Joe took this picture: a jar of green beans sitting on the windowsill of the house our grandmother was raised in, a house that has been abandoned forty years now and is grown over with poison ivy and kudzu.
I remember being little at our other grandmother’s house and spending all afternoon sitting on the porch snapping and stringing beans. Mama Heaton would spread her knees and make a bowl out of the skirt of her dress, throw the heads and the strings of the beans into that bowl. Heather and Joe and I’d snap until our fingers hurt, and Mama Heaton’d tell us to keep snapping, and we’d snap some more.
I’m up in the mountains now–in Blowing Rock, North Carolina–not even an hour from that front porch. I’ve got this feeling of emptiness that I keep trying to find words for but it only comes to me in flashes: a salted tomato, the cracks in the sidewalk that ran up the street, a hickory bush, the smell of bologna frying, Bob Barker’s voice coming from the bedroom.
My mother told me once that her father (before he died–almost everybody is dead now) was building a boat in the basement of that old house. Every evening when he’d come home from the gas station and before he’d go to the mill, he sanded the wood and sawed the notches. He spent hundreds and hundreds of hours building a boat that–if it would have been possible to take out of the basement (it wasn’t)–could have sailed around the world. It was a giant ship in a bottle. The walls, though, weren’t made of glass; they were more like mud, and there was nothing much else down in that basement: old boxes of torn paper dolls, a washing machine that was nearly always off balance and metal shelves stacked with canned green beans.
When I dream about the basement, and I often do, there are secret tunnels and holes, places to hide, places to be found. I am usually reaching for Cody when I dream of it, terrified, and I go downstairs, take an Advil, drink cold water, make small deals with God to get me back to sleep. Sometimes, though, I dream that there is a door that opens into the back and that the back is a beautiful orchard: magnolia blossoms and Queen Anne’s Lace, ripe apples and just fallen pecans. When I dream of the orchard, I don’t even bother to look back to see if the house is still standing. I almost hope it wouldn’t be.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be from a place that no longer exists, and all I can think is that maybe Hickory, my own birth town, isn’t so different from Henry River. All of us–but a handful of cousins, and Anne, of course, who doesn’t even leave the house and so has abandoned the town in her own way–has left.
The last time I was there, I got sub sandwiches with April and went to hear music down by Green’s Grocery. These days, she warned me, it’s the dangerous part of town. The street that lead from Mama Heaton’s house down to Green’s did look different–maybe not dangerous, but it certainly didn’t seem the same sidewalk I used to run up, the one I once saw the rain travel on, the one where we’d play Mother-May-I and pretend we were famous. It was dusty, in a sort of exhausted way.
Once we were at the club I sipped a weak drink and counted teeth. Meth has hit Hickory hard. You’ve got to really keep your eyes peeled to see a full set. Rough skin and hair–all the signs of hard-using. Halfway through the night, I needed a sweater and some air and wanted to walk out to the car alone. They wouldn’t let me go.
I live in Brooklyn, I told them, and still they wouldn’t let me walk the twenty or so yards to my car. I was, I will admit, more nervous there than I ever am in Brooklyn. There was a rumor of a serial killer who was arranging his victims in cars at the junkyard, then with the drugs and the racial unrest; it was quite unsettling.
But what unsettled me most was how unfamiliar it all seemed.
It’s not just the place that I miss. The world that I was born into–with its coffee cans and night shifts, its apartment evictions and praise songs–seems so far away from the world I live in now that I can hardly even make up stories about it. Today, I’m a little sad about that, a little sad about having abandoned the first things I ever knew and not even recognizing what they’ve become.
Way south of Sackett Street and this cup of tea and my red paper bird and my shiny diamond ring is this old house. It’s the one my grandmother was raised in. This is the tree that shook in the storm, the one that plastered fat leaves on the windows, the one no one even bothered trying to climb.
After coming in from the Brooklyn rain and wringing my t-shirt out in the sink, I couldn’t figure out why I started this thing–The Blue Pitcher–what it even means: to be blue, to be full or not full.
Some time last fall they cut this tree down. Henry River, North Carolina might never be the same, but I wouldn’t even really know it, haven’t done much of anything but drive through it. Not too long ago, though, we were there–Dad and Linda and me–staring at the tinroofs and the slopjars, the peeled blue bonnet wallpaper and the graffiti: “You bum of chicken shit,” sprayed on one wall, and then the more (or less) traditional: “Fuck Satan.”
“Let’s skat,” dad said. I was looking at Linda’s reflection in a pane of broken glass; she was spelling “kudzu” for me as the kudzu piled around our legs. You wouldn’t think that vultures would really be on the powerline, but there they lurked. We searched for homeplate in a field of trees; then a pickup truck with two boys in the bed scared us into leaving.
We drove into Hickory to meet Lynn at the cafeteria where I wanted fried okra and banana pudding but got green beans and watermelon. On our way there, we crossed the bridge built in 1960, the one my grandpappy had the very first wreck on just weeks after it opened. Dad says it was icy, nobody’s fault, just icy.