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What I learned last week in Wilkes County

by Jeff Sykes

There’s nothing quite like escaping the grind every now and then.

That’s where circumstances led me last week when I found myself departing Winston- Salem just before noon on Thursday to head to Wilkesboro. We’d been invited to Wilkes Community College to participate in a reading of fiction from a collection published late last year. I met my editor and publisher, Alan Wright, at Finnigan’s Wake and we drank coffee and beer and tequila. Well, I drank coffee and had the granny smith chicken sandwich before co-publisher Matt Ankerson, both of 67 Press in Winston- Salem, picked us up in his kicking Toyota minivan.

I love going back to my hometown.

It’s refreshing to see the changes going down in Winston-Salem and to notice the things that haven’t changed. It’s new enough—the development on 4th Street and the goings on at the Innovation Quarter—that I still feel like a stranger. It’s new enough that I can get lost between the Cherry Street parking deck and Washington Perk. On this day I wandered Fifth all the way to Trade and then back up 4th looking for the coffee shop, which was a block and a half from the exit of the parking deck.

Live and learn. I wandered back to Trade and past the bus station toward Fifth before proceeding along Trade Street all the way to Finnigan’s Wake. I was a few minutes early so I lusted after a Les Paul in the window of The B String and then stopped into The Other Half and met owner Tamara Propst who filled me in on the history of the shop and the arts district in general.

Back at Finnigan’s I waited on Alan to arrive and got down to the business of deciding what to read. The good folks at 67 Press have been awfully kind to me. So kind, in fact, that they’ve published my short stories in two anthologies. They’ve even gone so far as to publish a novella that I wrote. We staged a reading at Scuppernong Books in November, for which I skipped the Alabama-LSU game, and were met with much positive feedback.

One of our writers, Emily Auman, is a recent graduate of Wilkes Community College. English professor Lisa Muir also had a story in the recent anthology, Affinity, and she had arranged for us to have a reading at the school.

I’d been undecided about reading my best story from the collection, “Death Wish on Acid,” because it’s chock full of dope, sex and swear words. While I have no problem reading it in a bookstore or a writer’s conference, I felt apprehension about the idea of reading it at a rural community college. A second story in the collection, “Ugly as Sin,” is more than somewhat anti-clerical and I had reservations about being irreverent in public in Wilkes County.

So I’d decided earlier in the week to read a section from the novella, “Another Form of Prayer”. In fact, NC Writer’s Network representative Faun Finley is leading a writer’s open mic at Scuppernong Books (the next one is Feb. 8) and I’d read part of chapter 4 from the novella at their January meetup. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of reading “Death Wish on Acid”, but I just didn’t feel like reading it again. I’d decided instead to read the closing chapter of the novella.

Alan and Matt were ok with the idea, though both said I shouldn’t censor myself. So we rode up US 421 from Winston- Salem, listening to Bowie of course, and talking sports before we each began getting phone calls from work and the conversation abated.

We arrived at Wilkes Community College with about 10 minutes to spare. Who knew the campus there was so new? We were impressed. Inside, we didn’t’ know what to expect. Alan and Matt brought books. We’d sold six at Scuppernong in November and concluded that if we sold three to college kids in Wilkes County it would be a success.

At first the room was about half full and we thought it was a good turn out. But the people continued to pile in as the minutes counted down. We passed 30 and then 50 and then 70 and they even brought in about 20 white chairs to line the wall in the multi-level media room. I had to huddle up against a wall near the door to make room for people. I think we were all stunned.

I read last and so had plenty of time to get nervous. Hands damp with sweat, I bravely took my place in front of the crowd when the time came and Professor Muir called my name.

“Another Form of Prayer” is a reverse “allegory of the cave” in which I have the main character, Samuel Ashton, move from freedom in society toward isolation in a jail cell. It’s a journey of consequence, along the lines of the television series “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret”.

In the final chapter, Ashton arrives at the jail and is led in and then handed over to his captors. He’s exposed in a thin hospital gown as other inmates pass by and harass him. I cut the reading short after about 15 minutes when I had Ashton taken from a holding cell and moved upstairs.

I wasn’t sure how I’d done, but the applause was a good sign. I stood off to the side as we answered questions for 10 minutes from a rapt audience. We were blown away when one after the other the students came forward and bought books. I think we sold 21.

I talked with Muir afterward about my apprehension and my surprise at the response. One student approached me and asked me where he could by the book. Another told Muir that she’d almost cried during my reading because “it was moving.”

Muir reminded me that young people these days, even in Wilkes County, know all too much about drug abuse, alcoholism, broken families and incarceration. I was again reminded of my own narrow life experiences, which now include the thrill of being asked 15 times to sign a book that has my name on it. !

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