Gene Goodwin had lived in that house — breathed, grown, entertained neighborhood kids in and around it. Even now, Emma could see his long fingers looped around the wagon’s handle, giggles escaping from her and her sister as he roared down the lane with them sitting cross-legged in it. Each bump jarred their bones and sent them into the wagon’s sides and each other. It had not stopped their shrill calls for him to never stop.
The house had been something in those days: properly painted, windows with crisp white curtains fluttering in the breeze, cute shutters painted green, and the roof all in order. On good days, neither too hot or too cold, Mrs. Goodwin would set herself on the porch, much like a queen, or how Emma had envisioned one while a child, waving at those passing by and welcoming fellow women from the community to join her. The porch hadn’t been screened in back then, though it was hardly nowadays either. Its tattered screen hung in places, suspended by slithers. A creature had done a number on the material, leaving tears and holes.
Still, she swallowed, lemonade now years past tantalizing her taste buds. It and the pastries had always set so right on a hot day, surrounded by Mrs. Goodwin’s garden, a collection of daisies, coneflowers, and her prized roses. The wind would blow right, catching the lilacs, which had been uprooted at some point.
Not far from where the lilacs had grown, Emma had ogled at Gene’s automobile, an ever-in-progress project. A collection of scattered tools, a disassembled frame, and a mess of whosie whatsits. His toothy smile as he pointed out components still shone brightly in my mind, along with the hint of motor oil, long after the words were lost.
He never finished it.
Even a decade removed, she remembered, like cracking open a photo album, the day the train huffed into the depot in 1921, steam billowing as it halted. The thrum of people pressing in, pushing her against her mother, rumpling her Sunday dress and almost forcing the tiny flag from her hand. Her stomach clenched. The wails of Mrs. Goodwin as Mr. Goodwin supported her emerged from the ethers of her mind as did the wooden coffin, draped in a flag. Herself? Her face burned. Her mother had lied to her—the truth, however, was Emma had not understood, wouldn’t for a while longer.
What followed was gradual. A business here and there shuttered. The once-beautiful Goodwin house declined, little piece by little piece. The parties had stopped, Mrs. Goodwin now longer held court on her porch, and the weeds took root, snuffing out her flowers. Seeing this, the town followed until downtown only had a post office and a general store. Though years later, there had been an addition, a gas station for cars passing through.
Emma knew it was silly to pin the effect to Gene Goodwin’s not-really return from Over There, but for a child, it had been one clear moment marking the decay. She could not have fathomed the greater cause, which was far messier than a train’s arrival.
The house had never recovered, even when the new owners came in—much like the town had never returned to former glories. Now its empty brick buildings with dusty, newspaper clad windows were simply a reminder of golden days that had never come again. A testament to why she had left, taking only a suitcase and a typewriter, her salvation.
Part of her wanted to cry for Gene, who had been dug up from a beautifully crafted cemetery in France, shipped and freighted back, and now forever buried in a small cemetery outside of town—left forgotten.
That wouldn’t happen to her.
Note from the Writer: This piece began as a response to a photo prompt, which featured an elegant home that had seen better days. Recently I expanded it from a paragraph to this current version for a writer’s workshop. In the near future, I would like to expand it futher into a novella.