Dying small towns and the ‘sepulchre of lost dreams’

The Jacksons: From the July 2 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator

cartoon image of a family seated at a table

Quaint little town you got here,” said the lanky greying gentleman who had seated himself, without invitation, at Andrew Jackson’s table by the window of the café. “Very picturesque.”

There was a moment of silence while the three original occupants of the table, Grant Toews, Barry Jenkins and Andrew, considered this.

“You ain’t from here then,” said Barry at length. “From Manitoba I mean. We don’t call this quaint. If we want quaint we go to Saskatchewan. And when we call it quaint we don’t mean it as a compliment.”

“Well I do mean it as a compliment,” said the gentleman pleasantly. He stared out the window and across the street. “I mean look at that,” he said. “A used bookstore called The Pauper’s Prints. Where else are you gonna see something like that, if not in a tiny Prairie town? And housed in what appears to be an old abandoned granary at that. If that’s not the definition of quaint then I don’t know what is.”

“Well that’s one thing we have in common,” said Grant.

“What?” said the stranger.

“We both don’t know what the definition of quaint is,” said Grant. “And you can’t really call the Pauper’s Prints a bookstore. They haven’t sold a book since 2007.”

“I thought they sold a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey in 2013,” said Andrew.

Grant shook his head. “They had one in stock, remember?” he said. “But there was a protest so they took it off the shelf.”

“That’s right,” said Andrew. “I remember now. Who was it that protested again?”

Grant shrugged. “Some guy from Altona,” he said. “Parked himself on the sidewalk with a big sign on a cold October day and then the wind picked up to 100 miles an hour and Angela felt sorry for the guy so she took the book off the shelf so he could quit protesting and invited him in for tea.”

The stranger drew a little notepad from his pocket and scribbled in it.

“What are you doing?” said Barry. “Taking notes? Are you some kind of spy or something?”

The stranger just chuckled. “What makes you think I’m a spy?” he said.

“Well you’re not from here,” said Barry, “so that right there is very suspicious. Plus you can write and most likely also read, which is something I understand all spy’s have to be able to do. So what else could you be?”

“I could be a writer,” said the stranger.

There was another silence.

“Pretty sure you’re a spy,” said Barry.

“Actually I am a writer,” said the stranger. “I write a blog called When in Canada. “I’m doing a series on dying Canadian towns.”

“So what are you doing here?” said Grant. “You should be in Plum Coulee.”

“Hey, watch it!” said Barry. “I’m from Plum Coulee. Compared to this sepulchre of lost dreams, Plum Coulee is a thriving metropolitan centre of commerce and culture.”

The stranger scribbled again in his notebook. “Sepulchre of lost dreams,” he said. “That’s very good.”

“It’s not accurate,” said Andrew. This town is really, really more of a graveyard of hope and ambition. But I wouldn’t expect someone from Plum Coulee to know that. So go ahead and call it a sepulchre of lost dreams, but then don’t be surprised if people think you’re talking about Gretna.”

The stranger scribbled furiously.

“What’s a blog?” said Grant. “My daughter’s always going on about this blogger and that blogger. I thought bloggers were youthful delinquents sitting in their parents’ suburban basements playing World of Warcraft and occasionally writing insane articles about ridiculous conspiracy theories and posting them on the Internets.”

“That’s a pretty good description of a lot of bloggers,” said the stranger. “But not all. Some of us are retired journalists sitting in our parents’ suburban basements writing blogs about serious topics that nobody reads.”

“You live with your parents?” said Barry. “You must be like, 60.”

Sixty-two actually,” said the stranger, getting up to go. “As long as I live with them, my parents can stay in the house instead of moving into a residence.” He stuffed the notebook back into his pocket. “Good day gentlemen,” he said and turned and headed for the door.

The three of them watched him go.

“I still think he’s a spy,” said Barry.

“He’s a writer,” said Andrew.

“How can you tell?” asked Barry.

“He forgot to pay for his coffee,” said Andrew.

“I’ll pay for it,” said Grant. “I sort of feel sorry for him.”

“You do?” said Barry. “Why?”

“He came in here looking for a story,” said Grant. “And all he got was us.”

Barry thought about that for a second, then reached for his wallet. True enough,” he said. “I’ll pay for half.”

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