EDITORS/NOTE: This is a WestVirginiVille.com experiment: to see if there is a readership for longer excerpts online, drawn from books and longform writing published by folks with a West Virginia connection. Below are eight pages from “Montani Semper …” by Ty Bouldin. Let us know in the comments to this post or our ‘Contact’ page and if you might like to see more book-ish or longform essays published here. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno
The following excerpt from the Ty Bouldin novella “Montani Semper … Snapshots from an Appalachian Family Album” occurs at the end of “Dark Gold,” a chapter narrated by Will, the surviving son of Ramona and Woody Mann, the novella’s central focus. Set in the early 1960s, Will’s story centers on the first day of his return to his hometown after two years’ absence seeking work, first in Wheeling, West Virginia, and later Philadelphia.
Much of his narrative conveys the backstory of his difficult relationship with Woody, and his long association with his family’s friend known as ‘the Greek,’ and with Betsy Massie, a slightly older woman who provided Will with guidance and affection after the death of his mother and separation from his father. Will has been traumatized by his experiences in the world beyond the mining/farming community he was born into, having witnessed a brutal fight in Philadelphia between two drunken men. He is equally troubled by the changes back home. His most agonizing discovery is Betsy is dying of cancer. He goes to the apartment she lives in above her restaurant, in search of a reconciliation and revival of their mutual affection.
“Really?” I say, and all of a sudden now I’m grinnin’ from ear to ear, because I didn’t really know that, ya know, and had a hard time even thinkin’ about it. He’d played a bit off and on around the house, but now I saw where he was so many evenings and all. “The old man?”
“Oh my, yes indeed,” she says smiling. “And he came up here with his guitar and a bottle of Southern Comfort. Guess he’s tryin’ to turn the place into one of them supper clubs or whatever…” and she gives a little sniff as though to say just what she thinks of that idea, ya know. Then her eyes go soft and she says, “Funny…huh? This was not all that long before Ramona lost that baby and all. You must a been about twelve?” And she drifts down that way for a second before she goes on. “Anyhow, Woody come up here and he sits on this very same couch — right about where you are now — and he’s tryin’ so hard to be the music maker, ya know, and he’s…it’s like he’d watched one too many re-runs of the Grand Old Opry on the TV outta Beckley, if you see what I mean. All them close ups of the pedal steel player and that lead guitar player leaning into their big solos.” And I grin and nod.
“Anyhow, he’s playin’ me this new tune he’s ‘workin’ up’ as he says, and the flat pick’s pullin’ the melody up out that little high E string. And he’s like closin’ his eyes to show me just how much he really loves this music and how it’s just risin’ up like springwater straight off his heart, don’t ya know, and ever’ once in a while he’s lettin’ his eyes open up just a tad and lettin’ ’em slide over my face or whatever with those bedroom eyelids at half-mast…I thought it was just plain silly, now, but I didn’t want to laugh in his face.
“And then he gets to singin’ words about lovin’ you through-and-through, though you break my heart and all that jazz. And I know what he’s drivin’ at and somehow it just makes me mad.” And she shakes her head just thinkin’ of it.
“So while he’s got into fingerin’-out the melody line again, I just lean forward and pretty much up in his face, and I whisper, ‘Woody, you best let me tune you up a mite.’ And he half opens those eyes again and kinda smiles at me, all the time pretending he’s like lost his way in all that music off his heart. And I reach up with my right hand, still face-to-face with him, and my fingers find that tuning peg for the high E string, and I just start turnin’ her up and up, ya see, and up and up we go—and this is throwin’ his fingerin’ off and the melody line is more and more out of tune and higher and higher and higher — till that string just snaps. I jump back just as the end flies by me and slaps his pickin’ hand.”
And by this time she’s laughin’ to see it all again, and I’m laughin’ to think how the old man’s face must of looked back there where we’re all a lot younger and so many hard things are hidin’ down the way unseen, ya know — and then she and I are just laughin’ and laughin’ into each other’s eyes.
“His face falls off somethin’ fierce,” she says, makin’ her own face look a combination of surprised, sad, mad and whatever. “Gets real red, ya know,” and she puts both hands aside her face and sort of puffs her cheeks out, “and he goes kinda snake eyes just starin’ at me so hateful. And I nod, and I say kinda soft ’cause I really don’t hate him or nothin’, but I do think he’s silly, I says, ‘I guess you better go now, Woody. And—oh, Ramona might be able to fix that.’ I say that just to be so very helpful, ya know.” By this time, we’re both close to tears and short of breath.
But once we get ‘er under control, I get to thinking, and I say to her, “Bets, I didn’t mean to come up here just so you could make me feel better. I mean…”
But she cuts me off, puts a finger to my lips. “What I mean to say, Will,” she says, “is that you don’t need ever to be like that. You don’t need to pretend. Not with me. Not with anybody else, now. You don’t ever got to be ashamed of anything you are, or anything you feel, and you don’t got to put up no false front like you’re somethin’ you’re not.”
And my face goes hot and I can’t hold her eye, so I look down in my lap and try to take the conversation back. “What I was sayin’, Bets, is that I thought I’d come here and maybe cheer you up. Not the other way around.”
And she gives a little laugh and says real bright, “Well, you did that, didn’t ya? I been laughin’, haven’t I?”, says it like I maybe accused her of something, ya know. And her laugh makes me laugh again.
But then the next thing I know I’m thinkin’ again about what happened up in Philly, and finally I begin to get a handle on what’s been happenin’ to me here. And it scares me to think, but I know I have got to have it out, but I can’t for the life of me think how to get started. And, all of a sudden, I hear myself saying to her, “Bets, can I ask you something?” And even without waiting for an answer I hear I’m runnin’ on and kinda short of breath (which I know is a bad sign, now), “Can I ask you…ask you…” and then it’s out, ya know, “how come you send me away?”
And she’s right there on the other end of it. “Send you away? Well, Will…I don’t know. I mean, I’ll have to think about that a minute…I guess, I guess…I thought…guess I thought it was what down deep you were asking me to do. I thought — I think,” and she laughs right there hearing herself, “I thought you were the man for the job, ya know? No….no…no, I don’t guess you do. You wouldn’t know that. I thought, Will, that if there was anybody I knew who was cut out to know the world for what it is, that person was you. You got the patience. You got…oh, I don’t know…the…the…what it takes to sit through a thing and see it for what it is. Does that make a lick of sense to you?”
And I’m probably about as red as a strawberry at that point ’cause, while I don’t understand what she’s sayin’, it don’t take a genius to see that it’s a compliment of some kind, and a big one comin’ from her. And I sit there with my head down, lookin’ at the backs of my hands for a while. “Ya know?” she says, more or less tryin’ to keep the ball rollin’.
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“Well, Betsy, I don’t know about that. I mean, I guess…I guess I wish that’s true, now, but I just don’t know. But did you ever think…did it ever occur to you…did ya ever wonder was I the kind of person who could live with it after he saw it? For what it was or whatever…could he live with that?” My voice is still under control but my face, now, my whole face feels like just one damn crucifixion. That’s what it feels like anyhow.
And she looks so hurt and so damn sad, and she reaches out a hand and she touches my face. “Oh-my, Will. Oh my.” Then like she’s sorta confused, her hand just wanders away.
And for a second she’s just lookin’ me in the eye, and then she says, glancin’ down at my hands and then back, she says, “No. Nope. That never crossed my mind to ask that, Will.” And she looks away and she’s real quiet for a second, and then she looks back. “Are you?” she asks.
And I let out this whistling sort of breath, ya know, and blow out my cheeks, and put the back of my right hand on my forehead and take it away. “You got me there, girl. You sure got me.”
“Don’t guess you ever do know that one for sure, huh?” she says.
And I think about that a minute, and I say, “Guess you just gotta hang around and find out.”
We’re real quiet then for a spell, her head restin’ on my shoulder, her hand in my hand, and then she starts in again, and her voice is sort of soft and like she’s bringin’ up something that could be a problem. “Speaking of hanging around, Will…I got something I been wantin’ to talk to you about…a kinda proposition, you could say, in a business kind of way, I mean…” and she gives a little laugh and goes on. “This stuff is gettin’ pretty expensive, ya see…whoever thought that dying would have to cost so much?…what with the surgery and doctors and medicine and checkups and all…and I’m going to need somebody to run this place here, bring in a little change till I’m up and runnin’ again…somebody…” and she lets it just trail off like it’s just a thought, ya know, something she’s sayin’ more or less to herself.
And I can see where we’re headed but somehow I just can’t say anything. I try to get her started, but the old tongue just won’t turn over.
“You thinkin’ of holin’ up in these parts a while?” she says, more like she’s talkin’ to me.
“Well,” I finally get goin’, “I don’t really know, Bets. I mean…you know…I wouldn’t want to get any hopes up…no false promises or nothin’…but I guess…I guess we could…guess it wouldn’t hurt to, you know, like, think about it.”
And she laughs then. “O, Willy,” she says, “I am glad to hear you say that ’cause I been thinking about it off and on for about two years. Just thinkin’ now, don’t ya know — nothin’ fixed in stone or nothin’. But I been thinking.”
And when I grin at her, she goes on. “Ya know, there’s stuff I been wantin’ to get done for years in this old place. Paintin’ and some remodelin’ and all that. And if I had somebody dependable — somebody who’d partner up with me — there’s some big changes I’d like to make. And once we get things rollin’ and start paying off these bills, I’m tellin’ you — I betcha the bank would make us a loan. I hear there’s big money in the restaurant business these days, Will. Can you imagine that? I never seen that much of it, but that’s what they say. And we can get in on all that maybe.”
And I don’t know what’s the matter with me, but this is somehow hittin’ me all wrong. “But, Bets,” I say, and I hear my voice is like beggin’ her for something, although I couldn’t say what. “Girl, you’re dyin’.” And no sooner does that come out my mouth than I’m thinking — What the hell kinda thing…
But she just laughs, maybe a little bitter, but it’s a laugh. “Well, now, my-oh-my Mr. Willy, don’t suppose I might have seen that for myself, do ya?” And she’s lookin’ so comical, so irritated and tickled at the same time, that we both bust out laughin’ again. And as I’m laughin, it comes to me where I heard that before and I see for a second that no matter how big of a mess I may have become, there is these people who think enough of me that they been talkin’ while I’m gone, ya know?
“And lookee here, Will,” she says all stiff and stern, “I got no intention of spending my days on my knees begging Jesus to forgive me for something who-knows-what-it-is. That there is one hopeless proposition, far as I can see. Could go on forever — first convincin’ that Baptist Jesus to say it’s okay by him, then that Methodist Jesus, and Brethern Jesus, and on and on…Myself, I figure Jesus got an issue with me, Will, he’ll be man enough to come and talk it over face to face.”
“Why, now,” I say as this kind of takes my breath away. “There’s Miz Betsy Massie now, sure enough.” And I bend around and we’re all just one big hug.
And after a while she pulls back a bit, and I’m thinking she may be not all that comfortable, ya know, but she’s looking at me and getting ready for another go at talk. “Will, what I mean about this partners stuff…well, I mean I don’t know for sure, ya see…my impression is that the county or the state is going to come out smellin’ like a rose if I have to will this place to somebody—taxes and all, ya know? Well, you see what I’m drivin’ at? I don’t feel like I owe the county a free ride. Sure not on my casket, anyhow. So…”
“We’ll find out for you, Betsy. And we’ll think about it. We’ll think about that for sure. I mean…” and I kind of trail off there a minute thinking about what all it might mean to be in the restaurant business and all, and after I think about that I come back up. “You’d have to show me one hell of a lot, now, Bets. One hell of a lot.”
“Well,” she says, “I figure you could learn, if anybody could, Will. I mean, you might not be all that good-looking, but you are not dumb, not by a long shot.”
“Thank you for the compliment, M’am,” I says, tipping a hat I don’t ever wear.
“And besides, Will, you’d be new — kinda. Bring in some new ideas maybe. Kinda spruce things up in the restaurant line for this nowhere town.” And she laughs — but I take that somewhere else, ya see. Just can’t help myself.
“Feels like to me I may be already doin’ that, Bets.” And I guess I’m looking a little grim or something ’cause she leans forward, her hand going automatic to my shoulder, and a big question all over her face.
“Feels like to me I maybe brought a chunk of Philly with me, A bad chunk.” And my shoulders heave and I can’t tell if I’m headed for another cryin’ jag or gonna toss up a bellyful of bile. And if it wasn’t for her hand there on my shoulder I might just have done both. “I punched out Old Jerry Hobson’s lights before comin’ up here, Bets…and him just being Jerry, ya know.”
“Well, Will,” she says, lookin’ like maybe she can’t believe I’d do a thing like that. “Whatever for? Myself, I think that boy can be just so aggravating sometimes, but…”
And I thank the Lord I can see where I got to keep myself to myself now, and I pull it back together and sort of grin. “Yeah, I guess so,” I say, “Guess he just got on my nerves or somethin’. Said the wrong thing and — pow! I just let him have it.” But while I can say that now, I can’t hide how I feel about what I did, and I see a hand twisting in front of my face, see a flash of green glass…” But I feel bad about that. I shouldn’t have done it. Shouldn’t have brought that back here.”
And Betsy looks at me and her face is a mix of smiles and sadness and a look like she has seen something clear. “I wouldn’t worry about that another minute, Will. This place has got more than enough of that kinda stuff all on its own.”
And I kind of nod out my appreciation, ya know, ’cause I don’t trust myself to go on.
“And I’ll tell you another thing, Will. I wouldn’t worry a hell of a lot about what’s out there. I seen a bit of it myself, all those trips down to Charleston. The Greek would take me, and one day they said they’d had some kind of emergency and the doctor’s gonna be late by a couple or three hours. So the Greek says let’s go find us a bite, and I says okay, but we don’t know our way around town, so we stop at a place — one of those new hamburger places they got down there. Say it’s everywhere, Will, everywhere — out in California, back in Chicago, and over there where you were, over in Philly. And now let me tell you something, boy — if that’s all these poor, mean, sick-souled people got to eat, there’s no danger they’re slippin’ nothin’ at all by us out here. Lord, that stuff is awful!”
And as you can see for yourself, now, we’re just laughin’ again. That was her way, at least it was that evening.
Well, anyway, I come to see it’s already passed sundown, the light in the sky falling from rose to a kinda purple ash, and I also see that all this talk is wearin’ her out, ya know. So I get myself together to go, with a kiss and a hug and a “I’ll see ya tomorrow,” — and she says, “We’re gonna talk about that proposition now, Will.” And “Yes, M’am, we sure will,” — another kiss and all. You know how it is. And I let myself out and head down the steps, realizing that I got me a walk okay — about six miles up the hills to the Greek’s. And I set out then, out the road up Hayden’s Branch. The evening star is come out over the mashed brow of my old man’s mountain. And at the first switchback outside of town I turn around and look, and I see that the light’s on in her room, that new yellow paint turnin’ the houselight to gold.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ty Bouldin, born in Charleston, W.Va., in 1947, has lived most of his life in the state, cultivating interests in biology, natural history, fishing, and the arts. He is a largely self-taught musician and song writer, poet and novelist. In 1969, Hiram Poetry Review published his chapbook, “The Collected Poems of an Anonymous Young Poet.” Bouldin completed an MA in English at Miami University and in
1972 began teaching English composition and introductory humanities courses at West Virginia State College, where he developed classes drawing on the cultural sources of contemporary American song-poetry and the work of Bob Dylan. He and his wife, Susan, bought a 25-acre farm in southern West Virginia in 1974. From 1988 until retiring to the farm in 2003, Bouldin worked as an administrator and teacher with the Writing Program at The University of Arizona in Tucson. In 2018, he began revising novels and poems written over the course of 50 years. “Montani Semper…” is the first of six works in progress.
STORY INDEX FOR JULY 2, 2022 WestVirginiaVille.com
1 | EDITORS/NOTE: About our ‘Memoirs of Daily Life’ Issue : To devote so many pages and pixels to writers, poets, and memoirists, and their dispatches from the front lines of their lives — or the imagined lives of characters — is not to step back from More Important Things. Poetry and prose are no less a form of truth-telling than the best investigative reports.
2 | FIRST/PERSON: Turtle Rescue Out on Pluto Road | by Joseph “Billy” Corduroy : “The first time I tried to save a turtle on the move it peed — or pooped, I’m not sure which — in my truck. I had stopped when I saw a box turtle in the middle of Pluto Road one afternoon maybe ten years ago. I hit my brakes right there in traffic. Fortunately, there was none ….”
3 | 5 QUESTIONS: For Two Poets Who Keep Running With Whiskey : How did West Virginia’s longtime Poet Laureate plus an MFA Creative Writing professor-poet-musician end up “Running With Whiskey” around West Virginia and the world? We have questions, they have answers. Plus, of course, poems.
4 | SHORT/STORY: “Salena” | by Jay Brackenrich : “Salena had never had anything beautiful, certainly never anything perfect. The nuns wrapped her in perfect clean blankets. She had a little cotton shirt, perfect. They asked for the name of the father. She said, “I don’t know.” They entered ‘Unknown’ into the blank box.”
5 | READINGS: “Montani Semper … Snapshots from an Appalachian Family Album” | by Ty Bouldin : Take a read on a WestVirginiaVille.com experiment in publishing longish excerpts from worthy, well-written books with a West Virginia connection, like “Montani Semper …”
6 | POETICS: 3 Poems by James Cochran : ‘She says Jesus / has spoken to her, told her not to drink coffee / or Redbull, that black tea is okay. / I feel jealous of such direct communication / with a higher power, then wonder if I would / stop drinking coffee if Jesus told me to …’
7 | FIRST/PERSON: A few highly personal words on choice | by Anonymous : “Three pregnancies. No choice in any of them. I have never chosen to get pregnant. I was foolish, I was sucker-punched, I was surprised. I was naïve, I was savvy. I wasn’t ready, I was ready. Such a basic right that everyone deserves. CHOICE.”
8 | POETICS: 3 Poems by Marc Harshman : ‘A fiddle tune bearing, rough-shod, / the memory of the village: / sunlight on stucco, / leaf-plastered paths in autumn, / spectral sheep / in moonlight and bracken, / the lilt of the market tongue, / ancient beyond telling …’
9 | MEMOIR: Why trappers with bloody hides wanted in my house | by Connie Kinsey : “One morning, I stumbled down to the kitchen when I heard a noise. There standing was an unkempt man holding bloody hides and smoking a cigarette. “Excuse me?” “I’m looking for Frank …”‘
10 | POETICS: 3 Poems by Doug Van Gundy : ‘These are the hours I love the best, / when the golden light of summer has climbed / to the top of the abandoned building next door / and all of the neighborhood / cats have come out from the woodpile / beneath the back porch to carouse and fight …’
11 | PICTURE/SHOW: Traces of Faces in West Virginia Places | by Douglas John Imbrogno : Here is a selective round-up of people snapped doing their thing on the streets, in the alleys, and in the cigar bars of of West Virginia’s cities, towns, and outback.
12 | WATCH LIST: Here are some things to look at, West Virginia-wise | Check out this version of variations on “Country Roads” by the Kanawha Valley Community Band which channels Aaron Copeland; plus a video of a crazy fitness guy sledding around Charleston WV; and more.