Ann Pancake

I’m thinking of early March back there, before real thaw. Ground, grass, brush, a lot of tawny colors too dull to be gold, too bright to be tan. The temperature might play a couple octaves a day in early March in West Virginia. You walk to the schoolbus in the morning, your breath a white skein, then, later, walking home, you might get surprised by a new-warm breeze gusting low to the ground, driving a little trash in front of it. Every season back home comes hard, comes full, every season means it. Early March opened a hope, past a dry bitter winter.

We were raised to be tough back there. Boys, girls, all of us were, although I didn’t recognize it until I left the place and recognize it even more the further I leave the time. We got beat on regularly, at least every kid I knew did. Got beat at school, got beat at home. I took the beatings so much for granted that the only thing I noted about them were the variations on the beating devices-kitchen ladles, hairbrushes, Hot Wheels tracks, Ping Pong paddles. I collected these in my head when I visited friends and saw them or their siblings get it or get threatened. Then there was work. Lots of us were farm kids or had families who used to be farmers or used to work for farmers. We were worked, and I don’t mean dusting. We chopped wood; we put in and weeded and harvested enormous gardens, then we helped can; we made hay. But what I think of most right now, in terms of the toughness, maybe because I’m feeling March before thaw, was the struggle to keep warm in the winters.

In the two-hundred-year-old house where I grew up, heat was spotty, wood and coal. We used our hands for our heat, we worked to get it. My brother and I were stoking the coal furnace before we hit sixth grade, the shovel big as us, and, still, it was just always cold. At the junior high, before the bell rang in the mornings and during lunch, they made us stand outside. In winter, we’d warm ourselves by crowding, eight or ten of us, into deepset doorways, share body heat, then trade off and let others warm. That was us. Get resourceful. Don’t complain. Tough. We did the same at our bus stop, which my five brothers and sisters and I reached by crossing an open railroad trestle. That trestle had no railings, and in those early winter mornings, an ice skiff would slick the ties, but we never fell, at least not off. In the gravel turnaround along Route 50, we’d press into a little white bus shelter reeking of plywood pissed on some time ago. We’d huddle in there, my family, and the Hotts and Polands, and little Petie and Tammy Chavez, if they were staying with their grandma, and retarded Billy, if his dad hadn’t driven him in. We’d breathe our warmness into shared air, careful not to touch each other wrong because it was impossible not to touch some. We learned. To get by, to make do. The trouble was, it was the kind of tough that makes you put up with instead of grab when you’re older. That’s the kind of tough they made us. The durable kind, not the fighting kind.

Some of us took straightaway to the toughening. Others had less aptitude for it. I’m still not sure to which group I belonged, but I know Jamie was in the latter. Jamie Fout or Haines, his last name constantly shifted depending upon which father claimed him at any given time or else to which father his mother felt most sympathetic, I don’t know. Jamie. I think of his scrawniness and his colorless hair. His ear operations and the way he blinked two seconds longer and tighter than everybody else. His pathetic gentleness. In sixth grade, he decided he was in love with me.

Toughness in West Virginia is not just an exhibition of masculinity. It’s more deeply bound up with class, with poverty. It’s hard to outline, much less make an outsider feel, the economics of back home, especially in the time I’m speaking of, the mid-seventies. So difficult to convey the pervasiveness of lack, a culture so saturated with lack that the absence turned inside out and became a presence, and the lack shaped all of us, even those of us, like me, who were middle-class by local standards. The easiest way to explain to a non-native the class structure back home is this: anybody upper-class where I grew up would be considered middle-class in regular white America. The middle class where I grew up would be considered working class outside. Through a mainstream lens, the working class back home would be seen as poverty-stricken. And then there were our homegrown poor, who slip under all white categories in the ordinary American imagination, white people poorer than I’d see again in my life, a level of poverty I’d only see in Third World countries. What I’m saying is, the toughness, for many, wasn’t bravado. Many of us were going to need it.

JAMIE DIDN’T HAVE it easy, but he was better off than many boys who fell in love with me, some of whom I loved back. A few of those boys were illiterate, I understand now; a few retarded, I knew that then. Johnny Mulledy, special ed, a member of one of those families that just went on forever, a kid in every single grade, used to send me love letters written in stick figures. I never did figure out what the stick figures were doing. And Johnny’s notes remind me of a time much later, in high school, when I had a casual boyfriend in a nearby town, a part black kid who lived with a white foster family. Once he sent me a picture of himself playing baseball, the back of the photo a dense web of surreal sentences. The handwriting was legible, that wasn’t the problem. It was as if the sentences were a different species of mind working, and not until years afterwards, when I was teaching English, did I realize he was illiterate. That boy was stunning good-looking, the best kisser I’d ever know. He’d been placed with the foster family because his biological mother had raped him.

The year after Jamie, I met Colt Vermilyen, or, more exactly, Colt met me. He was Jamie’s antithesis in every way. In junior high, he carved my name in his forearm with a pocketknife, and while in these more enlightened times he might have been sent to counseling, back there, back then, he was sent to the office and paddled for it. Colt, like Johnny Mulledy, came from an endless family with a couple last names, but he and his siblings had it harder than Johnny’s because Colt’s family was smart. How Colt would strut and glare, his compact body a cylinder of compressed anger. His blonde hair spiking off his head, electrified with that pressure. In summers, he’d ride his bike fifteen miles to see me, and every time I rejected him, he looked for a full minute like he was going to grab a piece of stovewood and beat me to death. Then, like gravy, slow-moving like that, the rage would sink back into his head, you could watch it, and transmogrify into this lupine smile. Redetermination. He carried in his pockets peppermint patties that melted in the heat of the bike ride, they were drenched in the odor of his body, and I wouldn’t eat them, but my younger brothers and sisters would. And despite my resistance, Colt found his ways to touch me. Would sneak up behind me and kiss my head, me wheeling and pushing him off hard. Or he’d walk beside me, feigning innocence, then snatch my arm and squeeze it near to bruising. Once in the dark at 4-H camp, us maybe twelve, he knocked me down a hill and jumped on top of me, his knees pinning my arms. I could feel that furious energy on top of me as solid as an engine block, and it galvanized a similar energy in me, woke it up, an anger power, I remember. I beat him back, and I won. Years after, when Colt was in the army, he drove all the way from Louisiana to ask me to marry him. I wasn’t even in town, so he was stuck with telling my mom.

After Jamie, I had boyfriends whose families couldn’t afford phones, so they’d call me from phone booths, boyfriends without plumbing, so they’d slather their adolescent odors with cologne. I had a boyfriend who lived in a schoolbus with an old man who looked after him. No one knew who his parents were. I don’t know if he did or not, and I never asked him. I had a boyfriend who was set between parked cars at the age of five and told to choose father’s or mother’s, and the decision stuck for life. Those boys had to be tough. Now I look back on what they had to squirm through and fight off and suffer on their way to becoming men, and I’m struck by several things. How as a kid I simply took their situations for granted, like I did our beatings, the cold, the lack. How I have never known since with any intimacy, nor will ever know again, people like them. How their circumstances made not only those boys, but made their love, and how the intersections of their love and mine went towards making me.

Although Colt was always on the verge of jumping me, he never really scared me. None of those boys did. The boy who most frightened me never showed interest in me in a boyfriend way. Raymond Hays was the poorest of the poor, with wild rusted black hair textured like malnourished puppy fur, although there was nothing puppyish about Raymond. He was one of those kids who got old by age ten. He wore the free shoes the poor poor got in the principal’s office-not even Johnny Mulledy wore those shoes-Mr. Bojangles two-toned clodhoppers, bulbous toes, and those shoes marked them, the way their scalps marked them when they were shaved for lice. One day after lunch in fifth grade I was passing the garbage incinerator on the way to the playground, and there Raymond stood, watching me. I accidentally walked close enough to hear him mutter something. I had to look back at him-and when I did, he stared at me unmoved, as though he hadn’t spoken at all—and let the sentence replay in my head before I registered the words. He’d said: “Do you have hair on yours?”

That question terrifies me even now, in its understatement, its originality, the insidious indirection of the threat. How effortlessly he was able to violate a privacy so deep that until he spoke, I hadn’t really known it was a privacy. When I heard the question that day, I felt my breath snatched down a narrow tube and snuffed. It wasn’t terror that Raymond would harm me physically, but worse. It was a terror of being sliced and spread open, exposed in the most intimate way, and my immediate impulse was to wrap my arms around myself, cover my insides and hide. My answer to Raymond’s question was an unthought knowledge, an unarticulated premonition, that my life from there on would be a progressive hardening around my sexuality, which at that point I was barely even aware of. And although by that time I’d toughened in other ways, I’d not yet known how to toughen there.

IT WAS IN the winter of sixth grade that Jamie asked me to go with him. Of course, he didn’t ask me to my face. He enlisted intermediaries. I don’t know how many he actually asked to approach me for him-I can’t imagine that it was more than one or two-but it turned into the whole pack of sixth grade boy populars, getting a real rise out of this budding romance between nerdy little Jamie and weird read-all-the-time me. These were boys at eleven, at twelve, already well-hardened, at least in public, boys forever flexing and flaunting their little man-ness. Their favorite insult that year was “Woman.” “Woman!” they’d spit at each other, the lowest of the low. Occasionally, they’d even fire it at us girls, and we’d accept it. As an insult. The pack descended on me on the playground, wearing jackets because the teachers made them, but the jackets unzipped, unbuttoned, flapping open in the brutal January wind, proof of their toughness. Their long hair-Jamie’s grandmother made him keep his short-swung in their faces, and I remember how they tossed their heads to clear their eyes. Prancing and feinting, they surrounded me, their legs spread, arms cocked off their sides, shoulders heaved, the way dogs hackle up to look bigger than they are. And the ringleader held out to me, always just beyond reach, a bracelet.

That was a year ID bracelets were big, ones with shiny thick links that folded into each other and a sturdy plate engraved with a name. I think this is how Jamie imagined the bracelet. But his had smaller links, an almost impossibly narrow mouth, no plate, no name, and was colored the opaque gray of used washing machine water. “He wants to give you this bracelet!” Scotty Combs jeered. “I don’t know how you’re supposed to wear it! Maybe on your nose!”

I wasn’t self-conscious enough yet, hadn’t hardened enough in that way, to reject the bracelet to save face. I took it from the pack and turned away.

I wore the bracelet for the rest of the school year. What did I feel for Jamie? I felt flattered. Appreciative that he perceived me as so much more than I knew I actually was. I felt friendliness, but not more. The boy I really “liked” was in that swarm of taunters. But Jamie paid attention to me, and I was famished for attention. I was the oldest of six children, the third oldest of twenty cousins, and I was never made to feel like more than one of a crowd. I was rarely even hugged between the time I was about five and the time I started leaving home. I’ve always found it interesting that in this country the only sins we hear about are children touched too much. Jamie and I never hugged, but he would call me. He would walk with me and watch me and give me small presents. He was unfailingly kind and gentle in every way, and he carried that tenderness right up front in his face. At first glance, the face just came off as slightly goofy, the way he’d flutter and squinch his eyes, the tubes in his ears and the cotton batting. Something about how his features were arranged gave the face a cartoon quality. But if you looked at it often enough, you saw how he reached with his face. His face extended an open invitation to come inside and sit with him, but at the same time, an invitation always more than a little conscious that it would be rejected. That lay in the face, too. Then, even beyond the anticipation of rejection, the face also, already, telling you, yes, the rejection would hurt, yes. But that would be all right. It was all right.

I knew later, and only a few years later, knew by the time I was in high school, that his gentleness was the main reason I couldn’t love him back. I knew by the time I was sixteen that was the reason, but it took me another twenty years to understand why.

It was a strange confluence of classes that bred me. I was raised with a few middle-class opportunities and most middle-class expectations in a culture that was working-class, and now I realize how that hybridity served me after I left home. The toughening I learned as a kid meant as an adult I had few fears about the physical world and took quiet risks. It meant I carried low expectations of others, high expectations of myself. For three years, I lived in Third World countries where that toughness carried me through, as I drew on my childhood resourcefulness, my flexibility, adaptability-I could eat anything, sleep anywhere-my durability and patience. Our work ethic helped me even more. We were brought up to expect absolutely nothing unless we worked to death for it, raised in a place where “he/she’s a hard worker” was about the biggest compliment anyone received, and on that ethic I labored through graduate school, through both its economic poverty and its poverty of soul. I muscled through my dissertation, which included research on class, and through that process, I became acutely conscious that the possibilities for the travel, for the advanced education, came only from the other part of my classedness: the middle-class strand. Still, like any virtue, the toughness cost me. A couple times it almost got me killed, literally, like the time a gynecologist didn’t notice he’d perforated my intestine and I didn’t go to the emergency room for three days because I figured I was just being a baby about the pain. More often, though, the deaths were emotional, I think.

Jamie’s birthday was in March, and that year I was his girlfriend, I was invited to his party. At least I thought it was a party, until I got there and discovered I was the only guest. Not even Jamie’s brother, Nicky, who was only a year younger than us, showed up. Nobody came except me, Jamie, his grandma, whom he lived with, and his mom, who didn’t live there and had just come for the party. By this time in my life, a month after I turned twelve, I’d been in houses and trailers as destitute as any I’d ever enter again. Jamie’s grandma’s house seemed more or less average to me, although now I realize they were just scraping by. Like so many homes of the poor or almost poor, the house was kept dark and felt crowded and close, as though the occupants have denned up against threats outside. So when I look back now, over twenty-five years later, I see no distinct lines in the house, only blurs of soft dark furniture, and against those blurs, the pale angular form of Jamie, dashing, jumping, ripping open presents, so absolute in his happiness he was completely unconscious of it.

I’d worn my good clothes, as far as those went. Not my Sunday clothes, but a pair of checked slacks-I can still recall the flannel texture of those pants-and a sweater, which I remember was a maroon of some sort. I didn’t have many clothes. After the present opening, we ate slices of a bitter white cake that I overpraised to make up for how bad it was (how did I know to do this already, at twelve?) until finally Jamie’s mother said, “Well, it’s not homemade. We bought it.” Then I shut up. Because the birthday party had no games, and no food other than the cake, and no guests besides me, it didn’t last long. After we finished our cake, Jamie asked me if I wanted to ride his bike in the empty parking lot across the street.

ONE SUNDAY A few weeks after the birthday party, my sister knocked me off a grapevine and I hit my head on a rock. I exaggerated the injury to get attention. My family’s typical reaction to illness or injury was that you were faking it. Sometimes, though, one of my parents would give in and haul us down to the county hospital for X-rays, but to my disappointment, my bones never broke; I only sprained. However, with this head injury, the doctor thought I might have a concussion, and I was allowed to stay home from school for two or three days. Somehow the news of my injury reached the kids in my class. The day I came back, while we were sitting in the lunchroom waiting for the buses, the toughman taunters reported, as loudly as they could get away with and in front of everyone: “We told Jamie you hit your head and died! And he cried!”

I looked over at Jamie, a table away. He didn’t drop his gaze or turn his head. And what he held in that open, reaching, cartoonish face was not denial. It wasn’t even embarrassment. It was sadness. It was confusion. And I guess it was love.

I couldn’t love him back. It wasn’t just my age, that’s not what I mean. From the beginning, I only loved them tough. None of them ever hit me, it wasn’t that kind of tough. It was quick anger and studied indifference and cockiness and control. It was him always forgetting whatever was important to you; it was a hand pressing your head towards his lap. It was motorcycles and hanging around during car repairs, it was watching violent movies and boring sports. It was not give in and do what he wants to do, but do what he wants to do so instinctively you never even recognize it as a giving in. But there was passion. We grew up in a place rarely romantic, but there was passion, plenty, in raw, edgy, flayed-open ways. We had that.

We learned to take what we got. Yellow Banks was where more than a few of us started getting. Behind the schools was a nearly perpendicular drop of several hundred feet to the river valley below our town’s plateau. We called that drop “Yellow Banks, “ Yellow” for the color the shale made them, “Banks” even though a person from a milder topography would have called them at least “Bluffs” and probably “Cliffs.” But we were raised in up-and-down ground. They were banks to us. You couldn’t see Yellow Banks from anyplace in town unless you stood in the oak trees on their edge and looked straight down. You could only see them easily from a part of the valley without a road, so you almost never saw them. If you could negotiate the steepness, they were the perfect spot for sexual explorations, conveniently located on the edge of town, but out of everyone’s sight. To this day I taste sex in the way the words “Yellow Banks” lie in my mouth. Then I taste sex deeper in the flavor of the shale. I feel back home sex in the abrasions that shale left on my bare skin, scraping, burning. I know sex in the threat of that slant.

I never went there with Jamie, of course not. Jamie only touched me once in his life. It was another boy I went with, a tough one, this less than three years after I was innocent enough to wear Jamie’s sorry bracelet. We grew up fast back there. At least our bodies did, we knew exactly what to do with our outsides even if we never got too good at what was in. There over Yellow Banks the roots of a big oak made a shelf wide enough for us to lie on if we curled up some-we were fourteen, fifteen, we weren’t that big-and for several years, this boy and I followed each other’s bodies through puberty. I remember it as always cold, damp fall chill or early spring wind, us with our clothes half off, pants at ankles, shirt bottoms to our necks. At times we’d have to scramble our feet, our legs, in the pitch of things, to keep grip on the cliff, and I remember hearing the kicked-loose shale sputtering and hissing for a hundred feet down. I loved that boy as intensely and truly as I would ever love again, I know this even now, nearing middle age. But I know now, too, the price of the toughness that pulled me to him. The calluses between each other. How impossible they are to pass.

Usually, after we’d finish, he’d sidle off a ways to take a piss. I’d wait at the tree. Once he took too long. I couldn’t see him, and he wasn’t coming back, and I got scared for him. It was steep, steep in there. I started to panic, my heart going in me light and furious, like blizzard snow. Then-I can see him clear in my mind-he was angling back towards me along a path narrower than his feet, zipping his pants. And he saw the terror in my face-I didn’t even say anything-and he sneered at me: “I’m a big boy now.” Put me in my place.

By high school, Jamie was cheerily sloshing about in a bath of drugs. This made him skinnier than ever and exaggerated the comical look on his face, but it didn’t take the gentle. The reaching, the invitation, still spilled sloppy out his eyes, and I understand now it was in part the tenderness in him, his inability to toughen, that sent him to the drugs. Me, on the other hand, I’ve always been a fast learner. I’d roughened my soft spots. I fit in. While in sixth grade, Jamie and I had been on fairly equal social footing-geeky, shy-by high school, I had a place in the popular crowd. A precarious place, in my opinion, but I was there. Jamie, although no one could possibly dislike him, was never cool enough, despite the drugs, to be included. Naturally it was in part his sensitivity that kept him out.

We had band together. I was first-chair trumpet while Jamie was with the other stoners in the percussion section. One afternoon we were rowdying around before practice when one of the boys back in percussion hollered up at me, “Hey, Ann, did you used to go with Jamie?”

And reflexive as a swallow, I hollered back, “Nuh-uh!”

A fast learner. At eleven, I wasn’t self-conscious enough to turn down Jamie’s bracelet from a hooting crowd. At seventeen, I’d so thoroughly internalized some adolescent self-preservation instinct that the lie came ten times more intuitively than the truth.

I see Jamie after I told this lie even though I know I didn’t have the guts to turn around and look at him. Still, in my mind, I see his expression, like I see his expression the day they told me he cried about my concussion-and Jamie didn’t deny it. Didn’t save face. I see him leaning forward in his metal folding chair, snare drumsticks dangling between his knees. His face a fresh wound already in motion with forgiving me.

THAT MARCH AFTERNOON of his birthday, we pushed his bike across the street. The lot was actually a small hill paved, good for coasting. We took turns riding, and I don’t remember wearing a coat. In March back there sometimes the air seems to carry several temperatures simultaneously, in bands against your body, and it seems to me that was one of those days. I was wearing the bracelet, the maroon sweater, the flare-legged checked dress pants; this was 1975. I was taking one of my turns, Jamie watching from across the asphalt, when that pants leg got caught in the bicycle chain.

I was a self-sufficient kid. It rarely occurred to me that someone else would take care of me. Typically, if I had a mishap like this one at home-or a mishap more serious-no one would care, or even notice, unless my brothers and sisters decided to laugh at me. So I just stopped the bike, bent over, and got ready to work my pants free. I was disappointed that maybe I’d ruined my good pants, but I just reached down to get myself loose.

However, as I did this, Jamie, from the top of the lot where he was watching me, cried out, “Oh! Your pants got caught!”

I can hear now, twenty-seven years later, with absolute clarity the tone of Jamie’s voice when he said this. The earnestness in it, the sincerity. A genuine concern verging on distress. I couldn’t have been more taken by surprise. It was a tone that had almost never been directed towards me, except by one of my grandmothers, and never in a circumstance as insignificant as I perceived this one to be. But as clearly as I now hear the tone, I also recall my own reaction: first surprise, then bewilderment. And nothing beyond that. Standing there straddling Jamie’s bike, the indecisive March wind, now warm, now cold, blowing strands of my hair across my face, looking at Jamie’s figure small and tensed at the top of the hill, I was unable to feel anything beyond bewilderment.

It wasn’t until a year ago, me far from home and another March, that something in the smell of the before-thaw earth and air brought the bike ride back to me. The temperature, the texture, of that fleeting semi-season respoke Jamie’s tone in my ear. And this time, after years of-what? has it been a softening? or simply a relenting? an erosion?-that tone entered me. Jamie’s voice plunged past my hardness. And for the first time, his twelve-year-old tenderness touched the tenderness buried in me.

After he cried out, he rushed over, dropped to his knees on the blacktop, and gingerly freed my pants from the chain. A gesture, like his cry, spontaneous, and carrying with it no expectation of reciprocity.

PEOPLE BACK HOME don’t raise their kids as tough anymore. There’s more money in the county these days because the economic base has shifted from the death throes of agriculture I knew as a kid to agriculture’s graveyard: subdivisions of vacation and retirement homes. The last time I saw Jamie was at our ten-year high school reunion in 1991. It was held at a county park under a picnic shelter. We all brought our own sandwiches. Jamie had with him a cute sullen teased-blonde girl at least a decade younger than us, and he told me he was working construction, commuting from Romney a hundred miles to northern Virginia every day. A lot of the boys at the reunion were doing something similar. Several members of the long-ago popular, the very ones who’d taunted me on the playground with the bracelet, were at the reunion, and even the ones who were absent, I knew what had become of most of them, too. When you grow up in a place like I did, you hear what becomes of people. I knew many of them had already used up their tough bodies, or their tough bodies had been used up for them, labor or accidents or drugs or all three. And the bodies that hadn’t already busted, those bodies were cracking. They were leaking, you could see it in the bruised swaggers, the crippled grins. But they did grin, they did swagger, they kept on. The kind of tough they made us was the kind that makes you put up with instead of grab when you’re older. The durable kind, not the fighting kind.

We were raised tough because a lot of us were going to need it; even if it broke by the time you were twenty-eight, you needed it to gut through until then. But how tough does the middle class need to be? Not very. I would have survived without the toughness, but I absorbed it anyway. It’s where I’m from. I’ve been harder on myself than I’ve needed to be, put up with more hardness from others than I needed to do. As I’ve said, I know how my own toughness benefited me, and on good days, I’ll think I got the best of both classes. Other days, I don’t want the limitations or the guilt: the guilt of knowing I don’t have to live like so many people I grew up with do because of what I’ve achieved through that combination of middle-class opportunity and Appalachian working-class ethics. The limitations my toughness has imposed on the way I have relationships, am drawn to men, because I’ve never stopped perceiving sensitive men like Jamie as weak, and I’ve never been physically attracted to a “weak” man. Although my mind has learned better, my body has not. And it’s one more hard thing to look very closely at how the toughness shaped the way I love and let myself be loved.

In 1991, Jamie’s outsides looked pretty rough, but right under that crust, he carried the gentleness still. How his sensitivity might have contributed to that external ruin, I wonder. His face still reached to you, but it was battered and caved in around the bones and colored like dirty sky. His body was still thin, but a different kind of thin, a rigid kind, like boards tacked together, angled and flattish and stiff. And he had down one side of his face a corrugated scar as wide as my little finger and nearly as long as my hand. This is how I couldn’t help but see Jamie: he looked like he’d been hit with a bicycle chain.

ANN PANCAKE’s work has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and other places. She is the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant. Her collection of stories, Given Ground, won the 2000 Bakeless Prize and was published in 2001.