Archives for posts with tag: Orange County

 

On a country road not far from where I live, there’s a house I never notice except in the spring. Dozens of daffodils press against the front of this ragged little place. It looks abandoned, but the daffodils couldn’t care less. They are wildly happy the way daffodils always are, their gold faces drinking in the sun and sky.

Who planted them, I wonder, and when?

I dial back the years to 1950 or so and picture a young woman in calico with an apron full of bulbs. She kneels down in the light of a breezy September morning and gets to work. As her trowel pierces the red-clay earth, she thinks about her ailing mom or her husband’s upcoming birthday or a poem she would like to write if she can ever find time. She drops in the first bulb and keeps going down the row.

“I’ll have these to look at in the spring,” she tells herself.

She is sturdy and strong. A week after planting the bulbs, she learns she’s pregnant with her first child. The joy she feels flows out of her hands and hair and into the air around the little house. When the daffodils bloom, she is nearly eight months pregnant, big and round and eager to get on with things. Bending down to gather a bouquet, she laughs at herself when she nearly topples over.

The bulbs will replicate over time. She and her husband will have four babies in seven years; three will survive. The name of the oldest, the one growing inside her while she planted those bulbs, will be etched on a shining wall in Washington, D.C.

When the news of her son’s death arrives, the woman will be living far from the daffodils. She will be separated from her husband, angry at the world. It will be ages before she can laugh again.

But the time comes when the tight petals of her heart slowly open. She takes night classes, has grandchildren, helps a fragile friend. The years drift by.

One day a nurse at the doctor’s office comments on the beauty of her eyes and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. She goes home, takes off her glasses, looks in the mirror: her eyes are as blue as the sky above Rapidan, Virginia.

It’s been a long time since she thought of that place. Something comes to her–a flickering of light, a rush of gold. Wasn’t there a poem she always meant to write, a few things she really wanted to say? She had meant to say them all these years.

The telephone rings: her granddaughter, on her way to take her to lunch.

She smooths her hair and sits down to wait. Outside the high windows of her apartment, a hawk flies by. It is a clear, calm day. The kitchen clock ticks. She rummages around in her purse for the notepad she uses for her grocery list.

The buzzer sounds just as she writes a single word, followed by a year. “It’s a beginning,” she thinks as she stands up and hurries to answer the door.

daffodils

When I started writing Tipton, I didn’t know I had a novel on my hands. I thought I was writing a short story about a teenaged orphan named Ross Gentry who lived at the Tipton Home in Tipton, Oklahoma, in the late 1930s. At the time, I was working for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, which published a journal called Tough Times Companion. That’s where I planned to submit my story about Ross. The problem was, Ross was getting to know a young housemother at the orphanage named Alice Williams. He and a couple of the other orphan boys and Anna (another housemother) all had crushes on Alice.

After I wrote fifty or so pages about these people, I knew my story was way too long for the journal. I secretly hoped I was writing a novel, but I was afraid if I started thinking about it—let alone talking about it—like that, the whole world of Ross and David and Dennis and Alice and Anna would die off like an overwatered geranium. It was just a story, that was all.

In the midst of writing it, I changed jobs and began teaching at James Madison University, an hour away from my home in Charlottesville. The morning commute put me on I-64 West and then I-81 North. Those are busy, fast-moving highways, and there’s a gorgeous vista—all sky and trees and tumbling depths—near the top of Afton Mountain that terrified me. On clear days, I felt like I would sail right off that curve and into oblivion. On foggy days, I took Exit 99 and avoided the crisis altogether. The town of Waynesboro never looked so good as it did on those days when I dropped below the fog line and managed to see the road in front of me.

The point is, I now had a long drive to work. When I got more comfortable with the commute—and after about a month, I did—my thoughts returned to the people at the Tipton Home. Day after day, week after week, they accompanied me over Afton Mountain. I listened to them; I let them lead me along. When they laughed, I laughed. Once or twice, when Ross was in pain, I cried with him. As for Alice, I could only shake my head.

Then the story shifted to Orange County, Virginia, where my family roots are. I confess I was glad because I know a lot more about Virginia than I do about Oklahoma. But I still let my new friends lead the way. When Alice Williams decided she wanted to track down Macklin, the husband who’d left her, I wondered what on earth she would find when she got to Rapidan, the farming village where Macklin had gone to live with his great uncle. And what would happen to Anna Boyer, driving Alice to Virginia and still in love with her? And what of Ross, who’d chosen boot camp over college? I was excited for all of them but also apprehensive.

Week after week, in sun and sleet and fog and snow, I traversed the roads between Charlottesville and Harrisonburg. Sometimes I could think only of the weather. A few times, as the snow fell hard and fast, I prayed out loud. Other times, on beautiful starlit evenings, I thought about what kind of takeout (Thai 99 or Wayside chicken?) I would get when I approached the last turn toward home.

But often, with no music playing and only the drone of traffic filling my ears, I thought about Ross and Dennis and David, who’d left Tipton to fight in World War II, and about Alice and Anna who by now had arrived in Rapidan.

What adventures they were all having! I liked these people (with one or two exceptions). Some of them I loved. They were, for the most part, good souls whose lives were taking them places they hadn’t counted on going. And they were taking me places I hadn’t expected to go.

I completed a first draft before my visiting professorship ended at JMU. The summer before my final year of teaching there, I moved home to Orange County, to a little house on the family property where so much of the story takes place.

Although I didn’t think about it at the time, I was following my characters to Rapidan.

What had they found there?

What would I find?

And who, for heaven’s sake, was writing whom?

The answer to the first question is now between the covers of a novel called Tipton, new this month from Knox Robinson Publishing. The answer to the second is a work in progress. The answer to the third is written in the fog somewhere above Afton Mountain and between the stars glittering, as I write this, far above my corner of the world in Rapidan.

To get to the county dump, I take Mount Sharon Road. It’s a quiet country lane lined with farmland and mountain views. In the late afternoon, the light is fantastic. One fall day, I stopped my car right in the road, stuck my head out the window, and took pictures of shadows falling across green lawns and golden fields.

There are a few steep rises so you have to be careful. More than once, my heart has leaped as another car barreled toward me taking up more than its share of the road. The perils of mortality are alive on Mount Sharon Road.

After another couple of turns, I go down another road and arrive, at last, at the dump. Wire-mesh gates stand wide open. Great big bins await the garbage of the local citizenry. Other bins beckon to conscientious recyclers of plastic, newspaper, tin cans, and glass. There’s also a place to dispose of old batteries and another place where you can deposit used clothing that some other person might still want to wear.

Sometimes, in a folding-chair far away, there sits a Man. If you have trouble with an extra-heavy bag, the Man will come and hoist the bag into the bin for you and talk a while.

The Man is not the only one at the dump. Fifteen or sixteen cats live there. You have to drive slowly when you arrive so you won’t disturb these creatures, perched like little sentinels all around the entrance.

I have been trying to get to know these cats. The first time, the Man came over to help me and talked about his own cats. He and his wife had way too many, and he finally took most of them to the animal shelter. He talked on and on about these long-ago cats.

Keeping up my end of the conversation as best I could, I eyed the residents of the dump. Some stood still; others darted out from under and around the bins. I was mesmerized. The Man said someone comes by to feed them. Behind the recycling bins I glimpsed plastic plates laden with half-eaten food—the Man spoke the truth. Unable to contain myself any longer, I called out to a cat, and she came running up to me. She was longhaired and sweet and should have been somebody’s pet. I noted her lopped ear—the universal sign that a feral cat has been caught, neutered, and returned to its home turf. She let me pet her and then went wild when I tried to pick her up.

On subsequent visits, I have lingered among the cats. The pretty, longhaired one seems to be gone; perhaps someone lured her into a cage and took her home. The others are not as friendly as she was. They let me get close but not close enough to touch them. I’ve been tracking a fluffy, mid-sized black cat that is ridiculously cute. I’ve noted several gray and tan ones. A couple of big muscular cats sidle back and forth as the young, leggy ones scuttle under the bins.

Conversations between county citizens go like this:

“They won’t let you catch them. I’ve tried.”

“I know. I have, too.”

“Somebody feeds them.”

“They look healthy.”

Then it’s goodbye, and people go back to their cars and trucks and go home. They forget all about the cats until next time.

I go home, too. On Mount Sharon Road, dusk is falling. I think about where we all end up: some of us in fine mansions, some in tidy little apartments, others in tents under bridges or walking stoned and bareheaded down a desolate road at one a.m.

The cats, too: some snooze on satin pillows while others, well fed, live out their nights and days at the dump. Meanwhile, their unneutered cousin lunges for a field mouse deep in the woods. Still another decides to cross the street at just the wrong moment, and the car’s driver (who had studied, in his modern poetry class, Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump”) barely registers the light collision as a life abruptly ends.

The next morning, a twenty-three-year-old will find the body and cry hard. She’ll cry again that night and still again on her way to work the next day.

Years later, maybe she’ll cross paths with the driver of the car that killed her cat, at the supermarket or gas station or the county fair.

Or maybe they’ll meet at the dump.

An old man now, he catches her eye and says, “Somebody feeds them.”

And she says, “I know. They look healthy.”

And the man goes home and so does the woman, and the sun goes down on the cats at the dump. And a car glides past another car tonight and the next day and forever and ever on Mount Sharon Road. And love shimmers everywhere–everywhere!–in the still country air.

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