The chickens stare in clueless apathy at the SUV they’ve stopped. They strut back off to the ditch that runs beside the main road through our town, a place time forgot. Almost literally: It has the same population now as in the 1890s. Its grid of “streets” has shrunk and faded: C Street and B Street are little more than two wavering lines of grass-licked gravel, plowing through the weeds and manicured lawns.
Yet like all towns, there are upscale and down-at-the-heels patches. Our house is one of the grander houses in our town, which really isn’t saying much. Our neighbors are all fairly neat and relatively prosperous, with the exception of the bedraggled white colonial to our east. It sat empty for the first two years after we moved in, until one night, pow. A light on at the kitchen window. It is currently inhabited by an elderly couple who stagger down to the mailbox on rare occasions. Rumor has it the old man’s mother died and he left that house exactly as it was for decades, letting it all fall deeper and deeper into decay. Now he lives there, among the knickknacks and rotting curtains.
Decay and decline are everywhere in our little town. The houses left to the elements because their owners can’t afford the cost of meth-lab abatement. The foreclosures. Their porches are choked with fallen leaves, children’s toys, broken lawn chairs. Inside, a dusty candle and a collection of rusty lighters sits in a pool of dingy sunlight. A trophy sits, gleaming on a filthy shelf, while the ceiling above disgorges its layers of insulation. A pickup truck drowns in brambles. A pontoon boats lists, sinking ever deeper in the mud, its railing lined with a dozen bursting life jackets.
Yet in the steep hollows, the mossy ravines, water plays as it always has. Old stacked stone fences run through the stands of sycamore and shagbark hickory and persimmon and pawpaw. Blazing red cardinals, chittering woodpeckers, flitting bluebirds dash through the canopies of tulip trees. Coyotes and other creatures yelp and keen at night. It is a beautiful place, where nature constantly asserts its dominance. Where the nastiest mess will soon be overcome by honey locust thorns and the violet berry cane.