Tom and Nancy have been close neighbors ever since we built our farmhouse in 1987. That was the same year that Jean put up her place across the valley, her white clapboard home peering down on us like an old farmer checking to see who just drove by. At that time, John and Lucille still lived in their one-room camp across the way, Mickey Smith was still alive, driving his VW Rabbit about half as fast as a lame horse, and most of our open land was tired, old corn fields.
Tom and Nancy's weathered blue farmhouse sits right on the road, and you would often see the two of them sitting on the front porch with a cup of coffee in the early morning and Tom with a can or two of beer at night. The house was haunted, perhaps by the ghost of a woman who died years ago in an upstairs bedroom. She hadn't been seen for a few days, so the young Harley Smith (Harley was a student at the schoolhouse next door) was given the job of climbing a ladder to check on her. She was dead alright and thereafter made the occasional ghostly appearance in the stairwell.
In those early days, their kids were still young. Josceline did our babysitting, and Nate was always doing chores with his dad: loading wood into the basement, feeding the pigs and beefer, boiling sap out back on an open fire. There were graduation parties, cookouts, Crockpot spaghetti sauces, venison steaks, squirrel stew, long days and nights in the sap house, deer hung from the rafters in the shed, skating parties on the pond with a Thermos of hot chocolate, turkey hunting, stories of tracking wounded deer late at night through the mountains, and afternoons in front of the TV watching Nascar. One night Tom and Nancy came home from a fishing trip and found a baker's dozen of bats in the house. Tom hid upstairs while Nancy chased the bats out of the house with a badminton racquet.
Tom (honorary president of The Old Rabbit Hunter's Association) and I hunted every fall for rabbits, meeting down at his place to grab Bucket, his beagle. We'd walk out his back door, march across Lincoln's Christmas tree farm, through the old barns behind Betty's, and then down through the swamp and back across the road toward my place. The first time I tried rabbit hunting I was so excited that I went through close to a dozen shotgun shells. Tom smiled and asked impishly, "Need more ammo?"
Last summer their house went on the market, and I didn't think much of it. But real estate was hot, and they got their asking price. Much to our surprise (and maybe theirs as well), they signed the contract and were set to move out on Labor Day. Josceline came up from Savannah to clean out the attic. Adrienne and I and the kids helped move furniture into a long storage trailer. The workroom and barn had to be cleaned out, too--trash compactors, table saws, a Model A windshield, chop saws, ice saws, deer antlers, nails, screws, kerosene heaters, old jugs--just about anything one could collect in more than 20 years of living in one place. An antiques dealer bought off the smaller pieces, the backup beagle (the one who never learned to track a rabbit) was given away to a neighbor, and the sap house was stripped of its arch and storage tanks. Harley, now in his 70s, came over and sat in a big chair next to his pickup, like a circuit judge. When some lumber or old tool went by that he liked, he simply nodded up and down and it was loaded onto his flatbed. A nod to the side and it was put in the junk pile.
Just before moving, Bucket, the good rabbit dog, died; he had lived through a bad eye infection last fall but didn't make it to another season. Their black mutt, Sam, got run over by a truck in late August. Their three large apple trees were full, but the rest of the place looked empty. The vegetable garden, usually a picture-perfect plot of beans, lettuce, corn, squash, and tomatoes, was now left half-tended. Then they were gone.
In our small town, those of us who have been around awhile can pick out a spot in the trees where the dance hall used to be or the house that the Woodcocks lived in or maybe the place where the old red barn once stood--the one where Charlie Bentley and I used to do the milking. These days, most folks don't remember Marie Briggs, the town baker; Minor Heard's General Store; or the old town road that used to go up through our property over to Tate Hill Road. Some day all will be forgotten--the sound of Tom sighting in his rifle in late October, the sight of Whitney on a bike, headed down the dirt road for the first time, or the plume of smoke that shot up from Nate's sap house and hung like fog over our valley. When the last barn is gone, the last child has packed and left for school, and the last neighbor moved on to another town, we are left behind like characters from an old book. We wait for the sound of a truck or the jangle of the phone. We eagerly promise to keep the home fires burning, the jug of cider in the root cellar, and the wood cookstove started early on cold mornings so the smoke can be seen from the road. Yet those of us still at home find happiness in this place, where foundations tell stories, and where nobody much looks to the future. We all suspect that it isn't half as good as the past, the place where we first met as neighbors, where our children were born, and where we lived the stories that we now tell to strangers.
Leavings are bitter and homecomings are bittersweet. But I have faith that our children and neighbors will be close by once again. I think I can hear them, from time to time, in the driveway, walking up to the back porch. I go to make the coffee and biscuits, knowing that even ghosts deserve a bit of small-town hospitality.