Swan river flows along a path never intended for human feet. A larger river, two hundred miles long, called “French,” is what Swan leads to. Ground is first broke in the eighteenth century along Christian Creek, a tributary of Swan river by David, a soldier redeeming a land grant at the point where the water “English” and the water “French” meet.
The forest kills the soldier. There are rumors of humans – not of Christ, but of Nature instead. On foot, the soldier's wife, children, and female slave flee sixteen miles to the nearest Christian fort. The soldier's brother and his sister's husband return for justice and the corpse. Months pass in the forest. The wife, children, and female slave return, and the extended family arrive to settle at the mouth of Bee Tree.
War breaks. Union forces are pushed away to the north by a platoon of mostly locals.
Union forces return.
On October second, eighteen eighty, a railroad reaches the city of Ashe. On November twentieth, nineteen thirty, eight of the nine local banks fail. Only Wachovia remains due to infusions of cash from other sources. Though Ashe owes fifty million due to the building of roads and buildings, Ashe refuses to default, then remains impoverished. Everything is properly preserved for fifty years before the debt is finally paid.
“Even a class A,” the store manager says, interviewing me in the newspaper, books, and magazine section of a coffee house surrounded by a grocery store.
The grocery serves an old mill town, one that Ashe's downtown bumped into as the city grew. An expansive, man-made lake separates them. Neighborhood names such as Martel Village and Company Bottom allude to manufacturing industries once here. Ten square miles in size, one being the French River flowing by on the western side, about three-thousand people live here. Almost no one makes over thirty-thousand dollars a year; most make near twenty. The town is named after the fourth of twelve children of a wealthy farmer. He became a local lawyer and statesman who acquired extensive land in the French Basin and owned the most number of slaves in the county by 1860: one hundred and twenty-two. His holdings at the time were listed as one-hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars. By 1870 his assets added up to thirty-six thousand. His younger brother did not survive the war. All his adult life, he worked to make the region more prosperous, advocating and encouraging the production of tobacco and dairy, increasing the quality in schools, and fighting for the railroad despite hurdles of corruption that sent him to London to confront Milton S. Littlefield, the president of the Western Carolina Railroad Company, who had fled there.
“Of course I cannot compete with your previous salary,” he says.
“No, of course.”
“... No, the house is on the line where the two properties meet ...” says a woman reaching up for ricotta cheese.
Despite the high-turnover rate, most employees have worked here at least a decade. I have four actual coworkers. We are called the Milk Men.
“ … The two families came home from church,” she's saying to someone. “The brothers and the father of the one family then murder the brothers and the father of the other family ...”
I work mostly on my own but for Wally, a likable, jolly oddity with gray hair and glasses. He's worked here twenty-seven years, working a part time job in fast food to make ends meet. This shift works three sections: milk, eggs, and juice, in that order of importance, each section taking an hour or two of work. Other sections are done once a day each. Working on the floor at a grocery store of a recently-small mountain town will make you want to stop drinking the water, but it's something to be surrounded by such literate folks.
“ … Then they come back to dinner. The house is where the sister lived. After dinner they killed the last brother, her husband.”
“You know me?” whispers Cooke. “'Cause I know you.”
She's November's daughter, married to a graduate from Rustic. She makes little secret she goes to meetings and lives by the twelve steps, and can recognize any substance in the system of anybody by nothing else but their eyes. She runs the kitchen of the store's Deli and introduces Butcher, who works on the other side of the store, behind a counter of select cuts. He's an old Vietnam combat medic renowned for painting local scenes on canvas. He tells jokes like he's Roger Dangerfield secretly desperate to teach life's most important, vulgar secrets. Later she introduces Gardner, another Vietnam vet, surrounded by bins of produce in the third corner of the store who likes to talk politics and is one of the few who can throw verbal barbs with Cooke.
“It's not their fought only us old people can tell the difference between journalism and production journalism,” he says with a casual sense of humor as he shows me his bin of lush, blood red apples.
“In the end it won't matter whose to blame,” I reply.
He explains the world as incestuous, same as insider trading, media, and synergy. He claims there is no such thing as journalism or literature; nothing but telemarketers in another form. For him it is self-evident that the educated are the uneducated, the powerful the weak, the poor the wealthy, the high-class the classless and the American economy little more than a pyramid scheme. "Hence, the housing crash."
“All journalism in America is inherently corrupt … “ I ask him lowly, refusing to believe while he looks surprised someone-already-old-enough-to-vote didn't know that already.
“Beeeeeeen,” Cooke laughs rich and melodic. “Where you been?”
Larke, a twenty-one-year-old, works nights in Video: “He graduated high school in two-thousand six and went straight into the Marines,” he says with his sophisticated airs. “In the winter of two-thousand-seven we showed up for his graduation at Paris Island, South Carolina. I busted my hand in with the lid of the trunk of our car … I stood there for a long time with it closed and my hand crushed because I didn't want to break my fingers. They took me to the Military hospital and I was refused treatment because I was civilian. My brother had been promoted to Lance Corporal and we thought he'd be promoted again at graduation but instead they gave it to some fat chick who had been recycled three times – she had more time in service. My brother was the platoon – or whatever – leader throughout boot camp because he was that kind of guy, a good worker, then staying up til four and five in the morning to return letters. He would be fired from his position regularly – usually in time for the weekend, when they would give it to someone else for awhile, but by Monday he had it again. I remember him giving me a tour of the barracks and another graduating Marine was there. A Drill Instructor stepped in and the Marine kept referring to himself as “This recruit.” The Drill Instructor had to tell him he was graduated now. It scared me, him being brainwashed like that."
As we talk, a forty-something woman he knows from university enters Video with her small children. They exchange pleasantries, while catching up on gossip, until I mention to her the breath of fresh air Ashe seemed compared to eastern Carolina. "No one can be pigeon-holed here," I tell her.
She smiles, as if at naive-ness. "I know the conservatives are cruel and arrogant and blatantly lie," she says. "And I did enjoy moving here because of the mountains and the schools were better and the jobs. But the liberals are just as cruel and arrogant and lie just as blatantly. I remember my eldest being a teenager at the time it was proved to me." She gives a look. "The liberals honestly truly have no idea they're lying. All I could do was LAUGH."
The harsh, beautiful girl runs the mid-level bureaucracy of the school in a building of waiting rooms. Where professors, deans, and department heads are not required, she is, to a population of students who truly believe. There are posters of “cool” nerds, and “jock” computer analysts throughout the school, even billboards out on the highway implying that those in school have made a conscious choice to be an American with a future.
While taking the school's placement exams, it took me an extra hour and a half. The harsh, beautiful girl kept standing outside the glass room of computers, looking in with an expression of concern on her face.
I run into her at the downtown library, where the homeless pretend to be studious, while Ashe's newest arrivals use the internet. She has moved here. The edges of her limbs still move wispy and breeze-like, rebellious in secular cloths, slowly avoiding bookshelves and study-tables not for their being in her way, but out of a certain Mother-Earth's politeness. I remember us becoming teenagers on a magic carpet, then lovers, then naturally speaking in verses, all in one night, as if she knew-without-knowing even language knows to respect what happens between sheets.
“Not because of you,” she says quietly as her fingers trail the book bindings of the library shelves. “Work. I didn't know you had set up here.”
“I can't remember what it was you did.”
She gives a look.
“You're good at it,” she says softly. “Running into people.”
Montana is an obvious burner – promotion-wise.
“You're too young to be this much of a mess,” I tell him as he clocks in, pulls his uniform over an undershirt, then tucks into khaki's.
“He likes you,” the night manager says later. “He said it was like talking to a dictionary.”
“Yeah, I like him a lot.”
She was born and raised here, survived the elementary and high schools and conformed well to magazines. Her eyes remind me of Kenley, as if Ashe was once a rural town I used be some sort of foster kid at. Tall and petite, she treats her curves as if self-deserved, while her eyes belay them a secret blessing only she can thanksgive.
"He has a temper," she says.
She also works across the street from the grocery at an Italian Restaurant, different because it is all from scratch, but good. Somehow everyone knows my name but I already knew them before I realized she worked here. They have a familial environment like they wish to be a home for art.
“Don't fall asleep at that bar,” she says as she wipes tables against the large French doors open to the street.
I awaken, not realizing I was watching her. She had paused a moment and looked out the doors into the lights, buildings, and concrete, a tray held up in the flat of her hand.
“You almost looked Italian, there.” I reply.
“What does that mean?” she says.
“I got my G-E-D after I got back.”
“How'd you join the military,” Montana asks as he finishes pushing a row of four carts into a line with the rest of them. The night is damp, but not cold as he studies me. Sometimes he seemed to wonder how I could possibly be standing here in front of him. I told him I used to try to figure people out, then found out too late, deep down, we were all the same. Montana pulls one cart aside, saving it to put full trash bags in as he empties the cans in front of the grocery.
“At first they didn't accept what I'd been using as documents to get by,” I finally answer. “The recruiter rejected the paperwork. I had to find a – what is it called, those people who make documents official – a notary – who would stamp it.”
"Kinda cool, though."
“I live at the vet house,” I tell Cooke as I pull the heaviest of her trays out of the standing oven. “Southwest of the big house.” Cornbread in the shape of muffins, jalapeno and cheddar already mixed in the dough, cast iron so heavy I wonder Cooke's small frame and scar-less brown-hued skin.
“That ain't the vet house,” she says with a laugh from the kitchen's island where she prepares pies of Gardner's apples. Everything I don't know makes her eyes sparkle, like she's pleasantly surprised. “Hope you don't hate women,” she says.
"'Choosin morality over women can't be the worst thing in this world.”
She laughs heartily as she washes her hands and fixes me a plate, then darts her eyes at the cash register reminding to pay my five dollars to the new kid. Back in the kitchen I compliment her food between bites, standing in the doorway of the Deli's make-shift office, while she says, “Yeah, you'll be alright at the vet house.”
In the chow hall of Rustic, a film plays to no one.
Antony Hopkins must hint toward his employer's soon-to-be-married, but father-less, godson that sex exists.
“With the arrival of spring . . . ” Antony Hopkins says to Hugh Grant. “We shall see a remarkable and profound change in all surroundings.”
Inside the girl's dormitory Magic Mike plays on the television as I await paperwork for Brock, one of them good ol' boys who inherited something either discredited or stolen from me or neither. Once when we were preppies, we lost the group when we discovered the valley of the five train tunnels, then climbed two mountains to find and reach them again. So far we rarely if ever speak to each other, both of us knowing we have that little in common. He is all natural, incapable of wrongdoing, even after he has done enough wrong things to end up here. He looks like that guy from John Tucker Must Die, only Caucasian with deeply sage eyes. It was clear he had somehow lived his life without having to compete in the race to any extent like mine, he was already a winner, like Royal, one of SFC Denton's “killers.”
"How's your recovery going ... " he deadpanned in a husky voice on my third day and his fourth, as we cleaned the common areas of the barracks.
"'Still follow the original prescription," I told him abstractly as I wiped down the lids and sides of the washers and driers. "Letting anonymity allow a sense of safety and freedom at the same time. 'Kept having to murder my audience down though, and walk through shoes I used to find --"
I notice him looking at me sheepishly. "--Is that one of the twelve steps?"
On Charlie Rose at some point, as I walk the aisles of the college library:
“... these families of artists," says some sort of director.
Must be something to be set against that black hole of written and unwritten history. On one side of the table is an imagery and symbolism only the individual viewer can see, on the other, another of Gardner's telemarketers.
"Incidentally creating … “
Though he is seventeen Montana keeps calling her his fiance. As we cashier and bag groceries I lowly lecture him on the temple of marriage – it stands by way of two, equally powerful, separate columns. Her coming by the grocery is a rarity, so quick he points her out.
“Montana, that is not a wife. That's a teenage girl.”
“She's nineteen,” he says in defense.
Under the prehistoric dawn I half-sleep on my bag against the backseat of Rustic's sixteen passenger van. We are all on our way somewhere, but I don't mind being last because everyone allows me the back to sleep.
This time, one of my favorites here, River, drives while telling an angry story over classic rock. Again, a girl from the other dormitory has been caught trying to send him an unsolicited love letter.
River is obvious, classic, a dynamic storyteller because upon being confronted by the staff he took the opportunity not only to win, but stick up for others here concerning present “drama.”
He is everything an addict is supposed to be. Hence, they keep him around staff meetings. “Yeah, if I had known I had that much going for me," he is saying. "I would've tried harder.”
Brock and I sit in the van alone as River goes in to pay for fuel.
There are people on dates in and out of the station, on their way to parties or clubs. The guys wear purposely-name-brand attire. “Like they're wearing redneck 'costumes,'” I mutter.
Thirty seconds later Brock busts out laughing. “It is like they're wearing redneck costumes.”
“It's music he jammed while coming off of Lithium,” River is saying as he drives through the night and I sit shotgun.
“How're you here?” he asks me. The route has taken us into an area where there have been no cars coming either way but ours. River flicks the overheads regularly, as if to remember if they are on or off.
“...I turned out to be someone else.”
We listen to the music a long time, a certain part of where the electric guitars sound organic, rough, bluesy.
“Maybe who you were intended to be is better than the one you wanted to be,” he says, accelerating onto the interstate.
“Your brainwashing is developing nicely.”
Inside Rustic's foyer, comfortable couches surround a large television, its low light directed away from the corner reception. Half-standing, Nerube motions from the counter and desk, then hands over the yellow phone.
It is Irby, from Second Platoon.
I look at the floor.
“College and work, work and college.”
“Oh, yeah. When'd you get out?”
“Been out one year, November.”
“Isn't it something to be out of the military?”
“Snowing under a clear sky ... ”
“That's the snow coming off the mountain peaks,” she says from a sip of her coffee cup, as we step out into Ashe's downtown.
I secretly regret her catching me noticing her looks, the way she fingers her cup, adjusts her hair, the glances away and toward me, as if she secretly regrets my catching her. She's done a better job of becoming local than I have, an idea she has always found ridiculous.
“It'll be like this as long as there's wind.”
“I overheard Jacob telling Brock of some fledgling website you've been keeping up,” Nerube whispers in the smokers' gazebo over-looking the smoky valley, while giving his best, tell-me-everything smile.
The work had to be moved from the first online support group because it ran out of money to operate, but the original readership still found me at this one and confirmed so. The readership remains anonymous for the most part and consists of both genders and some adolescents. Due to their life-threatening domestic situations they had to write ... well ... but there's also something else.
“Nerube,” I tell him. “It's a secret.”
Ashe is a small town; somehow, I see everyone I've already met at the grocery store, regular, though in a professional manner. Rehab remains a huge secret. I navigate by making the van drop me off at the corner.
The mountain downtown fills with Christmas lights, carefully put up by Rustic every year, due to an agreement between Rustic and Ashe. The art-deco buildings with their ground-floor-store-fronts genuinely reflect the age their architecture implies, while looking impossibly-young against the blue mountains softly wafting harsh histories dating back before God first moved them.
As I step outside the grocery store and walk the side walks, we pretend not to know each other, all kind nods and hellos.
(early morning, during a raid)
“No, it must've been a lucid dream,” I find myself saying to Brock. He stands in the open bedroom doorway, curious at me sitting up in bed.
"None of those people exist," he says with his breathy smile and that way he has of being all-knowing, genuine and pleasant. He makes you want to trade an intellect for whatever he has. Out in the hall, harsh arguments compete back and forth with the blunt movement of furniture.
"At best this house is haunted and at worst people are going to call you Skits."
Though the night-manager and Larke and I have become close friends over regular midnight cigarettes, Larke wants to move to Chicago. “To learn comedy,” he says.
“Is that a thing ...”
Everything about him is statement, from his brown professor's spectacles to his orange not-quite-moccasins. His reputation concerns his literary prowess and the fact that he will ask any girl out, anywhere, anytime. He changes his mind about pulling on his old fashioned tobacco pipe – a birthday gift from one of his several shockingly-wealthy, former schoolmates. In the store he will find them embarrassing because none of them have ever been in the work force and find our colorful language and conversation intolerable, mainly because none of it is store-bought or gleaned from magazines, current-literature, television shows, or movies. I once made the mistake of saying Ashe's best Italian restaurants are to be found in Ashe's mostly-Italian neighborhood. “You can live like this,” he says. “Because you know who you are.”
“It helps people,” I tell Nerube. He tries to wait for River's last run each night, so he can bum a cigarette from me.
“Nerube ... I have no idea.”
I failed an important course in school, Human Anatomy and Physiology, BIO168. I have another prerequisite mini-mester starting in a few weeks: Sociology. My work friends seem proud of me; they ask about school or how I did on such and such test. I lie and say, “Fine.” My friends at Rustic roll their eyes and laugh when I say I am struggling as if it were not possible. “So you're getting a ninety-eight instead of a hundred?”
Over the holidays I was surprised to be there, them surprised to see me. They call me “Seldom Seen.”
"Must've been something," Nerube is saying as we continue exchanging notes and joking in the smoker's gazebo. "To have an older sister tell you the only way the truth will get out is if you wrote a Jane Austen." He pulls from his cigarette, then continues: "Must've been awful. To have a little sister tell you she can get that mob to succeed anytime."
"Nerube, how you know that stuff ..." I ask him. "Grace was a kid and Rose was just a teenager."
"Irby told me," he whispers.
A reporter uses the grocery aisles to peek around at me working, but then I accidentally step up behind him, him still peeking around a corner. “He's really smart though … “ Jason Bateman is saying. “I respect what he put out,” Matt Damon is saying back. “But not the rest of him.” I keep trying to tell Ray how kismet it seemed that all the times I had been on a plane it had been this plane, flown by him, always going to the Florida homestead. Despite the environment I cannot say this to Ray as he pilots beside me because I know it is not true.
I stay at the Florida homestead for weeks, awakening each morning to feed and water the animals and plants, warm the stove, start the coffee, then pick ripe fruits and flowers before stepping into their indoor greenhouse, making sure they've awoken and have made it to their thrones on a stage in the greenhouse at the end of a long, red carpet littered with fallen flower pedals and leaves. While Grandma samples a tray of nearby homemade perfumes Grandpa keeps trying to tell me something.
Each night I work as a milkman at the grocery except it is the huge building and parking lot of the general store of my adolescence. Inside are all the female relatives, each wearing carefully chosen outfits under their aprons and not-quite-blonde versions of brunette hairstyles. To my relief they pretend not to know me, turning up their expressions and spinning away like actresses doing ballet. A celebration begins in the parking lot full of amusement park events: whole buildings made of air-filled plastic, employees, and large groups of children attended by chaperons. Tonight as Ray flies me to work in the dust-cropper, he is suddenly gone, the full moon my only source of light while the plane glides toward the ground in smaller and smaller circles.
Though the dash of the plane is of a worn seventies Mustang, I glide one circle after another, frightened to land with no power. The plane hits the parking lot like a car swinging into a parking space. Angry and haughty for the interruption, both sisters and Aunt Karen are waiting as I exit the plane flushed with good luck and sudden accomplishment. I keep trying to explain how I managed all the way to the ground without taking anyone out, nor poking any buildings with wings.
I wake soaked in sweat despite the cool air of an open window, shower, and catch the van to the downtown grocery.
Late that night, behind the store, Montana finds me sneaking a cigarette. Hot with anger, he tries to explain to me how his yearly evaluation keeps being delayed now that it has come out that most other employees have been started out at a much higher wage than what he makes now, despite his being promoted, work-wise, long past them.
“It's my fault,” I tell him, us standing against the wall side-by-side. “I encouraged performance without telling you to protect yourself.”
“You didn't go to HIGH-school,” he says, with resignation. “It's been like this all along – principals, teachers, coaches giving preference to some, shitting on others, one story coming out after another. It will never change.”
"It was none of my business."
"I'm a millennial, one of the LOST GENERation?" he yells through a fit of street-light and shadows to my left as he punches the grocery's outside, concrete wall in flurry. "I know I'm only a commodity," he says, turning back toward me, his bony countenance hidden by golden-lit cigarette smoke. "I can't have nice clothes or people look at you like you're corrupt. You can't have a nice car, or it's the same. No house with no white picket fence. What the F_CK, Chuck?"
Near end of shift I smoke a cigarette with the night manager while walking her to her old Camry “... Remember when he was watching your laptop at the coffeehouse," she's saying. "When I accidentally paged you to the front during your break?”
“Hey … " I tell her. "If a comedian has to be able to stay straight in order to do comedy, and an actor has to be able to lie, then a writer would already be able to – ”
“--I saw him steal something off of it -- he had a flash-drive.”
She turns and faces me as if she has no time for jokes. She always looks at me as if I were some tragic lover-boy so brave to choose only true love, too cowardly to take the lead.
“My existence alone destroys his civilization,” I reply quick. "I have bigger problems –Brit—I'm telling you– it is already impossible for the writings to be – plagiarized.”
“How is it whenever you say 'bosslady,' Montana thinks you're talking about me?”
“I thought Capitalism was crazy because it required human character--”
“--hopefully we're the exception, Dakota.”
“Yeah, right,” he says. “You've got something to do with this bookstore.”
We pull up in his new car, an Eighties boxy sedan, him smiling, me hiding in his “too-big-for-me” hoodie. He exhales, watching yuppie pedestrians walk the sidewalk under dusk. He looks like he was born in God's Country, while having features that help him pass for a wiry surfer dude with short, blonde hair. He tends to wear form-fitting skater-clothes. He always treats me incredulously, ever since he started at the grocery.
“I go in, see if the book is there. If not, ask the blonde if it has been sold, she'll ask if I'm the author, I say no I work for the publisher, she gives me the envelope, then we go to kinko's, or whatever that place is called.”
“Quick, because I gotta meet Montana.”
“Yeah, I've gotta get to church,” he says. “Wait – I thought I was Montana.”
“First of all,” Isaac says, smooth and easy-loud with an almost-deepness that might sound like certainty. “Why you like that; why not walk into a room with a little aggression.”
“Aggression,” I say.
He always seems to be playing the best music, most of which I've never heard. “It's because it's the music you've been listening to your whole life,” he is saying.
“Thing is,” Isaac says later, as we are sitting around his dining table over dice being rolled. His wife and five children are already asleep in rooms down a dark hallway.
I met Isaac by accident, not realizing that Daniel already knew his neighbors. “Never seen a redneck Latino before,” I said to Daniel. “He's Native American,” Daniel replied.
“You're liable to pull in a hot babe, maybe a knockout,” Isaac continues.
I blush. Ashley, Daniel's half-Native friend laughs. She looks like every young girl who ever served me food in Oklahoma. We are all of similar ages. Ashley has had major surgeries concerning Scoliosis since she was four but one could never tell. Isaac finds Daniel to be one of his best friends.
“As I understand it this is a tribe and you're the tribal leader … “ I say.
“Okay!” Isaac exclaims with a laugh. “First, let's drink on that.”
“It's comments like that--” he continues, but then Ashley and Daniel laugh, so he laughs too, heavy and laid back.
I rise as Isaac rises to get another beer. I hand one to Isaac in his dark kitchen lit by the refrigerator.
“Have I ever offended you,” Isaac says quietly.
“No,” I reply. “I doubt it.”
“You keep secrets.”
Outside, Ashley smokes alone. “Pain,” she tells me. “It got old. Made the future seem impossible and kept me – angry.” She pulls on her cigarette, looking out across the night sky from Isaac's front porch, her silhouette tall, defiant. “So when I was fifteen I flushed my useless meds and began a – drug phase.”
Inside, they are talking about “The Green Mile,” a film I still have not gotten all the way through. “The gay guy … “ I ask.
“The French actor,” Ashley says.
“No, the one who kills the mouse.”
“Oh, he's not gay,” she replies with an inquisitive laugh.
“I'm turning into a Wilton,” I say, leaning Charlie Brown.
Later, Isaac and I are smoking cigarettes outside alone.
“You always manage to be in the shadows,” Isaac says toward me. “What you a coywolf --”