Creative nonfiction contest judge Katie Fallon writes of Dalton's work:
“City Boy” gives readers a glimpse of the author’s childhood experiences with his cousin Danny in Clendenin, West Virginia. Danny is a “country boy” who lives in a doublewide near the Elk River, and the author is a “city boy” from nearby Scott Depot, a place with “restaurants, a library, a movie theater, suburbs with kids to befriend, good schools,” and more. In prose rich with vivid images, this essay explores many compelling themes: the way others see us vs. how we want to be seen, the way nature can build and tear apart, the definition of home, what it means to belong to a place, and what it means to love a place. The author’s thoughtful reflections about loyalty, family, and identity resonate.
City Boy by Dalton Monk
Winner, 2018 Creative Nonfiction Contest
The drive through Clendenin is curvy and plentiful with potholes. You pass Smith’s, a local grocery store, the Dairy Queen with state-famous hotdogs, the funeral home with thin walls, the desolate downtown where Mammaw has a P.O. box, the Nazarene Church, the missionary building, Bow’s old house, the bridge over the Elk River, the trailers—mainly double-wides—the Carbide plant, the roadkill, and then you make it to the gate that leads to Mammaw’s property. Now, though, there’s a lot less because of The Flood in 2016.
When I was a boy my mom would make the hour-long drive to the Clendenin exit every morning where she would pass me off to Mammaw. She then turned around and drove to her job in Charleston. From there Mammaw would take me to her house. Past the gate, a gravel road on the side of a mountain leads you to the house by the banks of the Elk River. Not too far away from that house is where my mom’s sister, Darla, lived. Darla married young to a man named Tracy, which is how my cousin Daniel came to be, then shortly thereafter got divorced and married her high school sweetheart Danny.
I used to sit in the trailer with my Aunt Darla and watch movies while Daniel stayed busy outside in the West Virginia humidity and heat, fierce with gnats. I still remember the smell inside. Fresh laundry. There was dark blue carpet, fish and deer heads on the walls, a stained gun cabinet, three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and Daniel’s dog Daisy, who usually just lay on the floor and slept. Sometimes I’d hang out at Mammaw’s dining table while she cleaned and cooked. She had a roll top desk that always drew me in like a kid to a lightning bug.
I don’t know why I liked being inside so much. Daniel would get so frustrated about it that I would cry. I believe Daniel was a lot braver than I ever was. I think he still is. He embraced the Appalachian scenery so brazenly, as though it was all that mattered. And while I thought Daniel was too country back then, I now realize just how right he was, how right he’s always been.
I remembered the age difference between Daniel and me because of a gas station. I was seven and Daniel was eleven. Though Daniel was only my cousin, he felt like a brother. We at least fought like brothers. Both of us didn’t have siblings at the time, and we thought our differences were serious character flaws.
“City boy,” he’d call me followed by a rising of the head and eyebrows. “I’m a country boy.”
I hated that name. I resisted it, treated it as a cuss word. I knew I wasn’t a city boy, but I also knew I wasn’t a country boy. Even now, I would hate to be called a city boy; there’s something about the categorization of who I am that scares me, makes me feel small, too simple. But I know it’s not that deep. I just want to be seen as rugged, as a country boy with city boy philosophies.
I’ve always admired Daniel’s self-awareness. He’s never tried to be anything he’s not; he is a country boy. He loves the outdoors, the beauty it entails. And I’ve known ever since I was seven that Daniel would never leave Clendenin. More specifically, I knew he’d never live anywhere else beyond that patch of land by the Elk River. I’ve had many conversations with Daniel where he’s told me, “How could I leave? I love this place. It’s home.” He knows what he wants.
When Daniel wanted to play outside, I wanted to stay in the trailer and watch Mary Kate and Ashley or Power Rangers. “Why do you watch that crap?” he asked. Daniel only watched NASCAR. Small models of Dale Earnhardt racecars sat on all sorts of ledges and tables in their trailer. Daniel talked, eyes wet from tears, with the highest reverence for the late NASCAR driver. I deplored watching the monotonous driving in loops but somehow gained the same respect for the man with the bushy mustache and the iconic number 3.
That’s how it went: Daniel and I have never agreed on a whole lot, but there was something in our brotherhood that allowed us to plod peacefully along in different directions, like a tornado in an open valley.
One day, after Mammaw and Daniel picked me up, I was asked if I was a Republican or a Democrat. Daniel had to know, and, looking back, that probably meant he had overheard some adults talking politics.
“I don’t know what that is,” I said, sitting in the backseat.
“Just pick one,” he said. Mammaw drove on, not offering any wisdom.
“Democrat?” I picked the one that sounded most fun.
Daniel scoffed. “He’s one of them!”
Mammaw was quick to justify it. “Oh, you don’t know that!”
After I got a little older, Daniel convinced me that being outside was the right choice to make, as opposed to staying inside. I may not have known it at the time, but I was falling in love with a place, with West Virginia. No memory of mine is clearer than the ones I have involving the Elk River. And in all of those embossed images is Daniel.
The Elk River lay just beneath the plateau that held Mammaw’s house. Up the current and to the left was the sandbar, a country boy’s beach. We rowed a boat to the sandbar just about every day, taking with us sandwiches, drinks, blankets and towels, shampoo, and usually Daisy. The boat, a silvery thing hot as a stove from the sun, worked its way up the sandbar, the word “Monark” on its side. Mammaw and Darla laid the blankets down, Daniel and I got the cooler and whatever else we brought. Daisy swam over.
I poured sand on my head most days at the sandbar. I’d wash it off in the river, but small pebbles shifted their way into crevices. . . . It was a reminder. A savoring. A showering of sand wherever I went. Sometimes after going back to my mom’s I would find deeply packed grains in my hair.
I jumped in the river and swam toward the middle. “I can’t find the Rock!” I said.
Too far right! Swim up the current some!” Daniel shouted.
I swam up current, keeping my feet low to find it. The feeling of slime and solidity scraped the bottom of my foot, and I stood up. The Rock was the most desired object at the sandbar. Daniel swam over after taking off his shirt. He never had a problem finding it. Mammaw and Darla watched from the bar as we stood in the middle of the river against the strong current, laughing and pushing each other off.
If we forgot swimming trunks, we’d just wear the gym shorts we had on. With gym shorts, we’d have to awkwardly pick at our crotch, not letting the weight of the soggy shorts expose too much. Dripping on the sand and resting from treading water, we stood shirtless. I was skinny, and Daniel noticed.
“I’m fat,” he said, grabbing a roll full of belly.
“No you’re not! Look, I can do the same thing!” I puffed my belly out.
“It’s not the same,” he said. He had started getting hair in odd places and acne scattered his body. He wasn’t fat, but I was actively playing sports back in the “city.”
I think Daniel somewhat envied me for the life I had when I left Clendenin. For me, Mammaw’s was a place of vacation and exploration. We rode dirt bikes, go-carts, played paintball, swam in the river, tubed down the shoals, passed football and baseball, golfed, camped out, and skipped rocks till our arms were about ready to fall off. Daniel lived there, in the secluded area with no jobs, private people with their own God-made land, litter on the sides of roads, nowhere to shop or eat out. I went back to my mom’s in Scott Depot at the end of each day—one of the few places in West Virginia with too many restaurants, a library, a movie theater, suburbs with kids to befriend, good schools, and an unhealthy amount of churches and banks.
The Elk River was a place where two boys could swim and skip rocks, catch minnows and build diving boards from old wooden posts. Nothing else mattered in the Elk River.
I poured sand on my head most days at the sandbar. I’d wash it off in the river, but small pebbles shifted their way into crevices. I picked at my hair the rest of the day, pulling the sandbar from my head, the remnants tough to drag through thick strands of hair. It was a reminder. A savoring. A showering of sand wherever I went. Sometimes after going back to my mom’s I would find deeply packed grains in my hair.
On a summer night two years ago, Daniel, Darla, and Danny had to climb the mountain in front of their trailer so they wouldn’t drown. They watched the water rise and spoil all their belongings. Mammaw was in Virginia with her brother.
Daniel told me it rained as hard as he’d ever seen it rain for two hours straight. The river rose and rose until their trailer was among the many things within the body of water. Mammaw’s whole basement was filled. The dining room was flooded with enough water it would’ve gone over our heads had we been eating dinner. Once the river receded, Daniel went down to the trailer to collect anything he could salvage.
They now live in Mammaw’s house and stare at the open field where their trailer used to sit. Mammaw moved in with my family in Scott Depot thinking she would only live there for a short time. FEMA promised to place a new trailer for my family before two years came and went.
A couple months ago, Daniel showed me an article about the aftermath of The Flood. The article discussed an older lady with bad health and a middle-aged man—both of them still waiting to move into an untainted home. Snakes and varmints had found solace in their dilapidating homes. Daniel was getting red in the face just talking about it. I felt warm when I found out that Daniel not only read the newspaper but kept it and stowed it in a safe place—he despises reading. Then I realized how sad it made me, that this was the news that affected him. When I left I looked at the green grass where their new trailer should’ve been. Where Daniel should’ve been watching a race in the living room, dirty feet on the blue carpet.
“It’s the simple things that matter.” I sometimes hear this when I talk about my West Virginia childhood. But what about Clendenin is simple? There’s an innate inclination toward God alongside greedy ownership and prejudice, a clean river that weaves through a polluted town. It’s a complicated place where one can only be forced to think about the complications of life and living. It’s the place I yearn for when I feel most vulnerable. Clendenin is a place with people just like anywhere else. It’s not simple. It’s beautiful. It’s ugly.
If we weren’t on the sandbar, we were on the rockbar—the entrance to the river just down the hill from Mammaw’s house. When we walked onto it, we’d stumble from all the loose rocks.
“Listen to this one,” Daniel said. He picked a small pebble and threw it high, higher than the trees. It finally came down and into the river. The water gave a soft smooch.
“The kiss,” I said.
I searched the bar looking for a long rectangular object—rock or bark. The more common find was bark. I found the one, placed it firm in the creases of my fingers, and threw a hard spiral like a football. It made a loud noise, something like an amplified horsefly buzzing by your ear. We then searched for skipping rocks. A soft, flat edge was ideal. Not too skinny, not too thick. There had to be enough weight for leverage.
We would announce rock-throwing feats just in case the other didn’t see it.
“Got across the river on that one!”
“Hit that tree!”
We stayed there for hours just throwing rocks. We knew we threw too hard and too much. Our arms would plead for mercy. We couldn’t stop. It was a dream where nothing happened, though where nothing meant everything. Throwing rocks and wearing our arms, we felt like we had found some fold in a parallel world.
Daniel’s pores became large and his bangs grew longer. We played basketball on his gravel road, the ball bouncing and making impressions on the gravel.
“Double dribble,” I said. “My ball.”
“What! How the hell was that double dribble?” His voice got higher.
“You picked up your dribble and dribbled again.”
“I see them do that move on the NBA all the time! That ain’t double dribble.” He exemplified how Lebron James made the same move.
Daniel’s anger consumed him. He went inside, leaving me standing on the gravel with the basketball. I liked this feeling—bugging Daniel, knowing more than Daniel, usurping Daniel’s authority.
When Daniel got a paintball gun, I soon followed and asked for one, too. His was an automatic Spyder, a large CO2 tank attached to the bottom, which shot over thirty yards. Mine, a pistol with a small cartridge to hold palm-sized CO2 tanks. It didn’t shoot far.
I was shot. A lot. We played adjacent to the river where we made our own barriers. We wore facemasks, t-shirts, shorts. Daniel could shoot far and accurately. I had to aim high to try and catch him with the arc of the paintball. I hid behind barriers, trying to play furtively. I sometimes ran too close and was shot in the chest. The paintballs came so fast they’d ricochet instead of splattering. It always stung, and I’d feel my emotions coming out. That horrible frown you make before you cry.
Something about the whole thing made me feel uneasy. Maybe it was losing to Daniel. I had gotten used to beating Daniel. I didn’t play paintball back home like I did baseball and basketball. I think a part of me accepted that I was better than Daniel in sports, even school. I thought I was superior in some way. I struggle to put this on paper. It wasn’t on the forefront of my mind, but I think it was there.
Daniel came to visit me in Scott Depot a couple months after I graduated from college. We went to Walmart. While there, we talked about the old days. He said, “I hate to say it, ya know, but we’re not close like we used to be. Ya know? Hate to say it. Wish we were, we just ain’t.” It was a harsh truth to hear. Ever since I went to college, it became difficult to see Daniel.
On holidays, though, I would make the drive to Clendenin with my family. However, it was drastically different driving through Clendenin after The Flood. The city had to raze the Dairy Queen along with all the other places it could afford to tear down. As for the rest of the standing buildings, they look abandoned, barren. It’s a lifeless-looking place now. The people are alive, but their spirits are beaten, almost destitute.
For Christmas and Thanksgiving, we still go to Mammaw’s house, though she would say it isn’t her house anymore. We eat together, we try to talk about things other than The Flood. But Daniel is fixated on it.
“I think I got that PTSD,” he told me. We were standing on the deck that looks over the river. He said he had bad dreams about rising water. That he can hardly think about anything else. It’s obvious in his face. His smile isn’t the same; it’s forced and distant. I try talking to him about any girls he’s gone on dates with or his work or NASCAR. It all circles back to The Flood.
I looked out at the open field, freshly cut. When we were younger, we’d run out there with full bellies right after eating, unable to hold our energy any longer.
“Statue of Liberty!” Daniel would say, football in hand. I’d post up as a receiver, wait for hut, run toward Daniel to receive the ball, toss it back to him, and run long. He made an entire playbook in an old Composition notebook. The plays included classic posts like the buttonhook and the Hail Mary, but it seemed like we always chose Statue of Liberty. It was an original play by Daniel, at least that’s how he phrased it. Daniel could throw the farthest, and I could run the fastest, so we usually stuck to those positions.
While standing on the deck, thinking about when Daniel and I used to spend summers together, I almost asked if he still had a football.
Daniel always rowed the boat to the sandbar. I sat with Mammaw. She would avoid Daisy in the boat, holding our food. I’d look out for spiders.
Sometimes, instead of swimming in the river, we went upstream where there were pale and dark green rocks, broken beer bottles, abandoned tires, and decapitated baby dolls. We searched the ground thoroughly. I sometimes brought my metal detector. Daniel and I shared, but I had it for the majority of the time.
We walked carefully over shards of glass and torn metal. Toads hopped around our feet. Tadpoles shimmied in small ponds. We then made it to the section where tall reeds scraped our knees. I didn’t like the way the grass grazed my legs, nor the thought of what was below my feet that I couldn’t see. Daniel always braved it habitually while I hesitated for a moment. We sauntered along, searching, hoping to find something. Daniel with his keen eyes, me with my metal detector. We never found anything worth taking. Nothing worth moving. I don’t think we wanted anything to change.
I sometimes question what life would be like if the roles were reversed for Daniel and me. I then feel as though I’ve stolen from Daniel. Like the life I have is the one he deserves. I tell myself I should be the one whose home was taken away by a river I grew up on, who didn’t have the grades or finances to go to college, who has destined himself to stay put for the rest of his life. And when I get beyond those questions, I’m mad at myself for pitying Daniel. The truth is I envy Daniel. I want to have more twang in my accent, to say I grew up in a double-wide watching NASCAR. I want to come up out of the mud proving my rough nature. To feel more like a true West Virginian.
I recently asked Daniel about the chances of me building a small log cabin on Mammaw’s property. Just to get away sometimes. He told me it wasn’t a smart idea, that it would require too much upkeep for just a short retreat twice a year. He sounded a little protective of the place, which I expected. He didn’t come off as selfish, just a little dug in his heels.
He said, “Dalton, as long as I’m alive, you’re welcome to stay with me and whoever I’m with. You’re always welcome. I think it’d be a bad idea to build somethin’. I really do. But, like I said, you’re always welcome to stay with me. And I’ll never leave the place. I won’t.”
I didn’t expect anything different, but I guess I thought he would’ve been a little wearier about staying in Clendenin since The Flood. It was nice to hear how adamant Daniel was, how nothing will make him leave even if it’s the place itself that hurts him. It’s things like that that makes me look up to Daniel, to West Virginians. They have a determined love for the place, a loyalty like no other.
I’m not a country boy. Not by Daniel’s standards. But I am an Appalachian. A “city boy” from West Virginia yearning for what he’s already experienced: the comfort of a double-wide on a hot day, the slap of Daniel’s hand on my bare back killing a horsefly, the taste of Mammaw’s green beans and baked steak, the smell of the Elk River after a fresh rain.