Friday, January 05, 2007

aren't we all in Appalachia?

A ball stretched with pink and blue and yellow streaks bounces in front of my car and I brake gently, a reflex.

Sure enough, a towheaded child with grimy cheeks scrambles after it as another little boy with swinging straight hair jams his fists into his jacket pockets, studying the ball's progress grimly.

I stop the car completely, shifting into Park and opening my door. My mules that look like cowboy boots at the toes make a clopping sound like horses as I unfold from the driver's seat and go after the ball.

I palm it easily, the ball. It's the kind of ball you buy for a dollar at the supermarket, the kind they stack in wire bins with a square hole at the bottom so shorter people can tease and dribble them out. Once extricated, it's difficult to return the bouncy balls back into the cage, and they only cost a dollar, so the parents usually buy them. Inventive marketing ploy. I'd do the same, if I could make my artwork flexible to movement and appealing to small children.

I walk the ball back across the street, rather than toss it genially, which was my first impulse. A tense and distracted woman rushes out with a telephone cradled between ear and chin; she grabs the arm of the child closest to the curb, and thanks me in an aside from the conversation already in progress.

The small boys roll their eyes up at me, consideringly.

I get back into my car. The radio is still playing, undistracted. A man has called in to complain about his next-door neighbor who wears a mullet and is probably from West Virginia.

"Now, we can't stereotype," the talk show host says plaintively. "We know that we could find people with mullets just about anywhere, say, California, and we can't judge people by a geographic location or we'll be flooded with emails after the show from people from West Virginia. So let's just say this now. Just because the man has a mullet doesn't mean he's from West Virginia."

"Well, it would certainly seem to indicate an Appalachian region," the caller insists stubbornly.

I'm tilting my head, listening intently. A few years ago a woman came to my door collecting funds for sundries to benefit disadvantaged Appalachian women.

I was digging through the bottom of my purse for change when it occurred to me: aren't we in Appalachia*? I asked the woman collecting the money.

She didn't know. We had to go look it up, in fact.
Appalachia is a false economic construct.

On the radio show, someone cues in the theme song to "O Brother, Where Art Thou" (Man of Constant Sorrows).

"Why don't you say, instead of West Virginia, why don't you say hillbilly," the host suggests.

Yes, that's so much better. Thanks.
I sigh, a little, flicking my turn signal left.

"Tell me what this man did to you," the host prompts.
"He has a rusted-out old Ford, and he parks it in my yard. Also he has a fishing boat that he's nailed down kitchen chairs into."

See, to me that's just funny. I mean the part about the boat.
But I turn off the radio. I don't want to hear any more. I love my state. We're not all like that. And if we are, so what?

The half-hearted rain starts to patter down harder and I turn the dial up on the wipers.

I'm looking for my dog. My dog ran away when I took him out for a walk. Something caught his attention and he bounded after it, snapping the leash instantly from the catch at his throat. He's a strong, sturdy dog. Stronger in body than he is long in leg. Something like a muscular daschund on steroids.

So instead of tracking him on foot, I just gave up and started driving my car around.

I find him in a trailer park. I stop the car again and get out with my arms open, calling brightly so as not to frighten Max away with my hopeful longing (get your filthy carcass in my car, right now).

And me without an Oscar Meyer hot dog, fresh out of the thin plastic wrapper, to lure him into it. Shoot.

Max is sniffing a pile in the narrow strip of barren land between a gray trailer and an orange and white one. To his right, a greyed old man is stooped over a pile of twigs in front of the orange and white trailer.

I know my dog hears me, but he's not going to approach. He's going to make me work for it. I want to walk up into the property, but I'm afraid to without permission.

I call to the old man: "Can I walk up into your yard to get my dog?"

The old man straightens, pushing his dark gray toboggan back from his forehead.

He spits on the ground and glares: "I don't give a rat's ass. It's not my yard."

I take a few more steps forward and whistle up the dog: this time, he comes. I open up the passenger door and he jumps into the car, doing a little muddy dance on the passenger seat. I close the door behind him and circle around the back to get in on my side. I know the dog won't run out the other door. He's had enough.

This is my home. Always has been. If you haven't been here, you don't know what it is and I'm not sure I feel like explaining it. Growing up, my sister and I -- transplanted West Virginians -- used to lie awake playing what-if games: what if we hadn't moved here, in 1972? What if we'd grown up somewhere else (and it could have happened so easily!)? What kind of people would we have become, then?

And we'd shudder at the very thought.

*There are several states included in Appalachia. West Virginia is just the one state completely within it is all.