“I fell into a burning ring of fire,
I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher.”
By the time we’d gotten to December, there were a few of us just trying to get through a few more weeks and escape for Christmas. I guess somewhere in the back of my head I still thought about going to law school the next fall, but that reality was far away and not the more apparent world of today. I hadn’t put much effort into my applications… Janos had, but I think he was more focused on it from the start. And whenever I took the time to think about the future (which wasn’t very often,) I kept coming back to the same question. Why? Why did I want to go to law school again? Did I want to be a lawyer, or could I not think of anything else to do? I guess in the reality of 21st century education, young adults that apply to law school because they can’t think of anything else to do are a dime a dozen. And I definitely fell into that category…I mean, I’d taken the LSAT because I had nothing else to do. All of that taken into account, I was very content with ignoring the future and attending to the present of just making it through productively until I left sometime in late December. Make everyday worth the work, make every night worth the memories, and finish with my head up and proud of what I’d done.
So I stayed immersed, and began leaning on Jane and just making it happen with mold. It seemed terribly uphill by that point. The Catholic was still coming around to help how he could, although it became less clear exactly what he was doing besides bankrolling and providing loose leads on mold ideas. And those same houses on Kuhn Street still had the mold that kept coming back, and amidst new mold jobs we were still returning back to that house to do it over. I thought of the symposium, and the guy from Nashville who basically told us to abandon the city. There had to be a better way to do it, a reliable way to do it. We made some headway when we began to run out of our short supply of MoldShield, and got some information from Travis suggesting that a latex paint primer would work just as well as long as we killed the mold and removed it from the wood. Mold couldn’t grow on latex, so as long as we were thorough on the front end, it should be good. So, we switched to Kilz, a Masco-brand primer for our finishing. Although this was a cheap alternative and it was ok’d by our California mold expert, it didn’t sit well with me. Who knew what was beneath that paint, and had we actually solved the problem? I kept us going with MoldShield as long as I could, which was at least until I left.
On a large level, we were trying our best to solve the question that was beginning to strike many relief/recovery non-profits in the area…how do you get rid of mold? In the opinions of desperate homeowners going through the distribution lines of October Long Beach, get as much Clorox as possible. Sure, short-term, Clorox gets everything off. Mold equals mildew equals cleaning your bathroom when things are tough. But that move to Kilz at that point represented the beginning of so many iterations of trial-and-error for killing mold that even as the HOUSA mold leader I was at a loss for words to describe protocol. I know what I thought made sense to me. You can’t just wipe mold off of the surface though; the implanted spread of the spores into the body of the wood would fester, and spread underneath whatever newly placed drywall the expeditious builder puts up. The house looks beautiful, homeowners move in. Five years later, infants, children, and the elderly develop an inexplicable upper respiratory disease. The mold stays, and the World Health Organization sweeps in to declare another Silent Spring, Three Mile Island crisis— except this time it’s not the water, or the power lines or the sewage dump. It’s the buildings themselves, rotted poison thanks to eight hours of water and not enough response, not enough equipment and not enough guidance. To be associated with mold crew was to risk association with treadmill failure, constant bickering over the process by which we best kill mold when none of us was ever close to qualified to make such decisions.
To our credit, we did have a breakthrough months later when we realized the problem was that perfect mix of chemical and water; that was, we were spraying down the inside of the house as if we were wetting down asbestos, when what we really should have been doing was using rags and pressure wiping each stud by hand to minimize excess drip. But we didn’t realize that yet, and thus our crew seemed in a cycle of pyrrhic victories on a day-to-day basis. So naturally, I started feeling hopeless. I think Jane may have as well.
As psychologically difficult as this day-to-day reality was, we tried our best to stay excited and alive by keeping the same group of friends. In that sense, the only way we could all get excited about doing the terrible work we were doing was to know that the friends we loved were in the other corners and crannies of the house doing the same. Old mold crew, Jane, Josh and I forever, Cora in and out, and then as time went by, Bethany, Kristen, T.C., others that floated in and out. One day we stopped working at 3:30. Lydia presided over a debris sculpture contest on the curb of Kuhn Street, and it was all topped off by the Roll-A-Tire-With-A-Stick-From-Point-A-to-Point-B race between Josh and I. Mold mixes were also huge. CDs we’d play while wiping or spraying or brushing or anything that didn’t involve a generator. Jane’s original mold mix started with an awesome and mumbly modern tune that I later identified as “Skin of my Yellow Country Teeth” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. It also had ABBA. Mine was chock full of hits including Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks,” the Eric Prydz remix of Steve Winwood’s classic “Valerie,” and one “Hollaback Girl.” Mold mixes kept mold crew going. And I love music in general, so it worked well.
Beyond mold, there were a few other things of note that happened in December. Principal was the arrival of Miss Sue. I guess she had been in camp for a few nights before we had our famed initial adventure, of which we still delightfully reminisce when we see each other. Sue was a former CB dispatch radio operator for truckers based out of Indiana, in her late forties or so, loud, boisterous, and with a heart of gold. The first time we hung out was upon her arrival back at base from her Pub birthday drinks. I myself had been up to my own antics for hours in the spin cycle. Apparently the hopelessness of the day had transitioned into poor musical decision-making by night. After drinking much beer and wine, I positioned myself in front of the Spin Cycle stereo and kept dictatorially playing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” on repeat. Janos tried reason at one point.
“Dude, we can’t listen to Ring of Fire again.”
“But it’s a great song.”
“No one wants to listen to it again.”
“Dude, no one is even paying attention.” That was true; although the spin cycle had filled up with various friends and short-term volunteers drinking and socializing, it was late enough in the drunkenness that I was able to get away with the repeating trumpets. But honestly, excuse-less. And an amateur move on my part…I mean, “Ring of Fire?” It said nothing except “this man has only recently discovered Johnny Cash.” Which was of course true, but certainly not a fact I wanted advertised.
Finally after some time I ceded control to Janos, who probably put the Talking Heads on, and begrudgingly stumbled over to sit in an old wheelchair that was probably supposed to be donated to a community member at some point. That was when Miss Sue arrived and announced that it was her birthday.
“Your birthday! I have the perfect birthday song! Hold on!” Janos was hitting on a girl in the corner and Finch and Nate were playing pong, so I ran past the whole scene and as quickly as possible switched the CD back to Johnny Cash and “Ring of Fire.”
“Will, are you serious?”
“It’s Sue’s birthday! It’s her birthday song!” I was thrilled. Sue was too.
“Hooray! Do I get any other birthday presents?”
“Only the best present ever! Which is a magical, mystery wheelchair tour of the parking lot!”
With that, Sue sat in the wheelchair, I pushed it out the door, and proceeded to speed in a loopy, drunken circle around the cars in the church parking lot. We were both cracking up like hell, but it was a perfect memory. When all was said and done, Sue pushed me in the wheelchair, and then proclaimed it a wonderful birthday present.
We began venturing out to other bars in the area in December. Sometimes the girls would get dressed up and go to some place called Jazzeppi’s that opened up off of Porter Avenue. They didn’t let you wear jeans, so attending was simultaneously not a desire and not an option. There was a gay-friendly bar on Division Street called Just Us that I’d heard some people tried out, but I was more excited about a new bar that had just reopened in the downtown area of East Biloxi, near the hospital: Upstairs-Downstairs. I was 100% excited for it because they had karaoke, which is always fun with people you love. We’d had a few forays there; Nate Stutz and I got kicked off stage once mid-Uptown Girl because I slid across the floor on my knees while singing and almost knocked over the lyric machine. But besides that, good friends, we’d get a couple people here and there to go out. It was nice to think we were expanding our social options, limited as they were.
* * *
A second important person that was introduced to my December world was Beau. He was friends with Cora, and I was instantly suspicious of him because he was a Dartmouth alum. It was my instinct to think the worst of anyone associated with my alma mater. What I’ve come to realize over the years, however, is that this reaction speaks more to the sort of person I was in college rather than who any single person might have been that had more of their shit together than I did. Beau was a good-looking AD ’04 with huge hands, and I was instantly worried when he arrived that he was just on a vacation of sorts coming down to hang out. It is really important that in this same paragraph I emphatically state the following: I could not have been more wrong about anything.
Beau came along around the same time that one of his buddies, this guy Marino, came through as well. Thus, by the time mid-December had arrived, we the Hanover alumni were rolling very deep: Cora, Jane, Janos, Finch, Beau, Marino, Lydia, Aria, and myself. Although Daisy was still in school, we included her in that group because she was a senior and had gotten down on her own rather than with an organized trip. It was pretty remarkable though, especially since it was all through word of mouth, friends of friends. We took a picture of a whole bunch of us at one point; Aria had left for New Orleans by then, but we replaced her with Nate Stutz (Nate’s cousin was Brett Martin, a friend of ours from school, so we figured it was close enough.)
I had been talking with Lydia about how I was going to get out of there, and she offered to drop me off in Maryland on her way up to Rhode Island for Christmas. She was giving Daisy a ride too, but I happily took the ride in exchange for splitting gas. She was stopping in Mullins, West Virginia along the way for a few days to visit a friend doing an Americorps VISTA year out there, and I said why not.
I was comfortable with those last 2 months, but I felt I had a lot to digest. And I also felt that I had to get on with it and figure out what was next. I couldn’t stay in the Biloxi disaster forever, it would drive me insane. The definition-less world of mold already had me most of the way there. And already things were changing, so many of my old heroes had departed, things were changing quickly. Hands On USA had already announced that they were pulling out at the end of January, and I did not want to be there to close down the camp when I knew that there was so much more to be done in Mississippi. The power had only been restored to East Biloxi a week before. Along the ravaged streets of that city, families were wrapping red and white ribbons around the irrigation pipes leading to their FEMA trailers. Neighbors were pooling resources to share small Christmas trees to plop between their boxed homes in empty lots, running extension cords out their doors to power Christmas lights. It was hope in the wake of something fierce, but it was so far from fixed.
Bethany and Josh had maintained plans for some time to move out to Portland, Oregon and live the life out there. Lydia had talked about moving out to Seattle herself, and I began to construct a loose plan in my head for what would happen. I didn’t want to land back in Maryland forever; there was nothing for me in Montgomery County. And I did want to keep pushing these limits, go somewhere new that wasn’t destroyed and build a new and fun adult lifestyle with friends. Portland sounded good; maybe I could work at a book store, maybe I’d be a bartender. But I’d be in a city of artists, and I’d be out West. It seemed good. I committed to Josh and Bethany to meet them in Portland to start a February 1st lease.
Janos was staying behind, as was Owen, Rohde, Deubs and Miami, Amy, Cora, others. But I was ready to leave and fill out the rest of my year; I needed to. I spent my last day in Biloxi with Josh and Jane. We went to Wal-Mart and took pictures of us playing around the 25 cent per ride rocket ships and school buses past the vestibule. We ate po’ boys in Desportes at the corner of Porter and Division. We visited Gary Cobb, and we also visited Victor Roby. Victor had become something of a folk hero that fall by taking in degenerates and drug addicts to his lot and caring for them best he could. I never knew him, but Jane did, so we stopped to say good-bye.
The next morning, we packed up our meager belongings, left our tents behind to whoever might use them next, boarded Lydia’s green Subaru hatchback, and drove out of Hands On USA.
* * *
We took turns at the wheel and drove all day on the interstates that I would eventually come to know by heart. I-10 to Mobile. I-65 to Montgomery. I-85 to Atlanta, then I-75 out of Atlanta north to Chattanooga. Apart from the cities, Alabama and Georgia highways were flanked with cool greenery, only interrupted by the stand-alone gas station exit every 15 miles or so. I sat in the passenger seat and sporadically decided to pull my journal out and write the names of as many people as I could remember to write. So not to forget. Maybe I’d write about all of this someday, I thought to myself.
We listened to music and continued through the day and evening through Tennessee and the bottom sliver of Virginia before cutting north on I-77 toward Bluefield. The highway got roller coaster hilly as we crossed into West Virginia, and the Appalachia landscape began to forcefully jut mountaintop shadows before the moonlight. We got off the Interstate after some time, and after some dark windy country roads ended up in Mullens, about 8 miles southwest of Beckley. We met up with Lydia’s friend, whose name escapes me, and after some late night catching up over hummus and conversation, we crashed.
We woke up mid-morning to the sunlight streaming through, had a quick breakfast, and then took the morning to walk around the town. It was a small, rural hamlet surrounded on most sides by jagged peaks. Around the circumference of what seemed to be a six by three block downtown area, stop signs marked the pass-way country roads leading out to farmhouses and mountain cabins. On the north side, the major road led out to Beckley and the Interstate. We walked around past the post office, taking in the stores and sights. Lydia’s friend ran into an older acquaintance decked out in vet gear, complete with an old school soldier hat. At his insistence, we were privy to a personalized tour of the local Veteran’s Administration Lodge, wherein we looked at a half-dozen murals of the varied wars that the residents of Mullens had been involved with. The man spoke proudly of these historic Confederate soldiers, American soldiers, and walked us through the dusty building with routine precision. At one point, he asked if we were coming out to the talent show tonight, and we agreed to come on by.
We grabbed lunch in a quaint West Virginia diner, and mid-meal Lydia turned to all of us with a glint of excitement in her eyes.
“I’m going to enter the talent show. Do you think that’s ok? I sort of want to.”
“Yes!” Of course Lydia entering the talent show was a wonderful and amazing idea, we all agreed, and she nodded firmly to herself. After lunch, we went on a 30 minute hike outside of town to a minor hill that overlooked the town. It was truly in an Appalachian bowl, although Appalachian tablespoon might have been more appropriate of an analogy. That image though, of silver-black peaks completely surrounding a small town with a small creek running through, a few traffic lights, and then exit roads disappearing around rocky snake turns at opposite sides of town— that’s West Virginia in my mind on a topographical basis.
The talent show later that night included dinner, so Daisy, ______, and I settled down in some seats near the front row and watched the opening acts; from the reactions of the crowd they all seemed like regulars, and I liked the thought of a big-time Saturday night they’d been rehearsing for all week. The fiddle and the washboard, the guitar and the bass, beards, clapping, and stomping. Then after a pleasant introduction from the host as “a girl visiting from out of town looking to sing a couple of songs for us tonight,” Lydia was up.
She smiled bravely and sat on the stool in front of a microphone. Lydia had sang and played at the campfire every now and then, and I knew about her beautiful voice, her delicate finger-picking, but there was something soft and amazing about the way that band hall quieted within seconds as soon as she started into Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.” I nodded and watched; my attention was on Lyds in that good way that one might watch a friend in some notable athletic performance or on graduation day. And all around me everyone seemed to hold their breath watching her too. She got through the Dylan, and closed it out with “Moonshiner” by the same.
I’ve been a moonshiner, for seventeen long years
I spent all my money, on whiskey and beer
I go to some hollow, and sit on my still
And if whiskey don’t kill me, then I don’t know what will.
I found out later that Moonshiner is not a Dylan original, but rather an old Civil War song. So who knows, maybe Mullens knew more about that song than any of us young adapters. Once Lydia finished singing that song the hall burst into applause. The host thanked her, promising the rest of the town that we hadn’t heard the last of this girl and her guitar. She smiled at us as she descended the stage with her guitar and sat down with us.
We closed out our time in Mullens at a bar on the main street. I got us whiskey and we played some pool; it was no Pub, but had that country familiarity I had come to love for its hardscrabble openness. Lydia’s friend knew some of the locals already, and at one point Lydia got into a friendly argument with a local over whether or not Lydia could beat him in a one block footrace. This escalated into a promise that the guy would buy us a case of beer if Lydia beat him. Out we went to line them up and start them up, a couple of his friends, the three of us, and Lydia and this guy lining up at the lone blinking stoplight 200 meters down the street. Lydia did not win, but she ran hard, and we laughed about it over beers five minutes later. We eventually wandered back to the apartment and passed out.
We got on the road early the next morning and I took the first driving shift. It was still dark as we wandered through the back roads toward the Interstate, but once I turned up the purple light started to come through the clouds and cast stripes of light on the hills and mountains. The interstate toward I-81 pushed up and down as consistently as a God-sized metronome, and I enjoyed throwing the Subaru into neutral and trusting the pitch of the asphalt. In the early hour, there were no tourists, only the most steadfast truckers here and there. The girls slept until 81.
We turned up that backcountry Interstate, which I’ve come to know in its Virginian entirety over the consequent years, and I continued with the speed that had become comfortable to me. This worked for some time until I spotted the police car come out of the speed trap and put on its lights.
“Um, I think I’m getting pulled over.” I called to the girls. And for some reason I still can’t pinpoint to this day, I began to hysterically laugh. We all did. It was 9:30 AM, I had definitely been going 95 miles per hour on a Sunday morning betting by the magnanimous crosses on the sides of the road that the local authorities were church-going folks. But no, no; I was getting pulled over. What else could I do but laugh.
I probably shouldn’t have continued snickering, but Daisy and Lydia didn’t help. When the police officer asked for my license and registration, I bit my tongue and shrugged my identification from my wallet. He asked where we were going, and I told him we were volunteers on the Gulf Coast going home for Christmas. Definitely played that card, and it bought me absolutely no points. The cop nodded, affirmed that I was going pretty fast there, and went back to his car to check it all through.
“I was going pretty fast, I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen,” I smiled to my friends, and continued to drum my fingers against the steering wheel. The officer came back for awhile, and leaned down to the window.
“So I’ve got you clocked going 92 miles per hour in a 65. That is 27 miles per hour over the speed limit, and constitutes reckless driving. I have the option of bringing you in immediately, but you all being on a trip and all, what I’m going to do is give you a suspended arrest. You have a court date, at which point you have to come back down here to appear before a judge.”
He gave me my ticket, which I glanced at and put in the cup holder.
“Thank you officer. One quick question…what city am I in?”
“Staunton. Staunton, Virginia. Augusta County. It’s all on the ticket. Drive safe the rest of the way and have a good Sunday.” He walked briskly back to his vehicle and pulled out onto the Interstate.
“Wow, not even a fee? A court date? That seems sort of serious, Guillermo.” I nodded and looked over the ticket. I didn’t really know what to do with this information, so I jammed it in my pocket and shifted into first.
“Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?” I smiled at the two girls, and began looking out the mirror for a space to shift back onto the highway. We switched drivers a couple exits later and four hours later or so I was unpacking my things from Lydia’s car and moving them into the foyer of my parents’ place in Germantown. I gave Daisy my old Chi Gam sweatshirt, which was a strange thing to do for someone I’d just developed a shallow crush on, and a strange thing to give considering that sweatshirt was one of my favorite pieces of clothing for years. I didn’t mind parting with it though, and watched the Subaru back out of my driveway. And just like that, I was home for Christmas.