I drove to Wellsburg, in search of a family I knew wasn’t there.
I have told you the story of the time I met a homeless woman and her daughter in Wellsburg, sleeping in a store front that didn’t have heat at night and plotting to move to Wheeling for a fresh start. I didn’t have a penny to help Cherry and her mother. My friend had scarcely more than I did, but she did spend a few dollars to buy Cherry’s outgrown coat, which she gave to Rosie. It was a lavender and gray plaid pea coat in a size 3t. Rosie wore it for two winters. I still have that coat.
I often think about Cherry and her mother, and hope they made it to safety.
Today it occurred to me that I could just go back to Wellsburg.
I had an early doctor’s appointment that was over quickly, and I didn’t feel like going back to my house with the menacing neighbor and noisy workmen. I decided to drive across the bridge to West Virginia, to the other shore of the Ohio, and do some exploring.
I went through Folansbee, which is something out of a nightmare: a relatively quaint little town on the Ohio, with churches and shops and a genuinely beautiful park– and then, smack in the middle of town, a great hulking metal structure with chimneys belching smoke and a flickering torch on the top of it, looking like the Eye of Sauron. I’ve always seen this building far in the distance from the cliff at the edge of LaBelle. It’s surreal to drive past it up close.
The next town after Follansbee is Wellsburg, where Cherry and her mother were not. Wellsburg is a quiet town without a Dark Satanic Mill to mar the scenery. It isn’t dirty and sinister like Steubenville, it’s quaint. It looks like something out of a Mark Twain novel, except that the small towns in those books are on flat land along the Mississippi, and Wellsburg is in the foothills of the Appalachians along the Ohio. There are few rotting derelict houses. I didn’t see any homeless people at all– but then again, I didn’t see Cherry and her mother as homeless either, not until I accidentally peeked into the back of the shop.
I’d been to Wellsburg in fall, when it was getting cold. I was there right now on the first day of August, the grand finale of Appalachia’s hot sultry summer months. It was early enough in the day that the grass was still wet from the morning’s gray fog. The trees were all shady green. It looked beautiful.
I parked by the library and went inside. It’s important to visit the public library if you want to know what a small town is really like. The public library in Wellsburg is excellent– lots of books crammed into a small space, a colorful children’s room with a rug on the floor that looks like a road map, free computer terminals with a few computers marked out specifically to help the jobless find work. The librarians were chatting at the front desk, opening the building for the day. There’s a museum of town history in one of the library’s rooms. I learned that a famous citizen had spent some time in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. One of the schoolchildren made a model of his prison for a class project, and it’s on a table in the center of the room. Small towns in Ohio love their veterans– justly so.
Cherry was too little to be in school, the last time I was in Wellsburg. She would be a teenager now. I hope she did a project on a grim part of history like this, and got a good grade.
After the library, I drove up and down some more. There’s a park with an old playground that isn’t very nice, and a much prettier park with a gazebo overlooking the water. I went and looked, across to the boats parked at the marina in the town of Brilliant. It’s odd to see the state of Ohio from somewhere other than Ohio, when I’ve been trapped in Ohio for so long.
Next I drove past the courthouse, at just the wrong time. Without all the police cars in front of it, it would have looked like a time capsule, a slice of history: a respectable brick building with white columns out front, the model courthouse from a toy village you’d give to the children to arrange on that road map carpet in the library. Right now, the court was hearing cases. There were police cars parked everywhere. Two burly sheriff’s deputies were escorting one haggard-looking woman out of the back of a black fan. Her hair was down around her face. Her eyes looked sunken in. She wore a bright orange jumpsuit, and her hands were carefully cuffed.
There was no way she could have run away from two heavily-armed police, not with how tired she was. I could have stepped out of my car and knocked her over with one hand. There was surely no reason for the handcuffs. They’re just part of the treatment, something that’s done without thinking in America. Candles on a birthday, cards at Christmas, cuffs when you’re taken to court.
America remains America, even in the places where it’s pretty.
I prayed that, whatever happened to Cherry and her mother, they never ended up like that.
I drove down the main street where the shops are. I tried to remember which of these had been the Cherry Boutique. I think it was the one that’s now an antique store, but it might not have been. She was somewhere along that block, eating ramen and granola bars, sleeping on a mattress behind the counter where her mother was trying to save their lives selling stuffed owls.
Later, I went back to the river.
I parked at the Wellsburg marina, climbed the rough stone steps and sat on the little pier, feeling the Ohio move underneath me. The water there was filthy: brown, nearly opaque, a discarded fender cover floating near the shore and a discarded sandal floating near the pier. From this vantage point, I could see the coal power plant at the other end of Brilliant, as ugly as the mill in Follansbee, vomiting a plume of white carbon into the air. From this vantage point, at that time of the morning, remembering the woman in handcuffs and the story of a poor mother and child who might not have ever made it safely to Wheeling, it seemed like every semblance of innocence and pleasantness in all of the world was a lie.
Then the sun came out from behind a cloud, and the Ohio sparkled.
I could see into the water, instead of just on top of it.
I leaned over to admire the sudden play of color and light that hadn’t been there before.
The river was full of fish– small fish, an inch across. I don’t know what kind of fish they were. At first, I’d mistaken them for the glint of the sun on moving water, but they were real living things. They were yellowish-brown, but flecked with a bit of blue and red near the head. And they were moving upriver in a school.
Somehow, I can’t imagine fish staying alive here between the coal plants in the toxic waters of the Ohio, but they were.
They were swimming upstream, faster than the current.
It felt like a sign.
On the way back to the main road, I passed a nice little house on a double lot, with a vegetable garden. It’s the kind of vegetable garden I grew last year, the kind I will grow next year when our troubles with the menacing neighbor are over. There was a row of tall cornstalks, a shorter row of peppers and tomatoes, rows of greens and squash and herbs. There was also a lawn statue shaped like an owl– not very much like the owls in the Cherry Boutique, but something like them. Near the garden, right by the road, was a park bench heaped with red and green tomatoes. The hand-lettered sign on the park bench read “FREE VEGETABLES NOT BENCH.”
Somehow, it washed the taste of the courthouse right out of my mouth.
I told myself that it was Cherry’s house. They hadn’t moved to Wheeling, they’d had a sudden windfall of very good luck and moved into the brown house near the river. Cherry grew up with only vague memories of her father leaving, them losing the apartment and ending up on a mattress in the back of the shop. She grew up with enough to eat, a mediocre park to play in and a pleasant library to visit. She learned about World War Two from her classmate’s school project which was good enough to go in the town history museum. Every year, she and her mother planted a garden on this spot and shared their good fortune with the neighborhood. One summer, someone went as far as to try to take the bench, and that’s why Cherry wrote the sign the way she did.
Even in the poisonous Ohio river valley, things can stay alive. They go right on swimming upstream, and then they get away.
Someday I will swim away with them.
I don’t know how it’s possible, but it’s true.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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