Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lessons from the other side (Part 2)

It’s been seven years, Jay, since we moved to this town, strangers to all but a handful. We’d been visiting annually for twenty-six years, and in all that time it seemed the town never changed, as if time had no hold. That’s what attracted us. Our first trip we drove to Lake Idlewild and rowed a canoe across the still waters as dusk settled down like a warm encircling fog. The chorus frogs were a wild nocturne while Lori’s hand trailed languidly in the water, the paddle barely making a ripple, and I thought that here we could start all over, be anybody we wanted to be. I never wanted to leave. And then one day we decided to stay, and we did.

Seven years. I thought it eight but Lori corrected me.

It was your town, not ours. We shopped at Stanley’s Hy-Klas Food Store and bought fixings for tacos because Bruno, Lori’s grandfather, had never tasted Mexican food. A jar of extra-mild taco sauce (I didn’t know they made such a thing), a package of tortilla shells, browned meat, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and the meal was set before him. He promptly dumped the contents of the taco into his plate and dunked the shell into his coffee to soften. So much for culinary adventures. Bruno’s gone now, and so is the store.

And all through those years TJ paced off the town step by step, up Main Street to the elevator and back to Fifth and on out westward a few miles, collecting cans, picking up trash, waving at each passing vehicle with a half-salute, half-chop of his hand, and Everett wheeled his bicycle up the streets and down, and all you others in your ordinary lives did ordinary things that now seem touched with a sort of nostalgic grace, or melancholy, and somehow extraordinary, too, even requisite for this place to exist. And us possessing only the tiniest glimpse into the workings of the town, of the people we would eventually come to know, and love.

It seems like a half-remembered dream, you in your world and us in ours so distant, but not so distant we couldn’t make the transition and graft ourselves to your roots, or weave our threads into your cloth. And now I think we were merely patchwork to a frayed and torn edge.

Was there really ever a time when we were not of this place? I can scarce remember, though I know it was so. What changed, what made that transition so fluid, and our past so ephemeral, was the people of this town. Like you, they came to us, one by one, and made us their own. And that, too, was something I’d never known.

Community was an alien concept. I saw this place as timeless, and told my friends so back in Colorado, where the pace of change was feverish. You who lived here knew better, of course. I was blind, never noticing when Stanley’s went out, or the bars, or when the town square was suddenly gap-toothed by fire. And the residents who passed on, known and loved by you, well, I had no inkling.

My desire was for an unchanging place. And standing here I realize that there once was a house next door, and another to the west, just as once there was no cairn. Nor freshdug pit for your final resting place.

Maybe this is a bitter lesson each generation must learn by dint of reduction. I recall the historic photographs of the old riverfront area with its towering limestone mill and waterworks, the bridge straddling the waterfall, and the gypsum plant in the distance. What the river didn’t take, fire did. Undoubtedly that generation felt they were witnesses to the end, an unruly nature having inflicted insurmountable damages the town could never recover from. Yet it did.

Not long ago several members of the historical society met at the empty Stanley’s Hy-Klas to imagine its restoration into a museum. Bare bulbs were strung to provide light, and as we moved our shadows danced along the cracked and peeling walls so that our small number multiplied wraithlike into a reflection of how the store once resounded with the bustle of a thriving town. I had to smile at that, Jay, and since you were already gone it touched me in a way it’s impossible to explain. The sense of loss was palpable and raw, and when I mentioned you to Lyle we both nearly started crying and had to stop before we embarrassed ourselves. I moved off to be alone and found a wide concrete stairway leading to the basement and descended into gloom and flicked on my flashlight and then flicked it off, for the darkness was a refuge.

A savage love for these people tore me so that I almost cried out in pain. It was like a fire or a hammer or a great wind, and suddenly the faces of the people in my dream were those of my friends upstairs, and as one by one they extinguished I doubled over and made a small sound that echoed faintly. This was love as fire, love as agony, love as lesson, and I knew then that it wasn’t buildings or streets that make a small town. All that really matters are people.

You probably knew this already. But goddamn it, Jay, you didn’t have to die to teach me this. Eventually it would have come to me, and in the meantime we could have been together a little longer.

By the time the others joined me I was fairly composed, and we completed our inspection, turned off the lights and stepped into a starry night. The street was silent. Light spilled brightly from windows along Main Street. We said our goodbyes and I watched them go, and Lori and I got in our car and drove the familiar, empty streets of our town.

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