Before Tommy and how Tommy was changed forever in July of 1984, let me tell you about Serp. He was half pit. His head showed off the pit blood he had, flat and square, and his eyes gave him away, too. Inside that square head of patched black and white, the eyes were squinty and watchful. Calmly alert. It’s like Sister Hall said, nothing good can come of a pit.
Downhome Appalachia refers to a stereotype, a utopian conception of Appalachian society and culture based on an idyllic simple way of life. More broadly, it connotes a putative essential Appalachianess with nostalgic overtones, incorporating such cultural symbols as the log cabin, front porch pickin’, and soup beans and taters, among others.
There’s been a lot of aggravatin’ talk about gettin’ my ass out of here soon. Wench needs committed, Wench needs to be put in jail. The town, they’ve wanted me gone ever since I drove my car through the church after Tammy Jo broke my goddamn heart, not to mention what happened to Tommy Culberson.
Serp attacked, Tommy. That’s what you probably already know. It was the fireworks, a line of more than a hundred firecrackers all tied together so that when you put a lighter to them the world lit up. At the same time Tommy came onto the front porch, those firecrackers started going off.
Homeplace Appalachia is not a wholly consistent vision but rather a revisited Appalachia, the kind of thing Oxford folklorist Roy Judge has described as “a world that has never actually existed, a visionary, mythical landscape, where it is difficult to take normal historical bearings.”
They go around acting like I can’t hear them saying, boy is crazy. Boy is a lost soul. We’re prayin’ for that boy, and for sure prayin’ for his folks. The hell with them, is what I go around sayin’. This morning I’m three hours off from too much drinkin’. The town ain’t the only people hurtin’. I’m hurtin’, too.
He yelled out like the air had been hammered out of him – this long, devastating scream. From behind the house these gutter barks from Serp, a rattling of chains, chicken wire tearing apart, a sound like metal breaking. But that screaming was like something had cracked open hell and poured it out into the air around the house, the kind of sound that brings death immediately to mind.
The nostalgic redressing of Appalachia may be treated both as a product of the sentimental imagination and as an ideological construct. Favorable perceptions of Homeplace Appalachia reveal a nostalgia for aspects of an earlier society that are missing in modern times.
But, of course, there’s always poverty.
Severe poverty and desolation were paired with the necessity for careful cultural sensitivity. Many Appalachian people feared that the birth of a new modernized Appalachia would lead to the death of their traditional values and heritage. Because of the isolation of the region, Appalachian people had been unable to catch up to the modernization that lowlanders have achieved. In the 1960s, many people in Appalachia had a standard of living comparable to Third World countries.
How’s this for hurtin’: one, I ain’t got a car now; two, I ain’t got Tammy Jo. No need for a third thing, but there’s always Tommy. I’ll catch a ride out in front of the gas station down to Russell’s. I’ll sit there until it’s too hot. I’ll watch Russell pump gas and take fives and ones. Russell will eat oatmeal cream pies and play checkers with the Damron boy who’s been changing oil for him for the last twenty years. I should change oil for Russell. Then I’d have money.
Wench wouldn’t heed Sister Hall’s word about Serp. He found the pit on Abner Mountain and sold him to our dad the next day. The dog looked bad, dirty and malnourished, with at least four or five big scabs healing over wounds on his sides and the top of his head. Dad wanted him because owning that kind of dog says something about its owner in this area, and a person needs all the reputation they can manage around here. But it still stands that nothing good can come of a pitbull. That’s what Sister Hall said, and Wench just turned away.
Misunderstanding of a real Appalachia is worldwide to varying degrees, even as the Appalachians themselves often reduce other areas in similar fashion, such as the view of the surfer-guy in California, the monkish schoolmarm from New England, or the oil tycoon from Texas. One would think that for all the misunderstandings, for all the generalizing and failure to see reality, someone would be interested in finding the truth.
I know a lot of people in church, of course I do. There’s but two options here: church or hell. So I only know two kinds of people – the ones who are going to go live with Jesus Christ in Heaven and the ones who are going to be raped by Satan in Hell. You think it ain’t that way? It’s that way.
Serp took Tommy’s right cheek in his mouth and ripped upward to the bone. And because of that you could barely hear him scream. And because of that, when we knew to help, it didn’t matter. Everybody was guilty.
Appalachia is the myth, which can be anywhere, everywhere, all the time.
Sheldon Lee Compton’s writing has most recently appeared in Always Crashing, Wigleaf, and Free State Review, among others. He has been nominated for the Thomas and Lillian B. Chaffin Award for Excellence in Appalachian Writing and was a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Fiction Award. He lives in Kentucky.