Dimestore, p.4
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       Dimestore, p.4

           Lee Smith
 
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  But I have to admit, I enjoy the latte I buy at the new coffee shop, Perks, which has opened up in my Aunt Bess and Uncle Clyde’s old house—that same house where the cow fell through the roof. I take a picture of this coffee shop, to send to my cousin Randy in Denver.

  I have to hurry in order to make my program. I find myself gritting my teeth as I cross the Levisa and follow the signs into the mammoth three-story Walmart which looks even bigger, if possible, close up. Its scale is more suited to Charlotte, or New York. I am directed up to the second parking level, which is nearly full. I park and just sit in the car for a minute, not sure whether I can do this or not.

  Finally I get out and walk over to ride the giant up escalator, astonished by the people with full carts riding the down escalator. I couldn’t even image how this would work, yet it works fine.

  There’s an open area at the top with a huge picture window and a panoramic view of the town. I don’t even get a good look before I am greeted by the Greeter, a large, friendly older fellow named Charles Clevinger, with local ties, as evidenced by his accent and his name. Whoever picked him out knew what they were doing. His father grew up here, and he spent summers here with his grandparents. He asks me if I remember the Rexall and the dimestore. Charles Clevinger refers to Walmart complex as the “Grundy Town Center,” proudly enumerating the other stores that are already open on the ground floor: Unique Nails; a sporting goods store; Subway; GameStop; and Factory Connection, a clothing store. Not a single one is local; not a single one has moved over from “old Grundy.” I hadn’t even noticed a smaller two-story building under construction at Walmart’s base; Clevinger points it out and tells me that it will house a beauty college and salon, plus several offices, with a coal company on top. A free-standing Taco Bell will occupy a grassy plot behind. Another spot is being saved for a “sit-down, fine-dining” restaurant, such as Applebee’s (though actually the town fathers just ran Applebee’s off because they serve mixed drinks.)

  I’m thinking I could use a mixed drink myself, or several. Maybe I’ll buy some wine.

  I ask where it is and then start up a brightly lit, well-stocked aisle in the grocery section, with its bins of specials in the middle—exactly like every aisle in every Walmart in the world. But before I get to the wine I run into some former Cowtown neighbors who have already got their cart all loaded up. “Oh hey, Lee,” she says, “When did you get in?” and continues without missing a beat, “Isn’t this Walmart just wonderful? I tell you, it has changed our lives.” Her husband stands grinning behind her.

  I manage to nod but turn on my heel without a word. No I can’t do this, I realize. I cannot. I rush back out to the open escalator area where smiling Charles Clevinger has latched onto some other visitor, thank God, so that I have a chance to walk over to the huge wraparound picture window and get a good look at Grundy from this high vantage point: there’s the flat moonscape area below us, crisscrossed by its tiny access roads with their tiny colorful cars; the busy bridges; the tame little river that started it all, improbably, running between its high ringwalls; route 460, where the old stores used to be. Across the eternal traffic jam, I can see Maple Street, the post office, the Appalachian School of Law, the Masonic Lodge—everything up to the bend of Slate Creek. The old stone courthouse with its high clock tower, once the largest and handsomest building in the county, has shrunk to insignificance. I take another picture. Later, I will blow it up. Viewed from the top floor of Walmart, the entire town looks like a toy town, like the train set Daddy always kept set up in the dimestore’s basement toy section.

  SUDDENLY I REMEMBER A LONG-AGO spring in Grundy, one Sunday afternoon several weeks before Easter. Daddy had taken me down to the dimestore with him to help make the Easter baskets, which didn’t come premade and packaged in those days. Many of the girls who worked in the store were there, too, and lots of little chocolate rabbits, and lots of candy Easter eggs. The women formed into an informal assembly line, laughing and gossiping among themselves. They were drinking coffee, wearing slacks and tennis shoes. It was almost a party atmosphere. As a “helper,” I didn’t last long. I stuffed myself with marshmallow chickens and then crawled into a big box of cellophane straw, where I promptly fell asleep while the straw shifted and settled around me, eventually covering me entirely, so nobody could find me when it was time to go.

  “Lee!” I heard my daddy calling. “Lee!” The overhead fluorescent lights in the dimestore glowed down pink through the cellophane straw. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. “Lee!” they called. I knew I’d have to answer soon, but I held that moment as long as I could, safe and secure in that bright pink world, listening to my father call my name.

  Recipe Box

  MY MOTHER’S RECIPE BOX SITS on the windowsill in our North Carolina kitchen where my eye falls on it twenty, maybe thirty times a day. I will never move it. An anachronism in my own modern kitchen, the battered box contains my mother’s whole life story, in a way, with all its places and phases, all her hopes and the accommodations she made in the name of love, as I have done, as we all do. I can read it like a novel—for in fact, our recipes tell us everything about us: where we live, what we value, how we spend our time. Mama’s recipe box is an odd green-gold in color. She “antiqued” it, then decoupaged it with domestic decals of the fifties: one depicts a rolling pin, a flour sifter, a vase of daisies, and a cheerful, curly-headed mom wearing a red bead necklace; another shows a skillet, a milk bottle, a syrup pitcher, three eggs, and a grinning dad in an apron.

  Oh, who are these people? My father never touched a spatula in his life. My mother suffered from “bad nerves,” also “nervous stomach.” She lived mostly on milk toast herself, yet she never failed to produce a nutritious supper for my father and me, including all the food groups, for she had long been a home economics teacher. Our perfect supper was ready every night at six thirty, the time a family ought to eat, in Mama’s opinion, though my workaholic daddy never got home from the dimestore until eight or nine at the earliest, despite his best intentions. Somewhere in that two-hour stretch, I would have been allowed to eat alone, reading a book—my favorite thing in the world. My mother would have had her milk toast. And when my father finally had his solitary supper, warmed to an unrecognizable crisp in the oven, he never failed to pronounce it “absolutely delicious—the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth!” My mother never failed to believe him, to give him her beautiful, tremulous smile, wearing the Fire and Ice lipstick she’d hurriedly applied when she heard his car in the driveway. Well, they loved each other—two sweet, fragile people who carefully bore this great love like a large glass object, incredibly delicate, along life’s path.

  My mother’s father had died when she was only three, leaving a pile of debt and six children for my grandmother to raise alone on Chincoteague Island. Grandma Annie Marshall turned their big old Victorian home into a boardinghouse, and it was here in the boardinghouse kitchen that my mother had learned to cook. Her recipe box holds sixteen different recipes for oysters, including Oyster Stew, Oyster Fritters, Oyster Pie, Scalloped Oysters, and the biblical-sounding Balaam’s Oysters. Clams are prepared “every whichaway,” as she would have put it. There’s also Planked Shad, Cooter Pie, and Pine Bark Stew. Mr. Hop Biddle’s Hush Puppies bear the notation, “tossed to the hounds around the campfire to keep them quiet.” Mama notes that the favorite breakfast at the boardinghouse was fried fish, cornmeal cakes, and “plenty of hot coffee.” These cornmeal cakes remained her specialty from the time she was a little girl, barely able to reach the stove, until her death eighty-four years later in the mountains so far from her island home. I imagine her as a child, biting her bottom lip in concentration and wiping perspiration off her pretty little face as she flips those cornmeal cakes on the hot griddle. Later, I see her walking miles across the ice in winter, back to college on the mainland.

  Her lofty aspirations were reflected in her recipes: Lady Baltimore Cake came from Cousin Nellie, who had “ma
rried well”; the hopeful Plantation Plum Pudding and Soiree Punch had both been contributed by my Aunt Gay-Gay in Birmingham, Alabama, the very epitome of something Mama had desperately wanted to attain. She wanted me to attain it, too, sending me down to Alabama every summer for Lady Lessons. The Asparagus Souffle recipe came from my elegant Aunt Millie, who had married a Northern steel executive who actually cooked dinner for us himself, wearing an apron. He produced a roast beef that was bright red in the middle; at first I was embarrassed for him, but then it turned out he’d meant to do it that way all along; he thought red meat was good, apparently, and enjoyed wearing the apron.

  Here are Mama’s bridge club recipes, filed all together. My first idea of an elegant meal came from this bridge club, whose members met every Thursday at noon for lunch and bridge, rotating houses, for years and years until its members began to die or move to Florida. I can see Mama now, greeting her friends at the door in her favorite black-and-white polka-dot dress. I sat on the top stair to watch them arrive. I loved the cut flowers, the silver, and the pink cloths on the tables, though it was clear to me even then that the way these ladies were was a way I’d never be.

  The food my mama gave the bridge club was wonderful. They feasted upon molded pink salad that melted on the tongue (back then I thought all salads were Jell-O salads); something called Chicken Crunch (cut-up chicken, mushroom soup, celery, water chestnuts, Chinese noodles); and Lime Angel Cloud. All the bridge lunch recipes required mushroom soup, Jell-O, Dream Whip, or pecans.

  But the recipes Mama actually used most—these soft, weathered index cards covered with thumbprints and spatters—reflect her deep involvement with her husband’s family and their Appalachian community: Venison Stew, Gaynor Owens’ Soup Beans, Ava McClanahan’s Apple Stack Cake, my grandmother’s Methodist Church Supper Salad, and my favorite, Fid’s Funeral Meat Loaf. A ham was also good in case of death, glazed with brown sugar and Coca-Cola. Mama’s recipe for Salvation Cake had a Bible verse listed beside each ingredient (the almonds came from Genesis 43:11), and the only instruction given for baking was the cryptic Proverbs 23:14. Fat content was never a consideration. Biscuits called for lard, and Chocolate Velvet Cake required one cup of mayonnaise. A hearty beef and cheese casserole was named Husband’s Delight.

  I, too, have written out my life in recipes. As a young bride, I had eleven dessert recipes featuring Cool Whip as the main ingredient. Then came the hibachi and fondue period, then the quiche and crepes phase, then pasta, and now it’s these salsa years. Just this past Christmas, I made cranberry salsa for everybody. My mother would not have touched salsa—let alone sushi!—with a ten-foot pole. One time when we all went out for bagels in Chapel Hill, she said, “This may taste good to someone who has never eaten a biscuit.” Another thing she used to say is, “No matter what is wrong with you, a sausage biscuit will make you feel a whole lot better.” I agree, though I have somehow ended up with a wonderful husband who eats rare meat, wears an apron himself upon occasion, and makes a terrific risotto. We share the cooking. I seldom have time to bake these days, but sometimes I still make Mama’s Famous Loaf Bread upon occasion, simply because the smell of it baking takes me straight back to that warm kitchen where somebody was always visiting. I can still hear my mother’s voice, punctuated by her infectious laugh, her conspiratorial “Now promise me you won’t tell a soul . . .”

  On impulse I reach for Mama’s recipe box and take out one of the most wrinkled and smudged, Pimento Cheese, everybody’s favorite, thinking as always that I really ought to get these recipes into the computer, or at least copy them before they disintegrate completely. On this card, Mama underlined Durkee’s Dressing, followed by a parenthesis: “(The secret ingredient!)” Though I would never consider leaving Durkee’s Dressing out, I don’t really believe it is the secret ingredient. The secret ingredient is love.

  Kindly Nervous

  “KINDLY NERVOUS” WAS MY FATHER’S euphemistic term for the immense anguish he suffered periodically from bipolar illness, or “manic depression,” as it was then called. Unfortunately for him, the manic phase was no fun—no wild sprees, no elation—instead, he just worked harder than ever at the dimestore, where he did everything, anyway. When Daddy’s mania increased to the point where he could no longer sleep, sometimes I accompanied him down to the store, sleeping on a pallet under his desk while he worked all night long, then going out with him into the chilly dawn to a greasy spoon for breakfast. How I loved those breakfasts! I got to have my scrambled eggs and my own big white china cup of sweet, milky coffee alongside early-morning truckers and the miners who’d just worked the graveyard shift, their eyes rimmed with coal dust like raccoons.

  But these weeks of intense activity led to scarier behavior as he became increasingly jumpy and erratic. I remember one time when Daddy had taken me to the golf course in nearby Tazewell. I tossed him a putter when he wasn’t expecting it, then was terrified when he screamed and fell down flat, writhing in tears on the putting green. Before long would come the inevitable downward spiral. He’d talk less and less, stay in bed more and more, finally be unable to go to the dimestore at all.

  Then my Uncle Curt or my cousin Jack or another family member would come and drive him away to the hospital—sometimes the state mental hospital over in Marion, Virginia, sometimes an out-of-state facility. My father was lucky because he was in business with several men in his family who were willing to oversee the dimestore and his other responsibilities whenever he got “kindly nervous” and had to “go off” someplace to get treatment, since there was no mental health care—none at all—available in Buchanan County.

  After I moved to North Carolina, we brought him down to Duke Hospital in Durham, very near us in Chapel Hill. I remember visiting him there once, in his third-floor room of the mental hospital wing, which overlooked the famous Duke Gardens, then in full bloom. He was not looking out at the gardens, though. Instead, I found him staring at a sheet of paper with something drawn on it.

  “What’s that?” I asked.

  He replied that his doctor had left paper and pencil for him to draw a picture of a man doing something he enjoyed.

  I looked at the stick figure. The man’s hands hung straight down from his tiny hunched shoulders; his legs were straight parallel lines, up and down; his round head had no face, no features at all. None.

  “So what’s he doing?” I asked.

  “Nothing,” my father said.

  In the fierce grip of severe depression, this popular, active, civic man—a great storyteller, a famous yellow-dog Democrat, a man who never knew a stranger—could not imagine doing anything . . . not one thing in the entire world that he might enjoy.

  But the worst part was that he was always so horribly embarrassed about this illness, never understanding that it was an illness, but regarding it rather as a weakness, a failure of character, which made him feel even worse. “I can’t believe I’ve gone and done this again,” he’d say. “I’m just so ashamed of myself.”

  I will never forget what a breakthrough it was for him when I gave him William Styron’s just-published book Darkness Visible, a memoir of Styron’s own depression. My dad respected William Styron; he had read The Confessions of Nat Turner, he had heard Styron speak at a literary festival at my college. Daddy read Darkness Visible in one sitting.

  “I can’t believe it!” he said. “I can’t believe he would tell these things!”

  Styron had laid it on the line:

  Depression afflicts millions directly, and millions more who are relatives or friends of victims . . . as assertively democratic as a Norman Rockwell poster, it strikes indiscriminately at all ages, races, creeds, and classes . . . The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.

  My mother, too, was hospitalized for dep
ression and anxiety several times, mainly at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, but also at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. She often attributed those bouts to “living with your father”—and undoubtedly there was some truth to this—but the fact is that she came from a “kindly nervous” family herself.

  Her father and a brother both committed suicide; another brother, my Uncle Tick, was a schizophrenic who lived at home with my grandmother, then in the VA Hospital. An older cousin, Katherine, had died at the state mental institution in Staunton, Virginia, where she had been hospitalized because she was “over-sexed.” (I never even knew this cousin had existed until many, many years later.) But I knew that Mama’s beloved niece Andre was also in and out of the hospital in Washington frequently, suffering from schizophrenia. She died alone, too young, in her own apartment.

  No wonder Mama and her sisters frequently took to their beds—just lying down wherever they lived, it seemed to me—whenever life got to be too much for them. Would I just lie down, too, I worried, when the time came? I was a whirlwind of energy, to counter this possibility.

  When Mama got sick, she was physically sick, too—with stomach problems, insomnia, migraine headaches, and other undiagnosed pain. She ate very little and got very thin, subsisting on things she thought she could tolerate, such as rice, oatmeal, milk toast, and cream of wheat, which were all supposed to be easy on the stomach. In my memory, my mother’s food was all white. She had a special daybed downstairs next to the kitchen, where she’d stay more and more. Ava McClanahan came every day to take care of Mama and the house. Daddy did all the shopping. This could go on for a long time. Sometimes Mama and I would be taken up to stay with my Aunt Millie and Uncle Bob in Maryland for a while. Other times, she went into the hospital.

 
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