There is, really, only one intersection in the town I come from. There is a bar and off sale liquor store, a failing grocery store, a gas station, and an auto shop on each corner, respectively. The auto shop is as much scrap yard as it is retailer of cars or fixer of body damage. Connected to the edge of the scrapyard is a trucking company. I know each of the families that owns each of these businesses, and can go back in my memory to how things do or do not change. I can track local history by the fortunes and traffic of this one intersection. I can trace family history there, as well.
My grandfather used to own the filling station, back in the 50s. My father and my uncle worked the place as kids, pumping gas, managing credit. When they were old enough they drove the fuel truck in a lazy 50 mile radius to warm up houses.
He sold it, eventually, to the family that runs it now. And the trucking company came, the grocery store, the auto body shop. The liquor store has always been there.
I can go five or ten years without being in the little town but always, when I go back, I am recognized. It’s disarming to be standing under the canned country music washing the windshield and have someone call me by name. To be holding a loaf of bread and be reminded of something I did in the third grade. To have strangers – they are strangers, I haven’t seen nor talked to nor thought about them in all of those five or ten years – ask the most intimate of questions. How is my father? They heard my grandfather fell in the nursing home, is he alright, now? Did I know that my classmate died? A bloodclot gone rogue stopped her heart.
The man who owns the trucking company is standing in the gravel outside the office. He lifts a hand to me. I tip my chin back.
Once, that man taught me about gratitude. Like shame, like grief, gratitude extends across time, generations, proves we are not so much what we think we are as what we are to other people. Perhaps there is only one intersection in that place, too. Gratitude running northwest toward the Dakotas. Shame running due south. Apology being the intersection where self meets other and bisects world.
He told me that my grandfather once leant him money. Not a terrible amount, but fair enough indebtedness. Under the terms of the loan, he was to pay my grandfather back in two years.
The highway system was new. It changed America. It veined the whole map and made what we consider Americana possible. The trucking industry was born, and to this day 80% of American towns depend on truckers, those lonely, long haul men, to bring them groceries and medicines and diversion. Full on 90% of our transport is trucking industry transport. This man, young then, borrowed money from my grandfather to purchase his own piece of the pie in the form of a few Peterbilt trucks. This on the northwest corner of the intersection.
He couldn’t pay the loan back in two years. He couldn’t pay it back in five. It was 12 years before he paid it in full.
Not once, the man said, did your grandpa condemn me for it. He didn’t heckle or hassle. He didn’t, as he very easily could have done in the small town way, gossip about it. Once, as the man was trying to apologize and extend the promise of repayment, my grandfather cut him short and waved him away.
My grandfather sits in a retirement home, liver spotted and dry lipped. The man put his hand on my shoulder and said well. He looked back across the gray highway as his youngest daughter, blonde and blushed, pulled into the lot and stepped out of her car. She’s a senior, the homecoming queen, and she’s going to pick out a peterbilt to ride on in the parade. Well, he said again. He could have ruined me, your grandpa, just legally and financially and by damning me to the whole county. He could have ruined me. But he made me, instead.
People asked, when I lived in Brooklyn, why my poems always happened in the country. Why there were so many highways. If, maybe, highway wasn’t its own larger metaphor. I could have said this was true. There is only one intersection in the whole of the wide world; I spend my life leaving it and going back again.
That isn’t any more true than a fairytale. Princesses and frogs, burning bushes and messiah carpenters. But in knowing gratitude and resentment to be things larger than the self, things the self itself is made of, it sometimes makes sense to think in terms of history and highways, roadmaps and generations. It helps to know every one of us is an intersection of privacy and local knowledge. The most important things – what makes us or ruins us, how we make or ruin others – are not so much theory as they are lives.