The party I told you about yesterday went on all night. Bill came back from town and his brother Don heard the banjo and saw Leo's car and Bill's car, he came in. As all-night parties go, this one drifted down to nothing when everybody ran out of energy and attention. All went back to where they came from and we planned to meet later at Mahogany Rock Overlook on the parkway. We had a cooler of beer and took up on a park table with benches, sitting looking out over the landscape, talking and laughing. A park ranger dropped by and told us we can't drink beer on the parkway. He was not unfriendly. We went to our cars and left. Bill and Don's brother Van was driving them and I followed in Pat's yellow Volkswagen bug. Van tried to outrun me on a winding gravel road, but I stayed with him. Eventually, we ended up at Margie's trailer decorated in "Spanish modern," with orange shag. We hung about there trying to get the party spirit back, but it was over. Pat and I returned to the house and carried on. Monday, working with Don, Bill was gone. Bill and Margie and Leo had left in Margie's car Monday morning. Leo had a trial coming up Tuesday for beating up his girlfriend, whose house he took Margie to after girlfriend left with her kids to stay with her parents until after his trial. Tuesday I heard from Don that Leo smacked Margie in a McDonald's parking lot in Bluefield, West Virginia. Margie threw all his clothes out of the car and she left, taking Bill with her. Leo found his way back and went to see girlfriend at her parents' house. She took him in and hid him from the deputies that were looking for him over skipping the trial. She dropped charges and they returned to her house together.
The story from there went that Margie and Bill drove to South Dakota where a man from here had a fairly large ranch. He gave them work and they stayed there awhile making some money and returned after a few months. Bill told me that the guys out there asked him how he drove drunk on winding mountain roads, because he drove drunk all the time. He said if the mountain roads weren't so crooked he couldn't stay on em. He didn't stay on mountain roads all that well. Riding around the county with him, he'd point at an outcropping of rock by the side of the road and say that's where he broke his collarbone and a leg. Another place he'd point and say that's where he broke his ribs and both arms. Just a year or two before I knew him he'd bought a brand new Ford and totaled it before he made it home. Drunk, Bill did a classic stagger, crossing his legs to keep balance, wobbling this way and that like a top slowing down. One night he left here late and walked back to old man Tom's house about a third of a mile up the road. I saw him take off walking, didn't believe he'd make it. I offered to drive him. No, he'd be all right. He made it. I don't know how long it took. I worked with Bill and Don all that summer and fall up to winter. They were my teachers. My first year I ran the roads with them on weekends and worked with them all week, putting up hay twice in the summer, cutting firewood for four houses, two of which burned it like it was for pretty in fireplaces where the heat went up the chimney, twice as much as the two that used wood-burning stoves where you have some control over the fire with dampers to control the blaze. It was in this time that a churchist man turned his back to me for knowing the Pruitt boys. In that moment I said to myself, Anybody too good for a Pruitt is too good for me. I adopted this maxim as a rule of thumb to live by in my new life. It has served me very well. It keeps me away from the pretentious.
I knew they were the bottom of the social spectrum. I thanked God for landing my parachute among people entirely devoid of pretensions. I had been something of a social climber in my own way theretofore, which really amounted to ego with no training. I took the "Pruitt boys" for a gift from God to bring me down out of that mind. I wanted to start "where all ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." (WB Yeats, Among School Children) I had a way of overdoing it with the liquor in the city, not so much getting stupid, but steadily and about all the time, more than my denial realized. My parachute landed me among guys I drank with all weekend, drank more than I did in the city. I thought, What's the deal? I believed I was following God's guidance, and he put me down among a bunch of guys that could drink me under the table like I'd never seen before. From where I came from, I thought I could hold it well. On the Friday after the first week of working with Bill, he showed up in my driveway after he'd been to town to cash his check. He had a bottle of Four Roses, some 7up and his brother Van in the passenger seat. He offered me a drink out of the bottle. I had to show him I could drink it straight, how I preferred it anyway, wishing he'd bought something that at least tastes good. Taste had nothing to do with it. Alcohol was the only consideration. It tickled him when he saw I could take it from the bottle. They got out of the car and we sat on the ground under a dogwood tree, taking turns with the bottle and laughing. By the time we finished the bottle, I was on my back, had to lean my head to the side and puke. They thought I was hilarious. I was in place. Bill wanted to go back to town for more liquor. His brother Van went with him. I was in the same place on my back when they returned. They sat on the ground and finished the second bottle while I lay on my back awed by how Bill and Van could take it. They'd offer me a drink from time to time and laugh when I declined.
After that weekend it became customary for me to ride with them Friday night and Saturday night, floating around in Van's Dodge with posi-trac rear end he called The Goat. Not many years later he drove the goat through a light-pole twelve feet above the ground, split it in two. He woke up on the hood unhurt. His young nephew who was 12 or 13 was with him. He, too, landed on the hood unhurt. The law came down on Van hard. Not long before that a highway patrolman set off after him and Van tried to outrun him, thought he'd take a dirt road and lose him. He turned onto a dirt road that dead-ended at a barn, flashing light on his tail. The wreck with the kid in the car cost Van his driver's license for life. They always had guns in the car riding the roads. We'd come up on a good secluded spot, like the Nile on the New River, a redneck party place on the river in those years where there is always the remains of a campfire people sat around drinking beer, throwing the bottles and cans in the river. The party place is grown up now in ironweed. The younger generations since that time have drifted away from drinking beer at the river to reefer and other places like the bowling alley. That generation is gone now, too. It's cell phones and crystal meth culture now. We'd take out a .22 rifle, throw beer cans or bottles into the river and shoot at them bobbing along the current. My inner ecologist cringed, but I kept it to myself. This was their world, not mine. They thought it was funny that I kept my empty beer cans in a bag on the floorboard at my feet. They threw them out the windows. I could not make myself do it for any degree of acceptance. It didn't matter. Poor people were walking the roadsides in that time with bags picking up aluminum cans to sell for some groceries. Anti-littering laws have put these people out of business. I'd get with God and ask what's going on. I was drinking more than I ever had before, when part of my motivation coming to the mountains was to lay off, at least appreciably. The feeling I'd get back was, no-problem, don't worry about it. Time passed and within a year interest in alcohol as something to indulge in fell away. Just drifted off. The Pruitt boys were my teachers. Drinking with them was part of my learning. After a year, Bill went to Florida and Don moved to town and our party weekends were over. Bill, Don, Van, Leo and Margie are all dead now. Every one of them has an honored place in my heart.
photos by tj worthington