tom pruitt's house
Tom's house from this point on Waterfall Road where I was standing is beautiful every time of year. A bit of geometry in landscape. Triangles and squares that have occupied this spot in the landscape a hundred years, possibly older than any of the trees around it, white planes surrounded by multiple webs of tree limbs glistening in ice. It brought the house to life, made it feel like Tom would be sitting by the fire and I'm on my way up to see him. He would be amused without letting it show or be known in any way that I was out there with a camera taking pictures of it. It's all weeds to him. Stupid city kid. His ideal is all the land cleared with crops growing on it, horses and cattle grazing it. Tom also never said it, but I know he thought what Jr once said to me, 'You tell me the craziest damn shit I ever heard.'
I'm done now projecting onto Tom what I think up for him to say. For all I know, he was jealous because he didn't have a camera, though I doubt that so much it seems retarded to say it. Not a bit of it. He'd more than likely think how times change, the mystery gadgets the younger people are carrying around, seeing it about like I see kids with iPods and video games. I have to say it was educational seeing myself through the eyes of an old man of the mountains who didn't have electricity or running water for a long time after he could have. Didn't need it. A man who lived so simply it made me laugh when I thought of myself living simply. I wasn't even close. I was still caught up in the cult of the latest. That took awhile to fade as it was the culture I'd lived in all my life before.
Tom sat facing a wall, keeping the wood burning stove going, thinking. Jr was like that. He could sit endlessly by himself with no radio, tv or anything but a clock and a thermometer. Tom had 3 different calendars on the walls of the room he lived in. All were on different months and different years long past. Instead of putting up a shower curtain, he kept a mop beside the shower to mop the bathroom with when he was done. He built the bathroom on the side of the house with the help of a couple of his nephews. He already had water flowing to the kitchen. It was 16 years before he connected water to the bathroom.
Tom was a teacher in my first years in the mountains. He taught me farm work and he taught me mountain customs. He was not one to teach by questions and answers. He sometimes gave me a brief on what to watch out for using a wedge with a sledge hammer. Just the one thing I needed to know, all the rest I could figure out by looking. I learned by being his assistant. I was quick to learn everything. I wasn't looking to be a farmer or even to raise cattle. I wanted to learn the old-time way. That was the only way Tom knew.
We stretched many a mile of barbed wire together. Tom never wore his gloves working with barbed wire. I would get tired of taking them off, putting them on every move I made, and it wouldn't be long I was working it bare handed too. It was easier. Tom's hands ran with blood by the time we were done. Mine were fairly sliced up too, but I was being a little effete at the beginning, watching it the best I could, unlike Tom who paid it no mind. Kerosene will take care of it. The backs of Tom's hands were like webs of narrow straight line scars, like a spider web with no order to it. I have several on the backs of my hands. There came a time with me too when being careful didn't matter any more. Jr evidently didn't use his gloves working barbed wire either. His hands had webs on the backs as complex as Tom's.
It felt good to look up at Tom's house and see it looking alive again. It has been without him so long it seems the spirit is gone. It's a shell now, an empty snail shell found in the woods. It's a noble old house made of oak that has been let go so long it becomes less a candidate for restoration every round of the seasons. It's come to represent to me what I've seen of the last years of old-time mountain culture. Little left but the shell and it leaving no traces of the living being that occupied it, vanished and gone as if never was. That's how it goes for us. I felt like with both Tom and Jr were unafraid facing their last days and hours, but I had the impression neither one could imagine the world without them. It's the only way they'd ever known the world, with themselves included. Vanishing from their places in this world seemed like something they couldn't grasp. I'm interpreting, interpreting what I saw in both of them, how they talked about things in their last days as if they'd continue right on and on. They always did. Neither one left final words. When Tom woke up in the hospital, he sent word, 'Tell TJ I aint gonna make it.' That was it.
Air Bellows has 5 original houses left. My house was the school Tom went to and all his brothers and sisters, and all the kids from around here. I've known, met and talked to 10 people who went to school here. They also had revivals that went on and on. It was taken apart, board by board and moved by either pickup or wagon, moved a couple hundred yards up the road and rebuilt with the roof different. It used to go up at an angle in front and back as well as both sides. I don't know of any existing photographs of it as a school house.
I like Tom's house with trees grown up around it. It's become another metaphor of change as all the people who were born in the house, who lived in it, everyone who lived there is gone. Not one living. The empty shell the mice move into in winter followed by blacksnakes in the summer. Tom, in telling me his life, included the lives of all the people who lived in the house, his mother, his dad, his brothers and sisters. Once, a self-sustaining farm with barn, work horses, milk cow, chickens, a big garden, meadows of oats, meadows of corn. Now empty, though still catching snow on the roof, surrounded all the way around by Christmas trees, the old house is a relic of another time, another Age. I'm grateful I've known so much of its life.