I spent this past weekend at the cabin in West Virginia, where, as the song goes, it’s almost heaven. I had 10 short stories to read and critique, and there’s no place finer for settling in to work. Will I make you too envious by describing the perfect serenity of the woods this time of year—the pale sunshine, the random drifting leaf, the taste of strong coffee, my favorite flannel shirt, the sunshine on the couch, the Bennett Sings Ellington on the stereo? Nah. I’ll tell you, instead, about my neighbors.
Actually it’s a single neighbor, whom I’ll call Jacquie. She lives a quarter-mile up the dirt road from me, and I have to pass her place every time I drive in or out. She’s my closest neighbor, and except for her many dogs, the largest of which is a German shepherd mix (boy, there’s an understatement) who has often chased me all the way to the cabin and up the gravel driveway and onto my porch, barking ravenously all the while, I’ve had few complaints about her. I wish she did not burn her garbage out in her yard, since there’s hardly anything in these woods but dry leaves and tinder and one of these days I suppose my cabin will be burned to the ground. And I wish she would take more fastidious care of her property, since it can’t be good for real estate values to have andom trash heaped everywhere and a sprung sofa sitting out by the road. And I wish she wouldn’t cut down healthy trees for firewood, and I wish some of her bandana’d boyfriends who grow pot out behind her house were more scrupulous about where they scatter their empty Bud Lite bottles and non-biodegradable fast-food debris. But these are trifles.
There’s no law up here on the mountain. The Sheriff has always chosen to overlook anything short of rape or murder. Most people have a big free-roaming dog. Everyone has a gun.
But back to Jacquie. I hadn’t noticed much activity around her place lately, just a dangling light bulb burning over her front porch. No raucus parties clearly audible a quarter-mile away at 2:00 in the morning, no car, no dirt bike, nothing. So as it happens I walked down the road toward the river Sunday morning to visit Kay and Ray, my neighbors in the other direction. Kay’s a tough old bird. She’s in her mid-seventies but I wouldn’t mess with her. She takes good care of Ray, whom she calls Raymond Lee, and who’s got maybe twelve chronic conditions including diabetes and heart disease and is hard of hearing, too. I talked to Kay in the living room while Raymond Lee kept turning up the volume on Law & Order SVU. I didn’t need to ask Kay about Jacquie, because she told me right off.
Seems that several weeks ago, Jacquie’s teenage daughter Melissa came back to her mom’s house to live, her 4-year-old child in tow. Jacquie soon caught her current bandana’d boyfriend—meaning Jacquie’s boyfriend—in bed with Melissa. A contretemps ensued. The boyfriend then got drunk on Bud Lite and wandered over to the house a little farther off the road from theirs—where a nice middle-aged couple had recently moved into what they thought would be a cozy retreat from the hustle and bustle—burst through their front door and, as the Sheriff would say if he ever came up here, “discharged his firearm.” This rattled the nice couple. Kay said you just can’t believe what he put those poor people through. They moved out that night.
And now, for reasons that can only be guessed at, Jacquie’s whereabouts—along with Melissa, Melissa’s 4-year-old, the bandana’d boyfriend and all the dogs—are unknown.
So I stayed long enough to shout a few words of encouragement to Raymond Lee and then walked back up the road to the cabin—where I settled back in to read my students’ short stories.
You could that I now had a story of my own, no?