44 Cherry Street
We endured a rough, cold winter here in the Swannanoa Valley, with the temperature veering from 50 degrees to 20 and back overnight. At times it was so cold that it killed even old stands of bamboo, which everyone knows are impossible to eradicate. Our reward has come this late spring, though. Rhododendrons and mountain laurel are bending under the weight of the luxurious blooms, and the foliage on bushes and trees is dense and dark. It is probably because of the overgrown shrubbery and tangles of honeysuckle that you might never have noticed the bungalow-style house at 44 Cherry Street.
Almost obscuring the entrance are two massive forsythia bushes. Squeezing past these, you find a narrow flight of stone steps, partially covered with moss and creeping thyme planted years ago. At the top of this short flight, two weeping cherry trees are almost hidden behind a wall of rhododendron, shading pink phlox, which bloomed in abundance this spring. The stone path leads to worn wooden steps that take you onto a deep front porch with peeling white columns.
On the porch are six old wicker rockers whose green paint has faded and chipped. Also there are several round tables covered with potted plants and stacks of books and magazines. Giant ferns are suspended from hooks around the porch, muffling the sounds from Cherry St. and making the porch into an idyllic oasis for the residents of this old family home which has been divided into five cozy apartments.
To the right of the glossy, painted black front door is a series of bells denoting the apartments nestled behind the door. Press the first bell and the chimes in the front left apartment sound so you can just about hear their notes. Inside this apartment reside Tom Stone and Sunny Gardener (nee Susan Schwartz.) Tom is a contractor as a second career after spending thirty years in the military. Sunny taught kindergarten for years and sometimes finds herself talking to Tom as if he were a stubborn five year old. “Honey, don’t you think it would be a good idea for you to scrub those hands before we sit down for dinner? This is how we wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands, so early in the morning!”
Tom knows how to ignore this frequent advice, and changes the subject: “People just can’t drive! As I was driving home on I-40, some woman was texting and driving at 70 miles an hour. She flew past me and pulled in not two feet in front of me and then slowed down. Honestly! I almost rear-ended her. What is wrong with people?”
His ploy works. Sunny has been volunteering at the Montessori School and loves talking about her students. “Speaking about texting, you should have seen Felix this morning! He went into the Leggo area and built a device that looked remarkably like a cell phone. For the rest of the day he walked around pretending to text and talking on the phone. He called his mom and told her he wanted to eat out tonight at Thai Basil. He told her he’d order his favorite dinner, Tofu Tod. Summer overheard him and chimed in that she hated tofu and would rather eat chicken nuggets. Felix informed her that those are made of ground up chicken beaks and claws and that she was killing herself. Summer grabbed his Leggo phone and threw it on the floor, shattering the pieces. Felix stormed off to hide in the housekeeping area, his little hands in fists.”
“All this talk of tofu has almost ruined my appetite!” Tom interjects. “You didn’t fix tofu for dinner, did you?”
“I made your favorite salad: green jello and canned fruit salad. You just have to eat some of this good organic stir-fry first, and then you can get your salad.”
44 Cherry Street
After the dinner dishes were cleared away, Tom and Sunny settled in for the evening on the green brocade couch they found at Care Partners in Asheville. It is just slightly soiled, but it was a super bargain at only $50. Much of what they have in their apartment comes from antique and consignment shops. Their favorite shop is Chifferobe Home and Garden right down the street in Cherry Street courtyard. Sunny feels a certain affinity with the shop’s owners.
Tom turned on the TV to catch up on reruns of American Pickers. Tom knows the show is a fake, but he still enjoys watching Frank and Mike pretend to be surprised when they uncover yet another rusty motorcycle part from under rubble in someone’s jumbled barn. His favorite part is when they pull up in front of a stranger’s house and tell the camera that they never know what kind of reception they might get when they drop in on “unsuspecting” people looking for antiques. “Really??” Tom asks. “Do they expect viewers to believe their visit is a surprise when the camera crew is in place waiting to film their arrival?” Predictably, the boys haven’t been shot as trespassers yet.
Last spring, Tom and Sunny were driving back from a visit to Tom’s family in Indiana, and they decided to drive back roads rather than travel interstate highways. It was a beautiful trip, despite its duration. Their usual twelve hour trip took seventeen hours, but they had the opportunity to stop at little antique shops and roadside mom and pop restaurants. They saw lots of Amish folk traveling in their horse-drawn buggies, and passed tidy Amish farms In Ohio they pulled over at a big red barn surrounded by enticing junk. There was no sign, but they stopped anyway, as the owner was puttering around outside the barn. Sure enough, he was interested in selling antiques and they had fun poking around the barn and the surrounding yard and buying a few treasures. Tom asked the owner if he had ever seen “American Pickers” on TV.
“Sure have!” he answered. “Bunch of clowns! They have advance men who drive around looking for likely sources for the show. Those guys came by my place, looked around, and wanted to make me a TV star. Said I could be on the show! I asked ‘em what I had to do, and they said they’d bring some old stuff, hide it in my barn, and let the guys find it. Then I had to make out that I didn’t know what it was worth and let Mike and Frank take it for nothin’. I said ‘no way!’ I don’t want to look stupid on television!”
“For real?” questioned Sunny. “They totally fake it?”
“All’s I know is what they told me. I lost all respect for those guys,” the man said.
“Maybe now you’ll watch something else on TV,” Sunny told Tom.
“Nah, I like watching the show and learning from them what things are worth. It’s the same reason I like “Pawn Stars.”
” Another show I don’t like!” Sunny snapped. “Those guys just bicker and fuss at each other. And why do people think they can sell an original Picasso at a pawn shop and get top dollar for it? I just don’t buy it.”
“What would you rather watch?” Tom demanded, feeling a little wounded.
“Nothing, I guess…” Sunny stammered. “I just like sitting beside you on the couch reading while you watch those annoying shows.”
Sunny had a stack of books on the end table beside the vintage couch and read different books depending on her mood and the level of her fatigue. Sometimes it was serious literary fiction, sometimes crime fiction (which was her brain candy), and occasionally nonfiction. Her friends Miles and Alan, who had recently left Black Mt. for Maine, gave her a pile of food-related reading which she was hungry to start. As they got back in the car to continue their journey home, Sunny popped the next disc of a recorded book into the cd player of the Volvo, and they drove towards North Carolina.
Ten hours later the pair were back in Black Mt., and settled back into their routine.
While Tom put his feet up on the large hassock in their living room at 44 Cherry Street and chuckled along with the pickers, Sunny read her book. This one was Pocket Peace, Effective Practices for Enlightened Living, by Allan Lokos. Lokos writes, “Consider whether it’s more important for you to be right or to be happy.”
Sunny tuned out the obnoxious teasing of Frank by Mike and moved closer to Tom on the couch. She thought about earlier times in her life and sighed. “Yes,” she thought. “I’d rather be happy.”
If she hadn’t been so sleepy, Sunny probably would have noticed the smell of Patchouli incense seeping under the door from her neighbor’s house across the hall. The first thing their neighbor, Chip Long, did upon returning to his small apartment was to light some incense and turn on his cd player to play his collection of jam band music. Tonight it was Grateful Dead, kept at a considerately low volume. Chip had followed the Dead for a time when he was in high school, borrowing his mother’s station wagon to go from show to show over school breaks. He financed the trips by getting his mother to bake some innocent blueberry muffins for him to take along, and then selling them in the parking lot as “Magic Muffins.” “They were kind of magical, though,” he mused. “My mom is an awesome baker…”
Chip had gone to college for a time at Warren Wilson, studying sustainable agriculture. He had worked on the farm work crew caring for the pigs, which he loved. He had grown up in Charlotte in a suburban home and had had very little contact with animals aside from several cats, a procession of guinea pigs and hamsters, and a shih tzu. When he felt he had learned enough at college, he dropped out and got a job working on an organic farm in Old Fort. He enjoyed caring for the animals and tending the organic vegetables in the big fields. Now he was working at the new meat market on Old 70 where Foothills Farm sold their meat. The meat was locally raised and humanely slaughtered. Chip had been a vegetarian in high school and college, but felt okay about eating meat as long as it fit this humane category. And the meat from Foothills Farm was incredibly good.
His father, a banker in Charlotte with Bank of America, could not understand Chip. He had paid his tuition at Charlotte Country Day School and then Warren Wilson, and imagined a future for Chip in finance. What was the fascination Chip had with pigs? Why couldn’t the boy understand that one had to earn enough money to afford a future worth having? What about a wife, children, a home? And look at where he was living: a rat hole in the mountains when he could live in Foxcroft like his Country Day classmates who worked at the bank.
Chip settled in for the night. He seasoned some hangar steak and placed it in his George Foreman Grill and fried some purple potatoes in olive oil on his small stove. He sang along with the band to Sugar Magnolias, “Sweet blossom come on, under the willow / We can have high times if you’ll abide/ We can discover the wonders of nature / Rolling in the rushes down by the riverside.”
Life was good!
Thanks for reading this story! I will continue writing it. I have to!