Spring slouched into Hardyville, reluctant and truculent. The cheery banners of our departed do-gooders still fluttered from lampposts, but March gales ("In like a lion; out like a lion," as they say around here) had shredded them. Their frays and rips reflected the tattered state of Hardyville itself.
The mayor and city council had been gone for weeks. City hall was just a hole in the ground. Even the buckets of tar and the bags of feathers had been put away.
But there was no evading the fact; after its nearly fatal bout of government, Hardyville would never be the same. That was bad. And that was good.
The bad was some of the new people. Displaced city types still expected their potholes to be filled and their neighbors taxed. But worse was the fearsome realization among us old-timers that Hardyville -- good old isolated, independent Hardyville -- wasn't immune from the modern disease of "do unto others simply because you have the power."
Hardyvillians, new and old, were mere humans. Not saints.
We now tip-toed around, figuratively speaking. We didn't trust our neighbors. We didn't quite trust ourselves. We squabbled about the futile task of "putting things back the way they were before."
Some parts of the old Hardyville were simply missing. And I don't just mean city hall. What about Dora-the-Yalie? She had ridden off in the Toyota Prius of ex-councilman Dan White and hadn't been seen since. Carty muttered, "Good riddance. She was a twit, anyway." But she was our twit, I thought sadly. Not to mention our conscience. I missed her.
Still, some changes were positive -- and those also involved new people. Besides the good old Goodins with their second-hand store, several other newcomers had opened businesses. Liberty Avenue and Freedom Way were coming to life like never before.
The owners of the Bon Mot ice cream parlor were busy preparing for the warm season. They had gotten through the winter competing with the Hog Trough to see who could sell the best coffee and pastries at the best price.
Charlotte Carolina, newly arrived in town when government hit (poor thing), bought the smashed remnants of Sassy Frassy's All-Natural Hemp Boutique for next to nothing. With the help of her hardworking son, sulking daughter, and a repentant Young Curmudgeon, she put the place back together. She was now busily selling controversial hemp washcloths and wallets with the air of a lifelong churchwoman who, for reasons unclear even to herself, has taken up the harlot's trade.
There was also Bark's Tavern, out on the north edge of town, where Walt-the-Barkeep presided over nights of music and dancin' like Hardyville had never seen.
There were still a few gaps. Pickle's Groce Mart was nothing but a shell, the political Pickles having fled along with the rest of our tin-pot dictators and their corrupt clans. As he had done throughout the long sales-tax boycott, old cowboy Nat Lyons continued to operate an impromptu grocery store from a corner of one of his horse barns. But that lay many miles west of town.
Pickle's hadn't exactly been what you'd call a health-food store. This far off the beaten path, the produce truck doesn't make many stops. Especially when the local idea of a "vegetable" is a can of cold baked beans. Nat's was the same at first. Cans. Boxes. A few specialty items. But "fresh" was just another word in the dictionary between French fries and Froot Loops. It was discouraging to trudge that far out of town for such a dismal, badly presented selection of alleged foods.
Then one day, I walked into Nat's Grocery Barn and ... lo and behold! ... a few feet from his industrial metal shelves and brown corrugated box grocery "displays," was a long wooden bin, divided into segments and bathed in appetizing light. Over it, fine sprays periodically rained down upon ... fresh, beautiful veggies!
"Organic" said the hand-calligraphed signs. "Earth-friendly."
"Nat?" I squeaked. "You ...?"
Nat, who'd come up to my shoulder while I gawped, shuffled his feet. "You like it, Claire?" he said. And I'd have sworn I saw him blush.
"Of course I like it!" I cried, rushing up to the nearest bin and picking out a ripe melon. "But it's not like you. I mean ..." I dashed to the next bin. Carrots! And the next, crispy fresh red-leaf lettuce without a sign of the liquid black rot standard at Pickle's. And ... "Nat," I said, picking up another vegetable and waving it vigorously in his face, "Arugula, Nat? Organic arugula???"
"Thought some variety might be good," he mumbled, busying himself straightening up one of the little recycled cardboard price signs.
Try as I might, I couldn't get Nat to reveal where those miracle vegetables came from, or how they happened to be in those bins in his store. He wouldn't tell anybody. And of course, we all nagged him about it for weeks.
And who, you might ask, would buy arugula in Hardyville? Well, ask away. Many of the newcomers seemed to find it to their taste. Janelle at the new and gentrified Hogge Trough Grille and Feede gave it a try (though I understand that large batches of salad had to be thrown out that evening).
But Hardyvillians, old and new, weren't Nat's only customers. While browsing the growing grocery selection, which soon included bins of bulk grains and spices, we found ourselves shopping beside a whole new class of people.
Some of them wore Birkenstocks. And peasant skirts. And natural-fiber hand-woven ponchos. They weren't Hardyville's late, unlamented political Birkenstockers. But their kissin' cousins.
Now normally -- normally, I stress -- this wouldn't have been any big deal. If people can't tolerate peaceful differences between them and their neighbors, then what good is freedom? But as Debra, my friend from the real world, put it, Hardyville at this moment was a little like the U.S. right after 9-11. We'd been smacked (by our former government) and we were jumpy about getting smacked again. Suspicious of anyone who might even think about wanting to think about controlling and taxing us.
So we shopped at Nat's among these mysterious strangers, silent and uneasy. We didn't know -- or particularly care -- where they came from. All we hoped is that they wouldn't show up in town and start trying to run things. And to our relief they didn't. In fact, they appeared to want no more to do with old Hardyvillians than we wanted to do with them.
But where they went, when they toted home their woven hemp tote bags colored with all natural vegetable dyes, nobody knew, at first. Not Hardyville itself. So ... where?
And then one day Marty Harbibi solved two mysteries at once: where Nat's organic produce was coming from and where the new people in the peasant garb were going.
Do you remember the mysterious new driveway I spotted while returning from the Hilltop Hermitage last summer? Well, up there the peasant-people went. And down from that driveway the produce came. Marty saw it for himself. The driveway was just a mile or so uphill from Nat's gate (that's rubbing shoulders in Hardyville terms). Marty was out plinking in the badlands one day when he saw several hybrid cars and old beater Saabs go up. He also saw Nat's truck come down, riding low on its springs from all the gourds and strawberries and tomatoes loaded in the back.
Fresh produce? Enough of it to sell? Grown in Hardy County's sand and sagebrush? No way! Or only in a pretty darned impressive greenhouse.
"Them hippies couldn't afford big, fancy greenhouses up there," Marty insisted.
"Dunno," Carty sneered. "Might be their mamas and daddies give 'em a lot of money. And them veg'tables is comin' outa there. Can't deny that."
But if somebody had built anything big up there at the end of that mysterious driveway, wouldn't some Hardyville hardware store or jack-of-all-trades have gotten some work out of the project? And most assuredly, we had not.
"The Driveway Place," as everybody shorthanded it, became the hot topic around the Hog Trough's big, round table. Come to think of it, it was probably also the hot topic at the Hell-in-a-Handbasket Saloon, Bark's Tavern, the Ladies Gun Club, and the private rooms at Miss Fitz's Academy. Well, maybe not the private rooms at Miss Fitz's where people were ... er, otherwise occupied.
Still ... nobody wanted to venture up that driveway to see what was really going on. Us in our Carhartts. Them in their 100 percent sustainably grown no-harm-to-the-rainforest whatevers. Ne'er the twain shall meet. Once in a while, a few of them would come shop at Sassy Frassy's. Or they might stop in and inform the owners of the Bon Mot that ice cream savagely exploits helpless members of the bovine species. But our narrow gazes followed them everywhere they went around town. And they mostly conducted their business then skedaddled.
But curiosity, though it may kill cats, is life's breath to human beings. Finally, egged on by the others, Bob-the-Nerd and I got in his battered Honda one day and headed up there to say our howdies to the new neighbors. We got chosen, I do believe, because (again in the words of Carty), "You two are about as strange as they are in y'r own ways. B'sides, if them Gaia-lovin' airheads give any trouble, you two are less likely to shoot 'em than some of us."
Carty had a point there. So off Bob and I went, more than a little apprehensive about what we might encounter out there in the vast emptiness, so far from town.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. Thank you to Debra for helping me navigate the perils of this column.