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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 1, March 2014

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Glenn G. Coats
Prospect, Virginia, USA


Foothills

Love. . .is it really love at all
Or something that I heard love called
Something that I heard love called


                —Eric Anderson

I rent one room in a trailer. There is one window and space enough for a day bed, small dresser, and a record player. I store things in my suitcase. The trailer sits on the edge of a farm—close to the highway. Behind me, one old horse white as snow wanders a pasture. My landlady, Zel, says I can ride him if I have a mind to. She is surprised that I don't know how to ride a horse or milk a cow. "I'm from New Jersey," I tell her. "Lots of houses in my neighborhood."

Zel says the summer days are hot and dry here—seldom rains. She tells me the nights cool down quickly after dark and I might need to plug in one of the electric heaters. I study the frayed cords on the heaters and decide to close the window and cover up with a blanket.

I wear a cross around my neck that I found on a sidewalk. I cannot find a teaching job so I am working on a project with the Catholic Church to fix-up houses of the poor. Zel puts those two things together and assumes that I am a religious young man who is doing God's work. "An act of mercy," she calls it and I let her believe that.

There is a fat gray cat that has taken to sleeping on my steps and two hounds like to crawl through a missing block in the foundation and sleep under the trailer. Sometimes they howl in the middle of the night. "Do something about your dogs," the other tenants say. I tell them that they are not my dogs—they just showed up. Still, I slip them scraps when no-one is looking and the dogs follow my every footstep. I decide to give them names: Hope and Faith.

abandoned farm
the smell of chickens
in porch wood

I stir
silence in a cup
porch light

Weekends are quiet. The other tenants who are also volunteers go home to towns in North Carolina and Virginia. On Saturdays, I drive to Asheville to look for records. At night, I put a new album on the turntable and leave the arm open so it plays over and over again. By morning, the words are stamped in my memory—they are all I can think about. Some Sundays, Zel walks over with warm cornbread and a salad. "Don't want you to starve," she says.

Jim is part of the work crew. His father is a minister and Jim reminds me of one as well—the way he is careful with every word. Never a curse, never a bad word about anyone. He has a cousin that he wants me to meet and Jim makes all the arrangements. I drive over to Chimney Rock and follow Jim's directions to where Sarah lives. She is just out of high school with black hair that falls across her face and freckles. Her mother makes us lunch and slices a red velvet cake for desert.

Afterwards, Sarah drives me to a look-out point in the mountains. We get out of the car and lean against the hood. The sky is clear and the mountains roll into the distance like the sea. I tell her that I want to teach young children how to read. Sarah talks about the community college and how she hopes to become a nurse—nurses run in her family. We stay the afternoon and Sarah drives me back to my car. I don't say, "I really want to see you again," or "I like the sound of your voice." Sarah doesn't ask me to give her a call or say I should come back for a visit.

I think about those things on the ride home as I feel the mountains press in on my shoulders and the sharp shadows of evening. The road narrows before my eyes.

unable to see
who will wave back
summer dusk

green branches
the blur of faces
wood smoke

Zel and her husband Homer invite me in when I walk over to pay the rent. They ask me about the house that I am working on, who lives there, and the kinds of repairs that are needed. "Oh I know that porch," Homer says. "It's been sinking a long time." He says they know lots of folks in the mountains.

Zel shows me a photograph of her granddaughter. She is standing near a stream, all dressed up, squinting back at the light. Zel says she is coming for the weekend and wants me to join them for dinner on Sunday afternoon if I haven't any plans that day. "I told Kathy that I knew you were a Christian first time I saw you—I can always tell."

corn stubble—
across a field of stones
crows

summer wedding
children gather stones
beside a river

On the way to Weaverville, I see them flash along the road like orange leaves in the fall. They are bending over and cleaning out a drainage ditch. Another group is spreading a pile of gravel across a soft shoulder. They do not look up from their toil, each man bent to the task while guards with guns stand at each end of a line.

A few days pass and the chain gang is right in front of my trailer. Cameramen are filming the men as they work. A man walks over to the trailer with a clipboard. He says that he is the director of a film about chain gangs and asks me a few questions. Do you feel that chain gangs should be part of a criminal justice system? Do you consider this to be a humane punishment? Should chain gangs be abolished? The director goes on to describe some of the crimes these men have committed: bad checks, grand theft auto, arson, and assault and battery. "Not a one of them has taken a life."

I don't know how I chose this place or if there is a reason to my being here. I build steps that lead up to a stranger's doorway; hear a woman's voice singing inside a barn as goats amble up a crooked hillside. The prisoners have moved farther up the road that leads to Tennessee. Homer and Zel go about the business of taking care of the farm, taking care of each other, rain or shine, the certainty of their faith in every movement, in every word.

light
one empty box
on another

morning—
in a field of boulders
hammers ring

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