pages fly away 31

Ellendale, North Dakota, is a small farming town on the border of South Dakota.  It was where my family moved to after my father had lost his job at a Bible Camp in Iowa.  Prior to that, my parents had been Jesus Freaks in Hawaii.  I grew up mostly putting my things into boxes and moving on.  As the oldest kid, that pattern of migration would go on to dictate my life, long after everyone else had stopped playing by those rules.  We moved to Southern California in 1984, and the rest of the family settled.  All these many years later, I was still bouncing.

From Jamestown, I took the 281 to get to Ellendale.  About a half hour out I began recognizing some of the other small farm towns in the vicinity; Edgely, Monango, Fullerton.  The closer I got, the more my chest began to swell with anticipation.  Then I could hardly believe it, but I was driving into town. 

There was the Oxenrider Hotel, right across from the Nursing Home where I’d worked for a year taking out food carts and scrubbing dishes.  There across highway 11 was Jay’s Highway Furniture, and opposite it the church, Christ the King Lutheran, where my father had been pastor for four years.  I drove into the parking lot and felt like I was hallucinating, seeing the actual church that had appeared in so many dreams since the time we moved.  Then I made my way over to the parsonage.  Someone had added a deck, but it was the same house where we’d lived, the six of us.  Out back we’d once had a colossal garden that had returned to being tall grass.

The houses of the old next-door neighbors were still there.  Who knew who was living in them now?  Everything I’d learned about sex education had come from the older neighbor girl across the street, Lynn Nichols. Across from her house was the one the Schwartzman’s used to live in, with the twins and the girl in my grade.  If I caught up with them now, we’d all be middle-aged.  That was a trip.

I drove over to the drive-in restaurant where my father had once pestered the manager, a member of his church, into giving me a job.  That hadn’t lasted long.  I’d brutalized soft-serve ice cream cones and burned hamburgers.  My father had also gotten me the job at the nursing home.  Left to my own devices, all I could ever think to do for money was rustle up empty bottles.  We always had a roof over our heads and food to eat, but there was never any extra money lying around.

From the block we used to live on, I drove up to the Fireside Steakhouse and Lounge, once known as The Ranch, one of the only places in town to get a fancy meal.  My friend, Rick Hazard, used to live close to The Ranch, beneath the emergency siren, but his house was gone.  I found the County Courthouse, and that looked the same, but the school we’d all gone to, the one that housed the elementary, junior high, and high school, all in the same complex, had been restructured and was all just one story now.  The entrance had been moved to the other side, but I did see that the school was still using the Fighting Cardinals as their mascot. 

It is such a small town, the Main Street, just three or four blocks along, that it didn’t take long to drive through.  The corner bar that I remembered was still there, but many of the retail spaces were vacant, these days people preferring to drive to the Walmart in Aberdeen or order off of Amazon, I imagine.  I drove down to the park and swimming pool, then past the mansion that Martha Best, the girl who ditched me in ninth grade for my best friend, Ritchie Wallace, used to live in. 

Trinity Bible School is still in operation.  Our high school used to use their gymnasium for our biggest sporting events.  From there I passed the Dickey County Fairgrounds, site of the annual summer Rodeo Days, and the baseball field where I’d played, quite poorly, in the Babe Ruth League.

Seven miles outside of town is a dammed-up river called Pheasant Lake, really almost as much of a cow pasture as it is a lake.  We’d once owned a small lot out there, with a tar and paper shack and a dock.  I headed west on the 11, past the bowling alley and familiar old grain elevator, and found the lake.  The nice houses are on the west side of it.  Our shack had been up a dirt road on the east side. 

I drove down a mile or so and found the lot, the only thing left on it being an outhouse that we’d dragged over from an old homestead.  That and a small shed that had been constructed since that time.  I pulled into the lot and walked down to the lake. The water was really low.  The docks on the neighboring properties jutted out into a few inches of mud.  It seemed like you could walk across to the farm on the other side. 

There was a rock pile underneath some powerlines where I used to chew tobacco and fish for northerns.  Now it was twenty feet from the shore.  I walked back up through the green grass and sat with my back to the outhouse.  The town was still there.  The lake, though fairly famished, was still there.  Some of the houses and building were still there.  The people I’d known, however, had mostly grown up, grown old, died, or moved away.  There was no one left for me to call or look up.

Why is it that we feel things so strongly and then at some point just vanish from the face of the earth?  A chilly breeze came through, rustling the leaves in the trees.  There were the flies, always the flies, and the crickets, sometimes the crickets.  Who was the one holding onto all these memories?  What was I looking for?  A herd of cows was bellowing from across the lake.  The wind picked up.  It was almost blowing through me. 

Overhead there was the sound of an airplane, faint at first, growing louder, reaching a crescendo, the starting to fade away, almost like a life span.  I remembered the time my mother’s parents had stayed at the lake in their camper and my grandpa had shot a raccoon.  We’d considered him a modern-day Davy Crockett after that.  Martha Best had lived in a beautiful cabin across the lake.  Once I’d driven over in our little fishing boat, ashamed to show up in our family station wagon with all the religious propaganda pasted to it. 

What had happened to all the kids?  Where had Davy Crockett gone?  Was Marth Best still alive?  If so, I wondered if she ever thought of me.  Geese flew overhead.  Wind tore at the trees.  Pages were flying away all around me.  There was no way to catch them.  The only thing I could do was let them go.

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