there was a story and a storm once and a hymn sung there, then and after, in a town once, called jackson, nebraska, where we came from and where we lived, the little lives we knew. and we tried and trued and corn grew and we loved our neighbors and lived the blood thick of family and made it stick thru, hard times when blood and water were all we had to choose. the sign on the edge of town said jackson, population 205, above the new spring weeds that were already knee high, but it was more like 207 since the state workers in their orange vests put it up, even if old mr. liepke had since died. and there was a main street and five streets with names and a street saint james that turned to hope at catharane. and there was a two lane paved road that grew from the outside of town straight thru the fields to the late sun, and dirt and gravel driveways at its sides to faded white farm houses floating in and out of the waving corn like ghosts everyone could see. i watched them from the bus window on the way to school and they seemed to watch me. and i wondered sometimes if they were even real or just some weekday dream i couldn’t make sense of, but remember.
it was may and early for such storms, but it was july hot, the first real hot day since last august and everything a different color and alive off the asphalt with what the heat will do. the fields were turned wide open like a fresh wound, plowed and seeded and pregnant bellied and rowed like a rag carpet loom. we were off from school for two weeks every spring to plant and every fall for harvest and school looked good by the last acre’s ache, our only break an occasional car down the 20 to wave to. everything was mud and everywhere, but the fancy sitting room where only company sat and proper and we never had company ‘round planting time, but the ache in our legs from long days of work and the buzz of the planter in our soft new ears. we would take time for church come sunday and the preacher’s gospel word like a rain on our sullied hearts and me with my 5th grade sins, what i made on the playground and washed clean by the water of the rain outside and an uncommon messiah and a pilate to flip the switch. and easter rang and someone saw the light and shouted and a wrong somehow made a right, but that was a story for grownups and we were but to listen and obey and never understand the gift of irony and god’s good.
it smelled of rain still and something of the earth and iron and raised up from the ground into the air and metallic at the backs of our mouths. we were just home from school when she grabbed us by the arms. the radio was on in the kitchen still, i would hear it thru the linoleum floor and the ceiling of the cellar, between paul and mary crying and the wind. and then there was nothing and mom trying to sing a song and my older brother just chewing gum and pulling on his cap and holding the flashlight under his chin. it was still light when the sheriff came and took us to the church. he looked like some sad jesus with a two pack habit standing above us in the sick yellow sky at the door to the root cellar, a cellophane liner over his hat. the house was there, but the barn was gone and my memory of it like my grandma ruth i can’t quite collect, but the smell of apple strudel and closets. my other brother and my sister sat in the back with me and mom in the front seat with paul on her lap and the sheriff and a half lit cigarette cupped in his hand. we all had bible names then.
jackson, nebraska was a road without a name, but a state route with a number and a railroad a 1/4 mile to the south that made it a town. everything was stopped like it was waiting for a picture to be taken, but the sheriff’s car’s crackle on the debris and its red lights on the certain shadows of the drugstore and where bowen’s hardware used to be. and we held our breath and weren’t even sure why and no one spoke and the sheriff smoked without a sound as we rolled slowly by.
the church stood like its idea, its steeple a weak arm up to heaven to hold the sky up and gray against the black and blue where it used to be white. there was no wind or rain left, but an oily residue pearled across the asphalt parking lot in the broken light. the sheriff opened our doors, there were no handles in the back, and led us into the church, a memory of marlboro smoke behind him. it looked like a christmas sunday, but it was thursday and spring and it seemed the whole town was there and speaking little prayers and stories between them, in whispers, in reverence to the storm despite any left over fear of god. they wore their work clothes still, overalls and muddy boots, kitchen dresses and a baby in just diapers. they wore blank looks like the sows we trucked to sioux falls to slaughter, wide faces waiting for some expression like the early fields to seed. and we’d wait together and do the count in our heads, 175 or 191 as the highway patrol brought them in.
the sheriff and a creased patrolman walked my father in and someone said two hundred and four and amen. he was nodding his head yes and covered in mud and looking around the church with the same face he wore when he read our report cards. they found him walking down the 20, two miles from town, 3 miles from the field where the truck would land. he finally grabbed our mother with his right eye and left the sheriff at the door and i realized just then she was his wife, and i thought for a second i saw his whole life and he walked over with all his weight and said i’m okay before she asked. and he looked down at us from the top of his slicker and picked up paul and asked if we’d finished our chores and laughed and we all laughed just when i thought we’d never laugh again.
we all sat and said our silent prayers and a few out loud for the last four and their families, their dull faces like broken clocks staring at the jesus on the wall. and at 10 o’clock they came in thru the door with the sheriff and the whole town cheered and the sheriff said “that’s everyone” like you would drop a dollar in a collection plate and lit a cigarette and stepped outside into another rain.
ten buildings disappeared that aftrenoon, amongst them our barn and the liepke’s house the next farm down. my mother looked round where their house once haunted the horizon and shook her head and said “first mr. liepke and now this” and made a sign of the cross and went back inside thru the kitchen door. we never would know where they got to, buildings and souls, but weeks after folks would say they found this or that hanging in a tree or in their field as far as the paved road stretched and past that where it turned to dirt. and old mrs. liepke would keep the seat next to her in church like mr. liepke was still there until she passed and landed in some fallow field too. and sometime in june a highway road crew replaced the sign on the edge of town by the town father’s petition to the state. it said jackson, population 208.
(published South Dakota Review, 2004)