“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
Supposedly William Faulkner said that. I had a lot of darlings in Lovie: my contract was for a 300-page manuscript, and I wrote nearly 500 pages. The only way I could bear cutting certain sections was by imagining that they'd one day see the light of day online. You know how movie DVDs sometimes include out-takes of sequences that hit the cutting room floor?
Here are some of my favorite out-takes from Lovie—my darlings.
More coming soon . . . .
The Slop Bucket
Given the size of Lovie’s yard, it wasn't surprising that certain areas of it slipped out of her control from time to time. In a pot by the back door, for example, orange marigolds, a red chile pepper plant and a gourd vine coexisted unselfconsciously. “I think the hot pepper plants were what I put in there,” Lovie mused when I asked her about it. “I kind of neglected them.” Small plum trees shot up in her flowers, a tough melon vine snaked along the back fence of the pony pen, and under the enormous holly tree just outside the back door, an impossible thicket of cherry tomato vines produced thousands of tomatoes each summer.
The tomatoes reseeded themselves, but other things were helped along by Lovie’s liberal method of composting. Next to the kitchen stove she kept a black five-gallon plastic bucket--her slop bucket, she called it. The farmers in my own family were too many generations back for me to have known that anyone who owned a pig kept a slop bucket in the kitchen to collect vegetable peelings, food scraps and even dishwater. (I’d heard of slopping pigs, of course, but for some reason it had never occurred to me that the slop might originate in the kitchen.) Even though she didn't have a pig, Lovie maintained the tradition, as the slop bucket resonated with many of her core values: nothing goes to waste, most everything has a purpose, and one person’s garbage is another person’s (or pig’s or plant’s) treasure. She didn't pour her dishwater into the bucket, but she did dump old bacon grease into it, and sometimes she stood over it while brushing her teeth and spat into it, all of which made me loath to peer into the bucket’s depths or to drop things into it for fear of creating a splash. When the bucket was halfway full Lovie hauled it outside and dumped the contents under the holly tree or on another spot in her yard. When, a few years ago, one of my sisters bought a big plastic composting container for her own yard, I looked at the booklet of tips that came with it and was astounded to learn that there was any method at all for making top-quality, PH-balanced soil, used as I was to Lovie’s haphazard approach. Once I saw her toss a great heap of decomposing yellow squash and nectarines directly under a bush--she had gotten a full crate of bruised produce from the grocery store for free for Gus, but it was more than he could eat--and either in spite of this technique or because of it, her yard thrived. She had something of the zealot about her when it came to gardening, and that helped, too. From time to time little stalks and shoots would break off from her house plants, and Lovie always tried to root them, no matter how dusty and limp they were by the time she found them. “I’m bad about this,” she explained once, when I caught her laboriously bending down to pick up a shoot from one of her spider plants. “But I feel sorry for the plants. I see something like this and I just have a desire to stick it in the ground. There are failures, but I like to give everything a fighting chance.”
Although it sometimes seemed that everything Lovie touched flourished, she didn't romanticize nature. If she ran across something in her yard that didn't appeal to her, she yanked it up or whacked it down. One day we were walking along her driveway when she reached down into a flower bed and pulled up an uncommonly pretty weed. When I remarked that it was a bit of a shame to lose it, she remarked, “Well, dear, sometimes you got to make room for something else. It’s the same with old folks dying. It’s a way of cleaning up the earth.”
Out and about in Little Washington
Lovie had long been in the habit of going to bed extremely early--somewhere between 6:30 and 8:00--so that she’d get in at least a few good hours of sleep if a midwifery call came aftermidnight. Whenever I stayed with her I spent my evenings alone, reading or writing or channel surfing on the small living room T.V.--if switching back and forth between only three available channels qualifies as surfing. Some nights, for a change, I’d drive into downtown Washington for dinner or a drink.
I loved heading into downtown Washington on my own. I never really rebelled against my parents growing up, and I still retained a store of mutinous energy that emerged in funny ways. Maybe it was inevitable, especially with me staying in her house, for Lovie and me to develop a mother-daughter dynamic. I knew she didn’t approve of drinking--a combination of her response to her father’s alcoholism and the general conservative Christian disapproval of drinking--and I felt a mild thrill hanging out in a bar while visiting her. Then too, there was something pleasantly surreal about entering a world so physically near but so very different from hers. She would never have set foot in the slightly upscale downtown restaurants I went to--almost the only businesses open downtown after dark--and if she had, she would have hated them. I had taken her out to eat on several occasions, but unless we went to a Pizza Hut or Burger King or a local seafood restaurant, she seemed uncomfortable and acted as though there wasn’t much on the menu that appealed to her, or that she even understood.
During my visits to Lovie's in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I generally patronized two restaurants on Main Street: the Rumor Mill and the Curiosity Shoppe. For no reason in particular I always sat at the bar at the Rumor Mill and at a regular table at the Curiosity Shoppe. The bar at the Rumor Mill was long and dimly lit and featured any number of things that I typically avoided: loud-talking professionals, big screen TVs, and a bar-top video game--a frenetic machine hosted by a hunky blonde cartoon figure named Maxx with blue skin and surfer sunglasses who offered bar-goers a choice of several games, including golf and something called Monster. The TVs were generally tuned to news, sports, reality shows and the occasional movie. One night I watched snatches of a true crime show in which a bevy of cops somewhere in the Midwest caught a shaved-head teenager in the act of scrawling some not particularly original graffiti on a water tower. The camera followed the kid’s descent with dramatic angles and jittery glee, as if there existed the least danger that he could fall (he was tethered at the waist to one of the cops, who was himself tethered to the ladder). Happily, the sound was turned off, but I could imagine the eerie musical score that the producers had chosen to jack up the semblance of drama. For a moment I felt a deep kinship with Lovie: These young people today! These TV shows today!
The evening of my driving tour with Lovie, I went downtown to my other Main Street hangout. The Curiosity Shoppe was a recently renovated restaurant with hardwood floors, a faux tin ceiling and local artwork on its old brick walls. I liked the restaurant because it was cozy and dim, and I could write without calling too much attention to myself. I always felt a bit like I was on stage when I went out at night in Washington. People notice you if you’re a woman out alone, and they know who belongs to the town and who doesn’t. Just inside the Curiosity Shoppe is a small, sleek bar. On this night, most of the stools were occupied by noisy, well-dressed professionals, all of them white, who momentarily ceased their socializing when I pushed open the door. I walked through to the restaurant, which was nearly empty, and took a seat at a table against the wall. This was the same table from which, on another visit, I overheard a large man in a wide, bright yellow tie declaim the following in the bar, as though it were a poem:
Now I love the grill.
I’m a big ol’ Grill Master.
You just marinate whatever you want to throw on there,
And you wrap it up in aluminum foil and throw it on there.
It’s so easy.
Your guests will rave.
I mean they will rant and rave.
It’s so easy.
I love it.
I mean I really love it.
I’m telling you,
It’s so easy.
I do it all the time.
Tonight, on the piano in the restaurant’s far corner, a young African American man was playing exceptionally good renditions of songs such as “Feelings” and “You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings,” blending each song into the next with elaborate transitions. He was so good that I didn’t mind his cheesy selections. While I listened, a short, stocky white guy in his late 20s or early 30s came over, pulled out the chair across from mine, sat down and said, “Hi, my name’s Rob, I’m the bartender and I’ll take care of you tonight.” I arched my eyebrows at him and asked for a beer. When he returned with it, he remained standing, and we got to talking. I asked if he knew anything about the history of the building. Rob said that before the restaurant opened, the building housed a dance studio, and before that a beauty salon, and before that, at the turn of the century, a Sears and Roebuck.
“But it’s a little bit haunted,” he threw in casually.
“Yeah! Sometimes when I’m here alone I hear knocking or scratches on the walls. And sometimes it feels like there’s somebody walking beside me, brushing up against my arms.”
I asked if anyone else had noticed the knocking and the scratching.
“Yeah, other people notice it too. But they’re all friendly, whoever they are.”
I thought he meant that the other people who noticed the phenomena were all friendly, but then I realized he was talking about the ghosts.
“But I tell you,” he continued, “I had an apartment on Old Barth Road once that was worse than this. I moved in and I didn’t know it, but the woman that lived there before me had committed suicide, and she did it with a shotgun. It was always cold in there, and I always felt cold brushes up against my arms.” He picked up the drink menu lying on my table and held it off to one side. “And then I kept hearing a sound like this.” He thumped the menu with his forefinger. Then he held it in front of him--thump. To the other side--thump.
“I didn’t know what it was but I thought: something is not right here. And then a friend of mine came to visit from Greensboro. I hadn’t seen him in a while and I hadn’t told him anything about the apartment. He brought his girlfriend with him, and as soon as she stepped into the apartment she did like this.” Rob hunched over and hugged himself, rubbing his hands up and down his upper arms as if to keep from freezing. “She said she felt a presence in there, so that’s when I told them about the previous tenant. My friend’s girlfriend said, ‘Well, she’s not too happy about the current situation.’ I said, ‘You mean me being here?’ She said, ‘Yeah!’ So we partied that night, and the last night that I stayed there, all the pipes burst.”
“They burst your last night there!?” I asked, impressed by the coincidence.
“Well, they burst, and I decided that was my last night there. I moved out the next day.”
“I hope at least that your rent was cheap,” I said. “I mean, since you had to share the place with a ghost and everything.”
“Yeah, it was. I think I paid a hundred dollars a month. The owner wanted me to move back in and pay nothing, just to keep the place occupied, but I said no way.”
Rob returned the menu to my table and made his way back to the bar. The piano player finished a song to scattered applause but, instead of segueing into another, stood up and stretched. From the bar someone I couldn’t see shouted, “Hey! It’s this girl’s birthday! Play ‘Happy Birthday’!” so the pianist sat down again and played an ornate rendition of “Happy Birthday.” The people in the bar all sang along, completely out of sync with the piano, and completely off-key.
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