Poverty Hill Road: A Short Story by Jennifer Arnett
Have you ever lived in a town so long that you can't stand on a single street corner without remembering something that happened there? That's how I feel about my hometown of Jaxon.
I grew up on Poverty Hill Road, a street named after our town's misfortunes. In the 1800's, the town boomed with gold but went bust in 1905 when the mine shut down. Those who stayed behind tried farming, but a drought in '28 caused the landowners to sell to housing developers. In '42 the railroad was supposed to come out this way, but the war diverted all of the steel to build ships. And the railroad, driven by high prices, decided to keep their mainline 50 miles from here. Then in the 70's and 80's a lumber industry developed and Jaxon inhabitants started mining the land for what was on it, not under it. Boom and bust, bust and boom, poverty never seems to escape it.
If I stand on the corner of Pine and Lilly, I can still smell Antie Jane's pecan pie even though she moved out in '82, her house was bulldozed in '85, and a 30-unit condo building was erected in '89. I can still taste the buttery coarse sugar topping, and the cinnamon and her secret ingredient, which I am sure was a dab of rum. No one will know for sure, though, if it was more than just a dab that made it so good.
My blue Buick turns onto Hammond Road and passes a boarded up single-wide trailer. That's where Bobby Jones lived with his two little brothers Dan and Fletch. Bobby died in the fire of '92. He was sleeping over at Jake Leary's house that dreadful night. It was up in the hills. The winds kicked up really strong and raced through the foothills, devouring every home in its path. They say the fire was too fast to outrun and between the debris on the road and the intoxicating smoke, several families didn't make it back into town.
From my house, I watched the red monster pour like lava our the foothills. I remember my mother kneeling by the window and praying all night while my father packed the car with important papers and clothing. The funny thing is, is that in the morning when we went to survey the damage, the fire had crept up to the doors of the oldest church in Jaxon. Apparently, it wasn't welcome inside the all-wood church. The cornerstone says 1893, and today it's still wood and still standing. I think an Episcopal church purchased it from the city for $1, and then restored it for a heck of a lot more.
I looked up Dan and Fletch online a few years ago. Seems that Fletch is serving time in the Quartz County prison for grand auto theft and Dan moved south to Harold County and owns a used appliance store. They were good kids. They really were. Fletch was in my Scout troop but dropped out when Bobby passed away. I guess everyone has to find a way to make peace with their past.
As I roll down Canvas Street towards the dandelion fields, I open the window and lean out a little. It still smells earthy, just the way it used to. The old willow tree is still there. I'll bet that if I hiked out into that field, I'd still see Mary and Jake forever carved into the tree.
Mary Anne Livingston. She was about the prettiest thing I ever saw. Long golden hair, always tied half up, half down. With eyes like the ocean. The kind I would have looked into forever. We both had Mrs. Weaton's History class our Junior year. I asked her to the prom out by the baseball field. She said yes.
Papa Martin's Barn
Further up the road, I pass by Papa Martin's barn. No familiar relation; everyone in town under the age of fifty called him Papa Martin. I spent every summer making $20 a day working for him. He owned a 600-acre cattle ranch. He must have been in his seventies when I started patching his barbed wire fences and tagging his steer. Some days I'd ask him what he wanted me to do that day and he'd tell me to go find crawdads in the creek. He'd wink at me a little. That meant I was free to play on his rope swing all afternoon so long as I came to dinner with a couple of crawdads in my pouch. Either way, I still got paid. His grandson, Little Benny--I guess he's not so little now--called me up out of the blue, the summer after I had graduated college, with an invitation to Papa Martin's wake. I guess he thought I was family. That's just the way he was. If he saw something in you, something good, he took you in as his own.
The fire took more than Bobby Jones' life and the lives of 21 other Jaxon residents, it took my father's lumber yard. Well, the fire took the wood, but the bank took the land. I guess the wind took my father, because seven months after it happened he told us he was leaving to be a miner in Alaska, and my mother said she was staying in Jaxon. The last time I saw my father, I was twelve and his Datson truck was pulling out of our driveway. It was so stuffed with his things that I couldn't see his face.
Anyway, eighty days of summer times $20 a day working for Papa Martin meant we kept our little two-bedroom cottage. My mother got a secretary job at a doctor's office, which somehow put food on the table. Random $100 dollar bills in white envelopes showed up at our doorstep every couple of weeks. I always suspected it was Papa Martin or Reverand Smith. One time, when Reverand Smith was on vacation, the same white envelope with $100 showed up under our mat.
I can see our old cottage from a block away when I turn onto Poverty Hill Rd. I never thought we were poor, but I guess the name was quite accurate. While I was away at college, my mother became ill and lost her job. She sold the house to pay for her medical bills and ended up passing away with $13 to her name. How unlucky is that?
Well, the fire took the wood, but the bank took the land. I guess the wind took my father...
A New Owner
The house is a dull slate color now with a black door. A white Corolla with an Uber sticker sits in the driveway. I think it looked better when it was mustard yellow with a white trim and my mother's tulip garden.
I stop in the middle of the road and take it in. I scan it for every detail, matching up what I see with what I remember. Did the gutter come away from the roof like that? I'm not sure, but I do remember my father complaining that water was seeping under the foundation, so I can only assume that it was a later addition. My mother's red birdhouse mailbox has been replaced by something that looks like it was made out of a Costco pallet.
A blonde haired boy waves at me through the window. We share an awkward glance, and I remember that I am stopped in the middle of the road and staring into someone else's house. It's his home now. I continue down the street.
At the end of the road is the Livingston's. They had bought a double lot many years ago after the lumber trade died out and the land was dirt cheap. They got a two-for-one deal from an ex-lumberjack who decided to go back to school to become a veterinarian. To each his own.
I guess everyone has to find a way to make peace with their past.
Behind the Fence
Through the overgrown brush, I see something moving up and down. I pull over and get out of my car to peer through the wire fence and ivy. Up and down, an oil drill tilts like a teetertotter. A glint of metal catches the corner of my eye. The fading Poverty Hill Road sign shakes in the wind. I smile to myself and return to my car.
As I drive away, I take one last look in the rearview mirror at the Livingston's house. A blonde woman in her forties opens her street-side mailbox. She looks up for a moment. Hugging her side is a small child. She stares at my car as I drive off. Those eyes. I'll never forget those eyes.
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© 2018 Jennifer Arnett