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THE LIGHT AND STARS by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

A couple of days ago somehow I wrangled an OK Cupid date to drive down an hour from Virginia to come sit with me on my porch. And he read me Merwin like he’d never read Merwin out loud to anyone before. If you don’t know who Merwin is, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you ain’t as smart as me- I just went to writing school. But Merwin is an old ass prolific poet who lives in Hawaii and likes to translate other languages and talk about “light” and “stars”.

And while this OK Cupid date was reading ol Merwin to me on the porch, talking about the light and stars, the man with the huge tumor stomach, looks like he’s pregnant with a watermelon, walked by. He lives down the road, sells weed, maybe heroin.

Then the kid with his hood on who mumble raps to the wind like always. Then the little girl whose daddy just died at home, rotted away from cancer, she starts swinging and swinging so high the ends of the swing-set come out the ground.

And I see this but my OK Cupid don’t stop reading Merwin, he’s caught up in the “light” and “stars.”

My town is a mile wide. It’s name is Woodland, North Carolina. Each street’s named after a tree. I grew up on Hemlock and live on Chestnut now. There are 3 churches, a Dollar General, and the gas station’s The Duck Thru. There isn’t a stop light or a bank or a grocery store.

But this is common for my county. I saw all the old abandoned things falling apart when I was little but thought that was how everything everywhere was. After my liberal arts education in the city is when I came home and saw rotting-maybe-used-to-be-homes-sitting-alone-way-back-in-fields, can’t-tell-they’re-so-old buildings. Everyone-who’d-know-anything-about-it-is-dead-already-kinda feel. Hard-to-shake-the-sad-feeling-kinda-feel.

My town was founded by Quakers. There used to be 3 factories. They made baskets, zippers, and caskets.

Now all the things in yards- couches, trucks, mattresses, pots, pans, buckets, refrigerator boxes, plows.

And now (as an adult as someone who has loved and lost and will only keep losing) all the dead things in the road, the ditch, deer, possums, owls, cats, sometimes dogs. Once even an eagle. When you drive by the wings fly up, can’t tell if it’s still moving.

But my town does have the best Sunday buffet in the county with collards/cabbage/fried chicken/catfish/cornbread/frog legs/tomato pudding/corn pudding/country ham/livers/gizzards/chicken pie/snaps/candied yams/beets/deviled eggs—want y’all to feel this abundance.

And this OK Cupid date is a poet, reads philosophy, has spent time backpacking Europe, etc. etc. maybe y’all know the type. Has college degree holding parents, joins them at protests, doesn’t eat meat. “I’d love to try the Sunday buffet,” he said, “but don’t they season the vegetables with pork?”

Pork.

It’s fat back, side meat, hog jowl.

So instead of getting food, me and my date drive 30 minutes to get a beer at the new and only brewery in the history of Ahoskie, North Carolina. We were the only people there and the beer was expensive for what it was. The waitress looked at us like we were out of towners cause of the way we were dressed even though I talked liked her, told her I was from Woodland. And yeah, this hurt my feelings.

“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that place,” she said, “A man from over there, last name was Barefoot, he was in AA with my brother. Always came and picked my brother up and took him wherever he needed to go- was good as gold.”

Me and my date sat outside on Main Street during the setting sun. There were shirtless men straddling their bikes on the corner smoking weed and talking like yelling like laughing, doves were flying in and out of the abandoned theater across from us cooing, the high windows of the buildings around were all busted, insulation coming out of them like internal organs, a throbbing pink. Look down and it’s like this the whole street. Except there’s a broken train and if it would be running it’d be going far out from here up to Virginia somewhere with pretty windows- new and clean.

But for some reason the train’s sitting there starting to ding like crazy.

And that’s when my date said, “This is a strange place. I’ve never been anywhere quite like this before.”

As if that were possible.

As if him going on about how it reminded him of some town he’d been through in a Pennsylvania mountain winter once was supposed to make me feel closer to him.

First of all I’m from a very flat place.

And he was saying everything he could to not say “poor.”

A recitation of a memory he had once being for the first time in a place that wasn’t like the clean neighborhood cul-de-sac, he learned to ride his bike in circles like that, seeing the same thing.

I learned on the swamp path puddles, had to look out for snakes, briars.

He wanted me to hear him say where I was from was all okay, he’d been somewhere like this before, he could come down again and visit. He wanted to. It wasn’t that bad at all.

But walking here we weren’t touching but I could feel him tense up when we rounded the corner, came up on the men and their bikes.  I asked them how they were doing and they said “Mighty fine.” My date looked at me like I should have been scared.

After beers he wanted to walk up and down the street “take in the scenery” he said, instead of just going to walk around in Walmart where I could get things I needed— won’t often I drove to Ahoskie and that’s where the nearest thing other than Dollar General to get things is. But we walked down the street and I watched him stand outside the abandoned music store, staring at the two rotting organs displayed in the full dusty ass windows. Probably trying to think something Merwin-like to say about it all to impress me.

But I didn’t care. Because Merwin would never come down his Hawaiian mountain to have a beer in Ahoskie, North Carolina to listen the men here on their bikes, to try to translate their language, find within it the light and stars.

On the ride home from Ahoskie it was dark dark and these roads here don’t have reflectors. Nothing but fields on either sides of us and woods and woods beyond that until we got to my town. My car was hurling us through the darkness when my date said, “Don’t you get so lonely here?”

I waited to answer him. I was looking for deer, eyes shining.

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