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  • Free Country
  • Nancy Welch (bio)

My best friend, for a time, when I was fourteen, was a girl named Nedra Pitts, lucky inmate of the biggest house in Galilee Hills, an upscale subdivision her father planned for prosperous churchgoers like himself. In Our Neighborhood Jesus Isn't Just for Sundays, the development's first billboards proclaimed, until Mr. Pitts's attorneys pointed out that unlike a cash deposit confessions of faith could not legally be required.

"How 'bout some affirmative action for Christians?" Mr. Pitts would grumble, but when it came down to it, he was a practical-minded Methodist. He welcomed the new revivalism sweeping Marion County as good for God and business both. The streets kept their biblical names, and so I felt sorry for the small children burdened with learning to spell Gethsemane Drive. But the new billboards featured a smiling family of indeterminate ethnicity standing in the sun-filtered shade of unlikely lemon trees. They invited all who yearned for Wholesome, Family-Focused Community and Hassle-Free Hookup to town water and sewage to Discover the Promised Land Right Here in Central Ohio.

Galilee Hills, each house with a deep front porch and flag-bearing bracket, spread south to the intersection of Jericho Road and Route 4 where you had your choice of churches followed by Sunday dinner at Bob Evans or Ponderosa. To the north, once thriving farms surrendered to Mr. Pitts's latest project, New Canaan. In New Canaan, families who aspired to life in Galilee Hills enjoyed affordable homes, each with a concrete-slab patio in back. New Canaan is where my mom and I lived, but most days after school I went to Nedra's, an arrangement for which Mom was grateful. She was pulling twelve-hour shifts at Marion Memorial and, recalling her own misspent youth, did not want me at loose ends.

I had already made up my own mind to start walking the straight and narrow. With Nedra I pledged chastity and joined Abundant [End Page 87] Life. I didn't do this for the shivery thrill born-again girls get from surreptitious reading of the book of Revelation. Like Mr. Pitts, I was practical. I knew that young women who have chance encounters with nameless boys at Whitesnake concerts—the story of my conception— do not go on to live the good life with a Lake Erie summer house at Put-in-Bay. I admired my mother's tenacity, her up-and-at-'em spunk. But in my dreams Mr. Pitts's attorneys drew up the papers, and Mom, eyes damp with grateful tears, signed me away.

Like most moving into New Canaan, we were new to Marion County, Mom having scraped together the wherewithal to leave Sandusky but only enough to carry us fifty miles southeast. As far as Gary, my stepfather, soon to be ex, was concerned, we might as well have moved to the moon. Since his truck had disappeared— repossessed, though he went around saying it'd been stolen—he'd had to hitchhike to his latest job. He was on a short-term contract to strip down an auto-parts plant that once upon a time had belonged to General Motors. He was prepping it to be shipped to Alabama, removing time-wasting safety features, which apparently Alabamans did not need. After work, Gary would drink Genny Cream ales and sometimes cry, haunted by machine scalpings, arms lost at the elbow.

"Yes, it's a sorry mess, but there's not a thing you can do about it," Mom tried to tell him. This was before she'd made up her mind to leave him, setting out for our new life in New Canaan. In New Canaan a first-time buyer could get three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths for no money down and a low-interest mortgage that wouldn't reset for five years.

"And well before that," the agent declared, "you'll be ready to buy up into an even finer home." She swept her arm toward Galilee Hills, its houses shaded by catalpas carefully preserved during the neighborhood's construction.

Mom peered skeptically through the sliding-glass door...


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pp. 87-103
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