During the hottest dog days of August, Betty mixed biscuits wearing just her bra and slip, no matter who was around. Outside the screen door of the house in Spencer, the kids squatted to shoot marbles—a yarn-string circle in the driveway dust, one kid thumbing the aggie and launching it toward the prettiest cateye with the orange and black ribboned center. When the aim was good, the aggie smacked the cateye and sent it flying to the dog’s dent in the dirt under the porch. It rolled to the center like a bead in a dish, and the dog went after it for his own. The kids’ grandma stood by and watched, too old to sweat in her blue polyester housedress with three-quarter sleeves. She clutched her left arm with her right and looked uncomfortable in town; she watched the street the way a kid watches the closet for a specter. She went for the screen door when she heard banging pans and cussing, to help Betty with supper.
These are my mother’s people, the Boggs family, on her mother’s side. Down in Spencer, West Virginia, in Roane County, which is a four-hour drive south from my childhood home in the northern part of the state, people say the mountains get meaner. They get fiercer the farther south you go, closing you up into their wet heat and shrinking the sky so you can’t breathe when you look up. It’s dark too early, even in summer. The mountains swallow you back into themselves. Mom’s parents had moved north so that Granddad could take a job with the power company in Albright, West Virginia, but, as a kid, Mom loved to go south, to let herself be swallowed each time her parents were willing to take her. As a mother, she told me the stories about her Uncle Harry and Aunt Betty, Betty’s scant clothes in the heat, cousins who taught her to shoot marbles in a squat.
After my grandparents moved north to a house just outside of town on the Albright Road, my granddad’s choice piece of advice to his kids was to “get the hell out.” Out of West Virginia altogether, he meant. A harsh imperative, but who would fault him—the youngest of thirteen, a brother or two in the state pen, a suffocating matriarch who tried to strong-arm all her kids into staying under her roof. Jobs are too scarce, he said, and the people too backward. But Mom’s small sprig of a body put down surprisingly deep roots. In her teens, when her parents announced they were leaving their house on the Albright Road for a brick house with hedges in town, Mom strapped herself to the support beam in the basement and refused to leave till they forced her. And she was reluctant to go off to college, to make something of herself in the way they wanted her to, but eventually she obliged.
Mom’s deepest roots reached to Spencer. Whenever she went down to visit, she stayed with her Grandma Boggs on the farm. She shadowed her grandma, followed her blue housedress around as though it were the surest thing in sight. Some of my mom’s people, like Aunt Betty, stayed in the small town, and she would visit with them and with Aunt Susie’s bunch, who had moved to the neighboring town of the peculiar name Looneyville. But most of the family left, moved to Ohio or took jobs in Kentucky near the university, returning home only for an occasional wedding, a funeral, and the Boggs Reunion in late summer.
For us kids, Mom’s stories from Spencer had a rosy hue; she left out the unkindnesses, the particular breed of spite or shame that brewed in her relations and took them north. She left out the story someone later whispered to me, about her cousin who went after his own sister with scissors. It’s not that Mom was ignorant of the more sinister details of her family; she just took those details for granted. They were not to get in the way of loving, for love covered over a multitude of belittling remarks and unsettling secrets. My mother’s no bland perfect angel, but it’s not at all sentimental to say that she could always love the spiteful and the pocked and the fucked-up cousins. She loved the snot and shame out of you, and she was bound to her people with a fondness more stubborn than her dad’s leather belt that she’d used to strap herself to the beam in the basement.
My great-uncle and great-aunt, Harry and Betty, hosted the Boggs Reunion most years. They married young, inherited the Boggs farm and hated it. So they moved to town and Harry got work drilling gas wells and made pretty good money. Before Grandma and Granddaddy Boggs died, they sent him to pilot school for a time, and it was enough to put the love of flight in him. He bought a helicopter to keep in a hangar at Roane County’s tiny airport. It may have been his own way of getting the hell out. He and Betty lived maxed out in debt in Spencer, raised their kids and sent them out to make something of themselves.
The first Boggs Reunion that I remember was in August of 1984. Betty called Mom and asked her to be in charge of games for the kids. Thrilled, Mom drove us to Family Dollar, bringing back a big mesh sack of glass marbles, cateyes with the ribbons suspended in their centers. She cut up scraps of muslin and sewed forty or so tiny drawstring bags. I was five, and I helped her puff-paint Boggs Reunion, 1984 on each bag and then filled each with marbles. I got mine early and emptied the little sack into my jeans pocket for the car ride down to Spencer.
That year, Harry and Betty had rented the 4-H summer camp in Roane County for the reunion. When we pulled up to the dining hall, people were streaming in and out of the screened-in porch, hugging and talking, hands on hips or on Tupperware containers of food. Kid cousins congregated on the steps and then raced off in clumps toward something beyond the hall. I didn’t know many of my second cousins, so I was a while understanding that everyone there was my kin. But I recognized Aunt Unabelle on the steps at once, and she came over and plucked me from the car, up into her arms and into her smell of polyester and old skin.
“Wait till you see it!” one of the boy cousins hollered to another, running around the dining hall’s corner. Mom hauled out her box of marble bags from the trunk and asked Unabelle what the boy’s ruckus was about. Oh, Harry landed his helicopter yonder, Unabelle told us; he’s parked it over on the baseball field past the cabins, promised to give the kids rides after supper.
At the news, my sister and brothers darted after the other kids. I squirmed loose from Unabelle’s arms in time to turn the corner with them. Too short, I had to fight through the herd of kids to finally get a good look. And there it was in the field. I stopped cold and broke into a quick sweat. I went no closer to it right then. The helicopter gleamed like something from another world, sitting there like a dream out past second base. It was a deep glossy yellow on its sides, the kind of yellow you might lick for honey, but it was mostly glass in front, even halfway along the bottom where your feet would go. The chopper blades spun in a lazy twirl, as though Uncle Harry had just started it up to get a rise out of the kids and then shut it back off again to make them wait, to make us wait and sweat. He was walking toward the dining hall now, flanked by giddy boys getting first dibs on rides, and I heard him say that we’d have to wait till after supper. He said we’d be able to look through the glass floor and see Spencer shrink back like God’s little model; we’d see as God sees, the pastures like quilt patches, the people like ants.
I still hadn’t moved. Harry walked past me and winked, patted my girl head like a puppy’s, and the cousins swarmed by. Someone was calling us for supper. I breathed in the heavy humid Spencer air, so close to my cousins that I couldn’t tell the scent of my sweat from theirs.
Before following the swarm back to the dining hall, I noticed one older cousin who stood apart from the rest. He was a huge boy I didn’t know, with a face a little on a slant, black hair cut coarse. His arms bounced a bit at his sides, like he might have been flapping new wings. He looked at me, and I scrambled after the other kids into the screen-porch of the dining hall.
Today, in this Midwest town where I live, I read a chunk from a ratty paperback copy of The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous fourteenth-century mystic. A sentence sticks to me like a burr: Strike with the sharp dart of longing love—and do not leave it no matter what happens. I’m surprised by it, since I haven’t been on board for much of the text and haven’t felt anything from the book strike a chord within me. I have been thinking about changing the way I live, a thought that always moves me to read wide-eyed mystics, poets, Buddhists and Sufis and Quakers, to try for a new angle. So I dog-ear the page and take the book with me as I head out the door to take my car in for an oil change.
In the lobby at the Jiffy Lube, after handing over my car key, I sit down and puzzle over what I’ve read, as though fiddling with the burr. Where is it that I’m supposed to strike with the sharp dart exactly? In the book, the anonymous writer seems to mean strike the very Cloud of Unknowing itself, the cloud between self and God. From what I can tell, this cloud the writer describes is a sort of dread that takes your ego down a few notches. Or obliterates it altogether. You stand in it naked, with nothing to recommend you. Go deep into the dread, the writer urges. Face your own weakness and nothingness, your own fraught story; stay constant and look neither to the right nor to the left for escape. Sit with it and do not rise, and do not unfix your sharp dart of a gaze from what longing love reveals. No matter what.
I wait in the Jiffy Lube lobby with two other customers. “Judge Alex” comes onto the TV that’s bolted to the wall, and the three of us get sucked in. It’s a petty claims court show, and it seems that, during a commercial break, a commotion started brewing in the courtroom. Judge Alex pounds his gavel, grinning. His black hair is slicked back and looks good with his black robe. He’s presiding over a crude, stagey sort of case: a disheveled woman with dark roots but a white-orange ponytail complains at high pitch about her husband’s affair with her neighbor—and who has the right to keep the apartment, the mini-dish, the DVDs? And she’s tired of cooking his meals when he’s banging the blonde next door. The deadbeat husband surprises us—me and the two guys in the lobby—when he doesn’t deny the affair at all, but confirms it and claims that his wife is verbally abusive; she drove him to it, he says, and he has every right to stay in the apartment and even to seek therapy at her expense.
She’s weaving back and forth now like an Apostolic churchgoer who’s got the Spirit. She looks like she might leap over the railing to smack him, but instead she glowers, ignoring the slick Judge Alex altogether when he tries to interject, though he seems happy enough for what the fight could do for his ratings, and she says, “Then you keep the place and give me a damn settlement and I’ll get the hell out—and we’ll see how you do—I’m getting the hell out.” She hugs herself and looks about to bawl. I find myself in her corner, cheering her on like all the folks in the courtroom are doing, their hooting bringing down the judge’s gavel again. I can almost see her taking flight, shedding this drag of a husband and rising above it all, letting her hair go natural, making something of herself. But she does in fact start to cry. Though I suspect these shows are scripted, I can’t help but think she means it, that she’s really getting out, and she looks out of place with her sincerity. She wears a flannel shirt buttoned up halfway, looks like an oversized child who doesn’t want to leave just yet, but is too stubborn to let it show. It shows, despite her. And the camera zooms in close on the lines in her face. It’s not about the husband, not really. It’s the stale air of the cheap apartment, air so heavy that it sags in the pale flesh of her face. It’s the threadbare Budweiser T-shirt she wears underneath the flannel; she wears it for the comfort of the familiar, though the familiar is what’s killing her. The mechanic behind the desk calls my name before I can sort out my thoughts about the woman. He calls my name a second time. I sign the receipt for the oil change, get in my car and go, without hearing the judge’s ruling.
The woman’s icy words grate against me in the car—I’m getting the hell out. She and I aren’t in the same boat at all, but maybe we’re in the same choppy waters. She reminds me of my granddad telling us all to leave home, to succeed and rise. When he said it, you could see the wear of forty years of watching pressure gauges at the Albright Power Plant start to show in his square face. I suppose I did what he said, to some extent; at this moment I do live away from the mountains. But I don’t always feel an easiness about it. Where are you supposed to go when you get out? When you make your way? In this small city of people where I live now, the house windows that I drive by glow clear in the evening falling. Before people drop their Venetian blinds, they’re so vulnerable; you can see into them and make your own guesses about what it is they want out of, to fly from, what they are making of themselves or not making of themselves. What they might do when they face their own dread, whether they’ll stay with it—their longing taking on shape and dimension—no matter what happens.
I pull into my apartment lot and know that there is a part of me that goes after flight. I remember slipping a quarter into a gumball machine at the Ames Department Store as a kid and getting back a bubble-case. Inside the case: a tiny aluminum Pegasus charm, bent a little on one wing. I fell in love with it, but never put it on a chain around my neck. I buried it, thinking that the necessary step I had to take to set it free for flight, a real heaving horse with a ten-foot wingspan. My heart sagged when I dug it up the next week, still a dinky charm with a damaged wing. Another time, I believed my sister when she told me the sand dollar someone had given me had a bundle of doves in it, doves I needed to let loose. So I busted the sand dollar on the porch roof outside my bedroom window and sprinkled the tiny white pieces onto the shingles. That night, the rain washed them off into the iris bed below; I found them the next morning. Even as a twenty-year-old, I was giddy at the airport—flying for the first time and proud of how adept I was with the electronic kiosks. Mom had driven me there, her face full of question. I slid my credit card through and punched in my passport number, eager to find my gate and take off.
I wasn’t an unhappy kid; it just always seemed that up was the preferred direction in which to go. Escape was always imminent. Maybe the desire came from a mixture of my granddad’s admonition and the teaching I got at church about the rapture in the last days, that all of us believers would be taken from this troublesome world, as though beamed up into UFOs, in the twinkling of an eye. The life lived, especially the rough or shameful or disappointing parts, was something to escape—we are always to rise, above the dirt-poor houses of our fathers in a family of thirteen kids, above the splitting shoes and homemade blouses of our mothers, above a life of obscurity. Above the mountains that fold in around us too close.
The paperback Cloud of Unknowing sits beside me in the passenger seat, with its goofy Seventies cover. I’m wondering: if I strike and stick with it, come hell or whatever, would the cloud all but dissipate so that I’m face to face with God? With whatever is most true? But I need to read on to find that out. For now, I leave the book closed. I figure, though, that if I were to strike with my sharp dart, with my longing love, and let the dread creep in like cold, then I might have to let go of my preference for escape.
I fingered the cateye marbles in my pocket. As it neared evening, the supper dishes clinked in the dining hall sinks. The women began their hum back and forth to the kitchen, Betty giving orders. The men leaned back on the folding chairs so their stomachs ballooned out big; they clasped their hands there on their bellies and put in a chew of tobacco or a rub of Copenhagen snuff. The time was right, and I slipped out of my chair and joined my jittery cousins at the edge of the baseball field where the helicopter sat.
Harry came out soon enough and started it up. The black blade turned, slow at first, and then it whirred into nothing. He started taking us up in twos and threes. All of our scrawny bodies pulsed for the front of the line at the fence near the batter’s box. As I stood waiting, a tall, wide shape moved up beside me. It was the cousin whom I’d noticed earlier in the rush of cousins beside the dining hall. His arms weren’t bouncing at his sides now. His shaggy black hair sprawled and gave way before the force of the blade’s wind. His eyes were glassed over yet full of force, and he held his mouth open in a pout as though speech were about to come, but it didn’t.
The boy wore baggy jeans and a big white T-shirt with a stretched neckline. He was enormous, probably three hundred pounds, and he looked about seventeen. I still knew only a couple of my second cousins’ names, and I wondered who he was and whose he was—he might have been Aunt Susie’s boy, or Gail and Mike’s. He was big like Mike. I remembered the story of the older cousin who had gone after his own sister with scissors, and for a moment I feared it was him. But then the boy looked down at me with a face somehow like a baby’s and, saying nothing, he reached for me and hugged me with his doughy arms. He held me a little too long, smothering my face in his T-shirt, but I wasn’t all that afraid; I sensed no intent to harm. He released me after I squirmed a little, and I smoothed my hair and we both went back to waiting as Uncle Harry escorted a few bright-eyed boys back from their ride. My cousin looked down at me once more, then all at once lunged forward past the line of eager kids and met Uncle Harry near the second base marker, midway between the crowd of kids and the helicopter.
His excitement rippled through his body, and some of my girl cousins giggled. He and Harry stood there in a kind of dance. Then Harry shook his head, said something into the boy’s ear and slapped him once on the back. Then, as if told a goldmine secret, the giant boy turned from Harry, smiling big, and strode back toward us.
He’s going the wrong way, I thought. But his eyes shone. He looked so ready to steal away into the sky, because isn’t that what he and I and everyone were supposed to want? To lift off and leave Spencer and its muggy nights behind, to shake it off like a damned June bug?
The boy looked right at me.
“I’m too fat!” he blurted with his hands raised up like thick wings. “Uncle Harry says there’s a weight limit and I might crash it.” He laughed a little, crossed his arms and turned to watch as four others bolted for the helicopter door. My cousin Nathan took my hand and jerked me forward. I nearly left the ground when he pulled me, weightless, like one of Betty’s nylon slips on the laundry line. I was in a half-trot toward the machine, straining to look back over my shoulder for that beaming sweaty face, an anchored body in a white tee. Uncle Harry was at the door then; he grabbed me and lifted me into the helicopter before I could turn back around and say, “Let me stay, leave me be.” Twenty of my little selves could’ve fit in there. I was wedged in between two punchy twins and felt my belly drop down into my toes as we lifted.
I started to cry, but no one paid attention. I felt like I might throw up; I covered my face with one hand and reached for the cateye marbles in my pocket with the other, just so I could touch them. But, as the electrified, drawled voices around me grew hushed and then went silent, I spread my fingers from my eyes, then slid my hand away entirely and looked down.
My eyes went wide just like the twins’. I was looking through the glass floor of the helicopter, past my canvas shoes, at a tin-roofed dollhouse that must have been the dining hall, with a porch I couldn’t quite make out, a porch that I knew had screen around it keeping the bugs off the grownups as they gathered out there in the late light. The cluster of kids at the fence shrank up to an anthill, just like Harry had said. The whole 4-H camp turned into a green blanket with play things on it, trees into little pom-poms, the road a dirty frayed ribbon. It seemed that we might fly northward, over my house on the hillside, and would I be able to recognize it when I saw it, or tell Mom when I saw her that the house all but disappeared inside the mountain, or when would I even see her again? All was disappearing as we kept going up, and I found myself pressing my face closer and closer to the glass floor, straining to make out shapes and buildings—where was the boy who had held me?
It was my first flight, my first leaving, and I sobbed for the boy left behind; I still felt his fleshy arms enveloping me in a smother. I wept at how empty and how wonderful it was to rise, at how horribly I loved leaving. At how I longed for what I’d left.
The Cloud is pinched under my arm as I get milk from the refrigerator and put my Jiffy Lube receipt under a magnet on the fridge door. I sip the milk in the kitchen, and it comes clear to me just what has troubled and excited me about these words: Strike with the sharp dart of longing love—and do not leave it no matter what happens. They reveal my contradictions, the schism in my self. I know the anonymous author meant for his or her words to keep to the context of mystical union with God, but the words loose a spout in me and I cannot help but let the contradictions spill forth: my unsteadying pangs of homesickness, and my fierce insistence on leaving home; my ache for the sound of a slack screen door shutting after my mother’s heels, and the thrill of having gone off to school and finding work, work of my own; my resolution to be okay with being nothing, as existentially calm as a doe, and my white-hot fear of not having accomplished anything impressive before the reckoning comes. My regret for having betrayed what I have loved, and my coming to see this betrayal as something at the core of what makes us human.
In the kitchen, I feel that sting of my own betrayal, and I return to my five-year-old self, in a flimsy body, on the helicopter ride at the Boggs Reunion of 1984 when my too-big cousin stood by and watched from his place beside the batter’s box. I return to that day when it wasn’t yet betrayal that I felt, just an incoherent ache. Embodied contradiction without understanding; just two big feelings at once: exultation and despair.
I suppose when my helicopter ride was over and Harry landed, it would’ve been near dark. My cousins would have been begging for just one more ride, and the boy left behind would have still been standing there, nearly a silhouette by then, and I shy before him. But, try as I may, I can’t remember when we came down. I don’t remember coming back, and I don’t remember ever seeing the boy again. There is no clear ending.
So I’ll end it, this time, by staying where my longing strikes. I stay with the dread of a small self. I stay with the boy, where the mountains fold in on themselves. He is anchored. I do him no favor by staying; I just bury my face in his white T-shirt. It’s like a bed sheet, and I smell there the musty dog days of Spencer and the flecks of Copenhagen the boy had dropped when he’d dipped with one of the men. I stay for the length of the evening, at least.