A brass bell suspended in a wooden frame stands in a square of hard-packed yellow dirt about the same area as a two-car garage. They call it a park, but it’s not much of one. A few weeds hang onto life in the summer. No one bothers to plant grass or water what’s there. The bell is attached to a rusted wheel you have to turn by hand to make it ring. Beneath the wheel is a hand-painted sign asking people to refrain from ringing the bell except in actual emergencies. I asked at the post office if the bell was ever used. The postmaster told me that a tornado skirted the town the previous May. “That was the only time in recent memory,” she said.
There’s not much about Dixon Ridge that can’t be described in a single paragraph. The town sits at a bend in the Gasconade River. There’s a trestle bridge for trains that come through twice a day but never stop. And a wooden bridge for cars about a hundred yards upriver that was built when cars were a rarity here. The bridge is in a constant state of repair, new lumber interspersed with old. State Route J is the only paved road, two blacktop lanes that cross the bridge, then turn left, and parallel the river. The part that passes through town is called Main Street. The other streets are gravel, tamped down and backfilled once a year after the spring rains. Four of them are named for trees: Pine, Maple, Oak, and Elm. Crossing them are Main, Second, and Third. I learned at the post office that fewer than thirty families live in Dixon Ridge. In addition to the post office, there are four businesses: the Dixon Ridge Grocery Store and Bait Shop, the Dixon Ridge Outboard Motor Repair, Delmont’s Phillips 66, and a hairdresser’s called Trim Kuts. There’s also a Masonic Lodge, although I was told the chapter disbanded years ago. And there’s the Dixon Ridge Apostolic Christian Church, which is the only church in town. There’s also about a dozen houses in the town proper and an assortment of sheds, privies, and “out” buildings. There’s nothing else worth mentioning in terms of a physical description.
I went to Dixon Ridge for several reasons. Near the top of the list was a family connection. A grandmother I never knew had grown up in the area. I wanted to get a sense of who she was, perhaps see where she had lived as a girl. Further down the list was a desire to get out of the city for a couple of weeks, away from urban distractions. I wanted quiet. I wanted to sit in a flat-bottomed boat on a lazy river. And I wanted to think, read, and do some writing.
I rented a two-room cabin on a hill above the town. It featured a screened-in porch but didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing. The only source of water was a long-handled pump in the yard. Perishable food had to be kept in a relic of an appliance, appropriately called an “ice box.” I was told I’d have to buy a block of ice every four or five days to keep it cool. At night, the only light came from candles or kerosene. There was a propane stove, so I could cook food and heat water for coffee and bathing. The only real inconvenience was the outhouse, which stood thirty yards down a winding path overgrown with weeds. But in spite of the limitations, I didn’t feel deprived. If I got desperate to know what was going on in the outside world, which happened more often than I care to admit, I’d go down the hill to the Dixon Ridge Grocery Store and Bait Shop. They had Wi-Fi, fresh muffins, tolerable coffee, and a place to sit. After my second day, Mildred and I were on a first-name basis. I’d already become a regular.
The first of my two weeks in Dixon Ridge was a period of adjustment. Since I couldn’t plug in my laptop at the cabin, I worked with pen and paper. Mostly I tried to catch up on my reading. Even that was difficult until I bought a second kerosene lantern. For exploring the river, I rented a jon boat with a five-horsepower Evinrude for $45 a day from Dan at the Dixon Ridge Outboard Motor Repair. On my first full day, I motored upriver a couple of miles, shutoff the motor, and drifted back to the dock. In the afternoon, I hiked a river bluff with the ubiquitous name of Lover’s Leap. There’s one in every state “from whose summit disappointed Indian girls have jumped,” Mark Twain wrote. Late in the day, I walked across the trestle bridge after I learned the train schedule. Mildred warned me that the train schedule wasn’t written in stone. She told me about two boys that were killed on the tracks sometime back in the ’50s. It would seem that some of the residents of Dixon Ridge are cursed with long memories.
On Sunday that first week I decided to go to church. Mildred suggested it after I told her about the grandmother I never knew. She didn’t recognize my grandmother’s name, Anna Miller, but she told me to ask at the church. If anyone knew, they’d be there, she said. I was hesitant to go since I’m not the least bit religious. The idea felt hypocritical and a bit voyeuristic, especially going to a fundamentalist church. I admitted this to Mildred. She agreed that the Dixon Ridge Apostolic Christian Church was about as fundamental as a church could get. But she also told me I might be surprised. In the end, I rationalized going as “family research.”
The church was down the hill a half-mile from the cabin at the corner of Elm and Second. It was a white clapboard building badly in need of paint and a new roof. Mildred told me it had once been a one-room schoolhouse. Sometime in the ’60s when they started bussing kids to the consolidated school in the next town, the church took over the building. I saw that it still had a cupola on the roof with a bell that had marked the beginning and ending of each school day.
I entered and sat at the back on a long wooden bench. Several people welcomed me with smiling faces, simple hellos, and an introduction or two. I feared my discomfort was obvious. These are Holy Rollers, I reminded myself, people who believe we are living in the end times and that the second coming of Christ is imminent. I fully expected they would start rolling on the floor, convulsing, and screaming in tongues. But Mildred had been right. I was surprised. The holy rolling undoubtedly happened on occasion, but this wasn’t one of them. Someone did yell out at one point that the Holy Spirit had seized him. When it happened, others closed their eyes, waved their hands in the air, and cried out “amen” and “praise the lord.”
What surprised me most was the singing. In the churches I had visited on rare occasions, the congregations sang as though embarrassed to be heard. It was always polite, reserved singing. Not here. These people opened their throats and made the sort of noise you would expect from a choir of hundreds, not the thirty or forty in attendance. The hymns themselves may have been somber, but the singing was joyous, full of life. And the accompaniment was nothing short of raucous. An upright piano that looked as if it had survived multiple wars was played by a thin, elderly woman with arthritic fingers who sang as loudly as she played. It was an awkward self-realization to find my feet moving and my body swaying.
I was also surprised to find out that the minister was a woman. I didn’t expect gender equality in this small river town. Her sermon was about redemption and deliverance from sin. Numerous Biblical passages were recited from memory. Following the sermon came more singing and sharing. A man gave testimony about the rewards of having Jesus in his life. Everyone cheered. A young woman shared about her good fortune in overcoming cancer, which brought more cheers. Hallelujah. Praise god. Then came another song and the benediction. The minister announced that a foot washing ceremony would follow the service. Several stood up to stretch their legs. I stood up to leave. When I did, I felt the eyes of the congregation. I smiled politely and headed to the door where a white-haired woman thanked me for coming. I nodded and stepped outside. That’s when I realized I hadn’t asked anyone about my grandmother. It was unlikely I’d return for another service, so I turned to the woman at the door and asked if I could have a word.
We stepped outside where I introduced myself and asked if she had lived in Dixon Ridge for a long time. She said proudly that she had been born here and would undoubtedly die here, Lord Jesus Christ willing. I then asked if she had known Anna Miller. She said she didn’t, but I could tell that the question had triggered something in her memory. After a moment of concentration, she asked if perhaps I had meant Anna Roberts. I nodded. Roberts had been my grandmother’s maiden name. The woman smiled broadly. “I’ll tell you more after the foot washing ceremony,” she said.
The ceremony itself was actually quite sweet. No words were spoken. The piano played quietly in the background. I waited and watched until several had been through the process before accepting an invitation to sit in the front and remove my shoes and socks. The only difficulty I had was that the woman who washed my feet was also the postmaster. I wondered how I was going to feel if I had to buy stamps or mail a letter later in the week.
When the ceremony was over, the woman who knew of my grandmother told me the Roberts family had lived on a farm just south of town. A family named Mitchell lived there now. She said that Anna had been close to her older sister Rose. They had been in school together. She remembered Anna coming over to the house to see Rose. And she remembered liking her. When the two girls turned 18, they went to St. Louis to work in the garment industry. That was before the war, she said. She was referring to World War I. After a dozen or so years, her sister returned to Dixon Ridge. But Anna never did. She didn’t know what happened to her. She added that Rose died twenty years ago, and she was sorry she couldn’t tell me more. I thanked her. It was more than I had expected.
The next day, I asked the woman who had washed my feet where I could find the Mitchell farm. I drove five miles out of town and found the place boarded up. A neighbor said that old Mitchell had died, and his sons hadn’t decided what to do with the property. At present, it was abandoned, but there were “no trespassing” signs everywhere, so I didn’t go any further.
The next several days were spent doing pretty much the same things. Coffee and a muffin every morning at Mildred’s while I wrote on my laptop. Hiking in the afternoon, either on the other side of the river or through the woods behind the cabin. One afternoon I climbed a ridge looking for a cave that someone told me about, but I never found it. I rented the boat twice more to explore the river. Evenings I either drove to Jerome where there was a roadside diner or stayed in and cooked something simple like pasta. After dinner I read myself to sleep. During the night I peed in a bucket to avoid walking to the outhouse where I had already seen too many spiders and on one occasion a large black snake.
It was on the evening of the second Friday when I heard the bell. The ringing was clear even though it was nearly a mile away. I walked outside and saw an orange glow above the trees. I decided to put on a pair of boots and investigate. The closer I got to town, the more the sky was alive in oranges and yellows. When I turned onto Second Street, I saw the church engulfed in flames.
A crowd had gathered, everyone standing to look at the fire, but no one was trying to put it out. I asked a man in the crowd about the fire department. He said that Dixon Ridge didn’t have one and added that the nearest one was too far away to do any good. Why not pump water from the river? I asked. No pump, he said. What about well water? Same answer. I was angry at the lack of action. I wanted to do something, organize something, start a bucket brigade, anything. But there was nothing to do. I yelled over the sound of the flames, “You’re just going to let it burn?” He didn’t look at me, didn’t answer. No one did.
The fire was so intense I stepped to the other side of the street. For a moment I thought I saw people inside the church running past the windows, but it was just smoke and color dancing. The noise grew louder, like the terrifying roar of a train. Popping sounds. The shrieks and screams of burning ghosts. At one point I thought I heard the old piano die. An explosion of notes, wires snapping. The windows exploded. Broken glass flew into the street. And flames rolled out of the windows under the eaves and caught the roof shingles. A woman screamed that they were the devil’s tongues.
I looked at the faces in the crowd. The men were standing in a large group watching. Hands tucked inside their jeans or bib overalls. Talking quietly to one another. Their sun-reddened faces glowing in the heat. The women stood apart from the men in twos and threes in cotton print dresses. Their long hair tied in knots on the tops of their heads. Standing silently with their arms crossed, backs to the fire to protect their faces and preserve their eyesight to keep watch on the children. They glanced over their shoulders now and then at the fire. Many of them, both men and women, wept at the death of something they loved.
Young men and boys chased sparks like fireflies and stomped them out when they could. Some were afraid other houses and perhaps even the woods would catch fire. Grass fires that started were quickly stamped out. Men stood on the roofs of nearby houses with buckets of water to douse the flying sparks. Boys played too close to the fire, and girls hid behind their mothers’ skirts. One small girl hid underneath her mother’s dress and stood with her small feet on top of her mother’s. A strange beast, I thought. A centauress with the body of a woman and four legs. It seemed that everyone who lived in Dixon Ridge was in the street that night.
As if for a final act, the roof of the church caved in. The cupola fell into the flames. And the school bell made a final sound as fountains of sparks exploded into the night sky. There was a sweet smell in the air. Burning hymnals, wooden benches, cloth curtains. And finally just the smell of ashes.
No one knew how the fire had started. There was speculation, of course. Someone said he heard firecrackers or bottle rockets going off. Another said it was caused by faulty wiring. The lights in the church had been bare bulbs hanging from wires strung across open roof trusses. And there was talk of god and the devil. One woman told me in confidential tones, “The devil is never far from Dixon Ridge.”
It was well past midnight when I started back up the hill. In an odd way, I think the fire consumed a small part of me. Over the next several days I thought and wrote about little else. I talked with Mildred and a couple of others that I met in the store or by the river. Everyone expressed sadness. Even Dan who told me he had never set foot inside the church.
My last day in Dixon Ridge was also my second Sunday there. I walked back to the church. I hadn’t planned to go, but something pulled me there. When I arrived, people were gathering in the street next to the ruins. Faint wisps of smoke still curled into the air along with the familiar acrid smell of ashes. The outdoor sermon seemed particularly appropriate. It was about healing the damaged parts of ourselves. There was singing, but it was more somber and without the accompaniment of the old upright. One young man tried vainly to pluck the chords of the hymns on his guitar. After the service, they took up a collection to begin building a new church. When it was over, I shook hands with some, thanked the pastor for her words, then left and walked through town to the river. At the Dixon Ridge Outboard Motor Repair, Dan gave me the key to the jon boat without me having to ask. I doubt if anyone had used it during my stay besides me. I got in, pulled the starter rope, and motored upriver. I passed three and four hundred foot cliffs, long gravel bars, impenetrable looking forests on one side, and farms on the other. When I had gone five maybe six miles, I reached a riffle that was too shallow to proceed any further. I turned off the motor, tilted the prop end out of the water, and laid across one of the broad wooden seats, my feet dangling over the side, drifting, strangely content. For two weeks I had managed to get away from my other life. And in a small way I felt I had connected with my grandmother by just being here.
Jim Woessner lives on the water in Sausalito, California. He has an MFA from Bennington College and has had poetry and prose published in online and print magazines, including the Blue Collar Review, California Quarterly, Friday Flash Fiction, 101 Words, 200 Word Short Story, Flash Fiction Magazine, Fewer Than 500, The Daily Drunk, and Close to the Bone. Additionally, two of his plays have been produced in community theatre.