Every Memorial Day neighbors get together and put on a parade, a parade without a marching band or a fire truck. There are three horses, five old men dressed in uniforms as if they were all set to free the poor slaves, and a hay wagon with the Kraut Queen, if we're lucky. Last year the queen had ringworm on her face and didn't show. Since there isn't an audience to speak of, because everyone in town is in the parade, it snakes back along the same road after a while so the front can view the rear marching by. One year I wanted to be a nurse with a real Red Cross outfit to wear in the parade, but May said stop wishing for the impossible. She cut a paper plate in half and pinned it in my hair, drew a cross on her white apron, and set me walking.
You're supposed to slow down to 35 when you're going through Honey Creek, but most people speed by. There simply are no outskirts to prepare the driver. At the intersection - that's County Road J - you'll see the post office and the grocery store, which doesn't have anything useful except beer and milk, toothpaste and potato chips. Across the road from the Mart is our church, our white church. One of the church committees put up a steeple a few years ago to accommodate the new bell, which plays songs three times a day. It cracks me up going by there when it chimes "Rock of Ages," as if the church has a big old mouth and it's singing to itself. No one ever stops to listen except the Labrador retriever. He's tied up outside of the post office because he belongs to the postmistress, Laverna. He howls to all the songs like he's overflowing with devotion. He sits on his haunches and lets out a long sad moan.
In the block beyond the church there are four more white houses. All of them have heavy plastic over the windows, meant for winter, which blow and rattle in the summer storms. The pickup trucks, parked outside in every yard, come in handy for deer hunting and cutting wood, plus driving places. If you look in the garages you'll see that they're filled with rusty farm machines, milk cans, large rusted wagon wheels with broken spokes, from the ancestors. People in Honey Creek like to keep junk in the family. You never know if a huge chest of bent nails might not come in handy some time; you can't be too careful. I think folks hold on to metal scraps and furniture because the world is an enormous place, far and wide, but they have never experienced much of it, and they're afraid. They want an anchor so there's no danger of drifting away into outer space, or down under the ground, strange places they aren't too familiar with.
The river comes next. Our town is named after it. It isn't deep or long, but it has water and bloodsuckers and fish. If you cross over the bridge you come to the edge of Honey Creek proper. You see the factory. Everyone in town is proud to have Industry, that's what they call it. It's a cinder block building and it doesn't have windows. Most of the letters fell off the sign that says what it is.
Even with Industry half the town doesn't work in Honey Creek. The other half is practically dead. People go to Stillwater to teach school, sell clothes, work in the factory that makes paper napkins. Honey Creek used to have a mill by the river, but it doesn't function at the present time. It used to grind victuals for humans to eat. I wonder if I'd been born just five miles the other side of town, would I have met Daisy? Would I have known Ruby? Would my story have happened to me or a complete stranger? I'd like to know exactly how much I'm to blame. Was it my character that triggered the events, or chance, that I woke up and found myself in Honey Creek with a big old dog howling to "Rock of Ages"? The ancient saying goes, "None are so blind as they who won't see," and I'm banking on there being truth in it.
Otis Buddle's fields come right up to the parking lot of the factory. There isn't a space between; there isn't a minute to switch gears, get used to the idea. After the factory it's all farms, muddy fields and the smell of someone hauling manure, and the sight of a rusted-out combine sitting in the lane, as dumb and still as a cow. Of course the cemetery is along the highway too. I love walking there in October because the maple trees line the road and they turn crimson and orange and gold, a paper-thin gold., My Aunt Sid says that the trees must be doing a dress rehearsal for their own death, a phrase that has always made me wonder if we rehearse our death, and if we know when we're rehearsing it. There are a lot of dead people in the cemetery, but what you see are the same ten last names, over and over, on the gravestones. I used to be certain that everyone in the whole world was related.
Excerpted from The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton Copyright © 1989 by Jane Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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