By Martha Park
I arrive at my new home in Roanoke anxious and unsure, boxes lining the walls of my empty apartment. Pacing the rooms, windows open, I listen to the sounds of my new neighborhood—the backyard chickens cackling to each other, the swim-suited, pot-bellied children pulling a wagon up and down the sidewalk. When the cat in the downstairs apartment is left alone he cries mournfully. He sounds just like someone saying hello over and over. Hello? he asks. The sound echoes up to me through the floor where I lie, hands cupped around my mouth. Hello, I answer. Hello? the cat asks again.
I’ve been told that, for a time, vanity plates were given out in Virginia at no extra cost, and so a lot more people have them here than other places, but that’s not a sufficient explanation. There are just so many of them. Driving through town, nearly every car carries a message for me to decode: YIREAD. ISSU3S. NO SCRUBS. On the highway, the vanity plates of two trucks driving ahead of me form a sentence: LOVE ART NOT WAR. I am stumped by ROFMEN until I see there is a tiny clip-art fish on the far left side of the plate: Fisher of Men. When I see a regular license plate I find myself trying to figure out its riddle, squinting at the sequence of letters and numbers, before I realize it’s not a code, not a secret message. Just a license plate.
In the grocery store’s canned vegetable aisle, an old man tries to flirt with two middle-aged women in Kroger uniforms. He wipes his mouth with the hem of his shirt, exposing his sagging belly. As soon as he walks away, the women mime gagging themselves. I drive back to my apartment on one of the few roads I know so far. I carry the bagged groceries up the stairs, into the slanted, second-story kitchen that was once a porch. From the window I can see the spread of houses along hills, the slick of sun settling on angled rooftops. I can see a white steeple through an oak tree’s spreading limbs, and, beyond that, the mountains. At night I keep watch over the glowing signs of a gas station, a laundromat, a dentist’s office—rows of neon teeth, blue and fizzling.
After my nerves die down, my first months in Roanoke are disarmingly simple. I wake up early to write. I drive to school and spend evenings talking about stories. I still only know a few streets and get lost if I stray from the paths I’ve made for myself. I do not yet understand what role, if any, I have in this community. I don’t know Roanoke’s history, so I am not reminded, as I was in Memphis, of the years that came before me every time I drive through town. In Memphis, passing a motel turned into a museum, or a deserted house circled with caution tape, or a trash-littered park with its monuments to Confederate generals, I felt called to be responsible for that place and the healing it wanted. In Roanoke, I have taken advantage of my ignorance. There are stories I do not know yet. I move through town unburdened.
A single train track cuts through Memphis, a couple blocks from my parents’ house. When I lived there, I listened to the train’s mournful sounds throughout the day and night. I waited at the tracks for trains to pass, gazing up at the rusted graffiti-covered sides of the train cars. In Roanoke, there is much more train traffic—cars full of coal come rumbling out of the mountains and the train yards spread ten or more tracks wide. But Roanoke was built around the tracks, with bridges going over them, so that the tracks rarely intersect with automobile traffic, and I never hear the trains whistling their warning tune at crosswalks. In a town built around the rail industry, the silence is noticeable, tangible. That absence presents itself as a new longing, for the home I’ve left, or for a sense of that home in this place.
One Sunday, I walk a block to the Methodist church in my neighborhood. The minister seems out of place and I wonder if he’s new here, too. During his sermon he ends each sentence with can I get an amen but the congregation refuses him, sitting still and silent. He tries to rile them up, begs for amens but gets nothing in return. When the preacher calls for silent prayer, people start murmuring, a non-stop rumble of names, families, schools, illnesses, injuries. The sounds rise into a chorus, and I swallow back sudden tears for these contrary strangers and their hurts, both named and unnamed.
The leaves are starting to turn when I go in for a job interview at a local community college. I tell the woman I love Roanoke, so far. She interrupts to ask, “Honey, where are you from?” I am struck by the question, and maybe a little insulted. I want to tell the woman I’m from a place that is always hovering at my back, calling my name.
To live in Memphis and long for natural beauty was to practice a constant, exhausting mental alchemy. I searched out forests growing in abandoned buildings, found aurora borealis in the dust of a crumbling brewery. In the summer I’d drive to the river to catch the sunsets, the pink sky stretched taut over the water and the bridges with their bold, industrial shadows. I believe landscape can have a profound effect on the spirit. In Memphis, I often felt like I was searching for higher ground or gradually sinking, along with the city, into the river. In Roanoke, the horizon undulates with blue-shrouded mountains and the sunsets are wide and explosive. Though my longing lessens, it remains: between me and the mountains there are miles of strip malls.
The lady at the liquor store tells me only single people hate Roanoke. This might be true: I’ve lived in Roanoke for six months, and have been in love for half that time, when he and I hike Devil’s Marbleyard. The steep trail leads to a massive pile of refrigerator-sized boulders, barren and snake-riddled. We scramble across the stones. I warm my hands against them. The cold wind moves unbroken above the tree line. At the top, I can see miles of rolling blue hills in every direction, fading into the skyline. I watch him climb stones high above me, until he is a dark spot against the flat blue sky. It seems I fell in love with him as I fell in love with this place. I’m not sure, actually, which love came first. Looking out at the horizon, I sense a landscape so expansive it could swallow me up. I hope it does. After the hike, on the drive back into town, I watch through the dusty car window as we pass farms, trailers, creeks, antique malls, hillsides studded with cows. My reflection slides over it all. Everywhere we go I see a glimpse of myself. Every place we pass feels like a new, still-unfamiliar, home.
"You Are a Visitor" is a regularly recurring column on The Intentional about identity and the environment. Have an essay that would be a good fit? Visit our submissions page.