Anatomy of Circumstance

Anatomy of Circumstance

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Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, Claude Clayton Smith is the author of eight books and co-editor/translator of three others. His own work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese. He holds a DA from Carnegie-Mellon, an MFA in Fiction from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, an MAT from Yale, and a BA from Wesleyan. He and his wife live in Madison, WI.

Anatomy of Circumstance

From WTP Vol. IX #6

O that my tongue were in the thunder’s mouth!
Then with a passion would I shake the world,
And rouse from sleep that fell anatomy
Which scorns a lady’s feeble voice,
Which scorns a modern invocation.
        —The Life and Death of King John [3, 4]

cir-cum-stance /ˈsərkəmˌstans,ˈsərkəmstəns/ noun:
a condition, fact, or event accompanying or determining
another: an essential or inevitable concomitant.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

MORNING GLORY GULCH is an unincorporated community (pop. 175) in the heart of the Virginia Piedmont. I was born there on a bluff overhanging its north flank. At the foot of the dirt road that wound its way to our little house was a yellow, diamond-shaped sign—NO EXIT—pockmarked with bullet holes. As a kid I used to brace my bike against the tall post that held that sign, and, standing on its seat, reach up and wiggle my fingers through those holes. That’s how I measured my growth—by which finger would fit—instead of the way Beau McMurray did, holding a table knife against the top of his head while I marked his bedroom wall with the stub of a pencil. Today, my pinky would get stuck in the holes of that sign. And its message seems prophetic.

Bluff Road held three identical brick ranch homes that had been built “on spec”—one at the first bend, one at the second, and ours, on the cul-de-sac that sloped severely toward the Gulch. The developer had intended to construct more along that thickly wooded stretch but went broke when the first two didn’t sell. He’d intended the third for himself, and my parents “got it for a song” when the country slipped into recession.

If you turn left off Bluff Road you’ll go down into Morning Glory Gulch on a narrow macadam lane that runs past Old Man Kelsey’s Handi-Foods store to dead-end at the foot of No Business Mountain. I was nearly a teen before I understood how that mountain got its name. “Bobby,” my Dad explained, “it’s because it’s no business of yours what goes on up there.” In the fall of the year, on bright sunny days after the trees had lost their leaves, the extension bureau of the state’s ATF division would circle that mountain in its helicopter, alert for telltale glints of metal below. One night, when I was five years old, my parents woke me after midnight and hurried me in my pajamas out to the carport, beyond which the dark horizon was laced with flames. Somebody’s still had exploded. I remember that night well, because exactly one year later my mother died.

Starting at Old Man Kelsey’s Handi-Foods store another macadam road turns abruptly south, descending through a series of dells and “hollers” into the humid sub-tropical interior. At one point a mossy pipe emerges from the high-side shoulder, dripping spring water into a small pool. Empty white milk jugs litter the area there, left by locals who came for the cold water in pickup trucks. I never went down that road on my bike—the thick canopy of locusts, tulip poplars, and clinging vines made the way far too dark. But I always enjoyed driving down there with my parents.

Farther down below that mountain spring, where the descent flattened a bit, a noisy stream ran parallel to the road. A ramshackle cottage sat on its far side. The only way the crazy couple that lived there could get across was by a rope bridge, which made me think of Tarzan. Dad would always slow down at that spot, and if no one were home, jump out to photograph the cottage and rickety bridge. Mom and I would jump out, too, to pick violets and buttercups in the ditch by the berm.

In the fall, whenever we drove all the way down the mountain, we’d see large hogs hanging in weedy front yards, strung up by their hind feet with block and tackle, guts gone, blood dripping into shallow basins or galvanized tubs. Tarpaper shacks were tucked away farther back, with old cars on cinder blocks beside them. (The County allowed two such cars, but not three). Some abandoned refrigerators cluttered these places as well, their heavy, dangerous doors still attached. Occasionally there’d be a ringer-type washing machine, and hubcaps sticking up through clumps of Indian grass.

Dad never drove us down there in winter because of the fog, ice, and snow.

The macadam road that begins at the Handi-Foods store ends in bottomland at Carson’s Creek, which flows south to the Rivanna, a tributary of the James. At Carson’s Creek you must turn left or right. Either way, it’s smoother blacktop. A left takes you toward the Blue Ridge and Roanoke, a right toward Bristol, Tennessee. We’d go left—but only for a short distance—then make another left, homeward, on County Line Road. The county line follows a steep hill on which, until a passing lane was added, we’d often get stuck behind a bunch of trailer trucks. But I didn’t mind, because halfway up I’d get a good look at The Mountain of Broken Cars. That was the name I gave—before that fiery explosion on No Business Mountain—to one of the largest junkyards in the Virginia Piedmont. Rusted, dented, and demolished vehicles were stacked high across several acres, from the edge of the road far back into the woods. Fortunately, the foliage hid the eyesore for most of the year. But from December to February it was country ugly.

Which reminds me. The Virginia Piedmont has the best climate of anywhere I’ve ever lived, including places abroad. The year consists of four picture-perfect seasons, each three months long. Spring is luxurious, summer is hot, fall is glorious, and winter— well, one winter an Arctic clipper dropped the wind chill to sixty-five below, and when I insisted that Dad drive me to Beau McMurray’s birthday party at McDonald’s, our old Chevy cracked its engine block before we got off the cul-de-sac.

A mile or so beyond The Mountain of Broken Cars—right where the long hill crested—we’d turn left at Old Man Kelsey’s dilapidated trailer, bringing us full circle back to Bluff Road. The entire down-the-mountain-and-home-again trip took little more than an hour, and as a kid I never tired of it. But the adventure didn’t end there.

In a small pasture across from the NO EXIT sign, behind a fence of rotting posts and brittle barbed wire, grazed a horse I called Jack. I never knew his real name, so I just called him Jack. He was nothing more than an old nag with a knotted, gnarled mane, but he looked just like Tonto’s horse Scout. The first time I saw him I was walking with Mom, and Jack came ambling over. He must have smelled us, because he was blind in one eye. The other one dripped green goo. When we got home that day, Dad was just coming up the steps from his basement darkroom into the kitchen, and I ran into his arms.

“I saw a horsey!”

“Well, now, Bobby. What color was that horsey?”

“Brown ’n’ white ’n’ brown ’n’ white ’n’ brown ’n’ white!”

Dad looked at Mom, and the laughter that followed was like that heard around Morning Glory Gulch the day after the still blew up.

So we began bringing apples to feed to Jack the Horse whenever we drove down the mountain. And continued doing so, until one day—as with Mom later—Jack wasn’t there.


Old Man Kelsey owned the Handi-Foods store. He also owned most of the farmland surrounding Morning Glory Gulch. His standard duds consisted of a blue work shirt and bib overalls—called “overhauls” locally. His balding head was topped by a greasy baseball cap of the Salem Red Sox, a farm team of the real deal way up in Boston. Kelsey “commuted” between his trailer and Handi-Foods store in an army jeep, though it was less than a mile. He had great difficulty walking because he’d been wounded in World War II, and again in Korea. I liked Kelsey, but he never had much to say when I’d stop for a Popsicle, propping my bike against the dirty plate-glass window of the Handi-Foods store and scooting inside. One day when I came out, Popsicle stick in my fist, a pickup truck swung into the gas pumps, spraying gravel. There was a rifle on the rack in the rear window and a bobcat sprawled in the rear bed. The tawny animal, smaller than you might expect, had an open red gash in its throat. The driver had shot it and wanted to show it to Kelsey, who’d begun to hobble outside when the gravel ticked his window.

“Pig?” Kelsey said.

“Cat.” The shirtless driver—it was summer—wiped his hands on his jeans. “I reckon this’s the critter’s been stealing your chickens.”

Kelsey nodded. He’d built an ersatz chicken coop behind his trailer. A dozen chickens were always pecking around by the side of the road. “Obliged for the hep.”

Kelsey had a rifle, too, and a tripod for it. He was fond of hunting “pig,” the Gulch term for groundhog. Each year he offered ten bucks for the largest one brought in, a way to keep his farmland clear of a nuisance while drumming up business at the Hand-Foods store. “Got me plans for that land,” I’d hear him say from time to time, “when I git aroun’ to retirin’.”

He weighed those groundhogs right there on a scale on the wooden counter next to his cash register. It usually took a 15-pounder to win the money, but Kelsey claimed to have taken a 20-pounder in his youth. He’d pay the winner at Christmas with a crisp ten-dollar bill, money he considered a good investment against the windfall he’d reap when he got “aroun’ to retirin’” and sold his land.

Some evenings Kelsey would close up shop early and drive his jeep through the meadow behind the pasture where Jack the Horse grazed, setting up his tripod on a far knoll. Then he’d mount his rifle and kneel behind it, waiting for “pig” to pop up below. The pig would sit on their haunches to nibble the abundant Queen Anne’s lace, whose flat white heads rose in clusters at the end of green stalks. The first time Dad ever saw Old Man Kelsey he was shooting pig. Dad was jogging along the grassy tracks through the meadow. (He was a jogger long before jogging became fashionable.) It was dusk, and as he squinted into the face of the setting sun, there was Old Man Kelsey, silhouetted in the distance behind a tripod, his jeep in the tall grass off to the right.

“How wonderful!” Dad told me, not long after he explained about No Business Mountain. “Here was a neighbor with an artistic bent—a photographer like me—about to shoot the sunset!”

But there wasn’t a camera on that tripod. It held a rifle with a scope, trained down the far side of the hill toward the edge of the woods, exactly where those grassy tracks were headed—with Dad on them. The report of Kelsey’s rifle continued to echo around the Gulch long after one of those pigs dropped like a rag.

Dad paused. “That could have been me—that’s what I told your Mom when I got home—shot dead and left to the turkey vultures. She was nursing you on the carport.”

“And what did she say.”

“That it’s a jungle out there.”


According to Dad, Mom—who hailed from Philadelphia—had trouble getting use to the language of the Piedmont, to words like awl for oil, and phrases like rat cheer, whatever that meant. Hep was another puzzle. To Mom hep meant hip—that is, cool, with it, groovy. She learned the meaning of hep when Dad bought her a piano.

“Your mother had studied piano for a while and always wanted one,” he said. “When we moved in here together, not long after we met on the faculty at Spring Hill, our combined income, meager as it was, made us feel rich. So the spontaneous purchase wasn’t extravagant. We needed a lift. You’d just been born and refused to sleep more than two hours at a time.”

He shook his head. “Your mother was crying: ‘When will I ever have time for a piano?’ She was exhausted, and she was crying because you were crying. ‘And how will they ever get a piano down that driveway, anyway?’ She had a point. But the purchase had been made.” 

Our driveway sloped sharply from the cul-de-sac like the hypotenuse of a right triangle. The cul-de-sac itself, on a level with the crest of our roof, slanted toward the Gulch as well. The basement wall across the front of our house lay below ground, as you’d expect. But the entire rear basement wall, all of it cinderblock, stood above ground.

The piano—a lovely spinet that sat in the living room until I went off to college— was delivered in the back of a pickup truck, held in place by a network of ropes and wrapped in the kind of thick blanket you find in moving vans. The owner of the music store brought it himself, delighted at having sold such an expensive instrument. He even threw in the bench for free.

“But when he saw our driveway,” Dad said, “he seemed to regret the entire transaction. Then he turned to your mother and said, ‘Kin I use your phone? I’m gonna need hep.’”

Mom showed him the phone on the wall in the kitchen, and half an hour later he backed his pickup down the driveway—ever so slowly—with the emergency brake on and the hep wedged between the piano and the tailgate. A black wrought-iron railing enclosed the side and rear of our carport, which sat adjacent to the kitchen at the right end of the house. The railing was the kind you see on balconies in New Orleans. Given the slope of our property, the carport was a balcony, with a 15-foot drop into the back yard. Had the emergency brake not held—Dad always laughed at this point in the story—that pickup would have taken out the railing and plunged straight down, tumbling end-over-end into the woods. “And had it banged through the trees as far as the bluff, it might have landed on the roof of Kelsey’s store!”

But the piano made it safely from the pickup to the flat cement surface of the carport. Then it was put on a dolly, pushed through the kitchen, and maneuvered through the hall into the living room.

“When that pickup left,” Dad said, “your mother began to cry again. She’d always wanted a piano. The piano was beautiful, but she had no time to play it. Because you were crying and wanted to be nursed.”

The rest of the story I knew by heart. That piano-heavy pickup scored dual troughs down the driveway—a hot September had softened the asphalt—leading to cracks, potholes, and the need for annual repairs. Every summer thereafter Dad had to coat the blacktop with sealer, which only made it slicker in the rain and impossible in winter, when he left the Chevy to the elements up on the cul-de-sac.

Dad would wait for dry weather to do the chore, spilling the oily substance in puddles and brushing it with a stiff push broom before it could run in long rivulets down to the carport. One summer I announced that I wanted to hep. I don’t remember, because I was only two or three, but apparently I screamed until Dad relented. Minutes later I was covered in blacktop sealer—from my red hair (Old Man Kelsey called it har) to my little white Keds—while Mom, supervising from the shade of the carport, swore to Dad that he was spoiling their son.


When Mom said to Dad it’s a jungle out there, she meant it literally, as I did that NO EXIT sign. This included the acre of woods beneath our acre of grass, which pitched sharply to the very edge of the bluff above Morning Glory Gulch. Raspberry brambles extended their hairy arms from the perimeter of these woods right into our back yard, re-rooting once they became heavy enough to bend to the ground. Dad was forever hacking them back with a sickle, which made me cry. I loved those raspberries on my Cornflakes. But nothing could kill them, or other creepers that emerged from the woods, threatening to swallow our house like the jungle swallowed the boat in The African Queen, Mom’s favorite film.

The whole of the Piedmont is subtropical, which was jungle enough for Mom.  Our corner of it was dark and dense—rife with sumac, swamp maples, and indestructible locusts. There were strange, water-filled reeds as well, like giant green peashooters. I called them noodles, and when I grew brave enough to venture beyond the raspberry bushes I used to whack them with a stick, soaking myself with noodle juice in the process. The noodles grew just a step or two beyond the raspberry thickets, and whacking them came with a cost—I’d return through the brambles scratched and bleeding.

Vines made our “jungle” virtually impassable. A leafy something called kudzu slipped in everywhere, wrapping around whatever got in its way. Howard the Mailman said they called it kudzu ’cuz there was nothin’ you could do about it. Introduced from Japan in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (which Mom’ great-grandmother had attended), it was intended as an ornamental crop to shade porches and carports. The Civilian Conservation Corps and southern farmers even planted it to reduce soil erosion. But the stuff ran amok, blanketing the ground and smothering the native vegetation like the invasive scourge that it was.

Then there was the sort of vines Tarzan swung on. Hanging from sturdy branches, they coiled around tree trunks until they finally adhered to the bark. Mom feared that I’d fall prey to the wildlife in the dense shadows where they draped, where blacksnakes and copperheads were as common as bobcats. There were spooky owls as well, and swift hawks, sentinel crows, and exotic species like the pileated woodpecker—a large black-and-white, Woody Woodpecker sort of creature, with a sharp red crest on its pointed head. Pileated woodpeckers perched high in the sumac bushes to feast on their triangular clusters of red berries. The first time I saw one I mistook it for a parrot, like the ones in the bird book Mom gave me one Christmas.

But I recognized the turkey buzzards right away. They circled high overhead, riding the rising thermals, searching for carcasses along the roadways and in the cleared fields where Old Man Kelsey shot pig. The bats were more elusive. Dad pointed them out to me as they flopped along the forest line at dusk, a time of day Mom hated. She was forever pointing at the shiny eyes staring out from the wall of vegetation at the bottom of our yard. A power station stood on the black horizon. When lit by the moon, it seemed a thing from outer space.

“Your mother would nurse you out here on the carport,” Dad said. “But she was afraid the bats would swoop down and drain your blood. I said it would hep you sleep.”

The first time I was brave enough to hack a path through the woods with Dad’s sickle—from the bottom of our yard all the way to the top of the bluff—I learned why they call this place Morning Glory Gulch. Ultimately, it’s because of an earthquake. Virginia is hardly the San Andreas Fault, but the area has a history of seismic activity dating back to before the United States even existed. In 1774 a strong earthquake shook Richmond, Fredericksburg, and points south, all the way into North Carolina. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that some buildings around the Commonwealth were rocked off their foundations, and the quake “terrified the inhabitants greatly.” Several strong quakes occurred throughout the nineteenth century. In 1897, the Commonwealth of Virginia experienced an event that started to the west of here, in Giles County, with tremors felt from Pennsylvania to Georgia.

East Coast earthquakes are not as frequent as on the West Coast, but when they do occur, the effects are felt across a broader area. One of those caused a landslide that created the Gulch and the bluff above it. The morning glories were courtesy of Old Man Kelsey’s great-grandmother. She loved them, those delicate twining plants with their showy, trumpet-shaped flowers. They came in all shades—red, white, purple, yellow—even robin’s-egg blue. After that earthquake Nettie Kelsey doggedly scattered morning glory seeds across the bare escarpment of the newly formed bluff. Morning glories prefer sun during the day, and the blank face of the bluff amply provided it. On the day I sickled my way through the jungle to its very edge, I thought it’d been snowing. But it was only a patch of white morning glories, reflecting the sun.

After the morning glories were firmly established, Old Man Kelsey’s father built a home in the center of the Gulch, sheltered from the north wind by the morning glory wall. Sensing that it might be a good location, he converted the ground floor of that house into a store, to sell dry goods, hardware, notions, and whatnot, gradually leaving the farming to his son. Gasoline pumps were added later, as the state of Virginia, like the rest of America, turned from horseless carriages to Fords, Chevrolets, and pickup trucks.

On the wall in the Handi-Foods store, just inside the door with its set of tinkling bells, was a framed needlepoint sampler that Nettie Kelsey had made. I suppose it’s still there. I’ll have to check—when I get the courage to drive into Morning Glory Gulch and drop in for a reminiscent Popsicle. Around the edges of that sampler, the muslin fabric was embroidered with a colorful array of morning glories.  The framed text looked like calligraphy:

The morning glory is a flower of duality. It blooms and dies
in a single day. In Chinese folklore it represents a single day
for lovers to meet. To Victorians it symbolizes mortality.


Excerpted from Anatomy of Circumstance, a novel.

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