by Marvin Bruce.
Some towns are best seen through the bottom of a glass. No greater shame than when your hometown’s one of them. The stranger holding down a barstool at Bud’s and shaking his head, wondering why he’d come to Oil Heritage Days is one thing. The hometown girl herself is quite another.
I’m the hometown girl.
The persistent few still living here have pledged their best efforts to colorful murals on forsaken buildings while empty storefronts stare accusingly at abandoned streets. Neglect has settled over once grand edifices erected by distant, optimistic ancestors, long dead. Empty shells of industry devoid of ideas. Not a soul in sight. An out-of-town mall and Wal-Mart beat this town almost to death.
A cruel chill whips spitefully around me as I scan the deserted main street for the faintest pulse of vitality. This pea-green army surplus jacket is too large. I wear my faded jeans baggy because that’s what people do. People. Where are the people?
I feel somebody following me. I whip around to find an empty street. I’d better sober up.
Down by the Allegheny there used to be a coffee shop. Across from Usher Inn.
Oil City was never New York, but a mere two decades ago the downtown parking garage was new, built to accommodate the growing interest in this little community. Stores used to be open after school. Woolworths and Sears owned thriving businesses tucked in next to off-color tobacco shops, fastidious office supply stores, and the ever overpriced pharmacies. Ghosts of commerce past. And creeps who follow girls alone on the street.
Across from Usher Inn. I must be desperate to head in this direction. Dark chambers hide the peccadilloes of local businessmen and small-town brokers. Dingy rooms with faded drapes. Many local girls had felt my same boredom while the industrious little town carried on with its wholesome business outside. Seven stories of memories begging to be lost. Prom night. Scott Derrick, high school football star. Top floor. Scott went off to Penn State, but I had to go even further.
I stumble uncertainly toward the coffee shop. I check frequently to make sure I’m not followed. Paranoia from this town shifting under my feet.
The Usher looms. Attempting to project elegance into the reluctant town crumbling all around it, the town’s only hotel houses the alumni who return for the Apple Fest or Oil Heritage Days. Or the world stone-skipping contest down the road in Franklin. The world-record holder always stays here. And the locals feel that they are just on the cusp of something great. No glass houses where champion stone-skippers dwell.
If memories have been trapped by those dingy pastel walls, then my first time was written like a story by some failed writer. “You only fail when you fail to try,” Mrs. Gray, one of my naively optimistic teachers, liked to say. She never tried to get published. She never tried to escape a dying town.
Beware the daughter who requires too much stimulation. Born where the next day unfolds just the same as the endless succession of those before it.
Oil City had once been a boom town. I’m a boom town girl.
Now I’m just watching it fade like a photograph long exposed to the sun. The gray light of dawn in a far-off city bursting with energy and possibility have opened my eyes only naively educated here. I see that now. I am the only solid body in a spiritual town of perdition. Dreams that turn on you will thrash your very soul in your sleep, mocking feeble hopes like green shoots that emerge just before the final killing frost of the season sets in.
I sent Mrs. Gray a story I’d written. She’d been kind enough to email back, telling me of a younger girl who she thought really had the gift. Clearly she couldn’t read her own subtext.
The coffee shop’s nearly derelict, amateur paint job over a hardware-store sign, the outlines of the upraised old letters still visible beneath the yellow wash. “Bucks.” Can’t call it Starbucks, but there are plenty of Bucks around. It offers refuge from the constant wind. After Bud’s I could use some coffee. The hope of resurrection.
A couple of aging patrons, incongruously flashy laptops in front of them, plug into the DSL paradise and dream internet dreams. Hands deep in my coat pockets, amid the rumbled paper, out of the gusty air, I’m still buzzing from my liquid breakfast. Alarmed, I recognize one of the patrons sitting in a corner. He greets me before I can turn back. Now I know who was following me. He’s still panting.
“Blondie?” Scott Derrick shark-grins. It’s a nickname I haven’t heard since high school. “Let me buy you a coffee.” He must know I’m drunk. He’s probably counting on it. Coffee could foil his plans.
“Hey, Scott, how about a latte,” I respond, casual. Professional even. “Skim.” My body always feels heavier in this town. Scott turns to the counter and I hear sounds like a robot that can’t clear its mechanical throat.
“Home on break?” he insipidly asks.
“Aren’t you at Penn State?” He’s the fuel that feeds the town’s undying engine as the specters of years past struggle not to be forgotten. He’s become Oil City.
“I never made first string. Flunked out.” I’d never pegged him for an intellectual, but he was what every girl in this town wanted. I wanted more.
“Why’d you come back here?”
“Everybody knows me here. I can live at home ’til something comes along.”
I nervously shift my feet and reach for the steaming paper cup he hands me. I’m glad for the warmth radiating through the insubstantial vessel as our fingers meet. The earthy aroma of darkly roasted Arabica beans is welcome in this blustery, chilly November. “I’m visiting dad for Thanksgiving,” I reluctantly admit, fishing a five from my pocket with my free hand. He waves the money away. He invites me to die with this town.
I want to head for the door, to find a pulse, but all that’s out there is the wrong side of Wal-Mart and its aggressive cheapness. At home the television only rests after dad’s in bed. I feel brain-dead. I’ve been staring at artificial drama too much already. I let myself be led to his table. Buck’s opted for a mismatched décor, grasping for trendy. The effect is, in reality, that of a summer spent hunting garage sales bargains. Scott’s table wobbles. On its last legs.
I thoughtfully sip the coffee through the toddler tippy-cup hole in the flimsy plastic lid. I’m reluctantly curious. “What are you hoping to make of yourself here?”
“Dunno. Maybe football coach,” he answers. Can’t poke ambition with a stick. “Slaughterbach’s due to retire soon. They’ll need someone.” He’s living with his folks, unemployed. He spends their money on me. He’s thinking about prom night. So am I.
“You’ve got to dream bigger. Something about the small-town mind refuses to admit that others can do things better. Lack of experience, I guess.” Here’s some guy who’s never been further than State College making a life for himself in a dying town. Does he even recognize how pathetic his efforts seem?
“You gotta start somewhere,” he reasons. “Want another one? On the house,” he slyly whispers. I glance at the unbroken grayness outside the window. Usher Inn dominates the view. I shake my head. He follows my eyes. “They do a good lunch at Usher Inn now.”
Sometimes when you smash a bug it doesn’t die. The thought of stomping again sickens you as you watch its scurrying legs trying to crawl out of its own goo. The coffee hasn’t sobered me up much. “Come on, Blondie, let me buy you lunch.” Scott’s confidence is almost hypnotic, like a repetitive mantra. The social contract. Meat for sex. As old as the neanderthals. When I return from the restroom he’s donned his high school letter jacket and is ready to go. Together we step out into the drab November afternoon.
“So, what’cha studyin’ at Columbia?”
“Journalism. And I’m at NYU.” The coffee still coating my mouth comes out all cloudy in the air.
“Journalism, huh? Makes sense. Mrs. Gray said you were the best writer in class. Best she’d seen.”
“In Oil City maybe,” I mutter, remembering her email. “New York’s a whole different story. Much more sophisticated. Working class writers have a tough time there.”
“You can take the boy from the town, but you can’t take the town from the boy. Or girl.”
“New York seduces you, cruelly fracturing hometown paradigms.” I should help Scott out. I should quit drinking.
He’s looking at me in a way that I love and hate. Was he really the last time? I don’t like the direction of my thoughts.
Usher Inn juts its seven obscene stories over the river. Steel balustrades encircle each floor along the outside, painted white like iron lace, working class neglige. The balustrades. I remember well. Before we turned in to our room that night—silly, invincible high schoolers—we stood on that railing up on seven and shouted how the world was at our feet. The only thing at our feet was the concrete back deck, overlooking the muddy river. I shake my head to sober up. I should’ve had that second cup.
Usher Inn’s dining room is really a front for the bar. Lighting is dim and the furniture’s as cheap as I remember it. A haven for hunters after a day shooting deer in the woods. Everything laminated, artificial. This feels like the set of a daytime television. Nothing substantial behind it. The faux cherry table top shows glass rings never wiped off. There’s a permanent tobacco tinge in the air.
“So, the last time we saw each other was graduation?” he opens after ordering a couple of Iron City beers for us.
“I left for New York as soon as I could.”
He doesn’t see himself implicated. “What’s so great about New York anyway? Can you get drunker there than here? Can you get better orgasms? It’s just like Oil City but with more lights. And people.”
“Sometimes a person cares about quality rather than quantity.”
“They have better beer? Better sex?”
“Definitely the former.” My silence on the latter point condemns me. Just yesterday I was in Grand Central with ideas from all over the world mingling in a cosmopolitan orgy all around me. Now I’m enthroned on a tacky chair at the outer banks of civilization. This town is a cage. I must’ve said it out loud, the Iron City accumulating with my earlier indiscretions.
“Remember that rhinoceros at the Pittsburgh Zoo? Field trip. Sixth grade. The way it just stood there, its back to us, rocking its huge head back and forth, back and forth. It was in its own enclosure, safe but trapped.”
“That’s different. You were born here. The rhino was captured and found itself in a strange, new place. Besides, your nose is much prettier.”
“And you’re much hornier.” Another round. An Oil City martini lunch.
“Whaddya say, Blondie? Prom night redux?” The latter’s a word he learned in college.
Has this town, built on crude and steel, truly died? Is euthanasia always wrong? While Scott’s in the restroom, I reflect. He’s Oil City. Is there no hope? What’s the point of being a hometown girl if there’s no hometown? I put down my glass. Scott’s dangling a key-card from his fingers. “Remember?” he prompts, “the world’s at our feet?”
The view of the Allegheny from up on floor seven is like standing on the brink of creation to those who’ve never been outside. “Okay,” I consent.
The ancient elevator wheezes and groans as it lifts us heavenward. The doors grind open and we step through the tacky glass fire-doors to a bird’s eye-view of dereliction. The Electraloy factory down the river is closed, the hopeless panes of its dark windows broken out by angry rocks. Cars are so few on the colorless streets that even the single police cruiser feels superfluous. The sad tops of unused shops. Even the full five-stories of Mellon Bank have fled to greener pastures. My home town.
Scott’s fumbling with the door behind us. Key-card doesn’t work the first time. The little LED flashes an insulted red. Gasping for breath, not willing to die. Mercy more often wears a cruel face than kind. I can feel his desperation from here. I want to administer last rights. I want to pull the plug.
“The world’s at our feet,” I sigh. I grip this morning’s rejection letter crumpled up in my coat pocket.
Scott’s nervously slipping his card in and out, frantically glancing back to ensure that I haven’t run away. “Just like prom night,” he smiles nervously.
The empty man behind me persists. Reluctantly the door yields to its electronic programming. The intent to fabricate elegance only makes the room look tawdry. Furnishings are cheap but try to appear expensive. But they lack the energy. The delicate print on the bedspread belies the coarse, stiff fabric beneath. The bed, despite its pressed wood headboard, has white plastic wheels under its institutional metal frame. It’s all an illusion. “Why don’t we get in out of the cold?” Scott asks with a halfhearted stab at suavity. He cranks up the thermostat.
Rubbing his hands rapidly over the vent, he senses the warmth building. “You remember last time?” If I can get him to climb on that banister outside, I can hasten the death of this town. It’d be euthanasia. Mercy killing. He is Oil City.
Instead I give in to the weakness of being human. Our clothes are a jumbled confusion on the floor. “Scott, before we do,” I say, “let’s do the balustrade, like prom night.”
“Aw, Blondie—you mean get dressed all over again? It’s cold out there.”
“Please? Like prom night. And,” I add conspiratorially, “we don’t have to get dressed.”
“What? Stand out there naked? The city’s gone to your head, Blondie!”
“Who’s going to see us? The world’s at our feet, remember?”
He’s easily led. We prop the door open with a cheap chair. I step on my coat, the rejection letter crinkles. Am I Oil City too?
The cold is bracing on our bare skin. A little unsteady, grabbing the rusty uprights for balance, we climb onto the banister. It wobbles more than I remember. The thrill is exquisite. “The world’s at our feet!” I shout. I want what’s out there.
I intended to push him. Instead I grab his hand and leap, reaching for the world.