Scenes from a Life
Chapter 1 - Excerpt
"Give me a cigarette and the right atmosphere, and I'll tell you the story of my life," she said as she flicked the lighter and inhaled. The young writer listened to the renowned figure as she began to weave a tale to match all tales. The woman paused and looked at the recorder on the desk between them. The young writer blushed with embarrassment and started the machine that would hold the words Ms. James was about to speak.
She couldn't believe she was sitting in Olivia James' home. She couldn't believe she was listening to Ms. Olivia James--woman of a lifetime. Occasionally the young writer would pinch herself to be sure she wasn't dreaming. Who would believe that a struggling young writer would be summoned to write the biography of a woman who once dominated the literary world for a time? Olivia James would believe it. She was once a struggling young writer-a writer trying desperately to make sense of the world, of life. A writer before Amazon and self publishing made sharing one's work a possibility.
They sat in Olivia's study in her fabled home known as Somerset. The spacious Victorian-style mansion that rested in the secluded hills of southwestern Virginia, not far from her childhood home in Baileysville or her grandmother's house in Fuller. Somerset appeared, to the visitor's eye, to have been a part of the rural landscape known as Clovermist for years: a variety of trees gave way to an open ground around the house while shielding it from the view of passersby. Ivy traveled up a chimney, an enchanting garden bloomed with perfect timing every spring, grey squirrels frolicked in the front and side yards as if they were permanent residents of the majestic house, and deer grazed in the distance, unconcerned. One would think that Somerset began as a seed and grew in that very spot, not maiming or striking controversy with its environs.
This stately home was Olivia's hideaway, a place in which she retreated for the last twenty years and raised her three children. The children were now gown and had found lives of their own, leaving the house unbearably silent--silent until Olivia began to speak. With the breath of her voice the walls seem to come alive with conversations of literature, the hum of an acoustic guitar in the hall, and the lure of radicals and writers strolling about the garden in ardent debate. It was a house open to thought and imagination; a canvas filled with wonderful compositions of furniture, memorabilia, and worthless treasures of some little journey, acquaintance, or moment. It could be said that the house was a piece of an unbelievable creative genius. The house itself was a book or movie waiting to unfold.
It was in Somerset that Olivia worked during the last half of her career. It was a sheet of paper were she could assemble her thoughts and give birth to a timeless story. In her study, she displayed the fruits of her labor--a Pulitzer, five screenwriting awards, numerous literary awards, portraits of her children and grandchildren, and, in the center of her desk, a photograph of her late husband. This was the heart of what had now become a comatose house.
"My childhood is the logical place to begin. People are so fascinated by the childhood. It's as if it has to do with some sort of comparison. If you read of someone who was ordinary, lower or middle class, and they make a success of their life, then you compare yourself and say 'if she can do it, so can I'," Olivia explained as she took a drag from her cigarette and stared at the young writer. "What do you think?"
"It seems logical. Like the common man succeeds. Hometown girl makes good," the young writer said, straining for an appropriate phrase.
"It's logical, yes, but you see my life was not, nor is, logical. Whenever I tried to do the logical thing, logic bred hell for me. I found that an illogical logic worked best. It's the only thing that could work for a woman in this world. In order to compete and survive, one cannot think like the forces in front of them. One must think far beyond. In order to succeed, I had to let them believe I was an absolute genius."
"Illogical logic," the young writer repeated. She studied Olivia as if to warrant a better, if not more accurate explanation.
"If you were standing on an open plain and a tornado appeared and was heading toward you, you would think of running away from it. Find a ditch or a cellar and hide till it passed over," Olivia said as she blew smoke into the air. "The illogical logical thing to do would be to stand still and wait for it to turn before reaching you. Or hope it passes you over. That's an example. And, my dear, you then live in that moment." Olivia crossed her legs and watched the smoke lift from the end of her cigarette and disappear toward the ceiling.
"I think I understand. It's about taking risks, not doing what is expected," the young writer reasoned.
"You're getting there."
"Did you resort to this illogical logic when you were a child, or was it something you developed along the way?" she asked and Olivia nodded.
"It was there. There with the imagination and the yearning to create something, be it a daydream or a one-act play for a college course. I was an unusual child caught up in the usual all-American dream. Isn't it always that way? You yearn for what you don't have. When you get it, you either want more or you're just plain disappointed. As if you expected this magical carpet ride that would carry you through life without a care. Rarely does it turn out to be the ultimate of dreams come true where you appreciate and adore every second of life before the bubble bursts," she said, snubbing out her cigarette. "Then you have to watch over your shoulder to be sure someone isn't waiting to prick the bubble prematurely."
The young writer studied her--the mysterious look in her dark eyes, the youthfulness mixed with age in her face, the sadness seasoned with a long lost happiness in her expressions, and every odd and different facet of her manner. Then there was the fact that she was a smoker in her seventies and this was nearly 2040. If only she would open up her skull and let everything spill out. What a feast of knowledge, introspective and honest, would pour out!
"Let's begin with childhood," Olivia stated, reaching for another cigarette as she reclined in her chair with the grace of a ballerina being tilted backward. Now it would happen, now her story would be told; now the reason for Olivia James' journey through life would be understood. The young writer nodded in agreement as the recorder played on...
Olivia's life began long before the moment of conception. It began years and years before she was a mere celestial twinkle in the sky. Her life, as it exists on this place known as Earth, began when two Taylor brothers, having sold all the possessions left to them after the death of their mother, traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, many miles from England. They came to Virginia: one brother settled near the Chesapeake Bay area, and the other went farther inland, eventually settling in the western half of southern Virginia on a plot of land his oldest daughter would later name Clovermist.
Three generations lived and worked the land in those hills and valleys, selling bits and pieces to other farmers when the need arose till, when the fourth generation grew and began to marry, there was little left to suffice one family. Times changed, farming lost its appeal when towns sprang up, factories opened, and it was discovered that a regular guy could make a living with a business on Main Street just as he could on a farm--minus the temperament of the weather and the inconvenience of living in nowhere.
Soon churches and barn dances lost their status as "the" social meeting grounds for folks as rural schools grew and consolidated, bringing more of a sense of community that prompted Elliott Taylor, a fourth generation Taylor from Clovermist, to seek his livelihood somewhere other than farming: he became a policeman for the town of Baileysville. It was in town that he met Lillian Frances Beauchant, a school teacher transferring into the area from Roanoke to teach at Fuller Elementary. They soon wed and moved to Fuller, a rural community just outside of Baileysville, and built a home to start a family, which would include Olivia's father.
Chapter 4 - Excerpt - Growing Up
Baileysville, like most small towns, didn't have a multitude of recreational facilities for teenagers. When school was in session there were games and dances. This was the 80s. There was the mall and movies but that got "old" and expensive if you took in a movie every Friday and Saturday night. There were those people, without kids or with kids that had long since grown up, that would say kids should stay at home or get together at a friend's house if they
needed some activity to amuse them. However, parents who had teenagers in their homes weren't crazy about opening the doors for their hormonal offspring and their friends to congregate in their den or living room. Nor did they want to hear MTV or video games more than they already did. So kids in Baileysville had to find their own amusement; it seemed that no matter what form of amusement they found they were always the target for criticism.
One place that offered amusement, and drew criticism, was Flynn's Drive-in. Flynn's had been around longer than any parent cared to remember--mainly because many of them frequented its doors years ago. It was one of a handful of drive-ins in the country that had held its own with McDonald's and Burger King and shopping mall pizza joints. Flynn's was, if it could be said, a sacred mecca which called forth that section of the population that had nothing better to do with a weekend night than hangout and socialize. Thus, it was a teenagers paradise on a more primitive scale. It would do.
"I never thought I'd see this place active. I always thought it'd be torn down before I got to hang out somewhere other than the mall," Jamie exclaimed, her eyes big and searching as they pulled into the parking lot. Olivia couldn't stop looking at all the kids: they were all over the place--sitting in the beds of trucks, leaning out car windows, standing around laughing and talking, clustered around patio tables, dancing in the parking lot.
"Tear down Flynn's? That's a sacrilegious thing to say or even think. This is the social hub of Baileysville, the heart of the underground society of teenagers," Nelson corrected as he waved to some kids gathered by a '67 Ford
Mustang and steered the VW Bug convertible over to them. He parked, put his keys in his pocket, and got out. Olivia looked at Jamie.
"Well, we're here. Out on the town with the wild man, my bro," Olivia said as she looked around. "There's just something about this place, like, like it's a historical monument."
"I've heard some of my parents' friends call it a "necessary evil", like, if their kids come here at least they know where to find them. I mean nothing crazy happens here. Just kids talking. Silly how protective parents can get.
Makes me dread getting old," Jamie said as she followed Olivia out of the car. They had dressed carefully--Jamie in a black Saddlebred sweater and denim miniskirt and Olivia in a royal blue cardigan and white blouse with baggy black
trousers--daring not to look too young, too old, or too faddish.
"Yeh, I know what you mean. We have to remember how we feel so when we have kids we'll understand. Hey, who's that guy?" Olivia motioned with her eyes to where the guy stood. Jamie looked. He was tall, with dark hair, and dressed in worn black parachute pants, a white T-shirt, and a jean jacket. He saw them looking at him and walked over. Olivia felt her throat grow thick.
"Hey," he said as he came to them. "You look familiar, you wouldn't be Nelson's sister?" Jamie smiled at Olivia as if to say "see, it pays to have a brother like Nelson".
"Yes, she is. I'm Jamie, and this is Olivia. We're here with Nelson. And you are?" Jamie asked. Olivia blushed at her friend's forwardness. Mitchell eyed Olivia.
"Mitchell. I just moved here at the end of the year. I had a couple of classes with Nelson. He's all right, not your usual jock, like a real person. You two go to Beacon, right?"
"Yes, we're, well, actually we'll be juniors this fall," Jamie answered. She poked Olivia, and Mitchell pretended not to notice. Nelson came over and shook hands with him.
"I see you met my sister and her friend," he said to Mitchell then turned to the girls. "This guy isn't putting a move on either of you, is he?" Nelson kidded. Mitchell laughed.
"No. But in a few years they'll be breakin' some hearts," Mitchell remarked and jingled the keys in his pocket.
"Yeh, maybe. I was just giving them some insight into the roaring nightlife of our fair town," Nelson explained.
"I guess there's no harm in that. But girls, if you really want to roar you should catch my band at The Cavern in New Springs. I'm off now to drag through the tunnels in twenty. Come out and watch if you can," Mitchell said.
He took a playful jab at Nelson.
"Take it easy, man," Nelson said. Mitchell gave him the "peace" sign and strolled off to his car, a charged-up '76 Pontiac Firebird.
"His parents must have money, look at that car," Jamie stated as she watched him and a couple of other guys peel out.
"No. He rebuilt that himself. He took that tech thing, automotive alternatives or something," Nelson explained.
"What's 'drag the tunnels in twenty'?" Olivia asked.
"He's going to drag race some guy through the tunnels to Bluefield in twenty minutes. He won't make it over there in twenty minutes without a ticket; the cops are out bad tonight. No, he'll probably make it, out run them
or something. Let's socialize, and watch out for the guys out here--some of them don't know the difference between eighteen and fourteen," Nelson smiled.
"Neither does Jamie," Olivia giggled as she and Jamie followed Nelson over to a crowd of kids.
They mingled and mixed and traded gossip. It was the first of many weekend nights that Jamie and Olivia would spend at Baileysville's monument to a forgotten age and an overlooked crowd.
When Flynn's closed for the night, or when kids just wanted a quieter place off the beaten path, there were a few places in which one could find solace. Jasper's Run, a quaint strip of tree-covered road that went to the other side of Lake Sylvia, was reserved for the ritual of making out. They called it Jasper's Run because a man known as Eddie Jasper used to run up and down the road and bang on cars, yelling about the "evils and sins of love in the back
seat of a car." That was back in the sixties and Jasper had since died. He had never caused any trouble, was a caretaker at the lake, and even served as a sort of watch dog for troublemakers. Most people said he was "a little off".
Nevertheless, they started to call it Jasper's Run and the name stuck. Eddie Jasper would probably turn over in his grave, if he had a mind to.
For a few years the old train station near Fuller was high on the list of social hangouts. Kids would park their cars in an open field behind the crumbling station and sit and talk and watch the trains come by. It was very
popular until in the seventies a young boy ran and stood in front of an oncoming train, in sight of his friends, and committed suicide. Since that tragedy, there was something foreboding about the place and most kids stayed away. A few unconventional types could still be found frolicking there, yelling as the trains passed them by.
The "place" of the moment was a ridge on Stone Mountain, not far from Fleming's Hill where generations of Baileysvillites were laid to rest--including the boy who went head to head with the locomotive. The Ridge, as it
was called, was a clearing off the road that went over Stone Mountain to other small towns like Baileysville, Fuller, and New Springs. Kids came to the Ridge to sit and look down on the lights of Baileysville and its suburbs and
talk about anything that came to mind.
Olivia walked back and forth near the edge of the mountain, surveying the area and looking out at the lights below.
"It's beautiful here. You can see for miles. Miles. And so high up," she said, and stopped to gaze at the even blackness of the horizon.
"It's my escape. Makes me think of the world. You're sorta detached from it up here. It's down there. Although it's a view on a smaller scale," Nelson explained and handed Jamie a slice of pizza as he sat up on the back of
"A much smaller scale. There's something here though. You're right. You can come up here and clear your mind. Really think and get away," Olivia added and sat down on the ground, pulling her knees into her chest and taking a deep breath.
"Think about what? What would you come up here to think about?" Nelson asked.
"Do people come up here and..." Jamie began but stopped when Olivia glanced back at her. "Do they come up here and, you know?" she asked. Nelson broke out laughing.
"Do they come up and what, Jam?" Olivia asked, trying to keep a straight face.
"You know. Like at Jasper's Run." Jamie smiled sheepishly.
"Oh, Jamie. Is that all you think about?" Olivia squealed then shook her head in humorous disgust. Nelson grinned.
"Yeh, some do. That is if you're talking about getting laid," Nelson answered. "I'm sure if you went around and knocked on a few car windows you'd interrupt one couple at least."
"Oh," said Jamie, and she slid down in the seat. "Have you?" She looked at Nelson. Olivia laughed and fell back on the ground.
"Boy, you have no scruples, Jamie," Nelson said in a teasing tone. "And you hang out with her, Ollie?"
"Afraid so," Olivia answered as she got up and went for a slice of pizza.
"Don't get her started. Please don't get her started," Jamie said.
"I'm afraid I can't answer your question, Jamie. That's kind of an insincere situation, don't you think?"
he asked Jamie as he watched her climb back up on the back of the car.
"Very insincere. I think it should be some place nice, thought out, respectful," Jamie said as Olivia climbed into the front seat to listen.
"That sounds like a library. That's not like you, Jamie," Olivia giggled and took a bite of pizza.
"I see what she means," Nelson agreed. "I mean this back-seat-of-the-car thing is a B-movie-kind-of-thing. Makes me think of the seventies--fast and cheap. Anyway, I don't think I'm the one to talk about things like that with you two. Back to the thinking thing, Ollie." Nelson tossed a piece of crust into the brush.
"Here we go. Unleash that mind of hers," Jamie smirked as she leaned back and stared at the sky, munching down the rest of her pizza.
"What isn't there to think of? Who you are? What you are? Where you're headed? What you do when you get there? How do some... How do some people just do it, do life?" Olivia asked as she stared at the lights down below.
"Do what?" Jamie asked.
"Just live and never seem to have to think about it? Mom and Dad, they just seem to go about their merry way of things. Like having four kids and then, boom, there's another one. No big deal. I'd be nuts if that happened to
me. Like people that just do things and it all fits into place. Wouldn't that be like setting yourself up for a false life? Things don't always fit into place," Olivia explained.
"Have I heard this before, Livy?" Jamie asked as she sat up and pushed her hair out of her eyes.
"I don't know," Olivia answered, and got out of the car. She went to the edge of the mountain and stood then turned around and looked at the shadowy figures of her brother and Jamie, half lit by the full moon, sitting on the
back of the VW Bug. "Like Mr. Jeffries, my history teacher. He tells us about history. We remember what we need to know, take the tests, then get a grade. He doesn't tell us to think about it. To really feel it. We don't question why we are here, why our great-great-great-grandparents came here. Yes, there were reasons, but what was inside those reasons. What about the way they avoid talking about creation and skim over evolution in science? 'Cause no one really knows. They don't like what they can't explain, like creation, and they can't stake their lives on a theory like evolution. It's like some big lesson plan--just follow the lessons, do the exercises, get the grade." Olivia turned
around and looked at Baileysville below.
"Be born, go to school, get a family, be good, and die," Nelson remarked.
"People don't care to contemplate."
"Exactly," Olivia said as she leaned back against the car.
"It's easier just to do things rather than think about them. If everyone thought it all through then who knows where we'd be today. A bunch of questioning philosophers sitting on rocks," Nelson smiled. He motioned to
Jamie for the pizza box and they both got another slice.
"We're thinkers. Look at us sitting here," Olivia assessed.
"I'm only a listener, Livy. I have enough trouble dealing with classes and clubs and guys without wondering about how, when I visit my relatives, I get the feeling that I'm adopted," Jamie smirked as she pulled a piece of
pepperoni off the slice in her hand and popped it in her mouth.
"I'm not talking about just birth and parents. I mean, like how we are all so different. Some people have kids and it's right because they know they can take care of them. They're chilled like my parents," Olivia explained.
"Then there are the ones who have kids and don't know what the hell to do with them. And there are those who don't want kids because they don't want to think about what to do with them," Nelson added.
"It's so interesting. Different lives--together but separate. People who can murder an innocent bystander and a man in a war that can kill someone 'cause his government says he has to. People who believe in God and those who
don't but can believe in mysticism and magic. People who love money and live for it and people who hate it but without it die," Olivia said with a sigh of dismay. She sat down on the front bumper of the car.
"Livy, you have a knack for depressing people," Jamie said. Nelson looked at Jamie then hopped out of the car.
"You know what gets me?" Nelson began, his voice growing louder, "People who sit around and watch people or things around them go to pot and never do anything about it. Then when it's gone they whimper and say stuff like "Gee, it's such a sad day for him, or her, or whatever"."
Olivia nodded in agreement. "The big house on North and Main, that was a landmark. A lot of people whined about that, but no one made an effort to save it. I guess a new office complex was more important," Olivia added sarcastically. She picked up a rock and tossed it over the mountain. Jamie moved up to the front seat, now eager to listen. "How long will that office building remain half-empty? It won't be any more interesting to look at than that old house, and that house could have been wonderful."
"You've got to start with people before you worry about buildings and things like that. There are people in cities rotting away in the ghettos. Kids that never get a chance because they can't get out of the rut. People, Ollie, that's where you start," Nelson said with an encouraging voice as he sat down beside her.
"I guess I can't worry about all this when I don't really know my self," she said.
"I think you know yourself pretty well. Jamie, too," Nelson said. "You just don't realize it yet. Just remember it's people. Give people a chance even if they seem like geeks or jerks or even nice people. I can't explain it. I just know that there's a way to bring something to a person, your own way, that sometimes changes their mind or answers a question they were afraid to ask. Why do we do anything we do? We're always looking for answers, there's always questions."
"It's black and white and grey. Yes, no, and maybe," Olivia said. She looked back and smiled at Jamie.
"Don't say it," Jamie shook her finger at Olivia. Olivia pointed at Jamie.
"And there sits "maybe"," Olivia laughed, breaking her serious mood.
"Maybe I will, maybe I won't," Jamie confessed. She hopped out of the car and chased Olivia around the car. Nelson watched them, amused. Jamie caught Olivia, started tickling her, and they laughed uncontrollably.
"Maybe you guys should be more worried about these goofy little jokes you have on each other, geez," said Nelson. He shook his head and jumped into the car. "Come on. We'll take a drive through downtown before we head home."
"Hey, let's go by and honk at WBSV," Jamie suggested.
In a matter of minutes, they were zooming down Stone Mountain Road, singing along to Journey's "Open Arms".