The low growl of an engine followed by the slam of a truck door: these are the first sounds that herald my impending death. They are sounds I’ve heard nearly every day of my life, though the years have altered them slightly, making engines quieter, truck doors more of a solid clunk rather than the rattle of metal on metal. They’ve always been little more than white noise, of no consequence to me. Until today, that is. But I’m too distracted by the joyful chorus of late spring to notice. The cheerful chirrups of chickadees, the faint hum of tractors turning the soil in faraway fields, the tinkling of wind chimes on the breeze, the skitter of squirrels as they chase one another through the dry leaves at my feet: this is the music I wait for all year. The promise of its return gives me the strength to endure the monotonous days of winter, with their feeble sunlight and bitter gusts of wind and unrelenting coats of thick ice.
On days like today, I’m always transported back to my youth. Back to Millie, my first friend. My only real friend. The feeling of the sun’s golden rays beating down on me always brings me back to the June days when Millie would steal away with a glass of lemonade and a tattered leather-bound journal, how she’d lie beside me in the shade spilling her secrets until her mother would call out that it was time to milk the cows or feed the chickens or whatever other chore needed doing. She’d always look back at me with longing and regret, as if there was nothing in the world she’d rather be doing than spending time with me. There were so many of us back then, but I know I was her favorite. I was much smaller than I am now, willowy and vulnerable, and I like to think that she chose me because she saw in me the same things she saw in herself.
It’s Millie I’m thinking about when the truck pulls up, the engine and the door slam sounding far too innocuous to be anything sinister. I watch a man get out of the truck and cross the lawn to the front steps, where he shakes the hand of the man from the house— the new house, massive, with its stone face and solar-paneled roof, standing so tall and so solid it’s like the little old farmhouse with its yellowed clapboard siding and tired front porch never existed. To them, it hasn’t, I suppose. The only place it exists now is in my memory.
I watch the man from the truck and the man from the house disappear into the backyard and drift back to memories of Millie. Now, she’s older, taller, and so am I. It’s late, almost midnight, the nearly full moon drenching the thick carpet of summer grass in pale blue light, the bellow of frogs and clicking of insects and occasional hoot of an owl saturating the night air with life. Millie is sitting beside me, her breathing shallow, her body unnaturally still, waiting. She occasionally stands, paces back and forth along the cattle fence, then returns to sit by my side. Finally, she sees him. Samuel. He’s walking down the dusty lane, the tiny flickering flame of his lantern casting golden light on his face, which breaks into an unbridled grin when he catches sight of her. She stands to greet him, kisses him, grabs him by the hand and pulls him toward me. They lie in the grass by my feet, whispering, giggling, tumbling, murmuring, sighing. Revisiting this memory always brings me so much joy. Millie’s happiness is my happiness.
From there, other memories tumble like a handful of snapshots swept up in a breeze. Samuel, broad shouldered and square jawed in his moss-colored uniform, holding Millie in a tearful embrace, whispered promises of waiting and of returning. Millie skipping to the mailbox in a gingham dress and bare feet, or walking in wellies and a rain slicker, or trudging in a heavy coat and snow boots, how I’d hold my breath until she released hers each time she slipped her finger beneath the seal of the envelope. The days on end when she’d leave the mailbox empty-handed, how she’d pause beside me until the tears passed. Millie in a gown of ivory lace holding a bouquet of larkspur and daisies, or in a housedress singing lullabies to a cooing infant in a pram, or in a wool sweater reading from a worn copy of Alice in Wonderland while her children sat cross-legged around her, or in dungarees pulling up soil-crusted carrots and beets from the sun warmed garden.
The kaleidoscope of memory is interrupted by the two men, who are heading toward the front yard, closer to me, the tenor of their voices stiff and businesslike but the words too far away to make out. The man from the house scans the yard, his eyes passing over me without actually seeing me, just as they did the day he first came here, back when the ground was still marked by the deep grooves of excavator tires hastily covered with grass seed, the smells of sawdust and polyurethane still hanging in the air. The lawn was always filled with people in those days—real estate agents with shiny cars talking to fathers in pressed khaki pants and weary mothers sorting through brochures while their children roamed the yard, hanging from my limbs or smacking me with sticks to pass the time. The disinterest with which the man from the house regards me reminds me of another man, in another time, and that brings my thoughts back to Millie.
She’s older now—much older—as am I. Only I’ve continued to grow taller and stronger, while she’s begun to wither like a flower at the end of its season. Her back is hunched, her voice a bit warbly as she sings “Amazing Grace” while her leathery hands toil in the garden, pulling the weeds that have sprouted among the tomato and cucumber vines. A man pulls up in a sleek black car, strolls over to her with an air of authority. “Grandmother,” I hear him say, his voice cold like the traveling salesmen I’ve seen visit over the years rather than warm like family. “We’ve found the most wonderful retirement home for you. You’re going to love it. There’s even a bus that will take you to the farmer’s market. You’ll never have to work in the garden again.” It’s not until he gets back into his expensive car that she leans against me and the tears fall, her frail frame supported by my sturdy one. She runs her hand over me as she has so many times, the tears falling harder as her fingers trace the grooves where M + S is carved, surrounded by a heart, just over my heart. Her sobs continue to echo in my ears for the months that follow, until they’re drowned out by the mechanical whine of excavators and the constant thuds of wood and concrete and plaster landing in the dumpster.
Now, the two men are getting closer, the man from the truck jotting notes on a pad of paper, the man from the house occasionally looking down at his phone. The man from the house looks up at me, finally seeing me, and gestures in my direction. “What are your thoughts about this one?”
The man from the truck looks me up and down, appraising me. “She’s very healthy,” he replies, and I feel myself stand a bit prouder as I always do when I receive a compliment, though it seems to happen less often now despite the fact that I’ve only grown more magnificent with age.
“A little too close to the house, though, don’t you think?” He strokes his clean-shaven chin, looking from me to the house and back again. “I’d hate to see the damage it could do in a storm. It could take out my whole master suite.”
The man from the truck shrugs. “It’s your call,” he says. “She’s a beauty, though. Has to be at least a hundred years old. A rare thing these days, especially in this neighborhood.”
The man from the house shrugs, unimpressed. “Tag this one, too.”
The man from the truck hesitates for just a moment, his eyes traveling up my full height again and back down, a glimmer of reverence and admiration in his eyes that reminds me of the way Millie used to look at me. “If you say so,” he says. He removes an aerosol can from his belt and holds it to my heart, two swipes of his wrist marking an X in fluorescent pink.
I have withstood a great deal over the years. I’ve been chilled to the bone by bleak, sunless winters that felt like they’d never end. Droughts have left me parched, beseeching the sky to provide. Nor’easters have brought violent winds that have divorced me from some of my appendages. I’ve watched my brothers and sisters and cousins ravaged and disfigured by disease, fallen by lightning strikes, devoured alive by a scourge of caterpillars. My flesh has been bored into by woodpeckers and beetles, my extremities weighed down by heavy snows and hawks nests and the occasional barn cat.
Not to mention the things that have been done to me by people. The times I’ve been grazed with pellets by neighborhood kids with BB guns, covered in toilet paper by mischievous teens on moonless October nights. The times my chest has been pierced by nails, made to hold signs about yard sales and lost dogs and advertisements for landscaping companies. The late winter days when a metal tap has been driven into my spine, left for weeks to drain my life-blood drop by drop.
If I could survive all that—thrive, even, in the face of such adversity—then surely it meant I’d live forever.
Once, back in the days of real estate agents and fathers in khaki pants and mothers with brochures, a woman in a black blazer and high-heeled pumps gestured to the new house and said, “This one is called The Maple. It is our largest model at almost 4,000 square feet. Great layout for entertaining.”
“The Maple?” a man had chortled. He was wearing jeans, not khaki pants. “The Oak, The Spruce, The Birch, The Magnolia. That’s the American way, isn’t it? Cutting down trees and naming McMansions after them.”
I hadn’t truly understood then. Just like I hadn’t truly understood Millie’s tears the day her grandson came, though I thought I had. After all, her happiness was my happiness. And her sadness was mine as well.
It isn’t until this moment, the day-glow pink paint drying on my chest, its noxious fumes diffusing with each passing breeze, that I know what it means to be deemed obsolete.
©2023 Emily Wakeman Cyr
All rights reserved
Emily Wakeman Cyr…
…studied English and education at Quinnipiac University and the University of Connecticut. She worked as an English teacher and reading interventionist before shifting her focus to writing. A lifelong New Englander, she currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children, where she is working on her first novel and serving on the board of her local library.