Although she had fallen into a deep sleep, an unpleasant odor assaulted Margaret Garnett's nostrils. First, her nose twitched, then her mouth tugged into a grimace, and finally, her eyes opened, startled and blue.
Her face, even in distress, was more than pleasant. It was a wholesome face, slightly round, with neat features that were very close to pretty. She was not wearing makeup, but even without artificial enhancing Margaret had an all-American, Norman Rockwell sort of face. Her hair, light brown and straight, was cut into a sensible, no-nonsense page boy. She looked much younger than thirty, yet something in her eyes, a fleeting darkness that sometimes appeared, made her seem much older.
It had taken Margaret two full hours on the ancient bus to fall asleep, two long hours of trying to forget her ultimate destination, a place so remote and godforsaken that the only way to reach it was by car or by Rebel Line bus. This was not a journey to be made impulsively. It took extensive planning, since even old Rebel Line would only venture there once a week. Weather permitting.
And the way Margaret had been feeling lately, with moods so bleak that other New Yorkers passing her on the street urged her to cheer up, she didn't trust herself behind the wheel of a rental car. It would be too easy to turn around and flee -- to do a simple U-turn back to Nashville, hand in the car keys at the airport, and catch the next plane back to New York.
The stench that awakened Margaret was more powerful now, an aroma of salt and grease and something indefinable and animal-like. She turned her head around, the little piece of paper towel clipped to the headrest sticking to her hair.
A man in the seat behind her, the one with the green mesh baseball hat and low-slung belt, was happily munching on something from a cellophane bag. It rattled every time he dipped his reddened, moist fingers into the bag to retrieve a morsel. Earlier on the trip Margaret had watched as he chewed tobacco, explaining the worn patch on the back pocket of his jeans. It was circular, the exact shape of the red tin of snuff. At the time she had been curious about the Royal Crown Cola bottle in his hand. It kept on getting fuller, a dark line rising to the bottle neck. Then she realized, with open-mouthed horror, that he was using the bottle as a cuspidor, spitting tobacco juice into it as he chewed. It was at that point she decided to find refuge in sleep.
He gave her a lopsided grin and held the bag in her direction. Margaret didn't realize she had been staring at the man, but of course she had. Now she could see the writing on the bag -- Uncle Bo's Bar-be-que Flavor Pork Rinds. She shook her head and tried to smile, but only managed to bare her teeth. He shoved a crackling mouthful into his grin and nodded toward the window.
"Pretty country," he crunched.
Margaret glanced out of the window and had to admit he was right. They were beginning to wind up a twisty mountain road, and the ragged gray rock of the mountain was softened by patches of brilliantly colored flowers, wild and magnificent and unexpected. From the opposite window was a picture postcard view of the valley, the lush green of the grass, the weathered red of the rough-sided barns, vague outlines of split-rail fences marking property lines.
The bus groaned with the effort to climb the spiraling road, gears grinding madly with little result. They were traveling at a snail's pace, with the grating commotion of Le Mans.
arBefore reaching this stretch of road they had passed rustic farms and small towns with names like Muggin's Pass and Smileyville. It hardly seemed possible that this was the same America she had grown up in, the same country that had given the world New York and Chicago and San Francisco.
But this was different. This was the Deep South.
"Where you headed to?" It was the man with the green hat and pork rinds.
Margaret folded her hands on her lap and tried to sound cheerful. She was getting quite good at it, having had plenty of practice declaring her destination to her fellow graduate students at Columbia University in Manhattan.
"I am going to Magnolia University, a small, fully accredited liberal arts college located in the heart of the beautiful Smoky Mountains of Tennessee," she replied.
"Hey, ain't that something? So am I!" A fleck of pork product shot out of his mouth. Margaret tried to keep her face blank, but a sudden thought pierced her tortured mind. What if this man was a student? Or a professor of English? Or even a dean?
"You a student?" he asked.
"No. I'm going to be an associate professor of English literature."
He whistled, obviously impressed. This was the first positive response she'd had to her new position, and it was coming from a man with a mouth full of fried pig skin. Still, it was better than what she'd received from her pals at Columbia.
At first everyone thought she was joking, her peers who clutched envelopes containing plush job offers from Yale and Duke and Penn State. Margaret had been the star of her group, the only one whose doctoral dissertation was going to be published as a book. And this was her second Ph.D., the first being the one she earned right out of college in American history. That dissertation had also won praise. The topic had been on Sherman's march through Georgia during the Civil War, as told from Sherman's viewpoint. It, too, had been published, under the title He Did What He Had To.
Margaret's only failing had been in her procrastinating. Sure, she could whip off a publishable paper in a matter of days, could write a master's thesis in a few weeks. But when it came to real life, to balancing a checkbook or applying for a job, she was hopelessly, chronically late. When everyone else was applying for grants and teaching positions, Margaret ignored them, rationalizing that she wouldn't need a job for a year, so why rush? There were books to be read, wonderful historical facts to learn. Why get all bogged down with the boring details of real life when you can revel in the past?
Then suddenly it was spring, and everyone else had jobs, and Margaret had nothing but a stack of student loans to pay off and a forty-dollar advance from the university press that was publishing her dissertation.
A flurry of application writing was followed by a steady rain of carefully worded rejection letters, all stating that she would have been perfect, but the application arrived too late. All of the good positions were already filled.
So Margaret Garnett grabbed the only job she was offered at small Magnolia University. She knew the name of the school simply because it had been destroyed during the Civil War by a Union regiment from Massachusetts. As a native of Boston, Margaret had been especially proud to hail from the noble state that had tried to erase Magnolia University from the face of the earth. Unfortunately, they rebuilt.
It wasn't that she hated Magnolia University for itself. She had never been there, had never even seen a photograph of the place. Until she applied for a job there, she had scarcely been aware of its existence.
But now everything had changed. Magnolia University was a physical symbol of her worst failings. She herself was to blame for her predicament, for she was the one who waited too long to send in the stupid paperwork. Clever Margaret, brilliant Margaret, was forced to call mediocre Magnolia her employer. Margaret, who had always scorned anything southern, would be sharing her hard-won northern knowledge with a bunch of kids from south of the Mason-Dixon.
It was so outrageous, so unthinkable, it was almost as if the Confederacy had decided to avenge itself after her glowing dissertation on General Sherman. If that was the case, the South truly had the last laugh.
"I'm a local," said the man with the green hat, jolting Margaret out of her musings.
"A local what?" she asked without thinking. The man laughed, a deep chuckle that was, surprisingly, not unpleasant.
"Just a local, born and raised in the town of Magnolia. My daddy and my daddy's daddy worked here, and so do I, in the cafeteria." He said this with such obvious pleasure and pride that Margaret smiled.
"It's nice to meet you. I don't know anyone yet, just some voices on the phone. My name's Margaret Garnett."
"Good to meet you, too. I'm O.B. Willy Thaw, but everyone around here just calls me Willy."
"What an interesting name. What does the O.B. stand for?"
Again he laughed. "Don't know. It's been a family name for longer than anyone can remember, and my great-great-great whoever forgot to write it down. I suppose they never thought this far ahead. Anyway, we just ignore the O.B. most of the time."
He crumpled the empty bag and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. Suddenly he stood up, touched the ceiling of the bus, and sat right back down. He saw the wary expression on Margaret's face and raised his thick eyebrows.
"You probably wonder what I just did."
Margaret nodded slightly, a little worried now. She wondered if he had a psychological disorder, a strange syndrome that might compel him to do weird things, like fondle bus ceilings or abuse small animals.
"I just put back my angel."
Margaret's back straightened, and she glanced over to the bus driver. Could she get his attention in a hurry if she needed to? The bus was almost empty, so her only hope was the driver.
"It's a legend, you see," Willy continued. "They say Magnolia is just like heaven, so you don't need any special help from angels while you're there. But when you leave those old stone gates, better grab your angel, 'cause you might need it in the real world. So I just put back my angel, since we just passed the stone gates to Magnolia." He shrugged his shoulders. "I've been doing it so long now, I don't even think about it except when I'm with someone new to the mountain. It's kind of a nice story, isn't it?"
"Charming," she replied, wondering what other little bits of fantasy awaited her. Perhaps they all believed the South won the Civil War or that Magnolia University was actually considered an adequate place of learning.
Willy pushed up his cap, revealing a deep, reddened crevice on his forehead where his cap had fit too snugly.
"Here we are, Miss Garnett," he announced as the bus gave one last explosive rattle before wheezing to a halt.
With great apprehension, she turned her head to see out of the window, to view her new home. The other riders slumped off the bus, and Willy stood behind her, waiting for some sort of movement on her part. But Margaret was unable to move, transfixed by what she saw.
There seemed to be no actual town of Magnolia. In her mind she had pictured a little village of the Mayberry ilk, the only southern town she was familiar with, other than the nightmare hamlets created by William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. She had been secretly hoping for a Mayberry, a place with a wise and gentle sheriff and a large-bosomed Aunt Bea to bake lattice-topped pies.
Instead Margaret saw a store, a single store. The sign above it was hand-lettered, the first few words in red paint, the last in brown. It said Magnolia University Book Store/Post Office/Supermarket. In her mind she added, Bus Stop/International Airport/Cultural Center, and when she saw a well-dressed young man exit the store eating a candy bar, she slapped on Restaurant.
Willy was still waiting, shifting his weight from one leg to another. So she stood up.
"Holy sh -- uh, excuse me," Willy stammered.
Margaret looked down at Willy, sympathetic and amused. The poor guy. Little did he know when he offered her the pork rinds that she was six feet tall.
One would think that when a woman reached her full height of six feet by the age of fourteen, she would be accustomed to gapes and stares. But Margaret had never really adjusted. Even at the age of thirty, there was a secret corner of her mind that was used exclusively for thoughts of what it would be like to measure in at five foot three.
And even after all the years of basketball jokes and total strangers cupping their hands to their ears and asking how the weather was up there, she was still at a loss for how to prepare people for the initial shock. Perhaps when Willy first offered her a tidbit from his bag, she should have declined with a sweet smile and an explanation. "Pork rinds? No, thank you. I'm six feet tall."
When she accepted the job at Magnolia over the phone -- there been no time for an exchange of formal letters -- she should have said, "Although I'm clearly overqualified for the position of assistant professor of anything at your little school, I will gladly accept because I am six feet tall." And when her last boyfriend dumped her for a diminutive cocktail waitress, Margaret -- if she had any sense at all -- should have been more understanding. "Of course, dear. It's only natural that you would trade a two-year relationship based on mutual interests for a three-week fling with a girl who is almost half your age. Not to mention I'm six feet tall."
Willy, still gaping at Margaret, whistled through his teeth. "You sure are tall." He shook his head. Margaret laughed at his refreshing honesty. Most people would look embarrassed, hem and haw, then change the topic when they first realized how tall she was.
Margaret handed Willy his luggage, which was hanging in an overhead mesh shelf. He thanked her, and she pulled down her own meager luggage, two duffel bags and a PBS tote filled with books. The rest of her possessions were being shipped in the mail. She was beginning to wonder if the postal service, which, according to their advertisements, could locate a tent in Nepal, would be able to find Magnolia.
Willy offered to escort her to her new home, a cottage named Rebel's Retreat. She had a ten-month lease on the place for less money than the monthly rent for her apartment share at Columbia.
The bus screeched away the moment she stepped through the door, and she assumed the driver was as eager to leave Magnolia as Margaret was. The driver, however, did not have college loans to repay. He was a free man.
Since it was the end of August, a few students were milling about on campus. They were, without a doubt, the best-dressed group of college students she had ever seen. There were no torn jeans and bandannas, no pierced noses or leather jackets. At Columbia the students took pride in their grunge. This group looked like a Republican youth convention, or a retreat for unshakable Osmond fans. A vague fragrance of Ivory soap was detectable only when one of the students swept by.
Now that Margaret had a better view, she could also see that the university buildings were made of heavy Victorian stone, sprawling and squat at the same time. They were all of a uniform buff color, but each structure managed to maintain a unique character.
"Excuse me, are you Dr. Margaret Garnett?" A slender, middle-aged man stood before her, delicate features behind round, horn-rimmed glasses. He wore a blue blazer, a button-down oxford shirt, and neatly pressed khaki slacks, the ensemble of favor, she surmised, judging from the other males on campus.
He was a few inches shorter than Margaret, and she noticed that he glanced involuntarily at her feet. It was a natural reaction, one she was used to. Men seemed to assume she was wearing either platform shoes or standing on a box when they first met her. She was, instead, wearing flats.
"Hello." She extended her hand.
"Welcome to Magnolia. I'm Chester Dick -- we spoke on the telephone. I'm the head of the English department." They shook hands; his was a firm, dry grip. "I hope you had no trouble getting here. We're famous for our fog, which sometimes isolates us. You missed real pea-souper by about twelve hours." He seemed pleased by the foul weather, similar to the way New Yorkers boast about fending off muggers.
"No trouble at all, Dr. Dick." She flushed when she said his name, like a gawky junior high student. Struggling to think of something to say, she turned to Willy, who was still standing next to her. "Oh, do you know Willy Thaw..."
"Of course," he said jovially, clapping Willy on the shoulder. "How was your fishing trip, Willy? Did you catch the big one?"
"Nope, Dr. Dick." Willy shrugged and held up his bag, and for the first time Margaret noticed a spreading wet stain seeping through the canvas. "But I gigged me a few frogs."
"Mmmm." Her new boss nodded sagely. "Good eating."
Willy grinned. "Especially with Mama's hot sauce. I tell you what -- I'll fix up a plate for you, Dr. Dick, but don't tell no one. I don't have but two dozen legs, and you know how fast they go."
"I'd appreciate that, Willy," said Dr. Dick, genuinely pleased with the prospect of eating frog limbs. He then took Margaret's luggage. "I'll show you to Rebel's Retreat. And Willy, we sure missed you in the cafeteria."
Willy turned red with pleasure and winked at Margaret. "Good luck, ma'am." And he lugged off.
"Willy's a real character." Dr. Dick smiled. "There are a lot of them around here."
"I would imagine," she replied, as noncommittal as possible.
After a short walk they were at the quadrangle, an impressive square surrounded by more stone buildings. "The stone is all from a nearby quarry in the valley. We only used local materials in building the campus. That's why it's almost impossible to tell if any given building was erected last week or in the last century."
Margaret took in the sights with a mixture of surprise and irritation. There was no denying that the campus of Magnolia University was nothing short of magnificent. And it bothered her that a college with absolutely no academic reputation should be housed in such a glorious setting. The quadrangle was a stately fortress, no higher than three stories, anchored by a majestic bell tower. The solemn lines of the structures were tempered by lush bushes and brilliantly colored flower beds. The floral fragrance was clean and fresh as the warm breeze jostled the plants.
This was the ideal backdrop for a world-famous university. Oxford or Cambridge came to mind, yet this was a mountain in Tennessee. If there were any academic justice in this world, Magnolia's campus would be made of corrugated tin lean-tos and rusting mobile homes jacked up on cinder blocks.
Dr. Dick was watching Margaret, his eyes narrowing as he saw the play of emotions on her face. She was aware of his curiosity and offered him a completely artificial smile.
"How old are most of these buildings?" she asked, brightening into her best tourist impersonation.
"Most are from the late eighteen sixties or later. The university as well as the town of Magnolia were destroyed during the Civil War." Although Margaret knew this, she felt suddenly, and ridiculously, guilty. She stared straight ahead as he continued.
"Only a few of the buildings around here date from antebellum times. You're lucky, Dr. Garnett. Your new home is the oldest surviving structure on the campus."
"Rebel's Retreat?" Now Margaret was unintentionally fascinated.
"Yep. It was built by one of Magnolia's original professors. He later became one of the South's most prominent generals. Have you ever heard of Ashton Powell Johnson?"
Margaret thought for a few moments. In truth, her studies had centered on the North. She could rattle off the name of almost every general and high-ranking officer who served for Lincoln. By contrast, she spent little time and effort studying the Confederacy, only viewing the short-lived nation in terms of how it impacted the North. And she had been so focused on literature for the past few years, the names of famous battles and their heroes now seemed foreign and remote.
But everyone had heard of General Ashton Johnson, a commanding figure with the startling mixture of moderation and audacity. He had fought against Virginia's succession, but once the deed was done, he became one of the Confederacy's most daring leaders. It was Johnson who came the closest to halting Sherman in Atlanta, and without Sherman's victory in Atlanta, there would have been no March to the Sea. And without Sherman's devastating march through Georgia, Margaret would have had to select another topic for her first dissertation.
Another by-product would have been the prolonging of the Civil War by another few years and, perhaps, a cost of life so great on both sides, the Union may have never recovered. With a nation so weakened by internal strife, the United States could have become an easy harvest for more powerful nations such as France or England.
Had the admittedly brave Ashton Johnson been successful, there might not be a United States of America.
"General Ashton Powell Johnson." Margaret nodded. "He organized the Virginia cavalry, and only Sherman could stop him."
ar"Sherman and two dozen Yankee sharpshooters," corrected Dr. Dick, a thatch of his wispy brown hair ruffled by the wind.
"What was General Johnson of Virginia doing in Tennessee?" She tried to keep the tone light, noting the passion with which Dr. Dick had defended the general.
"He was trying to provide the South with a university based on his ideals of education. And it would have worked, too, had the war not pulled him back to Virginia. Who knows what Magnolia would have become if the general had survived the war?"
Margaret frowned, pondering the fate of a Confederate general. It was a compelling story, but common. The guy picked the wrong side to back, and that was his fault.
Now Union officers, that was a different matter. A topic she could warm to, those gallant men in blue. Just the thought of how many northerners suffered misery and disease and death for the cause of justice was enough to bring tears to her eyes.
"Well, here we are." Dr. Dick's voice startled her for a moment, then she looked at where they were.
Before them was a good-size house, covered with vines and wisteria and a strange-looking, lovely climbing plant. The roof was gabled, and there was a long, wraparound porch, complete with a white gliding swing and dozens of potted plants, all in full bloom.
"This is it?" she gasped, stunned by the size and beauty of the so-called cottage. After sharing a two-bedroom flat with three other women for the past few years, Rebel's Retreat was positively palatial.
Dr. Dick climbed the four steps to the porch and smiled at Margaret's obvious pleasure. "I think you'll like it here, Dr. Garnett. Everyone who passes even a single night at Rebel's Retreat falls in love with it. Some say it's the ghost of General Johnson that makes the guests feel so welcome. He's the eternal host, you might say."
"I was expecting a cottage, Dr. Dick, not an estate."
He laughed and reached in his blazer pocket for the keys. "Well, it's your home now. And by the way, please call me Chet. I'm fully aware that the name Dr. Dick is hell to utter with a straight face."
Margaret beamed, comfortable for the first time since she accepted the job. "I'll be glad to call you Chet, but only if you promise to call me Margaret. Somehow Dr. Garnett sounds too prim and spinsterish."
They shook hands, both grinning, and he opened the door. She stepped into the front hall cautiously, as if afraid that the inside of the house could not possibly live up to the promise of the outside. Her eyes, accustomed to the dazzling sunlight outside, slowly adjusted to the cool dark hallway, little spots dancing in front of her before she could finally see clearly. Chet crossed into a room to the left and threw open heavy velvet drapes, bathing the room in sunshine softened by the hedges outside.
The room, a large parlor, was filled with heavily carved Victorian furniture. It was a style she had always abhorred, preferring instead the simple, clean lines of earlier furniture. But this room was a revelation. Rather than emitting a feeling of self-conscious formality, every piece of furniture seemed to welcome, beckoning with soft chintz cushions and time-warmed wood.
There were two large sofas, both with darkly carved backs and brightened by fresh pillows scattered in the comers. A marble-topped table, slightly too high to be called a coffee table, stood between the sofas, offering an array of yellowing magazines and a selection of old beverage rings staining the marble, testimony that this was a table to be used, not just admired.
Bordering the room were a pair of wing chairs upholstered in a pale green brocade, both with footstools underneath, separated by a round , tilt-topped wine table. On the other side of the room was an enormous buffet with weirdly carved feet. Margaret noticed the legs of the buffet right away and moved closer to examine them.
They were cabriole legs with ball and claw feet. What made the feet so odd was that they were webbed like a duck's feet, so realistically carved that it seemed as if the buffet could waddle away.
"This is great!" she exclaimed, touching the wood, almost expecting the claw to pull away at her prodding.
"Glad you like it," said Chet. "It unnerves some people. There's a matching table in the dining room, but there wasn't enough room for both the buffet and the table together. There used to be a dozen or so chairs to complete the set, but they disappeared years ago."
"I've never seen anything like this." Margaret straightened, shaking her head. "How could anyone not like them? They're wonderful."
"I think so, too. They're from General Johnson's estate. Apparently he had a somewhat quirky sense of humor, along with a rather fanciful idea of what a home should be. You'll come across his stuff all over the campus. If it's strange and funny, it's bound to belong to the general."
Margaret smiled. "What did his wife have to say about animal feet on the furniture?"
"Oh, he never married. The one true love of his life died a few months before he was killed." He looked at the buffet with sympathy. Suddenly he brightened. "Anyway, I'll let you settle in. There are two small bedrooms upstairs, you can take your pick."
Chet walked toward the door, turning as he reached for the knob. "I almost forgot -- there's a reception tonight for new faculty members. It's in Johnson Hall, the big building next to the bell tower on the quadrangle. It's scheduled to begin at eight o'clock, but we're pretty casual here. Drop by any time. And Margaret?"
"Yes?" She glanced up from the buffet table.
"We're delighted to have you here at Magnolia. I'll see you later." He gave a little half wave and left.
An odd feeling came over her, a sense of vague guilt. It was the way one feels after trashing another person behind their back, only to discover that same person has heaped your name with praise. Magnolia was delighted to have her, and she was a nasty guest.
Margaret went back into the hall to retrieve her bags, noting the lush Oriental carpeting as she walked through the parlor. It was slightly worn in spots, but still lovely and obviously very valuable.
Pausing in the hallway, something caught her eye -- a glittering light. She turned and saw a mirror, her own face reflected through the age-spotted glass.
The mirror was utterly fantastic. At first it seemed to be a normal, if intricately carved mirror, the frame large and glossy with sweet-smelling wood polish. Upon closer examination the real design was revealed, and Margaret couldn't help but laugh aloud.
The frame was one continuous bar scene, with comical figures leaning over the straight-edged wood in various states of intoxication. It reminded her of one of those riotous Hogarth paintings of peasants, every cluster of revelers was a self-contained vignette. Some were tipping drinks, others had their mouths wide open-and from the expression of the people beside them, they were singing loudly and off-key. A few men were slumped with tilted hats, and one woman, clearly of dubious virtue, had a shapely leg thrown over the bar.
"General Johnson -- I love your taste in furniture!" she said. At once she stopped smiling and gazed at herself, a sadness creeping over her.
Odd. Of course she had not been thrilled with the idea of coming to Magnolia, but since meeting Chet and seeing her new home, her mind had been free of the depressing black thoughts that had been plaguing her for the past few weeks. Now she felt something more than self-pity. It was a sense of crushing sorrow, brief but almost unbearable.
In a moment the feeling was gone, evaporated as quickly as the morning dew. She looked more closely at her own face, surprised -- in a detached way -- at how good she looked. In spite of her exhausting, emotionally draining journey, her blue eyes looked bright, her usually lank hair hung not in clumps but in gentle waves.
And strangely enough for Margaret, the thought of attending a reception that evening was not at all unappealing.
Copyright © 1995 by Judith O'Brien