No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home

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9780684865522: No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home
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In his fortieth year, Chris Offutt returns to his alma mater, Morehead State University, the only four-year school in the Kentucky hills. He envisions leading the modest life of a teacher and father. Yet present-day reality collides painfully with memory, leaving Offutt in the midst of an adventure he never imagined: the search for a home that no longer exists.
Interwoven with this bittersweet homecoming tale are the wartime stories of Offutt's parents-in-law, Arthur and Irene. An unlikely friendship develops between the eighty-year-old Polish Jew and the forty-year-old Kentucky hillbilly as Arthur and Offutt share comfort in exile, reliving the past at a distance. With masterful prose, Offutt combines these disparate accounts to create No Heroes, a profound meditation on family, home, the Holocaust, and history.

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About the Author:

Chris Offutt, author of the critically acclaimed story collections Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, the novel The Good Brother, and the memoir The Same River Twice, lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Job Interview

Kentuckians have a long tradition of going west for a new life and winding up homesick instead. Some went nuts, some got depressed, and some made do. I did a little of all three, then got lucky. I finagled an interview for a teaching position at the only four-year university in the hills. It was more of a high school with ashtrays than a genuine college. I should know. Twenty years ago I graduated from there.

Morehead State University began as a Normal School to produce teachers for the Appalachian region, then progressed to college status. During the 1960s it became a full-fledged university, but natives still referred to it as "the college." Very few local people attended MSU. I had gone to grade school, high school, and college within a ten-mile radius. It wasn't until much later that I understood how unusual this was, particularly in such a rural environment.

As a theater and art student I supported myself by working part-time for the MSU Maintenance Department. Few of my fellow workers had finished high school and none had gone to college. According to hill culture, you were a sinner or an outlaw, a nice girl or a slut, lived with your folks or got married, worked at maintenance or went to college. This either/or mentality is a product of geography. Land here is either slanted or not, and you lived on a ridge or in a hollow. That I was simultaneously engaged in both attending college and working at maintenance astonished my coworkers and faculty alike.

I worked on the painting crew specializing in the outdoor jobs no one else wanted. Many times I painted a curb yellow in the morning, then stepped over it on my way to class that afternoon. Teachers ignored me when I wore my work clothes. My maintenance buddies felt uncomfortable if they saw me going to class, and I developed the habit of eating alone to conceal the book in my lunch bucket. Now I was back to interview for a job as an English teacher.

Before the interview I borrowed a tie from Clyde James, a man who'd been my neighbor and baby-sitter when I was four years old. He now ran the MSU student center. Clyde was something of a clothes horse, and rumor had it that his closets were carefully organized so that he didn't wear the same outfit twice per year. My lack of a tie was no surprise to Clyde, who was delighted to assist me. After narrowing his choices to three, he picked a tie that vaguely matched my slick clothes -- dark pants, light shirt, tan jacket. I'd bought a brown belt for the occasion, my single concession to formal dress. Clyde thought brown shoes would have been better than black, but I could pass. He deftly tied a half-Windsor knot, looped it beneath my collar, and adjusted it to a snug fit. The material was blue and gray silk, with a touch of red -- perfectly conservative. He smoothed my collar and sent me out, calling me "Prof Offutt."

As I left the building, two maintenance men emerged from a basement door of the student center. Flecks of dry paint spattered their clothes. They leaned against the wall and lit cigarettes just as I had done twenty years before. The basement door was partially concealed by a wall that rose five feet to street level. It was the ideal hidey-hole, a bunker from which you could spy a boss in plenty of time to return to work.

"Hey boys," I said. "Working hard?"

"Hidy, Chris," the younger man said. "Ain't seen you in a while."

"Is that Awful Offutt?" the other said. "By God he's growed, ain't he. Want a cigarette?"

I shook my head. Men of the hills don't have the custom of shaking hands or hugging or cheek-kissing. We either beat on each other or look away and mumble. I had known the younger man all my life. Otis was from Haldeman, my home hill of two hundred people.

"How's your mom and dad?" he said.

"They're all right. And yours?"

"Same. I see your mom in town, but your daddy don't hardly leave the house, does he."

"Not much," I said.

"What's he do?"

"You'll have to ask him."

The older man was named Billy. We worked together twenty years before, and he had mistakenly believed that I sought the salaried maintenance position he coveted. Billy was my age but looked fifteen years older. His palms were the most heavily callused I'd ever seen.

"Kenny still boss?" I said.

"He died," Billy said.

"Big Bob?"

"Retired."

"How about that Johnson?"

"Which one?"

"From up Christy Creek," I said. "Used to drink a half-pint before lunch."

"Oh, him. He's in the state pen."

"Well, ain't there nobody still yet there?"

"Me."

"You must be the boss man now."

"Naw," Billy said. His voice took on the angry tone I remembered. "They gave it to somebody else. What are you doing back? Going to court?"

"No, why?"

He lifted his chin in a gesture toward my tie.

"You're dressed for it."

"These are my job-hunting clothes."

Otis grinned at me. Within the contours of his face I saw the child I recalled from our shared time playing in the woods. We knew the secrets of each other's scars.

"You coming back?" he said.

"Trying to. I got an interview today."

"Where at?"

"The college."

"They're hiring," Otis said. "I don't know if you can get on with the painters, but they need movers. You go in there and talk to Amos Riddle. You know any Riddles? They live up on Redbird."

"It's not for maintenance, Otis."

"It's not."

"No," I said. "It's for teaching. You know, to be a teacher."

Otis and Billy erupted with laughter, bellowing as if their lives lacked mirth and they were grateful for the joke. When the sound trailed away, they looked at me and I knew they were waiting for the truth.

"I swear, boys," I said. "I took it up out west."

"Awful Offutt ain't changed a bit, has he," Billy said as he laughed again.

"You should have heard him when he was little," Otis said. "He told us there was a whale under the grade school."

"I didn't know any better."

"What I want to know," Billy said, "is who told you they were hiring maintenance men to teach college?"

They began to laugh again, their breath coming hard before shifting to smokers' rasping. They calmed themselves, glanced at each other, and began to giggle.

"Hey," Otis said. "Maybe you can put in a word for me. I'd like to be the boss of a girls' dorm. One of them live-ins."

"All right," I said. "How about you, Billy?"

"I'll take president. Then I can fire you for lying."

"I ain't lying, boys."

"The truth has got to be in him," Otis said. "Because it ain't never come out yet."

"What time is it," I said. "I got that interview at nine o'clock."

"Now I know you're lying," he said. "It's five after."

He showed me his watch, and I hurried away, their laughter hanging in the air like pollen. I understood Billy and Otis's consternation at my being a teacher. As a student in the seventies, I was usually stoned on marijuana. My work strategy had been to complete my task at a furious speed, then rest until quitting time. Neither Otis nor Billy had any reason to believe I had changed. That any maintenance worker, particularly one with my habits, could become a teacher confirmed all their fears and suspicions about the university. B.A. stood for "Big Asshole," B.S. stood for "Bull Shit," and Ph.D. stood for "Piled High and Deep." At MSU the wisest people worked for maintenance and the stupidest had the most letters after their name.

College teachers were rich, snobby, and dumber in the head than a hog is in the ass. The good one was rare, yet untrustworthy, like a dog that licked your hand but had a history of biting. The administrators were worse -- bigwigs and muckety-mucks who possessed more money than God and were utterly corrupt. They served as further evidence that education was for fools. Part of my coming home was meant to contradict this hill-bred belief.

I crossed the street to the Combs building, a small structure that housed the Departments of English, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, and Theater. The curbs were faded yellow and needed a fresh coat. I faced the reflective glass of the door and adjusted the tie around my neck. No matter how I tried, it wasn't as good as when Clyde tied it for me and I looked like what I was -- a curb painter in a monkey suit.

Inside, I met the head of the search committee moving in that rapid way professors have, legs propelling her forward, one hand digging in a briefcase, the other hand trying to catch a pencil as it fell from behind her ear.

"Sorry I'm late," she said. "These things never start on time."

"No problem," I said. "I was just, you know."

"Yes, it must be kind of..."

"It sure is."

"I understand."

She led me along the hall. A part of me wanted to run away, but this was where I'd run to. The interview was conducted in the same classroom where I'd taken freshman literature twenty years earlier. The floor was now carpeted but the walls were still concrete block. Six people sat in spongy chairs surrounding two wooden tables. I looked at the men in brown jackets and sport shirts, the women in pantsuits, and understood that I was sitting before a table of career academics who found themselves at a lousy school. They lived in an Appalachian town of six thousand with no airport, no bookstore, no deli, no record store, one bar, and forty churches. Everyone but me had a Ph.D. Unlike them, I truly wanted to work at MSU.

My main desire was an opportunity to give back to the community. I knew the difficulties that young people in the hills faced in realizing their ambition of education. My goal was to teach writing in a region where thirty percent of the people were functionally illiterate.

I sat at the table and answered the questions while looking through the window at the basement hidey-hole of Otis and Billy. They had risen to the ranks of salaried maintenance men with intimate knowledge of how to appear industrious -- the equivalent of academic tenure. I suddenly wished I was interviewing to work with them. This astounded me to the point of tears, and I heard my voice stop talking. My my eyes blinked and the faculty faces blurred. The interview ended slowly, like batteries running down in a mechanical toy. The head of the search committee led me out.

"Good job," she said. "You clinched it when you got choked up. We're not used to seeing someone care about teaching that much."

I followed her to brief meetings with various administrators. MSU has a lovely setting with high hills as a backdrop to the buildings. Spring's pastel trees were patched dark where the sun hit. I remembered hours throwing Frisbees here. We wore shabby clothes, protested disco music, and mourned Lynyrd Skynyrd. My wallet contained rolling papers instead of money. We felt free. Now I felt like an impostor, the butt of a colossal group joke. Any minute someone would say: "Just kidding, Chris. We don't hire locals or ex-curb painters. Now get the hell out of here."

Walking the length of campus took ten minutes, and I headed back along Main Street, looking at the hills silhouetted against the sky. These woods were the cradle of my personal civilization, my own promised land. I grew up walking the same dirt for sixteen years, then began driving it. Town was where the groceries were, the doctor and the drugstore. Town was special. Town was exciting. Town was a half hour's drive on a narrow road that followed a creek. I recalled each incarnation of a restaurant now converted to apartments. Stores were gone, but their sites were forever known to locals as "where Allen's used to be," or "Parney's old place." Directions to newcomers were disastrous -- "Drive up Main past the old post office and turn where Bishop's was, I don't know the name of the street, then head down to where they've got that new stuff going on. Park by the old Big Store." Directions in the hills were just as confusing -- "Go out sixty past the wide place, go left at the creek, go three hollers up and make a right. If you hit Sharkey, you've gone about twenty miles too far, but there's no sign for it. You'll just know."

A car slowed beside me. The smiling driver was a wild friend from college, now transformed into a straitlaced pillar of the community. She had not only quit her outlaw ways, but she now behaved as if her past belonged to someone else. She drove me ten miles out of town to see a house. I asked Vondelle about various mutual friends, some dead, some vanished, most reformed. A few still lived as we had, managing to maintain a dope and whiskey lifestyle while pursuing careers and having families, although the "plumb wald" times were relegated to weekend parties, where cops hid on old dirt lanes waiting to arrest people as they left. Knowing the backroads was still crucial to living here.

"I spent all these years away dreaming of coming home," I said.

"I spent the same years thinking about leaving."

"It's easy to leave."

"Not for me," Vondelle said. "This is where I went to. Nobody in my family finished high school. I came here for college."

She had married the most exotic man available, an artist from off, which meant beyond the county line. He had no people. No one knew his history. He dropped into the hills fully formed and self-contained, like trailers on a ridge. Without a past, he had no enemies, no fears, no obligations. Vondelle had been a hippie artist from a tough county, full of confidence and glee at living in Morehead, eastern Kentucky's den of iniquity. She liked to laugh, and party hardy. She had been resplendent with the enthusiasm of youth, determined to leave her mark. These days Vondelle and her husband no longer made art.

Vondelle turned onto a side road and began driving uphill, taking two turns past a large pond that shimmered in the sun. A duck skidded to a halt beside a cluster of cattails. Birds made a symphony in the trees. She drove slowly up a steep road to a large house. The property included two outbuildings and a section of a wooded hill. We walked along the front slope covered with butterweed and larkspur swaying below white oaks.

I told her I wanted to be alone and she nodded. Redbud blossoms hazed the hills, specked in spots by dogwood. My mouth felt dry and my heart beat fast. For the first time in five years I stepped into the woods. The smell of fresh earth was instantly calming. A pair of sparrows chased a jay. Everything was familiar -- the scent, the sight, the light, the dirt.

I walked into the woods and sat on a wind-felled tree a few feet off the ground, a massive hickory rotten through the guts. A pileated woodpecker swam the air, a black and white swirl that landed on a dead maple. It scaled ten feet of trunk in three-step hops, probing the bark for food. I tipped my head to watch and my weight shifted and I fell backward. I gripped the bark tightly but could not fully regain stability. The strength in my arms began to wane beneath the inexorable pull of the earth. The bark scraped my sleeves as I eased my head to the ground, feet aimed at the sky. After five minutes in the woods, I was upside down.

I began to laugh, which caused me to tip until my legs crashed into the undergrowth. I curled instinctively to an infant's posture of the womb, my eyes inches from last year's leaves. My laughter subsided to a ragged breathing. I surrendered to the years of stifled yearning, weeping with relief at lying alone in the woods of home.

Time seemed to bend as if pressing a nail to a sheet of plastic until it punctured and I entered the intervening space. I had always lain here....

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Book Description SIMON SCHUSTER, United States, 2003. Paperback. Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****.In his fortieth year, Chris Offutt returns to his alma mater, Morehead State University, the only four-year school in the Kentucky hills. He envisions leading the modest life of a teacher and father. Yet present-day reality collides painfully with memory, leaving Offutt in the midst of an adventure he never imagined: the search for a home that no longer exists. Interwoven with this bittersweet homecoming tale are the wartime stories of Offutt s parents-in-law, Arthur and Irene. An unlikely friendship develops between the eighty-year-old Polish Jew and the forty-year-old Kentucky hillbilly as Arthur and Offutt share comfort in exile, reliving the past at a distance. With masterful prose, Offutt combines these disparate accounts to create No Heroes, a profound meditation on family, home, the Holocaust, and history. Seller Inventory # AAV9780684865522

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Book Description Simon & Schuster. Paperback. Condition: New. 272 pages. Dimensions: 8.3in. x 5.5in. x 0.7in.In his fortieth year, Chris Offutt returns to his alma mater, Morehead State University, the only four-year school in the Kentucky hills. He envisions leading the modest life of a teacher and father. Yet present-day reality collides painfully with memory, leaving Offutt in the midst of an adventure he never imagined: the search for a home that no longer exists. Interwoven with this bittersweet homecoming tale are the wartime stories of Offutts parents-in-law, Arthur and Irene. An unlikely friendship develops between the eighty-year-old Polish Jew and the forty-year-old Kentucky hillbilly as Arthur and Offutt share comfort in exile, reliving the past at a distance. With masterful prose, Offutt combines these disparate accounts to create No Heroes, a profound meditation on family, home, the Holocaust, and history. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Seller Inventory # 9780684865522

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