We’ll walk in circles around this whole block
Walk on the cracks of the same old sidewalks
Then we’ll talk about leaving town
Yeah, we’ll talk about leaving…
— Less Than Jake, “Look What Happened (Last Time)”
As I was reading through a printed draft of When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, I kept trying to put my finger on this essential element within the story that was missing. This key piece. The story as it currently exists has many gaps and holes that need to be filled. I’m very well aware of this—and part of my job as I work through the draft is to mend these holes I created in 2003, and then again in 2007.
What is missing from the story?
Then it hit me. What was missing.
Main Location: Phenix, Virginia
Country: United States
Area: 1.2 square miles
Population: 226 (2010 census)
Median family income: $34,583
Fun Fact: There isn’t a single stoplight in Phenix or all of Charlotte County — not then (1980s and 90s), not now
This teeny tiny town in southern Virginia where my childhood was birthed. Phenix is mentioned in the story, even specific street names like Church St., Charlotte St., and Park St.
So, it’s not as if I left out Phenix entirely or that it doesn’t have a central role in the memoir. After all, the original title of the story (The Court) is named after the basketball court across the street from my house, which in itself serves as the setting for the opening scene.
It was 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night
as I sat alone in my car at the basketball court…
What’s missing is that I largely glossed over Phenix and relegated it to setting only; when, what I realize I should do, is transform Phenix from mere setting into what it more closely resembles, that of a transformative supporting character within the story.
Now more than ever, my hometown carries with it ghosts. The ghosts of my childhood. Almost fourteen years ago, I wrote these very lines:
The lights had already gone out at 10:16, like clockwork, as they had for years. Hummingbird moths had vacated the area over an hour ago. The crickets crept into my consciousness playing their nighttime lullabies, as the old streetlight next to the stop sign that no one ever stopped at flickered. The light shone bright and then darkened. At that moment, I began to see and hear the ghosts of my childhood. These images were visible as if at hand only yesterday, and they winked one after the other in my mind’s eye like white stars sewn into the black velvet of the summer’s night sky.
Fourteen years later, I can still visualize every last word in that paragraph. It’s as if I’m twenty one years old again, sitting in my car, a green notebook pressed against the steering wheel. Writing. Crying. Writing some more. Slamming my fists against the steering wheel. “F––k!”
A streetlight flickering. Looking up, and seeing the stop sign that no one ever stopped at. Smiling. No longer angry. Tears still wet retreating from my eyes down my cheeks. Writing some more.
If you’re from Phenix, you know exactly where I’m talking about—the curve that rests at the top of the pool hill. The stop sign. I don’t even know if the stop sign is there any more. It shouldn’t be.
Setting as character
If a scene delivers the story from one sequence to the next, then setting, at least in the case of my hometown, illuminates in a way more than is typical, sheds light on a character. Sort of like Fargo. What’s the saying—you’re a product of your environment whether you like it or not.
We none ever spoke of leaving Phenix, but we all thought about it silently. Even at a young age, we planned our escape. It came out in the games we played.
“You only get two shots,” a young, pubescent voice called into the night. “Don’t choke. If you miss the second, you have to go . . . all . . . the way . . . back.”
The thin, lanky figure stepped to a chink in the gray-black pavement that opened like the veins of a broken waterway, spilling horizontally across the basketball court. He bent his knees. His eyes searched for a direct line to the back of the rusted hoop, and he released a jump shot. The flick of his wrist made a popping sound as his fingers pointed straight ahead.
The basketball found its peak then fell downward from the sky…
He stepped to the next marker.
Each open crack in the blacktop marked a different city, a different state, a different destination we sought to go leaving this small town behind. Only one of us had accomplished the feat of going Around the World in sixteen shots or less without missing consecutive field goals. If anyone would ever escape it, it would be him.
I never thought I’d escape. I’m not sure I ever wanted to escape. I wanted to pause time, place it at a standstill. These were the best friends I would ever know. Life would separate us eventually. I never wanted that. It was inevitable. Death would divorce us from one another until we were strong again. Then distance would step in.
Perhaps it’s a generational thing, I don’t know. I can’t speak to whether kids in the generation before, or in the generations after, feel this way, but there’s this strange pride I have in being raised in Phenix, Virginia. This badge of honor, no different than someone saying, Yeah, I grew up in New York City or Los Angeles.
Except I say, “I grew up in Phenix, without the -o.”
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a popular television show when I was a kid. I re-wrote the lyrics in my youth as follows:
In Phenix, Virginia, I was born and raised
On the blacktop is where I spent most of my days
Chilling out, maxing, and relaxing all cool
And shooting some b-ball up the hill from the pool…
From an outside perspective, there is nothing spectacular about Phenix, Virginia. If anything, if you forced someone unaccustomed to a town of this size to purchase a home here, one with teenage children especially, the call and response would be that Phenix is “boring . . . that there’s nothing to do.”
If you look at the aerial photo, you’ll see the center of town where the bulk of residents live, and even in that, you’ll notice mostly trees and few homes. Even the census number is bloated because it accounts for people who live on the town’s outskirts.
Save for less businesses, Phenix is mostly the same as it was in the 1980s. Kids are less active to say the least, but that’s about it. And that’s where your imagination comes in. I credit my Papa Hamlett for my love of storytelling and I credit Phenix for my imagination. I never found Phenix boring. There was always something to do, somewhere your imagination could take you if you were willing to allow it.
To the opening of the woods, jump the creek, and follow the stream. The entrance is lush. The smell of the forest so sensuous the aroma trickles in and out of our nostrils. We’ll follow the winding, binding curvature of the water as it flows clear.
A dark shadow looms from our backside.
Someone is behind us.
We hear their footsteps.
The bank of the creek becomes steeper as we walk. We duck down and push the loose branches and vines out of our way. With thorns sticking into our sides, we have to stop a moment as our shirts become entangled by their prickly rage to depart from their link to us. The bag of lice leeches itself onto our shoestrings and the old shopping cart with its shiny, metal exterior still sits upright where someone had pushed it into the crater of the world years ago.
I hear them talking.
You hear them too.
Our feet sit at an angle as we manage to walk sideways on the auburn crumbling dirt that cakes the side of the bank that in turn fills in the little openings in our shoes as the little balls of dirt fall one after the other down the embankment.
It’s so beautiful.
What you once were.
Our fortress in the woods.
I lived at the basketball court. I lived in the woods. Sometimes I still do in my mind. I can trace every step now just as I could in my childhood.
There’s a quote by American novelist and essayist Flannery O’Connor that goes, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
I would say that is so.