Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Brittany Stone

In Support of the Little Guy

Dusk is coming on the hill, and Uncle Willy and I are tired of riding. He allows the engine to die, runs both hands through his hair, and spits out a big black wad of Copenhagen. From the back of the four-wheeler I can smell the raw stench of leaves and soil and my uncle’s Stetson. For years we’ve taken off on a whim, climbed West Virginia hillsides like outlaws on the tail end of something big. When the excitement begins to feel mundane, we coast down toward home with dirty mud flaps and our blue jeans warm from the heat of the exhaust. Sometimes Willy talks to me while we’re forging those old beaten paths, tells me where he set up a tree stand this year or how his knees have been hurting since the weather turned cold. I don’t bother to respond over the roar of the machine because I know he won’t hear. Our rides are a good lesson on listening.

Once upon a time, Willy was the worst crying baby my grandmother had ever seen. He cried for six months straight while she rocked him, fed him, and started falling asleep mid-sentence with him screaming in her arms. Willy was my grandparents’ fourth child, born smaller than but not noticeably different from the other babies they’d been raising in that little green house at the mouth of the holler. Doc Boggs told my grandmother that her baby was suffering from colic, so she put him face down over her knee and tried rocking him to sleep that way. The only photograph I have of Willy in those days is a black and white from a studio in the town of Clay, West Virginia, his face frozen on the edge panic, his arms outstretched. He’s wearing overalls and a T-shirt that reads, “Hands Off.” I imagine my grandmother on the other side of the lens, embarrassed, nervously pulling her bottom lip into her mouth. At that moment, she wouldn’t have known that her son was afflicted with a form of achondroplasia, or dwarfism, and that the symptoms were already fiercely brewing inside his tiny body. While my grandmother and Doc Boggs treated colic, Willy’s legs bowed and his ears filled with pus until his tiny eardrums were pushed to the point of bursting. He would never recover from the damage done to his bones and ears during that first year of his life.

For most of his childhood Willy attended a one room schoolhouse in Nebo and learned from a county teacher who rented speech books from the library and attempted to train his tongue to maneuver around the hard tissue of the mouth. After a while, the school board determined that my uncle wouldn’t benefit from a formal education and let him stay at home with my grandparents. He learned to change tires and oil and make drop biscuits. Now, at the age of forty-five, he’s a little over four feet tall and can’t hear a darn thing without his hearing aids. He speaks in the same muffled tones that I used to hear when I fell asleep against my mother’s belly.

In fairy tales, it’s not uncommon for the villain to be afflicted with dwarfism. Today, that word dwarf hits my ear with clumsy intonation. I hate how it makes me feel, how it conjures up images of impotence, of short, gnarled arms and legs, blank faces, and trickery.

When I was a child, laid up on the couch for a week after a tonsillectomy, someone brought me a videotape of Rumpelstiltskin’s story. I call it Rumpelstiltskin’s story (though some might argue that the story belongs to the princess) because he is the character I feel most sympathy for. The story belongs to him. At seven years old, hoarse and lame from surgery, I was disturbed by the harsh portrayal of Rumpelstilkskin’s short stature. In the movie, he stands about as tall as the princess’ thigh, wearing ridiculous mustard-colored tights and a stocking cap. I wasn’t frightened by his height, although other children probably would have been. At this time, I was already taller than Uncle Willy, and didn’t remember any different. But Rumpelstiltskin’s height was not just conveyed as physically limiting, it also served as a marker for social freakishness. He was live on the fringes of society in a house deep in the woods. I thought about the kid at my elementary school who was kept in a special classroom during recess because he tended to bang his head against the wall. I always wondered why the teachers never let him play with the other kids, and I thought maybe he banged his head against the wall because he resented being caged up like the hamster in Mrs. Dawson’s second grade class.

As if life weren’t bad enough already, poor Rumpelstiltskin was not only ugly but weird, sucked dry of his resources by the miller’s daughter and then sent back to the woods where he was left to maniacally sing and dance his jig and wait to take the baby that was rightfully his. I hashed the plot out with my mother—very gingerly, of course, because I was healing—and she listened at the foot of the couch with her eyes squinted as if she might really be thinking about what I was saying. I told her that Rumpelstiltskin was clever enough to spin straw into gold, but it was the miller’s daughter who became a princess. With Rumpelstiltskin’s help, the girl regained her life and won a husband and baby.

“Rumpelstiltskin will never get married or have a baby of his own,” I said and took a bite of jello. “If I were the princess, I’d give him the baby. He’s just lonely.”

I don’t remember what reasoning my mother offered at this point in time, but whatever it was, I can bet she wasn’t thinking about her brother. It’s funny how truths collide so frequently and how seldom we recognize the stories that weigh so heavily on our own lives.

I do remember her telling me, years later, that a doctor once deemed my Uncle Willy sterile. This reality still keeps me up at night and makes me believe that there is fear in all great stories—in even the most far-fetched works of fiction—that originate from a great and throbbing core of human truth.

On the hill, Willy and I get off the four wheeler and lean against a tree at the edge of a ridge. We’re silent for a while, and he spits again and wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his flannel shirt. He tells me he’s met a woman at Granny’s Kitchen, the restaurant built on stilts over the Elk River where he orders eggs and biscuits and wraps his leftovers in a napkin to take home to my grandmother. Uncle Willy still calls my grandmother mommy and rubs her legs down with alcohol every night. She’s got arthritis, and Uncle Willy’s got it in his joints, too. He won’t tell her he aches at night.

A whippoorwill sings from some faraway perch, and we look down through a clearing in the trees at the faraway shape of my grandparents’ house. Smoke rises from the stovepipe and it suddenly occurs to me that fall is here.

“She’s really pretty,” he says, and pulls out his wallet. He shows me a picture of a blonde woman sitting in a booth at a restaurant, her legs long and crossed at the ankles. “She smiles and talks to me when she has a break,” he says. “She’s busy, though. Right now, it’s no big deal.”

I look at him, surprised. He tells me that she’s young and shy and has folks down in Elmira. He says he took her to lunch at a sandwich shop in the next town over. I imagine the two of them driving to this restaurant, the radio playing bluegrass tunes and the delicate, long shape of a woman next to my small uncle propped up on his driving cushion. How odd and slightly erotic. Suddenly I realize that I’ve never thought of Willy as a man capable of romantic love. I feel guilty, as if I’ve been propagating the lie that has led generations of children to believe that Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t deserve the love and adoration of a woman or a child, that his condition is enough to merit exile to the woods, a place for lowly animals and for humans who aren’t worthy of an elevated level of human love.

Willy turns and faces me. “Don’t tell Mommy about her,” he says. His eyes are dark and serious; his features are as smooth and clean as a child’s. For a second, I think that I’ve never seen anything more pure or beautiful in my life.

“I won’t,” I say. “I’m happy for you, Will.” And really, I am.

The sky is a strange purple-orange, and we talk about how everything looks different when you get up high. Quietly, he turns around and heads toward the four wheeler.

I tell him to wait up, and shuffle through the undergrowth, zipping my jacket up to my chin as I go. He swings both legs over the seat and stands up so I can take my place on the back. I’m nearly twice as long as he is and I think about how we must look coasting down the hill, eyes on the rocks jutted out from the path, momentarily oblivious to any distraction in world but the road ahead of us. We lean against the slope to balance the disproportionate weight of our bodies.

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About Me

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I write short stories and essays. I have published over one hundred stories, essays, and flash fictions or nonfictions in magazines or anthologies, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for forty years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years.