Two hours before beginning this essay we had yet another encounter with residents of the meth house on the corner, our nearest neighbor to the west. The lead male over there is a cutter, dozens of little slashes have made risen scars on his arms. He has a ponytail, is known well by all cops in town, and never wears a shirt. He accused us of “eyeballing” him as we passed his house, something we have no choice but to do many times a day. The derelict shack has in the past been home to sex criminals, rapists, and pedophiles, other meth users, and some criminals who would have to be called general practitioners—whatever crime looks easiest tonight is what they will be arrested for tomorrow. Meth-heads are the worst to deal with. They are unpredictable and frequently violent after they’ve been sleepless for a few days. We are dedicated to minding our own business about most things, legal or not so much, but cooking meth releases toxins and is a peril to the whole neighborhood. A decade ago there were several houses much like this operating nearby, but they’ve been weeded down to this, the last one, and these tweakers should start packing.
My mother was born less than a hundred yards from my house. She was of the first generation raised in town and played in my yard as a child. I can see the roof of her father’s place from the porch when the leaves are down. Both sides of my family have been in the Ozarks a long time. It was hard from the beginning to eke out a living from thin dirt and wild game, and it stayed hard. The Woodrell side (surnames Mills, Terry, Dunahew, and Profitt) has been here a bit longer than the Daily side (Davidson, DeGeer, Riggs, Shannon). Woodrells arrived on this continent around 1690 and settled in these parts during the 1830s, after Kentucky and Tennessee became too gussied up and easily governed for their taste. The early white settlers came here to avoid the myriad restraints that accompany civilization: sheriffs, taxes, social conformity. They sought isolation. There has never been much belief in the essential fairness of a social order that answers most readily to gold, always assumed the installed powers were corrupt and corruptible, hence to be shunned and avoided, except when you couldn’t and must pay them.
A Davidson ancestor did kill a man in the center of town, before many witnesses, and land, livestock, everything that could be sold had to be sold to buy him out of a conviction, which was done. He’d killed his long-time pal, a man who beat him always in the wrestling contests featured at most picnics, then they got drunk on Washington Avenue and decided to wrestle again in the street. Davidson won this time, as the other man could not stand unaided, and is alleged to have pulled his pistol in victory and said as he shot the pal at his feet, “Now I finally whupped you, I might as well kill your ass, too.” Once the money was spent, this became an act of self-defense and he never did a week in jail. That was over a century ago, but we still remember, and the family of the dead man does, too—as late as the 1970s there was friction when my older brother dated a girl with their name.
I was raised on such stories in exile, and the old stories get rubbed together plenty in the retelling, dates and facts become blended. Did such and such happen in 1885, 1965, or not at all? Is that a DeGeer story or a Dunahew? The violent stories are the first I remember. They are many and fed me as a boy, but now I am more taken with how Grandma Mills lost a slice of nose to disease, how Dad got that patch of skin torn from his leg as a boy when barbed wire snagged him after he’d raided a garden for melons and the gardener spotted him, how Granddad Daily rode a mule to church in the 1920s because he wanted to impress girls. I like trains in the night, dogs baying after coons, the long hours when the wind sings as it channels between hills and hollers and flies along creek beds. I’ve known a thousand plain kindnesses here. It is generally a pleasure to live among so many individuals who refuse to understand even the simplest of social rules if they find them odious. This trait can, of course, raise trouble. I have had a few close relatives do time in the penitentiary, some recently, not for being thieves ever, but always for refusing to take each and every piddling law seriously—trouble is bound to happen once in a while when you love life so wildly.