This is a story about a teacher, Carolyn Purcell. Some of the names in her story I have changed, but Carolyn’s I have not. You’ve probably heard of her, or at least of the things she did. It is also a story about a town, name of Walkerville, four hundred strong in the state of Virginia. It is a story about the people who live there, and about the people who don’t. You have some friends in this story. You may well be in it yourself. For my part, I will try not to let out too many secrets, and I would ask that you not ruin the ending for the other readers. You probably do not know me, though you might recognize my face. I received her last kiss from my hospital bed in West Virginia and I was the only member of the news audience who did not feel it.
My name is Thomas Matthew Carter, and I know most of what happened here. Some of what I do not know, I have guessed at, and I think my guesses come close to the truth. Where necessary, I have simply made things up. I don’t, for example, really know what would have happened to Charlie if he had never immigrated to the United States. About the homeless child in Richmond, I know that I saw such a child in Richmond in January of the year this happened. That Carolyn spent some time with a child she met in Richmond while she was traveling. That my memory swears that the child I saw in Richmond is the same child I saw in Culpeper’s cemetery. But I do not know that Carolyn first met the child in her nativity-filled closet on a dark and stormy drug-filled night just west of Walkerville.
About the Quiet Man I know very little, and have relied on the urban myths that have grown up around him, and some of the less sensational books. I’ve tried to stay away from the movie as much as it has influenced everything we know about the man. I doubt, for example, that his soul walked visibly across the Potomac when he died, nor do I see any real evidence, beyond the Weekly tabloids, that he had a girl in every city he visited.
Walkerville is on the western border of Virginia, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoahs. Virginia doesn’t own the Shenandoahs any more: they’re a national park. The Ridge itself is an extended foothill of the taller Allegheny Mountains. Cross over the mountains and you’re in West Virginia. West Virginia is Union territory. It’s called west, but what it really is, is North. They’re Union by choice, not at the point of a gun like Maryland, where federal troops imposed martial law to keep DC from being surrounded. There was a time, not long ago in legend, when Walkerville was smack dab in the center of Virginia. At that time the west in West Virginia was not capitalized. Yes, before “the war.” Northerners do not understand how vividly memory of the war lingers in the South. Virginians are reminded every time they hear the “West” in “Virginia.” Without their neighbors in West Virginia, Virginians stand a strong danger of living in just one big suburb of Washington, DC: the capital of the Union states.
The North has forgotten the war, but we cannot. We still see the reminders among our hills and our forests: twisted rail in the trees where the trains once ran; charred foundations filled with mud, leaves, and moss; bits of bridge deposited at the river’s bend. Under these circumstances you cannot forget. We are a young country and a hundred years seems long in our history. But the South is older than the country, and a hundred years is not long as generations go. There are places in the world where such things are remembered from a thousand years past. Your great-grandmother may have been a child when the fires began. She told the stories to your grandmother, who told the stories to your mother, who passed them on to you. With the tales of conquest still seething, and the visible reminders remaining, it is not hard to imagine your great, great uncle impaled on the end of a Yankee saber, or your aunt defiled by a Yankee invader.
Just a few years ago a broken skull washed clear on the shore of the Appomattox where two kids were fishing. It had a big hole and a Union ball lodged inside. What do parents tell their children when they find such relics?
What you must remember is that the people of the North and the South fought that war by choice. Presidents Lincoln and Davis called for blood, and the people responded. “Come kill your countrymen,” cried Lincoln, and so we did. Davis did not say “countrymen,” but the call to kill was the same. There was no conscription in the North then, nor in the South. When the war began, those who fought did so because they wanted to fight. We killed because we wanted to kill. We changed our minds later as the war grew old but by then we’d ceded too much power to the Generals and the Presidents, and it was too late. We first instituted the draft in this country so that we could fight each other. We yelled and screamed and rioted in the streets, but the draft stayed.
That is the land of Virginia as Carolyn Purcell knew it. Carolyn lived in Walkerville, in the bosom of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Madison County, in western, not West, Virginia. She had always lived in Madison. She was born and raised in the dying village of Shelby seven miles to the south down Route 29. Her parents still live there, in the house she was raised in, although they have had to change to an unlisted phone number. She had always known the mountains; they were always in sight. She paid no attention to them. The only time she ever really noticed them was on her one trip to Mexico with her college friends. She noticed them because they were not there.
Walkerville was large enough for a village but unassuming. Less than half an hour to the south, Charlottesville, a hundred times its size, sucked up most of the young folk and never spit them out. Charlottesville was simply “the city” to those who lived inside Walkerville. “The City” has always been a relative term. To those who live in Charlottesville, “the city” means Richmond, and to those in Richmond it means either Norfolk, or, more and more commonly, Washington DC. To those on the outskirts of Walkerville, “the city” means Walkerville itself, or Shelby on the highway. Walkerville and Shelby are the most populous villages in Madison.
The nearest city to the North of Walkerville is Culpeper, five miles west to Route 29 and ten miles up. With a population just barely in the five-figure range, Culpeper is too big to be a town and too small to be a city. It has a movie house, and is just a little closer than Charlottesville if you really need a city in a hurry. There are a lot of fast food franchises in Culpeper, making it a popular choice for families looking for a night out. You go to Culpeper when you are young. And you go to Culpeper when you are old. But no one between the ages of sixteen and thirty goes to Culpeper on their own. They head to the city.
Carolyn lived just outside of Walkerville, on Walkerville Road. Her address was “Rural Route 2, Walkerville Road.” It was called “Walkerville” road because it was the main road to Walkerville from Shelby. It wasn’t the street’s real name. If you drive by and look at the street sign, and the sign hasn’t been shot out recently, it says “192nd Avenue.” Carolyn’s house certainly had a street number as well but she didn’t know what it was. She could have looked it up on her deed, and it most certainly was on her mortgage: bankers are required to repossess by number rather than by name. But to the rest of the community, including the post office, she was the only Carolyn Purcell on Walkerville Road. Where else would her mail go? Even her bills said “Walkerville Road.” The only time her mail ever said “192nd Avenue” was when it came from the government. Why the government called it 192nd Avenue was anybody’s guess. It was right outside of Walkerville. There were certainly not 191 avenues in between. Perhaps they’d been counting from DC, where most things nobody uses come from.
Carolyn’s house was a small two-story house, or a large two-story cottage, with two gables and chipped paint. It stood in the midst of a large yard, in the northwestern corner of what used to be a small farm. The barn was still there, although one wall of the brick foundation had partially caved in. She had often thought of fixing the barn up. It would make a great dance hall for parties. There was a loft in the barn, which had at one time been used by children as a clubhouse. There was a desk in one corner, many empty soda bottles, and a box of moldy comic books stuffed underneath the desk. A map of the house and barn, drawn in pencil by a child’s hand, was tacked to the wall. Carolyn thought that the loft would make a great room for a sound system or even a projector.
The house itself was still in good shape, although it tilted just a bit to the south when it had a mind to. She’d bought the place from a family that was moving to the city. “The city,” in their case, was Walkerville. They had a growing family and wanted to move closer to the school and maybe get a larger house in the bargain. So they sold their three-bedroom, one-bath farmhouse and a barn that was in pretty good shape at the time, and moved into a half-acre lot one block between the barber shop and the Walkerville library. They were nestled right up against the middle school, and lived, fairly happily, ever after.
Besides the house and the barn, Carolyn ended up with forty acres and a red Allis-Chalmers tractor. The forty acres was covered mostly with farmland that had never been tended much anyway. The rest was forest. Deep back in the forest there was a pond, covered in green algae in spring and summer, and brown leaves in the fall. She never named the pond, but she visited it often when she was troubled or anxious, and sometimes in the evening after a glass of wine; and sometimes in the evening with a bottle of it.
The tractor she sold to one of her neighbors a mile down the road who had a use for it. He worked at the Ruckersville Pie Factory down in Ruckersville in the day but still kept the farm going in the evening and weekends.
The chipped paint on the house was Carolyn’s fault. She let the exterior go a bit, I’m afraid, but she kept the inside very tidy. The white curtains were always clean. The toilet’s water was always blue, and the bathroom clean; the towels fluffed. But outside work in Virginia then was, and still is in the country, for men, and she did not disapprove of this. Yet her boyfriend could not quite spare the needed time. Tom drove a truck for a shipping firm down in Charlottesville. She liked that he was gone often; she cherished her own time. But when he returned she was glad that he did not spend the time painting the house. Carolyn loved him when he was there, but did not miss him when he was gone. This was her second biggest secret in the world, though Tom certainly guessed.
Carolyn’s biggest secret was that her name was not really Carolyn. No spy stuff here. She’d lived in the Walkerville area all her life and everyone knew her. But Carolyn was not her name. This was known only to her mother, who despaired of it; and her doctor, who had forgotten it; and the federal government, which didn’t realize there was any question over the matter. Carolyn’s real name was Carol. Her middle name was Lynne. She lived a quiet and unassuming life, and this was her curse: everyone called her Carolyn. Even the local governments learned to call her Carolyn. It was on all her official documents except her birth certificate and tax forms. It was her grandmother’s fault. Her grandmother wanted her to be Carolyn. Her parents wanted her to be Carol. They compromised with the middle name. But grandma was a strong-willed woman and it soon became clear that this compromise was defeat. Carol’s name became Carolyn. The necklace that she wore, and that she hated, said “Carolyn.” Sometimes she felt it burn as she wore it, branding her neck with the name that wasn’t hers.
She wore the necklace regardless. It was a gift from her grandmother, on her sixteenth birthday. It had been Grandma Purcell’s sister’s before that. Great-Aunt Carolyn had died before Carolyn born Carol was born at all. Grandmother Purcell cherished it, and so Carolyn cherished it, even as she hated it. Grandma Purcell was gone, but her sister’s name remained.
Grandma Purcell was a very devout woman and she passed this also on to her granddaughter. Carolyn went to church every Sunday in the small Baptist church just on the other side of Walkerville. She did not participate overmuch in non-Sunday church activities. Carolyn’s passion for the Lord manifested itself most clearly in her collection of nativity scenes. She owned many, and no two were alike. They filled her house year-round. She had no other place to store them. Some were musical; most were not. Some lit up by electricity; some were lit by candle-light; most were unlit. She kept them all unlit and quiet when the Christmas season passed, of course. Their power and the fascination they held for her were the different ways of portraying the birth of the Christ. Some went for realism; the stable was dirty and Joseph was a carpenter, and Mary a carpenter’s wife. In others the stables must have been kept by a maid, and Joseph a king among carpenters. Other scenes, dating mostly from the seventies, tried to update the scene. Even little black nativities from Africa and yellow from China. One was set in an abandoned junk-laden lot of some nameless city. Joseph wore a tuxedo, tattered and dirty, with his hat in his hand, while Mary wore a torn and stained white dress. Jesus was swaddled in newspaper and slept peacefully in a shopping cart. Singing policemen kept their watch by night. If you wound them up, they sang the melody to “Silent Night.” The three wise men were there as well. They dropped coins into Joseph’s hat. It had at one time also been a bank: if you dropped a coin into the center king’s head, it dropped through the king’s arm and into Joseph’s hat, and then disappeared into a compartment beneath the stable. But the bottom of the bottom compartment had been lost before Carolyn acquired the nativity so any coins dropped in fell out to the floor. You could drop coins in all day, and Joseph’s hat would never fill.
The one that disturbed her most she kept hidden in a closet upstairs underneath her Grandmother’s wedding dress. Joseph and Mary sat on a couch in a well-kept house watching television. Their television was wrapped in swaddling clothes and beamed beatifically back. The three kings were a soda can, a package of cigarettes, and a Gideon’s bible. The shepherds who kept their watch by night newspaper photographers and television cameramen. And the angels who sang on high were Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan.
When she wasn’t collecting and cleaning nativity scenes, Carolyn was a teacher. She taught third-graders and sixth-graders in the Walkerville middle school. She’d started out teaching kindergartners. She’d taught them to draw pictures of their own hands; to tie their shoes; to give thumbprints in colored inks (never black); not to undress when anyone was looking. You don’t teach the three ‘r’s that early; you get down to the real basics: how not to embarrass yourself in public. Many of her children had never seen other children except on holidays. Some never saw other children at all. This was the country. There were adults in the countryside who wouldn’t see other adults for months at a time.
There was a need for good teachers in Walkerville, so she was moving up. She’d taught kindergarten for two years (one as an intern), first grade for one year, and now third grade in the morning, sixth in the afternoon. Her sixth-graders she taught the classics, such as “Little House on the Prairie,” and perhaps a little history as well. Sometimes she would take them on field trips to Charlottesville, Lexington, New Market, or Richmond. Charlottesville held Monticello and Thomas Jefferson. Lexington had Washington & Lee University, and Lee Chapel, as well as the Virginia Military Institute and the VMI museum. New Market was also the VMI museum, where VMI cadets had entered battle and held the day for Stonewall Jackson’s beleaguered Southern forces. Richmond was the long-dead capital of the Confederacy. New Market was just across the Blue Ridge Skyway in Jackson’s famous Shenandoah Valley.
Carolyn taught her children as best she could. Very few adults can handle children well. Those who do are set off from the rest of the adult world. If they make a living of their skill with children, as Carolyn did, they generally have a hard time getting along with other adults. They spend their entire day explaining common sense to little people with no sense of logic. They have no desire to spend their off-time doing the same thing, but of course that’s impossible. It hardly comes as a surprise, therefore, that many murderers have a background in teaching.
“She was a quiet person,” people said after the whole thing was over. “Her third graders loved her.”
Of course they did. So did her sixth-graders. The very quality that makes a good murderer makes great teachers. Her kids loved her because of, not in spite of, her troubles with adults. And they loved her all the more because they knew all along what was going on. Her actions helped them make sense of a troubled world. In the final pomp or circumstance, isn’t that the teacher’s calling?
Carolyn Purcell was a short woman, pretty, but unassuming. She was a good teacher. The kind of woman children like even before they get to know her. Among children she was obviously an adult, but among adults she was very much a child. Children were always running up to her in the street and clutching at her skirt, not because they mistook her for their mommy, but because they wished she was. When she went to town she always ended up with a couple of kids hanging off her. Their parents didn’t mind. Their parents generally spent every weekday away from their kids and didn’t see any reason to be different on the weekends.
Children are not allowed in bars in America, though any adult, no matter how childish, is welcome. Come evenings (and often late afternoons, on the weekend), Carolyn spent much time with her friends in Winston’s. Tom would join her if he was in town, and her best friends were Sam and Marcia Lee.