Monday, April 23, 2007

The Town

Good stories start small and get bigger. This is an unending truth that is passed down from generation to generation among the great story telling families. I'm sure they teach it in creative writing classes. All the best authors are certain to pick it up in some way or another.

This story begins very small. With a simple penny in the middle of the road.

It was a dull penny that had been run over many times. The boy could see this on the sidewalk, five yards away. It was dull, but if he shifted his head just right, the bright, 11am sunlight would glint off it, like the halo of an angel, dancing on its ridge.

Most days, the boy would not have noticed the tiny piece, much less stopped to admire it from so far away, but he had been put in a quiet, sad mood. Much like so many other days, he had been picked on in his new school. Usually he was able to shrug it off. This was a small town. His mom told him that. In small towns all the small town people stick together. They do not like outsiders. Even their worst is better than the world's best, as far as the town is concerned. The town only protects those who protect the town. He just had to work to become part of the town too.

But today he could not shrug those kids off. Today the words gnawed at him. They were simple words: unimaginative, unoriginal. The kind of words with which every fourth grader who is not an asshole is forced to deal.

The boy blinked in spite of himself. He tried so hard to be good. Bad words were for other kids, even bad words that you didn't say, but only thought. This was really a very strange day.

He wanted to move on. He did not know why the world had picked this day to push him down. His father's company made the family move every few months. He was used to dealing with this kind of torment. They had never moved to a small town before, but the words had been repeated in enough places to make it so none of that should matter.

It did, though. Today, it mattered a lot.

And the penny was worn and calling to him.

He had been so focused on the penny that he did not notice the old man walk up to the corner and stop beside him.

"That's a real dull penny, boy," the old man commented.

On another day, the boy might have jumped out of his skin in surprise, but not today. Today he was down. He was stooped. He was dull like the penny in the street.

"You reckon you're gonna grab it?" the man asked.

The boy tore his gaze from the penny to look at the old man. He was shabby with a thin, button-down sweater that had threads sticking out from the edges, and he had a gray beard and white hair.

The boy had not considered taking the penny until now. Somehow, he thought, no, he felt deep in his bones that taking the penny was the wrong thing to do. The penny was supposed to be there.

He turned back to look at the dull coin, shook his head, and said, "Guess not. Pennies aren't really worth anything anymore, are they? Wouldn't do me much good."

The old man replied, "But look at it, boy. That's no ordinary penny. See? See how it shines if you look at it just right? Why don't you take the penny?"

The boy had made up his mind, though. "No. I'll let someone else grab it, I think."

The could not see the old man frowning; he seemed, instead, to feel it. "Maybe you didn't notice. It's not just a shiny penny! It's heads-up too! Why, if you just grab it, you'll have good luck all the rest of the day. Now isn't that worth it?"

The boy definitely did not want the penny now. He had convinced himself that it was not worth the trouble. Even so, he was tired of talking to this old man. If he just grabbed the thing, he could head home and the awful part of the day would be finished.

He took a step forward and stopped. No. This was crazy. The penny was where it was. He wanted to leave it alone. The penny, he thought, had it's own story, and he was not part of that story.

The boy turned to the old man and said, "I don't think I want it, sir. I'll probably just head home. I'm sure you can get it, if you like!" His mom had taught him to be respectful.

The man had been frowning, just as the boy thought, but that frown changed now. It got darker. It got mean. It got wild.

"Boy," and now the man's words were slurred, "you'll do what I say. Kids need to know respect. You don't look like you respect me boy."

The man undid his belt, pulled it from his faded pants, and cracked it around his knuckles. "Parents these days don't teach their kids RESPECT." Spat the man. "You, boy, will take that penny now."

The boy backed up a pace. He did not know what was happening. His eyes were opened wide. He did not move from that spot. Now, he did not know why. He wanted to. The penny was not worth whatever this was. If he could just run and grab it, the man would let him go.

The boys feet would not move. He tried moving his legs. He tried bending his knees. He tried jerking up. Nothing. He was bound fast, and he did not know why.

"You're not gonna do it now, are ya,' boy?" And now the boy could smell the Scotch on the man's breath. "You're wanting a little obedience?" The man took a step toward the boy, and the boy's feet broke their hold with the ground.

He turned and started running, but stopped short when the man growled two, short words.

"Steven Barns," he whispered.

The boy started at the sidewalk in front of him. The man knew his name. He did not know the old man, but the old man knew his name.

"You'll want to turn around now, Steven," the old man spat. "I know where you live. I know what your house looks like. If you just come back and grab that penny, you'll never see me again. Just like all the other new little boys."

Steve stood very still. He knew only one thing. There were no other new boys. His was the only family that had moved into that town in five years.

Steve realized something else. It was a thing that most kids his age might not have considered, and it may have been what saved him, ultimately.

Steve was the only new boy right now. All the students in all the other classes had started kindergarten together. He knew that.

What he realized he did not know was whether there had been any other new boys.

A tear leaked down his left cheek. He knew the answer. Kids are good at that. Kids can make the leaps that cops and scientists spend their whole lives trying to make, and they can do it in an instant.

Of course there had been other boys. Probably those other boys had stood at this very same intersection. Maybe they had even been given the same choice: the penny or the run. His mom had told him. Anyone in the town was better than anyone of the town.

These folk protect their own.

All of these thoughts passed through Steve's head in only a moment or two. Now he snapped back to reality and could feel him standing behind his left shoulder. Steve could hear the heavy breathing and smell the alcohol.

Now Steve could feel something new coming from the man. Steve did not know how he knew, but he could feel pleasure coming off the man in waves. The old man was smiling. Steve did not even need to turn around to feel it. The old man thought he had won, whatever there was too win.

Steve stilled his breathing and listened for the next words to come out of the old man's mouth. He knew, whatever the man said would guide him to life or somewhere else. Somewhere dark. Somewhere unclean, where everything smelled like scotch and mothballs.

"Go on, boy. Grab the penny. You know I hate it when boys act so nervous."

Without need another word, Steve was off, running, sprinting, blazing down the street, as fast as his feet could take him. The old man shouted after him, "Come back, boy! You'll regret this! Your mom will regret this! I know her name too! You come back, boy!"

But the boy would not stop moving. He got home, locked the door, ran to his mother, and cried.

Steve's mother was bewildered and asked him what was wrong. After a few minutes, Steve calmed down and looked at his mother, very seriously. Then he lied, because, he knew, the town would only protect him, if he protected the town.

A few weeks and then a few months passed, and nothing happened. Steve never saw the old man again, and he never walked by the intersection to see if the penny remained. Eventually, as Steve knew he would, his father packed them up and moved them to another town.

This town also was small, but it did not have that stain, that smell, that threat that leaked all over the land, screaming for blood and honor, souls and that unquenchable need for protection.

There were pennies in this town as well, but none of them seemed quite as worn.

Eventually, after many more moves, Steve grew up and forgot about the old man, or else put the old man in a corner of his mind where he did not often look.

Some days, though, after taking his own children to the park, he would have nightmares and wake up, screaming in guilt, in fear, in rage, "Just like all the other new little boys!"

He would cry then, and when his wife asked him what was the matter, he would lie.

Even then, in the fog of waking, he knew. The town - he could not even remember its name - would only protect him, if he protected the town.

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