by Danielle Beazer
This cold morning I let the dog out and walk barefoot with her. She is getting old, though she runs ahead, her half-wolf coat rippling over muscles. I follow her to a place beneath our hill where a river runs between two banks of brambles. She stops and lays her body in a shallow part and looks at me, hanging her tongue over her teeth. She has been with me since I was nine. I sit on a rock next to her, burrowing my toes into the silt, and scratch her neck.
Yesterday I built a mud fort with my youngest brother. We shoveled foxholes and trenches and planted army men behind rocks and grass and built a bridge out of mud. Then we lit two mini-firecrackers and blew up the bridge. He is fourteen and I am nineteen. And yesterday I cried after reading Peter Pan to the very end when Peter comes back for Wendy but finds her grown up and unremembering. Peter weeps until Jane, Wendy’s daughter, sees him and asks him what he is doing, just as Wendy had done years ago. And then Wendy remembers something. Maybe it is the flight across the sky, or the mermaids on the rocks, or the house she built for Peter. And she lets Jane go back.
And yesterday when I awoke from an afternoon nap, I lay on the couch beneath the open window, listening to my brother and my mother outside. For a moment I forgot we were leaving the Appalachians to move west. And I forgot why we were moving. When I remembered, I closed my eyes again.
We are moving to Utah. In June my mother decided for various reasons to sell our Virginia home and move to St. George in September. She discussed it with us-my brothers, sister, and me. And we all said that whatever she wanted was best. So we have bought dark soil from Snow’s Nursery and furrowed homes for spinach, peas, and corn, and have placed two young dogwoods at the side of the house to enjoy the yard as we have always wanted to on this, our last summer here. We are already into
August. The garden has thrived. In the evenings, after supper, we sit outside during sunset and eat fresh spinach salad with vinegar and lemon. The honeysuckle, lilacs, and roses have bloomed and gone. Now the scent of mown grass and the southern magnolia concentrate the air.
This summer I have been taking a fiction writing class at the University of Virginia. The instructor wears a ribbed undershirt and sweat pants to class. His shoulders are tanned from working on the farm where he rents a cottage. He tells us about what happens on the farm-about the horses, the flooding after a storm, his landlord who is bored with his wife and thinking of leaving. The instructor has invited us to a party at his cottage next week because it is near the end of the course. He tells us that if we have the desire to write , nothing will stop us.
When I was fifteen, a student who lived next door and was attending the University of Virginia shot himself in the head and died. He was a writer and he was twenty-two. Now the English Department is selling his book of short stories on campus. My writing instructor reads parts from the book to the class. One story is about a man who, after watching his sleeping daughter, takes a walk down the road outside his house and thinks about his friends who went to Vietnam and never came back. It is very moving. I am thinking of buying the book. I had forgotten about the student until the instructor read his stories in class.
After the class I roam the campus. Students lounge on the Lawn in cut-offs, halter tops, and summer tans. A few throw a frisbee. Bruce Springsteen’s ”Badlands” blasts from one of the dorms. These dorms are called the dorms on the Lawn because the Lawn is the rectangle of grass stretching from old Cabell Hall with the Music Department to the Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson. The two lines of buildings parallel to the Lawn are the original student dorms. Single rooms with only a fireplace and a sink, they house the academically elite. Edgar Allan Poe once lived in one of these rooms. It is a common irony that when he was attending UVa, he was kicked out for drinking.
My senior year in high school, I worked the concession stands for the UVa football and basketball games. And during Easter’s Weekend-a party famous along the East Coast for its week-long bashes-I sat with a friend of mine on the brick wall lining University Avenue, affectionately called The Corner, where the night clubs attracted the students. He drank a Heinekin and I a Coke as we sat near the Rotunda, watching the body-pressed street. A drunken student wrapped himself around the pedestal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson and yelled, “I love you, Mr. Jefferson. I want to kiss you , Mr. Jefferson.” He laughed. “I luuve you!” His last word broke off in a staccato before he followed his other friends.
“Easter’s Weekend is not what it used to be,” said Nick, sipping his Heinekin. ”Used to be they had parties all week and mud bowls. Used to be the best party on the East Coast. Now it’s been tamed to one night. And nobody does anything wild anymore.”
We were both still in high school, jealous of the college students-I envying the tall, dark-haired southern preppy women who wore lime green monogrammed sweaters with red plaid skirts and Oxford shoes; he, the khaki-clad men who sauntered the campus in sockless docksiders and Oxford shirts, whose eyes wavered between frat-house cockiness and intellectual smugness. We envied these people as we drank our respective drinks on Easter’s Weekend, feeling as much a part of it all as Edgar Allan
Poe must have felt a hundred years ago.
I don’t envy their social savvy anymore. I only envy that they will be here to hike above Skyline Drive where the oaks, maples, and ash flutter their changing colors. I envy the students their fall in Virginia.
I have lost touch with Nick and my other high school friends. When I come home from college for the summers I call no one. Instead I laze outside after raking the just-mown grass and lie on a towel in the humidity, listening to Elvis Costello’s “Alison. ” Especially this summer I have become sluggish . I do not want things to move forward. I do not want time to bring tomorrow, because tomorrow obliterates now which obliterates yesterday which obliterates a time before my mother’s various
reasons for leaving. And tomorrow moves us closer to the end of summer, which will bring the move.
Along with my fiction writing class at the university, I have been attending a writers’ workshop for women. It meets in town on Tuesdays. It is supposed to explore the relationship between journalism and creative writing, but most of us just write the way we feel. I am the youngest in the group; the rest are in their thirties and forties. Two are alcoholics, and they try to write about that. Some write about other women authors they admire. I have written a short story about a German student who goes to Strasbourg to meet his girlfriend’s parents. He and his girlfriend quarrel and he takes a walk. That same night he meets a Parisian girl. They go out for drinks, and he walks her home. Then he goes back to his girlfriend, even though he thinks he is really more interested in the Parisian. When I read it to the women they all murmured, “That is so true . That is what always happens.” But when I showed it to my writing instructor at the university, he called it sentimental.
For the past two summers, I have worked as a guide at Ash Lawn, the home of James Monroe, two miles up the mountain from Jefferson’s Monticello. Ash Lawn is simpler than Monticello and attracts fewer tourists. The house has been restored, remodeled, and repositioned by so many owners that almost none of it looks as it did during Monroe’s lifetime. The house , the yard, and the furniture have all been changed. But the College of William and Mary felt the need to restore it. So tourists
from Pennsylvania and Ohio stop through and leave, feeling they know something about Monroe’s lifestyle. The only things the same are the humid air, the smell of boxwoods lining the walkway, and the cry of peacocks hulking in the trees. The rest is not Monroe’s. The rest is William and Mary’s contribution to the painting and wallpapering and landscaping of an elegantly simple farmhouse. But we don’t tell the tourists that.
The land we live on now reminds me a little of Ash Lawn. We have the boxwoods and an old stone house with fireplaces in every room and hardwood floors and leaded casement windows. At night I push my window open and turn out my light so as not to attract moths. And I watch the moon illume the garden.
Yesterday, my youngest brother laughed for the first time in this year since my father died. He told me a joke and laughed. Then we built the mud fort and blew up the bridge. And then I read Peter Pan and cried and fell asleep and awoke and remembered and tried to sleep again. My brother worried us because he never cried or talked about my father. A doctor said the longer he kept it in, the more damage he could do to himself. I consider myself well-adjusted. I can talk about it without thinking what it really means.
My father is buried in Monticello Cemetery, on a hill that overlooks Charlottesville. I pass the place each day on my drive to Ash Lawn and each evening on my drive home. I try not to be sentimental about it. People who are gone are not in cemeteries. They are in your heart and your mind. They are behind your eyes when you close them.
My brothers and my mother and my sister and I are moving west. The old dog can’t come. I won’t tell her this. She will know on the morning we pack the car. And then she will curl on the flat slate rock of the fireplace in the emptied dining room and put her chin on her paws and look up at us. When I say goodbye to her, I will cry. I will be sentimental. I will say to hell with Peter Pan. Leave Wendy alone. Don’t keep coming back to remind us that we are growing up, that things aren’t as they were. Let me wake up one afternoon and not remember for a long, long time what it really means.