By Alec Clayton
The rapid rise of this pandemic is like the growth of Growtown and the phenomenal fecundity of Henrietta Hawley and her multitude of descendants. Both are exponential.
Henrietta is the oldest person in town. She lives alone now in the big house on top of the hill where she can stand on her balcony and look out over all of the town. She can see the Hawley store and the service station and the school and Jim Bob’s Dry Goods and Collectibles. She can see Pickwick Creek and the lake—it never had a name; folks just call it the lake. If it’s not cloudy or raining or snowing, she can see as far north as the radio tower at WGNN halfway between Growtown and Bigtown and the Walmart and the Toyota assembly plant, and even the shirt factory where she worked during the war. The big war.
Henrietta’s children and grandchildren will not let her drive. They say her reflexes are too slow now and her vision is not good enough. Henrietta says, “Bah. Pooh.” But she lets them drive her wherever she needs to go. Her daughters Helen and Ruth and granddaughter Beverly cook for her. And often her grandchildren drop off her great grands for Henrietta to watch while they run off to do whatever it is they run off to do.
There’s not a single stoplight in Growtown, but there is a four-way stop where Old Highway 99 crosses River Street, where on the rare occasion when two or more cars get there at the same time the drivers wave to each other and say, “You first,” “No, you first,” and then one starts to go and then the other until it seems like neither one of them will ever get through that intersection. That intersection, which is near the bottom of Henrietta’s hill and right before you get to the wooden bridge across Pickwick Creek and the empty lot where the Hawley store once sat, is the heart of town, and on a sunny Saturday it’s almost as busy as the farmer’s market in Bigtown.
Henrietta was sixteen years old during the war when she met Randy Hawley. She had dropped out of high school to work at the shirt factory. Sunday afternoons there was a hoedown at the fairgrounds where Billy Johnson’s five-piece swing band played and young and old danced in the parking lot. That was where Henrietta met Randy. Back then, she was in love with love. She dreamed of meeting Prince Charming, and there he was, the most handsome man she had ever seen. Now let it be known that Henrietta was not a virgin, not even when she was sweet sixteen. She had done it once with George Merriweather on the back seat of his Ford, and she had done it twice with Richard Essex, both times in the house where she lived on Crawford Street and in her own bed when her parents were not at home. None of those experiences was as good as she had hoped, but ever the optimist, she still clung to faith that the next time would be the right time. And it was, with Randy Hawley.
Pretty soon she got pregnant, and she and Randy got married and moved in with Randy’s parents in the big house on top of the hill, where you can still find her.
Before becoming a Hawley, Henrietta had never even been to Growtown, even though it was only twelve miles away from home and only six miles from the shirt factory. Back then, Growtown wasn’t even a town. It was nothing but a dozen or so families and the Hawley store on Old Highway 99. The store was owned by Randy’s folks, Isiah and Marylou Hawley. The Hawley store was where folks on their way to someplace else stopped off for gas and food. While there, they might also pick up something like a hat or a fishing pole or a straw basket hand-woven by Jessica Moore. Hawley’s sold all kinds of oddities both new and used, specializing in handmake crafts and local grown fruits and vegetables.
When the town finally incorporated and gave itself the optimistic name Growtown and renamed a stretch of the old highway, rendered obsolete by the new freeway, Hawley Street, the population was 749. Before the pandemic, it grew to 1,706. Randy and Henrietta were responsible for a lot of that growth. They had eleven children. Their children gave them sixteen sons and daughters-in law, there being quite a few divorces and remarriages along the way. The Hawley children gave Isiah and Marylou fifty-five grandchildren. Nobody knows for sure how many Hawley descendants there are now. It is common knowledge that some of them had children nobody knows about It is said that at some point more than half the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Growtown was made up of Hawley children, grands and great-grands, in-laws and other relations. People from Growtown would meet other people from Growtown and ask, “How are you related to Henrietta (or Poppa Hawley or Mama Hawley, as everyone in town called them)?”
Now comes the sad but inevitable part of the story. Jane Rushing, the oldest daughter of Henrietta’s grandson Chuck, was the first person in Growtown to get the virus. She infected her husband. He infected his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s other boyfriend, and they each infected four other people. One of those four spread the virus to someone who worked at the shirt factory, and twenty-three other workers got it. Not all of them got sick, but they had the virus nevertheless, and a couple of those who were carriers but asymptomatic went to a square dance at the Grange Hall, bringing about the inevitable result. Pretty soon the number of infected Growtowners rivaled the number of Hawley descendants at the First Baptist Church.
Jane Rushing was not only the first resident of Growtown to get the virus, she was also the first to die from it. And then Roger Hawley and his brother George and George’s cousin Raymond died, and people began to say Growtown itself was what they called a hot spot, a place where people were more susceptible. Many who had the wherewithal to get out moved to Bigtown or other places. So many have died now or escaped that it is said the population of Growtown is shrinking to the size it was when the town was first incorporated. But Henrietta is unstoppable. She sits on her balcony and looks out over the town where she has lived for seventy-six years. Her children now visit much less frequently than before, and when they do, they stand in her yard and visit at a safe distance. Henrietta has found that she likes it that way. She can do for herself much better than any of them thought she could, and she doesn’t need to go anywhere. She enjoys the peace and quiet and doesn’t in the least miss the turmoil of so many fruits of her womb clambering about. Glory be to God, she says.