South of town they’d broken ground on the Saturn plant, men come from Michigan and Indiana to supervise the construction for GM. We stopped for a ham sandwich and orange soda at the market in Spring Hill and then drove north. Dad slowed and turned onto a side road. We pulled up to a rusted gate hung from a blackened creosote post, a NO HUNTING OR FISHING sign wired to it, and I got out and swung it open. Dad eased us across a narrow creek bottom. Ours now, he said, half the bank’s. Mostly ours. We drove until we hit a sagging netwire fence and then climbed to the ridge above. Our field leveled in clumps of fescue and rolled out to a grown-up fencerow on the highway. We got out, I dodged an old cow pie, and he lifted me onto the tailgate of his pickup. We shielded our eyes against the sun. I don’t want to get too Abrahamic here, he said, and I didn’t know what that meant. You have to imagine the streets there and there, he went on, pointing at intervals across the length of the pasture. Houses with sidewalks and fences and every one with a doctor or lawyer or banker getting up and driving to Nashville every morning. You’ll never have to work a cow again when it happens, he said, but I didn’t believe him. I wanted to run cattle, ride horses, grow dark across the back of my neck and spit tobacco like him. Nashville seemed a world away, a weekend trip. I didn’t understand sprawl, couldn’t grasp industry, population booms and immigration or advances in medical science. He laid his hand between my shoulders and said imagine: brick, concrete, steel, people unending. They have to go somewhere. He grabbed hold of me and set me to the ground again. He looked out over the future another minute, and then we left.
He was nearly right. Years after the bank takes the land it becomes a strip mall, a medical complex, one broad tract still waiting to develop. Houses unfold around it. People flood away in the morning and trickle back at night. They hold close and breathe carefully, grow themselves by a child at the time, pausing to reconsider. I learn to count and never work a cow again. Years after the boom slows and settles I creep into the small Chinese restaurant in the shopping center at the heart of what used to be our farm. My ex-wife waits at the rear of the long dining room, back to the door. She’s already filled a plate from the buffet. She isn’t worried. We sit and talk and she can’t believe how quiet it is. She hasn’t visited in several years. I tell her it’s a Tuesday. She shows me pictures on her phone, surf beating at rocks or trees shooting tremors into the sky wherever the city doesn’t threaten to fall into the sea. Strangers wander about the corners of every shot. Even where there’s nothing, she says, there’s still the people. After lunch I drive her into the countryside—she’s right, it’s not really empty—past rising subdivisions and finally into scattered houses and tilled fields and woods. Up a crumbling tar-chip road we stop at the hilltop cemetery where her mother and my father lie buried. She places flowers on their graves, and we weave inside the old iron fence to read the names etched on stones, find what’s familiar and what’s the same. I think she comes to a different count than I do. She thanks me for coming, for taking the day. Around us the hill drops to grassy fields and patches of trees, a house or two and old railroad tracks in the distance, but behind it all we hear four lanes of traffic, just out of sight, powering and passing place to place and life to life. We don’t have long. We stand in the disappearance of our afternoon, what’s already gone, and try to discern what’s left to be.