“Was anyone hurt,” I asked a woman holding a bag with a loaf of bread compressed so tight that it was flat.
(a journal entry*)
It’s odd, but it’s never at Thanksgiving or Christmas that I think about going home, a home that no longer exists in time and space but only in my memory. The home of my innocence. The home of my childhood. It’s when the first hint of a seasonal change fills the air with the promise of things hiding or revealing themselves again that I find myself getting in the car and driving. And driving. Searching for home.
Several years ago, one of these drives led me through the back roads of North Carolina. I wandered for several days amidst woods and streams and barefoot walks on the new shoots of chartreuse green grass and when I’d had my fill and felt almost comforted again, I pointed the car north and headed home, to the home that currently exists, sometimes just as much as a memory or an illusion as the home of my memory.
It was on this trip that the two most profound gatekeepers of my journey quest stepped into my path. Royal Amberline and Jimmy. They still live in my mind as friends, mentors, keepers of the secret and I wonder if they ever think of me.
I had pulled into the parking lot of “Royal Amberline’s Gemstone and Rock Shop” housed in the long strip of a converted 1950’s motor court on North Carolina’s wide and quiet State Road 29.
Once a going concern that feed, entertained and housed tourists on the only good road through North Carolina’s humid summers, the newer superhighways and large vacation theme parks had left it uncommonly quiet and isolated as the last bit of Americana where you could still buy a Coca Cola in its signature hour-glass bottle, postcards for twenty-five cents, and be entertained by Royal Amberline, the area’s resident quarter-Choctaw native who told stories of his childhood spent with a grandmother who passed on to him her secrets of herbal healing and the mysteries of gemstones.
The motel rooms had been renovated into one long thin twenty foot wide bleached gray wood plank building of dusty displays of rocks, gems, and geodes split open to reveal circles of sparkling amethyst. In nearby bins, leather moccasins, faux coonskin caps, rubber tomahawks, stale boxes of hard candy all lay as they had for years under the watchful eyes of two women clerks who seemed to be at odds with one another, a state they’d apparently been in for many years. Their anger had that shop-worn feel to it that was capable of erupting any minute into a long rehearsed dialogue of arguments now filed down to a shorthand of sidelong glances, subtle smirks, and appraising expressions that spoke volumes.
I was the only customer in the shop and felt drawn into their long-standing differences. They both eyed me suspiciously and tried to draw me into their conversation of edgy words. I busied myself with choosing a perfectly round piece of hematite and several postcards of the North Carolina’s countryside. I paid for my purchases without comment and hurried out the door to my car.
“Find what you want, young lady?” a male voice said.
I turned to face a man who had been sitting in a rusty lawn chair tipped back against the edge of the doorway to the shop. He looked to be in his late sixties, had a slight paunch that hung over his belt, and wore a baseball cap with the insignia, “Just Say Yes!”
“Yes, thanks,” I replied noncommittally.
“Could I see the stone you bought?” he asked. “I’ll tell you the secret about it. And you.”
“Then it wouldn’t be a secret any longer,” I said and smiled at him. “Now would it?” I continued on to my car.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “But it’s going to take more than a piece of hematite to keep you grounded.”
“What makes you say that,” I asked.
“Doesn’t take a magician to read the signs. Or even a quarter Choctaw, like myself.”
We studied each other silently.
“Come with me,” he said. He turned and walked to the last door of the long building and disappeared inside as if there was no chance I wouldn’t follow him. Such actions by men used to annoy me; but once I’d learned to ignore or sidestep the power struggle aspects of it, it became something amusing and almost endearing about them.
The room he entered was paneled in oak that was stained a pale amber and varnished till it glowed with the reflected light of the setting sun. In the center of the room was a long padded massage table. I stood tentatively in the doorway and glanced at the row of large gemstones and bottles of yellow, green, and blue liquids displayed on the shelves of the wall.
He slid his baseball cap back on his forehead revealing a birthmark on his forehead the size and shape of an arrowhead. “Name’s Royal Amberline,” he said reaching for my hand which I had not offered him.
“This is my crystal reading room. People still come from all over for a life reading.” He pointed his chin at the table. “Or a massage. Smell this,” he said, squirting a liquid from a crystal bottle onto my hand before I could protest. His touch was uninvited but did not feel intrusive.
I raised the back of my hand to my nose and inhaled. “Not bad,” I said. “Lemon? Chamomile?”
He nodded. “Lots of ladies come here. Nurses, waitresses, women on their feet all day. I massage their legs for them.”
I sighed loudly. I wondered what had gone wrong between men and women that would force sad middle-aged women who no one wanted to touch anymore to seek out this man just to feel a connected again to another human being.
I shuddered at the thought of ever being that desperate, that sad.
Royal, reading my body language, took a step backward, giving me more space. He reached into a tray filled with sand and holding several pieces of clear crystal gemstones. He remained silent and took some time selecting one of them. He finally chose one with pointed facets in the shape of an obelisk, rubbed it between his hands then handed it to me.
“Put this in your bra, next to your heart. It will help.”
It was a pleasingly-shaped piece of crystal that rested easily in the palm of my hand but it did not override the rising aversion I felt toward this man at invading my space, my privacy with his masculine fantasies.
“Women actually fall for that line?” I asked and smiled at him.
“Just the smart ones,” he replied evenly though the taunt had clearly hit the mark and sunk deep.
For a split second I regretted my remark. He was an old man, past his prime and probably pining for the day when his now faded charisma had commanded attention from most women.
Men were so predictable and so unprepared for the day when they had to rely on something other than their sexual prowess. I wondered when was the last time he had made love with someone who had touched him by choice and of their own free will.
“That was rude of me,” I said. “I’m sorry. It is a nice piece of crystal and I thank you for it.”
He smiled at me but did not attempt to close the gap between us. Instead, he took a framed newspaper clipping from the wall and handed it to me. The yellowed clipping showed a much younger Royal Amberline peering into a crystal ball with the headline, “Local Choctaw Native Reads Future of the World and Predicts DISASTER.” He’d once been a handsome man with a confident expression. I focused on his face in the photograph rather than the words of the article and could envision his prime years with a steady stream of lonely women coming to him for comfort and kind words. A gentle touch.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Put it in your bra. Now.”
His voice still had a remnant of the bravado of a man lucky enough and used to most women doing his sexual bidding, sometimes against their will or at least against their better judgment.
I lowered my eyes at him and handed him the framed clipping. “If you really are psychic, you can probably predict right now where I’d really like to tell you to put the rock.” I tossed the crystal in the air and he caught it without missing a beat.
He shrugged one shoulder. “Never hurts to ask,” he replied.
“Yes, it does,” I said.
He conceded with a nod. “So, you’re not impressed with a broken down old body of a Choctaw.” But I ask you,” he said with his mahogany brown eyes finally devoid of complicity, “just where are you going to find what you are looking for? And how will you recognize it?”
It was a question I pondered for the next several hours on the road as it wound through the blue highways of bypassed rural North Carolina. Many hours later In Flagler, North Carolina, a small town that boasted of being “the home of the best barbecue pork in the universe,” traffic was piled up at the only street light in the center of town. Highway patrol cars blocked the intersection and state troopers were diverting traffic down a side street into a U-turn back south again.
I sighed and slipped out of the line of obedient cars and turned onto another even smaller side street hoping to bypass the accident and continue traveling north. With a few twists and turns I reached the main street again and was astonished at what I saw. A derailed passenger train was scattered into accordion pleats of twisted metal. An over-turned Club car rested against the side of the Flagler National Bank.
I got out of the car and walked to the corner where a small group of people stood staring at the wreckage.
“Everyone’s already been taken to the hospital,” the woman replied without taking her eyes off the grotesque scene.
“Or the morgue,” a man added. He was dressed in a tan workman’s uniform. His forearms, smudged with grease, were roped with bulging veins still at attention from a day of strenuous lifting. Unlike the woman, he looked directly at me with interest and open friendliness. “If you’re headed north, you can forget it. It’s going to take a while to clear the road.” He glanced at the over-turned Club car. “We just don’t want to realize how fragile our life really is.”
I nodded. Something about the man fascinated me, comforted me the same way my uncles and father had as they included me as a child in their bantering with one another after a hard day at their blue-collar jobs. By the time I was eight years old, I knew about the secret world of men, how gentle and funny and disclosive they could be when not pushed or prodded by women.
“Is there a phone I can use?” I asked,
“Sure is,” he said. “That’s where I’m headed.” He pointed to two public phones outside a convenience store. “Mary probably has dinner on the table and I know the kids are watching the TV news and will be upset about the train wreck.”
I smiled to myself. It was exactly the kind of statement I’d heard my father say as he hurried me home from one of my hideouts. “Your mother will have dinner on the table and I know she’ll be worried.”
I looked at the man again and realized he was the same age as my father was then. They were two men with a hard common labor job and a deep love for their family. At the time my father had appeared old to me but seeing this man standing before me made me realize just how young my father had been to have so much responsibility on his shoulders with a wife, two kids, a mortgage, a serious heart condition, and future dreams for his children that a minimum wage salary could not support.
When we reached the public phones a line had formed of others calling to reassure their family that they were safe and would be home late. “Do they know what caused the wreck?” I asked.
He shook his head and pulled a small round aluminum pressure gauge from his shirt pocket and held it out to me. “Something this small can bring down an eight thousand ton train without a problem.” His words had no edge and held no bitterness about a life so fragile that it could be wiped out in an instant.
When he put the pressure gauge back in his shirt pocket, I stared at the name tag embroidered above the pocket. Instead of seeing “Ralph” or “Eddie” or some other name that many workers wore on their uniforms, this man’s name tag read, “Romans 8:28.”
The man laughed when he saw me looking at it. “Mama made me promise to get an education and never have to wear a shirt with my name on it. But I was never a good student. I like working with my hands. I’m good at it. Mama understood, and God love her, on my first day of work fifteen years ago, she sewed this on one of my shirts. By the way, my name’s James. But my friends call me Jimmy.”
“I’m Caroline,” I said. “And your mother sounds like quite a woman.”
Jimmy nodded as a TV news helicopter circled above our heads drowning out some of his words. He looked at me and winked. “The eye is upon us.”
His words had an ominous tone that made me shudder. I studied the face of the man who was so young but who seemed to already know more about life than I did, yet the lines in his forehead were not deep, the wrinkles around his eyes not frozen into the inability to soften with hope and wonder and humor.
They relaxed into a pliant and open smile when I commented about the women who were still typing up the only two pay phones for miles. “How is it that they can think of so much to say at a pay phone in the middle of a train wreck?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders conspiratorially. “My beeper has been going nuts for the last half hour. I need to return these calls as soon as possible,” he said loudly enough for the women to hear. His joking nature reminded me even more of my father. I felt a longing for his company that I hadn’t felt for years.
“What kind of work do you do,” I asked as his beeper went off again.
“Air-conditioning and refrigeration,” he replied. “Warehouses, hospitals, that kind of thing.”
There was deep pride in his voice. I wondered about his home and family. Did he live in a double-wide trailer on a large rural lot that required a riding lawn mower to keep the grass under control or had he gone on to a larger mortgage and a smaller lot in the suburbs so that his children could attend a better school system? Did he have a hunting dog or did he spend hours in his garage tinkering with an engine like my father had?
Jimmy, with his kind face, a spring to his step, and a relaxed sense of ease did not study me the way I studied him. I did not pose an oddity to him as he did to me as a mirror to the way my father had been when I was a child, how easy-going he was with strangers, how secure and content he seemed with his life. These were things I never knew about my father and the realization took my breath away.
I fantasized for a minute what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Orangeville, married and had children. I would have friends and relatives like Jimmy. He would drop off his children for me to watch while he and his wife had a night out alone and if my plumbing ever failed he would come at any hour of the day or night with his tools and only ask for a cup of coffee in return. A cup of coffee and a thankful recognition that he knew how to take care of his own because that is how he defined himself and took sustenance from the knowledge that he was needed and wanted and loved.
As a teenager I had dated men like Jimmy. They smelled like their father’s bottle of Old Spice Cologne and hung the tassels from their high school graduation cap from the rear view mirrors of their tinkered and finely tuned Ford and Chevrolet cars. They didn’t dance very well but their arms were warm and strong and they asked little of me in return but to surrender to them on a moonlit night. In return they offered a Wednesday night Prayer Meeting kind of honesty and a house full of children who would grow up just like them.
Something deep within me had called me to that kind of life that other women were happy to have but something just as deep had repelled me from it just as strongly. It wasn’t where I was meant to be. For a minute I longed for the fantasy to be true but in the next second realized that it wasn’t what I had ever really wanted. It would never have given me the life that I needed. Wanted.
I’d found a profession I liked and dozens of unique avocations to fill in the nights and weekends and now was facing the comfortable flip side of middle age …. but I also knew that I’d lost something as well. Lost it forever and there was no turning back.
The line moved forward. We were one person away from the phone. Jimmy looked down at my camera bag. “You know about cameras?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m currently obsessing digitally.”
“Great!” he said. “Maybe you can give me some advice. Karen, that’s my youngest, is a real artist. Must get it from my wife’s side,” he said and grinned. “Anyway, her birthday is next month and I want to get her a camera but I don’t know which one would be best for her.”
“What grade is she in?” I asked.
“Third,” he replied, “but she’s in a gifted student program and I don’t want to buy something that will be too simple for her in a year.”
He rubbed his forehead, the first sign that weariness was setting in. “I’ve been working an extra job or two and have enough money to get a good one but I don’t have a clue about cameras.” He smiled a little shyly. “Karen can really make something of herself. I want to give her that chance.”
I lowered my head to stall for time. A wave of emotion had overtaken me unbidden. All I could think about was my father working two extra jobs to finance my art classes as a kid. I’d come home to show him my latest drawing or experiment in collage techniques and he’d be sound asleep in his reclining chair to catch an hour of rest before he left for the midnight job that would keep him away from us for the rest of the night.
As a kid I had never given it a second thought but now seeing it recreated with Jimmy and his daughter Karen, I realized how much it had cost my father, not so much in money, or physical exhaustion but in the knowledge that by providing a new opportunity outside of our rural world, he was exposing me to the possibility of an ever-widening chasm that might one day separate us forever.
I flipped through my wallet and handed Jimmy a business card. “This is a small photo supply company in Philadelphia that gave me a good price. The owner knows me. Call and tell him I sent you and explain what you want. He’ll take care of you. He’ll give you a fair price for a good camera.”
Jimmy squinted his eyes and studied the card as if it was a rare gift and then slipped it in his shirt pocket and patted his “Roman 8:28” name tag. “Mama was right. “Everything does work together for good.”
He reached for the telephone, inserted a quarter and dialed a number. “Say, you wouldn’t like to come home with me for dinner, would you?”
“Thanks Jimmy. I’d love to meet your family, but I can’t. I’m on my way home too. I was a little lost for a while, but I found my way home again. Thanks for the map.”
Instead of dialing my voice mail, my fingers automatically found the number they had not dialed in decades.
* The events in this journal entry are factual with the exception of names and locations that were changed to protect the privacy of others, and sadly the phone call to my father at the end. He died when I was thirteen and I was never able to make that phone call to thank him, except in my heart.