Witches on the Road Tonight
By Sheri Holman
Atlantic Monthly Press
Copyright © 2011 Sheri Holman
All right reserved.
Chapter One Panther Gap October 1940
They are playing a game called Firsts that Tucker had made up to pass the time in the car that first week when he and Sonia barely knew each other, in the days before their first time, which should have imparted intimate knowledge, but had, in some indefinable way, made them feel even more like strangers than they were before.
"First word?" Tucker asks.
"My mother tells me it was 'baby,'" Sonia says. "Yours?"
"Tipi. She was our nurse. Been with the family since Mother was a girl."
"First book?" Sonia asks.
"That I remember? Our family Bible. It was big and red and I never saw it open. Yours?"
"Same. Only ours was big and black and open all the time."
It is hot for October and they ride with the windows of the '35 Ford rolled down, blinking against the dust from the ungraded road. The wind whips Sonia's platinum hair across her eyes; she pushes it back to read their Esso map. The paper has given out at the creases from their folding and unfolding of it, and the route is covered in Tucker's notes about churches and courthouses, the populations of cemeteries, the number of oysters shucked in an hour by a single Negro man in Hampton Roads. They are somewhere along the spine of the Blue Ridge, coming into the Alleghenies, as best she can tell.
"First house?" Tucker asks.
"Was not a house," she responds. "It was a fifth floor walk-up on Rivington Street." She doesn't ask him about his first house but he volunteers it anyway.
"Mine was Folly Farm, fifteen miles north of Richmond. Like Tipi, it came with Mother. Of course Father lost it along with everything else. First assignment?" he asks.
"'Gloves Make the Girl.' Ladies' Home Journal, October 1920."
"A piece on shell shock for my college paper. My father was diagnosed in '23, but Mother says he thought he could talk to animals long before he ever set foot in the Marne."
He takes the switchbacks of the mountain fast, choosing dirt roads over anything paved. She is supposed to be logging their mileage but it has been hours since Sonia has seen a marker. She wrestles the map as it flaps in the wind.
"I've lost us," she says.
"Put it away. We should drive as we would divine for water."
"They'll be angry if we get it wrong."
"Oh, how the tourists shall whine," Tucker says. "We're doing them a favor."
Their assignment was to chart a driving tour of this region for the Virginia Writers' Project. Tucker was to describe landmarks and local history; Sonia was to photograph it all. Hundreds more, just like them, were mapping the other forty-seven states, one more public works project like the Civilian Conservation Corps whittling picnic areas on the Skyline Drive. Until now, no one had thought to sell America to Americans. Everyone's sick of the dust bowl and raggedy babies, their field officer in Charlottesville told them. It's time for this country to love itself again.
"Peel me an egg, would you, Mrs. Hayes?" Tucker says. Sonia takes a hard-boiled egg from their paper lunch bag and rolls it between her palms, flicking chips of shell out of the window. Her fingernails are permanently stained black from the chemicals she uses to get the cool, strong contrast she wants in her work. She holds out the egg for Tucker to bite.
"I've been proposing all my life," he says, grabbing her hand and kissing each black nail. "There was Cousin Flora of the skinned knees and slipped hair ribbons. Cruel Bette, who broke my heart with her Matryoshka-doll figure and diminishing affections to match. But at last I've found the ideal wife, who forsakes the common obsession with matrimony for the more sacred institution of honeymoon."
He bites the egg in half. "And she cooks, too!"
Sonia smiles and eats what's left over.
The car has drifted and Tucker corrects the wheel, hugging the narrow shoulder nearest the rock. On Sonia's side, the mountain drops away beneath a wide case-hardened sky. Lifting the Rolleiflex she wears on a strap around her neck, she points it out of her open window. She is notorious at Wealth magazine, where she works, for wasting film. Some of her colleagues say she doesn't trust herself and so takes ten shots for every one she keeps; some say she's voracious in the moment and her pictures are the photographic equivalent of owl pellets, just the bones and feathers of an experience. She doesn't care what they think—she's shot more covers than any of the men. Tucker fixes his attention on the hazy ridgeline.
"First love?" he asks.
They have been sleeping as man and wife since the third week of their assignment. It took him longer than most of the writers she's traveled with. With the others, after a few days, two rooms were awfully expensive, weren't they? We could sure save a buck if we were modern enough to share. They'd buy the tin rings at Woolworth's and sign the register Mr. and Mrs., then over cigarettes and whatever bottle they could get cheap, they'd stay up late talking until at last his head would end up in her lap. God, you are so gorgeous. Why hasn't some man made an honest woman out of you? What a beautiful mother you'd make. His finger would trace her calf and she would close her eyes at his idea of a compliment, remembering the sunken-eyed schoolboy in Berlin staring down at the kitten he'd finished off with a brick, or the little girl from Rivington Street, her first printing failure, who had emerged from the stop bath so poorly contrasted she was barely distinguishable from the tenement rubble behind her.
With Tucker it had not been words or whiskey offered up as seduction but, instead, a movie, projected on the cinderblock wall of a roadside motel in Harpers Ferry. For their six-week trip he had packed, along with his notebooks and clothes, a hand-cranked Pathé iron projector that had belonged to his father, and every night he showed her films, odd bits and pieces he'd collected, old Edison shorts, newsreels of famine, and scenes of the war in Europe. She sat in the crook of his arm as he cranked the handle, the bulb flickering to life and the dim blue picture jittery against the wall. He chose a newsreel piece on the work of Käthe Kollwitz, whose etchings of mothers cradling their starving children Hitler had labeled as degenerate. I love these old films, he said. We have a hand in the speed of creation. Then, without breaking cadence, he leaned down and placed his mouth on hers. With his free hand he untucked her shirt and eased his palm along her ribs to the curve of her breast. His mouth moved down her throat, over her pillowed stomach then farther, never breaking rhythm, and she continued to watch—the children reaching up, wordlessly crying out for bread, mothers hunkered over dying sons—until the film spun through and battered against the reel. Could you ever love a wretched sinner like me? he whispered, covering her with himself. But none of these men knew the first thing about sinning, Sonia thought, they only desperately wished to, as they wished to know all the dark rooms of the world.
"First love?" she repeats, her camera trained out the window. "Why you, of course."
She knows Tucker is Southern before he opens his mouth, by the way he spends the evening saying good-bye without ever leaving. He is already at the door when she arrives at Bennett's party, pressed in on all sides by the actors and antique dealers and men Bennett meets in bus lines. Tucker stands with his jacket over his arm, his eyes cast down, nodding as the woman next to him shouts close to his ear. Normally, Sonia isn't attracted to blond men, there is something pink and infantile about them, and their light eyes are always watering, but Tucker is blond like sandstone, softly eroded and a little abrasive. He wears a beige linen suit in a room full of black and brown jackets, and he slouches with his hands thrust deep in his pockets. The woman finishes talking and he speaks a few words in reply and kisses her on the cheek, moving even closer to the door, where another woman grabs him by the arm and draws her own concentrated nods. Bennett catches her watching them. There's a lucky bastard, he shouts over Artie Shaw on the record player. His play fl opped on Broadway so he signed on with the WPA back home. Now he's gotten drafted. He'll be swimming in peach till the day he leaves. Tucker takes his hands from his pockets and holds them palm up for the second woman as if to say, See, there is nothing left. No man is so appealing, Sonia thinks, as one who apologizes for himself in advance. Then, Speech, speech, someone shouts and he lets himself be pulled back into the room and passed a fresh drink, and he is convinced to drawl a little drunkenly, God bless this country where a man might so easily be transferred from one teat of Lady Liberty to another. Much later, when Sonia goes to retrieve her scarf and purse, she finds him drinking alone on their host's bed, staring out the window onto Washington Square Park below. The cars race up Fifth Avenue and turn sharply when they reach the white triumphal arch. In the glass above him she catches a glimpse of her own tired face, she has talked and drunk away all but a red smudge of her lipstick. She takes a seat on the bed beside him and they sit in comfortable silence for such a long time that Sonia thinks she just might be asleep. But then he catches her off guard. What scares you? he asks, and she answers without thought, The Nazis have taken Paris, London is flattened. I'm scared everything exciting is happening somewhere else. She pauses and asks what is expected—What scares you?—knowing before he even suggests it that she will be leaving with him. Dying, he says. And women like you.
"Mrs. Hayes," Tucker commands.
"I spy with my little eye—Sider and Apples Sold by the Pound, Bushel, or Truckload."
They are cresting a hill and Sonia doesn't have time to read the misspelled, hand-painted sign before they have reached a clearing and a slapped-together wooden stand. The structure's sloping roof is shingled with apple slices drying in the sun and behind it sits an elderly man working a mechanical peeler like a pencil sharpener. He shakes his denim jacket free of skins when Tucker excuses the car to a stop.
"Look at that ancient specimen," Tucker says to her as the man ducks beneath the shed's awning and rises to his full height. "We could saw him in half and count his rings."
Tucker and Sonia sit in the front seat letting the old man appraise them through the windshield. He has a fifth-button white beard that Sonia guesses he's been growing longer than she's been alive. He has halved his Model T and fitted it with a flatbed. On it, wooden crates of more apples are stacked three high.
"We need one of him," Tucker says.
Tucker swings open the car door as Sonia adjusts the aperture of her camera. There's good light and a panoramic view of the valley, and she thinks, yes, Tucker is right, this is what they want to see of this place, a roadside Sider Man with his apples and his time. She watches Tucker approach him, loose-limbed and casual, holding out his hand as if for a wary dog to sniff. The Sider Man shakes it stiffly.
"Mighty fine fruit you have here," Tucker says, picking up a dull green apple from a basket at his feet.
"Mountain pippins what's ripe now," says the old man. "A few Fousts."
"Some venerable orchards up this way, I'd imagine."
"Yup," says the old man, eying Sonia, who has found her settings and stepped out of the car to join them. He traces her figure through her linen shirt and plum-colored trousers. Then his eyes go to the dark roots of her platinum hair and linger disapprovingly.
"Where I grew up," Tucker is saying, "we had an Apple Blossom Festival. Y'all have anything like that up here?"
"In the spring."
"I love those festivals," Tucker says. "Pride of place."
The Sider Man nods. His face is deeply lined from sun and tobacco. He rocks back on his cracked naked heels and waits for Tucker to get to the point. Sonia wants to get the truck in the shot, too, and circles around him, looking for her angle.
"Y'all just passing through?" the Sider Man asks at last.
"Me and the missus are out and about on behalf of Mr. Roosevelt," Tucker says. "Works Progress Administration. They're writing up travel guides to the forty-eight states to give artist types like us something to do. We're on good terms with the battles and business of this commonwealth, but they want us to send back some flavor. You know, stories, legends, anything that makes this mountain special."
The Sider Man stares at him blankly.
"I don't suppose you know any legends?"
"Can't say I do," the Sider Man answers.
"What about local features?" Tucker asks kindly. "Caves or springs? Twice a year when I was a boy, we'd drive these mountains so my father could sit in the hot springs. Met veterans who fought at Bull Run."
Sonia can see him casting around for that thing they share. Tucker is always able to find something, she's seen him get lumbermen and merchant marines, cigarette rollers and seamstresses to talk for hours. But the Sider Man stands mute.
"Now's your chance," Tucker says bluffly. "You're going in a guide book. People will drive from all over to find you, and you'll be selling apples faster than you can pick 'em. My wife here will even take your picture."
Sonia smiles politely. "It would be an honor," she says.
The Sider Man turns back to his stand. "WPA took my photograph years ago. Some Jew from New York City. You vampires gonna come back for a man's soul, you might buy something first."
They are back in the car with a bushel of pippins and a jug of applejack between them. The Sider Man fits another apple to his peeler, unwinds his long russet ribbon. Sonia turns in the front seat to steal a shot as they pull away.
"Don't," says Tucker gruffly. "You can't take a picture of rejection without deserving it."
The stand is gone, they are headed down the other side of the mountain through a granite pass. Laurel bushes cling to the cliff while rain-swelled springs flow in channels beside the road like running boards on a car. In a month, this way will be impassable, she thinks. Tucker is taking the turns too fast; three empty Coke bottles roll lazily across the floorboards and clink together, back and forth down the hill.
Using one hand to drive, he uncorks the applejack with his teeth and takes a deep draw.
"First lie?" he asks.
"I don't lie," she answers.
"I asked for your first, not an example," he says.
Sonia turns away in annoyance. She has been told no so often she doesn't hear the word anymore. Someone has always arrived before her wherever she's been and she has learned simply to shoot from a different angle.
"He's right, you know," Tucker says. "Who are we to turn a person's life into a stop along the way?"
His hands are trembling lightly on the steering wheel, his face rudderless and resigned, just as it was the night of Bennett's party, as he watched the cars along Fifth Avenue. As if the trip out here is more than the trip inside, and the forward motion alone might prove him courageous. She knows because her body becomes the journey as much as anything else, the unfolded map upon which all of these men lose and refind themselves. They speak of marriage and wanting to give her a child to show that this is real and she plays along, going so far as to give their imaginary child a name, calling him Pa when he calls her Ma, feeding each other waffles in the brown and olive crypts of one-star hotel dining rooms. Then, later, with quiescent Juliette or Angela or Veronica (they always want a girl, these men) sanctifying the union, he is free to fold her legs up to her ears and weep away his guilt on her breasts, telling her how beautiful they will look swollen with milk. It's the same thing, she thinks. Before. After they just have to somehow make it okay. All these men with their hats in their hands and their pained, expectant faces.
"Stop the car," she says with enough force that he obeys her. He stops on a blind curve, parking the Ford as close to the cliff as he dares. Below them on the other side, a gorge of grapevine and waxy rhododendron spills down to white water. Sonia picks up her Rolleiflex and steps out, slipping down the embankment.
Excerpted from Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman Copyright © 2011 by Sheri Holman. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.