The kids in town nearly ignored marijuana altogether; they moved straight to heroin. They smoke it off of aluminum foil and to them it’s like taking communion. Not many shoot it, perhaps because they’re afraid of explaining away the marks during gym class.
Another abandoned house burns its way up to heaven. It goes up in minutes; it hasn’t seen a drop of moisture in months. All the memories of the people who once lived there quietly disperse into the night as ghosts and give the other small-towners nightmares. Everyone in a quarter mile radius who isn’t woken up by the blaze has a bad dream. Susan dreams that her railroader husband leaves on a train and never returns. Archer dreams of his mother crying softly at the table, a stack of bills accumulating tears below her. The woman everyone only knows as Miss Cathy dreams of her youth, when every house in town felt alive and full, and how all those neighbors have gone up in smoke since then.
Firefighters arrive and pour water on the cindered ruins. They take their time, the adjacent houses are abandoned too, gnarled ghost ships waiting their turn. The neighborhood is full of them, and their emptiness spreads farther every year.
Flyers show up around town advertising Music in the Park. Newspaper pages are devoted to it. June 9th, starting at 6:00 PM. The annual festival.
Mrs. Oliver gossips with her neighbors about the special musical guest this year.
I have friends on City Council, and they wouldn’t lie to me, she tells them. Of course, maybe it’s not a sure thing, but I’m telling you, they did it. They’ve got Blue Öyster Cult coming down to headline.
No one believes her. She makes claims like that every year. Blue Öyster Cult would never come within two hundred miles of Music in the Park.
People who drive by the sign that says “Welcome to Hardwood!” either ignore it or chuckle a little at the name. The more juvenile among them chuckle again when they pass the rusty neon sign reading “Hardwood Inn. Vacancies!”
A man sits in a booth by himself with a beer and a basket of fries. Both are untouched, one getting too warm and the other getting too cold.
He drove to the bar from his house, where he found his wife having sex with a man he didn’t know. Not in their bed but in the kitchen, hence his lack of appetite. He considers what he should do next.
He entertains the idea of taking his beer with him, getting in the car, and driving west. He’ll drive ‘til he hits the desert. Drive ‘til his busted hulk of a truck finally gives out under him like a frothing horse and he’s left to the rocks and sand. He’ll smoke what he keeps in the glove compartment and lie naked on the baking stones as his heart withers away.
It occurs to him he might just walk a half mile down the road to the railroad tracks. Just a half mile, and he’ll lie right on that spot until that rare train finally comes through. He’ll lie face down like a star and be removed from his hands and feet. Or he’ll lie straight across the metal bars and be split into thirds, his throbbing head mercifully separated from his wounded heart and weak legs.
He ponders swinging by Chris’s. Lifting the potted plant on the porch, using the key. Chris claims he keeps a Beretta in a drawer. I ain’t risking any fucking tweakers or junkies or whatever busting in here, he always says. Chris is in Chicago for the week, he wouldn’t miss the pistol. Yes, maybe he’ll do that. Find her still in the kitchen and pull the trigger. He’ll feel the copper taste of his wife’s blood as it splatters in little flecks onto his lip. He’ll blink it out of his eyes, snort it out of his nostrils. He’ll weep over her corpse thinking that he never asked her why. And his heart will well up and explode and he’ll rock himself to sleep there on the floor.
In the end he drinks half his beer and just drives home.
When Alex takes his bike to the bowling alley after school, the lights inside are flickering and the lanes are cracking. The floor is sticky under his feet as he walks to the front desk. He produces his application for the part time job, but the balding clerk grits yellow teeth and shakes his head. The clerk nods toward the stack of applications already on the desk, taller than a size 9 shoe is long. No words need to be said.
The old theater is closed down and in disrepair. The legend goes that it is haunted by the spirit of a thespian. During his performance as Oedipus the King, the actor began flying around the stage, horrified by what he had done. They say he bumped into a piece of the set too hard in his excitement, a statue of Lady Liberty that was meant to pass for some Greek rendering of Athena. The statue toppled, and he lost his balance, fell off the stage, and broke his neck.
The man who sets old houses on fire sleeps there, and he dreams that the dead thespian stalks him in his sleep; he wants someone to witness as he gouges out his own eyes.
Thanks to Mrs Oliver, the whole town is talking about Music in the Park. Or rather, about Blue Öyster Cult appearing at Music at the Park. Tom from City Council suggests they cut the Tilt-a-Whirl from the budget and contact Blue Öyster Cult’s manager, whoever he is.
If Rose ever wanted to throw caution to the wind, buy a bus ticket, and go be a writer someplace, it isn’t happening now. Not with the way Mom’s health has been lately. Better to keep her job at the hospital so she can stay close.
Mom’s eyes are getting so bad she has trouble buying groceries. Her withered legs can barely sustain the ten minute walks she takes her German Shepherd Toby on. And she’s supposed to take care of Dad like this?
Dad is in worse shape. His Alzheimer’s keeps him from going anywhere alone. Rose remembers the first time Dad had worried her; when he showed up late to the family reunion, a fresh dent in his passenger side door. Rose thought he’d been lying about it then, but when he said I have no idea how that got there! maybe he’d been telling the truth. And lately he talks about how his old friends from the railroad visit him in his dreams.
No, it certainly isn’t happening now, Rose admits. She takes her parents to church on Sunday, helps them up the steps one at a time. She won’t be a writer, and she won’t be leaving. She closes her eyes but does not pray.
Behind the high school, in the hills where nothing grows but sparse yellow grass and small cacti, Alex experiences his first drug deal. In the sweaty moonlight, he fidgets and bounces around. He has to piss like mad. In the distance he thinks he hears something howling, and he thinks about bailing. There’ve been reports lately of something creeping through town and ripping apart pets. Some say it’s a coyote, Alex’s dad is certain it’s some sort of bobcat. Alex doesn’t want to find out. He scans the area and sees nothing, no sign of Austin’s headlights nor any sign of the pet killing beast.
Fuck it, he says aloud, and unzips. One more look around him and he relieves himself on a nearby cactus.
Before he has his pants fully zipped back up he hears Austin’s nasal voice behind him, almost right in his ear. Sup Bitch.
Alex wonders where the hell Austin came from, more than a little embarrassed.
Other than that, the deal goes smoothly, as far as Alex knows. Austin asks what the hell that smell is and Alex turns his face down, says he doesn’t know.
It’s not until the next morning that Alex realizes he never checked what was inside the bag Austin gave him.
A ziplock full of sand and the tail of a dead cat.
The local arcade shuts down. The kids have different pastimes now. The man who sets old houses on fire begins sleeping there, on account of the irritation in his eyes. He’s been scratching them in his sleep.
Music in the Park is considered a great success. The grass is littered with little yellow bits of paper, coupons for free lanes at the bowling alley. Blue Öyster Cult performs in front of a small crowd, and after the show the bandmates smoke heroin with a few neighborhood kids behind the old theater.
When Blue Öyster Cult leaves the crumbling stucco and dirt of Hardwood, they don’t dare look behind them. Since they began driving, the town and its inhabitants have fully eroded. Ground up into nothing but memories that disturb the dreams of those who pass through.