Coming Out, Mudwallow Style
Ode to the Lone Wolves
I recently returned to my hometown, Mudwallow, Ohio, for something I had been putting off for way too long – a public confession.
And besides, my friend Delbert threatened to tell everybody my secret if I didn’t return. He said I was avoiding my own identity, that I was being dishonest with myself as well as friends and family.
And, he said, it would explain why I rarely answer a call.
I reluctantly agreed and decided to publicly come out of the introvert closet, or more accurately, the woods.
I thought I might ease into it, though. Mudwallowans are a conservative bunch, and I didn’t want to cause a big ruckus on one of my rare trips home.
I decided to drive up a little closer to Marietta and come clean with some folks up there to test the waters of tolerance. Having a college and all, Marietta might be inclined to be a little more open-minded about such things.
And there’s the fact that there has never been a book-burning in Marietta since the McCarthy Era.
I chose a small bar a stone’s throw from the old Fly Ferry on the Ohio River. I sat outside the bar for quite some time, getting up the nerve to go in.
In fact, by the time I went in, only two cars were in the parking lot. And to be completely honest, I was waiting until all the trucks and Harleys had left.
This was just the audience to whom I wanted to test the strength of my voice and the pride I wished to impart in my long-time-in-coming admission.
The bartender, a former high school football player from Mudwallow, was reading one of those glossy magazines that required unfolding the pictures. He was so taken by whatever he was gawking at that he didn’t even notice that I walked in.
There were only two customers in the bar; one had passed out in a booth. The other was sitting on a barstool, hunched over a half-dozen empty shot glasses – lined up in a row – and the bare bone of a pickled pig’s foot on a greasy plate.
I sat on a barstool with one seat between us just in case he couldn’t keep down all that cheap whiskey and the pig’s foot that was roiling around in his stomach. He finally looked over at me in that peculiar way drunks do and said, “Say, don’t I know you?”
I told him I didn’t think so that I was from Mudwallow. He chuckled a bit as most folks do and went back to rearranging his shot glasses. I figured he was the perfect person with whom to share my life’s greatest secret. So, I said, “What’s your name, fellow?”
He slurred something that sounded remotely like Denny Smalls.
Close enough, I thought, and said, “Well, Denny Smalls, I want you to be the first to know that you are sitting right beside a ……….”
“Whose Denny Smalls?” he interrupted, adding, “My name is Lenny Dalls.”
“Ok,” I said, “Lenny, I want you to know that I am a full-fledged card-carrying recluse.”
Lenny stared at the pig’s foot a few moments and turned back to me and said, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of you people. You speak in tongues, right?”
Before I could find the proper response, he narrowed his eyes and pointed a wavering finger in my face. “You ain’t one of those what handles rattler snakes, are you?” he said.
I thought about explaining what a recluse is but instead said, “Yes, I am. You just wait here, Lenny, while I go out to my car and fetch a rattler for you to handle.”
Lenny wasn’t too drunk to find the bar’s back door because he was out that door faster than a dog with a bone.
I was feeling much relieved on my drive back to Mudwallow, but I was also concerned with how the citizenry of my hometown would react when I bared my soul to them.
Delbert had arranged for me to speak at the Mudwallow Heritage Festival that was coming up in just two days. The schedule of activities had me speaking on life in the mountains of West Virginia.
And, as Delbert recommended, “At the conclusion of your address, just straightforward drop the “R” bomb on them.”
I don’t know which I was more nervous about, telling all my friends, kin and former school teachers that I have transitioned to a reclusive lifestyle, or standing up in front of a large crowd of people and talking. The very last thing a recluse wants is to be the center of attention.
Judgment day arrived, and the master of ceremonies, Delbert, introduced me by saying something to the effect that the lost son of Mudwallow has returned with stories of his exciting life in the mountain state. (For God’s sake, Delbert, I thought, West Virginia, is just across the river in plain sight. You’d think I had returned from twenty years in India.
He left the podium and as he passed me, whispered, “Go get em, buddy. The truth shall set you free.”
I cleared my throat and waited until the clapping stopped. They clap at darn near anything in Mudwallow.
I talked for several minutes on the beauty of West Virginia, my adopted state. Then I abruptly changed course, saying, “You all probably remember me from my childhood. As you know, I left here right after high school and have only returned from time to time.
“Well, as is often the case, once we get away from home and get exposed to the world out there, we often learn who we really are. When the time is right, we are compelled to share our identity with those we count as friends and family.”
At this point, the entire audience leaned forward on their folding chairs.
In compliance with Delbert’s advice, I simply stated, “I am a recluse.”
For several long moments, there was total and absolute silence. Then, as if on cue, every one of those humble Mudwallowans stood up and began clapping.
My relief was short-lived when several audience members approached me, beginning with my 11th grade English teacher, 92-year-old Agnes Sevareid.
While holding my hand, she said in a shaky voice, “You know, dear, it was me who put you on that path when I made you read A Hundred Years of Solitude. Do you remember who the author is?”
After all these years, I still didn’t want to disappoint my teacher, and I couldn’t remember if it was Tom Robbins or Marquez, so I guessed. “Gabriel Garcia Marquez?”
She replied, “Excellent, Kenny.” Then she looked up at the empty stage behind me and said, “Listen up class, Kenny got the question right; he gets a gold star.” Without hesitation, Miss Sevareid reached into her pocket, brought out something, licked it, and put a gold star smack dab on my forehead.
From the back of the crowd, a middle-aged woman rushed forward, took the former teacher by the hand and led her away, saying, “Mother, we need to get you home. It is time for your happy medicine.”
Agnes looked back over her shoulder as she was being led away and shouted, “May I suggest you read The Sensuous Woman by J over the summer recess. See you next semester, Kenny.”
Speechless, I could only wave.
One man told me he was Presbyterian but was OK with any religion and shook my hand. A confused woman asked me if whatever I was had anything to do with spiders.
And a tiny waif of a child looked up at me with solemn brown eyes and asked me if what I had hurt. I knelt and told her it only hurts once in a while, but a good dog can always fix it. She let loose with a smile worth a million bucks.
Then, out of the crowd came Lenny, the drunk from the bar, screaming, “This here fellow is one of them what handles rattler snakes, and he was gonna throw one on me. Get him afore he gets away.”
With that, I headed straight for my car, knowing I had done what I came to do, and it was time to head home.
Delbert caught up to me just as I started up my Chevy. I lowered the window, and he told me something that added some comfort to the day’s events.
He said that it was none other than Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, who said, “Uncompromising thought is the luxury of the closeted recluse.”
It turns out, Wilson was a bit of a recluse himself.
Driving home, I got to thinking about all the recluses, semi-recluses, closeted recluses, non-binary recluses*, and that scary subset of recluses, the misanthrope, who practice their chosen lifestyle back in mountains and hollows.
Several years ago, a few of us solitary types decided to have a gathering of like-minded people. We rented a picnic shelter at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park and sent out letters, emails, and tacked notes on trees inviting several known recluses, one hermit, and a woman rumored to be in witness protection.
You can imagine our delight when the big day arrived and not a soul showed up.
*Non-binary recluse: I am not really sure what this means, but Delbert said he thinks it is a recluse who loves to party. Go figure!