Twilight saw the sky change to a chaotic whirl of colours, beginning with a vivid red-orange where the sun was being swallowed by the ocean, and ending with a bruised purple where the first stars pin pricked the canvas of the coming night. Curtis Drake sat in his battered car, smoking his first cigarette in well over fifteen years, but his eyes remained disinterested in the beauty of the swiftly fading day and the approaching of night.
He was watching the solemn graveside ceremony played out in silence across the road. Watching and feeling something of an interloper, given that it was at least fifteen years since he’d last laid eyes on the person involved in the vigil and the same fifteen years since he’d last set eyes on the dark town of Stillwater.
A quarter of an hour ago he had passed the leaning town sign and suddenly felt the old sensation of dread he thought he’d never have to feel again. It returned like a familiar jacket, hugging over his body, a perfect fit, filling his mind, gripping his heart. His first thoughts were to throw a U-turn in the main street and return to the city, to leave Stillwater and live up to the promise he’d avowed himself fifteen years ago. To leave and not come back.
But he didn’t.
He had things to do, people to see and places to revisit. Most of all, underneath the cold feelings of dread, whose fingers slid dark and treacly into the fibres of his mind, there was a strange, faltering light. A tiny whispering voice of hope, perhaps? Drake didn’t know, but could hear its plaintive voice buried beneath the throaty roar of dread. A voice that whispered, “Welcome home, Curt.”
Welcome back to Stillwater.
While that plaintive whisper caused him to shudder as much as the cloying sensation of gloom, there was within that little flicker enough light and enough hope to make him not turn the car around. So he drove through the short main street, absorbing afresh the town of Stillwater, with the continuous shop facades running down either side of the main street, its proud faded verandas thrown out as relief against sweltering summer sun and incessant sea side rain. While a few more stores looked as if they had been closed during Drake’s absence, the important ones were still clinging to life.
McGhee’s had had a minor face lift. The general store now had an eftpos sign in the door and several gaudy cheap cosmetic displays in the window. There were neon trims sparked into life, trying to give the main drag a desperate smile, but even this splotch of colour couldn’t hide that Stillwater was teetering as it had always teetered on the verge of being a ghost town.
Through the town Drake drove, past the old school which alone served as a cauldron of memories, good, bad and indifferent. Once beyond the school, it was a short jaunt to the old Catholic church and its spire pointing to the sky like a thin bony finger. From here, the jaunt to the graveyard was even shorter.
Drake parked behind the only other car he had seen since his less than auspicious arrival: a beaten up white ford station wagon. There was a sticker in the bottom right hand corner of the rear window which advised that “FM108.9 played the rockiest tunes this side of the Alps.” Drake laughed; a cold, somewhat humourless chortle.
Robotically, his fingers delved into the front pocket of his shirt, grabbed the pack of cigarettes inside, fumbled open the flip top. He didn’t cough when he drew on cigarette number two. The welcome mat of renewed nicotine addiction greeted him just as fondly as did his old home town.
And so he sat for the next few minutes, watching the sole figure at the gravesite through the passenger side window which was cracked just enough to let the blue-grey smoke from his cigarette curl outside. Had his wife been there, she’d have taken him to task not just for smoking in the car, but for daring to smoke after having ‘quit’ for nearly fifteen years. She wasn’t there though. She was three hundred kilometres away. And as strange as it now seemed to Drake, he didn’t miss her as much as he thought he would.
Part of that feeling he supposed was because of where he was. For the same fifteen years that he’d renounced smoking, he’d also renounced, but never really forgotten, Stillwater. It was part and parcel of growing up in these small rural communities; their uncanny knack for remaining lodged in one’s subconscious, just beyond the reach of the fingertips of day to day cognition, but there nonetheless.
Small towns were like rubber bands. It didn’t matter how far you pulled yourself away, or for how long you were gone, there would always come a point where you could no longer fight against the gravitational pull of the place, and before you knew it, you simply snapped back. And inevitably, most of what you left behind was still there waiting for you when you got back.
That too was the power of small towns. They were virtually resistant to change, especially change on a large scale. Sure, there were a few more shops that were closed and a couple of façades in need of a good lick of paint, but overall, Stillwater was still caught in its magnificent past.
There was a phrase used by many in Drake’s generation to describe their beloved hometown: Stillwater was looking for a place to die. Only like so many other similar places, look though it might, Stillwater never found death. With the tenaciousness of a terrier, it clung grimly to the mortal coil, moving at its own pace while the world around it moved on, succumbed to the bump and grind of new technologies, the new ways of living. Drake wasn’t the first to leave. He wasn’t the first either, to utter that immortal catchphrase of the freshly departed: “I’m never coming back to this hole again!” While his sojourn away might rank as one of the longest, Drake knew in his heart of hearts that the pull—the gravity—of Stillwater was all pervading, and just as light couldn’t resist the pull of a black hole, he wasn’t going to escape Stillwater forever.
The rubber band analogy came back to Drake then and he sniggered, puffing smoke out of his nose. He had tried to run and true to form, he was back, though hardly with his tail between his legs and his head hung low. No, he wasn’t a beat down country boy who’d been given a licking in the big smoke and was sneaking home to Mum and Dad for a decent home cooked meal and a bed to sleep in to tend his wounded pride. Nor was he a pathetic, homesick young adult pining for the easy life, scared shitless by responsibility and looking for someone to sponge off.
Fifteen years was a long time. Drake had grown up. He had a wife and kids, a house he was halfway to owning outright. The maturity didn’t seem to matter, though, because Stillwater had still reached across the passage of years with its ageless hand, and had touched Drake’s shoulder and Drake had come home.
It felt so alien to call this place home. Yet there was no other word for it. Stillwater would always be home, even if he had managed not just to cross to the other side of the country, but to the other side of the world. There was something so horribly morbid in that realisation that made Drake shiver. When others spoke of “going home,” their words were inflected with a sense of warmth, a sense that home was somewhere comforting, somewhere safe, a repository of happy memories. None of that Drake could equate to his homecoming. It wasn’t exactly a triumphant return to the world of his childhood years. The very fact that he was sitting in his car outside of the cemetery made that point as surely as a grand piano crashing down upon him from a great height.
Because for Drake, like so many people before him, it wasn’t the town that was calling him back. It was the sawmill, and the various twisting ways its existence intertwined with almost every living person who worked, lived and breathed in Stillwater. That was the reason for his being parked behind the white Ford station wagon, with its jingoistic sticker; why he had, during the final stop before approaching Stillwater, at the petrol station some forty-five minutes away from town, added that packet of cigarettes to his fuel bill—without even consciously realising he did it.
“Welcome home, Curt,” he whispered to himself. All at once, his voice seemed thick and syrupy.He crushed out the cigarette in the car’s ashtray, snapped it shut, paused for a few seconds and then, without really knowing or caring why, opened the ashtray, took out the butt and tossed it out of the window. Then with what seemed like an extensive effort, he reached for the door release, plucked it, pushed open the door and stepped out into Stillwater for the first time in fifteen years.