I was headed home for spring break in 1994. Pittsburgh faded in the midnight glow of the tail lights as I drove down the PA turnpike. It would be good to leave the concrete and glass canyons of “the Burgh” for the green and wooded valleys of my native West Virginia. And I knew it would be good to be home again. I also knew that the Hilltop’s Easter buffet would be ready, Chef Bill’s famous Virginia smoked ham with all the trimmings would be calling them in from miles around on Easter Sunday. The Easter Sunday brunch has brought them in since the 60’s, and I was no exception. I could taste the Yams, Ham, collared greens, biscuits and all the trimmings that waited for me on that long steam table. I regretted my decision not to eat before I left Pittsburgh, the only thing open at this late hour were greasy spoon diners and burger joints. I wasn’t in the mood for either, so I grabbed a few sodas, and some “road chips” before I left town. They stopped my stomach from chewing on my spine, but I was still hungry.
I shrugged. “make the buffet taste all the better.” I said to the empty passenger seat.
Anyone who has ever driven the PA turnpike will tell you it is a long, lonely and utterly boring drive. And at 2 a.m. it is even more so. I slammed back the 3rd or 4th mountain dew to keep my already weary eyes from slamming shut. Loud music and the window down helped a little, but it was a dreary and dull drive. My already sleep deprived mind was starting to play tricks on me as the miles sped by. I decided to pull off at a little rest stop just past the tiny truck stop town of Breezewood. I set the alarm on my watch (cell phones hadn’t yet replaced everything, so yes, my watch had an alarm) and settled the seat back for a quick nap. My dreams were fitful…I saw dead things, earthy things reaching up from mouldering graves to grab at me. Lucid nightmares, I have had them since I could recall. I woke with a start. Something tapped on my window. I opened my weary eyes to see nothing. There was nothing in the darkness. I looked at my watch.
“Dammit all.” adjusting the seat forward I started the car. I had overslept by an hour and was way behind schedule. It was 430 a.m. and if I kept driving straight through I would make it home by maybe 7. I had intended to be back long before that. I wanted to surprise mom at the hotel. (I hadn’t confirmed that I was coming home from break) and I also wanted to have some of Chef Bill’s buttermilk biscuits and sawmill gravy for breakfast. I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that crept up my spine as I got closer to home. The miles ticked away behind me quickly.
Finally after what seemed like years I left the busy interstate 81 and took the exit for the small two lane highway 51 that led from Inwood to Harpers Ferry. I’ve driven this road countless times. I knew every curve and bump. It was an easy drive, but at this time of night it was…creepy. There are loads of stories about the highway. None of them have ever been substantiated as anything more than local lore. Trees loomed on each side of the road. Growing overhead into a tunnel formed by the tangle of tree limbs and shadows that slithered away in the glare of my headlights. I was a mere 20 miles from home, yet it could have been across the galaxy. I looked at the digital clock on my car’s dash. I should be home within the hour. A slight drizzle started to fall and then turned into a steady rain. Well, a good spring morning rain should do wonders for the roses at the Hilltop’s scenic overlook. (odd that I think about the roses? No, not really since it was my hand that planted them there and I always checked on them whenever I could) I flipped on the wipers and continued on my way.
Then I saw her standing on the side of the road. She had her head hung low, her soaking wet curls hung about her face in dark rivulets of black hair. Her clothes, vintage from the looks of them, were soaked as well. She held nothing in her hands, not even a purse. Normally I would have driven right on by and not given the poor girl a second thought. Something told me to stop this time.
Maybe it was that little voice in the back of my head telling me to be more human for once, show a little compassion, or maybe I just needed someone to keep me awake for the final leg of my journey. Whatever the reason…I stopped.
“Hey!” I called to her as the window rolled down and the rain spattered on the door. “Hey, miss, do you need a ride? You OK?”
She nodded. I didn’t know which question she was nodding in answer to, but she opened the door and slid into the passenger seat. “Yes, thank you.” she said. Her voice so soft so distant, it almost sounded like a whisper.
“Where are you going?” I asked and drove into the rainy night.
She pointed p the road a little bit. “Washington Farm. My Mama is waiting for me.”
I nodded. I knew where the farm was. “My name is Jim.” I said and offered my hand to shake.
“Heather.” she said and shook my hand. Her touch was ice-cold and it startled me.
“Heather you are freezing!” I reached back into the back seat and grabbed my denim jacket I had tossed on top of my duffel bag. (the only luggage a college guy ever needed) “here, put this on, let’s get you warm.” I turned up the heater in the car. She had to be frozen, her touch was like an icicle, yet she didn’t even seem to shiver. I thought that a bit “off” but paid it no mind.
“What are you doing out here at this hour Miss Heather?” I asked trying to keep light conversation, but my curiosity definitely had the better of me.
“My car broke down a few miles back and I’m just trying to get home for Easter”
I nodded. “Well we will have you home in minutes. Don’t worry about that” I said and drove down the road. “Mind if I turn on some music?”
She shook her head.
Static…loud and brash was all that came through the speakers. My mind was definitely playing tricks on me. I swore I could hear voices whispering, gibbering and giggling darkly through the white noise. had to be a trick of my sleep addled brain. It just HAD to be a trick. I flipped the radio off. “Well, so much for Marconi’s Magic.” I said with a smile.
She smiled slightly in return.
I took the turn that led to Washington farm. The gravel crunched under my tires in the rain. The farmhouse loomed ahead in the wet night. Not a light was on. Not even the porch light gleamed in the darkness. “I thought you said your mama was waiting for you Heather.”
“She is.” was her simple reply.
I shrugged. “ok then, here you are, front door service.” I said with a smile.
“Thank you.” She opened the car door and slid out into the rainy night. I waited long enough to see her open the screen door that covered the huge ornate front door…and then I left the farm. The headlights glared and illuminated the stone fence that lined the long drive to the farm in harsh contrast to the dark night that loomed behind it. I saw the huge willow that everyone who drove on 51 knew as the “Hanging Tree”. (no one has ever been hung from its branches, to my knowledge, but that is what folks around here have always called it). In the darkness beyond the tree i knew was the small family cemetery. Highway 51 opened up again and I was on the way home.
The next day found the sun shining and the sky blue. I had arrived at the old Hilltop House Hotel just in time for chef Bill’s biscuits and gravy (for which my stomach was eternally grateful) and also in time to surprise my mom before she got to work. Every one was happy to see me, and indeed, I felt as though I were a returning hero rather than a college kid home on break.
“WHERE is your jacket?” my mom asked. “Its spring but it’s still cold outside.”
I laughed. My mom always worried I was gonna get a sniffle. And then it dawned on me exactly where my jacket was. “Oh wow. Heather has it.” I said as if that would simply explain everything.
“Who?” my mother asked.
“A girl I picked up hitchhiking last night in the rain. She was freezing so I gave her my jacket. She’s out at the Washington farm…I will go and get it in a few minutes.” I said smiling.
My mom pinched my cheeks. “ever the gallant hero?”
I blushed and all the maids and waitresses giggled.
Route 51 isn’t nearly as intimidating when the sun is up. In fact it is exactly the kind of road you’d take a leisurely Sunday drive on. The winding road goes through some of this area’s most picturesque landscapes. Cornfields, lofty wooded lanes, gorgeous southern style plantation homes, and the local ma and pa stores that I love more so than any chain store. The air was clean and crisp. The rain had left a pleasant morning mist hanging and everything smelled new. I drove with the radio on, Sister Hazel’s tune “change your mind” was certainly lightening my already grand mood, and the window down. I saw the historical marker that marked the eastern edge of the Washington Farm. With a slight smile i took the turn that put me on the long driveway to the farm-house. The house, no longer loomed in the darkness. Now, it was inviting, happy, smiling place. The old whitewashed boards of the place were in fantastic shape for as old as the place is. The barn, the sheds, everything was in absolutely impeccable order. I stopped the car a few short yards from the front porch where and elderly gent who had to be in his mid 200’s was sitting on the porch enjoying his morning coffee and smoke.
“Good morning sir.” i said with a smile as i approached the porch.
He nodded politely and greeted me with a smile. “And a fine morning it is young feller. What can i do for ya? Aint sellin nuthin are ya?”
I laughed. “No. No sir, i aint sellin nuthin.”
He smiled then and waved me up onto the porch. “well come on up here son, I aint trin to yell across the yard.”
I did i was told and approached the man on the porch. With almost reflexive action i offered the gent my hand. “Jim, Jim Clay.”
He shook my hand in return. “Hank Washington.” He motioned for me to sit in the bent wood rocker across from him. For as old as this man was, he had a powerful handshake. i would not wager against him in a fight, even his advanced age was probably a lie. His blue eyes sparkled with life. “Well, what bring you out here young feller?’
I wasnt sure exactly how to respond. “Well, sir, i picked up a young woman hitchhiking last night during the storm. I assume she is your….granddaughter? (i didn’t want to offend the man) Well, Mr Washington she was soaked through and i loaned her my jacket. Thought i might get it back.”
He nodded. “Uh huh….” his eyes narrowed slightly as if examining me. “A girl you say was it?”
“Mr. Clay…” he stood up and i realized that he was NOT a frail old farmer. Rather a rather strong and powerful man who shed the visage of weakness as soon as he stood. “I don’t find these jokes funny, no sir, not at all.”
The look of confusion must have been more obvious than i thought.
“There ain’t no one here but me, the wife and my hands over there. I don’t know what you’re playing at.”
I stammered “b…but…i saw her open the door. Heather, her name is Heather.” I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but suddenly i felt ill at ease.
Mr. Washington’s demeanor turned cold. “Son, you best git along now. This ain’t funny, I don’t know who put you up to this, but it ain’t funny.”
“Sir….i…..I don’t understand”
“Go on now, git.” he said and turned to go inside. I swear i saw tears welling up in his eyes as he closed the door.
Puzzled beyond reason i got into my car and drove down the drive. Bewilderment furrowed my brow. I didn’t dream it. It happened….didn’t it? I was really tired after all. I could have had a lucid dream. Couldn’t I?
Those thoughts dissipated as quickly as they formed as I spied a scrap of blue through the branches of the willow. Without thinking I stopped the car and leapt the fence. Maybe Heather was out there in the field with my jacket on. Her Granddad was just protecting his little girl from me. I get that, very southern thing to do i suppose. I might have done the same.
When I broke past the overhanging branches of the willow I saw my jacket. it was hanging off the corner of a tombstone.
The name etched into the surface. “Heather Washington 1950-1971”