Thursday, July 9, 2009

Eastern North Carolina 23.7.91: Family Scripts and Fried Fish

This is going to turn into another one of those dreary travel chronicles. I promised myself to write daily, but don’t know what to write this hot summer morning when the air hangs over Chapel Hill like thick hot milk.

We got to Chapel Hill in the late afternoon, and after a brief stretch, went out to two bookstores on Franklin Ave. I found a copy of Jones’s Lindseys of Albemarle, for which I’ve been looking, Virginia Cookery Past and Present, recommended by Karen Hess and John Egerton, and Osip Mandelstam’s poems. The latter I bought because 1) it looks interesting and 2) sees (the book blurbs say) the vocation as feeding the people. I’m always sucker for vocation-of-poet stuff.

Speaking of—in the car on the way up, I dipped into James Applewhite’s Lessons in Soaring. Wonderful lines—e.g., “What privileged paradigm lives in first dream . . . ?”

Am also reading Allan Gurganus’s White People—a fitting counterpoint. Some of the stories leave me breathless with pain, because the open old father-, mother-, brother-wounds I have not so much tried to forget as have (or thought I had) left behind as my life moves to its final end. Who can afford to carry all his wounds along to that last and definitively wounding event? To grow old is to forget, and consequently to die apace, to lose one’s humanity by dribs and drabs and coffee spoons.

Great lines in Gurganus: “Without much accuracy, with strangely little love at all, your family will decide for you exactly who you are and they’ll keep nudging, coaxing, poking you until you’ve changed into that very simple shape. They’ll choose it lazily. One when it suits them. Maybe one summer moment” (p. 65).

And supper at the Weeping Radish become Olde Heidelberg or something of the sort—full to the brim with vulgar loud businessmen who want it known that they think they’re heterosexual. And a bus ran over them all and so to the college . . . .

The chronicle continued, with lots of those little ellipses that ornament 18th-cntury novels. And now, dear reader, having revived from her swoon, Emily peered closely at the gloved hand atop her white, marbled breast.

In Williamston. Not much of a burb, to my eyes this evening. Thoughts of the alienated artist, the tortured teen riding the streets endlessly, what a town without pity can do. But of course I see the town with these eyes because so much film and literature conditions me to do so: “Rebel Without a Cause, You Can Never Go Home Again. Are Williamston and those whose name is legion like it just a vestige of old South in a tawdry, commercial, artificial, but clean modern world? I remember hearing someone complain in New Orleans (a tourist) a few years ago that the plantations looked old and dirty. Bien entendu—that’s the point. If you want American history à la theme park, by all means, hie the to one. But know what you’re getting—polyester and not all-cotton.

Am I that tourist? Is this what I feel deep inside: the plantations are old and dirty?

We got to Williamston after a grueling day of book-shopping and touring UNC campus in the boiling sun. I spent an hour or so in the NC Collection of UMC, Steve in the campus bookstore. After lunch, to a huge, cavernous, not user-friendly bookstore on Main St. in Durham. But I did find two Alice Munro short-story collections there. Need to go back.

Then on to Rocky Mount, through Rocky Mount to Everett, where we’d read of a b and b we couldn’t find. So we drove on to Williamston and checked into a motel, then back to Robersonville where we’d seen a likely looking restaurant called the Filling Station. And it was good. Wonderful fried fish with real french fries. Lots of locals—always a good sign. A look abo0ut people in this area: thin faces, sharp noses, foxy-faced look. Is it English, English Puritan, Scottish, all of the above and none of the above? Come to think of it, my grandmother’s siblings Monroe and Fanny, who were said to look like their Monk grandmother and her family, who came from here, did look like that.

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