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Word Portraits

words + photos michael ramsburg


WORD PORTRAITS

Self published by Michael Lee Ramsburg Charleston, WV 25301 www.michaelramsburg.com First Published January 2017 Copyright Š 2016-2017 Michael Ramsburg All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Anyone who wishes to use any material included herein must first seek prior written permission from the author. The text of this book is in Slabo13px and Playfair Display. Layout and design by the author.

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This book is dedicated to you, dear reader. For it is you who keeps me continually inspired to write.

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Author’s Note W​RITING HAS BECOME MY LIFE. It wasn’t always this way. Sure, I’ve always been interested in writing. I’ve had a few things published. Mostly journalistic articles in newspapers and such. But my real passion, my my deepest desire, has alway been to write creatively. So that’s what I did. In August of 2016, I made the decision that I would become the writer that I always wanted to be. I gave myself a challenge: Write one creative piece - a poem or story, a piece of creative nonfiction or an essay every day for a year. Though at the time of this writing (January 2017) I am only halfway through this self-imposed challenge, I’ve already garnished enough material to create several small books. And so, this is the first.

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The following words and images were part of my Word Portraits weekly feature. In the series, I tried to capture a specific everyday event both graphically in the form of a photograph and creatively in the form of nonfiction text. The events detailed herein are in no set chronological order. They do, however, represent a certain time, and a certain place (specifically, Appalachia America). Most of the entries in the series are intentionally brief, and are written in such a way to evoke certain emotions or to challenge ones intellectual curiosity. What you see at surface value may have much deeper meaning. Writing ​

has given me a desire to

continue my creative efforts. While the writing in this book is by no means Pulitzer worthy, I hope it gives you an idea of my writing style and abilities. There will be several more books where this one came from. So please, be on the lookout if you enjoy my work. Finally, I wish to express my deepest sincerity for your continued support of my work. You - yes, you - are the inspiration and motivation that serves my determination to put words to page. Your kind words of support, your offering 6


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of suggestions (or, as the case may be, corrections) have challenged me and kept me cognizant of what I must do to better myself as a writer. Please, continue to keep me motivated - and on track.

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Contents Urban Sunset

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America, By Bus

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The Car Show

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The Protest

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The Holler

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The Drive

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The Barn

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The Wait

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New Vrindaban

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The Museum

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Urban Sunset W​E SIT AT SUNSET, WATCH A BRIGHT BALL​ of fire sink deep into Mother Earth’s arms. In the distance, little lights like man-made fireflies twinkle on silhouetted structures, their luminescence bouncing on the water which sprawls like a

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blue carpet before us. We make small talk — about our day, about our jobs, about our hopes for the future. The rumble of car motors echo behind us, the sound of honking on the distant bridge. Tonight, the noises fall on deaf ears. We have no interest in the now muted sounds of the city surrounding us. We just sit, watching one more sunset creep into our vanishing lives.

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America, By Bus I​T’S QUIET. ALL AROUND ME SITS TIRED SOULS,​ on their way from here to there, no one in a hurry — not that they can be,

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anyway, since they are not in control. We stop. A man gets on, carrying a black trash bag full of things only he knows. “How much for a ride?” he asks our bus driver, who looks not into the passenger’s face. “Day pass, or one ride?” “One ride, sir.” “A buck fifty.” With that, the man reaches into his pocket, pulls out a handful of change, and slips each coin one by one into the tiny grey slot. The silver shines in the evening light, each round mint making a ​

as it goes down.

Before the man with the heavy bag can be seated, the driver pulls off, gets back on route, causing the passenger to grasp an overhead rail before he falls. There’s an open seat beside me. The man sits. I smile, nod hello, scoot to give him a little more room. Silence. No one on the bus speaks. Woman in black shirt with worried look on her face looks straight ahead. Man with tattoo and black hat stares out the window, and the man with the patriotic shirt does the same.

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The yellow cord is pulled. ​

. The bus pulls to the

right. Doors open. The bus driver keeps his gaze ahead. A young woman with a baby in her arms grabs a toddler by the hand, and they exit through the opened door, a muffled, “Thank you,” from the woman’s voice as they step out. The bus continues on, just as it’s required. It will do this all evening, through the night. Everyday. And as it does, another ordinary American day will move forward.

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The Car Show A​T THE CAR SHOW, VINTAGE MODEL T’S SIT s​ ide-by-side of 2000 Firebird’s and 1957 Porsche’s. Each chrome-decked, freshly waxed auto has an underlying story it tries to apprise through brightly-colored paint and the high pitched

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screeching of its honking horn. A throng of sounds — the thump-thump of turned up stereo basses, the vrr-vrr of cranked v8’s, the gasping he-he of amazed toddlers — creates a symphony of steel, rubber and flesh which serenades the gathered souls who’ve come to show, look and tell. Old men in hats that read Vietnam Veteran talk with young men outfitted in Alpha Natural’s uniform of blue pants and shirts with bright yellow reflective stripes. An old lady with a creaky metal walker walks on by. She surveys every car while she walks. Her pace is slow, but her focus is determined. She stops only when she reaches a candy apple red 1970 Chevy Chevelle with two black stripes down the middle. “Is this your car?” she asks the mid-age couple sitting in foldable lawn chairs next to the vehicle. “Sure is, ma’am,” the mid-aged man replies. “My boy had him one just like it,” the old lady says, staring at the car like she’s trying real hard to remember. “It’s a damn shame he had to leave us so soon.” With that, she starts to walk again, her metal walker scraping the pavement as she slowly goes on. 18


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Three cars down a father in a brown American Eagle shirt points to a black 1973 Mustang Mach 1 and whispers something to his pink peace sign shirted daughter. She smiles, and takes her father's hand. Her voice is clear and proud as they walk past me. “Daddy, this is fun,” the little girl says. “Can we do this again next year?” “Sure, sweetie,” the brown-shirt dad says as they both continue to walk hand-in-hand through the car show.

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The Protest “​W​HICH SIDE ARE YOU ON BOYS​, which side are you on…” A chorus of melodic voices chant, their feet moving in time. Forward they go, on to the base of the mountain, the sacred ground on which their ancestors fought. Men, women and children have gathered, onlookers to each side, a force of 21


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passion so strong that the air feels thick with tension. A little boy, red bandanna wrapped around his neck, no more than five, asks through a hand-painted sign: “What future will you leave me?” In the distance, another group of men and women have gathered, some standing on the right, some standing on the left. Clad in blue pants with bright yellow stripes, they yell angry profanities, tender ears be damned. “Go back where you came from!” they spit. “We don’t need you’uns here!” One man among the marchers, 25 years at most, thick black strands of hair pressed against his mocha shirt, his beige shorts and hazel boots on full display, holds a sign that reads Labor + Justice, Mountains + Miners. “I’m from here, ya’ll,” he shouts in defense, gazing at the angry mob. “I’s born up Red Run Holler.”

Around the bend, two sisters — or cousins, maybe, or perhaps just friends — hold a bright orange sign bearing blocked letters written in black permanent marker. Our 22


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miners power your houses, the sign reads. They watch from the side as the protesters march on by, one-by-one, the thud-thud of their feet meeting pavement and the forced notes of their song echoing on the mountains around them. “My daddy is a miner,” one of the orange sign girls shouts. “Ya’ll trying to take his job!” A young lady among the marchers, who looks about the same age as the counter protesters, holds a sign that reads Save Blair Mountain. She stops for a moment, her eyes searching for the voice that just shouted. The protester peers into the eyes of the miner’s daughter. “We’re not trying to take his job,” she says. “We’re trying to protect our land, and our future.”

There’s a fight. Loud, angry shouting. Reporters swarm, cameras and mics raised. “You have no right to be here! Get the fuck out of here!” “You have no right to destroy this mountain, this history! You’re the one that has no right to be here!” 23


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“This is a free country — I can be wherever the hell I want to be!” An officer approaches. The crowd parts back. “Sir, you’re under arrest.” “For what?” “Trespassing.” A little boy, maybe nine, a wild mop of brown hair on his head, watches as an impassioned gentleman is placed in thick metal cuffs and lead off into the distance. The bewilderment in the boy's’ eyes is palpable. “​

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The Holler E​IGHT O’CLOCK UP THE HOLLER,​ and the sun is just beginning to reach the spots that were previously dark under the shadows of the surrounding mountains. The morning rays illuminate the green grass, each viridescent blade shining in hopeful splendor. Blotches of gold on already turned leaves

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paint a living Seurat on an otherwise bland land. Neighbors here are few and far between, their little houses — many long past their age of maturity, crumbling shingles and peeling paint as proof of decay — dotting leveled tracks on hillside plots. Kudzu creeps up lonely telephone poles, the only connection to the outside world for some of these folks. Occasionally, a singular streetlight can be seen on a power pole, an effort to light an otherwise eerily dark corner of the Earth, a reminder to the outside world that indeed, this place is inhabited. A mile drive down a sadly patched one lane, an incoming car pulls rightward and stops in a ditch to let me on by. A closer inspection of the vehicle make and a quick glance at the driver indicates it’s someone I know, so a wave of the hand and a tilt of head is all that’s needed to wish my neighbor a good day and thank them for the courteous pass. Soon, I’ll be out of the holler, where one lane will fork into two, then two lanes into four, and the locals become not so local, and the friends become unknowns. More people, more houses, less and less friendly waves; the trek from holler to city feels like a trip to a whole other world. 26


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At the end of the day, I’ll turn back, leave the city’s hurried streets, and return to my quiet patch of earth. For while I can escape the holler, the holler can never escape me; it’s the place where my heart is, and as they say, where your heart is — well, that’s home.

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The Drive T​HE TWO LANE STRETCHES ONWARD,​ its curved pavement snaking around the mountain contour. All around, remnants of a quickly dying autumn dot the landscape. Foliage of gold and crimson blanket the mountain ground, while the last of resolute leaves cling hopefully to otherwise barren branches.

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Soon this land will turn a dark brown, as the nights get longer and the air gets colder, but for now we just take in the view, admiring it while we are able. “Can you believe how quickly this year has gone by?” The passenger’s voice cracks through still air, rupturing the low hum of the FM radio. “Too quick,” I say, watching the road before me. I think about all that’s happened this year. The birth of my niece. The decline in my father’s memory. The plots playing out across the world — Brexit, Syria, the rise of Donald Trump. How I am one year older, one day closer to the end — and yet all I want is for life to slow down, for all of humanity to get along and for the world to straighten up so Love has a chance at peace in her time on Planet Earth. “Look!” the passenger says, interrupting my thought. In a clearing outside the window, past barren hillside trees, a buck stands regally. His head is lowered to the ground, his pointed snout rummaging through some dropped apples. “One, two, three…” The passenger counts the number of points on the deer’s antlers. “Nine. A nine point. Too bad it’s not gun season yet.” 30


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I nod my head in agreement. A nine point would make suitable game, and the meat from the creature would feed a family or two for some time. In a week , the unlucky fellow may find himself unsuspecting prey to an eager hunter. But for now, he is free to just go about his business, eating ground apples with no care. A news bulletin screeches through the radio. I twist the volume button so the sound is more audible.

“That’s real smart,” the passenger quips. “Appoint a white supremacist as counsel.” I shake my head in disbelief. The irony of the Star of David dangling from the rear view mirror is not lost on me. Glancing into the mirror, I watch the regal buck continue his carefree feast.

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“I’m not sure Mr. Buck is the only one who will soon have to worry,” I say, my eyes falling back to the never ending road before me. The passenger says nothing, though his blank expression screams agreement. On we go in silence, our carefree autumn drive our only worry. For now, at least, we’re safe.

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The Barn A​UTUMN IS COMING TO A CLOSE. ​Morning earth is dusted with a cold frozen glaze, turning once-green grass a soft shade of hazelnut. Branches, once vibrant and full of colorful leaves,

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now are barren, little stubs reaching toward the heavens as if pleading for spring. I walk this barren land, with fields of light mocha, silent but for an occasional gust of wind ruffling now dead leaves and the distant sound of some woodland creature out for a late autumn bite to eat. After two days of clouds and cold November drizzle, the terra firma now has a certain aquatic smell. Still, the water is much needed, and the puddles it has left behind will make a perfect watering hole for the local creatures. Crossing a mountain ridge, I come to the top of a hill, clear mostly of trees save for one placed here or there, or those forming a boundary line in the distance. There, in the middle of a field, guarded with a makeshift fence, stands an old barn, who has seen the best of its days. Just like everything else in this land, and in this season, the stable seems to be on the last of its earthly stretch, with unpatched holes and rotten wood slowly decaying in plain sight. From the nearby farmhouse, an elderly Mrs. Johnson — long widowed and forevermore alone — comes outside to see who might be at the edge of her land. From my distance, I 34


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watch her creep out, back hunched from years of living, feet crawling at a snail's pace. She stops, raises her hand above her eyes to keep out the sun, and squints to see better. “Hey Mrs. Johnson,” I shout, not because of the distance, but more because of her slowly declining ability to hear. “Oh hey Michael,” she quips back, and eases a bit. “I’s just seeing who was out here. I thought I might have heard someone.” She slowly makes her way to the edge of the steps. As she does, I watch a tiny squirrel run up the field, acorns from a nearby tree in his mouth. He scurries his way into the broken barn — his refuge from the days bitter cold — clinging to the last of nature's bounty, even as everything around him dies. “Why don’t you come in?” Mrs. Johnson asks me, as I approach her house. “I’ll put on a fresh pot of coffee. I just made some cookies.” Her generosity is heartfelt. But it also comes from a place of desperate loneliness. I know this, because ever since

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her husband’s death, she’s been more quiet, more distant, more withdrawn. I look at Mrs. Johnson, a soft smile overcoming my face. “Sure,” I say in response to her offer, making my way up the steps to her ever disintegrating house. Even in the midst of everything dying around her, Mrs. Johnson still clings to those things that give her hope.

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The Wait W​AITING. ALWAYS WAITING, ​ I think. I stand in line at the grocery store, anticipating a friendly smiling face to inquire, “Did you find everything ok?”

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My turn approaches, and before the kind lady can finish her sentence, I respond in autopilot, “Yes, thanks.” The words burst forth from my mouth in an obviously hurried manner. I have places to be, things to do, and standing in a grocery line is holding me back. In my rush, I neglect the common courtesy of asking the tired cashier, easily in her 60s, how her day has been. Still, as she finishes my order, she smiles, hands me change and receipt, and adds, “Have a beautiful day, love.” For a moment, her sincere words slow me. “Thank you,” I say.

At the dreaded post office, I queue behind a young mother. There’s a child all of five twirling to her right, a preschooler with a tiny balled fist pulling on her shirt, a baby with bouncing legs strapped plump against her chest, and an overly large package in her arms. “Mommy, can we go yet?” the preschooler inquires. She reminds the youngster that it’s necessary they wait their turn. The preschooler does not seem pleased with this answer, and becomes more fidgety. The child of five 38


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twirls faster now, while the baby on the young mother’s chest begins to cry. The frazzled mother whispers to all her children, “Shhh…we don’t want to disturb the other customers.” The only other customer, besides the oblivious soul chatting with the postmaster at the window, is me. The mother, even in her discomfort, was worried about me.

I walk through darkening streets, drizzle steadily pelting my head from overcast skies. I’m irritated. My feet are soaked from wading through unavoidable puddles. Can’t this damn city do something about this drainage, I think to myself. A car speeds by, hitting a mud puddle. The water shatters forth and proceeds to drench me. “Fuck!” I say aloud, now soaked all over. An elderly gentleman in a white baseball cap and blue coat is standing nearby, waiting for a bus. He reaches into a plastic shopping bag, pulls out some napkins. “It’s all I got, but it might help you get some of that water off,” he says, extending his gift to me. I smile, and take the napkin.

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For the third time today, the Universe reminds me that even in the wait — even when we’re facing hardship, discomfort, and inconvenience of our own — little acts of human kindness extended to someone else can often make someone’s day. Today, that someone else was me.

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New Vrindaban T​O GET TO NEW VRINDABAN​,you must drive through mountain back roads, down a holler that passes a palace made of gold, built where the community trash pile once stood. There are lakes here — bitter cold in the dipping

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temperatures of late autumn. Giant statues of two dancing twins, one in blue sari and one in yellow, dot the mountainside. Swans and peacocks roam these hills freely, and cows too — the later of which, sacred to this community, will live their days with no fear of being turned into someone's dinner. At the temple’s entrance — which looks more like a grand modern cabin than a South Asian shrine — we are greeted by a man in saffron robe. He’s bald for the most part, save for a tail of hair that’s pulled into a pony on the back of his head by a black band. He smiles, bows with praying hands pressed together, as if he’s trying to greet our spirits. “Namaste,” he greets us. From inside, a chorus of ecstatic voices chant together.

“The pooja is about to begin,” the saffron clad greeter says. “Please, come in.” Inside, colorful statues adorned with flowers smile at onlookers. A group of thirty or so souls sit barefoot and cross legged on a warmed wooden floor. There’s a happy, almost

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festive feel to the air, and the gatherers loudly sing their fervent song.

The faint sound of small, clinking bells are heard. From seemingly out of nowhere, an older man in white robes walks to the statues, chanting with each step. He stands before the statues, sacred words in Hindi and English sliding from his lips. From a nearby vessel, he pours milk over the stone deities, offering them an auspicious bath. “Can you believe we’re still in West Virginia?” my companion on this journey whispers to me. I smile in amazement and nod “​

.” If it weren’t for the thick drawl in the

groups collective mouthing of hare, one might well think that we’re inside a temple on the streets of Mumbai.

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The Museum H​ISTORY SURROUNDS US. LITERALLY.​ We stand in a dome a soft shade of blue, images from a bygone era flashing in sepia tones over our head. We listen to a baritone narrator with an

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impeccable voice inflection bark on about rural school children, rocket competitions and Homer Hickam. “You think these kids ever thought they’d one day see themselves in a museum?” my companion on this trip inquires about the youthful faces that flash above our heads. “Probably not,” I say, thinking about how ironic it would be to one day meander my elderly self into a public gallery only to see a younger version of me flashing on digital screen. “It’s interesting to think that history is built on the backs of the ordinary, that we study what our mothers and fathers and grandparents and great grandparents lived,” my companion notes. He’s right, of course. History is merely a series of decisions that are met with consequences and recorded through our own filter for the sake of future generations. Our conversation is suddenly interrupted by the fussing screeches of our tiny, five month old accomplice. I bend beside her stroller, try for a moment to direct her eyes to these children from the past floating above our heads.She

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stops crying, her eyes distracted by the time-traveling strangers. I stand, grab the stroller’s handlebar, and begin the journey to the next exhibit, turning my head toward the adult companion. “Let’s just hope the chapter of history we’re living is one remembered fondly for ​Love’s​ generation,” I say.

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