Once upon a time, there was a billboard on a Kentucky highway near Louisville with some telephone number (in very large print) and the flashy (in even larger print) inviting proposal: “Can’t read? CALL!” Illiteracy
did not stand a chance!
“Yep, that’s right! My grandpa did love that ole cat. He just got bored with it one day, so he shot the critter down,” he told me. “Yeah, last week ... He tried to throw it over the fence but missed, and you know, he is almost 80. So the cat stuck in the barbed wire.”
How long did the dead black cat stay crucified on the barbed wire fence in the hills of Whitney County? Who knows
A small bar in Bardstown, late afternoon. The place is almost empty except for three people sitting at the bar. Each of them wears a baseball cap, has a pack of Marlboros, a lighter, and an ash tray sitting on the bar right near the spot where they park their Budweiser bottles after taking a swig. They chain smoke
without saying a word, one or two bar stools separating them. Country music plays from the small speaker hanging in the corner of the room.
A Japanese tourist in a Panama hat and a khaki vest with many pockets walks into the bar; a big photo camera hangs near his belt. He stands still, looks around for a few moments, and then asks with a strong accent, but in a very polite and slightly shy tone: “Excuse me very much! Can you tell me please, where is My Old Kentucky Home?
After a minute or so of silence, one of the men by the bar puts his Budweiser down and without even turning his head, utters with a heavy Kentucky drawl: “Y’all found ‘Purl Harbor.’”
He proceeds with his beer. The bar is silent again.
The Japanese backs down slowly. He still wears the same smile and repeats again and again “Excuse me, please excuse me so much!”
Can the first chance be the last one at the very same place and time? Easily, if you are driving in Eastern Kentucky!
On the highway connecting Jackson to Hazard, a small liquor store sits right on the border line separating a dry and a wet county
. If you are coming from Jackson, the big billboard by the store reads: “First chance! Leaving dry territory!” If you are coming from Hazard, the other side of the same sign warns: “Last chance! Entering dry territory for the next 37 miles!”
And if you are coming east with a clinking cache of freshly bought liquor, you can appreciate the trustworthiness of the warning when you observe another sign greeting you in Jackson: “The green serpent bites deadly!” On the billboard, the fat green snake coils around the whisky bottles and hisses at you venomously, exposing its fangs and a long, pink, forked tongue.
I hit the brakes as hard as I could. My Toyota Corolla
squealed, jerked violently, and stopped dead. May God bless the industrious nation of samurai and kamikazes!
A rider on a large brown horse was coming straight at the car right in the middle of the sharp curve on the narrow highway. He was bare-chested, very unshaven, and wore stained, tattered blue jeans. His tousled hair stuck out in all directions under an electric-blue baseball cap with big red letters reading “Marlboro.” The man had no shoes and was apparently very drunk. Dangerously oscillating in the saddle, he still managed somehow to hang on to his horse like an experienced sailor on a small yacht tossed in a violent storm.
The man pulled the bridle forcefully and produced a lion belch. The horse neighed and shook its head in dismay but stopped anyway. Still swinging in his saddle, the rider gazed at me ferociously for a moment and then gave his horse a good kick in the side with his bare heel. We passed each other veering to the opposite sides of the road and then both proceeded to our respective destinations.
It felt like driving through people’s backyards. A narrow highway wound wildly in the lush, green hills. Trailer homes and small houses sat in tiny ravines only a few feet away from the road. There were clotheslines with drying sheets and underwear – just like the ones in the Moscow yards I remembered from my childhood in the late ‘50s. The porches were clogged with all sorts of incredible junk:
elderly couches and ancient easy chairs, rusted dryers and toasters, piles of buckets and pans. A few dead cars, each in a different stage of disintegration and often overgrown with grass and shrubs, guarded practically every human dwelling like sad sentinels of decay. Driving down the same road, I also saw decomposing cars hanging from the trees growing on steep slopes. I could not come up with any decent theory explaining this phenomenon, other than these vehicles were mercilessly discarded by pushing or, perhaps, by driving them off the cliff. Another hypothesis I considered was a deluge of biblical magnitude. The trees with the cars’ colored bones hanging in their branches looked like some sort of leftover Christmas decoration in a land of car cannibals.
All the people I saw along the way looked at my car with unabashed distrust, even though I had a Kentucky license plate. I was lucky they did not suspect me of being a Russian, sneaking through their territory.
We found that gray, wooden liquor store four or five miles north of Natural Bridge State Park.
As always around there, a liquor store served as a marker, signifying the border between dry and wet counties, distinguished by different attitudes toward basic sins. It looked as peaceful as one of the unimposing but very inviting Moscow dachas
from the late ‘50s. The establishment sat on the edge of a small overgrown meadow. Soft, green waves of Kentucky hills rolled to the horizon meeting the darkening, golden April sky. The store had an open porch with a wooden railing around the building, windows with shutters decorated by carvings, and a cozy chimney on a slanted roof.
Right by the store entrance, an old man was sitting in a rocking chair. He wore denim overalls,
a plaid shirt, a baseball cap and sneakers. His gray hair was long and an untrimmed beard forked, reaching his chest.
Watching me and my girlfriend walk up the porch stairs into the store, the man smiled at us mischievously exposing all three or four of his remaining teeth, grunted joyfully, and said: “Yeeep!”
Inside the store, we saw another man who looked very similar to the one on the porch (overalls, plaid shirt, sneakers, baseball cap and a beard – only 20 or so years younger). He was leaning on the counter talking to a middle-aged female clerk. After seeing us, they went quiet studying us for a minute or two. Then the younger man smiled broadly, nodded, and said: “Yeeep!”
And then I understood what they so generously told me: “You’ve got a girl, you are just about to buy liquor, the weather is good, and life is beautiful!”
I smiled back and greeted them in my mind: “Yeeep to you too, compadres!”
Soon we were returning back to the little motel by the park with German beer and good Kentucky bourbon