“You’re gonna need a pseudonym,” they told me. “Nobody goes into that town as themselves. It’s the only way to survive.”
I’d been surviving since before I could remember. First by avoiding, then ignoring altogether. Bodies in the hallways or on the playground, in the stock room and out back smoking cigarettes. They were inherently fashionable or reliably inconsiderate. I befriended some since friendship meant keeping the peace.
In front of them, I could be a version of myself. They found that version entertaining or emotionally available, until glimpsing another side. The “me” who was angry for always being there, watching them celebrate themselves.
Perhaps, I’d had one too many and spoken loudly of their absurd missteps, their waning attention spans, how they rarely put in requests, but often expected immediate reciprocation for compliments and microscopic triumphs. They were all a lot like their parents even though they didn’t want to be, and those bills were getting paid, and those beds were being made in perpetuity. They were not simply successful by merit. There were biological factors, geographical instances where a certain surplus allowed for hotspot reminders of a tattered inheritance.
I had to save up to get to Sunder, Missouri, or was it in Nebraska? Maybe Wyoming? Either way, it was flat, and there were a lot of rocks and fields to drive past.
“That’s where Marigold became a legend. All of his best shit was etched into the hides of dead animals when he lived in Sunder. That’s where he became the writer we all know and love, before celebrity took hold.”
Was it stranger that we all sought some kind of recognition or that we idolized anyone in the first place? I wasn’t going to Sunder to become the next Reggie Marigold nor one of his lesser alcoholic contemporaries. I was going to get away, to explore, and perhaps discover a voice I’d long since muted in favor of listening to anecdotal follies of diminished contagion. I required fresh air and a frothy tap, soon renting a rectangular coffin with a satellite dish and septic tank. Here amongst the teetering backwash, I would write something spiritual, and hope, at the very least, it would get published by The Sunder Sentinel.
Every day, in-between shifts at Compu-Trolls and The Food Go, I would walk past the tallest building in town and gaze up at that gold painted logo. Marigold had vision when he bought Sunder’s rundown printing press, turning it into a circulation of the trashiest substandard within three years’ time. The Sentinel appealed to one’s innermost regrets, words churning in obstinance, perpetuating a luxurious truth for an ever-expanding sect of screen blinders and eradicators of consideration. Marigold lassoed graspers and skin enthusiasts, all allegiant to his midnight yarns. These tales of unnecessary procedure would thrive long after the stars spontaneously interrupted an orbiting bedfellow.
I didn’t socialize for a good month, typing with headphones, or meticulously facing the labels forward so bored housewives could negotiate over sale items. I wasn’t thinking about sex despite their skirts. There was no general sense of love, although the emotion felt tangible albeit far enough from Sunder’s borders. Passing couples posed for tabloid feeds or snapped dull exposures at the R. Marigold Museum and Gift Shop. They didn’t know what it meant to live by word alone.
I couldn’t decipher the days, often inspired by brief interactions. There were unseasonable exposés about reductive baristas and their mustachioed lovers sweeping up last night’s disposables. These were my people now, most overflowing with misplaced exceptionalism. Other writers were about, some even fixating on the same eccentricities as they emulated Marigold’s darkest encounters with bombastic subsets.
There were the under-dwellers who mostly kept to basements for exchanging of rare bumper stickers as bookmarks. The fist-shakers liked it loud, but often overcompensated for phobias most suppressed with prescriptions. The lifers had stories to tell, but usually details were so underwhelming that their audience continued believing the lie.
The influenzas kept their lives public, every stray moment necessary fodder for a lofty following. I would walk through the trailer park at dusk, catching stray bits of wi-fi and watching their days around Sunder. They knew nothing of Marigold’s true influence, how he emanated from every bag of grass and askew street sign. They misquoted constantly; ignorance spreading far past our designated attention zones. I envied their ability to do it so aimlessly, but would never want to be just like them. That would prove counterproductive.
Before the winter, I’d finished my best work: a healthy cluster of words with little business being anything but what it was. I edited and slept comfortably, sealing the envelope and quietly dropping it off before The Food Go. I thought about the contents of that envelope all day, and for the week that followed, watching the mail religiously as I considered where the next escape hatch was planted. Where was my livelihood, and would its return mark a true crisis or merely another lapse in the space time continuum?
Finally on a Thursday the envelope arrived. I nervously tore it open, accidentally ripping the bottom where The Sentinel logo stared through me.
I knew who they were, what bars they frequented and their preferred nightcaps. How they spent their money at the counter, and whether their lives were sound. I processed as my stomach sunk before sitting at my desk and wallowing over the keys, how their order and frequency had failed me once again. I was never going to be the next Reggie Marigold, and that made me feel much better about everything that happened next.
Christopher S. Bell is a writer and musician. His work has recently appeared in Alluvian, Gambling the Aisle, and The Ocotillo Review. His latest novella, Contemporary Disregard, is out now. He currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.