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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

And so It Begins Again

And so It Begins Again
by Walt Cooper

The ride was the way it had been for years. An hour out of town, an hour up the Interstate, and then a couple hours of two-laners. There were small towns every 10 miles with names like Port Simmons and Centerville, Lake Louise and Drummond. Port Simmons didn't have so much as a creek flowing through it. There was no lake at Louise, and nobody could remember who Louise was anymore. Centerville-- it wasn't in the center of anything.

Along the way, there were the stops that weren't made anymore, the place in Crandon where the K-Mart used to be, the diner where cousin Jack had nearly gotten arrested back in 1972. After that, we'd had to find another diner for dinner. That was no complaint against the place in Laurel. It was actually better.

Better. Better than a dive no one had seen inside in a whole generation? Funny, I'd been just a kid, but I could still taste the Sunday fried chicken and corn fritters. Maybe I should go in this time. They sure wouldn't remember me now.

Besides, Jack was dead. They were all dead. That's what made this trip different. Jack had been the last one of first bunch of deer hunters. We'd buried him in April, just before taxes. Now there weren't any old timers left. It just suddenly hit me as I crossed the tracks in New Beltham that this was the first time we were all on our own. Now, we were the old guys, and guys like Dad, Jack, Stu, and Coop were just pictures on the wall and tall stories.

Maybe I should go into Crandon for chicken on Sunday. Maybe it was time. I was thinking so hard about it all, I went past Laurel and was a half mile out of town, out by the apple market, before I realized what I had done. I turned around and went back.

Some of the faces were familiar. Funny, but after twenty-some years of coming in this place I was still a stranger. The waitress always asked if I wanted a menu, always asked what I wanted to drink. I'd been coming in since college and watched her get pregnant, have kids, and grow old, but she still looked through me as she rattled off the specials. I wasn't sure if that kind of familiarity made me feel comfortable or if it was just spooky. Heck, we were probably the same age. I could have . . . oh nevermind.

After the obligatory open roast beef with smashed potatoes and gravy, I gassed up and went on. From Crandon, the state route goes up a valley for miles before finally winding into the hills. The houses are ancient and set close to the road. The road is windy and frequently runs between boulders the size of buses. It's a challenging drive, but fun if you keep your mind on it. That was hard to do. It kept bugging me that I was now one of the old men-- maybe the oldest. No, that couldn't be, could it? Oh drat, we'd figure that out soon enough.

I hardly noticed the road before I found myself turning off and rolling back to the gate. From the headlights, it looked like nothing had changed. There were limbs in the yard that had probably come off in that big storm in October. I undid the deadbolt, the padlock and pulled the magic string that lifted the bar. I fumbled around, got to the breaker panel and threw the switch.

"Welcome to deer camp." I said to no one in particular. It was too late to open the shutter, or get the water going. I just peed off the front porch, brushed my teeth with what was left of a bottle of designer water and threw my bag on the bed in the front room. It was still warm, so I didn't even bother to turn on a heater. I was wondering if the damp stuffy air would get to my sinuses when my head hit the pillow and I was gone.


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