BY GRETCHEN KEEFER
Copyright is held by the author.
THE DAY was hot, the road was dusty. I was relieved to note that the second dirt road I was about to embark on soon entered the woods flanking the approaching hill.
As an enumerator for the United States Census I was following up on addresses that had not yet responded to the Census mailings. Most people cooperated with us; some even apologized for not getting around to answering the request on-line or by telephone. A few gave the required information grudgingly. Even fewer outright refused to respond and chased us away.
I wondered what the response would be at this next address. The road climbed gradually, following a little stream that watered a narrow valley. I passed a small farm, complete with red barn, horses in a fenced paddock, barking dogs and playfully shrieking children. A quarter of a mile farther the hillside rose more steeply on my left and the drop to the valley became more pronounced. Another driveway bordered with pots of colourful petunias boasted a freshly painted number sign stating that this was not the sought for address. I gunned the engine to climb a sudden steep incline and thought about the possibility of rapids in the little stream below. Most of the creeks and brooklets that fed our river originated in springs higher in the coast range and provided at least a trickle of water year round. It would be enough for a garden or to keep a horse or two, maybe a beef steer for winter.
“These people must really value their privacy,” I thought. “I wouldn’t want to travel so far along a dusty, bumpy gravel road twice a day to go to work,” as dirty brown rivulets coursed down my back window. Of course, the slower driving speed necessitated by the same dusty, bumpy road altered my perspective and I probably really hadn’t driven all that far yet. I couldn’t check my progress on GPS because the signal was blocked by the surrounding hills. Glancing at my tabulator, the digital device we had which listed addresses and provide dozens of check boxes for any possible response, refreshed my memory of the address I was seeking. I hadn’t seen it yet.
Around a bend a short mile from the last indication of human presence, I spotted a battered mailbox leaning slightly on its post. The address stickers were peeling off, but were still legible. This was it. I turned into the little drive and stopped at the gate.
Gates no longer surprised me. Some were open and welcoming; others were closed and locked tightly. A few of the really fancy ones had electrical closers and intercoms. Closer to town the gates were usually steel bars, painted flat black. There were several predominant styles from straight rails with spikey tops to decoratively wrought curves and hearts. Very lovely. Very private. Very frustrating to enumerators. We had a check-off box to describe why we couldn’t approach the house — “restricted access”.
This gate was a simple grey sheet metal cattle gate, hinged on the left fence post and chained to the right post, and the fence wire was firmly stapled to the post on both sides. No problem. I could see the house.
I shut off the engine, allowing my hot, dirty car to take a break while the fan continued working to cool the engine. As I stepped out and stretched, I relished the cooler air and the quiet of the woods. In the heat of the day the birds were silent and only a slight breeze swayed the tops of the trees. I took in the pleasant, peaceful scene before me.
It appeared to be a charming house, painted a pleasing combination of cream and green. A wide-roofed porch stretched across the front, facing the bank of trees along the road. Generous, friendly windows hugged the front door, bordered by green painted shutters. A stone chimney rose from the near end of the roof, testifying to the cozy stone fireplace within. The shingled roofline continued towards the back, making a “T” shaped building. Their metal chimney indicated a wood or pellet stove for more efficient heating. Beyond the back end of the house I could see part of a metal storage shed, an apple tree, and a cluster of raised garden beds. The little meadow watered by the creek did not appear to be fenced for animals, but the tall grass could have hidden the wire.
A sign on the gate proclaimed in jaunty letters that I had arrived at “Elvenglade”. I smiled. A Tolkien fancier, perhaps. The name seemed apt. A comfortable home in a serene and secluded valley high in the forest. It was someone’s dream come true.
I squeezed between the bars of the gate and approached the house. The Elves had left.
The gay letters on the sign were faded and dirt-streaked. Where I had parked on the hard packed gravel head of the driveway, weeds were poking through. Beyond the gate, the forest was steadily working on reclaiming its own space. Small bushes were already established in the path of any approaching vehicle as weeds and branches crept further into the would-be driveway. The ubiquitous blackberry vines snaked onto the porch, climbing the posts to the roof. A few pine seedlings sprouted from the front gutters and an enterprising swallow had built its nest under the peak of the eaves. A few shingles were missing from the windward side of the roof and the delicate cream paint was grey and flaking. One of the shutters by the right front window was leaning precariously. This winter’s storms would rip it off and toss it into the unkempt garden. The cap on the back stovepipe was rusted and tilting. The door to the storage shed would never close again, and the apple tree was in dire need of pruning.
I sighed for the beauty lost, and the time I had spent driving here. My car, engine still ticking, had not even cooled down yet, but it was time to go. I picked up my tabulator and checked off the boxes indicating that I had found the address, and that it was vacant. Case closed. Move on.
There was no check box for lost dreams.
Gretchen Keefer has always created scenes in her head and now writes family friendly short fiction for fun. Her work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul — Christmas Miracles (Oct 2022), Rain Magazine, local anthologies and the website firstname.lastname@example.org.