Read Hillbilly Elegy Online

Authors: J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy (10 page)

I broached this issue with Mamaw, confessing that I was gay and I was worried that I would burn in hell. She said, “Don't be a fucking idiot, how would you know that you're gay?” I explained my thought process. Mamaw chuckled and seemed to consider how she might explain to a boy my age. Finally she asked, “J.D.,
do you want to suck dicks?” I was flabbergasted. Why would someone want to do that? She repeated herself, and I said, “Of course not!” “Then,” she said, “you're not gay. And even if you did want to suck dicks, that would be okay. God would still love you.” That settled the matter. Apparently I didn't have to worry about being gay anymore. Now that I'm older, I recognize the profundity of her sentiment: Gay people, though unfamiliar, threatened nothing about Mamaw's being. There were more important things for a Christian to worry about.

In my new church, on the other hand, I heard more about the gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any particular character trait that a Christian should aspire to have. I recalled that moment with Mamaw as an instance of secularist thinking rather than an act of Christian love. Morality was defined by not participating in this or that particular social malady: the gay agenda, evolutionary theory, Clintonian liberalism, or extramarital sex. Dad's church required so little of me. It was easy to be a Christian. The only affirmative teachings I remember drawing from church were that I shouldn't cheat on my wife and that I shouldn't be afraid to preach the gospel to others. So I planned a life of monogamy and tried to convert other people, even my seventh-grade science teacher, who was Muslim.

The world lurched toward moral corruption—slouching toward Gomorrah. The Rapture was coming, we thought. Apocalyptic imagery filled the weekly sermons and the
Left Behind
books (one of the best-selling fiction series of all time, which I devoured). Folks would discuss whether the Antichrist was already alive and, if so, which world leader it might be. Someone told me that he expected I'd marry a very pretty girl if the Lord hadn't come by the time I reached marrying age. The End Times
were the natural finish for a culture sliding so quickly toward the abyss.

Other authors have noted the terrible retention rates of evangelical churches and blamed precisely that sort of theology for their decline.
19
I didn't appreciate it as a kid. Nor did I realize that the religious views I developed during my early years with Dad were sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith. What I did know is that, despite its downsides, I loved both my new church and the man who introduced me to it. The timing, it turned out, was impeccable: The next months would bring a desperate need for both a heavenly father and an earthly one.

Chapter 7

In the fall after I turned thirteen, Mom began dating Matt, a younger guy who worked as a firefighter. I adored Matt from the start—he was my favorite of all of Mom's men, and we still keep in touch. One night I was at home watching TV, waiting for Mom to get home from work with a bucket of KFC for dinner. I had two responsibilities that evening: first, track down Lindsay in case she was hungry; and second, run food over to Mamaw as soon as Mom arrived. Shortly before I expected Mom, Mamaw called. “Where is your mother?”

“I don't know. What's wrong, Mamaw?”

Her response, more than anything I've ever heard, is seared in my memory. She was worried—scared, even. The hillbilly accent that she usually hid dripped from her lips. “
No one has seen or heard from Papaw
.” I told her I'd call as soon as Mom got home, which I expected would happen soon.

I figured Mamaw was overreacting. But then I considered the utter predictability of Papaw's schedule. He woke at six in the morning every day, without an alarm clock, then drove to McDonald's at seven to grab a coffee with his old Armco buddies.
After a couple of hours of conversation, he would amble over to Mamaw's house and spend the morning watching TV or playing cards. If he left at all before dinnertime, he might briefly visit his friend Paul's hardware store. Without exception, he stayed at Mamaw's house to greet me when I came home from school. And if I didn't go to Mamaw's—if I went to Mom's, as I did when times were good—he'd usually come over and say goodbye before he went home for the evening. That he had missed all of these events meant that something was very wrong.

Mom walked in the door a few minutes after Mamaw called, and I was already sobbing. “Papaw . . . Papaw, I think he's dead.” The rest is a blur: I think I relayed Mamaw's message; we picked her up down the street and sped over to Papaw's house, no more than a few minutes' drive away. I knocked on his door violently. Mom ran to the back door, screamed, and came around front, both to tell Mamaw that he was hunched over in his chair and to grab a rock. She then broke and went in through a window, unlocked and opened the door, and tended to her father. By then he had been dead for nearly a day.

Mom and Mamaw sobbed uncontrollably as we waited for an ambulance. I tried to hug Mamaw, but she was beside herself and unresponsive even to me. When she stopped crying, she clutched me to her chest and told me to go say goodbye before they took his body away. I tried, but the medical technician kneeling beside him gazed at me as if she thought I was creepy for wanting to look at a dead body. I didn't tell her the real reason I had walked back to my slouching Papaw.

After the ambulance took Papaw's body away, we drove immediately to Aunt Wee's house. I guessed Mom had called her, because she descended from her porch with tears in her eyes.
We all hugged her before squeezing into the car and heading back to Mamaw's. The adults gave me the unenviable task of tracking down Lindsay and giving her the news. This was before cell phones, and Lindsay, being a seventeen-year-old, was difficult to reach. She wasn't answering the house phone, and none of her friends answered my calls. Mamaw's house sat literally five houses away from Mom's—313 McKinley to 303—so I listened to the adults make plans and watched out the window for signs of my sister's return. The adults spoke about funeral arrangements, where Papaw would want to be buried—“In Jackson, goddammit,” Mamaw insisted—and who would call Uncle Jimmy and tell him to come home.

Lindsay returned home shortly before midnight. I trudged down the street and opened our door. She was walking down the stairs but stopped cold when she saw my face, red and blotchy from crying all day. “Papaw,” I blurted out. “He's dead.” Lindsay collapsed on the stairs, and I ran up and embraced her. We sat there for a few minutes, crying as two children do when they find out that the most important man in their lives has died. Lindsay said something then, and though I don't remember the exact phrase, I do remember that Papaw had just done some work on her car, and she was muttering something through the tears about taking advantage of him.

Lindsay was a teenager when Papaw died, at the height of that weird mixture of thinking you know everything and caring too much about how others perceive you. Papaw was many things, but he was never cool. He wore the same old T-shirt every day with a front pocket just big enough to fit a pack of cigarettes. He always smelled of mildew, because he washed his clothes but let them dry “naturally,” meaning packed together in a washing machine. A
lifetime of smoking had blessed him with an unlimited supply of phlegm, and he had no problem sharing that phlegm with everyone, no matter the time or occasion. He listened to Johnny Cash on perpetual repeat and drove an old El Camino—a car truck—everywhere he went. In other words, Papaw wasn't ideal company for a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl with an active social life. Thus, she took advantage of him in the same way that every young girl takes advantage of a father: She loved and admired him, she asked him for things that he sometimes gave her, and she didn't pay him a lot of attention when she was around her friends.

To this day, being able to “take advantage” of someone is the measure in my mind of having a parent. For me and Lindsay, the fear of imposing stalked our minds, infecting even the food we ate. We recognized instinctively that many of the people we depended on weren't supposed to play that role in our lives, so much so that it was one of the first things Lindsay thought of when she learned of Papaw's death. We were conditioned to feel that we couldn't really depend on people—that, even as children, asking someone for a meal or for help with a broken-down automobile was a luxury that we shouldn't indulge in too much lest we fully tap the reservoir of goodwill serving as a safety valve in our lives. Mamaw and Papaw did everything they could to fight that instinct. On our rare trips to a nice restaurant, they would interrogate me about what I truly wanted until I'd confess that yes, I did want the steak. And then they'd order it for me over my protests. No matter how imposing, no figure could erase that feeling entirely. Papaw had come the closest, but he clearly hadn't succeeded all the way, and now he was gone.

Papaw died on a Tuesday, and I know this because when Mom's boyfriend, Matt, drove me to a local diner the next morn
ing to pick up food for the whole family, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Tuesday's Gone” was playing on the radio. “But somehow I've got to carry on / Tuesday's gone with the wind.” That was the moment it really hit me that Papaw was never coming back. The adults did what people do when a loved one dies: They planned a funeral, figured out how to pay for it, and hoped that they did the deceased some justice. We hosted a visitation in Middletown that Thursday so all the locals could pay their respects, then had a second visitation in Jackson on Friday before a Saturday funeral. Even in death, Papaw had one foot in Ohio and another in the holler.

Everyone I cared to see came to the funeral in Jackson—Uncle Jimmy and his kids, our extended family and friends, and all of the Blanton men who were still kicking. It occurred to me as I saw these titans of my family that, for the first eleven or so years of my life, I saw them during happy times—family reunions and holidays or lazy summers and long weekends—and in the two most recent years I'd seen them only at funerals.

At Papaw's funeral, as at other hillbilly funerals I've witnessed, the preacher invited everyone to stand up and say a few words about the deceased. As I sat next to Uncle Jimmy in the pew, I sobbed throughout the hour-long funeral, my eyes so irritated by the end that I could hardly see. Still, I knew this was it, and that if I didn't stand up and speak my piece, I'd regret it for the rest of my life.

I thought about a moment nearly a decade earlier that I'd heard about but didn't remember. I was four or five, sitting in a church pew for a great-uncle's funeral in that same Deaton funeral home in Jackson. We had just arrived after a long drive from Middletown, and when the minister asked us to bow our
heads and pray, I bowed my head and passed out. Mamaw's older brother Uncle Pet lay me on my side with a Bible as a pillow and thought nothing more of it. I was asleep for what happened next, but I've heard some version of it a hundred times. Even today, when I see someone who attended that funeral, they tell me about my hillbilly Mamaw and Papaw.

When I failed to appear in the crowd of mourners leaving the church, Mamaw and Papaw grew suspicious. There were perverts even in Jackson, they told me, who wanted to stick sticks up your butt and “blow on your pecker” as much as the perverts in Ohio or Indiana or California. Papaw hatched a plan: There were only two exits to Deaton's, and no one had driven away yet. Papaw ran to the car and grabbed a .44 Magnum for himself and a .38 Special for Mamaw. They manned the exits to the funeral home and checked every car. When they encountered an old friend, they explained the situation and enlisted help. When they met someone else, they searched the cars like goddamned DEA agents.

Uncle Pet approached, frustrated that Mamaw and Papaw were holding up traffic. When they explained, Pet howled with laughter: “He's asleep in the church pew, let me show you.” After they found me, they allowed traffic to flow freely once again.

I thought about Papaw buying me a BB gun with a mounted scope. He placed the gun on his workbench with a vise to hold it in place and fired repeatedly at a target. After each shot, we adjusted the scope, aligning the crosshairs with where the BB impacted the target. And then he taught me how to shoot—how to focus on the sights and not the target, how to exhale before pulling the trigger. Years later, our marine boot camp marksmanship instructors would tell us that the kids who already
“knew” how to shoot performed the worst, because they'd learned improper fundamentals. That was true with one exception: me. From Papaw, I had learned excellent fundamentals, and I qualified with an M16 rifle as an expert, the highest category, with one of the highest scores in my entire platoon.

Papaw was gruff to the point of absurdity. To every suggestion or behavior he didn't like, Papaw had one reply: “Bullshit.” That was everyone's cue to shut the hell up. His hobby was cars: He loved buying, trading, and fixing them. One day not long after Papaw quit drinking, Uncle Jimmy came home to find him fixing an old automobile on the street. “He was cussing up a storm. ‘These goddamned Japanese cars, cheap pieces of shit. What a stupid motherfucker who made this part.' I just listened to him, not knowing a single person was around, and he just kept carrying on and complaining. I thought he sounded miserable.” Uncle Jimmy had recently started working and was eager to spend his money to help his dad out. So he offered to take the car to a shop and get it fixed. The suggestion caught Papaw completely off guard. “What? Why?” he asked innocently. “I love fixing cars.”

Papaw had a beer belly and a chubby face but skinny arms and legs. He never apologized with words. While helping Aunt Wee move across the country, she admonished him for his earlier alcoholism and asked why they rarely had the chance to talk. “Well, talk now. We've got all fucking day in the car together.” But he did apologize with deeds: The rare times when he lost his temper with me were always followed with a new toy or a trip to the ice cream parlor.

Papaw was a terrifying hillbilly made for a different time and place. During that cross-country drive with Aunt Wee, they
stopped at a highway rest stop in the early morning. Aunt Wee decided to comb her hair and brush her teeth and thus spent more time in the ladies' room than Papaw thought reasonable. He kicked open the door holding a loaded revolver, like a character in a Liam Neeson movie. He was sure, he explained, that she was being raped by some pervert. Years later, after Aunt Wee's dog growled at her infant baby, Papaw told her husband, Dan, that unless he got rid of the dog, Papaw would feed it a steak marinated in antifreeze. He wasn't joking: Three decades earlier, he had made the same promise to a neighbor after a dog nearly bit my mom. A week later that dog was dead. In that funeral home I thought about these things, too.

Most of all I thought about Papaw and me. I thought about the hours we spent practicing increasingly complex math problems. He taught me that lack of knowledge and lack of intelligence were not the same. The former could be remedied with a little patience and a lot of hard work. And the latter? “Well, I guess you're up shit creek without a paddle.”

I thought about how Papaw would get on the ground with me and Aunt Wee's baby girls and play with us like a child. Despite his “bullshits” and his grouchiness, he never met a hug or a kiss that he didn't welcome. He bought Lindsay a crappy car and fixed it up, and after she wrecked it, he bought her another one and fixed that one up, too, just so she didn't feel like she “came from nothing.” I thought about losing my temper with Mom or Lindsay or Mamaw, and how those were among the few times Papaw ever showed a mean streak, because, as he once told me, “the measure of a man is how he treats the women in his family.” His wisdom came from experience, from his own earlier failures with treating the women in his family well.

I stood up in that funeral home, resolved to tell everyone just how important he was. “I never had a dad,” I explained. “But Papaw was always there for me, and he taught me the things that men needed to know.” Then I spoke the sum of his influence on my life: “He was the best dad that anyone could ever ask for.”

After the funeral, a number of people told me that they appreciated my bravery and courage. Mom was not among them, which struck me as odd. When I located her in the crowd, she seemed trapped in some sort of trance: saying little, even to those who approached her; her movements slow and her body slouched.

Mamaw, too, seemed out of sorts. Kentucky was usually the one place where she was completely in her element. In Middletown, she could never truly be herself. At Perkins, our favorite breakfast spot, Mamaw's mouth would sometimes earn a request from the manager that she keep her voice down or watch her language. “That fucker,” she'd mutter under her breath, chastened and uncomfortable. But at Bill's Family Diner, the only restaurant in Jackson worth sitting down at for a meal, she'd scream at the kitchen staff to “hurry the hell up” and they'd laugh and say, “Okay, Bonnie.” Then she'd look at me and tell me, “You know I'm just fucking with them, right? They know I'm not a mean old bitch.”

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