He'd been driving since 5 a.m. when he pulled his ancient BMW, stuffed with duffel bags and homemade tapes, into a space in front of an Athens diner. It was 5 p.m. of the same day: He was in Georgia, not Greece, and he was starving. A newly converted vegetarian, he had spent the past three rest stops -- southern Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina -- hopefully ogling steamy platters of grits and greens only to be assured in the middle of bite one that he'd just love that good old ham liquor flavor. But something about the diner reminded him of the County Inn in Towson, where the Greek mama and papa who owned the place had always made him feel they could cheerfully put anything he wanted onto one of their thick, heavy plates. He went in, and there he beheld menus listing "Vegetarian Specials of the Day," and those menus were being perused by the entire membership of R.E.M. Yes, R.E.M., the U.S. college-crowd's top rock and roll group. Athens, Ga., happens to be R.E.M.'s home town.
He bolted down a Veggie Special with a side order of ham-free grits. Then he drove down the road a piece, got himself a Georgia driver's license, picked up a classified section of the Athens paper, and enrolled in the University of Georgia.
There was an element of logic in this. His road trip to Athens had been loosely based on the fact the University of Georgia boasts one of the nation's best schools of veterinary medicine. Definitely in the running among the several vet schools he was seriously interested in, but by no means the only contender. The fact that a gut-level fluke determined his final decision about a crucial aspect of higher education was part of a lengthy family tradition. His sister fell in love with a small college in Pennsylvania when, on another sweltering summer day a few years back, her tour guide invited her to remove her ladylike high heels and stroll the ++ hallowed halls of ivy's cool marble floors in her bare feet. His mother fell out of love with the Ivy League school of her teen-age dreams when she almost threw up on the admissions officer as a result of her first and only try at wearing a ladylike Playtex girdle under her ladylike sheath dress. His sudden transfer from the University of Maryland to the University of Georgia was right in line with family precedent, and yet . . .
How could his mother have known what it would feel like to see that huge yellow rental truck back up into the driveway the following week? To see its back doors spring open like monster jaws to swallow up all her son's worldly goods, every single thing he owned in this life, and take it all away to a tumbledown ex-house whose street number was a demonic 666, where "some guy" would let him "crash" till the classifieds yielded a "real house"?
He showed his mother Polaroid photos of the place. She'd bought him a cheap camera for that very purpose. The tree that had apparently sprung through the floor and luxuriantly filled the chain-flush bathroom at 666 didn't cheer her up much. Sure, 666 was only temporary. But that pink State of Georgia Temporary Driver's License, for which he'd had to trade in his Maryland license, seemed to spell forever.
The big truck was a fluke, too. The weekend he drove back from Georgia just long enough to collect his belongings, there was a special whereby an enormous truck was cheaper, one-way to Athens, than a small truck. Into its black depths he and his assembled Baltimore family plunged his stereo, his old dresser, his second-hand futon, a discarded dining room table and its more or less matching four chairs, the medieval-thronelike armchair he'd begged his grandmother for back when he still read King Arthur stories, a couple of holey reject-rugs, a batch of posters carefully tucked into the cardboard rolls from old gift-wrap paper, and a salvaged public-school desk. As an afterthought, he threw in a box of books, not physics and chemistry or even biology and animal science, but Tin-Tin comics, a couple of Thomas Bergers and Anne Tylers, "The Velveteen Rabbit," the Portable William Faulkner, and the King Arthur stories.
A vast dark emptiness gaped out of the truck. His mother stared into it, then stared into the cluttered rooms of the Towson home he was leaving. Suddenly the front porch filled up with paintings she snatched right off the wall, ladder-back chairs that had sprung up randomly in all sorts of places over the years, potted avocado plants that had become trees (hey, 666's bathroom live-oak was only temporary!), a bed frame, a cherry-veneer night stand, even that dear little antique pie-crust table from the first-floor hall.
"Hey, are you sure?" he asked when the table hit the porch. "This table is really nice."
"Oh hell, I tripped over it every time I came out of the bathroom," his mother choked. She'd never known he liked it.