There is a Bristol Beth in every state, excluding the Dakotas, South Carolina, Hawaii, and Virginia. Florence had been to eight of them by the time she arrived at Bristol Beth, Tennessee. Her birthplace was Bristol Beth, Indiana. She lived in the incarnations in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Delaware, and New Hampshire, and visited the Bristol Beths of Missouri and Oregon before tiring of constantly moving and traveling in the name of documenting and locating every Bristol Beth in the United States. Florence moved in with her mother’s sister in Arlington, Virginia. Meanwhile, her mother took residence in Bristol Beth, Tennessee, rented out a house by the train tracks running through the edge of the rustic, bluegrass, dead-grass town, where hills abounded. There Florence’s mother met, fell in love, and cohabited the house by the tracks with a man named Lexington Carmine.
Her mother was interred in Burke, Virginia, but her belongings remained in Bristol Beth with Lexington Carmine. So, Florence came to the house by the tracks wishing to obtain her mother’s belongings.
The man Florence spoke with on the phone talked to her in a drawling, friendly way, familiar way, although they had not spoken in months and rarely spoke in the time her mother had been alive. He answered the phone when Florence called to talk to her mother, and he’d always say how good it was to talk to her before passing the phone to her mother like they did it all the time. Her mother often went without a cell phone, forgetting to pay the bill, thinking it was a toxin, bugged, or a way of letting in vicious spirits.
Florence drove beside the train tracks. They ran along the dirt road to the house. Every day at 3:30 the train would pass the house. Her mother passionately detested the whistle and chugga-chugga and swore to Florence she would one day blow that train up so that it was only perceivable on the atomic level.
It wasn’t much of a house. More like a trailer, and he sat at a chess table on the lawn, right by the cinderblock steps. The man had an otherworldliness pervading his body and a considerable amount of hair on his chest. It was understandable he would be shirtless on such a hot day. Otherwise, he would die from heat stroke.
“Hi, there,” he drawled.
“I’m Florence.” she said.
“I know, kiddo. I’ve seen pictures of you.” He moved a chess piece then got up, stretching himself out, inverting his back, with his hands on his narrow hips.
Florence and Lexington Carmine were strangers, yet he called her “kiddo.” He acted as though they’ve had conversations beyond saying hello to each other, Florence asking for her mother, and Lexington Carmine calling for Florence’s mother before handing the phone over to her. He always made sure to say, “Here’s your mom, sweetie. You have a good day,” to which Florence would be struck dumb and unable to reply. There was an exception with the last phone conversation when Florence awkwardly called, requesting to retrieve what her mother had left behind. Lexington Carmine said he was, “more than happy to give them to you, kiddo.” Florence hurriedly made arrangements with him. She could not end the call fast enough.
“What do you think?” Lexington Carmine spread his arms, as if he had made everything in sight, leaning back in his lawn chair, risking falling backward.
“It’s warmer than the ones I’ve been to,” said Florence.
“Well, I’ve been to a few myself, and in no way does this beat the heat in Texas’ Bristol Beth.” He used hand gestures to tell her to sit. The seat looked dirty, but reluctantly she did. “You’re the expert now, I guess,” he said.
“Ah.” She wanted not to accept it nor deny it. “I have been to five.”
“Ah…” she said.
“Don’t think your mom gave it all up. It’s just; I couldn’t make the journeys.”
“Ah…” she said.
“My job, you know.”
“Uh-huh.” Florence had thought the two lived off her mother’s disability checks.
“I want to go to all the Bristol Beths,” said Lexington Carmine. “I wish I could have gone to the funeral.”
Florence made a slight sound. The funeral had not been a pleasant day. It had been the same Arlington church ground where her grandfather had been buried after succumbing to cancer a decade earlier. The wake had had a closed casket. Florence had spent the succeeding months waiting for a sense of finality that she could not find even after visiting the grave once a week. She felt that had the casket been opened and she could have seen the truth with her own eyes it would have been real closure. It was her hope that if this did not give it to her, it would bring her closer to getting it.
“How is school going?” asked Lexington Carmine.
“I graduate next semester.”
“You’re rather young to be graduating so early,” he said.
“It’s community college,” said Florence.
“Which means what?”
“I’ll have an associate’s degree,” she said.
“Well, what comes next?”
Florence made an “I don’t know sound.” It was high-pitched and impulsive. She was surprised by it. Florence refrained from committing to ideas about the future. She was too fearful of it to imagine it.
He took a sip from the Dog Bite he had been cradling between his feet, pointing to the chessboard as a way of asking Florence to play.
She shook her head. “I don’t know how to.” It was the same thing she would have said if that were not true.
“I can teach you how to play,” said Lexington Carmine.
“It was a long trip, Mr. Carmine.”
“Would you like to rest?” he asked.
“No. I want to get my mother’s things,” Florence said.
He got up. The dog bite was in his hand. “I’ll take you inside.”
They entered a hallway consisting of hooks along the entire right side of the hall. It was all old furniture in the living room, the newest thing in the room being a massive, boxy television that took up half the room. The kitchen was all white, and it branched off to his bedroom, a closed door, and breezeway with green, aluminum walls leading to the backyard. Lexington Carmine led Florence to a room where he stored all of her mother’s things. Totes were stacked on a queen-sized bed, and boxes were piled on top of each other in a corner beside a vanity.
“I set up the room about a month afterward. I did not want to remove her, but I didn’t want to be haunted either. It’s better this way. It’s like I can come in here and visit her.”
There he went again, speaking as though her spirit lingered here. Anywhere but here. Florence knew in her heart that her mother did not want to be buried in a “Bristol Bethless” state, but not in this house with him. She would rather have her mother’s spirit be within the anatomy of the train tracks.
Off at the far end of the room, mounted on the wall, above a trinket-filled shelf, was a woodcut carved with “Florence.” Florence realized that this was the bedroom her mother always said was ready for her if she were to visit.
He grabbed a box. Florence picked up a smaller box, put it on top of another box, and carried the two out. The doors were propped open, letting in the breeze. After the first trip to Florence’s car, she speed-walked and built a space between her and Carmine. Every time he was out loading something into the truck, she was heading back to the room, and vice versa.
As agonizing as the rigmarole of emptying the house of the boxes was, it was comforting for Florence, knowing that her mother wasn’t living with little as she had feared, and the house was nice. There was no telling how messy it had been when her mother was alive, but it wasn’t decrepit. Loading the last tote, and looking at the full truck bed, Florence nodded to herself, bobbing her head. Seeing off the belongings in the truck felt right to her.
Carmine brought the woodcarving to the truck. “There’s no point in it staying here,” he said.
“Okay.” She took it, meaning to hide it away once she got home.
“You have to head out so soon? You said it’s a long trip, and there’s a guest bed.”
“No thank you, Mr. Carmine. I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”
“You’re always welcome,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Florence, losing the polite tone she had forced up until then.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Mr. Carmine.”
“You can call me Lexington, or Lex. That’s what your mom called me. She always said Carmine sounded too much like the name of a villain.”
“My mom also said she wanted to blow up the train!” The chugging was not far off. She looked at the tracks and could see it.
“She was a firecracker,” said Lexington Carmine.
Florence got in the truck. “Thank you for giving all this to me, but I have to start heading home.”
“You’ll keep in touch, won’t you?”
She took a deep breath to compose herself and answered, “I don’t know you, Mr. Carmine.”
He said, “I want to change that.”
She started the truck, and posed, telling him as harshly as possible, “My mother came here because she was obsessed with some stupid name.”
“I know you’re angry, but I want us to know each other. I think that’s what she wants,” said Lexington Carmine.
Florence said, “You act like she’s with you in spirit. How can she be with both of us in spirit?”
Lexington Carmine replied, “Well, she had enough spirit in her to fill up the solar system, but hear this, little lady, being rude to me doesn’t do justice to her memory.”
She turned off the engine. “My mother valued honesty, and that’s why I am going to say what I am about to say. It will be the last thing I ever say to you, Mr. Carmine: I believe with all my heart that if she didn’t stay here, she might still be alive, and she may have come here because of her obsession, but she stayed because of you.”
His lips were taut like he was sucking on something sour, and he went back into the house with his head down. Then he stopped, turned around, his eyes faintly watering, “She wanted to be loved, and Lord knows she wouldn’t get that from you.”
Florence restarted the truck and followed the train out of Bristol Beth, Tennessee, nearly matching its speed.
At the Sherwood Inn, 30 minutes from the Virginia border, Florence had the contents of the totes and boxes scattered throughout the room. Most of it was clothes and pictures from when Florence was a baby. Her mother loved jewelry boxes filled with earrings that had lost their mate and photo albums filled with photos she had taken of the sky and trees. Each picture was accompanied by a caption, saying where it had been taken. It amazed her how few there were of the Bristol Beths. One of the jewelry boxes had an old map Florence knew well. It marked the Bristol Beths, with x and a sticker with a number written on it. Only one remained: Bristol Beth, Ohio; the first Bristol Beth. Florence felt relieved to find her mother’s map. She worried that it had been lost. As much as she detested the constant travel growing up, the idea that the records of all of her mother’s travels were gone broke her heart.
One story says that the first Bristol Beth in Ohio is named after a man’s dead twin daughters, and goes on to say he founded more towns just to name them after them. A quick internet search disproves the theory, because all of the Bristol Beths were founded by different people with no connection to each other and who lived decades and miles apart. Florence’s theory: they just liked the sound of the name.
The first Bristol Beth was founded in 1807, with the next being in New Jersey in 1814. There is no evidence to prove or disprove the legend of dead twins, but Florence thought someone heard or even went to the one in Ohio, and when they founded their town in New Jersey, they took the name. Florence always thought someone should investigate why the towns got their names, but she did not care enough to do so. It seemed no else cared either. Florence’s mother contended that it was all coincidence. Parallel thinking maybe. A beautiful coincidence is what her mother called it. She thought the name was spectacular, and had the habit of telling Florence how she had wanted to name her Bristol Beth.
Her mother had never been a happy lady. She was a childish woman tortured by irrational fears, impulsiveness, psychotic episodes like demonic possessions, and the tendency to treat Florence like she was a little kid long after Florence had surpassed her in maturity. Prone to paranoia and fantasy, her mother had grudges against everyone in every neighborhood they ever lived in. Her mother loved every Bristol Beth, but always said the worst part about a place was the people. Florence’s mother was against the world while at the same time yearning to be a part of it.
Among the pictures of Bristol Beths and Florence as a child were pictures of Lexington Carmine and Florence’s mother. Her mother’s hair had been dyed so many times and for so long and too many colors to remember the natural color. Florence assumed her mother had the same black hair as her. Florence’s mother possessed dark eyes which could best be described as “striking,” but not in a positive way, more of giving one the feeling she’d strike them as soon as she lay her eyes on them, but in the photos with Carmine, her mother’s eyes were joyful.
She rested her head on the hotel pillow, staring at the off-white wall. She held a head rehearsal of what she resolved to do upon waking. She would return to Carmine’s house and give him the pictures of him and her mother. Maybe she would say a verbal apology, but she wasn’t holding herself to it. She hoped returning the pictures would be enough of an apology. She also hoped that maybe, just maybe, she’d wake up in the morning to find her trip was part of the dream, and she wouldn’t have anything to apologize for. With that, she hoped, though she knew it was pointless, that she’d wake up to find that there was much she had dreamed. Years and years she had dreamed, and she’d have a fresh start.
Ashley Bach lives in suburban Philadelphia and is pursuing an MA in English.