God, what a place.
It was the sort of small town that lacked any of the charm that made small towns desirable in the hearts and minds of people who didn’t live there. There was a Target, a movie theater attached to the mall, and a host of chain restaurants from which one could choose. You want Applebees tonight? Or should we mix it up and go to Chili’s? They have boneless chicken wings and steak quesadillas on special.
There was money there. Most of the residents were older, retired. The average age of a Springdale local was 54 years. Everyone was white. Everyone was from there or another suburb nearby. Some citizens acted like Springdale money was real money. They’d never been anywhere else. But they looked down on people from North Hill or Ellet like their postal code put them in Milan or Geneva. They clutched their purses a little tighter and tried to stifle a grimace when some undesirable from the city passed by on the street.
People have to be so ‘PC’ now, they’d lament over lunch at the Olive Garden, but where’s all the crime coming from? It’s only when those people come in that cars start getting broken into and kids get hooked on drugs. But if I point that out, well, then the mainstream media says I’m a racist. Heads shake in commiseration over the state of the world all around. You don’t see that kind of thing here in Springdale.
Ray Thorenson left that town in his dust the moment his high school graduation cap hit the ground. His whole life up until that point had felt like serving out a prison sentence. Once he did his time, eighteen long years, he was out. He was gone. Adios, amigos– it’s been fun and it’s been real, but it hasn’t been real fun.
He moved to New York because, well, what else is a kid from a small town in the Midwest with big dreams of being an actor meant to do? He followed the formula: move to New York. Check. Rent a tiny room in a tiny apartment. Check. Get a job as a waiter and gorge yourself on free cokes and stale fries so you don’t have to spend precious savings on food. Check. Go to every audition, every casting call, put it all on the line and pray they call you back. Check.
Ten years go by. He got a few parts here and there– an extra in a Spiderman movie, two lines as a jogger who discovers a body in Central Park on Law&Order, Hamlet in a production put on in the basement of a rollerskating rink in the Bronx. He was “working on his craft,” he said. “Creating a body of work.” All his friends back home were so envious. He was a real actor. He lived in New York City! He took the subway to work! He saw Robert DeNiro outside Rockafeller Center!
All his friends in New York were in “The Industry” as well. Actors, backup dancers, screenwriters– everyone was there to follow their own big dreams. They slept on couches and waited tables. They ate beans from a can and Styrofoam cups of microwaved noodles. But they were doing it, Ray thought. They were all chasing what they wanted. They all escaped the prison of their hometowns.
He was close. He could feel it. Just like when he was going down on his on-again off-again girlfriend, Michelle—her back arching, body tense, whispering “oh my God” over and over again into the pillows he bought on sale at Target. His jaw would be aching, almost numb from the exertion, but he knew once she went rigid like that she was almost there. So he kept going, working his tongue past the point of exhaustion in those tried and true circles he knew worked every time. When the orgasm finally took her she rocked and spasmed as though possessed. His career was poised to explode the same way. He could feel that same tension. He had put in the work and he knew if he could just keep going a little longer it would all pay off, and goddamn it would be worth it.
Ray was sitting alone in his apartment when the phone rang. His roommates were all at their various day jobs. Michelle had freaked out a couple nights before because he hadn’t given her a key to his place so he wasn’t sure if she was coming back around any time soon. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he grabbed for it. He sensed he was on the precipice of a massive shift. He was ready. Beyond ready.
Disappointment settled in his chest like like a stone when he recognized his sister’s number on the screen. He thought about not answering out of spite. He didn’t want to talk to Allie. He didn’t want to talk to anyone except the casting agents for the pilot he’d auditioned for last week. He sighed and rubbed his eyes, as though waking from a dream, which he supposed, in a sense, he was.
“Hello?” he said, trying to keep the defeat out of his voice.
“Ray?” his sister’s voice sounded strained, worried.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Ray you’ve got to come home. It’s Dad. Dad died.”
Ray felt as though he were a puppet those strings had just been cut. All his muscles gave out in a instant; his head fell forward, his mouth went slack, and he doubted he could move if her tried. He didn’t drop the phone though. Allie had begun to cry and she was struggling to be coherent as tormented sobs overtook her.
“He had a stroke,” she said between ragged gulps for air, “he was driving. H-he was driving to the store and had a stroke in the parking lot.”
Ray was trying to listen but a low hum was building behind his eyes. It was drowning everything out. Allie sounded far away. She said something but he couldn’t make it out.
“What?” he said, the fog in his mind getting thicker by the second.
“I said, Mom is losing it. You have to come home right now.”
Home. But, New York was his home. Springdale, that was his confinement, a temporary constraint he’d had to overcome in order to get to his real home.
“I–” he said.
“I don’t fucking care,” Allie cut in, “Just figure it out, Ray. Just get here because I can’t do this, I can’t—” her words disappeared again, swallowed up into a cacophony of grief.
The next day Ray found himself on a bus heading west. The static buzzing in his head which had commenced when he heard the news of his father’s death hadn’t abated and he was learning to simply exist within it. His limbs felt like lead as he threw clothes in a duffel bag. He had one suit which he tried to pack carefully, but it ended up rumpled amidst the jeans and old, worn tshirts. He hoped his mother would know how to press the wrinkles out, either ironing it or steaming, he didn’t know. But it seemed like the sort of thing his mother would know. All mothers, he thought, knew those things.
He leaned his forehead against the cool glass of the bus window and thought about his father. What did he even remember about the man? It had been almost three years since he had gone home to visit. Large hands, mashed up and hammered out from a lifetime of work. Black coffee and the New York Times crossword puzzle. Sliced tomato sprinkled with salt and pepper. Ray remembered when he was about thirteen, sitting in the car, his father driving him somewhere, and his father said to him, ‘God must love the mediocre. He made so damn many of them.” When he told his father he wanted to be an actor, the man looked him over, scrutinizing and evaluating. He pursed his lips and took a sip of coffee. “Life’s going to be harder if you don’t go to college,” was all he’d said.
Ray stepped off the bus in downtown Akron. He spotted his sister’s old, blue Honda across the lot. Allie tore herself out of the car and ran towards him, tears already running in rivulets down her cheeks in preexisting tracks. Ray wondered when he would cry.
Allie dragged him in an awkward embrace as he tried to maneuver his duffel bag out of the way. He hugged her for a moment then held her at arms length.
“You look like shit,” he said.
She laughed, a harsh, barking sound.
“I missed you too,” she said.
They both turned and headed for the car, which Allie had left running. Ray wondered absently if she had done it on purpose or if in her grief she was forgetting things. They pulled out of the bus station and onto familiar streets. Ray looked out the window. He felt like time had gone on without him, yet everything remained the same. They passed a gas station where he used to be able to buy cigarettes underage and a Mexican restaurant beside a truck stop where he’d taken Julie Neiman on his first real date in the ninth grade.
He knew all the landmarks and street signs as they approached them. It made him feel strangely psychic, or like he was suffering from a perpetual case of deja vu. His bones remembered the place. But he felt isolated and removed from it.
Fifteen minutes later they arrived at his childhood home where his parents still lived. Well, where his mother still lived. Ray felt a dull thud in his stomach as his brain corrected itself. They went inside and his mother was sitting at the kitchen table. She rose, tears streaming down her face as she hugged Ray. Her arms held him in a vise grip as her body shook. She buried her head in his shoulder and cried.
Ray stood, dry eyed, as waves of pain wracked his mother’s body. Her tears felt hot on his neck. He stroked her back, awkwardly murmuring what he hoped were soothing things. It felt strange to him, this role reversal, trying to comfort his mother like he was the adult and she the child. Finally, she released him. She slumped back into her chair and stared vacantly at her son. She looked much older than Ray remembered.
“Mom,” Allie said, “can I get you anything? You want me to make some tea?”
Their mother shook her head. She reached for a box of tissues that was sitting on the table and began mopping at her damp face. The tissues came away wet and smeared with dark smudges of makeup.
“No,” she said, “But there’s coffee over there if you want some honey. How was your trip in?” She looked at Ray. He shrugged. He couldn’t think of anything to say. He just sat down and held his mom’s hand. He stared at her wedding ring and wondered how in the midst of losing her partner of almost forty years, she had still managed to make coffee.
That night, Ray met up with some friends at a bar. Adriane Horowitz, who had been his lab partner in twelfth grade science class, was behind the bar serving drinks. She smiled when he sat down.
“Well look who it is,” she said, “How’ve you been?”
Ray remembered how she looked back then. She’d worn a denim jacket two sizes too big for her. He used to watch her blonde hair, always falling in her face as she bent her head, scribbling stars and hearts on the sides of her tennis shoes.
“Good,” he said.
His friend, Jason slapped him on the back and sat down beside him.“Yeah, Mr. Big-Time-New-York has finally graced us with his presence.”
“I heard about your dad,” Adriane said, offering a sad smile, “I’m really sorry.”
“Thanks,” Ray said. He began to squirm under her gaze. He didn’t want to talk about his dad. “Can I get a beer?”
They sat around reminiscing and after a few drinks, Ray felt his body begin to relax. The buzzing was still in his head, but it felt softer now.
“Do you remember those trips to the ledges?” Jason said. In high school they had all piled into Jeremy Deever’s old Chevy and driven out to some cliffs in one of the metro parks to get high.
“Oh yeah,” Ray said as Adriane set another beer in front of him. His fingers grazed hers as she pulled her hand away from the bottle. For a moment, their eyes met and Ray thought, with a start, he may actually have a shot with Adriane Horowitz.
When her shift ended Adriane went to the other side of the bar and sat down to have a drink.
“So how’s New York?” she asked.
“It’s great,” Ray said. He answered the question so many times whenever he was home the response was mechanical and he knew with complete certainty what the follow-up question would inevitably be. He took a sip of his beer and right on cue:
“You ever think about moving back?”
There it was. It was like no one could have a conversation about someone’s life if it didn’t directly involve them as well. They lived in Ohio so they only wanted to talk about living in Ohio. Ray closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. It was always the same.
But wasn’t he guilty of the same thing? In New York, he and all his friends sat around talking about living in New York and how they were all collectively lucky to have escaped their hometowns. Sometimes they would try to one-up each other, compare whose adolescence had been worse, which town was the most dismal in which to grow up. Wasn’t it natural to search for common ground, to want a connection, to relate?
Adriane was looking at him expectantly. He realized he hadn’t said anything and an awkward silence was yawning between them.
“Not really,” he said. He left out the part where he would rather be eaten alive by wolves than return to life in Springdale.
A couple hours later, Ray was amply drunk. He wanted to take Adriane home with him but the logistics of bringing a bartender home to his grieving mother’s house, to sneak up and have sex in his childhood bedroom with the faded Ozzy Osbourne posters on the wall– it was a little more than his addled brain could manage. So when his cab showed up, he said goodbye to his friends and headed home alone. He could already feel the drunk turning on him, from happy to hungover, and he knew he was going to feel like death in the morning. Which, he thought, would be fitting since death was what he had to wake up to anyway.
The day of the funeral was overcast. The morning let loose a cold, stinging rain, enough to turn the ground to mud beneath his polished dress shoes and leave a chill in the air. Ray didn’t mind. He always felt strange attending a somber event when the sun was shining and birds were chirping. The clouds felt appropriately mournful. Although the rain dissipated and became more of a heavy mist, he held an umbrella over his mother’s head as they navigated carefully down a hill to the grave sight.
As the casket was lowered into the ground his mother clung to his arm and wept. It seemed like the woman would never run out of tears. Allie sat beside him with her husband, Jim, and dabbed at her eyes in a practiced, controlled way. Ray knew how his sister was and he was sure she’d given herself a pep talk in the mirror that morning, instructing herself to be strong for her family and not to go to pieces.
Ray watched as the box containing what was once his father disappeared into the Earth. It was made from solid poplar and polished to a high shine with a cream, velvet interior. Ray wondered what a mess it would be on that creamy velvet once decay set in. Did bodies even decay anymore? Or were the treated with something? Were the coffins airtight in order to somehow preserve their inhabitants? All these thoughts passed through his mind as the funeral director walked around and passed out roses for the bereaved to throw into the grave. It all seemed so pointless. People didn’t even return to the earth anymore. They were stuck in a damned box. When his turn came, Ray stood before the casket, looking down and feeling awkward. How long was he supposed to stand there? He let the rose fall from his hands and it made a soft thud as it hit the lid.
As they made their way back towards the car Ray felt the buzzing in his head growing, intensifying. They were just going to leave him there. Everyone was going back to their lives and his father, the man who taught him how to walk, how to shave, how to change a tire, they were leaving him there alone. In a box.
Allie said something and Ray shook his head in an attempt to clear out the noise.
“I said, ‘everyone is meeting back at mom’s.’”
Allie gave him a queer look. “You okay?” she asked.
“Fine.” he said.
Two days later he was packing up his things. He couldn’t afford to take any more time off work and besides that, he was itching to get back to the city. The packing itself wasn’t hard. He had done a load of laundry while he was there so his clothes were clean. But he knew they’d be hopelessly wrinkled as he crammed them forcefully into his bag. He didn’t care.
His mother hovered near his door, watching him.
“I wish you didn’t live so far away,” she said. Ray hung his head. She always said that. But this time he knew when he left her, she would be much more alone than she’d been all the other times. He felt the familiar weight of the guilt around his shoulders. He put the bag down and went to his mother. As he hugged her, she began to cry again. Ray really couldn’t understand how it was physically possible for the woman to keep crying.
“I miss you so much,” she went on, “Your Dad missed you too. He was always so proud of you.”
Ray felt like he was drowning. He felt like his mother was drowning and he swam out to save her. But in her panic she was thrashing around and was going to take him under with her. He knew he had to get out.
He needed the life he’d created for himself back, instead of the mess of a life in this town, in this family that he’d been given by chance or fate or whatever it was. He needed his auditions, his monologue development course, his job, his friends, the subway. He wanted to run as fast as he could from his mother who wouldn’t stop crying and his father who was in a box and all the people who reminded him of who he used to be because they were all still them.
He kissed his mother’s cheek and gave her arm a reassuring squeeze.
“It’s okay, mom,” he said, “I love you.”
His sister dropped him off at the bus station. She grabbed him hard and hugged him.
“When are you coming back?” she asked.
Not even gone yet and it’s already ‘when will you be back.’ he thought, grimacing internally.
“I’m not sure. I’ll let you know.”
Ray hastily said goodbye to Allie and got on the bus that would take him back to New York. He jammed his duffel bag under the seat and looked out the window. Allie was still standing outside watching the bus. Her figure stood out starkly against the gray backdrop of the city behind her. She seemed frozen there, like if Ray came back in two weeks or a month or six months he would find her right in that same spot, staring at him in that exact same way, like he was a coward and a stranger and her blood all at the same time.
As the bus began to move he turned away from the window. His eyes were dry and it hurt to look out for too long.
Emily Chaff is writer originally from Akron, Ohio. She enjoys traveling the world, learning new languages, and adding to an ever-increasing book and record collection. She has lived all over the country but finally found her forever home in Philadelphia in 2019 where she has befriended a tree. In addition to finishing her first novel, she hopes to soon be fluent in Hungarian and master the art of making the perfect avocado toast.