Monday, June 13, 2005

A Death in Shawneetown (a brief excerpt)

The following is an excerpt from my novella, A Death in Shawneetown.  The full novella can be found on Amazon.

As I got close to town, I turned off the radio and rolled down my window, hoping to hear sounds or smell odors that were familiar - familiar, that is, to the boy I had been. That boy was dead now, but his ghost still haunted me, constantly reminding me of better times long past, joys that were no longer felt, mountains that had never been climbed, trips that had never been taken, books that had never been written, and girls that had never been kissed, at least, not by me. I came here for him. I came so he could swing on the old swing on the school playground, talk with old friends again, walk through the dark hallways of his old elementary school, or maybe go on one last adventure before he decided to rest finally in peace.

Or, that’s why I thought I had come.

According to the sign that welcomed visitors to the area, Shawneetown was now a proud city that boasted a population of twelve hundred people - that’s three hundred less than when I lived there. As I remembered, it contained two banks, a hardware store, a fire department, two gas stations, a small grocery store, an auto parts store, two restaurants (one in the Winter), and a fine ice cream stand (during the Summer). A resident of this community had only to drive but a mere forty-five minutes to one of several nearby towns if he wanted to see a movie, visit a supermarket, or if he required the use of a hospital. But it also had great big, beautiful trees to climb on or simply lay under to enjoy the shade on a warm summer day. It had a wonderful grassy square right in the middle of town that was ideal for holding the fair that came to visit us every year. It was flanked on all sides with woods and dry creek beds that were perfect for running around in and getting into all kinds of trouble. What more could anyone ask for? It was enough to raise a small boy and his friends all the way into manhood.

It was less, but somehow more than what I had living in the big city. Of course, there’s plenty to do in the city, more than there is to do in a small town. But what big city dweller has time to do it? That’s why people visit cities; it’s not why they live there. I moved to the city because I thought more was there - just more. More of what, I didn’t know, or even think about. I guess I thought I would find something there I couldn’t find in Shawneetown. What I found was more aggravation, and I came to realize that it is really the small town that offers more. It offers freedom - freedom from having to fight for the one available parking space, freedom from traffic jams, freedom from having to look over your shoulder when walking down the street, freedom from being afraid in your bed behind double-dead-bolted locked doors and barred windows. Small town living is freedom.

So perhaps it was to feel this freedom again that I came back. The class reunion was just an excuse. I knew that. At this point I couldn’t even remember who was organizing the reunion or where it was going to be held. To be honest, I didn’t care. There were only a few of my old friends I really wanted to see, and I wouldn’t be too disappointed if I didn’t get to see them. I really just wanted to sit on the grass of the town square, eating a chocolate-vanilla twist cone from the old ice cream stand while watching the clouds roll past the hills off in the distance. If I got to do that, this whole trip would be worth it.

I noticed some changes as soon as I rolled into town. The two gas stations were now convenience stores, one of them complete with a car wash and Laundromat. The Burger Bin restaurant, which had always been open during the summer, now appeared to be closed for good. The little old bank that stood for decades on the corner of Lincoln and Main had been torn down and replaced by another little bank, a modern-looking building with a drive-up window and ATM. The south side of the railroad tracks, on which all of the black people in town had lived in unofficial but none-the-less real segregation, now had only three houses and a trailer left to occupy it. There were other little changes - the grocery store had a different name on the front, what used to be a barbershop was now a store that sold arts and crafts, what used to be a dime store now rented videos, and so forth.

There was one change I noticed that made me pull over and stop. My old high school seemed to be in terrible shape. Most of the windows were broken or completely out, exposing the building‘s insides like open wounds. There were visible cracks coming up from the foundation, snaking their way in crooked paths along the outer walls. The front steps had all but crumbled into tiny pieces like a cupcake does when it‘s eaten too quickly. Large, gaping holes cratered the landscape of the gymnasium roof. And the lawn - the lawn was awful. It was a sea of tall grass intermingled with all types of weeds interrupted here and there by islands of ugly bare patches of dirt. The whole place looked like it had been abandoned for thirty years, but that was impossible. I had been out of high school just ten years, and I knew that the old high school had remained open for at least a few years after that. A new K-12 school had been built outside of town, but it must’ve been open only a couple of years. So how could this grand building, this edifice that had been housing so many of my fondest memories, have fallen into such disrepair? All I knew was how it felt to look at the place. It was like expecting to see an old friend but instead finding out that he had passed away. I sat there in my car for a long time, staring in disbelief.

At least the only hotel in town was still standing and open for business. The Shawnee Brave Hotel had always had a pool and eighteen rooms, all in various degrees of cleanliness. It hadn’t changed much. The sign in front still boasted proudly that each room was equipped with air conditioning and color TV. I noticed, however, that the pool was now filled in with concrete.

A Pakistani gentleman named Rahim was standing behind the front desk. “You’re lucky,” he said after checking me in.

“Why is that?”

“I have one vacant room left.” He told me.

“Really? Don’t tell me Shawneetown has become a draw for tourists!” I joked. He didn’t smile. “Have a lot of people come to town for the class reunion?”

“No, it’s not that. All of the migrant workers moved in a couple of weeks ago. They could’ve taken all of my rooms, but their boss is cheap, so he crowded them all together as much as he could. I had to bring in bunk beds just to house them all.” He didn’t seem too pleased about his new tenants.

“Kind of late in the season for migrant workers to be coming in, isn’t it?”

“Oh, they’ve been here in town for months. But they moved into the hotel two weeks ago. They were staying in that old school across the highway, but they had to move out when the roof started caving in.” he said.

“You mean they were staying in that dump?” I was surprised at how I was able to refer to my old high school in that way.

“It wasn’t a dump until a couple of weeks ago.” He answered. “It was in very good shape. Suddenly, it just started falling apart.”

“It didn’t get that way in a couple of weeks.”

“Oh yes,” he insisted, “it was in excellent condition until just a few weeks ago. The owners did a very good job of maintaining the property.”

I left it at that, wondering if Rahim had enjoyed a couple of cold ones before I arrived. Not even bothering to step into my room, I opened the door, tossed in my suitcase, and left. I wanted to see the town before the sun went down.

I didn’t take the car. When I was a kid, until I got old enough to drive, I used to walk everywhere. So I got to know Shawneetown from the sidewalks, which is a much more intimate way to know a town than from a car window. I thought I could I feel this intimacy again, pick up where we left off, as it were.

I was very relieved to find the ice cream stand was still open. It looked as though the menu had not changed while I was gone. I ordered my long-time favorite, chocolate-vanilla twist in a waffle cone. The day was still hot, so the ice cream started to melt immediately. I licked off the ice cream that was running onto my hand while I strolled across the street to the town square.

The big oak tree was still there, faithfully stretching out its limbs, offering shade to anyone who needed it. There was a bench, but I didn’t sit on it. I wanted to sit under the tree like I did as a boy. While I was picking out a spot, I couldn’t help but notice how long the grass on the square was. This was one lawn in town that had always been well manicured. I sat down anyway. I just wanted to enjoy my waffle cone and look at the hills off in the distance. What I saw almost made me choke on my ice cream.

The range of hills just south of town was known as Gold Hills. It had always been a favorite site of mine. I loved to watch the wind roll through the waves of grass and trees. In the spring and on through the summer, the hills would be spotted in places with large, colorful patches of wild flowers that pleasantly interrupted the landscape. During the fall, the trees would be alive with color as the leaves turned a thousand different shades of orange and yellow. And in the winter, when it was cold enough, the hills resembled a sleeping giant, resting comfortably under his sheet of snow. It was a kind of a virgin beauty, because aside from a few houses discreetly tucked away in hidden corners, these hills had pretty much remained untouched by man. But, now this had changed too. As I looked up from my seat on the grassy square, I could see great big ugly scars where huge chunks of the ground had been ripped out by strip-mining.

“Rob?” came a voice behind me, “Robby Wilson? Is that you?”

I turned around.

“Clem!” Standing there was Clem Fletcher, an old schoolmate and one of the people I was hoping to run into while I was here. He hadn’t changed much since his teen years. He had the same unruly mop of red hair and his face was still dotted with little brown freckles. But there were subtle differences. Unlike when he was a teenager, the size of his arms, feet, and hands now seemed to be in proportion with the rest of his body. He seemed to have better posture than I remembered, too. Now he had sort of a manly, more confident way of standing. This was grown-up Clem.

“Man, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” he said as he gripped my hand in a very macho handshake. “So, what brings you to town?”

“The class reunion, of course! Aren’t you going to be there?”

“What class reunion are you talking about, Rob?” He really seemed as if he didn’t know what I was talking about.

“Surely you heard about,” I said, “there were only thirty people in our graduating class.”

Clem’s eyebrows furled into a look that seemed to express both concern and confusion.

“What is it?” I asked. I hoped whoever was organizing this reunion hadn’t excluded Clem on purpose. In that case, I would hate to be the one to tell him about it.

“This is weird.”

“What’s weird, Clem?”

“I’m pretty sure there’s no reunion,” he said vaguely.

“Why would you say that?”

“You remember Chad Olden and Shawn – Shawn Biggerstaff, don’t you? We use to run around with those guys a lot.”

I nodded my head.

He continued, “Well, they’re both back in town for the weekend. Got here yesterday. Chad came back because he thought his mother was sick.”

“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.

“That’s the thing. Nothin’s wrong with her. She’s in great shape. But Chad was sure someone told him that she was sick, and that he needed to come right away to see her.”

“Who told him she was sick?”

“No one! At least, not that we can tell. We asked everybody. No one remembers callin’ him or sendin’ him a letter, or nothin’. Even Chad can’t remember who told him.”

“That is weird.” I said.

“Yeah, it is. But Shawn’s the same way. He came because he thought he was invited to somebody’s wedding. But there ain’t no wedding here this weekend. He can’t even remember who’s supposed to be gettin' married!

”By the way, Rob – who told you there was going to be a reunion, anyway?”

At that moment, an unseasonably cool breeze rushed past us, and through me, causing shivers from my hair down to my toes. A cold, empty feeling started to overtake my insides, as it occurred to me – I couldn’t even remember how I found out about this class reunion in the first place. Just what the heck was going on here?

Look for the full novella on Amazon!