When I arrived in these mountains, Tom Pruitt had his nephew Bill staying with him. Bill was at loose ends after a divorce. Sometimes he was at Toms, mostly not. Bill and I were the same age. His brother Don, 4 years older, lived in a small trailer up the road the opposite direction from Tom's and about the same distance. Don's wife worked at Hanes underwear factory in town. Don worked as work turned up. Sometimes he did farm work on the Willis farm and Stern farm for Tom, like putting up hay. He worked for Jr Maxwell off-bearing at the sawmill some.
The first two months, Nov and Dec, I stayed in the old farmhouse, the Caudill homeplace. Only heat source was the fireplace. All the heat went up the chimney. I didn't know enough about fireplaces to set it so the heat went into the room, but am here to tell it. It wasn't lethal. I lived on the floor in front of the fire. Had a couch pulled up close, where I sometimes slept at night. Mostly slept in the back bedroom added onto the house after Caudills had left, probably added by Leinbachs of Winston-Salem, who sold the place to Stern. It had an electric heater in there, seriously dangerous. First several days I was anxious as in anxiety. One morning I was washing dishes and somehow a teapot slipped from my hands and somehow hit the edge of the sink as I grabbed for it. It exploded into a shower of shrapnel that fell to the floor. Except one that dug into the underside of the wrist of my right hand. I'm not one to go to emergency rooms, but this called for it. The nurse's last name was Gray, and she was good to me, so genuine a human being I never forgot her.
It was a desperate time for me. I wanted to do everything at once. I wanted to know some people. I found right away in Sparta, nobody wants to know a fur'ner. Nobody wants to know anybody they don't already know. It's a very strange feeling to be in a place where nobody knows you, you don't know anybody, anyone you've met doesn't recognize you the second time they see you. At the laundromat I'd be stared at like I was a television. I'd speak to the one staring and there would be no change of expression, no recognition in the eyes the person had been spoken to, just blank like watching tv.
First time I drove to town to get some gas, Tom told me vehemently to go to the Wilco. I wondered why he was so vehement about it. It was the cheapest. It didn't have the convenience store that goes with it now, though now it is Hess, Wilco-Hess Corp. It was all gas pumps and an island in the middle for paying. I'd been a believer that city people were unfriendly, but country people were friendly. I went to the place about the size of a phone booth with a man inside, a little opening in the Plexiglas to hand the money through. The man put out his hand for it, didn't look at me, didn't speak, nothing. I put the money in the hand and it withdrew. I thought of one of those banks with the place to put a coin that activates a plastic hand that jumps up and snatches it.
I found Sparta to be aggressively the unfriendliest place I'd ever heard of. Next time I was in NYC I was astonished at how friendly everyone seemed. I recall making a white-haired Sparta society woman furious overhearing me talking with someone else, saying Sparta is the least friendly place I've ever seen. That was not exaggeration. To the last time I saw her, she gave me the same look she gave me then. Whenever I'd go someplace, like Charleston rather frequently the first few years, I was struck by how friendly everybody seemed. The man at the Wilco station came to symbolize all the rest for me here.
There was quite a number of years I hated it here. The worst was any time I'd have a conversation with somebody, they'd look right through me next time I saw them like I wasn't there. I started calling it the Sparta Look, the look that says: thought I saw something, guess I didn't. It's a look that looks right straight at you and sees nothing, and not even self-conscious about staring. The Sparta Look. There came a time I learned the Look and would give it to the people who'd done it to me. They hated it. Really hated it. Called me arrogant behind my back. What's a feller to do?
Bill and Don Pruitt were my first friends. Working with Bill we talked and got acquainted; he taught me how to sharpen a chainsaw and cut down a tree so it will fall where you went it to, important things, like he was enjoying being my teacher. Though Bill was a hillbilly and I was a city boy I felt there was no difference between Bill and me when it came right down to it. He was like cousins of mine, guys I knew at school, except he listened to country and I listened to rock & roll. Bill lived his life a bit more head-on than I did. I admired it in him, though it cost him a hell of a lot in liability insurance and broken bones. Like me, Bill was a little guy in a big guy's world, and neither one of us wanted to be big. I couldn't talk about American writing and 20th Century art with Bill, but couldn't with anyone in Charleston either.
After we'd worked together the first week, Bill drove up with his brother Van and parked in my driveway. I went out to see what they wanted. He'd been to town to cash his check and had a bottle of Four Roses. I saw right off this was test time. See how much TJ can drink. I'm thinking no big deal. I left Charleston partially because I was on the verge of alcoholism and wanted to cut out the drinking, or cut it way down. So I had to show the boys I could drink. Take it from the bottle then chase it with 7up. Yuk. I let the 7up pass, thinking it's a shame we have to have a drinking contest with Four Roses. Johnny Walker or Glen Fiddich would have suited me better. But I was done with that phase of my life. Four Roses it was.
I tipped the bottle upward grossed out by the taste, didn't like bourbon anyway, took a good swig and handed it back. Big smiles. TJ can take it. Now, this is a contest I can hold my own in, I was thinking. We sat on the ground outside my house drinking and laughing and talking, telling crazy tales. There came a time I was on my back, laid my head over to the side and puked a couple of times, and stayed there. When I woke, Bill and Van had returned from town with another 5th. They were just getting started.
A few months ago I saw Bill the last time. I'd heard he was in the nursing home in Sparta with advanced Alzheimers. When I was in there seeing Jr during his first nursing home round, Bill was across the hall from Jr's quarters. One day I came face to face with Bill in the hallway. He shuffled about in untied shoes, seeing nothing, hearing nothing. I went up to him and said, "Bill." He looked at me. I said, "Remember me? I'm TJ." He smiled and said, "Wellington." That was close enough. I almost broke into tears. It was an emergency holding them back. Bill died a month or so ago. His brother Van followed him a week later. Don is in a nursing home situation in Black Mountain.
My first year here I ran with the three of them on weekends. They taught me where I was living. The Nile, the Pool Room, riding the back roads throwing beer cans out the windows, laughing, meeting people I still know and appreciate knowing like Wade Pruitt and Jerry Hawkins, among others. It was a one year crash course on the nature of what was to become the home of my soul. Bill said once he didn't want a preacher talking at his funeral like he was some great guy who never did anything wrong. He said, "All I want the preacher to say is, He done the best he could." And that he did.