This writing project came about with my desire to write a contemporary romance novel for my wife Heather. I came up with this tale of two baggage laden people wishing to come to terms with their past and problems while staying at an old rented farmhouse. Inspired by a very real place I was able to weave real events and fiction, music and imaginings, and even a little family history into the mix. Along the way here I’ll try to include notes and inspiration of the writing process. These will be posted separately after each chapter, if we get that far. So let’s begin shall we? Here is the first chapter of “Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything”….
The heart of everything lies at the end of a dirt road not far from Bedford, Virginia. Perhaps it’s best for the moment I not give its exact location for in doing so I’m afraid it will attract others and my special place will become nothing more than a haven for curiosity seekers. I know others will want to know what makes it so special, how it can thrust two people of different ages and backgrounds, seeking two very different things, into a headlong time of discovery and awakening. But it’s more than just a farmhouse at the end of a road which sheltered two lost souls; it was also the rain, the orchard, and the little white church that contributed to the events that would change my life forever.
Before I discovered the big white farmhouse I was a failure. My first book, a coming of age novel set in the great depression, had done miserably. A book of poetry had been shelved by my publisher as a result and my future as a writer looked entirely bleak. In addition, after the death of my parents, my relationship with all my siblings had soured, making me feel as if I had no real family. And let’s not forget my failure as a husband. Well, I can’t really say that, because I never quite made it that far. Ashley left me waiting at the altar, having had second thoughts on the day of our wedding. I felt like my name was no longer Matthew Dean, author. It was now Big Nobody, complete failure.
I had decided after my disastrous wedding day I would just get in my car and drive with no destination in mind. It took me a year before I actually gave up on everything around me, packed my bags, and decided to embark on my drive of no return. How I ended up in Bedford I have no idea. Perhaps it was the D-day war memorial, part of that town’s tragic wartime history when most of its sons died in battle, or the fact it was close to Roanoke, where my parents had grown up during the 1920’s and inspired my first novel. Or perhaps it was just the beautiful mountains, tinged blue in the early morning sun.
No matter the reason, I found myself and what remained of my life hurling down Route 43 away from the Bedford limits and towards the calling mountains. But before I began my ascent I saw a sign: ORCHARD HOUSE – 4 MILES.
On impulse I made the turn down a paved road that weaved its way among farmland and meadows for the first couple miles, before entering a lane of trees that soon lost its pavement and was replaced by loose gravel. Coming out of the lane I found myself seeing small farmhouses and mobile homes that appeared to have been plopped down on tracts of land as if its inhabitants didn’t worry about the neat placement of houses I was accustomed to in the city. Here, a house stood surrounded by trees, another lay not far from a bubbling creek bed. A log cabin stood on a small rise overlooking a yard in which it looked like the owners were slowly thinning out the thick forest to accommodate another log cabin in progress. A mobile home stood far off the road, so far back that its driveway could be easily mistaken for another road. Rounding a corner several chickens were crossing the road and I came to a complete stop to accommodate them. While waiting for them to cross I noted there was a small white church just up the road, and on the other side of it the beginnings of a seemingly large orchard.
Making sure all the chickens were across the road, obviously to get to the other side, I drove on, making my way towards the church. It reminded me of the old church my grandparents had attended: a white single floor structure, topped by an open steeple with a bell that clearly hung there ready to summon parishioners to Sunday service. I thought to myself, it doesn’t get more country than this. To reaffirm that thought, passing by the church I found myself driving through an orchard that lined both sides of the road. Here acres of apples and peaches had been invaded by civilization, and a road had been built going right through its heart. I could see a few workers with baskets picking the fruit and then loading them into the back of a beat up pickup truck. Two of these farmers were at the roadside inspecting an apple tree that seemed to be growing out from between two large boulders. I stopped the car and rolled down my window.
“Hello,” I called out and they turned to me, all smiles.
“Hola,” they replied, their dark faces shaded by the large hats they wore to keep the sun out of their eyes.
They continued to smile, nodding their heads and pointing up the road. “Si, si,” they heartily exclaimed.
I grasped what little Spanish I remembered from high school. “Muchas gracias,” I said.
“De nada,” both men replied, and I drove off up the road leaving them with a friendly wave.
If this had been the city I came from there would have been no waving, no friendly smiles. Not because of any racial or cultural differences, but just that in the cities I’ve known everyone is so closed off in their own little three feet of space, anything neighborly is quite alien. But down this country road I was feeling like I stepped into a whole other world.
As the gravel thinned out and the road turned to dirt and clay I saw a little store ahead on the right just on the edge of the orchard. A sign out front read: WELCOME TO ORCHARD HOUSE.
I don’t know what I had expected when I first saw the sign that brought me down this road, but I guess I had envisioned a resort hotel or some old historic plantation house with luscious gardens for tourists to walk through. I wasn’t expecting a country grocery store. Heck, maybe Orchard House was just the name of this quaint rural community and the store had simply adopted its title.
Casting my disappointment aside, I decided I better go in and get a soda or tea for the road. It was a few miles back to the main highway and if I was going up the mountain after all I better have something to drink. Getting out of the car I stretched my legs and went in the front door. A little bell jingled from somewhere above my head and I found myself facing a slightly older woman in a country apron just inside the doorway.
“Well hi there,” she said in a southern drawl, which sounds much better coming from women than it does men. “Welcome to Orchard House. What can we do you for?”
I had to chuckle. In the city that phrase would be taken in a completely different way. “Something cold to drink,” I replied.
“Right there,” she said pointing to a refrigerated cold case against the back wall. “We got soda, water, tea, fruit drinks, even beer if that’s your thing.” She said “thing” like “thang” and I found it a bit endearing.
“Thank you mam.” I walked back to the cooler and grabbed myself a can of lemonade for now and a large bottle of my favorite root beer for later. I set them on the counter and reached into my front pocket for a couple dollar bills I had crammed there after pumping gas that morning.
She rang up the root beer and looked at the lemonade in a curious fashion before turning her eyes on me. “If you want a good lemonade fella, we got some homemade back there in the fruit stand,” she said, pointing to an open doorway where I could see baskets and baskets of various fresh fruit from the adjacent orchard. “My little Twyla makes it herself. Go try you a cup.”
I figured why not, there’s not much you can do to ruin lemonade. So I headed through the doorway and into the fruit stand. Everywhere you looked there were baskets and bushels of fruit. Apples, peaches, oranges, lemons, grapes…you name it. If it could be grown in the American south it seemed to be under the roof of Orchard House. Walking down an aisle that had to include at least a dozen different varieties of apples, I saw a little girl, Twyla I presumed, at a table in the back. She sat on a stool like an eight year old bartender (though I have never seen one of those before) mixing up a new batch of her lemonade. Spread out on the table was assorted lemons, a sack of sugar, and what appeared to be her creation in a bottled form. She, being the good little salesperson, saw me coming and perked right up.
“Hey there Mister, want some lemonade? First cup is free.”
“Yeah your mom told me you made it yourself.”
The girl giggled and beamed proudly. “She will like that,” she grinned. Then she leaned forward and said in a hushed whisper, “She’s not my mom. She’s my grams.”
I turned around to the doorway I’d come through to see if the woman had followed me. She hadn’t.
“Well little miss,” I said, “she looked young enough to be your mom.”
“Oh, she’s not an old gram. She’s only 50. You probably aren’t far behind.”
I laughed out loud. You have to love the honesty of children. She was right of course. At forty five I guess I wasn’t that far at all.
She poured me a cup of her concoction and handed it to me. I took it and without hesitation drank the contents down in one gulp. It was very good, probably the best I had tasted. “This has got to be the worst orange juice ever,” I exclaimed, to which she frowned. “But for a lemonade it is absolutely the bestest.”
She smiled brightly. “Thank you mister.” Then she frowned at me as if she were a parent getting ready to admonish a child. “But I think you should know ‘bestest’ isn’t a real word.”
“Yeah I know. But it is the best lemonade I have tasted in many a year.”
The saleswoman in the girl saw her opportunity. “Would you like to buy a bottle?”
I feigned surprise. “What? A bottle?”
“No I won’t buy a bottle.” Then I gave her a wink. “But I’ll take a whole case of the stuff if you got it.”
Twyla’s grandmother looked very surprised when I came walking out of the fruit stand with a case of her lemonade in my arms. She laughed.
“My, I thought she had it in her to sell, but she has clearly outdone herself.”
“Mam, Twyla makes the best lemonade I had to overlook my disappointment in Orchard House.”
For a moment her smile faltered. “Disappointed? What disappointed you?”
“Well,” I confessed, “The sign at the end of the road said Orchard House, and I guess I just thought it was a hotel or bed and breakfast. Some place I could kick back my heels and forget the things I have to do for a while.”
Now she smiled. “Well technically, this here isn’t Orchard House. The actual house is up around the bend on the backside of the orchard.my husband and I converted into just the sort of thing you are looking for.”
“Wow, well I guess it’s not a real disappointment after all.”
“Nope. And it’s empty at the moment and ready for visitors. Only 65 dollars a night. “
“That sounds very reasonable. Indoor plumbing?”
“Sure is. You got a full bath, kitchen, dining room, den, two bedrooms downstairs, two more on the upper level. And like I said, it’s empty so you can sleep in any room you like.”
“Can I see it?”
“Sure can. Just go out to the road, take a right, head around the bend and you’ll see it. It sits up on a little hill looking down on the orchard on one side, the road on the other. “
I pulled out my money and paid the woman for the lemonade. “Okay, yeah I’ll go take a look.”
“Really there’s no need to drive. You can just step out back and see it on the hill. Twyla, show this nice man the house.”
Since the girl had made a new friend in me she grabbed my hand and led me out the back door of the store. Sure enough, it sat up on a hill not far off, and I could tell from even here it was just the place of solitude I was looking for. Nearly surrounded by fruit trees, I could imagine myself walking through the orchard gathering my thoughts and trying to plan what was left of my life. Sifting through the wreckage left behind by Ashley I was certainly going to need the isolation.
Twyla squeezed my hand. “You okay, Mister?”
I looked down at her and smiled. “Sure. I was just lost for a moment.”
“I got lost once,” she offered. “But Jackson came and found me.”
She pointed to the house. “See there in the yard? That’s Jackson.”
Because of the distance it took me awhile to focus on what she was talking about, but then I saw it, a big brown and white dog lying in the grass.
“He comes with the house,” she told me. “He don’t bite or nothing. “
“Unless you bite first,” she added with a smile.
“Swell,” I said. “Well, I guess I’ll take it.”
She let go of my hand and ran back into the store. I could hear her shouting for her grams with glee in her voice. “He wants it! Now gimme my dollar, I sold it.”
I laughed. Twyla was going to be a force to be reckoned with in the business world one day.
By the time I got back inside, the matronly woman had a key in her hand. “Twyla tells me you’re going to stay. How many nights you be needing?”
I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I was winging things and not thinking beyond the moment at all. “Go ahead and set me up for a week. Got no place I need to be until then.” I didn’t want to tell her I had no place to be at all. That home didn’t exist for me anymore. It’s odd when there is no way back from where you came. All you can do is stand still or move forward when every bridge behind you is burning. I figured this was as good a place as any to stand still.
“That will be 300 dollars,” she said. “I knocked off 25 for your disappointment.”
When I saw her knowing smile I grinned and thanked her. I opened my wallet and counted out the cash. Noticing credit cards peeking out, she informed me, “We do take cards if you prefer. We ain’t so far out we only know the color green.”
“Oh. Ok. I didn’t know. Yeah, let me pay with my card then.”
I took out my credit card and she handed the cash back to me. “We also like the color gold,” she chuckled, and it reminded me of my own mother, sitting on her back porch and telling Ashley all my boyhood horror stories. I didn’t mind the memory of my mother, but I could do without the image of my ex in my old Arc Angels t-shirt.
She handed me my receipt and got me to sign for the charge. “You should have everything you need up there already. Clean towels and sheets. There is a washer and dryer in the kitchen so you can clean your clothes and stuff. If you need anything there is a phone on the wall. Local calls are free and our number is posted beside it. There’s no food in the frig, so you will have to stock that yourself. Umm, let’s see, what else?”
I tucked the receipt away in my wallet and was already looking forward to a nice long bath. I had some soap left over from the last hotel and a new bottle of shampoo from where I stopped off at the shopping mall in Bedford.
As if reading my mind she said, “There may be some soap, but probably no shampoo. And in case Twyla didn’t mention it, we have an old Australian shepherd who stays at the house. His name is Jackson, but he stays outside and won’t bother you. There are some dog biscuits in the cabinet if you want to give him a treat from time to time though. But other than that, I think you are all set. If something happens and you lose the key, just give us a shout either here or on the phone and we’ll bring you another. Twyla and I have to head out soon, but my husband Raymond will be here to help if you need anything. He’s out in the orchard with the workers right now. “
“I think I’ll be okay. Thank you.”
“You enjoy it up there. Generations of my husband’s family have lived there. Lots of history and good times behind those walls. Hope it will be good for you too.”
I smiled, thinking I really could use some good memories to outweigh the ones that had been less than kind here lately. “I’m sure it will be a pleasant experience,” I told her and headed for the door.
“Oh wait, here’s a basket,” she called. “Be sure to pick you some apples while you’re there. Personally I like the red delicious, but Twyla is all about the granny smith.”
I took the empty basket and thanked her again. I waved to the little girl in the back, who true to her grams word had just taken a bite of a green apple and was waving back. Going out the door, I looked back, wondering if all this could be a mirage. After a lifetime in the city, Orchard House seemed like a dream. I had no idea how dreamy it was about to get…