(One day I’ll finish the story below. And, in truth, it’s entirely too long for a blog post. Forgive me for that–or just tuck it away for a day when the waiting room or the carpool line’s taking forever.
The best authors will tell you that you have to write from what you know. And so in this story are sketches of small Kentucky towns, memories of experiences both professional and personal, and an attempt at exploring what it’s like to have that which sure and known snatched away. Just. Like. That.)
Cow Hill, Kentucky isn’t the sort of place where much happens. Ever.
This was Stevie’s first thought as she sat down at her small wooden desk, Mac laptop open, the lines under the question, “Please write 3-4 paragraphs about a significant life event that has influenced your college and/or career choice,” blank.
Maybe the question was fine for potential University students coming from the city. Or major tourist towns. Or out-of-state or country. But she was pretty sure the Admissions Office wouldn’t know where Cow Hill even was, much less why the question seemed so ridiculous to the star student in this year’s high school graduating class.
And for the hundredth time she thought, What am I thinking? There’s no way I’ll make it on that college campus anyhow, even if they do, somehow, accept me.
Stevie was thirteen when her English teacher, a young man assigned to backwoods Kentucky for a stint with Teach for America, had called asking if he could stop by the house one night for a chat. Her grandfather, Stevie’s mother and father both since hers were killed by a local boy who’d thought it a good idea to drive after sampling his own grandpa’s moonshine all night, had agreed, and then, after putting the phone back firmly on its receiver, turned gruffly to Stevie and barked, “What’s your teacher want with me?”
“Don’t know, Grandpa,” Stevie said, quietly, the familiar heat brought on by any kind of attention rushing into her round cheeks. She looked down at the table where she sat, pushed the remains of dinner around on her plate and added, “I’m not in trouble or anything. Promise.”
“Better not be!” he said, short and stern, and then took a long drink of coffee, his liquid fuel any time of day and the one thing Stevie had learned to make often and well as soon as she was old enough.
The next evening Mr. Jackson came over just after supper, and he and Stevie and her grandpa sat down on the porch, the atmosphere solemn. It was almost spring and the evening air, still with a hint of coolness, felt positively alive with twilight bird calls and chirping crickets and the sweet smell of tree buds just starting to burst.
“Mr. Davis,” Stevie’s teacher began, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about your granddaughter for a while now. I’ve noticed some things–important things–and I think it’s past time I shared them with you.”
“Get to it, son,” Stevie’s grandpa replied, “What’s my girl done? Why are you here?”
Mr. Jackson coughed. Grinned. Sat up a little straighter. He was amused by the older man’s obvious distrust, even though he’d expected it. Education wasn’t a real high priority in these hills, he’d learned, and those who’d never really experienced it considered all educators suspect as a result.
“Mr. Davis, I’m not sure why it is you think I’m here, but what I’ve come to tell you is, your granddaughter, she’s gifted. Stevie’s really, really smart sir. Intelligent and quick. And she’s becoming quite a writer, too. And sir? Well, I think she needs–would benefit from, I guess–some extra schooling.”
As Mr. Jackson said what he’d come to say Stevie found herself thankful for the mask of nightfall, the glare of porch light faint enough to keep her teacher or her grandpa from seeing the pleased grin threatening to crack her face in two.
Mr. Jackson went on, “I think she’s special, sir. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. And I’d be happy to work with her some, in addition to what we do in school, so that she learns as much she can.”
Stevie’s grandpa sat silent for a moment, his jaw stiff and his whiskers twitching. Stevie thought she saw him swallow, hard. And she knew in that instant that her grandpa’s pride was close to bursting through his rough exterior.
“Well now,” he said, finally, “I don’t guess it’d be my place to stand in the way of Stevie here making the most of herself.”
And so began The Education of Stevie Davis, Cow Hill’s sudden resident scholar.
On Mondays she stayed after school, working her way through Shakespeare’s plays with help from Mr. Jackson. On Wednesdays she tutored elementary kids who were having trouble writing– “It’ll help you, too,” Mr. Jackson insisted. And on Saturdays she read. Whatever she could get her hands on and sometimes twice through. “I want you to read anything and everything,” her teacher directed, “the classics, the Bible, stuff by Kentucky authors, things women write–whatever. Just read.” And so she did, keeping Cow Hill Public Library on its toes and, when she had a little spending money, pleasing the owner of the dusty little used bookstore with her delight when new titles came in.
They went on like this until summer came and Mr. Jackson went away until fall, leaving Stevie with a reading list a mile long and, more importantly, a sense of adventure she’d ever known before. Suddenly the world outside Cow Hill seemed a lovely and grand and exciting place and she wanted to know as much of it as possible.
Her grandpa would warn, “Don’t get too high on yourself now, girl,” and Stevie would calmly nod her head, the manufactured edge in his voice not enough to disguise how immensely proud he was of his son’s only child.
Mr. Jackson moved on to a position at a revered public high school down in Nashville, Tennessee once he’d fulfilled his Teach for America commitment. Stevie missed him when he left but continued her studies diligently, the thought of college her constant motivator. To see much of life outside of the Cow Hill town square would mean some enormous effort on her part, but she was determined.
And so now she sat, the online application in front of her looming like a giant sow let loose on a Cow Hill country road, stuck stubbornly just where it was and keeping anything approaching from moving forward for fear it might upset the pig and cause a scene. She had no idea what to write, what to say, that could possibly, she thought, matter.
“Stevie! Stevie! Stevie–please! I need you!”
Her grandpa’s cries finally broke through her frustrated reverie and she jumped, fear rising into her throat at the alarm in his voice. Stevie’s grandpa never sounded like that.
She rushed toward the sound of his voice, adrenaline moving her through the house like a bird dog on its first hunt of the season, until she found him in the kitchen, his right arm clutched across his left shoulder and one knee already fallen to the checkered linoleum floor.
“Grandpa!” she screamed, landing terrified at his side as he called her name again, “Stevie!” dropped his second knee and then sank, his whole body falling in an instant that seemed like the slowest of lifetimes to his granddaughter.
The emergency medical team that responded to Stevie’s frantic 911 call said probably her grandpa was dead before he hit the floor. They meant it as help, she knew, to ease any thought she might have that he’d been in any pain. But the words sounded cold.
Cold, too, sounded the funeral home director, a too-polished and too-rich man whose stale breath couldn’t be disguised by the peppermints he sucked endlessly, his saccharine words of “I’m so sorry for your loss,” simply the first line in his hard sell to Stevie of “our very finest casket, handmade from the finest craftsmanship with the eternal rest of your most loved one in mind.”
She shook her head. Numbly, but resolutely, backing slowly out of Teegarden and Sons Funeral Home as she did so. “But Stevie!” they protested, and she kept moving. Deciding in a flash that to bury her grandpa anywhere but straight into the home soil he loved, under his favorite tulip poplar, with the spot where the rabbits laid their babies every spring nearby, was surely criminal. When her back hit the heavy double doors of the funeral home lobby, she turned, shoved against them, and ran with all her might until she reached the 1953 Chevy truck, a birthday present from her grandpa on her sixteenth birthday. Fumbling for the keys, her hands shaking and her entire being aware of the stares coming from town storefronts and cafe windows, she fell into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition and jammed the gas as hard she could with her right foot.
When Stevie was a baby, her parents just gone, a young black woman from the other side of the highway had helped take care of her. Bessie Curry had been Stevie’s whole world in those early years and it was to Bessie she ran now, the work-hardened dark hands soft as they ran over Stevie’s forehead, “Sshh baby, it’s gonna be alright,” the words Bessie murmured over and over as Stevie sobbed hot angry tears. Bessie’s husband Tom stood silently by, moving about to fix tea and shush the grandchildren while Bessie rocked Stevie back and forth, just as she’d done many a night years ago, only this time a few pats and lullabies could not make the nightmare go away.
Stevie could not imagine a world without her grandpa, and there was no fixing the giant ache this left etching itself across her soul, eating away the secure happiness she’d known her whole life long and threatening, it seemed, to undo her limb from limb. She had no map for this desolate expanse of heartache.