The other day I went up the holler to talk to Uncle Hant about Democracy. Hant knows everything. Well, nearly about everything.
He lives just past the creek in a double-wide with a satellite dish and his old dog Birdshot. You could call him a mountain man. He’s tall and lank, like they made him by the yard and sawed off a piece, and wears this floppy slouch hat, and when he sits down he looks like a hinge folding. For West Virginia, Hant is pretty rich. Years back he told the Feddle Gummint that he was an African-American with black lung, over ninety years of age, and a small business run by a Native American woman named Sighing Cloud. The gummint sends him truckloads of money. He had to resurface the driveway so they could park.
Anyway, he was setting under his favorite tree with a plastic gallon of Coke and a bottle of Wild Turkey. Birdshot was lying next to him, scratching and watching squirrels. Hant’s kind of slow and quiet, and doesn’t get excited about much. Ain’t much to get excited about in the hollers.
“Hant, explain to me about Democracy,” I said.
He seemed to think that covered it. Hant’s not a man of many words.
I tried again. “I don’t reckon that’s what that school-lady used to say. Remember her? She came from Wheeling and she went to a real college. She said democracy was the American way, and all advanced, and these old Greeks did it.” Of course, the Greeks did a lot of things you could get shot for where I live. “Pass me that Turkey.”
He did. But he didn’t say anything. I wouldn’t quit, though.
“She said it was noble, and these important guys like George Washington liked it so much they wouldn’t do their laundry without it. She said the best thing about it was that it let the common man run the country.”
That got Hant’s attention. He thought a little.
“That was the best thing about it?”
“What was the worst?”
Hant could be hard to talk to.
“Well, she said it was better than stewed rabbit, and how it taught us to respect the wisdom of the people, and the Average Man.”
He took the bottle back. No flies on Hant.
“Boy, the average man barely has sense enough to find his way home at night. I guess we’re in deeper trouble than I thought.”
I got to worrying about it. About the common man, I mean. There’s this show on TV about this enormous fat lady who’s always doing specials on things like Dwarves With Three Heads and the Women Who Love Them Too Much, which would be at all. But what was scary was the people that came to watch. They didn’t have much shape to’em, and they laughed sort of hyuk-hyuk, and breathed through their noses like they been inbreeding too much. Whenever that fat lady said something uncommon stupid, they’d yell and clap and stomp their feet, and the women would shriek. I told Hant about it.
“That’d be Oprah,” he said. “Looks like five hundred pounds of bear liver in a plastic bag?”
When Birdshot heard the word “liver,” he perked up like a Democrat that’s discovered an unwatched treasury. I know people with less sense than Birdshot.
“There’s another one of them ladies, though,” said Hant, trying to remember. “Makes you think of a plaster wall with legs.”
I thought about the common people I knew around Bluefield and North Fork. Nice folk, at least until after the thirteenth beer, but, being from West Virginia, they mostly had three thumbs and didn’t know who the President was. On the other hand, some things it’s best not to know. Anyway, there was old Robert Weevil up the holler near Crumpler, and Mrs. Weevil, and all the little Weevils. A sociologist lady from Washington D.C. came to give them some kind of test to see how smart they were. I hear they had to put her in a rest home afterward.
I guess I was getting upset. I’d come to tell Hant how good democracy was, and he wasn’t having any.
“Hant, what that school-lady said was, elections are like a town meeting, and the candidates express their ideas, and then the people choose the best man. Ain’t that better than a Duke or some musty old King?”
I figured I had him now.
“Well, think about the last ten president,” he said, and got a satisfied look on his face.
Then he said, “I believe that if you went to Willy’s Beer and Lube and caught the first ten people who came in, you’d do better.”
The conversation wasn’t going the way I thought it was going to. Democracy did sound better if you didn’t think about it too much. Of course, most people didn’t. Maybe that was the secret.
By the way, Hant isn’t real. He’s just a literary apparition. We get lots of them in the mountains, mostly in swampy spots. I think it’s something about gas that seeps from the ground.
He passed the Turkey back and said, “People don’t care what kind of gummint they got. All’s they want is a four-by-four, two bedrooms that don’t leak too much, a job that doesn’t make them think, and 600 channels on the satellite. Maybe a Bug Zapper and a six-pack on the weekends.”
It’s a mistake to teach an apparition to argue.
“Think about it, boy. ?Bout a million years ago, they had kings lying all over the place like dead cats, and nobody had much. The only way a king could get more than he was worth was to steal everything from everybody else and put it in a pile. And they still couldn’t get cable. That’s why they had revolutions. People wanted to get their stuff back. They didn’t care about freedom and democracy. Still don’t.
“Thing is, now everbody’s got a four-by-four and satellite. Hell, they mostly don’t even know what kind of gummint they got, long’s as it doesn’t outlaw beer and NASCAR on Sunday. They don’t want democracy. They want to sit loose and stay dry. It’s all they want.”
I figured I needed to stop talking to Hant too much. He passed me the Turkey and I took a big hit. Birdshot cocked his eye at a squirrel on the ground, hunting acorns, but decided against it and went back to sleep. That old dog was comfortable. It was enough.