From April 2016 to November 2017, I wrote a weekly serial novel called Ashes to Asheville, a new installment/chapter of which, within the hour of my finishing it, was published every Thursday morning on the website of the Asheville Citizen-Times, the major daily newspaper in Asheville, North Carolina. (I also did a concurrent Ashes to Asheville podcast, which you can find on iTunes here, and on the podcast’s website here.)
It was the first serial novel ever to be published on the website of a city daily newspaper.
Writing Ashes was a really interesting thing to do. Throughout the time I was writing it, I was very busy with the new house my wife and I were building in Asheville (you can read about that house in this newspaper article: Home of the Week: Affordable and Green in West Asheville), as well as with the advice column I began writing for the Citizen-Times in October 2016 (Ask John), and a ton of freelance book editing and ghostwriting that I had taken on.
All of which meant that throughout the time I was writing Ashes, I’d wake up around 3 a.m. every Thursday morning, write that week’s chapter of the story, and turn it in some five hours later. (The primary reason I waited so close to publishing time to write each week’s installment was that doing so allowed me to incorporate into the story national, regional and local events which had taken place just that week: Trump’s election, the tragedy at Pulse in Orlando, the drought and gas shortage that hit the southeast, the passing of HB2 in North Carolina, local concerts and events, etc.)
Throughout the process of doing Ashes, I was really driven to know the answer to two questions: Was it possible (or possible for me, anyway) to write a genuinely good novel in such a fashion; and: Is an online serial novel a viable/sustainable way for people to consume literature? I was particularly interested in the latter question, because Ashes is the first serial novel ever published on the website of a major daily city newspaper. So we were embarking on a unique experiment.
Fifty-four chapters later, I had the answers to my questions, both of which amounted to: Sort of. Whether Ashes is good enough to even qualify as Actual Literature isn’t for me to say. I know I never published any chapter until I felt it was absolutely ready, and so in that sense I’m satisfied (not to say proud) of the whole of it. But as to its objective quality, I have no idea. I know I was more than satisfied with the letters I received from readers of the story.
As to how many of those readers were actually out there, it’s basically impossible to measure. But it’s a safe guess that Ashes was being regularly read and followed by 1,500 people. And the weekly podcast I produced of the story did better than I could have hoped.
Ultimately, all I know is that I greatly enjoyed writing Ashes, and am imminently grateful to the Asheville Citizen-Times for partnering with me to bring it to readers. I may pick-up and continue writing the story sometime in 2018. I miss spending time with the people in the story, and wanted to see what happened next in the lives of so many of them: the transgender woman, Donna; the ominous-feeling Kavi; the captivating Makayla; Maggie, who never stoped delighting me. I want back in their lives! And so I may return to them yet.
But for now, here is the text from the April 12, 2016 article published in the print edition of the Citizen-Times by way introducing “Ashes” to its readers:
Finding Yourself Here: Serial Novel “Ashes to Asheville”
“Asheville is like Paris in the ’20s,” says novelist N. John Shore Jr. “The confluence of painters, sculptors, mixed-media artists, actors, writers, singers, musicians, chefs, brewers, the whole green building and organic farming phenomenon … it’s all so extraordinary. Having just moved here in August from California, where I’ve lived nearly all of my life, how could I do anything but write a novel set in this astonishing, galvanizing place?”
The muse that is our city inspired Shore with the idea for “Ashes to Asheville,” a novel he envisioned writing in serial form, publishing a new installment each week.
“I love the idea of serializing a novel,” Shore said. “So many of our greatest novels — ‘Madame Bovary,’ ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ all of Dickens’ major works — were first published in weekly or monthly periodicals. It’s a fantastic way to both write and follow a story. But, of course, it can’t work — or at least isn’t likely to work as well — if a newspaper or weekly periodical doesn’t pick it up.”
Enter Asheville Scene.
Starting today, you can read, on our website, Shore’s “Ashes to Asheville.” By way of kicking the novel off, we’re first presenting its initial three installments at one time. Beginning April 21, we invite you to read on our site, every Thursday morning, the latest installment of the story.
We think you’ll find “Ashes to Asheville” as addicting as we have.
Shore may be new to Asheville, but he is not new to writing. He is a veteran freelance magazine writer and editor who has also published 15 short stories in as many literary magazines. For years he wrote a blog popular enough that, after essentially shutting it down in 2014 in order to write his first novel, “What I Did to You,” he was able to raise more than $33,000 on Kickstarter in December to finance the book. Besides writing “Ashes to Asheville,” Shore is now busily preparing “What I Did to You” for publication.
“Ashes to Asheville” tells the story of Tammy, a 45-year-old mother of two grown children whose husband of 22 years … well, let’s just say critically disappoints her. In her anguish, Tammy flees her comfortable life in San Diego for the home of her beloved half-brother, Charlie, who lives in Asheville.
“Tammy is an artist,” says Shore. “For 10 years she taught art and painting at a San Diego junior college. She thought her life was settled. And suddenly she discovers that it’s anything but. This launches her into what is, to say the least, an unsettling time for her. And if you’re going to be thrust into an intensely wrenching, soul-upheaving season of your life, in which so much of what you know, or thought you knew, about yourself is essentially up for grabs, then Asheville is certainly a spectacularly unique place to have that experience. It sure proves to be for her, anyway.”
Does Shore feel at all challenged by the fact that he’s a man writing from the perspective of a woman?
“Yes and no,” he said. “Yes, in that I’m, you know, your basic hairy beast of a guy. But no, because I’m a beast who’s been married to the same brilliant woman for 35 years. And my wife, Cat, is a visual artist, a photographer. Cat is Tammy, basically. And she’ll always be right there, watching over my shoulder, to make sure that I keep Tammy true to who she is. I love it. The whole thing, overall, is pure joy for me, because I, just like Tammy, am new to Asheville. She and I discover Asheville together.”
And with that, I’ll let the story begin. Oh, except for this one quick note: Due to the formatting restrictions of the Citizen-Times’ website, I couldn’t use italics in the writing of Ashes. Hence my sometimes employment of capital letters, the old-old school means of emphasizing text. As the weeks and months went by, though, I used capitals less and less often, since to today’s reader they connote nothing so much as screaming, and learned instead to write in such a way that such emphasis was unnecessary.)
So here we go.
Chapter 1: Merry Christmas
“You’re leaving me?” asked Tammy, suddenly bewildered, suddenly numb. “But it’s Christmas. We just exchanged gifts.”
Seated beside her on the couch, her husband Ryan looked at her concernedly and said nothing. In her shock Tammy wasn’t entirely sure what she was saying.
“You gave me the picture of Frank Sinatra singing,” she said. “We love Frank Sinatra singing.”
“We do,” said Ryan. “We love lots of stuff together.”
“That’s right. And we love Jill and Kevin, too — right?”
“Of course, Tam. We’ll always love our kids.”
“We love that we had them together,” said Tammy. “We love that we raised them together, and saw them off to college together.”
“We love all that, yes.”
Tammy began crying. “And what about our house? We love our house, don’t we?”
“Sure we do. We worked really hard for this place.”
“And the wonderful new life we’re gonna start living in it now that it’s just us again. We love that, too.”
Ryan took her hand. “Doodles, I—”
“No,” said Tammy, yanking back her hand. “Don’t call me that.” She blinked at him through her tears. “Are you really leaving me?”
Ryan looked down a moment, and then nodded. “Believe me, it’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made. But I know it has to be done. And I also know that pretty soon, Tammy, you’ll understand that—”
“That what? That I’m GLAD I’m not married anymore? That’s it’s GOOD I’ve wasted the last twenty-two years of my life?”
“Don’t say that. We’ve had a lot of great times together.”
“I know that. Why don’t YOU know that?” She gave way to the desperation she’d been trying to control. “I can’t believe you’re really telling me this. And on Christmas. The day we love most of all. OUR day, Ryan. And I just lost my job. How can you be DOING this to me?”
“Well, c’mon. You didn’t ‘just’ lose your job.”
Something froze inside of Tammy that was now competing with her anguish. “It’s only been a few months,” she said.
Ryan stood from the couch and walked over beside the Christmas tree that he and Tammy had decorated together not three weeks before, while they had sipped champagne, while they had laughed and hugged and sang along with their favorite Christmas albums. For the first time in twenty years it had been just the two of them doing the decorating, just the two of them carefully unwrapping and poring over all their cherished old ornaments. When the tree was perfectly complete he had put his arm around her. “Just wait’ll the kids see it,” he had said. He had held up his glass. “To Christmas,” he’d said.
“To Christmas,” she’d answered. “To us!”
Clink. Sip. Smile. Kiss. More than a kiss.
And now, standing beside their sparkling tree, hands on his hips, Ryan said, “It’s been four months since you lost your job, Tammy. Not a ‘few.’ Four. And what have you been doing for those four months? Nothing. All you’ve been doing is sitting around the house in your ratty old bathrobe, moping.”
“I worked there for ten years!” Tammy cried. “How do you EXPECT me to react to losing my job?”
“Well, if it was a real job, maybe the way you have been. But you were an art teacher at a junior college — and a mostly part-time one, at that. You taught painting. Who even takes classes in painting?”
“Well, I think it’s safe to say not too many of them. Not ENOUGH of them, obviously. So when you find out that you don’t get to teach painting anymore, I expect you to be sad for maybe two days — and to then rally yourself. Honestly, I expect you to get off the couch, wipe your eyes, put on some nice clothes for once, and say, ‘Okay, well, that didn’t work out. Enough feeling sorry for myself. Time to get something new happening in my life.’”
Tammy fairly hissed it. “You mean the way you’re doing with our marriage.”
“Oh, come on, Tammy. That’s not fair. That’s not what’s happening here. We’ve just grown apart, is all. You know it’s true.” He made a point of looking her square in the eye.
And there, in the flash of the fleeting flicker behind his bravado, Tammy saw the truth of what was happening there.
It took a moment for that truth to sink in.
“My God,” she said almost wonderingly. “You’re having an affair, aren’t you?”
He held her gaze just long enough to say “WHAT?” before looking away again. “I don’t — what are you even talking about?”
“I’m talking about the affair you’re having. You’re sleeping with that teenage girl you hired. Shirley. Shimmby. Sheeba. Shh—”
“Shannon,” Ryan blurted. He took a deep breath. “Her name is Shannon. And yes. She and I have … we’ve developed … I mean…” He bit his lower lip, looked down at the ground, looked up at her again, and folded his arms across his chest. “She and I are together now, Tam. There’s nothing else I can say. And even though I know it sounds like a cliche, the fact is that she and I have really got something. Something real. Something deep.”
“Something realer and deeper than twenty-two years of marriage and two children? Gee, I wonder what that something IS, Ryan.”
“And Shannon isn’t a teenager, by the way. She’s twenty-five.”
Tammy stood up quickly from the couch. “Stop, Ryan. Stop talking now.” Her hands were shaking, but her voice was as steady as a cruising warship. “Don’t say another word. I am asking you to please, right now, go be with Shapoopie, or Shitcan, or whatever her name is. Just leave, okay? Can you do that for me? Can you show me at least that much respect?”
Ryan waited a few beats, staring at her — but then turned, walked brusquely into their bedroom, came back out, got a jacket from the hallway closet, took his time putting it on, and then walked out the front door into the warm San Diego morning.
For maybe a minute, for maybe an hour, Tammy remained standing where she was.
And then she sat on the couch again, covered her face with her hands, and didn’t even try to fight the long loaded train that hit her.
Chapter 2: Bones like putty
Moving like her bones had turned to putty, Tammy managed, after an hour or three, to push herself upright on the couch.
Eventually she more or less succeeded at getting draped over her head and down her back the couch’s throw blanket, which for years had been a comfy staple of her family’s life, but which now seemed to her a foreign object: large, soft, beige, some sort of pattern, nothing more.
Except for the rhythmic movement of her hands worrying the blanket’s fringe, Tammy remained motionless within her makeshift tent, staring out through the water in her eyes at twenty-two years blurred into nothing that made sense anymore.
Already her beloved home had become just a house, unoccupied, save for one, and quiet as a tomb.
From off the coffee table before her, she dragged a box of tissues onto her lap, and then her phone. After some time staring dumbly at the phone, and as if she were watching someone else’s hand doing it, she pressed it on.
Three slow taps and a scroll brought her to the bottom of her Favorites list, where it said Mom.
“Ryan LEFT you?” said her mother. “TODAY? But it’s CHRISTMAS.My God, what is the MATTER with that man? Well, I know the answer to that: he’s a MAN, that’s what. Honey, I am so sorry this has happened to you. You must be cryin’ yourself dry. But I want you to listen to me, baby. Are you listening? Men DO these things, okay? They just do. They reach a certain age, and something deep inside ’em goes haywire, and the next thing you know they’ve gone off wanderin’. But it never sticks with ’em, honey. They ALWAYS come back home. And as surely as a kicked peach’ll bruise, Ryan’ll do the same. And when he DOES come back — even if it’s only for a moment, to pick up some of his things or whatever it is — you know what you need to be, darlin’?”
From behind the blowzy wad of tissue she was holding to her nose, Tammy said, “What?”
“You need to be lookin’ like a woman no man would ever want to leave — or wouldn’t want to leave again, anyway. You need to look like his walking out on you was one of the best things that ever happened to you, like his B.S. fertilized the flower you’ve blossomed into since the last time he saw you. Do you hear what I’m sayin’? You need to get your hair and nails done. Get some exercise. From what I hear — from what Ryan told your sister, according to her — ever since you lost your job, you’ve been doin’ nothin’ but layin’ up in the house all day in your ratty old bathrobe.”
Tammy pulled the tissue away. “Ryan talked to Sandra?”
“Yes he did, and that’s what he told her. He said that he’s been waitin’ and waitin’ for you to snap out of it, and —”
“Why can’t I just be SAD that I lost my job? Why is there a DEADLINE for how long it’s acceptable for me to —”
“No one’s sayin’ you can’t be sad you lost your job, sweetheart. All right? No one’s sayin’ that. But enough is enough, don’t you think?”
“I think they closed the school in only September, Mom. I think that’s been really HARD for me. I think I worked there for TEN YEARS.”
“I know you did, baby. And I know how much you loved your little job teachin’ young people all about painting and art and all of that. But if what Ryan told Sandra is true, then, sad or not, you can’t be too surprised that things have come to what they have. Ryan shouldn’t have walked out on you on CHRISTMAS, Lord knows. But, honey, no man wants to come home after a hard day’s work to find a dumpy frumpy waitin’ for him. That just doesn’t WORK for a marriage. You know that right now better than anyone.”
“I can’t believe you’re making this my fault.”
“I’m not makin’ this your fault. No one’s sayin’ it’s your fault. What I am sayin’, though, is that you do NOT want to be a single woman at your age. That’s the bottom line here. A single woman at your age is like a flower with its roots cut off. It will WITHER. So, job or no job, you have got to pull yourself together. You’ve got to make sure that when Ryan comes back home, he STAYS home. And you can do it! Why, you used to be the prettiest girl in Orange County.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“You certainly were. Everybody said so. You just never believed in yourself enough. You’ve always had that problem, Tammy. And for the life of me, I have never understood why.”
Not too long after her conversation with her mother, Tammy found herself, despite herself, phoning her sister.
“Yeah, I knew Ryan was unhappy,” said Sandra. “He’s been over a couple of times complaining about you.”
With every ounce of control she could muster, Tammy said, “Why didn’t you ever tell me that, Sandra?”
“What happens between you and your husband is none of my business.”
“Look, I’m sorry Ryan left you, I really am. That little redheaded plaything he’s left you for is a bitch. But right now I’m afraid I have got to go. The boys are starving, and my kitchen looks like a storm went through it. You gonna be okay? If you want to come over today, you’re more than welcome to. You know that.”
“Thanks, but I’ll probably just—”
“Well, come by if you want to. I’ll talk to you later.” Her sister hung up.
Tammy stared at her phone for a long while. She found herself wondering how she had ever come to believe that it could tell her anything at all worth knowing.
She nearly jumped out of her blanket when, at that very moment, the thing started shaking and ringing like it was having a heart attack.
Chapter 3: Asheville calling
It was her half-brother, Charlie, calling from Asheville, North Carolina.
“Ryan left me,” said Tammy.
“I’m sorry,” said Charlie. “Did you just say that Ryan LEFT you? Are you joking? WHEN?
“This morning? On CHRISTMAS?”
“Yeah. But at least we opened our presents first.”
“Was he high? Were you guys drunk, I hope?”
“No. He’s having an affair.”
“Oh, good lord. Who with?”
“Some girl he hired.”
“Gee, lemme guess. She’s half his age.”
Tammy covered her eyes with the palm of her hand. “She’s half his age.”
Charlie fell silent for a long time. Then he said, “And I thought it sucked that Todd got me SOCKS.”
The loudness of the laugh that burst out of Tammy shocked even her.
And then she couldn’t stop laughing.
She laughed until she cried.
And once the worst of the crying was over, she sighed, and said, “Oh, Charlie. What am I going to do?”
“Well,” said Charlie, “at least you have your work. Oh, wait. No, you don’t.”
Tammy laughed so hard she toppled back over onto her side.
Once her breathing had returned to normal, she pulled a throw pillow under her head. “You know what I think I’m going to do, Charlie?”
“I think I’m gonna lie right here on this couch forever. I’ve got Netflix. I can get pizza delivered. I’m done.”
“If you promise me that’s all you’ll do, guess what I’ll do.”
“Catch the next flight out there and JOIN you on that couch.”
“Promise. And once there, I will have but one demand. Well, two. First, pizza cannot be the only thing we eat.”
“Oh, shoot. It would have been so wonderful to see you again.”
“I’m sorry, but I must demand that we also consume massive quantities of ice cream.”
“What time can you be here?”
“Second, I’m going to want to beat Ryan to a pulp.”
“No, that would be wrong of you to do.”
“I don’t care. That’s what’s happening.”
“No. Hire someone ELSE to do it.”
“Yes! Good point. Why get off the couch if I don’t have to?”
“So our plan is set: pizza, ice cream, murder for hire, Netflix. AND I’ll bring the ice cream with me when I come. We must begin with chocolate ice cream from The Hop.”
“I love you, Charlie.”
“I love you, too.”
“I so much want chocolate ice cream from The Hop.”
After another long pause, Charlie said, “Tam?”
“You should come out here. To stay with us. Like, forever. Todd and I would love to have you here.”
Tammy sat back up on the couch. She pulled the blanket onto her lap. She tucked it around her legs and hips. Her gaze fixed on the wild and colorful disarray left under the tree after she and Ryan had so happily unwrapped their gifts to each other.
“Why stay there?” Charlie continued. “Kevin and Jill are out of the house. Ryan’s even out of the house now, that useless cretin. Why should YOU stay there anymore?”
“Because we’re gonna live on the couch and eat pizza and ice cream?”
“And we can still do that! I insist we do. But why not do it here in Asheville? You’ve seen our couch. You could land a plane on the thing. And think of the money we’ll save not having to ship our ice cream to San Diego. The Hop is right down the street from us! And if, God forbid, you ever DID want to get off the couch, you’d have your own place — with your own kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, couch — right downstairs! Didn’t you love our downstairs suite last time you were here?”
“Well, yeah, of course. It’s so great.”
“Well, then? Why not come stay in it again?”
“Because… well, for one, because I can’t even imagine interfering with your life that way.”
“The place has its own ENTRANCE. You know what. Your being there wouldn’t interfere with my life at all. Besides, dear heart, it’s because of you that I have any life at all. When dad kicked me out of the house, who took me in? YOU did, that’s who. I mean, Ryan was nice enough to me and all. But it’s not like I didn’t know that you basically made him agree to my living there. I was seventeen, desperate to understand what it even MEANT to be gay — besides that it was enough to get me literally thrown out the front door of my house — and you saved me, Tammy. You took me in; you loved me; you protected me; you let me live in your house until I graduated from high school. You were way more of a mother to me than my real mother ever was — except you were more like the best older sister ever. And now I have a great big house of my own, with its own granny flat right downstairs, in the coolest neighborhood in one of the coolest cities in America, and I would LOVE to do for you even a portion of what you once did for me. Please don’t deny me that opportunity. Come stay with Todd and me. You’d make us so happy if you did. You’d make the HOUSE happy if you did.”
“So … I mean … I can’t even think about how… Are you really serious about this?”
“Do I SOUND serious about it?”
“You do, actually.”
“Because I am! And if you’re not convinced yet that you belong in Asheville — a city MADE for artists like you — then I have exactly four words for you. Are you ready for the four magical words guaranteed to have you RUNNING across the country to get to Asheville if that’s what it takes?”
“Well, I mean — sure. Let’s hear ’em.”
“Top. Of. The. Monk.”
Tammy gasped. “Oh, my god,” she said. “I need some running shoes.”
“Right? Best bar EVER.”
“Ever,” said Tammy.
“And you know who’ll be behind the bar, doing the ambidextrous shaker shake?”
“ASHEVILLE’S COCKTAIL QUEEN!” they both said at once.
Tammy and Charlie talked on the phone for two more hours.
The next morning found Tammy squeezing all of her essential belongings into her 2010 Toyota Corolla, locking the front door of her house, pulling out of her driveway, and beginning her cross-country drive to Asheville.
Her old life was gone.
Pushing aside her fears of the new life awaiting her, she looked for a long moment into her rear view mirror. And then, eyes back ahead, she pressed down on the gas pedal.
Chapter 4: The French Broad
When, cold beyond shivering, Tammy stepped out of her bedroom after her first night’s sleep in Asheville, she found waiting on the dining table a note from Charlie:
“Slept well, I hope! Am I correct in guessing that right about now you are freezing your adorable tush off, California girl? If so (in case you don’t recall!) the thermostat is in the hallway by the bathroom.”
Immediately Tammy dropped the note and shuffled off toward the hallway. Having turned on the heat, she pulled tight around herself her sweater, her bathrobe, and the blanket she’d hauled with her from the bed, and went back into the kitchen to finish reading Charlie’s note.
“I’m off to meet with a (very exciting!) client, and Todd is off doing Todd things. I’ll probably be out all morning. Bacon and eggs are in the fridge. I’m sure I do not need to remind you of Hole, since I assume that you, like I, dream every night of their deliciously delectable donuts. If you go there (do!) please bring back at least six dozen of them — or more, if you want any for yourself. There’s also a great new place, Taco Billy, right out on Haywood and Brownwood, where they make breakfast tacos so awesome you’ll have to start dreaming of TWO places to eat here in West Asheville.
“Call me if you need anything. I love you. Todd loves you. Pickles loves you—and that cat, as you know, would attack Mr. Rogers. All three of us are so happy that you’re here, living in what, from now on, will forever be known as Tammy’s Place.”
Wiping away the tears that had welled in her eyes, Tammy shuffled back into her bedroom.
Twenty minutes later, bundled up like Nanook of the North, she stepped outside, into air that had as little in common with the air in San Diego as a backscratcher has with a sledgehammer.
The severity of the cold shocked and thrilled her.
If there’s one thing Asheville had, Tammy knew, it was real, honest-to-God seasons.
And, astonishingly, four of them, too. And not a one of them like the others.
The only seasons San Diego had were Perfect, Amazing, Heavenly, and Tropical.
But this was hardcore, bone-chilling winter, and no two ways about it. It wasn’t snowing, but spit launched into the air would be hail before it hit the ground. This was the sort of body-slamming cold that made scarves, hats and gloves absolute necessities, rather than, as Tammy primarily knew them, fun fashion accessories to wear whenever it was cool enough not to make doing so completely absurd.
With her mittened hands shoved deep into the pockets of her overcoat, Tammy wonderingly watched her breath coming out like steam. Then she tucked her chin back behind her woolen scarf, and set off walking for Hole.
Making her unhurried way through the narrow, winding, mostly sidewalk-less residential streets towards Haywood Road, marveling all the while at the seeming forests of bare, tall trees everywhere around her, Tammy found herself reliving moments of her long drive from San Diego.
And every moment she remembered was the same.
Through mile after endless mile, she had not felt angry. She had not felt betrayed. She had not felt revengeful.
She’d felt nothing but lonely.
Lonely when looking at the mountains. Lonely when looking at the farm fields stretching to the horizon. Lonely when sitting in a restaurant. Lonely when buying gas.
Lonely at night.
As she watched a squirrel skittering up the long trunk of tree, Tammy thought of how much Ryan loved hotels. He was always so excited about being in a place he’d never been before.
So many new things to see.
So many new things to do.
Once she reached Haywood, the main road through West Asheville, Tammy surprised herself a bit by walking right past Hole (though not without her eyes and nose noting that it was open). She was eager to see the famous River Arts District, where countless artists worked in every kind of medium in the literally hundreds of studios and galleries, which, starting in the mid-1980’s, they had fashioned for themselves within the brick industrial plants and warehouses that, before the artists rescued them by moving into them, had stood neglected and abandoned for decades along a one-mile stretch of the river.
A short walk later Tammy was standing on the Haywood Road Bridge, looking south over the mighty French Broad. She didn’t know much about the river, but relished what she did know about it. That it was the third oldest river in the world, older than the Appalachian Mountains across which it flows, which are the oldest mountains in the world. That it flows across the Appalachians, rather than, as a typical river would, down or through them, because it existed before the great mountains which rose up around it.
That, impossibly, it was older than fossils, which was why there none were to be found in its ancient bed.
The river’s quality which most immediately impressed itself upon Tammy, however, was that it was flowing the wrong way.
Rivers are supposed flow downward, from north to south. But the French Broad goes in the opposite direction. It flows northward.
Which left Tammy, looking out over the south side of the bridge, feeling weirdly disoriented, as she watched moving toward her water that her every instinct told her should be moving away.
Not that the panorama before her was any less striking for that. She immediately thought of capturing the whole scene on canvas. The river coming around its right bend in the middle distance; the leaning trees, so dense along its banks, arching their spindly branches over its water, as if blessing it.
It was all so beautiful.
So very — so harshly — bleak.
But in the fall! she thought. How stunning must it look in the fall, with all the tree leaves in their riotous glory.
Fall was the time to paint this scene, she thought. If, come autumn, she was still in Asheville, she would take to her oils.
Tammy didn’t do bleak. Her pictures, as she liked to put it, dared to be pretty.
Here and there, long captured by the branches nearest the water, tattered plastic grocery bags helplessly fluttered in the frigid breeze.
If she were to paint this now, she would certainly leave those out of her picture. Garbage had no place in a scene so beautiful.
As she had so often said to her students: What is art, ultimately, if not a call to the ideal?
She turned to look at the picturesque buildings of the River Arts District.
Before starting toward them, she looked back one more time at the river.
And what she saw suddenly wasn’t the river at all. It had become a brownish snake, as large as the river, firm in its flesh, oily-looking, undulating, powerful beyond comprehension. The bridge she was on seemed to quickly pull back a short distance into the air, showing her more of the wide slithering body running beneath her.
Filling up all the space where the water had been, the behemoth rolled itself onto its back, now facing to the steel gray sky its pinkish pale underbelly.
The trees along the snake’s sides became its wriggling tentacles. They started reaching up towards her. From behind she felt the beast’s titanic head rising from its bed, swaying through the air. It was looking at her, focused on her, fascinated by her, now moving fast through the air to take her.
Chapter 5: Tripping
Her terror before the pure evil about to obliterate her slammed Tammy, hard, back into the present.
She couldn’t catch her breath.
Her heart was an uncontrolled jackhammer.
She was soaked with adrenaline.
She saw the river—a river once more—far below her. Too far. All of her life she had been afraid of heights.
And yet here she was anyway, standing alone on a bridge.
She looked towards the River Arts District. She thought that she didn’t belong there, that the people who worked there were real artists, with real talent.
Not like her.
She had no place amongst real artists. She never had. She never would.
“I wanna go home,” she said to no one.
But home was three thousand miles away.
And nobody wanted her there, either.
She turned, braced herself against the cold, and started walking back to Charlie’s.
* * * * *
The moment she was inside her place at Charlie’s, Tammy shook off her mittens and pulled out her cellphone. She was nearly desperate to call Ryan.
He must love her still. Of course he did. He wouldn’t walk away from twenty-two years of marriage just because some short-skirted bitch at the office batted her eyes at him.
She was his wife. They had raised their children together.
This little fling of his was nothing but a bump in the road. Marriages hit bumps. But they didn’t stop because of those bumps. They slowed a little, but kept on going, until they were back up to speed and everything was fine again.
She needed to talk to Ryan, was all. That was everything. That would work.
She tapped her husband’s number, and then stood perfectly still in the middle of the dimly lit kitchen, back straight, breath held, listening to his phone ring.
Three times. And then, “This is Rhonda Cisneros, chair of the arts department at Palomar Junior College. I’m—”
Out on Charlie’s back porch, Pickles the cat started at the sound of a woman screaming.
Tammy let herself fall into one of the two chairs of the 50’s-style dinette set in her kitchen.
She took in a deep breath to collect herself.
She wondered if there were anyone ELSE she could call who used to love her, but now couldn’t give a cold crap about her.
This time she was careful to hit Ryan, not Rhonda.
His phone rang. And rang. And rang. And then went to voicemail.
Tammy punched off her phone.
It was seven in the morning in California—a time of day when Ryan was as likely to be asleep as he was to be knitting.
He had seen it was her calling, and let it go to voicemail.
She nearly leapt up from her chair. She paced back and forth across the kitchen, twice, before sitting back down at the table and calling her mother.
Who didn’t have a chance to answer before her daughter hung up, covered her head in her hands, and cried.
* * * * *
An hour or so later, dressed in sweats, a thick sweater, her bathrobe, two scarves, and the hat she’d picked back up off the floor, Tammy was walking up the staircase to the main floor of Charlie’s house, where she knew she’d find a couch even more comfy than the one in her quarters, a huge TV, a computer, and a refrigerator filled with food that she was already pretty sure she’d eat way too much of.
About halfway up the stairs she tripped, barking her shin hard on the step that she’d missed.
CLUMSY! she screamed to herself. I’VE ALWAYS BEEN SO CLUMSY!
Rushing through her mind while she furiously rubbed her shin came the countless times Ryan had attempted to play baseball with her—or tennis, or soccer, or anything else involving a ball that she could not throw, hit, catch, pass, or DRIBBLE to save her life—and how angry or (if he was in a good mood) disappointed he inevitably became once it settled upon him that, yet again, she had been determined, through her mind-boggling physical ineptitude, to ruin the good time that he had been so earnestly trying to have with her.
And now here she was, yet again proving herself such a hopeless klutz that she couldn’t even walk up a flight of stairs without falling on her ass.
* * * * *
Once inside of Charlie’s, Tammy went straight for the fridge. She was starving.
Standing before its open door, though, she realized that the problem with Charlie’s refrigerator was that everything inside of it was cold.
She saw, on the counter next to Charlie’s toaster, a box of cupcakes from Short Street Cakes.
“So there is a God,” she murmured.
Holding two cupcakes on a salad plate, Tammy plodded into the living area.
Where she saw Charlie’s desk. And his big executive’s chair.
And his iMac.
Tammy thought what a stupid, stupid thing she was doing as she fired up Charlie’s computer.
Her brain demanded that her fingers immediately cease their logging her onto Facebook.
But what chance did one impotent overlord have against ten headstrong rebels?
While Facebook collected itself Tammy sunk her teeth into the first of her cupcakes.
Everything stopped for a moment, while, on sparkling wings of icing, she was transported to the Land of Pure Deliciousness. On her way back down to earth, she wondered what the DEAL was with Asheville, anyway. Was there some sort of city ordinance that made it illegal for any Asheville citizen to NOT graduate from the Cordon Bleu?
Facebook, she saw, had nothing for her. No little red, blue or green bubble or box was insistently alerting her that someone or other had messaged, tagged, added, notified, shared, joined, poked, friend requested, liked, or invited her to anything at all.
Ten bazillion people on Facebook, and not one of them had anything to say to her.
This time her brain absolutely laid down the law. “STOP TYPING ‘SHANNON CHADWELL, SAN DIEGO’ IN THE FACEBOOK SEARCH BOX! FINGERS! CEASE AND DESIST THIS MOMENT!”
In such a way do empires start to crumble.
There now before Tammy, in all of her effervescent, youthful, hair-bouncing, back-arching, sundress-wearing irresistibility, was Shannon Chadwell, of San Diego.
Who, Tammy couldn’t help but notice, had the teeth of a horse.
But a horse, Tammy also saw, who was eager to let everyone know she was “In a relationship.”
With her eyes glued to the computer screen, Tammy pushed into her mouth the second half of her cupcake.
But her mouth stopped moving and her blood went cold when she saw Shannon’s photo album titled, “My Man.”
Tammy managed to swallow the cupcake. It could have been a wad of paper towels.
She double-clicked the folder.
And just like that, there he was.
There was Ryan.
Ryan in a bar shoulder-to-shoulder with Shannon, the two of them toasting the camera.
Ryan standing on the beach with his arms around Shannon, who clearly had every reason to feel as good as she clearly did feel wearing a bikini as skimpy as she was.
Ryan and Shannon on a bicycle built for two. Rarin’ to go! Havin’ fun! Relishing the joy of just being alive, and loving life, and having lots of sex.
Tammy felt sick to her stomach.
It took everything she had not to pick up Charlie’s computer over her head and smash it down onto the ground.
* * * * *
Hours later, buried beneath four blankets, Tammy lie sleeping on Charlie’s couch. Sprawled across the coffee table was evidence of her having rigorously taste-tested all of the junk food she’d found in Charlie’s cabinets and pantry, along with three beers, each from a different Asheville brewery, and each clearly a complete taste-test winner.
Frozen on the television was a message from Netflix, asking if anyone was still watching Alias.
The weight of someone sitting on the couch beside her opened Tammy’s eyes.
“Charlie,” she said.
“Sweetheart,” Charlie said, taking the hand she’d held out to him. “You’re here.”
“I’m here. And making a mess, as you see.”
“What, this? Don’t be silly. This is what it looks like whenever I eat breakfast while watching TV. Which I do all the time. This is like you cleaned UP in here.”
Tammy eyes filled with tears.
Charlie gently moved some hair from her cheek. “Don’t cry,” he said. “There’s no crying tonight.”
“I think there might be just a little.”
“I beg to differ. And do you know why it is that no crying will be allowed, if only just for tonight?”
“Because, silly. Tonight is New Year’s Eve.”