Heartwood by Courtney Melvin

Travel Essay: We drove to Mentone on a whim.  The town sat within a safe distance of our Alabaster, Alabama home in the event of a catastrophe, but far enough away to forget the sounds of ambulance sirens and train screeches. My husband Jacob and I heard that Mentone was artistic and mountainous, the perfect refuge for a subdued vacation. I booked the most affordable place I could find for a Saturday night in July, an RV on a large plot of land called Heartwood. The Airbnb post introduced Ted and Cathy Howard as the owners. From their picture, I gathered that they were fifty-something hippies. They were stoic, Ted with a fiddle and Cathy with a colorful headband draped around her neck. I appreciated the simplicity of their dirt-colored clothing and the ease with which they existed next to one another. The ad mentioned that Ted baked his own bread, which he dubbed “Ted Bread.” He was known to leave the bread, along with fresh eggs, in the camper’s refrigerator for guests. He and Cathy were traveling, but we were set to meet the groundskeeper, Lisa.

All three of our daughters made the trip with us. Jettie was five months old, new to life, new to me. Story was three, with blonde hair and an insatiable desire to aggravate her older sister. Riley, long legs to go with her daddy’s face and stubbornness, was nine. We weren’t religious, but I was on a mission to find whatever peace was lost in the midst of packing lunches and changing diapers. My job in a legal office was pressured and deadline-driven, and my anti-anxiety medication expired before I remembered to take it regularly. Jacob probably wanted me to find solace too, so he packed the little black Jetta with our luggage like a game of Tetris. Questioning whether or not we would survive the overnight RV experience with kids, we set out with the best intentions and no honest expectations.

A humble interstate exit led to mountain roads that spilled in front of us, bowing around the skirts of trees like polite trespassers. Rickety summer camp signs held their places on the shoulders of the pavement.  In between them, I caught sun-lit glimpses of the deep valley and its houses. To them, we were fleeting flecks. Jacob’s fear of heights didn’t impede his ability to weave through the small cliff passes. Between sharp left turns, he asked, “Is ‘verbose’ overused?” Jacob was a perfectionist when working, agonizing over every word.  He always worked; he even wrote in the shower, the grocery store, and on the elliptical at the YMCA. Drives were no different. Three pages of a story took months to complete because the voice “had to pop.” So it popped and popped but never paced, and he dwelled in scenes until I heard every adjective in the dictionary twice.

The buildings in Mentone shared a mix of logs and blue-colored wood. Sidewalks bordered some of the limited storefronts. I saw only two restaurants and a gas station, which was smaller than my house but sporting a big sign that read, “Mentone Market.”  With the windows down and my senses so fixed on the quaint details of summer in a mountain town, I almost ignored the backseat fighting. I reeled myself back in long enough to learn that Riley was being antagonized by the smell of Story’s feet.  Story detested wearing shoes in the car. She didn’t see a point.

“My feet are my body, and my body is beautiful,” she asserted with a sly smile. We taught our daughters to love themselves. At least, we tried.

“No,” Riley responded. “Your feet smell like death, and your body’s responsible.”

“Girls—” Half-present, I attempted to create a solution. “Here, Story. Put this blanket over your feet.” I pulled the blanket, white with yellow stitching, from the floorboard and tossed it behind me. “Riley, get over it.” I knew I this was too much to ask. We hit one and a half hours at the exit. Their record of getting along on road trips was twenty minutes, marked by a night we spent in an arcade at Panama City Beach where they shared tokens and cotton candy. Glancing again through my window, I knew the town’s calmness was at risk.

Five miles and many gravel roads past the downtown area, the Heartwood sign welcomed our madness. It was hand-carved and suspended by a chain on an open metal gate.  Jacob’s foot teased the gas pedal as we entered, accepting an invitation to nowhere. We drove awhile through the rocky, wooded pathways before we were met with a small RV. Tiki torches stood guard. Lisa must have heard us coming. She sprang through the screen door with expectation. We climbed from the car, not knowing what else to do. Bullfrog croaks echoed from distant water. Jettie remained strapped into her car seat, so I cracked my door for air and stood beside it. Lisa wore weathered skin and small glasses. I wondered if her jagged teeth were a testimony to drug use. Maybe she was using up her last chance at life in Mentone.  “You have daughters,” she said, leaning in to hug Riley. Story cowered behind Jacob. “I have daughters, too,” Lisa continued. “Or I did. They’re grown.”

I didn’t care. “That’s great. They’re a handful.” I swatted a mosquito from my arm, but I couldn’t look away from Lisa. I chose not to ask about her daughters. Strangers in public often stole moments to tell me that I should enjoy these days with the kids, that they grew when I blinked. It wasn’t advice. It was bad news. It was delivered by elderly women in the lunch meat aisle at the grocery store. Sometimes the news came from a ragged waitress or from a man eating alone at the back table of a Cracker Barrel. Lisa would have said it too if given the chance, but the tiny groundskeeper whose life story I could only invent climbed into a golf cart and gestured for us to follow her with the wave of her right hand.

Riley moaned in a whisper, “She smells like that store at the mall with the black light posters.” Incense.

We followed our guide in the car, idling in the golf cart’s slow wake. She led us to the camping site and rode away without another word. If we were visiting for a spiritual awakening, she didn’t want to disturb. We parked in front of a lonely tree and unloaded in a hurry. A short, iron Buddha leaned against the roots. I bent down and pat it for good luck, something I felt I needed. Story stood beside me, pale feet parallel to mine, and shrieked, “Ohhh, Mommy! That statue doesn’t have a shirt on!”

I locked eyes with Jacob in laughter. He smirked when he asked, “Are we doing this parenting thing right?”  Unsure, I nodded.

Poised behind the camper was a small shack with a blue door. A plaque on the outer wall labeled the structure the “Writer’s Retreat.” A one night stay wouldn’t leave us any time to make use of the building. I didn’t deem myself a writer anyway, but I tried. I never found the right words.

The rest of the land was reminiscent of ramshackle cult camps that I saw in documentaries. The humidity choked me, but it didn’t distract from our exploration of the crumbled cabins littering the woods. Some housed cots draped with once-white sheets. None used electricity.  Trails formed a circle around a large meditation garden, finished with various religious relics and bright flowers. I imagined running between the trees, untethered and escaped. Every route was booby trapped with religion.

Jettie rested on my hip, staring blankly at the world. Baby hair sprang from her head like grass after its first spring cut.  Story, wearing nothing but a bathing suit because she insisted, sat beside Riley in the field. The sunlight dimmed with the slow loss of the day. They looked beautiful with sloppy ponytails and mosquito bite constellations tattooed on arms and legs. The surrounding earth lit them up like Christmas lights, and I was in love.

Girls in Mentone

That night, Jettie slept in a bassinet at the bottom of the biggest bed. Her tiny toes snuck from the edge of the blanket. The rest of us snuggled together. The air conditioning was loud enough to mask the sharp whistling of the crickets outside. We watched Jaws. Most of the movies in Ted and Cathy’s collection were Kurt Russell movies from the eighties.  Story pointed to the movie case with the shark, its mouth wide open to reveal dagger sharp teeth. “I want this one. It looks scary!”

I nudged Jacob with an elbow and tried to speak with the discreteness of a puppeteer. “I think there’s blood and stuff in this movie. I can’t remember.”

He kissed my forehead. “Yep, and it’s gonna be fine.”

Riley fell asleep during the opening credits, but Story couldn’t look away from the screen. Her gasps and giggles were accompanied by Riley’s patterned snores and an occasional coo from the foot of the bed. It was music. I thought, “This must be it.” I had words, but didn’t need them. Calmness set in. My heart slowed.

In the morning, we cooked Ted’s eggs and ate Ted Bread, which tasted no different than my grandmother’s zucchini bread. Check-out time passed before we finished restocking the trunk with our luggage. I stepped outside as others arrived, a group of strangers stretching mats out in the grass near the meditation garden. It was Sunday. The men modeled shaggy beards. The women wore tie-dyed skirts. One of the women rested on a mat that faced the sun and she began to knit. I cursed us for running late. We were no longer guests, but intruders. We tried to exit without much noise. I told the girls not to stare or raise their voices until we were in the car. When the doors were closed behind us, Riley asked, “What the heck are those weirdos doing?”

Cell service picked up ten miles away from Heartwood. Into the search bar at the top of my phone’s screen, I typed, “Ted and Cathy Howard-Heartwood.” I researched the Howards and their property. Cathy was a minister of something called Alliance of the Divine Love. It was a non-denominational faith in which they practiced elements of varying religions, focusing on an individual’s relationship with “the divine.” Heartwood used to be the grounds for spiritual renaissance gatherings. People camped for days, spending a large amount of time meditating and conversing. It made sense to me that people grouped together and strived to achieve some kind of harmony. I made the trip with my small group for the same reason, and I reached it.  During the first death scene in Jaws, a few minutes after Jettie fell asleep without a fight, hours after Buddha shocked Story with his nudity, and played to the tune of Riley’s snores, I found peace.

BIO: Courtney Melvin is an English student who’s been published in Ponder Review and Flash Fiction Magazine. She has also performed on Birmingham’s Arc Stories.

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