Lee-Mingo, April 1949...Excerpt from the novel The Long River Home by Larry Smith
A young boy walks out of town, over the crest of the hill beyond the valley's smoke, into the green woods, leaving behind the roar and clatter of the steel mills and traffic for the hush of woods. Here beyond people and the things people made, he feels at home. He is only ten and has been warned not to enter the woods alone, but he goes there anyway. It's just a short walk from my paper route, he reasons with himself. No one needs to know. Each morning the boy rises in pre-dawn dark to pick up and deliver his newspapers to the 50 neighbors on the hill. He walks to the corner where Ropey has dropped his bundle of Pittsburgh Gazettes and Wheeling Intelligencers, counts and slides them into his bag, then starts to roll the papers. At the foot of the hill he begins, stepping through damp grass and weeds, climbing the long cement steps and wooden stairs, skirting the barking dogs, to lay the paper quietly on the porch boards. He will circle the hill delivering the news, while his father Del rises and washes his face awake, then makes his pot of tea and leaves for work as a brakeman in the steel mill. Later, alone in the bright kitchen the boy will eat his cereal before his sisters and older brother awaken.His mother will be sleeping softly in the bedroom above, allowing him time to himself, to think or read or daydream before the walk to school.
Today is Saturday though, and as dawn creeps over the valley walls above the long river; the city papers have all been rolled as he walked and dropped on the lost porches of his town. Standing now at the crest along the edge of city and woods, he surveys the bite of industry at the river below him, feels the coolness of the woods at his back. He pauses a moment at the peak of his Appalachian foothill, then turns his back to the town and enters. Out here in the woods' first light he seeks solace and adventure-a slippery snake under a rock, a deer that turns to watch him, a hawk diving into the brush, an owl on a branch overhead. In the hush of the dark valley a morning thrush sings first daylight, notes of morning joy, whether anyone is listening or not. After he has walked a certain distance from the road, he leaves the beaten path, treads the higher green. All up the hillside run bushes and vines in dark verdant colors among the trees. He sits on a favorite log beneath a spreading oak. His feet are pressed into the thick loam of leaves and slanted earth; maple and oak stand before him against the morning sky. Lee tastes the goodness of the wild all around him and feels safe.
While yet a boy, he has learned stillness, to listen while breathing deep and long. All memory and all that I do not know awaken. At times leaning his head against the log, he has fallen asleep and wakened to the moment of a robin's song, a blue jay's call, or the footsteps of a deer. Still hunting his grandfather named it, and the boy smiles with the sustaining peace of knowing wild things. Far below the trees he makes out the old cornfield which he and his brother Davey walk on their way to the Cross Creek. Now it has become a wrecking yard, full of junked cars rusting into the earth. He wishes the trees would grow thicker so he wouldn't have to see the waste, but he doesn't look away. Each thing has its lesson to teach, his grandfather would say. Each struggle is a rock you are meant to move or work around. It is his grandfather he goes to meet in the green woods, his grandfather gone a year now who teaches him of passing and death. The boy's breath shortens for a time, and then widens again, the way of the slow creek below at the bend. He remembers his father standing at the gravesite laying his hands on his shoulders from behind, their walking back to the car in silence. Below the woodsy ridge of the cemetery lay the town with all its buildings and mills and homes, the honking of horns, the whirring of cars on highways, the hoot and crash of industry. At their car his father said something to him that he won't forget. "It's times like these that make us grow bigger to hold the loss and still go on." A hawk screeches in the trees, and the boy looks up at the rising sun; he knows that his sisters, Janet and Diane, will be watching Saturday cartoons, his brother Davey gathering his friends, his mother talking on the phone with her mother or Aunt Liz. On weekends his father installs furnaces, a second job "to make ends meet," they tell him. He knows they live on another edge, that of poverty and he hears his mother complain of it to his father. "We have no money for shoes...and we have to pay the rent." His father tells her "We'll get by," and somehow they do. Yet he wonders what they would do if his father should ever die-How would they survive? He could use his wagon and take on a Sunday route. His brother could quit school and work at Orin's garage. In a couple years he could usher at the movie house. He worries a stick into the wet earth. They could move in with his grandmother Carrie. They would somehow get by. He would make sure of that.
For a long moment he misses them all, and wonders if they are missing him, perhaps calling his name. Then a crow calls and he lets go of their lives, a long breathing out. He imagines his grandfather there again with him in his denim overalls, his railroader's cap tipped on his head. He would be touching his arm saying, "There are things we learn together. There are things we learn apart." The boy lies there a long while just hearing the hum of things wild, smelling the sweet cinnamon scent of trees, when suddenly he hears footsteps through leaves and ducks down among the brush. Two voices rise above the crows gone silent now. The Dawson boy and the pretty Carson girl from school have come out. They are older than he, as old as his brother. He hears the girl's bright laughter, their murmur of words among the trees. The Dawson boy is wearing a black jacket and jeans, she a blue sweater and flowered skirt; her hair is blonde her eyes blue. The boy watches as now they kiss, something Lee has only seen on movie screens and sometimes between his mother and father, his aunt and uncle at Christmas time. But this is a different kind of kissing, her leaning back against the trunk of the oak, him with his hungry kisses pressing her to the bark. The boy does not move nor make a sound, caught in the silence of their conspiracy. A bird song comes back, a robin he thinks. Hers is a different kind of laughter now as the Dawson boy reaches his hand under her skirt and touches her bare legs. Lee has seen this girl as a cheerleader tumbling in her short skirt, throwing her arms to the air. He has watched her bending at the fountain, then rising with wet lips, and has felt that close burning in his chest. He looks away, wants to disappear, yet is drawn into this fertile triangle he shares with them. He hears their small sounds in the woods, their long silence, and a warmth rises in his chest, a light flowers inside his mind. He rolls over on his arms, closes his eyes and thinks-things he cannot speak, things he stands at the beginning of, a song calling at midday.
The boy lies there waiting a long time smelling the spring earth, till he hears them go, footsteps through underbrush. This other song of loving and longing can wait. The birds return bringing with them memories of his grandfather-their fishing together, working at his side, scoring the baseball games, talking on rides to the lumberyard. These are not gone. He breathes in and out. Memories remain. He closes his eyes to an image of his grandfather's face which fades into that of his father. He lies there alone staring up through trees till the morning clouds seem to still and he and the earth move under them. And in the green leaves dancing with life above him, he sees the broken parts of sunlight and sky as a sign of something deeper, something more. His grandfather's loss, this sense of distances, and this new longing he feels for love- is all part of life's change. Everything is deparitng and everthing is arriving.
He rises knowing that he stands in a grace of the land and the woods that remain. As he begins his slow walk down that familiar valley, he looks out over the river and hills and feels in blood and memory what holds him. The great river runs through this deep valley, and its waters will rise and fall again and again, creeping into houses bringing mud and decay, a dampness over all while we retreat in rainfall. Then the sun will come and the waters recede as we reclaim our lives again. Down the hill is home and the people I love.
Causes Larry Smith Supports
peace and justice, meditation