I don’t know why I’m obsessed with this, why sitting here in my studio at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, looking out a rusted chain link fence, at trees leafed in the fullness of a Virginia spring, surrounded by the still quiet of this place where writers write, painters paint, composers compose, I see in my mind’s eye the face of a man I don’t know, didn’t meet, a man who approached my car in a parking lot outside of Panera Bread. I’d spent the night in a Comfort Inn at an exit off of I 81 in Harrisonville, and that morning I’d found the espresso that I loved. I was juggling a water bottle, travel mug, wallet and car key when I heard a voice. “Excuse me, Ma'am.”
Turning, I saw a broad faced man of about thirty-five with thinning light brown hair. “I see you’re from Maine,” he said, his voice friendly, yet urgent. “I’m from Maine. Just moved here. You don’t see many Maine plates around here. What part of Maine?”
“York,” I said.
“I’m from Waterboro. My folks moved here a few years ago, so I came down. Sure is different. People so friendly. I mean every where you go people say hello.” He paused. “And the taxes. So low. You know how much I paid to register my car? Two hundred dollars. Can you believe it? And my property taxes, six hundred.” He shifted his weight. “Those Maine taxes. They’ll kill ya.”
I watched him carefully. “They are high,” I said.
“And the winters. You don’t have those winters.”
I smiled. “But there’s something about surviving them...,” my voice dropped off.
His eyes flickered. “Here you have a problem, you go the church”
A sinking feeling in my belly. I wanted to tell him I was Jewish, that I didn't go to church, that I hardly went to a synagogue. Instead, I stood passively, as he went on. “You don’t have all those services. I was involved in Waterboro, you know. Politically. I was a Selectman. I think eighty percent of the town got some form of public assistance.”
Unuh. Anti-government. Maybe Tea Party. He must have seen my bumper sticker, Got Social Security? Thank Democrats.
“Here you go to one of those offices, they ask, have you gone here? have you gone there? tried this church, that church?”
“Well,” I said, smiling, “the money has to come from somewhere, you give it to the church or you pay it in taxes.”
His eyes widened, and he paused, briefly, shaking his head. “Sure is different here. I never would have believed it. Two states, Maine and Virginia.”
For years, I’d traveled from Maine to rural Virginia to write in solitude, yet when I ventured out of the artists’ colony, walking country roads or driving to shop in a Barnes and Noble or a supermarket in Lynchburg, I'd pass church after church, and I couldn’t help noticing their huge presence and perhaps their power, all of them segregated. There was one synagogue in Lynchburg that I used to visit, so there was a Jewish presence. Small and contained, I thought. Mosques. I hadn't seen any, but I didn’t know. I looked down at my travel mug, the VCCA logo. “So you like it here?” I said.
“Well, I have to tell you, I miss the lakes. Waterboro has those lakes. And the ocean. I miss that.”
I lift my voice. “Well, you’ll have to come back.”
“Oh, I do. In fact, I was just there. You visiting somebody around here?”
“No, I’m headed for Amherst.” He frowned slightly. A place he didn’t know. “It’s east and a little south. I’m a writer. There’s a retreat for writers, painters and composers there.”
A slight nod of his head, as if, finally, he had found a place for me—one of those. I opened my car door wide.
“Well,” he said, “you have a good trip.”
Setting my travel mug into a holder near the steering wheel, I held the car door. “I will. Thanks for saying hello.”
He stepped back, then waved. “Like I said, you don’t see many Maine plates around here.”
I climbed into my car and watched him in my side view mirror, a stocky man wearing a white short-sleeved shirt, walking across the parking lot.