Jerry clambered out of the driver's seat of his Cadillac and took in the view.
The grist mill was still there, perched over the top of the river like an absurd squatting elephant waiting to launch itself into the atmosphere. The building looked like it should have vanes on it, was the right shape and everything, conical but not quite, all stone. The blades were conspicuously absent, the wind ditched in favor of more interesting methods of getting something out of nothing.
The wall was still there, too, built out of stones kicked up by the water wheel's blades, or so the story goes. Having stopped in the center of town earlier, not needing anything really, just for the thrill of being unrecognized in somewhere so familiar, he had learned that the story had grown since he had last been there. The shopkeeper had told him about the mill worker who had been brained by one of those ejected rocks on his way home from work one night and how he had never been the same since, and how the stone that nailed him in the head was the last one needed to finish the wall, and that you could still see traces of blood on it if you looked hard enough.
Jerrry didn't believe a word of it but he indulged her; it was apparent that she liked the story, liked it well enough to tell an almost complete stranger, and he let it go. As a sort of kindness, he declined to tell her about how he had grown up casting lines into the river from that wall or that he remembered it being built from rocks salvaged from the ground when the city board had decided to level out the main drag once and for all to stop the cars from becoming airborn when they crossed the railroad tracks at anything more than fifteen miles per hour. The economy of such a small town worked in such a way that every improvement like that was wholeheartedly felt, one way or another - there were no fireworks on New Year's Eve that particular year, and one would be hard-pressed to imagine what had come of it apart from a slight decrease in suspension-related automotive repairs. Still. It was a pretty good year, all told.
He leaned on the wall, feeling out-of-place and enjoying it, as if he were the guy from the monopoly board with the stick-cane and the monocle, looking out over his accumulated wealth and being impatient to return home so that he could roll around in his soft, comforting pile of freshly minted hundred dollar bills.
The other side of town, directly across the river from where he was standing, wasn't pretty. The smokestacks, quiet nowadays, poked into the sky like the tangs of a fork, marring the carefully constructed Everytown, USA quality of the east side of the river, with its general store and its all day restaurant and its surprising lack of guilt.
When Jerry was growing up, there were two futures for a child born in this place - there was the army and there were the glassworks across the way. Both choices were marring, and few if any returned from either in as good shape as they were when they had left, be it from a bullet to the spine or a couple thousand lung-fulls of fiberglass, like getting paid to hang out in a mentholated cigarette filter. Jerry was one of the few who opted for neither and ended up doing both - he shredded glass for a few years until he noticed how the shards stuck in his fingers every night and made touching things, not painful exactly, but decidedly uncomfortable, so he left for the army thinking, well, at least it'd be quick if he got taken. He reckoned that if there's one thing the army hates, it's physical contact. A match made in heaven.
He didn't earn a scratch from his time pushing papers in uniform which was worse, somehow. He hadn't had a death wish or anything, but it would've been nice to have been able to take something away from his time in the armed services, something concrete, like a scar or a teary war buddy story. He had neither.
So he left the army and his typewriter and his filing cabinet behind, took out a massive loan, opened a glassworks of his own in a different state with the newest, safest equipment available at the time, trained the locals how to use it and, amazingly though not all that unsurprisingly, started to turn a profit. His employees were happy, he was comfortable and he didn't need to wear gloves to bed anymore to keep his sheets from feeling like sandpaper; neither did his employees.
This place, though, this quiet little town with its aging population of glass workers for whom such simple things as closeness and intimacy were painful in so many ways, still held a powerful draw for him. He liked the simplicity of the grist mill stuck on the border between the factories who could no longer afford to pay their electrical bills let alone their workforce, and the sleepy rural charm that comes with being able to buy your groceries, mail your Christmas presents, get a haircut and have your shoes resoled all in the same store with the same middle-aged woman bustling from counter to counter. He liked sitting by the mill and looking out at the bleak grey tapestry of buildings across the water, muted in such a way that he got the distinct impression that all the clouds in the world were manufactured there.
He walked back to his car, almost reluctant to leave the view behind. He would own the mill by morning and have local carpenters working on converting it into something livable; it would give the young men in the town an option other than bullets or insulation.
It was late. It was time to retire.