Creative Writing at WVU: Wild, Wonderful Writing

On Beauty and West Virginia at the Blue Moose Café

James Harms

The Monongahela flows north at the will
of Mellons and Carnegies to join
the Allegheny and the Ohio, to give away
its name and what’s left of
West Virginia coal and limestone to
our beloved Pittsburgh, vanishing point
of minerals and rivers. And there’s a boy
who comes here often whose face
and scalp are a tattoo wing, as if
a bird once worn as a hat has left
behind its shadow. When it’s cold
he covers his wing with a red knit cap,
the face of Che Guevara embroidered
on one side. He’s old enough to know
how his commitments have limited
his life. I try to remain astonished,
not condescending, though the truth is
I could love her whose bad choices
are a cost of fashion, who’s wearing
this moment the latest boots from
New Zealand, and not him
who simply cares more than I do
about things neither of us can change.
I met her at a Christmas party the year
before it all came apart, a sort of
postmodern get-together, pepperoni rolls
and paté, Budweiser and Krug.
We talked about Reynolds Price
in the kitchen, smoking cigarettes
out the window above the sink.
She’d known Price at Duke, and as she
took the cigarette from my fingers,
she leaned in a little, as if to hear
a secret. Of course she was lovely,
and that’s the problem – her boots
and her loveliness, an awareness of
her loveliness, which in West Virginia
can lead to a sense of privilege,
though such entitlement isn’t
exclusive to Appalachia. Still,
beauty as a form of currency
has more value, one could argue,
where the common coin is uncommonly
rare, where so many are so damn poor.
The snow blew in the window,
so our hands shook a little as we
passed the cigarette back and forth.
I remember feeling awake in my body
in a way I’d never known when I turned
away from her to answer a question.
There was no one there, no one
waiting for an answer, and no one
anywhere when I turned back.