I wonder what stories those walls could tell.

Abandoned school house in a New Mexico ghost town hides its stories and secrets, too. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford
Abandoned school house in a New Mexico ghost town hides its stories and secrets, too. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford

I CAN STILL REMEMBER the handful of vacations we took during my growing up years.

We never took the main roads for one simple reason.

There were no main roads.

We drove through the heart of big cities, wandered down the only streets that little towns had, the ones that followed alongside the railroad tracks, meandered across farmlands where cotton or corn stalks rose up from the good earth for as far as the eye could see, cut through national forests, and always tried to see what was on the other side of the mountain before dark.

Dark always caught us.

On our journeys, we passed the last remnants of an abandoned America.

Decaying houses, weathered gray by time and neglect.

Old white clapboard churches.

Steeples empty.

No wind to ring the bells.

And sometimes, there were no bells in the steeple tower.

Historic homes.

Forgotten homes.

Homes where only memories resided.

My mother would look at them until they were out of sight in our rearview mirror.

And she always possessed the same thought.

It never left her.

“I wonder what those old walls could tell us if only they could talk,” she said.

The walls know all of the stories.

Good.

And bad.

A girl in love.

A boy marching off to war.

A baby’s first cry.

A mother’s last cry.

A father who never comes home again.

Was it war?

Was it fear?

Was it another woman?

The old houses witnessed joy.

And heartbreak.

Hunger.

And pain.

Laughter.

And sadness.

Death.

And divorce.

Neighbors no longer remember who lived there.

Or when they left.

Or why they left.

I know.

I’ve knocked on doors and asked.

I’m a lot like my mother.

I look at the weathered old houses ask the same question she did.

What would those old walls tell me if only they could talk?

But the walls remain silent.

They hold tightly to their secrets.

We can only guess.

We’ll never know the truth.

Not all of it.

So we sit at our word machines and manufacture the truth, and by the time we write The End to a novel, we believe our own lies and wonder if anyone else will believe them, too.

Caleb Pirtle is author of Conspiracy of Lies.

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