Change, its been said, can happen slowly like the pace of a glacier or as fast as a bolt out of the blue. I’ve seen it come at me both ways. Brushing my hair one day…and I saw the gray. Another day, I heard the slamming of the front door and I never saw her again. Yes, I’ve seen change passing me in many gears, like a semi on I-95.
But nothing prepared me for what I found in my little town the day I took the wrong turn and came home on a different road.
I was miles away from my garage apartment in a small lake town in the northern Adirondacks. I was busy all day photographing the arrival of Autumn. There was a certain location near an old backwoods cemetery where I had marked for my tripod. I would set up the camera and take a photo a week, at the same time each day (always on a Monday). My lens was pointing at a particularly interesting oak tree at the edge of the cemetery wall. I planned on putting together a time-lapse sequence of the tree as it turned from deep green to a blinding red. Perhaps someone would purchase the DVD. I hoped so, because I needed the cash to complete the month’s rent.
Once my photo for the week was finished, I took to driving the back roads, stopping to snap an occasional picture of something that caught my fancy. The rural landscape seemed immutable. On a recent Monday, I discovered a red-headed teenage girl sitting on a wooden fence. She appeared to me as the “perfectly innocent” child of her surroundings. A red barn behind her was the hue of a fire engine. Her hair was that of copper. She blended in with the scenery like she had been planted there by her ancestors, yet she was so much a part of the living world that encompassed her. It was a perfect match and she let me shoot several views of her while she stared across the road at the cows wandering the pasture. We said only a few words to each other. So much was left unspoken. I yearned to tell her how fortunate she was to be here now in the present moment. I thanked her and drove away.
On this day, I noticed a small unpaved lane that had escaped my notice before. I wanted to see where it led so I inched my car through the hedges and across a cattle grate. The narrow road wound its way through second-growth pine trees. The layer of needles on the track muted the sound of my tires. It was very quiet. In fact, it was so intensely quiet I found it somewhat unsettling. The day had begun with a sky the color of the sea, clear and crystalline. Now, however, a dark cloud, almost black in its grim presence in the sky, drifted overhead and made the afternoon seem like dusk. I felt the need to get back to my apartment and have a cup of strong tea laced with brandy. The road went on for a few more miles, passing abandoned farm houses, collapsing barns and truncated silos. The cloud passed and I soon pulled out onto a county road that I vaguely recognized. I took a left turn, relying on my gut instinct.
It turned out to be a wrong turn in more ways than one.
The houses of my town soon began to appear along the road. As I drove toward the town center, something seemed wrong. There were no people, anywhere. Usually, I would see a guy standing beside a BBQ grill or a couple of kids tossing a football. Not today. There wasn’t a soul to be seen. I parked and went up the back stairs to my apartment. Everything was quiet. Even the neighbor’s dog was not barking.
I became aware of how hungry I was, so I decided to take a drive to Arnold’s Diner and get an order of french fries. I pulled into the parking lot. I skidded to a stop in the gravel parking lot, shocked by what I saw. The diner was closed, not just for the day, but shuttered tight and mute. What the hell? I thought. Business can’t be that bad. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, then I went looking for my favorite gas station. Mike and Ruth would always be good for a laugh (the joke was on me, I guess, for paying their jacked-up price). Hey, man. What the f….? It too was closed. Not just after-hours closed, but abandoned. And still no one on the road or sidewalks. I was getting spooked. I had been around this town and down these streets a zillion times in the past year. But…but all was different. Something was wrong.
In a near panic, I drove out to the Hi-Ho Motel. I had been seeing Hilda once a week for about a year now. She and her husband ran the place. When Ralph was away at motel conventions, Hilda and I would check into Room 13. This was where I stayed when I drifted into town. It took me a week to find the garage apartment of my dreams. Hilda made sure my sheets were changed every day. Then she and I would pull apart the bedspread again. Room 13 has always been a lucky place for me, if you get my drift. Hilda would be behind the desk. She’d help me make sense of what was happening. She always did. When I made the turn on the highway I nearly went head-on into the utility pole. The motel was empty and nailed down. I was getting desperate. I was starting to panic. Where could I go for help? I know. I’d go by the factory where I work three days a week. Butch, the floor boss would set me straight. That was his job. I made a u-turn and headed to the Alpha-Omega Ladder Company. I felt nauseous when I pulled into the parking lot. Instead of the parked cars of the poor folks on the second shift, only grass grew in between the concrete slabs. I drove back to my rooms over the garage. I peeked through the glass window of the automatic door. Sidney’s ’54 MG was still there, covered by a blue plastic tarp. Some things never change. Upstairs, I poured another shot of Irish Mist. It calmed me down and the panic subsided. I had to decide my next move…when it came to me. I would go back to the farm with the red barn and find the red-haired girl. She lived in the country, a place where time stands still and change came slowly. She would help me. She would take me to her parents. They would give me something to eat and let me spend the night. When morning came, they would explain everything. People who lived in the country, amid the slowly changing seasons, watching the barns fall apart at a rate that would take decades to notice, always knew best. I needed gas, but I was certain I had enough to get me to the red barn.
I prayed I could remember the way.