Sometimes I forget how rich I am. I’m not talking about the cash in my pockets, stocks, bonds or any of that stuff. I’m talking about the stories and characters that live, breathe and wail within my blood, marrow, bone and brain.
When the bills are overdue, the house is in foreclosure, the wife has filed for divorce, the scars on your body accuse you when you look at them, it is easy to take for granted the wealth that no one can see until the words splatter the pages. The written word then becomes redemption not only of myself but also those in my family before me. I am their voice.
To me, the term “hillbilly rich” means having a little more than you usually have. Maybe a couple of hundred bucks. Enough dough to pay some bills and maybe get you some good timing action.
People like me aren’t meant to be literary people. My dad drove a fork-lift in a warehouse and my mother worked in a plastics factory. Both of my grandfathers were coal miners. Other family members did what they could to survive or in some instances come out ahead such as my great-uncle, a professional gambler and organized crime figure. I’m the first generation to be raised “all the way up yonder north” away from the Southern Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia.
At best, I could have gone to college and trained for a respectable and well-paid career. At worst, I could have taken my place in a factory or machine shop (which I have done in the past). These were the expectations of men from my class and background.
I grew up around storytellers. From the older people, such as my Paw-Paw Kerr, it was tales involving animals and their mysterious ways, strange mythical hill beasts, ‘hants and violent events torn straight out of death ballads that my Paw-Paw would tell me. Other stories were told by my parents, uncles and aunts on boozy evenings. I would sit under the kitchen table and listen to yarns about Army days, jail, drunken escapades in the hills or in the city. These were rough stories that hinted at the adult world my parents lived and I got glimpses into whether I wanted to or not. Even though there was violence or tragedy in some of these tales, there was also a tough humor to them.
I remembered all of these stories and painted vivid pictures in my mind. I created new stories that I told myself. I would take Sears catalogs and turn to the pages featuring furniture and draw strange figures that looked like paper clips with arms and these would be my characters and I’d talk out loud leading them through various scenarios. These would invariably involve domestic strife or drunkenness.
I would also stare long and dreaming into the woodwork of furniture and see ghosts, demons and other figures in the swirls. I could look at tree bark and see animals and strange animals that I had never seen in a book. Sometimes these beings would speak to me with ghosts as soft as cigarette smoke and I had to concentrate to hear them.
My older sister would sometimes do her homework at the kitchen table with its shiny oilcloth. I asked what her pictures were and she said that they were “things called words.” The first word I learned how to read and write was “the.” She started me on the path of the written word.
I started school and learned how to write and read very quickly. I went through books with a huge inner appetite. Everything from mollusk biology to Tom Swift adventures. I was amazed and drunk on words and the pictures that they painted inside of my mind.
A few years later, I read a child’s’ biography of Mark Twain and realized that there were people who were actually responsible for writing books. This was an actual job that someone could have. It seemed to me an ideal existence and every bell inside of me rang and pealed. This is what I was meant to become.
I knew that to be a really good writer I would not find what I needed in colleges or in workshops taught by mediocre writers. I did not want to become mediocre myself. I had real stories to tell. It was just a matter of time and work to hone the tools to carve those stories out of the raw materials I had within me. Over the years, I worked a variety of jobs and had a string of devastating experiences that I will not go into here. During that time, I kept writing. Sometimes I would send a story out and get the uniform rejection letter back. It seemed to me that the world of literary magazines was locked to me. However, I kept at it. What was important was the work itself. The satisfaction of creating something that did not exist before. It was like giving blood and bone to ghosts.
I started getting published regularly about seven years ago and have worked with some amazing editors and met some kick-ass people. It is the life that I dreamed of as a child clutching to written words and stories trying to find his place in this world.
Today I am one of the richest people that I know. Yeah, sure, it’s hillbilly rich but that’s all right. It’s more than most people will ever have.
Jeff Kerr currently lives in Milwaukee, WI. He has deep roots in the southern Appalachian mountains of the Kentucky and Virginia border country. His work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Now and Then, Hardboiled, Plots with Guns, Hardluck Stories, Criminal Class Review and others. He has been a featured reader at Book Soup, San Quentin Prison among other venues. His short story collection, Hillbilly Rich, can be ordered directly at JeffKerr1965@gmail.com.