I invite you to read this first chapter of Turn on No-Bridge Road. I’d appreciate your comments, suggestions, or even a critique. This is the third draft, and I am so happy to be working on it again! I want to hear from you. I apologize for the formatting. I had to copy and paste and it didn’t translate very well.
The wind was blowing like crazy and icy patches were clinging to the windshield. I drove slowly down the main street which was also the highway that connected the small towns in Devon County to the other small towns in the four counties on the peninsula. Snow was banked on both sides of the road, the plow having left a small truck and several cars more or less fenced in along the curb.
Passing St. Mark’s Church I saw the azalea bushes that hugged the front steps were buried in winter white. On my left a new brick post office loomed, a marked improvement I supposed. But I had liked the simple frame building where there were never any lines, and old Mr. Wagner or Miss Mable were always ready with a greeting and a smile. The post office had been the gossip hub in Holly Grove, the county seat since the early 1700s, and I had no doubt you could still find out anything about anybody inside those doors. My grandfather had written me about a lot of new folks in town, about the big houses they were building in several subdivisions down along one of the rivers. But things moved slowly in this rural part of Virginia, and it wasn’t likely these strangers would manage to speed things up any time soon.
As I passed between those two snow-covered landmarks—the church I had sometimes attended as a child and the post office—my apprehension grew. It was over eight years since I’d been here. I was filled with so many conflicting emotions, I was having trouble keeping my hands steady on the wheel as I strained to see the road. Guilt, of course, was at the top of my emotional list. Guilt over not having dropped everything a month ago and come when D. Brandon, my grandfather, had mentioned he hadn’t been feeling quite like himself. Now it was too late—Daniel Brandon Sutton had died of heart failure, alone, at Woodbine Farm.
There was only one other car in front of the funeral home. As I parked, I noticed two more out back. Checking my watch I realized it was almost an hour after the viewing would have been over. That was fortuitous in a way, because I’d much rather see him alone. Sleet stung my cheeks as I opened the door of my MG. It was not much of a welcome.
Inside it was warm and quiet, the lights dimmed. Memories overwhelmed me as I stood before the casket where my grandfather’s diminished body was arranged carefully on ivory satin. I think it must have been the first dead body I’d truly looked at. He was dressed in the only suit I ever saw him wear—his navy twill with the faint pinstripes. The trousers were shiny over the knees where he failed to ease them over the years when he sat down. The elbows, I remembered, were also shiny although I couldn’t see them. His hands were folded, big-boned and callused hands, as work worn as the farmer’s tools that lined the barn at Woodbine. How well I recalled the gentleness of those hands, how his fingers had played with my curly red hair. He’d laugh, a teasing sound to my young ears, at the kinks that sprang back into tight burnished ringlets when he let go. He was the one who’d convinced me my hair was to be proud of, even though it was different from other girls, and adults always made a fuss over it, much to my chagrin.
It began to feel sticky-warm in the room, although I felt cold inside, under my skin. I couldn’t help but think of all the times in my adult life when I could have come to see him, to share with him the person I had become but, instead, I’d filled my weekends and holidays with parties, trips to the shore or the ski slope, and occasionally to California where my mother still lived. I knew I’d ignored him and shunned this town I loved. Not because I wanted to, because it had nothing to do with Gramps. In some ways it was about my mother, but mostly it was about Jeremiah Weeks. I became almost paralyzed at the thought of seeing Jerry Weeks again.
And how ironic that it had been Jerry who called me when Gramps died! His call hadn’t been to console me, however, but as D. Brandon Sutton’s attorney, he’d called to inform me, the only heir, that there were decisions to be made and papers to sign. On the drive down from Philadelphia I had tried very hard to snuff the tiny flame of hope his voice had kindled. But I had failed miserably. I was returning to Holly Grove in Devon County on this cold February night facing, with equal reluctance, my grandfather’s cold body and my very disturbing memories of Jerry Weeks, whom I had once loved.
Almost every year after we’d left, my mother had sent me back to Virginia to stay with my grandfather at Woodbine Farm. “Brandon,” she’d announce each June after school was out, “Brandy, I’ve got your plane tickets for Richmond. You’ll have a whole two months on the farm with D.Brandon. Isn’t that exciting? You don’t have to worry about me, dear. I’ll find plenty to keep me busy while you’re away.” What I learned the summer I was fourteen was that she knew exactly what was going to keep her busy—her man of the moment was going to whisk her off to some idyllic Pacific island or a romantic chalet in the Swiss Alps. None of this mattered to me, one way or the other, because I loved it at Woodbine. And I finally admitted to myself that I’d much rather be there than with my mother. I remember hot steamy summers spent riding on the tractor, pitching hay, and gathering eggs when the dew was still on the grass and the barnyard smelled rank and alive. So I’ve never thought badly of her for buying a little pleasure for herself. I guess she trusted the old man, her father-in-law, although I had long been aware there were issues. He’d certainly been good to her, especially when, after my father’s death, he’d let us move right back into the cabin like that. But there must have been some reason she’d packed us up in such a hurry that summer after we’d been there about a year. I knew she felt safe about me being there with him, so it wasn’t that.
Gramps had been a large man, always in overalls, and that was all I could think of now as I stood looking down on him. He didn’t look like himself without his overalls. He would have been ninety-one soon, had he lived. Shivering, I sat down and looked around the room. The walls were papered in a vertical gold and mauve scroll pattern. Hideous. There were flowers. That explained the pungent sweet odor. The bouquets were typical, artfully arranged in large wicker baskets. Why did people always send flowers? I associated flowers with joy and happiness. It didn’t feel like a joyous time, although my own church had started calling it ‘a celebration of life’ in the eulogy. In one basket, yellow spider mums fought for space with white glads, while deep red tulips and pale daffodils leaned against each other in another. Well. For D. Brandon at least, they seemed appropriate. He’d loved the earth and everything that sprang from it. It was February, frigid no-bloom February, so how much had someone paid to have tulips and daffodils flown in? I picked up the card on the basket of mums. Miller Dawson. The name seemed vaguely familiar, maybe a friend of my father’s or of Gramps. To read the other card I had to pass the coffin again.
His eyes were closed. Of course, they always did that. What if he was just asleep and they’d made a terrible mistake? Then I saw the makeup, the attempt to cover the myriad of tiny blue and red veins in his cheeks. It seemed wrong that someone had done this to him when he was dead. The taste of bile burned its way upward until I tasted it. I fought the desire to run, telling myself the face in the coffin was a mask, a façade of the man who, when I was very small, had carried me high on his shoulders across fields where heads of waving golden wheat shimmered out of sight at the edge of the woods where the red fox made his trail.
I knelt down and said a prayer. I prayed that he hadn’t suffered at the end, alone and lonely in that old house. I prayed to be forgiven for not being there with him. Then I remembered a letter of a year or more ago where he’d said he’d moved down to the cabin to conserve electricity and to be warmer. I couldn’t imagine being warm in the cabin. There were holes in the chinks almost big enough to put fingers through. But I wished I had visited him there.
Standing to leave, I passed the flowers again. The name on the other card, propped among the expensive looking tulips and daffodils, said Margot Sutton. I should have known! It was so like my mother! In life I knew Daniel Sutton had never been someone she loved to spend time with yet, in death, she took care to honor him. But was I any better? Hadn’t I practically ignored Gramps since moving to Pennsylvania and taking my assistant editor’s job?
I touched his cheek. Goodbye, dear sweet simple man. Goodbye, Daniel Brandon Sutton. You of the distinguished aristocratic name that I share with you. Farewell, Grandfather. Rest in peace. Grabbing my jacket, I rushed from the room almost tripping over a huddled shape near the door. The place was empty when I arrived. I hadn’t heard a sound. Yet the man had entered and seated himself behind me. Hurrying past, I glanced at the guest book on a side table. I’d sign it tomorrow. I didn’t want to have to talk to anyone just now.
Gulping a breath of foggy air, I slid into my small sports car. My brain was on overdrive. I would sell the house, I had to. There was nothing left for me at Woodbine. A long time ago I’d dreamed of living there with Jerry, but those were foolish dreams, as dead as Gramps. What on earth was there to do with the farm but sell it? I seemed to remember Jerry saying he knew of a company looking to buy up acres above the river. But I didn’t have to think about that yet. At the moment, I felt myself being pulled to Woodbine—to sleep in the cabin. I knew it wouldn’t be locked. Gramps never locked anything. The urge to drive there was stronger than the logic that told me to check into the Holly Grove Motel and wait until morning to visit the farm. The sleet was now a steady rain. Taking that as a good omen, I spun the car from the gravel drive onto the two-lane highway.
I had no idea if No-Bridge Road would be passable, or what the condition of the mile-long Woodbine lane would be. It was almost nine-thirty and the town had closed its doors and drawn its blinds. The whole of Holly Grove numbered five-hundred-forty-one persons at last count. I had never discontinued my subscription to the weekly newspaper, so I could keep up on what was going on there when I had time to read about it. In my more honest moments I admitted it was my way of maintaining contact, however nebulous, with Jerry Weeks.
The car seemed to drive itself, its nose sticking safely to the right of the yellow line despite the drifting fog. The small green MG took the familiar right angle curve in the heart of town, around courthouse square with its Confederate statue, slowed as it passed the Texaco station and the Coca-Cola plant then, with a little pressure on the pedal, picked up speed again as we crossed the mill pond, leaving Holly Grove behind. The MG is really my only claim to extravagance and I love it with the same passion that I’ve heard other women have for mink coats or diamond rings. Jewelry and furs have never been my idea of things to die for. But my MG, ah, that is a different story. As I approach my thirtieth birthday, I hope I’m beginning to show some signs of grace, but I know I’ll never be what anyone will call sophisticated. My short brassy-red hair keeps me feeling young enough looking, but I’m not sure it contributes to the image I try to put forth in the business world. My mother continues to urge me to invest a little time and money in makeup, but I seldom bother. “Make an appointment to see a cosmetician,” she’s always urging. I continue to thrive on a face free of creams, colors, pencils, and paint while Mother, on the other hand, spends an hour each morning ‘applying her face’. It’s the least of the things we don’t have in common. I wonder sometimes if she didn’t spoon-feed me large doses of bitterness along with my Pablum. It didn’t take of course, but I do remember she was visibly unhappy most of the time before my father died. He was an alcoholic, dedicated to caring for nothing except his bottle and, although my memories of him aren’t bad, I know he left this world having done very little to contribute to the joy or welfare of his family. One thing I guess you could say my mother and I have in common is that we both understand the pain of loving someone who was unable to, or didn’t want to, love us back. For her, Paul Sutton, my father—for me, Jeremiah Weeks III.
Tall pines with snow still heavy on the branches leaned eerily over the road after I turned off the highway and onto the secondary route. It was time to return my attention to driving. The clusters of shabby houses were still there, and the trailers. Some were well cared for, although small, and most had a truck or two out front. Small plots of land cleared for farming yielded up frayed stalks of last year’s corn crop and rotting pumpkins between patches of snow and drifting fog. A light drizzle was now hitting the windshield. It was frequently foggy between the rivers in the winter, and I kept my eyes open for deer or ground hogs. Mostly what I saw as I steered the car down the middle of the road was a mass of Virginia creeper and wild rhododendron along the sides. I was anxious to reach what I remembered as the orderly lane into Woodbine but, first, I had to watch for the sign to No-Bridge Road, a sandy byway that had come by this name due to a creek crossing that frequently flooded. In really bad weather, we’d had to reach Woodbine from the other end of No-Bridge Road, but it was several miles further from town. I suddenly wished I’d chosen that route tonight. I prayed I wouldn’t have to turn around. Although my car was small, that might be difficult, even dangerous, on the narrow road in this weather.
When the headlights beamed on the sign the county had provided not so many years ago I slowed for the right turn onto sandy roadway. It always amazed me that the farm had remained isolated and inaccessible for so long. One day when we’d been poking around the old family cemetery together, Gramps had started talking about some of our ancestors. Woodbine house, the original four rooms, had been built around 1800. The river, the Rappahannock, was only a half-mile away and that’s why they chose the site, he’d said. The river was transportation in those days. The old tobacco rolling roads were still faintly discernible if you knew where to look. Gramps had known. I really couldn’t understand why my father had rejected this life. He could have made something of this land—others had—there were now Christmas tree farms, strawberry and blueberry fields, nurseries, even a winery nearby. But Paul Sutton had yearned for excitement, the thrill of city life and, in the end, it had been his undoing.
Now I was looking for the giant holly tree with the double trunk that marked the entrance to Woodbine. I knew I was getting close when I came to the creek. I could see the water was only up a few inches and I eased the MG down the slope, which thank God wasn’t icy. The car bumped across making it safely up the other side, and I took a deep breath. As I picked up speed the fog thickened suddenly and I lost sight of the road. My foot hit the brakes, but not soon enough and, missing the Woodbine drive, I felt the car slipping sideways. When it stopped I knew without looking that I was on the edge of a steep ditch, the driver’s side being on the downslope. I tried to back up but the wheels only dug deeper in the roadside mud. It was very dark. I pulled on the handbrake and turned off the engine. I sat there trying to calm my heart. It didn’t take long to realize I had to get out of the car to assess the situation. But a sudden movement to my left caused me to gasp in alarm.
A round face stared down at me, the shape accentuated by a gray fringe of beard, like a monk’s. Behind smudged wire-framed glasses, revealed by the flashlight he held, his eyes appeared guarded rather than menacing, I took in the large torso, heavy shoulders, and red and black plaid shirt. He was old. Considering his appearance and my situation for only a moment, I had to assume he was there to help, not to attack, me. I was miles from nowhere, alone on No-Bridge Road, my car in the ditch late in the evening on a cold, foggy night. What choice did I have? Taking a deep breath, I rolled the window down a crack.
“Hullo. I’m in trouble. Can you help?”
He nodded and disappeared. Within minutes he’d secured a chain around the MG’s bumper and then, climbing into a black truck I hadn’t noticed before, he had my little car free and pulled back in position to make the turn into Woodbine. Somewhere within those few minutes I realized it was the same truck, a Ford, that I’d seen parked next to my car when I left the funeral home. Then I recognized the lumberjack shirt as the one I’d seen hunched in the back of the viewing room. So. What did it mean? It meant he’d followed me, and I’d been too carried away with my thoughts to notice his headlights. No. It meant he had gone around the other way, speeding perhaps, to come in the other end of No-Bridge Road to wait for me! It meant he had known where I was going! Now I was scared. Fear crept down my spine like a melting icicle, one drop at a time, as I put the pieces together. The door of his truck slammed and I heard the rattle of the chain as he unhooked it. Then he was back at the window.
“The road’s plowed. I’ll follow ye in, help ye light the lamp and get the fire goin’,” he called through the glass. He headed back to his truck without waiting for a reply.
I clenched my hands together trying to think what to do. He had to have known who I was and where I would be going from the beginning. When the truck’s headlights came on, I decided I had no choice. I started the engine, shifted into gear, and made the turn heading slowly down the mile-long narrow lane to the farm. The woods seemed more shabby than I remembered, the sides of the drive overgrown in spots. There were uncleared fallen trees and a lot of undergrowth. Yet the road was in good enough condition without too many ruts, and I breathed a sigh when at last I reached the openness of the first plowed fields. Four hundred acres of woods and farmland. That was Woodbine Farm. Four hundred acres, the house, the cabin, the barn, and three outbuildings. That’s what Jerry had told me was my inheritance when he’d called, to do with what I would. And, he’d urged, I’d better take that developer’s offer while it was still on the table. I’d been too undone at the time to ask what the developer wanted with the property. I was just starting to wonder.
Now, as I came closer, I felt time reversing itself. My reverie flashed briefly through my childhood years and the many times and occasions I’d lived here, soon fast-forwarding to the summers I’d spent with Gramps, and thus to Jeremiah Weeks. It was late June and I was fifteen when I began to take an interest in him. From the beginning he made me think of the picture of Apollo in one of my childhood books. Apollo, who had over twenty-five lovers. Apollo, who slew the Python and the Cyclops. Jerry, who drove the tractor naked from the waist up, his muscled back rippling and browning in the fierce Virginia sunshine like a piece of golden toast waiting to be buttered. Jerry, who smelled of fresh hay and sweet young sweat—tall, blond, slender-hipped, with eyes the translucent blue of my mother’s sapphire ring. Jerry had captured my virgin heart without even trying. Those blue eyes could be deceptive however—I had never been sure when he was serious or when he was mocking me.
Run, Jerry, run. Catch me if you can. Weave me a garland of daisy blooms, and you shall be my man. Faster, Jerry, faster. Don’t you dare delay. Kiss me, Jerry, kiss me, before night can fade to day. It was a silly poem I made up one day, sitting on the back step while we wove a string of daisies together. The blueberries were ripe and juicy and we gathered them at dusk, eating hungrily until our mouths were stained purple and the last crimson streaks of sunset had dropped behind the edge of earth across the river. And Jerry kissed my purple lips and his firm young body pressed against mine. A long time ago. And yet, wasn’t it only yesterday? Tomorrow, after the funeral, or the day after that, I knew I’d have to face him.
The Ford’s headlights bounced off my mirror, jolting me back to the present. I slowed at the circular approach to the house, and saw the snow had been plowed there as well. That surprised me, and I decided to take a look at the house before heading for the cabin. I was totally unprepared for the state of disrepair. I stopped, trying to take it all in. A pane of glass in one of the kitchen windows appeared broken; it had been patched with cardboard or something. A board hung loose in the siding of the central section. Paint was peeling near the front door. Even in the misty darkness Woodbine looked forlorn and friendless. The car lights played on the building as I glanced quickly at the two chimneys. No obvious damage there. The ancient boxwoods, keeping watch around the drive, looked the same. I felt relieved at that. Here, on this rolling slope, where an early German settler had decided to build his home high above the river, on this ridge we were above the fog. The old man in the truck was still behind me, slowing when I slowed, jerking to a stop when I pulled up at the double doors in front of Woodbine’s center hall. I had always wondered at the grandeur of such an entrance to a large, but basically simple house. A fine mist hung in the frigid air as I stepped from the car, where the wind that had scattered the fog blew up from the river. I decided to be brave.
“I’m going to look around,” I called to him when he climbed from his truck. “I have a key, but I’m sure it’s not locked. He never locked it.”
The porch was approximately four feet deep and eight feet from end to end. It stood several feet off the ground. An ancient railing and pickets edged the long side and four steps led up from each end. He chose the near side, the left, to block my way. I hadn’t guessed him to be tall but, standing there, he loomed over me.
“No,” he announced firmly, his arm preventing me from putting my hand on the door. “Not tonight. In the morning.”
Whatever fear I still had was fast turning to annoyance. “Why? Who are you to tell me I can’t go in? It’s my house now.” I thought he winced at that, but it may have been a shiver. We were totally alone, two strangers, glaring at one another in the darkness. I was certain the lights of our two vehicles were the only illumination within miles. Our confrontation, if it was that, suddenly seemed ludicrous. I had trouble suppressing a giggle.
“It may be yer house and all, Miss, but I’ll wager I know a sight more about it than ye’d ever care t’know.”
I sensed desperation in his words and saw it in his eyes, as well as an obvious pride. “Well, Mr. … what was your name again?”
“Dawson. Miller Dawson.” He stuck out his hand and I accepted it. “And ye’d be young Clarisse Sutton unless I’m mistaken.”
“Ah, yes. Mr. Dawson. The gentleman who sent flowers. Very thoughtful of you. Thank you. I think I might remember you ….”
“I was his friend. His only friend at the last, except for old Mrs. Yeatley, who cleaned for him once in a while before she passed on last year.”
“Yes, Mrs. Yeatley. She brought him a cherry cake once when I was visiting.”
“Haven’t come for a long time, have ye?”
Guilt swept over me again. “I have a job. I’m busy. It’s difficult to get away.”
He shrugged. “Don’t matter t’me. Ye can save the excuses. But ye’re not goin’ in the house tonight. I’ll get the fire goin’ in the cabin if ye’ll move yer car, Miss Clarissa. And ye can follow me down the hill.”
What a crusty old fool but, on the other hand, I was grateful he’d offered to open the cabin for me. I was freezing. My teeth were chattering. Nerves as well as cold, I suspected.
The small log building back down the drive from the house, where my grandfather had spent the last year of his life, had always been called the cabin. My parents had lived there for a couple of years before I was born, but they weren’t the first Suttons to occupy it. There were others before. I just couldn’t remember them at the moment. I carried my garment bag inside and laid it over the worn pine table in the center of the room, recognizing it as the eating table from the kitchen up the hill. He made no move to help me unload the rest of my belongings as I made two more trips to the car, but he’d lit a couple of oil lamps and knelt now in front of the kerosene stove, fiddling with the mechanism. My nose twitched at the gassy smell of the fuel. I remembered when there’d been swallows roosting on the oak beams of the overhead loft and mice nesting in a pile of rags in the corner. Jerry tried to make love to me there once and a mouse ran over my bare feet. We never had actually made love—I’d always stopped him short of that—but there’d been plenty of petting and kissing, almost getting there if you will. We had definitely discovered each other’s body.
“I don’t see why he moved out here ….” My sentence trailed off as I looked around. I saw that the wide board floor was covered in spots by a few worn orientals, the log walls had been recently chinked, thank goodness, but the furnishings were sparse. I recognized my grandfather’s favorite chair, the high-backed Windsor that had needed reupholstering since my childhood. He’d kept it in the kitchen next to the window and Bo, the old gray tomcat, had claimed it most of the day. Bo had lived to be seventeen. I remember being seventeen the year he died. After Bo, there’d been other cats but I couldn’t remember their names. The chair remained a threadbare print with red birds faded to pink on the back and cushions. “What happened to his cat? He had a yellow cat a few years ago.”
“Died. Distemper. He had others since. There’s a new kitten.” Miller Dawson now had a small fire going in the wood stove as well as the kerosene burner.
“Oh, where is it? I love kittens.” I moved around the room, touching things, thinking of an old man living here by himself. He’d lived by himself for as long as I’d known him but, somehow, it seemed he might have been more lonely out here in the cabin. I knew what it was like to be alone. Except for the sometime affair with Eric, which really didn’t count for anything, I was alone most of the time. But the loneliness of an old man must be different, hard for me to imagine or understand. For one thing, I have my work, a job that could consume me twenty-four hours a day if I let it. “What color is it, the kitten?” The room was beginning to warm up, the corners to seem less gloomy.
He straightened slowly, rubbing his back with a big fist. “Arthritis. Gets to me in the winter. That’ll take the chill off. The tabby? She’s gray. I took it to my place, down the road.”
“Gray,” I said. “Like Bo. Poor Bo couldn’t even catch a mole at the end, and we had to lift him out of that chair the last summer.” Needing answers, I turned to him. “What really made my grandfather move out of the big house?”
“Electricity. Couldn’t pay the bills. They cut off his power. No heat, ’cept the fireplaces, and him not able to split wood nor haul it either. Too much house fer an old man. Too many ghosts.” He crossed the room, his boots scuffling on the uneven pine floor. “If ye haven’t eaten, Miss, I put a few cans of soup and some cereal in the cupboard … milk and such in the refrigerator. Not much though, cause I didn’t know what ye might like. The bed’s in the loft. There’s a lamp up there and in the bath. And hot water. There’s power—we just got used t’savin’ it.”
I was about to tell him to call me Brandy when the door slammed behind him. What a strange old man. Then I began to wonder about staying alone in this creepy place all night and quickly bolted the door. I soon spotted an electrical outlet and plugged in my radio. It worked. I was relieved to find there was electricity even if there were few lamps and probably not many wall outlets. A tiny refrigerator in the corner gave off a welcome hum and an ancient three-burner stove, apartment size but adequate, sat next to it. There were some conveniences at least.
After unpacking a few things, some sandwiches and basics like juice and coffee and a couple of beers from my small freezer chest, I made use of the simple bath facilities. These consisted of a rusty tin shower stall, a discolored toilet, a sink the size of a small dishpan, and a small cracked mirror—all illuminated by a low-watt hanging lightbulb. Gramps must have scoured the second hand stores to outfit the place because he hadn’t brought much down from the big house.
After putting things away while eating a peanut butter sandwich, I decided to check out the bed in the loft. Grabbing a cookie and, carrying one of the oil lamps, I made my way uneasily up the narrow ladder. Looking through the small dormer I saw the moon had escaped the clouds. Up the hill, in the eerie white light Woodbine House appeared every bit as abandoned as it was.
The narrow brass bed used to be in my room up there. It was made up with clean sheets, a soft pillow, and a down patchwork comforter. I sank down gratefully, and fell asleep wondering how Miller Dawson had known to expect me, but feeling very grateful that he had.