Twenty years ago, I moved to Boston, not because I had any plans but because a friend did and I didn’t have anything better to do. When she asked me if I’d like to come along for the ride, I said, “Sure.” I thought I’d get a job in advertising or publishing because those were the most compelling jobs listed for English Majors on a handout that my advisor had given me, a person who never advised me but always signed my forms when I wanted to drop a class.
In Arkansas, I never dreamed about being a writer. But I put myself in book characters’ shoes and escaped for hours at a time. I wrote, but that didn’t make me a writer, capital W. Books were things that one bought. People in Arkansas weren’t writers. They were factory workers, insurance customer service people, and big box store employees. Writers were bred in places like New York and Los Angeles. Anything in between felt like a big fat nope. My worldview then was too small to consider anything beyond state lines.
My first job in Boston was at Waterstone’s Booksellers in Quincy Market. One of the interview questions was, “If you were an object, what would you be?” Uh, a book? It felt like a trick question, so I chose a tree. The interviewer nodded her head in approval. Before I ever waited for “the call” from an agent, I waited for “the call” from an employer who wanted to hire me. That call came right as my checking account balance had begun to veer toward the negative. I happily accepted Waterstone’s offer of employment.
I loved leaving Arkansas. I loved living in a place with so many people. I could be completely anonymous or someone totally different from who I’d been. I thrilled at the prospect of working “downtown” and taking public transportation, something we didn’t have where I grew up. I loved working in a bookstore, surrounded by all that paper and those words and coworkers who spoke about stories like lovers. I didn’t mind that most of our customers were tourists who didn’t ask for book recommendations, but asked where they could find the best lobster in Boston, the cheap ticket booth, and — most importantly — the bathroom.
I loved Boston and didn’t want to leave. I hated going back to Arkansas to visit. I was building a different life, a different me. Plus, it cost a lot of money and time to get there. I didn’t have a lot of either of those things. Getting to Arkansas isn’t easy. There’s always a thunderstorm on the horizon that will have you hauling ass through Dallas or Atlanta or Chicago to try to find the terminal where all the tiny planes board.
Twenty years. It’s sometimes hard to believe. Waterstone’s is gone. But people still stop me on the street for directions to tourist spots and bathrooms. I suppose I have a helpful face. And my mind and my stories have begun to drift back to the woods and to the place I always wanted to leave. The stories that soothed me growing up were not fairy tales at bedtime but ghost stories told around a fire. The kindling for the stories I’ve written didn’t come from the books I read so much as they came from my dad, the way he would hold his hands out to shush everyone who was talking and say, “Now, listen…”
On long ago summer days, relatives would set up lawn chairs under the trees between the sloped garden full of potatoes and snap peas and my grandparents’ trailer. During the day, we’d sometimes go down to the creek. If the ATVs weren’t broken, as they often were, we’d ride off onto some trail in the woods, ignoring the “No Trespassing” signs. At night, when the temperature settled, we’d all start itching for a fire. All of us kids would haul broken tree branches and other brush we could find along the fence and tree lines into the middle of Grandma and Grandpa’s dirt driveway. As the flames leapt higher, we pushed our chairs farther and farther away. Grandma had fits about the height of the fire and its closeness to the tree branches above. She worried we’d burn the whole hill down.
Someone would start with a joke, something highly offensive to get us going. Then they’d move on to dirty jokes, which was Grandma’s limit. She’d open her mouth wide and yell the offending party’s name, usually getting the person’s name right on the fourth try. She’d huff and go to bed when the jokes didn’t stop. After a while, we’d move on to old family stories and then ghost stories. That’s when Grandpa would leave. My family has no end of personal encounters with ghosts. There was the little ghost who whispered in my mother’s ear. The ghost my dad tried to chase down at the old insane asylum. And the time that the family decided to try spirit writing in the dirt, and accidentally raised one. I was in Boston at the time. But they all swear it’s true.
I never had any jokes or stories to tell around the fire. I liked to listen. I liked to imagine what life was like for people whose faces I’d only seen on a wall or in boxes shoved at the back of a closet. I liked the feeling of fear as the fire crackled and my Uncle Larry or my dad lowered their voices and made us lean in for the climax. Those were the days I never thought would end. Those were the days that I missed the most when I called from Boston. Those are days we’ll never get back.
During one of those gatherings around the fire, an altercation arose between the extended family over the payment of groceries that had been procured with only half of the family’s permission. That was the beginning of the eventual unraveling of our extended family into warring factions throughout the state. Gone were the fires and the gatherings, disintegrated over packages of hot dogs and potato chips. How very southern of us.
I tried to revive those fireside stories when I traveled home. The smaller, now more immediate family was less interested in those old stories than me. When I asked my dad to tell me a story, he sometimes did. But more often, he’d get sidetracked by some other conversation, like football or how the new neighbors didn’t hold a candle to the old ones. Though we still had a fire, I mostly watched logs burn to ash and drifted off into my own thoughts.
As I’ve aged and my writing has as well, I’m more inclined towards home. I love the moments I have with my dad and the region that raised me. Those stories are in my bones. When I write, I sometimes close my eyes and imagine what the words would sound like around a fire. I can hear the wind cut through the tree branches. The whippoorwill. The rumble of tires down a dirt road. Insects I can never distinguish by call but whose buzz reminds me of home. I can smell fresh-cut grass, cedar bark, hot dust kicked up from trucks, gasoline. The distinct smell of different fires: brush and leaves, trash, dead wood.
My latest trip home was during the lunar eclipse. We checked the timeframes for the eclipse on our iPhones using spotty cell service. Dad brought out the binoculars. My stepmom grabbed all the makings for S’mores. And my girlfriend loaded firewood next to the new pit my dad had built that summer. For a few hours, we watched as the moon slowly made its way across the earth’s shadow in a clear night sky, unhindered by city lights. Under the blood red moon, the fire crackled, and I started feeling nostalgic about those old fires and stories. I laughed about how Grandma always went to bed when they started telling dirty jokes and how Grandpa went to bed when they started talking about ghosts. Dad, as he always does when he begins a story, slapped me on the arm and asked if he’d ever told me the story about how Grandpa had seen his dead stepmother’s ghost on the flat fields of Texas one night.
I hadn’t heard that story.