Home Town, Olde Towne, Place of Many Oaks. I’d name you outright, except someone with the particular breed of vicious, blind, and intolerant loyalty you inspire in some people might decide to make even more trouble.
I don’t know how to begin. I suppose some people would say, “I hope you are proud of yourself, Home Town.” Except I don’t want you to be proud of yourself, and yet I know that you are.
What I want to do is remind you of some things.
Now, I know not everyone who lives in you is bad like you. After all, my best friend is from you. The most amazing and selfless teachers I have ever come across manage to live inside you. And don’t forget those neighbors came over once and shot a rattlesnake for me and my siblings while my parents were at work.
Likewise, not all memories of you are bad.
I think of breezy summer nights, of the last part of twilight when the heat of the day has just broken and the insects begin a deep and echoing song of intense loveliness. Of owls outside my windows, bats flapping papery wings as they snatch mosquitoes out of the darkness. Rolling hillocks of golden green grass. And in winter, leafless oak forests in the cold high moonlight, casting a jagged patchwork of shadows across snow that glittered under the vast canopy of stars.
You, Home Town, are synonymous with elementary school. School. I hated school. I still hate school. But the sweetness of those days lingers, especially on bright autumn afternoons, those hours when sunlight shines through everything and Halloween is just around the corner. Being poor and eating sandwiches off cardboard boxes in the sweltering summer evenings, doing homework in a little blue kitchen, and later, in a huge brown kitchen.
There’s more, so much more. Like spending half the summer festival in the pizza booth, doling out slices to tourists from across the country. Those tourists asking if I was actually American, because my face was so exotic. The laughter I got from that.
It’s strange, Home Town, but there are only ever snippets of memories. Everywhere else I have gone—camps and visiting family and going out of town—I have an almost photographic memory. But of you, I only ever have flashes. Strains of memory like an ancient melody on the wind. Weaving through the annual car show with my siblings, delighting in the seamless fusion of glittering retro bodies and thoroughly modern engines. Grade school yardsaling with my best friend and her mother, buying smudged ceramic unicorns and hideous vests with cats embroidered on them, then wearing those vests to pieces. Long mornings and endless afternoons in my mother’s office, listening to her explain how to do this, how to do that, the laws behind this, the reasoning for those. Oppressive afternoons, leafy spring mornings overflowing with yellow sunlight. Foggy mornings, rainy afternoons. I even remember an icy Christmas Eve, staring out the fogged window at quant downtown streets, admiring the decorations, and feeling melancholy that soon it would all be gone.
Those slow hours spent giggling with my first boss over the curly-haired grocery bagger who worked at the supermarket just across the plaza. Griping about awful customers, cracking jokes when the restaurant was empty. Listening to excruciatingly bad pop music every afternoon while we prepared the bread dough. I didn’t ever mind it, simply because it was so much fun to talk to her.
And later, though not much later, dog-day nights talking to my boyfriend, staying up far into the morning hours just to hear his voice from thousands of miles away.
These are the good things. There are probably a few more. I will give you that, Home Town. And I remember them.
But what about the other things?
What do you remember? I ask because surely, you do not bother to remember anything good.
Remember when one of your elementary schools barred my littlest brother from attending because he was epileptic? Remember how, in the last days before the district succeeded in finally foisted him out, the other parents told their children to stay away from him? Remember when one of your teachers broke every damned privacy and HIPAA law when she held a super secret squirrel meeting with all the other parents of all the other children in the classroom, and actually told them he was epileptic? That there was something wrong with him, and it wouldn’t be healthy for their precious, unmarred children to touch him? I swear, Old Town, your favorite era was the Middle Ages.
Remember when another sibling—the brilliant one, the autistic one, the most easily and fundamentally broken—was publicly belittled in class, day in and day out, by that awful hag of a teacher? He got so afraid, so stressed, he panicked all the time. It only got worse when she turned a blind eye to the physical abuse heaped upon him by other students. She could pretend nothing was happening, because he never told.
Remember when your hospital sent my last sibling home with organ failure? I think they told him to just go to urgent care the following Monday. If my parents had regarded their advice—if they hadn’t taken him to urgent care that night—he would have died. My parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars rectifying the malpractice of your hospital.
And my sibling wasn’t the only one. Remember that man with the custom-made bumper sticker that read, “[Home Town] Hospital Killed My Wife. I Miss Her Alot?” I guess we’re just lucky he survived.
You won’t apologize, Home Town. You just shrug and point out that you did not, in fact, kill him.
Remember when your evangelistic, theologically-ignorant so-called Christians told my parents that their children were sick only because of sin? No comfort, no offer of prayer, certainly no modicum of support. Simply put, your people said, “If you were better people, this would not have happened. God does not do such things to His people.”
I suppose they forgot about Job. Lots of Christians do.
I wish I could. Because of you, and the repercussions of you, Job is on my mind a lot.
Continuing with the obtuseness of the churchgoers there, remember when my family was iced out of a local church because my parents, both hard-working people raising a gaggle of smart and good-hearted children, were not college graduates?
Remember when our neighbors, God-fearing churchgoers all, shunned us? Shunned us over the words of a histrionic, vicious bitch with a reputation for rumormongering. But she offered gossip, you see, a sensationalistic rumor. One of the Church’s great failings is gossip, Home Town. You know this. And you know the loudmouth whores always trump the meek. At least in hometowns, that is.
I don’t blame them as much anymore, though. If you can define a reason, however fraudulent, for terrible fortune, you can convince yourself it will never happen to you. By condemning us, they were assuring themselves that they were safe.
But never mind them. They were blind, and time and experience has taken a toll on some. They are learning.
But there is always worse. So here is ‘worse’:
Remember when my mom got a job at that long-corrupted, crippled home-town institution? Remember how she rose from part-time assistant to manager in a year? Remember how she raised that awful, sick old place with its awful, sick hometown boy crowd to a bustling full-time business? Remember how revenue increased ten-fold under her leadership? Even when the board of directors foisted one worthless, lazy, incompetent assistant (in most cases, their wives) after another upon her, she kept building it up. Made it a respectable business. And always, always fought the corruption.
And remember, when it was clear that after years and years that she would not give in to the board’s self-serving demands, would not and would never serve as an instrument to their appalling corruption—they chased her away?
Remember, once they ascertained certain things in their underhanded, hometown way, what they did to her?
Remember how no one cared and no one listened when your hometown people at your hometown school drove my fragile brother to an almost-successful suicide attempt?
And remember that time when I was not even ten? How your good old boy hometown man tried to kill us all in our sleep? If God Himself had not intervened, we would all be dead. He stopped you then. But He hasn’t stopped you lately. I wonder why, and try to figure it out. But all I come up with is Job. That scares me so bad, Home Town. Sometimes it does feel like I’ve lost everything. But I know that’s not true. There is still so much that can, and will someday be, gone.
I know you don’t care.
You only care that I left you. And so you’re reaching, still sending out hooks steeped in wrongness, misery, and—amazingly—beguilement.
We are gone from you. We’ve shaken the dust of your rotted ground off our boots. Soon, we will run far and far and far from the state itself that spawned you. You’ve lost us.
You know what the worst part is? I think I will miss you. Or at least the memories.
You sure are something, Home Town. I will be sad when I reach the point that delineates the now from the then. When going back to you is a physical, as well as emotional, impossibility.
You know, there are days when I ponder our house, finally lost, empty.
Full only of hollow, howling wind in winter, of birdsong and the distant laughter of the neighbor children in the summer. Dogs barking and owls swooping in all seasons. The wild pigs whose grunts sound like the words of men, coming and going as patternlessly as the winds. I think of my pets, the ones who left, their little handmade graves covered in leaves and wild tufts of knee-high grass. I wonder if it is awful to be sleeping there as it was to be living.
Most of all I think how that empty and gutted place is still so full, not of life, but of whispers of memories, of ghosts. Ghosts of hideousness and achy suggestions of beauty. Phantoms of the frail threads of intense joy never quite extinguished by suffering.
Sometimes, I think I am that house.
Lately I know, with a certainty that drives down to my bones, that by the time I have truly, utterly, and completely thrown you off, there will be no house left.
And I know, always, that this makes you happy.