By Mike Dorman
Fifty miles west of Bloomington lies Hillsboro, a monument to middle-class malaise. A fifteen-mile break from the real world, a stucco strip mall oasis in the vast Midwest horizon. The clipped lawns of its corner drug stores act as testament to both the value and virtue of our foreign wars. Hillsboro: a God-fearing, family-first population, a good ninety percent of which doesn’t know what malaise even means. With good reason. For, education is the double-edged sword in places like Hillsboro, places so utterly dull and insular that any knowledge of the outside can forever ruin a happiness made possible only through ignorance. Education may be the ticket out, but it might only make you miserable. Stick your head in the sand, Hillsboro, run from the truth. Get up, put on your overalls, drink your coffee and turn on your sermon. Rage, rage against that outside world—do not go gently into that uncouth morass.
“That is quite enough, Fred. You need not read any further.”
“Oh, I’m happy to read on,” I said good naturedly, “there’s another page and a half—“
“Oh, gosh, you’re just so flippant and savant, aren’t you?” Betty Truegood turned around in her desk. She looked like an afterschool special actress, all freckle-cheeked and innocent. She had brown, kind of puppy-dog eyes that fit awkwardly in a face still growing. The scowl she threw at me was so exaggerated it seemed somehow Disney-like. “You’re just so, so—oh, what’s the word—impertinent! You’re just so impertinent, is it? Can’t be bothered?”
“Betty, be nice to our new student.” But Mrs. Cromchent’s voice held no conviction.
Mrs. Cromchent had a faint lesbian-ness to her, a homosexuality that might’ve matured in a more liberal environment. Hillsboro, however, had made sure to repress all of that questionable nonsense, her natural inclinations coming out all sideways—wool socks with sandals, fisherman’s vest worn over short-sleeve pastels; her passion sublimated to words and literature. She walked hunch-backed (a condition I assumed came from the massive bosom not even XXL could hide) back towards the board.
Over her gray hair, the American flag lolled like a tired dog’s tongue. Her eyes roved me over a good three times before she could pull them away. “He has a right to his opinion.”
“Well, his opinion sucks!” Greg Dixon looked comical in his desk. He was simply much too big for it. I thought his heavy, Paul Bunyan flannel shirt odd for how hot a day it was. “He don’t know nothing about Hillsboro. He ought to keep his mouth shut!”
“Well, by you’re reasoning,” I don’t know why I said it. Depression can bring with it a cynical type of boredom which in turn can lead to impulsivity. How else to explain my challenge to a lumberjack five times my size? “You ought not open your mouth at all.”
From the back-corner of the class, a quick, one-bullet laugh fired.
“Because by your own logic, if I should keep my mouth shut when I don’t know something about a topic—that is, in this case, about Hillsboro—then you, who clearly has no idea about anything whatsoever, should keep his mouth perpetually shut.”
“I’m gonna perpetually kick your ugly—“
“That’s enough, Greg!” All the anger in Mrs. Cromchent’s eyes was cast on me, however. She put on the glasses dangling around her considerable bosom, her eyes becoming cartoonishly large—all the better to blink at me with. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to rework the assignment, Fred.
That is not going to cut it. I expect it done by the end of the week—“
The bell hurt my ears.
Desks squeaked against linoleum. Students erupted from desks, slung packs over shoulders, a garble of speech drowning out even the bell.
I lifted my black Jansport (an inheritance from the mysterious Jake I kept hearing about), a bit disheartened by the extra weight this “Treasures of English Literature” added, and looked for the source of that first, solitary laugh.
Like everything else in the bizarre social totem of high school (in my many relocations, a totem I grew to view a little more detached, a tad more objectively) every action, every item of clothing, every upturned collar or boondoggle bracelet—everything—was like a gang sign, a first greeting in some strange language all your own to see if the other also spoke it. Social fishing: throw out your fashion line and see if anything’s biting.
In my case, my sense of humor—and anyone else who might’ve got it—was what led me to whatever tribe I might claim as mine. My misery didn’t particularly love company, but company did make hell a lot more tolerable.
The kid was already waiting for me at the door. Small and with a feminine build, his forehead and eyes hid in the black bangs he had done up in the style of a poodle. Neck as white as the pearls Betty Truegood wore on her wrist, he wore a Slipknot shirt two sizes two big (showing more cleavage than made me feel comfortable). Two solitary, long hairs—barely visible strands—drooped from a chin otherwise covered in acne.
He smirked at me as I approached.
“Uh, Fred?” From behind, Mrs. Cromchent’s voice rose above the roar. “Would you mind staying back? I need to talk with you about a few things.”
The kid shrugged, whipped around and melted into the rest of the hallway chaos.
Her desk was as oversized as her bosom, with as much paneling as the wainscoting in a Senator’s upscale townhouse. Seated behind it, she looked like a judge, her gray locks tumbling right to where her second chin began. She blinked once more, eyes ghoulish in her prescription’s magnification.
Bravely (in my opinion at least) I stood my ground, not so much as blinking as she considered me. After the third blink of those eyes, however, I had to say something—
“—You’re cynicism doesn’t scare me, Fred.”
“Please, when it’s just the two of us, call me Mr. Sellers.”
“It doesn’t.” She was thumbing the cross around her neck. “Doesn’t scare me, and surely don’t impress me much. You think you’re all so special, that you’re the first to have a bad attitude or negative outlook on the world, but let me just break it to you: you’re as cliché as apple pie.”
“Are we done here?”
“No, no we’re not!” Her second chin wiggled as she shook her head. “Look, Fred, I don’t want us to be enemies. I’m trying to help you, believe it or not. Mr. and Mrs. Somerset are wonderful people, to take you in, and I don’t want the same thing happening to you that happened to Jake. I don’t want them to have to go through something like that again.”
“And making me redo this assignment is a way to prevent that?”
“You’ve just got a clever answer for everything, don’t you? You think clever answers are going to make you happy?”
“Well, gosh Mrs. Cromchent, what in the world makes you think I’m not happy?”
“T-ja.” She picked up a paper from one of the trays of her organizer, her eyes gratefully leaving me as she started correcting. “Have it your way, Fred. I’m not going to sit here and let you provoke me. I only want you to know that things don’t have to be like they’ve always been. You’ve got a great chance here in Hillsboro—Hillsboro is a great place to begin anew, believe me. I know from personal experience—“
“—I knew it!” Again, that depressive impulsivity. “You are a lesbian.”
It took a few moments for her to gather herself sufficiently to reply.
“Okay, Fred, we’re done here.” She swooshed me away with her wrist. “You’re clearly not ready for a reasonable conversation. I only wanted to tell you I see great talent in your writing—remarkably like Jake in that regard, though his was all raw with no grammar or control. Which actually is quite the metaphor for Jake in general. Anyway, I think you really might enjoy our afterschool creative writing group. Betty’s already agreed to help you out—“
“—Betty Truegood?” I tried to close my mouth. “I don’t need any help, and certainly not any from that—“
“—Betty has already won three different national writing awards. She’s going places, that one, and you might too, if you’re willing to get over this, this, cynicism of yours.”
“We’re all going places, Mrs. Cromchent,” I hefted the Jansport back up, “some of those places just more pleasant than others.”
“T-ja.” Pen flicking the paper below her, she only shook her head. “Well said. However you want it. Oh, and Fred? You don’t need to thank me. See Greg out the window there?”
I looked out of the wall of windows, and saw an angry Greg Dixon stomping around the dirt lot outside. He cast his gaze left, right, before he would nose into some hopelessly smaller student and throttle their shoulders. As he all but shouted his question at them, even I, from my vantage point, made out a few of the words: “the new kid?”
“I saved you from Greg’s retribution today, but you’re on your own now.” She called at my back now. “End of the week, Fred. I want your report on Hillsboro in a positive light. It’ll be good for you: practice thinking positively.”
I never wrote that report.
Two days later, I decided (despite Betty’s surprising insistence) not to go to creative writing class, and instead went with Jace (the kid had a Slipknot shirt for every day of the week) to see what kind of trouble our boredom could find. In a ditch behind Woolworth’s, we smoked some weed—I tried not to be ungrateful, it was nice of Jace to introduce me to whatever scene Hillsboro had—that was so low-grade we had to load the coke-can pipe seven times just to feel the slightest buzz.
If it hadn’t taken so much time (Jace rolled up his stash each and every time, and fiddled with his cargo shorts’ button every time he stuffed it back in), I’m sure we wouldn’t have been caught. Who knows how life would’ve turned out then?
The cops did come, though, and my assigned social worker did not take the incident lightly. I was promptly shipped to a new foster family (I can’t even remember who that was. Is that bad?).
Strange as it may sound—I only stayed all of six days in Hillsboro—I never really forgot my time there. I kept writing, even pursuing it seriously a bit in my senior year, before realizing I could more lucratively spend all the energy I was giving out on plot and grammar to the purchase and selling of oxycontins. In between jobs at Big T construction and Bridger Pipe and during some other recession-induced cutbacks, I even had spells in my adulthood where I wrote quite regularly.
I’d be lying if I didn’t give Mrs. Cromchent most of the credit.
Funny enough, I’d been thinking about Mrs. Cromchent quite regularly when it happened.
Jolie and I had just broken up (this time I felt it was permanent. There was, I knew, another guy involved, and I too had a decent red-headed prospect at the Irish bar I’d started frequenting) and, I don’t know, I’ve always gotten all sentimental between love affairs: I would revisit my entire life, as cheesy as it may sound, go back and reassemble the pieces, see where it went all wrong, why I couldn’t hold on to a relationship.
So I started wondering if Mrs. Cromchant was still alive. Wondered where I might find her address if she was. I imagined what I’d say in the letter.
So, imagine my surprise when, after an early day off (couldn’t build anymore in the rain) I encountered another character from my short but memorable Hillsboro days.
She smiled—her face as homely as I’d imagined it—just as bright as a sun-lit church courtyard at me (at anyone really) from the back cover. In the picture she looked sharp—wore one of those masculine, navy-blue sports jackets over a pair of jeans. I noticed a pearl bracelet on her left wrist.
Son of a bitch.
Indeed it was that Betty Truegood.
Hands shaking (from what? Jealousy? Should that have been me?), I went to put the book back on its position in the metal grills (#3!). Serendipitous Byroads.
What kind of title was that? Against my scruples, I found myself flipping to the first chapter.
What on earth are serendipitous byroads? We’ve all had them: those moments we had to make a choice, that crucial decision we may not have wanted to make, that dilemma labored over for days. Or it might’ve only been an instant, but in that instant the power of choice was viable. They exist all around us—as I’ve come to believe, far more often than most of us realize (or are willing to realize)—these little moments of opportunity, these faint glimpses of choice, these serendipitous byroads that want to take us down another path. Destination: happiness!
In this journey of life, we are all going somewhere; some of us just to more pleasant places. If we learn to recognize our personal byroads, we can navigate our personal paths more wisely, and come to that place our serendipitous byroads wish to take us.
I couldn’t stomach anymore. Ridiculous.
Still, something about that back-cover smile haunted me. It just seemed so…genuine.
I shook my head. Serendipitous byroads?
You kidding me? Number three on the crappy-supermarket bestseller list?
I shook my head again, and left the store without buying the French rolls and pasta I’d come for.
About the Author:
Mike Dorman is an American ex-patriot who runs his own English training business for corporate clients in Germany. After a near-death scrape in 2009, he embarked, fear of failure and all, on his lifelong dream of publishing novels. He is working on the third installment of his YA fantasy series, currently seeking representation for the first book, and much prefers coffee over tea.