Sleepy little Wakefield, Virginia, announces that it is known for its peanuts. In early August before the harvest, however, all the shopkeepers are barely holding on, digging deep into last season’s bins to fancy up those lonely goobers with exotic seasoning and pushing the side products like “local” (North Carolina) honey and dusty Civil War bullets and broken arrowheads that never go bad. They’re looking toward September’s bumper crop and tourists who were never headed for this little dot on the map in the first place. Everybody, including me, is on the way to somewhere else.
It was my yearly escape; absentminded travel, hunting old books and indelible images of Virginiana. And they were there, though the books had been pawed over by other paunchy old men before me, and the picture postcard landscape I had toured through now displayed more broke-back horses and broke-down taverns and falling-down roadside shanties than I remembered.
The roads are running with us; we go into the Virginia Peanut Diner and choose from grits and biscuits and gravy from a terminally bored, cheery-voiced waitress who likes to goad us, calling us “young man,” as if age is the only remarkably pre-eminent contrast between us. We are kind, or distracted, and will not point out this interminable, numbing circle of hell from which only we, like Dante, may escape.
The bookshelves at all the Goodwills are clean and painted, loaded with Patricia Cornwells and Danielle Steels and Book Club Micheners, all in their colorful dust jackets; untouched, unread, unloved. The wares are picked over, first by the “cherry pickers” in the back and then by hoards of us. Zoned-out community service workers grimly bustle back and forth with donated ware, but it is only semblance of purpose, this movement. Along the fragrant, eau-de-thriftshoppe clothes aisles, old black women pick through clothes with an expert eye for wear, but will still not meet our eyes; death itself will not raise those browbeaten heads as they shuffle past the used thrift shop blouses.
We scour the titles here; we nod to each other and make some syllable sound or grunt as we drift past each other, often to or from the men’s room. Incidentally, the urinal in the Wakefield Goodwill is the tallest in the known world. Short men may not use them; they must slink to the toilets or do some very precise high jumping.
Entropy rules in Wakefield. It is easy to become irrelevant here; we, the alpha-old, arrive and depart in our late-model cars. One step lower in the old-man pecking order is sitting roadside in lawn chairs next to the back of the pickup truck, balancing globed fruit and vegetables on fenders, shooing flies with a wizened hand. The big decision here is which tomatoes to put out front, knowing that paw-handed travelers will squeeze these to a pulp to check their ripeness; they must be pretty, but they are the sacrificial tomatoes.
One more step down and it’s overalls or flannel shirts and we’re trudging down some two-lane to nowhere. Tourists see the back of our hoary heads then caps with tractor logos. These country roads remind us all how we disappear: walk down one long enough and we become the dwindling image in somebody’s rear view mirror. As long as you’re driving, you’ll be OK. Just don’t pull off to the side with vegetables, and, for christ sake, don’t get out and start walking anywhere.
Outside Wakefield, close to Petersburg, I stop for lunch; I am the most interesting moving object in the room, maybe because I am moving at all. I immobilize myself in a pink-flowered chair and become part of the décor, which is forgettable in the extreme, with useless farm implements and needlework homilies about sunshine and old age. I should have brought a book, but I had figured, wrongly, that by now I’d have found at least one readable book somewhere along the road.
I buy a newspaper that one of my friends calls the Richmond Times Disgrace, but the banner reads Dispatch. There’s a story about a local naturalist who has attached electronic tracking devices to box turtles to study their habitat. I make a joke to myself about the naturalist not needing his electronic locator; box turtles having a five-foot daily traveling radius, he could come out the next day and just look around. Then I remember my childhood box turtle that could sprint like a doped-up track star. On the next page I learn that somebody is trying to get Virginia to apologize for the tens of thousands of forced sterilizations they performed on young, poor, usually black women up until a few years ago. A sudden rumble of thunder startles a slow fly on the windowsill. No apologies will be forthcoming.
I pass the Museum of Useless Farm Implements, probably the supplier of restaurant décor in the whole region. Then there’s the last strip mall before the shot-up city limits sign. Whether it’s pawn shops or consignment shops or nail shops or antique malls, the story is the same; the men and women, immobile on their stools behind counters, stare blankly at the phenomenon of movement as we, the old men, stroll in. And then I realize that these vendors are the pre-old. These are the ones who are practicing waiting so diligently that they have become the pre-senile: the old-in-waiting.
As I drive back to the relative hustle and bustle of Hampton Roads, I reflect that some of us have stumbled into old age accidentally; we are the ones surprised by our condition every morning staring in our mirror, while others were always headed there.
Doug Thiele divides his creative life between music and writing. His poetry, short stories and essays have been published in a variety of media from Evergreen Review to The Taj Mahal Review in India. His latest chapbook, Like Chinese Milk, was published by A Small Garlic Press in Chicago. His lyrics have been recorded and performed by such disparate artists as The Westminster Boys Choir and Dolly Parton. He teaches composition and creative writing in Hampton Roads, Virginia, where he lives with his wife and two grandsons. He is deeply respectful of his Aniyvwia heritage.