Another piece from my time in Williamson, West Virginia. Small talk is great. I want draft an essay about how our students eased (or bumped) into small talk as they stepped from a reticent culture into a place where trust is built on personableness. But here I highlight a few of my own small talk conversations, the ones that helped me understand the town better. I left people unnamed.
One late afternoon in Williamson I walked up and down the main streets hoping to find a cafe. I’d order a tea and pastry, sit at a table near a window of spring light, open my notebook. My head was full from being in this small town, reading its history, meeting its residents – the ones impassioned to save, the ones wanting or not wanting salvation (all of us). I walked by an eatery open four or five hours a day, closed now, and a bakery that might have served coffee, also closed now, and I wandered into the Mountaineer Hotel with its deep circular booths at the reception desk and an invitation to ring a bell for service. Instead I looked at the glass cases displayed in the lobby, a photo of President Kennedy greeting West Virginians in Williamson, and a plastic sleeved copy of the speech he delivered, reminding Americans the poor are people in our country. I left having not said hello to anyone at the hotel and at the next crossing raised a hand at a stopped police car.
Is there a cafe here? A place to sit? Tea? The officer rubbed his chin for a moment, named the short-houred eatery. Or the 7Eleven just up there, they’ve got coffee. I can’t think of another place. There used to be a coffee shop but it closed.
(Seven dollar gourmet coffees, I learned from the man who served a three dollar pie on the house, a man you’ll meet in a moment, in a town where you can by a whole breakfast for six dollars).
I walked in the direction of the 7Eleven, bought a pack of M&Ms because I’d walked in (a pack I brought all the way back to Korea), and decided it was the Track’s End, then, a restaurant and hotel that did good business with the ATVers riding the Hatfield and McCoy trail system. The breakfasts were good, I heard, and you could order a dinner for eight dollars. The dining room was black and white squares on the floor, formica tables and booths, fluorescent lighting and view to the kitchen with its prep counter, grill, fryer and Hobart. There was one man keeping the evening there. I looked at the menu. Two desserts offered. Pistachio pie or hot fudge brownie. The man wrote my order and asked for a minute. I’m the only one here, he said, and I took a seat in the middle booth. There couple sat to my front, a single man to my back.
I took out my notebook. The server cook brought out two baskets and plates for the couple. I watched without staring. I caught snips of conversation. I opened my notebook to write when the man behind me asked where I was from. Turns out this man behind me – I twisted in the booth to talk over my shoulder – travels to Williamson for work every week or so, but I cannot remember what the work is, and stays at Track’s End which he tells me isn’t bad, is clean, has good food. This man has phone he spools through to show me a picture of his granddaughter who has him wrapped around his pinky, he says. This girl is his light. His face is happy to talk about this four year old with a little sass. This man has no wife anymore, but wants to be around for his daughter and granddaughter.
When I talk with people in Williamson I say that I grew up in Wisconsin but that my father is from North Carolina and I remember summer trips to the region, driving through West Virginia on the way to or from my great-grandma Davis’s home in Virginia. What I remember as a kid is marveling at the towns notched up hills or holding tight at a stream bed, and how each little town had a baseball diamond, a near miraculous flat of land with scuffed baselines and a scoreboard on stilts. My talk slows. I do not drawl, but want to, because the accent is patient and rich.
The server cook brings me a small plate with a slice of pistachio pie: graham cracker crust filled with pastel green pudding, a smooth whipped cream and a sprinkle of brown pistachio nuts. It is not a pie I would think to make or order any other time, but this time, at this booth, it is just the right taste of sweet and salt and I eat all of it. The server cook brings out the traveling man’s takeaway and he scoots out of his booth, tells me it was nice to meet me, and walks down a hallway I hadn’t noticed before to his room upstairs. It was nice to meet him too.
The couple in front of me finish their baskets of dinner. The woman is missing teeth so her lips go thin and suck in a little. I see a lot of missing teeth that week and think of my own inheritance of poor enamel, the two crowns I could afford last summer and the more coming, sure, no matter the brushing. The couple stands and the server cook buses their table and three others. Then he is back at the counter with the register and I am bent over my notebook which is a useless task. There’s a television mounted to the wall, tuned to an old Charlie’s Angels episode and the drama is a missing actress, a shady stage manager or agent, the sobbing mother who knew something was wrong when her daughter – I give up. I turn sideways in my booth and talk across the ten feet of space, thank the man for a good pie. He asks where I’m from, what brings me here. He tells me that usually he’s not on his own at the restaurant but one of the gals got sick so he’s here, but that’s okay because he took culinary classes and can cook anything on the menu, but what’s hard is keeping up if it’s busy.
Now the Track’s End is quiet though. All the crumbs wiped off the tables. Seats pushed in. I must have asked how long he worked there, or how he got started cooking. It just doesn’t take much to get a conversation but listening takes practice. Maybe because I want to write better, I make myself listen first, quiet my internal voice nipping with an echoed story of my own so I can first hear who you are, what your story is. (Sometimes I listen well. Sometimes I have something smart to say, or something I think is smart. Because I want to write better, and tell true stories, I really am trying to practice good questions and good listening. It helps to remember I’m not as interesting as I might think I am). This server cook is small but sturdy, thinning hair. I guess about fifty but when conversation turns to the flooding I recalculate.
What happened in Williamson is a few things. First, coal, and jobs promised at the mine as soon as a young man graduated high school, or before, and enough money to buy a house or start a kid at college (if that kid resisted the starting wage call of the mines). Then in 1977 the Tug River flooded the town, cresting at fifty feet and leaving downtown Williamson under a dozen feet of water which drained to the damage of many homes. Sludge. River mud in the sewers, a mess to clean, dry out, rebuild. Many families returned though. I wasn’t around for the ‘77, but I was around for the ‘84, the server cook said. Another woman (my age) I met days later showed me the side of a downtown building painted with floodlines and told me she remembered climbing the rooftop of house with her grandfather to survey the flooded downtown after the ‘84 flood. After the ‘84 flood, the man told me, fewer families moved back. It was hard enough to rebuild once. In two decades’ time, Williamson’s population declined from a peak of ten thousand to its present three thousand, or just under. In 2015, coal mines took a hit under Obama’s EPA, and now the state and region are reckoning what comes next. Lumber, if harvested sustainably, or tourism, or maybe tech – always tech. Before the server cook was a server cook, he was a firefighter who retired after twenty-two years, a job he started as a paramedic while still in high school. If I’d started a job out of high school, the right kind of job with benefits and a pension, I might be retired now too.
I have the habit of making parallel lives for myself. The woman who showed me the flood markers on a brick downtown building is my age, with a junior in high school. I learned about the junior first because she talked about wanting to move to Tennessee which gives free instate tuition the first two years of college, but her son would need to be living there two years first, and now the peach orchard they had their eye on got bought by someone else. I was surprised she thought of moving. She is a champion of community in Williamson and in the week there I saw her a couple of times at work to teach wellness, involved in the elementary school and with a sober living house. But we think about our own kids too. Tennessee is a lot like West Virginia with better roads, she said, a joke I heard about Kentucky’s good roads too, They get us there. People there are like us.
For a couple of days that week in Williamson I thought about what it’d be like to move my family to that small town, to dig into the shared work of raising up a healthy community, to serve in a new way. I get zealous for want of purpose, forgetting where I am is purpose and charge enough. But the growth of Williamson must be born of her own first. But her own leave. There are empty houses on each street. Empty houses collapsing, buckling. I met a contractor and asked about the foundations of homes built into hills, can a house just fall off the mountain? And he told me about going into homes and wondering how no one noticed the slope, the whole house tipped with ground washing out under. I walked all over town that week, in the dark mornings, and out to the edge of town along a mountain and the mountains in West Virginia leak, drips tracing their way from hundreds of feet up to the rock foot carved to make way for a road, the rock slick with wet from old rain. The mountains shift. Foundations slip. But the empty houses, this is something the town sits with, tied by property owners who are gone, or inheritances not yet claimed, the expense of legally razing the abandoned buildings too much for the town. I peeked into a couple of empty buildings. The bottles and fabric of squatters, stripped walls.
There is one house abandoned years ago when one of the pill mill doctors in Williamson left. This is another story of Williamson. The hard work of mining breaks bodies, and bodies in pain want pills, and bodies without work are bored, and bored bodies want pills, and two or three doctors and pharmacies in this tiny, struggling town upended the place with an opioid epidemic. (Every family affected I heard again, again). This abandoned house, right off downtown and next door to one of two bed and breakfasts in town, is federally seized property, its owner fined but never jailed for the chaos of her medical malpractice, and now living between different states. She left two midsize luxury cars, a Mercedes and a BMW, parked in the drive. The house is yellow brick but the white siding accent near the roof is warped and peeled away. Another five years of rain and sun, the siding will fall to the house’s poured concrete porch – white columns, big front door, lots of windows all around the house, one of the nicest in town with no one to loot it good.
The wellness woman is bothered by the abandoned houses and buildings. Some are taken back by the hills, vines and grasses wrapping the wood frames so that when the spring green is full the structures disappear entirely. But most gape, tilt, fall. Dark windows, a danger to explore, narrow streets and alleys and precarious stairs connecting neighbors who aren’t there anymore. Whispers of what the town was when you could get a job out of high school or just before, when the buildings downtown could keep a shop open for more than a year or two, before the hold of tiny pills, before empty churches (churches every third corner, the smallest congregations), before kids moved away for good. I made a history of this town on small talk.
Fifteen of thirty-nine. 2182 words. I really need to get reckless if I’m going to make it to ThirtyNine Stories.