Still Life in Townsend

Stevie Gibson never did like the picture, but she never did take it down. A dead pheasant still fully feathered, a bowl of oranges, a green glass goblet of wine, and an hourglass were arranged upon a pale tablecloth of folds and wrinkles, all against a shadowed background. She saw that picture every day that she sat behind the computer at her father’s heavy oak desk and typed figures for Gibson’s Motor Lodge into the Excel spreadsheets. The dark painting had not given her nightmares as a girl but still had pressed against her restless soul whenever she wandered into her father’s office. Now the picture was like the wall or the telephone, no different from the hook where she hung her coat or sweater half the year. It came with the job. Luman Gibson still owned every nail in the building, though he lived twenty miles away in an old folks’ home in Maryville and did not remember her face or her name. She would not mind to change things around, maybe, but that cost money and took time she did not have. And the things were not hers to change.

The motorcycle couple wore red bandanas on their heads and American flags on their T-shirts and jackets. Stevie manned the front desk of the family business in Townsend, Tennessee. She shared the no-excuses way the motorcycle couple wore their clothes. At thirty-nine, she appeared not much different from the girl who had first been kissed in Tuckaleechee Caverns, who carried big, wide, deep-living dreams when she left Townsend at eighteen. She still wore unforgiving jeans and daredevil necklines. But crow’s feet now printed themselves on her face, and grey strands threaded through her spiked blonde hair.

Stevie took the key from the hand of the bearded, booted fellow, as she had from thousands of other hands, and told the man and the woman to enjoy their trip. Several weeks ago, the Wears Valley forest fires all over the national news might have seemed to menace the couple’s bike trip down from Michigan. But those fires had burned on the Sevier County side, closer to Pigeon Forge and fought by firefighters from three counties. The forest fires were out now. Outside and where she could not see, trees had turned to ashes, and the mountain slopes stood charred.

Behind the front desk, Stevie watched the motorcycle man and woman push the glass door and walk on through. They were able to do that, to step into the sunshine and push on up the road.

Stevie Gibson had never not known this house on the hillside. She had known it before its dishwasher, before the bathroom downstairs. Luman placed window units in four rooms when Stevie was in high school. Before that, they turned lights off, opened windows, and sat outside on the porch. Her father had made the clothesline for her mother, sawing wood and pouring concrete so clothes could dry crisp and sweet, keeping the house cooler. A row of white pines at the edge of the yard was not there once. As a girl, Stevie dug holes for the roots though she did not dream to linger in Townsend with them.

In the last of the summer heat, tourists meandered biking paths on either side of the highway below the house. Around them towered mighty folds of the Smoky Mountains, draped in foliage lush and miraculous with sunshine. Nearly all who came to Townsend believed that they looked upon an ancient wilderness. But over a hundred years before, Stevie knew now, the mountains had been logged until they stood naked as the moon. All those great trees now rooted on the slopes and stretching for the sky—the trees that, growing up, she had thought as permanent as the earth—were nothing but new growth, a moment in the life of a mountain.

Plenty of pictures in the Gibson photo album featured Stevie and her best friend, Misty. In Kodak snapshots, the two girls theatrically posed on lawn chairs by the motel pool in the summer. The pony-tailed girls rode red bikes down Old Walland Highway towards the cabins of Sunshine. The grinning girls waved sparklers against the dark.

But the pictures her father had taken and her mother catalogued did not capture every moment of Stevie’s girlhood in Townsend. They did not show all the rock climbing, horse-riding, river-tubing days. They did not reveal the high school nights she rolled yards with friends, drank the boys in her class under the table. She had never wanted to give up her freewheeling life for anyone.

Misty Headrick married in the summer after high school. Stevie had packed up her clothes into her father’s old ’67 Mustang and moved herself on.

Now Stevie closed that album and shelved it high on the wall in Luman Gibson’s house.

The head housekeeper of Gibson’s Motor Lodge for thirty-seven years, Millicent Badgett texted her grandson on a sleek, shiny smartphone, her grey head bowed. Seated near the older woman in the break room, Stevie wolfed down a cold country ham biscuit and listened to the small television as it broadcast fiery rioting in Europe. Conflagrations were everywhere around her, more news than would ever fit on that television screen. Two more restaurants had closed in as many months. Two more families would be eating beans and the contents of neighbors’ extra cans. Millicent had told Stevie also about Piedad Gonzalez, the new hire in housekeeping. It was said the woman had left behind, in a nameless town in Texas, her only child, a little bright-eyed girl. Somehow—Stevie did not know how—that woman went to bed at night, woke up in the morning, cleaned toilets and emptied trash when her daughter was no more than a voice beamed from tower to tower, when the woman could not even touch her own child’s hair.

Stevie had not told Millicent that it got harder all the time to make the figures in the spreadsheets add up the way she needed. She had a staff of eleven, an ailing father, and a six-year old daughter herself. The motor lodge kept them all alive. It would be a dark end for the place to become a lifeless hull, crumbled and rotted like so many other abandoned motels with empty parking lots in Townsend, overgrown slowly by young trees.

The young, long-haired girl stood in high, golden grass in the autumn afternoon and watched cars roll down the road. Mules ate grass in the tilted lot just the other side of the barbed wire fence. Down by the river and across the highway stood the Subway.

This was not the ocean. This was another world, moon-far, lonesome and strange, majestic and new. To a transplant child, it was slowly becoming home.

Sloane Lucinda Gibson’s crayon art covered every surface of Luman’s old refrigerator. Brightly smiling stick people held hands beneath palm trees and stood in exclamation beside rolling waves. Stevie had moved to Myrtle Beach after years of living in towns all over the south as a waitress, as a motel clerk, as whatever suited and paid her. But numberless Coronas and one hot night on the sand had changed Stevie into something altogether new, a mother at thirty-three. She still did not know just how that suited her.

An oven mitt, a small bowl of orange peel, and an empty pizza box lay on the kitchen counter. Finishing a slice or two of orange, Stevie worked on the checkbook at the dinner table, as Sloane Lucinda slept upstairs in Stevie’s old bed. Misty, her old friend, kept and fed her child the three nights a week that Stevie drove the miles to see her father. Only on the weekends did Stevie sometimes get to make crusty grilled cheese sandwiches cut in triangles, homestyle green beans that had grown in a neighbor’s garden, and thick-cut potatoes fried up just the way her father had always fixed them. She was tired of all she missed.

Fixed to the refrigerator with a Rock City magnet, there among the little-girl handprints like starfish and seaweed, was a single photograph of Sloane Lucinda, four years old and on her tricycle, as she pedaled down the sidewalk in front of the motor lodge. The picture had been taken not long after the move. The Greek restaurant where Stevie hostessed in Myrtle Beach had closed two weeks before the news of Luman Gibson’s stroke. Her father had been sitting at his desk, facing the still life on his office wall, balancing the ledger.

Stevie turned tired eyes from the slender, silver maple outside her office window and skimmed them past the painting. In the doorway stood Millicent Badgett, carrying bags of lunch, and Sloane Lucinda in overalls, with blonde hair in dog-ears. Grass stains were on Sloane’s denim knees, and her face was full of sun. Stevie herself had waited at that threshold with Millicent through the years, looking to find her father across the room’s distance.

The little, wiggling girl spread her arms. Stevie said hello. She turned herself near, leaned forward in the contoured chair with wheels that her daughter loved to move.

The sun slipped down the sky behind the motor lodge, behind Luman Gibson’s house next door. The tops of the mountains across the river turned to gold. Stevie sat in the old wooden rocker and watched it happen. She lilted the rocker that carried herself and Sloane Lucinda forward and back, forward and back. Such moments were so fleeting anymore. Her hand rested on the curve of her child’s head, which smelled of soap bubbles, and the little girl sprawled small arms around her. A September wind eddied the sound of live music down from Headrick’s up the road like a whirl of red and gold leaves. She absorbed the sounds of evening, so familiar, the briskness, the seasonal change. Slowly Stevie and her daughter turned to silhouettes as the buildings of Townsend darkened into the great folds of mountains. Down the highway a steady push of single cars slid along with a rush and pulse that could be the breaking of waves somewhere. Headlights swept through the gathering dark, the flash and sparkle marking the passage of so many lives, evanescent, moving all the time.

Melanie K. Hutsell lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Her short fiction has appeared in Still: The Journal, Trajectory, and the Knoxville Writers’ Guild anthology Outscape: Writings on Fences and Frontiers.

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Caryl Griffin Russell at 1:05 pm

    Melanie, How delightful and deep and refreshing to read your story that brings Stevie so clearly to life in the amazing mountains of East Tennessee–in one of the most beautiful places on earth. How poignant to realize that often we dream of being in a place beyond our restless present, when the moments of joy can be right where we are, folded in loving arms in a rocking chair on a front porch watching life move by without realizing we are full and rich in the present moment, right where we are….

    wonderful writing. Thanks so much for sharing richly from a depth of your being. Love you!

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