The town where I was born was situated in the mountains of Massachusetts, twenty or thirty miles away from any appreciable civilization. The population hovered around a thousand, spread over an area three times that of the average city.

The biggest local feature was the country store, which sold gasoline, video cassettes, and giant wheels of cheese.

We lived on top of one of the more significant peaks in the town. Next door to us lived my mother's parents, who had purchased a tract of land larger than the Vatican City, then settled about three acres of it. The rest was a big untamed wilderness, where we built dams and campsites and swam in the three freezing rivers that ran through it.

This must be the place, right? Every morning I shipped off on the bus to the lousy consolidated school five miles away, and traded baseball cards with Trevor Fox, who lived down the street from me. Trevor's lawn was composed of trucks up on blocks and shotgun casings. Oddly enough, the school playground was covered with dead casings, too, buried among the rocks.

Trevor's father beat his mother, of course. It almost seems like a given now; they weren't the happiest of families.

A year before we left, the EPA closed the country store down -- gas from the two ancient pumps had been leaking underground and into the river. Local wildlife was devestated.

My friend Chris lived on the other side of town. Our families had dinner or hot cocoa together sometimes. We played Stratego and AtariVision in our free time. I saw him a few months ago selling Christmas trees on the corner. My grandmother was driving and sped up slightly. I didn't quite know what to think.

Kevin was my good buddy after Chris and I stopped hanging out so much. We'd play video games every Sunday after church; we were on the same baseball team; his family was a little bit dysfunctional. By local standards, though, they weren't too bad. My mother and I went to meet his family last year to reminisce and such about old times. We waited for them in front of the old supermarket for two hours before giving up and calling their house. No answer. We called Kevin's sister's cellphone, which we'd been given if other numbers didn't work. She answered.

"I'm sorry they haven't showed up, guys. My mother just had an aneurysm."

Just like that. Oxygen flow had been cut off to large parts of her brain. She was comatose for three months. When my mother went to see her, she didn't recognize her, or anyone else.

Our next-door neighbors had a bitter, knock-down, drag-out divorce. We still see them individually once in a while.

Down the street, Ms. Rabowitz hanged herself.

We don't go back much anymore. My grandparents still live there, but they've retired and spend a couple of weeks at home at most. Some small towns are not just the farms and romance that people imagine them to be.