I only remember him because his house burned down. Our teacher, a pudgy film historian with an obnoxious attachment to left-leaning bumper stickers, told us all to pitch in and do our part for the poor kid. After all, that’s what makes America great—local bonds and communal charity. At the time, none of us cared. We were a troublesome bunch, and even though some of us did feel bad for the guy, none of us wanted to think too deeply about another person’s pain.
We were teenagers then. Everyone is an asshole when they’re sixteen, especially if you come from my neck of the woods. Morgantown, West Virginia is not full of mean people, nor is it unfriendly to outsiders. It is however a place where people tend to grow up too fast. Even before stepping beyond the doors of West Virginia University (which sat neatly in a bowl below my high school), local townies are already well-versed in drugs and alcohol. Hell, even before I graduated high school with a 3.5 GPA in 2006, I could boast that I knew thieves, drug addicts, and teen moms.
Still, hearing that someone’s house had burned down was uncommon. We whispered about the kid behind his back occasionally, but mostly we just joked about how his redneck father had dropped his cigarette on the duvet one night after having one too many Busch Lights. That’s how they do things in Preston County, we’d say, and that would be the end of the discussion. The kid with the burned house just became another quiet victim to the vagaries of white trash life.
Looking back now from the comfort of a New England vantage point, I shame myself for not being more sensitive to the unlucky bastard. I had once lived in Preston County, although I had lived on a hilltop farm with all the amenities that Clinton-era money could buy. That year had been spent in wealth, and back then, I was too busy riding around on my Gator ATV to recognize that my mom and I had “made it.” Sadly, this had not been accomplished through any bit of entrepreneurial success or even familial luck. Simply put, my mother had cheated on my father, which then led to a divorce, which ultimately pushed my willing mother into the arms of a very rich man. I found out much later that this rich man wasn’t worth my mother’s time, and even though dear old mom was a world-class philanderer, she could have done better than to shake up a drug dealing playboy who found another woman even before my mother’s corpse went cold.
I tell this little vignette not for any gains in the pity department. Rather, I am telling this because I now realize that I am just as “white trash” as the kid with the gutted house. I know what it’s like to bounce around between family members and to live in a household that takes in less than $18,000 a year. My story is common in West Virginia, and it leads to a pretty pronounced neuroticism. In the Mountain State, we are all poor (relatively speaking), so we look for ways to distinguish ourselves from our nearest neighbors. It’s sort of like: “I am a hillbilly, but at least I am not like that guy.” The inevitable finger will point to some ugly rube and the speaker will feel better about themselves and their situation. I did that plenty of times. “I am from Morgantown, so I at least don’t talk like one of those coal miners in Matewan;” “I read books and go to school, which inherently means that I am better than most people around me, including my family.”
In short, I used to be an insufferable shit. A lot of my friends were like that too, and then we grew up. Most of us went to WVU and graduated. We got to hear old Bill Clinton speak at our graduation, then we started thinking about going someplace else. Moving out of West Virginia is widely seen as an indication that you’ve “made it,” so when I went to New Hampshire to work for my uncle’s law firm, most of my friends assumed that I was gone for good.
Eventually I came back, but my return was temporary. I had big plans to permanently settle in New England with a bunch of letters trailing after my last name. That dream is still there, but today it comes with a price. In my quieter moments, I feel like a sellout. Most of all, I feel like a traitor who abused his mother (both his figurative one and his literal one) too much. West Virginia, in my dreams and nightmares, is a lot like that silent kid who never got much sympathy for losing his house.
Like so many others that I have known in my short life, that kid would eventually go on to do bad things…real bad things. Shayne Riggleman, who lost his family’s house to a fire sometime around 2005, would eventually die at the age of 22 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Before offing himself, Shayne used his .22 caliber handgun and powerful hunting rifle to kill five people. Most if not all of these people were strangers, and one of them was still warmly incubating in their mother’s womb. Without mercy, Shayne killed them all.
I have to fight the urge to blame Shayne’s evil behavior on how bad we all treated him back in high school. The truth is that Shayne was an awful person who forfeited his right to a peaceful life by doing what he did. I hope for nothing both bad things for him in the afterlife, even though I can only think of him as the shy introvert who sat in front of me in our History through Film class. He had old man eyes back then, and if I am being honest, I have old man eyes now. West Virginia will do that to you.