Behind the convenience store, beyond the dumpster, a path begins so narrow it explains how it has been walked only single-file by the brain-damaged who travel daily to the store from the state-sponsored school for the impaired. Those residents have etched a permanent route through weeds and underbrush out of love for a cheap buffet of sugar. They crowd the aisles to choose packaged cakes and candy; the clerks know to check their pockets for theft. Always, when I’ve witnessed those inspections, the culprits return those items with a smile. Cleared, they order the Big-Gulp soda cups and rush outside to celebrate the purchase of sweetness.
In chapter one, the history of the soft drink, Joseph Priestly, who discovered oxygen, lived near here. Because he hated waste, he salvaged brewers’ bubbles, forced them into bottled water and created soda. Someone, in chapter two, added sugar, someone else stirred in cocaine. People paid to gargle it like medicine that promised “to whiten the teeth, cleanse the mouth, cure tender and bleeding gums.”
Two miles from this check-out line, the landscape held a sycamore like a super-sized soft drink cup, the narrow road humped where it swept into a curve. My son’s friend, he said, was wearing his blue and silver college sweatshirt, clutching a can of grape soda when her speeding car went airborne.
That road, the following summer, was straightened, the thick, ancient tree removed, the curve so shallow now that the years-old crash must rely upon oral history for its details, the site blurred by drivers who point and say only “there” and “tree” and “speed” until that girl suffers only a foolish, violent, hearsay death.
Soda is infused with alcohol now. The market, I’ve been told is young women. For years, new residents have been forbidden by the state to enter the once heavily populated institution near the convenience store. Those who remain will be the last to live there, the middle-aged and elderly phased out by sickness and death. Some buildings, already, have been rented, their residents able to arrive and leave by car.
Latest collection of essays, The Darkness Call, won the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose (Pleiades Press, 2018). A new essay, “After the Three-Moon Era,” has been selected to appear in Best American Essays 2020.