Getting Lost on the Estate
You couldn’t get there straight from our property, even though it was directly behind us. Our backyard ended in a swampy, wooded area that seemed impenetrable to us as children. It was the place we dumped the Christmas trees in January, and where lightning bugs and mosquitos flew out in equal profusion. Instead of bushwhacking through that mess, the thing to do was to cut through the back of the neighbor’s yard, where the boggy terrain was contained in a culvert crossed by an old stone bridge, so abandoned that grass grew entirely across its span. It felt to us, as kids, like some magical path to a lost world.
This world was an abandoned property, maybe twenty-five acres, jammed into a hidden triangle between the county road, the railroad tracks, and our neighborhood, which itself was a typical 60’s suburb grafted onto the remains of an apple orchard. A large, partially burned down house was slowly collapsing in the heart of the property. You couldn’t see it until you were close, through the thick undergrowth. Past this were stables that looked freshly abandoned. We sometimes found old horseshoes under the rotted hay. Two wells, one flush to the ground, gaped near the house, suggesting the possibility of tragedy, though as far as I know, no one ever fell in. Gazing into the dark depths of the ground-level one was a favorite setting for teenage angst--mine, anyway. At the far side, a footbridge led across the railroad tracks that separated the property from an older section of town.
Overall, the place was a textbook illustration of ecological succession. Swamps thickened into fields, fields transformed into new-growth forests, older forests were strangled by viney undergrowth. Around the house, straggly rows of flowers suggested where gardens used to be, almost buried in the waist-high weeds.
I’m sure our parents knew the story of why it existed and whom it belonged to, but to us, it was just that spooky otherworld known as “the Estate.” Most probably, it had been the remains of the farm that our houses were built over, what was left once the orchards were sold off—then abandoned after the fire that destroyed the farmhouse.
It was a place to wander, to be lost. As kids, it was a place to be out in the “wild” and play; as a teen, it was where I roamed when I already felt lost.
I moved away as an adult, but I’d come home periodically, watching the farms around town increasingly turn into strip malls or developments, houses sprouting in the fields—big McMansions that towered over the modest ranches and split levels of my neighborhood (which, of course, had been the original displacement). This ramped up growth was a different kind of succession—maybe call it economic succession. But the Estate survived because of a fluke of impeded access owing to its shoehorned setting.
That small train station has expanded, the rail line electrified to accommodate the thousands of commuters who bought those bigger houses and work in New York City, an hour and a half away.
When the Towers of the World Trade Center came down, 37 residents of the town died, more per capita than any other town outside New York City. The town’s successes also became its tragedy.
There’s a memorial garden just down the county road and across the tracks, where the town holds a ceremony each September. It is a lovely, heart-rending place, so many names set in low stones between the trees. I didn’t know any of the victims; most had moved there after I move away, but I mourn their loss, the town’s loss, just the same. I don’t get back to Middletown very often; my family have all moved away. But about ten years ago, I drove by the old neighborhood, and saw that the Estate was gone— proper access finally attained. It’s no longer a “magic” world—the lawns are neatly manicured, the swamps drained, the wells filled in. The new houses loom through a neat skein of trees that separate this new development from my old home. The largest sell for over a million dollars. They’re on one of the two new streets that make up that neighborhood. The one named Patriot’s Way.
It looks like no one will ever get lost there anymore.
But of course that’s never true.
About the Author: Leslie Doyle lives in New Jersey and teaches at Montclair State University. Her work has appeared in Cobalt, Front Porch, Gigantic Sequins, MARY (winner of their Editor's Fiction Prize), Electric Literature, The Forge, Fiction Southeast (finalist for their Hell's Belle's Prize for Short Fiction), and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @lespdoyle.