Here are two chapters from my novel in progress, The Secret of Hill Grove.
My first memories of the Phillips family are from my earliest days in church. The nursery and kindergarten rooms were filled with toys and my hours there were spent on the rugs, playing with dolls or cars or blocks. But my first real class was in the primary department, on the second floor. Although I would have had no word for it then, my first emotion was something like fear as I stood at the doorway of the classroom; a real classroom with lines and rows of little chairs and a piano and a blackboard and maps and posters of scenes from the Bible on the walls. I was afraid, but also excited to enter into this new and better world. It is another thing I would not have had a word for at the time, but I had a hunger, even then, of what I now call society. I mean by that the coming together of people and the friendships and learning and pleasure that comes from it.
Our teacher was Mrs. Phillips. The moment I saw her I knew that she was different from the others. She shone. She radiated. She was immaculately dressed every Sunday morning and she addressed us in a way that was both comforting and commanding. She had our attention. She certainly had mine, as she gently opened up the world of the Bible. Fantastic stories of empires and bravery and beauty. A baby left in a basket on the Nile River. A shepherd boy who killed a lion and a bear and then a giant. A man who healed the sick and fed the multitude.
It occurs to me now that those stories did have an effect on me. Though I made no conscious effort to remember them, they have stayed with me like the alphabet or vocabulary and because I know them, I understand much of our culture and language. But it was not the stories that impressed me at the time and made me want to come back every week. It was Mrs. Phillips. This tall and glamorous lady who somehow knew me and made me feel included and even special. When she called me by my name, I felt that I was inside. I was in on the secret. That I had gotten inside this world of beauty and mystery. She never left any story or lesson without making sure that, after all that drama, I left the classroom feeling secure and loved. I belonged. That was always the point with her. She loved the class, as anyone would have expected her to. But she loved me, too. And that was not the product of any expectation or duty. It was real. And no one would have expected that.
My first year in the Primary Department, Diana, her oldest daughter, played the piano for our opening songs. I had never seen anyone who was prettier or more graceful and I made it a habit to study her every move and to try to speak with the same elegance.
And, by the time I was a fourth grader I began to hear about the parties at the Phillips house. There were three daughters: Diana, Elizabeth, and Beverly, and they were the undisputed leaders of their classes at the school. We all knew and admired them from afar, but Julie Johnson, who was in my fourth-grade class, had the advantage over us all because her mother helped to chaperone the parties.
In the early mornings, right after the schoolhouse doors were opened and we had marched inside, four or five of us girls would huddle together in the cloak room to get the latest scoop on the Phillips’ latest party. She told us once that Elizabeth had gone to Charleston for an Everly Brothers concert and that Don Everly had seen her in the crowd and had sent a man to ask her to come back stage after the show so that Don could meet her. She invited him to come to Walhonde and to the party at her house and he did. He left his brother and their entourage in Charleston and took a cab twelve miles down the river to the party, to have the chance to talk to Elizabeth and to meet her parents.
Julie told us that Colonel Phillips was cleaning his handgun in the room just off of the hallway when Don Everly arrived. “He always did that, every time they had a party,” she told us. “It was one of the ways he kept the boys under control.”
Don Everly, we were told, knew what he was doing. He spent his first bit of time talking to Colonel Phillips, asking him about the guns and about his service in the war. He was quick to ingratiate himself to each of the lady chaperones in the ballroom upstairs. Julie’s mother had lots of praise for “that young man’s manners.”
I learned the rest of the story years later, after the three daughters had married and Mr. and Mrs. Phillips had retired to South Carolina. Don Everly never gave up on Elizabeth. They corresponded for five years, until Elizabeth finished her degree. He did propose to her, but so did Steve Dalton, a local boy who had made a real go of it in real estate down in South Carolina. Mr. and Mrs. Phillip’s liked Don Everly and were not without sympathy for his determined and long-suffering effort, but there were so many reasons to go with Steve, and Elizabeth agreed.
When I was in fifth grade, I continued to pursue a friendship with Julie Johnson because of her link to the Phillips’ house and the goings on there and one day in mid-winter it paid off. One Friday evening, her mother was, as usual, going to serve as a chaperone for a party at the Phillips house. I was going to sleep over at Julie’s house that night and her parents had arranged for a sitter, a college girl from the town across the river, to stay with us for the time Julie’s mom was at the party.
But it snowed. In only an hour the lawns and streets were covered with a foot of snow, and it just kept snowing. While Julie and I were watching a show on TV the college girl from across the river telephoned to say that her parents would not let her drive across the bridge, not knowing how long into the night the storm would continue. I thought that this would mean that I’d be shipped back home immediately, but a few minutes after the sitter had cancelled Julie’s mom came into the room and made an announcement that thrilled me.
“Girls, you’re going to have to dress up this evening. I’ve just spoken with Mrs. Phillips and she said she would love to have the two of you come with me this evening. Rachel, you and Julie are about the same size, so you can pick from her closet.”
I was breathless. I was going to see it. Be a part of it.
When we got to the Phillips house and stepped inside Mrs. Phillips welcomed us and showed us where we were to spend our evening. A room off of the foyer had been arranged for us, with a warm fire, board games and cookies and punch. We would not see the ballroom, which was upstairs, but we could watch through the French doors as the guests arrived.
The storm did not reduce the attendance. If anything, the look and mood of the world that night was even more romantic because of the pristine white blanket that covered all the dormant grey and softened every edge in the town. And in this weather the trip to the house was something to be endured and accomplished like it must have been a century before, when the house was new.
I was waiting for the appearance of stars. Maybe another pop-musician would show up. And the boys who played football and basketball and whose names were known to all of us at the elementary school. We might see them. And the most popular and beautiful girls – the cheerleaders and majorettes – would all be coming, dressed in their best.
And they did come. At least I think they did, for my memory of that evening has been totally eclipsed by a single scene that lasted no more than five minutes, but that changed my life and endeared the Phillips family and house to me even more than ever before.
In those days, almost nothing could be done for those born with a cleft palate. So much more is known now that the condition can be remedied through surgery to the extent that the deformity and the attendant disabilities are almost eliminated from the earliest stages of life. But not then.
And one of those attendant disabilities, almost always, was a profound speech disorder that was – we know now, but did not know then – the result of terribly obstructed aural passages that prevented one from hearing one’s own voice.
Harold Barker was marked by this deformity. His upper lip was a mash of tissue, tied, it seemed, to the very bone. He was short, skinny, and hunchbacked and his voice was the sound of a dying animal. He walked with an unsure, arrhythmic lope. He was the butt of jokes among many of the people his age. “Hare-Lipped Harold.”
But on that white and snowy evening, Harold Barker showed up at the doorway of that mansion where the fires were bright and warm and the rooms filled with candlelight and the scent of flowers. And where everyone who mattered in that little world was gathered upstairs in a hum of conversation and dance.
Mrs. Phillips answered the door as Harold rang.
“Oh, wonderful, Harold. We’re so happy you could make it. Please, come in.”
Harold responded with noises I could not decipher but that I knew amounted to a sincere ‘thank you.’
Mrs. Phillips called up the stairs. “Elizabeth, Harold is here.”
In moments Elizabeth descended the stairs, eyes bright, skin glowing, auburn hair dropping over her shoulders, looking like a movie star. “Good evening, Harold,” she said. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
Harold’s only response was an enthusiastic nod of his head. She took his coat and hung it and then took his arm and walked with him up the stairs and into that world of beauty and acceptance. Since that day twenty years ago I have heard hundreds of sermons, sung hundreds of hymns, and read my Bible till the pages were worn. But nothing has moved me or taught me so much about the things that matter – things like love and grace and mercy and, yes, heaven – as those few moments. I never saw the world the same way again.
And so, I waited. I knew that the parties at the Phillips house were for high-schoolers. I knew that I had five more years to go and I knew that Beverly, the youngest daughter, would be out of high school before I got there. But I still had hope. There was always a chance that Beverly would go to college in nearby Charleston and that the tradition of parties at the Phillips house would carry on for another four years. And there was a chance, I thought, that Mrs. Phillips would continue the tradition herself, even after all her own girls were gone. She might think of them as she did the Sunday School.
But my day never came. By the time I entered high school, Diana was married and living comfortably in Greenville, South Carolina, and Beverly chose to attend Furman University, that campus being less than five miles from Diana’s house. Beverly found her husband there and after they were married and settled, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips sold their house and moved to Greenville.
And so, I remained outside of that ballroom door. Never a part of that elegant whirl that I had so longed to enter. And I lived my high-school years as one unsatisfied; as one exiled; as though nothing I knew or imagined could make life be what I wanted it to be; what it ought to have been. There were parties, of course. And dances. But they were never what I had hoped or imagined them to be. There was no real ballroom with hearths blazing; no colonel to greet me at the doorway. No chance that some famous musician or soldier in uniform might enter the room at any moment. No presence of Mrs. Phillips who kept all things in order; who made sure that all was right.
I look back on it now and know that there was much that I missed because I was always looking for something else. I wanted to be somewhere else. And I knew that place I wanted really existed. At least it had existed.
My friends noticed this about me. They noticed that although I was on the surface very much a part of things – I was president of Tri-Hi-Y, and sang in the girls’ chorus – I was, in a way different from the others, emotionally absent, not invested.
Some of the girls would talk to me about it. Aren’t you excited about homecoming? What do you think of Jim Pearson? I heard he likes you.
And I did know Jim Pearson and, looking back on it now, he was a pretty great guy. He certainly turned out alright and maybe I should have given him a chance. Any girl in her right mind would have, so they said. But neither he or anything else in the world that surrounded me for those few years was enough to stir me emotionally. It was a fine, nice journey, but it wasn’t what I wanted. There had to be more; surely there had to be.
Near the very end of it, my best friend, Amy Anderson, approached me one last time.
“You need to give Jacob Eaton a chance. He’s been smitten for almost all of these three years. He’s kind of like you, you know. Always off somewhere else. This is our senior year. We’ve got all sorts of things coming up these last few months. You two could enjoy all of it together or you could keep on with your snow queen act and regret for the rest of your life everything you’re going to miss.”
And I guess I must have given Amy some sense that I was open to the idea, for Jacob Eaton gave me a call.
The memory of those few weeks we spent together has stayed with me through the years and everything that came with them. My years in college, my marriage to John; suffering through his long illness and then his passing. All of it.
It might not be too difficult for me to think of words to describe that time in its entirety. Liberating, dream-like, surprising, and finally wrenching. All those words seem to fit. But now that story takes on an importance to me that it never had before. And to make myself tell the story truly I know I must do more than just recite the pictures and impressions as they have floated gently in memory these past years, unshaken by any idea of future relevance or effect. Those memories, like all memories, are polished, burnished, edges and corners worn down not only by time but my own need to acquit myself of any wrongdoing. I have modified them, I am now sure, so that I can live with them. But to tell the story faithfully, as recent events have convinced me I should do, I must try to remember as truly and accurately as possible. And I do that now by focusing not on the whole, but on the very moment I took his first phone call.
Even then I was less than honest with myself about my emotions. Even as I took the phone from my mother, I was determined to feel like this was nothing important, that I had all of it under control; that I knew exactly what it would be and how far it would go and when it would end. That I knew what I was doing. But looking back with as tight a focus on that scene as I am now able to muster, I can see my hand shaking as I took the receiver from Mom. There is the truth.
I was shaking for more than one reason. Despite my career-long refusal to play by the social rules of my high school; my dropping out, my deliberate decision to not participate, I wanted this to work. I wanted very badly this thing that Amy had proposed and more or less promised to be everything she said it might be. This would be a way to finish up. To go out in a blaze of glory. To show them all that I could have had everything they had, just by making myself available.
I did not want to drop the ball here and, with the kind of attitude I was then so practiced at, say the wrong thing or not say the right thing and end it all before it even got started.
That much is not easy to admit, but the next bit is even harder: Jacob Eaton really meant something to me.
Not that anyone, least of all Jacob, would have known that. I had not given away the first clue of it, guarded as I was. And I was extra careful with him, because I was aware of his interest. But he did intrigue me. He, like me, was not a willing participant in the well-delineated social hierarchy of the school. But his reasons were different from mine. I acted – or chose not to act – out of disappointment and fear and Jacob, it seemed to me, had made no deliberation about it at all. It was almost as if he was unaware of that structure that was the primary reality of life at our school. He did not care who was connected to whom or who was “in” with what clique.
That was a powerful part of the attraction, but there was also this. Jacob was only a little taller and only a little bigger overall than the average boy in our class, but he would stand up to anyone.
In my senior year I was an aide to the school librarian. This was an easy gig, given to me because of my academic excellence and good behavior. In the last period I would often be excused from class to help Miss Delaney restore the library to order after the day’s use and abuse by the student body. It was an easy job and got me out of some of the most boring class periods imaginable. I’d quietly slip out of class and up the stairs to the library and usually finish my appointed tasks in minutes. Relaxed and unbothered and enjoying not only the praise and thanks of Miss Delany, but also the sweet feeling of having gotten away with something, I would duck into a carrell and then read one of the magazines or, on clear warm days, stand at the second-floor window, bask in the afternoon light, and look out across the giant oak trees on the back campus and to the neat and green baseball field just beyond.
Immediately below my window there was a bare circle in the grass where boys congregated on breaks to smoke cigarettes. The crowd there was a rough one, particularly at the end of the day when those present were all cutting class. The guy who held court there in that season was a big hulk named Steve Snyder. He was a year older, having flunked his sophomore year, and bigger than the rest and enjoyed lording it over the little congregation there. They would laugh at his jokes if they knew what was good for them.
On this day, as I stood at the window, I saw Jacob come out of the building and begin to walk past the little knot of smokers. I could not hear the words that were said, but it was apparent that Steve Snyder called out to Jacob, demanding that he join the group. He did. There was some joking, I guess, at the expense of Jacob, and in only moments, Snyder was pushing and shoving Jacob at the edge of the circle. Jacob began to walk away, but Snyder chased him and grabbed him by the shoulders. Jacob spun around and landed a punch on Snyder’s jaw that sent him to the ground. It happened so fast that I barely took it in. The quickness in Jacob’s hands was one thing, my surprise at his confidence and in the immediate results was another.
Then Jacob just walked away.
I expected this story to be the talk of the school the next day and for the next month. This was David and Goliath. This was the bully getting his just deserts. But there was not a word of it. It was like it never happened. Life just went on and the sycophants around Snyder did not dare breathe a word of it and although almost anyone else who had made such a conquest would have made sure it got around, Jacob never spoke of it at all. I never told a soul.
I was surprised at my own reaction to this drama. I hated violence. I even had a hard time watching football games. But there was something about the cleanness, the absolute necessity, and the justice of this that would not leave me. I was sure that there were results. Snyder would never try this again with Jacob, and maybe even be more respectful of others generally, to avoid another surprise. But most impressive to me was Jacob’s silence about it all.
And so, on to the story. The first phone call went fine and in the days that followed my life changed. If I had to pick one word to describe the whole experience, the whole relationship, that word would be surprise. I thought I knew exactly what was coming – what he would say, how he would act, and how we would mutually end it all when the season was over. I would run the show.
I was wrong in every way. I was wrong about Jacob, I was wrong about myself, and I did not anticipate something else that is now undeniable. It was another force or element beyond both of us. The wind was in our sails. It was not simply that we saw the days as sunny, they actually were sunny. It was not that we sensed a new freedom, it was a measurable fact that hours and days opened up for us to give us time together. It was as if Jacob and I had been granted a special license from heaven to do as we pleased.
For so long – ever since then, really – I have dismissed and discounted it all as just a phase, just a product of young, inexperienced emotion fired and multiplied by the rush of events. But almost two decades have passed. I have gone through many phases of life – higher education, career, marriage, the long-suffering with John’s illness, and, finally, his passing, and I can now see – and now must say – that nothing has ever equaled that brief romance in intensity or depth. I have never again felt so free; never felt so known.
But, I brought it to an end. Not knowing then the value of it, I ended it with an eye toward the future: an escape from that little town, the prospect of new friends and a broader, wider world. If I carried with me any notion of my being delicate and diplomatic and gentle in my affairs, that illusion is shattered by my memory of what I did to Jacob in those last days. I cannot think of it without embarrassment; I cannot think of it without pain. My part in the injury to Jacob is undeniable, but it set in motion a chain of events that I did not foresee and that I would have done anything to avoid. But it happened so immediately and so close in time to the injury that I knowingly inflicted that I was unable to imagine a way to ameliorate the injury or to argue my partial innocence. Way led on to way from there, and I never explained. I will not speak of it here.
Rachel Thompson knew it was over. Not that there was ever really anything to be “over,” in that way. They knew, both of them did, that it was nothing more than friendship; nothing more than a way to spend the last few weeks of their senior year in the most enjoyable way. They had said that from the outset. At least that had been understood from the outset. She knew it. How could he not have known?
What bothered her just a little now, as she contemplated how to end this non-thing formally and definitely, is that things had changed over that brief time. Evolved. She had, in fact, been surprised at herself. How easily she had fallen – let her self fall – into a kind of carefree happiness in his company. How easy it had been to let her guard down, to forget about her guard altogether, to forget about everything, really, and just rest in the moment with him. For the first time in her life, she swam in Walhonde River. And she had not anticipated – had not been ready for – all of that laughter. It had been unlike anything she’d ever known since early childhood.
She’d seen it happen to other girls. How they had let themselves fall in to constricting and limiting circumstances based on the promises and charms of some really average Joe. She’d also seen – she was sure of it – that these average Joes had calculated to do just that. The one thing they were really good at, really practiced at, was this art of pressing the right buttons on any girl. It was a cheap shortcut to get them where they wanted to be.
But Jacob hadn’t done that. There was nothing contrived in his manner; no plan in his attention to her. He, like her, had been relaxed. More so, she thought, than he’d ever been. He had not forced or manufactured anything. It had just happened.
Or, as she now thought of it, not happened. At any rate, she had now awakened to her situation and, she thought, to the situation Jacob, likewise, was in. He had to see it the same way. After all, he was the loner, the independent soul, the outlier – even more so than she. How could he not see it this way? How could he not want absolute freedom as they were released from the confines of school and adolescence and the little town?
All these considerations had been true, had been obvious, if not spoken, from the very outset. But she had to admit to herself it was the evening with David Dunnigan that had reminded her of the future beyond. Here was a man – almost a man, anyway – who had seen and known a little of the world. That world that beckoned to her as the antidote to the life she felt herself squeezed into there in Walhonde. Here was a man – a guy, at least – who was totally hands-off, who was looking for his own open path, who would not want to tie anyone down, least of all himself.
And so, as she prepared for the last school dance, a date she and Jacob had committed to long ago, she considered how to act toward Jacob. She wanted her message to be definite.
And when he reached for her hand on the way into the gym – something he hadn’t done before – she refused him. And the evening went downhill from there. He got the message alright, and his reaction surprised her. It was not the reaction of a man who knew all along that there was no ground for expectation; who wanted nothing, finally, but freedom. It was not even the reaction of the confident, intelligent, and independent loner that she knew him to be. Instead, he was bewildered, lost in thought all evening. Downcast. Almost mute.
She could not let herself pity him. That was the way of the other girls. That would lead to the same results. It would spoil all that had gone before and would make Jacob into something other than the person that she… well, not loved, but… knew him to be. She did not relent. She did not offer him any comfort.
At last, when they left the gymnasium and she saw the car – Jacob’s father’s car – with its hubcaps removed and laying on the hood of the car, she was so far away by then as to be unaffected for him.
They had not spoken in the last hour, but when Jacob saw the car, he gave in.
“Oh, no,” he said. “The lug nuts are gone. All of them. I can’t drive this car.”
And now, after an evening of misery – an evening of causing misery – she was standing on the asphalt lot in heels and a formal gown with no apparent means of getting home. And now it started to rain. She wondered how things could possibly get worse in that moment. But then they got better. David Dunnigan was driving by the parking lot and noticed them standing in the rain.
His car slowed to a stop and he rolled down the window. He spoke loudly to make himself heard over the slapping of his windshield wipers.
“What happened? What’s going on here?”
“Somebody swiped the lug nuts off my car. All of them.”
Dunnigan shook his head. “Well, bud, you want me to call you a wrecker? No way you can drive it like that.”
“No. Not yet. I think I can scrounge some lug nuts and get home. Borrow some.”
“That’s gonna take a while, man.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“You want me to drive her home. It’s getting cold out here. She’s gettin’ wet.”
Jacob looked at Rachel. She nodded.
“Yeah. You better.”
Rachel nearly dove into the warm and dry seat of Dunnigan’s car. He drove away. It was raining hard now and Dunnigan shifted the wipers to high speed.
“You all have a good time tonight? At the dance?”
“Yeah. It was great. Can’t believe it’s over.”
“You glad it’s over?”
“Yeah. I think I am.”
As they made their way through town, Dunnigan made a turn faster than he should have and Rachel heard a loose, metallic rattle as the coffee-can full of the lug nuts from Jacob’s car overturned in the well of the back seat. She looked back over the seat and saw the lug wrench and the nuts spilled on the floor. Her reaction was immediate and physical. She lost her breath. She clinched. Her jaw dropped.
“Let me out of this car,” she was shaking as she screamed.
“Hey. Don’t get all huffy on me. I’m taking those back to him soon as I get you home.”
“Let me out of this car.”
“It was a joke, Rachel. Just a joke. You wanted to get away from him. I didn’t make it rain, you know.”
“You let me out of this car. Right now. Stop the car. Let me out.”
“Rachel, it’s pouring the rain. We’re half a mile from your house. I can’t let you out in this. Calm down. It was just a joke. Guy’s do this kind of stuff all the time. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. Sorry I ever met you. Stop the car.”
As they approached a stop sign, Dunnigan slowed the car and Rachel opened her door full wide while the car was still rolling. The car stopped, Rachel jumped out, carrying her shoes in one hand and Jacob’s tux jacket in the other. The rain continued to pour. It battered loudly on the roof and hood of the car and seethed on the wet pavement.
Dunnigan yelled at her through the open door.
“I’m telling you, Rachel, I’m going right back there soon as I get you home. Now, get back in the car.”
Rachel slammed the car door and started walking. Dunnigan rolled the car slowly up beside her and Rachel scampered off of the road and off of the sidewalk and deep into adjoining lawns to continue her walk home and be as far away from the car as possible. She was drenched now, her hair bedraggled, and she was crying. She walked on. He followed in the car until she eventually reached her house and went inside.
Back at the school parking lot, Jacob has found a way back into the school building where he gets to a phone to call his father. Looking through the window onto the parking lot, as he spoke to his father, he spied Dunnigan’s car returning to the scene and watched as Dunnigan got out and took a coffee can and a lug wrench from his backseat and walked with them toward Jacob’s car.
“Dad, just a second. I may not need you to come down. I think I may have solved the problem. Standby. I’ll call back.”
Jacob walked calmly from the building to his car. Dunnigan was squatting by the driver’s-side front tire, tightening a lug nut. He saw Jacob.
“Hey, bud. Just went by the junk yard and found these. Got twenty of ‘em. Should be enough to get you home.”
“She’s home. Safe and sound. Nothing to worry about.”
“Hey, man. Get off your high horse. Trying to help you out here.”
“Stand up. I know what you did and I know why you did it.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“You gonna stand up or am I gonna have to come down there to give you a whipping?”
Dunnigan grabbed a handful of lug nuts from the can, stood up and flung them at Jacob’s face. Jacob turned and blocked them with his arms. Dunnigan took a wild swing at Jacob who ducked the blow and came back with a right cross that connected with Dunnigan’s jaw. The smack of the punch was audible, even over the beating rain. Dunnigan staggered and swung at Jacob again and again missed. Jacob repeated the right cross, again landing it on Dunnigan’s jaw. He dropped onto the wet pavement and rolled onto his side, gripping his jaw.”
“Damn. Where did you learn that?”
“I thought your dad was a preacher.”
“He is. He didn’t teach me to fight, but he taught me how to fight.”