I carve the eastern Kentucky hills with my girlfriend’s hatchback. I’m following the same roads the Dukes of Hazzard drove with their 1969 Dodge Charger named General Lee. I see the rebel flag, the Dixie flag, and the Southern Cross flying from houses and small businesses along the road. The quick curves of the rolling green terrain coupled with the Confederate flags makes me feel like I’m on a Civil War themed amusement park ride. Blind corners, sharp bends, and hills climb and fall. I’m speeding over the limit with my windows down while the heavy humidity drowns my Western lungs.
My girlfriend, Jackie, is breathing fine. The road lifts and dips while I glance between trees and think about the abandoned moonshine stills of my Appalachian ancestors. At the family barbeques of my childhood, Grandpa Kelley said that my ancestors knew the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. Family lore said that my family descended from Southern gangsters, politicians, cop killers, and ministers. Kelley is such a common last name around Kentucky that I might have cousins in every cranny doing whatever they need to do to just to get by, but I don’t dare look for them. For much of my adult life, I’ve tried to avoid the trouble of my family line, but Jackie’s grandma continues to live in these hills, and I couldn’t say no to a visit.
At the local diner, electric openers whir circles on metal cans. Biscuits and Gravy are $2.50. A side of baked beans or corn muffins cost an extra 50¢.
“What’ll ya’ll have,” Grandma asks. She wears pressed jeans, a blouse, and a necklace. Her hair is dyed and permed, and she sits up straight with a pride that contrasts with the men and women around us wearing dirt-stained t-shirts and torn bottoms.
“I’ll have chicken and dumplings,” my girlfriend says. “And mashed potatoes.”
“Potato hash, a muffin, and coffee,” I say.
Grandma laughs at me. “Now this won’t be no Starbucks coffee. Are you sure?”
I begin to regret my long-sleeve button-up shirt, orange chinos, and freshly cut hair. I feel like I’ve shown up, overdressed again, at one of my own family get togethers.
Grandma waves to someone across the dinner.
“I have to say hello,” she says.
She walks around the diner and stops at every table.
The café reminds me of a cheap breakfast diner I’d eat at as a child. When I walked in with my parents, people stopped us to say hello. We sat in the smoking section each time, and my parents and grandparents lit cigarettes before and after their meals. The meals could last for two hours with conversations happening all around. I remember feeling so dizzy and sick that I’d walk outside, sit against the building, and wait for everyone to be done.
The waiter approaches with stains all over his apron. Grandma gives him the order, and I can’t understand the waiter or Grandma through their accents but she motions towards Jackie and me.
“Where ya’ll from,” the waiter asks.
Jackie told me before we entered town that everyone without a Kentucky accent is considered a Yankee. Before the drive in, Jackie said I shouldn’t try to make any jokes because it might be misconstrued as offensive.
“Idaho,” I say.
“Iowa,” the waiter says. “Lots of corn up there.”
I nod to the waiter. Under the table, I put my hand on Jackie’s knee and squeeze.
When my cheesy hash arrives, I slather it in ketchup and generously season it with black pepper just like I used to when I was a child. Potato hash was a cheap staple in my family of six living off of my father’s truck-driving wages. As I eat, Jackie tells her grandma about our recent trip to Paris, but I can’t stop listening to the toddler screaming at the other end of the diner.
After breakfast, we visit Grandma’s two-story government apartment. Neighbors crowd around the breezeway and talk about who’s knocking boots, who’s fighting, who’s breaking up, who’s doing rehab, who’s drunk right now, and who’s dealing for extra money. I relax in a camping chair and politely refuse wine coolers and beers.
The six or so locals here seem to know everyone’s personal business in town, even when they say they only mind their own.
“What time ya’ll leaving,” a woman in a light dress holding a cigarette asks.
“Be careful tomorrow.” Grandma says. “Tomorrow is when everyone gets their welfare. You’ll see people on the road drive real slow or real fast.”
The woman in the dress tells us that she usually avoids driving the first of every month. Once, at a stoplight, she was rear-ended by a guy who never completely pressed his breaks. Instead, he slowly pushed into the back of her car.
“It was the slowest car crash anybody had ever seen!”
Someone’s niece is stealing pills. Someone’s ex-husband lost his job. It’s all drama, and Grandma laughs, woos, and acts a bit high-and-mighty with raised eyebrows and a shaking head. For her, this is entertainment. She leans over to me, whispers more tragic gossip, and winks.
Amidst the smoke and snipping, a strange comfort folds over me. It feels like I’m back in my old childhood neighborhood when everyone gathered and gossiped on my family’s front porch. Before my father died in a horrible highway accident, I would join them.
I remember going through my father’s dresser drawer and discovering a Confederate belt buckle. It was in a case, shiny and new, like a gift he never thought to wear. Confederate flags are uncommon in Idaho, a state formed after the Civil War. I’d walk the house and notice the battle flag adorning some of the gas station souvenirs he brought back from the south during his long-haul trucking days. For my father, a man born and raised in Idaho with a western identity so deep it sank down into the cowboy boots, these Confederate souvenirs probably meant something different than the racist reasons I’d seen the flag fly in Idaho.
Something changed in me after his wreck. I remember listening to the neighbor’s laughter from inside my bedroom, and wishing that I could leave Idaho. I spent more time around the hills that surrounded my neighborhood than in my neighborhood surrounded by people. Eventually, I refused to go to the smoky diner with my mom and grandparents. When Thanksgiving and Christmas approached, I avoided my extended family who spun conspiracies about my father’s death.
At Grandma’s breezeway, her neighbors laugh at the misfortunes of others until lunchtime. Jackie and I wait while Grandma changes into different clothes for another meal in town. While someone tells a story of their broke nephew, I look out to the Appalachian hills and wonder if my father had trucked the same troubling roads and had felt, as I do, of home.
Kevin J. Kelley’s writing can be found in The Massachusetts Review, Entropy, Potomac Review,High Country News, Eastern Iowa Review, Thin Air Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. His essay “Po-Tay-To/Po-Tah-To” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Currently, he is a reader for Best of the Net and a Professor of English at Red Rocks Community College near Denver, CO.
Kevin holds an MA in English from Boise State University and MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Wyoming.