“The Tale of Her Small Town” by Melissa Jenkins

Ben looked out at the sheep in the pasture and the sporadically planted fruit trees in the back yard.  The backdrop of mountains was blue in the distance, and the sweet smell of just-cut grass and freshly-picked flowers hung in the air.  A warm breeze tousled his blond hair.  The whole scene had  a post card feeling.

“God, it’s hot here,” Ben sighed.  He wiped the sweat from his upper lip.

Hillary laughed.  “It’s early still.  It’ll cool off around midnight.  Good thing you came in June.  It really heats up around the end of July.”

She pulled her fingers through her long, thick hair.  It fell back onto her bare shoulders that seemed to know how to endure the summer heat.

“Heats up!” he choked.  “How hot does it get in this place?”

“Usually around a hundred, but it’s the humidity that gets you.  It’s surprisingly humid for California.  Rice fields, you know.”  She shooed a fly away from her iced tea.

Ben didn’t know.  He was from Portland, Oregon.  It didn’t get above a hundred degrees in Portland.  But Hillary had been his best friend since their first semester of grad school, and she had asked him to help her housesit for her parents.  It was a big house, and she hated staying there alone.

“So what do you do to cool off around here?” he asked.

“The mosquitoes are too thick at the pool after dark,” she thought aloud.  “We used to go to the movies, but after the owner’s wife took half his money in the divorce, he can’t afford to keep the AC on the whole night.  Now it’s just high schoolers.  It’s a good place to get drunk and make out.”

“Did you get drunk and make out at the movies when you were in high school?” he asked.

“Hell no,” she laughed.  “If I’m going to pay six-fifty for a ticket, I’m going to watch the movie.”

“It’s six-fifty for a movie here?” he nearly shouted.

“No.  Tony had to raise it to seven dollars to keep the AC running.  And all the food court items by ten cents.  It was a hard blow to the community.”

Ben tried to remember the last time he had paid seven dollars for a movie ticket.  It may have been hot, but he guessed the place had its small-town charms.

“So no pool and no movies,” Ben said.  “What’s left?”

“You know, that gives me an idea,” she answered, “but I have to make a phone call first. I’m going to show you where I got drunk and made out in high school.”

Hillary made a quick phone call, talking so fast he didn’t even bother to eavesdrop.  They climbed into Hillary’s 2003 Honda Civic, plastered with typical Santa Cruz bumper stickers, but Ben had a feeling her car’s politics stood out from the rest of her hometown.  She rolled through the three stop signs on the way and pulled up in front of a cozy looking place.  The houses were closer together here than on Hillary’s side of town, and he realized they must have driven into the small-town version of suburbia.

After waiting in front of the house for fifteen minutes, Ben was expecting someone better put together.  She walked up to the car in running shoes, Christmas boxer shorts, and a Chico State hoodie.  Her long, brown hair was shoved into a lopsided bun, and the makeup on her left eye was smudged.  She slid into the backseat like it was an old habit.

“I have not done this since high school, girl,” she laughed.

“Right,” Hillary responded.  “How did we forget about the Stop?”

“The Stop?” Ben repeated.

“You’ll see,” Hillary answered.  She parked the car across two parking spaces in front of the Circle K.  “Margaret,” she introduced.  “This is my friend Ben from UCSC.  Ben, Margaret.”

“Your friend?” Margaret repeated.

“Yes, Margaret,” Hillary laughed.  “Some of us are capable of being friends with men and not sleeping with them.”

“That’s boring.  Next time you bring home a single friend, please remember that I like them a nice Latin coffee color.”

Ben was too shocked by that she would say something like that to actually feel objectified.

“Mix all the colors,” Margaret advised Ben once they were inside the store.  Her cup was full of a muddy-hued mixture.

“I’ve gotten a slushie before.”

“It tastes better with all the colors,” Margaret said again.

He put some of the cola flavor in his red drink.  The red was thinner, and the brown color sank to the bottom.

They drove past Hillary’s parents’ house on their way to the Stop.  Her house was about five minutes outside of town, and Ben couldn’t imagine there was any place worth seeing the way they were headed.  Hillary turned right at the end of the road, and the pavement ran out.  It felt like she drove over every pothole in the ground.  She was barely going twenty miles an hour, but he wished she’d slow down.  They were soon engulfed by cornstalks on either side, and all Ben could see in the last hazy glimmer of the sun setting behind the foothill was the steady stream of traffic on Interstate 5.  The dirt road ended in a large square about two hundred feet from the fenced-off freeway.  Hillary put the car in neutral and pulled the parking break.

“Maggie, did you bring the goods,” she laughed.  Hillary’s tone told Ben he was missing out on some sort of long-ago joke.

Margaret pulled out a bottle of lemon-flavored Swiss vodka from the giant piece of leather he supposed was her purse.  She showed Ben how much he could pour in before it tasted too much like alcohol and passed him the bottle.

Margaret sighed.  “It’s like senior year all over again.”

“And junior year.”

“And sophomore year.”

The girls laughed in a comfortable and nostalgic sort of way.

“You did this a lot in high school?” he asked.

The vodka ate through the sweet crystals of ice.

“Only as often as we could get our hands on alcohol,” Hillary answered.  “And with Margaret’s taste for older men.”

Margaret kicked the back of her seat.  “Oh you know I’ve outgrown that.  Anyway, I’d say about once or twice a month.  We had usually had house parties when somebody’s parents were out of town.”

“Not during football season,” Hillary corrected.  “I was out here after every home game junior and senior year.”

“Well I wasn’t a varsity cheerleader,” Margaret said.

“You were a cheerleader?” Ben asked.  He had known Hillary for two years, and she had never mentioned cheerleading.  In fact, he was fairly certain he had heard her criticize the short skirts and lack of knowledge about the sport they were supporting.

“It was a long time ago.”

“They kicked her off the squad,” Margaret explained.  “She was a little too aggressive.”

“I wasn’t one of those prissy girls who liked to shake her ass.  I was really into football and liked the front row seats.”

“Then one day she liked the on-the-field seats.  You know, you’re like a local legend now.”

Hillary slurped the sweet, frozen cocktail.

“There are four thousand people in this town,” she said.  “Everyone is a local legend.”

Rap music rang out from Margaret’s purse.  Of course, Ben thought, this little white girl from rural Northern California would be a fan of Andre Nickatina.

“Hold on,” she mumbled, “I have to take this.  It’s my baby sister.”

She handed Hillary her drink and fumbled around in her purse.

“It’s amazing,” Ben said, “that you kind find anything in that bag.  You could fit a small St. Bernard in there.”

The girls laughed again and made him think he’d stumbled across another memory.

Hillary answered, “Margaret only buys purses that she can fit a fifth of alcohol in.”

With her head in the bag, Margaret explained, “It makes party hopping in Chico much easier.” She finally found her phone and answered.

“How is Mimi nowadays?” Hillary exclaimed after Margaret hung up the phone.  “God, she’s got to be twelve years old by now.”

“Yeah, and she still goes by Mimi.  We thought maybe in middle school we’d have to start calling her Mikayla, but I’m starting to think my mom gave her the wrong name.”

“And what about Mitchell?” Hillary continued.

“He’s been moody for the last couple of weeks.  His ex-girlfriend just got married.”

“Wait, wasn’t he dating Stephanie Miller’s little sister?”

Margaret nodded with her straw in her mouth.

“They just graduated this month!” Hillary cried out.  “Was she pregnant or something.”

Ben choked on his slushie.

“No, I think they were waiting for marriage,” Margaret answered.  She rolled her eyes.  “Besides, you realize that Stephanie, both her sisters, and their mother all got married before the age of twenty.  We’d be spinsters in their family.”

Ben could hardly believe what he was hearing.  He stared out the window at the now dark field and felt like he was drowning in the endless rows of corn.  This was all so different than the Hillary he knew, the studious feminist that drank ten dollar cosmos.  He didn’t understand how such an outgoing woman began in such a small-minded town.

Margaret threw her phone back in her purse and pulled out a can of beer.  “Anyone want a beer?  I must have stashed it in my purse for safekeeping at Malone’s party last night.”

Ben laughed and shrugged his shoulders, “Yes.” He had a feeling he would need more alcohol to tolerate the rest of the night.

“Please tell me Sean Malone still throws parties in his dad’s barn,” Hillary laughed.

Margaret’s face turned suddenly serious.

“Didn’t you hear?  Sean’s dad died two months ago.  His tractor turned over.  Oh God, it was awful.  Sean had to drop out of school to take care of the crops.  He was finally going to graduate, too.”

“Shit.  No one tells me about anything anymore.”

“Well you’re off doing your hippy thing in Santa Cruz,” Margaret answered coldly.  “Believe it or not, life goes on without you here.”

Your hippy thing, Ben thought.  They were both graduate students at UC Santa Cruz, her in literature, him in molecular biology.  He realized that this wasn’t the sort of town where people with master’s degrees lived.  This was a town where watching freeway traffic was a popular pastime and girls kept warm beer in their purses.  He popped the top and took a sip.  It was bitter, so he took a bigger gulp.

“I wish I would have brought you last summer, Ben,” Hillary finally said.  “The Hixleys grew sunflowers last year.  I like it better when they grow sunflowers in these fields.”

“I need a smoke,” Margaret said after a few moments of uncomfortable silence.  She started to climb out of the car.  “Anyone care to join?”

The both declined and she shut the door behind her.

“I don’t understand how you can come from this town,” he said as soon as the door was closed.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it feels like everyone here is a farmer and has never been more than fifty miles away.”

“You’ve only met one person.”

“Yeah, but if she’s the kind of person you hang out with, I can only imagine what everyone else is like,” he admitted.

“Margaret used to be a free spirit,” she explained.  “She was actually a lot of fun in high school.  But this town sort of sucks the life out of you a little bit at a time, makes you conform like a field of identical cornstalks.  That’s why I had to leave.”

Margaret got back into the car.  “What do you say we take your friend on a cruise, show him the town?”

The driver put the car back in gear and turned the radio back up.  She started mouthing the lyrics to the first song that came on.  Ben had no idea she listened to country music.  At school she was always about the outrageous femmes and smooth peace-encouraging melodies.

“So where to now?” he asked.

“We used to have a loop,” Hillary told him.  “Past the gravel pit to Road 35 to hit the dips and then the back road past Mr. Jones’ house.”

She was clearly speaking a foreign language that Ben wasn’t supposed to understand, but before he could ask her to clarify, Margaret interrupted.

“Jones doesn’t live out that way anymore.”

Hillary gave her a backwards glance in response.

“Ellen left him six months ago and took the house.”

Hillary laughed.  “Who would have expected that?”  At least Ben still recognized the sarcasm in her voice.  She turned toward him and pointed out of the window.  “Those are the gravel pits, by the way.”

He couldn’t see much in the darkness, but he imagined the mounds he could discern were heaps of gravel.

Margaret continued with her story.  “Yeah, rumor has it she’s been seeing Coach Grayson on the side.”

Hillary slammed her feet into the clutch and the break, bringing the car to a sudden stop in the middle of the road.

“That is the most amazing news I have heard since I got back here.  This town needs a good lesbian couple.”

As the car started rolling again, Ben scrunched his face.  Since when did Hillary think a lesbian couple was a scandal?  Half of their friends were gay.

“Don’t get too excited,” Margaret sighed.  “He just got promoted to principal, so she’ll probably take him back.  A high school principal certainly makes more money than a gym teacher.”

Ben felt the ground give out underneath the car at what he first imagined was a bump in the road.  But as the car kept swiftly rolling down and back up again, he realized they must have hit the dips.

“Alright lady,” Margaret yawned, “my drink’s empty and I promised Mimi I’d watch a movie with her tonight.”

Ben saw the dim lights of the town in front of them.

“Always good catching up with you.”  Hillary smiled, but he couldn’t tell if it was fake or just sad.  “Who else keeps me up to date on all the town gossip.”

“You know I’ve got you covered,” she laughed.  Ben didn’t think she noticed her friend’s lack of enthusiasm.  “And Ben, it was nice to meet you.  Hillary hardly ever brings her college friends back here.  I think she’s afraid we won’t like you guys.”

That’s definitely it, Ben thought as he forced a short laugh.

They pulled up in front of the house.  Hillary said, “Let Mimi know I say hello.  And tell Mitchell there are plenty of fish in the sea that don’t want to get married the day after they graduate high school,” instead of goodbye.

Hillary didn’t say anything for awhile as they drove back to her parents’ house.  She rolled down the windows and let the breeze catch her hair.  She was right; it was cooler already.

“So I guess a lot has changed since you left,” Ben said finally.

“What do you mean?”

“Stephanie Miller’s little sister got married.  Your friend Sean’s dad died.  And the Joneses split up.”

Hillary rephrased his answer, “Kids still get married too young.  Sean Patrick Malone IV never graduated college and ended up on his daddy’s farm, just like Sean III and junior and senior.  And the Joneses, who started dating when they were married to other people, are still having affairs.  No, Ben.  This is town is exactly the way I left it.”

—written by Melissa Jenkins in CW 350 Fiction Workshop, Fall 2010

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