the people you meet in cumberland

Natalye Childress

a mild-mannered blue-haired barista with a soft british accent and kindness in their eyes who makes me an americano, black. as i’m leaving, they show me photos on their phone and send me to the highest point in the county for a view that will outshine all others.

a docent in a caboose, who has — from the looks of it — been sitting alone all morning inside these walls painted sherwin-williams reclining green with no one to talk to. when i see the sign that says “caboose open,” with an arrow underneath pointing away from the caboose, i investigate. the caboose is bright red, and white letters on the side read crr caboose 1072. it’s snowing, and the metal bars i grab to hoist myself up the ladder are wet. i step into the car without expecting anyone to be there. he stands and shuffles forward, and because he seems so lonely, i ask him lots of questions. he tells me to climb up to the cupola to see what the crew would see, to watch my head going up, and when i come down, he give me free postcards.

a bearded guy in a rvca shirt who is working behind the bar. it turns out he owns the place, and after moving away and living all over the world, he came back to be with his mom while she went through chemotherapy. a week after he moved back, she died. he decided to stay.

a man at the end of the bar who is eating ramen and making small talk with the bartender. he is a regular, and i quickly learn he’s obsessed with all things fancy, asking about so-and-so’s fancy house and fancy car and fancy way of being. he asks me lots of questions and tells me i’m funny even though i haven’t made a joke. maybe it’s because i call him “fancy insert name here.”

a woman who moved to town with her boyfriend, who she then broke up with. like her boss, the bartender, she decided to stay. she’s passionate about all things japanese and is learning the language, how to talk and how to cook. she stirs a pot, lifts the lid. the aroma of broth fills the vast space. she takes a ladle and fills one of those to-go containers for condiments and walks it over to me. i remove the flimsy lid, inhale the steam, drink it like it’s tea. she smiles, pleased with herself. it’s a new recipe she’s working on. i tell her i approve.

not a person, but a cat, cantankerous and fluffy and sleeping in a chair. i pet her — her name is alice, and i’ve come here explicitly to see her — and she looks up from her slumber to meow, then plops her head back down. later, when the shops are closed, i’ll walk by and see her sleeping on the fake snow that’s part of the christmas window display that still hasn’t been taken down even though it’s the end of february.

a woman, not from here at all, but from baltimore, via the midwest, who corners me in a common area and tells me her life story, and that of her daughters, and i nod along as i eat my popcorn and drink my sherry and wish i could be reading the book i’m holding in my hand. but it’s my fault i’m hanging out in the lobby; it’s free game. she introduces me to her dog and then when she heads out on a walk, i hurry upstairs to avoid being trapped in conversation again when she returns.

a bartender who pours me sours over the course of three hours, checking in regularly, maybe because he’s bored, or maybe because i’m a woman at a bar, alone. he tells me how he ended up in a place like this, as a kid, and why he decided to stay. we talk about the prisons, and he doesn’t think they’re all bad like some folks around these parts do.

a woman who is dating the bartender, who used to work here actually, who goes behind the bar and pours a perfect pour and whoops “i’ve still got it.” she’s brought in a group of friends, and they’ve all been celebrating february birthdays, and when i tell them it was my birthday two days before, they break out into an exuberant and drunk rendition of happy birthday. they ask how old i am and guess i’m 27 or 30, and i tell them i love them.

a shy boy from kentucky who tosses me knowing looks from across the bar, because we are both from somewhere else and we find the locals a little too amusing, even though the locals are his friends, and not complete strangers as they are to me. i wave him over and he sidles up, and we whisper back and forth, and i am happy to have found an ally.

you, the person i came here for.

a half-blue-haired raver from the holler. i write him notes and slip them under his door, and he writes me back and sticks them on my door. he knocks just past midnight on a sunday night, technically a monday morning, and invites me down to his apartment, and when i tell him “it’s been a day,” and tell him about you, he says nothing but gives me a look that is the biggest kindness i could possibly have for the kind of day i’ve had. he doesn’t comment on my pajamas, my messy hair, or my tear-streaked face. instead, he offers me a drink, so clutching my ice-cold sunnyd vodka seltzer, i follow him onto his back patio and shiver as he smokes. back inside, he introduces me to his cats and shows me his coffee table book, gay men draw vaginas. we page through it, laughing, and i pet the big orange cat, the one he calls jenga even though his name is django, and together with his three cats, he helps stave off my sadness, if only until i can make it to sleep.