By: Gaither Stewart
The atmosphere was still peculiar and elusive, emanating a magical incantation he hadn’t fully perceived in his youth here. Nonetheless and despite doubts generated by personal experience, he felt that life was triumphing. Optimistic thoughts ran through his mind when mornings and evenings from the long porch along the front of house in the hills north of the town he gazed down into the bowl of resplendent nature before him and he tried to catch the precise moment when the colors changed.
During the days since his return to the mountains he had come to sense the utmost urgency to recapture the time of the color change and the sounds and the smells of the nature he had once known. Then, evenings, he peered at the stars, mystified by the invisibility of the great planet of Jupiter and its dozens of moons and wondered why the ancient Greeks and Romans had associated an invisible planet with Zeus or Giove, the King of Kings of their mythology and religions.
In the first days his perceptions had seemed purely abstract. Remember that these are hills of eternal fecundity, he told himself, hills of limitless variety and incessant change—markers of the monotony of timelessness. Patience is required.
Nostalgia for those authentic perceptions had brought him back. The only real return open to him. He wanted to be receptive to everything his former world offered him. Still, he recognized his self-deception. He had long known what that was. As if he could begin everything anew! Strange, that as much as he had wanted to escape from it back then, it drew him now. A new peace, lush and tranquil, seemed to have invaded the rolling hills that had once barely contained the South’s special brand of violence, innate and immutable, from which he had fled.
Still, every corner, every nook and cranny, harbored his youth. Return must always evoke such memories.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, from nowhere, nostalgia resurfaced. Again, chronic loneliness overcame him. And from time to time the green hills diabolically recalled his home in Tuscany where he had spent his adult life thus far. If in this moment it seemed he had re-found Eden, unexpectedly his Eden reminded him also of the highlands of Mexico he had once declared was his also. No wonder he felt homeless.
Back downtown to Dixieland Home of the writer again under restoration and he could only peer into its darkened windows as he had done as a boy. In vain he looked for the sanitariums on the mountainside. He mounted Pisgah and climbed the winding highway to the Gardens and marveled at the splendor of the Blue Ridge. Artists and artisans settled in the warehouses and lofts in the once perilous areas along the banks of the river greeted him curiously. He was a stranger in Eden.
Meanwhile, an unexpected quiet fell over his interior world. Instead of harnessing his self-awareness he had lost all cognition of time. New York was behind him. Consciously then he pushed Italy into a distant corner of memory. Europe again split into atoms and more atoms and faded into the universe of time and space.
ON A WHIM he decided to visit Jupiter Hill. He had known he would have to go there. The new superhighway lead through a magical realm at the top of the world. As he drove onto the campus for the first time since leaving the college three decades earlier, Preston anticipated volcanic internal emotions—perhaps resolution or an explanation of things. Perhaps a small epiphany and redemption. Or, he wondered, would he merely perceive a sensation of inexplicable sadness? A sense of his familiar nostalgia? Or simply a twinge of regret? Revisiting the past, he had learned, is always unpredictable.
But no! He felt only surprise that he felt nothing.
The same academic halls, low-slung, redolent and somnolent, the white wooden house where he had lived with the others, the little college town itself had as if disappeared in time. On the shady street behind the football stadium’s scoreboard, he turned off the motor and remained sitting in the car. What he saw and felt there hardly seemed worth a memory. He tried to imagine himself a nineteen-year old kid football player flitting through the opponent’s defense. The “Ghost” they had called him. A local hero—a false hero, he knew, and for only one season.
Cautiously then, unused to thinking of her, he evoked her memory—one year’s romance, the first serious one of his life. Pale white skin, dark hair, her quiet femininity still becoming. She too had been nineteen. It had quickly ended.
Quiet reigned on campus. Students gone. Nothing else to be seen. No more memories to be evoked. Nothing remained. He edged the car down the short street. No cars. No people. Halls and stores closed. A ghost town he was thinking when the music blasted across the surrounding plain.
On the edge of an adjacent field stood five or six multicolored umbrellas motionless in the stillness of nature. “Must be a farmer’s market,” he exclaimed. “But why, here?” He stopped the car on the grass, muttering under his breath an “excuse me, atoms!” No shoppers. And six stands. Silent old people sitting on straight chairs behind their products, staring into nothingness.
“I’ll buy flowers and vegetables to take back to town,” he thought. “At least that from here.”
The morning was still overcast, the fog just burning off. Then he noticed her standing under a scarlet umbrella, her radio was the one blasting hard rock. Tall, slim, a skimpy black halter, long black dress, dark hair piled on her head, long bare back, striking suntan. Straight out of a fashion magazine. From habit he gravitated to her, his eyes gliding from brown shoulders to vegetables on the table and back to her. He bought all the remaining green beans, an eggplant, a bag of tomatoes and the one bunch of flowers in a bucket at her feet.
“Where’d you get that wonderful tan?” he asked, paying.
“In my garden … where these veggies come from.” She looked him straight in the eyes and smiled. Silence seemed to rise from the fields.
“Where is that, your garden?”
“Just five minutes from here.”
“What do you raise there?”
“What you see here … and many other things in season. Everything grows there … in my garden.”
Instinctively he leaned toward her and watched her lips and listened to the musical lilt of her accent. “And much more that I don’t bring here … to the market,” she added. She was flirting shamelessly with her eyes and body. Pure sex. She moved closer to him than was necessary to talk. She was almost as tall as he.
“Like what?” His voice was thick. Her body perfume rolled over him, scents of flowers and southern cooking, of wood fires and fallen leaves. She was the South he once knew.
“Why, okra and spinach and scallions and much, much more.” She sang her Siren’s song. But no, he thought, she was Circe. She was salvation. She lived on a mysterious island bathed in sunshine. He knew she could transform him into a pig if she wanted to. But she could save him, too. She was magical.
She smiled and lifted both hands behind her head, lifting slightly the halter and revealing a breast.
“Well, I just wanted to buy some … you know, I once went to school here … before you were even born.”
“You’re teasing me now. It couldn’t have been that long. I’ve been here, always.”
She smiled seductively. It was more than flirting. He liked it.
“Oh, yes, it was, sweetheart. I just don’t show my real age.”
“I would take you for, let’s say, forty. No more.” With a long slim hand Circe touched lightly his hip as if to draw him to her. It was more than a friendly gesture. It was enticement. Sexual instinct.
“Let’s not exaggerate, my dear. Look, at home, do you have…?”
“Of course. Of course. Anyway, I have to go there now. Why don’t you come with me and you can get whatever you want … fresh from my garden.”
He followed her green pick-up. The road winding downhill among red banks of clay and the lush hills above where motionless pines surrounded weeping willows. Magical oaks growing on fields on the other side of the twisting road. Water trickling down through the grass to the macadam. Endless curves. Like descending to a rocky seashore. Or to a tiny river port where a hand-operated ferry waited to carry them to another shore.
Suddenly, the pick-up whipped into a gravel driveway lined by a white board fence leading to a large brown frame house. She walked ahead, her hips swaying in rhythm with her song.
“You will want a drink first, I suppose?” She smiled. “Before we go the garden,” she said, taking whiskey and glasses from a cabinet. “One drink at noonday keeps the bogeyman away,” she jested as a toast and chugalugged her drink, after which her countenance quickly changed—her flushed face radiating excitement, her every move was accentuated.
In the garden behind the house he watched fascinated as she stooped and began putting into the basket on her arm a variety of vegetables, haphazardly, as if it didn’t matter which—deep purple eggplants, fuzzy okra, a yellow squash, a dark green cucumber. She moved along the rows in a rapid duck walk, from time to time looking up at him with a sensual smile. She was graceful and quiet in her movements and at the same time excited and vibrant.
He held his breath.
“Your tan,” he said, “exceptional for here. But you must be naturally dark.”
“By nature I’m as pale as a Puritan.” She laughed. “As pale as you. But not very pure. I’ve always hated my white skin so I cultivate my tan summer and winter. Sun lamps all over the house…. My mother was pale too.”
Holding the full basket under her arm, she took his hand and led him into a side entrance into a kind of den.
“Do you live here alone?”
“Now, yes. Since Father died.” She pointed at a group of photographs on the wall. “They all died here.”
“All who?” He looked around the spacious room and back toward the yard and garden. Stables and a barn lay beyond. Two horses grazed on a distant knoll. He stopped in front of a row of pictures on the mantle over a rock fireplace.
“All of them?” he repeated when she didn’t answer.
“All of them!” she said, pouring herself a drink without asking if he wanted one. She approached him and again put her hands lightly on his hips in her way. She moistened her lips. “Now I only have this house … and my garden.”
He wanted to touch her. He edged away. She followed. From a table he picked up the framed photo of a rugged man kneeling on a field, a football in his two hands. “I too once played football for this school,” he said.
“That’s my father … well, he’s really my grandfather, as a young man.
He stared at the portrait. He recognized the tough-looking thick-jawed man in a baseball cap, a whistle hanging from his neck. He remembered.
“Your father! Your grandfather? My coach.” Evelyn was the coach’s daughter. He had almost forgotten her last name. He was the football star, the favorite of Coach Rogers.
“Coach Rogers,” he murmured. “What’s your name, dear?” he asked evenly, turning toward her with, he knew, a contorted face, his tongue thick.
“Evelyn, as I told you before.”
“Yes, Evelyn. I once knew an Evelyn here.” His speech distorted, he added, “Evelyn Rogers. She ….”
“I’m named for her. Evelyn Rogers was my mother.” Her voice rose. She poured hurried drinks for both. She walked around the room, waving her glass. “She died very young, only nineteen. In childbirth. Me.”
“In childbirth? But … but they told me that she …” He had discovered Evelyn had advanced diabetes after she got pregnant.
“She was her father’s jewel,” he said. “How the coach doted on her, said he couldn’t live without her. Things went too fast. They sent me away before I knew what happened.”
“They would never talk about it. A scandal. And then … she died. She had me first and then died from complications. My father never knew me.” She spoke louder and louder.
Then: “let’s eat some lunch or we’ll be drunk,” she said. “But that’s no problem. No problem at all.”
He looked hard at her. She stared back, a wild look in her eyes. She was already drunk. She has my eyes, he thought, the same cowlick as in my hair. Just as dark as mine was then. The same lanky figure as mine was. He knew.
Oh, yes, he remembered. Coach Rogers was destroyed. He was not mad at Preston but for a long time he did not tell him about her diabetes. They hospitalized her, he thought for an abortion—as rare as it was scandalous at a Baptist college. He would have liked to marry Evelyn but Rogers told him he would have to leave the college. His scholarship was cancelled, he expelled. Marriage was out of the question. He was too young. But at the time he had thought he loved her. Today it seemed Evelyn the mother was just another college flame.
He looked at tall, dark Evelyn and recalled her great love for life. She liked fast cars and the newest films. Her dream was to go to New York. Her manner was deceptively quiet but she somehow seemed in a hurry to experience everything. Including love. In fact it was she who had come on to him and created the image of them as a couple. She thought it was the thing to do, at nineteen.
He had only visited her once in the hospital. She smiled, all in white, and laughed and told him good-bye.
He left Jupiter Hill. When he phoned they said she was sleeping. And Rogers was evasive. Evelyn was doing fine. Better not to see her again. Preston moved to another college. Time passed. There were other girls. He moved farther away. Europe, Asia, the wars of his generation. The memory of Evelyn vanished into the meanders of life.
Until today. And now, here she was—his daughter. Evelyn. She gazed at him, the now familiar wild on her face, a certain madness in her eyes. A savage wildness in being. Again she reached toward his hips.
“And your father died too?” he said and stepped away.
“Before I was born. In Vietnam, I think. That’s why they never married and I have the name Rogers.”
Haphazardly, she sliced cucumbers and tomatoes and bread and spread them on a platter. She opened bottles of beer. They were both getting drunk. Time stood still. She kept touching him. Her brief halter fell off her shoulders and he turned his head when he saw her breasts. But at times, in his drunkenness, he forgot to look away. She was Evelyn. But maybe it wasn’t true at all. Only in his imagination was she his daughter. And what kind of a daughter could she be anyway? He didn’t have a daughter in Jupiter Hill. He wanted her to touch him.
He wanted to touch her. Who was she anyway? This Siren? Or was she Circe? Your daughter, asshole. That’s who she is. She’s your daughter.
“You drink too much, child,” he said at one point.
“Only on Saturdays,” she said. “Only on Saturdays do I drink too much. And I’m no child. No child.”
“You’re drunk. You’re drunk.” He laughed. “You keep repeating yourself. Repeating yourself.”
“I get drunk every Saturday,” she said. “And I do everything else every Saturday.”
Later, in their daze, she said from afar, “There’s a big dance on the field. I go every Saturday. Every Saturday I go to the dance.”
They drove in his car. He knew she was drunk. He was sorry. “You’re very drunk,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
He was drunk, too. He parked someplace away from the crowd. She leapt from the car and ran. A country band was playing Blue Grass music. When he reached the crowd, she had disappeared. People with garish faces pressed around him. Everybody was drunk and loud and wild. A fat woman grabbed at his crotch and dragged him to the dance. She wrapped heavy arms around his neck. Somehow, he danced in that slow country beat. Once, someone pressed into his hand a paper cup filled with a transparent liquid that blew him away.
From time to time he thought he caught glimpses of Evelyn from far away.
Time raced madly in circles.
He reached skyward and grasped at the swarms of fireflies blinking in the night. From one moment to the next there were countless stars overhead. Then, tilting his head backwards, he spread his legs for balance when he perceived planet Earth spinning under his feet. He searched the heavens trying to pinpoint some of the infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space engaged in the process of creation and destruction he had read so much about. Instead, things up there seemed as out of control as down on Earth at the dance. Shooting stars racing and colliding up there—or out there—while down here the music swelled and drunken feet pounded and his throat burned like fire and escaping White Lightning rolled down his chin and he wondered if Jupiter was really up there. When he was far away he had always liked to recall that Jupiter was the king of the Roman gods. And that his planet, eleven times bigger than the Earth and the largest in the solar system. It had never seemed right that Jupiter was invisible from the Earth because of those eerie layers of clouds surrounding it. But, like the Earth, Jupiter spins on its axis so fast that it bulges at its equator and flattens out at its poles. He knew he had to hold on. Yet he hoped to see the Great Red Spot hovering in Jupiter’s clouds. Only a dot in the universe of atoms and empty spaces but over 25,000 miles long, the mysterious cloud changes its position from year to year, nothing more than an atmospheric disturbance resembling a hurricane. No wonder he was not prepared for the half moon. His moon? Or one of Jupiter’s moons? Whole planets raced across the universe. Millions of fireflies flashed in the night.
He lowered his head, now tired of the universe. The crowd had thinned. Only a banjo or some country instrument played. He realized he had forgotten he was at Jupiter Hill.
He made his way toward a shed at the edge of the field that served as a toilet. In the rear, the water of an outdoor shower crashed to the cement base. People milled around, men and women, some holding paper cups, some wet and stamping their feet and laughing and shouting.
Was it all a dream? He had been looking at moons and searching for invisible planets while inferno surrounded him. By chance, then, he saw her. She was lying on her side on the wet cement against a wall. Her halter was twisted around her neck the way it had been at the bar in her house. Her thin black dress was muddy and covered with red clay. Vomit and blood, he thought. The impossible image from a nightmare in progress. A prank of the gods. People, more and more people, blocked his passage. His feet were leaden.
“Shissgod’it. Shissgod’it,” he thought he heard. A fat guy turned to him, placed pudgy hangs against his chest, and said it clearly,
“She’s a goddess. A real fuckin’ goddess.”
“And we’re all gods,” shouted another. “Fuckin’ gods.”
“D’ja get some?” one man nearby shouted to another.
“Who didn’t get it?”
“Crazy, man. She’s nuts. The whole world can fuck’er and she don’t care none.”
Suddenly sober, he pushed his way through drunks drunker than festive gods. He lifted her up in his arms and carried her toward the car.
“It don’t matter, mister,” one man yelled after him. “You can fuck’er right ‘ere … like everybody else.”
Laughter rose behind him.
He lay her on the back seat and covered her with his raincoat. He was ever less drunk. The gods had vanished. They drove away in the night. Near her house she stirred and tried to sit up. He drove under the car porch and helped her out.
He carried her to a bathroom, carefully undressed her, trying not to look at her. She couldn’t stand alone so he held her under the shower. Pushing and pulling and cajoling he ended up in the shower, too, still fully dressed, trying to support her limp nude body.
“You precious little whore,” he said again, forgetting she was probably his daughter. How could she not be his daughter? In the shower with his daughter? He saw her in her garden. He saw her in his daughter’s garden.
“You are a shy little nymph. You watch over the mountains of Jupiter Hill. You must be an Oread. You live in the garden in the forest with the magical fauns and satyrs. You return every Saturday to live the life your mother missed. Maybe you are Jupiter’s mistress, too. My Evelyn, my little Evelyn is immortal.”
Water crashed over them. Her eyes were still closed. She looked like a wet faun. Suddenly, as if from behind a mountain waterfall, her unfamiliar voice startled him.
“Hello, Father. Welcome back home, Father. It’s Saturday night … in Jupiter Hill.”