“This here’s the start of the old Buford place,” Mae was saying up front.
“Where?” Frank asked, twisting around to look out the window. “I don’t see anything.”
Cheryl stirred in the back seat, raising her head from the corner of the window. She wasn’t sure how long she had been asleep, but it must have been a good while. The landscape had become hillier, the trees a darker shade of green and more densely packed, the river that followed the roadway clear and swift, more like a mountain stream. They had gained some altitude, too, which meant they’d reached the Appalachians. In Cheryl’s mind, Appalachia was less a place than an epithet, one that evoked old photographs of backyard whiskey stills and barefoot men smoking corn cob pipes. She was unprepared for the raw beauty she saw out the car window, the lushly forested hills rising on either side of the road, the Blue Ridge Mountains looming, smoke-gray and jagged, in the distance.
“No, this here’s the old property line,” Mae said. “The Old Home Place is still a ways along up the hill, but from here on out, it’s all Buford land. Was, anyhow. Most of the land grant was sold off long before the Revolution.”
“It was almost a hundred square miles, right?” Frank said. “The land grant, I mean.”
“So they say,” Mae said. “This here was all backwoods then, nothing but Cherokees and wolves, so I don’t reckon they were being any too careful with their surveying.”
Cheryl smiled, watching Frank taking all this in. He had told her a little of this story when he showed her the invitation to the reunion, how the nearby town of Buford had been named for William Beaufort, a British admiral who had been rewarded by King George II with a royal land grant stretching from Roanoke to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Frank Watkins was a California boy, born and raised less than a mile from the Santa Monica Pier. He had spent summers with his grandparents in Lathrop, but he’d never been here, to his grandfather’s birthplace in the southwest part of the state.
“That there’s the old shot tower,” Mae said, pointing out a lone brick tower several hundred yards from the road. “Your great-great-granddaddy built that during the War. And up yonder, that’s Mount Beaufort.”
“This Beaufort,” Cheryl said, “he’s the one you’re related to, right?”
“Hey, you’re awake,” Frank said, turning around.
Cheryl ignored this. “But he is, right? The one they named the town for.”
“That’s right,” Mae said, speaking to the rear-view mirror. “The story is, one of the Buford girls took up with a stable hand named Jimmy Watkins. That’s how the Bufords got the Old Home Place and the rest of us got stuck out on Watkins Ridge.”
“Which one’s Watkins Ridge, anyway?” Frank asked.
“We passed it a little ways back,” Mae said. “It’s just this side of the river. Flat-top hill with an old whitewashed farmhouse on it.”
“That’s the place you were telling me about?” Cheryl said. “Where your granddad grew up.”
“Uh-huh,” Frank said, looking for it out the back window. “Grandpa used to tell me stories about it. I always wanted to see it.”
“Not much to see,” Mae said. “Just the old house and some beef cattle. It’s run by a syndicate out of Texas now. Like I say, the Watkins never did get the choice sections.”
Cheryl had turned around, too, searching for it, but she saw nothing, just more rolling green hills. By the time she thought she might have picked out the whitewashed farmhouse, Mae was slowing the Buick to pull onto a long gravel driveway lined by ancient, gnarled oaks.
A few yards from the highway they passed a freshly painted sign:
Old Home Place Bed & Breakfast
“Home of Adm. William Beaufort”
The house, when Cheryl saw it through the trees, looked smaller than it had in the brochure, but also more graceful and inviting, more like a family home. Modeled on George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the house had a steep green mansard roof and eight squared-off white columns stretching across the front portico. According to the brochure, the building had stood empty for twenty years before Bill Buford, a descendant of the original owners, had renovated it and opened it as a hotel, which he ran with his wife.
To Cheryl’s relief, the first person to greet them when they pulled to a stop in the gravel driveway was Frank’s Uncle Shelby, the TV chef. At least she had met him before. Before they started dating, Frank had taken Cheryl and three other Law Review editors for dinner at the Manhattan branch of his uncle’s restaurant, Okra, to celebrate delivering the fall issue to the printer. Cheryl wasn’t a TV person, but even she had caught a few episodes of Down Home with Shelby on the Food Network, and she had been impressed that the chef was not only in the kitchen that night, but had spent the dessert course chatting with them at their table. Here, framed by the massive white columns of the Buford mansion, Shelby Watkins looked older and fatter than he did on television, but he had the same fussy, bossy energy as he bolted out to Mae’s car and wrapped Frank in a lung-crushing hug. “God damn glad to see you, boy!” he shouted. He did a quick double-take when he saw Cheryl, but then greeted her effusively, shaking her hand and introducing her to his two teenage daughters with great formality, as if Cheryl were the wife of a visiting head of state, not his nephew’s girlfriend from New York.
Then the hordes descended, wave after wave of Watkinses and Bufords washing out onto the driveway to greet the new arrivals, which included a carload of Tennessee cousins who had pulled in behind Mae’s Buick. Everyone reacted differently to their first sight of Cheryl. Several of the younger, more citified guests nearly leapt at her, making a show of welcoming her to the reunion, but most performed variations of the same slow, blinking double-take: noting first her cocoa-brown skin, then her fitted suit and heels, and finally, their tight smiles registering their discomfort, her connection to Frank. None of this was new to Cheryl, who had been enduring the tight smiles of white people since nursery school, but still it stung. It always stung. But what stung even more was how relieved she was that Frank stuck by her, how badly she needed the light press of his hand in the small of her back as he introduced “my girlfriend Cheryl” to cousin after tight-smiling cousin.
She was about to suggest they go in to find their room when a clean-cut black man in slacks and red satin vest appeared in the doorway pushing a luggage cart. “’Scuse me, folks,” he called out. “Comin’ through, comin’ through.” He was long-limbed and muscular, with tea-brown skin and a razored part in his close-cropped hair. Cheryl immediately knew two things about him: that he ran track, probably as a miler like her, and that he was in college. A good school, too. There was an intensity to his expression, a sharpness to his gaze she recognized as belonging to a fellow striver. But when he saw her, his eyes rounded in surprise, then flicked away.
“’Scuse me, folks,” he said, brushing past. “Bellman comin’ through.”
“Come on, I want you to meet my granddad,” Frank said, taking Cheryl’s arm.
Frank, she realized, hadn’t seen the bellman. Or rather, he had seen him and looked right through him. But she felt Frank’s hand, firmly planted in the small of her back as it had been for the last five interminable minutes, and she relented.
“I’d love to,” she said. “Anything to get out of this crowd.”
About the author:
Michael Bourne’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, The Common, and The Cortland Review. He is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions.