Since I moved, it has slowly dawned on me that I can get practically everywhere faster by taking the freeway. But it has at the same time dawned on me that I might be eroding other, existing neighborhoods by using that freeway—not directly, not by physical or economic means, but simply by changing my perception of them.
In Plymouth, a little town off the Albemarle Sound, I stopped for coffee. This is how old Plymouth is: It is so old that the streets leading from the highway downtown to Water Street are named for presidents. Washington Street was blocked off for roadwork, so I took Adams downtown and Jefferson back out. On Water Street I found the Plymouth Bakery, where one table was occupied by two men and a woman, probably in their seventies. One of the men was hitting on the waitress, who was maybe sixty. Her name was Cherry. She asked if they had saved room for a piece of cake.
1. Ordered descent
On the wall by the stairs of my grandmother’s house she hung trivets of the kind you might find at a tourist trap. Rough cast iron, self-consciously old-timey, painted with whimsically tacky messages. Four of them in a line, so you could read as you descended:
Come in, sit down, relax, converse. Our house doesn’t always look like this. Sometimes it’s even worse.
I’m not a fast cook, I’m not a slow cook. I’m a half-fast cook!
When my grandparents packed up the house and moved into a retirement community I asked for the trivets, but it was only after she died that I noticed the penciled notes she had made on their backs: LT. END, LT. MID, RT. MID., and RT. END. Removing the trivets from the wall to paint, she had labeled them so they could be returned promptly to their proper position. Whimsical, but ordered. They are scattered now, one in my office, one in the kitchen, two boxed in a closet. But I like to think they will be reunited someday, and I will know how to arrange them when they are.
Read enough history and you find yourself crowded by the dead. They mill about as palpable as the living, and more numerous. Stoop to retrieve a slobbery tennis ball and assailed by the recollection that your yard was once a great plantation you may rise to find yourself surrounded by toiling slaves whose worksongs are insufficiently energetic for their driver. Hiking past a grave you may see a dead woman seated on her grave, her face like a hologram appearing old or young depending on the angle, and her legs accordingly decrepit or dangling childishly. Mention this to others and you will be regarded as the boy in the movie who claims to see ghosts or hear poltergeists, and to be fair, there may be only the finest line between historical awareness and otherworldly madness: either way, you see things that aren’t there.