Crossroads

Crossroads

History Finds a Home

Taylortown museum preserves town’s heritage

By Audrey Moriarty

It took almost two decades to get there, but in October of 2023, the Taylortown Museum celebrated its one-year anniversary. According to Nadine Moody, volunteer at the museum and a former Taylortown council member, the house where the museum is located — 8263 Main St., in Taylortown — was originally the home of Demus Taylor’s great-granddaughter, Margaret Mangum. Demus Taylor is the founder of Taylortown, and Margaret worked as a teacher at the Academy Heights School, where she taught Moody in third grade. The Mangum home was purchased roughly 20 years ago, when Ulysses Barrett was the town mayor. While the building was intended all along to house a museum, bringing the plan to fruition took time.

If the museum had a little trouble getting off the ground, the house was always busy, serving as a venue for various community events. In the interim a handful of dedicated volunteers decided to begin recording and preserving Taylortown’s history. The group consisted of various members of the community: Gail McKinnon, president of the Historical Society; Jef Moody, vice-president of the Historical Society; Wendy Martin, of the Beautification Committee; Nadine Moody (Jef’s wife); and several others.

Inside the museum are exhibits of old tools, a display of images of the mayors of Taylortown, photos of local church dignitaries, information on the Academy Heights School, and a large “Welcome to Taylortown” banner, featuring Demus Taylor and some local historic sites.

According to McKinnon one of the ongoing projects the volunteers have begun is an “obituary book” listing the names of spouses, siblings and children, helping community members fill out family trees. They are hoping to get more input from family members of deceased residents to add to their book and family records. “What I wish we could do is to get each Black community to give us a brief history, because we all know each other and are related somehow,” says Nadine Moody.

Gary Brown, another volunteer, is working on a gravesite webpage, identifying and documenting local graves. High on the list of the museum’s current needs is a computer to house the information they’re compiling. The hope is that visitors to the museum will one day be able to search the collection and family data base. Brown, with Martin’s help and donations from Food Lion and local churches, also operates a food bank every Tuesday at Johnny Boler Park in Taylortown.

Recently the museum had a surprise visit from Paula Hall, Demus Taylor’s great-great-granddaughter. The museum is looking for more items to add to its exhibits, and hopes to get a few old canvas and leather carry bags and wood-shafted clubs — an homage to the work Taylortown residents, especially Demus Taylor, did caddying at the Pinehurst Resort. They’re also in search of a closet or curio cabinet for displays. Nadine Moody says 99 percent of their current exhibits were donated by local citizens and businesses. Homewood Suites donated some tables and chairs after a recent renovation and the museum repurposed them, some for workspace, while others are attractively set with dishes and stemware.

Current plans call for expanding the exhibition space to the upstairs portion of the house. “We are so excited,” says Nadine Moody. “We’re busting at the seams.”  PS

The Taylortown Museum is open to the public on Wednesdays and the first Saturday of the month, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and on Thursdays for groups, by appointment. You can reach the Taylortown Museum at (910) 215-0744, or by calling the Town Hall at (910) 295-4010.

Audrey Moriarty is the Library Services and Archives director for the village of Pinehurst.

Focus on Food

Focus on Food

A Missing Delight

The case for mousse au chocolat

Story and Photograph by Rose Shewey

I recently came across a clip of Arnold Schwarzenegger making a protein shake. I watched with intrigue as he cracked a raw egg into his shake and, for good measure, threw in the shell, too! For extra calcium, he said. What a savage move! I know most people wouldn’t go near his concoction because of the raw egg in it, which prompted me to take a quick mental inventory of other foods we eat regularly, perhaps unwittingly, that call for glibbery whites and runny yolks.

On the top of my list: traditionally prepared ice cream, followed by tiramisu and mayonnaise (all of which can relatively easily be made egg free), and lastly, mousse au chocolat, which seems to have gone missing — it’s virtually absent from every dessert menu I have laid my eyes on recently.

So, why is mousse au chocolat not as popular as it used to and deserves to be? Could it be the raw eggs? It stands to reason. Raw eggs have most certainly acquired a bad rap over the past couple of decades. On top of that, a large number of mousse au chocolat recipes in the U.S. call for whipped cream to be folded into the melted chocolate as opposed to peaky egg whites (in fact, the original recipe does not contain cream at all). The result is something between a chocolate ganache and chocolate pudding, at best — tasty, but nothing to write home about. It’s the glossy, whipped egg whites that create the unique frothy texture in mousse au chocolat, which is paradoxically rich and airy at the same time. So, this missing delight finds itself between a rock and a hard place; it’s either made poorly or, evidently, not at all.

The decision is yours, of course. I have safely (but also cautiously) prepared and eaten raw eggs my whole life. Beyond that, I have experimented for over a decade with substituting plant-based whole food ingredients for animal-derived ones and have had great success with a lot of dishes. However, mousse au chocolat is not one of them. As much as I enjoy some avocado or aquafaba “mousse,” they are not a match for the centuries-old original; lacking in structure, like a cheap wine. So, if you have access to fresh, quality eggs, skip all the mousse imposters and make this confection just as people have for over 200 years, with satiny egg whites and creamy yolks for the most extraordinary results.

 

Mousse au Chocolat

(Serves 4)

200 grams semi-sweet chocolate (12 percent sugar)

50 grams butter

200 milliliters heavy cream

3 eggs

30 grams granulated sugar

In a double boiler, slowly melt chocolate and butter. Whip cream and set aside in the refrigerator. Separate eggs and beat egg whites (with clean beaters) until they form stiff peaks. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks with sugar until the mixture turns light in color, stir in chocolate-butter mixture, and immediately fold in egg whites and whipped cream, using a spoon or spatula. Do not over-mix to avoid deflating the mousse, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Serve with whipped cream and chocolate shavings or any toppings of your choice.  PS

German native Rose Shewey is a food stylist and food photographer. To see more of her work visit her website, suessholz.com.

Naturalist

Naturalist

Tale of the Whitetail

The adaptable deer among us

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

This past November, on a bright, sunny morning, I made a drive from Eagle Springs up to Raleigh. Just a quarter-mile into the journey, I spied a young doe lying motionless on her side, just off the shoulder of the road, a victim of a collision with an automobile from the previous night. “That’s a pity,” I said to myself, not giving it much more thought. Roadkill is an all-too-common sight these days.

Turning onto N.C. 211, I spotted another deer, this time a small buck, crumpled into a lifeless heap, its head lying just a few yards off the edge of the pavement, it too the victim of a car strike. A pair of black vultures stood nearby, cautiously eyeing a prospective meal.

Fifteen miles down the road, this time along U.S. 15-501 just north of Carthage, I spied yet another road-killed deer. Then another. Along U.S. 1, between Sanford and Cary, I counted four more. Later, driving back to Eagle Springs in the early evening, I counted another three, bringing the total to 11 dead deer for the day, all victims of hit and runs.

November is the peak of the white-tailed deer breeding season in this part of the state, and the large ungulates are on the move during most hours of the day, especially so once the sun goes down. Still, the volume of carnage seemed unusually high.

It was not that many years ago when seeing a white-tailed deer anywhere in the Sandhills was a rare treat. In fact, the only time I recall seeing any deer as a kid was when my parents made their annual holiday shopping trip to Cross Creek Mall in Fayetteville. Our route took us through the rural backroads of what is now Fort Liberty. From the back seat, I would strain my eyes looking up ahead, into the darkness, for the distinctive eyeshine of deer reflected in the high beams of our old Toyota Corolla. It was practically a given to find one or two standing along the shoulder of the road eating grass at some point during the drive, right in the heart of the military installation.

While deer were certainly around my hometown of Eagle Springs throughout the 1970s and ’80s, they were elusive and rarely seen by anyone other than hunters. Those roaming about the landscape tended to favor denser patches of forests bordering creeks and farm fields.

As a preteen, I recall being enthralled with the taxidermy mount of a large 8-point buck taken by a family friend during the fall hunting season along Drowning Creek, not far from our house, its large, symmetrical antlers appearing much too big for its head.

It was not until my college days of the early 1990s that I really began to notice a significant increase in the number of deer, not just in the Sandhills but throughout the state. During the occasional weekend drive from Chapel Hill to Eagle Springs for a home-cooked meal, I regularly saw deer dash across the road, day and night, especially along the edge of Jordan Lake.

Today, white-tailed deer are ubiquitous, roaming across North Carolina from the Outer Banks to our westernmost mountains, in numbers exceeding those seen by this country’s first European colonists.

Not long after my Raleigh outing, I ventured out under a bright moon, to drive the 4 miles of road bordering my childhood home. This stretch of asphalt traverses a series of large open fields, patches of longleaf pine forest, and the occasional manicured yard.

Rolling down the window to savor the unseasonably mild air, I set about the task of trying to accomplish my goal for the evening, which was to simply count the number of deer I could see in the 15 minutes it took to slowly drive the road. With no other cars out, I could easily stop and scan the fields and forests with my new thermal imaging scope. This high-tech piece of kit is able to detect the heat emitted by warm-blooded animals, allowing me to see in the dark.

Pulling up to my first stop, I raised the scope to my eye and turned it on. Instantly, I could see a large herd of deer grazing about 100 yards away, their distinctive bodies glowing like living Christmas tree lights scattered about the field. A quick count produced 18 deer. A quarter-mile down the road, I counted another eight. Then five more. By the time my informal survey was over, I had tallied a remarkable 53 deer, likely exceeding the total number of deer I had seen throughout the entirety of my childhood.

With the number of dead deer that litter our highways today, or that rummage through backyard gardens and local fairways, it might be hard to imagine that just a century ago, whitetails were wiped out of many areas of the East Coast (North Carolina included) by uncontrolled hunting. That they have bounced back in such a relatively short period of time is remarkable. The reasons for this are complicated and well beyond the scope of this short column. Suffice to say, white-tailed deer are among the few species that have readily adapted to a human-dominated landscape and are viewed by many as beacons of the American wilderness and by others as long-legged nuisances.

Pulling back into the driveway, I hop out of my car and start walking to the front door. A rustling of leaves in the turkey oaks bordering the yard catches my attention. Raising the thermal scope up to my eye, I see a doe bounding off into the forest in a series of high arching leaps, tail held high.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.

Art at Heart

Art at Heart

An invitation to Sandhills artists to get creative never goes unanswered. Here are a few special valentines from their imaginations.

A native of Dunkirk, New York, Jodi Ohl is a bestselling author and award-winning mixed media artist known for the distinctive texture and bold color combinations of her often whimsical or abstract compositions. She now resides in Aberdeen, N.C.

The sister team of Dominique Wilbur and Natalia Voitek curate elegant fine art stationary, bespoke calligraphy and art in their shop Thoughtfully Yours in Pinehurst, N.C., where the New Jersey natives now live.

Cara Mathis is a self-taught pen-and-ink line artist drawn to vintage illustrations and architectural sketch work. A resident of Pinehurst, N.C., she teaches plein air drawing through the Parks and Recreation department.

Before retiring to her home studio in Whispering Pines, Denise Baker taught art at Sandhills Community College for 25 years. She continues the labor-intensive art of printmaking, including creating valentines every year for her family and friends.

Captivated by the elegance of horses and the serene beauty of the natural world, Larissa Ann grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in Vass with her husband and rescue dog. Last year she was the artist-in-residence at the Carolina International CCI & Horse Trial.

Julie Borshak is a native of Moore County. Her unique designs utilize vintage North Carolina-made furniture that is deconstructed and reimaged along with custom-designed stamping and hand stitching.

February Bookshelf 2024

February Bookshelf 2024

February Books

FICTION

The Women, by Kristin Hannah

Raised in the sun-drenched, idyllic world of Southern California and sheltered by her conservative parents, 20-year-old nursing student Frances “Frankie” McGrath has always prided herself on doing the right thing. But in 1965, the world is changing, and she suddenly dares to imagine a different future for herself. When her brother ships out to serve in Vietnam, she joins the Army Nurse Corps and follows his path. As green and inexperienced as the men sent to Vietnam to fight, Frankie is overwhelmed by the chaos and destruction of war. Each day is a gamble of life and death, hope and betrayal; friendships run deep and can be shattered in an instant. In war, she meets — and becomes — one of the lucky, the brave, the broken, and the lost. The real battle lies in coming home to a changed and divided America.

After Annie, by Anna Quindlen

When Annie Brown dies suddenly, her husband, her children and her closest friend are left to find a way forward without the woman who has been the lynchpin of all their lives. Bill is overwhelmed without his beloved wife, and Annemarie wrestles with the bad habits her best friend had helped her overcome. Ali, the eldest of Annie’s children, has to grow up overnight, to care for her younger brothers and even her father, and to puzzle out for herself many of the mysteries of adult life. Over the course of the next year what saves them all is Annie, ever-present in their minds, loving but not sentimental, caring but nobody’s fool, a voice in their heads that is funny and sharp and remarkably clear.

The Atlas Maneuver, by Steve Barry

In the waning months of World War II, Japan hid vast quantities of gold and other stolen valuables in booby-trapped underground caches all across the Philippines. By 1947 some of that loot was recovered, not by treasure hunters, but by the United States government, which told no one about the find. Instead, those assets were stamped classified, shipped to Europe, and secretly assimilated into something called the Black Eagle Trust. Fast forward to the 21st century, when a retired Justice Department operative, Cotton Malone, is in Switzerland doing a favor for a friend. What was supposed to be a simple operation turns violent, and Cotton is thrust into a war between the world’s oldest bank and the CIA, a battle that directly involves the Black Eagle Trust. He quickly discovers that everything hinges on a woman from his past, who suddenly reappears harboring a host of explosive secrets centering around bitcoin. Cotton has to act. But at what cost? 

NONFICTION

Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment, by Allen C. Guelzo

Abraham Lincoln grappled with the greatest crisis of democracy that has ever confronted the United States. While many books have been written about his temperament, judgment and steady hand in guiding the country through the Civil War, we know less about Lincoln’s penetrating ideas and beliefs about democracy, which were every bit as important as his character in sustaining him through the crisis. Guelzo, one of America’s foremost experts on Lincoln, captures the president’s firmly held belief that democracy was the greatest political achievement in human history. He shows how Lincoln’s deep commitment to the balance between majority and minority rule enabled him to stand firm against secession while also committing the Union to reconciliation rather than recrimination in the aftermath of war.

 


 

 

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

This Book Will Make You an Artist, by Ruth Millington

Art can be intimidating, but fret no longer. With an insider’s look at 25 artists and creators including Hilma af Klint, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Claude Monet and Yayoi Kusama, plus DIY project starters, this book will make anyone both an artist and an art appreciator. (Ages 7-10).

All of Those Babies, by Mylisa Larsen

Pufflings, peeps, poults and colts, baby animals are just so darn cute. Celebrate those newborns and watch as they grow in this rhyming read-together perfect for young animal lovers. (Ages 3-6).

Love, Escargot, by Dashka Slater

Oooh la la! Escargot, the adorable French gastropod, is back for another adventure. Today is Snailentine’s Day, and Escargot is (slowly) on the way to a très bonne fête with canapés, crudités, dancing and beautiful cards to exchange with the one who makes you feel magnifique! Silly, fun and just a little French, Escargot is sure to be a giggle-inducing read-together favorite. (Ages 3-6).

Kin: Rooted in Hope, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrations by Jeffrey Boston Weatherford

North Carolina author Carole Boston Weatherford’s books have been awarded the Newbery Medal, Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award. Now, Weatherford and her equally award-winning son have collaborated on this stunning collection of poems unfolding the narrative of their family over five generations. (Ages 10 and up).  PS

Compiled by Kimberly Daniels Taws and Angie Tally.

Birdwatch

Birdwatch

A Rare Winter Visitor

Keep an eye out for the snow bunting

By Susan Campbell

No bird in North America conjures up an image of midwinter like the snow bunting. These open country birds of the North are well adapted to cold and snow, as their name implies. The species is migratory and so may be found in the northern half of the U.S. in winter. Individuals are not at all a common sight this far south. However, they may show up here and there during the colder months. So, it is good to be aware — and know what to look for.

Snow buntings breed in rocky areas on the tundra during the late spring and summer. They nest in crevices between rocks, using moss and down to create a soft cup. In the fall, when temperatures plummet and the days shorten, these birds take off in a southerly direction for more hospitable locations. Typically, they show up in weedy fields and along lakeshores, but they can also be found at the coast on sandy beaches.

These birds typically have more white plumage in the summer — especially the males. This is the result of feather wear (not different feathers) during the cooler months after a post-breeding-season molt. Males are white with black backs, wingtips and tail tips. Females are grayish but even they have white bellies and flanks. In winter, their plumage contains brownish hues such that they blend in well with the vegetation, as well as the sand or soil in their preferred feeding habitat. They are truly birds of the ground and so are rarely seen perched in trees or on wires. In flight, they are quite distinctive year-round with large white wing patches and white rumps. And if traveling with others, they will produce an array of odd, loud noises: They may rattle, buzz and/or twitter.

Single snow buntings may be easily overlooked. They do not tend to flush until the last second. Between the fact that they are so well camouflaged and that they tend to be silent, they are often missed even at close range. Furthermore, they are not typically found at feeding stations, preferring larger natural areas to backyards.

Although there have been no reports of these special little birds sighted in central North Carolina yet this season, there has been a flock of up to two dozen on the Outer Banks this winter. They have been observed feeding on the seeds of sea oats and other dune grasses since early December on the south side of Oregon Inlet. If you happen to be out that way in the next several weeks, you may be able to find them. Flocks may move around frequently, leapfrogging over one another as they search for their next meal. Simply stroll the dunes watching for movement around the vegetation, and be sure to listen for their raspy calls. The group sticks together by frequently vocalizing. Keep an ear out and you may be rewarded with a glimpse of this rare winter visitor. PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.

Pleasures of Life Dept.

Pleasures of Life Dept.

Landing a Zinger

By Jim Moriarty

Butterflies of a particularly glamorous variety usher in an early spring when the Judson Theatre Company presents Morgan Fairchild headlining Leonard Gershe’s play Butterflies Are Free at BPAC’s Owens Auditorium. There will be five performances beginning Thursday, March 7, and concluding with a Sunday matinee on March 10.

Fairchild’s credits in film and television in a career stretching from the 1960s to today are far too numerous to list here. Her resume includes nominations for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. She starred last year in the Lifetime holiday movie Ladies of the 80s: A Diva Christmas. She is known for her work as Chandler’s (Matthew Perry) mom on Friends and as the character Jordan Roberts on Falcon Crest in the ’80s. She played the “cougar” stalking Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) on Two and a Half Men. Her film career began in 1967 at the age of 16 when she was asked if she wanted to be in a movie and found herself doubling for Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, a film classic nominated for 10 Academy Awards.

“I wasn’t exactly a stunt double or body double. Whenever they needed a long shot of Faye where you couldn’t be sure it was her, they put in a double. I ended up doing a lot of the driving scenes,” says Fairchild. “They drove us out to the middle of nowhere Texas. I have no idea what I’m doing. I said to somebody, ‘What do we do?’ And they said, ‘Why don’t you take a look at the set.’ So I start walking down this dirt road and I’m not seeing anything that looks like a set. I’m in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of open fields. I see this guy in silhouette coming toward me in the dawn, kind of hunched over and I said, ‘Excuse me, do you know where the set is?’ And he looks up and he smiles. It was Warren Beatty. And Warren Beatty at 28 with the sun coming up behind him is the most gorgeous man you’ve ever seen. Anyway, that was my introduction to movies. It was a great learning experience for a kid. It made me fall in love with movies.”

As well-known as Fairchild is for her work on television and in film, she has managed to make room for live theater. “I started in the theater when I was 10, so I grew up in the theater before I got into any kind of television or film,” she says. “There’s just something about the feedback of a live audience — you’re out there and you’re all in it together.” In 2004-5 she did a national tour playing Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. And last fall she played the role of Monette in Always a Bridesmaid at the New Theatre in Kansas City.

“Morgan Fairchild is the ultimate pro as Monette,” wrote BroadwayWorld.com of her appearance. “It is a pleasure to see her.”

In Butterflies Are Free, Fairchild plays the role of the over-protective mother Mrs. Baker. “Of course Morgan is so glamorous, which is one of the things that really suits her well to Mrs. Baker,” says Morgan Sills, Judson Theatre Company’s executive director, who will be directing the play, a first for him at Judson though far from a career first. Previously, he directed shows at Millbrook Playhouse and the Shawnee Playhouse, both in Pennsylvania, and at the Artistree Music Theater Festival in Vermont. “The role of Mrs. Baker has always attracted these larger-than-life star ladies who can really, really act. Gloria Swanson. Ann Sothern. Eve Arden. So many different women have played this role. I can’t wait to see what Morgan brings to it because she knows how to land a zinger, but she also has the warmth and the heart and the technique as a stage actor to do it justice.”

Judson’s artistic director, Daniel Haley, typically directs the company’s productions. This one is different because Sills knew the playwright, Leonard Gershe. While Butterflies Are Free is easily Gershe’s most successful play, enjoying a three-year run on Broadway (he also adapted it for the screen in the 1972 movie of the same name starring Goldie Hawn), his extraordinary career included bringing Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings to the screen, writing the second book for Destry Rides Again on Broadway and, along with his writing partner, Roger Edens, writing the screenplay for Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. “He was an excellent problem-solver,” says Sills. “He knew how to look at something and take it from where it was to where it needed to be.”

It was Sills’ work on a show of his own about Edens that brought him and Gershe together. “Part of my primary research was to write everybody at MGM who was still alive to see if they would talk to me. I saw Leonard’s email address in the AOL member directory, and so I wrote him,” says Sills. “We started emailing and talking on the phone. I visited his home in Beverly Hills. We went to Roger’s grave. Then he agreed to edit the script of the show I was writing. It was all of Roger’s songs, including the ones he and Leonard wrote for Funny Face.”

Butterflies Are Free opens with a revelation and closes with the three primary characters arriving at their own personal revelations. Along the way it’s a witty, coming of age rom-com. “The play straddles two eras of playwriting,” says Sills. “There is sort of the old school, well-made play and these late ’60s newer ideas. The play is like Leonard’s still alive because so many of his values are in it. His sense of humor is very much in it. His warmth is in it. So, this is a full circle moment for me.”

The performance schedule opens on Thursday, March 7, at 7 p.m. at BPAC’s Owens Auditorium, 3395 Airport Road, Pinehurst. There is a Friday, March 8, evening performance at 8 p.m. On March 9, Saturday’s 2 p.m. matinee includes a post-show talk-back session with the actors. There is a second Saturday performance at 8 p.m. The run concludes with a matinee at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 10. Tickets can be purchased at judsontheatre.com or through ticketmesandhills.com.  PS

Jim Moriarty is the Editor of PineStraw and can be reached at
jjmpinestraw@gmail.com.

A Walk on the Beach

A Walk on the Beach

Fiction by Daniel Wallace   

We went out in the morning for one last walk together on the beach. I took his hand to steady him, to steady both of us, really. Knees are the first to go, they say, but the rest was not far behind. It was early, almost no one was there, and if you turned away from the rickety beach houses and sad hotels you could pretend you were on a deserted island.

“Isaac,” I said, jostling his hand to get his attention. “Do you remember you told me once that when you were a kid you always wanted to live on a deserted island because you thought that meant it was just chockfull of desserts?”

The sun was rising behind a sheet of thin clouds, but a ray slipped through and made our morning shadows. Even his face — the dried crevassed creases like a rain-starved plain — brightened into a darkness.

“Remember, honey?”

He was looking down at his bare feet for some reason, but I knew he had heard me and was thinking about it, trying so hard. There was always a lag now between a question and an answer, like the delay on a long-distance call. For 50 years he was the sharpest tack I ever knew. Now he needed me just to find his shoes in the morning, to explain to him the subtle differences between a fork and a spoon, to double-lock the doors at bedtime so he couldn’t escape into the night. It had become too much for me. Rather, he had become too much for me.

“I don’t remember that,” he said.

“It was nothing,” I said, giving his hand a little squeeze. “Just funny is all.”

“It does sound like something a kid would say, though.” He looked at me and smiled, friendly but guarded, as if we’d been talking just for the last few minutes instead of the last 50 years. “And I was never a good speller. I let other people do the spelling for me.”

“You hired the best spellers in the business.”

“That’s right.”

Now a laugh from him, and a laugh from me. I wanted to tell him how happy it made me that he’d kept his sense of humor, but then he would ask what I meant. Tell me about the things I’ve lost. So I didn’t say anything and just listened to our laughter carried away by the wind.

The water lapped at our ankles and so I led us a little ways away from the surf for more solid ground. Everything in the world conspired to knock you over.

He kept staring at his feet. They looked like blue-veined sea creatures, the kind that lived miles beneath the water, the kind that sometimes washed ashore and made you wonder how such a thing could ever even be in the world. And why.

“I could live in this town,” he said, “if it weren’t for the earthquakes and fires and floods, and pestilences.”

“You do live here, silly.”

“Well, then, wish me luck!”

“Oh, you’ve always been lucky.”

He snuck a shy glance at me. Tentative, searching.

“And you. You live here too?”

“I do,” I said.

“But we don’t live together.”

“No. Not anymore. Not like we used to. But I’ll be there so often you’ll think we did.”

He nodded, as if this were an acceptable answer.

We kept walking, and he looked down again and for some reason it irritated me.

“Why in the world do you keep looking at your feet?”

“My feet?” No pause this time. His fog was lifting. “Ha! I’m not looking at my feet. I’m looking for a shark’s tooth. I’ve been hoping to find a shark’s tooth every time I come to the beach for, I don’t know, 65 years? But I never have.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know that, for some reason. “Another regret?”

“No, no,” he said. “No. I’m glad I’ve never found one. Hoping is better. You know, because when you do find it — presto-change-o! — you’re hopeless.”

“Then you just have to hope for other things.”

“Like what?”

He was right. The list of things to hope for was getting shorter, almost every day.

A woman in an unfortunate bathing suit, a sunburned man with a beach chair on his back, two boys running into the surf screaming like Maori warriors attacking the whole ocean, a jogger and her snow-white poodle. Life was coming back to life. We had not walked far, but I didn’t know how much farther we should. Going out was the easy part, but then we’d have to go back and that was so much harder. My hip was throbbing already. I wish we had a limo following behind us at just a bit of a distance so that we could get into it when we wanted to. With a limo driver named Norman. That was something to hope for, I suppose.

“I don’t think there’s a God,” he said out of nowhere, “but if there were all I would want from him or her is just a little direction. Hints. Like, Warm, warmer, warmer – you’re burning up! Or, say you’re about to quit your job and he says, Cold! Cold! Just that, a couple of words. That would be nice, right?”

“That would be ideal,” I said.

He stopped and turned to me and took both of my hands in his, and if you were looking at us from a distance you’d swear this old man was about to propose.

“That place looks like an elementary school with a shitty cafeteria,” he said.

“I tried to get you a room in the Taj Mahal, but they were full up.”

“Don’t be a bitch,” he said. “Don’t be a real bitch.”

He loved that word now. I don’t know why. I had to just let it go.

“Do you have a cigarette?”

“Cold,” I said, shaking my head. “Really cold. You quit in 1995.”

“I never quit, I just stopped. I have pursued second-hand smoke for years.”

He winked at me. This man. We kept walking. I untwined my fingers from his to brush the hair from my face and it freaked him out, and he pulled my arm down until he found my hand again and held it like a vise.

“Marriage vows should be different than they are, I was thinking,” he said. His voice rose a bit and shook. “Not until death do us part. Just until the other loses his mind. Only then may you leave.”

These moments of perfect clarity, of understanding, they astonished me and made me sadder than almost anything else.

“I am not leaving you.”

“One of us is leaving the other. And it’s not me.”

No, I thought, a thought that was truer than I wanted it to be: It’s you, it’s definitely you. I didn’t say it. But there were so many things I couldn’t say anymore. I listened to the static of the frosted, frothy waves instead. He stopped and turned to the horizon, where there was nothing to see except the place where everything disappeared.

“I want a Viking funeral. Set me on a wooden raft, float me out to sea.”

“But you’re not dying, Richard. Not. Dying.” Sometimes he drove me insane. “You were a kind of Viking, though. Brave, strong, a good breadwinner, but also plundering and burning stuff down.”

“Plundering,” he said, and shook his head, as if it were a riddle he couldn’t figure out. “Are you sure? I don’t remember any plundering, Sara. Not a bit of it. I’m sorry.”

And then just like that we found ourselves stuck calf-deep in the stealthy rising tide. We couldn’t move for a second. He gripped my hand and he looked at me with such helplessness, his eyes as scared and wild as a child’s. Then the ocean disappeared, and we were free. 

I felt the sun starting to burn. It was time. I led him back to the dunes where we’d left his shoes, but they weren’t there. I scanned the beach. All the dunes looked the same now, graves for ancient mariners with the sea oats waving in the wind.

“I can’t find your shoes,” I said.

“You can’t find my shoes? That’s new.”

“It’s just, I thought they were right here. But maybe they’re up the beach a little.”

“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”

His eyes were swimming, all the maybes and maybe-nots bouncing around in his brain.

“I guess this means we can’t go now,” he said, grinning at me like a little boy, my lifelong conspirator, my partner in crime.

But that’s not what it meant. I saw them down the way.  PS

Daniel Wallace is the author of six novels. His memoir, This Isn’t Going to End Well, was published by Algonquin Books in April, 2023. He is the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his alma mater.

Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue

Holiday Mother Lode

With an extra day to celebrate

By Deborah Salomon

Every so often I, as the saying goes, “wax philosophical.” The most likely result is a criticism of some innovation that captures the minds of techies. You know, the ones who stand in line all night to purchase the latest iPhone that promises everything south of open-heart surgery. This time, the trigger was February, which owns far and away more holidays than any other month.

Americans start by hounding a groundhog, continue to boozy Mardi Gras, somber Ash Wednesday, Chinese New Year, Super Bowl Sunday, Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day (formerly Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays). February has been designated American Heart Month as well as Black History Month, although Martin Luther King Day is Jan. 15, his birthday. Each observance has a story which, in days gone by, grade-schoolers would research in an encyclopedia, perhaps for a “project.”

Now they push a few buttons, skim the results, copy, paste and move on to something else.

I doubt cherry pie or the Gettysburg Address would be part of a combined Presidents Day experience. More likely a long ski weekend which, I’ve heard, suggested its creation. I’m thinking Washington and Lincoln deserve their own days, as might FDR, JFK. Otherwise, the new holiday on the third Monday of the month includes all presidents, some less than celebratory.

Obviously, holidays are promoted for commercial gain. In cities with significant Chinese populations, an eight-course New Year’s Chinese restaurant extravaganza makes our Thanksgiving repast look like Pop-Tarts. The candy/greeting card/floral industries thrive on Valentine’s Day, despite the untimely death by decapitation of its patron saint.

I understand how Heart Month plays off Valentine’s Day symbols. However, a typical Valentine’s dinner will include a well-marbled steak, potatoes dripping butter and, for dessert, a hardly healthy heart-shaped cheesecake.

At best, holidays give texture to a society while preserving its heritage. To my knowledge, neither AI nor a 3-D printer has replicated any of the above.

Commercial or not, holidays serve a greater purpose. At best, they bring people together, even blot out horrors. Somewhere in Ukraine, world-famous hand-painted Easter eggs will surface in March.

For 21 years I lived in Vermont, where Blacks make up about 1 percent of the population. Every February the university hosted a soul food dinner, its menu prepared by volunteers. Tickets sold out in a day. Participants, Black and white, came from all over the state to eat chitlins, fried chicken, greens, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, “shiny” beans and peach cobbler. I attended to write a story but had a fantastic time remembering Southern preparations with 20 inches of snow on the ground and temps in the single digits.

February even has a quirky conclusion. Because 2024 is a leap year, this shortest month at 28 days will boast 29, enabling people born that day to have a once-in-four-years celebration.

Because the way things are going, who knows where the world will be next time leap year rolls around? PS

Deborah Salomon is a contributing writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She can be reached at debsalomon@nc.rr.com.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Dicey Drama in Haiti

Looking for treasure but finding trouble

By Anne Blythe

Given the political fracture in this country and the intensified drumbeat of questions about the survival of democracy, it might seem daunting to tuck into Ben Fountain’s Devil Makes Three: A Novel.

The sheer size of the North Carolina native’s latest book — 531 pages — is intimidating enough. When you throw in that it’s a deep dive into life in Haiti immediately following the 1991 military coup that sent President Jean-Bertrande Aristide into exile, you might be tempted to put this novel about abusive power, excessive greed and dictatorship back on the shelf and save it for a less divisive time.

Don’t do that. Instead, open Fountain’s work of fiction. Let the story pull you from a once blissful beachfront through streets littered with butchered corpses and the headless body of a mayor, to crumbling estates, voodoo priestesses and treasure hunts on the turquoise waters lapping against the former French slave colony fallen under the rule of an oppressive military regime. A political thriller and adventure-filled page-turner, Devil Makes Three explores a country in turmoil from different angles through four main characters in their 20s.

Matt Amaker is a rootless American college dropout drawn to Haiti with unrealized ambitions after circulating through the Caribbean as a “dive gypsy.” Alix Variel, the ambitious and beguiling son of a prominent Haitian family, persuades Matt to come with him to Haiti to start a dive shop of their own catering to a wave of the expected tourism before the coup upended the country’s dreams of democracy and prompted international trade embargoes.

Despite the upheaval, Matt and Alix have not given up all hope on ScubaRave being a successful business, and turn their attention to hunting Conquistador treasure and artifacts in the under-explored ocean waters off Haiti.

“Haiti has treasure,” Alix tells Matt while they are smoking a joint and pondering their future.

One wreck he was aware of had as many as 12 cannon among the wreckage. If they were bronze, they could attract high-end collectors, deep-pocketed people who might pay as much as one Saudi oil prince had — $600,000 for a pair of cannon.

“Why the hell are we messing with scuba,” Alix asked. “We should be hunting treasure all the time.”

“Because it’s a really stupid business, that’s why,” Matt responded. “A few people make some money and everybody else loses their shirt. It’s like Vegas, the lottery, it’s mainly just luck. You happen to dig over here instead of a quarter mile over there, that’s the difference between a fortune and wasting your life. Screw that. It’s too random for me . . . Treasure is trouble.”

That prognostication is a driving line of the novel, which also focuses on Audrey O’Donnell, a rookie CIA officer, a sharp and aspiring government agent also known as Shelly Graver who quickly finds herself involved in ethically questionable drug deals and agency-supported operations to keep Aristide out of power.

All the while, she wrestles with the part of her job that calls for manipulating people, even as she’s romantically involved with Alix. Audrey’s belief that it is in Haiti’s best interest “to integrate into the global economy, which last time she checked, was overwhelmingly trending toward the free market American model” puts her in direct opposition to Misha, Alix’s sister and a love interest of Matt’s.

Misha returns to Haiti in the midst of researching and writing a thesis at Brown University with a working subtitle “Psychological Rupture in the Literature of the Black Atlantic.” Instead of going back to school while her homeland is in tumult, she goes to work at a public clinic where the CIA tries to mine the medical records of her patients to test their political loyalties. “The coup d’etat had unfolded as a kind of twisted affirmation of her still gestating dissertation,” Fountain writes.

In a country where the minimum wage was $5 a day in the early ’90s, Misha wrestled with “the contradiction of the lived experience” in her homeland. “Once again Haiti was instructing the world, pushing ahead of the historical curve, and it was paying the price in blood and grief,” Fountain writes. “Why take to the streets if you are already free, as you’d been told every day of your life you were. Forget your slack stomach and aching back, your weary mind. Whatever else might be said or alleged of him, Aristide gave voice to, made visible, the contradiction of the lived experience of the country.”

Despite their differences, Misha and Audrey come together to help save Matt and Alix from the throes of dangerous and misguided adventures brought about by their attempts to “float up” bronze cannon. The men find themselves being arrested by soldiers on “conspiracy to commit terrorism charges” and are thrown in prison.

Haiti’s top general, however, has a keen interest in scuba diving and treasure hunting, and springs Matt from prison on a working furlough to help find Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria before the 500th anniversary of its sinking in December 1492.

By making Haiti the focus of Devil Makes Three, Fountain is able to weave themes of power, politics, race, history, capitalism, globalism, voodoo and the legacy of plantation slavery throughout the novel using the characters’ dialogue as they down rum and tonics, smoke marijuana and feast on creole dishes.

Whether it’s Fountain’s description of Port-au-Prince as a city with “a dull orange haze hanging over everything like a fulminating cloud of Cheetos dust” or his tightly knit storylines, this Dallas-based lawyer-turned-writer, born in Chapel Hill, raised in Elizabeth City and Cary, gives the reader a lot to digest.  PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.