I drove Bonnie from the airport to the hotel in a rented car. As we zipped through Farrand, Texas, I gave a running commentary on all little details and stories from my childhood.
We’d be driving through what looked like just another desolate stretch of urban wasteland when I exclaimed something like: “Hey, that’s the old Hippodrome! My class used to take field trips there all the time to see plays like ‘Our Founding Fathers, American Superheroes: A Musical Adventure to Teach Children American Exceptionalism!’ Of course, back when I was in fourth grade, it went bankrupt and since then it’s pretty much just been a squatter haven.”
Or, “And that’s one of Farrand’s many wackjob churches. They found out the priest had a stockpile of guns and twelve wives and was telling everyone the world was going to end in 2003. A lot of my babysitters went there.”
Or, “Look! Over there! That’s the old Arbor Valley Cigarette Museum, the site of another one of my school field trips. I remember they had this moving, smoking animatron designed to look like Dr. Moe A. Gallagher (founder of Arbor Valley Cigarettes) and it was so lifelike and creepy I thought it was a real guy stuck behind a glass case.”
Or, “Hey, that’s the strip mall where I saw a clown selling soiled furniture!”
I went on and on, talking more to myself than to her.
By the third or fourth landmark, I noticed she had stopped nodding politely whenever I made a passing comment about the messed up stuff I was surrounded by as a kid and but stared out of the window, not at the seedy streets drenched in the flickering urine colored glow of the streetlights but rather up at the sky, where you could make out a couple spare stars and a slice of the moon, but mostly just the same dismal light of the street lamps reflected by clouds.
I shut up, set my eyes on the road. I noted mementos of my past silently, even the ones that didn’t have to do with crime or cults or clowns.
We drove in a kind of tense silence for awhile, through the slums and streets thick with filth and houses that had been falling apart since I’d left.
“I’m sorry,” Bonnie said eventually, when it became clear I wasn’t going to say anything. “It’s just, it’s a lot to take in.”
“What? This place?”
“Sort of, I guess, but more than anything how it relates to you.”
“It’s just, at college you acted, I dunno, just like everyone else.”
“Like everyone else?”
“You know what I’m talking about, like you had, y’know, resources. It’s just, this is the last place I thought you’d have grown up. It’s a side of you I’ve never seen, never even considered before.”
It took a moment for me to get my bearings, to come up with a response. “But I didn’t grow up here! Not where we’re driving, anyways, not this part of the town. Just wait, tomorrow I’ll show you the house I grew up in. Or mansion, more like. Yeah, mansion’s the right word. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood. There are swimming pools and an artificial creek running through the backyards and tree lined streets to shelter us from the harsh Texas sun. It’s literally the epitome of American suburbia! Look, I’m sorry to say it, but you’re just plain wrong. I didn’t grow up here.”
You’re just plain wrong is always the wrong thing to say to your girlfriend.
“But you sort of did,” she muttered softly, so softly, hoping I couldn’t hear it.
That’s one thing I hate about her. She’s got this bizarre moral thing where she always feels some innane need to say the truth.
There was some more silence, more landmarks. The fast food joint that had gotten shut down by the health department and sold the space to a divorce center that forgot to take down the little statue of an anthropomorphic, smiling hotdog point to what used to be the drivethrough. The concrete flatland where they had the state carnival, which was more dangerous than skydiving into a shark cage if you compared body counts.
“Should we turn on some music?” asked Bonnie.
“By the time you find something besides Theological/Political Yelling, Country Music, or stuff in Spanish, we’ll already be at the hotel.”
Out of what I think was spite, she turned it on anyways.
“Oh, my baby left me so I shot my tractor-” sang the first station.
“That’s country music, I think,” I told her.
She changed the channel. “¡Hola! ¡Este programmadora es Tito 103! ¡Nuestro primero persona de telefono es-”
“Strike two,” I said.
A disgruntled grunt and a station change.
“And no church can truly call itself Christian when it lets the gays and their supporters freely into what is supposedly the house of God!” screamed the guy on the radio. I recognized the voice. It was the same guy who had stockpiled weapons and brides. Guess he’s got his own radio show now. Good for him.
“Give it up. You’re not going to find anything,” I told her.
She changed it a fourth time and by luck, pure dumb luck, she found herself on the one decent station in the entire town: college radio.
“They heard me singing and they told me to stop!” sang Arcade Fire.
Bonnie smiled. She loved Arcade Fire, and for that moment I secretly suspected it wasn’t because she liked the music or message or any of that shit. It was because both she and the members of the band had been raised in the preppy suburbs of Montreal.
“Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock!”
I sighed, but she didn’t hear me over the radio.
“Sometimes I wonder if the world is so small-”
The light was red, so I stopped a car. Glancing out the window absentmindedly, I saw a homeless teen, grey hoodie pulled over his head, sprawled out along a bus stop bench advertising the smiling face of a sleazebag lawyer. He was either asleep or, judging by the bottle in his hand, too drunk to get up.
“That we can never get away from the sprawl! Living in the sprawl! Dead shopping malls like mountains beyond mountains!”
Even when I was young, I knew that I was worlds away from that homeless guy. I had seen people like that and realized that there was a barrier much stronger than the metal and glass of the car door separating us. He was poor, I was rich. We were different. It was simple. But now I realized a new dimension. The girl with me in the car was also rich, yet somehow there was still a wall between us. Bonnie, that passed out guy, and I, all spoke the same language. We were of the same nationality. We were around the same age. Yet our circumstances, the lottery of birth, had set us each in our own little worlds from which it was unlikely that we’d ever escape.
“And there’s no end in sight! I need some darkness, won’t you please shut the lights?”
That was one thing Montreal suburbs and Farrand had in common: the sprawl. Whether driving through neighborhoods of beautiful houses or seedy strip malls, they both seemed to go on forever, endless grids of streets under a sky glowing orange from light pollution.
Eventually the song ended and it cut to the drunk college students in charge of the station talking to one another. Apparently their views on gay rights were identical to that of the ex-doomsday cult leader.
Bonnie turned off the radio and tried to take another stab at conversation with me.
“So when are we getting the details about your uncle’s will?”
He had died two years before, but a long and very confusing legal battle meant they weren’t releasing his will until now.
“I dunno,” I said. “I think the meeting with the lawyer is tomorrow, but it might be the next day. No, he wouldn’t schedule it for a Sunday. But maybe the day after that. I’ll check the email when I get home.”
“Do you think he left you his house?”
“I dunno. If he did, I wouldn’t have a problem with selling it.”
I find lying much easier than Bonnie does.
“You know, we’re here to claim the possessions of a man I don’t know anything about,” she said.
“Do you feel guilty?”
“Don’t be. Just tell me about him.”
“I don’t think you want to hear.”
“Because he’s, well, a lot like Farrand, and you didn’t want to hear about Farrand.”
She couldn’t think of the next thing to say.
“Do you want to hear about him?” I asked.
It took her awhile to think of what to say. Like I said, she’s honest.
“I feel like I should.”
“Okay, well, he was racist. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. Always racist. Hardcore racist. I think when he died two years ago, he was the last surviving eugenicist. If he knew I was dating a Jew, well, he’d have quite the conniption, which, come to think of it, is why I never told you about him until now. And he drank like a fish, I don’t have many memories of him without a bottle of something or other in his hand. A cigar in his mouth too, always one of those. He was in the oil business, so his cash supply fluctuated, and he wasn’t particularly good with money. I remember when times were good he’d invite the whole family to some fancy steak house out in Houston, and when times weren’t so great and we’d come, he’d just sit and drink and yell. Every time we drove up to his ranch house and there would be the Confederate flag, waving in the wind-”
I wish she hadn’t cut me off before I got to the part aside from all the southern stereotypes. Goddamnit, why had I opened with the bad stuff? When she cut me off, the image in her mind hadn’t even been a real person. He was just a monster, a collection of all these horrible things that embodied this horrible place.
I hadn’t had time to tell her about the small moments. The time I spent with him, exploring the backwoods of his property that even he didn’t know about. Or the stories he told.
“I’m sorry if. I’ve shut you down or anything. It’s just… this place… I can’t-” Bonnie was struggling to string the words together. Here’s what she finally came up with: “I just can’t imagine you growing up here, surrounded by this.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but I couldn’t say it. I could only think it while my silent mouth hung open, like the fish I’d find floating belly up in the putrid stream running through my backyard when I lived here.
Here’s what I couldn’t say:
“Well, you know what, Bonnie? I’m going to be really honest here. I just can’t imagine you growing up without any of this. I can’t imagine that for anyone, actually. Like, my brain is physically incapable of comprehending how anyone spent their formative years not surrounded by the sights and sounds and strip malls of Farrand.
“Where can a child be raised except in a two story red brick house with a decaying wooden playscape in the backyard which is more dangerous than most firearms? What neighborhood could you explore in your formative years besides a half mile-by-half mile scrap of the middle class bordered by busy streets and surrounded by poverty on all sides?
“I’m racking my brain trying to understand if the human mind can fully develop if it isn’t exposed to five church services a week in a tiny, expensive, failing, private Baptist school. Or if the human nose can become fully functional if it isn’t attacked by pollen storms every spring. Or if the pre-adolescent mind can have nightmares about anything besides the living animatronic Dr. Moe A. Gallagher from the Arbor Valley Cigarette Museum coming to eat you.
“But the thing that is most infinitely impossible to imagine is that it is possible to grow up somewhere where beauty is everywhere. To learn about beauty as some readily available resource, rather than something rare and valuable that you have to cherish when you find it, like the crimson light falling from a stained glass window and onto the floor when the sun hits it at just the right angle, or the perfect patch of blue flowers on the side of an interstate that you only get a short glimpse of as you zoom along at eighty miles an hour.”
By the time I was done not saying all those things, we had pulled into the hotel.
* * *
Once I was assured by her snoring that she was asleep, I slipped out of bed. We had very different sleeping patterns, she and I. She had a tendency to sleep in one, heavy, uninterrupted, six hour streak while I usually got up four or five times in the night. I knew that, unless there was an explosion one block over or an earthquake broke out or some other highly improbable circumstance, I could be gone for hours and she’d have no idea.
I got in my car and drove. For awhile I navigated solely based on landmarks from my childhood, but before long I made a wrong turn and landed myself in a section of the city that, in my fifteen years living there, I had never before come across.
Turns out I didn’t know Farrand as well as I thought.
I drove for awhile, eyes peeled for something, anything to tell me where I was.
I found nothing, absoluetely nothing familiar.
I knew I couldn’t keep driving forever, on and on into the hundreds of miles of empty highways and grazing cattle beyond the city lights, which is what I’d do if I stayed on my current trajectory. But I couldn’t go back to the hotel either.
So, safety on the backburner, I decided to try and find somewhere to duck into.
I got out of I parked my car on the side of a road, next to a defunct streetlight which was bent sharply from what I assume was a drunk teen driving accident, probably on the way back from a high-intensity party.
That’s something about me being in Farrand: when I don’t have a disturbing story about a place, I tend to make one up.
Exiting my car, I realized that my options for places to go weren’t exactly great. There was an old, burnt out brick building, a defunct flower store with windows shattered, and three liqour stores.
I chose the most inviting of the liquor stores (which was not saying much at all). It was bright inside, humming with hard floreuscent lights, and I counted four American, twelve Confederate, and twenty Texan flags tucked away in no particular pattern between the stacks upon stacks of booze.
“Howdy,” said the man behind the counter. He was bald, thin, older, with liver spots on his head and an eye patch that gave him a menacing look. If that wasn’t enough to scare someone straight, he had chosen to wear a white shirt, which made the black, unconcealed holster across his chest like a seatbelt all the more evident. In case you’d missed the incredibly obvious gun, it was politely pointed out in the sign below the counter: The Cashier is Armed. Below it, someone had scrawled So Don’t Go Trying Any Funny Business in what looked like red crayon.
Despite all this, the cashier’s tone seemd friendly, even welcoming.
Still, I felt his eyes follow me as I pretended to survey the sea of diverse tequila options. Then, when I glanced up at the counter to make sure the whole subheading on the sign wasn’t just my mind making the whole situation even more cliched, I noticed a little ad for Arbor Valley Cigarettes.
I had no interest in smoking, but I decided it couldn’t hurt to indirectly support a corporation that made its fortune poisoning and killing millions as long as that corporation was from my hometown.
I moved towards the cash register. “One pack of Arbor Valley Cigarettes, please.”
“Sure,” he said, reaching down. While his torso was still bent over, rooting around for my particular brand, he commented, “Y’know, we don’t get many out of towners ordering local stuff like Arbor Valley.”
“Oh, I’m not an out of towner. Well, I guess I haven’t been here in a while, but I was born and raised in The Great State.”
“Really?” he said, coming up with the pack. His good eye had a look of something akin to admiration, as though being born in Texas was the highest honor one could attain. “Born and raised?”
“Well, not really born, I suppose. I spent the first three years of my life in Grosse Point, a suburb of Detroit, but I hardly even remember it. All my memories are of here.”
“Detroit, you say?” He typed the price into the cash register, which showed it as $5.12.
“Yep,” I got out my wallet.
“Well, you’re better off keeping it simple, saying you’re from The Great State. Don’t want anyone thinking you’re from Detroit.”
“Why not?” I felt a tiny wince of hurt. I guess I never knew I had any pride in my birthplace up until someone else started talking about it. Sort of like Farrand, I suppose.
“It’s too far north, the cold freezes people’s brains out. Plus it’s a big city, almost on the coast, nearly as bad as New York. I don’t trust them boomtowns, the places everyone thinks is the big deal. They always fall, and fast. And Detroit’s been falling faster than anyone can understand for the past forty years.”
I laughed a bit (I’m not sure why) and handed him the money. “But it wasn’t really in Detroit, even. I was born in a wealthier suburb.”
“It doesn’t matter. When a city goes down like that, everywhere nearby gets pulled down in the vortex of poverty and decay.” He opened the cash register with a pleasant ka-ching that I didn’t know cash registers even made anymore.
I laughed again. I liked how this grisled southerner had a weird spurts of eloquence, like that thing about the vortex. “Well, I live in Iowa now. Got any gripes with that?”
“Iowa? Ya’ll got more corn than people up there.”
“Most states do. But I live in one of the human-based settlements, Iowa city.”
He handed me my change and cigarettes. “Oh, I’ve been there once to visit my daughter. Pedestrians jaywalk all the time, no respect for automobiles, so infuriating. All in all, it’s nothing but another junky hipster collegetown cesspool.”
Another junky hipster collegetown cesspool. I had to use that phrase in casual conversation. Or make it a band name.
“Want a light?” he asked me.
“Nah,” I said, a little bit ready to open up to this stranger a little bit. “This is more of a sentimental pack.” I pulled out a cigarette and put it in my mouth, though, just for the heck of it. It fit in a perfect way I didn’t expect it to, sliding between my teeth like a key in a lock. “You know what, I take that back. I would like a light.”
He pulled a lighter from his pocket and ignited the tip, which flamed for a moment. I inhaled, and immediately I felt a weird substance tumbling down my wind pipes, definitely unpleasant and not at all natural. Then I remembered my asthma.
I was coughing for around five minutes, trying desperately to get that filthy taste out of my throat and lungs. Eventually I gave up, taking a little bit of pride in the fact that at least it was filth specific to my hometown.
The cashier was chuckling heartily at my complete ineptitude at smoking, and then he began coughing too, hinting that maybe he’d smoked his fair share of Arbor Valleys in his time.
We spent a while like that, just coughing to our heart’s content.
Once we were both breathing normally again, I had one final question. “So you don’t like Detroit, you don’t like Iowa city (or the entire state of Iowa, for that matter).”
“What is the best place to live, then? Where are all the good people of the world hiding?”
He answered automatically, taking no time to think.
“Right here in Farrand.”
The streetlight outside, the one that had been bent to an intense angle, flickered randomly a few times, then sent out a long, consistent stream of pure white light on the dingy Farrand sidewalk.
I remembered my first days in Iowa city, how I’d distrusted it so thoroughly just because it was anywhere other than where I was from. Or the first time I saw snow, real, actual, significant snow, and stayed in my dorm all day out of fear of nothing in particular besides the unknown cold substance cloaking the ground.
“So that’s it, after all,” I murmured, telling the truth to myself in hope no one else heard. “It’s all just micronationalism and xenophobia.”
“Xenophobia? I think I know that word, fear of open spaces, right? No, that’s not it. What does it mean again?”
“Nothing,” I said, “it means nothing.”
John S. Osler III is a rising senior at Edina High School in Edina, Minnesota. He runs an underground satirical newspaper called The Southern View. He is an attendee of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio 2015. He is a coach in his school’s writing help center and has edited his school newspaper in the past.