Troutman, North Carolina
Forty-five minutes into a six-hour southbound drive, I exit the interstate and roll past a pair of decrepit gas stations. I turn onto Sellers Road. I pass a number of cheerful and manicured suburban homes. I stop before one with an overgrown yard, rusting camper, and a decomposing homemade doghouse.
Reaching out the window of my car, I cautiously open the plastic mailbox door. Dad warned me to watch out for wildlife. The wood of the mailbox is warped, most of the paint has chipped off, and Dad’s voice rings in my ears more often than he realizes. These stairs will get mighty slippery. You reckon they’ll build a roof over these stairs? It’s mighty isolated out here. I hope you know not to come out here at night. You’re driving mighty fast through here. That’s a red light up there. You see that red light up there? You going to slow down?
A wasp’s nest dangles from the top of the mailbox, but it doesn’t seem to be occupied. I reach around it and scoop out several weeks’ worth of crumpled correspondence: a few advertisements, a few magazines, and one envelope stamped IRS.
I dump it all in the foot of my empty passenger seat. Cranking the stereo, I cast one last glance toward the front door of the house (rather, where the front door must be, hidden somewhere beyond a swarm of plant tendrils that twist out from the yard) before swinging my car around and hightailing it out of there, belting the lyrics of a Freddie Mercury tune that fills my car like a merciful smoke.
On my way back to the interstate, I pass the squat, nondescript office building of the engineering company where Dad used to work. Some of my earliest memories are in that building, afternoons that found me sitting at my table at the side of Dad’s office, polishing off a sticky glazed Krispy Kreme donut. I’d lick the crinkly donut paper before crumbling it up and starting on my algebra.
After the algebra, it was on to my important work: building robots, sketching hovercrafts, playing Neopets, assembling stories.
Nestled in the far southeast corner of the Peach State, Brunswick smells like rotting eggs. Tastes like them, too: the water has a sulfurous cloudiness that coats the throat as well as the memory, a cloudiness that has become one of my most vivid associations with this vacation spot of my childhood. Other details include the flatness of the land, the gnats that swarm the marshes, and the heat that hits you like a brick in the summer days and will drag you right down to the steaming cement if you’re not ready for it.
Though evening has fallen, a trace of that oppressive heat lingers in the air, promising to return in the morning with as much subtlety as the interstate billboards I passed on the way here. IF YOU DIED TONIGHT, they said, DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU’D GO?
Christine Couey is Dad’s aunt, my grandmother’s sister, and my great aunt. But she is Aunt Christine to us all, wife of the late Uncle Jerome. As I roll up to her house, I see her familiar Cadillac in the driveway, far up next to the porch. Burgundy Cadillac, white leather interior, elevator music on the radio. She’s not allowed to drive it anymore; they’ve taken the keys.
Years ago, when we arrived here late at night before Thanksgiving or Christmas, Dad would carry me inside; I would lay my head on his shoulder, pretending to sleep so I wouldn’t have to talk to the ancient strangers who claimed to have been present the day I was born.
She’s hunched over now, withering. Dad answers the door when I knock, and she shuffles in from the kitchen. I bend over to hug her.
“Where’s your walker?” Dad demands of her. “Your walker’s the only thing keeping you from falling again. You fall again and it’s over. You break a hip and it’s over. You know that. We’ve talked about it.” He gets her walker. The three of us go into the living room, a dark space with musty carpet and low ceiling and stiff furniture, where relatives have lounged for hours, discussing obituaries. Or worse, politics.
“Did you get some supper?” Dad asks me now. “Do we need to find you something? Go out to the store?” He adds this hopefully, anxious for reprieve.
“I’ve got some . . . key lime pie in there,” says Aunt Christine, struggling over each word. “You want some . . . key lime pie?”
I tell her no, thank you.
“I’ve got some . . . eggs in there, if you want some. You want some . . . eggs?”
“No, thanks,” I reiterate, and she gives up, shuffling over to the couch with a shrug. This, then, is an indication: she’s not in good shape, not at all. Historically, the offerings go on perpetually. Orange juice? Ham? Ice cream? Toaster strudel? Casserole? Blueberry crunch? Bacon? You sure you’re not hungry? Don’t want seconds? Thirds?
“We’re gonna run to the store a minute!” says Dad loudly, so she can hear. “Do you need anything from the store!”
“No, I’m . . . alright . . .”
Brunswick is Dad’s second home. Born and raised two hours away, he spent his summers here, playing tennis on the courts until after dark, painting parking lines with Uncle Jerome, assembling wooden models of ships, and working on construction crews by the docks.
He told me once about the time he drove a truck on a bridge. The bridge wasn’t finished yet, and there were no guardrails. The back of the truck dangled over the water, teetering for a moment before he could swing it about to safety.
He also told me about the time Jerome, while they were working in his toolshed, handed him a cup of a colorless, unthreatening substance. “Take a whiff of this,” said Uncle Jerome, so Dad did. He took a massive, trusting whiff, and he swooned from a headful of pure ammonia.
We make the three-minute trek to Piggly Wiggly. Dad follows me around as I wander the aisles, a green shopping basket poised at the crook of my arm. I’m famished and have no sort of list to give me purpose, but Dad doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get back. He talks quickly like he always does when he hasn’t seen me in a while.
“She refers to me as four different people,” he says, meaning Aunt Christine. “Tim, Big Tim, That Boy Who Lives in McRae, and Those Men That Come And Wash The Dishes. They eat her key lime pie, too. Don’t seem to scare her, though, far as we can tell. Figure it’s her way of compartmentalizing. Fascinating, in a way—a real case study.”
“I know this isn’t easy for you,” I say, searching a colorful shelf of packaged teas. Beside me, Dad shrugs.
“Just the natural progression.”
I drop a box of Earl Grey into my basket and turn to look him in the face. I try to see him as if I were a stranger, some pedestrian who happens to pass this old guy with glasses, a golf shirt, and a deep-lens camera, which hangs on a leather strap over his shoulder. I try to see people like that sometimes. Who would you be if I didn’t know you?
But all I can see is that he’s got my eyes.
Boone, North Carolina
A bracing night in the high country, windy and clear and invigorating, an edge of impending transition in the mountain air. It is December 1, the last evening before a week of final exams, and I find myself bustling back to campus among a rowdy gang of my fellow saxophonists, a mixture of jazz and classical musicians with a common affection for avant-garde repertoire and bad puns. Together, we represent the saxophone studio of Appalachian State University, and we have just concluded our end-of-semester Mellow Mushroom “pizza class.” Our professor, bundled in a scarf, bomber jacket, and flat cap, leads the way through a back alley shortcut to the music building.
I drift away from my peers to walk next to him for a bit and ask about a member of our studio, a senior who will be missing a performance this weekend due to an unspecified family emergency. Dr. K doesn’t know the details, but he tells me a story about his own senior year of undergrad. “Our jazz group was scheduled for a tour of North Dakota. The night before we were set to leave, I got a call that my grandfather had died. Well, I figured I’d go right along with the tour, but my mother said nope. Family comes first, she said. And so it does,” he chuckles, shaking his head against a frigid gust of wind.
It has been six months since my trip to Brunswick. These days, Aunt Christine is in a nursing home, and Dad is back in his house on Sellers Road. In fact, he hardly leaves it. For hours at a time, he combs the internet and flings out resumes, scouring for his next step in that rigid way of his, hunched at his computer as weeds creep over the heavy front door.
He’s been out of work, see. For years now. For so long he’s beginning to suspect that his age is the reason he hasn’t been hired. It is a frightening thought, one he is not ready to look in the face. Consequently, his Facebook wall crowds with news articles pertaining to the horrors of the world: kidnapped girls and rampaging terrorists, not to mention left-wing immigration policies. Fixation, these headlines. Displacement, distraction, denial.
But I can’t tell him that. “I have a concert next Tuesday,” is all I can say. “Want to come?”
All I can say. All I can do. All I will do if I am determined to live my own life, follow my own passions, arrive at my own conclusions about whatever horrors and hopes the world may contain. And so I stay busy, stuffing my ears with French concertos and my eyes with Irish poetry. I sip tea and bake quiches and dream of going to Europe and staying there, at least for a while. I dream of meeting a handsome Englishman. I dream of writing stories, teaching saxophone, and never going to Georgia again.