by Garrick Sherman
Most of the town stood clustered around a snack table eating Oreos and drinking coffee, and complaining about the awful cold outside.
“If only the damn power company would fix those power cables that keep breaking, we wouldn’t have to keep spending our evenings in the damn school gym!” said Joe Walker.
“Joe, just be glad the gym’s got it’s own generator, else you’d have to spend your evenings keeping your toes from freezing,” replied Fannie Marshall between sips of weak, but boiling hot, coffee.
Their voices echoed through the empty gym, rebounding off backboards of basketball hoops and cheering from the bleachers. For years the gym hadn’t been used for anything but town meetings and gathering for warmth. The families with children had left years ago. Only a dozen townspeople had stayed, and nine of them now stood huddled together for warmth.
“Hey, Steve, how’s that computer of yours doin’?” Sam Turner taunted blandly to Steve Darby. Steve’s telecommuting was a constant source of amusement for the others, who tended land or shops.
“Great, Sam, thanks for asking. If you ever want to know about the world outside the town limits, just let me know,” returned Steve, playing along.
Just then, the doors to the gym opened, and Rebecca Martin entered, escorted by a blast of chill air and snow. She hung her coat on a hook and walked, squeaking, to the rest of them, leaving a trail of wet bootprints.
“Evenin’ everybody. Cold out there, huh?” The gym reverberated with affirmation. “I just saw Sue and Bill goin’ the other way. Said they wanted to get to the city tonight, ‘stead of tomorrow. Might as well sleep in a nice warm hotel room than freeze to death here, I guess.”
Joe Walker snorted.
“Well, now Joe, don’t judge the folks. They hardly want to be here when the weather’s nice, no less when they’ve got no heat and it’s negative who-knows-how-many degrees outside,” said Rebecca.
“They want to leave, let ‘em. No one’s making ‘em stay!” Joe snapped.
“I don’t know what I’d do without Bill,” said Dale Daggett. “Without him, I wouldn’t be able to harvest half my crop.”
“As if there’s anything left to harvest,” Sam replied. “My crop last season was one-fifth of what it used to be! One-fifth!” No one said anything. Sam had told each of them this a hundred times.
The gym was silent. Its emptiness seemed to frighten them; they could have sat more comfortably on the bleachers, or even set up chairs on the basketball court, but instead the townspeople chose to gather in the corner where the lights were dimmer and the walls closed around them, standing around a wobbly folding table, clutching cups of coffee under their chins.
Paul Rucker cleared his throat. Sheepishly, he looked up at the faces of his neighbors. He cleared his throat again. “As mayor, I feel it’s my duty to tell you all of a proposal I’ve received.” The townsfolk raised their dull eyes up from their shoes, and looked at Paul. He cleared his throat.
“A man named Arthur Reilly called me up a couple days ago. He represents a company that wants to buy the town from us. All our land. They want to completely redevelop it. Strip malls and restaurants and big suburban houses. He said they’d pay well. Real well. And considering no one’s making much money anyway, I thought maybe I’d let you all know.” Paul lowered his eyes to the floor and cleared his throat. When his words finished echoing hauntingly through the gym, it became silent again.
“Hell,” said Joe. “My land is not for sale.”
“Well, think about it Joe. You aren’t exactly raking in the cash, and this guy is offering top dollar for less than ideal land. I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand,” said Steve.
“I’m sure Bill and Sue would be up for it,” Jenny Turner, Sam’s wife, said. “They don’t like it here anyway. I’m sure they’d be happy to sell their land.”
“I don’t know that we should speak for them. Maybe we should wait to discuss this when they’re back,” said Fannie.
Dale spoke up: “I never thought about selling my land. Well, I guess I did when everyone else left on account of the dam being built and diverting the river. But I never really considered it. This place is my home. But it’s getting to the point where I can barely pay my electric bills.”
“And if it’s hard for Dale, think what it’s like for me and Fannie,” said Pete Marshall. “Y’all don’t exactly go nuts at the market anymore, so Fannie’s work at the store don’t help much. We’re basically both living off one, dry, barren plot of land.”
“What do you think, Paul? You want to leave, or stay?” Rebecca asked.
Paul cleared his throat. “Well, Sarah and I have discussed it, and we are prepared to leave the town. But it has to be a unanimous decision. They won’t buy all but one property. Everyone has to agree to go.”
This revelation brought silence back to the room. The wind whistled through the cracks in the gym’s windows. Rebecca shivered.
“Maybe we should take a vote,” Sam suggested. “Not binding, of course. Just to see how everyone feels about it.” There were some nods and muttered agreement. Then they stood in silence.
Finally, Steve began. “Alright, I guess I’ll start,” he said. “I vote to leave.”
Fannie, standing to his left, looked over at her husband, and said, “I think Pete and I have to vote to leave, too.”
Next was Dale. “I hate to say it. It’s time to move on.”
After Dale were Paul and Sarah, standing close together. Paul cleared his throat. “Leave,” he said.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Joe declared defiantly. “I’m staying right where I am.”
Sam and Jenny came next. They turned from whispered discussion, and Sam said, “We don’t want to. But we won’t stand in the way of you all. And, I guess, we really ought to be moving somewhere more productive. Only got one-fifth of what I normally get, last season!”
Rebecca was last. “I have no choice,” she said resolutely. “I hardly sell any equipment anymore. With or without this proposal I would’ve had to go. Might as well make some money while I’m at it.”
Silence again. Dale sipped his tepid coffee. They avoided eye contact with one another.
Joe broke the silence. “Hell. I don’t want to leave. This is where I grew up. This is where Grace died. I don’t want to leave.”
No one spoke.
Finally, Dale looked up. “None of us want to leave, Joe. This place is our home. But I think we’ve been holding out hope for something that’s never going to come. We thought maybe if we wished hard enough the river’d come back. But it’s not coming back. And all we’re doing at this point is forcing crops out of land that’s got no crops to give. I think we all knew this was coming. Now we have an opportunity. We’re ready to take it. It’s time we moved on.”
Joe stared bitterly at his boots. Some of the townspeople looked expectantly at him; others looked pointedly away.
At last Joe looked up. There was pain in his eyes as he murmured, “Alright. If you all want to go, I won’t be the one to stop you.” Steve slapped him on the back. “Good man, Joe,” he said. No one smiled.
“What about Bill and Sue?” asked Fannie. “We haven’t asked them yet. What if it turns out they don’t want to go?”
“They’ll want to go, Fannie,” said Rebecca. “They spend every weekend they can in the city anyway. Only thing that keeps ‘em here’s all us. If we go, they won’t have a reason to stay.”
They fell back into silence. Some stared at their boots, others into their coffee. Their minds wandered, thinking of how the town used to be, how the town was now, how the town would be soon, now that they were leaving.
Sam looked out a snow-masked window. “Lights’re back on. The power company must’ve fixed those cables. For now.”
Without speaking, the group broke from their formation around the table. They tossed their paper cups of coffee in the trash while Paul and Sarah put the table and snacks away in a closet until the next time the power went out. They all walked to the door of the gym, Rebecca’s boots still squeaking against the floor. Paul hit off the lights while Sarah held open the door. One by one the townsfolk trudged out into the snow. As he passed through the doorway, Joe glanced back at the gym, swallowed by hollow darkness, already becoming cool from the outside wind invading. He sighed, and stepped out into the snow.