2014 Creative Nonfiction Contest Judge's Choice
It was the summers of the 1970s, and my family drove away from our home in West Virginia’s capital city. We drove over hills and through the countryside, past the tiny town of Buckeye for a week of living in Betty McClintic’s world. Our destination had gravity. Swago Farm exerted a mysterious pull on my parents, and eventually on me. The obvious attractions of porch swings, horse rides, garden-fresh food and cold martinis made getting in the car for the annual trip easy for my parents, my sister, and for me; but other, more complex forces held us in the McClintic orbit as well.
At one time Betty was the largest private landholder in Pocahontas County, with more acreage to her name than even the Rockefeller family could boast. Only the federal government’s public lands could best Swago. Buckeye was “in town,” a title it held only because it was not Betty’s farm, and its inhabitants were all preternaturally old. There were the truly elderly, but also the middle-aged men and women, the twenty-year-olds and the school children. All were connected with an invisible thread that bound them to one another but also to the same strange place in time that never seemed to advance. Everything in town and on the farm was from a past era. The food, the quilts, the work boots, the tobacco. If you were in Buckeye you were always in the past.
Betty was an enormous person, tall and wide, with silver hair struck with black and white that complemented her dark pointy eyeglasses. She commanded a substantial buffer of personal space as she walked, listing to one side from a bad hip. Now I must consider that her grandeur and impressive presence was exaggerated by a young child’s perspective, but when I saw her rise from her crewel-stitched wingback armchair, I made way. She lumbered and at times seemed to stagger forward and sideways. You could never know with precision where Betty was headed. It was best to just stand clear.
My father started practicing law with Betty’s cousin Hunter well before I was born, and that relationship created a bond between our two families that persisted long after Hunter and his wife Dennie died. My father had been the one to discover the McClintics together in their bed. Hunter had not shown up for work and when no one answered the phone at his top-floor apartment on Virginia Street in Charleston, my father decided to see what the situation was. He had his own key.
No one ever knew exactly why they did it. There was a note that made suggestions, but one never knows for sure. Dennie had suffered a bite from one of her own dogs and developed a bad reaction to a rabies shot. She quickly lost her independence to disability. In his seventies and developing physical limitations of his own, Hunter was advised by a physician to go home and prepare for the future. Apparently, he decided he would rather not. My parents helped scatter Hunter and Dennie’s ashes on a hillside at Swago where they had hoped to build a home. They had no children. Human ashes aren’t like a burned log, my father said. He remembered the weight, the look. He said the remains were more like fine shale than ash.
A wordless grief kept us connected to the McClintic land. We had pleasant times, but never what I could call fun. The mood on the farm had a kind of ever-present, strange melancholy that seeps into human bones around tragedy. No one ever spoke in front of me in those days about the deliberate deaths, nor of the broken hearts and empty cradles. There were ghosts in every drink poured and every crop cut down; even a child, perhaps especially a child, could see their shapes and edges. I didn’t know what it was. It was neither good nor bad, it simply existed, like the sound I remember approaching Swago. The cattle guards under our tires were rolling steel bars across the road that stopped long-legged livestock from proceeding further than they should. The sound was unique, a series of heavy CLANGS and car vibrations that made me sit up straight, alert. I asked my mother how cattle guards stopped animals from leaving the farm. They step in there, they break a leg, she said matter-of-factly. I hoped the animals knew that ahead of time, before bones snapped, while they could still turn around. I didn’t like imagining that they found out after the fact.
We left the paved state road to reach Swago. That turnoff signalled we were closer than ever but the dirt road to the farmhouse residence seemed to lengthen itself even as we rolled forward. There was dust, and rocks, and the cattle guard CLANGS. When the dust wasn’t too thick my sister and I would crank down the window in the back seat to see if we could smell manure, which invariably we could. We were anxious to walk through the white picket fence at the end of the road and into this other realm, into the heart of Swago.
Upon our every arrival, dogs would bellow at us with tones of both defense and welcome. The dogs seemed to come from every direction, rolling down slopes and pushing through gates, some limping, some striding, some outright rushing us, the heralded visitors from another world. All hail, and beware, the Charleston children have arrived! After our first couple of visits, we knew we needn’t fear the farm dogs. They were loud and enthusiastic and cautious, but entirely delighted to see us. We were much more likely to be kicked in the head by a donkey or knocked down and trampled by a sow than to face any real danger from this pack of canine misfits.
Tiger had a brindle coat and floppy ears. He had some cattle dog in him, but he wasn’t quite so pointed in his muzzle and ears. A bit of a loner, his aura was all sweetness and distance. He may have had a pit bull streak, but his nature was much more beagle. Dan and Minnie clearly were romantically involved, a couple of sleek black-and-tan coonhounds. I imagined they had not parted since they met and would doubtless die on the same day. Apparently Minnie had already given it a shot. She sported a partially amputated left front leg that waggled at a disturbing pace when she ran. It reminded me of my mother’s metronome with the pendulum broken in half. There was no controlling the device’s beat anymore, but we kept the metronome on the piano and turned it on just to make ourselves laugh. The family who worked the Swago land said Minnie lost her leg in a farm equipment accident. Whoever talked about it ended up staring at the ground or into the distance, and I knew not to press for details. Dan never let her fall behind, and Minnie never strayed from his side.
Skinny was in a class by himself, less a farm dog than an alien whose spaceship had swung by Pocahontas County to take rock samples one night and left without him. He was a tiny Chihuahua, a partial paraplegic. His back right leg was hitched up and bent into an “L” shape all the time, that foot never touching the ground. The leg bounced freely as if on a spring when he ran, and he was always running. Skittering, really. He was so thin, one could see his entire skeleton through his pale skin, the skin itself visible behind impossibly thin white hairs. The dog had cheekbones, a jaw bone you could see sticking out. Toe bones. Ribs. It was a marvel that Skinny was even alive, but he moved around the farm help’s kitchen and living space like an overcranked windup toy. Most Skinny sightings happened when he was running to his favorite spot, a ragged towel on the floor behind the woodstove. He was cute in a very demented way. I wanted to pick him up and show him some love, but he would not hold still. He was just too bony and nervous to allow it.
She drank gin martinis and roared profanity whenever she felt like it, Sunday mornings or in front of children.
The farm dogs connected Betty’s worlds for me. Her understated affection for them and their tail wagging response testified to her range. She inhabited two places, not simply rural West Virginia but also Washington, D.C. I imagined her friends off Connecticut Avenue, North West, must have thought Betty’s chambray dresses, khaki pants, and flannel shirts always said farm life, even when such garments were starched and impeccably clean. She drank gin martinis and roared profanity whenever she felt like it, Sunday mornings or in front of children. Her partner, Chris, was noticeably younger. I was mesmerized by Chris. I didn’t even know this was allowed, deciding to live life as a man. Everyone used the pronoun she when speaking of Chris, but only one detail betrayed her as a woman; she wore a lot of thin white cotton button up shirts, and I could see her bra strap from the back. Other than that, she presented as male. She had a deep voice, short hair, held her cigarette like a man, and could reduce Betty to trembling with a sharp look.
Betty and Chris lived in one division of the sprawling rural house they furnished and decorated to their own taste, allowing a family dedicated to working the farm to live on the other side. The Betty-and-Chris side was all rich fabrics and antiques, sterling silver and Limoges porcelain. There was a low-slung couch, sort of Moroccan, that made me feel like I was sitting on the floor. My sister and I claimed it as our go-to seating, as it was eye-level to the plates of homemade jelly butter cookies Betty put on a leather-topped coffee table in front of us. We didn’t have much competition for this spot, due to all of the adults in the room already being too old and stiff to get in and out of the “lowfa” without hurting their backs. I liked to just stuff my face with cookies and take it all in. I could see the tomato and lettuce garden from the front window. Every now and then, I’d see Tiger or Dan and Minnie walking up the dirt road.
Betty’s living room was the one place in my youth where it never bothered me to be seen and not heard. At Swago, with Betty and Chris and my parents, I was awed by everything around me and glad to be quiet. I could absorb more if I stayed still and listened. The adults would speak openly about war and politics, about death and religion. They didn’t have to talk about sex, as it its complexities were everywhere in the room with us. My mother claimed to know a glorious romantic backstory about why Betty never married, that she had fallen in love with some kind of unavailable man. I don’t know much about that story, but I do know there was Chris. Who Chris was and what she meant to Betty and to Swago was in the book of the great wordless truths around the farm.
Standing, Dennie & Hunter McClintic; seated far right, Betty McClintic; others unidentified. Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, WV, c.a. 1950s. Photo supplied by author's mother.
Years later after college, I accepted a position in Washington and visited Betty and Chris’s Connecticut Avenue house for the first time. Betty had died the previous year and left me a few thousand dollars that I used to supplement my meager government salary, but Chris was still living in D.C. It was Christmas time and I brought her a poinsettia. The house was much like the Swago place, but cavernous. Beautiful mahogany and cherry furniture upholstered in rich fabric, charcoal figure drawings in heavy wood frames, engraved silver platters and pitchers filled every available space. A martini pitcher and matching glasses stood at the ready. Several heavy crystal decanters surrounded the barware, each partially emptied of its good-time contents.
It was a cold night, and Chris was wrapped in flannel and thick wool pants, even inside. It had been well over ten years since I had seen her last, and she was still a gender identity enigma. Her close-cropped bronze colored hair was mostly grey now. Her rounded shoulders seemed to have grown into a protective wall around her chest. Her horn-rimmed glasses sat on her beak-like nose, and she muttered and puttered about like a little creature from The Wind in the Willows. When I presented the poinsettia she reacted as if I had handed her a live human baby unexpectedly. Why, oh my. Oh my. I don’t know what to do with this little fellow. Oh my. Where should I put him? Here? No, no, no. On the stairs. Yes, that’s good. Or maybe no. What does he need? What does he want? Can you tell me what to do with this little fellow? I’m afraid I’ll kill him.
Betty was gone, had deeded Swago to the family who worked the land. The dogs were dead. There were no children. There was no tomato garden on Connecticut Avenue, no clanging cattle guard to announce summer visitors. The house was cold. I felt complicit in Chris’s isolation. All I really wanted to do was to drop off the plant and get out of there. I was there for the memories, out of respect for the past, and in no way was I there for the present or the future. Chris was humoring me as well as I was her. Her thin face seemed fragile, with papery white skin draped over sharp bones. When she paused between her anxious verbal observations, she seemed to be listening to something only she could hear. For the first and last time, Chris and I shared a moment of mutual confusion. Neither of us knew for sure why I was there, and as I left the house, my mind’s eye saw the farm dogs. They were all there. Skinny, Tiger, Dan and Minnie. Thin, maimed, protective, abandoned, ridiculously brave. They walk down dirt roads, testing the boundaries of the land, and waiting for the end. I walked into the snow, knowing the poinsettia was doomed. The sidewalk seemed to be getting longer. I felt Chris standing behind me at the door.
I never went back.
Elizabeth Gaucher is a native West Virginian. From The Greenbrier Resort to the coal mines, her great-grandparents gave her a legacy of town and country life that inspires her writing. She is a degree candidate for the MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She lives with her family in Middlebury, Vt.