Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Tales of small town life

"He [Reverend Hightower] still kept the cook, a negro woman. He had had her all the time. But they told Byron how as soon as his wife was dead, the people seemed to realize all at once that the negro was a woman, that he had that negro woman in the house alone with him all day. And how the wife was hardly cold in the shameful grave before the whispering began. About how he had made his wife go bad and commit suicide because he was not a natural husband, a natural man, and that the negro woman was the reason. And that's all it took; all that was lacking. Byron listened quietly, thinking to himself how people everywhere are about the same, but that it did seem that in a small town, where evil is harder to accomplish, where opportunities for privacy are scarcer, that people can invent more of it in other people's names. Because that was all it required: that idea, that single idle word blown from mind to mind."
-- from Light in August by William Faulkner

This passage in the Faulkner book jumped out at me when I read it last week. It reminded me, generally, of what private life means in a small town, which had already been on my mind for a few weeks because of the reemergence of a couple of false stories about me (thankfully much more benign than in the Faulkner novel). My reputation was hardly tarnished by the well-meaning but imaginary fluff said about me, but other people weren't so lucky. I particularly remember two stories spreading through town while I was in high school, one about a man caught screwing a pig in a barn during a cattle branding, the other about a twentysomething woman "allowing" thirty guys to gangrape her at a party. The line stretched out the door and down the block, apparently. She was mercilessly taunted for close to three years by school kids, and her first and middle name became slang for "whore" the entire time I was in high school. I always wondered why nobody said anything about the two men from my town who were named in the story as being a part of the gangrape. Everyone in my hometown, at one time or another, has had something untrue spread about him or her, but the most malicious gossip seems to be reserved for those who are poor, not very bright, and/or a little odd. This was the case for both the alleged pigfucker and gangbangee. Both stories were, most likely, complete bullshit, and probably everyone repeating them at least suspected as much, but the idle words blew back and forth from mind to mind for a long, long time. Then they stopped, as abruptly as they started. Faulkner had something to say about this, too, in the same novel: "But Byron believed that even the ones who said this did not believe it. He believed that the town had had the habit of saying things about the disgraced minister which they did not believe themselves, for too long a time to break themselves of it."
Former classmates of mine have a habit of repeating a story about me that never happened. I've tried to set them straight so often that I no longer bother to correct them. They don't listen. What can I do? The fake story is funnier than the boring truth, so I don't have a lot of convincing ammo. It "took place" the first time I ever got drunk. I was newly 16 and at a large (for my hometown's standards) house party. It was Homecoming weekend, and the football game had been snowed out, so the party had become much bigger and started much earlier than planned. It was a few miles out in the country. I had just finished my shift at the grocery store where I worked, and I called my friends to give me a ride to the party. (I didn't have a car.) Unfortunately, because of the cancelled game, they were already at the party. I walked to Main Street in the snow and waited until someone my age drove by, flagged them down, and got a ride. I was one of the last people at the party, and I was a little too exuberant. My previous maximum beer intake was a modest three. College kids were at this party, home for the weekend. I attempted to keep up with them. I hit the booze with gusto, relish, and determination. I had about 11 beers in an hour, plus a couple of shots. Picture me then. I was about 101 pounds and newly 16. Sometime in the next hour, I passed out. Then I woke up and vomited. Then I passed out again. Then I woke up and vomited some more. Then I blacked out, for the only time in my life. I remember brief splotches of vomiting, giggling, and dancing to Cypress Hill. I remember someone carrying me out of the house and hitting my head on the ceiling and door frame. I had bruises on my head the next morning. I remember it starting to snow, and vomiting in the snow. Then a friend drove me home. Pretty standard stupid teenage first-time drunk life lessons learned, am I right? Then the story begins, and the reality gets even more dull. After my friend dropped me off, I walked to the back door of my parents' house. It was usually unlocked to let the dog in and out in the middle of the night, and it presented a straight shot to the basement stairs and my bedroom. Unfortunately, the back door was locked. I walked to the front door. I tried to open it. It was locked. My friends' car was gone. It was snowing. I had no choice but to knock on the door. My dad was up having a midnight snack, and let me in. He apologized for locking me out, then noticed the state I was in and got pissed off. When my dad gets pissed off, he is impossible to take seriously. I told him I wasn't drunk, just sleepy, and went to bed. The End. Somehow, though I explained how I was locked out to many friends and classmates, I was made fun of for the next two years for walking up to my unlocked front door and ringing the doorbell. When I walked down the hallway at school, people would ask me if I rang my doorbell today. When I was in town for my dad's wedding last year, I was asked at the bar by a former classmate's uncle if I remembered ringing my own doorbell. If you look at my MySpace page, a high school friend has left a comment on my page saying she remembers me ringing my own doorbell. Obviously, this doorbell story has really stuck with these people. I guess they can have it.
My mother ran into a former grade school teacher of mine a few weeks ago. This former teacher is a nice old woman, but she is not immune to the charms of a fabricated story. She asked my mother how and what I was doing. Then she told my mother that she remembered how, during recess, I sat against the wall and read books while the other kids played. This is colossal bullshit. I was on the merry-go-rounds, tires, swings, slide, basketball court, kickball area every recess. I played four-square. I did not read books during recess! I loved to read, still do, and as a child, I was very enthusiastic about telling everyone I met about the books I was reading (this was before I learned that enthusiasm about anything other than work, money, and sports generates suspicion and hostility), but come on, lady! Just because I was apparently one of the only males in Bridgeport who read books, people have to talk shit. I know you mean well, but you're making me look like an even bigger dork than I was/am.
Now that I come to the end of my rambling tale of gossip, I wonder if it is a tale of small town life, or a tale of human nature in general. We are all constantly full of shit. But are small towns filled with different shit than cities? In the city, at least, you can live a private life, but what about your neighbors? Your coworkers? What are you saying about them? What are they saying about you? What are you saying about me? I know what I'm saying about you. You're a lot of fun, but, damn, you need to stop being such a whore. And you smoke way too much pot. And your dog never stops barking. I also heard you had gonorrhea once. And you secretly have a Dave Matthews CD in your car. It's inside a Modest Mouse case.

1 comment:

Bartleby said...

Of course the flip side to the small town life (or the small community) is that you are uniquely able to be a public figure without having to do much. (My example was going to be about former high school sports glory or owning the 'fastest car in four counties' circa 1968, but apparently ringing a goddam doorbell has cache enough.) There can be a quiet dignity to this, since you can achieve some sort of public notoriety for just being a decent human being (I'm thinking here of old, often ethnic, neighborhoods where people are 'known' simply as a dutiful spouse, caring parent, doting grandparent, or even for keeping up an elderly neighbors lawn.) In the "city," though, you really have to succomb to the depths of bombast and narcissism to even be noticed--which is to say, to even be considered alive (to have the vita activa or whatever greekbo shit you want to use). There's something nice and quaint and vaguely human about a noticable art of living that doesn't have the admission price of an ostentatious display of art. By the same token, doorbell gossip? Jesus Christ. I might take a streetful of tight-trousered dudes with liberty spikes over that.