There’s a “Johnny” in every small town. Local hero. Funny what small towns prioritize. He’s the one they all thought would make good. They were counting on it. Needed it, even. Only, he didn’t, though. Peaked in high school. You know the story. Star quarterback of a losing team, singlehandedly scores overdue victory against the nearest long-running rival. Been reliving memories of glory days ever since. Worse, everyone else has been living vicariously through them.
Small towns are like that. For some, it’s an escape. Landed from whatever nightmare they’d fled, they marinate in the peace of the quiet, make it home. Others never grow farther than the town border. Small-minded provincialists content to keep their heads down. For the rest, the town is a prison, full of trapped dreamers longing for escape. Any escape. Even someone else’s.
You’d probably say I was one of those. Imagine it looks that way. My situation is different. You’d have to know me to understand how. Maybe it’s the same effect, though. Except, I’m not chasing a better life on easy street. What I’m searching for...
Wait, lemme not derail myself here. That’s actually another story.
This was one of my first adventures in small town life away from home. Before the local Sheriff stopping me at the border to check my ID just to identify the body later wasn’t so commonplace it’d become “normal.”
Well, crud. Sidetracked again. Gimme a moment, lemme get my bearings...
Not my first small town story, but still early on, when I was young, and hadn’t realized how alike we all are. How we’re all the same people. Living the same lives, with different names, different titles, from different places, in different skins. We all have the same story. We just tell it differently. We can’t see the ending from the chapter we’re in at the time. We’re just trying to turn to the next page. If I’d have known that then, maybe I’d have reacted differently to “Johnny.”
“Johnny” always gets the girl. She’s never the town bookworm. That’s a gal who actually has a chance to leave a small town in distant memory. No, “Johnny’s” girl is always “Jenny,” the prettiest cheerleader. Captain of the squad. Best standard of excellence a small town girl can hope for. A small town girl with no ambition of being anything but a small town girl, that is.
Sometimes, it works out. Most of the town is content to slap them on the back, buy them both a round on Friday nights, collectively wish for their looks and “talent,” and secretly resent them. Everyone has their part to play. Everyone knows their place. For a while, they live a charmed life.
Then something happens. He blows out his knee, he’s hurt in a factory mishap, he gets in an accident. Whatever the catalyst, he’s never the same again, and he doesn’t know who to blame. Someone’s got to be responsible, though. This is not his happy ending. Now he’s trapped and miserable, just like the rest of them. Lumped in with those beneath him, just as if he was oneuv’em. It isn’t right. It ain’t fair. Somebody should have to pay.
Only, it’s no one’s fault. But he can’t take that for an answer. So he takes it out on her. She’s the only one who has to put up with him. Everyone else gets to say goodnight at closing time. She gets to drive his drunk ass home, take his boots off, put him to bed, get his hungover ass up for work in the morning. She does it, cause that’s what’s expected. It’s what she’s sposed to do. It’s all she knows.
There’s a greasy spoon at the edge of every interstate town. The slop they’ll slough is never the best, but it’s good enough, it’s hot, it’s cheap, and there’s plenty of it. If the burg is just the right kinda podunk, it may also be the only place around to whet your whistle. That’s where you’ll find Johnny. Perhaps even his blushing bride. On this occasion, I met them both for the first time.
I didn’t know everything then. I still don’t know everything, but at least I know that now. I didn’t understand there’s a cosmic dance at play in every small town, under the dome of a protective bubble, and you can’t just tap out one of the figurines. You’ll only end up covered in sparkly water and broken glass.
I try to mind my own business. I really do. All I want is grub that hasn’t been carried in a backpack for a week, and to eat in peace. I only journal in private. I’ve read everything I’ve got on me right now. Sure the town has a library, but it’s late, and I’m hungry. Too dark to see out the window. And people-watching when you can count everyone in the place on one hand doesn’t win you any fans. But there’s pool, and I have quarters, so I can occupy myself until food shows up.
I’m not a gambling man. Another genetic predisposition I avoid. I’ll admit I’ve made a buck or two off the sport, but never hustled. I’ll take an honest win from an equally matched rival, because intelligent men of integrity are capable of making respectable wagers on games of skill. Sobriety helps. Still, sometimes you score, sometimes you choke. Sometimes the other guy’s just better. You hope to sniff those out before you commit, but losing is part of the process of learning to win.
I’m not great, but good enough to break and run the table. And I did. Playing by myself, so why not? Wasn’t calling attention to it. It was just something to do. Only, I’m not supposed to be the best. Not in Johnny’s small town. And he’s angry. He’s always angry these days. His world didn’t turn out right, and no one’s made good on that debt yet. So if someone doesn’t know their place in Johnny’s town, he’s damned well gonna show it to them. Or try, anyway.
Won’t go into details of what he said or did. Doesn’t matter. I can take care of myself. But I was taught to look out for those who can’t. And I don’t suffer bullies. Especially bruisers who traumatize women half their size, children, animals, or the elderly. You can guess which got my pool cue broken over his neck.
Dammit. I liked that pool cue.
“Johnny prob’ly had it comin’,” she sobbed through a swollen lip, wiping away tears from a black eye as she stroked his unconscious brow. “But trust me, you don’t want to be here when he comes to.”
“Johnny prob’ly had it comin’,” the barkeep told me as he passed over a to-go box. “But I don’t want no trouble, so dinner’s on the house, and you’d best be on your way.”
“Johnny prob’ly had it comin’,” the deputy confessed as he opened the passenger door at the county line. “Which is why you’re not in holding. But we all do our part to hold this town together, so we gotta look out for our own.”
That was the first time I learned what small town lifers inherently understand. Trust everyone to be who they are, and give them the space they need to be it. The devil you know may be easier to handle than the one you haven’t learned to manage. Valuable lesson to have when traveling through small towns, and it only cost me my favorite pool cue. If you don’t want to seem too out of place, keep your head down, your nose clean, and consider leaving your humanity at the border.
Too bad I never got used to looking the other way. But that, for sure, is a whole lotta other stories for another day.
More stories! Trust everyone, but cut the cards
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