HomeSouthern VoiceRural Retreat

Rural Retreat

by Angela Spires

The voice of Darth Vader comes out of my Tom Tom, followed by his mechanical breath.

“You have arrived at your destination. Whooo-perrrr.

I hit the brakes of my black Chevrolet Aveo: my rental—economy class. Not that anyone here could tell the difference between a Chevy Aveo and a Gemballa Avalanche. To my left a row of evergreens leads up to a forest, followed by lush knee-high grass that stretches up a hillside; but no driveway, not for at least fifty yards. On my right a broken down barn sits at the top of another hill. What paint hasn’t peeled off is beige. White wooden crossbars lay across the front door. (I wonder if they know the barn should be red, for the true confederate effect.) Please don’t let that be the place.

Surely, this isn’t what constitutes a church out here now. Though you can’t hardly throw a stone and not hit a church here in southern Virginia—Rural Retreat, population not much and not changing. Stagnant. Once southwest Virginia has its talons in you, it’s an act of God to get it to let you out again. Since Virginia’s the third notch on the Bible belt, we have all the God-fearing, God-loving, God-blessing folks you could ever want, all so infused with the Word that they’re intolerant of anyone not exactly the same. But even they have standards for a church.

I pull forward.

Whooo-perrrrr. Turn around when possible,” the Tom Tom says. “I find your lack of faith disturbing. Whooo-perrrr.” I regret downloading this new voice. Darth has definitely never been near the likes of this place. I drive another half mile, shaking my head. A gravel driveway off to my left leads up to a small trailer and I’m pretty sure it’s just residential. The barn is looking better and better by the second. I turn Darth off. He’s really annoying me. The road curves to the right and a brick building comes into view up ahead that just may be the church I’m looking for. As I drive closer the small stained glass windows become more prominent; on the side of the building white bricks make up a cross. The small sign in the yard is now visible: Church of God.

A very large man in a ball cap, wife beater, and bib overalls is mowing the grass around the church with a push mower. The grass runs uphill and all around the edges of the parking lot. It’s a hot day; a sweat-saturated man doesn’t add good detail to a wedding photo.

I have arrived before all the other guests to shoot some pictures of the outside of the building. I pull into the parking lot and drive in behind the church. I pull my camera equipment out of the car and strap it around my neck. No one is nearby, but I still lock the doors on the rental. My camera bag is still in there; it’s of enough value to me that I would miss it if it were gone. My wallet’s in my back pocket. I click the lock again. It’s a habit from living in Phoenix and I don’t feel comfortable enough to break it now.

I walk back out into the road. So far I haven’t seen another car pass. I shoot some pictures, trying to exclude the mowing man from the shots. The church has no steeple, and other than the small white brick cross, the building could be a house. The stained glass windows are so small that from a distance they look as if they have been darkened in. I shoot the pictures anyway. I am nothing if not thorough when shooting a wedding—even one I am shooting for free. I will keep it simple, though. I asked the bride—my niece—what she wanted and she didn’t have much to say. I found that odd in and of itself, but it’s not my wedding. Thank God.

A small house sits in behind the church that I assume to be the pastor’s. A woman comes out of the house and walks up to me. She’s in her late forties and is carrying a set of keys in her hand.

“Are you here for the wedding?”

“Yes,” I say. “I’m Joseph.” I extend my hand to her.

She shakes it and smiles at me.

“I just was going to take some shots before everyone arrived,” I say.

“Would you like in?”

“That would be great.” I smile and glance back at my car. It’s still safely parked in the lot.

The inside of the church is small and the lighting is very poor. It has not been decorated beyond a few beige bows tied onto the ends of the aisles. The guest book sits on a table near the entrance, with a single unlit candle beside it. With the church’s dark stained glass windows and low lamp lighting, I will have to rely on my flash and manual camera settings. Not really a big deal, but some natural lighting would be great. I may be able to talk the couple into shooting the bridal party shots outside. There is greenery out there. Plus a beautiful blue sky today. Not high class, but neither is the wedding. We’ll see how it goes.

After I shoot pictures inside and out, I go back to the air conditioner in the car. It is late summer and the humidity is high today. I don’t have to wait long before people begin to arrive. They appear to be in the bridal party. Most of them I have never met—I’ve lived out of state for six years now. Moving was a progressive thing, from age eighteen on—my back-wood-country claustrophobia. First I moved thirty minutes away. Then an hour. Two. Then a new state; then finally six states and a thirty-six hour drive away. Works well; most of the family is afraid to get on an airplane.

More people pull into the lot. I take a deep breath and exit the car. I can do this.

My brother Andy arrives and I greet him and his wife Meg with a cursory hello. His daughter Kelly is the bride. Andy’s fingers fidget endlessly in his hand; beads of sweat drip down his face and onto the tux that looks out of place on his body—he hates events like this. Plus I heard Kelly asked him not to drink until after the wedding and two days dry is probably weighing on him.

Andy and I are at different ends of the spectrum—he’s the oldest of five children, I’m the youngest. Fifteen years separate us, so by the time I was old enough to remember, he was already out of the house. My mother finally learned after me and had her tubes tied. We all have different fathers, but a few of us have the same last name. So it goes in a town where most people are related and ninety percent of the population is an Arnold, Dutton, or Smith. Andy was followed by two more boys, then along came Amy, the only girl in the bunch. She survived, though. She’s about the only one I keep in touch with.

Kelly arrives and scurries to the back room. I knock to make sure that everyone is decent before I go in. The bride is mostly made up already, but her mother is curling a few last strands of her hair. Her long brown hair hangs in curls. She is wearing light shades of beige and brown make-up on top of her her brown eyes. A few pieces of baby’s breath rest at the top of her head. She is a beautiful girl and the simplicity suits her.

I take some shots of them and of the flowers, and even the dress shoes on the table. The rooms in the church are small and the halls are narrow. Other family members have already started to arrive, even though it’s an hour early. Milling around the halls, they make it hard to pass through. The men are already dressed, so I don’t have the traditional pictures of the mother putting on the boutonniere. I decide to fake it and ask the mother to pretend like she is putting on the flower again. They won’t remember much of the day anyway.

My mother is waiting at the back of the church to be ushered in to the grandparent section. I was raised by my grandmother, and rarely saw my mother when I was young; she was busy with her boyfriends.

Mom’s alone now; she calls me every once in a while, wanting to know when I am coming to visit. She didn’t care that much to see me when I was growing up, but now, now she has time. Can’t really hold it against her though: some people just can’t handle being alone.

Amy and my brother Eric are already seated with their families. I give them a nod.

By the time the wedding starts, I have some shots of the mother of the bride zipping up her daughter’s dress and looking lovingly at her daughter. The church is dark and I have to continually adjust the setting on manual. It’s like technology was never invented here. But I take all the standard shots: bridesmaids walking down the aisle, bride with father walking down the aisle, groom anticipating the bride, the couple standing together in front of the minister, lighting the candle, the first kiss.

After the wedding, the bridal party goes outside to say hello to all the guests. I shoot some candid shots and wait for the party to be ready for posed pictures. My cousin Derek comes up and punches me in the arm. I give him a nod hello.

“You know, only virgins are supposed to wear white to weddings,” he says, eying my white polo.

I don’t bother to tell him that photographers are supposed to wear white to the weddings because the light bounces off of it and back onto the bride. What would be the point?

“I didn’t know that,” I say.

His brother Jared walks up and joins in the conversation.

“Hey cous,” he says and punches the same arm.

“Hi.” The bride is in deep conversation with her mother and two other women I don’t know. I try to catch her eye, to no avail.

“So,” Jared says. “How’s your imaginary girlfriend? What’s her name again?”

“Elizabeth,” I say. “Elizabeth Ann Gardner. She’s fine.”

“Sure would be nice if we could meet her sometime,” Derek says.

“She’s not much of a country person,” I say. Even if she did exist, I would never bring her here.

“How long have ya’ll been dating?”

“Six years.”

“Going to get married?”

“Why ruin a good thing?” I say. “Excuse me.” I walk over to Kelly and finally catch her eye. Amy is with her now and I smile and hug my sister. I hold up my camera and she understands that I’m ready to shoot the group shots. “Would you like to take the pictures out here?” She thinks this is a good idea and we find a nice spot in the back by the trees. It’s early in the afternoon, but the trees are so tall that we find perfect shading. Natural light makes the best photos by far.

I set them up in groups, working my way down to the bride and groom so the rest of the party can go ahead to the reception. It’s at the community center and there is no alcohol permitted. My niece is excited that she acquired such a great location and I don’t have the heart to tell her that in comparison to what she could have had—even the Holiday Inn—it’s not much. Maybe to her it is, I guess. I realize this fact, but still cannot push the other thoughts out of my head.

I tell Amy and my mother that I will see them later as we finish with the bride’s side of the family. Everyone is filtering off except for Andy and Eric. Since Andy and Eric are only about a year and half apart, they are very close. I only saw them during special occasions, but it didn’t stop them from always having their noses in my business as I grew up. Daniel, on the other hand, is only seven years older, and he put me through hell. He’s in jail at the moment, for distribution of methamphetamines. Thank God for small favors.

Eric walks up to me as I shoot a few different poses of the bride and groom.

“Hey Joey,” he says. I hate to be called that. “I was thinking, maybe you could do the distance shot of them, from a different angle, kind of like them holding hands in the sunset.”

It’s three in the afternoon. There is no sunset.

“You know, like up on the hill a little ways, shot from the back.”

“Sure,” I say. Not sure why he feels that he knows how to do this better than me. Not that it’s a bad suggestion, but it still annoys me.

After I take the shots he has two more suggestions that he wants me to try. Andy and Meg walk over to join us.

“We are heading out to the community center,” he says.

“Can you take him with you?” I nod my head toward Eric.

“Sure,” Andy says. Eric gets the message and leaves, but not before a final remark about not forgetting to take pictures of the wedding sign.

This is my thirty-eighth wedding. But it’s usual for my brothers to suppose they know more than me about everything. I try not to let that bother me. But it does.

We finish the shoot and leave for the community center. I take a picture of the wedding sign on my way out.

I shoot more candid shots at the reception: the first dance, the cake cutting, the alcohol-free toast. I can see that Andy is ready for a drink. After the father and daughter dance, he and Eric make a trip out to the parking lot. I’m sure there is a case of Budweiser in a cooler in the trunk of Eric’s car.

I finally sit, with my mother and Amy. Mom talks about how much she enjoyed the wedding and how beautiful my niece looks. I agree.

“How’s Elizabeth?” she asks.

“She’s good,” I say.

“I sure would like to meet her,” she says. She says this most of the times she talks to me. Amy never makes that comment. Perhaps she knows the truth. She has always known me best.

“I know, Mom. She’s really busy with work.”

“You should move back here. Get married and have me some grandchildren.”

“You already have grandchildren, Mom. Besides, I like my job. I like where I live. We’re happy out there.”

“You can be happy anywhere. It’s all in your state of mind.”

I wonder how many times she has ignored her own advice on the subject, but don’t ask. Amy reaches across the table and squeezes my hand. I see the understanding in her eyes. Maybe there is something else there as well. A secret desire to leave this place? Jealousy that I have made it out? Something else I just can’t place?

Another country song plays, but no one is dancing on the concrete floor.

Amy stands up from the table and steps to my side. “Dance with me.” She holds out her hand. I set the camera on the table and walk a few feet out onto the floor.

“You look great,” I say, as I place my hand on her back. She cups her palm around my other hand.

“So do you,” she says. She glances over my shoulder in the direction where Mom is sitting. I hope she doesn’t expect me to dance with Mom as well. Then she returns her focus to me. “How are you really doing?”

“I’m good,” I say. “Couldn’t be better.”

I know she wants more. I feel like she wants to say something, but doesn’t know how. That’s for the best. We dance in silence for a few moments. She stops moving and holds my gaze. “You know I love you, for who you are. Who you’ve always been.”

My stomach tightens. My throat feels dry and hard to swallow. Is that really true? What does she think she knows about me? How could she know an answer that I don’t even know? But if she did, maybe it would be worth hearing.

I clear my throat and my thoughts. I tilt my head to the left and smile—what Amy calls my cocky grin. “This is who I’ve always been.”

Amy nods silently. That look is there again. Deep in her eyes. Understanding? Knowing? I have to turn away.

The walls are beige and match the tablecloths almost to a tee, but nothing matches the metal fold-out chairs in three different colors that are seated around the tables. A small line of people are waiting for cake. As I look around the room I know what is missing. All the men in the room are either pale white or tanned from too much construction work. They are all sitting with their women who look much the same. The same shaped faces and eyes. The same color hair and skin. White men with their women. There is no deviation.

I can feel the talons’ grip on me again. I curl up my toes inside my loafers. I tug at my collar, even though it is already loose. The door is only twenty feet away. I resist the urge to run.

Angela Spires grew up in Southern Virginia, then moved to North Carolina before moving out to Reno, Nevada, to receive her Master’s in English Writing, which she is currently working on. She has been published in several newspapers in Southern Virginia and in university journals The Brushfire and The Stethoscope. This piece has never been published, and is “part of what it is like to return to small town life when you have been away, and the secrets we keep from those we love,” says Spires. 

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