The Night Before Christmas

My parents live at the edge of a small Arkansas town. Their house sits atop a hill, and across the low valley other hills spread out like bruises. The valley has turned brown now with winter, and under the grey days the land lays dormant, the grey wind whistling over mountain flanks.

This is the town I grew up in, the town where both my daughters were born. Eleven years ago I left Arkansas for North Carolina, and the town has slowly changed in my absence. Many of the businesses down main street are boarded over. Restaurants stay open for only a few months before the new owners decide to close, and, a few months later, when new owners buy the place, they will only stay open a few months as well. The recession has hit hard here. The town’s biggest factories have closed — one because of fire, and one because of sluggish, or no, economic growth — and jobs are scarce. The car dealerships are gone, or failing. The movie theater has been closed for three years for renovations, and many people here suspect it will never re-open.

There are no other houses around. The woods close in, thick brush and heavy trees leaning over the road. Grass grows in the middle of the road where tires have not worn a path.

Past my parents’ house the road turns to dirt as the town ends. There are no other houses around. The woods close in, thick brush and heavy trees leaning over the road. Grass grows in the middle of the road where tires have not worn a path. At night, the road turns dark away from the streetlights and house lights and TVs spilling blue light onto the front yards of the quiet houses.

At the bottom of the hill the road ends. Pasture land begins, a small creek running through, brown cattle worrying the winter grass. From the top of the hill you can follow the winding curve of the creek. Across the pasture, more hills rise up, ringing us in.

At night, cars creep up and down the road, lights blacked out. If you listen, as I do when I am here visiting, sitting on the porch in the cold winter wind or the not-quite-cool nights of summer, you can hear hurried conversations, the quiet opening and closing of doors, hands held over interior car lights to shut them out. Lights, visibility, are not welcome here. People dump stray dogs along the road all the time, and they wander over to my parents’ neighbor’s house. The neighbors are kind and gentle-hearted people, and they take in a half-dozen strays a year. People dump trash on the road, and old furniture, and once, last summer, when my step-father was walking down the dirt road with my older daughter, he found an old 12-volt flashlight someone had thrown out. He thought he would fix it so he climbed into the weeds at road’s edge and took it home. When he opened the casing he found four plastic bags of crystal meth.

We came this year close to Christmas, driving west from North Carolina, across the Appalachians and the long stretch of Tennessee where strip malls hold the same stores and restaurants in every city, every little town. Our first afternoon here my father and I drove for hours through the countryside, along dirt roads where the brown pastures spread to either side, small stands of trees stripped of leaves. The winter sun reflected off the metal roofs of chicken houses, the surface of small orange ponds where cattle leaned over to drink, their breath fanning the air before them. My father pointed out places he had hunted as a child, old houses worn down to the foundation, trees growing through the ruins, houses worn by time and wind. He did not mention the other houses we saw, the burned-out remnants of trailer houses and old clapboard houses set back from the road, the charred signature of smoke where fire curled from the blackened windows.

In town, we drove past the old ice plant, where men sawed blocks of ice in the days before refrigeration. He asked me if I remembered it. I only remember the old brick building, already abandoned by the time I was born, vines crawling over the structure, doors and windows gone, and as we continue to drive past abandoned buildings and boarded over storefronts, I wonder if he is remembering the town as it used to be. Even in the decade I have been gone the town has changed dramatically. When the factories failed the jobs ended, and on some small streets there are more houses empty than occupied. Hand-lettered “For Sale” signs hang in dirty windows. Old cars in the yards gather weeds.

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