Sometimes the cost of participation, being extra good, is a tithe you think you have to pay for having a crazy family.
It’s like a bargain with God, whether or not you believe in him/her/they. A careful line you walk so that people can plainly see that we’re not all like that. A little extra cache that you carry so that the cost of prejudice isn’t too dear. Bribing the judgement police, if you will.
It had never occurred to me that there was a price on social interaction before; one of those classist things that people born into ‘normal’ families take for granted. Sort of like how rich kids don’t ever think about how they’re going to pay for college or if participating in school activities is in the budget this year because mom hasn’t had to pay for a DUI attorney.
As the only person in my astonishingly large family who didn’t grow up in a small town – which by itself is remarkable when you have at least 14 aunts and uncles and over 70 cousins – I had the luxury of relative anonymity in the city. Sure, there is still an underlying caste system, but by and large, cities are the great leveler. This is why they call New York City a great melting pot and not Fredericksburg, Iowa. As cities, well, became cities, they needed people to work in them – taxi drivers, cooks, launderers, couriers, accountants, lawyers, and at some point the scales tipped and choosers became beggars. You want to keep your business open and your customers happy? Then maybe don’t ask for a full pedigree from every employee. Who gives a shit that your Uncle Thomas sneaks off with his second cousin while his wife is out doing the grocery shopping and the whole town knows about it; can you do your job and show up – on time – every day? You’re hired. No questions asked.
I remember distinctly being oh, maybe thirteen? And going to town with my grandmother one day. I was visiting for the summer, and she took me with her so that she could go pay her phone bill in person. I’d spent most of my summer out on the farm in relative anonymity in what was the tweenage equivalent of the Federal Witness Protection Program. This was compounded by the fact that it was the early 1980’s, and rural Iowa was still operating for all intents and purposes like it was 1955: my grandparents’ 1910 farmhouse still had a party line and a wringer washer, and your full name, address, and phone number were published semi-annually in the telephone directory for all to see whether you liked it or not. In the current era of call blocking and data privacy where you are required to read through six pages of 3pt font and agree to a full-on legal document to fill out your name on a request form because it is personally identifiable information, someone publishing your address and phone number for all to see just seems incomprehensible. In fact, back then you could just call up the telephone operator in any city and they’d stalk – I mean, look up – people for you. They were the original Google. Hello? Do you have a number for Julie Eggleston in Ashtabula, Ohio? No? Just a Sarah Eggleston? Thank you – that’s her sister – I’ll take that number, please. Oh, you’ll connect me? Well, thank you so much, and have a nice day, ma’am (because it was always a ma’am; never once did I speak to a male telephone operator). You also learned to thank them profusely because in the event that number didn’t work out, you might have to call back and speak to them again to see if they would search again for you, so you were careful not burn that long-distance bridge.
While we were standing in line, the doors opened behind us – they had a jingle bell on them to alert the employees of new customers, because it was the 80’s and of course they did – and a woman walked in, immediately followed by a tall, blonde boy with straight feathered hair. He sized me up behind the fringe of his bangs while my grandmother and his mother exchanged pleasantries.
You are never unknown for long in a small town. I’ve never quite understood how fugitives think they can move to the boonies and evade arrest; within a week the entire town knows how many times a day you fart, for cripes’ sake. A couple of days prior, we’d been to this same AT&T outpost so that I could ship a package back to my mother in Seattle. The AT&T office doubled as the UPS store as well, because: small towns. As I began to relay my name to the woman behind the counter, she cut me off abruptly. “I know who you are. I’ve seen you around town with your grandmother once or twice.” It was clearly important for her to convey to me that not only did she already have the intel on me, but that I was not, as I had presumed, unknown. Why? I don’t know. Maybe in case I was one of those citified people shipping drugs, at 13, back to my homies. Louella was on to my potential shenanigans, and she wanted me to know it.
Having enjoyed the relative anonymity of city life up until then, this was a new dynamic for me. In Seattle, you pretty much had to carry an entire folio of credentials proving your identity in order to purchase certain things, in case, you know, you wanted to set up utilities under your cousin’s name or something. There were no Louellas in Seattle. Everywhere you went, you were a blank slate to eventually be proven or disproven, depending on the disposition of your new acquaintance.
Not so in rural Iowa. Later that afternoon, the old putty-colored wall phone rang. I never answered it unless someone had their hands full and yelled at me to get it for them, because except for my mother calling to check up on my behavior, it was never for me. (And even then, she waited until long distance rates were lower after 7pm, of course. Nobody except rich people ever called long distance during the daytime. You had to be pretty swish to afford fifteen whole cents a minute.)
On the fourth ring, grandma walked across the kitchen linoleum in her bare feet and picked up the receiver. Pressing it to her grey permed curls, one hand on her hip bunching in her floral polyester print blouse, she barked a short “Hello?” in a clipped midwestern nasal tone.
Her lips pursed. “Just a minute.” Turning and glaring at me, she thrust the receiver in my direction. “It’s for you.”
It was? I pushed myself up from the orange and brown rocker-recliner with genuine wood arms and took the phone from her hand. Maybe it was one of my aunts or uncles calling to see if I wanted to go out for pizza later or something?
The long spiral cord dipped onto the linoleum as I stood near the old countertop. “Hello?”
The voice on the other end was young; not an aunt or uncle. “Hi. Is this Lynn?”
Who the crap was this? “Yes?”
“Hey. This is Jimmy Stacy. I saw you at the store today with my mom? Would you want to go hang out at the park later on today, if your grandma can maybe give you a ride up there? Or I might be able to pick you up.”
“Oh. Hi. Sure; let me ask my grandma.” Maybe this was how rural courtship worked? When in Rome, right? I covered the receiver with my hand and lowered my voice; grandma had not sat back down. She stood by the cast iron cookstove, staring at me expectantly. “He wants to know if I can go hang out at the park for a while today.” I didn’t specify who he was, figuring that if everyone knew who I was already and where to find me, that they all had some kind of Podunk mind-meld where introductions and explanations were not necessary.
Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “No. You tell him no. We. Are. Busy.”
We were? Doing what? Was there some kind of urgent bean-snapping or chicken feeding that I was unaware of? Knowing better than to argue with grandma, I removed my hand that was covering the receiver. “I can’t. I guess we are busy later.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” I echoed, looking at Grandma expectantly, so that I didn’t have to repeat the question.
Grandma pursed her lips even tighter and shook her head.
“No. I can’t then either.”
“Well, okay then. I’ll try calling you later.”
The phone went dead. I picked up the cord that seemed as long as a garden hose to move it out of the way of my feet, and hung up the receiver.
“You’re not hanging out with any of them Stacy boys.” Grandma spat out the last two words as if they were an epithet.
“You’re just not.”
And that was that. Grandma made it quite plain that, like Louella over at AT&T/UPS/USPS/Fish & Tackle or whatever, she omnipotently knew something and I didn’t, and she wasn’t telling, either.
I never saw or heard from that Stacy boy again. In retrospect, he picked up what Grandma was laying down and made no further attempt to contact me.
This was my first foray into a different realm where you didn’t just get to meet someone and find out about them – for better or worse – yourself, since everybody in a large city is usually a stranger. In this world, you knew people, and most everything about them, often before you’d even seen them. Small towns were the original Yelp for socializing.
While I was mildly peeved at Grandma pre-emptively cock-blocking my teenage hormones, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken over someone I’d merely exchanged glances with. Plus, at thirteen, the prospect of helping grandpa feed baby goats was almost (but not quite) as interesting as boys, so I had other fish to fry.
The light bulb went on in my head not soon after was that if people like Grandma could pre-judge people they hadn’t interacted with before based on their family’s reputation, then others might judge us in turn. And our family was far from perfect. Suddenly it became clear: in small towns, your family reputation was like your resume, which explained why a few of my family members had to go into the bigger towns to try and meet potential mates: everyone here already knew us. That people were scared every time my one felon uncle and his friends were in town. That people whispered about grandpa and his drinking, among other things. That we were wild, at best.
Then I understood the unspoken. If you had black marks on your ‘resume’ and wished to apply for social acceptance (but to be clear: several do not), then you had to do something to counterbalance things. In the bible belt, this works a lot like religion in general: if you want salvation, you’re going to need to do some kind of social tithing. Attend church. Go to college. Stay out of trouble. Do volunteer work. Don’t swear in public. Help your neighbors. While these are all fine things to do on their own, they are also the dues you pay to offset the weight of the actions of others that it is presumed that you carry as a birthright. If you mess up, a tally gets marked on the other side of the precarious balance sheet. You start out with a deficit and build up your credit, in every sense of the word, takes discipline.
I was hitherto blissfully ignorant that in some areas, my family would be considered a handicap, or that social scarlet letters even were a thing. In the city, we messed up our own opportunities rather than coming equipped with the pre-made kit; it was more of a DIY scenario.
As I grew older and was able to compare my family with that of my peers, some of this became more and more evident. There is a coming-of-age moment when you realize that you never had sleepovers at your house because everybody in the neighborhood routinely saw your mother pull into the driveway, hit the chain link fence with the driver’s side fender of her car, and come to a lurching stop; after which she would throw her empty Rainier beer cans onto the lawn and stagger inside. Or when visiting the home of a new friend, you casually mentioned that your mother would be back home on Tuesday, when she got out of jail.
My father? Oh no, ma’am, I haven’t seen him in six, seven years?
In the city, you were invited over to play until you weren’t, and learned why later. This is also when you learned the term need-to-know-basis in hopes that you had banked enough goodwill to overcome what your neighbor Teresa mentioned in the bleachers to Sarah’s mom at the soccer game last Wednesday when she heard you had a sleepover planned. In the city, you could at least get your foot in the door, even if sleepovers would never be a possibility. There was still a tithe, but it was measurably smaller and deferred; and rarely extended into adulthood until it was time to date and it was time to meet the parents.
It was here, not in small towns, that I learned where ownership lies. In coffee houses and beaches; in traffic and strip malls, among sweaty crowds gyrating to hair bands and drinking Seagram’s wine coolers (fuzzy navel flavor, thankyouverymuch). Rush hour gridlock and higher rent were my tithe instead; one I willingly paid so that I could till my own field and not the stone-laden ground of others like an indentured servant. My penance is for my own sins; and not inherited like a house with rotting foundation: you might be a land baron, but of what?
I still find my roots in the smell of summer corn, hay, and hot manure. But some plants still have to be transplanted out of the shade in order to grow.
Lynn Magill lives in Western Washington with deep Iowa roots that influence many aspects of her work. She writes poetry and nonfiction and is also a painter and visual artist. She is scheduled to graduate from Central Washington University in Winter of 2021 with a master’s degree in Professional and Creative Writing and will begin her doctorate at Northcentral University in Spring of 2021. She has two nonfiction pieces scheduled for publication in Spring of 2021 in an anthology via McFarland & Sons, as well as current pieces in Route 7 Review, the Good Life Review, Thin Air Magazine, and Fleas on The Dog. Lynn loves to travel and spend time with her husband on their Texas ranch herding goats and finding any excuse to avoid being within range of cell phone reception.