The hillsides were covered with blossoming trees and that light green seen only in spring. And the air was so fresh and invigorating. So unlike the urban sprawl and smog-filled skies of Atlanta. A girl could get used to this in no time. The thought brought a smile. There, the second apple-farm in a row, all in bloom, and ahead, another of those bronze signs with historical information. Time to slow down again. Some of them were interesting.
This one was more than interesting. It was intriguing:
Half-Way Tree: (a.k.a Hanging Tree) named by Cherokee
Indians as the mid-point between the Asheville trading post
and the settlement of Nowhere. Early settlers knew it as the
Hanging Tree; referring to its leafy boughs as
“half-way between Heaven and Hell.”
The sign gave no mention of the tree’s location, although such signs were usually posted fairly near the site of interest. She’d have to ask someone in town where it was. If the tree were picturesque, she might use it as the subject of a painting. The prospect of discussing such things with her new neighbors was exciting.
MacKinlay, the town named after her ancestors, was five miles ahead–a matter of a few minutes. What would it be like? All she’d been told was that it was a typical small town. Typical of what, and to whom? People like her attorney Anthony who lived in Atlanta?
But half a dozen minutes later she’d have echoed the word “typical.” MacKinlay was charming and small, with antique shops and quaint restaurants, a florist shop, the typical hardware store displaying gardening supplies in the window. And there, next to a Norman Rockwell-type barber shop with the red-and-white striped pole by the door, a drug store, complete with a bench out front for old men to sit, whittle and gossip.
Everywhere she looked there were window boxes brimming with the riotous color-of-spring blossoms. The only things missing were horses. Somehow, cars seemed out of place on the streets, which should have been dirt, not asphalt.
It was the real-life version of fictional Mayberry, USA. Where were Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife? The thought brought a smile.
She drove completely through the main section, going around the town square twice. Picnic tables were sprinkled there, along with a small playground, a gazebo, and fountains. And in the center, standing proudly, was a statue. Statues usually represented one of the town’s revered heroes. Who would this little town have for their hero? She had to see.
She swerved impulsively into an empty parking spot. No one was there in the square; no children playing in the playground, no adults feeding the squirrels that scampered across her path, unnoticed. No one sat in the gazebo; no one admired the fountains or sat at the picnic benches even though the morning was glorious.
It seemed somehow strange, but then maybe that was how small towns functioned. Perhaps people came out only on Sundays, or maybe all the kids were in school. At least there were people on the sidewalks. At least the town had sidewalks!
The massive bronze sculpture was at once so mesmerizing that everything else in the square became a blur, merging into a long tunnel with the statue at the end, bathed in light. Something was pulling her forward, or was that a gentle shove from behind? Either way, the sensation was dreamlike. Was she actually walking? It was more like floating.
Then suddenly a bronze giant was staring down at her, looking almost as if he were waiting for her to come up and shake his hand. Time stood still.
Her eyes dropped to the plaque.
Presented in Appreciation toOur Town’s Namesake –
Gavin Douglas MacKinlay
May 15, 1827
So this was Gavin MacKinlay. If one generation were taken as twenty years, that would make him G-Jane’s–she counted on her fingers–great-grandfather, which made him her great-great-great-grandfather. Was that right? Well, give or take another “great.” Wouldn’t it be something if any kind of resemblance remained after all those years?She moved to one side and studied the bronze head, but there was nothing significant in the profile. Maybe the other side? No, that was the same as… Wait! The chin and jaw-line… were they? Yes, they werethe same as G-Jane’s! If she squinted a bit, she could almost place her grandmother’s profile against Gavin MacKinlay’s and that portion would be a perfect match.
And I resemble G-Jane the same way she resembles him.
It had always been referred to as the “that Thomas chin.” Sam had teased her about it, said he could always tell when she was ticked off about something because it jutted out when her teeth were clenched. She had inherited it from her dad who had gotten it from his mother, G-Jane.
They’d all thought it began with Jane, but it must have been dominant trait a whole century earlier. No longer the Thomas chin; it belonged to the MacKinlay name. It was the MacKinlay chin, and she owned it.
* * *
What am I doing back in the Jeep? And how did I get here? Are those women staring at me? Oh no! Did I do something weird back there at Gavin’s statue?Like remembering a dream upon waking, her efforts to recall were futile. She yanked her hands away from the steering wheel and reconstructed her steps one at a time, but faltered about the time she’d approached the statue. The rest was a blank. Almost certainly people on the sidewalk had been looking at her, but now they pretended to ignore her. Somehow she’d returned to the Jeep, but it was all a complete fog. The engine was running, but she couldn’t even remember starting it. How long had she been sitting there? That, too, was impossible to know.
Oh, well, there was still a lot of the town to see, and then she’d buy groceries. On second thought, both activities would have to wait. First she needed gas; the low fuel light was on. She’d passed a gas station earlier, just a few streets away. For now it would do.
The station belonged to another time. It was an old, shingled building, added onto over the years–obvious from the hodge-podge architectural style. The advertisement, encouraging her to “See Chimney Rock” was painted along one side. No canopy shaded the two pumps, which looked rather like twin soldiers standing at attention in the sunlight. Neither was being used, and except for a single car parked near the front door, the place looked like it was closed. The mechanic’s bay was empty.
She pulled up to a pump, her tires causing a bell to ring somewhere inside. Ding-ding. Ding-ding. A real “service” station still in operation? She hadn’t known they still existed. After a few minutes, it was apparent that the bell had just never been disconnected; no one was coming to fill her tank. Hmmm… no credit card slot. A small sign above the pumps said “Pay Inside.” Good. The attendant might be an old timer who knew the whole area. It would be a great start.
While her tank was filling, she gazed in every direction, mentally framing different scenes she’d like to paint. She’d do a whole series of MacKinlay prints. Her agent would love it. Certainly the statue, perhaps an upward shot against the sky. She might even set up her easel and paint it there in the square. That would get her some new acquaintances. People always stopped what they were doing to peer over an artist’s shoulder while the work was in progress.
She hurried in to pay for the gas. The aisles inside were so close, she had to squeeze by a man in coveralls, picking out a pack of gum. The magazine rack was half empty, and most of the things on the shelves were items a person would need every century or so: safety pins, eyeglass repair kits, duct tape, assortments of screws and nails, purse-sized tissues, toenail clippers. She didn’t bother with the rest.
The tiny checkout counter, dominated by racks of cigarettes and tobacco, was literally blocked from view by the man in the coveralls who was in the middle of telling a story, and seemed to have all the time in the world. When he finished, the station operator handed him back his credit card and launched into one of his own childhood remembrances in excruciating detail, while the smiling patron kept saying, “Yup, yup.” Maybe he’d heard this story before? She found the waiting tedious, but at least people in the town loved to talk. It was a good sign.
Finally it was her turn.
“Hi-Emma Franklin,” she offered her hand. “Jane MacKinlay Thomas was my grandmother. I’ll bet you’ve heard of her. I just moved into her house yesterday, and I need to find a grocery store. Oh, and I need some poison ivy sprayed. Would you know anyone who could do that for me?”
“Thutty dollars, twenty-seven cents.”
“That your Jeep over there at my pump?”
“Why, yes I….”
“Thutty dollars, twenty-seven cents.” He picked up a cardboard box and began opening it, not quite glancing at her. Was he trying to ignore her? She swallowed, dropping her hand. “I… did I… oh, of course. Here you are.” She held out her credit card.
“Cash,” was his reply.
“But you just took that man’s….” His scowl stopped her. “Okay, then here’s thirty-one dollars. Now can you tell me where there’s a grocery store? Please?”
“Sixty-three cents is your change.” He slapped the coins down on the worn counter instead of handing them to her; then glanced back toward the garage portion as if he’d just heard something. “Comin’!” he bellowed over his shoulder.
There’s no one there. That bay was empty! “But….” She stopped. He’d already turned away. It should have been seventy-three cents, but she was almost afraid to correct him.
“Gotta go… business.” He turned abruptly and shuffled through the door to the back. A moment later she heard the bay door being lowered.
Too late, buster. I saw your empty bay. Clearly she’d done or said something to offend the man, but what? He’d been all smiles while telling his story to that man, even joking with him, then suddenly turned on her like she was some sort of tramp. He hadn’t even looked at her directly, not once. No doubt he was waiting for her to leave, maybe even watching her. She didn’t dare look to see. Maybe it was the man’s personal problem; maybe he was just uncomfortable talking to women. Some men were like that, and she was fairly attractive. Maybe if he’d been younger….
At any rate, it was far too nice a day to let one little incident spoil her mood. She’d ask someone else directions to the store, or else just drive around until she found it.
There! Two middle-aged women across the narrow street were looking her way, almost as if they were examining her. She waved and wore her best smile. They were probably curious about the new face in their little town. If they waited, she’d have time to swing the Jeep around, drop the window, and introduce herself. She started the engine and glanced again in their direction, hoping they had read her intentions. But they’d already spun on their heels and started off in the opposite direction, jabbering. One was shaking her head. What was going on? Was it her Jeep? Were these people mistaking her for someone else, maybe someone with the same kind of car? Wouldn’t that be something? Of course, she’d be able to correct that, once a few townspeople knew who she really was, and yet she’d mentioned her name inside the gas station, and it produced the same kind of reaction.
Besides, those two women didn’t know her name. Wait, maybe there was a woman named Franklin, and… but no. Pooh! A sour note, the first of what had so far been a glorious day, but now it was behind her. The gas station and the two women had already disappeared from her rear view mirror, and she was on her way again. Her smile was back; she checked in the mirror to be sure. She turned left past the post office and the First Baptist Church, and there it was: MacKinlay Grocery. Imagine the looks she’d get when she pushed two fully loaded shopping carts up to the checkout counter. That’s how much she’d need to fill the pantry and stock all the kitchen shelves. Plus all the bathroom things, and cleansers.
It might even take three carts.
“Oh, you’re Jane Thomas’s granddaughter? Yes, we were all so sorry to hear about Jane….” She could hear them now, all the usual comments, along with the typical invitations to join this church or that, or to drop in at some social event.
She pulled into the parking lot, careful to park with the back of the Jeep toward the store entrance. That would make things easier. There was no one in the parking lot. Even so, she felt prickly, as if someone were staring at her. She slowed her steps and looked quickly around, but there was nothing. Who’d be staring at her anyway?
Look at you, Emma. You’re just jumpy because you’re excited; you’re eager. So you were a little disappointed at the gas station guy and those two women, but you’re still on an anxiety kick and you won’t lose it until you meet a few people. Give yourself time. It’s a small town, with small town people. It won’t take you long to make friends
She could practically hear Sam urging her to get out, join all sorts of groups. She squared her shoulders. “Look at me, Sam. I’m doing it.” Yet she glanced one more time at the half-dozen cars in the parking lot before going inside. That feeling was still there.
The store was mid-size, but ample enough. Her first cart was half filled in no time, but the more she smiled and greeted others, the more they ignored her. At least ten people were shopping, but not one of them would make eye contact with her. Twice she asked where to find this or that, and got no more than shrugs. Not a single word. Worse, with each person she passed, she got the creepy feeling they’d turned and were staring at her. She didn’t dare twist around to check, but the sensation actually made her skin crawl.
What was there about her that these people all sensed? Did she look like someone else? Did they think they were seeing a ghost, or something like it? Surely no one in the store was aware of the two women back there at the gas station, but the reactions were the same. In fact, everything about MacKinlay had been weird so far, starting with Gavin MacKinlay’s statue. What was it about this town? She wanted to ask, but people seemed to evaporate before her eyes. They were avoiding her.
Well, one cart full would have to do until she got to the bottom of whatever it was. She flung a couple of frozen pizzas on top of her pile and wheeled up to the check out counter, where a young cashier was chatting away with a customer. Excellent! She’d be just the person to explain the strange reactions coming from the townspeople. It wouldn’t hurt to listen in, either. It was just gossip, but you never could tell. Maybe the whole town was on edge about something, which could explain all the sullen attitudes.
It wouldn’t do to have either woman catch her staring, or listening for that matter. She parked her shopping cart a comfortable distance back and began browsing the book and magazine rack facing the register aisle. The topics and titles were typical, but she wasn’t really reading them. They were just a distraction. The covers on some of the romance novels reminded her of the old adage about putting cheap chocolates in the elaborate box, expensive ones in the plain box. If that rule applied, most of the books she’d seen in racks like this one wouldn’t be worth the time it would take to read them.
Whoa! What’s that? She whipped back to a cover she’d skipped without a second thought. The grainy black-and-white photo was her house! She grabbed a copy and quickly stuffed it into her cart, not even looking at the title, just as the woman ahead of her moved away. Finally! They’d been talking for five whole minutes. She took a deep breath, feeling almost like she was about to walk onstage in a high school play. Her smile was one of her best. Surely it would work here.
The cashier completely ignored her, choosing that moment to open the cash drawer and riffle through some papers under the tray. She seemed irritated, when moments before she’d been all smiles. Finally she put the cash tray back in place and closed the drawer. Now was the moment.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
She began moving items from her cart to the counter, but there was no response. Nothing. The girl seemed to be looking down one of the aisles, as if searching for someone.
“I’m Emma Franklin-just moved into the old MacKinlay place.” That didn’t work either. Her counter pile kept growing. There had to be something she could say to evoke some sort of reply. Finally the girl reached for the first item and ran it across the scanner.
“I wonder-would you happen to know anyone who could teach me about farm animals? Chickens, goats, sheep… like that? I don’t mean big animals, just smaller ones. My grandmother–you probably heard of her–Jane Thomas? Jane MacKinlay Thomas? I don’t know how often she got into town, but the property has a barn and there were animals there once, and I just thought….”
“What is going on here? Has this whole town taken an oath of silence against me?” The words came tumbling out before she could stop herself, and her nervous little laugh only made things worse. She bit her upper lip and almost looked away, but the cashier suddenly raised her head and smiled. At last! Maybe the direct approach was the way to go.
“You see, I haven’t been able to….” Wrong again! The girl wasn’t smiling at her, but at the woman next in line.
“Well, good morning, Mrs. Johnson, and just how are you today? Isn’t this the nicest weather we’re havin’? And how are those grandbabies of yours? Growin’ like weeds, I bet.”
She barely stopped long enough for the woman to start a reply, before she was rattling on non-stop. “Oh, I know what I wanted to ask you. My mama said for me to ask you for your recipe for cauliflower casserole next time I saw you. You know my mama just loves anythin’ with cauliflower in it.”
“But she says your casserole is the best she’s ever put in her mouth. She hopes that it ain’t some secret family recipe or somethin’ like that. Is it?”
Beep. Beep. Mrs. Johnson was either nodding her answers or simply unable to get a word in edgewise.
“Well, good. Maybe you could jot it down for me to take to her while you’re waitin’ in line. Yes, ma’am. I’ve got a pad right here….”
It was amazing, all of it! They were talking around her as if she weren’t even there. No eye contact, no acknowledgement, no answers to her questions. Even the beeps had stopped while the conversation shifted to other topics. A church bazaar, the next rummage sale, Leona Phillip’s son’s troubles in school.
There was nothing to do but stand there and fume in silence. She glanced at the book she’d snatched from the rack: From Nowhere to MacKinlay-A History of MacKinlay, North Carolina.
It was time for a little afternoon reading. I’ll get to the bottom of this yet!