What follows is the start of a short story, which I haven’t finished, about a man who returns to his decaying, old home town and unearths a startling secret which he wishes he had not discovered.
I am not sure if I will finish the story so I welcome your thoughts, comments and criticism.
You can’t go home again. Isn’t that what Thomas Wolfe wrote a book about? Every time David made the turn north of Harrisburg, he thought about the fact that he wasn’t really going home again.
The town was still there, more a ghost town than a town. The house he grew up in with his older sister was still there – vacant. The elementary school building was still there – also vacant. The two block downtown was still there but most of the buildings were either boarded up or struggling, except for the bakery, the florist and the bank. David guessed that, even with death, the relatives of the deceased had to eat, get flowers and pay bills. The bank and florist had undergone some revisions, from name A to name B to name C, but the bakery, strangely enough, stood in the same spot, with the same name, the same curved glass front window and the same glass counter shelves, unchanged since David was a kid. The baked goods were fresh but David suspected that the servers were the same, ghost servers in a ghost town.
The high school was still there, too. It had been added on to when David went there, the renovations completed just in time for the population to peak and subsequently decline. It looked the same but, inside, the corridors echoed when the remnants of the town’s youth marched down the halls to class.
And his sister and her husband were still there. He was on his way to see his sister now, bringing with him the old chair from their childhood house along with him. Why she wanted that old chair was beyond him.
“It’s a nice old chair and it would fit in my living room,” she said, “especially after you clean it up.”
The clean up was part of David’s job. The chair had sat in David’s garage collecting dust, bits of paint, bird droppings and God knows what else for decades and now, suddenly, his sister gets a craving to see it, sparkly and fresh, in her living room.
David had spent the better part of two months, slowly scraping all the old wood flakes and chips off, using wood filler for old holes and worn spots, then sanding and varnishing until the chair lived up to a semblance of its former self. It was a simple Queen Anne style chair reproduction with curving back and straight legs and both David and his sister had spent many hours sitting it in the living room of their old house. It held no particular memory for David and he was happy to fix it up and give it to her. He wasn’t sure why she hadn’t asked for it when they had sold and emptied the house years ago.
Hours earlier he was making the drive along Interstate 81 near Harrisburg with seemingly endless chains of semis and RV’s rumbling by west to east. Where were they all going? To Allentown? Eventually, David came to the turn north on 81, where 81 separated itself from Interstate 78. He noticed then that his was the only car making the turn. He called it the turn into the “empty quarter.” Even now, in early fall, the landscape seemed to alter rapidly, from green pastures, rolling hills and dairy farms to bleak mountains and gray horizons. David always hated this part of the trip. It was at best dreary and, when the weather did not cooperate, downright frightening. Fog, driving rain and snow over the ridge of the Appalachians always made a long ride longer.
David braked slightly down the grade and made the turn from interstate to local highway. It would be about 20 more minutes from the turnoff. He would pass through the old town on the way to his sister’s house and the thought struck him that he might have time to pass by the old house before going to his sister’s. Detours in this part of the world never amounted to more than a few minutes. He turned off the local highway at the sign for the town, drove through the nearly deserted main street and headed north up a hill to his street. Fourth from the end of a string of lower-middle class houses, mostly wood or stucco, he recognized his boyhood home.
How could homes vary so much and still be the same? Eighth acre rectangular plots, a small or non-existent front yard (some house fronts abutted the sidewalk), a porch, generally two stories with a driveway on one side or the other.
The house had belonged first to his grandparents and then to his mother. It had undergone some changes. The porch was now enclosed; the old garage on the side, built by hand by his grandfather, had been demolished. It didn’t meet the town’s building code for some reason or another. You would think that a town with little or no architectural standards, as evidenced by the polyglot of house patterns and styles, wouldn’t pay much attention to self-built additions. The garage always seemed study enough to David. But, no, the town required its demise so down it went. Nothing had replaced it so, if someone were occupying the house, their car would be sitting in the driveway alongside.
David pulled into the empty driveway, turned off the car’s engine and sat back, letting out a sigh of exhaustion. Not liking long car trips always took a lot out of him and it would be good to stretch his legs for a moment before moving on.
And then it struck him; in an odd way, he had come home.