Though it had been long in coming, the town only just learning of plans for a new interstate reacted with a mania that seized every conversation having any mention of it. Nostrils flared, eyes narrowed and citizens bit their words short and stalked off to their homes to mull the matter over.
“They don’t just have it wrong far as solutions go,” they’d conclude, “they don’t even know the basic problem.”
The problem was that if the new highway passed close by, about two miles down from Main Street some speculated, with all the traffic and outsiders coming through there’d be a souring of the quiet life they’d made here, while if they built the highway fifty miles off as others said they might, the town ran the risk of ruining its already sluggish trade.
Those forty-eight miles of difference separated those who believed that the town was failing, and the others who called this an exaggeration.
With this long-running argument now forced out into the open by news of the interstate, the sidewalk in front of the bank, the parking lot after church and the hardware store doorway were blocked by these disputes and the atmosphere at all public gatherings teemed with a distrust of anyone having an opposing view of what the new interstate would do to the town.
The elders called a meeting to discuss the matter. Under all the squawking, people flung visions of the town they wanted to live in, while also painting lurid portraits of the town they didn’t want to live in. The air in the hall grew thick with dream towns, some quite fantastic, others as ugly as mud outhouses. Beneath these competing civic dreams, confused citizens lurched from fascination to fear.
“We can’t ignore the snake,” a woman said. Many called the proposed highway The Concrete Snake. Even those who found the name ridiculous, even for them the highway achieved a great stature in their minds that slanted towards the sinister.
“We should hire someone,” a man who owned a feed store said, “someone to defend our interests.”
That was how they ended up engaging a law firm to go to the state’s capital to argue against the snake, or perhaps for it. The townspeople couldn’t agree on whether they wanted the interstate nearby or far away or to be stopped indefinitely-those proposing this last option were few though determined. Without a clear strategy, the lobbyists went to the capital with undefined hopes instead of a clear line of attack. This didn’t stop the town from feeling secure now that they’d sent someone, though each person thought the lobbyists were in the capitol fighting for the kind of town they wanted.
The calm did not last.
After several weeks some openly doubted whether the lobbyists were even helping, and weren’t they a drain on the town’s already meager resources? A man who ran an auto garage and tow service claimed that on a recent trip to the capitol he’d seen one of their lobbyists in a restaurant eating with some men. “And their suits all looked expensive.” This fanned speculation that the lobbyist had been corrupted by the highway builders, he’d been tempted by the ‘snake-men’. Some disagreed.
“A man has to eat and anyone in the capitol, wouldn’t they be well-dressed anyway?” This was said by an unpopular man who ran a failing motel. Many resented his negative comparison of the town’s style of dress with that of the capitol-dwellers. That night, vandals hit his business and the deputy taking the report of broken windows had to be browbeaten by the motel man to do it and did not promise to find the culprits.
The man and his family left town soon after.
Weeks later when the question came up on whether to recall the lobbyists to question them on their progress or whether to fire them, that was when the coffers tapped dry. An unrelated investment the town had made, failed and ended up wringing a lot of money from them. No one had foreseen this. Since they could no longer pay the lobbyists, there was talk of suing them because they had produced no results. But that also cost money.
The feed store owner declared that the town’s interests had not been vigorously defended, though few minded him since they were blaming him for insisting they hire lobbyists in the first place. Someone else suggested they find lawyers who would take the case pro bono. They contacted the town’s lawyer but the man was unavailable after a stroke dropped him from actively conducting the town’s business. Though he could not help this happening to him, many were sullen about his inopportune illness and few visited him at home in his convalescence.
It was in the way that leaves decide to fall from trees that the next few things happened.
Houses that had been in families for decades sprouted FOR SALE BY OWNER signs. The high school closed, consolidating classes with those of two neighboring towns. The police station followed suit. That following Christmas those adult children home for a visit were unable to attend church services because the pastor had died and hadn’t been replaced.
A month later, the church went on sale after its board disbanded over a landscaping bill dispute. The board’s last meeting ended in accusations that someone’s brother-in-law had done a poor job of cutting the grass all those years.
The town is still there and outsiders do not pass it because the interstate is fifty miles away.
The few children remaining work on fastballs and touchdown passing arms and on achieving high SAT scores for college because only in this way can they find the road out, only in this way can they find what awaits them in the larger world, only in this way can they get to the concrete snake that had bedeviled and finally outwitted their parents. Author bio: Alexei Kalinchuk writes literary novels, has had short stories published in Amoskeag Journal, The Bitter Oleander, Running Out of Ink Magazine, Defenestration and other outlets. He is bilingual. He likes eating pomegranates alone.