Keegan Lester’s new book Perfect Dirt: And Other Things I’ve Gotten Wrong has just been released and ships now when ordered from West Virginia University Press. We’re pleased to share this excerpt, called “A Snapshot.” You can hear Keegan read from the book here.
In the city I grew up in, there was no glimpse of West Virginia. There was no place to eat the food that my father was raised on. There was no one who spoke like my grandma or grandpa or believed in magic or the improbable. There were no trains whistling at night or woods that whispered their secrets.
My father would wake me up at seven in the morning Saturdays in the fall from the time I was eight or so and we’d call all the bars in our city and neighboring cities to see if anyone had the West Virginia University football game on through a satellite feed. Then he’d take me to a bar and we’d eat chicken wings at nine in the morning. While all the surfers were out surfing and the people who brunched weren’t even awake yet, and while skaters dreamed their ethereal dreams, we watched our giants run into other giants through a grainy television screen and my dad would get choked up on beer and tell me a little bit about being a boy in Morgantown.
My father is my father but once he was only Joseph. Then he was Joe, then Fatty, then he grew into a redwood of a man and was renamed Bigs. Then he grew into all these other people and one day he turned thirty-two and a month and some change, and he became my father and now he’s my father and Big Joe because I know his secrets.
My mother was born Kathleen and grew up Kathy in South Florida. Stunningly beautiful her whole life. She was a class president and a prom queen and once someone took a picture of her while she was jogging and they put it on billboards. Then she became a nurse and took care of babies who were born too small during the crack epidemic, babies who were too sick to live on and, despite everything dying does to the body, she’d tell these babies you must continue on, you must live on, you’re meant to live on and she would hold these babies in her reed basket arms, telling them she loved them, long after everyone else had gone to sleep. You are loved and you are loved and you are loved. And sometimes she named the babies. And some nights I imagine her sitting up in bed looking out at the night sky recalling names of these babies she named until running out of stars in the Western Hemisphere. And one day she drove across America until she arrived on a beach shouldering the Pacific. And a few years later she became Mom.
And then I was one of the babies born too small.
And so I was raised by these people in a place that was like neither of the places they came from, and I never took to the language of the place where I was raised.
Sometimes I like to imagine my father moving from West Virginia to Colorado to California. I imagine everyone telling him forget. And I imagine him closing his eyes, trying to forget. I imagine him taking his clothes off, putting new clothes on, and then opening his eyes as someone whispers to him Forget everything you’ve ever known if you want to be one of us.
Forget hot dogs and pepperoni rolls and birch leaves turning colors and forget the snow. Forget the way the seasons turn slow like honey from a spoon. Forget the people you gave your shoes away to up the hill in Osage and forget what’s left of those coal camps. Forget all the lawns you mowed summer after summer so you could afford to study abroad in Paris during high school, so you could learn to bake bread and drink wine from stolen wine jugs. And forget the giant French flag you stole from a ferry in France and brought home and hung in your basement. Forget your basement. Forget how small the town you came from is. Forget wanting to major in political science in college, dreaming of going to law school, and instead majoring in coal mine engineering because the local coal companies paid the scholarships of children from West Virginia, children who they could get to put their dreams on hold for a hole in the ground that one day, one way or another, would end them. Forget South High Street and the cemetery at the end of South High Street filled to the brim with bodies. Forget all those bodies and forget how when walking through that cemetery the unleveled ground feels like small bony fists beneath your shoes. Forget cutting through the cemetery when you were late for school, the dead you had to walk over if you were to succeed. Forget the Mon River cutting the hills away from each other and forget the coal mines and the trains pulling their small children train cars full of coal from your hills upriver to Pittsburgh or Ohio to the people who would make fun of your accent and ask if you wear shoes, if you could read and then who built their stadiums and museums and universities with money from the backs of the people and landscapes you love, that are part of you like a scar. And forget how when your people tried to form unions the United States army fired upon them. Forget that your grandpa only went to school to the third grade but could do statistics. Forget how in spite of all of that, he would one day become the mayor of his coal camp. Forget your grandfather. Forget your grandfather came to this country from Lithuania. Forget the boat your grandfather came over on, the banana he ate whole, because he’d never seen a banana before and didn’t know to peel it. And forget those trains carrying coal, whistling at night, whistling Joe Joe Joe Joe Joe, and forget the way your name sounds in the mouth of those hills and streams and beneath the rocks you used to collect. Forget your rock collection. Forget how when you left West Virginia, you left with nearly nothing but this collection of rocks.
While my father changed a little, trying his damnedest, he found that he could only be who he could be.
You ever been so lost you forget where you’re from? Like you just wake up one morning and you’ve been out at sea too long or in a mountain listening to streams running all streamy over some rocks or underbrush for so long, you forget the way your name sounds in the mouth of your own mother, the way it sounded when she yelled [fill in your name] and you yelled back am I in trouble? and she yelled nooooooo. But now you’re in trouble for forgetting the way your mother’s voice sounds, for forgetting your native tongue, for stealing someone else’s tongue and making it your own. That’s my problem. With no native tongue, I worry I’m from nowhere.