Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Down Tobacco Road

I wrote this a few years ago for a writing class. It's all true. The road has now been paved and cleared. There are nice houses built on the road now with swing sets and picnic tables in the yards. It doesn't seem the least bit frightening.

Dixon's Store, archives

 I can smell the beach house sometimes—the stale scent of heat and dust, suntan lotion, and Old Bay seasoning. I can feel the pain in my toes from stubbing them on the heavy furniture. When the weather is warm, clear and bright, it brings me back to the screened porch and the boundless view of the Bay, so wide at that point that we could see the eastern shore only on the clearest days. There I am on the upper floor, early in the morning, listening to the seagulls while lying in one of the old rusty metal beds. I feel the heat from the mysterious storage spaces under the eaves where there were boxes of sharks’ teeth we found at the water’s edge and arrowheads that my father had found in the tobacco fields as a boy. Black snakes shed their paper-thin skin in the dugout garage under the house near the old agitator washing machine with the roller wringer. The wind-up record player with only one record, “I’m a jaaaaaazzzzz baby.” The blue Shirley Temple glasses in the corner cupboard. Pouring vinegar on jellyfish stings. The old black tenant farmer who drove a horse-driven wagon down the road, shouting, “Cantaloupe . . . watermelon.” 
My grandfather on my father’s side built the beach house. He was an ice and coal man, at least until people got electric refrigerators and central heating. Even during the Great Depression people still needed ice and coal so he earned enough money to build a small house overlooking the Chesapeake Bay on an old tobacco plantation called Neeld Estate. My father grew up spending summers in the little house and his children did the same. We had no telephone, no television, no hot water. Then I thought it was dreadful, but in retrospect it was nearly perfect.
Despite the languid, idyllic summer days spent at the beach house, I am haunted by a menacing quality, a vulnerability that grew from the isolation and the solitude. The Neeld family still occupies the plantation house that has been there since before the Civil War. Growing up I heard a legend about a slave child who was thrown down the stairs and killed by the mistress of the plantation. It was said that the child’s ghost could be heard crying in the house at midnight. We avoided walking past the plantation house after dark, but one night, in my 15th summer, I had no choice.
My friend Anna had come to spend a few days at the beach house with my family. Early one evening Anna and I walked down the road to the beach where we ran into Ray and his friend. I knew Ray only slightly from past summers, but he had a car and made us an offer hard for any 15-year-old girls to refuse, “Want to ride with us to North Beach? I have to pick up something for my father.” Of course Anna and I wanted to go. We could ride in a car with boys and listen to the radio.
What Ray was getting was not for his father. He bought beer in North Beach and headed back, but he turned off the road into a gravel pit about four miles from home. He stopped the car. I was in the front seat with Ray. Anna was in the back seat with the friend. One of them said, “Put out or get out.” We had never “put out” before but we knew what they wanted. We got out and they drove away without a word.
We were barefoot, on a moonless night, in an area I scarcely knew. There were no houses nearby and we had no telephone in our beach house, so even if I had wanted to call my parents I couldn’t have. We considered our options. The quickest way home would have been to go across an inlet between Breezy Point and our beach. “I don’t know how deep it is,” I told Anna, “and I don’t know if we can climb those slimy jetty walls on the other side.” So we took off for the one-lane dirt road we called Tobacco Road. It was the major connector between Neeld Estate and the rest of the world, but it had never been paved. “But what if a car comes along? We won’t know who’s in it,” Anna whispered. So we decided that we should hide if a car approached. We feared what a stranger might do to two girls walking in the night on a secluded dirt road.
We walked in the darkness as fast as we could, hid when we needed to, and prayed Hail Marys aloud. At one point a car approached and we hid out of sight on the side of the road. But Anna slipped off the side into a ravine where people had been dumping trash. I screamed, “Anna! Anna! Annie, please answer me!” No response. She finally came crawling up, shaken, with her feet bleeding. We continued to walk in silence. When we reached the paved road, a dog belonging to a neighbor with the unlikely name of Mason Dixon came out of nowhere, barking and growling. I wet my pants. Finally, we reached the Bay. We just sat in the edge of the water and washed ourselves as best we could, then we walked home past the old plantation house. We didn’t hear the child’s ghost scream. Our own experience was horror enough.
             At the time, I didn't tell my parents what had happened, fearing I would be punished for going in a car with boys. Anna and I innocently went for a ride with boys we thought we knew. We could have been raped or died trying to get home, yet we thought we were at fault. Over 40 years have passed and I have lost contact with Anna. I don't even know if she remembers that summer night in our 15th year when our innocence started to slip away.


  1. This is haunting, and the universals really shine through. If you’re shopping your writing around, I think this piece belongs in a magazine.

    1. Thank you so much, Joan. I'm glad you picked up the haunting quality--that's where I was trying to go with it. I have shopped my writing around. I actually found a "publisher" who wanted to publish a book of my essays (with recipes). But she wanted so much control--like she wanted me to take out every essay that was written about something that happened during my youth. So this one would not have made the cut. And I write a lot about faith. She said her Jewish husband never would have read the book because of the Christian "stuff" so I should take that out too. Isn't it impossible to write for a universal audience? This was the most promising bite I got among the hundred or so rejections. It's a jungle out there.

  2. Ugh, doesn't sound like a promising fit. The universals of this one came through for me when you described how you and Anna were afraid of getting into trouble after all you'd been through with a boy you knew and should have reasonably been able to trust.

    Earlier time of life, but it brought back just how fiercely my mom used to stress not getting into cars with strangers on my long walk home from school. To the point where I was less afraid of what a kidnapper might do to me than what my parents might do to me if I was ever kidnapped and managed to survive and escape. And it brought back the feeling, in sharp relief, that any bad thing that ever happened to me on a date would be cast as being entirely my fault. Nothing unusual about my parents in that respect, I guess it was just in the air we were all breathing at that time.

    It's funny how you can elicit universals by being extremely specific. And how the specific detail doesn't have to be the thing that makes it resonate with your reader's own memories. Anyway, I didn't see my first beach until I was almost 19, and this piece hit hard with me all the same. Anyway, great stuff!

    1. Thank you, thank you. So often I write in a vacuum--it's so gratifying to know how we all connect.

      Funny, but I was just listening to Boulder to Birmingham (a great version by The Fray) and I got a new insight. There's a line in the lyrics, "And pretend that it's the ocean coming down to wash me clean, to wash me clean" that I connect to this essay and realize at least part of why I feel the way I feel about the Bay. Anna and I sat in the dark at the shore and let the water wash the blood and dirt off of us before we walked home.

  3. I hadn't heard of The Fray, what a gorgeous rendition.