An hour and a half after sunrise I was down from taking pictures and my
parents were in Virginia cloth finishing breakfast. They’d finished. Theywere having additional coffee, in boiling-point fractions of cups. My motherwas wearing a limegreen dress of Virginia cloth with a pleated front, myfather a beige shirt (and bowtie). He was dunking anise biscuits his sistersent.
By Virginia cloth I mean the fabric much clothing is made of in our state.It’s a tightly woven cotton, very thin, very pliant. You imagine that afterbeing loomed it’s farmed out to people who hammer it, wash it in lye soapand hang it in the weather. It never appears in bright colors. Yet in theclear air among the greens and blues it suits. My mother’s dresses andblouses gave the effect of leaves on a stream,
“Such ambition,” I said, though they were always up at six.I set my camera stuff down on the mat with the garden shoes. I was nineteen,home from college for a few days in October. “The appointment’s nottill nine-thirty, is it?” My father and I were to go ask the bankfor money for second semester. As a school principal he could take themorning off. My mother didn’t work outside the home except at church free.
She looked up as if licking a stamp. Her hair was still quite black. Whenit turned gray it would turn all at once, not one strand at a time. Shekept it a little too short because her beautician told her that like pruninga bush this thickened it. “Do you want your breakfast first or yourshower?”
“Yea, son, sit down, have some breakfast.” My father, one ofthe last of the great eaters, always fit, crunched into another biscuit.He sonned his son and daughter-of-mined his daughter. She, Nan, one ofthe last of the great sleepers, was upstairs in my old bed, not due forhours. “We even have Earl Grey tea.”
Abashed, my mother looked out the window, where the branches of the mapletree, my exact contemporary, crowded the porch.
“Yea,” he huffed. He reached into the pocket of his sport-jacket,which he’d hung, foursquare, over his chair. He shook his head vigorously. “Nineforty-five last night?” –closing on their bedtime–“your mothergot worried that we didn’t have Earl Grey since you always drink it forbreakfast.”
“Oh come on.”
“No, that’s right.” He pitched his voice lower. “So . .. race down to Kroger.” Kroger stayed open late, on Thursdays. “Whew.I’m deducting the amount from your check.”
“Please, it’s just that there’s no way to get a real breakfast, soI do strong tea.”
Now she turned her gaze to me saying with it: consider, consider.
He lit up his pipe, shook the match, and checking her for an interdictionlofted the first sharp cape of smoke, Blair House.
The night before on the way out of town I’d stopped at the Donut Holeon the bypass and spent a while watching the girl who worked there, exchangeda few phrases with her. On the one hand she talked up a storm with thecustomers. She laughed pointedly. On the other she didn’t seem to be exactlypresent. At the breakfast table I was thinking about her more than I hada right to.
“Lou,” my mother warned. A bird’s wings hit the jalousie likea wad of paper as the bird, a bluejay, came to the feeder, unbalancingit. When it took off the branch rapped the siding. “Well, I wouldn’tmind seeing Skip Terry myself this morning,” she said. He was knownas good-looking and was running for church council and school board atonce, the steppingstones.
I said, “I was thinking maybe it’d be better if I went on and wentby myself.”
“Shoot,” she said and rammed her chair back. She walked intothe kitchen, clicked a button on the range, and filled my cup–our cupsbelonged–with boiling water.
My father brushed crumbs onto his plate with the bottom of his pipe hand. “Well,son, she and I agree, since I used to work with Skip, that might tip it.”
“I was thinking it might be more persuasive to speak for myself.”
She rang the cup of tea down in front of me. Its aroma, never more likerank fruitcake, overwhelmed that of the bacon. “Yes, my land,” shesaid. “Great.”
Later as we left she ran to the door and pointed out a late oriole pickingup seeds frittered off the feeder. “Have you seen him before, Lou?” Straighton her glasses magnified her eyes greatly.
“No, sure haven’t.”
“Well he’s simply amazing.”
In the side yard my father had burlapped the fig trees, the only onesin the area, already. On the coldest days of winter he would stow an oillamp inside with each.
The Valiant was that year’s when the Valiant looked like a sculpture ofeyebrows. Our road, lined with nice pines–also my age, the developmenthaving opened shortly before I was born–ran up a considerable hill toLindhurst Road. The power company had cut the grown pines into wrench shapes.Virginia macadam is the blackest in the country, the dividing lines thewhitest, yellowest. Lindhurst ran into Wayne, pure Virginia macadam, andWayne, four hopeful lanes, into the downtown then out to the bypass. Themacadam imparted no sound to the tires. Over level Wayne Avenue archedyellow-brown chestnuts all the way to the post office. The town paid aman, Grady Mill, to edge and rake town curbs according to the season.
“Did you get the shots you wanted?” He rolled the window downa notch to vent smoke. “What were you taking? I know,” he growled;he smacked my leg, “you can’t talk about such things.”
“No–just trying to capture a certain aspect.” I would havehad to explain wanting to show people in secret and that with a cold heartphotography seemed the way.
“Yea, yea, Tell me, what aspect?”
My right arm lay across my lap, my left over the back of the seat. “Thatbare line of Loft Mountain, a lot of sky, just a couple trees, and thenthe glow. Not dawn. I mean right before the top of the sun emerges.” I’doverexposed the pictures to have the ridge and trees appear ghostlike ina grainy radiance but I didn’t want to explain that either. My father likeda frontal view of a person from the shoes up. He liked “Miscellany” atthe back of Life, where, for instance, the lens made a horse appear tohave eight legs.
He pulled into a space, got out and thumbed pennies into the meter. “Whatabout your character studies?”
“This is a character study.”
“Of who, you and Liz?”
“I guess, if you want to be specific.” I imagined people leftprints on emptiness, that if you shot a bedroom the disturbance in thesheets showed those who had disturbed them. This was a fad in the photographymagazines. If you shot a mountaintop with a lot of sky you showed peoplewho’d lain looking at the sky at that location.
“The studies I didn’t like were the Dupont workers with smokestackscoming out of their heads.”
“That was intentional.”
Because of the elevation and time of year the light lay pale on the sidewalk;the shadow side of the street was curtained in blue. A woman in a dressof Virginia cloth–a print like powdery wallpaper–and a sweater the lightestpink, crossed to greet us.
“Hey, Ruby, remember my boy?”
She pulled her sweater around. “He doesn’t remember me.”
I did remember her the moment I saw her husband across the street. Thegirl who had been working at the Donut Hole walked past him in medium heelsand a suit, russet, a grown up little package. When he crossed his armswatching her I remembered them from county teacher meetings I’d been takento, the Aldhizers. The girl flounced more than I wanted her to, fussedwith her pocketbook. She went into Garst’s stationery.
Stepping out of the shadow Mr. Aldhizer crossed, fluttering his hand onhis trouser pocket. As he shook mine he took stock, jauntily, through steelframeglasses. Then the man we were supposed to see, Terry, came out of the stationerystore. He and I noticed each other, recognized each other–he had taughtme physics and driver’s ed.–but pretended not to. He put a hand to histieknot. He put something in his mouth. He shook his suitjacket sleevesdown. Looking at the jacket it seemed too large for him but looking athis back and arms they seemed too large for the jacket. His reflectionshot ahead on the banked window of the next store then doubled back thenwent high into the corner behind him.
“I’d put something on the side of her head Ajax won’t take away,” Mr.Aldhizer said.
“John, how did the company decide on . . . ,” my father began.
Mr. Aldhizer looked back across the street. “They messed up on uspretty bad, Lou.”
My father shook his head.
“We’re enjoying your peppers, Lou,” Mrs. Aldhizer put in. Atthe end of summer my father sent around jars of hot peppers from the garden,although the people here don’t generally eat hot food. At someone’s houseonce I saw years of unopened jars, the pigment separated out into solidplugs.
“You and Edna come see us,” Mr. Aldhizer said. “And Glenif he’s home.”
As we walked up the block my father asked, “You’re not nervous aboutthis?”
“Really, I’m not.”
Built of cement the color of the sidewalk and with flatly linteled windowsand square columns flush to its front the First and Merchants didn’t catchshadows except mornings that of the overhang of the Cline building roofnext to it. The lobby went the two floors up; there were pillars and amezzanine of glassed-in offices. The air was perpetually hazy, as if theChamber of Commerce held smokers in there. Removing his hat my father stoppedone by one up the line of tellers. “I wouldn’t let mine in the house,” EvelynArmentrout said. An oblong of fluorescent light shone on the counter infront of her.
I said, “Don’t worry, I walked straight off the bus into Shorter’s.” DonnieShorter was the downtown barber.
“You father’s a handsome man.”
“Oh come now,” he said, rocking back, holding his hat in front. “Let’snot get carried away.”
She blew at the surface of her coffee. “I’m being perfectly serious.”
Her intercom said send us up.
The office fronts were glass from the waist up, the doors full length.The framing recalled cases for mini ball and mineral collections. WhenTerry shut the door behind us with such care, however, it wasn’t out ofconcern for its delicacy but to show what precision courtesy a big manin his mid-thirties was capable of, to the fingertips. “We look forwardto your peppers every year,” he opened with.
“Well, this go-round they’re a disappointment, a little on the blandside.”
“Lou,” he said. “Lou,” he stage whispered, “keepon disappointing us.” He swung his arm around my father’s neck. Theywent grin to grin. “Keep right on breaking our hearts, maybe we caneat a few of the damn things.” He winked at me, he patted my fatheron the belly. That done, he waved us to the chairs while he sidesaddledthe front of the desk. He was chewing Lifesavers, Pep-O-Mint. His facewas a bit narrow, his features a little bit fine for his size. From coachingjunior varsity when he taught and from playing golf he kept a tan, likea light woodstain, year round. His eyes were blue, his suit grassgreen. “Nowtell me, y’all getting along all right?”
“Can’t complain, as the man says. Wouldn’t do no good to.”
“Wouldn’t do no good to. Nancy like Madison?”
“Very much, thank you, Skip. She’s always had a good head on hershoulders. Yea, I guess one out of two’s not bad. Just joking, son.” Hewas sorting through pipe, foil pouches and lighter in his pocket.
“Right,” I said.
“She always impressed me as a fine young lady.”
“They both made it home for the old folks’ anniversary.”
“What old folks?” He looked back and forth.
“Okay, okay, cut the clowning. Frankly, Skip, that’s the reason we’rehere. Having both in school is a strain on the finances.”
“I’m aware of that, I’m awful worried about my own girls time theyget there.” One leg stirring. He asked me, “What do you expectfrom that sorry excuse for a football team y’all got?”
“Not a whole lot this year. At least they’re not as sorry as some,U. Va., some of those.” I had yet to attend a game at school but didfollow conversations.
“We’ll see about that next weekend I reckon.”
“You coming down? We’ll see who buys beer. I won’t bother bringingmoney.”
“Won’t even be necessary.”
“Bring your money, boy.”
I said, “No point to it.”
He said, “Well I’d like to sit yap with y’all all day but I reckonwe ought to work around to the business end. Tell me your troubles.”
“Actually, they’re my troubles.”
“Well, Glen, shoot.”
My father dipped slightly away, while, on a sort of sine wave, bringinghis cupped hand down then up in my direction. Frankly I cared less thatTerry could give or not give money than that the girl had gone into Garst’sto meet him–what else would he have wanted in a stationery store at ninea.m., a nib for his pen?–to arrange to lay her love on his full platter:that power. He had had and would have it all his life. “It’s not toocomplicated. I’d like to get one of those government-backed loans. I work–Iwait tables–it’s not really sufficient. I mean I don’t need a fortune.A thousand.” We’d settled on that figure intending to drop back toseven-fifty, five hundred.
“Can’t do it,” Terry said, plainly, as if plainly acknowledgingthe coldness he and I shared.
“That’s what we came to find out. So thanks.”
“We’re not able to, son.”
“Fine.” I was supposed to mention the cars and homes I wouldfinance with a B.A. I wouldn’t meet his eye; I didn’t mind the meeting,I minded the angle.
My father readjusted himself, not for leaving, for staying, now that I’dhad my fun. He set his hat on his lap, set his pipe, never having lightedit, no ashtrays, on the carpet against the chair leg. He diminished toone of his students in wrinkled flesh, sent to the office. “Skip,as I understand it, if Glen runs out–and I’ll have him thrown in jailpersonally, citizen’s arrest–if he runs out you’ve got me as co-signer.If I run out, if I run off to San Diego with a hoochie-koochie dancer”–heexhaled wetly on punchlines– “Uncle Sam makes good.”
“Lou, don’t you know we make twice as much on auto loans? I can showyou this directive out of Richmond, tells us to stop doing like we do.It’s a hemorrhage on the books.” He went behind the desk and flippedthrough papers in a coil. His wall decorations were civic commandmentsand a five-foot browntone of Natural Chimneys facing one of Monticelloshowing the pool.
Stop-traffic sign. “Never mind Exhibit A, so it’s doing the customera favor.”
“We’re not even doing Dupont DeNemours no more favors no more. Howabout that?”
“That was pretty good.”
“Not doing DeNemours no more favors no more.”
“Just for the record . . . ” The chair budged, tipping the pipe. “Ohmy my,” he said, or my mother in him. “Give me a scrap paper,I’ll brush up this mess.”
“Just leave it, Lou, no problem.”
I said, “The bank is poor but they still have janitors, right?”
Finally Terry sat down at his desk, taking a load off us all. “Timebeing.”
My father was fingering the ashes into the pipe bowl.
“Lou, I’m asking you, now.”
“Just about got it.” He leaned back. “Edna and I’ve bankedhere twenty years, first mortgage, second mortgage–too bad there’s nosuch thing as third mortgage–little loans here and there . . . she goeson the warpath for a bedroom suite and next morning I’m right here, signingon the dotted.”
“And Frank Blakey told me do everything I can and don’t you knowif there was any way in this world . . . How’s Edna’s daddy making it?I haven’t seen her to ask since we stopped coming to early service.”
“Aw he’s having these awful hallucinations, refuses to do right. “
Fine, I thought, now we get out of here. I was sick of his sitting therehands on knees, hat between, Virginia cloth shirt, red bowtie, shoes polishedfifty minutes ago. The way he sat there I saw his entire exile among thebland eaters of the Shenandoah Valley. I saw his father before the officeron Ellis Island, quenching himself, any price just to get into this landof the stiff necked, the corn fed. Then to elaborately say, “Comeon, give us the darn loan and quit your fooling around.”
“I could not ever justify it to the auditors.”
Then, “I spent the best years of my life teaching history beforethey kicked me upstairs.”
“Years well spent, anybody in this town will tell you the same.” Terrywas chewing further back in his mouth. He appeared impatient only to theextent he thought my father wouldn’t notice. I could notice if I choseto, and give him credit.
“And I had a philosophy, a couple philosophies, maybe you don’t agree. Onewas to make history vivid by matching it to the stages of their lives. The barbarians,that’s childhood. The feudal serfs, that’s the early teens. Then the French Revolutionand so on and so forth.” He rotored the point across, loosening up. “Whenthey went up to the Blue Ridge to make out, they were Transcendentalists. Whenthey went to the drive-in, they were Pragmatists. Right, son?”
“I wouldn’t know.” I barely knew.
“No wonder you got through them farmboy skulls better than I could.” Thetelephone buzzed, he answered, not grasping, balancing, the receiver. “Fouro’clock would be fine, m’am, meet you at the dealership. Not a speck oftrouble.”
“Another notion I stressed was how lucky they were to live in a smallplace where you know the individual histories behind the public events.For example”–he checkmarked the air: “when So-and-So Pavingwon the Route 340 extension: I explained to them, well, So-and-So, he andthe highway department head are old frat brothers, they hunt together,this and that, la de da–So-and-So contributes, handsomely, to Harry Bird:Who gets the contract? Then when So-and-So announced he wasn’t runningfor city council, well, that was because the mayor got scared of him anddug up some of these funny bids. In other words, I told them to rub theirlittle faces in the local dirt then apply it on the national scale. That’shistory. Do you follow me?”
“I’d love to sit down talk with you; I would.” He hadn’t quitelet go of the phone. He seemed to be considering a new possibility, watchfully,as if having taken one drink but not intending to take another. “Iseldom get a good conversation. Especially with someone who can bear onthe European view.”
“Dad, there’s no reason to hang around. A bank’s a bank.” Talkingpedagogy to Terry.
“Keep your shirt on, son,” he said, patting out restraint. “Skip,maybe you don’t follow this rigamarole, but I’m trying to make a point,a couple points, that in a small town history is your next-door neighbor.Do you see what I’m driving at?”
“Like I say, Lou, I’d love to delve with you, over a pitcher of brewof an evening.” Taking me off guard he flashed me some charm, boyish,clear.
“Humor an old man. All I’m saying, first off, is my wife and I havea history with First and Merchants, and I feel you should honor that history.”
“If you wanted a dormer window on your house I guarantee the moneyin five minutes.”
“You want me to go on?”
“I’d be interested.” He didn’t give off impatience anymore.He gave off a heightened nonchalance.
“I wish you’d reconsider.”
“I’d be interested in what you have to say.” He barely kepthis eyes open.
My father put his chin to his chest, and from that declivity looked upto the other man. “Well then, in the second place, you participatedin an act, a piece of history, not everybody knows about.”
That was one of the saddest things I ever heard him say. It was the mostunnecessary. There had been no need whatsoever for him to crawl down toTerry’s level–for me? for this, a semester in college? I could have takenleave. If I’d been drafted, I would have acted according to my beliefsand faced the consequences, which I was capable of. My mother was sittinghome on the slipcovered couch waiting for us to call but she was hardlyliable to crumble if this one more small attempt had failed.
Terry swang sideways in his chair, the bulb of his jaw working, standingout as cleanly as a frogleg muscle. “Lou, I’m assuming you’re notreferring to an incident dead and buried several years, might as well bea century. I assume you don’t want to damage the opinion I have of youto that degree.” Three years ago he’d resigned from the school. Atfour o’clock today he would pick up his new girl somewhere and take hersomewhere and tell her about my old man spilling his pride in his office;her old history teacher most likely.
“All right, don’t damage your opinion. Just sign the papers.” Theaffable growl.
“I am amazed by you.”
“Okay, okay, we’ll drop the subject. Let’s go back to first base.”
“I have no authority to contravene an order from Richmond.”
“Come now, Skip.”
“Pardon me,” he said, swinging back. “Is Glen aware whatyou’re referring to?”
“No, not from me.”
“Really, I have no idea.”
“What do you think of your daddy doing this?”
“I don’t know.”
He was at me–“What would you feel if he went to church council andmade innuendos, ruined any chance of a future for me here, after I’ve workedto deserve that future again?”
“I think that’s fine.”
“You think that’s fine. For a thousand-dollar government loan.”
“It’s fine, I mean I’m sure–“
“You’re sure what?”
“I’m sure he’d do the right thing.”
Terry reached for the bladed pen in the holder. “You think he’d gothrough with it?”
“I have no way of knowing.”
“Fine. Real fine. I’m going to sign this paper. You deserve it, you’veearned it. Anybody that loyal to his daddy deserves a thousand bucks. Hell,how about a hundred thousand. Are you with me?”
His restlessness, still-faced, was such I wouldn’t have been surprisedto see him buck and to feel, with his weight added, the edge of the deskat my neck. But signing he didn’t cut the paper but I cut it through tothe carbon.
My father, dropping his pipe in his pocket, got to his feet. With hissnapbrim he stood to, merely pleased and unconcerned, like greeting peopleat the auditorium door after a band concert. “We appreciate this,Skip.”
“Like I say, anybody that hews to the second commandment.” Hestood, offered his hand to my father then me and I never stopped to considernot taking it.
Things were better outside. That’s the advantage of our valley. I rememberedin high school when a friend of mine was having trouble and we’d gone upthe mountain to ride his jeep coming back in the morning how good the lightwas, lifting, like a hydraulic lift, shutting out the engine, shuttingout mistakes, floating us out black Wayne Avenue under the trees. My shirtcollar–his roomy loaner, eggshell white (with a pattern, discernible undera microscope)–beat around my neck. Still at the comer of the drugstoreI stopped. I struck the pose of the delinquent I never was. Giant fadedVerichrome Pan boxes collecting dust in the window display. A pinging yawnedbehind my skull–spring in the arctic–he was rapping his pipe on the sash.
“Brrr, nicotine fit. Hey, don’t look so gloomy.”
“I’m going to tear this damn thing up.”
“Aw that’s just the normal give and take. What was I supposed todo, droop my head? You’ve got to get them where they live, as the man says.Come on, let’s have some coffee and pie and call your mother.”
“Couldn’t you let him be a jerk, by himself?
“There comes a point where you have to look at the other fellow andthink: As for you, buddy, you know what they say in Russia! Pie a la mode,then you can take the car to Liz’s.”
It wasn’t easy to deflect his virtually triumphant manner. “You’rewrong about everything. We don’t see each other anymore.”
“Well now you can tell her you’ve got money to get married on. Notmuch; a couple months rent anyway.”
“Or go ahead pay tuition, whatever. I just thought, your mother andI thought, the thing was maybe you wanted to get married.”
“That never crossed my mind.” Which way it had changed themI didn’t know. Two decades swathed in Virginia cloth and still my parentsbore this low threshold of credulousness-believing in this instance thatat my age everything went first for love.
We continued on down to City Lunch. He had an appetite.