Belle Mackey gazed out the front picture window at the smoke. Though Mayva’s Café was over a mile from the old Messer house—known across all of Galax, Virginia as Cherry Hill—on the main highway, when the wind hit just right she could see a lick of flame as it danced along the roofline of the 63-year-old mansion. Twenty rooms that once hosted senators and dignitaries, even Elizabeth Taylor, were now a growing pile of ash and dust. Her boss Mayva Wells stood next to her, wiping down the long Formica counter that ran along the length of the window. The rag circled the same spot again and again, as Mayva stared at the rising pillars of smoke.
“I always wanted to go inside Cherry Hill,” said Belle, remembering her childhood fantasies of the ground level bowling alley, or hanging from a tire swing while a cute boy pushed her through the cool spring air, her arms full of lilac blooms. “This is a sign, a real bad sign.”
“I went there as a kid several times,” said Mayva, wiping a tear from her cheek. She was descended from one of the wealthy white families that founded the town back in the 19th century. “It was real pretty inside, all the cherry wood furniture and fancy carpets from Persia.” She rubbed at the counter again. “Galax won’t be the same without that house. Always felt like it was saying ‘Hello, welcome home’ every time I drove by.”
Belle nodded. The 30 year-old white woman wanted to put her arm around Mayva, but knew it might send them both into a storm of tears. The Galax Gazette had reported a week ago that the mansion was being torn down to make room for a Wal-Mart and other stores. They had expected a wrecking ball, a few bulldozers. What they got was a fire.
“Over at the bank I heard Shelly say the fire department was gonna burn it down so the new fellas could get practice,” said Belle.
“Shit,” said Mayva, throwing down the soggy rag. “This is torture.” She trudged off toward the kitchen, where her 20-year-old son Terry swept the floor while singing old Aerosmith tunes at the top of his lungs, his small plastic cassette player clipped to the waistband of his jeans. “Terry! Turn down your Walkman!”
Belle lowered the blinds, taking one last look at the dense grey smoke, watching as it moved closer to the café and the rest of downtown Galax. The rest of the sky was beginning to turn the rich sapphire blue of twilight. Several pale stars glimmered through the haze. A few diners remained in the main area of the café, lingering over coffee and slices of the apple pie Mayva had baked early that morning. Belle went behind the main counter and began her closing shift ritual of checking sugar, salt, and pepper shakers, twisting the tops of each one to ensure they would not come loose during vigorous use. In a few minutes, Eddie the line cook would have dinner ready for her and Terry. Although she always made sure to provide a meal for her employees and her son, Mayva rarely ate, for she was frequently on a restricted diet. Her dinners at the café typically involved a cup of cottage cheese and a small salad of wilted lettuce and barely ripe tomato slices, as she always saved the good produce for paying customers.
In a days’ time the Old Fiddler’s Convention would begin: the annual bluegrass event that put Galax on the map for many a musician with an inkling toward what local folks called “old-timey music.” The week leading up to Fiddler’s was usually busy, with Mayva leaving Belle and Janet, the other waitress, alone for long stretches of time while she went shopping all over Grayson and Carroll Counties for the best cuts of meat she could find at the best prices. “Did I ever tell you Roy Clark came in here once?” she would say every year, and the two younger women would shake their heads, for Mayva always told the story even if they said they remembered it. “I’d only been open for a few years then, still struggling to pay the vendors every month,” she’d say as she rolled out pie dough or mixed cake batter. “Roy came in, banjo case under his arm, smiled at me and asked for a rib eye steak, rare, grits and a biscuit. Well, I didn’t have a rib eye in the walk-in, but I didn’t want to tell him that, so I put Eddie in the pickup and said to get me the thickest, most expensive slab of meat he could find at the Piggly Wiggly.” At this point in the story Mayva would sigh and Belle would cover her mouth to hide the quiver in her lips. “Fortunately Eddie saw Annie at the store and she helped him pick out the meat.” She’d nod to Belle, who couldn’t meet Mayva’s eyes, and continue. “That was one of many occasions when your momma saved my hide, bless her soul.”
“Plates up,” said Eddie, clanking the two heavy porcelain dishes on the metal counter. Belle carefully examined the plate for Terry. Eddie had loaded it down with Thursday’s dinner special of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy and carrots, but had made sure every food group was in its own self-contained area. If the potatoes happened to collude with the carrots or any of the gravy dripped onto the meatloaf, Terry wouldn’t eat. And Mayva got upset when Terry didn’t eat. She wouldn’t make a fuss about it, but she’d get a look on her face, the same look she had when Eddie left a head of lettuce out on the prep station over last Christmas while the café was closed for two days and they had returned to an odor Mayva referred to as “dead food smell.”
“It’s time for dinner, Terry,” Belle called to the back of the kitchen. The boy was still singing along with his Aerosmith tape. Eddie poked Terry on the shoulder, and he took the headphones off his ears, leaned the broom against the back wall, and came to the front of the café. He sat down at the counter where Belle had placed his plate of food. “I’m so hungry,” Terry said, swiveling back and forth on his stool. Still spinning, he reached for the utensils she held out to him. Belle lifted the rollup above her head.
“You know the rule, Terry,” she said.
“Once I stop spinning, I can eat my food,” he responded.
“That’s right.” He stopped moving and sat still. Belle smiled and handed him the bundled fork, knife and spoon.
“What do you say, Terry?” she asked.
Terry did not look up from his task of unwrapping the utensils. “Thank you, Belle.”
“You’re welcome.” She hunched over her own plate of food and began eating. It was one of Eddie’s better nights with the meatloaf; the beef was still moist even though it had been made several hours earlier, and the homemade gravy was the perfect consistency without any lumps. It had been a long day, customers coming in to gab about Cherry Hill, wasn’t it a damn shame, and the typical pre-Fiddler’s conversations: which young fiddler would make their debut on stage, some old timers even placing bets on who would take home first place in the dobro or mandolin competition. As would happen every August for the past 13 years, someone would start to remember the storms in ‘85 and the horrible car accident that happened right before the youth violin competition at Fiddler’s not so long ago, when poor Annie Johnson died. That person would be hushed and another old timer would tip their head in Belle’s direction, voices would lower, and Belle would, once again, pretend she had gone blind, deaf and dumb, because the only other option was to cry in the bathroom during her break.
The bell on the front door clanged. “Sorry, we’re not serving dinner anymore, but you can order some coffee and pie,” Belle said, as if on autopilot. She looked up and felt a sharp tug in her belly as she made eye contact with the thirtysomething white man who had just walked in. His dark brown hair was thick and wavy, and his tight black jeans and Sun Records t-shirt looked barely worn. The sunglasses pushed up on his forehead said Prada on the side.
“I need salt, Belle,” said Terry. She handed him the shaker by her wrist, not breaking her gaze from the handsome stranger who looked at her with a sheepish grin.
“Hi there, I need some –” he said.
“This is sugar, Belle,” Terry said, wiggling the shaker in front of her face. “I said salt.”
“Don’t be rude, Terry.” She looked away from the new customer and frowned at Terry. The young man’s expression did not show any guilt or shame. She handed him the salt shaker and turned back to the man, who glanced at Terry with an annoyed look.
“Sorry, sir, how can I help you?” She smiled.
“I need directions to—” He consulted a small piece of paper in his hand. “Felts Park.”
“Sure, go right on Oldtown, then right on Main Street. Follow that all the way down to the park and you’re there.” Belle pointed towards the front window. The smoke had crept further into downtown Galax, wrapping itself around telephone poles.
“Great, thanks,” he replied. “Can I borrow a pen to write that down?”
She handed him the worn pencil from her apron pocket and watched as he scribbled down the directions. The tops of his ears were slightly sunburned.
“They’ll be setting up for Fiddler’s tonight so you might have a hard time parking,” she said.
The man looked up and smiled. “Oh, I was just going to drive by tonight, get my bearings.” He glanced at the dome-covered stand where two pie slices remained. “A piece of that apple pie would be good, maybe some decaf, too.”
Belle nodded, grabbing a plate from the stack kept under the front counter. She lifted the heavy glass dome and used a spatula to plate the biggest slice of pie. When she turned around, the man was seated next to Terry, who was engrossed in eating his mashed potatoes with a spoon.
Belle set the pie down in front of the man, along with a rollup. “I’ll get that coffee for ya.”
“Don’t spin your stool or she’ll take back your fork,” said Terry, not looking up from his potatoes.
The man laughed. “Is that right? I’ll try to sit still, then.” Belle pushed the metal rack with powdered creamer and packets of pink and blue sweeteners over to him.
“You expect a lot of people for the Fiddler’s Convention?” he asked, stirring his coffee.
“Yes, sir, every year there’s thousands of people who come to town for Fiddler’s.” Belle’s voice was full of pride.
Mayva came out from the back room, where she’d been doing something that had her all out of breath. “Gotta start closing up soon.”
The man glanced at his watch and stood up. At least two-thirds of the pie was still on the plate. “What do I owe you?”
“Three fifty,” said Belle. He pulled a few bills from his pocket and set them down on the counter, along with a small pile of change.
“That’s only ten cents for a tip,” said Terry, barely gazing at the money on the counter.
The man looked at him sharply. “You’re a regular Rainman, aren’t ya?” He smiled at Belle and headed for the door, the bell banging against the glass as it closed behind him.
“Who’s Rainman, Belle?” asked Terry, who had resumed spinning on his stool now that he was done eating.
Belle frowned at the door, then turned back to Terry, a slight smile on her face. “He was a very nice, very smart man in a movie.” She picked up her plate from the back counter, moved it next to Terry, and finished her dinner.
“I’m home!” Belle called out as she stepped into the apartment she and her husband Len rented just off Main Street. The air smelled of stale beer and – was that cigarettes?
“Were you smoking again?” She walked over to where Len was splayed in the Lazyboy recliner her dad had left behind when he moved to Las Vegas. Len did not look up from the issue of Sports Illustrated on his lap.
“I had one, maybe two, puffs of a cigarette. Rick stopped by and he had a pack on him.” He flipped a couple pages.
“Could you guys at least have gone outside to smoke?”
“Sorry, baby.” He looked up at Belle and smiled, the same smile he used when convincing her to go to the movies with him fourteen years ago, then again when he asked her to marry him. His smile’s magical powers had greatly dissipated over the last year.
“Did you eat? I brought you a plate.” She held out a styrofoam container. “Extra gravy on the meatloaf for ya.”
“I had nachos with Rick.”
“Okay.” Belle went to the kitchen and stuck the container in the fridge. She poured herself a glass of sweet tea from the plastic pitcher on the counter. “Why is the tea out?”
“Aw crap, I took it out and got distracted. There should be some ice…” Len’s voice trailed off and the TV came on, blasting the “Cheers” theme song.
She opened the freezer door and pulled out one ice cube tray, then the other. Three thin slivers of ice fell off the side of the second tray and onto the floor. She stuck her glass of tea in the freezer, then turned to the sink to fill the trays.
“You gonna practice tonight?” Len yelled from the living room as she shut off the faucet.
“Guess so.” Though I don’t know why I do, Belle thought. Not like I go to Fiddler’s to jam with anyone. Or go anywhere to play, really.
“Scott says more layoffs are coming at Rowe.”
“That’s too bad.” Belle glanced at the calendar where she’d written her shift schedule. Morning shift tomorrow. Good. Friday mornings on Fiddler’s weekend usually meant big tips. “Did you call the unemployment office today?”
“Busy signal for over twenty minutes.” The laugh track from “Cheers” blared loudly, then quieted.
Belle stared at the calendar again. It was a little over six months since Len had been laid off from Rowe Furniture. The first month had been promising: he finished building a cedar chest he’d started when they married 7 years ago; he taught himself how to bake the pecan pie recipe he’d loved since he was a boy; he helped out at the café with inventory and little projects Mayva dreamed up, as well as entertaining Terry. “Men need to feel valued and productive,” Mayva told Belle as they watched Len haul boxes of produce into the walk-in. “He keeps busy, his spirits will stay up and he’ll find a job faster. Bosses like positive people working the assembly line.” One month turned to two, then three, and Len’s spirits sank like a rock in New River. Instead of seeking out work at the factories that remained open, or heading over to Vaughan-Bassett to apply for a job, Len sat in the apartment and watched TV.
“I’ll try again tomorrow,” he called out from his perch in the living room. Belle said nothing, as she traced the condensation on her glass of sweet tea and stared at the black fiddle case leaning against the door jamb.
That night in bed Belle tossed and turned and dreamed of the stranger from the café, his blue eyes smiling at her. Sometime after midnight she woke up. Len had left the TV on and it softly buzzed an infomercial in which a studio audience looked overly excited about getting and receiving haircuts via a vacuum attachment. She blinked a few times, then shifted her body so she could look at the ceiling. A hairline crack along the back wall reached for her. With a deep sigh Belle got up and winced at the sound of her left knee cracking. She got her fiddle from the living room and took it into the bathroom, gently closing the door until the latch clicked. Len’s snore rumbled steadily.
Belle flicked the switch, blinking again at the stream of light from the fluorescent bulb above the sink. A glance at her reflection confirmed she looked as bad as she felt: puffy eyelids from crying in her sleep, with dark crescents underneath, and hair going in ten different directions. She ran her fingers through the thick wavy mass and affixed it into a loose knot at the nape of her neck. Giving her reflection a wry, closed-mouth smile, she opened the case on the counter. The warm chestnut brown of the violin gleamed in the harsh lighting. Belle released the latches holding the instrument in place and ran her fingers down its length from scroll to chin rest. For a fiddle that had been in her family for over fifty years it was still in excellent condition, thanks to Barr’s Fiddle Shop and Belle’s own caretaking, which she’d learned at the insistence of her mother. “Treat your fiddle right and it will treat you right,” Momma often said, and Belle learned that no amount of whining got her out of regularly polishing the family heirloom. In time she began to enjoy the ritual of rubbing the scrap of blue cotton flannel from Daddy’s old work shirt over the surface of the wood, pretending she was Aladdin willing a genie to come forth. She plucked each string, all perfectly calibrated to deliver notes crisply, cleanly, every time a finger or bow rested against them. Belle slid the bow from its spot inside the case and lifted the fiddle out and under her chin. She inhaled, a deep long breath, then exhaled slowly, steadily. Turning her back to the mirror, she began to play. The rhythm of the song, an old hymn her momma always sang while washing dishes, filled her heart and poured from her swollen eyes, dropping onto the fiddle and from there to the floor. It was the sound of heartache and the deepest grief she’d ever known and hoped to never know again; the sound of guilt and regret and the knowledge that she would never be known as anything but that poor Johnson girl who lost her momma in that horrible accident, the horrible accident that never would have happened if that poor Johnson girl hadn’t been driving. And when Belle finished playing, there was a tiny, yet still discernible, puddle of tears at her feet.