Serious Hillbilly Shit

Thomas was once a social worker of the old school, an orphaned and abused child of the sixties, a genuine MSW, long retired from the work-a-day world to pursue a variety of diverse activities involving night crawlers, Christmas trees, potatoes from Amsterdam, llamas, snow peas, firewood, rabbits, organic dog food, shiitake mushrooms, Buddhism, free range eggs, ginseng and very high-grade homegrown marijuana. Thomas is tall; thin, except for a beer belly, 55, with heavy-lensed old tortoise shell glasses 30 years out of style, and a mournful, my-feet-are-killing-me expression. He dresses in cheap blue jeans, a promotional tee shirt, work boots, a flannel shirt at need and always a baseball hat. The top of his head, rarely seen, is perfectly bald and a ghostly yellowish white from not having been exposed to light or air for many years. He has a curly mullet and a drooping walrus mustache with a little soul patch above a cleft chin. His stumbling, shuffling, stuttering posture matches his personality. Not by any means gregarious, he is backward and shy, but being a very uncritical and nonjudgmental person, he is quick to make friends, especially with the fragile and the damaged. His speech is a mixture of coughs (a horrible tubercular cough left over from TB contracted in India when he lived in an ashram), pauses, apologies, hitches, half-smothered belches, guffaws, stammers, self-critical asides and choking pulmonary noises that require medical terminology to describe. “Hell, (cough) ha ha, I don’t know, umm, ahhh ergh, ha! I’m just an old hillbilly, uhh, cough cough, ha, huh, mmmmmmm err, yes.”

Thomas grows most of his own organic food and would probably be in great shape except that he drinks a case or so of non-organic beer everyday. He also smokes a lot of his own weed, but doesn’t sell any as it is his policy to give it away to friends — “just to, phsew, get people, huh, HA! cough, huh, uhh, errrr, open, like, you know, I’m just getting by, ha! Ha! uh.” But Thomas still is rooted in social work and has many friends from the ranks of the demented, the deranged, the displaced, the disenfranchised and the drug-addled.

Sean Clinton and Ramona are members of what my wife calls Thomas’s gang. As it happens, Sean Clinton and Ramona are both demented, deranged, displaced, disenfranchised and very drug-addled, but not unemployed. Sean Clinton works the deep mines down on the river.

“What’cha do there down in the mines, Sean Clinton?”

“Make 35 bucks an hour.”

“No, I mean, what’cha do down there?”

“Load coal.”

Sean Clinton and Ramona live in a double-wide out in the partially reclaimed strip pits. The double wide is up on cement blocks, with bales of straw stacked around it for insulation. There is an above-ground pool full of thick green water, a trampoline and a couple of satellite dishes. There is a barn, which is the gutted ruins of Sean and Ramona’s old trailer. Sean Clinton’s 2002 Ford F440 diesel tandem-wheel pickup sits gleaming in the driveway, beside Ramona’s old beater Geo Metro. Sean Clinton’s last truck, a still new-looking 2001 Ford, sits in the middle of the front yard, wadded up into a ball with weeds around it, where it has been since Sean Clinton crashed it one drunken night a couple of years back. After he crawled out of the wreck he walked home and, in the grand tradition, got out the tractor and hauled the wrecked truck to the front yard, where it will sit until the world changes. It still has Christmas lights strung on it. The trailer is on a dead end road, barely passable at times. The old strip mines are all around it; the nearest house is three bumpy, muddy miles away.

The Pits have always been a lawless, Mad Max-style no-mans land. It’s a perfect place for drug deals, fishing, sex in cars, illegal dumping, swimming and diving and drowning.
This area was last strip mined 40 or 50 years ago, then “reclaimed,” which means the area was bulldozed into rough contours which supposedly resemble the original topography, except there are still high walls and open pits full of deep, cold, turquoise-colored water and a maze of unnamed, unmaintained dirt roads. The area was seeded with crown vetch, but now is covered with scrub locust, sumac, multiflora rose, ragweed, willow and all the other kinds of tough vegetation that will grow on hardpan, rocks, concrete, or stainless steel plates, given enough time and inattention. The area is sometimes fenced, and you can lease acres to graze cattle. The effect is a creepy, blasted kind of wastescape and looks just like the moors in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The Pits have always been a lawless, Mad Max-style no-mans land. Teenagers go out there and race around like maniacs in trucks, drinking beer and shooting guns. It’s a perfect place for drug deals, fishing, sex in cars, illegal dumping, swimming and diving and drowning, paramilitary paint ball games, grazing cattle, unspeakable occult rituals and poaching deer. Lately, some double-wide trailers have been popping up. The land is relatively cheap to lease, as there is no water. You can always tell if someone lives out there because they have a three-quarter-ton four-wheel drive truck with a 500-gallon PVC stock tank in the back for hauling water. Everyone knows how to open a fire hydrant.

Sean Clinton is originally from UCLA (Upper Canton, Lower Akron), his family from West Virginia, and he’s returned now to his Appalachian roots. Sean Clinton first met Thomas when Sean Clinton had a 30-day court-mandated psychiatric evaluation for getting drunk and throwing Ramona out of a moving car. Thomas was then a case worker at the local state mental hospital, known to one and all around here as “The Zoo,” and he and Sean Clinton became fast friends with a community of interests. What they are mostly interested in is drinking beer and smoking weed.

One of Sean Clinton’s boyhood chums grew up to become a major bluegrass god (who will remain nameless in this story), and they have remained close over the years despite, or because of, radically different lifestyles. Now, as it happens, Thomas considers himself an authority on traditional bluegrass and has even produced a couple of CDs. He is a well-known character on the local bluegrass circuit. Every year Sean Clinton has a bluegrass party. Sean Clinton’s old buddy, the bluegrass god, comes to the party and brings a friend (usually another god). They hook up with a couple of local guys who are themselves professional musicians of some renown. These guys are the real deal: guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo. They play and sing, completely un-amplified, just standing out in the yard. I have attended this party for several years because the music is special, but for Thomas and Sean Clinton and their circle, it is an occasion to get more than usually drunk and high.

Sean Clinton’s party is a daytime affair, the music starting about 4 p.m. Ding and I arrived, and Ding, seeing how things stood, started “make up drinking.” There are only 25 or 30 people there (it is never a big party), and, except for the band, almost everyone was already stupidly, amazingly and famously drunker than a planeload of congressmen. At least six people were in the staggering, incoherent, falling-down drunk stage. The first keg was done, and the second tapped.

Kinch was the only sober person there, a 12-stepper doing his usual deal of lighting one cigarette off the end of his previous one, and compulsively chugging Diet Cokes. Kinch was happy to see me. “Man, I’m glad you’re here, ’cause somebody is sure to get paralyzed or blinded pretty soon.” Pete and Ralph, an old hippie couple, were playing a dangerous looking game of horseshoes with Green. Ralph is Green’s sister. Green was reeling and staggering, trying to stand up. He leaned, then swayed, startled, and caught himself, then suddenly collapsed in a heap, horseshoe in hand, right beside the pit, but Pete and Ralph continued to throw horseshoes, oblivious to Green and his head, inches from the pit.

Ramona was showing how much she was enjoying herself by giving groping, fondling embraces and frankly lewd open-mouth kisses to anyone not quick enough to get out of her way.
Thomas had been at the party since the night before. He had a rolled up K-Mart shopping bag sticking out of his tee-shirt pocket containing a big handful of his best homegrown. This homegrown is not just the ordinary green stuff people grow in a bucket in a closet, but big, hairy, sticky, reeking skunky buds, dripping resin. Thomas calls it “uhhh, pretty good weed, cough, HA, well errgh.” I call it polio pot, mind-stop weed of amazing potency; a cough-inducing lungful can produce stunning and sometimes appalling effects. Thomas’ left hand and wrist were in some kind of very high-tech traction splint, with wires and rubber bands, because of a chainsaw accident (he has had five operations on it in the last two months). Thomas is awkwardly stuffing buds into a wooden pipe, spilling bulk amounts on the ground, fumbling with a lighter and a torn paper napkin to use as a filter, which is supposed to keep anyone from catching his TB. “Ha, uhh, care for a bracer? Ha HA, cough.” Thomas noticed I was drinking a beer out of a bottle and said, “Hey, HA! Uhhhhh you can’t drink that beer, no, ugh, you have to drink errrrruugh (cough) out of the cask uhh er hey.” He drops bag, bowl, lighter and napkin in my hands, then emptied out my bottle and went to refill it from the tap, but instead took an amazing header over the beer keg and rolled into a little stream that runs through the yard. This stream runs right through a feedlot full of steers, and he got his injured and still stitched hand soaked in the liquid manure. They rinsed the mud and muck and cow shit off with beer from the keg.

The host, Sean Clinton, had already passed out, fallen over backwards in a lawn chair, and pissed his pants. He was lying in the sun, and, as he never wears a shirt in the summertime (the better to display his tats), was burnt bright red. “How long has Sean Clinton been there baking in the sun?” Someone thought maybe a couple of hours. “He’s pretty buggered up,” they observed. There was a cat sleeping on his chest. Ramona was showing how much she was enjoying herself by giving groping, fondling embraces and frankly lewd open-mouth kisses to anyone not quick enough to get out of her way.

Well, the band played, Sean Clinton rallied from his coma, and he and Ramona started trying to get some food together. They pulled out a little smoker kind of barbeque that you might maybe grill couple of hotdogs or burgers on, and dumped about fifty pounds of charcoal in it. They couldn't find any charcoal starter, but luckily Sean Clinton had some “old gasoline.” I’d seen this act before, and checked my line of retreat. Sean Clinton and Ding poured five gallons of the old gasoline on the charcoal, and on the grill, and on the ground, and on themselves, then stood back, and threw firecrackers at it until it ignited with a concussive whoosh, sparking a huge special effects-style yellow/orange fireball and a cloud of thick black smoke. I don't guess Sean Clinton had much more than some second degree burns on his shoulder, but this was treated with cold beer from the keg, applied directly with the nozzle while Sean Clinton howled.

After 5 or 10 minutes, they brought out four huge full slabs of pork ribs, at least 20 pounds, which they put on this roaring gasoline fire. In no time, the entire thing was a smoking, burning pyre that looked like an oil well fire. It was too hot to get close to, so they knocked it over with a two-by-four, and pulled the meat out of the wreck with a pitchfork Ramona uses to muck out the stalls in the barn, and threw it over on to a lawn chair, where the six or eight dogs were licking and sniffing and growling over it. They shoveled some of the charcoal back in, chased away the dogs, and threw the meat back on. Ramona had brought out some appetizer type food (pickles, cheese and fruit), which people were bolting down by the handful.

Ramona, exhausted by the effort, then stretched out on the trampoline, wondering out loud, “Where are my fucking cigarettes? I can’t find them. Oh Jesus, somebody help me.” I went in the house to look for her smokes. In the kitchen the countertops and table were heaped with of all kinds of obvious party food. I saw baked beans, potato salad, deviled eggs, homemade noodles, a mountain of chips, pies, cookies and brownies, but none of this food ever made it outside to the actual party.

Meanwhile, back at the front, the ribs were now on fire. Sean Clinton took them off (the pitchfork again) and declared them “fucking perfect.” I suppose they had been “cooking” for 10 minutes, counting the time they spent with the dogs. They were burnt black outside, but Sean Clinton, undaunted, had at them with a murderous looking Ninja sword. Anyone could see they were raw, but he cut them up and threw them in a pot of toxic smelling hot sauce that had been “fermenting” out in the barn. Folks then just fished the ribs out and walked around gnawing on them like a bunch of ghouls, and clamored for more. The cheese and fruit Ramona had brought earlier was long gone, I reminded Ramona that there was still tons of food inside. Ramona was still sitting on the trampoline, nearly paralyzed from drink and smoke. “Can you help me get it?” she asked suggestively, holding out her hands. I told her I would help in a minute (there was no way I was going inside with her) and slipped away when she was on a nod.

They did an a cappella number, and you could clearly hear the fiddle player tapping out the time with his fingernail on the top of his fiddle. It was art, poured into a void, as fleeting and elusive as a shiver.
I later saw her lurch out of the house, unsteadily carrying a bag of potato chips. There might have been some trouble over the lack of food, but just then one of the dogs tried to take a rib out of Ding’s hand and bit him. A huge scene ensued. Sean Clinton kicked at the dog, and the dog bit Sean Clinton on his leg, causing him to chase after the dog in a screaming rage, while the other dogs followed in a snarling and yelping pack. Sean Clinton was then tackled by Potts, the over-the-field neighbor, who had brought the rib-stealing dog to the party. Sean Clinton and the neighbor were too drunk and high to fight, but they rolled around in the gravel, “kickin’ and a-gougin’ in the mud and the blood and the beer,” as was right and proper. Someone finally sprayed them with the water hose, and I saw them a couple of minutes later over by the keg, where Potts, the Good Samaritan, was with great care spraying beer on Sean Clinton’s dog-bit leg.

In the midst of this, the bluegrass band serenely went on with their set, seeming to enjoy the scene, talking amongst themselves between songs about verses and turnarounds. I wish I could describe how good the music sounded, at least to me and Kinch, the only other person who was actually listening. It is an amazing thing to hear un-doctored sound, this close. I have heard plenty of traditional bluegrass played by gods, but only with some distance and a PA system between. I had never been this close to this quality of musicianship. You could hear the picks clicking and strings squeaking, see the loose hairs on the fiddle bow, and hear the banjo player humming along softly to himself. They did an a cappella number, and you could clearly hear the fiddle player tapping out the time with his fingernail on the top of his fiddle. It was art, poured into a void, as fleeting and elusive as a shiver.

Meanwhile out in the void, Ding was convinced he had the rabies, flesh eating virus, tetanus and three or four other diseases from the bite. “That dog has been eating raw pork!” he anxiously told me. Ramona asked, “Did’ja ever have a technical shot?” Ding showed me his injured hand and said mournfully, “I’m in bad shape.” We sent him over to the keg for the beer nozzle spray first aid treatment.

By 7 p.m. the band was done, the keg was empty, and the fire had burned down enough so that you could probably cook on it in an hour or so. There were many people passed out drunk on the ground. There was not a bite of food left outside, but still tons untouched inside. Pete and Ralph, the old hippie couple, had tried to leave but had fallen asleep in their old beat up Volvo after Pete had driven into the first ditch they didn’t see. Ramona was snoring on the trampoline. Potts, the neighbor, had left to go home cross-country on his ATV with the rib-stealing attack dog on the back, but he ran into a barbed wire fence about a hundred yards from the trailer. “When did I put that there?” he asked Sean Clinton.

House parties end up in the kitchen, but yard parties end up sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck. Sean Clinton had a big, fat blister on his shoulder from the gasoline explosion, the hair on his arm and chest was singed, and he was sunburned, scraped-up and muddy from rolling around with Potts. He had “fermented sauce” in his beard, and had a dog bite on his leg. He was nodding while he sat. Ding had done a good job of make-up drinking, and he was leaning dejectedly against the truck, staring morosely at his hand as he turned it slowly over and back, the picture of despair. “I’m in bad shape,” he moaned. Thomas, as always, is awkwardly stuffing buds into a wooden pipe, spilling bulk amounts on the ground, fumbling with a lighter and his torn paper napkin filter. His injured hand is soaked in muck, cowshit and beer. He looked around to survey the scene and smiled. “Ha, errr, uh this is some serious hillbilly shit, huh? Hey, cough, ergh. Uhh, care for a bracer? Ha HA, cough. Er.”