What Once Was

During the drive, there is a small turn that hugs the mountainside that is Spruce Pine, North Carolina. It’s darkened by the overlapping of trees and shrubbery that linger outside of the guardrail. Within the mountainside is a steeping driveway. As a child, this darkened entrance would seep into my mind, making me think that something terrifying must haunt whatever exists beyond the winding, climbing incline. As we come up to our old house, I get this feeling of long lost emotions. I fit into this place, like a couple in a loving embrace. The sight of it all overwhelms me even if Spruce Pine itself is underwhelming. This town is small; there is only one church which everyone attends. Religion is stagnant and uniform. The smell of pine and woodsmoke is so strong that I seem to forget the existence of oxygen. I’ve missed this smell; being removed from this place for nearly twelve years is enough to forget the little things and oh, how they will rush back to you. I’m breathing in nature’s flavors.

* * *

When I was five years old, I moved to Rocky Mount after my mom and dad remarried. My father, in his attempts to win my mother’s love and hand back, would make the laborious four hour trip from Rocky Mount to Spruce Pine every weekend. He wanted to show he still cared after all the arguments, the curses, the slaps, and the screams we had had to endure. He loved us and I loved him as much as a five year old could love someone. Eventually, whether through stout commitment or gift-giving, my parents remarried and I was whisked away from the mountain-tops, the small ice cream parlors, and the majority of the only family I had known. Spruce Pine, it seemed, had grown tired of me or maybe my mother had of it. Her mother had lived with us and died with us and maybe, somehow, my mom finally felt free of her mother’s chains; those chains that held her bound to the sharp rocks and steep inclines of the mountains that lined the horizon like a cage.

The name Rocky Mount is a bit of a mistake. It is neither rocky nor sits on a mount. In fact, its name is derived from where a mound sits at the falls of the Tar River. Never anything more extraordinary than being named after a rock. Its claim to fame is the fact that it is the city that lies directly between Miami, Florida and New York City along I-95. It’s a meaningless fact but it holds weight against Spruce Pine in the useless information category.

As the years came and went like the passing of morning dew, I grew taller and lankier as my city started to crumble before my eyes. Downtown had become nonexistent. Worn out and whitewashed, the downtown buildings, out-dated with caved-in roofs, were the only characteristic of a town that use to prosper in the tobacco industry. The tobacco mills closed and thousands of people survived without jobs. Crime rose and hope dwindled away. Then, I started high school.

Attending high school in Rocky Mount felt like being trapped in a desert with nothing but dark, strong whiskey to rinse the sand out of your mouth. It was terrible but eventually you grow numb to it all, to the racism, to the lackluster education and educators, to the dirty bathrooms and the poor quality meals. It was a lion’s den of perpetual gloom that was only made manageable because I had my brother with me. My high school was Rocky Mount in a microcosm and I wanted an escape.

During high school my father went from dead end job to dead end job. He was blue collar, through and through, but nothing ever lasted long enough for him to get his footing. Businesses came and went, rejection letters were fluid, and interviews became a coin flip. My father, dressed in a tweed jacket, shirt and tie, and a pair of dress slacks would pace the kitchen floor as the minute hand inched closer and closer to D-Day. His boots, the same boots I had seen at funerals, weddings, and office parties, tapped the linoleum floor with a fervor that made me too nervous. The creases at the toes were prominent against the burgundy of the leather and the heels made my dad crack six feet tall. At a young age, I once tried on my father’s boots and could barely lift my foot off the ground, it felt like an anchor grounding me to the spot.

During the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I went back to Spruce Pine with my family to celebrate my great-aunt’s ninetieth birthday. It was a solemn occasion as the phone conversations between my mother and her adoptive family hinted the fact that this would be her, my great-aunt Ruth’s, last birthday. It would be only my second trip back to Spruce Pine since I had moved away twelve years ago. I was anxious during the trip. Anxious because I had missed this place and these people who had helped raise my brother and I when we were babies. I was anxious for the sweet smell of pine and clean air that seemed to sweep across the mountain skyline. Rocky Mount’s decay had hung in the air like a putrid cloud. It was in my nostrils and I tasted it on my tongue, bitter and hopeless.

My great-aunt’s house was a familiar sight. The cracked and beaten driveway where an old red Buick sat parked under the awning showed more signs of age but the house still looked the same: a one story brick house that had a living room in the basement and another living room on ground level. The dining room sat beside the living room and on a small shelf perched a black and white television that no longer obtained a reception. It was outdated, the house itself a thing caught in time never progressing or regressing. The familiar smell of home cooking; bacon, biscuits, fresh coffee cake, still clung to the air through all the years. Nothing had seemed to change. Except for my great-aunt. She was thinner now. Much thinner. She had lost the spark I remember so fondly from years ago. How she would wake up before the rooster crooned to make everyone breakfast. How the iron skillet would ring as it was heated and the sizzle of eggs and bacon as they danced happily in their sweat. All the while, Ruth telling us stories of long ago. Of Arthur, her husband, and how they met. Of great wars and great depressions. She was an anthology of American events. Meanwhile, the smells of scrambled eggs and smoked bacon would waft through the house and the urge would become so irresistible, so insatiable, that the begging would commence.

Sitting in the blue recliner, solemn, shriveled and dying, was what was left of my great-aunt Ruth. She could still speak. In small, staccato blurps and phrases she would mutter something to us all. She would look at me and mistake me for my brother or sometimes not recognize me at all. It was unbearable to watch. The excitement about coming home was now replaced with a since of dread. I knew that Ruth’s death would mark the end of any noteworthy relative left in Spruce Pine.

Along the small one lane road I walked, trying to catch my breath. The air was as I had left it those years ago. A cool breeze shaking the pine needles that would collect on the moss soaked ground. I walked a little farther until I reached my great-uncle’s house. He, his name actually being Guy, had died when I was eight but I hadn’t attended his funeral. I had loved him dearly but the experience of my grandfather’s death and his funeral had left a seething sour taste in my mouth and I had vowed never to attend another funeral.

The house had changed. It was weather-beaten. The white paint had flaked off, revealing a sickly brown underneath the wood panels. The windows themselves were now covered with plywood; no one had resided here in years. It made me catch my breath. I wanted to rip down the plywood and crawl through the window. I wanted to walk into the living room and see Guy sitting there watching college football muttering in his own deaf language his thoughts on the game. I wanted to be five again and crawl stealthily to his feet and undo the Velcro laces that helped keep his shoes on. I wanted to see his smile when he saw what I did and hoist me up onto his lap and draw me pictures on his small notepad of whatever animal I could think of. I wanted my past back. This wasn’t the Spruce Pine I had grown up with.

When my family and I left the next day, I had a sneaking suspicion that I would never see Spruce Pine again. There’s nothing for me there anymore. My mother’s family is now a thing of the past, only memorial plots and words on a page give meaning to their names. I’ve never forgotten the memories I’ve carried with me through the years. Some are foggier than others and some I wish I could forget but I can’t. Most of my memories, however, remind me of the days that Spruce Pine meant everything. The frigid winters that buried me to my head in fresh snow. The fourth of July celebrations where all the family gathered in green plastic lawn chairs to watch fireworks shoot over the mountaintops to explode in showers of red, green, and blue. Those days are gone.

And my greatest worry, maybe my greatest fear, is that Rocky Mount will become Spruce Pine. That decay, poverty, and crime will wash over the city like a black tidal wave and there will be nothing left to come home to. That one day, Rocky Mount will become a foggy memory as I realize that it has seen better days.