendance seemed perfectly intent to tie one on, an expression I heard repeatedly over the course of the evening.
My own glass was never empty. The alcohol ameliorated my reticence, and a reluctance to unintentionally offend anyone—a concern which turned out to be almost entirely unwarranted: the people I spoke with seemed genuinely interested in knowing who Jesi’s friend was, and where it was exactly, he was from. For the most part, I stood off to the side, away from the locus of excitement my date was generating. The primary topics of discussion involved marital and/or family status, locality, and, of course, the obligatory reminiscences of the good old days. Matters such as occupation and salary, if they were mentioned at all, were decidedly inconsequential.
Another factor, I slowly understood, that undoubtedly contributed to the copious intake of alcohol by those in attendance was the oppressive warmth in the room. Large, industrial fans stood in each corner, like set pieces from a silent movie, which only served the purpose of moving the air around in stagnant circles. Most of the men had quickly abandoned their coats, and several had already discarded their ties. For some reason I could not altogether discern, and despite my discomfort, I remained unwilling to remove, or even loosen my own tie. It seemed that forsaking formality would lower my guard, or else be viewed as an overly ardent attempt to align myself with the solidarity of this small town. And, perhaps some small part of my complacence resulted from a contentment to remain slightly aloof, and apart from the group.
As the evening wound down, those that remained had congregated around the keg, and the room felt smaller and oddly secluded.
Jesi was becoming drunk. The geniality which had been on display throughout the evening shifted to ebullience: she seemed increasingly incapable of expressing all the ideas and thoughts that were unfolding as her inhibitions continued to dissolve. It was as though she could not speak quickly enough, for fear of keeping up with what she wished to say, or that something might be left unspoken.
None of this was provoking any noticeable disapproval from the group; if anything, they seemed refreshed, even somewhat seduced by her iridescence. I was certainly enthralled: she was radiating an exuberance that I had not heretofore been privy to.
We were given sufficient warning that the doors would be locked at midnight, thereby concluding the function in accordance with the agreed-upon conditions any occasion held in this building were subject to. This adherence to the inviolable conventions of tradition, which superseded the significance of any particular event, struck me as both refreshing and ridiculous.
Two other couples joined Jesi and me in the parking lot, after transporting the dwindling keg that we now congregated around, like a campfire. I was pleased to observe that everyone seemed sufficiently agreeable, and the conversation, like the beer, continued to freely flow. As one couple, who had relocated to the west coast, compared and contrasted their new place of residence, it occurred to me that I was the only remaining member of our group who had not grown up in Philippi.
Knowing I eventually needed to drive back to the motel, I’d ceased drinking once we came outside, and presumed that it was the languid onset of sobriety which made the sudden change in Jesi so noticeable. She seemed distinctly unsettled, or nervous about something, and her speech, which had been loud and rapid, now seemed manic, infused with an urgency that made her slurred words difficult to comprehend.
Someone pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and I was surprised when Jesi requested one. She fumbled with it, unable to keep her hand steady as she grasped the book of matches, rolling the filter around in her lips. Finally, she succeeded in lighting it, and it promptly fell out of her mouth, extinguishing its decapitated flame as it bounced on the pavement. She squatted down to retrieve it, and then remained crouched, close to the ground, while we all watched her, amused yet concerned.
“I was raped,” she said matter-of-factly, looking away as she scooped up the dead cigarette. No one said a word. It was as though in that moment the breath had been abruptly sucked from the air.
“Do you know what that’s like?” she asked, twirling the cigarette in her fingers, with the detached demeanor of a scientist observing some perfunctory data.
It seemed to me that her question was redundant, because it was rather obvious that this was precisely what the rest of us were wondering, as we stood in muted disbelief. Each person probably wished to say something, but was afraid of saying anything. So we remained silent in our floundering paralysis.
“I’ve had this…this thing, with me—all this time,” she continued. “And you see, knowing what I knew, even when everyone else, all of you, thought I was this pristine little child…”
She paused, and I noticed that the looks on the others’ faces—the ones who had grown up with her—were slightly distracted, and different from my own puzzled expression. I could not determine whether the shock of her pronouncement was creating confusion as much as clarity—a confirmation of something that was beyond my comprehension. At once, the emancipating effects of the alcohol dissipated as the situation revealed its essence: it was—with the exception of me—once again a group of individuals who had been raised amongst one another in a homogeneous, if somewhat onerous environment.
Everyone’s eyes were fixed upon Jesi, who was looking straight up at the stars, either avoiding our collective gaze or attempting to avert tears. No one spoke, and I realized that, probably for a different reason than the others, I was anxious for her to elaborate, and alleviate this excruciating silence she had caused.
Finally, she continued. “The thing about it is, I don’t really mind, not anymore.” She paused, letting the full effect of her words register. “I mean, not in the way you might think…I was young and it wasn’t…well, I didn’t know any different.” She stopped, looked up at us for a moment, then added: “I know that’s not right…but it’s the truth.”
“Who was it, Jezebel?”
It was one of the men. I didn’t notice which one of them had said it, I was staring too intently at her: her face, her mouth, and the astonishing words it had just calmly uttered.
“Jes…who was it?”
It was not so much a question as a demand. His tone was too loud, and choked, as though the words had needed to scale a considerable wall of bile just to reach his tongue. Now the others were looking at him as well: it was apparent he already had an indication of whose name it was she wouldn’t reveal.
“It was him, wasn’t it?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jesi responded, almost inaudibly.
She glowed. She seemed happy and relieved, as though finally shedding a mask that had long stifled her. It was odd; it was awful. Then she stopped, aware of herself and what she had told us. In that moment it was as if she had forgotten how to breathe and was obliged to remind her body what was already, automatically expected of it.
“Oh my God, I’m going to be sick,” she gasped, standing up abruptly. At once, she was human again: pale and awkward as she stumbled into the darkness around the corner.
The two women followed her, leaving me with their husbands, who exchanged a slow, meaningful look I pretended not to notice.
“It was him,” the one who she had refused to answer hissed to the other. “It was that drunk bastard, that priest.”
If it had not been sufficiently clear, it was now obvious that my presence—in light of this unexpected revelation—was no longer appreciated, or welcome. An outsider, I had intruded upon their insular contingency, making the situation that much more unavoidable, and unsettling.
“Christ, I think I’m gonna be sick too,” the other one mumbled, quickly staggering up and away from us.
I shrugged my shoulders, in the hope of indicating that I understood, and it was okay. Or, if he preferred, that I didn’t understand at all.
The two of us sat quietly, not speaking or looking at one another. The only sounds were the soft, interchangeable voices of the women around the corner. Finally, I sensed him staring at me, so I cautiously looked over.
“That priest,” he said, glaring at me. Past me, really. “It was her uncle.”
I shook my head, deciding it was best if he didn’t know I had figured that much out on my own.
Later, after everyone was satisfied that Jesi was going to be all right, I drove us back to the motel.
“I’m sorry…” she began.
“No, it’s okay, really…”
Fortunately, this seemed sufficient to her, and she laid her head back, shutting her eyes.
Once we arrived at our room she immediately sprawled out on the bed, still wearing her dress and high heels.
I sat by the open window and watched the occasional, solitary truck speed by.
It was dark, but the stale heat lingered in the heavy air. Everything seemed unnaturally still, an almost conspiratorial silence, as though the town—its trees, its grass, its buildings—was wary of revealing secrets it continued to hold.
There was a picnic scheduled the following afternoon, and she asked me if I wanted to skip it.
“It doesn’t matter,” I lied. “We can do whatever you want to do.”
To my considerable relief, she wanted to leave.
On our way out of town we drove over a different bridge and the scenery was different than what we had encountered the day before. The unpaved road was exceptionally smooth, as though at some point a significant cycle of traffic had regularly passed over this route. Eventually, the thick space of trees gave way to a constructed clearing, and as soon as I saw the hulking, debilitated machinery, I understood where we were.
She didn’t say anything by way of announcement or explanation, but it wasn’t necessary. She pulled the car over and we sat silently, thinking our own thoughts.
The rusting pylons—whose exhalations once signaled purpose and productivity—resembled the fossilized skeleton of some obsolete creature that might have perished in the obscurity of a prehistoric era. All around the mazes of water-stained steel the resilient, expansive landscape thrived: bushes and trees, which had been cleared away to facilitate the efficient industry of the men who mined this terrain, once again overwhelmed everything that stood beneath and beside them. The rocky banks that had been leveled and moved aside, after eroding and eventually resurrecting themselves with the persistent deposits of drifting dirt, formed a fortress around the defunct tunnels that enabled men to burrow into the ground for its lucrative spoils.
The mountain, which had preceded and endured the coal mines, had ultimately reclaimed itself.
“How long has it been?” I asked.
She did not respond for several seconds, but I could sense that she was taken aback by my question, as though her thoughts had been transparent.
“I don’t know, at least twenty years,” she finally said.
This seemed to me very recent, even abrupt. And yet, to behold the relinquished apparatus, this once-thriving institution—and all that it signified—it seemed also an obsolescent artifact, a shady memory of an irretrievable past.
“The mines,” she continued. “That’s all they talked about. It was everything to them. They cursed it, feared it, breathed it. But mostly they loved it.” She paused, then added: “The way you might love your family, I suppose.”
I recalled the things I had read, and what she had occasionally related to me: the all-but incomprehensible adversity— incalculable hours spent in a dark space scarcely larger than your body; loss of weight from the heat in summer; frostbite in winter; black soot that seeped into your hair, eyes, ears and lungs; the alcoholism; abuse and despair—that made this way of life so unique. So reciprocally repugnant and redemptory.
“When something becomes part of you, you can’t imagine your life without it. Well, that’s what these people had to do. It wasn’t until it was taken away from them that they realized how much they actually had. That’s the real tragedy of what happened here.” She looked at me. “I can remember when this all started happening, you know. It seemed so unbelievable. Impossible, like the end of the world.”
“Well, I guess it was,” I offered. “At least in some regards.”
“Yes, it was,” she replied, turning back to the window. “I used to think that this place died, just stopped existing that year,” she said, more to herself than to me, as though she was thinking aloud. “Now it’s like time simply stopped, and everyone forgot. The ones left behind, anyway.” She shook her head slowly. “This town, this whole place, it will never recover.” She looked at me again, and I saw she was struggling to keep herself from crying. “It’s over.”
I couldn’t think of anything useful or relevant to say for a while. Then I finally asked a question I was sure she’d be able to answer.
“What happened? I mean, why did this happen?”
“I don’t think there’s a good reason,” she responded. “I’m not even sure there is a reason. Whoever said that things had to happen for any particular reason?”
I thought about suggesting how most events, with the benefit and perspective of hindsight, usually revealed explanations that may not have been foreseeable, or coherent at the time that they occurred. As I tried to figure out a way to effectively articulate this, I noticed she no longer seemed to be paying attention. I looked where she was looking: at the smoked-out silver pillars. They were silent, powerless. Humbled.
“Your father isn’t really dead, is he Jesi?”
I wasn’t sure exactly what prompted me to ask the question that unexpectedly sprang to my mind, particularly as I was suddenly sure that I knew the answer.
She glanced over at me coolly, and before I had the decency to look away I watched her expression shift from surprise, to anger, then hurt—and finally— resignation.
“He’s dead to me,” she replied, making no attempt to disguise the hostility in her voice. “He’s dead as far as I’m concerned.”
As we drove out of town in silence, I figured out what it was that had seemed so unsettling—and familiar—about the vacant coal mine, and the town itself: there was the conspicuous absence of commerce, the numbing influence of man. In the city—in any city—the asphalt and immaculate rows of buildings gradually attain an air of normalcy, supremacy: the city is a synthetic forest. But in the quiet and open expanse of an isolated place, God, it seems, is all around. The same God, perhaps, that had been overwhelmed, even annihilated by the skyscrapers and paved, sturdy efficiency of the city streets. Some places, perhaps many places, have not yet subdued the intransigent forces of nature, and God’s reflection is still discernible in the sky and the soil.
Suddenly I felt compelled to make one more attempt, one more gesture of resolution.
“Listen Jesi, are you sure you don’t want to go to that picnic?”
“Yes,” she answered coldly. “I don’t ever want to see any of those people…I don’t ever want to see…this place, ever again.”
There wasn’t much I could think to say. My inclination—which I kept to myself—was that she had gotten what she had hoped for, and perhaps more than she anticipated. In any event, I could sense the discomfort, her solemn resentment.
This had been her world, a world I still knew little about. A world she didn’t seem to know anymore herself, for that matter. Either way, if she didn’t care to discuss it any further I found, as the car steadily put distance between the future and her past, I was not altogether unsatisfied with that arrangement.
Sean Murphy is a Guest Writer for Panorama.