When I was a boy, my family sometimes went on Sunday afternoon rides. We’d pile into my father’s yellow Chevrolet Impala and drive up out of Greenville, which was already accumulating summer heat, and head north, up through Traveler’s Rest and either veer right and head up the old US 25 through Flat Rock and Hendersonville or veer left onto 276 that eventually wound up at Caesar’s Head. My father drove, as fathers did back then. My mother sat beside him as mothers did. My little brother and I sat in the back seat, sticking our heads out the windows, smelling the damp mountain mist, hearing the breeze in the new-green leaves and feeling the damp cool air on our faces. My father drove slowly. The road wouldn’t have it any other way. Some of the curves wound almost back on top of themselves. We were never in a hurry. We didn’t have a particular destination, although we usually ended up somewhere—at a waterfall or “a scenic overlook” (as the signs called them) or a little diner where we’d eat an early Sunday supper.
I still sometimes feel the urge on Sunday afternoons to go to ride. I’ve never successfully explained this urge to my family. All I know is that when I was a boy, my family felt most like a family when we rode together in the car, not speaking, just seeing whatever we might pass, traveling along some shady two-lane with the windows rolled down.
So where am I headed with this? I don’t know. But then I never know where I’ll end up when I go to ride or when I write for that matter. In terms of my writing, it’s easier to see where I’ve been. And one thing I noticed when I went back and looked at my last two novels is that a highway runs through each. And my characters seem to go to ride quite a bit. In In the Family Way, the family drives up into the mountains and ultimately buys a cabin there.
The book where riding somewhere else plays an even bigger role is my latest, The Pleasure Was Mine. Prate often takes Irene to ride to get out of the nursing home. In Chapter Two, they end up losing their way in the north Greenville countryside, a countryside Prate was sure he knew. They’re lost, and being lost in this strange place, in the rain, connects them. He takes her hand and they sit there watching the rain slide down the window. They’re alone in the car in the middle of nowhere. And it’s that connection that evokes a long flashback of how Prate first met Irene. If they hadn’t taken that drive, if they hadn’t gotten lost, then Prate wouldn’t have had that moment that led to the flashback. The place, including the weather, isolates them from the rest of the world, and something is revealed about them as a consequence.
Going to ride has delivered them to a small crisis and has shown us something about the characters. It sort of goes back to why we went on Sunday rides in the first place—to get us out of our routine. We drove up into the mountains to get us out of ourselves, if just a little bit. When we returned to Greenville, we were cooled off and maybe saw our city, our neighborhood, and each other, a little differently. This is what good fiction does. Fiction challenges its characters and gets them out of their ruts and routines, sometimes more gently, sometimes violently. Simply by moving your character to a different place you may disrupt routine. Of course whole novels have been written around the premise of a stranger arriving in a strange land. But you don’t have to take your characters to Africa or Everest or Antarctica. In fact, you don’t have to go far at all. You can drive them a few miles or walk them down the block or direct them into a room they don’t usually go in. They may not go willingly. But then that’s the point.
When you have a character whose memory of places is fading, as I do with Prate’s wife Irene who has Alzheimer's, then place has an even more complex role. Irene isn’t remembering places or is mixing them up, so Prate struggles to remind her what happened where. It’s a losing battle. Still, wherever he goes, he finds himself remembering a scene or a moment that happened in a certain place. It’s as if Prate spends the novel searching for Irene in his memories of her.
In the third chapter, Prate drives up to Jones Gap to meet his son Newell and his grandson Jackson, so that Prate can take Jackson for the summer. The first sentence is “It was a relief to drive in any direction besides Rolling Hills.” Rolling Hills is the nursing home. Not going to the same place that he goes every day is a relief. And it’s a relief to the reader too. The reader wants to go somewhere else, the reader wants to see other places or see your character in other places. It opens up the story and allows things to happen. Change place and things pretty much have to happen.
But this isn’t just any place Prate is headed. He drives up River Falls Road, a road he used to drive long ago with Irene and Newell, when they were a young family. As he drives in the opposite direction of Rolling Hills he feels guilty not going to the nursing home, even though they’ve planned for Newell to visit her today. At one point he starts to pass River Falls Lodge, an old building where he used to square dance when he was young. He pulls over and walks into the empty building and has a flashback about Irene. Unlike the flashback earlier when he and Irene were in the car in the pouring rain, this flashback is directly related to the place, and in a way, we get the sense that this flashback is much more powerful, precisely because Irene isn’t there. When we get our characters alone in a place, they have a much stronger sense of that place because no one is there to buffer or distract.
In a way, place here has a kind of depth. It’s not just the place he’s standing in at the moment, but it’s full of memories that go 50 years back in time. In this instance, place delivers him to the past.
A little later in the novel, Irene’s doctor suggests to Prate that maybe he ought to take her somewhere, even on an overnight trip. He tells Prate it might do Irene good, might do Prate himself good. And while Prate is reluctant to take on such a big enterprise because he doesn’t know how Irene will do, he ultimately takes the doctor up on his suggestion. He ends up taking Irene, the grandson Jackson and their woman neighbor Billie up to Penland, an arts and crafts school above Asheville, to visit their son Newell, who’s an artist there this summer.
Prate is very reluctant to take this trip. He’s worried he can’t manage Irene. He’s worried that it’s all too much. So there’s already a lot of tension surrounding this trip. They go anyway. And by taking this ambitious trip, to this place relatively far away, all kinds of tensions are precipitated. From the time I began writing this novel, I knew I’d have to get Irene out of the nursing home for a trip. As I worked, Penland presented itself to me as being the very antithesis of a nursing home: outdoors, up in the mountains, a very creative, very active, rich, fertile place.
When they arrive at Penland and are on the porch of Newell’s cabin, Irene walks out into a thunderstorm. She’s always liked storms. Prate has to wrestle her back onto the porch. He’s reminded of another time they were in a storm, as a much younger couple, making love. Again place has delivered him to another memory of her, and this time Irene is with him and he even asks if she remembers, and even though she says she does there’s no way for him to know.
Through place, Prate is connecting to Irene, not only in the present, but how she used to be, how they used to be before she got sick. Place connects them in the past and the present. The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve started to think that Irene and Prate’s relationship is its own place. Sometimes Irene is there; sometimes she’s not. I like the idea that relationships are places within places.
It’s not long after the scene on the porch, that Prate finds himself alone in the cabin’s bedroom, when he hasn’t been alone with her in months. This bedroom is a place neither of them has ever been before. It’s as if this new place opens up a moment for them. They eventually make love. And the next morning Irene is missing. Place brought them together, and it also got her lost.
The more I’ve looked over my novel, the more I’ve wondered if it isn’t really about Prate’s search for his lost Irene in all these places they go. That throughout the novel he’s almost unconsciously driving toward the memory of her.
In the last chapter, there’s one last ride. Summer’s over and Jackson has gone back to Asheville with Newell. Prate comes to the nursing home. He ends up taking Irene out to dinner, something he never does because it’s discouraged by the staff. So already the ride is unusual that way. He drives through the north Greenville countryside and finds himself pulling up in front of a diner they used to go to many, many years ago. Once again, he finds himself in a place that is at the same time a memory. Although this was a place they used to come, it’s still in business and it’s populated with at least a couple of characters—a kind waitress and a randy old man who has always had a thing for Irene. Both knew Irene before her Alzheimer’s and both understand the woman she was. The people in this place make the diner timeless, as if the place allows Prate and Irene to step outside of time, if only for a moment, but one that I feel strongly will last Prate the rest of his days.