Thursday, December 24, 2009

Our Town


Our Town

Author: Peter McMillan

It wasn't like this when the high school football team won the state championship.

For many years now—maybe 25 or so—the land around here has been drying up. Some years we call it a drought—and the farmers still do—but most of us have grown accustomed to the hard red clay and the blue skies and the blood-red sun tipping on the horizon.

When the tractors come out to do their deep plowing in the peanut fields, if the wind is right, we smell the earth in the dust that blows into town and settles on our windows.

Visitors and people who have moved away say we have the most gorgeous sunrises and sunsets they've ever seen, but then they add “except for on the beaches or in the mountains or deserts.” We graciously thank them for appreciating our extraordinary ordinariness.

Many leave us every year. Sometimes we sense that it wouldn’t take much to lose the whole town. Somehow we keep a balance. We even brag that our town's population hasn’t changed in the last 25 or 30 years. But we don't belabor this point with our teenagers.

A few return. Some who couldn't live here come back to die here. Some leave just to show they can, but these don’t usually stay away too long. Some live and die here without once leaving.

We know everyone's story. All the tragedies and horrors—we know about all of them and all about them—overwhelm us in their number and closeness. We know the names, the families, where they worked, where they shopped, who they went to school with, if they went to church, what they did last year, the year before and the year before that. It’s not like in the city where—or so we’ve heard—people live and die anonymously.

We knew from a boy the crop duster who flew into the power lines, or our brother who shot himself, or the old black man who walked among us with a sausage-like growth hanging down from his right eye for seventy years, or our best friend’s grandfather, an invalid who died at home in a gas explosion, or the young teenaged girl and only child, whose body was found in a burned-down abandoned house 20 miles north of here.

We endure all this but don't pretend to understand it. We try to protect our children, but they suffer from nightmares, too.

We resent being judged and ridiculed by outsiders. Yes, our church steeples are the tallest structures in town—well, except for the water tower. Yes, we have guns, and sometimes we kill ourselves, intentionally or not. It's also true that segregation never really ended. We have our private school, and we have separate churches and neighborhoods, although some crossing over does happen now and again.

We still respect the hierarchy that wealth and status and tradition bring. We know that something isn't quite right, but in a small town there's only so much opportunity to go around.

All this we keep to ourselves. But this new business we can't hide. It's all over. Our children, our brothers and sisters, our friends who are abroad call us and write us to find out what's going on.

What was once our pride and the source of our prosperity has become our shame and the reason for the quarantine. It is a blight, and we don't know just how much damage it will do. It doesn't help to know that this came on us like a plague, something from outside that poisoned us to the roots.

Someone in our town will have to pay, because outsiders couldn't have done this without help. We're a civilized and Christian community, but there's something timelessly appropriate about sacrifice. Right or wrong, someone must bear this cross for the town. That's the code. You have to know that.

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Peter McMillan, whose roots are in Alabama and Georgia, is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario.