Dinner last night with my widowed neighbor Evelyn was more fun than I
expected. I’m glad she picked a day later in the week when I invited
her, so I had time to put it together. I enjoyed her company. Like my
mother, she had a keen sense of humor and loved my book collection,
offering to bring me some old books of hers to read. She is also of
Swedish heritage as Mom was.
I can’t afford cable quite yet, so I’m limited to a few Chicago
channels I get with the antenna, which seems to consist mostly of
bankruptcy attorney commercials and reruns of crime shows. So far the
only “crime” I’ve had to deal with in my new job as a rookie
police officer was a GPS stolen out of an unlocked car at the local gas
station while the driver was inside paying for his fuel. The thief
likely wasn’t a local. With a town that’s only a few hundred acres,
GPS was not exactly something everyone was longing for enough to be
willing to commit a crime for.
I didn’t burn the pot roast, and Evelyn brought over some homemade
lemonade that we enjoyed with the meal. She also didn’t tease me about
getting packaged mashed potatoes. Instead, she excitedly said, “just
like Mom used to buy!” I just didn’t want to get the huge bag of
potatoes which was all our local small grocers offered. No individual
ones were in sight in any of the bins.
There was one awkward moment. I went to dive into the potatoes, and
Evelyn looked at me very carefully and said, “May I say grace?” I
blushed for a moment and then nodded yes. Why was that hard? My parents
bowed their heads and said grace before each and every meal, even in
restaurants. How had these last few years taken me so far from that? It
wasn’t just the partying in school; it was stepping back from all that
I grew up with. I was finding the memories to be so painful. I was
surprised that when Evelyn held my hand as she prayed, I felt a familiar
comfort. God hadn’t been anywhere while I checked out; He’d been
with me all along. I just needed to learn to talk to Him again.
Because it was dark, I walked her home, just to make sure she got inside
safely. She teased me about fussing over her, but if she was my mom,
that’s what I would have wanted someone to do. She also said she’d
introduce me to her niece, a nurse who was about my age and lived in
Brownstown, the little city less than an hour south of here. Perhaps she
and I could be friends and make some trips to Chicago together.
As I returned to the house, I took my boots off, gliding quietly over
polished floors, throwing my denim jacket on the fragmentary curve of a
chair. The house quiet now, I went down to the basement, ducking my head
in courtesy to the low ceiling, where I would take up a tool and
hammer’s loneliness into a piece of wood. I think of the homes I had
lived in. There were two during childhood, all now gone, now inhabited
by strangers who probably painted over the sunny rainbows I always had
on my walls.
I didn’t know if I wanted to live in such a small town for more than a
few years, but there were memories here. The china we ate off at
Thanksgiving remained in the cupboards; my uncle’s books still sat on
their shelf. There, in the closet, were the carefully-tended uniforms of
a Great War, the cloth itself assuming the shape and form of those who
are our heroes. It loomed tremendously against that backdrop of books,
tools, and a small folded flag whose presence filled a sleeping house.
I opened up the window, the air breathing in and out. Lightning again
flashed, and with the weight of the dark my breath quickened; my blood
was running warm and quiet. So many places are now gone or changed that
what I remember of them was more like recalling a piece of music I’ve
heard but never played.
I couldn’t sleep last night. My eyelids twitched as I tried to sleep,
the movement in response to my brain’s thoughts or perhaps merely the
cyclical movement of the earth and all of her angels above. In this
place, there were memories made, and life was perhaps forever changed.
I wondered if years from now I moved back to the city, would I drive by
here, just to see if the memories were still here? For our homes are
often the places of our happiest memories. They were scraps of time,
like scraps of a note where your name once lay; it was a bit of stiff
paper that meant little by itself yet was still kept. You would not burn
it or throw it away because it meant something, something you could hold
even if the marks upon it were faded to white, something that said what
you were. Something that said what you felt, even as you still are in
some way the same.
After hopefully many years of dreaming and growing, there will come
another night with eyes that twitch with the mind’s flooding, even if
the body is failing. The organs require the care inherent in a Swiss
watch even as time ticks down. The eyes are full of everything, save
consciousness, and others gather around, looking on with knowing and
unbearable eyes. The places of your memory are likely long gone; all
they have here are the pictures of them in that brain that still sparks
like a match, unspoken stories mirrored in the eyes of those around you.
Those places are never truly lost. They simply lie near a peaceful
trail, beside a placid and assuring pond of spent years’ remains, in
the mirror of days in which the mind still contemplates older desires
and everlasting hopes. They are there, always quiet, musing, and
steadfast, the joy still triumphant even if the actual place is now
cinder and dirt. In that brain was one final vision, a place perhaps, a
person, someone for whom that spark still exists even if they were years
gone. As the breath slows, the body remembers, and the eyes finally
close as they embrace the all-seeing.
Since I couldn’t sleep last night, I did something I never could do in
the city after dark; I went for a walk, though I was armed just in case
I came upon a rabid cow or something. As I walked past the old cemetery,
I noticed a floral spray on one of the new graves. It was from the
funeral of the young man who lost his life the other night in the car
crash. Much of the town was there as well as most of the officers,
paying their respects to his grieving family. He’s not the only young
person that is buried there; automobiles and farm machinery have a way
of being unforgiving. I note another marker for a young man buried
before he was even eighteen years old. It was erected long before the
soul’s shroud that lies beneath would have believed, a life cut short
without pattern or prediction. The stone had seen both sun and rain. It
had witnessed the dry heave of grief coming deep from the chest and the
splash of tears against stone. It will be here as the landscape grows,
withers, dies, and grows again, generation after generation, even as
those who visit fade from drought to dust. It will be here when the
night calls our name and doesn’t look back.
I arrived back home without making my journal entry, and, with my jacket
put away, I fell asleep on the couch I’d picked up at a rummage sale,
wearing my aunt’s fluffy bathrobe that still smells faintly of Wind
Song perfume. At first light, I awoke. From outside the window, the rain
ceased as a flock of geese flew overhead. Their sounds rose toward an
astonishing crescendo, beyond the compass of hearing, as they flew
upwards into a bright blue sky.
Excerpted from "Small Town Roads" by L. B. Johnson. Copyright © 2016 by L. B. Johnson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.