Bingo Night at the Fire Hall: The Case for Cows, Orchards, Bake Sales and Fairs

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In 1990, Barbara Holland inherited her mother's summer cabin in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains. She quit her job in Philadelphia, said good-bye to friends and family, and moved into a different world. On the mountain she wrestled with winter isolation, stoked the woodstove, and learned to live with bears in the trash and mountain lions on the lawn. Lonely, she found a part-time job at the county newspaper down in the valley and earned the right to sit on a barstool in the tavern, where she listened to the ...
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Overview

In 1990, Barbara Holland inherited her mother's summer cabin in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains. She quit her job in Philadelphia, said good-bye to friends and family, and moved into a different world. On the mountain she wrestled with winter isolation, stoked the woodstove, and learned to live with bears in the trash and mountain lions on the lawn. Lonely, she found a part-time job at the county newspaper down in the valley and earned the right to sit on a barstool in the tavern, where she listened to the people whose families had always lived there, in the little country towns and their outlying farms. It was good, rich land, where dairy cows and peaches, corn and wheat, had always flourished. Everyone knew everyone else, and generations stayed settled within hailing distance of aunts and brothers, sons and daughters. The population figures hadn't changed since James Monroe was president. Crime was a toolbox stolen from the back of a pickup truck. Money, in a world where people could do so much for themselves, had nothing to do with status; capability counted for more than cash. Then just as she settled into this gentle, anachronistic world, it began to change. The suburbs were moving in. Malls and highways began to grow where pigs and peaches had been. As the strangers from metropolitan Washington outnumbered the natives, the bedrock of community began to crack. Villages were overwhelmed by development, and, at the newspaper, the once-idle cops-and-courts reporter was swamped with work. Holland suggests that it may indeed "take a village to raise a child" - or to nourish a peaceable, sturdy, self-reliant people. And if so, what shall we do with our villages gone?
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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Reflections on living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, as they metamorphose from farmland and self-sufficiency to commuter subdivisions dependent on cars and asphalt.

Holland (Endangered Pleasures, 1995, etc.) came to the Virginia Blue Ridge when she inherited her mother's summer cabin. She couldn't afford the upkeep on both her Philadelphia apartment and this rural retreat, so she opted for for the "one-bedroom, one-bath house without furnace or insulation," but with "flush toilet, electric stove, and a phone." Holland is both cautious and adventurous as, "stiff with sophistication," she tries to carve a niche for herself in this self-contained community. Establishing herself as a part-time writer of obituaries on the local newspaper, she insinuates herself carefully among the regular customers at a nearby bar and never undestimates how alien she is. From her perches on the bar stool, at the newspaper office, and in her snowed-in cabin, Holland rearranges priorities. For instance, she learns that her neigbors believe that government people don't do much—"What could anyone possibly do while sitting at a desk?" Doing, for them, is "fixing the tractor, nailing shingles on the roof . . . motion." Nevertheless, Holland gives due to both her long- established neighbors who raise pigs, can tomatoes, and chauffeur children, and to those newcomers who chauffeur themselves back and forth on the highways to city jobs. She explores the history of the region: Its point of reference is the Civil War, and its hero is Southern guerrilla John Mosby of Mosby's Rangers. She celebrates the rhythms of community suppers with supportive neighbors but accepts the inevitable replacement of small towns with the Internet.

Still, it was lovely while it lasted, and Holland describes the past and the intruding future eloquently, without whining: "I was told as a child to eat what was put on my plate."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781574901795
  • Publisher: Beeler, Thomas T. Publisher
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Series: Large Print Ser.
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Edition description: LARGEPRINT
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Table of Contents

Coming from Away, 1
The Day's Work, 38
Coin of the Realm, 48
The Horns of Elfland, 59
The Orderly Life, 70
Native Soil, 85
Weather Report, 102
Collectors' Items, 123
A Dish to Share, 134
High Noon, 143
Worlds Apart, 162
Prior Tenants, 176
Coming Soon, 191
The End of the World, 200
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

coming from away
..............

Mondays and Fridays I go down into the valley to the offices of the county newspaper and write obituaries. Friends think this must be depressing, but it isn't. So many of my subjects die peacefully at home and full of years, to be borne by a full count of pallbearers to the churchyard beside the village church, that death here wears an almost grandfatherly face.

When relatives of the deceased call or stop by the paper to drop off a photograph or correct the spelling of a name, details slip out. One woman was killed in a fall when her horse shied; she was ninety-one. Another, aged ninety-four, died shortly after serving and eating Thanksgiving dinner, having assembled her many descendants for final instructions.

I study the photographs. Some of them are laminated driver's licenses; some family snapshots, peeled out of an album for the occasion, and the BarcaLounger, the television set, and somebody's shoulder will need to be cropped out. Women are often photographed in their kitchens, part of a refrigerator showing behind them. One elderly gentleman had a gray cat cuddled on his shoulder that couldn't be cut and ended up included. Often there's a Christmas tree in the background or a birthday cake in the foreground, and sometimes the whole family has pressed together to be photographed in front of the house; the deceased is second from the left.

"Survivors include," I write, and list them all, the nieces, the great-grandsons, the sisters-in-law. I list where they live. They live here. Some of them have clustered in a single town; others are sprinkled up and down the valley in village and town and hamlet, but nobody will need to drive more than twenty minutes to the funeral, and some will be able to walk to it.

Very occasionally a Florida address will turn up, representing older relations, driven south like robins from our bitter winters; in summer they've appeared in the paper's social columns, home visiting family around the valley, sleeping in a series of family guest rooms, staying in homes only five or six miles apart.

I have changed worlds, and nothing about this strange place seems stranger than this, in eastern America, at the end of the twentieth century, when the very word "local," as in "local strawberries" or "a local boy," is fading from the language.

I'm afraid it speaks badly for the professional attainments and ambitions here. No corporation has bothered to lure our people to Houston or Chicago; no one has found a challenging job in Silicon Valley, or even across the river in Washington. What work they do, they can do here at home.

Basically everyone who has made it past the age of eighty-five was a farmer or a farmer's wife. Some of them are nudging a hundred. I bury slightly younger carpenters, stonemasons, shopkeepers, mechanics; members of the VFW, the Lions, the Rotary, the Garden Club, the volunteer fire and rescue squads. I bury a whole generation of housewives whose lives are summed up in the lists of their relatives. Sometimes the survivors consider the scant facts--date of birth and birthplace, parents' and children's names, date and place of death--and find them lacking for a life of eighty-odd years. They add "An avid gardener," or "She loved to cook," "Beloved wife and devoted mother," "Active in the church," or "She was always ready to help those in need."

Her children have not gone off to Yale or Columbia and developed a taste for modern life; they aren't clogging faraway airports at Christmas. They stayed here, married high-school classmates, and became farmers, carpenters, stonemasons, housewives. Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house is reality here, not nostalgia.

After they've sold off their forefathers' farms to developers, some go west across the mountains, where taxes are lower, but most stay here because it's home. They hang on in the margins, maybe driving east to a construction job but coming back at night, toolboxes rattling in the backs of their trucks, because they can't imagine being happy anywhere else. The idea of loving a place seems absurd in America now, a romantic conceit flavored with the last scenes of Scarlett O'Hara, but here it's taken for granted.

Perhaps all the ambitious, wandering genes headed for the cities after the Civil War, leaving only the naturally contented behind. The same surnames run for column after column in our slender phone book and show up on roadside mailboxes all along the lanes: they have looked at the place where they were born and found it good. The mayor and the mail carrier, as well as roads and gravestones and businesses and the dead on the Civil War memorial, all wear the same surnames. The phrase "married into" is still in use: we learn not that Bob married Sally, but that he married into the Reids; she married into the McKimmeys.

Here, an "old family" doesn't imply any sort of distinction. The name doesn't inspire respect, just recognition, and the sense that probably your check won't bounce, because misbehavior would cast a shadow on so many others of the name, alive, dead, and yet unborn.

When I give my own name, I'm usually told that there are Hollands across the mountain; am I connected to them, or perhaps to the Holland who ran for mayor in North Hill some decades ago? I'm not. I am connected to no one in the county and might as well be walking around naked.

Over at the old farmhouse I was introduced to a kid toiling over a balky mower. He shook hands and told me confidently whose boy he was. "I expect you know my parents," he said. I said I hadn't had the pleasure. "My mother's family, then," he insisted, and named them.

"The name sounds familiar," I lied, "but I don't think..."

He looked perfectly astonished. Was I, then, the first person he had met in his whole sixteen years who had met neither his parents nor his grandparents?

On any given day a person in the supermarket could come across his or her entire extended family, one by one, aisle by aisle, pausing to exchange fragments of news among the canned goods. This would horrify city folk, whose relatives tend to get on their nerves, but we're a low-strung lot around here and our satisfaction with our birthplace spreads to include our kin--or perhaps we consider them one and the same. Kin float lightly through the conversations: "My sister was saying, just the other day..."; "My brother-in-law got it in Roanoke"; "I took my aunt Lacy to the bingo at the fire hall Tuesday night."

Relatives are more useful here than in city or suburb. They have tools you can borrow. They're someone to call, in a taxiless world, when you need a ride. Someone to leave the kids with or go hunting with; someone to help get your firewood in or your boat painted. Someone to carry your coffin. From cradle to grave, my neighbors here swing in a hammock of family ties and nobody leaves except for the churchyard. Even the few who fled to Florida get carried home in the end.

Most Americans have traded their relatives for mobility. Families are gum on our shoes; the times call for nimbleness. Decades go by when we don't call our cousins or see our faraway brothers and sisters. The American family so praised by politicians is a mother and father and a minor child or two, a unit too small and temporary to resist centrifugal forces; a single death, a divorce, or just the child driving west in a U-Haul, and the family dissolves without leaving a trace. The new family has the strength and durability of a cabbage moth. (A cynic might suppose our politicians love this little trio not for any pleasure it brings those involved, but because it means the child's father has married the child's mother and between them they, not the state, will feed the child.)

Families depended on the ability to stand still.

In civilized areas people tend, when they mention them at all, to complain about their relatives, but somehow here nobody does, not even those whose mother-in-law came for Christmas and stayed forever.

Complaints of any kind are rare here. Even the most outrageous weather is good for a laugh and a head shake of astonishment: What will that old weather think of next?

The new people complain, the people in the new housing developments on the eastern edge of the county. They form citizens' associations for the sole purpose of complaining, and each group spawns task forces and ad hoc committees. They complain about each other's lawns and Christmas decorations, and control them through subcommittees, passing laws against nonconformity. They confront the board of supervisors and write furiously to the newspaper about snakes, snow removal, intersections, police protection, and the insufferable racket of a farmer's corn dryer running through the night at harvesttime. They complain about our famous local turkey buzzards that might well swoop down and carry off their children, and about raccoons that might well be rabid. Because they commute, unencumbered driving is their most basic civil right; they demand new laws banishing farm machinery from the public roads.

But out here to the west in the still-rural hills and towns, the gene for contentment that kept us here keeps us easygoing. The weather could have been worse. Even our mother-in-law could be worse; in fact, since she grew on the same tree, she's probably pretty easy herself and helps out at canning time.

Each town and village and cluster of farms in the county contributes a weekly column to the newspaper. In the eastern housing developments the citizens are restless; they move in and move on unremarked; names rarely appear in those columns, which are computer generated and sent in by fax. In the western villages, everyone's noticed, by typewriter or ballpoint, and the columns are often delivered by hand. Every local child who wins a classroom spelling bee is duly celebrated in print. Hosannas greeted the minister's wife when she made a clean blue-ribbon sweep of all three categories, apple, cherry, and "other," in the pie-baking contest at the fair. When a house changes hands, it's news. It becomes a matter of public record that Bill and Betty will be sadly missed, but Joe and Millie and Teresa, age four; Michael ("Micky"), age seven; and Bumps their black Labrador are welcome new neighbors, and Millie enjoys gardening.

Last summer, a man in one of the villages up the road sold the house in which he'd been born and lived for eighty-one years, and bought and moved into the house next door. A friend of mine asked him why. The fellow said, poker-faced, "I reckon it's just the gypsy in me."

Typing obituaries, listing relatives, I can't help feeling slightly superior. It's so un-American, so unadventurous, this contentment, generation after generation settled in the same county, sometimes in the same house, never to set forth over the hills to seek their fortunes in the great wide world.

And sometimes, in certain weathers, I would trade everything I own for that elusive gene.

As the eastern suburbs grow, I bury more of their denizens. They don't seem to have the staying power of the old families here in the west and many peg out in their forties and fifties. The funeral home rarely tells me why. Loneliness? Boredom? Stress? Here in the west, folks would be ashamed to give out before their eighties.

Every few months an important man dies, a man who has come from many faraway places to retire in our countryside. The funeral home sends me his resume, often several pages long. It doesn't say who his parents were or where he went to church, but it lists his every promotion and accomplishment. He was district manager in Cleveland, then transferred to Dallas where he was regional manager. He sat on boards; chaired conferences; was recognized; received awards. The survivors live in half-a-dozen different states. No pallbearers are mentioned.

I shoehorn him onto the page among farmers and housewives, and he seems to me as lonely as a cowbird's fledgling hatched in a restful of wrens. But then, I, too, am a cowbird here.

On Fridays, my duties at the paper include some copyediting, boiling down local press releases on village fairs and pancake breakfasts, and writing up the "years ago" column, staple of all proper country weeklies. I haul down the archives and search out tidbits from ten years ago (more housing developments and a shopping mall sprouting in the eastern half of the county), twenty-five years ago (the first housing development in the eastern county), and fifty years ago (droughts and wheat and the milk production of prizewinning holsteins).

I check the spelling on engagements and weddings. If the least bridesmaid's name is wrong, indignant visitors and phone calls will let me know, and we'll have to run it again, correctly, so that extra copies of the paper can be bought and the piece scissored out and saved in scrapbooks by family, neighbors, and friends. We are the paper of record and each citizen's steps from hospital delivery room to cemetery must be accurately reported.

Trivial work from a reporter's point of view, but I am producing family heirlooms here. A woman called and asked if we would mail her sixteen copies of the current issue with the report of her wedding in it. I thought of this massive bundle of newsprint leaking colored advertising inserts and suggested she take the clipping she already had to the nearest library or copy shop and make her own copies. No, she wanted the newspaper. But the copies would be on better paper, I argued. They'd look cleaner and sharper and last longer, and cost ten cents apiece instead of fifty cents plus postage.

No. She needed the originals. She seemed to feel there'd be something morally shoddy about copies, mere secondhand forgeries of this solemn document, that might cast a shadow over her marriage. Defeated, I routed her call back up to the front desk and returned to my task, freshly awed by my responsibilities.

No one not a resident, or related to one, can be married or buried in our pages for any price. We accept no news of the outside world; no wire service crosses our threshold, nor do our reporters and photographers set foot over the county line in any direction. The courthouse is across the street from the newspaper offices, and on the rare occasions when something illegal has happened, our underemployed cops-and-courts reporter strolls over to ask about it. Mostly it's nothing much. For us who work here, happenings even sixty miles away in Washington feel smudged and misty and possibly imaginary.

I scrounged this ragbag job in my struggle to come to terms with being in this place, trying to understand where I was and why I was living alone on a mountain in my middle age, without friends or family or proper employment, surrounded by this mysterious way of life.

I wasn't completely a stranger, at least not to the mountain. When I was a child, a schoolteacher friend of my mother's summered in a pre-Civil War cabin just down the hill from here. She had a son my age, an only child and easily bored, and I was sent to the mountain every summer to keep him company.

The cabin had no running water, no phone, no electricity. In the mornings we children hauled buckets of water from a spring fifty yards from the house, sometimes surprising a thirsty copperhead. The water was heated on a kerosene stove--in damp weather the whole house smelled of kerosene--and we washed the dishes in spattered-blue enamel dishpans. We washed the sooty lamp chimneys from the night before, working our stubby little hands inside their fluted tops. We threw the dishwater out the back door, where earlier we had spat after brushing out teeth.

We were given pails of vegetable peelings and sent across the pasture to the farm to feed the rabbits, the farmer being notoriously lax with his livestock. The gates sagged on their hinges and yielded reluctantly to our shoulders. The pasture contained two inoffensive cows; sometimes goats or sheep, depending on the farmer's whims; and a pair of cart horses, retired except for plowing the garden in the spring. They were white, the fly-specked, yellowish white of retired cart horses. The larger one, Beauty, was indifferent to humans, but Lady, the smaller, hated them. If she spotted me and Alfred from the farthest corner of the field she laid her ears back into a snake's head and bared her slanty tombstone teeth and charged, chasing us to the nearest fence or climbable tree. She was very old, past thirty, they said, but she could put on a surprising turn of speed. I expect we were the bright spot in her day.

In August we hoed between the claustrophobic corn rows higher than our heads. At night we took a flashlight and went down the hill to the outhouse, delicately called "Down-the-Hill," and sat side by side on the smooth board bench shining the light around the crusted, cobwebby walls and frightening each other with the inexplicable noises of a country night. We slept on wire cots in what had once been the chicken house. Things snuffled around in the dark outside.

My mother admired the mountain but saw no reason to suffer needlessly. In 1959 she had an unexpected success with a book and bought a chunk of land uphill from her friend and built a little house, to be a summer retreat where she would write and hide out from her family. She installed a flush toilet, an electric stove, and a phone.

Time passed. I moved to Philadelphia. I had three children of my own, and every August I brought them to the mountain, took their city clothes off, and parked them on the lawn with a trickling hose and some saucepans and water pistols. Summers went by and they grew taller, poked around in the woods, captured toads and turtles, invented elaborate secret games, built things with sticks, and moved through the long, interior process of growing that seems now to have given way to electronics and organized sports.

A summer house is different from the place where you live and work: A summer house is expected to be cut off from social context, isolated from the daily lives of those around it. Summer people everywhere are the objects of derision from natives, as the natives are a mystery to the visitors. Coming here on vacation, we stopped at the nearest town with a supermarket and filled the car with groceries. We bought a peck of peaches at the orchard and drove on up the mountain and stayed here until it was time to go home.

The mountain isn't very high, but being here is like living in a fourth-floor walk-up. Once you're here, you tend to stay here. As summer people, our closest encounter with neighbors was when the grown-ups gathered on the deck at cocktail time and gazed down into the valley at cows lining up to pick their way, with the curiously fastidious gait of cows, back to the barn to be milked. When the right air currents floated up the mountainside we could hear their deep, serious voices.

Sometimes, if we woke up before dawn and went to get a drink of water, we could see lights on down there in the dairy barn: the farmer was milking. We knew his name from his mailbox out by the road, but otherwise we considered him scenery.

More time passed. I wrote magazine articles and an occasional book and worked in a small advertising agency in Philadelphia, where the routines and even the crises had come to seem as familiar to me as my own hands. I rented a three-room house in the heart of the city, walked to work, visited friends. In the usual way of things, my children grew up and my mother died. She left me the little house on the mountain in the far northern corner of Virginia.

I couldn't afford to go on paying rent in Philadelphia and pay taxes and upkeep on a house four hours away. I couldn't sell the place. At the time, nobody was buying any houses anywhere, at any price, and certainly nobody would ever want a one-bedroom, one-bath house without furnace or insulation on ten acres of overgrown woods in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I quit my job and gave my landlord notice. I kissed my children and friends good-bye and stuffed my possessions into a U-Haul. It was April first, April Fool's Day. Quite a lot of snow still lay on the mountain and a thick freezing fog blotted out the valley and the world beyond. Friends had come with me to help, but the next day they went away. I cried for a while from sheer apprehension, but my small Siamese cat Morgan was well pleased. Even snow-covered woods were better than city windowsills.

As unobtrusively as possible, I worked myself in around my mother's cotton dresses, her mismatched dishes, her books, and the kind of battered silverware and lopsided furniture that finds its way to summer houses. It was hard to move anything to make room for my own things. In a summer house, nothing gets moved or replaced, and when an object, any object, a lithograph of a bird or the Peter Rabbit cup and saucer on the shelf by the phone, has been in the same spot for thirty years, the whole room shrieks with disharmony when it moves. Once a month or so I made a small change, apologizing to the premises. For a long time I lived half in, half out of the house, as if I'd put only one leg in my pants.

Much of the stuff in the house had outlived itself, and came from yard sales to begin with, but it was Mother's, and her ashes have been scattered under the biggest oak tree with a clear view into the windows. This was Mother's sanctuary, and while her children were accepted as summer visitors, she was severe on those who interfered with her arrangements. Besides, throwing anything away here involves a long journey to the dump. My mother and I, between us, have far too many saucepans and scrawny twin bedsheets. Her bookshelves were tightly wedged with books, and for the first week I scrambled like a goat over cartons of my own books until finally I called a man who advertised, on the post-office bulletin board, light hauling.

Frantically, almost at random, I scooped up books to send to the dump. My books, Mother's books, books abandoned by summer visitors, paperback murder mysteries, Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, the Bobbsey Twins, whatever. The light hauler, a fatherly looking black man, opened a few at random and said reproachfully, "Must be a lot of good reading here." There was, of course, and I felt wicked but desperate: I cannot build another whole house for books.

Ever since, I've been groping through the shelves looking for the ghosts of books I threw away.

I turned my attention to the outdoors, clearing brush in the jungle around the house, a project that was to occupy my spare time for years and yield only the most fleeting results. When you chop down brush, it grows right back again; when you poison it with herbicides, new brush grows in its place. Scatter wildflower seeds, and the wildflowers bloom and the brambles grow up and flourish among them.

My own children's water pistols and comic books kept turning up. It was very quiet.

The valley was still beautiful, with the kind of useful beauty more eloquent to easterners than western canyons and waterfalls. It's impossible to describe a landscape or explain its comeliness, but everyone from the earliest explorers--on horseback because the falls of the Potomac blocked their boats--called this place beautiful. Maybe it has to do with rightness; no artist would alter the placement of a hill here or the bend of a creek; everything is exactly where it belongs, placed here on God's best day. If it's not too fanciful a thought, the land looks happy, as if it were secretly humming to itself under its covers of alfalfa and soybeans. It's been well loved. Our county farmers were the first to sweeten their fields by rotating crops, by sowing lime, gypsum, plaster of parts over clover in their fields to refresh them. As the idea spread, it was named after the county, and farmers stopped exhausting their land and wandering on west and stayed put.

Here still are the rounded pastures for growing meat and milk, fields for growing corn and timothy and soybeans, with barns and silos for storing them. Orchards on a hillside, so the spring frosts can slide down away from their blossoms. Patches of forest for stovewood. Sturdy houses with red tin roofs for families, plain on the farms and dwarfed by barns, gingerbreaded in the towns, all with porches from before the days of air-conditioning. Houses innocent of architects and unwarped by ready-made parts, built by carpenters and stonemasons with an organic rightness the race seems to have forgotten, each window the perfect size and shape, each house unique but obviously kin to the others. My mother used to say that nobody here could build an ugly house because nobody had ever yet seen an ugly house.

Six years ago, when I first moved here, nothing was out of place. I drove all over the western valley and saw nothing to outrage the eye. It helped to soothe the strangeness of being here.

I suppose most of us spend so much time among visual outrages that we've had to blunt our eyes to them, drive around blind. It's a luxury when it's a pleasure to look.

The farm ponds I remembered seemed fewer; they were for livestock in the summer and ice-skating in the winter, and people keep less livestock now and probably ice-skate less. The cows in the field down below were gone, sold off by the farmer's sons when the farmer retired. The roosters that used to crow erratically all day were silenced. The pasture where Lady chased us had grown up in saplings and brush; the farmhouse was occasionally sublet but often empty; its roof sagged. Only a handful of apple trees, descendants of orchard days, still bloomed in the woods, struggling up toward the light. The cabin had been neatly sealed against the weather in case it might be needed again.

The silence was broken only by birdsong in daylight and occasional snuffling by night that sent Morgan to perch alertly on windowsills, a black outline against the moonlight.

There was no one to talk to, no one who would even hear if I screamed. Possibly no one else at all, anywhere. I had been ripped out of context and the torn edges continued to drip blood, slowly, for months.

I started dreaming parties. Two or three times a week my sleep would be filled with faces and voices, laughing and chatting. They were wonderful parties and everyone came--my mother, my ex-boss's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, Humphrey Bogart, and all the friends I'd left behind. I woke up in the morning cheered and refreshed by all that merrymaking. Then, as abruptly as they'd started, the parties stopped. Perhaps my subconscious was forgetting faces.

In the beginning friends would call from Philadelphia, asking me when I was coming back. Then they gave up and stopped calling. The phone sat dumb as a candlestick and when it did ring, I jumped and dropped things. I hated to call and report myself in to friends and relations because I had nothing to report. I wrote, and consigned my manuscripts to the mail, and sometimes, soundlessly, an answering letter or check would appear in the mailbox up on the county road.

I have read earnest books by people who set forth deliberately to be alone for some days or even weeks in order to find spiritual fulfillment and uncover the nature of their true selves. I admire these seekers, but either I'm hopelessly shallow and have no spiritual self to be revealed, or else these excursions into solitude need to be voluntary to produce. I paced the floor and muttered to myself. Talked to the cat. Took up cigarettes again. Wrote scathing letters to newspaper and magazine editors at night and tore them up in the morning. All I learned about my inner self was that I was less brave, less capable, and less self-sufficient than I'd liked to think. Standing on the ladder cleaning gutters I thought, If I fall, how badly will I be hurt? Will I be able to drive myself thirty miles to the hospital? Or will I hit my head on that rock and lie here forever? Suppose I got sick; what happens to people here too sick to go buy groceries and fill prescriptions?

Six years ago the only human habitation in sight was a tidy little farm in the valley, on Yellow Schoolhouse Road. I could see it clearly with binoculars from the deck. I didn't know who lived there, but it was comforting to see.

Sometimes, just as I was beginning to relax, the precarious mountain electric power would go off, reminding me of just how helpless I really was.

I drove down the mountain, peering into the woods for lights. The power had been out all afternoon and I'd been trying to work in the mournful shadows of candlelight, in the deepening chill, my house lying dead around me: no light, no heat, no water. No stove, refrigerator, computer, and only the single flush left in the toilet tank. Without electricity I wallowed rudderless as a raft at the world's end, striving only to keep the pipes from freezing, a woman too lone and helpless to maintain her own generator as proper montagnards do. The powerless cabin down the hill, in my childhood, was inconvenient, but it didn't feel forlorn--how can a house miss what it has never known? My mother's house runs on electricity and, without it, stands still.

By the time the power crew came, cheerful in yellow slickers, headlights blazing as they hacked their way toward the power pole, I was ready to cry. I was ready to move to a city, any city, where toilets always flush and nobody needs to be manly.

I got in my car and fled.

Down at the Gap I turned west, and there in the dark forest below the highway, over toward the West Virginia border, gleamed the authentic twinkle of electricity. I plunged down the switchbacked road like a diver and found, on a hairpin turn, a nameless building with beer neon in the windows and a parking lot full of pickups. I skidded onto the gravel, jumped out and, mindless as a moth, barged through the lighted doorway.

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