Part 1: Running On Empty
The heart of everything lies at the end of a dirt road not far from Bedford, Virginia. It’s best I not give its exact location, for in doing so I’m afraid it will attract others who were just like I, 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, the little white church, and the company of people 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 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 off the road, so far back that its driveway could easily be 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 church my grandparents had attended: a white single floor structure, topped by an open steeple with a bell that 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. It was as if this huge stand 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, loading them into the back of a pickup truck. Two of these 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 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. And not because of any racial or cultural differences. It’s 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. Here 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 was envisioning 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 over 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 on 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.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2016 Paul D Aronson.