That weekend a couple of years ago, the Shenandoah River swelled its banks. Eastham Park, on the west side of town right by the river, was almost completely submerged. Happy Creek, the Shenandoah tributary that runs through the east side of town, was running furiously. It wasn’t quite as imposing as the sight of the Shenandoah expanded to about twice its usual width, but there was something about seeing what’s usually a quiet, almost stagnant body of water raging like a good ole boy drunk on moonshine that made it nearly as fearsome as the river. That weekend wasn’t an occasion to venture getting close to any of this, and distance—either out of respect or fear or practical caution—was the best means of achieving comfort through the storm. That and staying still.
We were on the way back to Front Royal from DC on a Friday evening when it started. We saw this darkness ahead of us on I-66. The kind of darkness that makes calm people say, “It looks like it’s raining cats and dogs up ahead” while the rest of us go, “What the fuck is this shit?” We drove into the storm for a while, but when the rain started coming down so hard we couldn’t see more than a five or ten feet in front of us, it seemed like a good time to look for a way off the interstate. Luckily, we were close to the exit to Marshall, so I took it. Just driving down Main Street in Marshall at ten miles per hour was hard enough, but we made our way through town and found what looked like a safe spot to park at a McDonald’s. Although we were now parked, there was still thunder and lightning all around us. Julien, my eight-year old son, was scared and asked, “Are we going to die?”
“No, no,” my wife Heather and I both said, as did Maggie, our fifteen-year old daughter—which isn’t to say we weren’t scared, too.
As we waited in the midst of all that rain and lightning and thunder, I remembered how my Auntie Lucilla, in the last years of her life—her sight, hearing, and mental faculties failing—would repeatedly ask, “Is it raining?” That, out of everything else, was what persisted in her mind—the thought of rain. If she were still alive and happened to be with us that night in the parking lot in Marshall, I don’t think Auntie Lucilla would have had to ask. But somehow I don’t think she would have been scared.
I also remembered a time about ten years earlier, during a trip to Gettysburg, when Maggie came down with a bad fever. We’d been visiting friends but left early to take her to the emergency room. She was four years old at the time and this, apparently, was the worst she’d ever felt. Lying on the table in the examination room, Maggie asked, “Am I going to die?”
“No, no,” we said, just as we’d say ten years later during the thunderstorm. Nevertheless, there was, for me, something indescribably sad about witnessing what may have been Maggie’s and Julien’s first realization that mortality was something that could affect them. At the same time, there was something beautiful about being able to reassure them—to say that, despite their fears, we were going to make it. I don’t think I felt that I was completely a parent until I’d helped talk my children down from some horrible fear—and, subsequently, gotten them to continue using the necessary energy for experiencing true joy and delight.
That night, shortly after we walked into our house, Julien gave both Heather and me a hug for getting him and Maggie home. It was still raining heavily, and after everyone was asleep, I listened to it for a while. Inevitably, I remembered the closing lines from Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.” Except that it was midnight, and it was raining, and it would keep on raining for a long time.
The next day we ate lunch at Soul Mountain. Soul Mountain is the restaurant on Main Street in Front Royal without which we probably never would have moved there. The first time we ate there, thirteen years ago, it felt like home. Decorated with things like a painting of Bob Marley, a Buddha statue, and a Lauren Hill poster, Soul Mountain felt safe. We knew that Front Royal was in rural Virginia—well past even the nearby suburbs that are extensions of DC—but with a place like Soul Mountain just a few blocks away from the house we were buying, how bad could Front Royal be? Or, to put it more bluntly, how redneck could it be?
Soul Mountain was busy that day. Several families were celebrating their children’s graduation from high school. Although Maggie and Julien weren’t graduating from their schools, they were still leaving them—and we were all leaving town. Maggie would be going from Warren County High School in Front Royal to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC, while Julien would be leaving Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School to attend Harriet Tubman Elementary School in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.
There had been some good teachers and even some inspiring teachers at the various schools Maggie and Julien attended in Front Royal. There had also been some who were rather less than inspiring, but that could happen anywhere. Still, one thing I knew I wouldn’t miss were those school events where at least half of the other parents there refused to look at you. Then, when they did look at you it was that what-are-you-doing-here?/you-don’t-belong-here kind of look. That wasn’t the case so much when Maggie and Julien attended the Montessori school there, where we met a lot of people whom we became friends with. At the public schools, though, it was a different story.
The week before the storm was Maggie and Julien’s first full week off from school for the summer. It was normally the week we’d spend at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, but with our upcoming move to DC as well as our uncertain employment situation, a full vacation was not doable that year. Still, I was able to take one day off entirely and—with Heather in the office in Rosslyn—I took Maggie and Julien to Winchester for the day.
Our first stop was the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. Although there were many places in the valley that we liked precisely for what they were, this was one of those places we liked for the specific reason that when we were there, we didn’t feel like we were in the valley anymore. I doubt that was the intention of Julian Wood Glass Jr. and R. Lee Taylor, the gay couple who in the late 50s took property that had been passed down from Glass’s descendants and turned the main building on the estate into a showcase for their art collection, and then surrounded it with formal gardens.
On this occasion, we stayed in the gardens. There was an exhibit of Lego sculptures, featuring giant spiders, turtles, peacocks, and other animals made out of Legos. It was okay. Julien wasn’t all that impressed. I imagined that a representation of Miles Davis—or even Taylor Swift (at the time he was obsessed with one of her songs)—might have been a little more thrilling for him. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful day to be out in the gardens. We spent more time just contemplating the natural blue and green of our surroundings and pausing to feel the breeze coming over the hills west of the museum than looking at Lego sculptures—and that was fine with us.
Before leaving, we stopped in the Wood and Glass Family Cemetery, which is part of the museum’s gardens. Somehow, our vacation days tend to include a visit to a cemetery. Earlier that year, we visited the Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton, Virginia. Then, the previous year, right before we went to the beach—where we stopped at the cemetery at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes, Delaware—we wandered through Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. While the cemeteries in Staunton and Richmond each lay on a very large plot of land, the Wood and Glass Family Cemetery was just a small, walled-in section of the museum’s gardens. It apparently wasn’t enough for Julien, who as we left said, “Let’s go to another cemetery!”
“We’ll go another day,” I said, as we drove to downtown Winchester, where Maggie wanted to stop at a thrift shop. Maggie went into the store while Julien and I waited outside in the car. Soon after Maggie went into the store, Julien said, “I wish there was no money in the whole world and everything was free.”
“Well, that would be good,” I said.
A moment later, Julien added, “”I think I want to be bald someday.”
“Well, maybe,” I said. “It could happen.”
Then Julien said, “Sometimes I scream when I say ‘Ulysses S. Grant.’ Sometimes. I don’t know why.”
Maggie came out of the thrift shop with a long, light-blue dress.
“It was two dollars!” she said.
At this point, Julien said he was hungry—very hungry—and wanted to eat immediately. It’s moments like these when we’ll indulge his requests to get a McDonald’s happy meal. We drove down to the McDonald’s on Jubal Early Drive and went to the drive-thru lane. After ordering and paying at the first window, we moved up to the pickup window. Julien’s happy meal wasn’t ready yet, and the young man stationed there looked over to Maggie, who was sitting next to me on the front seat, and noticed she was reading a book.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
Maggie paused, then mumbled, “David Foster Wallace.”
“What’s that again?”
“David Foster Wallace,” I said.
“What’s it about?”
“Ah, it’s a collection of his essays,” Maggie said, holding up the book, which features an illustration of a boy sticking his tongue out while steam blows out of his ears.
“What’s it called?” the man asked, squinting his eyes at the cover.
“It’s called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,’” Maggie said.
He looked a little more closely at the cover and said, “Oh. I never heard of him.”
“He’s a highly-regarded writer,” I said. I didn’t mention that he wasn’t always the best person he could have been, or that he committed suicide about ten years ago. The man looked at Maggie and me and nodded as if to say, “Er, okay. I believe you.” And while the man at the window may never have heard of him, I must say neither Heather or I have managed to finish reading his magnum opus, Infinite Jest—and that in our family, only Maggie had read a complete work of his, having previously finished his first novel, The Broom of the System.
When Julien’s happy meal was ready, the man handed it to us, saying, “Well, have a good day!”
We pulled over to a parking spot so Julien could eat. When he was done, we drove down to the Books-A-Million store on Pleasant Valley Road, where we sat at the café so I could relax for a little while and have a cup of coffee. I also took a few minutes to browse there in case they had anything good, and I found Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, a book a friend of mine from New York had co-authored about twenty years ago. Somehow, after all these years, I’d never picked it up; but now, with the 20th anniversary edition just out, I had it. I imagined that I might finish reading Please Kill Me before I ever finish reading all of Infinite Jest, but who knows? And who knows, I may finish reading Infinite Jest before I finish writing either of the two novels I’ve started but have yet to finish. It’s not that that I’ve written myself into a hole with either of them, but somehow I get distracted from these things. Sometimes, writing those ongoing pieces makes me sad after the initial joy of having completed a few solid pages, or even just a few solid paragraphs. Or maybe I just don’t want these long stories I have floating around in my head to end. And, despite all the real events I deal with everyday in my poems and essays, maybe it’s the insane things in my fictional work that I just don’t want to tell.
Saturday of that weekend, the opening reception for The Bridge Project—the community art project Heather and our friends Tammy, Mark, and Beth had been working on for months—was held at the new Selah Theatre. On the west side of town on Kendrick Lane, this new space for the theater was in one of the administrative buildings of the old Avtex plant, which for nearly fifty years produced rayon and which, for those fifty years, let loose numerous poisonous substances into the land, air, and water of the upper Shenandoah Valley. After a cleanup that took nearly a quarter century, the Selah Theatre, which used to be on the east side of town, was one of the first tenants to move in.
As Heather got some of her materials ready to take to the theatre, we noticed that there were several police cars outside—right across the street at our neighbor Connie’s house. Connie had been on the wagon for a while, and in jail and out of jail for various drunken rages, and it looked like she’d started drinking again. It was a little after one in the afternoon, that day, and she was angry. Real angry. The cops were pleading with her, but she kept on saying shit to them. Still, they didn’t lose their patience. That, of course, isn’t the way it works for everyone. That Saturday, Connie, a white woman in her fifties, screamed and cursed at the cops for at least half an hour, then walked back into her house as the cops drove off.
Heather drove ahead to the theatre to start getting things set up. Later in the evening I drove over with Maggie, Julien, and Maggie’s friend Lillie, who had been spending the day with us. Shortly after we got to Selah, the skies started turning dark. Pretty soon a fierce thunderstorm was upon us, with hail, loud thunder, and immense flashes of lightning. We worried that it might keep people away from the event, and for a little while it did. But the storm moved off just as quickly as it came in, and out toward the south a double rainbow appeared in the sky.
Then people started to walk in the door. The looked at The Bridge, which was a display of about a hundred different small works of art from people in the community. The reception began with African drumming, followed by a representative from the local Islamic Center. Then there were opera singers, folk singers, poets, and a band. Noah, the singer of the band, noted that when he was a kid, he used to come up to Front Royal from Rappahannock County. Once he and his family got over the mountains into town there was this smell—the smell that was coming from everything the Avtex Plant was putting into the air and land and water.
“But look at this,” Noah said. “Now we’re in this space, where that stench was coming from. And we’re making music. We’re making art.” Then he and his bandmates Mike and Rafe, started the next song.
That night, as we were on the way home from the event, Heather was looking at her phone when she saw a joke someone had posted online. “Julien,” she said.
“What?” he answered from the back seat.
“If Ice-T teamed up with the Lemonheads, what would be the name of the supergroup.”
Julien thought about it for a second, then said, “The Dorito Butts?”
It wasn’t the right answer to the joke, but there was a truth to it that couldn’t be denied.
When we got home, everyone was tired. Heather, Maggie, and Julien went to bed, but I stayed up a little longer to do some work. Writing on my computer, I was listening to the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop—some of the classic punk music that Anthony Bourdain loved. Bourdain had just killed himself the day before, which for me—and, I imagine, a good number of other people—made it seem like a day when so many possibilities had diminished and gone blank. “Death Trip” from Iggy’s Raw Power album was playing when I heard some thumping sounds outside and the slamming of car doors. That’s when I peeked outside to see our next door neighbor, Linda, on her front porch, screaming at her scrawny but scary boyfriend. That would happen pretty regularly, usually at about two or three in the morning, and that’s about the time it was that day.
As usual, there was the opening and closing of front doors and car doors and pickup truck doors, odd pounding noises of undetermined origin, along with alternating angry male and female voices, all of which eventually merged into the strange harmony of small town, southern furiosity. I’d often imagine Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” as the soundtrack to these arguments, and as soon as their screaming began outside, I’d hear, in my mind, the voice of lead singer, the late Ronnie Van Zant, going,
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see…
But then, this time, there was a moment of silence. I peeked out from behind the blinds of our living room window, thinking that maybe the argument came to an out-of-the-ordinary peaceful solution. Then I saw the door of the boyfriend’s pickup truck open. That’s when it became real. Blasting out of the fuzzy speakers of the boyfriend’s old pickup truck was “Free Bird.” It wasn’t just in my head:
But, if I stayed here with you, girl
Things just couldn’t be the same
Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you can not change…
Linda had worked as a stripper in DC back in the day. She’d partied a lot, hung out with bikers and been arrested here and there. As “Free Bird” continued to play, I wondered if she’d ever danced to it. And, what effect it might have on the fight they were now having. Over the sound of Free Bird, her boyfriend’s voice ascended, saying “Don’t you ever…” Then descended back down, drowned out by the notes of the guitar solo that takes over in the middle of the song. Or maybe by the sound of his unmuffled pickup truck as he revved the engine, ready to go. Ready to not change.
Finally, he slammed the door of his pickup truck shut. He slammed it good and hard to make sure nothing could get in and nothing could get out. Then he stepped on the gas, and with a roar like a mighty storm coming across the sky, he drove off into the night.
Photograph by Jose Padua