Excerpt from What I Came to Tell You
Twelve-year-old Grover Johnston lives with his younger sister Sudie and their father in Montford, Asheville’s historic neighborhood. Their mother, an elementary school counselor at Isaac Claxton where both Grover and Sudie attend, died in an accident several months ago. It’s now November.
In this chapter, Grover and Sudie are taking their new friends Emma Lee and Clay, a sister and brother from Spruce Pine who recently moved in across the street, into downtown Asheville. Their final destination is the Thomas Wolfe House, which Grover’s father directs and which Emma Lee, a voracious reader and a big fan of Wolfe’s novels, has been dying to visit.
Chapter Ten: Try Not to Think About It
Friday afternoon, after school, Grover, Sudie, Clay and Emma Lee walked down the front steps of Claxton Elementary and headed up Montford Avenue in the direction ofthe Wolfe House. Montford was a long wide street and the cold wind blew uninterrupted all the way from downtown. After a few blocks, they ducked into Reader’s Corner to warm up. The first thing Grover always noticed when he walked into Reader’s Corner was the musty smell of used books. An old, comfortable smell. And even though he wasn’t a big reader, being around books other people had read made Grover feel at home. Byron, the owner, was a short round woman with long white hair and spectacles perched on the tip of her nose—a female Benjamin Franklin. She sat at a desk surrounded by boxes of books, going through them and writing prices in pencil on the inside cover. Grover took Clay over to the window to show him Tom, who pushed his head against Grover’s hand and purred loud enough to hear across the store.
“Emma Lee’s died and gone to heaven,” Clay said. His sister stood in the middle of the store, taking in the shelves sagging with books.
“This is Clay,” Sudie said to Byron, “and that’s his sister, Emma Lee.”
“Hey,” Clay said. He turned back to Emma Lee. “Sis, we can’t stay long.” Emma Lee, having already picked up a book, didn’t say anything.
Clay leaned toward Byron and said in a low confidential tone, “She’s a bookaholic.”
Byron looked over her spectacles at Clay. “We get a lot of those.”
Emma Lee disappeared around the corner of a bookshelf, still reading the book. “Uh-oh,” Clay said, going after her. “Now Emma Lee…”
Watching Clay go after his sister, Grover remembered that one day he’d been behind her at Claxton and watched her walk down the hall, her long black hair swaying. It had taken his breath away. Up until that moment he hadn’t really seen her, at least not like that. Now he’d be in the middle of doing homework or washing the dishes with Sudie or working in the Bamboo Forest, and suddenly there’d she’d be, walking down the hall at Claxton, her long hair swaying.
“How’s the weaving going?” Byron asked. She was one of the few people he could talk to about his tapestries.
“I’d rather be in the Bamboo Forest,” he said, still petting the cat. “But we’re taking them to tour the house.”
“It’s kind of you to take time out for your friends. You always were a generous boy.” She looked at him over her spectacles. “You come by it honestly.” Grover wasn’t sure if she meant his mother or his father. But Grover could never look into Byron’s clear eyes anymore without seeing what she’d seen that warm evening last April just as she was closing her store:
She had locked the front door and had been closing out the cash register, when there was a knock at the window. Grover’s mother had been outside waving in. She was always stopping in to talk to Byron and buy a book or two. Byron had motioned for Grover’s mother to come in and had started to unlock the door, but Biscuit was barking at Tom who had arched his back and hissed. His mother had shaken her head and said, I’m picking up a movie. I’ll come by tomorrow without the dog. She waved again and walked on. Byron had heard sirens a little later but hadn’t thought anything of it. Grover never minded stopping by the Reader’s Corner with Sudie. He wasn’t interested in the books so much. He mostly liked petting Tom, talking to Byron and looking through the very window where their mother was last seen alive.
They’d walked two blocks and the wind blew harder.
“I’m freezing,” Sudie said shivering and looking longingly at Videolife as they passed by the store.
“Why don’t we duck in there?” Clay said.
Grover stared at the store. “We’ve only got a few more blocks.”
“Your sister looks cold,” Emma Lee whispered into his ear.
Sudie’s cheeks had turned holly berry red. “For just a minute,” he said.
With his heart pounding, Grover followed them inside. He hadn’t stepped in here since the day their mother hadn’t come home. Videolife was small, about one tenth the size of Blockbuster across town but had a lot more movies, especially old movies. The shelves, almost as close together as the ones in Reader’s Corner, were packed with DVD’s and old VHS tapes. Big handwritten signs dangled from fishing line above the sections that said: Keep You Up at Night Scary, Too Deep for Us, Great Old Ones, Strictly for Grownups, Okay for Everybody, Basically for Kids and Stupid in the Stupidest Sense.
On late Friday afternoons Grover and Sudie would walk down here, meet their parents and decide on a movie together which wasn’t always easy. They’d get take-out from a little restaurant called “The Weeping Duck,” then go home and watch the movie and eat wonton soup, egg rolls, and Grover’s favorite, shrimp fried rice.
Sudie and Clay had gone straight to the This Just In section and found Ratatouille. They were reading what it said about it on the back of the DVD.
“Let me know if you need any help,” said the guy behind the counter. He had a goatee and wore a turtleneck. He was watching a TV mounted high up on the wall in one corner where they always kept a movie playing. He was watching a Woody Allen movie. Their father loved Woody Allen. He would laugh at his movies. Most of the time, Grover didn’t see what was so funny.
Sudie looked up at Grover hopefully, clutching Ratatouille to her chest. Grover shook his head. Sudie sighed and set it back on the shelf.
“It’s just one little movie,” she said. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
And Grover wasn’t about to tell her why just the sight of his sister holding that DVD had made him feel almost sick. He’d never tell her that his mother had asked him a couple of days before, when Videolife had first called, if he would mind picking it up after school. He’d never tell her that he’d forgotten about it till the day he’d seen their mother through the car’s rear window, headed toward Videolife with Biscuit.
“Sure there isn’t anything I can help you with?” The guy behind the counter glanced away from the movie for a second then went back to watching the TV.
“We came in to warm up,” Grover said, standing by the door.
“Sure man,” the guy said, not taking his eyes off the television. “Stay as long as you like. It’s a mother out there.”
A mother? Grover looked outside and then back at the guy who was caught up in the movie. He must’ve been talking about the weather.
They crossed the overpass that led into downtown, passing city workers who fought the wind to hang garlands, wreathes, giant yellow candles and Christmas lights. They ducked into the Grove Arcade. In the entryway, a red-cheeked man dressed in a Salvation Army uniform rang a bell for donations. Clay dug into his pocket, pulled out a crumpled dollar bill and dropped it into the big hanging pot.
“Merry Christmas to y’all,” the man said as the four of them walked on inside.
The first thing to hit them was the warmth, the feeling coming back into their hands and faces, as they looked at the long glistening hallway. Shafts of afternoon sunlight filtered down through the high windows, looking touchable.
“Monet,” Emma Lee said to herself, staring down the hall.
“I gave the fellow a dollar,” Clay said to his sister.
“Not ‘money’,” she said impatiently. “The painter. It’s like that painting by him.” She looked down the hall. “Of the cathedral.”
“Exactly!” Grover said looking at her. One year Grover’d given his mother a calendar of Monet’s paintings.
Sudie showed Emma Lee and Clay the model in the middle of the building of how the architect had originally designed the building with a fourteen floor tower in the middle, a small skyscraper. Grover had heard this story a million times, but it was only now that he thought what it must’ve been like for the architect. How disappointed he must’ve been to have worked so hard on something and created such a beautiful building on paper but never seen the whole thing built.
The arcade was busy with Christmas shoppers and people who’d come inside to get out of the cold. A group of shoppers had gathered in the center of the arcade where three musicians—a banjo player, a fiddler and a guitar player—played old time Christmas music. The fiddler, a bearded man, had left his case open, and it was full of coins and dollar bills. They played fast and hard. People tapped their toes and clapped in time. It was the kind of music that was hard not to smile to.
“Man, they’re hot.” Clay took off his backpack and started to clog.
“Clay’s won the clogging competition at the Lamar Lunsford Festival every year since he was four,” Emma Lee said.
“Look at that hillbilly go,” said a well-dressed older man to a woman in a fur coat. Grover could tell from his accent that he was not from the South.
“My brother is not a hillbilly!” Emma Lee had whirled around and faced the man.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.” The man laughed and looked at his wife then back at Emma Lee. “I think your brother is one hell of a dancer.”
“Don’t call him a hillbilly,” Emma Lee said, her jaw working.
“I really don’t see the problem…”
“You heard the girl!” A man stepped up to the well-dressed man. Grover had noticed him standing behind them, listening to the music with his wife and two little blonde-haired girls. He had long hair, wore a ball cap and a hunting jacket.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.” The well-dressed man wasn’t laughing now and his face had turned pale. “Tell him, Gertrude.” He turned to his wife but she pressed her lips together as if this wasn’t the first time her husband’s mouth had gotten him in trouble.
“I wouldn’t call nobody a hillbilly,” the man in the ball cap said, leveling his eyes at the well-dressed man, “not if you expect to live a long and healthy life.”
“Is that a threat?!”
“It’s one of them health advisories.”
The well-dressed man started to say something but seemed to think better of it. He took his wife’s hand, and they disappeared through the crowd.
“‘preciate it,” Emma Lee said to the man in the ball cap.
He gave her a wink and nodded toward the band. “The fella’s right. Your brother’s good.” He stepped back and joined his family. Grover saw the sad look flicker across Emma Lee’s face as she watched the man’s little girls take their father’s hands and lean back against him.
The band shifted into a faster song, and as the fiddle sped up, so did Clay’s footwork. More people gathered to listen to the music and watch him dance. Emma Lee shrugged off her backpack and joined her brother. Other people stepped out of the crowd, joining Clay and Emma Lee, and pretty soon it seemed as if half the people in the Grove Arcade were dancing.
“Come on.” Emma Lee waved Grover up.
He thought about going up, but his feet wouldn’t move. He knew good and well that if his mother had been there, she’d have been dancing right in the middle of them.
Grover watched Emma Lee drink her hot chocolate. He didn’t know if it was the cold or the dancing, but her cheeks had reddened and her eyes glistened. They had stopped in at Bean Streets long enough for Sudie to beat Clay in chess.
“Oh gross,” Emma Lee was muttering under her breath. A dreadlocked couple kissed and stuck their tongues into each other’s mouths right in front of their table where Mr. Critt had hung a sprig of mistletoe on the tip of the manikin arm coming out of the ceiling.
“Make me gag,” Emma Lee said louder.
Grover laughed, nearly spraying hot chocolate everywhere.
“Don’t knock what you haven’t tried, sister,” the dreadlock girl said to Emma Lee. She nodded toward the mistletoe. “Why don’t you and your boyfriend give it a whirl?”
“I’m not her boyfriend!” Grover said.
“Never too early to start,” the dreadlock guy said, then, as if he was demonstrating, kissed the dreadlock girl another long kiss. The couple sauntered off toward their table in the back, his hand in her back pocket.
Grover couldn’t bring himself to look at Emma Lee. He kept his eyes on the checkerboard as Sudie quickly finished off Clay. When he finally did look up, the expression on Emma Lee’s face wasn’t at all what he’d expected. He couldn’t be sure but he thought she looked a little hurt.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, my sister has a thing for Thomas Wolfe,” Clay said, as Emma Lee ran ahead and disappeared into the Old Kentucky Home. Clay looked at the rocking chairs lined up along the long porch.
“The guests used to sit out here in the summers,” Sudie said. “A long time ago, people stayed in boardinghouses like this when they visited Asheville. Now they stay in hotels.” She pointed to the Renaissance Hotel, a huge, twelve-story hotel across from the Wolfe House. Every afternoon, it threw the whole Wolfe House into shadow.
Inside, the first thing Grover noticed was the bright smell of pine and fir. Along the edges of the main exhibit room lay wreathes, a small stack of cut fir trees and another neat pile of garlands made from pine branches. Emma Lee was already at the exhibits, stopping to read every word, something Grover hadn’t done in all the years he’d come here. Little Bit and several of the tour guides draped garlands around the main room.
“He’s in his office,” Little Bit said, handing a garland to a tour guide on a ladder.
“You really are having a Thomas Wolfe Christmas,” Sudie said.
Little Bit glanced off toward their father’s office. “I thought your daddy would have a fit when he saw the bill. Instead, he said to make sure I got whatever I needed.” She lowered her voice. “His mood has improved lately.”
Grover walked to his father’s half-open office door and found him standing at his desk with Leila beside him. They were looking at an open book on the desk. The way they leaned together, almost touching, gave Grover an odd feeling. He knocked.
Leila and their father stepped back from each other.
“Come on in!” his father said. A tinge of red crept across his father’s face. “I was showing Leila a first edition Look Homeward, Angel.”
When Leila Roundtree looked up from the book, it hit Grover how pretty she was and how she wasn’t just somebody’s mother. He thought about how his father had accepted rides from the Roundtrees in the mornings, how he and Leila had started going on walks after supper, how he came back from those walks in a good mood.
Their father led the Roundtrees through the house, starting downstairs, taking them through the dining room, the kitchen, the piano parlor, the sunroom parlor, and then upstairs to the bedrooms. He showed them the room where Wolfe’s brother Ben had died. Even without reading the book, Grover’d heard his father’s spiel enough to know that Ben, Wolfe’s older brother, was the angel in Look Homeward, Angel.
With no other visitors around, his father unhooked the felt ropes and let the Roundtrees walk around in the rooms. Emma Lee hardly said a word the whole time. She seemed to soak it all in. One of the last rooms they visited was the bedroom where Wolfe’s father died.
“This is the very bed he died in,” Grover’s father said.
“I’ll be,” Clay said.
“Was he like Gant in the book?” Leila asked.
“A funny guy,” their father said, “full of life, quoted long passages of Shakespeare, built roaring fires and on occasion given to excess.”
“Given to what?” Clay asked.
“Drank too much,” Sudie said.
As Grover’s father led Leila and Clay on down the hall to another room, Grover noticed Emma Lee linger. She laid her hand flat on the bed where Wolfe’s father had died. Grover came and stood beside her.
“They know of at least eleven people who died in this house,” Grover said.
Grover heard his father’s voice down the hall. He placed his hand on Gant’s bed. “Course everybody who ever lived in this place is dead now.”
Emma Lee looked at him.
“Wolfe’s father. His mother. His brothers and sisters all dead. Every boarder who ever stayed here’s dead. And Wolfe’s been dead since 1938.”
“What are you saying?” Emma Lee asked.
Grover shrugged. “Just that everybody’s dead.”
“Or getting there,” Emma Lee said.
Careful to replace the felt rope, Grover led Emma Lee in the direction their father had taken Leila and Clay and Sudie, but found himself leading her down the hall toward the sleeping porch where Wolfe spent many nights and where he’d had to share the room with whatever boarder might be staying there at the time. It was Grover’s favorite room because it had so many windows and was lighter than the rest of the house.
“He never knew from night to night where he’d have to sleep,” Grover said. “Or who he’d have to share a room with.” He pointed to the two beds that took up most of the room. “His mother was so cheap she’d squeeze as many beds into a room as she could. She even rented to people with tuberculosis. When he died of tuberculosis of the brain, they said he might’ve caught it from having to sleep in boarders’ beds.”
They could hear their father’s voice down the hall, as he reeled off facts about Wolfe’s seven brothers and sisters. Outside, the wind whistled and a loose shutter tapped against the house. Grover reached for Emma Lee’s hand.
She looked at him and then down at his hand holding hers.
Her hand was warm and rough at the same time. He let go.
They didn’t say anything. The wind whistled outside and the shutters tapped against the house. The two of them stood watching the wind in the bare trees and the light fading outside. Down the hall, their families’ voices were coming toward them.