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Stories about Modern Appalachian Life


“While my son, 6, worked on his first feature film, I learned a surprising fact about my dad, who had sinus cancer.”

— Brigid Kaelin

I know we got the news on a Wednesday because my phone rang during Lilly’s guitar lesson. I never answer the phone while I teach, but this was an unknown number from Cincinnati. I thought maybe it was about a clinical trial for my father’s rare sinus cancer.

Instead it was my six-year-old’s agent, calling to tell me that Graham had been cast in a film he’d auditioned for two months earlier. Anne Hathaway had just signed on to star, opposite Mark Ruffalo, with Todd Haynes directing. My mind just about exploded.


Story by Brigid Kaelin
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Author Val Nieman is turning Appalachia lit on its head. With her novel To the Bones, she's married horror with satire with an eco-thriller, setting it all around a West Virginia coal mine.

She's been kind enough to share the book's opening with us. In it, Darrick MacBrehon, a government auditor, staggers bloodied and battered from of a mine crack in Redbird, West Virginia. Soon his experience in this pit of bones becomes key to solving a mystery. He pairs with Lourana Taylor, a sweepstakes operator, who is determined to find her missing daughter. According to West Virginia University Press, "Darrick and Lourana push against everyone who tries to block the truth. Along the way, the bonds of love and friendship are tested, and bodies pile up on both sides."

This thriller is available from Amazon and can be found at Appalachian Revival—our shop at 16 West Church Avenue, Roanoke, Virginia. You can also hear Val read from the novel and discuss her writing as she tours the region.


Horrible smell. Dark. Cold.

This is how it feels to be dead.

Darrick raised his head and immediately vomited. The nausea came in waves, at every motion of his battered head, echoed by his back, ribs, legs. If he was dead, and this was the afterlife, then it seriously sucked.

He breathed in through his mouth, but it didn’t help much. The smell. He tried moving his left leg, numb and twisted under him, and was surprised when it responded. The pressure on his knee eased. He rolled over, put his hands down to push himself to all fours, and his fingers slid in something greasy and vile. If this was the afterlife, then it wasn’t one he’d been prepared for, by catechism classes or college philosophy.

Dark. He shook with the cold and the dark.

Then I’m not dead.

He crawled, carefully anchoring his knees into the sloping ground, pausing whenever the nausea roiled his gut. Unsteady rocks shifted under his knees, and he heard a skittering sound.

The last thing he remembered, he had been driving. A two-lane road, the trees so close, an inky tunnel pierced by his headlights.

Maybe the car went off the road.

Maybe you’re buried, his unpleasant thoughts mocked.

There was a faint lessening of the gloom ahead. He kept crawling, sticks rolling under his hand. Something chitinous and leggy moved across his fingers. He pulled his hand away, then put it back down. The thin gray light increased. He could see that, if not much else with his glasses gone. And his shoes were gone, too, the toes of his socks dragging across the damp rocks.

He seemed to hear things breathing nearby. Waiting.

No one’s coming back for you. Ever.

He crawled around a ragged corner and the light became a crack in the sky, a white intensity that squeezed shut his eyes and made the back of his head spasm in pain. He opened his eyes just enough to see a hazy field of rocks and debris. A dump. He picked up a large round object and brought it close to his weak eyes. A pair of empty eyeholes stared back. He flung the skull away, hearing it crack and roll to a stop, and he realized those rocks and sticks were bones and that he was among the dead.

He looked up at the light. It was quite far away. A ragged slit. The opening of a cavern? A mass grave? Had all these dead just stumbled down from the surface like mastodons marching into a tar pit?

Darrick crept forward until the space ended at a wall of crumbling rocks. He crawled back to what seemed to be the center of the space. He patted his pockets. Coat, cell phone, wallet, keys—gone. Medication gone. He began to weep. The easiest thing would be to lay back down and let the process continue, until he became bones as well. Just fall asleep.

Can’t fall asleep. He could remember the infirmary nurse singing in a language he didn’t understand. “You have a concussion, little mausi. If you sleep, you may die. I will tell you the story of the brave knight but you must stay awake for the whole story.” All the night and the next day, the nurse had kept him from sleep.

I’m not dying here.

A gleam of something in the charnel caught his attention. He lifted it, but a chain held it to the skeleton. It was a locket, a heart-shaped locket. He let it slide back.

He had been driving. Late. Low on gas. The lights along the exit ramp ended and the trees closed in. For mile after mile.

He put his hands back into the muck and rot, and in a methodical way began to search for a way out. He crawled away from the locket until he came to a wall of sticky earth. Digging only brought down more dirt. He crawled back, turned left. The ground tilted downward—that was where he’d come from. A current of dank air rose from an even deeper place.

He made his way back. This time, he saw the flash of light on a lens. His glasses, one stem broken off. He settled them on his nose and felt infinitely reassured, for a moment, to be able to see—until he counted four skulls, and saw insects working in the flesh of a recent body. It was the one with the necklace. This time he yanked at the necklace once, twice, three times until it came free, the body settling back on a wave of carrion smell. He slid it in his pants pocket, proof of something, to someone—maybe to himself when he woke up to find no necklace, no bones, nothing but the rags of a dream.

Turn right.

This time, his progress ended at a rocky wall. He began to lever himself up, toward that ragged sky both close and distant, but when he grabbed hold of a rock, it pulled out and sent him sprawling backward. He needed something to anchor, something to climb with.

Darrick searched among the bones and found a femur. And another. He smashed them between stones until the knobby knee-ends broke off into splintered points. He jabbed them into the rotten rock and began to climb.

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Rhoda Kemp with Mac Traynham. Photo by Heather Rousseau.

It has been more fun than I thought it would be...

and work. But it's been good work.

WILLIS, VIRGINIA — For just about all of her life, Rhoda Kemp has made beautiful music pour out of her banjo. But on a chilly day in March, the only sound her banjo made was the repetitive raspy scrape of sandpaper on wood.
Scuff, scuff, scuff …

At the age of 89, and after eight decades of playing traditional mountain music, Kemp got the idea that she wanted to build a banjo from scratch. So, with the help of her friend Heather Krantz and the Floyd County master musician, carpenter and instrument maker Mac Traynham, she set out to do just that.


Story by 
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It's no secret—Appalachia has extraordinary craftspeople. From our earliest days, when isolation forced us to make goods locally, to today, when quilts and wood carvings sell as high art, our region has been home to amazing makers.

I've been lucky to meet a lot of them since I started this site nearly ten years ago, and all that time, I imagined opening a shop that featured their work.

That's why I'm thrilled to introduce Appalachian Revival, a new home for Appalachian-made goods. Nestled in the heart of downtown Roanoke, this little store is selling everything from jewelry to candles to thumb pianos.

Below are a just few of the terrific products you'll find. If you're near Roanoke, we'd love to see you. We're part of the makers market at Crafteria: Handmade Food & Goods, 16 W. Church Avenue, Southwest.
And if you're an Appalachian craftsperson, we'd love to hear about your work. Please drop a line and share a bit about what you're making.
Outbound Supply Candle

Outbound Supply was founded by Harrisonburg, Virginia makers Irina Dovganetskiy, Dusty Burchnall, and Paul Hansbarger. They share a commitment to creating high quality, all natural goods for men. Since their products are inspired by the great outdoors, a percentage of their sales go toward organizations that protect and encourage access to public wildlands.

Pretty Pickle red earrings
The Pretty Pickle is a West Virginia-based jewelry brand that features real botanicals frozen in resin. The company's owner, Megan, says the process can take weeks, but the products speak for themselves. Both delicate and natural-looking, this jewelry truly reflects our region's natural heritage.
Bright angle two
The Bright Angle is a collaborative pottery studio, located in Asheville, North Carolina. Led by artist Nick Moen, the company purchases wood, glass, and other materials from local craftspeople who share a commitment to thoughtfully-sourced raw goods. They describe their pieces as "mountain-modern," bringing a fresh perspective to Appalachia's long craft lineage.
Green Cove Collective
Green Cove Collective hugs the Tennessee line in Damascus, Virginia. Led by Scott and Alison Little, the company is crafting quality outdoor products— including these terrifically cozy socks sold at Appalachian Revival—while helping out others along the way. For every purchase, Green Cove Collective provides a meal to someone less fortunate.
Just A Jar Mountain Mama tee
justAjar is run by husband and wife team Sara and Bobby Rosenstock. Located in Marietta, Ohio, an Appalachian river town within sight of the West Virginia state line, the duo specializes in custom woodcut and letterpress pieces. They often work from hand-carved wood blocks and hand-set type, using an antique printing presses.
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Kris (left) and his girlfriend, Zella, January 2019. Photo by Meg Elizabeth Ward.

For Kris and me, a ten-year age gap meantradically different experiences as queer youth in our rural county.

The town of Alderson, West Virginia, is split by a smooth brown river that straddles the county line and winds between Muddy Creek and Flat Mountain to create the Greenbrier Valley. On an unseasonably warm afternoon in the middle of November 2015, I drove over the bridge and into the Monroe County half of town. Take the first left over the railroad tracks,the directions said, then something about the third house down on the right. I hadn’t read the message very carefully—this was, after all, my hometown, a community of around a thousand people, the place where my parents met, the place where I spent nearly every day of my life until I was seventeen. I knew this town inside and out, I thought, but then again I hadn’t lived here for twelve years.

I drove past the filigreed façades of empty buildings, relics from the timber boom a hundred years ago, and up over the railroad tracks, but there were no houses here, just an abandoned hardware store and laundromat. I got out of my car and peeked around the back of the four-story brick building; nothing there but a cluster of skinny black cats. I felt the foolishness of this moment settle sickly in my stomach. Lost in Alderson—a completely improbable situation. What am I doing here anyhow? I watched one of the black cats bat at its reflection in a gasoline-rainbowed puddle. It was a question I’d been asking myself more often than I liked since moving back to West Virginia.


Story by Mesha Maren
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“Aviva and Roy.” Used with permission from Lisa Elmaleh.

Lisa Elmaleh traded her Brooklyn apartment in 2012 for a wood cabin with no running water — but a “quite lovely” outhouse — on the outskirts of Paw Paw, West Virginia. Urban anonymity was soon replaced by small-town intimacy as she pursued her project of photographing traditional string musicians in Appalachia using, appropriately enough, traditional photographic processes.

She had decided to move there the very day she had done tintypes of Sam Herrmann and her husband, Joe, a couple dedicated to keeping old-time music alive. Paw Paw may not have Brooklyn’s hipster cachet, but it also “has everything that Brooklyn doesn’t” she added.


Story by James Estrin for The New York Times
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Photo by Timothy Vollmer on Flickr.

After a long winter, settlers in West Virginia hungrily welcomed the appearance of the wild leek or ramp, one of the first edible plants to ripen in the Appalachian forests in spring. The ramp became the focus for a tradition of community feasts — a tradition that lingers in rural Appalachia.

Beginning in April and continuing through May, scores of community ramp dinners and full-scae festivals are hosted throughout the state. Many are small affairs that welcome fewer than a hundred guests. Others feed more than 1,000 in the course of an afternoon.


Story by West Virginia Explorer
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For fourteen years, Ben Bramley has been on the run from his hometown of Abundance, North Carolina. A self-imposed exile has taken him from Duke University's stone-walled campus to a secluded mountaintop outside Boone, where Ben lives as a hermit, his sole companion a coon cat named Smoky.

In his new novel Ripples, author Evan Williams doesn't leave Ben on that mountain long. A family emergency forces the protagonist back to Abundance, the last place he wants to be and the only place he can face his fears.
In the below excerpt, Ben's reacts to going home. What do you think of this passage? If you've ever left home for a long period, what was it like when you returned?

And if you're near Asheville's Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe, you might swing by for the novel's launch party. It's Wednesday, April 10, 2019 at 6:00pm.


            As he exited the SUV, Ben’s soles skidded on fine gravel atop the asphalt lot. Staring at his past, he killed the radio to wrestle with the family crisis, minutes down the road.

            The October sun’s last light stretched long shadows across the terrain.

            “No progress in fourteen years,” he observed, the landscape idling in neutral.

            Abundance School—decrepit when he attended—didn’t have the capacity to look any older. Potato-chip–sized paint flakes peeled from the prominent Federal-style trim encircling the two stories that housed grades one through twelve. The innovation of kindergarten had been blocked. “Budgetary reasons,” they said.

            Generations of Bramleys, and Etters—his mom’s side—claimed alumni status from that cyclical institution, where graduating classes bore identical surnames from one year to the next in perpetuity.

            Between the school and post office stood Uncle Stan’s gas station with its two-bay garage. Three vintage pumps stood sentinel in front. None accepted credit cards—an in-convenience store.

            Beyond the school, the Abundance Growers’ Packing House spilled soft, yellow light onto the highway. A silhouette of flatbed trucks laden with apples awaited their turns to unload. Forklifts buzzed around the perimeter to disappear inside the building, where dozens of worker bees graded and packed fruit. In a few weeks the packing house would lapse into a coma, until resurrected by the influx of next summer’s produce.

            And in the center of the crossroads cluster loomed Redeemer Baptist Church, absolute authority oozing out of the mortar joints, which forever locked the clotted-blood-colored bricks in their place of prominence.

            A church sign identified Redeemer—a low-rent, changeable-letters kind of sign, the kind often found occupying any roadside strip of crabgrass. Underneath the church’s name, a solemn message: “Visitors Welcome. Members Expected.”

            Noticeably lacking were any of the standard warnings—“Turn or Burn,” “If You Died Tonight, Where Would You Go?” Rather, it quoted scripture: “Behold you have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out. Numbers 32:23.”

            Ben shuddered at the divine guarantee of exposure, though he daily assured himself that his faith had eroded to nothingness.

            Craning his neck, he looked up at the righteous-white steeple, illuminated by a column of light reaching to the heavens. Monday night. No church service. Safe enough to avoid being spotted by the locals. He reminisced, stalling.

            “You cannot escape the steeple! The Great Eye sees all!” he bellowed, double-checking for listeners before adding, “Agnostics rule! Baptists drool!”

            Though Ben was delighted with his jab, the hollow noise fooled neither himself nor the God from his youth.

            Unsettled by his human’s strange behavior, Smoky jumped from his curled position on the front seat to the safety of the farthest corner of the cargo area.

            “That’s not true,” Ben recanted. “The Great Eye can’t penetrate closed doors or dark nights where husbands beat wives, or wives screw somebody else’s husbands. It doesn’t stop the teenager breaking into a widow’s home, or the teen’s little brother getting his ass kicked at school.” He hesitated. “No witnesses. Didn’t happen. A lie agreed upon.”

            With each word, his fury grew.

            “You steeple people, you couldn’t leave Mama alone!”

           Feet wide apart, as if preparing for a slugfest, he went silent when his better senses caught up, acknowledging he had been screaming while a frustrated fist beat the innocent air.

            “Damn! Less than two minutes here and I’m losing it.”

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Spring begins today at 5:58 P.M. eastern time. We say goodbye to the season of snow and frost with a winter poem.


Jacks River in Winter

By Casey LeFrance

So many steep steps huffing up Cohutta,

the price of splendid isolation to borrow

from Zevon.  Momma says it might be

her last winter with us, and the trout don't want

nothing to do with corn or powerbait.  These aren't

Joyce Kilmer trees, but they're tall enough.

Pine sap sticky fingers give my sweaty hand a grip

on this crooked walking stick and this twisted road of life.
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Author Mesha Maren wants to give you a snake spine. It's one of many gifts and prizes she's offering anyone who pre-orders her forthcoming Appalachian novel Sugar Run.Here's how Mesha explains it:

I know it can be kinda weird to pay for a book a few months before you are going to receive it, so I’ve cooked up a few thank-you gifts. If you preorder Sugar Run now and then message me a screenshot of your purchase and your address, I will mail you a very special gift (while supplies last)! You will receive either a penny that was flattened by a CSX train in Alderson, WV or a piece of pure all-natural Appalachian glitter, i.e. mica! Additionally, if you share a post about the book and let me know that you shared it, I will send you BOTH gifts! You will also be entered to win a very special letterpressed broadside with text and illustrations from Sugar Run made by hand by the extremely talented Leslie Smith. And if you are super duper lucky you might also win a snake spine or a cow’s tooth from Muddy Creek Mountain, West Virginia.

Freebies aside, this book is worth hardback... and maybe buying extra copies for all your friends. I was lucky enough to workshop parts of Sugar Runfive years ago. When I first read it, I was stunned by how effortlessly Mesha brought both grace and grit to the page. Now, the rest of the world is discovering her remarkable talents. Everyone from Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies, to Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter's Bone, have lauded the book.

Below you can see why. In this passage, the book's protagonist Jodi McCarty returns home to Render, West Virginia after eighteen years in prison. Her first stop is her grandmother's long neglected cabin, where she finds the three objects that mattered most to her grandmother. Her second stop is the South Central Regional Parole office, where she's reminded that life as a parolee comes with strings.

What do you think of the excerpt? And what would you do with a snake's spine if you won one?


            “Miss Jodi,” Ricky’s voice licked up out of the darkness of the back seat. “I gotta to take a leak.”

            Jodi glanced in the rearview mirror. The boys were piled on top of Ricky, Kaleb’s head resting on his shoulder while Donnie and Ross lay stretched across his lap. It was impossible to tell where one brother ended and the other began. The World’s Strangest Family.

           “Okay,” Jodi said. “I’ll stop here in just a minute.”

            The sky was beginning to lighten, a slate-gray fade across the mountain peaks, and the headlights sketched a weak trail through the greenery. Vines and tree branches crowded thick on both banks of the road, and just ahead, half hidden amongst the bushes, a sign flashed by.

Monongah County, West Virginia

Render  12 mi

Painter Creek  16 mi

Salt Sulphur  23 mi

            The words repeated themselves in a flash of reflective paint, over and over behind Jodi’s eyelids as she blinked. Render 12 Miles. This was it. This here, and there and there. The turnaround where the school bus always stopped and looped back towards Painter Creek, the junkyard there where the Weinshotzer kids lived, all of them wearing knit hats, even in the summer heat, hiding the shame of lice-shaved heads. The little brick house that belonged to that princess, Mallory Estep, the doctor’s daughter, her ankle socks adorned with white lace all through elementary, and in high school, her hair attended to, in the back of the bus, by no less than three handmaids, a cloud of Aquanet hairspray perpetually frosting the air around them.

           Render was still sleeping, just a few bare bulbs glowing above front porch swings and strings of Christmas lights in the windows. Jodi sped through town, ignoring the Exxon station and Ricky’s need, headed instead for Bethlehem Mountain Road, a one-lane track that jutted up between limestone boulders as pale and exposed as sun-bleached bones, and then wound on into the green immensity of oak and hickory. But just before the turnoff for Bethlehem, a neon sign caught her eye, the yellow letters arched above an arrow pointing downriver. Slattery’s Girl, it read, Open 24 Hours. Beer. Music. Booze.

            Jodi slowed the car and stared at the sign. Through most of her childhood Monongah County had been dry. It was only in ‘86 that they began to sell gas station beer and even then there were no bars. If you wanted to drink you did it at home or on back roads in half-wrecked cars.

            The mountain showed other changes too: a new gravel road, cut hastily through the old Jessup apple orchard, spread out across a shale cliff, giving way to a perfect bird’s-eye view of the town below. A tower rose there now, a tall metal grid looming over the trees, and as she slowed for the steep turn, Jodi caught sight of a huge mud-splattered truck moving like some giant dinosauric creature down the ruts of the new-made road and on a tree, there beside the entrance, a hand-painted sign that read: Fracking = Permanent Threat and Danger = Our Water is Our Life!

            “Miss Jodi,” Ricky called from the back seat. “I can’t hold it much longer.”

            “Shit, sorry.” Jodi stopped the car. “You can just piss in the ditch here.”

            The boys whined as Ricky unearthed himself from under them, and Miranda stirred too, blinking awake. Jodi reached over and brushed away the blonde hair matted against her sweaty cheek. “We’re almost there,” she said, and then as Ricky climbed back in she turned and she smiled at him too and said, “Just call me Jodi, okay? I don’t need the Miss.”

            Effie’s land was ripe with disuse. The Chevette could barely fit into the mouth of the lane, clogged as it was with multi-flora rose and goldenrod.

            “We’ll walk from here,” Jodi said, opening the car door to the smell of honeysuckle and a darker fungus scent.

            Up ahead the contours of the road were visible in a ghostly way under the swells of jimsonweed—it was a little like looking back and forth between a much younger photograph of a woman and her now aging face; the bone structure was still there but the surface had all but completely changed.

            “Watch out for snakes.” Ricky’s voice boomed at Jodi’s back.

            “I wanna see a snake,” Donnie said.

            Jodi quickened her pace, her head buzzing with worry as she came around the bend.

            And then there it was: the little off-kilter cabin with the metal roof curling up from the frame. Jodi didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath until she let it out and took off running, greenbrier vines snatching at her jeans as she rushed forward, expecting every moment for it to all ghost off into a dream.

            Time did not separate here. The past ran parallel and you could catch a glimpse if you turned quick enough. Nineteen years ago she left the cabin, in the paling light of gray-green storm clouds, receding through the dirt-smudged glass of a rear windshield. For eighteen years the hologram danced. But now it was real: the porch creaking under her feet, the front door open and a slice of light pointing across the pine floorboards straight to the cast iron woodstove. The window above the sink was shattered, triangles of glass still clinging to the frame, and on the back wall a rack of copper pots hung untouched.

            Jodi stepped inside, dry leaves and acorns crunching underfoot. She moved slowly towards the kitchen table, that unforgettable oak slab with the heart of the tree running down the center in a single stripe. Three chairs were set on each side, pushed back at an angle, as if a card party had just ended.

            She opened the china cabinet and pale moths lifted up from amongst the cups and flapped blindly against her face. A calendar hung on the wall. December 2002— Jodi’s thirteenth year in Jaxton— it featured a blonde girl with boobs bursting out of a camo hunting shirt. This was the only sign that anyone had been inside since Effie died back in ’88.

            Jodi moved over to the sealed-off fireplace where there sat, on the mantle, a Mason jar of tiny bones and fingernail clippings.

            These, Effie had explained to ten-year-old Jodi, these are the three important things.

           The first was her Smith & Wesson .38 with a smooth wooden handle and the words Lady Smith engraved in cursive on the side, the second a Remington 721, and the third, the Mason jar with the remains of Granddaddy McCarty’s right hand.

            The Ladysmith .38 had been a wedding gift from Granddaddy to his bride, and the best thing, Effie said, she ever got out of that marriage. The Remington was an inheritance from the uncle who took Effie in, and the bits of bone and fingernail were the result of Granddaddy’s affair with a lady, or two, from town. When Effie had heard about it she’d turned her wedding gift on him and he lost the hand before he got out of their cabin. Their oldest son, Phillip, went with his father, following the blood trail down the rutted lane, leaving Effie and Andy, Jodi’s daddy, with the land to themselves.

            “He’s telling you to be careful.” Kaleb’s voice carried up the porch steps.

            Jodi turned to see Donnie burst into the cabin, carrying a tall stick, jabbing it out in front of himself and pulling his way across the room.

            The others crowded in the doorway, Ricky eyeing the log walls, Miranda on tiptoe, peering over his shoulder, and Kaleb pressed in behind her.

            “It really is like Little House on the Prairie,” Miranda said.

            Jodi laughed and shook her head but she was relieved to see Miranda smiling.

            The trip to Beckley took an hour and Jodi drove it alone, leaving Miranda, Ricky and the boys at the cabin. Half a block from the South Central Regional Parole office she realized she didn’t quite have a license yet and probably shouldn’t be seen driving and so she stashed the Chevette in the shade of a white pine and approached the redbrick building on foot, preparing on her face a look of earnest compliance.

            Officer Ballard hardly glanced at her though. He was sleeping at his desk when the young receptionist cleared her throat and called out Benny twice before he finally stirred and looked up at Jodi.

            “You’ve got a new supervised release here,” the receptionist said and left quickly.

            Benny Ballard’s head was too big for his neck and his face was stamped with an expression of deep annoyance. He ran his hand through his graying hair and then turned in his swivel chair and reached for the coffeepot that sat, burning, on the hotplate behind him, filling the office with a dry bittersweet smell.

            “Now I suppose you expect me to shake your little hand and do the whole how-gee-do-gee bit,” he said, pouring the dregs of the coffee into a mug that read Sarcasm: My Generous Gift to the Universe. “But let’s cut that crap and see if we can’t get this over with and get me out of here a little early today.”

            Jodi sat down quietly in the folding chair. This wouldn’t be hard, she thought, she knew the type. There were the ones who took their jobs too seriously, believing they were personally responsible for helping reform criminals, and then there were the ones like this who only counted the hours until they were back home in front of the T.V. As long as you gave them the proper respect, they ignored you ninety-nine percent of the time.

            Ballard sat his coffee mug on a stack of papers and pulled out a manila folder. “You must be Jodi McCarty, 611 Murdock Street, Render?”

            “Yes sir.”

            “Alright, then, here we go.” He let his eyes slide halfway closed and stared over Jodi’s shoulder, rattling off a litany of regulations, fast and breathless, his rote voice reminding Jodi of Ricky’s tour guide shtick. “You shall notleave the geographic limits fixed by the certificate of release without written permission from your Supervision Officer. You shallmake a complete and truthful written report to your Supervision Officer between the first and third day of each month, and on the final day of parole. You shall alsoreport to your Supervision Officer at other times as your Supervision Officer directs, providing complete and truthful information. You shall notviolate any law. You shall notassociate with persons engaged in criminal activity. You shallwork regularly unless excused by your Supervision Officer and support your legal dependents, if any, to the best of your ability.” Ballard looked up at Jodi. “In other words get a job and keep it.”

            Jodi nodded and looked away towards the pea green bookshelf with a dead plant on top. In prison you were never really allowed to be an individual human being, responsible for your own life decisions, but once they’d released you it was like you were suddenly supposed to know how to do it all effortlessly.

            “There ain’t much in the way of jobs in Render,” Jodi said.

            Ballard cracked the knuckles of his left hand.

            Jodi took a deep breath and glanced back at him. He raised his eyebrows.

            “I was thinking,” she said, looking not at Ballard but at a fly that had landed and was now cleaning its wings on the rim of his coffee cup. “I’d like to raise some yearlings, build up to a little cow-calf operation eventually.”

            Ballard lifted his cup and the fly moved to his hand. He did not seem to notice. “Gotta be legitimately employed.” He put the cup down and the fly returned to it. “Where you planning on raising ‘em anyhow? In the back yard in Render?”

            “Oh, no.” Jodi squeezed here eyes shut. Shit, fuck.  How could she have come so close to admitting to this man that she didn’t plan to live at her official given address, that she would instead be squatting on land she owed who knows how much taxes on? Shit, fuck. “No, I guess I didn’t think that one through.”

            Ballard barked out a laugh. “You gotta be employedand paidby somebody.”

            Jodi looked up at him. “Who’s gonna hire me when they see the Class B felony?”

            Ballard shrugged.

            “Some of the girls inside said even McDonald’s won’t take felons.”

            “Mmm-hmm, well, yeah.” Ballard cracked the knuckles of his right hand. “What do your parents do for work?”

            “Disability.” Jodi looked down at her lap. “Before that Daddy was a guard over at the prison. Federal prison camp’s about the only place in Render that’s got steady jobs.”

            Ballard laughed again. “Well, shit,” he said. “Alright, well, you prove to me that you’re looking. You don’t find nothing after awhile and you might consider getting a CDL. Long haul trucking companies’ll sometimes hire on felons.”

              Jodi stared at him. He raised his eyebrows and then the corners of his mouth turned up into a small mocking smile. “You submit to me a written report between the first and third of each month. If I’m not here, you leave it with the secretary. You report punctual and factual and we should have no problems but you cause troubles for me and I will make your life hell.”

            He blinked at Jodi.

            “Is that clear?”

            Jodi met his eyes. “Yes, sir.”

            “Alright, that’s it, that’s my side of the responsibility.” He tossed her folder onto the desk amongst the other papers, all those other typed reports of crumpled, bruised-up lives. “You are officially a supervised release parolee. Now get the fuck outa my sight.”

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Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. By TVA Web Team via Wikimedia Commons.

I woke up last Friday to find a poem in my inbox. It came from Casey LaFrance, who was raised in North Georgia and now teaches in Illinois. On a recent drive, he passed the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, and something about the sight of the facility's massive cooling towers lit up his brain.

"Saw the reactors and thought of Oak Ridge in WWII," he told me, "And then little boy...and then..."

And then the words came tumbling out. Casey actually pulled over on the side of I-24 to pen this powerhouse of a poem—proof that inspiration can strike anywhere.

Little Boy - For Ocoee

by Casey LaFrance

The bridge over Watts Bar
Reminded me of the
You reigned down
And that little boy’s
Sonogram. I wanted
him to listen to the
Dragging screech of fiddles
And watch the mountain tops
Hug the Cumberland Gap.
I wanted to show him how
Poor kids play baseball
With sticks and gravel chunks
Left from some mining disaster.
I wanted momma on her lithium
And not the Tinder Pharmacist’s
Seedy cocktail. And I wanted
A family. And I wanted a home.
And I wanted to push a buggy
And buy too many toys.
Diane Fischer told us turpentine and
Sugar water would suffice,
You chose to take the vacuum
And let him listen to me pray
And play Allison Krauss,
Baby Mine,
On the drive to Fayetteville.
Only other time I heard of
That part of North Carolina
Is when the Iron Sheik
Got popped for dope.
Hell ain’t so much a place
As a feeling.
But, God himself knows the power
Of the blood and creek water
And momma’s cornbread
Dressing. And he sent me to see
Her to shake off this shiner.
It hit harder than the lean boy
Behind the Waffle House and
Faster than the dam letting out.
Sarah was beside me, at least
On the phone . Blair
Dahlonega or Coy,
I thought for sure it was a boy,
Watched daddy reconstruct
Find beauty again,
Revisit old friends. Jane and Stephen
Never changed. Lona is a lion. And by-god
Amy Daniel told me to wash my face,
Catch trout, and get my ass back
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Ed DeWitt. May 17, 2015. During a backyard birthday party celebrating her sister Esther's 1st birthday, Judah takes a crack at what proved to be a very stubborn piñata. Cumberland, Allegany County, Maryland.

They say a picture is worth 1000 words. The folks at Looking at Appalachia, a region-wide photo project, have put that theory to the test.

You can now pick your favorite shot from the project's collection and submit a 1000 word caption. Your short piece can be just about anything—from a fictional story built around the image to original poetry inspired by it.

"Like good pictures, good writing stands on its own," said Roger May who founded Looking at Appalachia, "but I’ve always been interested in exploring how the two can work together."

Named Call and Response, this clever activity has already drawn some remarkable submissions, like the one below. Written by Andrea Null of Charleston, West Virginia, this poem was inspired by the accompanying photo, which was shot about seventy miles away in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Rebecca Kiger. June 30, 2014. Parkersburg, Wood County, West Virginia.

For old love, after Rilke
by Andrea Null

I’d relented that man’s words come to nothing,
they loosen wild as dry leaves, and your body
is a lantern swinging way out in yonderland,
and all, with a gaze, might turn the flicker down.

I saw the white-blue feast of shaking
embers, tattered papers, and flickers
of the rescue flares. All that oily birch bark
that never did work, a jaw come alive from below.

But, now, in a mirror, I see defaced
a phantom of a woman that was me:
O mercy, amen--every day was a mountain
we climbed so clumsy and can’t regret.

Tonight you will wander from the borders
of yourself and see stars cast like fossils in a stream,
Here, there is no face that doesn’t see your own
and no word without its root in the gleam.

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