Small towns are populated by ordinary people who lead ordinary lives. It is a plain truth. Small towns rarely ever stay the same, most decay, their reason for existence forgotten. Their populations drift away, the young looking for work, the old die off, petrified of change. A few small towns grow a little, perhaps lay claim to having a Walmart in their midst, although Walmart build on the outskirts of these towns and collapses what had been a viable block or two or three of businesses. Or perhaps the interstate came through, boosting business. Of course that only works for a few small towns that grew a little larger. These small towns may have been large enough to have their own high school, maybe a graduating class of fifty. Local farms with local services for farmers. Maybe five thousand inhabitants making a living, making a home, making a family. Paul Johnson was one of those inhabitants. He went to war an eager youth. He came back a quiet man. His father ran the local machine shop and repair business. That’s where he went to work each day save Sunday. Religion serves those who serve, or so it is said. You could find Paul sitting with his mother and father four rows back on the north side of the aisle. They were Lutherans as were there forefathers and foremothers.
In small towns most people rise early, there’s work to be done and best be about it, right Paul? Right, he’d say, got to open early for the farmers, they get here round seven and don’t leave till six or sever, maybe. “I got John Greyson coming in this morning with a mower blade that busted on his side mounted hay mower. Got to braise the two pieces together strong enough to get him through the haying season. Them blades ain’t cheap, you know. Yes sir, they ain’t cheap.” He pushed the two sliding doors to each side opening the two story work shed for business. Paul then drove the two ton truck with its welder and tool boxes on the sides into the parking lot. Guess I’ll have some time later to go out to Frank Buck’s place later this morning. He’s got a grain auger that needs welding. I’ll collect those saw blades that need sharpening, he can collect them when he comes in to pay his bill. Here comes Dad with the thermos now.
After fixing Greyson’s mower blade Paul will go on over to the high school. Half a dozen boys, all farmer’s sons, want to learn how to weld. They’ll learn on the Lincoln welder on his truck. It may cut into his business but Paul doesn’t mind. There will always be business, they say the town is growing. Yes sir, that’s what they say. Later Paul heads on over to the Buck farm. Frank is waiting. “Howdy Frank, got here as soon as I could. that senior welding class took a little extra time this morning. You know Duffy O’Malley boy, don’t you? Well, dang fool touched one of the weld seams with his bare hands. Burned it pretty good. He’ll have a scar but he’ll live.”
“Them O’Malley boys always were fools. Just like their father. I don’t think he’s be right in the head since the war. Do you?”
“Frank, I can speak ill of Duffy. He saw some hard times in the Solomons. I never speak ill of a man who did his duty. So let’s drop it here. Okay?”
“Sorry, Paul, I forgot.
Work done, Paul driving back to town with the half dozen saw blades to sharpen, Duffy didn’t have it any rougher than the rest of us on the island, he just took it worse. Maybe if he could stop drinking. Naw, I doubt it. Hold on steady, Paul, ain’t nothing you can do about it. Shame, really. Drinkin just makes it worse. I’ll stop by the shop and pick up Dad. I’m getting hungry. Wonder what’s for lunch. As if I didn’t know. Cold butter milk and sandwiches with the leftover beef roast. I hope Mon doesn’t start trying to fix me up with girls again. Just not ready for marriage, that’s all. Just not ready.
Many years have passed. The O’Malley boys had graduated and become roust-a-bouts in a Texas oil field. Both have rebelled against their father. Got married young, spawned a couple of children, and then divorced. Both drink too much, fight too much, the excess of youth one might say. Neither one has been back to see their mother. Neither one came back for the funeral. Duffy’s old Hudson was found mangled beyond all comprehension, no real idea of what happened. Paul stood by the widow at the grave yard. The VA paid for the plot at the edge of the cemetery behind the church. He was a Catholic but the Lutherans were tolerant. Paul wondered at the service. An honor guard from the VFW, a flag folded into a triangle, a small flat marker with the Marine Corps emblem carved in it. A gift from Paul lest anyone in town forget. Would it have made a difference in duffy’s life if he had been awarded one of the silver stars given to him? Duffy was the one who dared to act and save three of his comrades. The Captain said he had been the brave one. Yes, he had gone out and dragged Duffy back to the aide station. But that was after Duffy got the other’s back, when he dared a second time to save just one more. Duffy didn’t know the man was dead, his wounds had been for nothing. Maybe duffy felt cheated of his reward. I don’t know. Would a medal have made a difference? Does a medal cover the scars a man gets in a war? He pondered these thoughts until they men started shoveling dirt over the coffin.
It’s almost the turn of the century. The town is down to a dozed families. All the businesses have left. Many of the houses are abandoned, sold by the children who will never visit again. Only the main highway receives any maintenance, the side streets are reduced to patches of concrete and rubble. Wooden buildings have borne the brunt of the weather, termites, and fire. Most have collapsed into heaps of rotten board or piles of ashes. the few brick buildings on main street sit with roofs collapsed. Some have worn down brick standing, ready to burst apart. Others suffer from the leaning tower of Pisa syndrome. The church is boarded up, no services, not even a funeral, has been held there in twenty years. The life of an ordinary town has been grown down by erosion and indifference. Paul spends part of his day tending the graves in the cemetery. To his knowledge none of Duffy’s children or grandchildren have been to visit the gravesites of him or his wife. A traveling nurse comes to see him once a month and continues to urge him to seek a retirement home. Doesn’t anyone look after him? The daughter of an old friend, Frank Buck, brings him groceries every week. But she is getting up in her years and may not be able to continue in the future.
So Paul waits, as he did on the island. Waiting for death to advance, to charge his position. Meanwhile there are graves to tend. the dead can’t do it for themselves. It is his last call to duty. This is his command and he will defend it against all the weeds and developers. Well, what developers? The town is no more and it’s out in the middle of nowhere. Just like the island.