When the scheme first got started, it seemed to be no big deal, really. By then there wasn’t anything to protect and after the first time as part of the boarding house service there wasn’t that much to be embarrassed about either. And my mother was in on the deal, so there was no one in the family to object. My father had died in the Spanish flu
My family came to Asheville 1913, when I was just ten. For me, it was an improvement over the dreary coal mining towns of western Pennsylvania. Asheville was a boomtown nestled in a bowl of mountains made up of the Blue Ridge Mountains running up against the Great Smokies. The railroad had been cut through the mountains thirty years earlier. It went through Asheville, already popular with the rich plantation families of the Carolina coast as a summer retreat from heat and mosquitoes and also because of its reputation as a healthy mountain environment for the cure of such diseases as tuberculosis, consumption, and melancholy. With the appearance of the railroad came summer visitors from much further away, including the superrich. Most notable of these was George Vanderbilt, who, as I was growing up, was constructing his premier American palace, Biltmore, in the hills just south of the city.
Construction was frenzied and mammoth, and business of all types was more than good. To accommodate both the summer visitors and the labor pouring into the city, boarding houses, renting rooms and two meals for a dollar a day, sprang up throughout the expanding city.
It was the cure that brought my family to Asheville, my father’s death in early 1917 that turned our house into a boarding house me, at age fourteen, into a whore.
But that’s not true, really. My mother helped turn me into a whore. It was on me that I let men take me; it was on my mother that she enabled it and that money was taken for it—and that it became a way of life, a replacement for what I wanted in life.
At fourteen, before my father died, life was looking bright and full of possibilities for me. We had moved to Asheville because my father had contracted something in the mines, and he was told he needed to move to the mountains, somewhere with good sanatorium facilities if he wanted to live for any length of time. He didn’t carve out coal below the surface; he owned the mine. But he was a close-supervision sort of owner. He constantly went underground to spur his miners on and to maximize production. And the black lung disease felled him just as quickly as it did any of the miners.
My father, Earl Carr—yes, with two “Rs” we constantly were telling everyone—had the means to escape the black-walled channels with their bitter, choking coal dust. He brought his family—just me and my mother—to Asheville, and had a good-sized wooden Victorian manse built in the newly establishing Montford district to the northwest of the city, where many working-class people were settling within walking distance of their shops in the city center. My father was more comfortable around the middle class, he said, than with the wealthier people building their summer homes on the mountainsides surrounding and looking down on Asheville.
My mother disdained the move—and my father, for that matter. She was from the Philadelphia mainline. And she would have built up in Grove Park if my father had a notion to listen to her—which he didn’t. It’s too bad he didn’t, because the air was better up there than down in the valley, and he needed better air. But my mother was the half of the couple with a hardnosed sense for business. Away from Pennsylvania, my father allowed the assets of the mine to sift through his fingers and into the pockets of various unscrupulous relatives.
Although the relations between my parents were formally cordial, I would have to say they were icy cordial on my mother’s part. Not that she treated my father much different from how she treated anyone else—including me. With me, there always was a reserve of sorts, and an air of sufferance of some sort of burden that I was the living symbol of. My parents didn’t sleep in the same bed—or bedroom. And often, not in the same house. And they never had sex to my knowledge—never. This, of course, did raise some questioning on my part concerning my parentage and, just maybe, had something to do with my loose sense of propriety on the question of sex.
My father, considerably older than my mother, never raised a voice or a hand to my mother, and he indulged her in everything that he was capable of doing. But it seemed more from a respect for her gender and that she had married him and darned his socks than from a deep passion—or even particular affection. And in the brief time he was with us in Asheville, he was away on business quite a bit. Only in later years did I know how hard he must have worked to keep the family’s finances afloat—or the sacrifice he made to pretend we were a family.
When my father died in the back bedroom of our Montford house, taken finally by the hardening of his lungs in a wheezing bout of trying to suck in air that no longer had any place to go inside his body, my mother immediately used all of the savings left to them to add a bedroom wing, upstairs and down, to the back of our house, and opened it as a boarding house. The construction took an amazing short time of three months, but also an amazingly larger sum of money than my mother had figured. The construction boom was so healthy in Asheville at the time that she had to pay top dollar for materials and laborers.
My mother’s failing—if you discounted avariciousness and a propensity to look the other way when it suited her pocketbook and the overfondness she showed to certain male borders the year she ran the boarding house—was her pride. I always thought that upon my father’s death she could have fallen back on the good graces of her family in Philadelphia. But when she died and I had to inform her relatives that she had, I found that they didn’t even know my father had died or that my mother had had to go into business for herself to try to salvage the family fortunes. They had, however, told her that she was marrying below herself and that her union with Earl would come to no good. And she, no doubt, hadn’t told them of her straits after he died so that she didn’t have to see them gloat.
I believe she was right in that, because when I told them, plenty of gloating started—which was only wiped off their faces when I told them what my father had whispered to me in his last week of life and that my mother reluctantly then admitted to me—that my mother hadn’t much choice marrying my father; that she was pregnant with me at the time, and he was the only one knowing that she was who would have her.
The irony was that I, a sandy blond, blue-eyed child of slim build and slightly underaverage height, loved my roly-poly, dark-haired, brown-eyed, large-framed father who wasn’t really my father a far sight more than I did the voluptuous, raven-haired woman who really was my mother.
But I mustn’t be bitter. My mother gave me life—more than once—in addition to having ruined, at least for a while, the life I had.
When my father died and after my mother had thrown up her bedroom wing and opened her boarding house, and only then, did she realize she couldn’t handle it all herself. She hired help, but help cost money. A son’s help didn’t.
At the time I was off at a small Presbyterian boarding school in not-so-far-away Banner Elk, fully intending, thanks to my father’s early support of my dreams, to begin a life in writing arts. The good people of the boarding school were well-meaning and progressive of mind, and they were as delighted that I intended to be a writer as I was and were prepared to do everything they could to help me do that. It was all I ever wanted to be. I wanted to write plays, mostly, and my fantasy was to tell of the plight of the coalminers in Pennsylvania. Later in life, I was halfway grateful my dreams had been crushed at this point, as by then I realized that a mine-owner’s son had less than nothing worthwhile to say about the plight of men hacking at black-coal walls hundreds of feet below the ground.
But I was idealistic at that time—and open to anything new and mind-expanding. I started down a road of “other” choice, though, when I was taken under the wing of my English teacher, Mr. McCallum. He had come to the boarding school from the far more sophisticated city of Winston-Salem down on the Piedmont. And he was open to anything new and mind-expanding too. And he was a poet. But his mind had already been expanded much more than mine had been. And it wasn’t long before we were taking hikes in the mountains surrounding Banner Elk, our books of short stories and poetry tucked into our backpacks along with the bottle of local moonshine Mr. McCallum always was able to come up with, and a blanket.
During that first fall, we hiked at least twice a week, which the administrators at the boarding school thought was a fine addition of physical exercise to mental stimulation. I loved the poetry—at least what Mr. McCallum picked out to read to me. He had a good speaking voice and was quite active in the school drama club—an interest he was developing in me, saying I couldn’t really write plays without having experienced the role of the actor on stage. He was also handsome of face, with dark, curly hair and long eyelashes, and a firm, trim body. The poetry he brought became increasingly explicit, with him explaining what he saw under the surface of the poetry of Walt Whitman, and the bottle of local brandy he brought became increasingly full going up the hill and empty going back down.
I am sure I was prone to relationships with men in any event, but the friendship with Mr. McCallum and the homoerotic undercurrents in the writings of such poets as Walt Whitman and the German Adolf Brand and as elucidate by my English teacher moved my susceptibility along quickly.
We started with petting and tentative kisses. The broadest plateau in our relationship was the month of the hand job, where we each slow-pumped the other off while reciting memorable, then, not-so-memorable-later, love poems to each other. There was just that once, though, before my mother called me home, that he managed, through the combination of poetry, brandy, fondling, and my first blow job, to get his erect penis inside my nether channel.
But once is pretty much the whole ball of wax on the topic of sexual innocence.
I know I like to think that it was my mother’s calling me home to help with the boarding house that ended my idyllic, progressive and high-art trysting with Mr. McCallum. But the truth of the matter is that I was escaping something. I must not have pleased the man in our one taking of the sex act to completion—a painful completion for me, but one I endured and celebrated for freeing me intellectually and representing my choosing my own course in life. For that was the last time I laid with Mr. McCallum, and the next week he was taking a fine arts student named Jamie on a hike up the mountain—instead of me. It might have been that the conquest was what was arousing for my English teacher or that he decided that a fourteen-year-old virginal boy did not arouse him sufficiently rather than the consummation. It was a possibility that made me wary of initial couplings with men for the rest of my life. There had to be a second, follow-up time for me to begin to take it seriously.
It was a week after that that my mother called me home. I wanted to die or to run away from school, and I almost leaped at my mother’s request that I come back to Asheville immediately. I didn’t feel used—I felt rejected, unworthy. I sometimes try to deny that, but it was the truth—and the truth of that is probably the only thing that made me give in to my mother’s call so quickly and easily.
I pretty much provided the same functions a rather slow girl named Sally did at my mother’s boarding house. We took care of the in-house cleaning of the boarders’ rooms once a week, no matter how many times the occupancy of the room turned over; the stripping and changing of linen after each boarder, or weekly, if they were staying that long; and the set-up, service, and take down in the dining room for the morning and evening meals. No midday food service was provided, although the kitchen would turn out a lunch in a sack for fifty cents upon request, which few took us up on as that was almost the cost of the room for the night.
I hadn’t been home long before I discovered that Sally made a bit of extra money—and extra money for my mother as well—by sleeping with some of the men boarders who wanted this service.
Behind the scenes were three blacks; two women—a cook and a laundress, and one young man, who did all of the menial chores that required muscle. His name was Jethrow, and he had muscle to spare—certainly more muscle than intellect. I guess I showed a bit more interest in him than I should have considering what went on between us not long after I came home.
My mother’s role was to collect the money, quiz the boarders to within an inch of their lives to determine that they weren’t in town for the tuberculosis cure, and stride around and look authoritarian—which she did very well. I also couldn’t help noticing that she was really friendly with some of the men boarders.
At the start, I went about my duties sullenly, but my mother soon tongue-lashed that out of me.
“I wanted to be a writer,” I whined. “Father saw that and understood. He encouraged it. He sent me to a boarding school that had special courses in English, and he told me the money was there for college.”
“Your father had no idea how far in debt he was. He died and left me to do what has to be done,” she replied, baldly and without a soft word for my father’s memory. “And you don’t have to go to college to write. Just sit down and write. Write of the interesting people coming and going in the boarding house.”
“When would I sit down and write, Mother? There is always something else to do.”
“So, learn to do it faster and more efficiently. If it’s a writer you want to be, you will find a way.”
And in that she was right, because I quickly did learn to work faster and more efficiently to free time for writing. I set up a little table and a straight chair under the window in my small room—and I found the time to write. She also was right about the people coming through the boarding house. I found much to write about, from the woman never leaving her room and always crying quietly through the night, afraid her husband would find her in hiding in Asheville—which he did in an act of high drama one Saturday afternoon—to the tubercular little old man even my mother could not turn away who she tucked in an attic corner, to the hog of a man and his wife and their two little piglets who my mother finally had to put on rations at their meals, to the young “widow” who my mother turned out along with one of the male lodgers in the middle of the night, to the retired preacher continually in his cups and uttering profanity under his breath.
There was more I could write, like how friendly my mother and Sally were with some of the boarders and how good-lucking the black man, Jethrow, was, and there would be a time when I’d write about those, but not just then. Not when those I wrote about might see my writing.
But still there was an empty hole in my life—and what I most wanted to write about were things that one could not write about in the American south in those days. I had longings and desires that I could not talk about and believed I should not write about—left alone think about.