Hillbilly Rich, essay by Jeff Kerr

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.


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