The door to the general store squealed open and an old man stepped out, blinked at them, and said, “Say, did you folks just come down that old road?”
Clarence Travers avoided his wife’s accusing eyes. “Yes, sir.
“No one on that road in twenty years.”
“We were out for a lark,” said Mr. Travers. “And found a peacock,” he added.
“A sparrow,” said his wife.
“The freeway passed us by, a mile over there, if you want it,” said the old man. “When the new road opened, this town just died on the vine. We got nothing here now but people like me. That is: old.”
“Looks like there’d be places here to rent.”
“Mister, just walk in, knock out the bats, stomp the spiders, and any place is yours for thirty bucks a month. I own the whole town.”
“Oh, we’re not really interested,” said Cecelia Travers.
“Didn’t think you would be,” said the old man. “Too far out from the city, too far off the freeway. And that dirt road there slops over when it rains, all muck and mud. And, heck, it’s against the law to use that path. Not that they ever patrol it.” The old man snorted, shaking his head. “And not that I’ll turn you in. But it gave me a nice start just now to see you coming down that rut. I had to give a quick look at my calendar, by God, and make sure it wasn’t 1929!”
Lord, I remember, thought Clarence Travers. This is Fox Hill. A thousand people lived here. I was a kid, we passed through on summer nights. We used to stop here late late, and me sleeping in the backseat in the moonlight. My grandmother and grandfather in back with me. It’s nice to sleep in a car driving late and the road all white, watching the stars turn as you take the curves, listening to the grown-ups’ voices underwater, remote, talking, talking, laughing, murmuring, whispering. My father driving, so stolid. Just to be driving in the summer dark, up along the lake to the Dunes, where the poison ivy grew out on the lonely beach and the wind stayed all the time and never went away. And us driving by that lonely graveyard place of sand and moonlight and poison ivy and the waves tumbling in like dusty ash on the shore, the lake pounding like a locomotive on the sand, coming and going. And me crumpled down and smelling Grandmother’s wind-cooled coat and the voices comforting and blanketing me with their solidity and their always-will-be-here sounds that would go on forever, myself always young and us always riding on a summer night in our old Kissel with the side flaps down. And stopping here at nine or ten for Pistachio and Tutti-frutti ice cream that tasted, faintly, beautifully, of gasoline. All of us licking and biting the cones and smelling the gasoline and driving on, sleepy and snug, toward home, Green Town, thirty years ago.
He caught himself and said:
“About these houses, would it be much trouble fixing them up?” He squinted at the old man.
“Well, yes and no, most of ‘em over fifty years old, lots of dust. You could buy one off me for ten thousand, a real bargain now, you’ll admit. If you were an artist, now, a painter, or something like that.”
“I write copy in an advertising firm.”
“Write stories, too, no doubt? Well, now, you get a writer out here, quiet, no neighbors, you’d do lots of writing.”
Cecelia Travers stood silently between the old man and her husband. Clarence Travers did not look at her, but looked at the cinders around the porch of the general store. “I imagine I could work here.”
“Sure,” said the old man.
“I’ve often thought,” said Mr. Travers, “it’s time we got away from the city and took it a little easy.”
“Sure,” said the old man.
Mrs. Travers said nothing but searched in her purse and took out a minor.
“Would you like some drinks?” asked Clarence Travers with exaggerated concern. “Three Orange Crushes, make it four,” he told the old man. The old man moved inside the store, which smelled of nails and crackers and dust.