- Leftovers, 1993
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Interstate 64 from Richmond, Virginia, to Newport News tunnels through thick and silent stands of pitch pines. Occasionally there are breaks in the trees, and the traveler glimpses a farmhouse, peanut fields or a swampy depression in the landscape where cypress knees swim in brackish lagoons. But mostly it's just pine trees and pine trees. They crowd the interstate and block the view on both sides of the highway. At night—when I do most of my driving—the moonlight pools on the pavement. Stars appear in the narrow cut of sky above. [End Page 179]
Back in those days I departed Richmond when the bars closed. Driving my father's white station wagon, I ascended the on-ramp at Boulevard. I mashed the accelerator and watched the city rise behind me as I fled it. In the wee hours of the night, I raced past Mechanicsville, then Cold Harbor, then Norge, out into the dark, unpeopled stretches of Virginia. The yard lights of farmhouses floated out there, just barely connected to the earth. Is it worth pointing out that I believed the people in these farmhouses were happier than the people I knew in real life?
I was in graduate school, studying poetry under the late Larry Levis. He was late even then: late to class, late to meetings. But I was late too, so we got along. I had a part-time job in a bar in the Fan neighborhood. The Fan was a neighborhood of streets that spun from a center point like spokes on a wheel. In the 1990s it was famous for recent gentrification and its handful of transvestites who hung on despite the hike in rents. The bar was close enough to the university that professors wandered in shyly to sip beer and conduct their illicit love affairs with students half their ages. I was studying literature, and here I will resist the temptation to list titles and names of authors.
Often I went out to the tiny bars along Clive Street or holed up in the Village Café until closing. I would go to the Church Hill neighborhood and sit upon the frowsy furniture of drinking parlors. My friends would choose petty arguments with each other about poetry and art. Some of them would claim relations to long-gone Virginian families of wealth and stature. But our real aim was to spot the ghostly figure of Levis moving along the unlit streets. Most of the time we were unsuccessful; last call would come and go. And I realized, at these moments, that I had wrung all of the pleasure out of the day. There was nothing left. So I drove east, seventy-five miles to Newport News.
As I tunneled east through pine forests, I kept the windows cracked. There was the cool air keeping me alert, the radio coming and going. I had an estranged girlfriend in Newport News, and I bore the vision of her before me as I drove. The scent of rotting leaves faded, replaced by the scent of salt marshes. I was getting somewhere. Williamsburg, then Yorktown; I was closing in. The blue heron was standing out there somewhere in the purple darkness of the salt marsh, standing alone, as always.
I believe now that it was my mother who kept my father from changing the locks. She was proud that her son was studying poetry, though had she known the true nature of my pursuits, she would have been unenthusiastic. My father was becoming increasingly suspicious, and he was tired of the [End Page 180] predawn arrivals. All my brothers and sisters had gone off to begin their lives. They were married and lived in their own houses. They had careers. My parents' house was largely empty, and it sounded hollow when I opened and shut the doors of empty rooms.
One fall morning, I woke up in Tidewater with a terrible hangover. My mother offered me coffee, juice, an English muffin. I was irritated and gruff. Her generosity made me feel foul. My father was at the library. I...