A once-booming West Virginia rail town no longer has a working train. The residents left behind in this tiny hamlet look to the mountains that surround them on all sides: The outside world encroaches, and the buildings of the gilded past seem to crumble more every day.
These are the stories of outsiders—the down and out. What happens to the young boy whose burgeoning sexuality pushes him to the edge of the forest to explore what might be love with another boy? What happens when one lost soul finally makes it to New York City, yet the reminders of his past life are omnipresent? What happens when an old woman struggles to find a purpose and reinvent herself after decades of living in the shadow of her platonic life partner? What happens to those who dare to live their lives outside of the strict confines of the town’s traditional and regimented ways?
The characters in The Rope Swing—gay and straight alike—yearn for that which seems so close but impossibly far, the world over the jagged peaks of the mountains.
|Publisher:||West Virginia University Press|
|Edition description:||1st Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Jonathan Corcoran received a BA in literary arts from Brown University and an MFA in fiction writing from Rutgers University-Newark. He was born and raised in a small town in West Virginia and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. This is his debut book. Learn more at jonathancorcoranwrites.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Rope Swing
By Jonathan Corcoran
West Virginia University PressCopyright © 2016 Jonathan Corcoran
All rights reserved.
APPALACHIAN SWAN SONG
Where is Sheriff Bayless going? And why is he driving so fast?
We had forgotten how much we loved our mountains in the summertime. It was the beginning of June, and the weather was right — the warming sun returning and the late-falling snow gone for good. Rivers of meltwater sprinted down the cliff faces, came alive, sang their birthing songs. We took once again to the fields, the ponds, and the creeks. We took off our shoes. We spread our toes through the soggy grass. We cocked our heads back and let the light settle onto our skin as our children played with sticks and rocks and dandelions.
We were calm and happy, and we assumed all was well in the world — which in our minds extended only as far as we could see, to the young leaves of the maples and sycamores along our town's streets, to the sharp waves of pine along the twin peaks of the Shavers and Onekanna mountains. What we saw was that the treetops were motionless in the morning. There was no wind. There was certainly no wind of change. We took the still air as a sign from God to relax, to begin the process of shedding the long, cold winter. We delighted in the return of the robins.
The Saturday newspaper arrived early as usual, delivered by twelve-year-old boys on bicycles, who rose at their mothers' prodding before the dawn. None of us paid much attention to the paper, unless we were looking for yard sales or apartments to rent, or, if we were lucky, when our children made the honor roll. We heard the important local news from our neighbors: old women who listened to scanners, memorized police codes, and picked up the phone faster than the paper could print words. Stories became bigger, more real to us that way, delivered with a slant and a back story and a suggestive drop in tone. All of our stories were like that — beginning as a raindrop falling from the sky, collecting the moisture we breathed into the air. We lived on the wet side of the mountains, and when the rain fell, often and hard upon the pavement, we could see the sky above and the world around reflected on the asphalt. None of our secrets were safe. We knew everyone: every house, every bloodline, and every downfall.
The editor of the newspaper was a woman we hated. She was always reminding us that she was the first female editor in the history of our state, that she was the first editor of our paper to interview a sitting president, that she was the first editor to print in color. We hated her because she was also the first editor who made it a habit of putting pictures of our wrecked cars across the front page. She called this breaking news; we called it the end of decency.
She must have known we didn't pay much attention to her paper. She must have wanted us to see the headline that Saturday when the spring began its shift to summer. Bold letters spread across all six columns, a headline so big that we couldn't help but look: "THE END OF THE LINE, THE END OF AN ERA." It was the day of the last passenger train on the West Virginia–Western Maryland Railroad. Our town was the terminus, the last dot on the map. The railroad had come here when coal and timber were king, funneling our resources out to the big cities on the Eastern Seaboard. The day the railroad was built — some hundred years ago — was the official birth of our town, though people had been living in our mountains since before the Civil War, and the Indians had been hunting here for a millennium. Everyone knew somebody who had an Indian grandmother — at least that's what we told ourselves.
Our resources were abundant, and because of this, we'd all known our share of millionaires, even if only through pictures in the newspaper or roadside plaques commemorating one baron or another. The millionaires left their marks all over: on the elegant architecture of the Presbyterian College buildings, on the polished marble interior of the courthouse, and on the half-dozen mansions resting on the half-dozen hills that towered over our downtown. The millionaires, the owners of our coal mines and our sawmills, gave us modest bonuses at Christmas — made our fathers feel more like men. We never really saw the millionaires in the town. We didn't eat at the same restaurants. We suspected they didn't know any of our names, but they did, of course. With time, their children married our children. Surnames muddled. The legacies of coal and sawdust and politicians passed through our blood and our breast milk, and the stories of our mountains ennobled even the least of us. We thought we were special.
We put the newspaper aside that morning. We thought little of the significance of a town without a train. The day — with the perfect morning sun, and the fresh air, clear as water — required our presence. Years of sitting quietly on our front porches watching thunderstorms roll through the sky had taught us something important about living in the moment, even if that's not what we called it.
We didn't feel guilty. We didn't feel foolish. We took our cues from nature. The birds sang and twitted underneath the cover of fresh leaves, so we, too, laughed under the shade of trees. There were family reunions and barbecues out at Steward's Park, children's birthday parties at the soccer field, and a gathering of Civil War reenactors up on Beverly Mountain, toting muskets and wearing old uniforms of blue and gray. Our parents were nostalgic, telling stories of the riverside parties of their youth. Our fathers bragged about the biggest bucks they'd chased through the woods — they still had the antlers to prove it, hanging over our garage doors and mounted proudly on our tree houses. The children ran and jumped and dreamed of glimpses of the far away — the view from the top of the fire tower on Onekanna Ridge.
Downtown, the G. C. Murphy's was half-buzzing with young mothers wandering the cramped aisles for discounted sheets and lawn furniture. We all knew — had heard from our parents and grandparents — that Murphy's had been busier before, back when the downtown streets had been filled with pedestrians. Back when going to Murphy's was a choice, when three different department stores filled out the big brick buildings that lined our Main Street. The seventies had come and burned through our businesses. The eighties began bleakly, with empty storefronts and boarded up windows, though we felt the contraction less out here than in some other places across the country. The mountains that hugged our town, the rising peaks that made our roads narrow and curve wildly, always shielded us. Because of this, whole movements barely touched us — disco and free love were things to be laughed at, even if we had secretly wished to taste them.
We were mountain people. The mountains were in our voices and on our worn clothes. We were as sturdy as our old oak trees, everlasting, never changing. We were survivors and subsisters. We thought we had internalized the lessons of our great-grandparents who had lived through wars and the Depression. We thought those lessons existed in our blood, swam through our veins. We didn't think it possible that we could become complacent. We thought our skin was as hard as limestone, while our hearts were as soft as coal dust.
We were proud of what remained, our homes that we painted each year, our cars that our neighbors fixed for free — six or seven men gathering under a Sunday sky, tinkering over an open engine. We believed in our little shops that sold necessities and a flourish or two — even if we eschewed them for the big-box stores that descended on our town like a plague. We watched the news on our televisions — oil crises, more wars, hostages — and it was as if Washington, New York, and even Pittsburgh belonged to another country. We sympathized, of course, but we didn't always believe everything we heard. We fancied ourselves prosperous and crafty, and questioned why someone couldn't just get by — gas prices rising or otherwise. We had fruit trees in our front yards and beanstalks growing along trellises in the back. We knew how to skin a deer and how to gut a trout. We gave our children pocketknives and their first guns, and when they used these tools correctly and responsibly, we smiled with pride. Even our daughters could wield a bow and arrow. We thought we were special, and because of this, we thought we were safe.
There were never more than a few thousand people within the borders of our small world at any given time, but we felt our outsized importance. There were the millionaires, of course. Three governors, four senators, a four-star general, and a poet of some consequence had also called our hamlet home. It never sank in that those people, those names, belonged to the past — or that the past of all peoples carried some greatness. Because of our history, which we treated like the present, and because of the gilded, old buildings — even with their cracked marble and faded gold leaf — we never questioned the fact that most of us rarely left the town, save for the occasional trip to the mall, a place only three towns over but more than an hour's drive. We were the last stop on the railroad, and the only town of note in the surrounding five counties. We told our children that we were God's chosen people — Appalachian Israelites — even if we didn't go to church very often. We thought we were given a secret, living out here. We thought that the code to unlocking that secret was fossilized in a piece of falling rock. Living here was both a gift and a test, and one day the secret to life would fall from a mountain face and land in front of our shoes. One of us would rise up again, like Christ himself, and save the world from itself.
* * *
The wind was picking up by the afternoon — a hint of the thunderstorm the weatherman said was blowing our way. We were packing up our picnics as the sun began its westward descent. The sky was still clear. The children out on Yokum Run were sitting in Mr. Winter's big field of a yard, under the shade of a leaning cherry tree. The tree could have been as old as Mr. Winter himself.
Mr. Winter was a senile man who never left his house. He had done great things once, had been a prosperous man who had his hands in half the town's businesses. At least that's what we were told by those who had known him from before. We didn't inquire further. We preferred to fill in the blanks ourselves — construct his story from the rare glimpse of a sagging face that we saw through his tiny kitchen window — the only window of his home not covered with heavy curtains.
His grass had grown almost as high as the neighbors' split-rail fence. Those same neighbors complained that they'd seen a dozen copperheads slithering in and out of his yard. They forbid their children from playing anywhere near Mr. Winter's home, but their admonishments didn't stop anyone. The children had taken over the field as their hideout, ducking behind the grass when their parents called them home for dinner. On that Saturday afternoon, they were throwing half-ripe cherries onto the pavement, watching as speeding cars zipped around the corner of the road, flattening the fruit. The hot sun baked the smashed cherries onto the road, and then the children threw gravel and more cherries onto the pavement before running back to the safety of the grass and the shade of the cherry tree. They called the mixture Yankee pie and dared each other to eat it.
Their parents were on their front porches drinking iced tea, or off to the grocery store shopping for dinner, or drinking a beer on the back porch, watching the creek flow muddier than usual from the last of the melted snow. The muddy creek gave the whole road the smell of something strangely fresh and oddly fetid — like a spring rain and rotting fish. And then, as the hot wind blew east and the scent of the smashed cherries began to float in, everyone on Yokum Run thought about their mothers' and grandmothers' pies that would come later in the season. The cherries and apples that grew in our yards were too sour for anything but pie.
Sheriff Bayless, who lived at the dead-end of Yokum Run, was driving, on his way to the train station. He was headed to the farewell ceremony, the one in honor of the last passenger train headed out to Maryland. He was running late, which was out of character for a man who had for three decades fathomed himself the guardian of our townspeople. He was an attractive man, with bristly, silver hair and a tight jaw. He'd never married. He was the type who would tip his hat at our grandmothers. He would wink at all of our young daughters, and then wink again as they blushed. He had a firm handshake that our town's men secretly emulated. He was our protector, and we trusted him. He made us believe in the law.
When he hit the children's pie concoction, his tires skidded, and his sheriff's cruiser spun out across the road into Mr. Winter's yard. With a quick punch of the brakes, the car came to a halt in the high grass. Sheriff Bayless jumped out from the door of his car in his full sheriff's uniform and chased the kids in circles, as they ducked in and out of the sharp blades of grass.
He finally got hold of one of the kids by the round collar of her cotton T-shirt. The others had run off, jumped across the creek and into the woods, leaving poor Emily Weese to bear the brunt of the sheriff's screaming.
"You kids these days have no sense of consequences," he yelled, his mouth inches from her face. She set to crying and the tears streamed through the dirt on her cheeks, leaving visible a clean trail of sun-kissed skin. Bayless looked at her and thought of his poor, dead sister, a woman who'd once protected him from the darker parts of the world. His grip loosened.
"Consider this a warning," he said, and then his voice softened. "A very important warning."
The sheriff huffed back to his car, now another fifteen minutes behind schedule. He was pulling back onto the road, leaving a path of flattened grass in his wake, when the front door of Mr. Winter's house swung open. A gaunt man in gray slacks and a loose sweater hobbled out to the edge of his porch. "Bayless," he croaked, "will you drive me to the station?"
The children emerged from the woods and from their hiding places. They peeked around the corner of the house to watch Bayless tip his hat to the old man, whose arms dangled awkward and loose at his sides. They had expected a corpse, though none of the children could be sure that wasn't what they were seeing.
"By all means, Mr. Winter," Bayless said, pushing open his passenger door.
Mr. Winter closed the front door to his home — the creaking like the sealing of a sarcophagus — and inched down the sidewalk to the sheriff's car.
* * *
The older set remembered the train as a symbol of the town's glory. When they grew up, the train made ten departures a day. The train had ferried governors, famous actors, and even two presidents who came in different years to serve as grand marshals for the feature parade of the Festival of the Trees. We still laughed about the presidents' Secret Service men, dressed in black suits; how they'd patrolled the parade route down Main Street and stood sentry atop our buildings, as if one of us could have ever been capable of such a violence.
With the train, we could get to the big rail towns in Maryland and connect to Washington; from there, we could go to New York, to Boston. People dressed in suits and ties and fancy shawls for the ride. There was a sense of old-world gentility that surrounded the depot — from the conductor's black hat, to the attendants' white-gloved hands. None of us ever wore gloves, except for those of us who worked in the factories and the sawmills. And these gloves were never white.
The truth was that almost none of us used the train anymore. By that final voyage in June, the train came only once a day, except for Sunday, the Lord's Day. Even if we could have afforded to ride it, we thought of the train as a relic, even more so because our grandparents said it was a privilege. Our grandparents took us to the depot to remind us of how things were, of how things could be for us, if we only had the sense to want such a life. We associated the train with politicians and the president of the bank. We weren't jealous of those who could afford to take it. It was just that by that last trip in June, we had ceased really considering the train at all. It had become like a part of the land, another worn mountain peak whose name we didn't know. We were more concerned about cars and the promise of the big highway that would make our lives easier. With the new highway, the long drive to the mall would be cut in half.
For us, the train was just a thing that sometimes blocked the roads. It was just a hunk of metal that whistled loudly in the afternoon. Still, when we stayed up past midnight on a lazy summer night, sitting alone on our back porches, we sometimes heard the whistle blowing, even when it shouldn't have been blowing at all. We were good Christians, but we saw the ghosts of our ancestors when we heard that whistle. We saw our great-grandfathers playing the fiddle in the city park. We saw our great-grandmothers plucking pungent ramps from their backyards. When we heard that whistle, we could smell those ramps and we were hungry. We said prayers aloud in the darkness that we would one day see our great-grandparents again.
By the afternoon on the day of the last train, some three dozen people had gathered on the town square that centered around the brick and wood depot. We expected more to turn out, given the headline in the morning paper; but then again, who of us ever paid any attention to the paper? We watched as the train sat idling — its six cars and the hulking, black steam engine, the company's logo painted in yellow letters across the side.
Excerpted from The Rope Swing by Jonathan Corcoran. Copyright © 2016 Jonathan Corcoran. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
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Table of Contents
Appalachian Swan Song 1
The Rope Swing 19
Pauly's Girl 31
Through the Still Hours 50
Hank the King 112
Brooklyn, 4 a.m. 142
A Touch 146
Reading and Discussion Questions 159
About the Author 163