Back at it
Six years. SIX! YEARS! That’s how long it’s been since I graduated from the University of Edinburgh with my master’s in creative writing and left Scotland to come home to Virginia. Time is a tricky thing. I’m incredulous that it’s been so long. It feels like almost no time at all has passed. Yet, enough has happened to prove plenty has.
I got divorced. That was less than fun, and a contributor to about two years disappearing in a blur. I’m in a “new” relationship that, lo and behold, is now two years old. My dog, a middle-aged sprite when I came home, is now in her sunset. It’s hard to deny the photographic evidence of friend’s kids growing up in front of my eyes. And all that is nothing to say of our shared experiences: a global pandemic rapidly coming up on its one-year mark, civil unrest in the U.S. over this country’s inability to support racial justice and equity (more on that in a moment), and the 24/7 anxiety storm of the attention-craving, oxygen-consuming Trump presidency.
It’s actually been quite an eventful six years, and perhaps that’s exactly why I’ve perceived it to go so fast. That, and work. Work is the great high-powered blender of time. Work in America claims the bulk of your productive hours and energy, and, in exchange, if you’re fortunate as I’ve been, it offers a level of personal security that is definitely nothing to sneeze at. If your work is well aligned with your purpose and passion, it can offer much more. And that’s why I’m making a change, because it’s been six years since my work (and time and energy) has been aligned with my purpose and passion.
After five-plus years in a full-time job that has compensated me well, provided me a wonderful work environment and allowed me to meet wonderful and extraordinary people, I’ve stepped back to work in the role at roughly half time. The other half? Creative writing (fiction, creative nonfiction and freelance work that tickles my fancy) and the tasks needed to grow my professional profile as an author. It’s what I love to do (the writing part, anyway).
Woe is us, dear writers. We could have chosen an easier path, but did we choose?
So, because I’m me, the first thing I did with my newfound — let’s not call it “free,” but rather unpaid professional — time was start writing a new novel manuscript. It’s my fifth bite at the apple. The last two bites were better, and to torture this analogy a little longer, I think my age, life experience and growing depth as a human being is taking my writing to a place where an agent or publisher might want a bite at the apple, too.
So what’s the new manuscript about?
It’s about the things I’ve always been interested in — systems, norms, power structures and ways of life in America that are unjust and the people who suffer at their feet yet keep fighting for better. That, with all the societal context that’s been broiling the last six years and coming to a head in 2020.
Let me stop being vague. It’s about Charlottesville. Monticello. A little place called Hogwaller. It’s about the legacies of racism, the throughline of history that shapes people, place and relationships. It’s about the guilt and shame we live with and the complexity of how blended groups of Black people and white people think — about themselves, each other and their realities. It’s about vultures and feral cats. It’s about reality — what I see happening on the streets around me — and magic. Because I can’t resist a little magic.
Here’s an early excerpt (totally unedited because I am just churning out pages right now):
It was Saturday, September 21, 1968. I was 17 years old, a senior at Lane High School and I woke up knowing this would be the best day of my life.
I was mistaken.
It was the first time I had ever been invited to a social event outside of Hogwaller, and to a classmate’s party in Woolen Mills no less. A girl from Hogwaller getting an invitation from a boy who might have been a suitor who lived in one of the big, old Victorian houses was like … Well, I don’t know if there is a comparison, really. Like Jackie Robinson getting the call to join the Big Leagues, I reckon.
You might think that’s an odd comparison to choose, what with me being an old white lady of my generation. Oh, I know how you young folks like to pigeon hole us. My grandbabies tell me. Put us in a box. Or a meme. Whatever you do on the internet with your OK, Boomer smart aleck nonsense. I hope you believe me, I never had a problem with the integration at Lane High School. Neither did my parents, and neither did most of the white folks in Hogwaller. That’s because black and white folks all lived together in Hogwaller already, and we were the only place you could say that in the city of Charlottesville, especially after the blacks got run out of Vinegar Hill earlier in the ’60s and didn’t have their businesses to mingle with the downtown working white folks anymore.
We all got on alright together in Hogwaller, at least as well as colored folks and whites could in those days. Well, we called em colored back then. I know that’s not kosher anymore, but, Jesus, let’s leave the Israelites out of this. The point is, we was all poor, so nobody had anything to look down on the other for. As kids, we all had the same thing to play with – a thing called nothing – so we played with each other in the pastures and in the woods and swam in Moore’s Creek together. Put us under the sun all summer or cover us in mud from the bog out behind the stockyard where we used to torment the wallowing pigs, and the kids all looked pretty much the same anyways. Don’t get me wrong, there’d be scraps between white boys and colored boys in the neighborhood, and like as not the white boy would be one of my cousins and he’d call out n***** this and n***** that, but that’d just be because he was ignorant and not because he hated the boy whose lip he had just busted open.
It was the uppity white folks who come down to the county from up north to renovate the old plantations to be their fancy country estates who had a problem with the blacks. Just plain mean and ornery when they didn’t get their way, those ones. They just up and started a bunch of new private schools to keep the blacks from their kids when the public ones integrated. The middle class whites working in Charlottesville who couldn’t afford the new private schools felt like they had the most to lose. They were outright ugly to the blacks that whole cursed decade, and for some reason they made Lane High School the bullseye for their bull shit.
Forgive me, Lord. I need to wash my mouth with soap.
As I was saying, a girl from Hogwaller getting an invitation to a social event in Woolen Mills was no small thing. It was an even bigger occasion that John Tyler had invited me over to watch the University of Virginia Cavaliers football team take on the No. 1 ranked Purdue University Boilermakers on their brand new TV set. John’s dad was a big time player for UVA before World War II and his game day parties were legendary on the east side of Charlottesville. UVA had had a right decent season in 1967 and had Frank Quayle coming back at running back, one of the best to ever wear the Orange and Blue. Folks thought maybe the Wahoos could catch the Boilermakers napping before their big game against Notre Dame the next week. Here’s a spoiler alert before you check the history books: It wasn’t close. But even so, most folks were just looking forward to the college football season to get their mind off everything else in 1968.
In a proper little southern town in 1968, using drugs to ease the pain was not yet in the playbook like for folks in the big cities. College football was the next best salve. Everybody in town was looking forward to the Wahoos taking the field. Three hours of bliss on Saturday to forget about civil rights and integration and Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Oh, that Bobby Kennedy was so handsome. I always thought handsomer than his brother because he was real. Not the prince rode down from Camelot like John. My folks weren’t in love with Bobby Kennedy like I was, and neither was Charlottesville or Virginia. Ike with his kindly grandpa smile and military grit broke the blue wall in the 50s and the Kennedys were just too slick for southerners to abide. With those clam chowda accents, they never had a chance in Vuhginyuh. The point being, the political winds had already shifted in Virginia by 1968, but my little teen heart did love Bobby Kennedy true.
But if there was one thing that could heal my broken heart, it was the chance to be courted by John Tyler. To this day, I think the boy truly did take a liking to me. Whether he had a kind heart that pitied me or a fool heart that loved me, I don’t know. I’d never have the chance to find out. On that day, Saturday, September 21, 1968, I didn’t care. It just mattered that he invited me. It felt like he was holding a heavy door I was too weak to open and I could see a whole new world through it. My heart was flitting around like a hummingbird at the feeder and my head full of goose feathers that morning just thinking of marrying John Tyler. No, I wasn’t against the feminist movement that was coming into its own in those days. It’s just that a poor girl from Hogwaller didn’t have the luxury of prioritizing her fancy over her financial security. My family couldn’t afford a refrigerator, much less to send me to college, even a state school. And I didn’t have the grades for a scholarship. I wasn’t going to be nobody’s country bumpkin turned Madison Avenue ad copy girl success story. The route to security for me looked much safer the old fashioned way – through a man. And best do it while I was still young, my bosom still had all its perk and my legs were skinny. In the deep, dark soul of men, nothing fuzzies up their brains like a skinny pair of legs of the kind that usually belong to a little girl. And fuzzying is what I needed to do before any decent man recalled my parents didn’t have two nickels to rub together. If I waited too long, I wouldn’t be the first in my family to land right back in the Hogwaller toilet with a Shifler cousin, or worse yet a Shifflerr cousin, or worst of all a nice, handsome black boy from Hogwaller, which wasn’t really worst except I wouldn’t ever be able to talk to my daddy again. Ideally, I’d find a man with prospects. Not many in my little universe had better prospects than a Woolen Mills boy like John Tyler.
What I didn’t count on, though I should have, was what the other Lane High girls at the party from Woolen Mills were going to do to me. It wasn’t just the poor girls like me who were looking for a husband by the time they turned 18 in those days. Plenty of girls who could’ve done better if they had one lick of gumption just wanted to hitch their wagon to a man and carry around his babies barefoot in the kitchen as soon as they could. Little southern towns was full of girls with no imagination in 1968.
But for all they lacked in imagination, these little southern town girls of 1968 knew how to protect their turf. Wolves in miniskirts. Woolen Mills boys were for Woolen Mills girls. Or maybe Rugby girls or Fry’s Spring girls or Ivy girls, if they couldn’t help it. But certainly not Hogwaller girls.
Those girls did attack me like a pack of wolves, too. Like you wouldn’t believe.
The high point of my day came blushing at John when he invited me into his home. I flipped my long, dark hair – I kept it long then, but don’t have time for all that now so I keep it short and off my shoulders – as I walked past him into the living room, where I started to curtsy to every man in sight. I felt the radiance of John’s shy smile heat up the bare skin on my neck as I settled into the room, but no sooner did I sit down as prim and proper as I could in my white sundress that was years out of fashion than those girls swooped in. “Well, if it isn’t Smelly Shelly. Smells like you brought the sewage plant with you from Hogwaller. I bet she washes that filthy dress in sewage water.”
Never mind that the smell was actually from the Moore’s Creek wastewater treatment plant, and that Woolen Mills – especially homes like the Tyler’s on the Rivanna River – bore the brunt of the smell as bad as Hogwaller did. In their minds, the sewage plant was the perfect symbol for Hogwaller, a place to dump all the city’s stinking shit. In truth, that’s exactly what it was, which is why I had no zippy comeback for them girls even though I was twice as smart and twice as pretty. The fact is, that sewage plant disgraced the entire neighborhood when it got dropped on Hogwaller in the 1950s. Everyone knew the government only put the unsavory things needed to run society in the places where the people didn’t matter and had no power. The whites in Hogwaller had no idea they were regarded that low until that sewage plant got built in their backyard. As I recall, the blacks weren’t that surprised.
I have to admit, I did have a little problem with my temper back then. Maybe I still do, but I’ve learned patience and back then I had none. I started to jaw, them just baiting me along. Jesus, forgive me, it’s hard not to hold tight to your pride when that and a frayed sundress is all you got. See, Hogwaller girls used to grow up playing rough and tumble with Hogwaller boys, just like whites played with blacks. You could say there’s only one curriculum for growing up when you’re poorer than dirt. But playing with the boys teaches you to have an angry streak like the boys. Loud, in your face, don’t back down from nobody.
Before I know it, Mr. Tyler is shouting us down to stop all that noise while the game is on. We can either watch or get out. The Woolen Mills girls all point at me and say together, like they had rehearsed it, “Shelly started it, Mr. Tyler. She’s from Hogwaller.”
That’s all they had to say. They didn’t need to say what I said. What I did. There didn’t need to be no trial. No evidence. Being from Hogwaller was evidence enough for Mr. Tyler. He turned to John and said, “God dammit, boy, what are you doing dragging filth from Hogwaller over to my house? Your mother cleaned all night and day, and now she’s going to have to do it again. Girl, get on back to the other side of those train tracks and don’t let me see you over here again.”
I shattered to pieces looking at John’s red, shamed face.
Mr. Tyler turned back to the TV mumbling something about God dammit and biggest game of the year and what was he thinking. It felt like I was frozen for an eternity, John’s wet, sorry eyes on mine, the Woolen Mills girls’ eyes burning holes in my hot face while they smiled their wicked smiles waiting to see what would happen next.
I nearly jumped out of my flats when Mr. Tyler shouted, “God dammit, girl, I said GIT!” and pounded his table so hard the TV shorted out. It wasn’t even the end of the first quarter. I got up and ran out of the room crying. That was the worst part, I let those girls see me cry. Hogwaller girls might not have had much, but at Lane High, we at least had our reputation for being tough.
Mrs. Tyler caught me by the arm as I bust through the screen door to the front porch, and I had enough manners to slow up and listen. I tried to hide my face, but she lifted my chin and wiped my tears. Her hands were so soft. The softest touch I think I ever felt. The little I remember of her, she was a kind woman. After allowing me a moment to compose myself, she said to me, “I knew you were sweet on John; it’s written all over you. It was very brave of you to come here today. Don’t you ever lose that bravery. But Shelly, bravery has its place, and so do people. We’re all better off if we remember to stay in our place.”
I tell you all this because that day – Saturday, September 21, 1968 – wasn’t the best day of my life, but it did teach me the most valuable lesson of my life. A lesson I repeat to myself every morning when I wake up with Stan, the loving fool whom I have called my husband for 50 years after calling him cousin for 18, at my side in bed. That lesson is this:
If a person has to stay in their place, then you best make your place something you want it to be.