Bennie Lou fumbled for her tape recorder when the melee broke out at the school board meeting. Raymond Canckle punched the Reverend Walter Melford square in the left jaw. Bennie Lou was there to witness, record, write and publish the meeting’s activities for the Breaktown Ledger. She lifted the old Nikon camera at her side to capture what couldn’t be deciphered audibly: the flushed faces of two middle-aged white men, hands pawing at each other’s shirt sleeves, pushing and shoving like six-year-olds.
The board president, Miss Caroline Trasket, pounded her gavel against the table, calling first for order and then for adjournment. Tonight, Melford had proposed for the fourth time that creationism be taught alongside evolution, and for the fourth time, tall, lanky Canckle dismissed creationism as “hogwash,” and said he’d be damned before his kids would be taught that the earth was made in seven crazy days.
We know why neighborliness sharpened into silent fence lines, Bennie Lou reminded herself. We know the split in the ground that divided the town, the flood a decade ago that filled the valley and drowned its soul. Still she would have to keep to the facts—who, what, where, when and how—before adding her byline to what would certainly make the top of the fold this week. The why was for readers to decide.
In the morning, she signed her story with her given name, Bernice Louise Feehan, as she had for decades, now under the headline, “School Board Adjourns Early.” She buried the lede, as was the Ledger’s custom when it came to public fisticuffs. And then she dressed in her somber black suit, the same one she bought ten years earlier, when the dead lined up in the mortuary, still soaking wet.
Bennie Lou’s second job was undertaker at the Feehan Funeral Home. Undertaker and staff writer, she was witness to heartbreak. After the flood, the housing market collapsed and the valley’s tax base dwindled, and she documented the debts of families that had lived here for generations, like a modern Domesday Book, as pages of the Ledger filled with foreclosure announcements. And then, she buried those who lost their homes, one by one. The abandoned porches, littered with Big Wheels and stuffed animals and boxes of board games, things you have to leave behind when you don’t know where you are headed, gathered cob webs in the summer.
She had one burial this week. The son of the hardware store owner, Sheldon Pickett, overdosed on heroin. Heroin. Bennie Lou didn’t know heroin even existed outside the cities up north until she started seeing needles in the parking lot next to the funeral home. They are getting closer, she thought. Soon, they would be at the back door, DOA and ready to be embalmed, needing no ambulance to ferry them to the hospital.
Driving down route 33 through the valley’s edges to Breaktown, Bennie Lou spied the Campbell house, a 1960s ranch, fully paid but abandoned three years ago because the owners, now in their 80s, couldn’t afford to make repairs to the floor. Had she passed by it all week and not noticed that the roof had collapsed on itself? She was used to seeing the gray split wood of barns separating from foundations, leaning for years before falling. This, the Campbell house, was something new. What caused it – a storm, a fallen tree, sorrow? It was a sign, she thought. A sign of something bad blowing in, that a house not more than 50 years old could lose its beams, weighed down by neglect, unsold, unattended.
She slowed down, pulled into the driveway to investigate. She had to know what it looked like inside, how the bones of the roof bowed to the kitchen, what shelter for raccoons had been dismantled, what was left in the cupboards. She had to know the signs.
The door was unlocked. She slowly opened it and saw the light pouring into the hallway, illuminating the timbers and plaster that angled from the edges of the hole. Dust glinted. Photographs in cheap gold frames peered under fractured glass on the floor. In one, she recognized the young Campbell sons, dressed in camo, guns in hand, with their friends—Ray Canckle and Walt Melford, teenagers then.
She walked back out into the sun, closing the door behind her. She would write an obituary for the house. She would find beauty somewhere in the dust. This is what we do.