Small Town by Kate Weinberg
There are many benefits to living in your small town.
1) Its streets are short and irrefutably well-paved.
2) When it snows, the plows come quickly.
3) The plows do not come so quickly that your son is not able, first, to build himself furniture made out of the snow, upon which he is able to kick up his feet and chat and giggle for at least fifteen solid minutes with whichever imaginary friends he chooses.
4) All amenities in your town can be located on a single street. There is no need to go drag-footing around, enduring an endless maze of unpredictable and feckless wandering while you search for the shop that sells heirloom tomatoes or small rubber bouncy-balls. Look to your right: ah ha! There it is.
All this to say: none of these things exempts your town from incidence. Occasionally, town vandals will—and do—sack your windows with pillowcases full of rocks, littering glass along the perimeter of your dying lawn and the floors of your home, across which your son is bound to walk. Occasionally, the feet of your son will bleed, as will the feet of anyone’s sons, as will the feet of all sons, everywhere, at one time or another.
Luckily, you are on excellent terms with the town dustpan-and-broom supplier, and glass is easily swept.
The future molecular re-organization of the windows themselves is another story. The town glazier happens to be a foul man with foul breath who holds grudges more tightly to his breast than he would nursing children, were he in possession of breasts capable of filling with milk, which he is not.
But that is neither here nor there.
Many people in this town, the ones who make love, do so to their distant cousins. Sometimes the cousins to whom people make love are not very distant. The founders of the town, long ago, were of a handsome clan of Viking origin. The cousins that people in this town sleep with are handsome cousins, or they are not. Occasionally, it is not on the basis of a cousin’s handsomeness that he or she is slept with. Because of this, there exists a section of town known for its superior ‘personality’; it is a small section, responsible for the making of cheese. Cheese-makers are people who spend much time in dark cave-like places, stooped over their curds and whey, and so it is unimportant whether or not their faces look a bit re-arranged, or, scrambled, as is sometimes said of them.
Occasionally, complications develop in a town small as yours. It is difficult to explain to your son that there will be no more meat on your table because you have had intercourse with the town’s only butcher and have left things in awkward disrepair. Your son won’t be able to grasp the delicateness of the matter at hand, and you won’t have time to explain to him, as you’re pouring the last of the milk into his cereal bowl, that the dairy, too, has been similarly compromised. And since your son is a small and sensitive child—a child of scrambled first-cousin-face syndrome who will eventually be relegated to the vicious caves of cheese-making—you won’t hamper his few remaining years of daylight by poisoning him with knowledge of the butcher’s surprisingly viscous semen, which would not, for anything, lift off the pillowcases or the carpets before the larder chanced to pop in, unexpected, in the middle of a work-day afternoon you’d—all three—mysteriously slinked away from in service of more-pressing, prurient matters.
You will not quite know how to tell your son that, in order to avoid a potentially dangerous interaction with the larder, the butcher was made to leave through the bathroom window whilst still dripping wet from the shower and was then forced to walk through the town—the streets of which are too short and close-together for the entirety of its residents not to have come to all possible inflammatory, tsk-tsk-y conclusions—with only a small, wet hand towel covering his Viking cock.
You will not tell your son that the butcher smells deeply of blood, which is like rust, and like sick—though this would come of no surprise—or that it remains caked beneath his fingernails, interminably, and how this has begun to turn you from him in slow and irreversible ways. You will not tell him how you have lusted many gibbous moons over the larder and his long and powerful back, his arms thick from udder-tugging and yoghurt-stirring, and how his coming to you at all one night several weeks ago seemed a grand and impossible mis-stitch in the fabric of nature, one which you felt powerless to resist despite the months, prior, you’d spent blathering and absorbing confessions of lovesickness between yourself and the butcher, who is, admittedly, too close a cousin for you to entertain seriously as lasting relationship-material.
Nor will you tell your son that you will be, henceforth, unable to walk him up the neatly-laid concrete steps and into the inner sanctums of the town schoolhouse because of an incident that occurred one evening not so long ago, at the town movie theatre, involving yourself and the lustful school principal, who slid long fingers up your skirt as Tom Hanks stood delivering tearful updates to Jenny’s grave in Forrest Gump—the only movie the town has approved for repeated viewing because its boom mic was operated by a distant cousin of the town’s hubcap repairman.
You will not bore him, your son, with details of your quiet writhing in the scratchy movie theatre seat, which creaked just queerly enough for the town electrician—your date to the film—to glance over and notice another person’s fingers wriggling between your legs like a fat, dancing spider. You will not tell him of the bitterness, the angry yowling, and the face-scratching that ensued afterward, or of how the projectionist was forced to slip out of his booth and into the weeping darkness to pull you from your seats and ban you—yourself, the electrician, the principal and all of your immediate relations—from the theatre, forever. You have vowed to speak nothing of it until he glances up at you with his criss-crossed, pleading eyes and asks why you have not taken him to see Forrest Gump lately. Even then, you can’t be certain you’ll not trip over all the words required to unravel for your son all the complexities of adulthood and of what happens in the dark during times of great cinematic catharsis.
For various reasons, you have not yet explained to him the reason the light-switches no longer work when he flips them on, as children are adaptable, and will enjoy the quiet process of candlelight if you fill their pockets with colorful matchbooks, like holiday presents they weren’t even expecting, and teach them the ways of fire. Luckily, you have not yet mucked anything up with the candle-maker, who is just elderly enough that it is unlikely either of you will attempt anything untoward.
It would only do your son harm to know that it is the school principal who keeps making the phone ring, wondering what the two of you are “doing,” and why you haven’t returned any of her phone calls, and is it because your grandfathers were brothers, which doesn’t bother her, but she can see how it might give a person like you pause after what happened with your son, though this is clearly a situation in which it would be biologically impossible to produce a child being that you’re both women, and so is it just the principal of it or maybe the residual bad-taste left in your mouth after your time with your son’s father—the mechanic—who you knew full well was your first cousin before you chose to engage in intercourse with him, and which you had to figure might result in pregnancy since you’d been cut off from your birth control supply due to your messy involvement with the town’s pharmacist? And won’t you please call back please please please you wild, elusive bitch?
How would your son react to information like that?
How would he pick up his extra-large egg-shaped head each morning and walk into a school run by a woman of such caustic disregard for another townswoman’s privacy, not to mention her desire or lack thereof to engage in further instances of public finger-banging, which you suspect is most of what the school principal is after?
It is precisely because you wish that your son might live his life in this town—while it’s still possible—believing that everything he is and has is all he needs or will ever need, that you resist explaining to him the truth about shoes: most people get new ones when they outgrown their old.
He was too young to remember the summer evening you set fire to the shoe-maker’s house following a heated brawl in the town bar, though he was strapped to your chest in an infant’s carrying sling. You remember his scrambled face being the only peaceful thing for what seemed liked miles, though there are hardly miles to account for in this town, despite its impressively well-paved streets. And because you and the town graphic designer are on decidedly good terms—egalitarian terms involving a single shared spliff post-pussy-eating and no further expectations or demands—you are able to produce for your son a carefully-curated pamphlet meant to represent the world, dreamed up by you and the graphic designer—featuring photographs of barefoot children in vegan, candle-lit houses. No shoe, slab of meat, or wheel of cheese in sight.
Suffice it to say your son is lucky to be citizen of a town whose dentist identifies as asexual. Many failed attempts to disprove this claim, both pre- and post- emergency oral surgery, confirmed what many—yourself especially—were reticent to believe. There are some citizens of this town who resist the temptations of cousins, however distant. This is their right, their town-given right, though it is a shame that a cousin so strikingly handsome—so broad, strong-jawed, and blonde— should take advantage of his rights with such firm and sexless conviction. It is very likely that, because of this, yours is a town renowned for its fine, clean, straight rows of teeth that glint into the darkness of winter like little astral projections of better lives to come, of spring dew and lazy summer evenings spent near lakes, warm and naked, swatting mosquitos away with the middling heft of an erotic literary novella.
When shoeless months pass without any meat at all, you worry your son has grown distant and bony, that the size of his head has become even more pronounced against his smallness, his iron-deficient little face, the gray of his eyes. You cannot explain to your son the sharpness of need in the body, and how, sometimes, you wish it were different. Wish that you might leave this town and find another, and be new together, in a town without so many cousins and so many opinions so difficult, now, to change or diffuse. But all the other towns you know of—the town above yours, and the town below, the town to the right of yours and the town to the left—they’d only wind up just the same. And starting over in a place with cousins of their own, when you are not a cousin, would be difficult and impoverishing, to say the least. What, after all, does anyone owe a person to whom they are not related?
Not to mention, the chance there’d be an opening for a street-paver would hover just above nil. It remains one of the first jobs snatched up when the old street-paver dies, or becomes too infirm to pave any longer. It is work of great responsibility and pride, and, already, there is a line of cousins waiting to take your place when you, too, pass to less-able realms. To leave such elevated work merely for the chance to be new, in a town without cousins, is just asking to go hungrier than you already are. It’s pure luck that the town grain-farmer and vegetable-grower are cousins of a certain empty-headed squatness you find very unattractive, and luckier still that the blanket-maker and coal-miner became parental sort-of figures after your real parents died, and thus people relegated to a context of the strictly-filial. You and your son, at least, will never go cold or grain-less. People have died from the cold before, in this town. But you will not be among them.
The good thing, you will remind him, as you tuck him into bed at night, is that at least he knows this town is his town, full of cousins who are his cousins, and short, remarkably well-paved streets that are his streets, so well-paved they do not even require shoes to be tread upon comfortably. And when he turns his extra-large egg-shaped head towards you to ask the questions children are wont to ask—of the father he’s never met, of why he’s never been allowed inside a motor vehicle, of why his room is papered with images of dark places, bats, and long, wooden spoons—your stomach will knot-up, knowing you could have done better by him. Could have been less intrepid that night with the first cousin who is his father, in the back of a different cousin’s flatbed truck in the town auto-repair shop, in that tetris of motor-oil smells and engine heat, testosterone slurring from every surface.
In lieu of answering any of his questions direct, you will consider explaining to him, instead, the mysteries of growing up and of wanting things in conflicting parts of yourself, and compromising, and loving, and doing what you can with the options you are given, which may be few, but for which you must, regardless, be grateful because sometimes gratitude is the only choice you have, in the end.
You would, at least, be remiss not to have a conversation like this one when the time comes to send your son to the cheese-making caves. Because there is not much else to recommend it, it will be your job to remind him of the positives. Of all the dairy that will become available to him again, out of your house. Of how much he’ll enjoy such unfettered access to a thing denied him so long by no real fault of his own.
You must assure him the cousins he will work beside will be kind-hearted cousins, the best cousins, in fact, because their personalities have never been hampered by the crutch of handsomeness. Some of them, it is very likely, he will want to touch in perverse and private ways, and in the dark, dampness of the cave, his own scrambled body will mingle with the scrambled bodies of others in a kind of bliss so crushing he’ll find it difficult to focus on anything but achieving it again, and again, and in as many different ways as possible.
And you will tell him, as you stir his quinoa and kamut in a pot on your coal-burning oven, that this is okay. That cousins do not have to be handsome cousins to be slept with. That it’s true he will be among those cousins deemed ‘unhandsome,’ but that the body does not rely upon handsomeness to want or be wanted. It is greater than that; there are chemicals involved far more powerful than anything the eyes might try and cling to. And though his back may become curved and his hands crippled and rheumatoid by the constant stooping, the separating and stirring that stretches long into the night, he is lucky to have his way in life marked out for him. He is lucky, in this small and well-paved town, not to be unmoored.
Some months later, on your journey to the caves by foot—dragging one small bag behind you—when your son falls to his knees because he is afraid of what he cannot see, when he weeps, when you both sit stunned and terrified at the dark dairied mouth that stands waiting to swallow him, you will pull him to your lap and stroke his half-bald head and tell him the story he always wants to hear. The story that will keep him yours. Of the day he was born, in the swollen heat of July, in the dirt of the front lawn. You will leave out the part about the long-suffering town ambulance driver and the grudge he’d held since the night—only weeks before you gave birth—when you’d made him go home immediately post-coitus because he was a known blanket-hog and you’d wanted your bed to yourself and the baby grown huge in your belly. There’d be no use mucking up these last moments with your son with that tripe. You tell him only, as he melts back into your arms, that it was better that way. The way it happened. That, having him there—bleeding, howling, alone, and shoeless in the dirt—was exactly what you wanted.
© Kate Weinberg, 2015
Kate Weinberg very recently moved, after a near-7-year stint, from Brooklyn, NY back to her hometown of Baltimore. She is part of the Greenpoint Writer’s group and has stories and poems published in several neat places, including the Liar’s League London. She recently learned that in order to own a bear one needs a bear license and encourages anyone with information regarding bear licenses to approach her and talk her through it.
Small Town was read by Roya Shanks on 3rd June 2015 for Born & Bred