The Town of McManus
Short Fiction Contest • First Place
McManus lies on the southern edge of the Icosadrian Desert, wedged between Kilt and Marn. To get there from the north, you take Delacroy Highway south to Norwood Boulevard, go five miles, turn right on Barrowville Pike, and continue for 17 miles through the arid, yellow wastes that outlie three sides of McManus. The creosote bushes along the way are peppered with indigo in the spring.
If you’re south of McManus, take Lamprey Highway to exit 84E—Barrowville Pike again—and turn right at the end of the ramp. McManus is three miles down the Pike: Moncrieff’s Liquors sits at the western edge of the town, its green neon sign so glaring that you might think you were gazing unwittingly through the wing of a katydid.
McManus’ population 10 years ago was 45,106; today, it is a quarter of that. Farming in McManus is torturous, so much so that most grains, meats, and milk are imported from Kilt. Electricity, water, and gas come from Marn, which radically overcharges McManus because McManus has no other recourse.
The manufacturing base in McManus revolves wholly around buttons and strange textiles—scrotal knit bags, clip-on lapels, snoods, and so forth. What an odd day it was when we learned that there is, indeed, a place on the stock market for strange textiles!
The service industry has been drying up for years. Taco Pete’s wanted to put one of their soulless dumps in the big vacant lot at the corner of Schillenkreuzer and Lamp, but the water table couldn’t take it. Notwithstanding the reputations of small towns, no one here really likes ice cream: The ice-cream store down Lind Road went out of business years ago. Mrs. McKinley said ghosts got in the soft-serve, but we think the market just wasn’t for it.
From one end to the other, McManus is five miles long; from top to bottom, it is four miles wide. In this space live the saddest people we have ever met.
Bertram Dowell, a farmer from the north side of town, sits on his porch from 2 p.m. until he goes to bed at 8. His face is wrinkled; his head looks indented on one side. Pebble-blue eyes reflect his measly two-acre farm, which faces the vastness of the Icosadrian Desert.
“This ain’t a subsistence farm,” he tells passersby. “This a business.” No one believes him. “True enough, I told everyone today what I told you, but I’ll be goddamned anybody believes me.” We don’t believe he even knows we’re talking about him. “I don’t believe most people care a tinker’s cuss about this rumpled lamb of God.” Or words to that effect.
The mayor, Abel Meyer, steps from from the town hall and regards his town. He is shabbily resplendent in his old pinstriped blue suit and blue snap-brim fedora. He has been voted in every year for 30 years. He does not want the job anymore, but he cannot bring himself to refuse to stand for election. This town is his home; these people are his friends. And though many of his closest relations have moved away to southern towns like Bortham, Crandall, and Treuville, nothing could make him leave McManus.
“It’s here I’ll stay. Couldn’t tell you why, but I’ll be here until I’m dead.” When does he suppose that will happen? He smiles weakly. “At the rate I smoke? Two, maybe three years?”
The children here look as though they had missed some essential nutrient in their mothers’ milk. Bud Lem, his hands covered in button dust and dirt, traipses aimlessly up Magazine Lane.
“Huh?” he says. We haven’t said anything to him. He has tinnitus and thinks people are always talking to him. His mother, Hilda, sits on her porch at 2 in the afternoon. How does she support her child if she doesn’t work?
“What’s it to you? Bud!” She points at her boy. “Get your hand out that puddle, you’ll get the typhoid!” She and Bud, who now flees toward a barren canebrake down the road, have the same yellow, rawboned face, only Bud’s is in miniature and set on a collection of whippy limbs. We try to convince Hilda to talk with us further, but she seems reluctant. She has adopted a resistance as tough as oak: unlike some hard-shelled sentimentalists, her tender core seems virtually inaccessible. We ask her where Bud’s father is. “Haven’t seen him in two years.” No tears, no anger. “You want to come in?”
Hilda has beans on the stove. She spoons them into a tortilla and douses the whole with taco sauce and puts the makeshift burrito on a plate in front of us. We devour it gratefully and afterward drink a glass of tea. She becomes friendlier once we have eaten her food. “You look familiar somehow. You from around here?” She peers at us. “Well, I guess it don’t matter.” She lights a cigarette and emits a bubbly chortle. “You got your head on wrong if you thought this place’d be interesting.” There is some beauty to her: it emanates from the deeply set, lichen-colored eyes, the fetching lines at her mouth’s corners, her paleness—we tell her so. “Don’t get cute.” She pulls a drag and says, tiredly, “It’s 20 bucks. For 50, you can stay long as you want.” When we stammer, the chink in her heart stops itself up again. Her head circles slowly, exasperatedly. “Well, what’d you think I did, stupid? I was trying to be a lady about it, but you ain’t so bright.”
We shall not be sad about McManus. What would despair do? When old people sicken and die, they are resigned in a way that slackens their faces. “I’ve been around too long,” they say. “It’s time I was off.” And off they go. Old skin pouches and sags for a reason: it has become sodden with the vicissitudes of life. We ought not to weep for McManus. It is at the end of its rope. Some years ago, when the news announced the discovery of an 8,000-year-old town buried under a thousand feet of sand in Araby, people in McManus nodded and smiled. Could they see across time to their own end?
Marius van der Merwe, the town’s librarian, remembers a time when McManians thought they would never die. “Oh, people thrived here once.” His eyes are moist: we took it for tears at first, but he tells us he has an affliction. “Wasn’t more than 10 years after the war that Flip McDowell and his band came through here. Yes, I’m quite serious: they played a series of shows at the Palladium House, which got knocked down on account of teenage punks using it as a shooting gallery.” This term is confusing. “Shooting gallery? Well, I can see your point: up north, you got the heroin—maybe that’s what you thought it was? No, they just started shooting everything up, that’s all—.30-06s, .45s, BB guns, slingshots . . . whatever they could lay their hands on.” Van der Merwe looks sad. “That was the beginning of all the unpleasantness, I’d say, even before people started dying.” His bifocals hang precariously at the end of his nose, a protuberance so large and shiny and visibly pored that the rest of his face seems to have withered in awe of it.
Magnus Street goes through a still marsh on the southeastern side of town. We see a turkey vulture pass above. In high school, our science teacher, Mr. Funk, brought us out here to band birds and explained to us the turkey vulture’s habits.
“A turkey vulture has no feathers on its head or neck. When it finds a dead animal, it plunges its head fully into the carcass and feasts without dirtying its plumage.” Mr. Fink relished imparting these facts: as he spoke, his face became serene. Perhaps he was once a turkey vulture and recalled those days with fondness.
We watch our present turkey vulture circle down, down to a dead hickory tree, flutter its wings to stop itself in air, and curl onto a bough. Its pink head swoops around; it sees no need to fly off and so slowly clomps one talon, then the other, and settles in for a nap.
Beside the dead hickory is a jaundice-colored house, its paint peeling universally. Its gutters are loose; they hang off under the eaves. If we were to look in one of the more uncompromised gutters, we would find an ooze that might be decayed leaves. If the ooze’s black surface were broken, an emerald core and a Gorgonzola-like odor would emerge.
We must imagine the house is not a dog-eared shambles if we wish to enter. We would have to convince ourselves pretty seriously against the evidence of our senses. The house seems to admit of no past other than the natural processes of decay and decline. There are no steps: they have either sunken into the earth or been taken for firewood by bandits. Our heart pounds as we clamber onto the porch and step through the door.
Inside, dust floats through irregular shafts of light that radiate from the windows, which have been badly boarded up. We wonder whether there are men whose sole, peripatetic job it is to board up the windows of such houses. Now we come to the crux of it: the house is, indeed, abandoned; we know this because we abandoned it. How long has it been abandoned? But then, why should that matter? If it is abandoned, then it participates in isolation, in loneliness, in regret.
The staircase proceeds askew up the wall. Along the way, old black-light fixtures hang as crazily as the gutters outside. At the top of the stairs is a broken-down davenport, its antimacassar gone from oily to moldy. We shinny around the chair into a room at the back of the hallway. The dust here is like an army blanket draped over everything in rumpled folds. There is nothing here now but a number of very hungry spiders who start and jiggle at the disturbance we make in the air.
Across the hallway, the master bedroom, where once a woman—her husband already dead, half the town already dead—spoke her dying words to her son when she was close to death: “Go quickly, never come back.” In the dank closeness of her mentholated room, she sank into her pillow out of the lamplight, looking as if she no longer had a head. Her son ran from the room—as we do now, feeling the eeriness of years—and tore down the stairs out the door, away from McManus’ clutching, plague-ravaged hands.
The turkey vulture is gone, but in his place sits a hawk.
We drink beer with Mayor Meyer in the town’s pub, The Kocsis Bar and Grill, a brown cube, its walls papered with posters of half-dressed bosomy girls and soccer games in far-off countries. It is the liveliest place in town; it is crammed each evening after 7 with old and young and men and women alike. There are three times as many men as women in McManus, and most of the women are over 35 and as spoiled-looking as the men. As we hang over our beer, we watch the hooting interaction of McManians tucked into the Kocsis, thankfully removed from a rainstorm outside.
There are no windows here. Light comes from tiny lamps on every table and from a bulb behind a palm frond the owner acquired in the South Seas. The mayor lights one cigarette off another and explains, “He spent a year with the Pygmies. He got himself a foreskin necklace when he was through.” To assuage our shock, he adds quickly, “Not human foreskins—some kind of deer they hunt, common in those parts, you see—they make necklaces of the foreskins as a sign of respect for their chiefs.” We wonder, half-aloud, why the owner would want to come back here. Why wouldn’t he have stayed in the South Seas? This place, after all, is not at all splendid. “Well, it’s not such a bad old town.” What we say next surprises the mayor: that this town, all of it, is responsible for more pain than many entire countries in their own right. “That’s not really fair. Wasn’t the fault of the town to get so sick.” His jovial lips dip with displeasure. “You came back, after all. People get curious about the old place. People who grow up in a town want to make sure the town didn’t go to pot, so they come back, you know. It isn’t so strange.” His lager gone, his dander up, Meyer makes to stand: when he does, he has the proud bearing of a career soldier, and he glares at us resentfully. “About time for me to be going home, I’d say.” He turns to walk to the door, and we are left alone to gaze grimly at the plain deal table that has been revarnished so many times that it looks grainless.
Here is an amusing question: in a dying town, should we not assume its undertaker would be happy? But it is not as we think.
We walk through a sun-bleached swath of bluegrass. Overhead, clouds bobble by in various shapes—an ironing board, two cats, a conquistador on horseback. Our feet fart against inadequately crushed gravel: the deficiency of the place is astounding!
We stop dead in our tracks. Tucked under the back stairs outside the W. Lee Baggott Funeral Home, the undertaker, Luther Z. Calvin (“the Z is for Zachary,” he tells us, lest we think otherwise), lights a cigarette and says, “Want one?” He always takes a break at 4:30. Usually he spends an hour at the lunch counter, nursing a hangover with some egg salad on toast and a mug of coffee. This day, however, he has been so busy that he has lapsed back into the habit he gave up years ago. “I couldn’t stand it anymore. In the diner, I used to walk by the smokers, back and forth ’til they thought I was a nut. I loved the smell, you know?” Oh, yes, we know. “Embalmed five people today. Haven’t had a day like this in 20 years—last time was . . . Goddamn.” He and we would rather not speak of the last time, when, for weeks at a time, nearly 10 times as many a day would wind up on the slab. Calvin’s face—wide and dun, trained to be ever solemn—twitches slightly when some smoke touches his eyes. He says, “Decided I’m moving to Bortham next week.” But to which? To East or West Bortham? “Are you kidding? East Bortham, of course. West Bortham’s for coal miners.”
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201