Each time, there's less that I know. Each time I go back to that little town, I realize it's not such a little town anymore, and that there are conveniences and services we never thought we'd see outside the big city a few miles away -- a shopping center, a cinemaplex, a video store, a Chinese carryout, a chain drugstore, condominiums, a football stadium at the high school, even a family counselor with a shingle in the center of town.
Things the people of the town did without for a couple of hundred years.
So each time I go back, I look for the security of the familiar -- the ash trees in the big yards along West Union Street, the old sidewalks with the brass Works Progress Administration plaques embedded in concrete, the Civil War monument on the town common, the churches, the houses of friends, the coffee shop, the old trails to summer fishing holes and winter skating ponds, the faces of classmates.
It's harder to see all this as the years pass. The town, a dot on the map of southeastern Massachusetts, is a lot bigger than when I left it, so big they're talking about building an addition to the middle school next year.
I used to think there were only two kinds of people in that little town -- those who stayed, and those who left. I never figured for dozens of new families moving in and building big colonials on cul-de-sacs. But it's happened.
The other day, surrounded by faces I did not recognize, a pair of eyes shot out of the human traffic in front of the supermarket.
You know the slightly uneasy feeling. At the instant of recognition, you have two choices -- to pretend you didn't notice, or dive in with a handshake. I chose the latter.
It was Duncan. I hadn't seen him in 10 years, since the last class reunion.
He wore a quilted field jacket and a down vest, a pair of jeans and work boots. A baseball cap crowned the upper reach of a forehead that had been revealed as Duncan's hairline receded.
I don't remember exactly how the conversation started but it quickly went all over the place -- from talk of mutual friends, to the events of our own lives, to the deaths of friends and relatives, to how the town has changed.
"I come down here to see my kids, that's all," Duncan said. "I spend as much time as I can in Maine. I got divorced a few years ago, which was really a bummer, really bad. But I have a great relationship with my [ex-]wife and I see my kids just about whenever I want."
The conversation lasted only 15 minutes but, as we juggled groceries in the parking lot, we packed in as much detail as possible, some of it very personal. That's what was remarkable about the encounter -- how quickly it became so intimate. I guess Duncan felt the same way I did about the increasing strangeness of the town. We were both happy to see a familiar face and to share personal stories.
By the time we were through, I knew all about Duncan's jobs, his kids, his medical condition, his big argument with his father. I remember feeling unexpectedly at ease with him, surprisingly confident that I could be forthright and honest and tell him things I wouldn't tell a stranger. We were both unafraid of the truth -- in Duncan's case, about a drinking problem that almost killed him a year ago. The old bond held, 20 years after our graduation from high school.
"Do you remember the log cabin?" Duncan asked.
He brought up something I never knew about -- a log cabin where a bunch of young mugs used to gather and party.
"Me and Jeff and Dave built it," Duncan said, uttering names I hadn't heard in years. As he spoke, he became increasingly prideful.
"We started building it the Labor Day weekend after high school graduation, 1972," he said. "You were away by then."
"Off to college," I said.
"But me and Dave and Jeff, we did it all ourselves. It took about three years altogether. We had a wood stove. We spent a lot of nights there, had a lot of good times. We were just three guys hanging out, didn't know what we were going to do yet. So we built a log cabin."
Now Duncan was actually beaming as he spoke.
"I think this fall we'll have a celebration," he said. "The cabin is 20 years old."
Through all the rough times in his life and through all the changes that had taken place in a town we thought would never change, the cabin still stood, deep in the woods of his boyhood.