Preview of “I Am a Town”
On the day this book debuts it will have been six years, six years to the day since the house I loved died.
The memories of that day don’t fade as much as they are kept in a different box, a place further back in the attic of the things I remember. But, I don’t relive them anymore. I don’t smell the smoke and I don’t hear the voices or the sirens or my own screaming.
I am spared that, now.
I still see Walker’s friends, Cole and Cody, hurdling fire hoses and ignoring demands that they get back, running across the yard to come and stand next to my son as he watched his home burn away. They took off their own shoes on a cold and rainy Carolina November day to provide Walker something to stand on, his bare, size fifteen feet being too big for their Nikes. The three of them stood together, leaning on each other for balance, sharing four shoes. You don’t forget sights like that.
Jeff Bolick stopped running the Boxcar Restaurant he owns down by I-40 to man a water hose. He likes to remind me how hard I fought the efforts of the rescue squad as they attempted to give me oxygen and wrap blankets around me. He likes to remind me that even in my darkest hour I can cuss a blue streak without batting an eye. On the night we gathered in his restaurant to hang the football helmet of Greg Issac on the wall of a bar he got kicked out of on more than one occasion, Jeff whispered to me, “I knew you would be all right when I heard you cussin’. I thought, ‘she’s still in there’.”
It’s quite a reputation when folks measure your mental health by how many swear words you can fling in a single sentence.
I ought to be ashamed.
I can see the tears running down the cheeks of Gary Sigmon, the crazy Gary Sigmon, not the Claremont Fire Chief, Gary Sigmon. Tough ol’ Gary cried for me. His legendary outlaw mentality abandoned him in that hour as he put an arm around me and cried. People left us alone for awhile. Watching knocked everyone’s world a little off center, I suppose.
Perhaps it was P.J. Stanley who had it the worst that day. He was the one I assaulted, the one I wanted to lie to me but needed to tell me the truth. With his flannel sleeves gripped in my hands, pulling him to face me, I sobbed for him to tell me the truth, to tell it to me, now, is it too late, is it over, can they save it? All the good on the inside of P.J., whatever it was that always carried him through, it had to take all of it that day because I clearly recall the difficulty he had raising his head, forcing himself to look me in the eye and say, “I believe it’s gone.”
I should be sorry I made him do that but I’m not sure I would have accepted that truth from anyone else. P.J. wouldn’t live to see this book. Before I could finish it we stood around a small wooden box in the cemetery on Main Street and sunk his ashes in the clay. The county newspaper published an editorial I wrote about what his absence would mean to our town. His wife, Brenda, would run into me at the hardware store and thank me for writing it and it would suddenly occur to me that I never returned the coat P.J. had slipped around me, pulling up the hood to keep out the rain that was steady enough to get me wet but no help in saving my house.
The death of my house was made of flames that singed my soul, stripped me of the dead sure belief that all I had to do was work a little harder and be a little smarter to make anything I wanted be true and real. I sat numb and broken while this town got busy. They thought they were tending to my things. The truth is, they were tending to my fractured heart.
I have an ego as big as The South. I believed that my thirteen-year relationship with the town of Claremont was about the things I did for them: the Author Dinners, the hayrides, the Book Walk, and the Christmas Parties. I thought they had made me a part of their families because of my God-given talent at terrifying people into donating money for scholarships and library funds, that any love they had for me was based on how hard I worked to host Germans from our sister city and how well I decorated the Welcome signs at the edge of town for every season including Race Week, which anyone with good sense knows is a North Carolina State holiday.
I ought to be ashamed.
If the fire taught me that I am not invincible, it is Claremont that taught me I don’t have to be. If the fire took away my sense that by being smarter and working harder and making none of the mistakes that less capable people make, I can create a place of complete safety, Claremont taught me I don’t need it.
I got people.
I got family.
The most fearless woman in the world saved my life, gave me direction, and became the mother I never had though she was damn quick about pointing out that she was too young for the role. A white-haired woman, most often dressed in pink, set the tables and decorated the church hall and baked a hundred and ninety-two different pound cakes for every event I dreamed up in my self-appointed role as Claremont’s Cruise Director. We spent an afternoon sitting on her front porch while she told me the love story of her life with a man we all called Hambone who, by general consensus, cussed more than even me. We elected a Mayor, first by write-in and then, again and again, unopposed and unchallenged in his leadership, who hauled lights and tinsel all the way to Louisiana to see that a hurricane named Katrina hadn’t take Christmas with her when she went out to sea. He presided over the bitterly contested Yard of the Month battles until most folks in town either won or gave up, and he opened the doors to a library that gave me the excuse I didn’t know I needed and was sure I didn’t want to make a phone call and become a part of the town. His wife fixed my sewing mistakes and brought me pass-along-plants and became the best neighbor I’ve ever had.
Two women, one tall and thin and the other not, tended to me after the fire, shared bleacher space at PTO meetings and basketball games, disagreed with me on every political and social issue that came across the television screen, tried to fix me up with men of their choosing, shook their heads in disappointment when I dumped the nicest guy in the world, and still managed to show me what it means to part of a sisterhood. They shared their young’uns with me and looked after my own like he was kin, and when we discovered that his heart was not as perfect as we had always believed, they prayed as hard as if he were their own and ratted him out when they saw him playing sports against doctor’s orders.
A police chief looked the other way if he saw me committing obvious felonies and signed every permit I applied for. He proved to be the very meaning of the phrase “protect and serve” and did so with humor, a framed black and white photograph of Andy and Barney on the wall of his office and daily breakfasts of two thousand calories at Hannah’s Bar-B-Q. I openly threatened a City Manager who did not appreciate the fine qualities of the man in charge of our police department. She got gone. The Chief and I remained.
A man I thought I disliked proved to be smart and funny and gave me moonshine and a fine mind to talk to when his wife lost the good sense she had in marrying him and he had to move into the house he used as an office, defying the ordinances of the Claremont Zoning Board for more than ten years. He came to make up for losing Russell, a loss much greater than the burning of my house. His role will always be one of leading man movie star status when he walks across my memory.
I sat on a bedroom floor while a woman in her nineties pulled quilts from dresser drawers and protective pillowcases and spread them across her lap as she told me stories of a Claremont in the time before I knew it. She read a book a week and used the library in traditional form instead of to check email or watch a DVD. She never missed a Tar Heel game or a Sunday morning church service and she never minded when I forgot myself and cussed in front of her.
And, I found a church, of sorts. It was a holy place filled with backsliders and boys who had run more than a trunk load of ’shine in their younger days. Instead of a pew, I took my place at the sacred Back Table, a breach of custom no woman before me had dared. The elders came dressed in overalls and flannel and preached of fast cars and dance hall days and how many fish they caught and deer they put in the freezer. Communion was a cheeseburger all the way or fried bologna or livermush and tea that sent lesser men into a diabetic coma. If I could have loved them more, I would have found a way, and I came to look for any opportunity to show them, to hold them up and into the light. In doing so, I became a writer.
And, if I never do another good or kind thing in my life, which is entirely possible, I can know that because I came to that town for all the wrong reasons and stayed for all the right ones, many song birds found a home and one man found his voice.
The fire took from me the books that sat on every flat surface in my house. No room was without them. They lined shelves and propped up photographs of gone dogs and a grown daughter. They held the secret ingredients in my yellow pepper soup and the best design for a pumpkin patch. They were proof of a time when album covers were art and photographers were artists and John really did love Yoko. They had provided instruction as to refinishing furniture, how to raise quail and cast for trout, and in the case of fourteen copies of the same title, how to know a man by walking around in his skin. They were more company than props, more friend than paper, but what the flames didn’t turn to ash, the water hoses drowned beyond saving. It took me weeks to accept, fanning open their pages in a sorry attempt to dry them and make them, and therefore my own self, whole. When I finally gave up and allowed my friends to haul them to the dumpster behind the carwash, only twenty remained, the Holy Fourteen and a collection written by a son of Alabama whose first three pages in a book about his granddaddy pried me loose of a self-imposed exile from people who were waiting to love me and bring me casseroles.
The writers who later came to town, after that September he sat in my kitchen and told me I should be putting words on paper, had come because they wanted to see if Claremont was just some story we’d made up to tell, that Alabama boy and me. They kept on coming, one after another, until it was a common occurrence for a millworker at the Back Table of the Café to be talking about his time in a jungle war with the man who was awarded a Bronze Star for writing about it. Two authors were in Claremont so often they were recognized at the liquor store and asked if they were “stayin’ out at Shari’s place” though that could have been because they were buying bourbon. I asked a banker for a thousand dollars to get us started putting up bronze plaques commemorating their visits with passages from their books and the dates they came to call, and Tom Winkler and me would drive a city pick up around town and pound them in behind the sidewalks to make the official Claremont Book Walk.
P. J. would lay brick around the one in his yard and make a stained glass light to shine upon it.
The Friends of the Claremont Library would sell tickets in Sunday school class and folks would come to hear the writers read from their books about peach farms and fallen angels, and the Negro baseball league and a voodoo practicing sheriff. Writers would come to town after the fire and fret over me, make me cups of noodle soup and whisper in the hallway about how little of it I was eating. Later, at the new place, they would sit on my back porch, Mason jar in one hand, gesturing for good measure with the other, and talk of book tours and bookstores and how all publishers were sonsabitches and all editors killjoy comma haters and they would each, everyone, not so much encourage me to write so much as threaten bodily harm if I didn’t until just to prove them wrong, I sent a story to a magazine.
It sold in an hour, something I have never quite been allowed to live down by a writer who loves the words “told ya so” more than any of the poetry she ever brought to the page.
For reasons that defy good logic, editors kept calling, asking if I had more stories about Claremont and the Café and the ladies of the St. Mark’s Quilting Mission. They wanted stories about my daddy and his hunting dogs and the rock collection taking up space on my son’s dressers. I wrote tales of moonshiners and broken hearts and escaped poultry and they kept asking for more. When I asked Rita Larkin, a fine editor and funny woman, if I could write about music, she told me to send it her way when it was done and she’d issue the check. Soon a singer/songwriter/storyteller was seen in the Café, once a week or so, pulling his long, white hair back in a ponytail so as not to drag it through the chili and slaw, and a troubadour was getting his picture made in front of my barn for the publicity stills for his next road gig, and brothers, one with a pure voice and the other with a pure heart, were eating soup and cookies at my kitchen table.
A cowboy from Texas sat on my sofa playing a guitar and drinking whiskey and stirring in me a belief, long pronounced dead and buried, while my dogs lay snoring at his feet. Even now, he picks at an un-amplified Stratocaster as I type these words and cry.
I would fall in love with that cowboy and he would sit in a Writer’s Shack at the Waterhole Branch of Fish River off Weeks Bay in Alabama and nudge from me, the confession that I had been wrong, again, that there had been music worth listening to written after 1978. Some of it had been penned by the son of a preacher man who spent late night and early morning hours reading to me over the phone as I discovered in him what had been found in me, that we had things to say and sometimes, when everything was right and the moon hung just so and the Southern literary gods favored us, we could write it pretty.
I was born, and remain, a half breed, the daughter of a Tennessee daddy and a Midwestern mother who never took to me. I grew up believing I didn’t really belong anywhere.
Claremont was waiting to claim me when I got ready to walk through my own front door. They built a bridge I can cross anytime I feel too far gone, a bridge made of red clay and pines, one that will spark from time to time but never burn, fireproof, constant in its willingness to take me back, welcome me home, even if that home is safest only behind my eyes.
John Hiatt never writes a bad song. This is the one I like best:
“I did not go to college, babe, I did not have the luck.
Stole out of Indiana in the back of a pick-up truck.
No education higher than the streets of my hometown,
I went looking for a fire just to burn it all down.”
I found my fire.
I’m not even sorry it happened if this is what I got—this town, these people, these writers and music makers, these stories and the chance to write them, to do my best to honor who they are and what they have taught me, to cross the bridge and show the dignity of those who helped build it, and in doing so, built me, or, at least, put me back together, to sing the praises, as long as it takes and as pretty as I can, of a community of millworkers and farmers and artists until everyone knows the song.
If I don’t hit the right notes I ought to be ashamed.