Sometimes you find the prize when you're not looking for it.
My significant other, John, and I were traveling the back roads of eastern North Carolina last year as I researched the setting for my latest novel, The Lies We Told. We stopped for an ice cream cone at an out-of-the-way restaurant, and we sat on the restaurant's tiny porch, licking our yummy cones and chatting about my book. In the story, an injured young female physician is trapped with strangers in the backwoods — an area similar to the one where John and I were enjoying our ice cream and which I'd named Last Run Shelter. On the bench across from us, an elderly couple nibbled their own cones. Here is where I change a few details, because this is a true story and I don't want this couple to be recognizable.
I wanted to talk to them, because... well, because I nearly always want to talk to strangers. They were dressed in their Sunday best, sitting about two feet from one another, and I wanted to know their story. So I said something profound, like, "Mm. Isn't this good ice cream?" That was all it took. The woman never made eye contact with me, but I believe the man had been waiting for an invitation.
"We come here mos' ever Sunday since we was kids," he said. "They serve up the best fried green 'maters you ever et."
I listened to him talk — paying attention to the words he used, the cadence, the music in his voice — with fascination, wishing I could record him. His was the voice I'd been trying to capture for a couple of my characters. I felt so lucky to have stumbled across him.
I asked him questions to keep him talking. He owned a small store not far from where we sat. It was known far and wide as the place to buy a jar of Duke's mayonnaise or a tin of chewing tobacco. One of the Miss North Carolinas used to toddle around the store when she was a child. And one time, a man rode his horse into the store, swept a female clerk onto the beast's back, and proposed to her right there. Best of all, the old man told me, the store had a broad front porch and it was the place you'd go to sit and visit with your neighbors. He'd owned it since he was 23. He was now 76, and two months earlier, his store — and its history — had burned to the ground.
He began to cry. Tears ran down his cheeks and his voice cracked over the words, but he continued talking. I knew he wanted me to understand what his store had meant to him. It had been more than just a store; it was his heart and soul, the place where he'd been gathering his neighbors close to him for more than 50 years. Tears came to my own eyes as I listened to him. I stood up and crossed the porch to hug him, feeling helpless, wishing I could make things right for him again.
My heart ached as John and I pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. I thought about the gift the man had given me by sharing his story. Maybe I gave him one back by listening. I hope so. His wife hadn't looked at him once while he talked, but who knows what her story is? I think of her husband often, and I know he'll stay with me for a long, long time, because the music of his voice is in the pages of my book.