I am trying to sneak two ounces of primo marijuana that I have carried all the way from Evansville, Indiana, to Seco, Kentucky, past the producer of the CBS Evening News and into the double-wide trailer where my father anxiously waits for it. Two ounces is his minimum monthly preference, and we are nearing the end of the month. I can’t see him, but I know he is cagey, because he is always cagey.
I am acting as a sort of guide for CBS, an ambassador to this region, the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, often as inscrutable and inaccessible to outsiders as a war-torn third-world country. I have begrudgingly become a tour guide, a bridge, a translator, and a mediator. I have done this work in some capacity several times, always unpaid, for independent filmmakers, for NPR, and now for CBS.
This particular producer, a nervous, well-meaning blonde with doe eyes and the patrician bearing of a New England soccer mom, contacted me after she read an article I wrote about my job teaching English at a community college in eastern Kentucky. The piece detailed the experiences of some of my dual-credit high school students, who, after the foundation of their already run-down high school was irreparably damaged by nearby blasting, were crammed into a tiny middle school, where they remained four years later. The students, bright and full of promise, were fighting despair.
The producer flattered me and called my left-leaning article enlightening and moving. She asked if I had experienced any blowback in painting a negative picture of local politics, and I explained that the superintendent of that high school had insisted someone replace me—he didn’t want me teaching his kids. She said that CBS was putting together a news segment on the proposition of school choice in Appalachia and asked if I would be willing to help. I had reservations for many reasons—my fear of public speaking, my worry that I might be somehow responsible for yet another unfair, stereotypical representation of the mountains and people I love—but I agreed, as I had before, because I believed school choice was just another way to undermine funding for Letcher County schools, and because, as my mom put it, “If you don’t help them tell the story right, who will?”
A few days later the producer emailed me with a list of everything she’d need:
––an interview with me, somewhere related to my childhood, she thinks maybe at a diner
––B-roll of me in the country, walking on a back road
––photos from my childhood photos of my parents or grandparents in a one-room schoolhouse
––an interview with a passionate teacher who is against school choice but who voted for Trump
––interviews with students from families experiencing hardship, she specifies “father unemployed, drug issues, etc.” (Here she adds that they will conduct these interviews in a sensitive way.)
––B-roll of beauty shots of rolling hills and winding streams, remnants of the mines, abandoned schools, churches, shots of various “hamlets” like Seco, shots of the local Walmart and Dollar Stores, signs of blight, and signage indicating this is Trump country.
I told her how much I disliked Mountain Dew–mouth and dirt-floor stereotypes. I explained that not only are those stories hopelessly incomplete and exploitative, they also widen the chasm between Appalachians and outsiders, the last thing we need. She assured me she understands. She uses the word sensitive a lot.
She wants to meet around ten, so I wake at three in the morning to make the six-and-a-half-hour drive to my hometown. I am used to the drive because it is my well-traveled commute to work and to visit my parents and my sister, but the producer, whose flight was canceled and who has had to drive the last leg of her journey, is already frazzled when she arrives late at the company store turned winery in Seco, where we are supposed to film my interview.
Immediately, we hit a snag. Despite his agreement to help them, the winery owner has gone to Tennessee, and his wife refuses to cross the street and unlock the door. An older, fearful woman, she insists that she cannot brave the cold because of a recent heart surgery. It is fifty degrees outside and sunny.
The producer is incredulous. She asks if that’s really a thing, the heart surgery and the cold. I explain that most likely the couple has decided not to help with the story. She tells me that they’ve already had quite a day, because earlier that morning before I arrived, while the cameraman was trying to get some of the shots on their list, he encountered a gun-toting local who warned that “he better be careful where he decides to take pictures.”
Over the course of the day, she tells me this story multiple times, and I can tell that she is as baffled by my lack of reaction as she is by the gun wielder’s honest warning. I do not mention my father’s arsenal or his gun safe, big as a coffin, or that he has carried a loaded gun in his hand, not a holster, when arguing with neighbors over property boundaries. I don’t tell her that land, privacy, actually, is nearly all that’s left to fight over, to defend, in Letcher County.
We spend most of the afternoon driving around Whitesburg, the county seat, the town where I went to high school, filming scenes that will make good television. The cameraman tells me he has not been able to locate a Trump sign and asks if I know where one might be. I explain that people in the region are disenfranchised, apathetic, that they don’t care very much about politics, that the laughable voting turnout in the recent election illustrates this reality. He and the producer nod, but keep their eyes peeled.
The cameraman is a dick. He tells me at least three times that the camera he is using cost sixty thousand dollars. He flirts and praises me for being “smart enough to get out of this hellhole.” I ask him not to say that, and he shrugs and asks me why. I explain that my family still lives here, and when the producer mentions talking to them, I tell her, unequivocally, no. She is so exhausted from her disrupted travel plans and the ordeal of the morning that she falls asleep in the back seat while asking me questions like, what do you think these people want?
We finally make our way to Seco, where I am filmed walking up and down Fletcher Hill, my family’s mountain, the mountain where my grandfather mined coal, where my father was reared with great love and brutality, where I picked my grandmother’s strawberries and my grandfather’s roses, where I rode my pony, Sam, bareback and without a bridle, where I played for hours with my sister and our holler rat girlfriends. This is the mountain that filled my childhood with the rushing sounds of the creek below, the headwaters of the Kentucky River, and with the brutal grunts and thumps of our neighbor, Junior, beating his wife, Ruby, to a pulp. Here my sister and I wandered unsupervised for hours and chased away packs of mangy, biting dogs with the big stick I learned to carry everywhere.
It is also the mountain on which my family sought refuge after leaving The Body, an End Times wilderness community, cloistered in the woods of northern Minnesota, that my father joined when he was red-eyed and mad with fear, following his tour of duty in Vietnam. When I was only ten years old and we had nothing left in the world, when even he realized he had nowhere left to run, my grandfather gave him a piece of this mountain, and together they built the little house we lived in, the house my sister still lives in with her husband and her three kids.
Here on Fletcher Hill, the cameraman gives me stage directions like “point over there” and “tell us what that is.” I am not a natural, and we have to reshoot several times. At one point, he gestures that he wants to tell me something, and I assume it is that I need to relax or take a deep breath.
Instead, he looks over his shoulder to make sure the rest of the crew is not within earshot and tells me that just between us he voted for Donald Trump. He says he worked for the Clintons and Hillary is a raging bitch, that Trump is what our country needs because he knows business. With his face in my face, he confesses this like it will change my mind, or perhaps like it is something I have secretly wished for. I fight the urge to wake the producer and tell her I found a Trump supporter for her news segment.
I ignore the cameraman’s confession and change the subject. I ask him to please not include any footage of my sister’s porch. She is busy running her three kids to school and practices, and I know she would prefer the cluttered tangle of dogs and plastic toys not be broadcast on national television. The cameraman tells me not to worry and squeezes my neck like he knows me.
The producer, awake again, says she’d like to treat me to a nice dinner in Pikeville where they are staying at the Hilton, more than an hour from the elementary school where they are filming, but worth the drive to avoid the shabby hotel selection in Letcher County. I can tell she is embarrassed to tell me that the hotel I recommended in Whitesburg wasn’t nice enough, because she thinks I don’t know the difference and doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.
While they are busy loading the gear back into the rental car, I see my chance. I tell them I’m going to say hello to my parents quickly before we pack up and leave. I grab my purse from the car, jog up the hill, push my head inside my parents’ front door, and shove the paper bag full of weed at my father, who has been watching from the window.
“Thank you. I love you,” he says. His relief is palpable.
“Gotta go, Daddy. I’ve got CBS out here riding my ass.”
He laughs, gives me a peck on the cheek, says he understands. He checks inside the bag, tells me he is all set. He asks if I know what variety of weed it is. I don’t. He peeks outside the window and tells me not to take any shit from those people. I tell him I won’t.
Later that night, after the awkward dinner is finished, after I have met Jim Axelrod and listened to the producer talk about the stress of ordering costly pilgrim costumes and gluten-free cupcakes from a distance for her daughters back in—and these are her words—the best school district in Connecticut, arguably in the nation, I return to Seco to spend the night.
It is early evening and the sun hovers above the crest of the mountain, but the trailer is dark, as it always is. The shades are drawn, and billowing clouds of pot smoke fill the air. My parents are watching Stephen Colbert, my father’s favorite. My mom tells me there is bologna in the fridge, and I make a sandwich with white Sunbeam-brand sandwich bread, Miracle Whip—my mother hates real mayonnaise—and generous slabs of tomato pulled from the kitchen windowsill, still warm from the afternoon sun. I salt the sandwich heavily and put on a fresh pot of coffee, always Folgers at my parents’ house. I notice that my dad has purchased my favorite hazelnut coffee creamer in preparation for my visit.
My mother’s oxygen machine huffs and puffs in the corner. She is already wearing her nightgown, not because evening is falling, but because she wears her nightgown all the time, unless she has to leave the house. I can tell she has been worried about me, because she is twisting her hair, which is what she does when she has something on her mind.
I tell my parents how the day went and about the ridiculous question about what these people want. (My father’s quick response: Did you say to be left the hell alone?) I tell them about the Trump-loving cameraman—they both voted for Obama and for Hillary Clinton—and about a second potentially violent encounter that happened while we were idling on Main Street in Whitesburg in the upscale rental car, sticking out like a sore thumb, trying to figure out the plan for the next day.
Someone in the car, I can’t remember who, had shared a bad joke, and we were all laughing, punch-drunk, overtired from our long day, when a local man, out of his mind on some drug likely made in a Pepsi bottle in the back seat of a car parked at Walmart, heard us laughing and decided he must be the butt of the joke.
He leaned through the passenger’s side window and tried to pick a fight with the cameraman, who shrunk back like a kid’s wiener in a cold swimming pool, so I had to intervene. I switched into my thickest accent and assured him that “these people ain’t from around here and they don’t even know where they are—I swear to God they ain’t laughin’ at you,” which calmed him down and left my carmates slack-jawed as he apologized, god-blessed me, and hurried away.
My parents heave with laughter. They are proud of me for remembering who and what I am. My father even says so, an occurrence rare as a solar eclipse, and I soak up his approval like the desperate eldest daughter I am and always have been. I am a terrible insomniac, but that night I sleep like a rock, dead to the living world. I dream of my own five children back home in Indiana, wading quietly in our creek, blue jeans rolled carefully into highwaters, skipping pocketfuls of smooth stones that hit the water five, ten, even twenty times in a row.
The next day, the day of my interview with Jim Axelrod, I am a nervous wreck, and my father has changed. This is not unusual, especially on the last day of a visit when he knows I am leaving soon. I have come to expect it and tell myself it’s because he loves me and hates to see me go. “You’re gonna wait until I’m dead to move back home,” he said to me once, more of an observation than an accusation, like he just wanted me to know that he knew, almost like he was joking. I didn’t say anything when he said it, but I didn’t deny it either, and this is characteristic of our relationship; he dances around our painful history, trying to take away some of its power, and I hold the cards of my version so close to my chest that no one, not even he, can see them. I know from experience that the price of letting your version of a story exist anywhere outside your own head is that the moment you do it’s no longer your version but public property, subject to scrutiny and denial, and impossible to control.
When it is almost time for me to leave, he tries to pick a fight, with me, with Mom, with my sister, Misti, who has hiked up the hill for a quick visit before I leave. He coughs his nervous cough that sounds like a stifled scream, a cough the VA has simultaneously denied the existence of and operated on. Nostrils flaring, he paces from his bedroom to the kitchen counter and back to his recliner. He makes this circuit dozens of times, changing the channel, then changing it back to the news. His political commentary quickly switches to talk of the End Times.
Mom sits quietly, the intermittent bursts of oxygen in her nasal cannula the only sound coming from her corner of the couch. She is still in her nightgown. My parents are only sixty-four and sixty-seven years old, but they have talked about being old for as long as I can remember.
When I was ten, my mother’s uterus prolapsed. She called me into the bathroom to show me the shiny pink protuberance slipping out of her and asked me Shawna Kay, what is that? I told her I had no idea. I asked, Is it maybe your womb? She said, I bet you’re right. I bet that’s what it is. She said, You don’t want to get old, Sissy. Don’t ever get old. I watched her push her uterus back inside with her fingers. She was only thirty and had a hysterectomy the following year. She has had three heart surgeries in the past seven years, including a cardiac bypass.
My father looks over at me, and I look away because I know what is coming. He will say something so mean that there’s no way to prepare for it. When my husband joins me for these visits, my father enjoys his company and behaves better, but Dave was not able to travel with me this time, so the outburst is inevitable.
We all know it is coming and that it will be directed at me. Misti tries to distract him by cracking jokes. Mom offers to make him something to eat. She asks if he’s fed his horse, Beauty. Misti asks if there is a Colbert episode we haven’t seen.
But he’s still looking at me. He calls my name.
He pauses, looks at the TV intently, like he is deciding whether to say the awful, honest thing he has conjured. Then he looks back at me.
“Don’t you wish you could leave all this behind and we could go back to The Body where we didn’t have to worry about anything and everything was taken care of for us?”
Nausea rises in my throat. I choke, trying to think of something to say, words that might end the conversation. Nothing has changed except his tone, his words, but I feel stuck, stranded on the mountain, like he’ll never let me leave.
When he says all this he means everything. He means my family, because how could I bring them along to The Body with me? He means my education, my job, and my house in Indiana, all of which he sees as obstacles between me and my real home. He means he wants me closer, as close as possible, where I can take better care of him and Mom and help them solve the problems of their daily lives. He wishes we could live like we used to, quite literally in the middle of nowhere, as far away from the world as possible, a place even more remote than Fletcher Hill, and that we would have only each other. He misses that time in our lives.
I am trying to think fast, to hold my face carefully.
Misti steps in. “Daddy, you know that there are hard things about every place. There is no such thing as a perfect place.”
Silence settles, spreading from the corners of the room to the center. The oxygen machine sighs. The TV is loud now. In London, a man has driven his car over several pedestrians along Westminster Bridge, then run toward Parliament with a knife in his hand.
“People will do anything to each other, won’t they,” my father says. It is not a question.