Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Inside of a Painting - Returning Home

The blinking yellow light that hangs over the intersection in the middle of the village keeps time like an old wooden metronome that never needs winding. At first the reassuring pulse welcomed me back to a shadowy place long tucked away amongst the cobwebs of my past. Returning has forced me to undertake the difficult task of separating what was real from what was assumed, based on fragments of my memories blended with those of my sisters’ and tattered photographs.

My breath quickens each time I approach that intersection. I hesitate when I pass the church and sometimes I stop and stare at the clock at the base of the traditional, long, pointed steeple, imagining the surge of children’s voices when it strikes, indicating the end of a long day of leisurely play. I have yet to pass by on the hour, although I have been there dozens of times since my return. I wonder if I will recognize that feeling as if the hammer strikes against the walls of my chest.

The opening, aerial shot of the Bob Newhart Show is this intersection. It’s all right there as it was in my girlhood, only the program’s setting is supposed to be Vermont.

Nothing has changed, 'cept the people are gone. I approach the stop sign slowly every time. I want someone or something to happen, but I don’t know what. I rarely encounter a vehicle or person on the sidewalk or in their yard. Straight across from the stop sign is “The Grill, Ramsey’s Variety.” Ramsey was my father. Other than chipped paint and a few random things in the windows, it is the same as it was before I was born. I want to go inside. I stay away.

There are cement slabs where the gas pumps used to be. I stare at the spot where the red coke machine was. We liked getting soda there even though we could get it at Glenn Smith’s store. The bottles were in a vertical line and you yanked out the soda of your choice.

I drive straight through the intersection past the Parsonage on the left where I imagine John Mark’s sand box and the hill where we used to go sledding. It’s still pretty impressive and the sewer waits at the bottom, ready to swallow unassuming tobogganists.

The next house on the left was my childhood home. Sometimes I try to look in the barn when the door is open. I never see anyone in or around the house, but like all of the other houses here, the lights are on. I might summon the courage to knock on the door and introduce myself, but I doubt that I will.

The horse pasture is still defined by stone walls and apple trees. Then there is the school. It’s the same. I must make a point to drive by during school hours, because again, it appears as if there are no children there. No cars, no people. But there are pictures in the windows and signs of various projects on the grounds.

I see that old maple tree beyond the school yard. I climbed it on my eighth birthday and fell, breaking my elbow and ending up in traction for the summer. It stands proud at the edge of another long forgotten pasture enclosed by rambling stone walls.

I go back to Glenn Smith’s store. I remember that the uneven floor boards on the front porch were smooth on my bare feet. They still look smooth and are the color of brown mustard. A “For Lease” sign hangs in a window that has a crack in it. I want to write down the number, but I know that there is no security in leasing a store; you never know when the owner may decide to sell the property or something unfortunate like that. Besides, it's deserted now; I have never owned a store and don’t think it’s worth it to do so just to restore balance in my memory. It’s an impulse that has become a habit every time I pass by.

We used to run through yet another pasture across the road from our house that was connected to the back of the store. My mother always sent us up there for a loaf of bread, two quarts of milk, the Manchester Union and a pack of Salems.

I don’t remember Glenn Smith much. He’s one of those shadowy figures, but I imagine him to look something like Benjamin Franklin with shorter hair or bald on top; he has a soft voice in my mind’s eye. At Halloween, when everyone else gave out candy, he gave out nickels.

The store had a lot of dark wood and smelled like Fudgesicles and fresh ground coffee. The men who worked there were patient and reliable. Mr. Michaels stood behind the counter looking over the top of his reading glasses, sometimes offering suggestions on how to spend a quarter. Mr. Burrows, a quiet man with rosy cheeks and wire rimmed glasses, went on to own the store and then pass it along to his son, one of our long standing playmates, who owned it for many years.

We all went there. The selection of penny candy was almost as good as the Old Country Store in Moultonborough. We used to get things like Squirrel Nut Zippers, Root Beer Barrels, Candy Necklaces, Sugar Daddy’s, Bazooka Bubble Gum, Jaw Breakers, Teaberry Gum and Smarties.

It was a big deal when my friend Margie came to visit because she didn’t live within bike riding distance. She was from East Sandwich. It was customary for us to go to Glenn Smith’s Store and buy Peanut Butter Kits and giggle about it. If I saw her today (and it has been a very long time since I have seen her) and mentioned Peanut Butter Kits, I think that we would both laugh wildly. I am not sure why and I am not certain if she would still feel that untamed laughter burst from that place of innocence, but I am deciding to think so.

We didn’t limit our acts of bravery to touching the electric fence in the back yard. When we were in the store; we used to get a serious electrical shock if we touched two different refrigerated cases simultaneously. It was sort of like recharging our batteries; I don’t know why and I suppose it really doesn’t matter. We used to dash to the back aisle and get zapped and then be on our way.

Across the store is the inn. I stare at the empty, black windows; they stare back asking the same question. Where is everyone?

My friend Betsy and I used to go there and wash dishes and clean off the tables for a piece of warm, homemade, oatmeal bread. From the bar stools, the wide planks on the floor to the quaint booths - everything was rich, butterscotch colored wood. The heady scent of wood fire smoke from the cast iron cook stove hung in the air. The innkeeper, Ginny, was stern yet gracious; she let us play waitress.

All of the adults in town knew one another; the kids played together, watched over and antagonized each other. The town was alive and bustling with activity. 

Not now. I am intruding on the past; the people have mysteriously vanished. The landscape has not changed. The buildings, fences, sidewalks, trees, signs…all the same. No people.

The feeling of haunting the town haunts me; I cannot sort it out. It is so unchanged that I can’t look and I can’t not look. In the absence of life, I expect ghosts of the past to emerge. I anticipate the sounds of children’s laughter, dogs barking, horses neighing and mother’s calling.

I am trapped in a scene painted on a canvas that captures the essence of a place from long ago when there were people; now there are none.

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