When I was 13 in 1985, my last full year of living in Virginia, I could feel the plates shifting. Things had gone sour and luck had turned hard against us. My mother had quit her job to get a better one, but she didn’t get a better one, and we were stuck. We drained the meager savings account intended for my college (a future as inconceivable to me then as old age or death): I recall my mother bringing the passbook, a half-decade’s worth of deposits neatly penciled on the credit side, into the bank for the last time, like a dog to be euthanized. Another of our cars was totaled—this time by a high-school kid to whom my mother, in a colossal misjudgement, had lent our car one night. He had looked down to push in a fresh cassette and had plowed the car into a tree.
That November, following a week’s worth of rain (it had already been a wet autumn), the floods came. The news broke in the afternoon at school, and everyone was herded into the cafeteria, left to wait to hear which roads had been washed out, which were still navigable. My parents managed to get me before it got dark, but some kids were left in school all night. The creek that laced our border with the Robinsons, a creek that in summer was a choked rill that moved so slowly that waterbugs could sun on its surface, had grown three times its size. It had become violent and turbid, overflowing its confines as easily as a sweltering man sheds his coat, and when it crested, its waters stood some twenty feet away from our porch (I was grateful that we lived on a hill, and I have tried to live on a hill ever since).
A friend had left his MG under a tarp in our driveway—he had been intending to fix it up for years, but he’d moved around and had left the car to sleep in our care. The creek rose up to its windows, leaving the car for dead, its engine drowned. A truck had to haul it away for scrap. The morning that the creek crested my father and I walked down to a bridge some hundred yards to the west of us. It had been washed away. In its place, in place of the road, in place of the fields, was now an undulating sheet of dirt-brown water. The heads of various households—Mr. Peters, Mr. Miller, Mr. Robinson—stood in a half-circle, watching the flood. It felt somehow medieval, as though they were vassals assembled to watch the ruin, to plan a counter-attack. They passed around Styrofoam cups of coffee liberally spiked with Jack Daniels. “Well, you’re not going to see this again,” one of them told me, and I suppose he was right.
In those waning months in Virginia I spent much of my time with my friend Mosher, often staying weekends at his house and going to school with him on the Monday morning bus. His was a better home than mine was, or so I felt. I had picked up Mosher as a friend in seventh grade, though I’d known him for longer. He had been in and out of my school—his mother, in occasional fits of concern, would place him in some prestigious academy in Roanoke. But he was an indifferent student at best, and eventually she realized it that would be just as well if he went to the public school that was five minutes away from his house.
He lived with his mother and his grandmother, a well-preserved specimen of post-Reconstruction-era Virginia, and occasionally a cousin who crashed in a disused wing of the house. It was a rambling, three-story house, painted as white as chalk. If you walked through it long enough, you eventually came upon a room that you’d never seen before: a living room whose furniture slept under sheets; a greenhouse filled with geraniums. The house stood atop a hill and could be seen from anywhere in Fincastle.
Mosher’s parents were divorced, an arrangement that I studied in the hopes of divining my own future. I wasn’t sure where his father lived. Something about him suggested a life spent in amiable management of grander personalities, that he was the man who made sure that the three-Martini-lunch party left an adequate tip. Once I woke up in the living room, where I usually stayed, to find Mosher’s mother and father at breakfast. One would offer a mild joke that, when given the blessing of the other, they would slightly inflate until the two chuckled together, but always warily, always being sure to watch each other for cues. Mosher’s grandmother was in the kitchen, which was off of the living room, making their breakfast. When she saw that I was awake, she swatted at my feet. “Time for this one to be up,” she said in her refined Piedmont accent. She put me to work when I was there—painting fences, picking the roadside yard of trash, clearing brush. I worked harder at Mosher’s house than at my own. It was fine: I thought it was the price of staying there.
I believed she liked me more than her grandson, for Mosher would sometimes sleep until noon, and he showed little inclination to administer the farm that he would one day own. He never rode the horses that they kept in a paddock down the hill; he never showed the vaguest of interest in how the corn harvest was going, or the progress of what seemed like an endless campaign of deforesting and tilling fields beyond the range of hills. His grandmother, when she made me breakfast, would churn up an astonishingly dense glass of chocolate milk for me—she spooned in heaps of crushed cocoa from an aluminum bin that seemed to be her relative age, then whipped the milk until it had the consistency of broth.
Mosher and I would spend hours in his room on the second floor, his windows offering a view of the whole manse—the horse pasture to the south, the small bungalow that the caretakers (a married couple) lived in, the spooling black band that was Rt. 220 off in the distance. His room was always heaped with the detritus of some new hobby or infatuation—Atari consoles, epees, karate belts, stacks of comics. We played Dungeons and Dragons (his cousin poked his head in once, saw what we were up to, and muttered: “why are you doing this? It’s like school”) and some other role-playing game that involved spies. We found the latter boring and began tweaking the modules to bring in robots and orcs. I would like to say that we talked about the future, trying to guess at where we were heading, but no, ours was a friendship without perspective. We talked about girls and comics and TV characters, of useless things, as kids, happily indifferent to their fates, always will.
I last saw Mosher in 1987—I came down to visit him around Easter, and we had a good time, but it was obvious that it was the end. Our ambitious plan to write each other once a week had long since come to nothing. I have no idea of what’s become of him and I don’t particularly care to find out, for I feel that he likely turned out all right, and I’d prefer to keep him as a memory pressed in my keepcase. I remember the first time that I met him. I had come to his house years before I had become his friend, on some other Easter, invited by another friend. Mosher’s family was holding an Easter egg hunt. I didn’t find any. Mosher, prodded by his mother, went around to his guests and, if he saw that we didn’t have an egg, he gave us one from his basket. There was a nobility to him then, a genial sense of service. In another, better life, he would have been a lord.
I’ll end this rather tenuous collection of memories with a fine one. It was a summer afternoon party at our house in ‘85, one of our last parties, as they had started to dwindle, the victims of my parents’ relative age, of the breaking up of the gang (Yeary had gone off to San Francisco, others had headed down to North Carolina), of an ever-thickening history of cooled friendships and broken marriages. We were out on the lawn when we saw a hot air balloon in the southern sky. It grew larger and more distinct, until we realized that the pilot intended to land nearby, possibly on our lawn. As our lawn sloped rather suddenly (the hill that had kept us from the flood), my father waved the balloon off. It drifted, growing ever more discernible (we could now see the orange tongue of flame that kept it aloft), and the balloon soared over us, quickly sinking towards Etzler’s fields down the road, some half a mile.
So the party packed up into a few trucks and cars, a couple of the more inebriated choosing to walk, and we went down Etzler’s spooling driveway, joined now by at least a dozen cars that apparently had been tailing the balloon for some time. The balloon gently sank to the ground, the crew tossing out sandbags with rope lines affixed to them. The crew, three or four men, vaulted out of the basket like boys and made jokes, stretching their legs and backs. Their leader, a gregarious man with a thick beard, asked for help in gathering up the balloon, which, deprived of purpose, was now billowing on the ground. My father and a few others grabbed clumps of the fabric and gradually pushed it together into a pile under the lead man’s supervision. He asked a few men to help him shoulder the pile and he shoved it, like a massive wadded set of bedding, down into the wicker basket.
"We’re going to need some weight to really push it down," he said, and, without warning, he picked me up like a sack of flour and tossed me, somehow gently, above his head and down into the basket. I fell sideways into a heap of parachute silk, which felt as generous as a bed. I lay there on my back, staring up at the sky, which had been reduced to a narrow circle of blue. Above me, staring down at me, was seemingly everyone that I knew, my mother and father, my neighbors, their kids: everyone, arrayed in health and seeming goodwill, laughing, beaming down at me, a few offering their hands for me to pull myself up with. But for a second I wanted to stay there in the basket, because I had a feeling of absolute security and confinement, of being safe and ridiculous and just so damned indescribably happy in what, as it turned out, would be the last moment of my childhood.