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|The Town & The Road
by Robert Watts Lamon
| It was seven o’clock in the evening when I entered the Arcady Bookstore. I was looking
for a copy of The Great Gatsby, having got the urge to read it after twenty years. The store was
fairly full of browsers, though, in this age of superstores and the Internet, a little starved for buyers.
There was a kind of malaise among the staff, and I wondered whether the place was long for this
In any event, I descended the steps to the lower level, where a huge collection of trade
paperbacks lined the shelves and bookcases. I hadn’t realized there was an author’s reading in
progress. The chairs usually occupied by those who wanted to read rather than buy were now
aligned to seat an audience of students, obscure writers, and bookworms. They were all listening to
the soft tones of the woman at the rostrum. She was tall, slender to the point of boniness, and
perhaps in her fifties. She was reading one of her short stories, one I had seen, but not read
thoroughly. I had once read three of her stories, couldn’t remember any of them, but did remember
hitting the wall.
Joining the audience, I sat and listened to the present tale. It told of a seducer who tore off a girl’s
underpants and mailed them to her father with a thank-you note. She often wrote stories of this
kind—involving some form of indignity or violence inflicted on a woman by—you guessed it—a
man. The audience, I noticed without surprise, was about eighty-percent female. The author was, of
course, Gwendolyn Cornfield-West, first cousin to Manly Fitch, post-modern guru at the local
university. I thought Manly might be in the audience, but didn’t see him. Anyway, Gwendolyn finished
reading this story and the next—about a girl who is lured away from home by a teen-age boy in a
van and raped by three men hiding in the back—and yet another—about a brilliant young-woman
physicist who is forced into prostitution during a Caribbean cruise. Her final offering for the evening
told of a woman who was taunted for her obesity. She decides to diet and exercise, becomes
beautiful, finds love and happiness, becomes anorexic, and drops dead. As Gwendolyn finished
this last, a skinny woman in the audience was in tears.
Comments and questions erupted after the final reading. Unable to restrain myself, I raised my
hand, and Gwendolyn nodded in my direction.
“I get the feeling that if there were no more rapes, seducers, and if eating disorders disappeared
for all time, some female writers would decide to retire—or maybe jump off the roof.”
I had just re-read Portrait of Jenny for the third time and the contrast between Gwendolyn
Cornfield-West’s stories and Robert Nathan’s tale of beauty and wonder somehow annoyed me—
in fact, the contrast made me angry. My comment caused Gwendolyn to pause with her features
frozen in a Munchian expression.
“Well—I don’t know what to say. I write about situations that occur to me—my themes are
important—to me, anyway. Who are you?”
“William Danby, Brightown Star.”
“Oh, yes—I’ve seen your byline,” she said and paused before continuing. “As a matter of fact, I’m
just finishing a novel about a middle-class family that practices cannibalism.”
“That is a change,” I said—amazed that the remark got a few laughs.
“And I’m working on a non-fiction book—it’s a history of torture.”
“I hadn’t realized you were so versatile.”
I said this last a little too disparagingly. She looked truly stung, and I searched for something I
could say to assuage her pain.
“I must say, your stories are well constructed.”
“So they tell me,” she replied with some rancor.
A young woman’s voice came from the audience. “I think Mr. Danby is just showing his sexist
“No,” Gwendolyn replied, “he just doesn’t like my stories.”
“You seem preoccupied with violence—much of it of a twisted kind,” I added. “So much so, that I’
m inclined to wonder about your view of life.”
“My stories have themes that reflect my values—my emotions.”
“Well—your output is remarkable. But one critic said that your oeuvre hangs over American
literature like a killer smog.”
“Yes—I read that article, but didn’t respond to it. I’m not going to defend my work here or
anyplace else. I write what I want to write—and the whole world can take it or leave it.”
What could I say? I simply nodded, for some reason, and quiet prevailed. One of the bookstore’s
owners, Herb Weiss, was sitting at one end of the front row. Sensing the reading event had run its
course, he bounced out of his chair, forced a smile, and spoke.
“Well—that’s all for this part of the program. Ms. Cornfield-West will remain upstairs to sign her
books on display, including her new novel, The Head Hunters of Iowa.”
I had missed Gwendolyn’s reading of an excerpt from the novel and certainly didn’t regret it. As I
stood up and sidled toward the staircase, a few people gave me angry looks, and Herb Weiss was
waiting near the steps to speak with me.
“Christ, Bill—we’re trying to sell books here. The last thing we need is hostility to the author.”
“Her books always sell.”
“They have to sell here—to keep us in business.”
“O.K.—I guess I should have saved my criticism.”
“You’re welcome here, Bill—but for crying out loud, leave the literary critic home.”
“Sorry, Herb—I’ll behave myself from now on.”
When I reached the main floor, I remembered Gatsby and found a copy of Fitzgerald’s wistful
story. Gwendolyn Cornfield-West was sitting at a table normally filled with remainders, but now
displaying many of her books. She was signing them for buyers standing expectantly in line. They
spoke to the author as they presented their paid-for volumes, distracting her as her pen wobbled
across the title page. I was feeling a bit guilty as I left the store and walked to my car. But more and
more I felt the way Nick Carraway did in the end—that something was irretrievably gone from life.
Perhaps it was the innocent curiosity before nature and the world, replaced by the conviction,
spawned by the organized intelligentsia, that man was awful, that he did only awful things to himself
and to the earth.
A week later, I stopped by the same bookstore to browse—once a week was my habit. I was
glancing at the literary magazines when I heard a familiar voice behind me and turned to find
Gwendolyn Cornfield-West smiling at me—odd in itself.
“I thought you were a reporter,” she said.
“I am—but I double in book reviews.”
“I take it you’re not all that happy with the books.”
“Not all that happy—no. I think literature, like the country, is going down hill. With all the
pretension, the funding, the how-to courses—it reads the same—all deadly dull stuff. Even the
violence is dull.”
“Yes—if we live in a deadly dull civilization, the writing will reflect it.”
“Deadly dull is where you find it.”
“Maybe I should search for something better.”
“You’ve just named the engine of human history—the search for something better.”
She walked away smiling—but looking a bit dazed. Perhaps my last remark struck a nerve. Then
again, perhaps I merely bored her. Well, whatever—it was close to dinner time. I put Glimmer Train
back on the rack and started for home. I had work to do after dinner.
My rented townhouse stood in a subdivision just west of Brightown, which put it very near the
pure countryside. Arriving home, I microwaved dinner and, after wolfing it down, e-mailed a story to
the editor of The Brightown Star. I had covered a bank robbery the previous day and collected
pictures from the bank’s security cameras and written a follow-up story. The story and the pictures, I
sent to the city editor using my electronic marvel. Then I sat down to read some fiction handed to
me earlier that day by the Sunday Supplement editor. The book was entitled Moment’s Reflection
and was the story of a successful business man who goes on a fishing trip to Montana. While
fishing one day, he shoots an otter and, in despair at the sight of the dead animal, decides to shoot
“A triumph—an eloquent plea for species equality,” said one dust-jacket blurb. “A tribute to our
companion species,” said another.
The book was not only silly, it was a syntactical nightmare—that is, to anyone who still believed in
syntax. There were times when I wanted to take up painting, or sculpture, or maybe plumbing or
carpentry and spend my leisure hours reading Conrad and Fitzgerald for pleasure. But that would
mean turning my back on a cause I considered crucial—giving up the fight, handing over the art of
letters to its true enemies.
But enough about that—I had other things to worry about. The very electronics that enabled me to
communicate so easily with my editors were causing a loss of readership in my editors’
newspaper—in every newspaper. The public was turning, more and more, to online news sources.
In economizing, The Brightown Star had already got so small it could be read in one hand without
folding it over. The Sunday edition was thinner than the daily editions used to be. Less content
meant fewer hands necessary to produce it—there had to be “reductions in staff.” I was awaiting
my turn on the chopping block. How odd it seemed that something as fragile as a computer, with its
chips, microcircuits, and discs, should replace the sturdy old newspapers.
The next morning, I drove off to the offices of The Brightown Star. I found a note from the city
editor on my desk-top computer: “Good follow-up on that bank robbery. Press conference with the
Chief of Police at ten o’clock this morning.” That put me in a slight bind—I had a book review nearly
ready. But I wouldn’t argue with the editor. The crime beat was mine and mine alone, and I wasn’t
about to invite a pink slip. When I arrived at police headquarters, I spoke to a detective about that
bank robbery. The subject was in custody, and I got his name and criminal record. I wondered why
he was out on the street to begin with, and why I was always mulling over that same question.
By ten o’clock, I was sitting in the meeting room, along with reporters from local television
stations and two out-of-town newspapers. Some City Council members were there, too, as well as
a ranking member of the Sheriff’s department. The Chief stood at a rostrum on a slightly elevated
stage. He announced a decline in the crime rate for the third year in a row. Almost everyone in the
room suspected this was nonsense—for the third year in a row. Not coincidentally, the Chief had
assumed the job three years ago. When he finished reciting some dubious statistics and called for
questions, my hand shot up—almost before I realized it.
“Mr. Danby,” the Chief said, nodding in my direction.
I stood up and let fly. “Sir—your stats and mine don’t jibe. I keep track of armed robberies, which
I consider the ultimate criminal act. My figures show a thirty-percent increase over the past three
The Chief looked a little deflated. “Well—I’d have to see your numbers.”
“I’ve been logging the crimes. I can show you the numbers—and the venues.”
“Your newspaper has been critical—”
“Yes, it has been—a newspaper is not the Chamber of Commerce.”
“Neither is the Brightown Police Department,” the Chief replied, beginning to redden.
“Well—the purpose of your department is to deal with problems in the real world—not to hide the
“You’re questioning my integrity?”
“I’m merely pointing out the inconsistencies in your stats. As to why they’re out of whack—well, I’ll
let someone else decide.”
My last remark was evasive. I regretted that moment of weakness. But by now, the Chief’s red
face was in obvious contrast to his white shirt with its epaulets and stars. He stumbled through a list
of recently solved crimes and the press conference ended. It wasn’t until I stood up and looked
around that I realized the meeting was held on camera, and my exchange with the Chief would likely
make the noontime news. As I stood and stretched, a City Councilmen approached me. He was
black and dressed in a Hickey-Freeman suit, a Tommy Hilfiger shirt, and a hundred-dollar tie. His
head was shaved shiny bald, which somehow accented his angry scowl. He got so close I almost
stepped on his Gucci loafers.
“Man, look,” he hissed. “You’re making the whole town look bad—attacking the Chief of Police.
We’re trying to get people to come here, to bring businesses here.”
“And when they see the town close up, they’ll go somewhere else—they always do, except for the
“What about the developments?—the downtown business park?”
“The owners are close to bankruptcy.”
“You’re not helping things.”
“No?—well, I suppose it’s my fault the schools have gone to hell, the streets are full of trash and
potholes, and we can’t get decent cops because the City Council won’t approve decent salaries.”
“We have our priorities. Social services need financing.”
“Oh, yes—you’re teaching black kids to make cabinets and fix cars—if they don’t get shot by
“We’re refurbishing the housing projects.”
“Who tore them up? That’s the trouble with these projects—you can’t throw anybody out.”
“Look—stop knocking Brightown or somebody will have your job.”
“I’ll get another job.”
“You just don’t like the town—and maybe blacks.”
“I like the town—I don’t like the fact that it’s poorly governed. And don’t play the race card on
me—it won’t work.”
The City Councilman turned away angrily, but without further comment. The Council consisted of
eight members, all elected at large—the turnout was seldom more than thirty percent—and all
spoke the same left-leaning language. No real debates on the issues ever occurred, the members
having made the same compromises to achieve their positions. They were inclined to approve
public projects—the latest being a high-speed regional railway for which there was no provable
After leaving police headquarters, I stopped at the public library, a local landmark and perhaps
the final monument to the textile and tobacco prosperity and community spirit of the 1950s. I was
seeking a book of short stories by John O’Hara and found it in the computerized index. I arrived
back at my desk with book in hand, planning to read it over lunch. I thought I might write an essay on
O’Hara, sort of a retrospective, and I was more determined to do so when I found how rare his
books were in the marketplace.
One evening, as I was returning the book to the library I saw something I didn’t like—not at all.
Members of a street gang, the Harlem Kings, were there, probably on a recruiting drive. Their
leader, Jacquan Brown, was talking serious business with a clean-cut young man, probably offering
a gang alternative to studying. Other Kings were scattered around the room, dressed in their blue
shirts decorated with gangster scrawl. The librarian, a kindly, helpful woman was apparently
unaware of what was taking place. Her male assistants looked durable enough to discourage any
overtly crude behavior. But I still went back to police headquarters to alert the desk sergeant. He
wasn’t all that bothered by the news of gangsters in the library. They did get around.
At home, I finished my essay on O’Hara and the Star’s editor agreed to publish it—and allow me
reprint rights. To that extent, I was happy, but still bothered by the Chief of Police and the nonsense
he let loose at that press conference. I was thinking about leaving Brightown—after all, who needed
all this. I had the right to pursue happiness. I mean here I was—a graduate of a decent school of
journalism, having stuffed my head with the usual junk—information theory, cybernetics, and even
antenna theory—and I ended up covering cops and robbers. As a nod to my intelligence and
scope, I was given the additional duty of writing book reviews for the Sunday Supplement.
I had once covered the schools and all their problems that almost invariably led to futile attempts
at solutions—mainly because politics precluded any constructive action. My Waterloo came when I
suggested that students who disrupted the classrooms and grossly interfered with the education
process should be kicked out of school forthwith—a position labeled as “racially insensitive” by
some race hustlers on the school board.
My editor conceded the point and reassigned me to cover crime, cops, and City Hall. He was an
uncertain man in uncertain times with no real ideas of his own—except to protect the circulation at
all costs. I could understand that—to a degree. Advertising was the lifeblood of any newspaper
published for profit, and the number of advertisers depended on circulation. But given a little
controversy, the circulation might have gone up. After all, there was still respect out there for those
who told the unadorned truth.
Anyway, here I was in Brightown, feeling the urge to seek some other world. I had to assume one
existed—perhaps in a neighboring city. Certainly none of them had Brightown’s odd mixture of
social and political elements—the affluent left, the non-affluent left, the odd-ball left, and the non-
voting, mostly religious right.
And believe it or not, all this brings me back to Gwendolyn Cornfield-West and her cousin, Manly
Fitch. Manly was a small man, often seen in his Sunbeam, buzzing around town with the top down
trailed by his flowing scarf. He was an academic power, and his devil-may-care attitude was
alarming, since none of his ideas had anything to do with reality. Rather than surrender his Marxist
abstractions to the dictates of common sense, he had emulated the existentialist frog pond—
attacking the language and, of course, reality. I must say, his cousin Gwendolyn wasn’t exactly
having none of it, but she did laugh openly at some of his unreadable formulations and those
penned by his acolytes.
In our last encounter at the Arcady Bookstore, I realized she wasn’t all that hostile toward me. But
I never considered any kind of friendship with her, until we met for a third time. This was at a wine
bar that adjoined an exclusive Brightown restaurant. It was a Friday evening, and I was sampling a
little Cotes du Rhone—inexpensive, but not bad—and having a wine-lover’s conversation with the
barkeep. The dinner crowd hadn’t yet arrived in force, when Gwendolyn entered the restaurant. She
gazed around the dining room, then through the archway toward the wine bar and noticed me sitting
there. She was with a tenured professor from Brightown University—a teacher of philosophy
named Francis O’Brien. Most academics made me uncomfortable, but Francis was one of the
exceptions. As Gwendolyn continued to gaze in my direction, I waved to her. That was all it took—
she headed my way, pulling her companion along with her. They both sat down, she in the seat
They were planning to have dinner and then see a movie—“film” was the arty name, which I never
used. She wanted to know whether I had seen this particular offering by Hollywood. I might have
said that I wouldn’t spend a dime on anything produced by that cultural bog—not even penicillin. But
I simply said that I hadn’t seen it.
The Friday night crowd was filtering in, the usual young professionals with at least one foot in the
conventional world. There were a few mature couples, the kind that just wanted to get out of the
house. The women wore everything from satin dresses to neatly tailored jeans. Some of the men
wore coat-and-tie, others wore coat-but-no-tie, still others no coat, no tie. I thought of the good old
days, still pictured in books and on the walls of local businesses, when everybody dressed up to go
to town—even in the warmest weather. For me, nostalgia was becoming chronic, an adjunct to my
underlying sadness. I was seeing America, more and more, as a vast reliquary, holding the residue
of a nobler time, but drifting inevitably toward the Servile State.
“Are you a dreamer?” Gwendolyn asked.
“No more than most. I’m just distracted—from time to time.”
“That’s all right. I’m often distracted.”
She had a pie face and wide blue eyes, and her hair stuck out here and there. But she was
obviously good-natured. I think she was trying to nag the world into some sort of understanding,
though of what, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was that people are capable of doing bad things. But I can’
t imagine anyone not understanding that. Her companion, Francis O’Brien, taught and wrote about
Renaissance Philosophy. I once asked him whether he was a Thomist—he said no, though I knew
he was a Catholic. To his credit, he never tried to develop some theory that would make him an idol
among his trendy contemporaries. He had published often enough to satisfy the requirements for
“productive scholarship” and for tenure. And now, he was content to reveal the wisdom of the ages,
and to review books for a conservative journal of opinion. Avoiding the faculty lounge, he made his
own sandwiches for lunch. If invited to the lounge by a colleague, he would say that he preferred his
own baloney. He was substantially gray, but buoyed up by his Catholic indifference to death and
anything outside his faith and chosen task.
“Well—it’s Friday night. You can feel the sense of relief in the room.” Francis said, leaning over
“Yes, I sense that, too,” I said. “But you know, the older I get, the more I like Mondays.”
“Yes, I know what you mean. You become more aware that the clock is ticking—the time left to
get things done is shrinking.”
“Yes—and the time left to find some satisfaction—happiness, whatever that means.”
I had thought about it for some time and finally concluded that happiness lies in seizing
moments—those times in the stretch of years when everything seems fine, when you should feel
something approaching a joyous contentment or an exhilarating sense of adventure, exquisitely
pleased with your capacities to live and work. To be relished, such evanescent moments had to be
recognized. And the trouble was that they so often passed unrecognized, until reflected upon years
later—perhaps in old age.
“What is it you’d most like to do?” Gwendolyn suddenly asked.
“I’d like to get on a bus and ride across the country,” I replied immediately.
“What an interesting idea,” Francis said. “Maybe I could spend my sabbatical on the road.”
“It’s for study someplace else,” Gwendolyn said.
“The road is someplace else.”
“Are you both just kidding?” she said.
“I guess—I don’t know,” I said—a poltroon’s reply.
The proposed journey passed out of our conversation. We turned to the old standby, the weather,
proceeded to the spring flowers, and then to our backgrounds. My own start was in Philadelphia’s
working class. Gwendolyn was born in Indiana. An exceptional student, she went to Harvard.
Francis was born in New York City and went to Notre Dame, then to Oxford.
We finished our wine, left the bar, and found a table in the dining room. We ordered dinner and
passed a good deal of time eating it. The conversation drifted toward ideas, especially those held
by some so-called theorists, who teach and publish in what used to be the humanities. I wasn’t in
the mood for another critique of postmodernist philosophy, having written a few of my own.
“What’s all this I hear about Brightown University,” I said. “It seems it’s the fourth-best party
“I’m thrilled,” Gwendolyn said. “Who beat them out?”
“Wisconsin, Stanford, and Ohio State.”
“Well—there’s always next year,” she said and then, seriously, “You know—I could get a novel out
of that school.”
“They might sick their detectives on you,” I said.
“I’m a very good shot.”
“The school’s competing feverishly for students and federal dollars,” Francis said. “My God—the
students, the faculty, even the president and the board of trustees—they all swoon over the ratings
in that silly magazine.”
Ah, well—we had our fill of wild duck and Haut-Brian. Believe it or not, I left the table looking
forward to Gwendolyn’s promised novel.
“Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime,” she said as we parted.
“Yes—I’m sure we will,” I said with a wink.
She and Francis were on their way to that movie—the second show, as we had taken our time
over food and wine. I went home and worked on a book review and managed to e-mail the finished
piece the next day. It appeared, of course, in the Sunday Supplement.
Some weeks later, I was working in my rooms—it was a Saturday and a pleasant morning in
May—when I was interrupted by the blast of a horn. I looked out the window and saw this huge
presence standing at the curb. It was a house on wheels. Hurrying out the door, I approached this
great silver bus and found Francis O’Brien behind the wheel and Gwendolyn Cornfield-West sitting
next to him.
“Well, Danby,” Francis said. “Are you ready for a trip? This was your idea.”
I was tongue-tied. The thought of leaving home was a shock to my imagination—at least for the
moment. I was really just a stick in the mud.
“We’ve got plenty of room,” Gwendolyn said. “Maybe we can find out whether the country’s worth
“I’m tempted,” was all I could manage.
We exchanged words, the three of us, but in the end, when Francis and Gwendolyn trundled
away in that hulking vehicle, I was left with both feet on the sidewalk. As I walked sadly back to the
house, I wondered whether I had missed that moment I had thought about—a chance for a heroic
In the next few weeks, I covered the murder of a beautiful female college student by two
probationers from Brightown’s east end. I also attended a City Council meeting that dealt with that
proposed rail transit system, which, if constructed, would decorate the countryside with empty
trains, and another such meeting that dealt with an increase in property taxes to finance pay raises
for local teachers, perhaps the worst in human history—the teachers, not the tax increases. The last
meeting produced an agreement to take several tracts of human habitat and turn them over to a
private developer. He planned to bulldoze the houses and build a hotel and casino—for which there
was no provable market.
After all this, I sat in my quarters, one day, pondering my circumstances. I had three saleable
articles already written. I had money in the bank, a credit card with little balance, and a sound
automobile. And I was tired of this silly town, where politics had got so far beyond common sense.
Early the next morning, I visited my editor in his office.
“I’m going away,” I said. “I’m taking a trip around the country. The question is—do I go on my time
The editor, grayer than I was and habitually worried, looked at me silently and then toward the sky
as though appealing for divine mercy. “You’re too good to lose. I need you to cover City Hall—and
“I need the trip. I’ll send you back some stuff—if you want it.”
“Of course I want it—well, all right. I’ll cover your beat until you get back. As far as I’m concerned,
you’re on assignment.”
“Thank you, sir.”
That much settled, I gave my landlord four months rent, tossed some suitcases, a laptop, and a
briefcase into the car, and took off. I was heading for Ocean City, Maryland and the very beginning
of U.S. Route 50, intending to start my true journey there, 3073 miles away from Sacramento,
California. Who knows?—I might run into Gwendolyn and Francis along the way. But whatever
happened, I would have my moment. It wouldn’t get away—not this time.
Copyright 2017 Robert Watts Lamon
One Million Stories Creative Writing Project: All Rights Reserved