This is the first of a few series of essays I plan to write. First, we must establish context. For the events I will later describe to make sense, you must have a sense of the stage on which it played. Only my classmates will likely recognize this, because there came a time when I flushed my past. Completely and thoroughly, and not just once. After fifteen years, my husband knows more than anyone about my life between eight and twenty-two, and he would be hard pressed to fill a page. If I go into detail it’s because people who know me now must surely have difficulty imagining me running around outdoors barefoot, riding horses and feeding zebras and sometimes going days at a time without seeing or speaking to another person. As far as I know, only a handful of pictures have survived, but the good news is I was hella-cute.
Me, being cute.
I grew up in a small town in rural Missouri. Today, after a relative growth boom, their 2010 census shows a population of scarcely 300. In some ways, it was ideal for a quiet child (I was really, really quiet once!) and I was sheltered from a lot of the rage and danger of the mid-80s. For those of you who remember, there was a lot of rage and danger to be had. My graduating class was fewer than thirty, and most of them are like extended family to this day. We don’t see each other often; when we get together it’s pure magic. There is nothing quite as frightening and rewarding as sitting in a roomful of people who knew you when you were young.
But it’s not all like a scene from Mayberry. Just like books and movies enjoy pointing out, a lot goes on behind the scenes of a small town. Husbands and wives enjoyed plenty of afternoon delight, just not always with their own spouse. Occasionally, a misdemeanor would shake things up for a while. Gossip constantly buzzed through the phone lines, and about every five years a major scandal would break and give the busybodies fuel to get them through the dry spells when everyone behaved themselves. The worst things I have ever heard uttered about a person were said in a country church after services. Wrapped in empty phrases such as “bless her heart” and “I’ll pray for him” were words that could (and would, as you’ll soon see) destroy lives. To this day, I fear nothing like I fear a scary old church biddy. You know the one. Built like a tank, with the disposition of a viper and an ever-present King James Bible. Believe you me, there is none of that watered-down “friendly English version” shit for the old school soul warriors. You say your thous and begats and are damned grateful for the opportunity, can I get an amen?
Everything I needed to know about small town life was revealed at the advanced age of eight. I recall being asked to step into the hall in third grade. There was no meeting room in those days, you stepped out into the hallway and your classmates speculated wildly about what was being said just a few feet away. God bless the child who had the fortune of making a trip to the restroom at such times, and having a legitimate excuse to overhear a keyword or crucial facial expression that revealed what was happening. Anyway, scalded with shame, I learned that I wasn’t in trouble but my reading habits were a concern. We were tasked with writing a short story about a kitchen. The boys turned in stories of sandwiches because they had no idea what goes on in a kitchen. Girls turned in stories of baking cookies, watching mother season her pot roast or dreaming about her future husband. I wrote about a haunted can opener that killed everyone that tried to open the last can of soup in the house. This alarmed my teacher, and my eight-year-old self tried to explain. It wasn’t that I was crazy, I said with a big crazy smile, it was that I read this awesome book and wanted to try out something like it. It was Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. I enjoyed creating something that could never be real, but make you feel something exciting, but I didn’t have the words yet to make my point.
“Okay,” said the principal, a kind man who had a relatively cheerful approach to a thankless job. “We were worried because…” Then the room got quiet and heavy, the way rooms do right before shit hits the fan.
“Because what?” I asked, not sure what he meant. Even at eight, I was not stupid; I knew something was coming. He knew something I didn’t. And that, dear friends, is my earliest lesson in small town life. The first time I remember looking outside of what I knew and viewing my hometown as a social construct, I learned a painful and shocking lesson: often, not only do they know your business as well as you do, but they can know it better.
But that’s yet another story. I’ll tell it soon.
Sneak Peek for next time:
Family History: Just The Fun Stuff