VIRGILINA, VA – It was one of those early summer mornings when the breeze made it almost chilly enough to wear the long-sleeved flannel shirt his grandfather gave him. The bridge leading into Virgilina never ran over a river, or any body of water, but it once spanned a set of railroad tracks that had long ago been covered with years of earth and a lifetime of broken bottles and stories, like the ones his grandfather would tell him every Sunday on the back porch and would surely tell him when they met in fifteen minutes.
The banner at the edge of town read:
Welcome to Virgilina Summerfest! May 25!
Arts & Crafts! Music! Food! Bands! Games and rides for the kids!
Parade @11. Street dance 7 pm-9 pm.
In Andy’s mind, he traced next week’s parade route which ran through the intersection, past the road that led down to the cemetery, and ended at the old school. The now-empty parking spaces and lots were crammed with vendors. Some sold crafts, others made snow cones, and even one or two set up with random goods for sale. He smelled and heard it all: hotdogs cooking, the crowds, a stew fundraiser, and the convenience store his grandparents used to run.
‘I Think I See Them’
“Mom! Mom! Look!” Andy shouted as they approached the open field lined with vendors. “I think I see them.”
“Look. Right there.”
He pointed at a table under a green tent wedged between an older woman selling handwoven, heart shaped baskets and a table supporting the Virgilina Volunteer Fire Dept.
“You want a basket?” his mother asked with a shocked look on her face. Andy’s grandmother snatched her daughter’s hand.
“Now you know my little grandson doesn’t want a basket. And if he did, his Deda could make him one.”
All three laughed as Andy pulled his mother down the slight slope towards the green tent. He ignored the man who tried to shove a plastic fireman’s hat on his head.
“Look! I told you. I told you they had ’em.” He lifted a red box of Donruss baseball cards off the table. “Please?” he sighed with a look to his mother. “Pretty please,” he said with a glance to his grandmother.
“Well you’ll get them for him if I don’t,” his mom said.
“You know I will,” his grandmother answered.
“Just like you did with that rollerskating baby thing.”
“And the My Pet Monster.”
“I sure did,” his grandmother said.
“And that time you let him talk us into seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
“Now you gotta admit,” the grandmother said, “that cartoon rabbit was kind of cute.”
All three laughed as his grandmother pushed his mom’s hand away and handed the man behind the table $20.
“Now what do you say?” Andy’s mom asked.
“I love you, sugar,” his grandma said.
“I love you, Mema.”
“Now we better hurry up before we miss the parade.”
Approaching The Intersection in Virgilina
Andy approached the intersection, in awe that the small town he visited at least once a week as a child had a pizza place on the left and a Family Dollar on the right. Growing up, he remembered an old service station on the corner, but his grandfather once said, during a Rook game, that it had a livery and a stable behind it that burned years ago.
Andy learned a little about everything sitting at the dining room table with his grandparents and great aunts and uncles…
“I think I heard that bird tweet,” Deda said, holding his cards close to his chest.
“Now, George,” his brother Lennie said in the world’s deepest voice. “You can’t have the Rook again.”
Andy looked at his hand, careful not to let on that he did not quite understand if his hand was good enough to bid or not.
“Who’ll start the bid?” Andy’s mom asked.
“One…hundred…” The words barely escaped Andy’s lips. “And…five?” The bid went around the table.
Pass. Pass. One hundred and fifteen. Pass. One hundred and twenty.
Mema whispered something into Andy’s ear.
“One…hundred…and…forty…”Andy said as Lennie gasped. “Five?”
“Oh my God, boy,” Lennie said as he rose partially out of his seat. “Who taught you to bid like that? Surely not that grandpa of yours.” Deda didn’t look up.
“Just wait,” Mema said as she adjusted herself in her chair and slid closer to Andy.
One hundred and eighty points later in Andy’s favor, Lennie wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead.
“Well, these young folks don’t play Rook like we used to. Do they, big brother?” Lennie asked
“Actually,” Mema interrupted, “he plays Rook like his grandma.”
All Lennie could do at that point was agree.
A Methodical Pace
Andy was not quite sure when they boarded up the laundromat across the road from the Family Dollar. In fact, he never really remembered it as a laundromat. It was just a little diner where they would eat once in a while to give Mema’s famous green beans and boiled potatoes a rest…
“You sure do love some hotdogs, sugar,” Andy’s grandma said. “Just like your Deda.”
Andy crammed half a hotdog in his mouth. “Mmmfmmfmffm…”
“Please don’t talk with your mouth full.”
“Mffmfmfmfffmf.” His grandfather continued his methodical pace through his first hotdog while the second waited on his plate.
“George, that baby ate two hotdogs in the time it took you to take a bite off one.”
He nodded and said, “Uh-huh.”
Elvira! The jukebox blared out the first word of the familiar song. Elvira! My hearrrrrt’s on fire…for Elvira!
Both grandparents stifled a snicker as the seven year-old’s ears caught the last word.
“Hellfire!” he sang out. “Hellfire! My heart’s on fire… for hellfire!”
The entire diner burst into laughter.
“One day I got to teach you the words to that song,” his grandpa said.
“You just hurry up and eat that hotdog. We ain’t got all day.”
As Andy crossed to the north side of Florence Avenue, he could see the Town Hall and Fire Department. Deda once told him a fire wiped out about a third of the town in the 1950’s, and that caused them to create the Virgilina Volunteer Fire Department. Before then, the firetrucks had to come from Roxboro, Danville, or South Boston, and by the time they got to town, everything was ashes.
The fire station sat on the left side of the road without a single light on inside, but Andy swore he could smell stew…
“Y’all look a whole lot like my Deda’s sisters,” the little boy said with a sheepish smile. Someone covered the fire department sign on the wall with a piece of posterboard that read:
Stew Saturday from Noon to 5:00.
By the quart or by the bowl!
“Now, darling,” the tall lady said as she elbowed the shorter one. “Just what is a Deda?”
“Ann, you know what a Deda is. That’s his grandpa, and he also might just be your brother.” The shorter one laughed.
“Well…Judy…he’s your brother, too,” she said as she poked her sister in the side.
“And there sits all the rest of our brothers and sisters over there.”
Dozens of people crowded around a row of brown tables lined end to end. Each person had a bowl of stew in front of them, with open packs of saltine crackers placed strategically along the middle of the tables.
“Well, we sure have enough of them…don’t we?”
“That we do.”
“How many of y’all are there exactly?” Andy asked.
“Well there’s me and Judy. Of course you got your Deda, but we call him ‘Little George.’ And then Mary and Gladys and Linda and your great-uncles, Lennie and Thomas.”
“Listen,” the familiar voice rang out behind his head. “Let my grandbaby sit over here and get some stew before he starves.”
His grandfather slid a chair out as The Hagar’s Mountain Boys started to play A Granny’s Love on the stage set up in the middle of the street outside the Fire Department.
A cardinal landed on the sidewalk six feet away from his foot and grabbed a crumb.
A maroon Chevelle’s horn pulled Andy out of his daydream about stew and caused the bird to take flight. Years later, Andy renamed his great-aunts “the Captain” and “CoCaptain” because they were the two people you wanted directing the ship when something happened in life. Across the road from the Fire Department was CowboyUp, a dance club and restaurant. He ate there a few times recently, but he remembered when he would go there to rent wrestling videos when he spent the night in Virgilina…
“Is that really Mema?” Andy asked his grandpa as he pointed to the black and white picture of a young woman in a long, flowing, white dress sitting on the back of an International tractor with a slight grimace from the sun as it shone directly in her face.
“Driving a tractor?’
“In a dress?”
Andy closed the scrapbook
“That’s pretty neat.”
“Yeah. Your Mema was quite a woman.”
A cardinal perched outside of the window directly beside his grandfather’s faded gray recliner and peered at them.
“You see that?” Andy asked as he surveyed the house. A porcelain cardinal sat on the fireplace. Another one was in a gold cage adorned with plastic flowers. A dozen others were just out of sight.
“The cardinal was her favorite…right?”
“It was and is.” They both smiled. “That was just her checking on us.”
They hugged as they both pushed back tears.
Standing on the outskirts of town, Andy could barely make out the outline of the old school. Behind it, at the bottom of the hill, was the ballfield where he watched his mom and aunt play a hundred softball games. A few miles down the road was North Fork Church where his parents were married, and behind him, three miles in the opposite direction, was his grandparents’ convenience store…
“Mema! Deda! Look what’s on TV!” the six-year-old shouted from the shopping cart where his grandmother made him a pallet by placing two blankets in the bottom. The cart was wedged between a large icebox and a rack that held potato chips and Vienna Sausages. His grandmother looked up from behind the register. His grandfather was nowhere to be seen.
“Just a minute, sugar,” she said as she rang up a can of snuff, a Pepsi, and a pack of peanuts.
“Look! Look! Look! It’s on!” He pointed at the TV that sat on a shelf seven feet off the ground.
Come and play. Everything’s a-okay. Friendly neighbors yes that’s where we meet. Can you tell me how to get…how to get to-
“Sesame Street!” he shouted from the grocery cart.
“What is all that racket?” his grandfather said as he walked in the front door of the convenience mart.
“Just us,” Mema said. “Just us.”
Andy ate his chips but carefully brushed the crumbs off his pallet.
Andy turned around and looked back at the town. He cupped his hands over his eyes as if it helped him see the homeplace, which he dreamed would one day be his.
“Hey. What you doing around these parts?” came his grandfather’s voice. “Am I late?”
“Not the way you drive, Deda.” They laughed “Place sure has changed.”
“Yep, but the important parts of it are still here.”
“You are right about that.” They hugged each other and neither wanted to let go.
“You still like pizza or is it too early for that or are they even open?” his grandpa asked as he put his arm around his shoulder. “And when’d you get so tall?”
“Think you’ll be able to make it to Summerfest next week?”
“Well let me tell you how things used to be.”
“I’d love that.”
“See that building there? That was Slagle’s. I think you went in there once or twice, but it didn’t always used to be that, and that place over there was a whole row of buildings and that’s where the old, three-story hotel used to be before they burned it down…”
Phillip Gillis is a teacher, writer, wanderer, semi-retired professional wrestler, and father of two beautiful children. He is also a proud native of Allensville, NC and grew up in a hardware store, C&G Supply Center.