Thursday, May 14, 2009

Anytown, ND

As I walk, I feel the need to run.
Children used to skip along on the sidewalks in this town. There were twelve blocks here, each ringed by sidewalks that passed tall homes with porches, whitewashed churches, a high school, a courthouse, and a business district with the glass storefronts and two story facades and stamped metal siding and bald men in aprons standing behind counters. People watched parades from these sidewalks, and weddings and funerals and political speeches and auctions. They waved to neighbors here. They raised families.
The children would race along these sidewalks, breathless, until they came upon crude squares drawn on the sidewalk with stolen chalk. They would skid to a stop, piling up behind the leader like cattle loading into stock cars. These were the hopscotch squares. They would appear each afternoon at a different location along the sidewalk corridor. Nobody seemed to know who drew them. The children would fall into line, silently arranging their clothes. Then, one by one, each would balance himself, measure his step and hop along in sequences of one or two feet, counting aloud to the last square. Then they would run along. Think of it. A few minutes balancing over distorted geometric figures etched by unseen hands accomplished more than nine months staring at a shock-haired teacher scribbling circular madness on slate.
Seventy years later, the sidewalks are overgrown with caragana and lilac bushes. The town has been stripped of population by war, drought, dust, accident, debt, boredom, and disillusionment. The chalk is gone. The school was struck by lightning and burned down. The last mayor died decades ago. The church buried its last parishioner. The children stopped counting.
Now it is night. It is winter, January, deep in January, when the sun cannot bear to watch. When winter charges out of the boreal forests of Saskatchewan, raging and slicing, and slays everything in its path. When clouds race in front of the moon as fast as movie frames, piling up on the southeastern horizon. The alcohol in the thermometer freezes. Windmills shatter and send wooden slats into the air. Cattle stagger blindly into ravines and are buried by drifting snow. My eyelids stick together, tears freeze on my face, frost forms on my hood. I cannot feel my feet. The drifts harden like concrete. I grope along one flat snowdune like an old man on the way to the saloon. I lose track. I feel the stinging insult, I hear the barking order to leave right now.
There is a grain elevator towering above me. Augers dangle from the walls probing for spilled grain. Broken windows sound a toothless whistle. A mercury vapor light washes away color. The wind runs across the corrugated steel like a child with a stick running along a picket fence. The panels rattle and shudder and peel away. The entire elevator sways. Snow drifts accumulate on the south side of the elevator, forming a dune across the railroad tracks, tracks abandoned thirty years ago.
I can see in the moonlight the steeple of the old church, two blocks to the south, standing above the 100 year old elms. It is no longer white. Decades of wind, hail, rain, snow, dust and neglect have stripped it, revealing the raw ashen wood returning to the dust from which it came. The church bell rings in the wind, steadily, unwaveringly, like a ship's bell sounding distress. And it rings in time with the swaying of the grain elevator. I look up and now the power lines and phone lines have the same rhythm. And the road signs. And the courthouse flagpole. It's harmony. The entire town sways.
I hear it, I get the message. I run.