SHORT STORY | “Letter from Kentucky” by J.D. Daniels


CAMBRIDGE, MASS. |  Cambridge-based essayist J.D. Daniels is among the 10 recipients of this year’s Whiting Award, the Whiting Foundation revealed Wednesday evening in New York City. Daniels, who has lived in Cambridge since 2003, has contributed to the Boston University-based literature and arts magazine AGNI, as well as n+1 and The Oxford American.

The Whiting Award, given annually to promising writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama, comes with a prize of $50,000, its winners selected from a pool put forth by anonymous nominators also chosen by the Foundation. Past winners include David Foster Wallace, August Wilson, and Alice McDermott.

Whiting Award Citation

J. D. Daniels’s essays reveal a sharp, ironic intelligence and a keen sense of rhythm. His work has an exhilarating nimbleness, the ability to pivot or shift within a sentence and open up new territory. His essays often explore the way in which you can go in search of one story and find another one unfolding. These often end up being stories about masculinity, too, with a deliberately macho tone that he both reinforces and undercuts. Daniels is fluid and funny, and while for the most part he keeps his fists flying, occasionally he holds up his hands and lets himself get punched in the gut, a disarming vulnerability that completes and complicates his self-portrait.


“America By Car” | Photograph by Lee Friedlander

John C. Skaggs was born in Green County in 1805, thirteen years after Kentucky became our fifteenth state. His son, Ben Skaggs, was born in 1835 in Bald Hollow and married Missouri Ann Carter.
Their second eldest boy, Will Franklin Skaggs, had his pick of Pleasant Poteet’s granddaughters: he could have had Delilah or Myrtie Scripture, but he chose Ella Green Poteet; and their third child, after Carter C. and Elvie Omen, was Sylvia May.

Meanwhile, in Larue County, Elmina G. Dixon married Bryant Young Miller’s boy, and they bore a girl they called Mary Bothena Doctor Bohanan Sarah Lucritia Miller Rock, who, mercifully, named her own son Charlie.

And Thomas Jefferson Quinley’s daughter Sefronia married Edwin Russell Wheatley, and begat Mildred Lucille, who married Robert Raymond Salisbury, who called himself Butch Daniels—of whom we will not speak.

Their son married Charlie and Sylvia’s daughter, and begat me: “His Majesty the Ego,” as Freud wrote in 1908, “the hero of all daydreams and all novels.”

This happened in Kentucky, except for the Freud part. That happened in Austria.

I was born in Kentucky and lived there for the better part of three decades.

As schoolchildren we were taught that the word Kaintuckee came from Ka-ten-ta-teh, which meant, in Cherokee, “the dark and bloody ground.”

Later they said Ken-tah-ten meant “future land” in Iroquois. In high school, they claimed it was Wyandot for “land of tomorrow,” and I recall a field trip to see a documentary with that name.

Before long historians were telling us it could be Seneca for “place of meadows,” or it might be a Mohawk word, Kentah-ke, meaning “meadow.”

And from time to time there was an expert, often but not always on a barstool, who argued that the region in its pristine state had seemed to its settlers to be nothing but wild turkeys and river canebrakes: Kaneturkee.

It was clear that no one had any idea what he was talking about—and, in this manner, the most valuable part of our education was received.

Photography by Lee Friedlander

I flew back to Kentucky on a cold spring day aboard a paper airplane that every sneeze of wind knocked sideways. Next time I’ll swim. Everyone hates flying. Even birds hate flying.

A sign in the airport said LOUISVILLE WELCOMES TOGETHER FOR THE GOSPEL NAZARENE YOUTH INTERNATIONAL 2012 PENTECOSTAL FIRE YOUTH CONFERENCE. There was nowhere to sleep. The many hotel rooms of downtown Louisville were occupied by boys and men in red T-shirts with white crucifixes ironed on. They stood in traffic, gawking.

Someone had cut down the peach tree in the front yard of my old Preston Street house. There was a scrap of vinyl siding across the front step, and plastic wrap on the inside windows to keep out the draft, and wax paper fluttering under a gap in the door.

Across the street from that house had once been the only bar where they had known what I wanted, a shot of Jim Beam and a bottle of Sterling, and Bill set it up every time he saw me coming. It was called B & B Bar, said to have been named for its owner Bill and then for Bill again, because what kind of name is the B-Bar.

I had seen an old man get shot in front of that bar because he wouldn’t give two kids his bicycle. I snorted pills off the back of the toilet in that bar with a woman I didn’t understand was a prostitute: but later it became clear to me.

Blind John, still dripping rain from his trip to the ATM, offered me a hundred dollars to let him go down on me. “I think you’re in the wrong bar,” I said. “Maybe you are,” he said.

I lost a lot of money shooting nine ball in that bar. Listen to your uncle Tim-Tom and never play pool for money against a man called Doc.

I saw a little man stab a big man with a carving knife on that bar’s front steps. Later the wet knife glimmered under the streetlight on the hood of a prowl car. The big man went to the hospital; the little man went to the penitentiary. I don’t know where the bar went.

“America By Car” (2008) by Lee Friedlander

I drove down the tractor-trailer plant where my father had managed the repair shop, but the plant had closed. I had worked there twice.

The first time was in the touch-up shop with Orville, soldering brakelight wires and repainting trailers Andrew had banged his forklift into, as a summer job and as a warning from my father: this was the kind of job I was going to wind up with if I didn’t straighten up and fly right. I was the only man in that garage with ten fingers.

The second time was in the decal shop as a college dropout. I had not straightened up, I had not flown right, this was the kind of job I had wound up with.

By day, Mayflower trailers, Frito-Lay trailers, Budweiser and Bud Light trailers, Allied trailers; by night, drinking Colt 45 with Allen down by the train trestles, and later Boyd crawling around on the floor with a cardboard box on his head, insisting that he was a Christmas present. I read The Faerie Queene—counting syllables, thinking about the number seven—and thought: One of these days I am going to jump off the Second Street Bridge.

Finley’s was gone, too, nothing but a pile of bricks. At Indi’s, eating the rib tips with red sauce and macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes and gravy, I listened: “You never know. That’s what I told them at his funeral this morning. I said all right, see you later. But I was wrong.”

And I remembered my friend Allen asking me if I saw a plain white van parked across from his house down by the racetrack.

Allen said, “Tell me something, man. The van is real? I’m not paranoid? It’s been parked there for days. Three days.”

“I am sure that is true.”

“Listen—am I crazy? Could it be the FBI?”

“Allen,” I said, seated in his forest of pot plants, “let me ask you a question. What amount of drugs and paraphernalia is in your house, do you think? And what is it the FBI gets paid to do all day? I am one hundred percent certain it is the FBI. I will see you later.”

I said see you later, but I was wrong. I did not see Allen later. Allen went to jail.

“America By Car” (2008) by Lee Friedlander

I took the Gene Snyder Freeway out to the Bible College and got off at Beulah Church and drove past AMF Derby Lanes (“all you can bowl”) and Highview Church of God and Highview Baptist Church and Victory Baptist Church Camp.

An old woman with a long gray ponytail was doing yard work, cutting back bushes I had planted in front of the house where I had grown up, where I had tried to grow up. A tired black dog lay in the yard, her yard now, not mine.

It’s an old story. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh: you go back to the place, but the place isn’t there any more.

I drove out of Fern Creek down Bardstown Road toward Buechel, past Cash Xpress and Mister Money, past Xtreme Auto Sounds and Ventura’s Used Tires and Global Auto Glass, and past the Heart of Fire City Church, the pastor of which had once helped us move some furniture and when it came time for my mother to write him a check for his services he said, “Don’t cheat a blind man, sister, I can’t read.”

I drove to my uncle Charles’s house out in Okolona, past Latino Auto Service and the Godfather (the strip joint that once had on its marquee THE MAYOR IS GAY PLEASE SUE SO I CAN PROVE IT), past Liquor Palace 5 and Discount Medical Supplies, past Furniture Liquidators Home Center, past Cash America Pawn and Cashland, past the Mower Shop, past Los Mezcales and El Molcajete, past Big Ron’s Bingo and Cashtyme Cash Advance (“You’re Good For It!”), past Moore’s Sewing & Learning Center, and DePrez Quality Jewelry & Loan, and Floors Unlimited, and Chain Saw World.

I turned on the rental car’s radio and the man on the radio said, “Your gift right now, just twenty dollars a month, could help. Seventy-three more gifts needed. People like you, doing their part. One song left in this challenge. Standing in the gap for those who need it. We here believe in the infallible Word of God. Unchanging principles for changing times.”

I drove past something. Then I drove past something else.

“1499-3: New Mexico” (2001) by Lee Friedlander

“There is an awful lot of drugs now in these small towns and big towns both,” my uncle Charles said. “You may not know the police shot that boy you all used to play with. Said he was cooking meth down there in his shed. They had him surrounded and he came out alone with his pistol. Found thirty-seven shell casings when it was all done with. What was his name?” But Charles couldn’t remember the dead man’s name.

“You’ll stay with us tonight,” my aunt Alice Carol said.

“I have a hotel room near the airport.”

“Honey, everything in this town is near the airport.”

“I guess I made a foolish decision.”

“You’ve always been foolish.”

My aunt was teasing me. She didn’t think I was so bad. One Thanksgiving—we were listening to the old boys jaw for hours about hiding up a tree with my grandfather’s shotgun in order to shoot a neighbor’s brown dog that had killed two of their chickens, and after both barrels were empty there was nothing left but the dog’s collar and its tail, which they’d helped the neighbor bury—she had turned to me and said, “If you want to be a writer, why don’t you go get a pen and paper and write down all these lies?”

Standiford Field was now called Louisville International Airport and the Executive West hotel was the Crowne Plaza, but Executive Strike & Spare still stood on the other side of Phillips Lane. I walked across the street and shot nine-ball for a couple of lazy hours. It turns out it’s like riding a bike—you never forget how, and especially not if you never knew how in the first place.

Overheard at the bar: “He and his friends see this old man take his wallet out at the liquor store, so they know he’s got money, and they follow him home. But his wife’s there. Now that’s two counts. I called him and his mother says, He ain’t here. I called back. I said, Santino, I heard you cut your monitor off.

You know you got court this Friday? You coming? You know that’s another felony? Do not shave your head again, I told him.”

“It’s funny what order we all remember the salad dressings in.”

“My youngest daughter has excellent upper-body strength.”

“I sleep very well on the floor.”

Photograph By Vincent Borelli

I took 64 East out of Louisville through the junction. Panels of cars and blown-out tires were scattered in the breakdown lane. I passed Exit 8, the off-ramp to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, such as Southern Baptist theology is. The speed limit rose to seventy, and mangled deer, coon, possum, turkeys, and skunks began to appear.

Over the Kentucky River in Fayette County, I stopped and for three dollars I ate a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy that would almost have fit into a football stadium.

“Here comes Rex. Today’s to-do list: raise hell with the waitresses.”

“That ain’t on his list. That’s just normal.”

I did not change to the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, which is the way I would have gone fifteen years earlier if I’d been drinking beer with my friend Gary on our way to Red River Gorge before he went crazy and they put him away in Central State for the first time, but not the last.

Gary was a big boy, ugly and pale, with a nose like a peeled potato. I’m not just saying that because my ex-wife slept with him once. We all slept around. She slept with Larry, too, but I don’t have anything bad to say about Larry. I myself almost slept with Larry, he was irresistible, a beautiful man. Gary and Larry—these names have been changed to protect the innocent, but not mine: I am guilty.

But before any of that happened Gary and I were good friends, and we were together in the pro-Martin faction when Lawyer Jack pulled a knife on Big Martin one night in the kitchen of the Highland House and Martin just shrugged and picked up the kitchen table and hit Jack with it.

Gary and I agreed on that dispute and on other important matters, we camped out together, we got high and talked about numerology, and it was in this way that I became important enough to him to lash out at when he fell ill.

“You blue-eyed Jew,” he said to me as his mind disappeared. “You dumb piece of fuck. I’m going to stuff six dollars and ninety cents in pennies up your ass and staple it shut.”

Six-ninety was 138—which was 23 times 6 (the 2 and 3 of 23 multiplied)—times 5 (the 2 and 3 of 23 added). Gary could go on for hours about the significance of these numbers to him. He had infinite bad luck, he would say, because of 138: an unlucky 13 conjoined with the sideways Möbius strip of an 8.

They wheeled him away, strapped to a stretcher.

Gary had written, “Jack looks like your dad! Whew! Happy reading!” in the copy of On The Road he’d given me for Christmas in 1992. I don’t remember if I read it or not. It’s about a road.

I didn’t have a Dean Moriarty for my long car trip, but I had the man on the car radio. And the man on the radio said: “Pieces of the Divine puzzle will be played out in the coming economic Armageddon. From crisis to consolidation. I want you to pray for me today.”

Lee Friedlander, “Letters from the People” (1993)

We sang about the Blood Wednesday nights at church suppers, Thursday nights at choir practices, mornings and evenings on Sundays, and every summer at a peacock-ridden revival camp in Alabama.

The old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine. There is a fountain filled with blood. I must needs go on the blood-sprinkled way. He bled, He died to save me. How I love to proclaim it, redeemed by the blood.

They vainly purify themselves, said Heraclitus, by defiling themselves with blood, just as if one who had stepped into the mud were to wash his feet in mud. Any man who marked him doing thus would deem him mad.

Our pastor had a method. After his sermon, we sang “Just As I Am” over and over again—without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and so on. We would sing until someone gave in. We sang all day.

It was the same unrelenting method of the middle school phys-ed coach who, perceiving that Weak Henry was weak, hit on the technique of making the whole class do extra push-ups until Henry finished his allotted twenty. Henry couldn’t make it happen. We did twenty more, thirty more, forty; and after class, Demetrius and Alonzo beat Henry in the locker room until he peed.

One morning, after an hour of “Just As I Am,” my mother shrieked and fell into the aisle. My father helped her stand. His face was strange. The two of them knelt and prayed at the altar. A nice old lady wearing a white gauze eye patch smiled. I waited to see what the people who told me what to do were going to tell me to do next.

It was this child grown into a man, then, if anyone ever grows up, who now drove past Lynn Camp Baptist Church, who drove past Hazel Fork Holiness Church and Living Waters Pentecostal Church, who drove past Faith Tabernacle Pentecostal Church and Turkey Creek Baptist Church short of breath, sweating like a sinner, drowning in blood.

I played Jesus one year and Judas the next in the passion play. I taught Vacation Bible School, and visited and sang hymns to the homebound, and, all that rigamarole having been accomplished, I chased the preacher’s daughter through the cornfield after Sunday evening services until I caught her.

And my father mowed the field out back of our church. He helped Deacon Jack repaint the sanctuary and he helped Deacon Willy reshingle the roof. He cooked and served at the Wednesday night church suppers and was happy to do it. But he didn’t have much time for what he called churchified people.

“I find it difficult to believe that the Creator of the universe gives a fuck if I drink a cold beer on a sunny day,” my father said. “These people can’t say sugar, they just got to say sucrose. Meanwhile they don’t have no more idea what God wants from me than the man in the moon. It’s my own dick I’m talking about, and I can jump up and down on it like a pogo stick if I want to.”

“Self and Family” | Photo by Lee Friedlander

I thought I was back in Kentucky to write a magazine story about a TV show set in Harlan County. That isn’t how things worked out. I wrote this letter instead.

Harlan is not nowhere. What you want to do is this: You drive to nowhere, then you turn left. You keep going until page eighty-eight, the last page of the atlas and gazetteer with its detailed topographical maps, which has apparently been paginated on the assumption that Harlan is the last place you’re going to want to go.

In Harlan, in the morning, a woman walked across a restaurant and closed my notebook and said, “You can work all day, honey. Eat your biscuits while they’re hot.”

And the woman at the hotel’s front desk said, “If you’re like those other people, you’re going to want a zero balance.”

“I guess I am like other people.”

“I know all you government men like to keep a zero balance.”

I passed Daniels Mountain and Manito Hill. Out past Tin Can Hollow, I turned south on 25E. I passed Clear Creek Baptist Bible College and John’s Tire Discount and an immense sign that said ARE YOU ADDICTED TO PAIN MEDICATION?

I bore south through Meldrum and Middlesboro (home of the actor Lee Majors, aka Harvey Lee Yeary, aka Colonel Steve Austin, “The Six Million Dollar Man”) all the way to the corner of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, aka the Cumberland Gap.

Pale pink-and-white dogwoods and purple wildflowers lined the ascent to Pinnacle Overlook. At the gap Boone had penetrated a wall of rock and forest 600 miles long and 150 miles wide. He saw a new world, where all the old mistakes waited to be made again.

When Boone was asked if he had gotten lost in that forest, he said: I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.

Photo by Lee Friedlander

Back on 25E, heading north, I drove through crumbling hills past West Roger Hollow through Corbin into Laurel County. I drove past Magic Vapor Shop and Tri-State Flooring. I took 192 East to the Hal Rogers Parkway out past Lick Fork.

Soon I saw a barn I remembered. I saw horses and cows, trailers up on broken cinder blocks, front yards full of table legs and coffee cans. I passed Urban Creek Holiness Church. I passed Jimbo’s 4-Lane Tobacco and the Federal Correctional Institution.

At Burning Springs I turned on 472 to head toward Fogertown, where barns had been reclaimed by the land, overgrown with tall trees poking through holes in their roofs. At Muncey Fork was a burnt-down house. Creeping vines were pulling down telephone poles and billboards.

All at once and with no fanfare I passed Cornett Charolais, where I had spent many pleasant Sunday afternoons with old Joe Dale and Dale Junior and Linda and Bessie—pleasant is a pious lie—more like bored, bored, not knowing what all of this would one day mean, what I would one day want to pretend it had all meant.

I wanted it to mean to me what it meant to my father: home and happiness with his foster family. I liked being sent to slop out the hogs after dinner, listening to the rustling in the dark along the fence line. I liked hiking in the rocky hills with my father, seeing that he was calm and pleased, seeing the shale and sandstone and limestone and schist and slate. I liked walking across fields and hearing him holler, “Sookie! Sook calf!”

Apart from those pleasures I had been bored and sullen, reading photocopied pages of The Antichrist folded inside Sports Illustrated, waiting to escape from that army of hayseeds. But twenty years later my father’s foster mother is dead, as anyone but me might have foreseen, because she was a person and not a tree; and I would eat a photocopier in exchange for two more bowls of her soup beans and cornbread—one for me, and one for my father, to whom it would mean the world made young again.

Instead I name these places. I throw my song into the mouth of death. I break his teeth. There is no death, there is no hell.

Photographs by Lee Friedlander

I drove past the old Russell House Grocery, and there was what I wanted to find: the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, established 1860. I have seen my father cry three times, and one of those times was in this church, at his foster father’s funeral.

The second time I saw my father cry was while he was strangling me. He had said my friends, Scott and Allen and Gary, were no-good weirdos and long-haired faggots, and I was on the verge of becoming one too, and that if I didn’t act right he was going to cut my hair himself with the lawnmower.

I dared him to, more than a little frightened that he would try it. That was just the sort of thing he was always doing: kicking in a locked door, or pushing around a far-too-young panhandler with a sign that claimed he had been a VIETNAM VETERAN.

“Step around the corner, John Henry,” my father said, “I’d like to have a word with this young man in private.” He nudged the kid with his boot. “Yes, I do mean you—you dilapidated cocksucker.”

And afterwards, in the cab of his truck, trembling, beating his fists against the steering wheel, he said, “What’s the matter with these people, Johnny? I’m a Vietnam veteran. And just look at me. I’m fine. I’m fine!”

I dared my father to cut my hair, and he picked me up by my throat and smashed me against the wall, then threw me through the doorway into my bedroom and leapt on top of me, and he was strangling me with both hands and shaking me and cursing and shouting at me before he came to his senses and started to cry.

“My family is falling apart,” he said, and it was true, I was destroying our family, why couldn’t I do as I was told without having impulses and desires of my own.

That is the second time I saw my father cry. The third time is private.

It’s not as if my friends weren’t no-good weirdos. Big Scott had come over earlier that afternoon, and my father had said, “Hey, gorilla.” Then: “Scotty, come here, boy, you’re hurt.”

My father had glimpsed a bloody letter s above the collar of Scott’s T-shirt. He pulled the collar down and saw the still-bleeding word pussy, which Big Scott had cut into his chest with a razorblade moments before sprinting over to show me.

“Who did this to you, boy?” my father said. “You can tell me.”

Scott looked at my father.

“I don’t believe that,” my father said. “No.”

“Thinking” | Photo by Lee Friedlander

I didn’t want to write about my father, but I don’t seem to have much choice. There is no such thing as a repressed impulse: the inside and the outside are the same side.

What serpent’s-tooth-sharp story is this to tell about the man who helped to give me life, who saved my life when I was choking on shish kebab (thereby earning, certain tribesmen might argue, the right to choke me himself ), who sacrificed his body at punishing jobs in order that I might have shish kebab to choke on?

Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you—and I hope you choke on it.

I visit my father in the Florida Everglades and I see a nice old man. Just this week, he mailed me his sausage-gravy recipe. (“Step Five: Buy helmet, put on, tongue smacking top of mouth may cause injury.”) I am deceived: Where has this nice old man hidden the menacing ogre of my childhood?

His aim was to protect me from the darkness all around us, using the darkness inside himself. All that darkness had to be good for something, didn’t it? That was what the darkness was for, wasn’t it?—not only for tormenting him and, using him as its instrument, everyone he loved?

It’s nothing to get upset about, it isn’t even me it happened to, that person died in 1995, he died again in 2003 and again at the beginning of this sentence. He’s been dying for most of act 5, scene 2. Maybe someone ought to stab him again.

The man on the radio said, “Four famine scenarios. How to prepare for an economic crisis of Biblical proportions. The salt plan: how to turn adversity into advantage.”

“Whence comest thou, Deceiver?” I said. “From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it?”

“Be a blessing to others in times of economic turndown. This book will help you get your head straight about what is happening in the world today, and it’s very personal and practical at one hundred and forty-two pages.”

“Leave me alone,” I said to the man on the radio. “That’s just the word God, the word the conjure man uses to wring hot tears out of the wet rag of your heart. I don’t want the word God, but the Word of God.”

The man on the radio said to me: I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.

I said, “Ah, Lord God, I cannot speak, for I am a child.”

But the man on the radio said: Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.

I wept until I had to pull over. God had laid His burning hand on me. If you don’t turn the radio off, you can’t drive anywhere in this country.

Essayist J.D. Daniels

ABOUT THE AUTHOR |  J. D. DANIELS studied at the University of Louisville and Boston University. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, AGNI, n+1, Oxford American, The Best American Essays, and elsewhere. Daniels is the recipient of The Paris Review’s 2013 Terry Southern Prize. His collection, The Correspondence, will be published in 2017. “Letter from Kentucky” first appeared in The Paris Review (Winter 2012).

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