The story below is an excerpt from our July/August 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Ed Falco’s most recent novel, “Toughs,” is based on events in the life of Irish mobster Vince Mad Dog Coll. His awards include The Robert Penn Warren Prize from The Southern Review, The Emily Clark Balch Prize from The Virginia Quarterly Review, a NEA Fellowship and two playwriting fellowships from The Virginia Commission for the Arts.
More than two decades ago now, when I was still a relative newcomer to Blacksburg, Virginia and the New River Valley, I decided, while driving home from Chicago in late December, to take a shortcut through the Kentucky mountains that would have saved about 100 miles and an hour or two of highway driving. Would have, that is, if it hadn’t snowed heavily the day before, causing a mountain stream to overflow its banks, so that when I came around a curve and the road dipped suddenly, my car wound up in a turbulent pocket of black water, under gathering darkness.
For a short while, the car floated. I remember worrying that my clothes in the trunk would get ruined; then, as the water started rapidly filling up the car, my concerns quickly grew more serious. You know how people tell you that it’s impossible to open a car door if there’s water outside and air inside? That’s true. Once I gave up on that, I tried to get out through the window. This car, a then relatively new Ford Probe, is the only one I ever owned with manual windows. Once I found the handle in the dark and underwater, I was able to open the window, climb out of the driver’s seat, and haul myself up to the roof, where I sat, cold and wet, and tried to figure out what on earth I was going to do next.
Within minutes, though, there were lights swinging gently back and forth, descending out of the dark. They turned out to be lanterns, and the people carrying them were a group of men who lived in those hills. About the only thing I remember someone saying, clearly, and with a note of reprimand, once I explained my planned shortcut, is “Ain’t nobody uses this road anymore.” I guess that’s why they paid attention when they heard a car passing, and then lit their lanterns and came down to help when they heard it hit the water. It didn’t take them long to come back with a big-wheeled pickup, hook a winch to my bumper, and pull the car out of the water. After that, they towed it to a garage, where they worked some magic under the hood, which included blow-drying the spark plugs and the distributor, before sending me on my way back to Paintsville, where I spent the night in a motel before chugging home the next day – via the highway.
The folks who helped me didn’t have much to say, didn’t seem especially fond of me, and only looked away when I offered them money. I never did thank them adequately – so maybe now, here, in this place, I can try to make amends, by thanking all the taciturn folks who live in those Kentucky hills, and throughout Appalachia. I’m from the north, my friends, raised in Brooklyn, New York. But I’m grateful to have lived most of my adult life surrounded by the mountains of southwest Virginia, in the neighborhood of people who are always ready to help someone in need, even a Yankee dumb enough to take a shortcut through the Kentucky mountains in winter, the day after a big snowstorm.
Thank you. Sincerely.