The autumn morning held promise. Susan sat in her rocking chair facing the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Massanutten ridge behind her and looked out past her shimmering green fields, the cold morning dew on that grass like lights on Broadway. The sky was robin-egg blue and held no clouds. Today was one of her work days teaching remedial composition at a community college. She debated about taking the farm truck so she could do a trash run and get feed, and, of course, stop at Walmart.
Motivating herself, she took the wash and carried it to the clothes line, hanging it half-assed but it was at least hanging on and would dry in the midday sun. Walking to her back-kitchen door, her bare foot came down on something soft and squishy. Under her foot she saw a freshly dead female squirrel with half of its head chewed off. The dogs. She picked it up by its tail and flung it over the fence as her mongrel terrier, Dinky, eyeing her, followed the arc of the squirrel as it sailed through the air. As she drove down the driveway ten minutes later, she saw her son’s butchering hog eating it.
By early afternoon she sat in the teacher’s lounge, having forgotten her lunch, but finding pretzel thins in the cupboard. Judi, the office manager, came in to join her, her mask pulled down below her chin.
“You’re not going to believe this one.” Judi put her hands on the table.
“Oh?” Susan raised her eyebrows, exaggerating the movement like a cartoon.
“So, this woman comes down from the holler toting her 40-year-old son, telling me she wants him to take some classes, and that he’s a preacher. I asked her, ‘Where did he go to seminary?’ and she looks at me asking, ‘What’s that?’ I tell her, and also tell her that my minister graduated from Duke. She told me her son reads the Bible and has the spirit. Can you believe? He’s mostly illiterate so I put him in your class.”
"She told me her son reads the Bible and has the spirit.
Can you believe? He’s mostly illiterate so I put him in your class."
“I thought you’d like that. Can you believe it?” Judi still stared at Susan expectantly.
“This has depressed me.” The divide was sometimes too hard to bear. Her GP had encouraged her to start an antidepressant a few weeks ago. Susan noticed it helped in dealing with her son Dylan, perpetually angry, her other son Lyle, who raided her medicine cabinet, and the stress of living check to check.
“I thought you would find it funny!”Judi continued, chuckling, “I sure did, beats the student who came into my office asking how to pass his math class and when I looked at his grades I saw he never turned in one assignment. I told him, ‘A start would be to turn in your assignments,’ and he was like, ‘Oh.’”
Susan knew there was too much wrong with this conversation about students—Judi’s attitude towards the students, the lives’ of them all—to begin thinking about it ever, let alone now, so she stuffed the last of the pretzel thins in her mouth, threw out the bag, and headed to her class. Slowly, her three students filtered in and took their seats while she got her computer running. She greeted and smiled at each one as if they were the prodigal sons—even though she knew that within ten minutes of trying to coax a sign of life out of them and failing, she would want to walk out of the class. Jessie, her only student of color, was planning to transfer to a four year where he could play sports. His grade was a 26. Justin was a sweet boy who worked 40 hours a week stocking shelves and then had a seemingly endless list of chores that his stepfather gave him when he got home. His grade was a 57. Bethani’s grade was a 64.5, the most promising. She worked for the EMS as a med tech. She could not follow the most basic instructions, or chose not to. Susan hoped it might be the latter.
“Is this the English class?” Susan looked up and saw her new student, about ten years older than her, standing by the door with a pleasant smile.
“Yes, welcome, come on and take a seat.”
His brown hair was cropped short, almost in a military cut, and he wore jeans and a tee shirt covered by a flannel shirt. What will be the hitch here? She thought. His eyes seemed to hold promise, or was it intelligence? Susan was hopeful, always hopeful, but also prepared for the other shoe to drop because it always did. Lyle gets clean then gets a girl pregnant. Dylan shows remorse for tearing the door of her truck, then steals it again the following weekend. A student turns in an assignment, then disappears from her class. Boyfriends seem kind until they are not.
“I don’t use a computer much.” He eyed the one in front of him uneasily. “How do I turn it on?” Susans sense of hope was flickering like green wood in her stove.
"I don’t use a computer much.” He eyed the one in front of him uneasily.
“How do I turn it on?” Susan's sense of hope was flickering like green wood in her stove."
Justin jumped in and offered to help him. Susan did not realize she had been holding her breath. This is not teaching college Susan thought for the hundredth time. Last year she tried to teach To Kill A Mockingbird, but students had struggled to pronounce and understand words like consult. When a student asked her what was lynching, her shoulders had sagged to her shoes.
Like she did every semester, she decided to ditch the lecture and assignments on MLA, which she was required to teach, another hopeless task, and attempted to help them with their next essay, the compare and contrast. Their eyes glazed over immediately as she tried to focus them. “So, what do we do when we compare?”
Jessie ventured an attempt, “We point out differences.”
“Well, good try, but compare means to think about what things have in common. When we contrast things, we look at their differences. Let’s say you are going to write a paper comparing and contrasting dogs and cats. Would it be better to compare or contrast them?”
Her new student, Jeremiah, hesitantly supplied, “We would…contrast them?”
“Yes!” replied Susan, trying to curb her enthusiasm. Her initial excitement waned as the minutes went tortuously on and the students worked to provide the differences in dogs and cats. Susan wrote their observations on the board. “Now, let’s write a paragraph contrasting dogs and cats and their differences; remember to have a topic sentence that captures the main idea of your paragraph.”
She had been working on paragraphs for five weeks now and she knew it would take them at least 40 minutes to knock out the five sentences, if they did the assignment at all. While they worked she checked her email and noticed a text message from her phone, which she had to keep next to her computer for security authentication. She could no longer admonish her students for their own cell phones at their desks. It was from Tiffani, Lyle’s what? Girlfriend? Partner? Baby Mama?
Dylan had an accident, call when you get a chance.
She told her students she was going to the bathroom and called Tiffani who reported that while cleaning a deer, Dylan had stuck himself with a knife in his leg and the rescue squad was taking him to the hospital. Dylan had been managing his bipolar with drinking. He was usually careful, especially about things that were important to him like deer hunting and managing his four pot plants. Susan took this opportunity to also ask about Lyle, and if he had been called back to work. Tiffani told her he had. Susan realized, again, that she was holding her breath.
What to do? The hospital was across the street from the little satellite campus adjacent to the Walmart parking lot. She went back to her students and announced that she would be looking at their paragraphs. In the 18 minutes that had elapsed, Justin had only two sentences written and Jessie had nothing so she moved on to Jeremiah and smiled as she sat down next to him. She looked at what he had written. It was word salad, as if someone had thrown the words of a sentence up in the air and then wrote down the words in the order they had landed. A panic started to rise in her. I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this. Jeremiah looked straight down at his computer. She noticed an odor about him. His fingernails were black and she turned her gaze back to the computer screen. “So, what were you trying to say with the first sentence?”
For 35 minutes, like retrieving a dead body from a cave, they slowly and painstakingly fixed three sentences, including spelling words like special and environment. Her thoughts kept returning to her Dylan, a boy who had done everything with her from riding horses, canoeing the Shenandoah— and he had even gone with her to yoga classes, but then he stopped. A doppelganger had taken his place. She missed her son, but she was afraid of him, sometimes more than for him. Suddenly, from across the room, Justin spoke out.
“Hey, Miss Susan, I just saw on Facebook that Dylan got brung to the hospital. Nathan just posted it on Facebook. Nathan said there was a lot of blood and he passed out when he saw the knife in Dylan’s leg. So, he couldn’t help much to stop all the bleeding.”
She did not think she was a bad mother for not rushing over to the hospital. She was over that. It was just one more thing, especially with Dylan.
"She did not think she was a bad mother for not rushing over to the hospital. She was over that. It was just one more thing,
especially with Dylan."
“Well, then. Thank you for letting me know. Let me check your two sentences Justin, Jessie, Bethani? Do you have anything for me?”
Jessie looked up from his phone and shook his head no. Bethani nodded yes. Justin’s sentences were perfect but it took him forever to write anything and she momentarily wondered about the cause for this.
“It’s almost time for class to end. For next week, write one more paragraph about this topic and bring it to class so I can help you with it. Please read chapter 15 in your textbook and we will start with building our compare and contrast essay.” She knew no one would do it.
“You good Jeremiah? Any questions?
“I’m praying for you right now.”
“Well, thank you.”
It was easy to find a parking spot at the hospital and she read the COVID sign with amusement. The patients and visitors were not wearing masks, the nurses had their masks pulled under their noses and some had them sitting on their chins. The doctors had masks on and so did Susan. Hers said, stay fucking 6 feet away. The middle-aged nurse at the reception desk looked at her. Was the nurse bored? indifferent? constipated? Susan eyed her with curiosity, wondering where the nurse’s head, neck and shoulders ended and began because it was hard to tell. The nurse had a pin that read diabetes awareness month fixed to the right side of her chest or breast. Susan could not tell. It was all interconnected without definition.
“My son came in with the rescue squad… a knife wound,” she mentioned. Just then she saw Nathan, Dylan’s boon companion, rushing towards her. Nathan came from a family that was deeply religious, butchered five hogs at Thanksgiving, had a milk cow and grew and canned all manner of vegetables from their garden. A dream she once had a long time ago, when her children’s father promised her, then refused to do any work, ever. She was relieved to see Nathan, a perpetually happy young man and an occasional stabling influence on Dylan.
“Don’t worry Susan, he’s doing good, needs about twenty-four stitches and he’s cursing out the doctors so they sedated him.” Nathan was laughing. “You’d not believe all the blood! When he stuck himself, I fell to my knees and thought he was bleeding out right in front of me.”
“I thought you all were with Andrew? He’s with the fire department… don’t they know about such things?”
“Well, he ran to get a towel.”
“I’ll take you back there.”
“Now you both can’t go back there. We got COVID restrictions.” The nurse seemed to have been shook out of her stupor. Susan looked at her and motioned for Nathan to take her. Nathan hesitated, looking at the nurse, who did not seem motivated to move from behind her desk, so he led the way down the hallway pushing the red button to open the doors.
Her son was in a foul mood and looked up at her as she went behind the curtain. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how it happened.” Susan saw he was embarrassed by making such an error and letting his knife slip.
“Honey, it’s fine. These things happen. Are you O.K.?”
“This fucking place! They made me get a tetanus and antibiotics…probably microchipped me. Doctor is a nice guy… we’ve been talking about fishing. Fucking hurts like hell.”
"This fucking place! They made me get a tetanus and antibiotics…probably microchipped me. Doctor is a nice guy… we’ve been talking about fishing. Fucking hurts like hell.”
“I thought they gave you something to sedate you? For the stitches,” Susan added.
“Well, they don’t fucking work.”
“When do they release you?”
“Fuck if I know, probably be stuck here all day.”
“I can take him home, Susan,” said Nathan.
Susan looked at Nathan, wavering. “I guess then I’ll go do my food shopping. Do you want anything Dylan?”
“Orange juice… plenty of orange juice… the good kind not that cheap shit you sometimes buy.”
Just then, the curtain moved and Susan grew wide-eyed as she saw Jeremiah.
“I’ve come to pray for you and your family.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” said Dylan.
“Um… why… thank you, Jeremiah, but…”
Jeremiah held a Bible that probably weighed 20 pounds and Susan could tell from its binding and cover that it was very old, maybe mid-1800’s she guessed. Once, before her life descended, she had collected antique books.
Jeremiah held it high above his head and began speaking in tongues. Nathan got down on his knee, Dylan tried to get out of the bed but realized they had actually put restraints on him. Susan stood there horrified and just completely speechless.
The energy changed in the room and it seemed to swirl around all of them as Jeremiah’s voice rose and fell and she could make out some Bible verses and thread of prayers, healing, and Jesus and Lazarus rising along with the words that were not English but sounded familiar. The nurse was suddenly standing with them, her eyes closed, hands raised and swaying on her toes and heels.
Was the room getting brighter or was she going to faint? wondered Susan. Nathan was muttering softly, “Yes… yes…” and Dylan’s face relaxed as he stared at his hands. The security guard joined them, his hands raised in the air, palms pointed towards Jeremiah who did not seem to draw breath. Susan looked behind her and saw the doctor, wide-eyed, mildly panicked and not sure what to do, or how to use his authority in this situation. Clearly, he had not been trained for this. She found her attention drawn back to Jeremiah as she noticed a strange electricity in her sacrum. The vibration continued to her heart and her chest felt like it was cracking open. She wondered if she was going to die but she felt so peaceful, she did not care. It was like every molecule of her being had dissolved.
Jeremiah made his way over to Dylan and laid hands on his forehead and Susan watched, oddly detached as if outside her body. She was shocked to see Dylan obediently bow his head. With a thrust and calling to Jesus, Jeremiah shoved Dylan’s head back as the whole room erupted in a “Praise God.” There was a moment of suspension and then Susan felt herself return to her body. Did she have a stroke?
Jeremiah was breathing hard, smiling and perspiration dotted his forehead. “He’s protected by Jesus now.”
Jeremiah was breathing hard, smiling and perspiration dotted his forehead. “He’s protected by Jesus now."
Susan forced a weak smile as she watched Nathan shaking Jeremiah’s hands as the nurse and security guard wiped tears away. She was more spent than when she had hiked fifteen miles on Stoney Man mountain. The doctor, seeing his opportunity, jumped into the small quiet space.
“Are you his mother?”
“Yes.” Susan was exhausted.
“Here are his discharge instructions, antibiotics… keep the wound dry and have him follow up with his family doctor. Any signs of fever or discharge from the wound, bring him back.” Susan nodded and the doctor rushed out of the room, the curtain billowing in his wake.
Nathan was laughing, as he turned to Dylan saying, “Well this isn’t going to stop us from celebrating your birthday this weekend. You 21?” Dylan was silent.
“Yes, he’ll be 21,” said Susan, holding all the papers and medication in her hands. “Dylan, I’m headed back across the street to Walmart and I’ll get Tropicana.”
“Thanks, Mom,” he said softly.
Jeremiah followed her outside the room. “Don’t you worry Miss Susan, I’ll have that paragraph for you.” He was standing taller than he did in the classroom, shoulders back, looking at her square on.
“Good… and thank you Jeremiah.” Susan was not sure what to say but her face melted when she looked at him. Suddenly, she felt like crying. Jeremiah noticed the tears welling up in her eyes as she tried to blink them back.
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”
A sob escaped Susan’s throat and she shook her head violently, trying to clear her thinking as if to shake out this experience which she had no words for. Placing her hand on his heart, she turned looking for the exit.
The sun stuck her eyes like a slap as she emerged into the late afternoon. She got to her truck and noticed a handwritten note slipped under the windshield wiper. She pulled it out and read it. If your going to drive a truck, know how to park it. Susan placed it on the odometer, which read 176,423. As she pulled out of the parking lot, she felt wonderfully calm.
Appalachia is a world filled with contradictions, beauty, resilience and change. My short story collection, The Bride Will Wear A Dress, shines a lens on the issues of contemporary rural America through the eyes of an outsider, struggling to survive and raise her family in this sometimes difficult landscape. Redemption is one of the stories from this collection.