It’s funny the things you can forget about the country you sprung from – even when you are reminded from time to time by going back. Little things, but ones that sidle away from you when you’re not looking. Especially when you live in far off place that – however mild the weather, and however beautiful the beaches – hasn’t sunk the shaft into your heart and will therefore never quite be home. There are things that spring out at you when you come back as if they had been lying in wait, patiently certain that you would return, carrying with them the weight of a hundred associations, the baggage of a thousand memories, real and received.
It’s Fall in Virginia, and unlike California, that word still retains its original meaning here. The leaves have changed, and many indeed have fallen with many waiting their turn, resignedly hoping for the right impetus. They are muted rather than raucous this year and most still dangle, which combination of facts inform me that the early Autumn was a dry one. I look at them and am suddenly 13 years old again, I can feel the rake in my hand, feel the blisters coming up, remember the running and jumping and rolling around within.
Dry though the season may have been, the rain was pouring down in gouts yesterday in northern Virginia. A hard, unkind fat-drop downpour whose existence you could forget about as well but which brought back memories of shivering in a boy scout tent, or watching it from inside the house with my chin in my hands and my breath fogging the glass, in either case praying for it to stop. Please God, stop. This was before cable and the Internet and for a boy-child there were few good reasons to be inside and fewer still to love the rain.
I spoke to my sister on the phone at the airport in Dulles, asked her to see what she could do about the weather before I got back up north after my conference was done. Wasn’t sure I wouldn’t melt in the rain, I said – it’d had been that long and me as sweet-natured as a sugar cube. She promised to do what she might, but reminded me that for everything there is a season, and anyway it had been a long while out of reckoning since wildfires had destroyed 1500 houses in Virginia.
Which I had to give her that.
Oak trees of course, and low, dark creeks with haygrass coming up. I drove by in the rental car with no time to stop and check for sign, but I could nevertheless hear the grass rubbing alongside the jonboat even as I felt the oars working in their tholes. I could almost smell the mad old lunker hiding out below a tree limb that was lazily drawing patterns in a dawdling current. Smell him, but never quite catch him. Never could. But there would always be tomorrow.
It’s still warm outside, so it isn’t quite time yet for the dogs and the decoys, but it’s not so far away, either. The ducks will be here soon. Up early, dark plashing and shivering anticipation, hot chocolate and wet dog commingling in my nose, the Canadas honking far above, out of reach. Cold and wind-whipped, but happy. Like me.
I stopped into a store where a pretty young girl at a cash register smiled sweetly, her brilliant teeth flashing out of a coal dark face. She asked me how I was like she really wanted to know and paused, secure in the knowledge of my certain, forthcoming reply. She then went back to conducting her inventory with an impressively dignified older woman across the aisle, a woman she referred to as “Miss Andi”- a woman whom I was once taught in a different lifetime to recognize as “high yeller”, which fact I shame myself by instantly remembering. And I know them both, and through knowing them remember where I came from, where I’ve been along the way and where I’ve finally come to.
Not all is ostentatious self-discovery, bathetic sweetness and sepia-stained light however. On the highway south of Norfolk I looked down and saw the little shotgun shacks and tar paper houses with their tidy back yards and clotheslines and suddenly I know the people who live there, too. And although I’ve never seen them, nor can they see me, yet can I feel their rheumy eyes following me for a moment with neither hope, nor anger, nor fear – they are beyond fear – nor even a spark of recognition before falling back once more inside themselves, back upon their own gnarled and cloistered familiarities.
Some things just don’t change quickly enough.