[tour diary: huntington w.va]
by Keegan Lester
I went to Huntington, WV, this one time to visit a girl. That night I got a little drunk and went diving all head first on a slip and slide greased with Johnson’s baby oil. I was twenty one and dove many, many times while she was somewhere else, across town, making sure the students she was in charge of had gone to bed. My hair and skin were baby soft at that party and then softer later when we met up beneath the lamp lights that still turned on in those days when the city still had money to keep their lights on. She’s a ghost now.
I drove there a day early to surprise her. We had a pick-nick beneath a tree in a parking lot when I got there and I said “Surprise I’m here” and she said “I’m so surprised you’re here, you weren’t supposed to be here until tomorrow.”
Now the trees we picnicked under are dead, and I wonder why no one tells you in school that like humans, there’s so many ways for a tree to die.
That ghost I loved snuck out of her teaching duties that afternoon so we could have sex in a stranger’s bed. We were haunting a place before we knew we could haunt. We were smiling then.
Years later it’s now and I came back to Huntington and Huntington was different. It was a little more quiet. Something felt missing. Town looked a little beaten up.
So, two friends and I drove to Breece’s grave, a half hour away in Milton, challenging the sun. We went to the wrong graveyard first. Then we went to the other one. Because it’s Milton, West Virginia, there’s only two. And in the middle of the graveyard where Breece’s grave was laid in the ground beneath a headstone with fancy typography that spelled out: B R E E C E d ‘ j P A N C A K E , we pulled on a handle of cheap tequila left in Howard’s truck for occasions like this.
The sun was sinking tired and slow and barking dogs signaled from their side of their argyle wire fence, from the backyards of the mobile homes kissing the graveyard, You’ve come to the right place. You’re here for us and our ghost.
But for every dead person there are two more people.
Breece’s Mother used to write to Breece’s professor James Alan McPherson each Christmas, always suspicious of her son’s suicide, on Palm Sunday, 1979. He’s our ghost now, so one day Howard drove all day from West Virginia to Iowa to the University of Iowa to speak to McPherson.
An administrator wouldn’t let him in the building.
“You don’t understand,” Howard said. “I need to talk to James Alan McPherson. I need to know about Breece, or the thing inside me won’t ever get made right.”
“No,” the administrator said.
And I wasn’t there but I like to think that it was Fall. That there was a copper wind. That the trees were looking at each other as they started turning into the shame of undressed mannequins, which is shameless because intimate objects don’t posses shame, but if they did, it would be the shame of one knowing they were about to be put away in the storage room for winter. There’s something that hurts about not being needed anymore. I bet if a mannequin could feel, they’d feel that.
I like to think of Howard going to a bar, because that’s what Howard would do. I like to think of Howard sitting down at a bar in Iowa and having a drink at the bar and looking around the bar noticing things. Noticing not one person there looked nor sounded like him. These are not my people, he would have thought. I like to think of Howard so far away from home in this bar in Iowa that he said Fuck it because he went back.
He walked up to the porch of the writing program and waited. He waited on the porch and waited as more leafs fell, covering the shame of the brittle teeth of the dying and already dead grass, grass which any scientist can tell you feel, and I imagine shame is a specific feeling grass feels. He waited for McPherson, the apparition. This until the time where as all apparition do, the apparition turned human and Howard asked the human figure on the porch “Can you tell me about Breece?”
“You must be from West Virginia,” McPherson said.
McPherson must have either been on his way to or from a class (I always get that part of the story wrong). They then talked for hours in white rocking chairs on that porch. They talked of Breece, of Howard being a young writer, of death and the letters Breece’s mother wrote McPherson. They talked on how we talk and write about our dead. How we learn to.
My friends and I noticed everyone is dying these days, so we left the graveyard and drove back to Huntington and drank while everything turned quiet. It wasn’t scenic quiet but scary quiet.
The trains we love for their whistles and whines tearing night into pieces, that had been our spaceships carrying hope from here to foreign lands and back again, are quiet now. They’re scary because we know that dead, their train car children could be holding anything.
The streets we used to run drunk and fearless from party to party in the twilight seeping from the sky turning over is another dead thing now too. The streets are scary because in the dead of its dead street arms we know the streets are capable of holding anything.
We walk to a local place. Have to be buzzed in to enter. Cash only. Coal miners and us pretending to be tough, and men with giant knifes strapped to their belts who may have actually been tough, but we’ll never know. Maybe like looking at a pit bull, our brains are doing the work to trick our eyes and nothing is what we think. I’ve not yet been killed by a pit bull or even harmed, but the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done is drink the water in West Virginia most of my life and no one talks shit on water universally.
Maybe everything is just itself.
The tree trunk armed coal miners smoking cigarettes in the bar are still alive. They aren’t scary because we’ve seen so much death, what little that remains alive isn’t frightening anymore. We drink and talk home. Everyone wants to write about West Virginia, but in a way that hasn’t been done, which has been done and so we’re all stuck.
A police or fire truck or ambulance light spinning is the thing replacing our whining trains in the night. Another firetruck passes us. Every time a siren goes off, someone has overdosed and their are two more people left behind, wondering why in the hell it is that we even try to grow flowers in the Teays Valley when the soil is bad, and the water is bad and the food is bad and our hearts are too heavy for dropping seeds.
We walk to where we will sleep.
“Don’t take that street,” a stranger says.
“I got my bike stolen there,” a friend says.
“Is anything left open?” I say, hungry.
We eat pizza. We want to write about people. We want to urge you to love this place we love. How long can we continue loving everything in a place?
The people are good, the land good, the coal companies bad, the politics bad, the water bad, my friends good. Strangers, good. We know how it works.
We know whatever creeps from a mountain’s vein, no matter how beautiful a mountain, no matter it’s need for our saving, if it gets into the water, the water will kill you no matter what you do for the mountain or to the water.
If we continue walking like this, who will visit our graves someday, I wonder. Who will be left?
This is what it is to be in love with a place full of ghosts. Well meaning ghosts. It’s most often what we don’t understand about our ghosts, by which I mean what common we share with our ghosts, making the them appear terrifying.
Keegan Lester is the author of the collection of poetry this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was and it was all i had so i drew it. His recent writing has been featured in the Boston Review, Hobart, Anastamos, The Academy of American Poets and the Journal among others. He splits his time between New York City and Morgantown, West Virginia.