Every day the sun rises behind the holler and over the ancient, wrecked barn, where, nearby, my father stirs in a tiny white farm house down a muddy path. There are piles of discarded, unused pieces of metal from a swing set or an out-building, layers of license plates and old fishing rods, rusted cans of paint, and antique tin buckets boasting holes like colanders. They tower in jagged heaps around the yard, waiting for toes or the sleeves of shirts to slice clean through. After my father sunk three grand into a used F150 and couldn’t get it to run, it became one with his piles; an ever expanding dumpster on flat tires. He is a Northeastern Kentucky collector. The piles grow and multiply in size each time he brings something new home—a deli style meat cutter, bagged in plastic and left to rust on the Amish made rocker or the John Deer tractor, money still owed, with leaves composting on the yellow seat. I run my fingers across the spindly stalk of a maple tree that cuts its way through the fifty thousand dollar terrarium before plucking it out, letting it spiral to the ground. Mama and I hum the theme to “Sanford and Son” when he is not around. Somehow that makes us feel better.
Once, when my father was away on a “golf trip,” Mama urged me to call up some football boys and have them remove one or two of my father’s piles. Their pickup trucks held tight in the muddy earth, awh she-it one of them hollered over Nickleback on the radio. Tires spinning and snuff juice spitting, they hauled the refuse of my father’s collective depression down the holler. Maybe if we just took the piles away he’d stop screaming. Maybe if we just took the piles away we’d have a family again. Maybe if we just took the piles away this farm would stop failing. The ground underneath was woven with pale, waxy strands of grass and beetle tracks, rust from a paint can flaked like red rain in my hands.
When my father returned he was angry, perhaps even disappointed. That building was a gift from his dad and he was going to put it together one day, but the windows were broken from goat stamps and the washers and screws had been lost three years before.
Before the dew has hazed pale from the morning earth, my father fills a grocery bag with two pairs of extra socks and heaves himself down concrete stairs for another 12 hour work day. This is every day. When I was sixteen I would hear them fighting, the dishwasher door slam, a few clicks of a lighter, inaudible yet booming voices, the truck door clank, the gravel spray. I hated the mornings when Mama and I had to get ready together. I skirted around the tiny bathroom with its rag rugs and cracked tile floor. I listened to her breath quicken as I grabbed my toothbrush and a rag. I timed my entrance based on the hiss of hairspray cans. The mornings when they fought were worse and she didn’t smoke cigarettes anymore, which seemed to calm her nerves. So I took up smoking as I tiptoed past trees that I still have no names for and down to the bus.
When I was little, my father used to make me biscuits and gravy every weekend—a recipe passed down from his grandmother. He’d brew a pot of coffee, fry a pound of bacon, render the fat and pour it in jelly jars. One morning, when my bedroom was still princess pink, he brought a piece of bacon in and held it above my nose until I woke up. That night I laid my head in his lap as we watched cartoons. When my walls were painted lavender he used a five pound package of it to smack me across the mouth. That night I locked myself in and pretended to snort Percocet. When our kitchen was painted green he pushed me through the window. He hit me and I hit the road. When my kitchen was painted yellow in January 2015 I left home with boxes and crates and the hard realization that there are some things that can’t be mended.
One night before I left home I waited until dinner plates pushed swirls of steam into the current of the ceiling fan and condensation edged its way down my father’s frosted glass mug. He had been working his usual eighty hour work weeks, but was almost on vacation. I knew I could get him to plan just one day outside with me, to point out the trees on our little thirty acre farm like he used to do when I was young. That one is a sugar gum, and that’s a pawpaw. Over there is a black oak, see the shape of the leaves? All oak leaves kind of look like that, but there are variations. I looked up from my plate, hoping to distract him from the commercials blasting through what would be silence.
Hey Daddy-o, what do you say about you and me taking a walk around the farm this weekend? I’d sure like to know what trees we have around here and I’ve forgotten all of them.
He shoveled more food into his mouth and told me that I knew them; that I had had conservation camp just like him, and that’s where he learned them so I knew them too. Then he turned up the television and I went outside for a cigarette.
Three days later he took the day off and spent it with his friend Rob mending fences for Rob’s girlfriend. He walked back in our front door mimicking the same light that I had given him days prior when I tried to persuade him to spend time with me. Hopefulness. Instead, I received the sour pungency of Budweiser from his heavy breath. The gift he has always given me—disassociated drunkenness. He looked happy, maybe even relaxed. Hey Daddy-o, I looked up from my book to see him lay his plastic cooler down and kick off his shoes. I seized the rare opportunity to connect with him, how was your day?
Pretty durn good, me and Rob fixed the fence for Patty and then we walked all around her place drinking beer and I pointed out all the trees for him. Good day. I nodded, put my book down, and excused myself outside for another cigarette in time to hear him belch-speak Barrrrrrt Simpon. On the porch, I kicked at a flowerpot, then sunk down on the splintered steps with my knees to my chest.
The next day, while my father was at work, Mama asked me what was wrong. She held me close to her warm chest when I asked her if she noticed that my father took his friend on the walk that I wanted to go on. I imagined myself crying, but couldn’t. You know how he is, always bumbling around. It’s okay, baby, we can do it together. We call him Bumble to forget that he is inconsiderate. Sometime later, I’ll buy a small Kentucky tree guide at a thrift store. I’ll never use it.
Where my father is concerned I have issues with mending fences. Our fences have been weak since I was a sophomore in high school. The principal would call me in from class once a month or so. Old party buddies with my father, she was sympathetic to our situation. She’d send the animal control man away and have me call Mama at work to beg her to put the goats up. Once the principal let me hop in the passenger seat of her Chevy truck. We cruised the curvy mile down the road to my family’s farm. I stuck my head out the window when we got close and called the goats back up into the holler. They had been grazing on the fire department lawn again. Their plump, fuzzy bodies trotted in single file lines up the tire tracks and past the glistening junk piles. Their humming bleats bounced back toward me as I envisioned them welded in place with the rusted buckets and license plates. You’d better have your dad fix that fence, it’s illegal for me to take you out of school for this, you know. I knew and embarrassment stung my cheeks, thank you.
When I was 20, I met a boy who would help me mend those fences and keep the goats from running down the road. I would call him crying and ask him to come over and help me fix them once and for all, and he would. We walked the trails that I had hoped to walk with my father, pulling rebar from the cold, tight earth. We’d collect sticks and rocks and old sheets of metal from my father’s junk piles. We’d carry it up on the hill and find the fallen fence. He’d hand me our foraged materials and I’d weave them through creating tiny, makeshift barricades, busting knuckles and breaking nails. Each mending of the fence felt as though I was taking it back; taking back the farm, taking my independence. After a few weeks, my father even gave me a claw-like fencing tool, though I didn’t have the materials to use it. Some of our patches didn’t hold and the goats would push right back through. Some days this would make me cry and the boy would wrap his arms around me. Sometimes he would stand next to me when I told my father that the fence was down again, when I would ask him if he could help me this time; when I told him I couldn’t do it alone. But the boy would waver when my father’s voice boomed and soon he would refuse to come back over when my father was around. The boy wasn’t raised that way.
My father is not a man who I can turn to for help, though he undoubtedly works hard—he saves his best self for strangers and animals; he goes to every funeral of every person he marginally knows, he cries when he sees dead animals, he cries harder for dead people. But for as long as I can remember, his help has come laced with rage; an intricate tatting of the slam of his fists and his screams. It was like this when I discovered my tire was flat. When I told him, he threw his fists down and sighed “goddamn it,” his eyes accusing. Even my father’s sighs sound like screams. Each turn of the tire iron brought a grunt from his mustached mouth louder than the next. His anger was tangible in the thick summer air. His face glowed red in the evening light, not from burn, but from belligerence. As curses floated up from him and to the sky I felt myself sinking into my own ribcage. I flitted about his feet, handing him tools, flinching at his interjections. Mama and I make up songs about his outbursts when he isn’t around. Our most recent is to the tune of “Dancing Queen.” It starts “he is the drama king, bald and mean, oh watch him scream.” Sometimes I think this must be what we do to cope with his constant abuse. Yesterday Mama asked me if I thought that we had PTSD. I’m not sure. Probably.
The first time I remember my father’s rage, I was six. I’m not sure what facilitated the fight. I have no memory of how it started; one moment I was surrounded by my stuffed animals, sucking on my pointer finger, and the next I heard their fight move to the porch and Mama’s screams from the front yard. Her screams were different than they had been before. This time she wasn’t calling him a stupid son of bitch and telling him to get the fuck out.
Lauren, call the police, please baby, please! Dial 9-1-1 like they taught you in school. Do it! Her voice cracked as my father mocked her and his defensive lineman frame ambled toward her again.
So I did, I called 9-1-1 just like I had learned to do in first grade. I told the operator my name, I told her that daddy was hitting mommy in the front yard, I told her that I was scared, I told her our address. She told me that it would be okay and to tell my mommy that help was on the way. Before the police rolled up our holler, he was gone. I sucked my pointer finger until I fell asleep that night and for thirteen years after.
In October of 2013 I felt like I had lost a lot. My goldfish died of a toxic white rot. My relationship died on the hill above the barn. I sat cross-legged on a picnic table thinking about my infidelity, as the boy that I once loved pleaded for me to stay, then called me a bitch and ran away. I eyed his fuzzy brown hair stumbling down the hillside that we had spent so many days carrying found objects up to mend the fences. My red tailed hawk, the one that I whistled to, circled above my head in the autumnal air then swooped twenty yards away and sunk its talons into the back of a baby goat. The bleats pierced the air and the hawk released, retreating to a tree as the herd descended around me. He didn’t look back. I didn’t follow him. One week later, driving country roads through Harlan County my father called me up. They were all dead, 40 goats lying in the pasture, throats ripped plum out. Our makeshift mending of the fence had failed to untamed animals that shredded the necks of my herd. Coy-dogs? I asked my father under the cover of darkness and Jim Beam one evening before they died. We’d heard them cackle in the woods surrounding our farm. We heard them getting closer.
They’re a cross between feral dogs and coyotes, he said taking another swig, we had a run in with them when you were a little girl. Do you remember that? They took out our whole herd when you were about three. That was the night that your mama had to cut a baby out of the mama-goat’s belly. I nodded, shifted my weight onto my other foot and grabbed the bottle.
While I was still in Harlan, my father started the tractor that he bought to bury our llamas years before and dug a cavern in the hillside for the bloody bodies. They were all gone by the time I made it home, all except for Clyde, the billy goat I had bottle fed and watched grow into a stud. His black beard glistened umber, his smooth mouth and tongue nibbled cracked corn from my palms every day at 3. A week after I came home I willed myself to walk the tire tracks past the fallen fence, past the feed building, past the cistern. Thirty feet from the barn, wisps of decaying flesh wafted into my nose, and there he was, my Clyda-goat in a palsied heap with gnaw marks on his chest, his horns still thick and proud. And I left him there.
That December I left home—or rather, I mentally left home and began fixing up the old Lauhon family homeplace ten miles down the road. The tiny three room house had been in my family since 1907 and sat mostly empty for a half decade after my great uncle Henry died and his wife, Mary, used it as the vessel of her unraveling. Her mind consumed with grief, she abandoned her own house a few blocks away. She began food wasting, making giant meals and taking a bit of each plate. She let her seven year old granddaughter paint her name with nail polish on the walls, “Aries” in foot tall pink lacquered letters. Mary threw out all of our old family photos, deciding that without Henry she had no past, she had no future. I’ve always heard that the Lauhon homeplace was where Henry went to escape Mary after his mother, Little Granny, died. So Mary assumed it after his death to get closer to the man who she loved with fierce dedication, the only man she cared for more than her Lord and Savior.
Before I took over our homeplace, the ceilings were stained a sick yellow with carbon monoxide and mouse shit clung to the crevices of the aged hardwood floors. It took two lice infestations that Aries carried to elementary school before my methadone addicted cousin, Stacie, received power of attorney over Mary. Think thousands of lice crawling through fluffy gray hair. Think larva in the carpets. Think bloody, itchy scalps and Exodus 8:16. Stacie sold the house to my grandmother right out from underneath Mary. We let the greasy film of bug bombs permeate and bleach cleansed the plague from the homeplace. For a moment I hesitated taking over the house, feeling guilty for the way that Mary had been displaced, feeling guilty for her grief, feeling guilty that I would be afforded an opportunity where she had not been—feeling I had to earn it, unsure if I deserved it.
With paint, and spackling, with caulk, and trim I spent my evenings—again—busting knuckles on hole filled walls, and my nights back home in the little white farm house escaping screams through headphones and cigarettes on the porch. For a time I flirted with the man who installed my stove. He would do odd jobs for me in exchange for beer and company. He didn’t scream when he installed the sink. He didn’t thrash when he changed the gas line to my heater. He brought his kids over to play football in my yard. I bought them tiny green shaker eggs and gave them instruments to play while they drank juice boxes on the porch. After a month he asked me if he could move in with me. I paused for a moment and then laughed, crushing a can and tossing it across the room into the trash. I didn’t see him after that and my hot water heater remained broken. I called my father every other week to ask him if he would help me fix it. I think that he must have wanted to, because eventually he did, but I heated my bath water in a tea kettle on the stove for five months while I waited.
I’m not sure when we began to make a joke of his rage. All I can remember is how badly it terrified me as a child, and then suddenly we began to mock it. To this day, I am the only person with the power to shut him down when he rages. I think this must be because perhaps he sees the disappointment and betrayal in my eyes every time I have to put my body between his and Mama’s, every time I have to ready myself to take a missed swing. Or maybe I remind him of himself in the way that I am not afraid to be hit by any man. I wonder if he sees a fight in my eyes that mimics his glory days when he laced up his gloves and hurled his body at his opponents. I wonder when he started to see us as his opponents. I don’t know what goes on inside his head, but I know for certain that he feels that we are closer than we are, and I wish that we were. I know that most of his anger stems from being overworked at his proletariat prison, being raised to fight in rings, and being taught by his community that men don’t talk about their problems. Despite his rage, I know that I can come to my father for a level of support, as long as it is immediate. Talking with him about what I hope to accomplish, my dreams, goals, is always an option, but I’ve learned not to ask him to use his hands to help me. I’ve learned not to expect him to desire to pass down knowledge to me. Despite his rage, I know that my father loves me the best way that he can. I can see this more clearly now that I am no longer in his house. I can see this in the way that he messages me when he reads a troubling horoscope. I can see this in the way that he always has a twenty waiting on me when I walk through the door. I can see this in the way he always reminds to wear my seatbelt as I walk out the door. Somehow, I have learned to appreciate the nuances of his love.
The homeplace is quiet now. When someone stirs in the morning, it is me. When someone pours hot water over coffee grounds, it is with my hands. My father never showed me how to identify the trees and he never taught me how to mend our fences. But that’s okay—I’ll find another way.
L.A. Ashby is a gregarious Appalachian farm girl from the hills of Northeastern Kentucky. She is a poet and nonfiction essayist who seeks to capture a vision of her region. Her poetry has appeared in Et Cetera (2009) and S/tick (2014). She also has a multimedia publication featuring an a Capella vocal track in Alimentum: the Literature of Food (2015). She currently teaches English Composition at Marshall University.