In 1961, when I was ten, my mother and I lived in a second story apartment building across from the Mercer County Courthouse in Princeton, West Virginia. The place was a human hive, with noise and activity day and night. The Strouts at the top of the stairs always left their door open, letting TV and loud talk blare into the hallway. The Wines next door had a toddler who ran a lot, inciting my mom to bang on the wall for quiet. I was too young to get the irony.
Most kept their doors open, separated from the dim hallway by thin screen doors. Quiet and privacy didn’t exist. Instead, life and stories dwelled within our two-bedroom apartments: laughter, yelling, and occasional violence. Silence was never a sure thing, even at night, since a fight might spill out into the hallway and continue with maybe somebody thrown down the steps. I’d seen plenty of that at the last place we’d lived, a dingy hotel that housed the dispatcher’s office of the taxi company my father worked for. But then Mom had Dad arrested for non-support, and at the end of summer, we moved into the apartment building across the street from the Mercer County jail, where he was a prisoner.
Mom and I had been helped into this more stable situation by my grandparents who, at the other end of town, lived worlds away from Courthouse Square. My sister, whom they’d adopted as an infant, got home-cooked meals, clean sheets, a backyard with apple tree and swings while I got dust and cigarette smoke, canned beans cooked on a hot plate, Cokes, and shakes from Princeton Pharmacy plus greasy burgers and fries from the Grand Hotel (which, cockroach-infested, was not grand).
And nearly complete freedom.
The last few weeks of August before school started, I was left to explore within that claustrophobic community of adults and children younger than I. Soon I would have school, friends, and their neighborhoods. Until then, I had this new home that would become my Courthouse Castle.
Right away, it had perks beyond the nearby delicious restaurant food. I had access to DC comics at Princeton Pharmacy just downstairs, every bit as important to my literary development as the classics I’d discover years later in graduate school. Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Flash, and the Justice League taught me dialogue, story, pacing, and theme. It’d be a couple more years before Marvel hit the scene with Spiderman, Hulk, and the Fantastic Four, changing the whole game. Imagination became my best friend.
My castle’s tiny back porch was a high turret towering over the alley below, parallel to Honaker Avenue from which I could view the new bowling alley as well as the aging elementary school I’d soon be attending. The alley-moat flowed into another perpendicular alley outside our window, providing the most interesting scenery. Below us was the liquor store, always busy, especially on paydays when customers didn’t wait to get home to sample their mead. I witnessed a lot of pissing and puking, gazing down from my window high above.
But it was the Upper Room church across the alley and above the liquor stores that provided the most spectacular entertainment. Several nights a week this church congregation shook our windows and walls with their raucous singing. I wish I could hear it now, 58 years later, with the handclapping, the harmonies, the joy!—and experience it without the filter of my mom’s constant complaints. In memory, those services went on for hours and were loud. I’d try to sleep but couldn’t stop worrying about what they were doing over there. Though I hadn’t yet heard about snake-handlers (thank God), Mom had described holy rollers who’d get so fired up that they’d literally fall onto the floor and writhe. That thought terrified a boy who’d only ever experienced his grandparents’ First Baptist Church, with its calm one-hour Sunday services bookended by quietly sung hymns.
I hear the Upper Roomers now in full-throated roar: Joshua’s warriors howling down walls, singing to save miners, drunks, and whores. Within a few years, I’d be singing and shouting down walls of the roughest nightclubs in the McDowell County coalfields—but that was rock and roll, not religion. I was in my thirties before I realized the two venues shared quite a few similarities.
Down in the alley-moat behind Grand Hotel, the tossed-out coffee grounds mulched the ruts where cars used to but now seldom ever drove. There, I happily set fires in the garbage cans, a practice surely not sanctioned but ignored, where a boy like me drank down the same freedom as the drunks. I got by with a lot. Within a couple of years, I’d be stealing from the pharmacy teen mags featuring all my favorite groups from Beatles and Stones to Herman’s Hermits and the Doors. I would decide poaching was necessary to survive inside a feudal system where the lords had all the wealth. Little did I know those same Lords might’ve parted my negligent mother from her delinquent son if I’d been caught, but at ten, I maintained blissful innocence.
Courthouse Castle met my needs for shelter and food—but, alas, not companionship, which I hardly required with my comics-fueled imagination. I’d carry out trash at night to the turret-porch, well-armed with my plastic twin-barreled shot(dart)gun, in case, like Adam Strange, I’d be transported by a stray zeta beam to the planet Rann to share another space adventure with the beautiful Alanna. I’d peek over the porch’s edge into the black silence of the alley-moat. No way would I venture down there in the dark. After a while, satisfied that I wouldn’t be traveling across the galaxy that night, I’d slip back inside and would soon be asleep in my rollaway bed while my mom smoked Pall Malls and kept the night watch into the wee hours.
I’d lie in bed, trying to imagine what Dad was doing across the street. Was he sitting or sleeping in his cell? I didn’t believe he missed me. Before he was locked up, I hardly ever saw him, since he drove his cab at night and slept during the day; by the time I got home from school, he’d already gone to work. Did he only have bread and water to eat now? How about coffee and cigarettes, which he’d loved when free?
He had saved me once, when we lived in the garage apartment behind my grandparents’ house. A toddler, I mistook a glass of Clorox for water and gulped down a huge drink. Mom recounted how she’d hollered upstairs and Dad sprang from bed, hardly dressed, grabbed me up, spewing vomit, threw me into the Pontiac’s back seat and sped to the hospital, where my stomach was pumped. Sir Galahad, my knight in shining armor. But he hadn’t done many brave deeds since, unless you counted brawling with a fellow cab driver in the street while Mom narrated. Still, I hoped he wasn’t too lonely and that I’d get to see him again someday.
I was too busy, though, to worry much about him. Mrs. Ronk, the widow across the hall, sometimes invited us over to watch her black and white TV. I’ve never forgotten The Day the Earth Stood and still savor good science fiction with the same message from the alien visitors: Mess with us, earthlings, and we’ll kick your butts. I gratefully ran errands for Mrs. Childers and Mrs. Donley, elderly country women whose families had moved them to town and mostly forgotten them. I had trouble reading their handwriting and sometimes, even if I could, had no idea what the items were. Fryers? I had no clue.
At the new bowling alley across Honaker, I thrilled to the clattering explosion of wooden pins, my eyes tethered to the thundering ball, usually black but sometimes red or even blue with silvery streaks. I’d focus on the bowler with the smoothest moves, the grooviest follow-through, who’d more often than not hurl a strike or at least a spare. When I’d finally drained the dregs of my Coke (my ticket to loiter), I’d trace my path to the castle’s back staircase leading up to the turret, my desire for excitement sated for that day.
Inside the walls lay Paradise until the gods of civil authority summoned me to fourth grade, where I’d come face to face with a force greater than drunks and even the bullies I’d been wily enough to dodge at my last country school. At my new school, I’d be grouped with kids without alleys and screaming neighbors in the hallway, without agoraphobic moms or dads in lockup. I’d pursue quests away from the castle, but I always returned to my mother, my queen. Her king would be released by December, but he never returned, leaving a vacancy I’d try to fill by consoling my grieving monarch who cried day and night, cursed forever by a charm preventing her from venturing outside our little inner city.
I’d be the one to sally forth alone across the moat’s dark water to do battle with dragons that mostly remained invisible. There was no sword in the stone; I lived by wit, charity and luck. But it’s hard to slay a dragon you can’t see. It’d take years, decades, before I realized it had stealthily penetrated my best defenses. In fact, I brought the dragon home, unbeknownst. Its name was Shame, and it infiltrated my life, awake and sleeping, while I imagined myself safe in my tower. And while I’ve waged war with the relentless beast in the half-century since, it remains not entirely vanquished but at least visible—to me, if to no one else.
And yet for three solid weeks as the summer of 1961, of JFK’s Camelot, slowly turned to fall, I roamed those secret passages, alleys and outbuildings, as free as one loosed from dungeon dank and dark, the prince of Princeton, little lord of Courthouse Castle.
Ed Davis has immersed himself in writing and contemplative practices since retiring from college teaching. Time of the Light, a poetry collection, was released by Main Street Rag Press in 2013. His latest novel, The Psalms of Israel Jones (West Virginia University Press 2014), won the Hackney Award for an unpublished novel in 2010. Many of his stories, essays and poems have appeared in anthologies and journals such as Leaping Clear, Metafore, Hawaii Pacific Review, and Bacopa Literary Review. He lives with his wife in the bucolic village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he bikes, hikes, meditates and reads religiously.