Fort Henry Mall, Kingsport, Tennessee.

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Andy and I went to the Fort Henry Mall earlier today. It was the first time I had been there in probably at least six or seven years. In fact, I think the last time I went was on mine and Andy’s first double date with Kristina Garrison and Keaton Lawson back in 2009, so, it had been awhile.

I used to love going to the mall when I was a kid, and in high school, Mallrats became one of my favorite movies. Note, I never wanted to be one of the “cool kids” at the mall. I wanted to be one of those weird mall dwelling kids. Never buying anything, just hanging around. Possibly getting into some kind of most harmless mischief. Of course, we didn’t have a mall in Lee County, so getting to go to the mall was a pretty big deal for me and my friends back in the day, and the Fort Henry Mall was usually the destination of choice.

I also thought about all the times I had been there as a little kid with my mom and dad. That feels like another lifetime. I remember the old late 1980s aesthetic of the Fort Henry Mall included a lot of neon lights and dimly lit store fronts. They redid all of that for a more clean look in the mid 1990s, but stepping out of J.C. Penny’s into the mall proper used to feel like stepping into a neon wonderland of endless possibilities.

There was a pet store, two CD stores, two book stores, a KB Toys, and a store that sold grand pianos, basically every thing a kid with an interest in music needs. They also had a huge arcade called Tilt and a Spencer gifts that had a lot of lava lamps and stuff toward the back that my parents wouldn’t let me look at for some reason (reason being of course, as I now know, there are a lot of dildos in the back of a Spencer’s. No one covers my eyes now, though.) There were also a lot of clothing stores, but I was a kid. I didn’t care about that.

In high school, I do remember feeling disappointed that our mall didn’t have a Hot Topic. Johnson City got a Hot Topic. The mall in Nashville where my dad lived had a Hot Topic. They had Pink Floyd shirts at Hot Topic. And Radiohead. And Smashing Pumpkins. And Nirvana. Basically all the bands that a lanky awkward alternative kid would be into. The “real shit,” as the kids now days say, I think.

Anyway. The Fort Henry Mall holds a lot of memories for me. They’re currently remodeling the theater and they still have one of the CD stores (which now carries a large selection of Vinyl at outrageous prices), the grand piano store, a book store (though I don’t think it’s the same one that used to be there), and the arcade. I didn’t see a K.B. Toys anywhere. Just as well. I’m too old for toys and Andy and I don’t have kids yet.

We did get a couple of frosted sandwich cookies from the Great American Cookie Store, though. They were very good. It was a good day, and I shared it with the woman I love.

The Fort Henry Mall used to be a lot busier, though, than it is now, and parts of it are getting run down. Parts of me are also getting run down.

As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “So it goes.”

Gravy and Biscuits and the Garden of Eden

When I was a little boy, after church my mother and I would visit the farm where she had spent her entire childhood to visit her family. That farm is an eighty-eight acre tract of land that lies on the mountain between Woodway and Stickleyville down in Lee County, Virginia. My mother lives there now, much as my grandmother did when I was a boy. To this day, whenever I visit it, I am filled with an intense array of emotions, most notably longing. This place, with its muddy creeks rushing down the mountain and its barnyard smell of cow manure and its lush trees which canopy the whole area around the house, is not only a part of my identity as an Appalachian, it is a part of the daily context in which I live my life as a human being, as a person. When I think of the home I want to return to, I think of my mother, and I think of this beautiful stretch of land.

When my parents divorced, my mother and I moved onto the farm. I would spend my weekend with my father and my father’s relatives, but through the week, the farm was my home. My uncles, who had never left there, were farmers: tobacco, cattle, corn, apples, cherries. Mostly tobacco. And cattle. The old farmhouse was heated by a wood burning stove in the Basement. Family photographs covered so much of the walls that you couldn’t see the bare plywood underneath. Most of the photos were black and white, or had once been in color but had aged into that sepia technicolor hue that we associate with the 1970s. The parts of the walls that weren’t lined with photographs were lined with bookshelves and books. Some people might suspect that a pair of bearded mountain farmers would be unread men, and they would be quite wrong, blinded by stereotypes and prejudice. My grandmother, who wasn’t afraid to use a curse word or four when the occasion called for it, which was apparently often, would sit in her rocking chair and listen to the sounds of bluegrass gospel. The Christianaires and the Good Shepherd Quartet are two of the ones that spring immediately to mind.

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My grandmother refused to cook on anything but a wood burning stove, and so there was a second wood burning stove in the kitchen. One for heat. One for meat. My mother and her sisters had offered to buy her an electric stove. She always refused. And so every morning, at 5 AM, I would be brought from sleep, still groggy, by the sound of the morning fire being lit. Keep in mind, I am only twenty-eight as of this writing. It sounds very well as if I am speaking of a time long ago, but in truth, this was the mid-1990s, the age of the dawn of the internet, which, of course, we didn’t have. In fact, we didn’t have cable, either. We could pick up two stations on the television in the living room, which was the only one in the house. Channel eleven, out of Johnson City, channel five, though I’m not sure where it was out of, and a PBS station that you had to click the dial to the UHF setting to get to.

Soon after the fire was lit, I would begin to hear the crackle of bacon, its smell drifting into the bedroom where I slept. The air would still be cold on the winter mornings and the blankets would nestle me like a loving embrace. My grandmother cooked gravy and biscuits every morning on a wood burning stove, and that’s what I woke up to most days. Slowly, I would come around and wake up. I would get out of bed and feel the cool, linoleum floor beneath my feet. I would get ready for school and eat gravy and biscuits and rush off to the bus stop way down at the end of the driveway.

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I didn’t know it then, but that was a sort of paradise in and of itself, living in the slow paced way of life of my childhood. These days, my first instinct in the morning is to check my emails, then drink coffee, then check Facebook, then make sure that I haven’t neglected to reply to anyone. The great irony of humanity’s technological advancements is that even as we have grown more digitally connected, this digital connectedness has in many ways isolated us from some of life’s simpler pleasures, and from parts of ourselves: the smell of bacon cooking slowly on a wood burning stove, the unhurried rising of the sun through the homemade curtains, accompanied by the rooster’s crow out in the barnyard. These are things that were a part of my daily existence in childhood, and I confess that I often wish they were a part of my existence now. I’m sure I’m not the only one, young, old, or in-between, raised in the hills of Appalachia, who feels the same way. It seems at times as if the world has moved on, but in our hearts, we have not.

There are still some of us who remember what the Garden of Eden was like.

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