THAT WASN’T ME
By John Thomas Tuft
The house sits on the outskirts of the tiny hamlet of Montvale, Virginia, along Route 221 (US460 for purists), between Roanoke and the county seat of Bedford, home to the National D-Day Memorial for heroically tragic reasons, and as advertised, sits in a lush vale between two rounded ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. An entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway is not far away and for some reason known only to God, the village is the site of not one, but two large gasoline tank farms. One agrees to not bring up the War Between the States of Northern Aggression at the diner on a hillock, Dale’s Diner, held in high regard by locals and travelers alike for its good food and friendly staff. (C’mon people, you know me by now!) Across the road and just to the east is the tired house. Tired paint holds it together. The furniture on the front porch is thoroughly fatigued. A lonesome shutter hangs by one hinge, as though caught in the act of trying to escape the fate of the other shutters beside the blank windows. An old glider is wrapped in blankets and plastic to help it endure the coming winds of winter.
In the tired house, wrapped in her knitted shawl regardless of weather, Annie sits in her wheelchair staring out the window. It is what she does all day, every day. Her Harold helped to service those tank farms before he caught what seemed to be a nasty cough that turned into what took him back in aught three. She taught at the Montvale Elementary School on Little Patriot Drive, just down the road a piece from where she spends her days now. Looking out the window. Seeing what there is to see. And beyond.
You must understand, mountain people are different. Timeless ridges wear on you over time. The sacred is there every day, for those who have eyes to see. Mystery is majestic and those who try to confine it are most often disappointed. So, when I tell you that Annie sees things others do not, you have to decide. For Annie is a godling scion. Some say these mountains are full of them. Annie sat there all day, listening to Johnny Cash singing The Man Who Couldn’t Cry, waiting for someone to bring her biscuits and gravy from Dale’s, staring at the crowding ridges.
Her daddy met her momma when he jumped off one of the old orphan trains in the 1930s, thinking he was in Roanoke. The family always got a charge out of that story, an orphan from New York City being shipped to the Midwest for child labor, thinking tiny Montvale was Roanoke. He met Lorilee, Annie’s momma, when he hid out in their barn. Lorilee used to say she felt the spirit move in her when she saw the wretched boy, part of why the family considered her to be a godling. That and her second sight gift. It was Lorilee’s momma, after all, who back in 1889 foresaw the Thaxton train wreck that killed 18 souls about 15 miles to the east. From Verna to Lorilee to Annie the gift made its way through the generations. Annie’s daughter, Lillianna, lives on up Lynchburg way and doesn’t get down to Montvale excepting illness or a holiday. She has never let on about whether she has the gift or not, so maybe the godlings line is ceased. Time only knows.
Annie watches the traffic on the highway in short bursts but mostly keeps her eyes on the tree covered slopes in the distance, listening to the mountains. The wheelchair is the result of a stroke back in ’16. Some days she is so intent on the hills that when she blinks and realizes that the sun is going down, it’s like she has been transported somewhere else for the time, away from disease and weakness. “Some of my students have gone on to being dirt farmers, some are lawyers and politicians,” she smiles. “There’s no accounting for taste.” Laughs as she sizes up a visitor. “You’re mountain people, right? Some holler outside of Hurricane, West Virginia. Your mother’s people, right?” Another nod. Annie pronounces, “Flatlanders think forever is just over the horizon. Mountain people know they are looking right at it, living on it.”
The roof creaks as the wind picks up, sweeping through the vale. “I could sure use them biscuits,” Annie sighs. Her visitor makes a run to Dale’s and brings steaming mounds of simplicity and redeye gravy into the tired house. Annie smacks her lips in delight. “Did you ever see such a sight?” A shadow crosses her face as she touches his hand. “You’ve known great pain.” Her visitor shrugs. “Go ahead and ask me what you want to ask,” she encourages. There is silence as she looks steadily into his eyes. “It wasn’t your fault, you know. Sometimes things just happen. But you don’t need to carry what isn’t yours to carry. There’s enough pain in this world to go around, and then some. But it is not your fault.” She fills up the fork with a big bite of the sacrament drenched in gravy. Sighs as she chews.
Waves the fork in his direction. “There’s love in your life. Someone who cherishes you. And you cherish her.” Another bite goes in, accompanied by sounds of pleasure and contentment. She swallows, sips at the coffee, and gives him a sly wink. “But that wasn’t me…”
Words are magic and writers are wizards.