Folklore: Coming Home

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story by SHAWN BLANKENSHIP | illustration by ANN HAMILTON

Editor’s Note

“Coming Home” by Shawn Blankenship was one of four finalists in the Lookout Alabama-SELTI Writing Contest, sponsored by this magazine, the Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative, DeKalb Tourism and Greater Gadsden Area Tourism. The competition, which challenged writers to compose fictional short stories set in real places in Alabama’s Lookout Mountain region, was the nation’s second tourism-fiction contest and was judged by a panel including New York Times bestselling author Homer Hickam, university representatives and tourism professionals. Special thanks to everyone who entered the contest. We will feature other finalists’ stories in future issues.

 

Evan watched the sun setting out the glass door of the balcony, the crimson glow sinking behind the skyline as if hiding its face from the rising lights of the city’s murky shine. Lisa was sitting behind him on the sofa, a glass of red wine in her hand, staring at his back. he could feel her eyes on him.

“You never listen to me,” she said, and her words were slurred. Evan turned to look at her. her blond hair was disheveled, the strap of her evening dress fallen from her left shoulder, her mascara smeared from the corner of her right eye.

“I’m listening,” he said.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]She started to cry. she shook until the red wine sloshed in the glass and a large drop fell to her dress on her right knee. she didn’t notice. on the television, the large screen over the fireplace that he never watched, but she lived in, the talking head was saying something about a manhunt for a “white male suspected in a burglary and double homicide in the five Points area.”

“You are never going to let me forget it, are you?” she said.

He sighed.

“You just keep trying to hurt me back,” she said.

“How am I trying to hurt you, Lisa?”

She threw the glass. it shattered on the plate-glass balcony door, the wine trickling down the panes like blood-laced tears.

“You know how!” she screamed. “with your sad eyes and your distance and you never talk to me anymore!”

“Lisa,” he said, “I’m talking to you now.”

“No you’re not! You’re talking back at me!” she grasped the glass vase with the single red rose sitting on the end table beside the sofa and threw it. it struck the wall on his right, the water and glass shards showering his face, opening a small cut underneath his right eye. He looked at her.

One moment she was furious, her mouth drawn in a sneer of hate, her eyes squinted tight with anger and drink, then her eyes widened. she looked at the floor, the red stain of the wine across the white carpet, the water and the crumpled rose there at his feet. she looked at his face, the small drop of blood sliding down his cheek to fall on his lapel.

Her hand went to her mouth, came away smearing her lipstick, went to her heart.

“Oh god, Evan, I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to. I’m sorry.”

He looked at her. The evening had come to an end before it had begun, meant to be a special night, a time of coming closer again, of the putting away of things between them that he had left behind, but that she could not. But in the time it had taken for him to shower and dress, she had finished one bottle and opened a second. again.

She leaned her head into her hands and began to sob, her shoulders heaving.

He walked to the door.

As he closed it behind him, he heard her scream again and heard something shatter as it struck the door. he took the elevator down. he never went back again. two days and five tanks of gas later, he was back in Alabama.

He hit Interstate 59 and took it south, watching the trees go by. The exit was ahead, the sign reading, “fort Payne 0.5 miles.” he took the exit and marveled at how little things had changed.

The restaurant he remembered so well, the place where he had sat and drank coffee in the corner and had written one of his first short stories, it was gone.There was another larger restaurant in its place. But most things were still the same, he saw. The fan club building for the country music group Alabama was still there, still almost unchanged. The downtown area rolled by and he slowed to take it in, the little café and the curio shops, the small military-surplus store where he had stared eyes wide as a young boy at all the historic world war ii relics. he reached the park, just before the intersection where highway 35 took that hard right turn. The statue he remembered, the rider on the horse, sword held high, was gone. There were four larger-than-life bronze figures depicting the four members of the country music group who had come from this quiet little town and gone on to stardom.

Evan drove up the mountain and smiled as more memories than trees rushed by out the windows.

The state park was lush and green, the dogwood trees in bloom. he had almost forgotten this place. he marveled for a moment at the way people will travel hundreds of miles to see sights and attractions and natural wonders and yet take for granted the beauty right in their own hometown. He saw something new then. There was a wooden walkway, a raised path of hardwood decking extending into the forest. he pulled over and took his notebook and jacket from the car. he smiled as he stepped onto the path, knowing he had all the time in the world.

The azaleas were in bloom. The walkway wove through the trees, winding through a shady glen on the mountain next to a gently trickling stream. he came to a place where a tree grew in the center of the walkway, the wooden walkway having been built around the massive trunk.

There was a veranda there on the left, shaded and peaceful, no sounds now except the sound of the water and the birds in the trees. a mockingbird running through its repertoire, a red-tailed hawk sitting on a branch 20 feet from the trail uttering its shrill call and a raven’s guttural chortle were the only sounds of living things here. There were no sounds of traffic, no car horns and fire-truck sirens, no sounds of perpetual road construction, no screams of obscenities out open car windows, no sounds of gunshots in the distance, no car alarms or police sirens. There was no chaos here. here there was soft, filtered sunlight through the trees and a gentle, sweet breeze, and the birds in the trees and the stream flowing by and here there was peace.

Evan sat in the veranda, smiling. he took the notebook from his pocket and began to write.

Three hours later, he looked up from the world he had been creating and realized he was hungry. he looked at the time and saw it was 2 in the afternoon. He stood, stretched and turned to walk toward his car. There was a trash can there. he smiled. he lifted the lid, slipped off the watch and dropped in into the can. he walked back to his car, smiling and feeling fine.

From his jacket pocket, his cell phone rang. He sighed, afraid it would be Lisa, but it wasn’t. It was Helen, his literary agent. He didn’t answer. He would explain his leaving another day. He turned the phone off.

The small town of Fort Payne had changed a little since he had been there, but the smaller town of Mentone had not changed at all, the old graveyard with the stones worn wordless from time and weather, the old inn still standing just as he remembered it, the antique shop that was itself an antique there on the corner still with the hand painted sign hanging above the door. And there was the little restaurant on the hill.

The little log cabin restaurant looked a hundred years old if a day, the old iron tools and brass lanterns hanging on the walls above the rough wooden rocking chairs where he had sat and read “dandelion wine” by ray Bradbury. one of the first books that really made him want to be a writer.

Evan pulled the car around behind the little café and parked. There were only four other cars parked there. he smiled. nice. he would have the café mostly to himself.

The little silver bell tinkled above the door as he walked into the restaurant. he noticed how the door and ceiling seemed lower than he remembered from his childhood, but the booths still seemed large, big enough for a whole family.

Aslim, pretty brunette sat behind the counter and was reading a paperback book by Kurt Vonnegut, a fingernail between her teeth. She looked up from the book and smiled at him.

“Sit anywhere you like, honey. Menu’s on the table. You know what you want to drink?”

“Coffee and a diet Pepsi,” Evan said. “Diet Coke okay?”

“Sure.”

“Make yourself at home, honey. I’ll be right there with your drinks.”

He smiled and wondered through the restaurant. There was an old black-and-white photo on the wall. four men stood on the stump of a giant felled tree. two held axes and just looked tired. one held a long, two-man, cross-cut saw. The other was lighting a cigarette and looking over his glasses at the camera. an old rust-covered scythe hung on the wall suspended from a hook, the handle cracked and appearing to have been worn slick with use.

"There were no sounds of traffic, no car horns and fire-truck sirens, no sounds of perpetual road construction, no screams of obscenities out open car windows, no sounds of gunshots in the distance, no car alarms or police sirens. There was no chaos here. Here there was soft, filtered sunlight through the trees and a gentle, sweet breeze, and the birds in the trees and the stream flowing by and here there was peace."

He sat at a table at the back of the restaurant, a table in the corner underneath a gently turning ceiling fan, a table by the window with a view of the street, the antique shop there on the corner, the blooming dogwood trees on the lawn, the willows and sycamore trees that lined the road.

He had just taken out his notebook and opened it to the page where he had last written when the pretty brunette sat a tray on his table on which sat a pot of coffee, a cup, a saucer of creamer, a small bowl of sugar with a spoon and a glass of iced tea, the glass beaded with droplets of condensation.

He looked at the glass. he looked at the waitress. she was taking a small notebook and a pencil from the front pocket of her apron. She opened the notebook, looked at him, seemed to remember something, looked at the glass and laughed. “Oh wow, I’m sorry, honey. Everybody comes here orders sweet tea. I guess it’s got to be a habit.” She laughed again and he smiled. She had a pretty smile.

“It’s no problem,” he said. her eyes were big and brown and beautiful, he thought. “You want to order or you want me to get your diet coke first?” “You know,” he said, sipping the tea, sweet and cold and tasting like a memory, “this will be just fine.”

She smiled and winked.

“What would you like to eat, honey, now that I’ve accidentally forced southern drink preferences on you against your will?” That delightful laugh again, and that smile, bright like the sunlight in August.

“You know, i haven’t even looked at the menu yet. I guess I was woolgathering. what’s good?”

“Oh, honey, it’s all good,” she said.

“What’s your favorite?” she raised an eyebrow.

“My favorite?” She put the pencil to her lip, looked up at the ceiling for a moment and then said, “The fried chicken and mashed potatoes, probably.” “That sounds perfect.”

She smiled again and put the notebook back in her pocket without writing a thing.

“You got it, honey,” she said. “Won’t take a minute.” she hurried away. Evan smiled and looked out the window again, remembering being here so long ago and sitting this way, staring out the window at the corner. The light was waning, evening creeping in. He wondered if the inn was still in business. he would ask the waitress, the pretty brunette with bright eyes and the sunlight smile.

And tomorrow, he thought, tomorrow who knows? Maybe he would look for something else.

It was good to be home.

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