Monday, February 17, 2014

Small Towns - A Short Story

She would not have noticed the town that first time, but for the speed trap.  It was a two lane shortcut to the interstate heading North, a sign that says 50 mph and then almost immediately after, one that says 35 mph, as the first building just seems to pop up from the flat landscape like a diorama.  It's not a route normally driven, but with an accident backing up the freeway around the city, this made for a good detour.

There were only a few buildings, a church, a small fire station, a half dozen very old homes, a couple kept in pristine condition, the rest having given up on curb appeal.  There's not much in the way of business, though at some point this was a tiny little hub of activity in this land that was more farm than subdivisions.  There's  a pizza store and two antique/craft kind of places, colorful wares on display in the hopes that someone will make a stop.  Normally she would enjoy such places, enjoying the work of things made with one's own hands, the patina that is polished wood.  But one of those is now closed, replaced by a store that sells decorative yard things, all cheap and likely made in China, the other with a closed sign that only draws in the dust. Given the severe cold this winter, what little business they had has likely stayed indoors.
Today was no different. The air is cold. Clear. Sharp. Cutting as a knife to the landscape, flayed and laid bare to the eye under the surgical light of a winter morning. It's hard to believe that just 5 miles south is a bustling community of subdivisions and quickly constructed strip malls.  On this road, in the hesitation that is the slow passage through this community, it could easily be 75 years ago, the structures unchanged, only more weathered. Behind are fields that clutch onto the skeletons of crops that long ago died, miles of bare, windswept trees, and clusters of burrs that stick to everything with a tiny pinprick of pain. It's a once pretty place that is sticking to the landscape as hard as it can, soon to be pulled free with that final stab of cold hurt.

At 10 below windchill and an obligation to keep,  it's another day she does not stop.  It's not lost on her that it's yet another nail in the coffin of what is left of those businesses.
The cold restricts movement, as it propels it, pushing us towards something that will warm us.  The cold, like life, only accentuating that which we can not sustain. You move forward or you will die.

Given the amount of traffic on this road and the widening of it further on, it's not hard to imagine that soon this town will be gone, the majority of the few buildings so close to the road, but for the church a couple homes with a large yard between house that road, that widening the road to four lanes will be their inevitable end. The for sale signs on the remaining well kept houses is a sign too obvious, the town not having a failure, but a mutiny. The few other houses look as if they are just waiting for someone to show up with a check and a bulldozer, if not abandoned already, sidewalks raised and broken, trash gathering in the cracks like autumn leaves, an old Ford with no engine, guarding the front lawn against postmen and tax collectors.

As she passes that last for sale sign, she can't imagine selling her home, knowing that it will be razed. Even harder is having to walk away from one, simply to save your life.

She had married too young into a Southern Family, who considered themselves as such, even though they lived in what the rest of the country called the Midwest.  I guess it depends on which direction you looked at things, she reckoned, our individual horizons incised in whetted contrast to the circumference of this flat, harsh landscape.
Weather wasn't the only thing that was new to her, coming here from California. But it is what she learned, and quickly.  She learned what was safe to stay out in, and what was not, learning early we are just serfs of the elements, severe weather usually arriving in the late night like a broken king, rushing in, ready to do battle with the sleeping.

The family had a few hardscrabble acres on which rocks were the preferred crop, as well as a growing herd of cattle. It was a small farm, one which wouldn't have sustained them had she not held other jobs. Friends would tell her how lucky she was to have the land and the freedom and and she was.  But she realized that in actuality, it's like having two full time jobs, 7 days a week. Add to that family, dogs, cats, an old horse named Elmer and a husband on a medical discharge from the military battling his demons, she couldn't remember a day from that time where she just wasn't tired.

As 30 years in the future, the radio announcer comes on with a "remember this classic from the 80's?" She turns the dial up on the sound, to listen. And she doesn't. Remember. Those years to her were sweat and work, the smell of cow manure, weekend JP4, propane, and the salt of tears; moments of roses and moment of thorns being of equal duration, passing too quickly in recollection.  Looking in the mirror she sees the small lines that indicate her age but she doesn't feel it, it's as if that whole 10 years happened to someone else, endless, alternating days and nights like a vacuum in which no air would come.
Given the choice, would she have taken that time back? Perhaps not, she thinks. We do not cease from the experiences, in the end of experience we arrive back where we started, seeing them as if for the first time, but at a nice safe distance, with wisdom otherwise not gained. It was a time to grow, to learn, to build. She learned how to fix a furnace, and pull a calf from her mother, how to make supper out of almost nothing, the household money squandered on chasing something no one could provide even as she  pulled down her shirtsleeves to hide the bruises. She learned how to hold her head up high in a small town buzzing over the gossip that came with that. And she  learned when to walk away when the demons finally won.

She recalls one of the last nights there, the Carthart coat and boots she wears today, no different than the ones she looked for that night as the glare of the headlights illuminated the room, It was a cattle truck coming at night so as to reach the stockyards in the morning. She had woken alone to the rattle coming up the road, trying to get a little nap before they arrive, springing like a bow from her bed, aware of her responsibilities. As she donned work clothes and boots, the orange running lights and diesel growl outside of the  window reminded her of martians landing searching the house for signs of human life and the first smile in a long time passed her lips.

All they would find is a lone woman, with boots, a shotgun she knew how to use, and a kitchen that once smelled of cinnamon.
The driver backs around, turning the trailer with a gentle sigh of air brakes, up to the wooden chute there at the barn. Within came the muffled grunt of the cattle that were being sold. Outside of the lumbering truck and its driver and the cattle, they were alone. No cars, no help, the earth hanging suspending in space, cooling, wearing only a thin veil of woodsmoke. The wind cut her face, a blade that only stroked the skin, not cutting it, her hands aching as she stroked her thighs with them, trying to stir warmth back into dormant skin.

Oh, how she longed to just go back to bed, the rustle of cotton, the panting whisper of breath, the predation of the night assuming a hundred avatars of dreams. No cows, no work, simply the house, still and quiet, as if marooned in space by the dwindling of day. The truck long gone, the sounds outside fallen to a low fragmentary pitch. A coyote's howl at the indignation of clouds that cover the moon, no other sound made; prey gone into hiding, insects dead with cold, everything else assuming their own mantle of hibernation or predation.
But there was work to be done.

Hooves rattled in the trailer as it rocked and swayed, cattle moving with the chaos of their own confusion. All that was left was one lone cow, a young one who would go to a neighbor's farm for breeding stock. She stood forlorn in the fog of her own shadow, form turning as insubstantial as mist. She gazed at her as if she knew what was happening, looking at me with that ample, benign abstruseness of cattle or of gods, before turning and vanishing into space.

It's hard to decide which ones to keep and which to let go. Love, life and longing, a helix viewed by eyes that see with hesitant, hungry fire. Decisions. We took from the land that which we needed to survive, giving something back, yet there is still in me that sense of loss, even as she knew it was inevitable, as are so many inevitable things.

The door on the cattle truck closes with a profound finality, isolating them, isolating her, as she watched it drive off. All that is left is to go back into an empty house to curl up in the guest room, the neatly made bed in the master bedroom a paradox within four walls redolent of long abandoned warmth.
The land went to his family, their little farmhouse to be sold, tools replaced by others which would draw their own blood as she learned to live again, amidst hard work, but work that was her calling.  She couldn't bear to watch as it was cleaned and made ready for sale, sun shining in on polished floors as undisturbed as frigid pools, underneath the overhanging branches of shrouded furniture. When she left, she took just one thing with her, to carry in her vehicle as a reminder.

She still works too often out in the cold, and there are still many nights where she only get only a few hours of sleep before going back on duty, watching the world come into a caffeine induced clarity that does not bode well for the sandman. Nights, where she's not woken by the sound of cattle trucks, but by a phone, a voice on the other end speaking with an impersonal dry cadence she  knows is more protection than uncaring, and she must quickly pull herself  from bed, gathering a black bag and some gear, limbs wooden with the regret of lost slumber.
Sometimes she comes home and simply drops her clothes at the door, too exhausted to put them in the laundry, pouring a finger of whiskey in a glass and flinging it back with a gesture that puts behind her all the suffering she had seen, tossing it back and away, leaving only the taste of smoke on her tongue, a scent that clings to her even after she sheds her clothes.

It's not always an easy life, but it's a good life, she thinks, as that dwindling town fades from her rear-view mirror, her vehicle moving  towards tenacious clusters of farms strung along a lonely river, old barns, listing and tumbling down, gone the way of the ancestors who built them long ago, going West, to dust. The clouds move so quickly she can't catch them with a fast car, grass laid flat in submission. Even the wind turbines seem to lean forward, waving their arms as if losing balance before a fall. A cold front has passed, the wind is howling, isobars dancing cheek to cheek as they move across the map to the northeast. Despite the cold she glances at her reflection in the mirror and sees a smile.  Endings are always beginnings, even as the wind blows.

She is glad she came here to this place, so different from that first ramshackle country home and the large showpiece she bought later, after years of hardship, as if by adding things to your life, you can somehow make up for what was taken away. She'd sold that place at a loss and given away most of her possessions, understanding after the years alone, what made her happy, and it wasn't things, nor the type of people to which that mattered.
 
Before she gets to the freeway, she crosses what was once an old wagon trail, families heading from out East to further West to more open land and bigger homesteads. There's not much to mark those passages, but for perhaps a historical sign somewhere.  But underneath the soil, are the remains of all that did not finish the journey.   To lighten the load to get through the hills further West, the plains are dotted with the slumbering bones of cherished belongings, offloaded despite the tears of a woman, to ensure they would make their destination. Furniture crafted by sweat and time, an upright piano, left on a low rise by the trail, hopefully to be picked up by someone, before it was forever silent.

Elsewhere, there are the graves, a young woman who didn't survive childbirth on the trail, the very old or the very young, felled by a simple virus or bacteria that prey on those who go hungry too often.  Some of those graves are marked with only a cross, perhaps a young woman's name, a lock of her hair and  her wedding dress, the only thing that will see the Western sunset up close, the red sky curling up like shavings of wood that formed her grave marker.
There are dozens of graves like this on the wagon trails, in deep grass and in low open spaces of land. Nothing left but some stones, or for a few, a wooden cross, the gloss of light on its surface, and shapes of long forgotten shadows on its bark. And with them, those solitary crosses, those remains of household goods, bulky memories too big or too cumbersome to take the rest of the journey. Some pieces, like the piano, ended up in a museum, didn't look as battered as you expect, as others came and collected them. They appeared almost as if they knew their scheme in things and their place was just where they ended up , their destiny meant to be left to wait patiently in the tracks of the wagon, until someone recognized their worth and laid claim to them.

On the way back from work that night, she stopped  in that little town but the businesses are all closed, the places silent. From a tree comes the sound of a single mourning dove, the note falling like liquid, taking shape as it descends through the frigid air, only to shatter as it hits unyielding ground. As she walked back to her vehicle in the frozen silence, she had a feeling that come Spring, she would drive here to find the road closed, machinery already tearing up the earth, disturbing the burial site of many a memory. She hoped those that lived away from the road, could adjust to the noise, those that live where the road would  lie, find a new path.
Sometimes you make the decision, some times it's made for you.  How you respond lies in what you need and the compromises with which you can live. You take what remains that brings you joy and you move forward, she thinks as she pulls her coat closer around her. The winds still blow from west on the prairies, wailing a hymn of our mortality. Our remoteness stands guard over a vulnerability heightened by solitude. Yet in this season between hope of rain and hard winter, comes peace, even as outside, the air stills, windless cold that only heightens her heart's heat.

As she turned back onto the two lane highway, she noticed that the trees are singed with ice so that each branch was delineated, each individually beautiful, alone. When people first settled this part of the country their homes were built from these old trees and what precious nails they had, doing what they could with what they had, to survive.  And when they found themselves cold and hungry, they moved on, but only after they burned down their homes to get their nails back.

She drove away, a darkened and weathered nail hanging by slender cord from the radio dial.

18 comments:

Rev. Paul said...

She's a strong woman, that one. One who knows that what needs to be done must be done. "Tired" doesn't matter; "duty" does.

I'd like to shake her hand, and invite her to dinner. Some day, perhaps. :)

Chip said...

A very moving story Brigid, one that must have been difficult for you to write. Yet I sense a cleansing of sorts in putting that to words. Thanks for sharing

Jennifer said...

Beautiful.

naturegirl said...

Yep. The pain happens as well as the smiles. The lessons learned that allow the best to come forth. Never forgetting and still keeping open minds. If life were one speed it would be unchallenging.

Yep. What counts is survival.

Great post.

James said...

Damn. (spoken softly)

R.D. said...

Well done Doc. Well done.

RonF said...

I don't normally read this kind of thing - but this is very evocative....

Auntie J said...

*speechless*

idahobob said...

That was moving.

Bob
III

immagikman said...

Im with Auntie J, just speechless.

purplemagpiesnest said...

What a gift you have. Such beauty from past sufferings. Thank you.

Purple Magpie

Borepatch said...

You should take some of these and put them into a book.

Richard Hensley said...

You say best, what you say from your heart... You have done it again, only better.

Brigid said...

It's been sort of a hectic day, but I wanted to drop a note to say how much your comments meant to me. Some day a book, but not until I don't have to run it by squirrel ethics folks to publish under my (well known) name. Soon.

Mathew Paust said...

This is pure poetry, Brigid. Lyrical images, real and ghostly, continually rising into view like fog-shrouded forms, and then the occasional sharp focus on something so symbolic it pierces the heart. That nail. And your photos, the perfect accompaniment.

It's been awhile since I read Willa Cather, but the harmonics of this resonant piece remind me of her writing.

Andie said...

Amazing insight and perspective, Brigid--thanks for sharing some tough chapters.

Richard Hensley said...

Do you still have the nail? The ending is a classic.

Monkeywrangler said...

I wonder sometimes, Brigid, how you can bear to bare so much of your heart and soul to us out here--strangers most of us, truly. Your writing sets a high bar for my own blogging, one I suspect I will never reach, but I try.

Thank you...