My hands do not tremble as I thought they would. They remain steady on the steering wheel of my 1969 VW Bug, a car I have driven all around the hills of my adopted hometown, Walnut Cove, NC, since junior high. The Sauratown Mountains had rolled out like a red carpet to me as I ventured to places that gave refuge and solace to a tormented teenage soul that never knew the merits of having permanent roots. Each new horizon was like a tarot card revealing new dreams, new thoughts, with the past and present merging together and leaving my future yet to be determined.
That future card is slowly emerging now as I watch the place I have loved and loathed become a part of my history. What would I take with me from this land of my stepfather, the land he had farmed as a young man who dreamed of making a better life for himself, one that did not include priming tobacco and wearing overalls as his father did. How had living here prepared me for living elsewhere on soil I had not yet walked? What baggage would I, a dream novice, carry, and would it be enough to turn my dreams into reality? Or would I, like my stepfather, come back here to start a new dream while mourning the dead? I had so many questions and so few answers.
The one traffic light in town turns red, slowing me down once again. The hardware store in front of me is bursting with old men both shopping for seed and feed and looking for gossip, a mixture which gave everyone something to chew on. These are men who came to the pharmacy where I worked during high school, men who couldn’t smell the difference between a toilet water perfume and a toilet’s water in an outhouse. They were good men I liked and who liked me enough to tease me and to encourage me, even when I was slow in procuring their coffee and toast at the pharmacy’s café, the Red Rooster — a nesting place for those who wanted to get out of the house but had no place to go. I’d miss them, but not enough to stay.
I watch Mrs. Jones cross the street, her gait slow and determined as always, her black, sensible shoes matching her black sensible purse, held tightly in her hand as if someone would dare to snatch it from her. She sees me and waves, calling out words I cannot understand. I smile at her, throwing up my hand as I do, as everyone does, even when you have no idea who someone is. Everyone is somebody in this town, somebody your mother knows, somebody you met three years ago at the church’s dinner, or someone who knew your stepfather back when he went by the nickname Smiley. Some say a small town is hard to get lost in, but I think a small town is a place where you think you’ll never get found.
Mrs. Jones was the first person to tell me I should leave this town and find another piece of blue sky to fly under. She said she regretted staying tethered to tradition, and, if she could, she’d fly away with me. I’ll miss her and her sensible shoes.
The green light shines, and I am on my way to college, a land unknown to my mother and stepfather. Odd, they say, that you’d want to leave here. We bought you land next to the house for you to build on. You can keep your job at the drug store. Marry, have kids, make a good life. This land is yours.
I hold that land’s dirt in my hand. I packed it with me in a paper bag, a small brown bag that used to keep potatoes in the dark basement — potatoes I had grown in that land. It matters to me, just like the people in this town do. They have been unintentional midwives to my dreams. But I alone must push ahead.
The railroad tracks are busy, trains coming and going, carrying lumber and things I cannot see. My car shakes when the trains whiz by it. I turn on the radio, forgetting it is broken, so I have to sing aloud alone without harmony. So many things in my life are broken, and I wonder if anything will ever get repaired. I rode a train once when my brother was sick, and we had to take him to a fancy hospital. Nothing is fancy in my small town; everything is simple and plain, like a sunset with only one color. I like simple, really, but sometimes a girl wants to taste the exotic just to make sure simple is what she really does like best. I want to taste the whole world.
The red caboose rides by, and the man with the striped hat waves at me, and I wave at him, hello and goodbye all in one fast movement.
On the other side of the tracks, I see the post office where my Uncle Dunk works, driving around country roads to deliver mail to those whose addresses are stuck in his head like a broken record.
I rode with him once, delivering mail from far away places like Winston-Salem, Wilmington, Raleigh, and one from really far away, Richmond, Virginia. He gave me a tour of places he knew better than I knew myself. There’s Jimmy’s house, the one with the old tobacco barn where he keeps the liquor his wife pretends not to know about. Mrs. Wilkes’ house stands alone, surrounded by wildflowers, the only company she can depend on. It’s where Uncle Dunk knows he can stop and get a glass of sweet tea any hot summer day. There’s Mr. Buddy’s house, the same house where his mama birthed him on the kitchen table and then cleaned it off and made lunch: cornbread and a pot of pinto beans. Uncle Dunk laughs, knowing some stories are stretched out as far as the eye can see, confusing truth and fable at times.
He delivers more than just mail. He delivers friendship, familiarity, kindness, and connections to the whole big world with one envelope and one hand-stamped “Delivered” marking. He tosses back the undeliverable ones. Those are the people who move only by dying and leaving no forwarding address.
Uncle Dunk reminded me often that life sometimes has many addresses, and I should never be afraid of moving forward, but to only fear standing so still my feet get stuck in a deep rut on a muddy dirt road.
I stop to get gas at the one-eyed man’s gas station. He lets me go over the five dollar mark by a few cents but only charges me five dollars. He scares me when he pops out his glass eye and rolls it on the counter, laughing when I scream. Sometimes I wish I had a glass eye and only saw half of the world, the half that is good and loving, where people get along and accept girls who are different. But I have both of my eyes, and I see good and evil, people who love and hate, pick and choose only those who are conformist — not new girls in town who come to school right when the body changes but most minds stay behind. I have always been the new girl in town, always moving, always in transition, never planted like an oak tree whose rings mark its life. One day I want to be the old girl, the one everyone knows, the one who walks into a restaurant and the waiter, knowing full well what I like to eat — right down to the fact that I like jelly, not butter, on my biscuits — asks, “You want the usual?” I want to have multiple rings around me, marking me as permanent.
The one-eyed man gives me a free ham biscuit because he says I am getting too thin and need to fatten up, like a pig right before it gets slaughtered. I tell him I hate ham, and I leave it on the counter, right next to his unattached eye. He picks the biscuit up and tells me his eyes are bigger than his stomach as he chews his third breakfast of the day.
He asks me what it is I want to be when I get all growned up. I want to correct his language, but I laugh instead, answering him politely because girls from Walnut Cove are taught to use good manners with their elders:“Happy. I want to be happy when I grow up.”
He doesn’t understand this answer, for happiness is not a requirement in his world. Duty, obligation, heritage, routine, and staying in one’s place are the choices he knows, one eye and all. Happiness is like dessert: if it comes, fine, but you can live without it, he thinks, as long as you do your duty. I have a duty to myself, and that duty is to find my own happiness, wherever that might be, even around a winding road that takes many detours.
He wishes me well and tells me to come back home anytime because he is getting a new eye soon — a blue one, not black like the one he has now — and he wants me to see how different he’d look with a blue eye. He may look different, I think, but that blue eye will make no difference in how he sees the world.
I wonder how differently I will see the world once I’m living under another part of the blue sky. Who will I become, living on different soil, breathing in different air, and having no one to wave back at me when I drive on unfamiliar roads?
I am many things now: confused, scared, excited, and sad about leaving a place where I have struggled to find footing, but where I have known many hands to help me back up when I fell. My hands stay steady on the steering wheel of my VW Bug, a car so small that five dollars will take me far — even back to this home when I need a soft spot to dream again, a place to feel the dirt in my hands and to remember what it was like to not belong anywhere but my own heart.
My rearview mirror falls when I hit a bump in the road, and I can no longer see what’s behind me. I let it dangle until I forget it needs adjusting, and I only stare with both eyes fully engaged to what lies ahead and to the blueness of the sky.
Malinda Dunlap Fillingim had the good fortune to move to her stepfather’s homeland of Stokes County, NC, when she was in 8th grade after making many previous visits there. She is a freelance writer, an ESL teacher, and a wanderer. Her two daughters bring her much joy and many nights of sleeplessness as they journey around the world, finding what it means to be home.