Riding on Comets is the true story of an only child growing up in a working-class family during the 1950s and ‘60s.
As the family storyteller, Cat Pleska whispers and shouts about her life growing up around savvy, strong women and hard-working, hard-drinking men. Unlike many family stories set within Appalachia, this story provides an uncommon glimpse into this region: not coal, but an aluminum plant; not hollers, but small-town America; not hillbillies, but a hard-working family with traditional values.
From the dinner table, to the back porch, to the sprawling countryside, Cat Pleska reveals the sometimes tender, sometimes frightening education of a child who listens at the knees of these giants. She mimics and learns every nuance, every rhythm—how they laugh, smoke, cuss, fight, love, and tell stories—as she unwittingly prepares to carry their tales forward, their words and actions forever etched in her mind. And finally, she discovers a life story of her own.
|Publisher:||West Virginia University Press|
|Edition description:||1st Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Cat Pleska is a seventh generation West Virginian, and she is a writer, editor, educator, publisher, and storyteller. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. She is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and a book reviewer for the Charleston Gazette. She coedited the anthology Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains. Pleska has been published in literary magazines and newspapers throughout the Appalachian region. She lives in Scott Depot, West Virginia, with her husband, Dan, one dog, four cats, and with a daughter, Katie, in nearby St. Albans.
Read an Excerpt
Riding On Comets
By Cat Pleska
West Virginia University PressCopyright © 2015 Cat Pleska
All rights reserved.
A late autumn sun slanted through the window over the kitchen sink. White curtains, with a cheerful, yellow rickrack trim, fluttered with the breeze. My mother had a knack for making things pretty even though she had next to nothing. She scrubbed the red vinyl countertop, straightened the silverware drawer, wiped the stove, rearranged the dish towels, opened and shut empty cabinet doors.
Salt. If I only had a bit of salt, the potatoes boiling on the stove would sure taste better. And butter. Her kingdom and her horse for butter, she thought.
I was there, but I couldn't have known about any of this at the time: the loneliness, the hungry belly, the fear that crept in past her bravado as she sang around the kitchen, keeping busy. I was nine months in the womb. When she sang, maybe I heard the gentle tones to lull me to sleep. If I was jolted as she bumped against the counter, I may have rolled over in protest.
My father had left her alone with no food, no money, no car, only a phone. She hummed against her fears, as if they held at bay the stomach growls, the disbelief he'd been gone for days, and the fact she had no idea where he was, or if he was coming back. She'd called his mother to ask if she'd seen him, and my grandmother, from a generation of women who protected the men, said she had not seen her son. My mother learned much later he was passed out on his mother's couch at the time.
My dad must have seemed to my mom like an answer to her dreams. He was Robert Mitchum handsome, funny, assured. He looked incredibly fit in his Army uniform, and worldly, having just returned from the Korean War. By her own admission, she was as green as grass when she married him. I was to be a honeymoon baby. They married on a mild January day and rented a small house, secluded up on College Hill in Saint Albans. He was a good, reliable employee for the gas company, except when he missed work once in a while when he was drinking. My mother said she was never sure when he'd be gone for a few days, or if he was still alive. She had no way to go around to the beer joints and look for him.
So I rolled over in her belly and slept the sleep of the innocent, deep and peaceful. He came home after three weeks. My mother never told me what she said to him when he finally returned. My experience from watching them over the years tells me she probably didn't say much. With a shortened education and no belief in herself she could do better, "What choice did I have?" she'd ask me each time she told me this story. I knew she didn't expect an answer from me.
One thing she made sure I knew: "It is his fault he is like this. It is not my fault nor is it yours."
It was the only defense she had.
It would be years before I learned the reason for my father's drinking.
TRICK OR TREAT
My mother paced my grandparents' small kitchen. It was 7:00 p.m., October 31, 1953. She stopped occasionally and rubbed her belly when another contraction hit. My father was in the bathroom, shaving. He'd come in earlier from squirrel hunting, and when my mother told him she was going into labor, he disappeared into the bathroom to clean up. Nervous, she continued to pace, waiting. An hour later, they were on their way.
When they got to Thomas Memorial Hospital, a county away, Mom was wheeled into a room and examined by Dr. Soulsby, who said, "This baby isn't coming today. This is false labor. I'm sending you home." But her contractions remained strong, so he decided it was best to keep her overnight. It was getting late, and he'd release her in the morning. He was wrong. I was born fifteen minutes before midnight on Halloween.
Mom would tease me about my birth: "I'm pretty sure you were born with your shoes on." Apparently, I was a painful process. When I was old enough to reply, I teased back, "How would you know? They knocked mothers out back then. You slept through the whole thing."
She'd snort, "I'm just tellin' ya."
At the foot of a white metal bed, I planted my bare toes on the lowest rung, stretched up, and strained to see my great-grandmother, Ida Mae. Peeking over my hands that grasped the top rail, I saw a puff of beige-pink face sunk deep into a pillow. Her face reminded me of those tiny mushrooms I'd seen on the forest floor. Her small head was barely covered with wisps of hair. Her eyes remained closed, and her lips were pursed, as if she were thinking. Fingers, the color of earthworms that float on the sidewalk after a hard rain, curled under her chin. Her body was a skinny bump under the white coverlet; she looked no taller than me. I was four.
"What's wrong with her?" I asked.
I had no idea what that meant, but I glanced up and watched the faces of my mother, a couple of aunts, my grandmother. They frowned, hovered around the bed, restless. Occasionally, one reached out a hand and placed it on Ida's forehead, as if testing for fever.
The room was illuminated through one window — washing a brilliant light over everything — but especially Ida Mae as she lay among white bed linens. I watched her out of the corner of my eye and saw a faint gold glow hugging closely to her body. Turning my head back to her, it would disappear. Over and over I turned my head, seeking the gold band. There, gone, there, gone. Then it vanished from my vision at any angle, and only the bright, blue-white light from the window washed over her.
I was looking fully at her when, suddenly, her chest rose as she inhaled deeply. Her mouth fell open and something dark appeared at the corners, and that's when I noticed she had no teeth. Quickly, Mom grabbed me under the arms and carried me out of the room and into the next. "Stay here," she told me. She shut the door. I studied the grain pattern in the door, reaching out, tracing it with my finger. I waited.
* * *
Much later, after the funeral, when we got back to my grandparents' house, my grandmother and my mom opened Ida's bedroom door. They plucked the pillow off the bed then slipped off the pillowcase. With a large pair of scissors, my grandmother ripped open the pillow and reached inside. She pulled out a flattened, round mass of feathers. "It's a feather crown," Mommaw said, and handed it to Mom. "Ida's in heaven," they said.
After they left the room, I picked up the rosette of feathers and marveled at how it was so tightly woven I could not pluck out a single feather. How is this thing made? Who had woven it and stuffed it in Ida Mae's pillow? Where is heaven? What is it like? I put the rosette back on the bed and left the bedroom.
GIVE ME MY HAT
He came around the corner so fast that I froze in my spot on the sidewalk in fear. I hadn't thought he was so close to me. He saw me then and raised his cane to strike me, but I turned and ran. I didn't stop until I reached the creek. I looked behind me. He was standing at the back door of my grandparents' house, facing it, just staring. He reached up with a hand and smoothed his white beard. Then he opened the screen door and slowly stepped inside the house.
It was not the first time I'd teased my great-grandfather, George, to chase me. I never said anything to him, but I would run up to him, wait until he raised his cane. Then I ran. I knew he was too old to catch me, but that time he'd surprised me with how fast he had moved.
My dad had told me his grandfather used to teach in one-room schoolhouses in Lincoln and Putnam Counties. He traveled on a horse and spent the week staying in people's homes while he taught at a nearby school. He was a hard teacher, my dad said, one you didn't mess with.
Now his mind was gone, Mommaw had told me. He was forgetful, didn't remember who people were. My great-grandmother Ida had been the same way. George and Ida fought sometimes, Mommaw told me. One time, she came into their bedroom to hear the two of them arguing over his hat. Ida lay "buck naked," Mommaw said, in the bed, save for George's hat. George wanted his hat back, and she wouldn't give it to him. He was mad at her and yelled. "They were like children," Mommaw said.
Ida made quilts, and one she had made for my dad was now on my bed in my house. It was mostly pink fabrics, a color I didn't like, but it was Ida's, Mom told me. And so there it was on my bed, as if that made sense. Ida loved my dad, Mom said. Dad said he used to run up to Ida and George's house, just a little ways up the road, when he was little. He'd hide in the barn's hayloft and read the Bible. Dad said he could read it and understand what it said when he was only five.
When it was dinnertime, Ida would call Dad in to eat. The house smelled of biscuits; mashed potatoes, with a quarter stick of butter melting on top; meat and gravy; fresh green beans; and fried green tomatoes. George would say the blessing that this food would nourish their bodies and souls so they might serve the Lord, amen.
George wanted my dad to go to college, become a teacher. He'd pay for it, he said. But my dad didn't do that. He dropped out of school just after the tenth grade to go work in the navy shipyards in Baltimore, Maryland, when he was sixteen. Dad had been double-promoted twice, and if George was disappointed in Dad, no one ever said.
When Ida died, an event I missed because Mom had lifted me out of the room, a framed photo fell off the wall just as Ida stopped breathing. Its string was unbroken, the nail unbent, but the picture fell from the wall as if yanked. It was a photo of one of Ida's grandchildren. Mom told me about it many times.
One day, Mommaw missed George from the house and went looking for him. He came home on his own, covered with purple juice. He had eaten poisonous poke berries. He fell ill and they took him to the hospital, but it was too late to save him.
Three wet, pink noses snuffled along a fence board. Six pink ears bobbed as chubby bodies jiggled in place, eager for their food to splash in the trough in front of them. I stepped onto the bottom fence board and grabbed the top rail to peer into the pigpen, waiting for Poppaw to dump the beige-colored slop. The pigs squealed as he emptied his bucket, then plunged their slimy snouts into the trough, snarfling and snuffling as they sucked up the food. Behind them, thousands of cloven hoofprints marked the mud. Beyond was a small crib where the pigs slept.
That is strange, I was thinking. Wynken didn't have a large block blotch on his side when I last saw him before Thanksgiving last year. Nod seemed awful small, now that I was looking at him. Wasn't he the biggest? How did he shrink? Blynken was smaller, too, and I was pretty sure he had a notch in his ear.
A little earlier, as we'd left the kitchen to feed Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, Mommaw said it was going to be one of those scorching June days. It was early morning, but already the dew had dried, the sky was clear, and the sun was hot on our shoulders. I had been staying with Mommaw and Poppaw for a few weeks before I began first grade in September. I loved staying with them.
I let go of the top rail and reached toward what I thought was Nod.
"Now, don't you touch them, Punkin Head," Poppaw said. "Don't ever reach your hand through the fence. They can be mean. Hurt chuh." Poppaw waved me back with his big hand. I stepped off the fence board and moved back to watch the pigs gobble up the slop. My oats had looked a lot better that morning as I had watched Mommaw dab on sweet cream butter and then pour on cold milk, globby with fat.
As Poppaw and I walked down the slope back to the house, he swung the empty slop bucket with one hand and ruffled my hair with the other. He'd often steer me with his hand on my head so I wouldn't wander off and get into trouble, he said. Other times, I held onto one of his fingers that was so big it fit into my whole hand.
Poppaw set the bucket down on the sidewalk, and we found the kitchen empty when we stepped into it. It still smelled wonderful from last night's fried chicken. "Pet!" Poppaw hollered. He moved over to the table to pick up his pack of Camels and lit one, letting the smoke roll out into the room. "Pet!" he yelled louder. "Your Mommaw musta went up the holler, Stinker." That was the other name Poppaw called me. It was either Punkin Head or Stinker. "How 'bout me and you go on over ta Big Earl's?"
I nodded, fine with following Poppaw anywhere.
We went out and around to the side of the house to get into his black pickup. He swung me up on the seat then passed around the front of the truck and climbed in behind the steering wheel. I moved over toward him, standing on the seat to put my arm around the back of his thick neck. I was short, but still I had to lean over a little to keep my head from bumping the truck's ceiling. From my position, I could see the road ahead of us just fine. He shifted the truck into reverse and backed down the short driveway to the dirt lane leading down to the hard road.
As we rumbled down Route 60, I noticed each wide seam in the paved highway jarred the truck and made me feel as if my teeth rattled. I loved that the wind blowing into the cab lifted the skirt of my sky-blue dress.
I knew we were headed toward "Mandyville," as everyone called Amandaville, a little town next to Saint Albans, where my Mommaw went shopping for groceries. I knew about Big Earl, the bootlegger who lived in Mandyville, because Poppaw visited there a lot. I had no idea what a bootlegger was. I only knew Mommaw drove Poppaw there on Sundays. He'd come home with a bottle in a brown paper bag, the top of the bag scrunched around the neck with only the tip showing. He'd sit at the end of the kitchen table and sip out of it for the rest of the day, then go to bed and cuss in his sleep. I learned all my bad words from him, I heard my Mom say. I knew she wasn't too happy about it.
But I was excited. This was the first time Poppaw ever said he'd take me to Big Earl's.
We didn't pass any cars, and I twisted in the seat to look back, but no cars followed us either. I turned around and watched his hands on the steering wheel. Big as canned hams, my Mom said. He had one elbow propped in his open window.
He slowed the truck and turned onto a dirt road. Houses on both sides were small and white, with lots of dust settled in the dips of the siding. I didn't see any kids playing, but toys were spread everywhere: tricycles, wagons, dolls with no clothes. Cars sat up on blocks, and most of the yards had no grass. I saw a tire swing hanging from the limb of a tree that didn't have any leaves. The swing looked fun. No one was around except a brown dog curled up in the dirt.
Poppaw stopped the truck in front of a little white house at the end of the street, its paint peeling and a black screen door half hanging off its hinges. White chickens scratched the dirt under a big old tree. A small dust devil swirled from the yard to the street, a sure sign of rain, Mommaw always said. I loved dust devils. I wanted to run into one. I was sure it would lift me up in the air, and I'd float with the dirt and leaves, but she said it might be dangerous, and I wasn't to run inside the things. "Might suck you up and set you down in the creek," she said.
The truck stopped, and Poppaw turned to look at me as he turned off the motor: "You stay here, Stinker. I'll be back in a minute." He slid out of the truck, hitched up his beige work pants, and stepped onto the porch, which gave with his weight. He swung open the screen door and disappeared into the black inside.
I stood and stared ahead where Poppaw had gone. I watched the white chickens peck the ground, but after a while, I began to look around. I heard shouting to my right — men's voices. A little way from where our truck was parked was a wooden fence. The voices were coming from behind. Suddenly, a few bird feathers floated up and then slowly drifted down and back out of sight. I'd seen those kinds of feathers before. They were on a black velvet hat I'd found in Mommaw's back closet. These feathers fascinated me because, black as they were, it was a trick. When I took the hat to the window to look at the feathers in a brighter light, they shimmered with the colors of the rainbow.
Excerpted from Riding On Comets by Cat Pleska. Copyright © 2015 Cat Pleska. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
No Salt 11
Trick or Treat 13
A Tone 14
Give Me My Hat 16
Big Earl's 19
A Brush with the Law 25
In Mommaw's Kitchen 28
What We Called Home 39
From a Time Before 45
Night Light 47
Cicada Buzz 53
I Spy 61
Back Home 72
Devil Faces 78
Something Gathered 'Round Me 82
House of Leaves 90
Alarm Clock 101
My Civic Duty 110
The Nervous Hospital 117
My Kingdom for a Horse 131
Night on Cheat Mountain, Part I 136
Night on Cheat Mountain, Part II 138
The Sailor Man 162
In the Cellar 167
Exception to the Rule 171
I've Drawed Up a Mite 175
900 Degrees Celsius 178
Twin Halos 189
The Phone Rings 197
Attention K-Mart Shoppers! Do the Dead Wear Underwear? 200
We Shall Gather 204
Riding on Comets 210
Night on Cheat Mountain, Part III 212
Dragon's Tale 226
Author Biography 237
Book Discussion 239