A Town Without Sidewalks

Winter came fast to the Green Mountains of Vermont. The fall passed with grace in a haze of orange and yellow leaves drifting down to form a carpet which was buried once and for all, in November, by a light dust of snow. By early December the real storms came. Sometimes there were two inches of powder an hour, sometimes a foot. Great for seasonal skiers, not for residents of small towns like Custer.

Ace’s work was cut out for him. Custer was thirty miles from Vergennes on State 120, a winding road cut into the side of the mountain. Some called the road treacherous because there was no guard rail to protect from a sheer, fifty-yard drop into a raging white river at the base of a ravine. Ace snorted as he hooked a flat rusted snowplow to the front of his truck. Just drive slowly. Everyone liked to complain, now a-days.

Custer was home to fifty residents. It sat underneath the peak of a long, plateau-like mountain, which was thick with dense trees and northeastern underbrush, like the coat of a shaggy bear. It was a quiet place, unlike Vergennes, which lay at the base of the mountain. It was a large town, practically a city. It had over a thousand residents and two sidewalks, one on either side of Main Street, and a church with a bell that rang at every hour starting at 10 a.m.

The engine of his truck hiccupped and skipped and hummed as the plow scaped towards Vergennes. The snow was soft, gentle. A few stubborn leaves remained in the motionless, slumbering trees.

In Vergennes, Ace turned around in the church parking lot and headed back up the mountain. Heaped snow tumbled off the metal plow over the ravine into the river, which was loud at the banks as fresh sheets of ice formed and broke. The river’s center was thinking about freezing. The current was not convinced that winter had come. Ace looked for cracks in the road. The pavement of 120 hugged the side of the mountain. It was slightly slanted towards the ravine. It was not a good place for a road, but the best the engineers could do. Even so, the road had cracked two winters in a row. Something for Ace to keep an eye on.

Ace was a wide man. Over the years, he’d developed layers of fat over his muscle, earned from years of good eating and unseen manual labor on the mountain. His black beard was painted with shades of dusty grey. His face was wrinkled from smiling and squinting in the sun. His combover did not cover the bald spot on his head. He did not own sunglasses or Chap Stick. He was from Custer, not Vergennes.

Back in Custer, he came to the General County Store, which was also the post office and the gas station. He turned left on Jefferson. He plowed the firehouse first and then the school in the adjacent building. Next to the school was a burnt-out farmhouse full of mice and wild cats where the teenagers would sometimes go to start fires and smoke pot. It was 6 a.m. No teenagers this early. As the sun broke over the trees to the north, Ace thought about a sip from his flask. No, too early. He could wait an hour or two.

He went back for the general store. After three passes with the flat plow, the lot was clear. Ace waved at Dick as the old man pulled in.

“You need help opening this morning?” Ace asked.

Dick shook his head.

“Got one coming in?” Ace nodded at the sky.

“Two more inches in an hour,” Dick said. He didn’t have internet, but he had a radio. “We got milk.”

“I’ll be back tonight,” Ace said.

They each put up a hand. The screen door banged as Dick pushed through the unlocked door. Ace rapped his fingers on the steering wheel then pulled off.

When there was a snow dump Ace would take the morning to check on the old folks. Many of them lived alone. He kept the metal plow on the front of his truck and lowered it when he came to their driveways. There were few words of thanks but no matter the time of his stop, folks would come to their doorways to say hello. A word or two of pleasant exchange was all the thanks he needed.

Elenore needed a bit of extra help. When he was done with the driveway, he did the front walk with a shovel. He scraped the ice from the windshield of her old Ford. There were three boxes in her driveway, still there since the middle of fall. On the boxes were fallen orange leaves. He knocked on her door. Elenore didn’t answer the door, but she came forward to the upstairs window.

 “You want me to take these in the garage?” Ace called up.

She shook her head. There were two dogs. They started barking. Elenore disappeared from the window. The dogs stopped barking. She returned. Ace waved to her. He hopped in his truck.

Jake, Elenore’s husband, had left for Florida, or Alabama; the story had changed once or twice, but what remained was a helpless little old woman in a less than cozy little cabin. There was a fireplace and wooden shelves which held collections of ceramic mugs and jars of pickled vegetables. The wooden walls weren’t sealed properly and a howling wind stole the warmth from the room in winter. The grout in the bathroom had peeled away and the faucet dripped. There was a rug made from a black bear skin that was possibly illegal, but Ace felt no need to ask about it. Let the woman have her peace.

Ace had asked to fix the grout in the bathroom, and the leaky faucet; he’d all but made a fool of himself trying to convince Elenore to let him reinsulate the house. The old bird had her quirks all right. She did not like change. Or maybe it was him. The personal history began at casual greetings in the local church and ended at a held door at the county store. He helped her in the winters sometimes, she kept to herself, and that was about it. Still, he felt for the poor woman, as did many of the other old boys. Not the young ones, though, like Roger.

Roger lived in the plot beyond Elenore’s backyard. They were separated by an acre of thirty-foot tall dead pine trees, most of which still stood, the ghost of an old forest inhabited by mice and fox. Roger had inherited the house from his father. Elenore had been a neighbor for over forty years.

“She makes me uncomfortable,” Roger had said.

They’d been at the county store. Dick was behind the desk pretending to read an old newspaper. He snorted as Ace raised an eyebrow.

“All I’m saying is she’s an old woman who could use some help, you’re the closest of us around.”

“All I’m saying is she makes me uncomfortable,” Roger shrugged. “I’m not gonna go over there.”

Ace and Dick didn’t have a response. Roger paid for a jug of milk, the gas on the pump, and a ham sandwich with mayonnaise. The screen door banged shut behind him.

“Elenore had a thing for Roger’s old man,” Dick said. “I heard he used to sneak over to her place late at night through the woods, when the wife was asleep. Back in the day. Could explain it. I wouldn’t want her creeping around near my place either.”


“Yeah. People up here used to help each other. Good to know we still got a real man in you up here,” Dick said.

“Wish we could say the same for the young people,” Ace said. “Elenore’s not the only one needs help about now. I’m getting old, Dick.”

He’d leaned into the flask a bit heavy after that, but he’d still made it home. He always seemed to make it back home.


Ace was the garbage man. He also ran the town dump, an extension of his vast front yard. There were ten dogs, or maybe eleven. One or two a year were usually killed by passing trucks or hungry bears but there were always more to take their place. Always more dogs. If only humans could reproduce like that.

He’d had four beautiful daughters, all married to men from large towns, towns with sidewalks. Good men, for city slickers. Employed, respectable. Two grandchildren on the way.

His youngest, Belle, had almost married Roger. The discarded match left Ace with mixed feelings. Roger was a Getenburg. They were a well-established family. Grandpa Getenburg had been the preacher at the local church. Roger was educated. He’d gone to State College and still worked for the State. But he’d gotten himself so high and mighty that he didn’t bother to help the neighbors. Little prick. Still, Roger was one of the only young people who had bothered to stay, so there was that. And it would’ve been nice to have Belle in town.

Ace was the constable. Custer didn’t have a police force. There was no need. Sure, there was crime, but it could be handled within the families affected. There simply weren’t enough people to justify an active force. People here had always seemed to solve their own problems. Little reason for the State to get involved. Keep it local.

Custer was home to three hundred folks, a hundred of whom were classified “elderly” by the State. The young people moved out to the towns with sidewalks. The teenagers took a bus to Vergennes for school and when the winter weather was bad, they were educated by the outdoors, the way they used to be. There were fewer teenagers by the year. The kids played in the snow or the mud.

Ace wasn’t married. He was between wives. There had been three, and he had only good things to say about each of them. Each, in turn, had gotten sick of the junkyard out the front window, the trailer on top of a wooden porch he called a home, the bourbon taste of his lips, the slow life of the mountain. They’d gotten sick of his lack of ambition, his contentment. Like an eddy in the river, it was easy to get stuck on the mountain, an orange leaf drifting about on the surface of a trapped, spiraling current. That was how Ace liked it. But not so the beautiful women he was fond of.

The winters weren’t too bad. Scarf over the mouth and nose when it got windy. Lay low. Collect the checks that were due from over the summer. Ace cut most everyone’s lawns and didn’t charge. They always paid, fair and square, when they could. If they needed goods, there was no need to go to Vergennes. They had all they needed at the county store.

In the evenings he and Dick would meet at the fire station and play cards with the Chief and his son. The Chief was a heavy smoker and his son was strong, handsome, and simple. They were a good game of cards, a good evening. One evening, as the winter drew on, Ace took split wood from the hutch outside the fire station. He made his way around town and distributed it to the elderly as he collected the garbage, which he was a day late for. No one cared as long as he got there eventually.

Elenore still had three packages in her driveway. Ace frowned. He collected her garbage.

It took him five minutes to make it to Roger’s house. It was wooden like a cabin but there was indoor propane heating and brand-new water pipes. The front yard was cleared of trees so that, from the inside, one could look through the huge, paneled glass windows at the distant Green Mountain Range. There was a wraparound porch and a covered and screened veranda.

Roger was on the porch. He was not tall. His face was symmetrical, and his eyebrows were thick and black. He wore a brown leather jacket and threw a ball with his dog. The dog barked and wagged his tail. Ace got out of his truck.

“Elenore might need some extra help this winter, and I live further away than you. For instance, there are some packages she needs lifted into her garage,” Ace said.

Roger let out a deep sigh. He frowned.

“Alright,” Roger said.

Ace nodded to him. As he drove back to his trailer he sipped out of his flask. It was all very dramatic. He was looking forward to his armchair.


The next week Ace was on a garbage run when he noticed the packages in Elenore’s driveway.

The garage didn’t have a lock. Ace had tried to install one for Elenore a couple years back but she’d turned him down. The lip of the metal door was frozen to the ground. He kicked it with his boot until it came loose. He wrapped his hand around the frozen metal handle. The flat door roared as he heaved it upward.

Ace carried the three boxes into the garage. He recognized most of Jake’s stuff, covered in motheaten curtains and rough wool blankets. There was a pinball table and a stack of framed posters and a box of records. There were shovels and axes and saws all leaned against the walls and covered in blackish orange rust. There was a tarp which covered something lumpy in a wheelbarrow. There was a slight track of disturbance in the dust which led from the wheel of the barrow to the door of the cabin. Ace took a step closer. Something dangled out from the cavity, something stiff. The tip of that something was stuck to the frozen floor with ice. Ace grabbed the corner of the tarp. He lifted it and saw that it was an icy blue finger attached to the floor. The finger was attached to a frosted arm underneath a brown leather jacket.


Ace threw up his elbow over his face and fell on his butt. He kicked his legs and scrambled back to his feet. He glanced out the door of the garage to the cabin. He saw the hand. On the finger was a class ring from a State College. He lifted the tarp just enough to see the rest of Roger’s body. There were two black blast wounds in his chest. Everything was still there but the head. The head was gone. He let the tarp fall.

Ace stood still for a moment. He blinked hard and breathed through his nose. It would be a bad idea, he thought, to pass out. He rubbed his eyes.

Ace ran into Elenore in the driveway. She had come from the woods behind her house. Elenore was short and wrinkled but not frail, like he’d remembered. When was the last time he’d really seen her? Her back was straight and there was an unnerving youth in her blue eyes. Her mouth was wide and pursed. The two dogs hid behind her.

Elenore and Ace stared at each other.

“I took your packages in,” Ace said.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Elenore said.

“It was no problem. See you later.”

Ace nodded and tried to smile. He climbed into the truck. Elenore stood in the driveway and watched him. The dogs had their tails between their legs.

As angry black clouds drifted overhead, the air became congested with thick white snow. The truck’s engine kicked and sputtered.

“Not now, baby,” Ace said.

He turned the key again. The engine coughed to life. As he pulled into the street, he saw Elenore disappear into her garage.

Ace headed for the center of town. As he approached the end of Jefferson, he saw fast approaching headlights in the rearview mirror. It was Elenore’s Ford. Ace stopped at the stop sign. There was a revolver in his glovebox. The bullets were probably five years old. There was a telephone at home but the roads were bad and about to get worse. Who knew the next chance he’d have to get down the mountain. The Ford drew closer. It was moving too fast. Ace turned right and headed towards Vergennes.

In the rearview mirror he watched as the Ford slowed at the stop sign. It drifted on the slick road and smacked into the porch of the General Store. The windchimes rattled as the Ford’s wheels spun without traction in the snow. The wheels caught. The Ford followed him down the mountain as snow piled on the thin road.

The Ford caught up to his truck. It tailgated. Ace could see Elenore in his rearview mirror. Her lips were still pursed and her shoulders were tense and high, pressed underneath her ears. She honked twice, two sharp beeps. Ace ignored her.

They drifted down along the ravine with the gentle snow. Ace had his fingers tight on the wheel. Up ahead he saw a crack in the road. Ace pressed on the brake. He wiped condensation from the front windshield with a bare hand. It was cold. There was sweat on his forehead. The truck slowed to a complete stop. Ace threw the door open and took two sharp steps away from the door. He whirled around, the revolver held straight in front of him, as the Ford came to a stop behind him.

“Step out of the car!” he shouted.

Elenore paused for a moment. She put the Ford in park and glanced in her rearview mirror. Ace closed his left eye and took a step forward, his weapon leveled at the Ford. Elenore opened the door and stepped out. She stood in the road. Her hands hung at her sides.

“Go home, Elenore. It’s not safe to be out here.”

“I need to get to town,” she said.

“There’s a crack in the road. I need to look at it before I drive over it,” Ace explained. “Once the town says it’s safe, you can come down. But not yet. I need to take a look.”

“Go ahead, take a look.”

“I’m not turning around, Elenore. Not until you leave.”

“What did you see?”

“Enough,” Ace said.

“Put away the gun,” Elenore commanded.

“No,” Ace said.

“He trespassed. He’s a trespasser on my property.”

“Jesus, Elenore, you share a damned yard,” Ace said.

“There’s no proof. He might just be missing. You don’t know what these kids are up to nowadays. Especially these young men. Always getting off to who knows what. Up to no good, smoking and messing around. Doing whatever they want, running around, no consequences, no consequences at all!”

Ace’s grip tightened on the revolver. He shivered. His fingers were numb.

“You turn around and go home, Elenore. It’s not safe to be driving out here,” he said.

“There’s no proof,” she pleaded.

Ace winced at the tone of her voice. It made her sound young.

 “You need to understand, Ace. I need you to know how I feel.”

“I’m getting back in my truck. Don’t follow me,” Ace said firmly.

Ace hopped up in the cab. He kept one eye on Elenore as he shifted into gear. They both held their breath as Ace inched over the crack in the road and snow. He made it over safely. The wheels turned slowly through fresh snow. Underneath the powder, the road was a sheet of polished ice. Ace kept his foot light on the brake and one eye on the rearview mirror. The Ford followed him over the crack.

They rounded two more bends before Elenore tried to ram him. Ace watched the distance between the vehicles close. They were coming up on a sharp left turn. Straight ahead and to the right was a sheer drop where the river had cut a switchback, generations ago. Ace turned the wheel towards the cliffside and hit the gas. Elenore clipped him. His truck fishtailed for a moment, then righted. He switched to the brake and skid to a halt just before the turn. The Ford’s momentum carried Elenore far past him. The wheels slipped over ice without a sound. The Ford slid to the cliff’s edge and, as the wheels spun helplessly, tipped over the edge into the ravine.

There was a crash and a shattering of glass. Too close to have gone all the way down. Ace stepped out of his truck. He crept towards the edge of the cliff.

Just below the edge, The Ford was pinned by its own weight against an oak tree. Fifty yards below the Ford’s spinning wheels, the river had finally frozen to a crystalline standstill. Elenore was squirming just behind the shattered driver’s side window. Ace wanted to tell her to stop fighting, that she was safe as long as she stayed still. Elenore began to bang on horn. The oak tree groaned as the truck teetered. Ace took a step towards the edge of the cliff. He held out his arms to the sides. The road was icy.

This, all of this, was beyond his capacity to deal with. He took one last look at Elenore, whose eyes were pinned to the creaking oak tree above her head as her hands fought with the seatbelt. Ace made his way back to his truck.

He’d left it running. It was fifteen more minutes to town, and another five to the police station. Ace missed the turn and took a lap around town. There were families in the street. They wore colorful coats and held hands. The bell in the church tolled ten in the morning. Ace shook his head. He parked in front of the station. He walked through the heated entryway.

“Hello,” Ace said. “I need to report a death. Well, no – a murder. And an accident.”


The trial was scheduled for the first day of spring. It was a shame that such a bright light had been extinguished from the community, people said, and miraculous that the old woman had survived that accident. No one had such positive things to say about Roger until his untimely death, nor worse things about the woman that they’d all but forgotten about, who wasn’t quite as old as they’d remembered. The Ford had been hauled away but the oak tree at the bend in the road was cracked. A split ran from its trunk halfway up to the bare branches. It would fall eventually, but for the winter, it held on. Some called it a miracle, but Ace knew that the tree had died soon after being struck. Its roots had disconnected.

Photo by Abeer Zaki on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Aaron Salzman

Aaron Salzman is a writer and MFA/MA candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Aaron's work has been published in Quagmire Literary Magazine and is forthcoming in Artful Dodge. He's won two Donaldson Prizes, one for fiction and one for short non-fiction, from the College of Wooster. He lives in Fairbanks, where he is the Editor-in-Chief of The Sun Star newspaper.