The Swannanoa Valley is luscious and green and over the years it has attracted different groups. The Cherokee were first, then the Scots-Irish settlers, Black people, and most recently retired Baby Boomers. Some of the retirees are from flat areas of the South, but many are from the Northeast. A portion of these Yankees tried out Florida first, but found it too hot and flat. Now they are called Half-backs, because they are now settling halfway back between Florida and New Jersey. Also a number of frozen Mid-westerners have moved here to escape the weather. So now the valley is a melting pot of clashing cultures, meeting at church pot lucks, but not even selecting from the same platters of food.
Billy Ray Davis is quick to tell you that his family has been here for seven generations, among the first settlers, and he looks down on anyone who moved here even six generations ago. The Cherokee loved the land, but didn’t understand the concept of land ownership, however, the settlers certainly did. They grabbed the land and then fought to keep it, and it cannot be said they loved the land any less than the Cherokee. Billy’s roots go deep into the land, even land his family no longer owns. He can’t forget what the early Davises sacrificed to maintain their holdings.
Like his younger brother Billy Ray, Johnny grew up in Grey Eagle. But while Billy Ray felt himself anchored to the family land, Johnny felt it like a noose around his neck. His dreams were about flying away from here. While Billy planned his future on family land, maybe farming, Johnny poured himself into his studies. He excelled in math and science, while Billy was class clown and hosted the wildest parties in the valley. The brothers competed for their parents’ affections, and Johnny always came out on top. Calls from the high school were to report mischief from Billy and achievement from Johnny. While Billy barely graduated, Johnny was valedictorian of his class and went on to study at Chapel Hill, and then law school at Stamford. Billy stayed on the farm feeling sanctimonious and possessive.
Once he hit the West Coast, Johnny changed his name to John and tried hard to erase vestiges of his southern drawl. He could sense disapproval from his Stamford classmates and professors when he said “y’all” or “flustrated.” He listened to books on tape read by actors with cultivated accents and practiced forming words in front of the mirror. He quit saying “Well, bless your heart!” and “Have a blessed day,” and would answer “The East Coast,” when people asked him where he was from. He planned to spend the rest of his life in California.
One Saturday while enjoying a designer coffee at the Blue Bottle he met a young blonde California native named Mandy and the two hit it off. Mandy was a California native and helped John feel more connected to the culture of the Bay Area. She was a massage therapist and natural foods chef. Before long he moved into her apartment in the Haight. She discouraged John from eating his comfort foods: fried chicken, grits, and overcooked greens with fatback. It was a struggle, but he was developing a taste for salads with lemon and olive oil, rather than bottled Ranch, and lightly grilled fresh fish instead of fried catfish drowned in tarter sauce. He still drank gallons of sweet tea, which he had to request in restaurants, as when he ordered iced tea, it came unsweetened.
The rent he and Mandy paid in the Bay Area was astronomical. He thought back to housing costs in Grey Eagle, and for a moment he considered moving back, but when he factored in the hefty money he was getting out of his law practice in California, and the cool laid-back lifestyle he and Mandy led, he realized he would stay. He loved the cool bay breezes, the life in San Francisco, the fine dining, and the cultural opportunities of the West Coast. He and Mandy went to the symphony and the opera, which were growing on him. They browsed bookstores and strolled the streets of the Mission District on weekends. Their favorite shop was Dave Eggars’ Pirate Supply Store where one could find anything a person might need to be a pirate, including eye patches and spy glasses.
They wanted to buy some real estate, but costs were sky high. He knew he would never live in Grey Eagle again, and hoped that a sale of his share of the Davis land would net him enough to put a down payment on something in California
He knew Billy Ray wanted him to hand over his land to him, and that Billy would just let it lie, but he still felt resentment towards his brother. If Billy had applied himself more, he would have had more of a life. He regarded Billy as a failure who just sat on his porch sipping moonshine. Even if he offered him the seven acres he owned above Billy’s holding at a rock-bottom price, Billy couldn’t scrape up the money to pay him. He just limped along on odd jobs he found around Grey Eagle and on cutting the grass of summer people. John knew that if he sold the land at a fair market price, he would be on the way towards a down payment on a house in the Bay Area. He would find a cut-throat realtor and squeeze whatever money he could get out of his inheritance. Billy could take care of himself.